Jun 22 2010 9:35am

It wouldn’t look right: M.J. Engh’s Rainbow Man

M.J. Engh’s Rainbow Man was on the Tiptree Award longlist for SF novels doing things with gender, and it was also nominated for the Prometheus Award for libertarian SF, an odd combination, but one that feels exactly right.

Rainbow Man is a science fiction novel set in a densely populated but slower than light universe, cut by starships making huge arcs between settled planets. Liss was born ten years before her ship ran into a cluster of settled worlds, and now the ship is about to pass out of it into another long haul through the dark. She decides to stop on the planet of Bimran, which seems very nice but into which she has done far too little research. Bimran has no money and no laws (that’s the Libertarian bit) but it does have four commandments, against murder, abuse, idolatary and fornication. All sex outside of marriage is fornication, and anyone who isn’t fertile counts as a man, which is Liss’s problem. She’s a straight woman who has chosen to make choices against reproduction, and on Bimran that makes her a man. And this is where the Tiptree relevance comes in, because we see what would be to us a straight relationship defined as a queer and dangerous one. “It isn’t any more unfair because it applies to you,” says Liss’ offworld friend Leona.

This was my first re-read of Rainbow Man, so in the way I think of it, it completed my reading of the book—re-reading it knowing what’s going to happen is a different experience. I left it quite a long time between readings—three or four years—because it’s such a wrenching book. Having said that, it’s not a patch on Engh’s first novel Arslan for that. Engh is always brilliant but disturbing, and I am not always in a mood to be disturbed.

Rainbow Man is a first person novel and a very immediate one. All Engh’s writing feels like being there. There aren’t many characters, but they are all detailed and vivid and real. Reading this for the first time is an adventure, stepping off a starship and learning about a new world along with Liss. The little details that make up the world, the floatboards, the park, the fact that shaking your head from side to side in negation is weird to Liss, her fascination with weather, her reluctance to stop wearing the brightly coloured clothes that earn her the nickname “Rainbow Man.” Then there are the casual mentions of other worlds, and of the culture of the starships, or at least of Liss’ starship, because they are different. There’s a whole economy of slower-than-light starships moving things around in the hope of a profit somewhere but an intention of keeping moving, which is unusual, and like the background in some of Cherryh’s works, or like Permanence, but not something you see done very often. I couldn’t put it down, I read the whole book in one sitting and then couldn’t sleep.

Re-reading it, knowing it’s an inescapable tragedy is quite another thing, because you know that all the light-hearted playing and fun, and all the voluntary working to make the world work covers up the threat of Selection. The visit to the Selection Center where you can see people in Bliss or Punishment, with the pleasure or pain centers of their brains activated, is horrifying—I think either of those things would be a dreadful way to live, if you can call it living. The thought of people going out there to see them is chilling. Then there’s the issue of the end—we don’t know what the ship they have escaped on is like, and they’re on it for the long haul. Beyond that, Doron refused to escape, and by the time Liss wakes up, Doron has undergone an eternity of torture and died.

In the end it’s not sex but religion that gets Liss into real trouble—people are meditating on her woven gold balloons, and that’s idolatry. This is clever, as we’ve been set up to expect it to be sex—with Sarelli or with Doron, and it’s easy to miss the whole religion thing because it’s so big. This is really a book about people enforcing their own heaven and hell on Earth—or in this case, Bimran —and the problems it causes to play God when you’re not God. Most of the people on Bimran are seem to be happy—and that’s the problem. How can you ever know the truth when people are afraid of a lifetime of torture? Laws, however imperfect a compromise, are a much better protection than community standards.

This is an excellent and thought-provoking novel.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. Sihaya
"Laws, however imperfect a compromise, are a much better protection than community standards."

I have trouble making sense of that line - laws have forced people to suffer, too, and for centuries. Codified law is simply the extension of state level society, whereas common law, what you're calling community standard, has existed since family units started to get together to form communities, and it's not quite as prone to whim as you might think. Law and common law both serve the same purpose for slightly different structures, and their nature depends merely on the complexity of the community.

I know, I know - you're saying that law is *more effective* as a protection than common law, and certainly more nimble. Well, I can't answer that question for certain. It's one of those paradoxes of state level social organization that our larger institutions get more calcified even while individual members seem to break into nimble little groups that mirror the family, the band or the tribe. Community standards exist at the exact same time that written laws do, and when they conflict, they do this little dance around each other. It is impossible for a society as large as ours to exist without its little shadow cultures.
Chris Greenland
2. greenland
I wish this was still in print! Really want to check this out and the used bookstore didn't have a copy...
3. hapax

I don't know where you are located, but a quick check shows that almost 300 libraries in the USA own a copy of this title. Perhaps your local public library could borrow a copy through inter-library loan?

(Not the one at my library, though, since I'm going to check it out tomorrow.)

P.S. Word verification was "cadges" "materials". How appropos!
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Sihaya: Laws aren't perfect, but community standards have no system of appeal.
JS Bangs
5. jaspax
Jo, I just wanted to say that I love your re-read posts--they're my favorite thing on Tor, and one of the first places I go when I'm deciding what I should read next.

This one, in particular, sounds extremely intriguing, and the bit about queering what we think of as a straight relationship especially so. I've seen that in one or two other places, but the only one that comes to mind right now is the end of Halderman's The Forever War. The difference is that Halderman's majority-homosexual society never seemed plausible to me--I doubt that human sexuality is really malleable enough to force 90%+ of the population to identify as homosexual. But this sounds really plausible, even intuitive, which makes me want to read it.
Clark Myers
6. ClarkEMyers
Perhaps on point for laws and community standards this from Ilya Somin at Volokh (ob sf Volokhs and LASFS) http://volokh.com/posts/1237260088.shtml
Second, the shortcomings of the Kelo backlash undercut the widely held belief that we don’t need judicial intervention to protect rights that are supported by majority public opinion. Although bolstered by such authorities as James Madison’s Federalist 10, this view has serious flaws that the Kelo experience highlights. A combination of political ignorance and interest group lobbying can easily lead to violations of rights that majorities value. It also makes it extremely difficult to correct those violations using the political process alone.

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.
Madison Federalist 10

A famous example is the Atheniens one day sending a fast ship to impose a popularly voted death sentence; the next day sending a faster ship to say they'd changed their respective minds and votes. Hence no Bills of Attainder in the U.S. of A..

MJ Engh is always worth reading - see the jacket quotes. Virginia Kidd once said Engh was in the top three of the writers she (Kidd) represented; leaving lots of room for speculation on who else makes up that trio. My thought was of Le Guin for sure and almost as surely Gene Wolfe but I'm no mindreader. AFAIK Virginia Kidd never elaborated.

Interestingly enough the Prince Valiant - comic strip or serial graphic novel? - had Prince Valiant land on an island in the mist where Selection was practiced.

I suppose 90+ percent of the population can be inclined to anything when the population is clones (maybe not, that's an issue from Anderson's U.N. Man to Cyteen and many others) but I suspect it was part of emphasizing how drastic the changes are in The World when the warriors get back to it and self-exile.
JS Bangs
7. jaspax
I suppose 90+ percent of the population can be inclined to anything when the population is clones

I hadn't thought of that. Given that the soldiers are all clones raised in an artificial environment, the army in The Forever War can probably induce whatever genetic/environmental pressures it needs to ensure the sexuality of its grunts.

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