You know how, when you read a really, really amazing “up until three in the morning, can’t stop thinking about it book,” you make that “good book noise” happy sigh as you’re thinking about it and waiting until you can read it again?
There is some kind of rage-y counterpart to that where you are up until three in the morning grinding your teeth, and can’t stop thinking about the book for ENTIRELY the wrong, rage-y reasons.
And then you go complain about it on the Internet, because, you know, why not share the rage? :-)
The sad thing is that the rage-inducing work of literature in question isn’t even an entire book-- I am getting this Hulk-smash-set-things-on-fire level of arrrggh based solely on an excerpt of the prologue and maaaaybe the entire first chapter. That is the level of special we are talking about here.
I’m sure everybody here is cognizant of the fact that the “ohnoes dystopian future is dystopian!” sub-genre has been super-big lately, in particular in YA since The Hunger Games. Dystopian United Stateses… Statesesses….dystopian versions of that bit of North America between Canada and Mexico…. dystopias with plagues… dystopias with zombies…. dystopias IN SPACE… dystopias with space zombies….
As part of that-- and, again, I think, particularly in YA, because it works well with teenaged female protagonists, there are also a lot of dystopias where a key feature of said dystopia revolves around, well, control of young women through marriages and/or control over their reproductive systems, either within marriage or through other sorts of breeding programs. Either there can be some kind of super-fundamentalist/conservative post-Atwood new government, or massive eugenics/Bene Gesserit-level breeding programs, or some kind of medical reason why viable wombs are a hot commodity, or some combination thereof. And, biologically, in term of plot devices, it’s more effective and dramatic to focus on female fertility/reproduction-- pregnancy is more visible, it has more physical impact, and anything that impacts human reproduction through affecting women has the potential for being more devastating more quickly. Not to mention the historical and contemporary socio-cultural weight of gender issues focused around reproduction and control.
So, anyway. Lots and lots and lots of female protagonists faced with issues of, shall we say, marital and reproductive choice as a key aspect of what puts the “dys” in their dysfunctional dystopias.
(I say “dysfunctional” because usually the plot ALSO focuses on revealing the cracks in the system, and usually figuring out a way to change or break it, as opposed to, say, the extremely functional dystopia of something like 1984)
In the particularly head-desk-inducing version, the US has once again gone through some kind of near-collapse, resulting in your typical hyper-patriarchal, conservative-social-beliefs-and-structur
1) Young women, when they hit the proper age (18, I believe), are auctioned off to the highest bidder in the marriage auctions, and then go off to be perfect wives and focus on bearing children.
2) Young men apparently get sent off to be soldiers.
This DOES rather raise the question of who the heck is, say, doing all the NON-WIFE, NON-SOLDIER jobs, but I assume that the author gets to that.
The female protagonist is the youngest of four children, and she is apparently lovely, absolutely lovely-- lovely is pretty much literally the one thing she can do. Because, you see, while her three older sisters were sent off to finishing school, her parents decided that it would be a waste of money to educate her when her looks would assure that she would fetch a spectacular price.
Okay. Ooooookaaaaay. Now, see, you might be saying, “Alright, yes, in the kind of repressive patriarchal system that the author is clearly trying to establish, where there are references to women not being taught how to drive, and clearly women are second-class citizens, and so on, wouldn’t it make sense for women to get less education?”
And, yes. But I am not talking about a lack of knowledge of particle physics, I am saying that when it’s time for her to take the tests for her listing on the Registry, she is asked to identify “0,” and apparently can’t do it. Although she suspects this might be some of that “math” stuff she thinks her sisters learned in school.
Seriously. The heroine cannot identify zero. She can read and write, and cook and clean and sew and sing (poorly) and draw, but apparently none of the things have ever entailed any of those pesky “numbers.”
And the thing is, this is the standard test-- this is what prospective husbands and/or their families will be looking at, yes? And while there may well be prospective husbands and/or their families whose ideal bride and future mother of the next generation makes Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent from the third series of “Blackadder” look like a shining intellectual light, I just can’t see that as the default standard, for two main reasons. Well, two and a half. One, the wives of the upper-class, in addition to appearance, are supposed to go to parties and social events, and it seems like a family’s status might possibly suffer if the new addition keeps confusing the appetizers and the floral arrangements. The half-reason is that wouldn’t there be some kind of “angel in the house” ethos, where women were at least expected to have specific female accomplishments-- music, drawing, acceptable foreign languages, dancing, flower-arrangement, household management, tea ceremonies, tatting, embroidery, SOMETHING to show off their culture and while away the hours and, well, basically model ideal female qualities that they and their birth/marital families could be proud of? Finishing school in the traditional sense, is usually at least partially training to be a good and accomplished wife, yes? The decision NOT to send the most beautiful of the four children, the one you are always bragging about in terms of getting the highest bride-price ever, to finishing school to be sure to give her as many valuable refinements and accomplishments as possible so that she would be a credit to her upper-class husband and so on? This makes zero sense-- except as a completely unsubtle tactic to set the heroine up as a Parsifal-type tabula rasa whose journey of questing about starts from a position of “You know nothing,” so that she keeps screwing up in dramatic ways and the reader learns about the world as she does.The thing is? You can have a heroine who is effectively a Parsifal-type who has been educated to fit a very specific niche or completely different culture or social level, and who either finds that none of her skills are useful in the real world-- or, even better, that her skills have interesting unexpected applications in the real world, and you don’t have to make her an utter idiot as your baseline.
