The second of the Wizard’s Tower re-issues of Colin Harvey’s novels is now available in most of the usual online venues. (Kobo, for some reason, is still selling the Angry Robot editions, which we will sort in due course.) Damage Time is in many ways a fascinating book. Lee Harris has kindly provided a new introduction to the book, which is great because Lee was Colin’s editor so he knew him very well. However, Lee talks mainly about what a great person Colin was (almost everyone who knew him does), not about the book. I don’t blame him for that. There’s only one person who ought to be talking about the content of the book, and that’s me.
This is going to be somewhat spoilery, which is one reason why I didn’t put it in the book.
Technically there is a lot to be impressed with in Damage Time. The memory ripping technology that Colin uses in the book is a brilliant use of science fiction to totally change the way that a police procedural works. I also love the way that Colin uses the memory rips to do all of his world building. It is very like the Dos Passos technique that people such as John Brunner in The Sheep Look Up, Kim Stanley Robinson in 2312, and Lyda Morehouse in the AngeLINK series have used so well. But there’s no need for newspaper clippings in Damage Time. All of the description of the world comes first hand from victims of memory rips.
It was very brave, too, for Colin to write a book whose primary point of view character loses most of his memories during the book and becomes, to a large extent, a different person. That’s a really hard trick for an author to pull off. I’m not sure that Colin is 100% effective in doing it, but I think he does very well and I have total respect for his ambition.
What really strikes me about the book, however, is the commitment to diversity. This is a book that was published in 2010, and therefore conceived long before then. The central character, Pervez (Pete) Shah is the son of an Iranian immigrant and is a Muslim. His partner, John Marietetski, is mixed race, though Colin carefully doesn’t let us know that until we meet his Jamaican grandmother, allowing us instead to make assumptions based on the Russian-sounding name. The bad guys are a family of gangsters who are immigrants from India. The book is set in New York, so the ethnic mix is hardly surprising, except that so many white authors manage to only see other white people.
It’s not Colin’s fault that in the last couple of years American police forces have garnered a reputation for gunning down people of color at the slightest excuse. When he wrote this book, it was still possible (at least for white people) to believe that the police were basically good guys.
Then there’s the social angle. The book is set in 2050. Bisexuality and polygamy are the norm, especially amongst the younger generation. Multi-person families are often the only way people in New York can afford the rents. While Shah is resolutely heterosexual, many of his work colleagues are not, and chide him for his old-fashioned prejudices.
Which brings me, of course, to Aurora.
The love interest in the book is intersex. Colin uses the term “intersexual”, which he appears to have got from Anne Fauso-Sterling. It never got to be widely used, and seems bizarre to us now, but I wanted to keep the book as Colin wrote it so I have left the term unaltered.
Colin certainly did his research. Levi Suydam, whom Aurora mentions at one point, was a real person from 19th Century Connecticut. I was very impressed at how Colin has Shah’s Imam tell him off for being prejudiced and quote the Qur’an to show how intersex people were known to, and accepted by, The Prophet. Colin’s understanding of hijra culture isn’t quite as good, but he does pretty well.
Aurora’s intersex condition is Clitoromegaly; that is she has an enlarged clitoris, which to an untrained eye will look very much like a penis (and is, after all, exactly the same organ). I believe that this is the condition that Lady Gaga is alleged to have. In the past doctors have operated on intersex infants to make them look “normal”, often without even getting the permission of the parents. Colin does a good job of talking about the question of childhood surgeries, intersex people having pride in their bodies, and the issues that they may have as teenagers because they are different. Adult Aurora is proud of who she is, but teen Aurora would have given anything for her parents to have had a bit more shame when she was born.
Colin, like Neil Gaiman in A Game of You, is writing primarily for a cisgender audience, hoping to open their eyes as to how badly non-cis people are treated. As a result, Aurora is treated pretty badly during the book, and is regularly misgendered by both police and gangsters. The book is very uncomfortable reading at times if you are a trans or intersex woman, but Aurora is allowed agency, and doesn’t suffer the usual fate of queer characters in novels.
I should note, by the way, that Aurora doesn’t seem to think much of trans women. As far as she’s concerned, she’s a woman and we are not. Sadly this is not unusual amongst the intersex community, though things do appear to be getting better.
On the other hand, everything that happens to Aurora is very familiar to trans women. The prospect of getting beaten up or killed after having sex with a guy who seemed to really fancy you is many trans women’s biggest nightmare.
Some feminist readers will doubtless be annoyed that Colin made Aurora a sex worker, albeit a high class one. I have no issue with this. Firstly, of course, the reality is that many of us have to sell our bodies in order to survive. We can’t pretend that doesn’t happen just because it isn’t pleasant. Also Aurora clearly enjoys having sex with men. Good for her. So do I. I get very tired of people whose main interest in feminism is getting to police how other women behave.
Reading Damage Time wasn’t a comfortable experience for me. Fairly obviously I identified strongly with Aurora. I have to say, speaking as a woman, that I have no idea what she sees in Pervez Shah, either before or after his memory loss, but I’m not actually her. There are things that I think Colin could have done better, and I would have loved to have the opportunity to work on the book with him. As it is, I’m putting the book out into a world that is much more accepting of trans and intersex people, and much less forgiving of prejudice against them, than the one in which Colin wrote the book. Some people will read it without that context and will be angry with it. I knew Colin, and I know that he cared about people. I think he deserves a huge amount of credit for trying so hard to write a good book about an intersex person, and I’m proud to be publishing it.
By the way, some of you will have noticed that Chris Moore re-did the cover for the Wizard’s Tower edition. I like it. I think having the aircraft come towards you makes it more dynamic.
I’m currently working with our typesetter on hardcover editions of both Damage Time and Winter Song. If all goes according to plan they will be on sale at BristolCon. They should also be available for preorder via my friends at Tangent Books sometime soon.