Time for another of my ‘In Short’ columns. This one, on a story by the incomparable Kit Reed, first appeared in Vector 274 (Winter 2013/14).
Feminist science fiction is one of many ways in which the tools of science fiction can be used to satirical or polemical ends. At its best, it has produced some of the finest writers, some of the finest stories, in the history of science fiction. But it is not always at its best. It is all too easy for writers to lapse into tired and overly familiar ideas. There have been, for instance, role-reversal stories (in which men take on the social position of women and vice versa) and gynarchies (in which utopian enclaves are ruled by women) at least since the beginning of the twentieth century (Legions of the Dawn by ‘Allan Reeth’ (1908) or Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)). These forms became particularly common during the late sixties and seventies when a vigorous strand of feminist science fiction emerged alongside second-wave feminism.
Unfortunately, such feminist utopias too often fell victim to exactly the same problems that beset all other utopias: we see the utopia as an end result not as a process, so we have no way of knowing how this ideal state might be attained; and the only way we can imagine the system working is if everyone is the same. In general, utopias do not survive contact with the enemy, the normal messiness of human life. Which is what makes Kit Reed’s ‘Songs of War’ so interesting, because she manages the incredibly delicate balancing act of deconstructing the whole notion of a feminist utopia while at the same time emphasising the wishes and requirements of the women involved.
‘Songs of War’ was first published in 1974 in Nova 4, the last of Harry Harrison’s short-lived original anthology series. It was not, perhaps, a natural home for a work of feminist science fiction, but then, Kit Reed was never an archetypal feminist science fiction writer, she was too questioning, too critical, to do anything but challenge any ideology. And it would have been easy, I suspect, to read this story as poking none-too-gentle fun at the idea of a feminist utopia without noticing the strong feminist message that is intertwined with the critique. The story, after all, tells of a women’s army that fails, where the men don’t have to do anything before their wives come back to domestic tranquillity. But that misses so much else in the story.
A lot is packed in to a not overly long story (just over 30 pages in The Story Until Now), and the viewpoint shifts restlessly between a large number of characters. But that is part of the point of the story: what is at stake here is the difference between individuals rather than trying to see them as all the same. As one of the central characters recognises, towards the end of the story, ‘they had come up against the human condition [and] failed to recognize it’ (285). The whole story is about the messy business of being human.
We start with a fire burning on a hillside. It is, we quickly learn, a camp fire, but it could as well be a signal fire, and many of the women in the unnamed town below the hill instinctively recognise its message: ‘there was something commanding about the presence of the fire; the smoke rose steadily and could be seen for miles … and a number of other women, going about their daily business, found themselves yearning after the smoke column with complex feelings.’ (255) It speaks to them of a primitive time before housework, of childhood yearnings for adventure, of the camaraderie of a revolution before it all goes wrong. Although Reed has managed to slip in a specific reference to Castro in the mountains of Cuba, providing a model for what comes after, what we mostly notice here is the diversity of responses to the signal fire.
And the same diversity is displayed as we see the women drawn to join the nascent army in the hills. Lory wants to realise her full potential, Jolene is bored with her interchangeable lovers, Annie is escaping an abusive relationship, Glenda teaches at the university where she outshines her husband and is just intellectually curious, Marva, Patsy and Betts can’t get dates for the junior prom, and June feels stifled by housework. Inevitably, when June does join the army, she is assigned to the kitchen detail, more housework, because she has no other skills. Ironically, the woman who is most ideologically committed to the ideals of feminism, Sally, refuses to join the army at first because, in a mutually supportive marriage, she has no need to do so. She is as bored by the domestic as any of the other women: ‘I don’t love my little pink dish mop. I don’t, but everybody has to shovel some shit’ (268, italics in the original). But when she does, eventually, allow herself to be persuaded to join the army it is because she feels that they need her, rather than that she needs them:
They were going so fast now that there was no jumping off the truck; the other women at the camp seemed to be so grateful to see her that she knew there would be no jumping off the truck until it was over. (271)
For a time, there’s a sense that this is all a game. Marva, Patsy and Betts admire each other in their new uniforms. June is reminded ‘of the good old days at camp in middle childhood, when girls and boys played together as if there wasn’t any difference.’ (264) While for Glenda it is a time of swapping horror stories about men, and ‘digesting a dinner she hadn’t had to cook, and for almost the first time in eight years she wasn’t going to have to go out in the kitchen and face the dishes.’ (262) We see the camp as a play version of their familiar domestic lives. Even when they trash a porn cinema, throw rocks through windows, or practice on the rifle range, there is still something that stops this uprising of feminist consciousness turning into an outright war of the sexes.
