Sunday, October 22, 2023

Five SFF mothers who are dynamic, multi-dimensional characters

Lilith Saintcrow was born in New Mexico, fell in love with writing during second grade, and has continued obsessively ever since. She currently resides in the rainy Pacific Northwest with her children, dogs, cat, and a library for wayward texts.

Her new novel is The Salt-Black Tree.

At Saintcrow tagged five of her favorite "books in which mothers are allowed to be whole human beings." One title on the list:
Lady Jessica — Dune by Frank Herbert

Cleolinda Jones often advanced the theory that certain characters turn “meta”, and resonate far beyond their creator’s intent even in the text that is supposed to trammel them. (Just look at Eowyn of the Rohirrim.) There are certain characters so vivid, despite their creators’ attempts to keep them contained, the reader cannot help but sit up and take notice.

It would have been easy for Lady Jessica to be a simple cipher, an illegitimate Harkonnen, a product of the Bene Gesserit breeding program, Leto’s self-abnegating wife. (Let’s not even talk about the feudal women-as-property underpinnings that apparently will be with “civilization” when we figure out FTL travel…) Fortunately, Herbert must’ve been too busy juggling his ecological hobbyhorses to notice he’d written a woman as a complete human being.

Jessica is smart, committed, deadly in interpersonal battle, and an integral part of Leto Atreides’s rule. It’s her decision to take control of her bodily autonomy and have a son (instead of the daughter the Bene Gesserit “require”) that makes a galactic jihad and the Golden Path possible. The reason given in the text is that she wanted to give her husband a male heir, but I like to think at least some of her decision was a giant “fuck you” to those who told her what to do with her own body.

It’s Jessica whose interactions with Shadout Mapes lays the groundwork for the Atreides to be seen as different from the Harkonnens, and Jessica whose status, skills, and quick thinking make sure the Fremen don’t just kill her and her son outright. It’s Jessica who raised Paul to become Muad’Dib. She is a whole person instead of the cardboard cutout so many mothers in fiction are reduced to.

Not only that, but Jessica is committed to her children, and protects them with a fierceness that shatters an entire galactic empire. Paul and Alia both suffer from uncertainties, but neither ever doubts their mother’s love.

Much of Herbert’s writing can be ponderous in the extreme. Yet whenever Jessica is onstage she’s magnetic, the action moves along at a cracking pace, and the reader can’t look away. She’s a survivor, a mother, a grandmother, and the best thing about the Dune books.
Read about another entry on the list.

Dune is among John Bardinelli's five long books that deserve their own movie series, Mohsin Hamid's five great aliens in literature, Annalee Newitz and Emily Stamm's top ten stories where technology is indistinguishable from magic, Robin Sloan's five science fiction books that matter, Mohsin Hamid's six favorite books, io9's best and worst childbirth scenes in sci-fi & fantasy and top ten science fiction novels you pretend to have read, and on John Mullan's lists of ten of the best vendettas in literature and ten of the best deserts in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue