(Homecoming) The Memory of Earth: Stuff Before the Prologue

20 Apr

[Content Notes: gender essentialism, trans* erasure, name-based bullying]

I’m actually not sure how much of this is in The Memory of Earth and how much was added for this omnibus edition (the volumes I have are called Homecoming: Harmony, containing the first three books, and Homecoming: Earth, containing the last two), as everything before the prologue comes before the title page for The Memory of Earth.

In any case, the first thing I encounter is a handful of maps – three to be precise. They are titled “Major Streets of Basilica”, “Districts of Basilica”, and “Environs of Basilica” (Basilica being the name of the city in which our story begins). I have very little to say about them in all honesty; they’re maps, and look like a lot of maps in a lot of SF/F novels (they’re not drawn by Card either, the artist credited is Ellisa Mitchell). It’s tempting also to comment on Basilica being a blatantly obvious Meaningful Name, but I think that can wait until we actually learn more about the city; for now I’ll just link to the dictionary.

After the maps is a section entitled “Notes on Parentage”. It begins with this paragraph, which I think I need to quote in full:

“Because of the marriage customs in the city of Basilica, family relationships can be somewhat complex. Perhaps these parentage charts can help keep things straight. Women’s names are in italics.”

This is followed by three family tree diagrams (this is the first time I’ve ever heard them called ‘parentage charts’), which share some of the same names but are oriented differently. The first tree is of Volemak and his descendants, the second of Rasa and her descendants, and the third of Hosni and her descendants. The overlap comes in in that the “marriage customs” to which Card refers are essentially a form of institutionalised temporary marriage (I’m sure I’ll discuss this more later) and therefore there are lots of half-siblings. So, for example, Volemak has four sons; one by Hosni, one by Kilvishevex, and two by Rasa. Rasa has two sons (the aforementioned two by Volemak), and two daughters by Gaballufix, who is Hosni’s eldest son. The familial relationships form a sort of a web. I don’t find this nearly as difficult to comprehend as Card seems to think it will be, though I won’t deny the diagrams are helpful.

Already I’m seeing all sorts of problematic things. I like that Card seems to be stepping outside his comfort zone to some degree – I did actually find it surprising he planned out this complex web of relationships in the first place rather than sticking to the heteronormative nuclear family structure he usually depicts. It’s almost nuanced. (Spoiler alert, this relationship structure is there so that Card can have the narrative denounce it and promote traditional patriarchy as a better system, so let’s not give him too much credit.) The first enormously problematic thing I notice (though I may be inferring this from what I remember of later in the series) is that Card still seems incapable of imagining children produced outside of marriage even when it’s a significantly different institution; I don’t think I recall a single character mentioned anywhere in the series whose parents were not married at the time of their birth. This is… odd, but not necessarily surprising considering who we are dealing with.

The second thing I notice is the enforced gender binary – characters are either male or they are female (and note that it is the female that is indicated with ‘abnormal’ italicised text, not the male; already we see maleness being treated as the default, oh joy). (Note: I may on occasion elide the distinction between gender and sex in discussing these books, but if I do it’s because I’m trying to describe what Card’s written and he does.) There are only two options presented (and, spoiler alert, there are no transgender or intersex characters anywhere in these novels; once again, not that surprising considering the source). I can’t decide how much slack to cut Card for this, because on the one hand this book was published in 1992 and public awareness and understanding of LGBT issues has come a long way since then (though transgenderism and intersex have been discussed in the scientific literature at least as far back as the 1950s, so the information was available if he’d wanted it), and on the other hand Card is notorious for being unapologetically homophobic.

(This story is also set approximately 40,000 years in the future, so you’d think their society would have progressed further in its understanding of gender than we currently have, or at least than we had in 1992… but that’s not necessarily a fair criticism of Card the author, it’s unrealistic to expect clairvoyance of him.)

Regardless, I think it would have been quite interesting had he not thought gender/sex to be the most important characteristic to convey along with each character’s name, because leaving it ambiguous and allowing it to emerge as needed in the text could have made for an interesting reading experience and helped readers wrestle with ideas around the constructedness of gender (well, if somebody other than Card had written it). Adoption exists in this fictional world (well, sort of; there is a note among the family trees that in addition to her children Rasa has adopted several favourite students as live-in ‘nieces’, which we later learn is a common cultural practice in this society), so if we dispense with the notion that all parentage is biological (another difficult one for Card), leaving the genders ambiguous wouldn’t even necessitate modifying the family trees.

On the other hand, given that I know Card is a gender-essentialist, I’m grateful he provided the characters’ genders because that’s less mental bookkeeping I’ll have to do.

On another note entirely, it may be petty of me to say so but I think the tone of this passage is rather condescending.

Card wrote 30 words, and I rambled for 760 in response. This bodes well for the rest of this project, doesn’t it…

Well, on to the next section.

The next section is entitled “Nicknames” and begins as such:

“Most names have diminutive or familiar forms. Thus Gaballufix’s near kin, close friends, current mate, and former mates could call him Gabya. Other nicknames are listed here. (Again, because these names are so unfamiliar, names of female characters are set off in italics.)”

Oh, it’s because the names are so unfamiliar, is it, Card? (I suppose I should give him a bit of a break since many modern languages also have only two genders for names.) Anyway, after this paragraph there is a list of names, each followed by one or two diminutives for each (except Rasa, which apparently does not have a diminutive form).

