Actually... (now more than halfway through) Touched by Venom is quite good... amazingly good. It's a serious cool work of feminist SF, about sexual politics.
It's not a silly trashy fun book like, say, those Sharon Green light porn "Crystals of Mida" books where the Amazonian tribeswomen ride around on giant lizards, capturing men and raping them. Not at all!
This scene near the end, where the teenage heroine has gone through complete hell... starvation many times, violence and death, terrible things, mutilation... the convent where her dying mother bought her a place is threatened. All the holy women are starving and are worked almost to death and are addicted to the venom drug... which if you do it right, is this divine sex rite bringing enlightenment. The heroine freaks at the nuns' request for her to flee and save herself from the threatening disaster - but to help them do their ritual one last time... (And this in a society where women don't sleep on the "dragon-blessed ground" because their filthy female tears, blood, and sweat would defile it - dragons are ultra-holy -and recall all the heinous rape and prostitution scenes earlier and how the heroine was nearly sold into sex slavery where she would have died very young from horrible diseases - the "mating pustules" - ew....) A scene where in a short conversation the key of the book - power - is laid right out for the first time.
Slowly, carefully, she said, "You don't have to feel ashamed by your desire. Not among us."
"It's wrong," I whispered, cheeks burning.
"The wanting of it? The act itself?"
"Who gets hurt, Zar-shi? No one is exploited, no one is forced. It's a divine exchange between beast and woman."
"Tell me you haven't seen worse elsewhere, worse that is acceptable only because it reaffirms the power-defined relationship of an aggressor over the less powerful. Tell me so and I'll agree."
I thought of roidan yin kasloo, the woman trading between kus [clans]. I thought of Mombe Taro [a ritual] and how the aristocrats, in all their finery, so gleefully whipped and humiliated the apprentices. I thought of the garish, grand mating closet in the glass spinners' ku [clan enclosure], the place where my sister had been imprisoned and defiled...
I also think of one of the book's opening scenes, where the male apprentice dragonmasters are running a ritual gauntlet during a city-wide festival, preparing to be whipped brutally by poisoned, drugged lashes. The famed "venom cock" makes its appearance. It's half a page about how the dragon venom, a powerful hallucinogen and poison, makes the men have erections. In fact, the point of the passage is that the men and women have different ideas about what t his means. The men see it as a symbol of power and patriarchy, the phallus as scary and violent. The women, and Zarq, the young girl heroine, find it trivial and amusing to see the terrified, humiliated apprentices cringing before the crowd with their loincloths tented out; Zarq says :
The only truth I knew about the subject was what my eyes told me. The veteran apprentices looked mighty silly waddling up the lane to the whipping bar, their penises pointing the way.
This is the page everyone's making fun of, with the lisping little boy tugging on his penis under his loincloth as he watches the parade, and the "bad writing". What I notice is the gender politics. The quality of the writing is not bad at all - if I were going to critique it I'd say the first couple of chapters have slightly awkward elbows once in a while, until the book really revs up, and part of that might be my readerly adjustment to the book's style. The same adjustment is necessary whenever you're reading something that isn't predigested pap. For example, the coiled energetic style of one of my favorite femsf writers, Doris Piserchia - it takes getting used to and warming-up to learn how to read it. This is nothing to spend energy mocking, when there's so much truly good writing in the Touched by Venom.
But back to the parade and the young boy. It turns out he is obsessed with power, with patriarchal/phallic power, to the extent that he painfully mutilated himself in order to become a legal adult at age 7 - because his child-name indicated that he was the bastard son of a whore. He's lisping because his self-mutilation resulted in an infection that made him lose all his teeth. Whoa!
This is just one page - the much-quoted page 8 in the paperback edition. I would like to quote one more line from it, one that carries quite a lot of irony:
"Unwise while in the presence of so much masculinity to mock the phallus."
And Cross does mock the phallus. How unwise of her! I raise my coffee cup in a lone toast to her brave genius!
The tone of the critical mockery of the book has been to put it down as fanfic, painfully amateurish, prurient to the point of being silly. I don't accept that as a tactic to put down work. It's lazy, and it's damning work by associating it with the feminine, with hysteria, with women's desire. Of course we all know those qualities make writing ridiculous. From what critics said, I thought the writing would be unreadable, nonsensical filler, stuck in to pad out the frequent dirty sex scenes between humans and dragons, like the "plots" of bad porn movies. A book for furries to paperclip and read with one paw. That was the stereotype evoked... and it's WRONG.
