One of the central debates about gender is the question of biological essentialism. On the one hand some claim that males and females are biologically different, leading to all sorts of “natural” differences between them. On the other hand, some feminists claim that these biological differences are confined solely to matters of reproduction, and in all other respects males and females are equal. On the gripping hand, nothing is ever as simple as extremists in any argument like to pretend.
In humans, of course, it is relatively easy to claim that males and females are largely identical save for reproductive functions. We don’t look that different, or act that different, at least not compared to other species. Surely, however, biological essentialism means much more if you are a lion, a bee, or a spider?
Now suppose that you are a science fiction writer who is interested in exploring issues of gender. Wouldn’t it be interesting to create a species of intelligent creatures where there are major social differences between the roles of males and females that seem to be biologically predicated, just like in many insect species? This, in a nutshell, is what Martha Wells has done with The Cloud Roads. Because the author is a woman, because the book doesn’t obviously involve Earth people at all, and because the central character is a shape changer, The Cloud Roads is getting classed as fantasy, but it is perfectly possible to read it as feminist SF, and I don’t think that Wells will object to that at all.
What follows is a little spoilery, but it simply isn’t possible to explain the issues that Wells is examining without discussing some of the background that is revealed in the opening chapters of the book.
Welcome, then, to the Three Worlds. That’s not three separate planets. Indeed, it may not be a planet at all, though it has day and night so it probably is. No, the name “three worlds” refers to the fact that this place in inhabited by three different classes of sentient beings. There are those who walk on land, those who swim in the sea, and those who fly. Our hero, Moon, belongs to a species that is able to shape-shift between a ground-dweller form and a winged form. At the beginning of the book, however, he’s something of an ugly duckling; he has no idea what he is. All he knows is that he has to keep his shape-changing ability secret, or he’s likely to be killed.
The reason for this is that Wells needs her hero to grow up entirely innocent of the social conditioning to which other members of his species are subjected through growing up in a society made up of their own kind. Moon’s mother had been exiled or abandoned for some reason, and when she was killed the lad had to make his own way in life by pretending to be an ordinary ground dweller. He soon discovered that his winged form, which felt more natural to him, looked like something called a Fell. And the Fell are cruel monsters hated by everyone. It is hard keeping such a secret, and sooner or later Moon would get found out, have to flee, and move on to the next village; and the next; until he could run no more.
Fortunately, just as his time runs out, he is discovered by Stone, an adult male Raksura. Thus he discovers that he’s not one of the hated Fell after all, but belongs to another aerial species that are the Fell’s deadly enemies. Raksura live in hive-like colonies, and they come in a variety of forms. Not all of them can shape-change, and not all can rule. The colonies are led by a Queen and, just as with some insect species, Queens are biologically very different from other females. Moon, it transpires, is a lost prince, a Consort, not because of his family, because he was lucky enough to be born with the right combinations of genes and chromosomes to make him both winged and fertile. When he arrives at Stone’s colony, the current Queen and her young rival immediately take an interest. Having grown up amongst the human-like ground dwellers, Moon find the whole idea preposterous.
The biological term for this is, I believe, “eusocial”. That is, members of the species come in a variety of morphologically discrete forms that have distinct social roles. It is common in ants, termites, and some bees and wasps, but only two species of mammals are known to exhibit this trait: the naked mole rat and the less common but hairier Damaraland mole rat. Naked mole rat colonies consist of a queen, a small number of breeding males, and larger numbers of two types of infertile workers. The fact that mammalian examples of eusocial species exist means that Wells has a sound basis for this aspect of the Raksura (though the shape changing is scientifically rather dodgy).
In the book, most of the gender issues are on hold for now. The Cloud Roads is the first in a projected series, probably a trilogy, and the primary objectives of the first book are to introduce us to the world, to show how Moon finds his feet amongst his own species, and to give us some hard-fought battles against the Fell to sustain interest in the plot. There will, I presume, be a lot more character development, and hence a lot more explanation of the gender issues, in later books.
I should mention that the Fell also have a strongly eusocial nature. Wells has had a lot of fun with biology here.
Although I am always a sucker for gender issues, what I liked most about The Cloud Roads was the fact that Wells has chosen to write a book with no Earth people in it, and in which the central character, and most of the supporting cast, are not remotely human. Obviously there’s a certain amount of anthropomorphism going on, but the eusocial nature of Raksura society means that we can never forget that they are not really like us. The book is published by Night Shade, and I suspect that most major publishers would turn it down on the basis that there wasn’t a “human” character for the reader to identify with. Even Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky had human focus characters as well as the planet of spider-people. I’m all for science fiction pushing the boundaries, however, so well done Martha Wells and Night Shade. Next book please?