Posts Tagged Patricia Anthony
“Reen’s people were cowards, but in the depths of their fear cowards could be deadlier than heroes.” (p. 92, Brother Termite)
Over fifty years ago, during the Eisenhower administration, the anthro-insectoid Cousins arrived at our planet, and, under threat of annihilation, Eisenhower agreed to alien takeover. The Cousins came here to save themselves, for they are a dying species. They hope to harvest and recombine our DNA with theirs, thus to create a mostly-Cousin, but hybrid race, in order to perpetuate their species.
That’s the premise of Patricia Anthony’s Brother Termite, first published in 1993 by Harcourt Brace. It’s an alt history/alien invasion/political thriller/satire, and features the same sort of character-based dark humor and tragedy as her later work, God’s Fires.
The plot is premised on one very well-worn SF trope–that of aliens coming here and somehow needing to reproduce with us in order to save their species. The core of the Cousins’ mission here, all the DNA recombinant stuff, is pretty much a rewrite of Mars Needs Women. And I don’t mean that as an insult. There are no bad ideas, only ideas badly told.
The story is told entirely from the POV of Reen, First Brother, and White House Chief of Staff. Reen has several pressing problems, but the worst one might be that he has fallen in love with Marian, the human mother of his hybrid child, and also CIA Director (installed by Reen). The other human he loves best, President Womack (also installed by Reen), has been in office for fifty-one years. Womack teasingly–and possibly even a little affectionately–refers to Reen as “Termite.”
By loving humans as he does, Reen is going beyond the pale. He is particularly at odds with Second Brother Tali, who, in the Cousins’ hive-mind social structure, serves as Reen’s “conscience.” Further beyond the pale is Oomal, who manages Cousin interests in Michigan, and who comes off more like Willy Loman than an anthro-insectoid alien. Opposing everyone is FBI director Hopkins, a direct successor to J. Edgar himself. (And also installed by Reen, of course.)
The Cousins existential burden requires they commit serial genocide. Reen, for one, feels guilty about this. Oomal too. But, in the Cousins’ view, humans are worse. Humans are vicious liars and commit violent acts against one another. Blood flows freely. They can’t be trusted. When Cousins kill, they do so at a distance, in other words, cleanly.
As in God’s Fires, those in charge, those who have all the power, have no idea what’s really going on. Brother Reen is like that. Marian, Womack, and Oomal all have clearer vision than he does. Not that a clearer view would have helped him much. The tragedy here is in the circumstance as well as the character.
Like God’s Fires, Brother Termite is a marvelous book, funny and tragic in equal measure. It’s out of print, but there are new and used paperbacks available on the internet. It’s available on Kindle. Or maybe you can find it at your local used bookseller, if you have one of those in your town.
I took part in a panel at this year’s Diversicon entitled “The Disappearance of Women SFF Writers,” in which we discussed women writers fading quickly into obscurity and being forgotten. One name that came up for me is that of Patricia Anthony.
Her career took place entirely within the 1990s, during which she published seven novels and one short story collection. All are worthy, but the one that blew me away is her penultimate novel, God’s Fires, published in 1997 by Ace Books.
God’s Fires covers a period of thirteen days around about 1668. Portugal has recently won its independence from Spain, and the Portuguese Inquisition is still in full swing.
Circuit Inquisitor Father Manoel Pessoa’s heart is not in his work. He only entered the business of Inquisition because he is the second son of a noble, and therefore not in line to inherit. He does not care much about his job. He wants to deal with easy prosecutions, like people having sex with farm animals. He does not want to deal with difficult cases, like allegations of a young woman being impregnated by an angel. Being a Jesuit, and having a mistress–a convert from Judaism and a healer, i.e. “witch” to boot–puts him at odds with everyone in his world, particularly with his boss.
That would be Monsignor Gomes, the Inquisitor-General of Lisbon. Gomes embodies several deadly sins, including that of gluttony. Through him we are regaled with the odors of seventeenth century digestive output. He is stuffed as well with his own self-importance. He is a clownish and deadly figure.
Then there is cognitively impaired King Afonso VI. He is fixated on Don Quixote, wants to be a good and heroic king, loves his brother Pedro, the Regent, and knows he falls short of being what he should be. Still, he tries very hard to do everything his priest, his nobles, and his caretaker/slave tell him to. But sometimes, he can’t help but follow his impulses.
Into this power structure an alien ship crash-lands.
