REVIEW SUMMARY: A near-future examination of feminism and dystopia.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A woman escapes from the oppressive dictatorship of post-oil Britain and finds a way to fight for her rights.
PROS: Resists easy answers; there’s a lot here to engage (argue) with.
CONS: Unbelievable extrapolation and muddled political references make this an entirely unsatisfying work of feminism.
BOTTOM LINE: This book argues fiercely in favor of things most people already agree with, then undermines its own arguments.
Let’s start with the world building. In a post-oil energy crisis world, in the space of about ten years, Britain has become an incompetent dictatorship that is more repressive than China. After the oil crash, everyone is rounded up into town centers, there’s a total travel ban, and all the media (radio and TV only) is state-controlled and heavily censored. The Internet has ceased to exist. Power and food are rationed, and birth-control in mandatory. The most outrageous policy: all women are forced to have a uterine regulator implanted, which has visible external wires hanging off it. Thus, any woman can be hauled off the street by the police and forced to expose herself to them to “prove” that the implant is still in place. The narrator’s husband can’t understand why she’s upset about this.
Is this in any way believable? That just because power is rationed, the Internet would cease to be a means of transmitting free information? That the UK would fall so far, so fast? That any Western man born in the last thirty years wouldn’t understand that this treatment of women is outrageous?
Anyway, it’s no wonder why Sister, the narrator, walks away from it all in search of something better: Carhullan. Even before the crash, it was an all-female farming co-operative; now it is one of the few places living independently of the dysfunctional government. Life isn’t easy there, but they’re making it work. The problem is Jackie, one of the original founders and an ex-Special Ops soldier in the British Army. Her paranoia about the threat from the government knows no bounds, and she eventually goads the women, including an enthusiastic Sister, to confront their oppressors militarily.
I can only assume that this set-up exists in order to portray a third-world level uprising against a first-world military. Presumably the author wants us to examine the situations under which violence, terrorism, and other unsavory tactics may be justified. Should we rise up when we see women’s rights being violated? Is torture justifiable when the goal is protecting a safe place for women? To what extent should we risk small gains already made to try for big changes for women everywhere?
The problem is that Jackie ends up sounding as delusional as a hawkish neo-con while she urges the women to fight against an oppressive right-wing socialist government. She doesn’t use Ghandian techniques that actually achieved their goals. She doesn’t use the successful terrorist tactics that made the IRA and Al-Qaida household names (while not achieving their stated goals). She eschews guerrilla warfare in favor of direct military confrontation (the ‘army’ of the title is a little misleading; she’s actually got a small platoon). Even if one might be in favor of terrorism as a tactic for liberation, I think we can all be opposed to stupidly executed terrorism.
That’s really the primary problem of the book. It undermines itself at every turn. The framing device of a police interrogation is undermined by long descriptive passages. The depiction of the oppression of women is undermined by setting it in the near future West. The depiction of terrorist tactics is undermined by making the terrorists stupid. The empowerment of the narrator is undermined when she’s given a bad case of Stockholm syndrome.
The spectres of other famous examples of British dystopianism loom over this book. Comparisons with, at the least, 1984 and V for Vendetta are inevitable. Oddly enough, both of them have more understanding of media communications and technology than shown by Carhullan, even if they were published in 1949 and the 1980s respectively, and Sarah Hall is writing in 2008. V for Vendetta portrays a future with some similarities to Carhullan’s but is understandable as a product of its time, the 1980s of Reagan and Thatcher. Carhullan seems to predate even V‘s dystopia, throwing back to at least the 70’s; it draws as much on the Vietnam war as the Iraq war.
This book seems unaware of the successful tactics that have actually advanced the cause of women’s rights over the last thirty years: non-violent social and political activism, combined with aggressive legal strategies. In this book, none of that appears to have happened, so it’s as if it comes from some alternate past. It certainly seems irrelevant to the important feminist struggles that are being waged today.