The Gene Thieves and the NormaDecember 11th, 2010 at 11:42
Torque Control has wound up its fascinating week of women & SF commentary – too soon! I’m still going! The final list of the poll is here, but if you’re not a regular reader of Torque Control, I recommend you head over there and catch up on some of this week’s posts. I particularly like that Niall didn’t just go with the first interpretation of data from the poll, but has interpreted it several different ways and discussed many works that didn’t make the list as well as those that did.
Meanwhile, the project I gave myself for the week was getting around to reading The Gene Thieves by Maria Quinn, the book which won the inaugural Norma. I don’t want it to end up all like the Tiptree, with this huge list of works I haven’t got around to reading yet!
This isn’t a review, not really, because I’ve used up all my review brain this week writing up my response to Feed by Mira Grant, which I will post later this weekend. I’m also a little uncomfortable with the fact that I have some deep criticisms of the book, and it feels a bit icky to express those criticisms about a book whose author has died so recently. If it wasn’t for the fact that I want to become invested in the Norma over the next many years, and take part in discussions about all its winners, I probably wouldn’t write this at all – but for the sake of posterity, I’m going to charge ahead with my collection of thoughts about the book, and particularly how I think the book connects to the stated criteria for winning the Norma:
- in the form of science fiction and fantasy or related artwork or media.
- produced either in Australia or by Australian citizens.
- first published, released or presented in the calendar year preceding the year in which the award is given.
I don’t know if I was alone in this, but my first response to the announcement of the award’s winner was – huh? I hadn’t heard about this book at all! As the ceremony continued, a deeply emotional presentation involving the family of the author, Maria Quinn, who had died from leukemia a few months earlier, I realised that I had heard about the book, but only in the context of the unexpected death of the author. I still didn’t know very much about the book.
It was a moment of extreme startlement that a science fiction novel (a rare commodity indeed in Australian publishing these days) by a female author had been recently released without setting off my radar. It hadn’t been nominated for any awards, or been reviewed anywhere I had seen. The cover looked appealing, and there was that whole ‘Norma’ association, so I ordered a copy when I got home, and added it to my groaning To Read shelf.
Only when I picked it up again this week to read did I realise that it’s not actually a YA novel. I had assumed it was based on the cover, which is shiny and bears a young female face, and just looked in all of its packaging like a slightly speculative fiction YA novel. Not in any way urban science fiction for adults, which is what it is. I actually read the blurb twice, wondering why there was no mention of a teenage protagonist.
So, not YA. In fact, The Gene Thieves is not only a story about adults, but primarily a story about men. Which would not be remotely surprisingly were it not for the overall theme of fertility and parenthood. The novel is set in a future Australia where surrogacy has been legitimised and normalised as a common method of reproduction, and conjugal contracts run for five years as a standard term, unless you choose to renew it.
It’s hard at first to be clear who the protagonists of the novel are, as it is told in omniscient POV, shifting from character head to character head. The characters who share most of the action and characterisation, however, are three men: Dancer, a lawyer mourning the death of his mother Daphne, a woman who was instrumental in setting up the safe and respectable surrogacy system in Sydney; Aaron, Dancer’s best friend and business partner; and “Piggy” Brown, a respectable geneticist whom Dancer and Aaron cruelly bullied when they were all children together, because of his snout-like nose.
Piggy is now a billionaire, thanks to his patent on the blue-eyed gene, and has a pet project in mind to spend all of that money on: he wants to make a baby. Not his own son, but a perfect baby brother from the DNA of both his parents, to rectify the “genetic mistake” he believes that he is. Sadly, instead of suggesting Piggy use some of his pots of money to invest in therapy for the three of them, Dancer and Aaron allow their childhood guilt to push them into helping him bring his dream to fruition.
Dancer uses his connections with the surrogacy operation “The Nest” to arrange a woman to gestate Piggy’s child – cutting through some red tape to set up the surrogate as Piggy’s fake wife. Angela and her daughter Molly move in with Piggy, who is delighted with his fake family and begins to bond with his “stepdaughter.” Only after the baby is well underway does Dancer start to realise that there is something deeply troubling about Angela, and as he and his conjugal partner Marina (a psychologist at the Nest) investigate further, all manner of secrets and lies begin to unravel.
