Dual Reviews by Michael Isenberg.
Enemy Mine began life in the September 1979 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. The publication was relatively new at the time and Asimov lobbied heavily for Enemy Mine to win the 1980 Hugo for Best Novella, prompting a rant by David Langford in Ansible:
The success of Barry B Longyear (“The man's a f--king illiterate!” – J. Nicholas. “I'm not a Jackie Lichtenberg fan any more. I'm a Barry B. Bongyear fan now” – C. Priest) with his “Enemy Mine” in Hugo and Nebula is an indication of the new Isaac Astral award-grubbing technique: millions of copies of the story were sent to SFWA members with glowing recommendations from the Doctor.
Despite the controversy, the award launched Enemy Mine on its way to a 1985 movie starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr. Later Longyear expanded the story to novel-length in the 1998 “author’s cut.”
It is the tale of two enemy fighter pilots, the human Willis Davidge and the Drac Jeriba Shigan (or as Davidge calls him, Jerry). Humans and Dracs have been at war for some time over competing claims to alien planets and many on both sides have lost friends and loved ones. Davidge has literally been trained to hate the three-fingered, yellow-skinned Dracs—there was a briefing on the “Draggers” at flight school where Davidge learned that “the smell is terrible,” and if he sees one, kill it. In a dogfight over Fyrine IV, both Davidge and Jerry end up crash landing on the planet. Although they initially fight, they soon figure out that on a barren world of monstrous tsunamis and long, bitter winters, they are going to need to cooperate in order to survive. Over time they learn each other’s languages and cultures. Davidge even learns to read the Drac bible, the Talman, and to recite the names and accomplishments of two hundred generations of Jerry’s ancestors, the all-important lineage that means everything to a Drac.
The story of enemy spacemen marooned on a planet had been done before—Captain Kirk and the Gorn come to mind. I thought that in Longyear’s version, the enemies come together a little too readily, very early in the story, without either Davidge or Jerry having to do much soul-searching. But Enemy Mine has a unique twist that really makes it work [SPOILER ALERT]. About halfway through, the hermaphrodite Jerry dies in childbirth. Davidge must deliver the baby from the corpse of his friend and raise it as his own.
The racial metaphor is driven home later on after Davidge and the child are rescued. In a segment left out of the movie, Davidge returns to Earth, where he’s shunned as a “dragger-lover.” Note the similarity between “dragger” and a real-life racial epithet that we’re not supposed to say. Davidge later travels to Jerry’s home world. The Dracs talk openly in front of him about how ugly he is and how badly he smells and they make him sit in the less comfortable front of the bus with other “outcasts.”
Nevertheless, Davidge seeks out Jerry’s family. He doesn’t know whether they will welcome him, but he is inspired by the words of the Talman: “Passion is a creature of rules. This does not mean do not love, do not hate. It means that where your passion limits talma [problem solving], you must step outside of the rules of your love and your hate to allow talma to serve you.”
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Jemisin’s Broken Earth series also revolves around two races who face each other with daggers drawn—both literally and metaphorically. Broken Earth was published in three installments: The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017). All three won Hugos for Best Novel, an unprecedented occurrence. The awards were controversial because women swept nearly all the literary and professional categories all three years, and some have suggested that the contests were rigged, decided more on the basis of identity politics than on merit, a suggestion which Ms. Jamisin denounced in her 2018 acceptance speech.
In the world of Broken Earth, the minority Orogenes have the power to control what lies beneath the ground, to move rocks and quell earthquakes. But careless—or malevolent—use of the powers can kill. This makes the Orogenes feared and hated by the majority Stills.
Jemisin is a skilled writer; the reader shares the Orogenes' pain, which covers the whole range of racial injustice, from the historical evil of slavery, which we all agree was monstrous, to more nebulous and disputed injustices like micro-inequities, and everything in between. The analogy to African-Americans is intentional. The Stills call the Orogenes “ruggas;” those who sympathize with them are “rugga-lovers.” Some Orogenes, especially the younger ones, have adopted “rugga” as “their" word. Note the similarity between “rugga” and a real-life racial epithet that we’re not supposed to say. Orogene children, if they’re not killed by their non-Orogene parents, are turned over to the Guardians, who use magic of their own to keep the Orogenes under control. It’s slavery with comfortable living arrangements and a measure of self-government, but slavery nonetheless.
