Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Laurie Marks: Queer Books for Queer Times

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Queers are a peculiar minority. We come from nowhere, and are raised by heterosexuals like eggs left in the wrong nest. We're exiles in a foreign culture, anthropologists from day one observing mating habits and pairings that have nothing to do with us. In short, we're the original aliens.

It's not surprising that fantasy and science fiction have a strong appeal. Growing up I read and re-read the "Narnia Chronicles" and anything by Madeleine L'Engle. I accepted the Bible without question. Why not winged prophets announcing the birth of babies or the end of the world? Why not burning bushes, tongues of fire, and outcast healers when I knew the world I lived in was not what it seemed?

There was a skinny, light-footed guy in college that took it even farther. He only wore green and claimed to be descended from Tolkien's fairies. He didn't have an easy time of it. Even from me. I sneered with the others behind his back. Now, I'm glad he had a cushion, an escape hatch until he figured out what he really was. He came out after college like I did.

That's the essence of the genre. There are plenty of boys with swords and bulging muscles and wands fighting troglodytes on Mars and engaging in kinky cross-species sex, but since the transformative 60's it's also a place where writers like Samuel R. Delany or Joanna Russ and Nicola Griffith have been able to explore notions of identity, ask "What if?" and station themselves just far enough away in time or space to get a good look at the earth.

One writer who does that particularly well is Laurie J. Marks. Her "Elemental Logic" series is a kind of social change fantasy that has more relevance in the post-9/11 era than most op-eds. How do you fight an enemy without becoming them? What happens when you give up on revenge?

She began writing as a kid in California. In a recent interview, Marks told me her first book was a fantasy novel about these two girls that have wings. "They were the good guys in the struggle of good versus evil. It didn't really have much of a plot, but I was twelve, what do you want?"

Marks was still flying in her first published book, "Delan the Mislaid" (1989), though she started being more scientific about it. "I actually researched how difficult it would be to fly when you're a full-sized human being. And that's how I ended up with these rather strange looking creatures with gigantic chests, little skinny legs and big giant wings kind of like bat wings. And even with those modifications I still had to assume it's a pretty light gravity and make it so they couldn't really fly, mostly they could just glide."

What appealed to me, when I borrowed the book from my then girlfriend, was the main character, Delan. She was a misfit among the Walkers, with misshapen lumps on her back, and a head for heights. She was considered female, but hid the truth that she was nothing at all. Before long we discovered Delan wasn't even the same race as the people that raised her. She grew wings during adolescence and turned out not to have no sex, but all of them. Delan was a hermaphrodite, eventually finding others of its kind, the Aeyries, and when they were embroiled in an inter-species war, Delan became a hero.

Since I was just coming out myself, the theme of self-discovery and finding people like me really hit home. The irony is, Marks hadn't figured out yet who she was. It was her own characters that broke the news, she says. She was working on "Dancing Jack" (1993), a book in which two women reunited after being separated because of some stupid fight, and they wouldn't let her go on with the plot until they had sex. She wrote the love scene imagining she'd delete it. Instead, the scene stayed, and she came out as lesbian.

I noticed it didn't change anything in her writing, though it explained a lot. Gender-bending and queer characters were always a constant. Marks would write about a farmer for a couple of pages and when you had a good picture of a guy in overalls tramping around in the mud, then she'd slip in a "she" or "her." Marks also divorced gender from sex. Anybody could sleep with anybody. Equipment didn't matter.

She's always tinkered with families, too, even if she ended up marrying her girlfriend and living in Massachusetts in a kind of nuclear family if you count the pets as kids. "It seemed to me that if you're breaking loose of assumed gender roles, that the shape of the family has to be changeable also. It's not that there are no nuclear families in my world, just that they're considered to be quite abnormal. You do, in the cities especially, get families where they can manage to be fairly small because it doesn't take as much labor to generate a living. So say, if people are in business, then they wouldn't need to have a huge family."

Marks believes that normalizing gender-blind roles for women and queers, along with alternative families is "a sort of a Utopian approach, bringing forward the contrast between the world as it is and the world as it should be. That's something that you can really only do in fantasy or science fiction."

For a reader like me, it's a pleasure, an affirmation. Though not everyone is equally happy about it. The few critical reviews at online booksellers didn't see how the characters would reproduce. "The world would be left empty. There are no real families."

The biggest change since Marks began writing is her move towards realism. Like the black sci-fi writer Octavia Butler who went from featuring multiple genders and gene-splicing extraterrestrials in "Lilith's Brood" to a contemplation of religion in the dystopian novels "Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents," Marks has moved from a reliance on the extravagant tools of fantasy like flying that offered easy solution to problems, to a much more subtle form of magic, and a more complex human landscape.

For instance, in her 1992 book "The Watcher's Mask," an embattled tribe saves itself from the dominant culture by getting the tyrant to wear a magical charm. In "Fire Logic" (2002), the first of the Elemental Logic series, she lets them be slaughtered, partly because it's more realistic, but also because the elders of the tribe refuse to let Zanja, a witch with fire logic (enhanced intuition), introduce fear into their culture, even though there's a war going on outside their mountains.

In contrast, their neighbors, the other inhabitants of Shaftal, who were conquered in one horrible attack that will feel oddly familiar to New Yorkers, are letting themselves be changed by the colonizers who brutally kill guerrillas, and anyone they perceive as future threats. Gradually, as Shaftali reshape themselves into resistance fighters, the openness and generosity of their culture is also being destroyed.

Complicated questions arise. What future can be imagined except mutual slaughter? What role should we allow fear to play in our lives? Zanja lost everything when her tribe was slaughtered. Should she pursue revenge and become as ruthless as her enemies?

In the aftermath of 9/11 and our War on Terror, it's considerations like this that resonate with me, along with the great queer characters, even though Marks had actually been working on "Fire Logic" years before September 11th. Having an intersection with current events actually ended up working against her when a British publisher turned it down on the grounds that it wasn't "believable."

"What they meant was that they were still so much in this "us" versus "them" mindset that they didn't think people would accept the possibility that there could be peace without a victory, if that makes sense. That there actually are ways to end a conflict without one person being beaten into a pulp."

Marks herself isn't convinced it's possible in the real world. Not because humans are incapable of making compromises for the good of the whole, like giving up on revenge, or the satisfaction of being proved right, but because no humans have a culture that supports it. That's the advantage to writing fantasy. She can work to make it realistic in the context of the book. And that lets her comment on our reality.

"I think it does in some way operate as a criticism of how quick we are to slip into this way of seeing the world in which there's "us" and "them," and "enemies" and "friends," and how hard it is for us to base our relationships on what we hold in common rather than what we hold in difference. I know I sound like an idealist. I am one. Sort of."

That's good enough for me. As Wikipedia says, there are reasons why "members of science fiction fandom (including Forrest J Ackerman) were involved in the foundation of early groups such as the Daughters of Bilitis." We don't always need promises, just people to imagine the future, and a little hope.

Fire Logic (2002) was followed by Earth Logic (2004), and Water Logic (2007). There's no date yet for the appearance of Air Logic.

For Laurie Marks on Gay Marriage

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