The ideas at the heart of this novel are very interesting, though there are times when the social worldbuilding doesn’t quite make sense – we are told about how terribly forward thinking everyone is now, and yet old fashioned values keep sneaking in, such as a plot thread of two old women having hidden their lesbian relationship for their entire lives, including from the son they made together (I get that their relationship was formed so long ago, but… really? It’s that scandalous?). Also, while surrogacy is mentioned as being possible for couples of all kinds, including gay couples, there is a weird insistence on a conjugal contract with two parents before you are allowed to birth a child. I didn’t quite see the logic to the world that was presented to me. The only other gay character we saw was a woman who is presented as a cruel, ugly monster – a villain who is repeatedly shamed in the narrative and by the characters for her mannish appearance, her large frame, and her offensive personality, to the point that when it was revealed right at the end that she was also a lesbian rapist my eyes were rolling so far back in my head that I almost snapped something. I really didn’t like the way that her appearance was used as evidence that she was a bad person, long before she tried to sexually assault another woman, just as I didn’t like the way that the female characters we were supposed to sympathise with had their beauty emphasised so very much.
There’s a deep romanticisation of men as parents in this novel, which I would appreciate as a welcome novelty in fiction if not for the fact that it comes at the expense of the female characters. Dancer’s teenage daughter is adorable and lovely, and they have a great relationship. Aaron also has a wonderful relationship with his kids, all to different mothers (he is referred to as a serial contractor which is perhaps an unfortunate phrase), and there is a late plot twist involving the revelation of sperm theft which results in the portrayal of another perfect father whose immediate reaction is happiness and a determination to be the Best Dad Evah.
Most of all, there is Piggy, quite the most interesting character in the novel, and whom the other men form a close friendship with above and beyond their original pangs of guilt. The oddness of the surrogate Angela and her frosty relationship with her own daughter as well as the baby she is gestating is contrasted repeatedly with the warmth that Piggy shows to the little girl and the unborn child. It gets to the point that all the other characters are already trying to conspire to arrange for Piggy to be Molly’s parent permanently long before the extent of Angela’s problems are revealed, and they all become desperately invested in his relationship with the unborn baby.
Meanwhile, all of the mothers that appear in this novel die, or hide “terrible” secrets, or are mentally ill, or are secretly criminals, or are unfit/absent parents, or any combination of the above. Even Marc, the slimy French boyfriend of Angela’s new mother-friend Fiona, is shown to be better at taking care of a baby than his partner. It all adds up to a disturbing pattern. The only female adult character who does not fit the bad mother profile is Marina the psychologist (not a mother, as the question of whether or not she and Dancer will procreate is up in the air), who spends much of the novel protecting a child, protecting her adult partner from truths she has discovered about his family, being a bit jealous of her partner’s relationship with his daughter, and having sex with him in various glamorous poses. While she has quite a few POV scenes, she still feels a lot less invested in the main story than Dancer, Aaron and Piggy, and works very much as a supporting character, helping, hindering and nagging the other characters as the plot requires.
This sounds like I hated The Gene Thieves! I didn’t, actually. It was compelling, and surprising, and well-paced. While there was a bit of clunk about it which I would put down to it being a first novel, the prose was very readable and I was able to inhale it over a couple of days. I like social science fiction very much, and while it wasn’t perfectly executed, science fiction that explores themes of biology, parenthood and social structures is always going to be of interest to me.
I would love to see more fiction about how biological and medical advancements towards the production of children would affect men and their roles as parents, as well as women. But it does seem to me that this novel, well-intentioned though it is about dealing with these issues, ended up promoting some rather problematic politics that left me very uncomfortable. The trouble with attempting to subvert cliches in fiction is that it’s quite easy to overshoot and end up supporting whole other cliches. I think it should be possible to write a novel about men as successful parents and nurturers without demonising women in the process, and this one doesn’t manage to pull that off.
Okay, maybe it was a review after all. Sorry about that.
As I’ve said elsewhere, the Norma isn’t going to make much sense as an award until we have a decade of winners under our belts to construct an image of what kind of works are being honoured. Despite coming down on probably not liking this book (the fact that I’m still not sure whether I dislike it or not despite the many issues I have with it says something, I think, though I’m not sure what), I can see why its themes and concerns brought it to the attention of the Norma committee, whereas the Aurealis judges, for example did not choose to honour it. I would be very interested to hear other opinions on the book from readers, particularly those who have a better handle on the science discussed in the novel, or those whose gender politics detectors are not quite as hair-triggery as my own. If nothing else I think it a book that could inspire many really crunchy conversations, and for that alone I am glad that I read it.