BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A future in which Earth is rendered inhospitable and toxic turns the focus towards the power struggle between alien nations vying to become the new dominant superpower in the universe.
PROS: Plenty of drama and action.
CONS: An overt display of gender stereotypes that is seriously outdated.
BOTTOM LINE: A disheartening read that wastes too much time on the wrong details.
C.S. Arle’s debut novel Cold Cut to Xentia is an action adventure science fiction set in a startlingly populated textual universe. The opening provides us with the tools to negotiate our way through the narrative space in the form of a foreword and map detailing the current state of inter-planetary relations. Earth is but one planet among many struggling to maintain stability in a precarious system of diplomacy, trade, and technology amidst alien superpowers. The conflict begins with a disruption to Earth’s water supply and right in the middle of it is our protagonist, Bart Landers. Alongside Landers’ struggle to understand who is behind it all, we encounter our antagonist, His Eminence the Royal Emperor Vultan Enghiz Goraz IV of the Garranian empire, stalking the walls of Desdra castle and conducting shady relations with members of other alien nations.
In terms of the writing style Arle does not stop to smell the roses; he calls them pink and moves on. Color abounds in the text as a simple way to build an aesthetic. The prose is filled with shines, shimmers, murks, and mists. Apart from color, texture is usually enhanced with adjectives such as “scary”, “frightful” and “eerie”. The result is we are often told how to feel about what is physically there as opposed to actually seeing it. The dialogue is sparse; we are constantly moving from one space to the next, travelling, flying and fighting. But at times it becomes hard to keep up when you only have those sky blues and golden yellows to flesh it all out.
However, there is one element of the text that is described in perhaps too much detail. This is where the novel becomes more than an innocent adventure novel. The novel’s treatment of gender is very difficult to ignore. In fact, it could be argued that it is a constant obstacle that must be overcome in order to obtain any enjoyment from the plot that Arle has energetically detailed.
Alarm bells ring from around chapter four onwards with the use of the noun “female”. It is present in so many constructions – statements beginning with “The female” and ending with “said the female”. And there is literally no explanation for this bizarre usage. The women all-too-often fall into one of three categories: emotional, jealous or beautiful. When placed in positions of responsibility, they become too nervous or too proud and cling to Landers in moments of fear and upset. A great deal of emphasis goes into describing how they look and the imagery is composed of the same body parts nearly every time – hair, eyes and curves. There are many scenes involving scantily clad dancers or concubines. Just when you think you’ve seen the last of the partially (or at times, completely) nude ladies, a whole group of them pop up again. [SPOILERS AHEAD!] One such scene in chapter fourteen – suitably entitled ‘Belles’ – bears witness to Christine Holbrook and her group of feminine friends having to get naked and tie their clothing together in order to escape a kidnapping. And there is no skimping on description here – skimpy underwear included. At the beginning of chapter eighteen, Queen Nivony is described as having “curves that any woman would die for”. This is a depressingly reductive statement to see in a novel written so very recently. It reduces poor Denize Nivony to another sexually alluring image and it reduces all women to a group predominantly concerned with beauty – so much so that we would throw ourselves off a bridge for the perfect figure.
It is rather frustrating to see so much attention being spent on the color and cut of underwear, and barely any on the features of the character’s faces. Half way through I had forgotten what Bart Landers even looked like. In considering the male characters, they are equally victims of the gender problem. They are all a blur, often described in terms of their clothing only. Attention is drawn to both Goraz’s and Landers’ heterosexual lust for women, which at times borders on the voyeuristic. Marjorie Midghurst “Midgers” – one of the secondary characters and Bart Landers’ co-pilot – is by no means exempt from having her “pert bottom” on show in chapter eleven. And Landers response to this is “I’ll soon warm you up!” These tacky comments, along with outdated statements like “female intuition”, crop up too many times to dismiss.
One could compare the novel’s sexual themes to those of the wildly-popular A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, but those comparisons fall flat. While sexual objectification and degradation of women is rife in Martin’s work, it serves an important narrative purpose. The world is dark and brutal, especially so for women, which makes strong women such as Daenerys, Anya Stark, and even the villainous Cersei Lannister stand out. Conversely, some male characters reflect on both the treatment of women as well as the pressures of masculinity. The sex in ASOIAF can be crass and vulgar, but it rarely comes across as gratuitous. Not so in Cold Cut to Xentia, where the sexualization of women serves no greater purpose in world or character building.
It is fair to say that there are some very damaging stereotypes at work in the text. But is Landers a relic from the pulpy past, propelled into a wild and fantastical future? Could we forgive him then? Does something happen in the text that allows for his (or the narrator’s) redemption? His anger at Goraz having a peek under a concubine’s garments in chapter ten goes some way towards this, but unfortunately it is too little too late for the jaded reader.
It is clear that Arle went to great lengths to dream up a vibrant world with a ton of characters, landscapes, planets and planes, which has the potential to appeal to some readers of adventure science fiction despite its obvious shortcomings. There are certainly some engaging scenes in the latter portion of the text when the two separate narratives of Goraz and Landers finally come together. But if you make it to the final chapter (which yes, does involve a woman having to remove her clothing) remind yourself of this: This novel is not representative of the progressions we are making in the world of science fiction. It is a leap backwards for a genre making so many incredible moves to further explore the important issues of gender and sexuality – and in doing so speculate on the future freedoms that may be available to those who are marginalized in our present – which is precisely what can make this work all the more frustrating by comparison.