Shadow Man Hardcover – 1 Aug 1995
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The reader knows that the society on the planet Hara came about as a result of a colonisation mission and there is trade with other planets, so the book qualifies as sci-fi. However, having set up the gender mutation situation most of the book reads as if it was not sci-fi. And I certainly do not mean this as criticism because this is the sort of sci-fi I prefer to read. However, compared to space opera, much of the book is quite low key with not a lot happening (a citizen of Hara is trying to get an exit visa, wowie! so it doesn’t have the makings of a big budget action movie). On the other hand, all this low key text is used to good effect helping the reader to learn about and understand what it is like living in a multi-sex society, particularly since the story is told from the POV of a herm (right in the middle between male and female). Interestingly, although Raven chooses to be legally male, 3e (that’s the herm pronoun) wears 3er hair in a female style and dresses in inter-sex clothes.
I liked the setting very much, along with the indigenous people, the rather fluid and fairly corrupt political system and the menacing way the police went about their business. Add in a bit of voodoo and you’ve got a really good setting. Having spent many years working abroad, I really felt as if I was back in Nigeria (when I was an off-worlder, no sorry, ex-patriate).
There were some problems though. I can’t imagine that a traditionally published book wasn’t edited, and yet my feeling is that never has any book I’ve ever read needed editing more than this one. A lot of the typo, illogical hyphenation and mid-sentence question mark problems would have been picked up by a good proof reader, but not all of them, and in this connection I’m thinking of a “grammatical” construction which just doesn’t work and is irritating to read.
What do I mean? I’ll tell you. It’s possible to have a sentence which goes: “first thing comma second thing and third thing full stop”. You can also have “first thing and second thing full stop”, but “first thing comma second thing full stop” just doesn’t work. A comma separates parts of a sentence, it does not join them.
Add to those problems the absolutely abysmal Kindle presentation (for example new chapters don’t start on new pages, for a second example, even though the text is fully justified there are hundreds of cases where a line “decides” to be left justified). From my own experience I know that Kindle translation from Word files now works very well indeed so really there is no excuse for this sort of problem (which is yet another source of irritation).
Having said that, the writing is for the most part easy to read and has a sort of power in it which compels the reader to continue, even when the story isn’t very exciting (which it isn’t for quite a lot of the book).
So now we come to scoring time. Well, I can’t go to the full five stars that’s for sure, but because (much of) the writing is so good and the way it made me feel like I was back in Africa I could certainly give it four. However, for the intrusive number of easily resolved mistakes (worse than anything I’ve EVER seen before) and the poor Kindle presentation I really ought to drop it down to three. Ms Scott, be glad I’m in a good mood today.
Female 22, (TranzCon Book 1)
Due to side effects of space travel, humanity of the future has 5 genders - male, female, mem, fem and herm. However on the backwater planet of Hara, custom and the law insists that there are only two genders - man and woman - and everyone must legally be classed as one of these, and dress accordingly. Moreover, Haran custom disapproves of 'same sex' relationships, even when the participants are only the same gender in the legal sense, not in the actual physical sense. This means a planet filled with unhappy people, forced into roles and strictures that don't quite match how they feel about themselves, and a burgeoning civil rights movement is clashing with traditional values as well as with those who want to retain the staus quo for personal or political reasons. Simultaneously, the place is full of off-worlders, who happily admit to the existence of all five genders, but who have sexual hang-ups of their own, and for whom Hara is a sex-tourism destination. Despite this subject matter, the sex is all tastefully PG or alluded to but not described.
The use of invented personal pronouns such as '%er' and '3er' to describe the mem, fem and herm genders is nicely done, but I did find myself wondering how on earth you are supposed to pronounce something like '3er' and there are no clues until rather late in the story.
For the Most Important Man, Warreven's sex was a non-issue: Warreven would simply classify himself as a woman and become Tendelathe's wife. This was a common arrangement, as herms did not live their lives as herms, but as men or women. It was up to them to choose. Warren would not choose, however; while he would willingly have married his long-time friend, he refused to be forced into declaring himself female. He was comfortable living as a man and that's how he wanted it to stay. He refused the offer. The decision ultimately changed his life.
The story point is one of the keystones in Melissa Scott's 1995 novel Shadow Man, a book which explores human gender and what life might be like if things were not as "simple" as we (perhaps wrongly) view them today.
The planet Hara, where Warreven, the Most Important Man and his son live is one of countless human colonies founded at a point in the future when humans have mastered faster-than-light (FTL) travel and have spread across the galaxy. As the story opens, Hara is in the process of slowly but surely being re-connected with the colonial network, after a few hundred years' separation.
The reason Hara was cut off is the same reason it's now so different from other human colonies. FTL travel, as boundary-breaking as it was, was in large part made possible by the development of specialized drugs, which prevented the side effects of the travel, keeping humans healthy and sane. However, these drugs themselves had a major side effect, one which no one had expected or even noticed under it was too late: The drugs affected human DNA and caused a large upswing (as high as 25%) in intersex births. There were no longer men and women, but men, women... and several other sexes. This discovery was so shocking and devastating to the human space colonization movement that all FTL travel was put on hold. Chaos erupted, arguments ensued, and it was during this time that the group making its way to the planet known as Hara were cut off.
