(Once a month through 2012, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff is examining
the question of what it means to "be human" through a diverse series
of books, movies and television shows. For all the essays in this
series, please click here.)
Wraeththu by Storm Constantine
Immanion Press (1993)
Review by Karl Wolff
Wraeththu is the title of a novel trilogy written by Storm Constantine. The three novels tell the story of a hermaphroditic race that overtake humanity in a postapocalyptic future. The titles reflect the flavor one can expect from this brilliant visionary series: The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit (1987), The Bewitchments of Love and Hate (1988), and The Fulfillments of Fate and Desire (1989). The trilogy has aspects of both postapocalyptic science fiction and epic fantasy, Constantine blending the two genres and stretching them to new strange ends. Constantine wrote the trilogy only a few short years after William Gibson's groundbreaking Neuromancer(1984) and readers well aware of David Bowie's alien androgyne persona of Ziggy Stardust.
In terms of "being human," the Wraeththu are not human. When they first appeared among the human population, they were considered mutants and persecuted. These beings were har (pl. hara), but they called themselves Wraeththu. (Don't fret, the trilogy has a comprehensive glossary.) They spread via a blood-sharing ritual known as inception and reproduce by gestating a leathery egg. This new species also possesses magical abilities like psychokinesis and telepathy. Unlike humanity, har must have a specific kind of sex called aruna or else they will weaken. In addition, there are nine castes of har, which har can ascend through ritualized sex magic.
Since this is a fantasy setting about a hermaphroditic race, sex plays an integral element to the storyline. There are different kinds of sex, including sacred sex, reproductive sex, and informal sex, each with its own special term. Har sex organs are described as "like a sea-anenome" and can open and retract or protrude, having aspects of both male and female sex organs. Har look androgynous with feminine bodies but lacking breasts and body hair.
The trilogy follows the life of Pell from a lowly farmhand in a desolate landscape to become Tigron of Immanion, one of the Wraeththu nations. Each novel is narrated by a different character, giving the reader a new perspective as the world develops and changes with the rise of the Wraeththu. In the beginning, pollution and war have torn apart the world. Despite the initial persecution, the Wraeththu survive and thrive in this postapocalyptic environment where North America is called Megalithica. Constantine deftly creates a world reeling from a massive catastrophe, but it has been so long no one remembers what caused the devastation and suffering. As the Wraeththu rise in power, the former street gangs become organized into tribes. Eventually, the tribes became legitimate political entities, each with their own style of magic, government organization, and military structure.
While the Wraeththu aren't human, they are humanoid. It is an epic tale that dares to believe in a world where we have evolved beyond the either/or differences of gender. As the trilogy progresses, the reader encounters a kind of reversal, witnessing how, over time, a seemingly disparate group of mutants becomes a harmonious political and social entity. Over hundreds of pages, the reader grasps the various strange terms, exotic characters, and peculiar tribes until things seem normal. Storm Constantine sets characters against each other, usually for things like jealousy or ambition. The androgynous nature of the hara make for entertaining alliances and conflicts, especially since everything revolves around the necessity of aruna. One of the most striking is when Cal is forsaken by Pell for another lover. The betrayal is stinging because Cal had incepted Pell.
Constantine's vision is compelling because its organization makes sense. When you read the books, you become accustomed to the idea of a society where there is no biological male or female. One wants to assign a specific gender to a specific male or female role, since there are parents who raise children in a motherly way. The two hara raise their harling in pretty normal fashion. Like Iain Banks's Culture series, this is a world brimming with invention and challenging our conception of what we consider normal. One of the facets of normalcy is humanity's binary sexuality. You are either a male or a female. Ironically, our world mirrors Megalithica, riven by endless warfare and devastating pollution. The struggle for marriage equality for gay and straight couples resembles, in its own way, humanity's revulsion and fear of the ascendant hara. "Gay marriage! That's not normal!" Or so the bigoted minions of the Right would have us believe. The threat becomes defused when its normalcy becomes common knowledge. Even in Megalithica, human remnants survive. Human males and females giving birth to human children and human males given the option of an inception into becoming a har. (Constantine also has a female version of the har, but that isn't explored as fully as the hara, at least in the original trilogy of Wraeththu novels.)
One of the fascinating things about writing this series is how one work shadows another. In this case, the Culture series presents a ripe avenue for comparison. In the case of the Culture, humans can switch genders over a yearlong process. Gender is achieved through a process of "becoming." With the Wraeththu, aspects of both genders are already there. Instead of becoming a female to give birth, the har receives another har, taking on the traditionally female role of birth mother. Ironically, this androgynous society is still rather conservative in nature, since there are two parents who take care of a harling. In the Culture novel Excession, one main character gads about as a rakehell and libertine. Despite its radical take on sexuality, the Wraeththu series still sees the nuclear family as a normal and desirable status that everyone would want. But this may be due to the trilogy's beginning in a postapocalyptic landscape where violence and suffering are the rule of the day.
For another take on fluid sexualities and erotic court intrigues, one should check out the Spider Garden series, written and illustrated by San Francisco-based comic book artist Michael Manning. This series is set in a futuristic landscape with the main action taking place in a fortress-palace called "The Spider Garden," ruled by "the Sacred Androgyne" Shaalis. Wraeththu takes its genre cues from science fiction and epic fantasy, "the Spider Garden" is heavily influenced by hentai, Japanese erotic prints, and the bondage/fetish scene. (I'll cover fetish literature later on when I look at Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.) So if you read Wraeththu and really dig it, check out the Spider Garden series of graphic novels.
Coming June 29: Battlestar Galactica / Caprica