The men, meanwhile, are either helpless or uncaring. June’s husband ‘couldn’t quite figure out why, but the toilet had begun to smell. One of these days he was going to have to try and get his mother over to clean things up a little. It was annoying, not having any clean underwear.’ (266) Glenda’s husband, on the other hand, proves to be an excellent chef and starts an affair with a student. In the main, we don’t see as much of the men as the women, and they tend to be treated slightly more uniformly than the women. One of the threads that runs throughout the story is that both sides are defined by their relationship to domesticity, but even here there is a spectrum: we are not expected to see any group as being uniform.
Within the camp there is a ‘butch sisterhood’, headed up by the military leader Rap and the gynaecologist Dr Ora Fessenden, who are intent on an offensive war that will, they hope, end in them killing all the men. But in this they are going against the instincts of the majority.
She wondered why women had all buried the instinct to kill. It was those damn babies, she decided, grunt, strain, pain, Baby. Hand a mother a gun and tell her to kill and she will say, After I went to all that trouble? (264-5, italics in the original)
And a little later, as she expertly reassembles her rifle, Patsy wonders: ‘We won’t have to hurt our fathers, will we? … I just couldn’t do that to anybody I loved’ (267, italics in the original) Again we are meant to notice the diversity of views, but the main thing that is coming across here is humanity: how do you fight a war if you have no interest in fighting? In the end, Patsy’s humanity is what allows her to emerge most successfully from these events. She meets and falls in love with Andy, and with him escapes from the camp.
They would surface years later in a small town in Minnesota, with an ecologically alarming number of children; they would both be able to pursue their chosen careers in the law because they worked hand in hand to take care of all the children and the house, and they would love each other until they died. (284)
This isn’t the end of the story, but in a real sense it is the climax, the moral, the point at which the whole story is aimed. Patsy and Andy achieve what most of the army is after, because each treats the other equally. Underlying the dissatisfaction that drives the women to join the army in the first place is the sense that they are not being treated equally, but the army itself is not a way to achieve that.
But of course for the rest of the camp things have to take a very different course, in part because they are all very different. Events escalate, the women take over the Sunnydell Shopping Center. To this point, the men had not taken the revolution seriously: ‘After all, it’s only women. … Let them have their fun. We can stop this thing whenever we like. … What difference does it make? They’ll come crawling back to us.’ (271, italics in the original) But even now, nobody acts against the women, there’s a strange inertia on both sides, as if nobody, except for the firebrands Rap and Dr Ora Fessenden, believes in what seems to be happening here.
