Saturday, November 1, 2014

Winter in Eden by Harry Harrison

There are no families among the Yilane, no suckling babies among egg-laying lizards, no possible friendships where these cold females rule, where the males are locked from sight of all for a lifetime.
Fun covers from a 1986 UK edition, and a US 2001 edition.

Back in December of last year I read Harry Harrison's 1984 novel about a war between cave men and reptile people in an alternate universe in which dinosaurs escaped extinction, West of Eden, and quite enjoyed it. This week I read my withdrawn library copy of the 1986 sequel, Winter in Eden.

Winter in Eden picks up exactly where West of Eden left off, with the surviving reptile people (the Yilane, the bipedal descendants of mosasaurs) sailing away from the smoking ruins of their colony in the New World, which the human natives have destroyed.  Over the course of the 350 page novel, we follow four main plot threads that at times intersect:
  • Kerrick's, leader of the human band who burnt the Yilane colony. Kerrick lived among the Yilane for years, and can speak their language.  Over the course of this novel he travels around, first trying to figure out the secrets of the destroyed Yilane city, then rejoining his wife Armun, participating in a whaling expedition, and a final confrontation with a powerful Yilane leader, all the while trying to reconcile his human biological heritage with his largely Yilane way of thinking, and attempting to end the murderous war between the humans and lizard people.
  • Armun's thread, while she is separated from Kerrick.  She meets a furry race of generous and welcoming people, the Paramutan, who live amid the ice and snow up north and hunt whales.  These people look like Sasquatches with tails and are incurably optimistic and happy.  I thought Harrison was perhaps evoking with them an idealized version of Eskimos--one of them is named Nanuaq, reminding me of "Nanook," and we are told the Paramutan share their women, as well as everything else.   
  • Vainte's, the Yilane leader who ruled the New World colony that was burned by Kerrick in the first book.  Back in the Old World she marshals support from the Yilane cities there, and returns to the New World with new armies and new technologies to wage a genocidal war of revenge on the humans.
  • Enge's, a Yilane who is the leader of a small sect of peaceniks, the Daughters of Life.  The Daughters escape persecution in the Old World and try to start their own New World colony with a non-hierarchical society.  They encounter a race of primitive Yilane natives with a different skin color and a different sort of technological and social structure than those of the Old World Yilane. 
All the good things I had to say about West of Eden equally apply to Winter in Eden; and I really enjoyed it and recommend it.  Harrison, working with a cadre of scientists, does a great job of creating and bringing to life an alien society which is truly alien (a cold-blooded totalitarian matriarchy whose technology is based entirely on selective breeding and genetic engineering and where males are treated as slaves) but also believable.  (There are 50 pages of appendices after the main part of the book that describe the Yilane and the other inhabitants of the novel's setting.)  Harrison succeeds in making the characters who inhabit this alien society compelling; I actually cared whether Vainte achieved her revenge, whether Enge figured out how to succeed in the task of creating a new society, and so forth.

My copy
The human characters are just as sympathetic and realistic, with realistic psychologies we can identify with.  Winter in Eden is an adventure story full of long marches, sea voyages, exploration of new worlds, and fights, but the characters act and react more like real people than action heroes; for example, there is one minor character who suffers what we would now call PTSD as a result of fighting in the war against the Yilane.  Kerrick is the hero of the story, but he's not the best fighter, he suffers depression and other mental issues, and his leadership ability is often questionable and often questioned.

In a way that is amusing, surprising, and thought-provoking, Harrison uses the alien milieu of the Yilane to turn gender stereotypes upside down.  In one funny scene Kerrick complains that while the female Yilane only talk when they have something important to relate, the males chatter on pointlessly and at great length.  The male Yilane also demonstrate greater sensitivity and artistic ability than the females; all Yilane painting and sculpture is done by males.  (All the ruthless politicians and scientists, who are willing to sacrifice everything and everybody for power or knowledge, are female.)  Less amusingly, the female Yilane rape the males out of hand.

One of the dozens of charming illustrations by Sanderson

Harrison also seems to be addressing the age-old nature versus nurture dispute; to what extent are gender roles, and other ways we have of looking at and dealing with the world, the result of biology, and to what extent are they conscious decisions made by a society (or its most powerful members)?  Kerrick struggles in his relationships with other humans because he has many Yilane mannerisms and attitudes.  Two male Yilane characters escape the harem males are traditionally confined to and must reluctantly learn the female skills of hunting, fighting and marching.  Enge's sect of idealistic peace-lovers, refugees from a society which has consisted of merciless dictators and their unquestioning subjects and slaves for millenia, struggle to create a viable individualistic society in the wilderness, where they encounter a society of lizard people with very different ideas about gender roles.

Eight legs better than six, I guess.
The style and pacing are good, and the comic relief actually made me laugh and served to tell the reader more about the characters and their world; I often find comic relief distracting and diluting, but in Winter in Eden Harrison does a great job with the humorous elements.

The novel also benefits from the inclusion of Bill Sanderson's fine illustrations.

The cover of my copy, by Jery Lofaro, is just OK. LoFaro seems to think a mantis has eight legs, like a spider.

A very enjoyable, very satisfying novel.  I bought a quality-sized paperback edition of the third Eden book, Return to Eden, last year, and expect to read it early next year.

4 comments:

  1. Have you read, or will you be reviewing Return to Eden? I've really enjoyed the reviews of the Eden books thus far.

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  2. Despite my plans to read it early this year (where did the time go?) I haven't read Return to Eden yet, but when I do I will definitely write about it. It is in storage now, but when this transitional period of our lives is over and the wife and I are settled and I unpack my boxes Return to Eden will be placed near the top of the to-be-read pile.

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    1. Good to hear!!

      On a side note, how do you feel about your books in boxes? We recently had to do some temporary moving of our own, and while the boxes of books were always on hand, it was a cause of minor frustration not to have them in hand. The prospect of rooting through several boxes to find what I wanted, or just to peruse to see what to read next, was no fun. Like the way my bathroom is organized, or knowing instinctively where my your kitchen light switch is, it was strange not to have my books as part of my home environment...

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    2. It is frustrating of course, but it is a situation I've been in most of the time since I moved to New York from New Jersey in the '90s. Most of my books were in parents' house for years, and then, after I had to move them out of their house due to renovations there, they were in storage facilities in Westchester county and then in Des Moines. About four years ago I enlisted two of my wife's nephews to help me dig through boxes of books in the storage unit in a search for my copies of Henry Miller's Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, which I wanted to reread.

      When I started this blog we had moved to a bigger place and I had almost all my books at hand, but even then my brother, a big sword and sorcery fan, had, as he still does, nearly all my Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber books. I've been thinking of rereading the Elric and Corum books, and almost bought some Corum paperbacks with Robert Gould covers at a Goodwill, but stopped myself--once we get settled I'll ask him to ship those books to me, I think.

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