IN AN INTERVIEW with the American science fiction magazine Locus, Elisabeth Vonarburg, who was born in France but now lives in Chicoutimi, Quebec, said, "I'm somewhere in the middle. I'm not a French science fiction writer ... [and] some very vocal Quebecois writers don't consider me a Quebecois writer - and they're right. I'm a world unto myself." She has further staked out a literary landscape for herself with her latest novel, The Maerlande Chronicles (which is published in the United States with the title In the Mothers' Land) .
Vonarburg's style invites comparisons with the writing of Ursula Le Guin and Doris Lessing - all three writers deal beautifully with themes of metamorphosis in their sociological brand of speculative fiction, which is often dismissed as "soft" science fiction. Vonarburg's work revels in a dreamlike voice that is at once ethereal and grounded, almost like a fairy tale. To cop a metaphor from The Maerlande Chronicles, her words are thrown "to the wind, like seeds, and when they touch the earth, they take root."
As with her fellow Quebecois writer, Yves Beauchemin, Vonarburg has developed a voracious readership in France, while remaining a relative unknown in Canada. She's primarily known here for her short fiction, mostly published in the Quebec fantasy and science fiction quarterly Solaris, and chances are pretty good that you won't have run across her work unless you're fluent in French or are savvy enough to follow this publication.
With the translation of her first novel, The Silent City, and now with The Maerlande Chronicles, Englishspeaking readers at long last have the opportunity to delve into her worlds of words. There are many similarities between the two books - both are set in societies that are products of an unspecified catastrophe that occurred hundreds of years earlier; both feature independent female protagonists who are on a quest; and both deal with sexual politics and gender relations within societies obsessed by reproduction through natural or scientifically-engineered means.
On balance, The Maerlande Chronicles is the more fully rounded work. We meet Lisbei as a young girl unsure of her family relationships: since women outnumber men, the nuclear family is no more, and the children are raised by groups of females in a kibbutzlike arrangement, a situation that creates tension between the sexes. The few remaining men, who are primarily unseen, are time-shared between the families of women and valued more for their abilities to father offspring than for their parenting skills - so men and women view each other as "the other."
They attempt to correct the imbalance between the sexes through the use of rituals and storytelling, which provides some of the most lyrical and poignant sequences of the novel. Journals, fairy tales, and letters form an intertextual discourse that underlines the hollowness of the roles this culture demands of its citizens, while highlighting Lisbei's love of language. She eventually finds herself in the unique position of having equal access to men and women, since her inability to reproduce makes her an outcast among her peers. She gets caught between the dreamstates of her imagination and the harsher realities of her situation, and is literally banished to the wilderness because she cannot comply with the strictures of a repressive society. Her evolution beyond her own self-delusion is triggered by acceptance of her role in changing her society - by embracing life and trusting in the process of change.
The many levels of The Maerlande Chronicles - religious, ecological, folkloric, sexual - make it more than the standard SF fare. While the book stands as a compelling journey, one that is both internally and externally motivated, there is at times a feeling that certain information that would enhance our appreciation of this culture -such as the nature of Elli, the deity that ostensibly shapes this society - is being withheld, that perhaps certain key details have been relegated to deep background. Nevertheless, Vonarburg has crafted a satisfying read, one that should please all readers of imaginative fiction, whether or not they're habitues of the science fiction shelves. As with all good writing, the reader is moved to contemplate the dynamics and moral choices facing not only this fictional society, but also our own.