The OTHER-other reason, and the more important one-- even if this is a “we don’t hold with teaching women to crochet; it will lead to revolution!” patriarchal structure… if the reason for the whole bride-buying system and everything is about the future children (and it is, in some weird ways I’ll complain about in a minute)… okay, wouldn’t a complete dingbat candidate, however beautiful, raise questions about the prospective intelligence of the prospective children? Not even “I don’t want to marry a woman who is likely to accidentally mail the baby to Sweden,” I mean the basic fact that the people buying brides are fully aware that they are selecting half of the next generation’s genetic material, and if they’re willing to pay extra for flowing blonde hair, I’m betting they’re willing to shell out for demonstrated ability to count higher than the number of fingers she has.
Seriously; how is some kind of finishing-school certificate with honors marks in interior decorating and light conversation about appropriate artists NOT considered to hold value? How are the super-elite families NOT engaged in competitive bidding for brides who tick off more boxes than “good hips; strong like bull, dumb like ox, hitch to plow when horse dies”?
And, yes, I am complaining about this partly because there is SO much cool stuff that could be done-- that I’m sure HAS been done with this kind of set-up and starting the heroine off at the intellectual level of the alien women in the classic “Star Trek” episode “Spock’s Brain” just seems like a really wonky narrative decision.
(and why the pre-marriage auction form packet doesn’t include some kind of breeding lineage, like they do nowadays for horses or pedigreed cats, tracing genetics and accomplishment back several generations, I do not know…)
So. Right. The super-important-child-bearing-role of these highly expensive brides.
The prologue introduces the female protagonist, super-excited because she will soon be auctioned off, it’s what she’s been waiting for her entire life, yay, bridal status, and she’ll be able to go to parties and society stuff just like her parents are at right then. At that point, her beloved next-oldest sister, married off the previous year, staggers home in the rain, clearly abused and beaten.
At first, of course, the heroine assumes that her sister was rescued/escaped from bride-stealers (ie, the men who can’t afford to buy one-- and, by the way, finishing school certificate in quilling and advanced parasol self-defense, all I’m saying), but her sister soon reveals the not-at-all-shocking-to-the-reader twist that she is fleeing from her abusive husband. Their parents are coldly dismissive of this, because, essentially, the man paid good money for her, and there are no refunds; it ends in tragedy.
As a way of breaking the heroine’s cushy worldview and inspiring her to plan her escape before she meets her sister’s fate, yes, absolutely, totally works.
But here’s the thing. The abusive husband’s abuse dates to and is blamed on the sister giving birth to their first child. The problem? The baby was a boy, not a highly-valuable and marketable girl who could grow up and be auctioned off, thus earning the family lots of money--and not having a girl means that the sister was a “bad investment.”
*record-scratch part deux*
I….. just… okay. Oookay. Nice twist that it’s female babies who are more valuable, after the historical tradition of male infants generally being sought-after, and women being penalized, punished, and sometimes killed for failing to provide the much-desired male heir.
This is not a dystopian future where things have regressed to a primitive pre-tech past. There are cars. There are cellphones. The bride appraiser takes a blood sample to check for diseases and for genetic compatibility.
Are you seriously trying to tell me that in this world, with this level of technology, everybody has magically forgotten that it’s the sperm that determine the sex of the baby? That the egg half of things is automatically always going to be an “X” chromosome, and the “X versus Y” question is settled by the other half of the genetic equation? Are the government officials running around twirling their moustaches in evil glee at having convinced the population that women are responsible for whether the baby is a girl or not?
Leaving THAT aside…. Are you seriously also trying to tell me that this “we are going to check your blood for diseases and to make sure you are compatible; we are obsessively focused on your womb and your ability to bear healthy female children” culture has also lost the ability to perform ultrasounds on pregnant women and determine the sex of the baby in advance? That the control-obsessed upper-class (which the heroine’s family is marrying their daughters into) can’t at least arrange for sex-selective abortion in secret?
Especially since the heroine’s own family, with their four daughters, clearly indicates that women are able to have more than one child, so it’s not a case of “if this pregnancy doesn’t work out, there are no other options.”
Aaand, I have now written a rant longer than the book excerpt. Clearly time to get some sleep and dream of ways to make some of these ideas actually functionally interesting.
Obviously, the logical place to start is with groom-auctions, if you’re going to have a society which obsesses about what the baby is going to turn out to be….
*starts making mental list of what would sorts of grooms would fetch the highest prices…. *
I read a review (reviewer also wanted to beat her head against the wall over the book) where one of the reviewer's main points was that this was a book which would have done a lot better as a YA book rather than the weird new "New YA" category which publishers have created to try to catch college-aged folks. Her point was that a heroine who reads as entitled and dumber than a box of bricks as an eighteen-year-old would have been believable as a very sheltered fifteen-year-old. I think it would also have made more sense in terms of "take maximum advantage of female fertility" to marry girls off at fifteen or sixteen and added to the squick factor of the bride auctions.
Still wouldn't have solved the "you do all realize that it's not women who determine the sex of the baby, yes?" logic fail.