Jan. 17th, 2017

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It must be very nearly thirty years since I found a copy of Margaret Elphinstone's The Incomer in the local library. I was a science-fiction loving teenager who was passionate about feminism, and the Women's Press's SF imprint was a sure sign that a book would be relevant to my interests, so of course I snapped it up. Somewhat unexpectedly, it ended up having a profound influence on me; among other things, it was the book that first introduced me to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and I also remember it as being the first time I realised that it was actually possible for someone to be attracted to both men and women, and to act on that*. I think I read it a few times over the next couple of years, but I hadn't really even thought about it in years before I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop a couple of years ago**; it took me a while to get round to re-reading it, partly because I was worried about how it would stand up, but I found myself thinking of it recently and decided to take the plunge.

The Incomer is, basically, a classic 80s postapocalyptic feminist utopia***, set in Galloway a distant future where, following the destruction of "our" society by an unspecified cataclysm, people have returned to subsistence farming, living in small, close-knit communities, working in harmony with nature. The patriarcy has been replaced by a matriarchy, with women as "householders", leading extended family groups of children, siblings, aunts, nieces and nephews, but not fathers and partners; the nuclear family is no more, and whatever romantic relationships may be formed in adult life blood relationships and the family of origin remain the most important thing, while children belong to their mothers and only know their fathers as friends and neighbours. It's a peaceful, contented vision of the future, and if adult-me is perhaps less enamoured of the idea than my younger self was (there's a lot to be said for modern technology) I could imagine a lot worse. The novel follows the villagers through a winter when a stranger, a travelling musician, is staying with them; it's not particularly plotty, more a gentle exploration of their society, and the way in which the women of the village safeguard it from the dangers that lurk in the past and threaten to emerge into the present.

It's beautifully written, full of lovely, lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the forest. It's scattered with quotes from Four Quartets (the characters find two books from the old world, a romance novel which they find incomprehensible, and Four Quartets which seems to them the most straightforward and logical thing in the world), but reading it now I'm so much more familiar with the poems I can also see their echoes throughout the book, in the language and imagery and the way the characters experience the world around them and its relationship to the past. Even some of the structure of the novel seems to owe something to Eliot; there were times when I felt that I was reading, if not quite a feminist reworking of Four Quartets, certainly a feminist response. It's a quiet, thoughtful book, and I did enjoy revisiting it; it certainly hasn't lost everything that I found it it years ago.

One thing that hasn't stood up well, though, is the depiction of gender. It's telling that, in the 80s, the only alternative to the patriarchy seems to have been a matriarchy; it's clear, in the world of The Incomer, that the women are in charge, and the men are seen as a bit useless, not party to the deep mysteries of the world. The women are the keepers of the new peace, and are ruthless in the extent to which they will go to preserve it; an act of violence sees them transformed into Furies, pursuing the wrongdoer and exacting justice. Women are nurturing and keep their society together, while even in this brave new world the men struggle to express their emotions, to talk between themselves about what matters or to behave with tenderness and compassion to each other. Almost all of the femal characters are seen in sexual relationships with men, and although one mentions the possibility that she may have had female lovers and this is accepted as perfectly normal, it still seems to be a largely heterosexual society. Really, it's a sign of how far the dialogue around gender has moved in the last thirty years; not that it was completely impossible to imagine a post-gender future in 1987 (Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time managed it a good ten years earlier, after all), but it was clearly still possible for a radical green utopia to feature very traditional gender roles and heterosexuality-by-default in a way I don't think it would be now.

And as for my bisexual epiphany? Well, on re-reading, I do wonder if the scene were two female characters, both of whom have prevously been seen in sexual relationships with men, declare their love for each other and get into bed together was really just intended to be platonic bed-sharing, companionship and friendship and mutual support; it's certainly not spelled out that this is a sexual scene, if it's supposed to be one. (The heterosexual sex scenes are not remotely explicit, but it is pretty obvious what's going on.) Still, I don't suppose it really matters what the actual intention was; what matters is the realisation it brought me to.

* I was about 13, and it was the 80s; there was no Internet and Clause 28 was a thing, so this wasn't necessarily an easy thing to find out, but I'm very glad I did as I'm sure I was at least marginally less confused because of it.

** Although I appear to have subconsciously plagiarised it, or at least produced something very derivative of it, in my 2009 Yuletide fic. It's just as well I don't do Yuletide any more.

*** Interesting that that really was a thing; more modern postapocalyptic visions tend to be dystopias, but there was certainly a pervading view in the 80s that the end of our civilisation (which was probably just around the corner) might herald the birth of a better one. Even Star Trek got in on the act, while in more recent books, Station Eleven seems to be part of the same tradition.


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