The Stills take their name from the Stillness, the continent they share grudgingly with the Orogenes. The name is ironic: the Stillness, subject to chronic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, is anything but still. From time to the time, natural disaster spikes, plunging the land into a “Season,” a volcanic winter that lasts for years. Ash falls from the sky like snow. Crops don’t grow. Death comes to the unprepared, those who haven’t stored up food or shored up their defenses against wandering bands of looters. But food stores don’t last forever. In the longer Seasons, death eventually comes to the prepared as well.
The series begins with a mother mourning over the “broken little body” of her dead child. The mother is Essun, an Orogene, who had spent the last decade living in hiding in a remote village, married to a man who didn’t know what she and their two children were. When he finds out, he kills their son Uche and flees with their daughter Nassun, his favorite, to a place where she can be “fixed.” Driven from her home by her neighbors, who now know she is Orogene, Essun takes to the road to find her husband and daughter, just as a new Season descends upon the earth.
Essun has suffered a great deal at the hands of the Stills (and I’ve only told you a fraction of it). And yet she’s a surprisingly unsympathetic character. But don’t take my word for it. Here is how Ms. Jemisin, writing in her blog, describes her own creation:
I expected people to hate Essun. She’s so many things that readers dislike sight-unseen and story unread: a middle-aged mother, a collaborator, a revolutionary, a mass murderer, a woman who refuses to be sexy or nice. She’s traumatized for much of The Fifth Season, and she displays this in ways that don’t tug the heartstrings, because trauma doesn’t usually look sympathetic. It’s angry. It’s distant. It’s violent, and sometimes harmful. I wanted readers to feel this intensely, but I also wanted them to feel the disassociation of her, the not-all-here of her.
Jemisin struggled with how to “bridge the empathy gap” and in the end, “decided to trick readers into caring about her.”
The trick is quite clever, and doubles as a neat plot twist. But ultimately it doesn’t work. At least not for me. I still didn’t like Essun. I just couldn’t get past the mass murderer part, which Jemisin sandwiched so casually between “revolutionary” and “woman who refuses to be sexy.” Over the course of the trilogy, Essun uses her powers to kill hundreds of thousands of people, both Stills and Orogenes, most of them innocent, and even when the victims are fair-game combatants, the murders are unnecessarily cruel. Even Jemisin admits this. “Heroes don’t summon swarms of nightmare bugs to eat their enemies,” we're told.
I don’t want to be overly moralistic here. I don’t want to be that stuffed shirt in the 80’s movie who’s determined not to let his little town be overrun by dancing. But I don’t think that drawing the line at mass murder makes me excessively judgmental.
In any case, Essun proceeds on her quest. It’s a thrilling tale. As I read the climax of each novel, my inner monologue was breathless. Eventually Essun comes to the village of Castrima, which is run by another Orogene Ykka. Castrima is located underground, inside a giant geode. The various apartments are carved out of crystal, all of which glow with the technology of some long-dead civilization. Give Jemisin credit for imaginative and beautiful world building.
Ykka works day and night to build a community where Orogenes and Stills live in harmony, cooperating to survive the Season, like Davidge and Jerry on Fyrine IV. But Essun is skeptical. “You’re from so many places. In every one of them you learned that roggas and Stills can never live together.” Essun is certain it’s only a matter of time before the other shoe drops.
That never happens. And yet, Essun, and later her daughter Nassun, remain unmoved. In the final pages, Nassun laments that the Stills are “not going to choose anything different” than persecution.
“They will if you make them,” the ancient and wise narrator tells her.
Ms. Jemisin never tells us what “make them” means. I suppose you can “make” someone accept you by means of a charm offensive. But that doesn’t fit the brutal world of the Stillness. In that universe, the only sense of “make” that makes sense is the use of force. A race war. And given that the Stillness is such a thinly disguised metaphor for America, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Jemisin is calling for a race war in real life. When everything’s said and done, the Broken Earth trilogy is 1,200 pages of hate. In my humble opinion, the antidote to hate is not more hate.
Anyway, that's my two cents. So what do you think? Is Longyear right or is Jemisen? Is conflict between the races inevitable, only stopping when one side “makes” the other stop? Or is it possible to live together in harmony and “step outside of the rules of your love and your hate.” Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.
|Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com|