I actually like this as worldbuilding; names are an important part of a culture and he seems to have done a lot of work here. The names (at least to me) sound like actual names and have a certain cohesion, but bear little resemblance to any real-world names that I know of (though they sound like they’ve been inspired to some degree by Slavic influences, which was probably intentional; the Wikipedia article on the Homecoming Saga says the inhabitants of planet Harmony – where the first three books are set – were originally descended from Slavic settlers, though I can’t remember whether this is made explicit in the books). At least for me, when I read this for the first time, I found having to learn how the names worked helped with immersion into the narrative – whether this is a good thing or not, I’m not sure, but I think it’s actually rather well done.

The next section is entitled “Notes on Names” and is basically a pronunciation guide. Once again I want to quote the entire thing:

“For the purpose of reading this story, it hardly matters whether the reader pronounces the names of the characters correctly. But for those who might be interested, here is some information concerning the pronunciation of names.

“The rules of vowel formation in the language of Basilica require that in most words, at least one vowel be pronounced with a leading y sound. With names, it can be almost any vowel, and it can be legitimately changed at the speaker’s preference. Thus the name Gaballufix could be pronounced Gyah-BAH-loo-fix or Gah-BAH-lyoo-fix; it happens that Gaballufix himself preferred to pronounce it Gah-BYAH-loo-fix, and of course most people followed that usage.”

This is yet another thing I like in this book, actually; I think this is good worldbuilding (though I am tempted to nitpick that this is a guide to pronouncing the names ‘as intended’ rather than ‘correctly’; can there be a ‘correct’ way to pronounce names from an imaginary language on an imaginary world?), and again this helps with immersion and to flesh out the fictional culture a little. I’m not an expert on linguistics so I have no way of knowing if this is the kind of thing that could plausibly develop, but languages are diverse enough it doesn’t seem absurd.

Also – ‘of course’ most people followed the usage Gaballufix preferred? I don’t see why there should be any ‘of course’ about it (though we later learn Gaballufix is a powerful and influential figure, so it would make sense people would be careful to do so in his particular case); name-based bullying is a thing that exists, and refusing to call somebody by the name they prefer can be deeply insulting (particularly when you correct them and request they use the name you wish, only to be ignored; this can be used as a subtle way of asserting power or dominance). I find it hard to believe that, as Card seems to be implying here, everyone in this world is always called by the name they prefer and that it’s always pronounced as they wish; perhaps that may be the case for the characters we meet, most if not all of whom are very privileged relative to the society as a whole, but I’d like to know how this applies to people further from the top, because I don’t get the impression Card thought about that at all.

After this, we have a title page for The Memory of Earth, followed by a dedication page and acknowledgments (which I’ll be skipping, I don’t see anything in them worth commenting on). After this comes the prologue, which I’d planned to cover in this post also but will be leaving to next week because I think I’ve gone on long enough for one post.


Posted by on April 20, 2014 in mitchell


6 responses to “(Homecoming) The Memory of Earth: Stuff Before the Prologue

  1. hf

    April 21, 2014 at 3:20 am

    My inclination would ordinarily be to doubt that Card meant to endorse traditional patriarchy, and I could list evidence against this. But I won’t, because before learning about the ex-gay movement I would have called it ludicrous to think Card endorsed that as a model. I mean, he showed why it’s evil!

    (“You make a persuasive argument for eating babies.”)

  2. Ani J. Sharmin

    April 25, 2014 at 11:11 pm

    This brings back memories. I don’t think the material you’re describing was added for the omnibus; I remember it was in the mass market paperback I had of the first book. That’s an interesting point about the nicknames and bullying.

  3. mcbender

    April 27, 2014 at 12:09 am

    Ani J. Sharmin: Good to know, thanks.

    Regarding the nicknames and bullying thing, on that subject I sadly speak from personal experience.

  4. Marina Gilbertson

    January 5, 2018 at 12:42 am

    So I know I’m three years late to this post. But I just wanted to say something about your “trans erasure” comment. Just because x group isn’t represented in a work doesn’t mean the author is discriminating against x group. Although the case can be made that Card is most likely transphobic, how does not including trans characters in a work equate to “deliberately insisting trans people don’t exist”? Wouldn’t Blade Runner also count as a work that has even more of this “trans erasure” considering that it includes androids that always mysteriously identify with the gender that they were truly assigned? Or is unnecessary nitpicking a by-product of your intense dislike of Card?

    • mcbender

      January 16, 2018 at 3:14 pm

      Sorry for taking a while to respond to this comment, I really wasn’t sure what to say. I’m not completely sure I would word that warning in precisely the same way were I writing this today (honestly trans erasure is probably covered under the umbrella of gender essentialism), but I do think the point stands. It’s a combination of factors really; if the books didn’t treat gender as such a major theme (in fact I’d probably argue gender essentialism is the main theme of the books) I doubt I’d find the nonexistence of trans people in it remarkable – as you say, lots of cis authors don’t include trans people in their works (but just because lots of them do it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem!). But the fact of the matter is that Card is a noted homophobe and gender essentialist, and proud of it, and a lot of my dislike and critique of these books (though certainly not all of it) is rooted in how disgusting I find the worldview they present.

      It’s really cute how you think I criticise the things Card says because I dislike him, rather than disliking him because of the things he says.

      And actually, I think a case probably could be made that Blade Runner erases trans people, but that’s beside the point really. I acknowledge that a lot of works do. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth pointing out.

      I really should get back to this series one of these days…


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