There are strange lights. There is a report of angels having sex with the village women. There is a ship, crashed in a field. Aliens are taken into custody. But the story isn’t traditional alien-visitation science fiction.
Our aliens are an enigma. We never know who they are, or how they came to be here. They do not seem–in spite of their space-faring skills–like a technologically advanced people from another world; they seem more like lost souls, stranded on Earth, and asking for help. And they don’t entirely make sense. How on earth are they impregnating human women?
But this isn’t about the aliens, really. This is about the reactions of the characters to the aliens’ appearance in their midst. Of those in power, only childlike Afonso truly believes what he sees, and he believes he is seeing God Himself. The Inquisitors, on the other hand, are looking for another explanation. Any other explanation. The aliens are demons. The aliens are a Spanish plot. The aliens are from a far-off country. Borneo, perhaps. Amongst ordinary folk, priests and lay people alike, reactions vary. Some insist they are seeing angels, others see whatever suits them, and still others remain silent. Everyone sees in the aliens what they need to see. What they want to see.
If they aliens are an enigma, the women are as well–to the male characters, if not to the reader. Their points of view aren’t directly represented, and it would never occur to any of the men here that they should be represented. They are akin to Tiptree’s women, the ones that men don’t see. A judgment, however, must be made about their fates, and what an inconvenience that is!
In addition to the women, there is the science men don’t see. King Afonso, limited as he is, learns from the aliens that the Earth revolves around the sun. The Galileo heresy! Afonso’s advisors insist that what he sees is not what is happening.
Through the novel, there is humor–admittedly of the very dark sort–and there is tragedy. This is the Inquisition, after all.
Patricia Anthony died in 2013. I’m not certain the extent to which she has disappeared from the consciousness of the SFF reading public. A search of Amazon shows her books for sale, although out of print. There are Kindle versions of some of her books, although not God’s Fires. Interestingly, a posthumous work is scheduled for publication next year.
In the meantime, I’ve decided to reread some of her other works, and report on them in later posts. Meanwhile, if you can find a copy of this one, it might very well be worth your time.
Next up: Brother Termite.
As I finished up my most recent post, I knew a reader or two was likely to tell me of restaurants in SF that I had not known about. Sure enough, a friend suggested The Vlad Taltos series from Steven Brust. Naturally, I wanted to check it out. My normal modus operandi these days in such a situation is to download it immediately. Unfortunately, I found the first novel in the series, Jhereg, was not available in digital form, although later novels in the series are.
I punched buy with one-click! on Amazon to obtain Jhereg in pb, and then wondered, what else isn’t available digitally? My first thought was to look for great, but obscure works, items that survive on my shelf through years of culling. I was a little surprised by what was there, and what was not.
The most glaring omission were the novels of Patricia Anthony. The only novels of hers available in electronic format were Brother Termite, and Flanders. Missing was my absolute fab fave, God’s Fires, as well as everything else. (If you think you might like a novel about the Inquisition with a science-fictional twist, this one should appeal to you.)
We lost Patricia Anthony a couple months ago, and as it happens, every one of her eight books was published in the nineties. Eating Memories, and Flanders, her last books, both came out in 1998. It pains me to think that because her body of work is “old,” having missed the ebook revolution, and because she is now gone, all her fine work could be forgotten. I consider Patricia Anthony to be a significant SF and mainstream author, and I urge anyone who missed her in the 90’s to look her up. Start with the ebook if you like, then, if necessary, go for the real books.
A book I did not expect to find, and yet was disappointed not to find, was Paul Park’s The Gospel of Corax. I have heard that novel was a disaster commercially, and had a negative impact on his career.
I was sorry to hear that. I loved it. Give me a thoughtful, out-there, possibly controversial version of a religion or a religious figure, and I am really, really happy. What others consider blasphemous, I consider speculative and thought-provoking. I have never believed the The Great Spirit is particularly annoyed or injured by any sincere inquiry. The Gospel of Corax is one of my favorites of these, and I also enjoyed The Three Marys, by the same author.
Beyond those two examples, I’m sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of books missing from digital stores. Many will become available, in good time, but some may not. I suppose the same goes for music, film, and TV. This distresses me. I’m not usually the quickest to adapt to new technology, but digital culture and entertainment are different. I have become entirely accustomed to having everything that has ever been played, written, or filmed available instantly. I am willing to pay for it; I don’t expect it to be free, but I want it RIGHT NOW.
And, although Jhereg wasn’t available RIGHT NOW, it arrived within forty-eight hours.