The Summer Prince

The Summer Prince - Alaya Dawn JohnsonWhile Ancillary Justice is undoubtedly the most garlanded science fiction book of 2013, another book that has been turning up on award lists with regularity is The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s probably because it is a YA book and is therefore getting ignored by many adult readers. That’s very foolish of them.

I suspect that some people will be billing The Summer Prince as “post-apocalyptic”, and the book does take place sometime after a major environmental disaster. Much of the Earth is more or less uninhabitable. What is left of mankind is clustered around the tropics where the climate is survivable. But civilization is by no means dead, it is just very different.

Most of the action takes place in the city of Palmares Três in North-East Brazil. The original city of Palmares was founded by escaped slaves during the 17th Century. The Três may indicate some sort of city franchising in much the same way as Liz Williams’ Inspector Chen series is set in Singapore Three (actually Hong Kong). Palmares Três is a fairly modern city, encased in a huge glass pyramid. Average lifetimes of wealthy citizens are much longer than in our world. But it is not what I would call a Flower City. One of the characters in the book is an envoy from Tokyo 10, which is much more like something from a Kathleen Ann Goonan novel.

The most interesting thing about Palmares Três, however, is the political system. Men have been blamed for the nuclear war, and the environmental disaster that followed it. What’s more, something called the Y Plague once wiped out 70% of males. Palmares Três is therefore a matriarchal society. There is a Queen, and a bureaucracy led by “Aunties”, who are effectively government ministers. Layered on top of this is a religious system that is a mash-up of Catholicism and the blood rites of ancient American religions, spiced with a healthy dose of Fraser’s Golden Bough. Each year the city elects a King to be the Queen’s mate. At the end of the year, the King is killed to prevent any man ever taking power again. But the Queen too is a risk, so the outgoing King is allowed to select the next Queen. The assumption is that, given that he’s about to be executed, he won’t have a stake in the women’s power politics.

I’ll have more to say about the political system later, but for now it is time to meet the central characters. Our viewpoint is provided by June, a young woman from the upper strata of Palmares Três society who is fond of introducing herself thus: “My name is June, and I’m the best artist in Palmares Três.” She’s a bit of a selfish, whiny brat as well as arrogant. In particular she blames her mother for her father’s death.

It doesn’t help that mother has re-married, to one of the Aunties. Not that lesbianism worries June in the slightest. Bisexuality appears to be commonplace in Palmares Três. No, the problem is the circumstances of June’s father death, and the fact that her mother re-married so soon after.

June is relatively young, and the sorts of decisions made by people who can expect to live at least 150 years are alien to her. Herein lie the seeds of the major political polarity of the city: the wakas (the young) against the grandes (the old). If you are fit and healthy at 90 years old, why should you relinquish power to anyone who is in their 20s or 30s? In Palmares Três childhood is potentially very long.

Mind you, the wakas v grandes conflict only has great meaning for June and her young friends amongst the upper classes. Not everyone in Palmares Três is rich, and those who live in the lower strata of the city probably don’t live anywhere near as long. The chances are that no one would notice, except that the post of King is decided through what is essentially a talent show. To win, all you need is to be superbly good looking, incredibly charming, and very elegant. When Enki, a poor kid from the very lowest stratum of the city, is elected King, everything is going to change.

To give June her credit, she is actually very good at art. She’s counting on her talent to win her the coveted Queen’s Award. But her skill comes to the attention of the new King, and Enki has some big ideas.

About a dozen cables snake out from underneath. Each helps siphon the pure hydrogen gas to the fuel cells that power the city. The water by-product gets recycled into our sinks and fountains. Energy at no cost, some would say, but Enki and I know better. The cost is the verde, the catinga, the several hundred thousand souls who live at this literal bottom tier of society. On Tier Eight, we can forget this place even exists, except when someone like Enki forces us to remember.

As Enki and June begin to make high profile political art, albeit in secret, June risks coming into conflict with the Aunties, including her step-mother.

The plot, for the most part, runs very smoothly. There were a couple of places where I felt that things happened because the plot needed them to, but those were minor quibbles. Having been reading SF and mythology for decades, I was able to guess what was going to happen in the end. Many readers will doubtless be pleasantly surprised.

The book, and June in particular, are very strong on the idea that art can change the world. At times The Summer Prince read a bit like an Amanda Palmer manifesto. But youthful enthusiasm can only take you so far. Changing the world can’t be done simply by winding up your friends on social media, or even by taking to the streets. Effecting real change requires an understanding of politics, the ability to out-think your opponents, and having something to bargain with. All too frequently it also requires sacrifice.

I’m interested to know how YA readers have taken to The Summer Prince. I can see why adults on award juries love it. I’m less convinced that it will play well with the audience, because June does one heck of a lot of growing up in the course of the book. So much so that it may sound at times like an adult writer lecturing teens on their lack of perspective. Then again, as June is so obviously brat-like at the start, it may work.

There’s quite a bit more in the book I would like to talk about, but I’ve probably already said too much and I want you to enjoy it. So instead I’m going to talk about gender and politics (which I guess is no surprise at all).

The commonplace bisexuality and matriarchal power structure certainly make for a very different and interesting society. Pretty boys like Enki are objectified far more than would happen in our world. There are other differences too. Here’s June talking to her male best friend, Gil.

“It’s okay to cry,” he says.
“Gil, you know I hate it when you sound like an agony auntie.”
He laughs. “Am I wrong?”
“It’s fine for you to cry. You’re a beautiful boy.”
“So girls don’t cry? June , I never knew you were so conventional.”

What intrigued me, however, is that the society of Palmares Três is firmly based on the gender binary. At one point June even notes that the city “is proud of its perfectly even gender demographics.” That rather suggests that the gender balance is scientifically monitored and enforced, which is rather creepy. Certainly the whole idea of ritual kingship is dependent on the idea that men are men, women are women, and never the twain shall meet. Yet bisexuality is rife, so if there is any issue around which I would expect the waka v grande conflict to coalesce it would be gender. Much to my surprise, there is no sign of non-binary people in the book. The comment above about conventional gender performance is as much as we get.

For most people I suspect this won’t matter at all. The book doesn’t need non-binary people to work. Had it been written a decade ago I would not have expected anything, although Liz Hand did spot the opportunity with Waking the Moon and that was published in 1994. These days, however, if you are attuned to issues of gender, you can’t help but notice the absence.

Still, mustn’t quibble too much. This is a very fine book, and one that deserves to be read by everyone, not just teenage girls.

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