Gwyneth Jones's Phoenix Cafe

©1998 L.Timmel Duchamp

This novel is the third in Gwyneth Jones's the Aleutian series, following White Queen and North Wind. For me, personally, this book was a great deal easier to read than the previous two. In particular, I found Catherine, the protagonist, paradoxically the most complexly positioned character of the trilogy as well as the most sympathetic and easiest to understand. She is an embodiment of the constructivist view of the individual, "made" from the genetic material of the (alien) Aleutian, Clavel ("the Pure One," known to readers from the previous volumes), which was altered in vitro to make her biologically human (and female). Her friends call her "Miss Alien-in-Disguise." She thinks like an Aleutian; she remembers, as any Aleutian does, her past lives (nicely illustrating how a systematic application of stories of past lives can produce viscerally real memories-- an application that forms a major part of her childhood socialization). Though she does not have the biological commensals all other Aleutians have, she is one of them and a part of their "Commonalty." She is ambivalent, though. Fascinatingly, her ambivalence comes not from the difference of her human body, but from her being Clavel's reincarnation. (Clavel's "chemical" character, apparently, is to be alienated.) Clavel (or rather the Pure One's next incarnation, Bella) had her made in human form in order to expiate his guilt for The Rape (which in Catherine's mind is conflated with all the possible damage the aliens might have done the humans, which in the terms of the book as I note below, is basically undecidable). This notion of expiating his guilt through his next life is, of course, a typically romantic gesture for the Pure One. Inculcated with this guilt and her mission of expiation from childhood, Catherine steeps herself in a cult of personal pain. (She collects human religious icons of suffering. She lives in the slum-like "hives" and plays "missionary." She gets herself arrested. She is considered, by almost everyone, to be "insane." Finally, she courts a sadomasochistic sexual relationship.) And so, despite her being an alien, she is someone we can understand. A striking aspect of this character is the way in which she uses pronouns. The pronouns she uses continually underscores the importance of the speech-act in constructing identity. Though pronouns aren't everything, they can be very telling (besides a product of habit).

Catherine is almost the mirror reflection of the Katharine in Paul Park's Celestis. Instead of being constructed cosmetically to look like and mimic (with difficulty) the "superior" species, she is constructed (noncosmetically) to be, biologically, a member of the "inferior" species while she is raised and becomes socially and nonsuperifically a member of the "superior" species. But Catherine, unlike Katharine, exercises agency and is not subject to being taken over by her true "essential" biology. She puts the cosmetic trappings of gender on and off as she wishes. Catherine really is a fluid construction of gender and culture rather than an imitation of something alien to her "real" self.

In this novel's world, most "natural" sexual characteristics have vanished: women no longer menstruate; they have breasts that aren't "milk" breasts (i.e., their breasts are like men's breasts); they don't easily get pregnant; and men have to take hormones to make themselves "masculine." Many "men" look so like "women" that when "intercommunal" violence breaks out, they are required to wear chadors in public. In short, gender is the main "difference" between men and women-- and sexual traits are significant only to the extent that one's ideological take makes them important. In this world gender itself could be ignored-- and would be by many people-- but is in fact a political issue people kill over. At one point, after an observation about how "millions upon millions of innocent women and girl children and girl fetuses had been killed, simply because they were women," a character offers an explanation of why gender is a killing issue: "Females don't need males. Except for intromission, to get pregnant, and we don't need that anymore. Males need females desperately, because otherwise they have no offspring. Males are supposed to have invented our arts and sciences, you know, as toys to attract the females. But women hijacked the famous male creativity when they walked out on patriarchy. Then they didn't need men for anything." Somewhere in the book a character (an Aleutian, I think) defines real humans as females (men being not really human, since they just get in the way of the business of life).

Alas, I can't unpack the neatness of author's explication of gender in this book without giving away some of the most amusing bits to be conjectured and worked out by the reader. Suffice it to say that it's very interesting and instructive.

Also interesting (and relating metaphorically to gender) is the insistence of one of the male characters on seeing the alien/human relationship in mind/body dualistic terms, where the aliens are "lords of life" (of, specifically, biology, which forms the basis of their superior technology). His notion, thus, of independence from the aliens entails claiming what the aliens call the void-- the world of photons and electrons-- of eschewing biological technology and claiming the abstract and virtual as quintessentially human. This suggests-- in attitude at least-- an abstract extension of Gender War (though the character who espouses such a position is in fact a bit like Catherine in his ambivalence and would not be on the side of another holocaust directed at females).

The author indulges, by the way, in a camped-up discussion of Lacan that is a sort of saucy wink to the reader. The scene is licensed by the pov character's flying high on drugs. There's a sly comment from her interlocutor that "You know, I have often thought that their [Derrida's and Lacan's] influence on Buonarroti [a scientist with an important role in White Queen] has never been properly recognized." Well, maybe not in print. But I'm sure plenty of readers have gotten it. [The "Signifier" class could not but have helped tipped us all the wink from Go.]

Surely this is one of the most conceptually historically and socially complex sf triologies ever published. (I'm hoping that somebody will eventually write interesting criticism discussing the complexities of the three novels taken as a whole.) The complexity includes not only the author's highly sophisticated projection of gender issues, but the way in which her narrative style itself executes what I'd call a Foucauldian view of history. In the first place, the reader has to work very hard to produce a version of what is "really" going on-- the way historians these days do-- eking out the "facts" and their interpretation from the characters' accounts of how things are (and have been in the past). Emblematic of this problem for the reader is a description of how "news" is produced in Youro, in which various newagents take live feed and alter it as they wish even while the event is occurring-- such that the most puissant producer's end version is afterwards hypostaszied as historical fact. This filtering of "facts" through individual narrative is not exactly a new technique in sf, but the author presses the limits (of what the reader can handle) not only in the way she so scruplously sticks to it (cheating far less than most authors do), but also in her depriving readers of the luxury of taking more usual "facts" for granted. (Many of these usual facts, of course, involve questions of gender.) Thus, when a character constructs a particular version of the past, the reader is required to understand that version as having been produced by the character's particular ideological position (which is seldom ever clear to the reader, since the author does not offer up little info dumps for properly pigeonholing anyone). Second-- and this is the most Foucauldian aspect of the author's presentation of history-- repeatedly in this triology the intentions of a particular set of actors seldom result in the desired consequences. (Twentieth-century history is full of such chains of unintended consequences on the grandest of scales. So it is in this triology.) That is, acts of agency make things happen, but not the things the activist party intended. And thus post-Contact history in this triology can be recounted as a series of events with consequences, though almost never the consequences intended. This attitude toward cause-and-effect is rare in sf versions of history (which is why most "alternate history" stories usually drive me absolutely batty). And third, even when certain large-scale "facts" (or rather sets of facts) are clear, their causal relations are often undecidable. Thus, throughout Phoenix Cafe the characters frequently speculate about whether the Gender War would have taken place or the disastrous climate change would still have occurred if the aliens had not arrived. It seems generally the case that a character's construction of causality is an index of his or her ideological position. Significantly, Catherine vacillates in her construction of causality: often she's unsure, while sometimes she's very sure, that everything can be blamed on the aliens; and at other times she's certain that the mess was already in the cards before the aliens' arrival.

This book (and the now-completed trilogy as a whole) deserves the attention of both readers and critics.

January, 1998

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