L. Timmel Duchamp's Marq'ssan Cycle: An Epic Progressive SF Series Decades in the Making
Stretto, the fifth and final book in L. Timmel Duchamp's stunning Marq'ssan Cycle has just been published by Aqueduct Press. Taken as a whole, the Marq'ssan Cycle is one of the most ambitious political SF series to appear in the last twenty years. novels have received praise from the likes of Samuel Delany and Cory Doctorow, with Doctorow calling them "a refreshing read and a rare example of deft political storytelling."
Unfolding over a span of 22 years through the perspective of eleven viewpoint characters, the Marq'ssan Cycle envisions radical social and political change, from dystopia-- our current political reality of plutocracy and a savagely exploitative capitalism-- to a desirable situation in which to live, one that boasts a viable, vibrant polity and a minimum of hardship and suffering for the many rather than the few. The story begins with a global intervention by extraterrestrials, who assume that humans can simply be led like rational beings to change--and quickly discover just how deeply they are mistaken; their role then becomes one of facilitating change that humans must bring about themselves. The story explores how such a change might come about by unpacking the infinite detail, the fractalness of thought, in human relationships, laying them bare. Political reality is located not in a "system," but in the human beings who produce and keep it running. And so the story the Marq'ssan Cycle weaves is really the story of people processing change in their most intimate, daily lives.
The Marq'ssan Cycle is five books--I'm reading the third right now, but I can best describe them as a mash-up of old-school sf, hard-core feminism, and spy thriller. They're also written much earlier -- can you talk about the decision to revisit, revise, and publish those books? What prompted it, and what has the experience been like as you systematically re-encountered your earlier writing?
You’re right to talk about their being an amalgam of several subgenres and styles of writing informed by and alluding to several knowledge-sets. Because the books borrow from so many different narrative styles, readers not familiar with all or most of them may well become frustrated, since they’ll be reading these books, variously, as feminist dystopia, spy thriller, a rousing old-fashioned tale of leftist revolution, a story of different sorts of lesbian (non-utopian, semi-separatist) societies, a Gothic-without-a-male hero, and so on. And the books just don’t work that way. If I had had the technical experience and accomplishment back then that I have today, I probably would not have even tried to pull off such a narrative. On the other hand, a feminist versed in standpoint epistemology would probably have little trouble reading it (now, anyway), even if she hadn’t read much science fiction.
At the time, I wrote at white heat, about a million words in a little less than two years, driven by passion and guided entirely by instinct. I became a far more conscious writer in the late 1980s, a couple of books after Stretto. My fiction still demands sophisticated reading, but I hope I’ve become better at helping the reader to figure out how to read my stories...because US culture in the nineties seemed ever more set on declaring the death of feminism and the end of the Cold War had segued into an exuberant love of a US-dominated global corporate economy, I believed the books would strike most people as politically and culturally passé. All that changed, though, with the installation of the Bush Administration, which has openly embraced naked unprovoked military aggression, torture, surveillance of citizens, and economic and fiscal policies likely to eliminate the middle class altogether. So I dragged the big box of old manuscripts out of storage—not only to determine their publishability, but to see if my memory of the acuteness of their political critique would be borne out.
I [then] revised them to reflect the major shift in global politics since the time they had been written. I also decided to set them later in the twenty-first century. The characters and their relationships, of course, all remained the same. How could they not? They’ve always been so real to me that every now and then I spot their ringers in Real Life. I could have sworn a historian giving a presentation on low-intensity warfare in the Philippines (that was back in the late eighties) was the spitting image of [my character] Kay Zeldin. Or to take another, more recent example, a couple of years ago I met someone at a convention who viscerally reminded me of David Hughes as he followed me around buttonholing me after I’d been on a panel he’d attended. (Add to that, he identified himself as a surveillance expert who worked for a military contractor.) It’s virtually impossible to alter characters who’ve taken on that degree of reality in the author’s mind.
Though preparing the books for publication didn’t entail major revisions of narrative structure or even terminology, I found the process tricky, vexatious, and—as I approached the end of the process—poignant. Vexatious because as I read the five mss I could literally see my writing improve and the style in which the books were written grow in sophistication, even as I recognized a certain crude vitality and intensity absent from my more mature writing. Tricky because I realized that I couldn’t tamper with the structure and style of the books without wrecking them and so had to confine myself to stripping them down as far as they could stand (while never having a clear sense of how far that might be). Poignant because for the two years I spent writing these books, they possessed me body and soul in the way nothing has ever done before or since. Imagine it, on my best days I would write forty or fifty pages at white-heat intensity, barely pausing to eat...And poignant, of course, because after having kept these books to myself for twenty years, they’re now no longer mine to do with as I wish. Stretto is at the printer as I speak. The possibility for alteration is gone. And most important, those characters and their stories are no longer my own private preserve. I feel both liberated of a burden and bereft of a secret that has been part of who I am for most of the time I’ve been a writer.