Review (#1): "A House of Her Own," by Bo Balder (Escape Pod, 2017; F&SF, 2015)

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Used as illustration above is a detail of Anton Semenov's cover art for the 2012 album "Army of Mushrooms" by Infected Mushroom, a psychedelic musical duo from Israel. Bo Balder's story strongly reminded me of it, hence its inclusion here...

Speaking of infections: before we delve into Balder's work, the very first story reviewed here in our series, imagine the following scenario. It will be worth it, the detour...

We are in a small village in the Democratic Republic of Nowhere. A small team of medical personnel and members of what passes for the "local" police force (ordered in from a town fifty kilometres away) approach a house where several sick patients are thought to be suffering from hemorrhagic fever. Those who feel healthy are ordered to come out. Those who are sick at bed should stay inside, they are told. The medical team moves in, to find a senior member of the household already dead, and a little child, no older than five, laying in bed, gravely ill. They proceed to place the dead body of the grandfather in a bag, planning to dispose of it at the nearest health centre, and they make preparations for carrying the child to the same destination. That's when things get out of control. A dozen people have already died in this village from the fearsome jungle fever. None of those who were taken to the health centre ever came back alive, and the first person to be infected in the village fell ill upon having returned from the very same health centre, where he received treatment for a sore tooth. The locals are not at all convinced that their purported saviours, wearing strange protective gear covering their entire bodies, really take an interest in their survival. Rumours have been going around for the last few days that in fact they only want the blood (perhaps also the bodies) of the victims, to create some kind of biological weapon. And they wouldn't even let the dead make peace with the spirits of the forest, or give a chance to their families to say farewell to them in a proper way. A violent clash ensues.

Bo Balder's short story, "A House of Her Own," published in Escape Pod in 2017 (originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in September 2015) deals with a somewhat similar situation. Local beliefs clashing with the rationality and knowledge of outsiders – you might be forgiven for thinking... But think again. In the above depicted case, the medical team itself would have to acknowledge that in an epidemic of the kind described in our scenario, the nearby "health centre" would be just a central place for the victims to die, and for those who are healthy to catch the infection. Being there doesn't leave anyone with very good chances. The locals are not so dumb after all... Perhaps they are not dumb at all...

Unfortunately, matters are further complicated by the problem that "not being dumb at all" still leaves room for wrong decisions – wrong either in a strategic or an ethical sense. And for having major blindspots, as well as for ignorance. In the kind of situation studied in Balder's story, both sides may be ignorant in certain ways as well as blind to certain things, at the same time.

The astronauts who land near the settlement where chief protagonist Aoife lives are dismayed by what they find. For example, by the stench of the hice (an irregular plural form of "house") that the local women live in and at times "play around with" (note that the hice have "feelers" bigger than "the thing" between men's legs). What could possibly be natural about this, they ask? And so they proceed to "save" the women from the beings that actually helped them survive on a planet where humans needed protection against the "veldt beasts" that roam the land. In their own perspective, the astronauts are only setting things straight, or are trying to do so. What they have found is an abomination and these local women are being "raped" or at least "used" by the "aliens" they keep referring to as hice. The biggest irony is that, in the kind of local society that emerged on this diaspora planet, it is in fact the men that may need to be saved, if anyone. But gender-related cultural assumptions work against correctly identifying the victims upon the cursory look the astronauts take at the community they find, whose institutions they have no profound knowledge of. The action they take to save those whom they think to be in need of saving is similarly misplaced, with an overly big risk of collateral damage and with complete insensitivity to the psychological impact of what they do and how they go about it. But then, as one of the astronauts explains, the locals wouldn't understand "the scope" of the decision they take for them – those dumb locals, if only they could see that even if this may be against their will, it is in their "real" interests after all.

As to the locals who have had to fend for themselves, long since abandoned by the people of a mother planet the new generations haven't even heard of... they chose the hice to live with as much as the hice chose them. The hice may have had prior experience with the kind of symbiosis established here (think of the reference to the mysterious "iwah," another race that had once lived on the same planet with them). But the women hunt for a wild house to tame, for a companion, themselves, having learned that this is a good way to survive. The price of this? Well, the men are only ever needed now to mate with (and to be exchanged with other settlements to avoid too much in-breeding). Because the hice don't like the men (given the obviously rival position they are in, with them), and because the hice are necessary for survival, the women (to some extent even the few tolerated men) have come to see it as natural that the hice squash to pulp or sting to death most newborn boy babies. Any social order may have inhumane aspects, the story warns us here. Patriarchy may have very, very bad consequences, of course. But any alternative one can think of, including the very, very peculiar alternative found here, may similarly have such consequences. There may be a ray of hope in how the leading women of the settlement want to take the time to make the best possible decision about the captured astronauts in the end - regardless of the social order one has to exist in, there is nothing necessarily stopping us from acting like rational beings. From thinking and contemplating. But then Aoife, driven largely by a desire for revenge, decides to take matters into her own hands, justifying this by the logic that "someone has to do this." She decides and acts "for," or, rather, mostly just instead of, the other women, mirroring the astronauts' reasoning about the need to kill to save others. She even kills a woman in the process.

In this way, the most likely future of this strange diaspora community becomes: A) being left on its own, with no chance of getting back in touch with a mother planet they don't even know of; B) facing a stronger force of outsiders that eventually compels them to give up their way of life; C) annihilation in a punitive strike. Of these options, "A" may not be too bad from the women's perspective, but men will remain net victims of the persisting social order en masse.

This, ultimately, is the major puzzle of this story (puzzling in the best possible sense). There are multiple possible perspectives, none of which is superior to the others, and none of them is really legitimate. This reminds me of human history somehow... If you sense the tones of cultural relativism in this, it is a rather special form of it. It's not about everyone being right in their own ways. It's about everyone being wrong in their own ways.

Final verdict: this story is a real masterpiece.


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