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Women in sf reading challenge #4: Winterlong, Elizabeth Hand

You’d have thought that with two four-day weekends in April, I’d have had plenty of time to read that month’s book from my reading challenge. Unfortunately not. However, during April I did manage to pick up copies of China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh; The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston; and Zoo City, Lauren Beukes (which I’m going to read instead of the planned Moxyland) – so I’m all set for the next three months at least.

Which is just as well, as April’s book was the last from my list I could just pick off my shelves: Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand. I’ve no idea how long I’ve had the book – but the “£2.00″ scribbled in pencil inside the cover suggests I bought it at a convention, probably during the early 1990s. This can’t have been all that long after it was published – Winterlong, Hand’s debut novel, first appeared as a Spectra Special Edition paperback in late 1990, and as a paperback original in the UK a year later. It’s the latter edition I own. I also own the sequel, Æstival Tide, but not the third book of the trilogy, Icarus Descending – which apparently was never actually published in the UK (don’t you hate that? when UK publishers only publish the first two books of a US trilogy, but not the third?).

This year’s reading challenge has given me a welcome excuse to finally read Winterlong (and perhaps its sequel), something I’d been meaning to do for a while. It has always been my impression that I would enjoy Hand’s writing. I’ve read some of her short stories, and around this time last year I read her novella Illyria, and I’ve always thought her writing very good. She writes with a very literary style, closer perhaps to fantasy than science fiction, low on rigour, but with lovely prose – much like a writer I admire very much, Paul Park. So I had expected to like Winterlong

Sadly, I didn’t. There is lush prose – and I like lush prose; I’m a fan of Lawrence Durrell’s writing, after all. But often it seems to tip into florid prose, and, unfortunately, in Winterlong it’s florid prose which dominates. As I read the novel, I couldn’t help thinking that if Hand had applied the writer’s phrase “kill your darlings”, the book would have been half its 440 pages in length. I mean, a sentence like “The black domino of a Persian malefeants with her whip pied the pastel train of a score of moth-winged children trying very hard to perform the steps of a salacious maxixe” (p 171) shouldn’t have made it through the editing process. Which is not say that Winterlong is a bad book or doesn’t have anything interesting to say. It simply reads like a first novel written by someone whose reach exceeded their grasp, who had yet to gain control over their style, whose focus lay too much on the individual word-choices and not enough on the cumulative effect of those choices.

Wendy Wanders is a subject at the Human Engineering Laboratory, a “neurologically augmented empath approved for emotive engram therapy”. She can “tap” patients’ memories and emotional states, ostensibly for therapeutic reasons. But she was autistic as a child, and though her neurological augmentations have “fixed” her – as well as making her empathic – she is still not entirely cured. The HEL is located just outside the City of Trees, which was destroyed hundreds of years in the past, left for nature to run riot over, and is now inhabited by remnant peoples unrelated to the mainstream Ascendant population of the country. From hints and clues in the text, I’m guessing the City is Washington DC.

Things go horribly wrong at the HEL and, during an attack by those for whom the HEL scientists were working, Wendy escapes with the help of a lab assistant, Justice Saint-Alaban, an inhabitant of the City. Once in the City, she disguises herself as a man and joins a troupe of actors. This troupe mostly performs Shakespeare’s plays and Wendy, as Aidan Arent, takes the female roles – yes, that’s a woman pretending to be a man who plays women on stage who, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, disguise themselves as men… (Hand studied drama and anthropology at university.)

Meanwhile, Raphael Miramar, a male prostitute, and one of the most beautiful and desired in the City, has chosen to go and live with his lover, leader of the Natural Historians, hoping to trade commitment for an education. The City is run by the Curators, descendants of various museum staff – the Natural Historians, the Botanists, the Zoologists, etc. There are also Houses of prostitutes, both male and female, who cater to the Curators, and seem to do little else except arrange sumptuous balls.

Raphael’s lover, however, is not so committed to the relationship,  now that Raphael no longer lives the pampered lifestyle of his House, and so is losing his looks. Raphael makes friends with a junior Natural Historian, but inadvertently kills her, and is forced to flee. He falls in with a group of lazars, children infected with diseases spread by viral rains dropped during “air raids” by Ascendant airships, is identified as their god, the Gaping One, and taken to meet their leader, the man who attacked the HEL – who has been resurrected after being tortured to death by the aardmen, genetically-engineered dog-humans, and is now quite mad.

Winterlong is structured as a series of nine parts, each written in the first-person from either Wendy’s or Raphael’s point of view. The opening part, ‘The Boy in the Tree’, was also published separately as a novella in Full Spectrum 2 a year before Winterlong‘s publication. Neither Wendy nor Raphael, it has to be admitted, are especially sympathetic characters. The novel hints at a greater world, with its references to “Ascensions” and a war with the “Balkhash Commonwealth”. However, the story is focused tightly on events within the City of Trees, which has something of the flavour of Delany’s Bellona, something of New Orleans, and something of a Shakespearean Venice or Forest of Arden.

In fact, it’s all very fin de siècle and decadent, perhaps even Gothic; which perhaps explains the prose style. It’s also strangely reluctant to engage too much with the world it describes. Everywhere is dirty, there is sex and death, but it all feels a little sanitised and innocent, perhaps because the prose focuses so much on the appearance and odours of things. It gives the environs of many of the scenes the feel of a set-dressing, rather than a vital, living place within which a story is occurring. When, for instance, Raphael rapes the assistant Curator he has just inadvertently murdered, it’s over and done with in a bland sentence: “Then I ravished her.”

Yet the City is unnatural. It’s not simply the life-style of those in the Houses. Much of the flora and fauna has also been altered – and are known by the term “geneslaves”. There are the aforementioned aardmen, but also willow trees which kill, and an intelligent talking chimpanzee (one of the Players in the troupe Wendy joins). It’s the sort of world which appeared quite often in science fiction during the late 1980s and early 1990s – I’m thinking of Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden (1989), or Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide (1991) – although Hand’s version is more dystopian and post-apocalyptic than most. The City is an interesting place, but the prose often works against the story, confusing what shouldn’t be difficult to parse.

In her review of the full trilogy in SF Eye #13 (reprinted in Deconstructing the Starships), Gwyneth Jones writes that Hand is “a writer who embraces gender difference – whether or not she notices where this embrace is leading her”. Certainly it’s true that there’s much that’s traditional in the gender roles played by the characters in Winterlong. Wendy becomes Aidan and discovers empowerment; Raphael stops being a sex toy and learns evil. The Shakespearean confusions and mistaken identities only work if you accept traditional gender roles. Given the world of Winterlong, it would not be unreasonable to expect some fluidity in this area – Wendy’s masquerade at least hints at the intent – but Hand fails to question the underlying assumptions with which she writes. And the opportunity is lost.

This review almost sounds as if I’m characterising Winterlong as a complete failure. Which is not the case. I thought it interesting, but overwritten. I have the sequel, but Winterlong has not really inspired me to read it, as Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman made me keen to seek out its sequels. But perhaps one day I will get round to reading Æstival Tide and, perhaps also, if I spot a paperback copy of Icarus Descending in a dealers’ room at a convention I might well buy it.

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