Fragmented, Expository, Dramatic
Reading The Female Man can feel a lot like trying to discover the picture on a puzzle without having the box to go by, and without actually putting the pieces together. But what better way for an author to convey multiple parallel realities and the complex mechanics of probability travel than by flitting her readers back and forth between different worlds every chance she gets?
Take, for example, these back-to-back passages from Part 1:
XIEtsuko Belin, stretched cruciform on a glider, shifted her weight and went into a slow turn, seeing fifteen hundred feet below her the rising sun of Whileaway reflected in the glacial-scaur lakes of Mount Strom. She flipped the glider over, and sailing on her back, passed a hawk. (1.11.1)
XIISix months ago at the Chinese New Year, Jeannine had stood in the cold, holding her mittens over her ears to keep out the awful sound of firecrackers. Cal, next to her, watched the dragon dance around in the street. (1.12.1)
At this point in the novel, we still don't know very much about either Whileaway or Jeannine's Earth. It'll be a little while before we learn that, in Jeannine's world, mainland China is occupied by Japan. And it'll be even longer before we learn that some Whileawayans live in makeshift eyries at high altitudes. Even though we don't have many details, though, these passages serve to emphasize some significant differences between two strikingly different worlds: one where women's athletic skills are valued and death-defying feats are commonplace, and another where women's meekness and timidity are the norm.
Tell It Like It Is
Exposition gets a bad rap in the literary world, because writers and critics tend to agree that authors should show us, not tell us, what's going on. But showing-not-telling can get pretty tricky when an author is inventing whole new worlds, and science fiction and fantasy novels usually rely on someone or something—a narrator, a character, or facsimiles of historical records, for instance—to bring readers up to speed.
In The Female Man, most of what we learn about Janet's and Jael's worlds comes from exposition, usually through Joanna/the omniscient narrator. Here she is on Whileaway's child-rearing practices:
"On Whileaway they have a saying: When the mother and child are separated they both howl, the child because it is separated from the mother, the mother because she has to go back to work. Whileawayans bear their children at about thirty—singletons or twins as the demographic pressures require. These children have as one genotypic parent the biological mother (the 'body mother') while the non-bearing parent contributes the other ovum ('other mother')." (3.4.1)
The only way we could deduce this information for ourselves would be if the novel included passages like this,
Walking into the common room, I saw that Evaine and Hiroki were in tears. "You know what they say," I said: "When the mother and child are separated..."
Working quickly, Meredith Graeye spliced Cynthy's ovum and Pavarti's, using the same laser scalpel that had been used to design her own DNA forty-six years ago…
In the end, if an author has a lot of new information to pack into a medium-sized novel, shortcuts can sure come in handy.
When we say that the writing style of The Female Man is dramatic, we don't mean that it reads like an episode of Grey's Anatomy. What we do mean is that several passages in the novel are scripted like scenes in a play.
HE: Is your dog drinking cold fountain water?
SHE: I guess so.
HE: If your dog drinks cold water, he'll get colic.
SHE: It's a she. And I don't care about the colic. You know, what I really worry about is bringing her out in public when she's in heat like this. I'm not afraid she'll get colic, but that she might get pregnant.
HE: They're the same thing aren't they? Har har har. (6.5.21-25)
One of the effects of passages like this is that they add variety to the narrative styles used throughout the novel, and mixing it up a little helps to keep things lively. But, more importantly, they serve to illustrate the novel's argument that social interactions between men and women in North America are so bound up by conventions and norms that they may as well be scripted. Joanna Russ may have written The Female Man roughly twenty years before Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity rocked the feminist world, but the two were totally on the same page.