After enjoying David Brin’s Hugo- and Nebula-winning novel Startide Rising (1983), I wanted to sample more of his catalog, but perhaps without the talking animals that so easily characterized his novel as juvenile. With Glory Season, the juvenile label still applies, yet, like Startide, the content is engaging, critical, and deeply speculative. (And the lack of talking animals helps, too.)
Maia and her twin sister, Leie, live on Stratos, some thousands of years in the future. A planned society, Stratos was designed as a feminist paradise, where women dominate all aspects of society, even reproduction. Organic self-cloning, the preferred method of reproduction, still requires some “sparking” help through traditional reproduction methods, thus requiring a small male population for this task, and other laborious tasks such as sailing and other brute work. In order to control the sexual aggressions of the unstable minority, Stratos’ founders genetically designed their descendants to have seasonal cycles of horniness (that’s my word, not Brin’s): males in the summers, when they are usually locked away in sanctuaries, and females in the winters, when pheromone-laden glory frost falls from the skies. Maia and Leie, summer-born and thus marginalized for their non-clone, half-male status, are turned out by their clone family at age five (15 years, Earth Standard Time), to find their niche and hopefully establish their own powerful clone clan. Through a series of events, they are separated, and Maia finds herself swept into adventures and conspiracies, and often in the company of men who need her leadership and skills to revolutionize the planet.
Another brilliant novel that I would have skipped had I read the synopsis beforehand. If it sounds stupid, ignore everything I wrote above and just read this book. It’s excellent, and serves three main purposes that make it an ideal read for budding teenagers: it explains the scientific reasons for sex, illuminates the subtleties of systematic sexual discrimination at all levels, and portrays a young female in a respectable, dominant role among men.
Brin is an astrophysicist, yet the science of Glory Season concentrates on the biological processes of sexual reproduction. Citing certain lizards and aphids as self-cloners, Lysos, the founder of Stratos, seeks to adopt similar methods of reproduction, in order to free women from the chains of male tyranny. Written in a style similar to Herbert’s Dune (1965), in which Brin prefaces chapters with excerpts from fictional foundational texts, Lysos muses upon the role of men in her feminist society, and accepts the necessity of sexual reproduction during difficult times, in order to mix the gene pool with potentially adaptive variants. For this reason, Lysos agrees to maintain the sexual desires of men and women, yet genetically encourages a seasonal cycle that is always contradictory, in order to prevent a flood of genetic vars (variants- summer-born females of male/female mating). In peaceful times, however, she sees little use for reproduction other than self-cloning.
By flipping roles in a gender-dominant society, Glory Season highlights the dehumanizing aspects of sexism that might go unnoticed by many men. Sometimes this might feel cutesy, “Oh, there was no denying that males could be quite intelligent, but planning further than a single human lifespan was supposedly beyond even their brightest leaders” (l. 7385). But comments about the “peculiar male obsession with games” (l. 3014) and warnings not to fight with women because “a man mustn’t!” (l. 4466) are familiar customs from our own society that illuminate seemingly innocuous generalizations that could get out of hand if the tables ever turned. If anything, this is a warning for men to see the discomfort of what is sometimes viewed as “innocent” derisiveness.
In addition to male discrimination, biological cloning adds its own social implications, which forms the rigid social order that marginalizes not only men, but also lower-caste females. “Clones serving clones of the same women who first employed their ancestors, hundreds of years ago, with everybody knowing her place from the day she’s born and all potential personality conflicts worked out ages ago” (l. 5225). Brin does an excellent job of demonstrating that any society based on discrimination for the sake of progressiveness will undermine itself due to its own prescribed rigidity.
Then, there’s Maia, the indefatigable heroine. For Maia, nothing comes easy. Everything is a struggle, and survival is all that keeps her moving. Born into a caste with no upward mobility save luck, her standards of what she considers an adequate niche drop lower with each setback. The clone class disdains her, the var class competes with her, and the male class distrusts her. A naïve reader might predict a looming romance between Maia and the escaped male visitor from Earth, but this is David Brin—that isn’t going to happen. Maia is going to grow by the strength of her own industriousness, not due to some happily-ever-after coupling. Besides, Maia is a Stratoan, where romance between males and females is foreign and perverted, not an easy bias to overcome.
The author’s afterword at the end is one of the best parts. Brin explains the impetus for this story, as well as his criticisms of gender segregation, and modern fantasy writing, and includes the foundation for the male game of Life that so often appears in this book. (It seems like every other book I read has some reference to cellular automata, yet I still did not recognize the patterns of the game until Brin spelled it out. *forehead slap!*)
Criticisms? Sure. Sometimes, it feels like Maia just happens to be in the right place at the right time. The action scenes are often dense and cumbersome, making it hard to follow and picture. According to Goodreads, many people think it’s boring. It is long, about 600 pages, but I was fully engaged the entire time, primarily due to the more adventure-style qualities of this not-quite-fantasy, not-quite-space-opera novel.
As a story, it’s good. As a social experiment, it’s very well done. If I had a daughter, I would want her to read this novel. If I had a son, I would require him to read this novel.