Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Moon and the Sun

If you read my earlier blog from today, you'll see that I mentioned this book a little bit. Well, I was actually home not feeling so great, so I sat right down and finished the book. My opinion of it has changed a little, but allow me to recap.

Vonda McIntyre's The Moon and the Sun is ostensibly an alternative history novel, set in the court of Louis XIV right about the turn of the 17th century into the 18th. The main character is Marie-Josephe de la Croix, a recent escapee from a convent on Martinique into the court of Louis himself. We find out that she is actually the daughter of nobility who were sent to Martinique by Louis and who died, leaving her in the care of the convent. Her natural intelligence and curiosity (we find out in degrees that she is a mathematician, composer, and accomplished artist) were stifled by the convent, and she looks forward to beginning her career as a minor noble, the lady-in-waiting for Louis's niece.

Court intrigue follows and she, being quite beautiful (of course) becomes the target of lecherous men all around her, except for Lucien de Chretien, the king's most trusted advisor. As if learning how to deal with Versailles in the Sun King's reign is not difficult enough, her father ( edit: "brother," see Yonmei's comment and my response below. Stupid fingers) is a renowned Jesuit natural philosopher who has just accomplished a mission of the utmost importance to the king--capturing a live mer-creature and returning it to Versailles for study. Louis and her brother, Yves, believe that mermen have an organ that gives immortality, and they are seeking it in the best scientific method of their time--which involves dissection and detailed comparative study.

And here is where my problem begins. It is perfectly clear that the merpeople are in fact sentient, even if no one in the book gets it. So, the surviving mer-creature (affectionately called "sea monster" by name) witnesses the dissection of her dead lover and wails in the mer-language, a sort of song that everyone around her takes to be the cry of an animal. But for nearly half the book, we get to follow Marie-Josephe around while she wins over the court with her innocence and intelligence, despite the way the church and the court itself continually remind her of the inherent weakness of women. But she is not so smart that she can't figure out that the mer-woman reacts exactly like a human woman would under the same impulse. Part of that is because we rarely see the mer-woman in the first half of the book.

Now understand, if I wanted to read a period piece with a little fantasy thrown in on the side, this would be a marvelous book. It is light and fluffy, full of simple feminism (although never openly expressed by any of the characters). But the shadow of the impending torture of an alien sentient hangs over the novel, causing the courtly interplay to be asinine. In fact, a hard science fiction novel would be all over the implications of the merpeople, while for most of the book, it is only an interesting background detail. Of some interest is the opinion of the visiting Pope Innocent, who is torn between deciding if the mer-creatures are beasts or demons.

Finally though, Marie-Josephe gets it (due in no part to the near-psychic communication the mer-creature possesses) and she finds herself trying to change the minds of the notoriously stubborn Louis and her brother...and the pope. If she fails, the mer-creature is to be butchered and served as the main course at one of Louis's feasts. Marie-Josephe must work within the constraints of her role in the severely repressed system to convince them not only to spare the life of a human creature but also to not commit the mortal sin of murder in the process of preparing her for a meal. Her solution is ingenious, even though it ultimately fails, setting the reader up for the obligatory but silly action scenes.

As I put the book down, I wondered why this story had to be set in the time it is. How much more philosophical conversation could take place if it was set in modern times? How much deeper could the book have drawn its characters and their opinions if they lived in a contemporary setting? What McIntyre does is an interesting thought experiment, but it has little depth to it. So I'm left with the feeling that a lot of potential has been left unfulfilled and wondering why.

To be honest, there are a few scenes, especially with de Chretien, that take up an alternative viewpoint that I don't entirely believe would have been present in the setting she chose. de Chretien is an avowed atheist who is tolerated at court because of his service to Louis. Because he is not so wed to the Christian morality as the people around him, he is among the first to believe that the mer-creature is sentient. I find his arguments about atheism to be compelling, especially in light of current conversations about biblical literalism "versus" science. A good friend has been pointing me to the lectures of David Hawkins, recent author of The God Delusion, where he posits rational arguments about the faultiness of the Bible as a historical record and moral guidebook. Ironically, Marie-Josephe, a devout Catholic raised in a convent, is the first to set aside her bias, but it is de Chretien who makes the most astute arguments, in part because he *can*--he is a man in the court and is not automatically ignored when he speaks.

The Moon and the Sun is an entertaining book, but I run again into my problem with recent award-winning books. The question I ask myself, which is not at all fair to the book, is what else was up for the Nebula that year that this won? It really doesn't break new ground nor is it particularly stylish. And what I think would be more fascinating, now that the table is set, is to write a sequel in which we see some of the war that has been declared by the novel's end. By doing that, there is no way McIntyre could avoid the moral implications of the thrust of her novel.


  1. As if learning how to deal with Versailles in the Sun King's reign is not difficult enough, her father

    her brother. Her parents are both dead.

    (Here via Carnival of Feminist SF, btw...)

  2. Quite right. Thank you. Stupid fingers.

    Talk to me about the site you mention, Carnival Of Feminist SF. How do they define "feminism"? And how do they define "SF"?