When my life is super-busy, I tend to reread books that won’t invite my brain to start analyzing to see what I could learn. I reread Edgar Rice Burroughs’ biography, and recently, I thought I’d reread Piers Anthony’s Xanth series.
I first read the first novel, A Spell for Chameleon, in grade six and reread it maybe later in my teens. I remember it being charming and punny, but my memories were pretty dim. I was also wondering if I could recommend it to my 11-year old son after he finished with the Percy Jackson opus.
A Spell for Chameleon is about Bink, a person who lives in the North Village of the land of Xanth, where every plant and animal is magical and every person has a single magical talent, everyone except for Bink. If he doesn’t find out his magical talent, he’ll get kicked out of Xanth upon turning 25.
This main plot line is fun. It turns out that Bink’s talent is actually among the most powerful in the land: protection against all forms of magic. But his power has to keep itself secret, otherwise it could be foiled by anyone with a non-magical bow and arrow.
The operation of Bink’s talent is very reminiscent of the way Teela Brown’s luck works in Niven’s Ringworld. Depending on how far back you look, even the very inciting incidents of the book can be seen to be driven by Bink’s talent, much in the same way Teela’s luck seems to have caused the whole journey to the Ringworld.
All good, right?
Nope. Returning to this book (and a couple of the sequels) as a mature adult makes me embarrassed that I was not offended at its soaked-in misogyny earlier in life. It’s another piece of evidence that I really didn’t grow into a feminist until I got to university.
How bad is the sexism and misogyny? I mean, can we cut it some slack because it was published in 1977?
Um. No. The 1970s were the 1970s, but there were still lots of remarkable writers creating compelling stories with well-rounded characters back then.
All the female characters in the first two novels occupy a narrow range of man-created stereotyped roles that were already fossils in the 1970s. Anthony has:
- the dumb love interest,
- the smart love interest,
- the nagging love interest, and
- the cautionary tales for Bink’s choice of love interest.
The only female character who seems to exist independently of Bink’s love interest is Cherie, a centaur, who is sexualized anyway, and he ends up copping a feel by accident, because… well, no, that’s just gratuitous. But as soon as Cherie’s mate arrives, Cherie ceases to be a meaningful character and becomes a nagging cautionary tale for Bink.
I thought I’d understood the concept of male gaze before. Reading A Spell for Chameleon is like wearing male gaze goggles. Bink’s internal monologue and the authorial narration are fixated on noticing every woman’s looks and personality, and assessing them. The judging takes the form of “Is she good for me?” “Is she right for me?”
The character and authorial value judgments have the depth someone would use to buy a car, like “But if I get the hatchback, it’s not as cool, and then I can’t have a spoiler,” or “Boy, the rims on that one sure are appealingly flashy.”
All women throw themselves at Bink, or are just waiting for the word. The evil sorceress, that beautiful dumb blonde who has to be told to leave her clothes on, the nymphs (who are explicitly men’s fantasies without brains), the lady ghosts, etc.
There is little authorial consideration of whether or why any of them would want him. There’s no hint of a meaningful connection, and this thread of the novel is largely romantic interest bereft of chemistry.
In dialogue and in the authorial narrative, women are given generalized characteristics the way Archie Bunker would assert them, down to evil, including a woman-hating character (who in Book II gets his reward by marrying a nymph). Women are good for this. Wives are good for that. One must always do this with a wife. One must always guard against women on this count. Etc.
I dog-eared my copies to keep track of some exemplary lines:
“But you can have anything you want — anything at all.” She took a deep breath… And it occurred to Bink that was was not restricting it to food. No doubt she got pretty lonely here on her island, and welcomed company. The local farmers probably shunned her — their wives would see to that!
“We’re not interested in your females.”
“Not their minds anyway.”
It was said that the only thing a troll was afraid of was his wife…”
“We are, after all, only females.” [said the female troll]
“You are true males, always ready for a challenge.”
“Uh, girls, I’m a married man.”
“She will never know,” a buxom lass informed him. “We need you more than she does.”
“As all females always fail…”
Now he was using these females in the manner a soldier understood: as fodder for a battle. They might not have responded to a “nicer” man. Maybe they needed one who held them in contempt, who was willing to brutalize them for a purpose.
Chester was standing beside him, probably thinking of horsing around with Cherie Centaur, who was indeed a fetching filly.
I was a bit baffled by this re-reading experience, and I don’t normally do negative reviews. I can take comfort that this post won’t do anything to Anthony’s sales (by 1985 the second book in the series, A The Source of Magic, was up to 22 printings).
But I can’t show this book to my son. I couldn’t show it to my mother. I would not recommend it to a female reader, or, well… anyone. So instead of donating it to a thrift shop (as I normally do with my downsizing book collection), I’m going to recycle my copies.
Derek Künsken writes science fiction and fantasy in Gatineau, Québec. He normally is not so opinionated, but can now state unequivocally that he has two pet peeves: anti-vaxxers and misogyny. He tweets from @derekkunsken.