Today, we’re continuing our focus on female writers of science fiction space opera (or at least, my interpretation of this category) with a look at the most recent works of R.M. Meluch: her Tour of the Merrimack series. Jo Walton has already discussed these books here on Tor.com, but I want to take another look at them from a slightly different perspective. (Because I’m contrary like that.)
Right, so. I like to play cheering section here, and I find there’s a lot to enjoy in R.M. Meluch’s first four Tour of the Merrimack books. (I have yet, I confess, to read the fifth one.) I enjoy them bunches—but I also want to acknowledge the fact that there’s a hell of a lot of problematic shit floating around here.
So this is not really going to be cheering-section time, I fear.
The good points of Tour of the Merrimack are really a whole lot of fun. The setting has a Star Trek sort of vibe, complete with a Kirk-figure captain—but Star Trek in a nastier, much less forgiving universe. In Meluch’s universe, both Earth and the reborn, star-spanning Roman Empire are threatened by an inimical alien race known as the Hive, which consumes everything in its path and is really hard to stop. There are swords on board spaceships, and good reasons for them to be there; there’s spiffy space battle and tension and intrigue and caper and plot, fighter-pilots, enemies-turned-mistrusted-allies, and all the trappings of crunchy popcorn-fun space opera. Pulpy, is what it is: but pulp’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Plus it has an interesting alternate-universe twist.
I wanted, when I sat down to write about this series, to be able to be unmitigatedly enthusiastic: space opera! Romans! Fighter pilots! But I can’t turn the critical part of my brain off—it would be irresponsible of me—so now that I’ve pointed out the really serious fun parts, I want to delineate some of its more problematic elements, most of which show up in the first book and remain in play throughout.
In the 25th century, it’s Rome IN SPACE versus USA USA! These are the two great superpowers. The political and social culture of Space-Rome is characterised by strong inconsistencies: it is as much Hollywood Space Rome or Star Trek’s Romulans as anything legitimately built from the philosophical, moral and social influences of the Principate or the Dominate (and Meluch conveniently ignores the fact that the Roman Empire survived in the empire’s Eastern half until the fall of Constantinople—the Byzantines called themselves Romans: that’s why the Turkish name for the Balkan region was Rumeli); while 2440’s USA is never fleshed out, but appears to possess a culture, a military superiority, and a sense of manifest destiny unchanged from the 20th century.
Meanwhile, the rest of the nations of Earth—a political block known as the “League of Earth Nations”—are characterised as supine and possibly treacherous fools who contribute little or nothing towards the war with the all-devouring Hive.¹
This is mostly uncool by me, but it’d be much easier to shrug my way past these flaws² were it not for the other major stumbling block to my happy enthusiasm presented in these novels.
Rape Culture, the Male Gaze, and sadistic homosexuals
If anyone needs a primer on what rape culture is, go find one. Then you’ll understand why it’s wrong that there’s a deeply disturbing line in The Myriad where one female character is described as unrapeable. Because she’s so easy, you see, she doesn’t know the word no.
There is also far, far too much male gaze roaming around here, and little-to-no counter-balancing female one. Every single on-screen female character is described in terms of their physical attractiveness (and in terms of their availability), and there are some rather …bwuh? It’s the 25th century why is this still a thing?! moments around the Merrimack’s (stunningly beautiful) executive officer and how that beauty affects others’ perceptions of her.
So much male gaze. I’m not joking, lads. It got annoying and tedious.
Said executive officer is one of the two more interesting characters, however. The other character who’s more than a bare two-dimensional sketch is Augustus, a Roman “patterner,” sharp-edged and sarcastic—who also happens to be the only gay character hereabouts, and who is also classified (by the reading the narrative keeps pushing, at least) as a sadist.
Does this begin to seem like a problem to you?
I agree with Jo Walton that if you can overlook or forgive the problematic shit—and there’s a lot of problematic shit—they’re entertaining novels that manage a really interesting trick with the twist in the end of The Myriad which informs and adds an extra layer to the narrative of succeeding books.
That’s a choice you’ll have to make yourselves, because when it comes to The Tour of the Merrimack, after I weigh up its good points and its bad ones… well, I find they come out about even.
¹I’d like to footnote the fact that realising how Meluch had chosen to characterise the representatives of non-USian nations of Earth in The Myriad physically made my stomach cramp with disgust. Why did I keep reading, you might ask? Because dismissing the rest of us is fairly well par for the course in US-produced space opera—so much so that it took me a re-read to properly register that Meluch took things a wee step further, and chose to throw in every Craven Over-Civilised Diplomatic Fool vs. Noble Military Hero stereotype she could get her hands on.
²400 years sees a lot of cultural and institutional drift, generally speaking. It’s often gradual, but over that timescale, should still be showing up as obviously present.
Liz Bourke is buried under a mountain of books. Find her @hawkwing_lb on Twitter, when she periodically emerges.