I don’t write a book review for every book that I read. Sometimes a book is just meh, and I don’t need to get my heart rate up writing and ranting about things that are just meh. It’s about balance, people! But every once in a while a book comes by that just pokes me in the eye wrong, and then I can’t stop myself from voicing all my bitter little opinions.
The High Couch of Silistra by Janet E. Morris is definitely such a book.
Long ago, the human colonists of Silistra waged a war so vicious that, centuries later, the planet has not recovered. Men and women alike suffer from infertility–the deadliest legacy of that deadly war. Because the birth rate is so low, the Silistrans value above all the ability to bear children, and their social order is based on fertility and sexual prowess. On a planet desperate for population, women hold the keys to power. These are the adventures of Estri, Well-Keepress of Astria and holder of the ultimate seat of control: The High Couch of Silistra.
Originally published in 1977, the book, along with its insufferably corny cover, was just about to get lost under four decades of library dust to never irk another human being again. Then, driven by some demonic force that no mere mortal would ever be able to understand, someone (and I’m too lazy to do the research as to who this incurable criminal is) resurrected it. Reprinted it. Brought it back from its timely and well-deserved death to serve as a banner for idiots who have no inkling of actual feminism to rally under.
To add insult to near-fatal injury, there were a considerable amount of people who couldn’t shut up in the reviews about how this book is real feminism, and how all women should just please listen up and see how it’s done.
Two of the views that caused me the most eye-twitching:
“What a remarkable feminist text. I found this book to be similar and far superior to the oft praised ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.”
“This is a novel that changed the game for women characters in science fiction, and the women who write science fiction.”
If you are confused as to why these opinions seem so outrageous to me, please read on:
Okay, so to be fair, let’s start with the positive. The one star I gave to this book on goodreads.com is solely in honour of the excellent world building. And if anyone (no one?) has been following my reviews, you’ll know that shoddy world building is not a thing I easily excuse. In this case, however, I can’t fault it. Silistra is no place you’ve ever been or even thought of. Everything, from the plants and animals to the structure of society, is brand new, and is presented in a way that is evocative and immersive. I really enjoyed the slight confusion of trying to make sense of this utterly unknown culture that I had just been dropped into.
But the rest of it is…not so great.
Feminism, and how this book is NOT that.
One of the reasons reviewers called this book ‘feminist’ is because it ‘explores the idea of female dominance through sexuality’. But isn’t that exactly the opposite of feminism? Feminism mostly tries to put forward the idea that women can do and be anything men can be if they put their minds to it. There is no ‘feminine way’ to do things and there is a definite backlash to the idea that women should be exerting power over their circumstances only through their vaginas. Women can (and do all the time, thank you very much) run their lives by using their brains.
Estri, on the other hand, barely tries to do this. She makes some cognitive decisions in the beginning of the book, to which I thought, Yay! A woman with a sex drive and a brain! Because, yes, that IS feminist, but Estri soon deteriorates into a woman who simply lies back and takes whatever comes her way right between the legs. She doesn’t exert dominance over anyone. She has no power, and can seem to do nothing or go nowhere without submitting to the rape and abuse of various men.
She also exhibits very little control over herself, much less her situation. She demands to continue on her quest, which is admirable, but not really enough to absolve her of her other sins: she has no power over her own urges. She falls in love with every single man who rapes and mistreats her, and rather than mustering an ounce of self-respect, she simply follows them around like a lost puppy. She thinks about it a handful of times, concluding that *insert name here* is so awful and terrible (and some of them are truly reprehensible), but she just continues to sleep with them and love them, because her ‘need is too great’. This perpetuates the dangerous stereotype that women are completely and utterly at the mercy of their bodies. In case anyone doesn’t know this: THEY ARE NOT. They have brains and are capable of complex thoughts and most notably, can resist their inappropriate sexual impulses if they know it’s either dangerous or not good for them.
Claims of a sex positive society, and how this book doesn’t quite follow through.
I was really hoping for a book that lives up to its reputation of featuring prostitution in a new light, but this book doesn’t. Sex is still a thing taken from women by men. It is still a method men use to control and shame women. The problem here is that it could have been SO much cooler. What if there was a society where sex, and even the purchasing of sex, was a perfectly normal and healthy thing? What if sex was seen as a major and respectable form of commerce? But not here. The selling of sex is a way to make sure women fulfil their most desperate need and highest purpose in life: conceive and have offspring. And here we have another sexist trope, the idea that the greatest joy a woman can experience is motherhood.
Estri is not an inspiring woman.
I have some more gripes about Estri and how lame she is and how she frequently mentions her shortcomings, but do very little to try and overcome them. She just lies back, because, wait for it, here comes the next round of rapes.
Rape. Rape. Rape. Oh, and did I mention the rape?
This book has so much rape in it that I went from being uncomfortable to being outraged to just plain pulling an Estri and waiting for it to be over. I don’t know where this female ‘dominance’ and ‘control’ is that people speak of, because Estri gets raped by almost every single man she meets. A previous lover unceremoniously anally rapes her in the first few pages, and the experience passes over Estri like so much water. She doesn’t even bat an eye. More rapes follow. There is a gang rape. There are men raping other men. There are men beating two women and forcing them to have sex with each other against their will. AND NONE OF IT EVER GETS ADDRESSED. It’s just treated as normal. Par for the course. A thing that happens every day and no use even talking about. Estri barely gets it over her heart to admit that she didn’t consent to any of the acts. She just takes it lying down without a complaint. Which, gentlefolk, is NOT THE SAME AS BEING SEX POSITIVE!
I find this to be an enormous opportunity lost . These issues could have been discussed in light of this supposed ‘sex positive society’ of theirs, but it doesn’t happen. What could have been a very intense and thought-provoking look into an unfamiliar sexual society just falls flat without any payoff.
The story was not compelling.
This is sad, because I would have forgiven this book most of its crimes if the story was amazing. But it’s not. I’’s just not that interesting. There are a lot of good world building exercises, but without a story to prop up the scenes, they just fall flat. Like I said before, she travels from point A to B, and that is basically it. No character development, no growth, no knowledge acquired, no new skills learned, no relationships built that aren’t immediately abandoned and forgotten. Just a lot of rape and abuse and then a ending that suggests enlightenment…but doesn’t actually show it. All of it is just meh.
There’s no actual sex.
Not a single word to describe even a moment of intimacy between any of the characters. Most of it is just truncated into ‘he took me’ or ‘he used me’, or even more cryptically, ‘afterwards’. Sometimes it happens so quickly that I miss it completely and only notice the latest gang rape when I look back over the pages. Normally this is not really a gripe, but I think I would be willing to withhold many of my other gripes if this was just some run-of-the-mill erotica. I know dub-con is a highly enjoyed feature of a lot of erotica, and so maybe then I wouldn’t have found the blatant sexism and consent issues to be such a problem. If there was some description of the sex I could rest assured that this book was written towards getting people off, rather than opening their minds. I don’t know. Maybe. I just think that if you’re going to write a story that is almost exclusively about sex and features more rape than anyone ever can swing a non-consenting cat at, it should at least have *some* description of it somewhere. Otherwise half the book seems to not be happening at all.
So that is why I will not be continuing the Silistra series. This decision deeply distresses me, because I am an obsessive compulsive who likes finish the shit I start. But this torture is surely not worth it. Moving on.