Instead I find a woman's hero-tale, one that's firmly in femsf tradition. The books I now am comparing it to:
- Walk to the End of the World
- Clan of the Cave Bear
- Kushiel's Dart
- various books by Piserchia and Van Scyoc
Issues explored in the book:
- gender and power and sexuality
- slavery and prostitution
- class, religion, feudalism, serfdom
- race and racism
- the sacred and profane
- the oppression of children
- women's solidarity
- ways that men are victims of patriarchy etc.
- mother-daughter-sister dynamics
- pregnancy, birth, the labor of caring for children
- magic and mysticism
- personal revenge and revolution
- the line between human and animal
In fact it's an exploration of a patriarchal dystopia... One of my favorite genres.
I am impressed by many of the subtle touches that show me the sophistication of Cross's feminist analysis. For example, the heroine's older sister, Waisi, has this feral core of anger, ambition, cruelty... and midway into the book it's explained beyond the simple explanation that she was smart, talented, and terribly oppressed. Her mom had the mottled green skin of a jungle woman (savages! perverts! inhuman!) and so all during Waisi's childhood, the other women of the clan never helped co-parent her:
When my piebald babe cried, no mother in my new clan dried her tears. If she fell, no hands but mine picked her up. Her prattles, however earnest and sweet, went ignored. Sometimes I found bruises the size of an adult's fingers on her underarms.It's written from the mom's point of view because Zarq is being possessed by her mother's angry ghost. I think of this, too, as a feminist SF trope -- think of how the heroine in "Air" is driven mad by her union with the ghost of her 90-year-old neighbor. Possession by the ghost of an older woman stands for the ways that knowing/learning feminist history makes one mad. (Mad-insane and mad-angry, both.) It's an exploration of what it means to live with Henry Louis Gates' "double consciousness".
But I tried, oh, I tried! I loved and caressed and soothed the other children, trying to buy a measure of acceptance for my own babe with those kindnesses. Yet how often can a toddler fall down and be stepped over and walked away from before hurt is a fluid as constant in the veins as blood?
Another common trope in feminist SF - the line between human and animal. Geoff Ryman's Air pays homage to this tradition with its sad, painful, existentially despairing talking dog. Of course we have Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller... and so many others. The telepathic companion animal is the tip of that iceberg. "Troll", of course. It's about woman as non-man, non-human, as alien. If we are "other" in the eyes of the patriarchy, then we are on the side of the animals and aliens. What does human society look like from that animal side? What are women to think about animals? I mean, we not only barely got the vote - we barely have *souls*. Patriarchy has a long tradition of speaking of women as non-sentient beings.
I think again of Joanna Russ's discussion of her reading of Zora Neale Hurston's books. She read them and they seemed "bad" or at least, not good enough for critical notice. Then she went and read background, read context, read a lot of other African-American writers of the 19th and early 20th century, and realized the complexities of what Hurston was doing. She didn't know how to read the book until she knew the genre. Janine Cross, right now, is being critiqued by people who are not competent to write the critiques, because they don't at all know the feminist sf genre.
I'm not talking about the people who didn't read it and who jumped on the snark wagon anyway. I'm talking about the Kirkus reviewer who said it was embarrassing slush. Maybe he didn't read it either, but I suspect he did read at least a few chapters, and he was blind because he was ignorant. It's the usual Ugly Duckling story!
Tobias Bucknell has a very reasonable statement here - he just made some flippant comments on the order of "heh, she said venom cock" -- which you know, I also was giggling about the whole thing... how not... But I'm linking to Bucknell because he has a handy roundup of links of reviews of the book at the end of his post.
People assume it's annoying rapesploitation as well as furry porn, or I suppose "scaly" porn. It's not! I am gritting my teeth as I think of all the books and movies that have commercial success in which the women get raped or the threat of rape controls women and that's just NORMAL. Calling it a book that is "about" child molestation is also wrong... it's like taking a serious book about the history of clitorodectomies in African countries and trivializing it. Okay, I'll stop now... I could go on for ages...
Buy it, read it, write about it... it's worth thinking and writing about.