People on hara developed the same genetic"abnormalities" as the rest of those who had taken FTL drugs. Not only their children, but their children's children, and on down the line, were born into one of five gender categories: woman, fem, herm, men, or man. The crucial difference on Hara, as opposed to within the human colonization effort and humanity as a whole (the "Concord"), was that the people on Hara chose to deny that this change had occurred. Almost all Concord humans had finally embraced the sexual differences and all the new sexual orientations and identities that came with it. They "moved on " with the change and re-started FTL travel. Harans were different. Fiercely traditional, they clung to concepts of men and women, and those who did not fit those categories were, officially, made to fit.
Despite the decision he made at 18, Warreven has made a good life for himself. He's got a job as something like an attorney, part of a three-person team. One of his partners is a man, the other a herm, like himself, only more politically outspoken (having fought a court battle to have legal status as "herm," not one sex or the other). Their firm often handles cases involving the "odd-bodied," those Harans who do not conform to Haran sexual standards. Warren is a skilled negotiator, and thanks to his continuing friendship with the Most Important Man (who still talks wistfully of his would-have-been "daughter-in-law"), he has a comfortable life. In his off time, Warreven's life isn't quite the savory life of a lawyer, however. He enjoys going to "wrangwys" bars, where fems, herms and mems mix amongst themselves, along with men and women who come to experiment in ways which are, officially, either forbidden or strongly frowned upon. In these bars, "wrangwys" become "trade"; Warreven has been "trade" himself.
In Shadow Man, we see Warreven's life change from something mostly stable and secure, where he is happy to remain within the status quo, to one in which his entire life is turned upside down and Hara is on the verge of a minor revolution. The story takes off when one day Warreven meets an offworlder named Tatian. The offworlder has come on an assignment from one of the big pharmaceutical companies trading with Hara, and at first he's strictly business. But after he meets Warreven and is introduced to Haran's rather different social set-up, he can't seem to get himself untangled from a budding revolution among society's oppressed. He finds himself encouraging Warreven and eventually assisting him. It's hard for him to believe the "odd-bodied" have allowed themselves to be oppressed at all, and even harder for him as he watches Warreven struggle with his role in the new revolution, especially when things get out of control, with attacks on bars, beatings, and riot police.
One of the things Scott does in Shadow Man is set up an allegory for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights movement, and one of the things that makes the book work is that this allegory isn't done in a heavy-handed way, but one that makes you understand the nature of social movements and those caught in the crossfire. Warreven doesn't want to be a revolutionary. He doesn't want to be a hero. He doesn't really want to be a herm -- not the way humans on Concord are herms. He doesn't know what any of that is about. However, the way events unfold, he has no choice, morally, but to press on and become a revolutionary, become a hero, and eventually, to become a herm. Change has to start somewhere and it just so happens that it starts with him.
Shadow Man is a wonderful, thought-provoking book which, although somewhat dissatisfying in the fact that it doesn't tie up the book's conflicts in a neat bow, makes you wonder about the nature of being human and being part of society, whether accepted or not.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
This book truly represents a coming of age but not for the main characters, for the readers.
Ms Scott creates an extended but simple metaphor: in a universe where there are five officially acknowledged and accepted biological sexes and a mathematitian knows how many combinatorial possibilities the law and custom of one single planet deny the biological reality in the name of an undefendible, aggressive, obtuse tradition.
It is easy to recognize our own little Earth and reality (despite intelligent crabs that are as affectionate as lapdogs, purr like kittens and spin useful silk) under this thin disguise; in the struggle of Warreven to be officially, legally recognized as a person despite his/her/who knows sex, one recognize the everyday problems of people who happen to be unlike the majority.
As a political pamphlet, an apologue, this book is a masterpiece and should be read as textbook in any secondary school; as a novel it is less so.
Ms Scott strives to mimic real life and she does it, perfectly, but the result is sometimes quite dull, just as our own petty lives can often be (think about commuting to get to work or boring evenings among collegues and you shall know what I mean).
The characters and situations are fully drawn and believable, and in the end the good does not win over evil, exactly as in our own lives.
Despite an appendix with a glossary, some fictional concepts, such as "trade" or the details of gender behaviour remain utterly unclear. Ms Scott has probably tried to avoid extensive boring explanations but confronted with such an exotic creation the reader must necessarily fill in the voids.
One may wonder, is this still SF? In a sense it is. Do not read this novel if you just want an easy SF pastime. Do it if you welcome food for thought and are in the right mood for it.
A note: sex is necessarily mentioned in such a book, but it is never graphic or vulgar: teens can read it freely provided they have the right attitude toward demanding books.
Over time, Warreven got involved in trade, which is legal prostitution, however he was not good at it, and instead became an advocate- an attorney who focused on defending intersex individuals and also prostitutes.
I really found the first beginning of this story fascinating. However, I did find the story's writing kind of bland. Even events which should be exciting were relayed in a really dry way.
Warreven gets dragged into running for a political office. There is a guy who has a bad implant in his arm who runs around complaining about it, and various of Warreven's friends fall victim to intersex-phobia and bad guys intent on quashing the intersex community. The writing style becomes very dry- and muddled. Characters pop in and pop out, and you have no idea who they are or what they are doing. There is a lot of casual drug use and ambivalence about human rights issues.
Warreven is an intriguing character- but I wanted him to have more of an active voice. I really wanted to root for him, and I wanted to feel more of what Raven felt in situations, and instead there is a lot of telling, not showing.
I would love to see a better writer tackle Warreven's world and this story- because it could be utterly fascinating. As it was I was left feeling frustrated by an interesting world and cool characters, but a writing style that failed to engage me.