Originally published October 17th, 2015
CW for rape and torture in both books.
I was actually over 100 pages into the first book before I had made up my mind I wanted to finish it. Wolfe’s plot is masterful and the universe he’s created is as detailed as one of Tolkien’s. And Wolfe tries, he really tries, to write realistic, three-dimensional female characters. There are none to start with, and I was concerned the author (based on some membership rules of the main character’s guild) was attempting to set up a world that completely excluded women. That turned out not to be the case, thankfully, Wolfe included multiple female characters with different personalities and motivations, though he put them all in one very narrow age range. And then had Severian sleep with all of them. The males characters are agents of their own lives; while we see them through Severian’s perception they are presented as more than just what he can perceive. Inscrutable. Unfortunately, Severian is only capable of viewing the women through the lens of his own desire, so they are consistently presented to us as sexual objects instead of their own unique persons. He can’t relate to them in any manner other than sexually. On the upside, none of them could be replaced by a table lamp with a note on it, unlike many other ostensibly strong female characters in movies and books. So there’s that at least.
And while I’m venting about the consistently poor way women are represented in sci-fi and fantasy novels, I’m going to talk about breasts. Large ones. And how having them does not somehow make you incapable of taking part in manual labour! (Claw, 348) Wolfe writes as though Jolenta’s large breasts somehow mean it’s too risky for her to help assemble the stage for their play. That’s not how breasts work! By that logic, men shouldn’t be capable of taking part in construction because they could have their genitals crushed if they got turned on. Breasts aren’t some sort of add on that we’re constantly aware of and thinking about. They are as natural a body part as an arm. It’s just there, and you don’t have to constantly focus on it to keep it from being injured. I will add the caveat that Jolenta’s physique isn’t her natural one, it’s been physically and magically augmented by Dr. Talos, and so it’s believable that Jolenta has a tough time moving around because she’s basically using someone else’s body, but Severian doesn’t know that. His assumption that she must constantly worry about crushing her breasts comes from the attitude that all women must think that way because men don’t have breasts and therefore having breasts is an unnatural state of existence, not that she’s having to locomote in a space suit. Frankly, we never hear anything about Jolenta without Severian salivating over how curvy she is, and how it seems like she can barely support her own weight because she’s just so voluptuous. The whole thing really gets on my nerves. And in a book that’s billed as a “masterpiece of science fantasy,” it’s depressing to see this kind of dismissive sexism. Although I guess it was published in the 80s, so I can delude myself that things have improved.