Opposition to the women’s army does emerge, but it is from within the camp. Right from the start, Reed has made it clear that even within the gynocracy of the women’s army it is impossible for all the members to be or to behave or to be treated alike:
They were of a mind to free themselves. One of the things was to free themselves of the necessity of being thought of as sexual objects, which turned out to mean only that certain obvious concessions, like lipstick and pretty clothes, had by ukase been done away with. Still, there were those who wore their khakis and bandoliers with a difference. Whether or not they shaved their legs and armpits, whether or not they smelled, the pretty ones were still pretty and the others were not; the ones with good bodies walked in an unconscious pride and the others tried to ignore the differences and settled into their flesh, saying: Now, we are all equal. (257)
They want change, mostly because they are bored with the lives they live. But nobody, least of all those who created the women’s army, have thought out what change they want or how they might achieve it. Utopia is all very well when the job is complete, but getting there is not so easy. One thing that Reed is saying that practically all utopian writers fail to notice is: you can’t get there from here. And the reason why is that there is no ‘there’ to get to; all the women involved in this enterprise have their own individual notions of what would satisfy them, without those notions ever cohering into a single, unified vision. Rap’s dream of killing all the men, for instance, cannot match Patsy’s growing love for Andy, or June’s tender regard for her domestically-hopeless husband: ‘A portion of her was tempted to go in and do a swift secret cleaning – the phantom housewife strikes’ (269, italics in the original). Just as the physical differences, between the pretty ones and the others, cannot be swept away by simple diktat, so these psychological differences or differences in ambition, cannot be merged into one unified utopian aim: ‘There were probably almost as many expectations as there were women.’ (274)
And the differences grow more pronounced as events escalate. A lot of this is down to the same sort of issues that drove them to the camp in the first place. We get echoes running through the story. June, who was bored with housework, ‘was sick and tired of working in the day care compound’ (276); Betts, who was anxious for a date, is now concerned by the way her breasts bounce when she runs; Glenda, who outshone her husband, is now concerned that he has not tried to contact her, unlike other husbands. ‘The time was approaching when nobody in the camp would have clean underwear. The latrines were unspeakable.’ (279) These, of course, are exactly the issues that bothered June’s domestically incompetent husband.
Meanwhile, although the army has not attracted the opposition they expected or, indeed, desired, they have begun to receive media attention. Sheena, one of the original leaders of the rebellion, proves to be very telegenic:
By this time Sheena was a national figure; her picture was on the cover of both newsmagazines in the same week and there were nationally distributed lines of sweatshirts and tooth glasses bearing her picture and her name. She received love mail and hate mail in such quantity that Lory, who had joined the women to realize her potential as an individual, had to give up her other duties to concentrate on Sheena’s mail. (279)
The slyness of the ‘tooth glasses’ speaks volumes about the picture of celebrity being offered here. And again, Lory’s position illustrates that whatever else is going on in this would-be utopia it is nothing to do with equality. Sheena will eventually leave the army to pursue a career in television: ‘Well, it’s high time I started thinking about me’ (284) she declares as she sweeps out, though in truth practically everyone in the army has been thinking about themselves the whole time. It is the fact that thinking about oneself cannot translate into thinking about the group or the cause, the failure to recognize the human condition, that is at the moral heart of this story.
Rap and Dr Ora Fessenden embark on the orgy of violence they have advocated all along, then slip away when it provokes the response they’ve also craved and the camp is surrounded by tanks. Other women, disgusted by the violence, pack up their things and go. Glenda steps in to take over from Sheena only because she realises she has nothing to go back to. And when Sally goes down to negotiate with the captain commanding the troops surrounding them, she is patronised and ignored:
‘Don’t you worry about a thing, honey.’ He lifted her down and gave her a slap on the rump to speed her on her way. ‘Everything is going to be real different from now on.’ (285)
And so the story comes full circle. It began with a camp fire on the hillside, and ends with it:
Standing at their windows in the town, the women could look up to the hills and see the camp fire still burning, but as the months wore on, fewer and fewer of them looked and the column of smoke diminished in size.’ (287)
Despite what the captain said so insincerely, or perhaps because of it, nothing is different. There are reports of uprisings elsewhere, which come to nothing. The rebellion has been in vain, or so it would seem. But some individuals are different, precisely because they have learned to co-operate. We remember Patsy and Andy. And when Sally is reunited with her husband, Zack:
‘I think we do better together,’ Zack said.
Sally said, ‘We always have.’ (287)
Quotations taken from ‘Songs of War’ by Kit Reed in The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book of Stories, Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2013, pages 255-287.