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Shadow Man
By Melissa Scott

Reviewed by Carl Cipra
Rating: none given

Melissa Scott has done it again! Just when you think she just couldn't come up with anything as good as (or better than) her previous works, she does! Shadow Man, her latest novel, is a well-written, exciting, entertaining work of science fiction; and it explores issues that are very relevant to the "queer" community as well. (No wonder it was nominated for a Lammy this year!)

In the far future, widespread use of the drug Hyperlumin-A has allowed humans to survive the rigors of FTL travel. Unfortunately, Hyperlumin-A is also highly mutagenic; and its use has caused some major changes in the human condition. Over time, the Concord Worlds have generally come to recognize five distinct human genders (man, fem, herm, mem, and woman - depending upon the mixture of chromosomes and genitalia an individual possesses), as well as nine sexual preferences (bi, demi, di, gay, hemi, omni, straight, tri, and uni - depending upon which gender[s] an individual prefers to have sex with).

But none of this applies on the non-Concord planet Hara, at least as far as the prevailing socio-political authorities there are concerned. Hara is a former "lost world" and, with renewed contact with the larger interstellar civilization, Haran society is entering a phase of increasing instability, caught between its own hard-liner traditions and the realities of life. The same general mix of genders exists on Hara as in the Concord Worlds; but Hara's Traditionalist power structure only officially recognizes and sanctions heterosexuality and the male/female dicotomy - anything else is wrangwys (literally, "wrong-ways"). Modernists (those people open to Concord ideas and influences) are increasingly challenging Traditionalist values. Social turmoil, in turn, has engendered political turmoil. Temelathe Stane (Speaker of the ruling Watch Council, the "Most Important Man") wants to interpose a more centralized Haran government between Hara and the offworld pharmaceutical companies that provide Hara with its primary income. Temelathe is slowly but surely gathering the reigns of power into his very capable, very autocratic hands, attempting to parlay his official position - as well as the vast influence and wealth of his clan - into virtual one-man rule.

Warreven Stiller, the protagonist of the novel, is firmly entangled within all the conflicting pressures unsettling his society and his world. Every aspect of his life guarantees it. An attorney by trade, Warreven often defends those individuals who have violated Haran society's sexual or business strictures; and thus he finds himself aligned with the Modernists in fighting those legal restrictions from which Temelathe Stane and others like him reap a large income from bribes. He is, moreover, the scion of (and a trade negotiator for) the wealthy Stiller clan, traditional business/political competitors of the powerful Stane clan. On a more personal level, Warreven once turned down an offer of marriage from Tendlathe Stane (Temelathe's son, a childhood friend) because the terms of the marriage would have required Warreven to give up his legal identity as a "male" and become Tendlathe's wife. Odd as it sounds, this requirement makes perfect sense within the context of Haran society - for Warreven is a "herm" (hermaphrodite), forced by law to accept designation as either "male" or "female". Warreven was unwilling to accept the socio-political disadvantages of a female in Haran society; and now he is finding it increasingly difficult to accept the legal fiction of his "male" identity. As the battle lines are drawn, Warreven discovers that the question of his personal identity is an integral part of his overall desire for social and political equity on Hara - and that his decisions and actions have increasingly put his very life at risk!

The relevance of Shadow Man to our lives and times should be readily apparent to any lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered person - indeed, to anyone whose gender identity or preference(s) in sexual partners does not adhere to "the straight and narrow" path. Shadow Man is not, however, a "coming out" story - it's more of a "personal awakening" story, a call for social recognition and equitable treatment. After all, Warreven has never especially "hidden" his gender from other people so much as he has complied with the male/female social strictures of Haran society. (Warreven has always been conscious of his gender; and his physical characteristics make it fairly obvious that he's a herm.) The changes in Warreven's life do not hinge on any need to "reveal" himself to the world as a herm; it is that he comes more and more to realize the need for recognition - social, legal, undeniable - for what and who he truly is and, on that basis, for equitable treatment as a human being. By the end of the novel, he is no longer content to be classified as a mere "shadow" (an imperfect version) of a "true man", no longer content to live a circumspect social life relegated to the "shadows" of Haran society.

It is Melissa's imaginative, masterful use of personal pronouns that helps to illustrate these changes in Warreven's attitudes. For each of the "intermediate" genders, Melissa has devised a set of personal pronouns that are based upon and correspond to the use of "he/him/his" for males and "she/her/hers" for females. The use of these "intermediate" personal pronouns allows the reader to effectively follow Warreven's changing self-image. Suffice it to say that the terms Melissa has devised allow her to achieve degrees of subtlety, accuracy, and sympathy beyond the reach of such crude alternatives as the politically-correct "he/she" or the impersonal - and inaccurate - "it". (However, I certainly could have wished for a pronunciation guide somewhere.)

On a broader scale, Shadow Man symbolically chronicles the ups and downs of the Gay Rights Movement in the United States during the last half century or so. Hara is very much like pre-Stonewall America in its socio-sexual attitudes and its treatment of those who do not fit the "normal" male/female model: an unofficial, unspoken tolerance of "the different ones" as long as they "mind their manners" and don't become too "obvious"; police harassment of the outspoken; raids on bars; "unexplained" cases of arson; "queer-bashing"; statements that the wrangwys should "make up their minds" etc. And Tendlathe's later advice to Warreven to "pass for a man" has very clear resonances with the present-day "don't ask/don't tell" policies of the U.S. military. The spectre of AIDS is also present (an inescapable preoccupation of the modern gay experience), although the "dozens of HIVs that circulated among the planets" have little or no direct impact on the book's plot or characters.

I found one aspect of Shadow Man particularly disturbing - its message that confrontation is necessary before any real socio-political reform (including such issues as gay rights) can occur. It's not the messsage per se that disturbs me, however, so much as the realization of the demonstrated, historical truth of this message. And reading Shadow Man helped to bring this into perspective for me. Hara is a world in socio-political ferment; and the time-honored Haran strategies of dramatic presentation, dialogue, cooperation, and peaceful evolution aren't working - particularly as regards the plight of the wrangwys. Legal challenges to gender restrictions are sidetracked or subverted in the courts; political alliances fail to achieve desired reforms when gender issues are shunted aside in favor of other goals "more central" to Modernist aims; even legal rana dance assemblies are closed down by police, and the ghost ranas are subverted into a force for anti-wrangwys violence. As a result comes Warreven's begrudging realization that confrontation, not compromise, is the only way. The implications for our world are clear. The events in Shadow Man made me re-examine the course of the Gay Rights Movement in the U.S. - it likewise appears that confrontation was a necessary adjunct of the progress that has been achieved here. One need only compare the decades before and after the Stonewall riots to see this. I'm fairly certain that this information will come as no surprise to members of groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation and that they'll probably applaud this confrontational "compromise-won't-work" stance - and I'm chagrined to say that I now understand their position and see a certain amount of truth in what they say.

At first, I was also bothered by the book's ending - it wasn't all solved and tied up in a pretty pink bow. But then I realized that there could not be any easy, pat solutions to the problems facing the wrangwys on Hara - just as there have been no easy, pat solutions here in our world - and Melissa wisely avoids spoiling the story by suggesting that there are. In the final analysis, Shadow Man effectively fulfills the traditional role of science fiction: to make the reader examine our own world more carefully; and Melissa Scott does it the way that all good science fiction writers do: by means of a well-written, well-crafted, entertaining story.

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