Book Club: The Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith
I’ve spent probably a few thousand words chatting via email with various readers about this book so I knew it would be a great topic for discussion. Because I have a lot of admiration for Smith’s work, I was not hesitant to ask her difficult questions and her candor and forthrightness really impressed me. You may not agree with everything she says but that’s okay. We’re here to discuss the book. Here’s my review.
One of the reasons I thought this book was so tremendous is how it took to really disparate individuals, the athiest and the zealot, and revealed the weaknesses of both positions. I’ve re-read this book a couple of times and portions of it several times. I’m going to state outright that I disagree that the book normalizes rape, one of the biggest charges against the book. I think that the world of Meoraq is a screwed up one and if you read to the end, you’ll realize how claylike the religious doctrine of Meoraq’s world really is. And that’s the whole point. How can you have transformation without a starting point?
But let’s see what Smith has to say and then the comments are yours, readers.
I can’t answer these questions without riddling my answers with spoilers, so please don’t read this if you haven’t read the book, or at least please don’t fill up the comment section with rage about how I gave away the ending.
1. Let’s ask the biggest question first. What about the rapes? Do you feel like the Last Hour of Gann normalizes rape? Are we supposed to see that as the actions of a heroic individual?
So…let me get this straight. Your first question requires me to defend rape? You don’t play around, do you? But okay, let me begin my rambling answer by pointing out that Meoraq’s experience is not the normal experience of the average dumaq. “Most men were permitted none but their wife’s embrace during their lifetime…” Only those of the warrior’s caste have the right to demand sexual liberties over the women they encounter, and since the women are kept isolated, that’s not saying much. Even those born under the Blade don’t have the right to barge into someone’s house and demand a woman (except for Sheulek, I suppose. They have the right to go anywhere and demand anything, but nowhere does Meoraq indicate he’s ever done this). Rape is not ‘normal,’ even in dumaq society.
Meoraq does have sex with the women who are presented to him after judgments (and with at least some of the women who are sent in to bathe him) and no, not all of these women were willing and no, he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. He believed his god gave him the fire so that he could pass it into a woman, either to sire offspring or to heal her infertility. And if it was Sheul’s will, who would question that? Does that make it all right? Well of course not! We’re talking about a society that routinely settles the legal question of whether Farmer A stole Farmer B’s row of crops by fighting a completely unrelated man to the death!
You ask me if Meoraq’s actions were those of a heroic individual when he tells a frightened virgin in the arena hold that it’s permitted for her to struggle. I can only tell you that Meoraq had to prove himself a heroic character after letting the reader witness that act. Our myths and legends–heck, our history–is filled with stories of men whose heroism is at least in part measured by his sexual conquests. From Hercules to Casanova to James Bond, we applaud and immortalize men who do not overburden themselves with the question of consent and never demonstrate one iota of remorse. They don’t have to change; we just clean up their image for them. In The Last Hour of Gann, my hero rapes women, but ultimately he understands it was wrong and when he understands it, he never tries to justify or excuse those acts. He has remorse and moreover, he has the chance to affect change, not only in his own life but in the law, and those I do say are the actions of a heroic individual.
I have to admit at this point that I had not realized rape was a recurring theme in my books. Someone had to point it out to me. And guess what? It’s not going away anytime soon. I do not consider that I glorify or normalize rape. I do occasionally eroticize it, most notably in Heat. Why? Because whether you as an individual like it or not, rape fantasy is an extremely common fantasy for many women and it’s perfectly okay to explore that within the pages of a book. It doesn’t mean the reader wants to be raped anymore than it means I think it’s okay for women to be raped. I find that suggestion absurd and frankly offensive. Far more often, when I write about rape, it’s not eroticized at all but written as an element of horror. Heat’s rape scenes are eroticized becauses ultimately, Kane comes to feel affection for Raven and a relationship develops, as twisted as some readers may find it. The wizard’s scenes with Taryn are never anything but repugnant. They exist to demonstrate how utterly remorseless, deviant and straight-up evil he is, not to titillate the reader. But do those scenes have to exist at all? Yes, damn it, they do!
When I was beta-reading The Wizard in the Woods, I asked my betas if it felt unrealistic that the wizard forced Taryn to give him oral sex. One of my betas immediately snorted and replied, “What is he going to do, date her?” I have often said when people ask me why I write the books I do that I write what I want to read, and that’s true even in this case. I’m tired of reading books where we have to take the author’s word for it that the bad guy is really bad. I’m tired of seeing evil leer and tap its fingertips together menacingly instead of do something. And yeah, I’m tired of villains that think they have to seduce a woman when she’s already in chains at his damn feet. If you’re going to write evil, commit to evil.
Finally, I’d just like to point out that I think it’s a hell of a thing that I’ve been called before the court about the women being raped in my books and not one person has ever remarked on all the men: The unnamed slave in Heat, Antilles in The Wizard in the Woods, the fauns in The Roads of Taryn MacTavish, Gabriel in The Army of Mab, numerous neophytes and acolytes in The Scholomance, Good Samaritan in Cottonwood (I certainly consider being forced to prostitute himself for food as much a violation as any one rape), Zhuqa and countless male raiders and slaves in The Last Hour of Gann. Is that somehow less offensive because they’re male?
Rape is wrong. Do I actually have to say that? Rape is wrong, but I do not consider that I write about rapes; I write about what comes after. My characters are not victims of sexual violence, but survivors and they do not have to spend the rest of their lives defined by that moment.
2. Why take the route of having the women affected in a way that makes them more subservient and the males more dominant and hostile? In an alien land it seems you could have constructed it in any other fashion than a heavily patrimonial one.
Stuff like this is the whole reason I use beta readers. Sometimes things that seem perfectly obvious to me don’t come across to other people. It helps to have feedback from different people. In this case, five people read the book and not one of them came away with this idea, that all males were dominant and hostile and all women were subservient and submissive. So I was a bit blindsided when I started seeing these comments.
Okay, let’s open our books and flip to the end. “It attacks the hypothalamus, primarily, and through it, the adrenal system. Females have been, ah, depressed and males, stimulated. Rage is essentially an overdose of male sexual hormones, ah, which dominate our aggressive response and…and…hyper-sensitivity to female pheromones.” What Meoraq calls God’s wrath and Lashraq’s generation called Rage was a genetically-engineered virus that was accidentally released into the public. It had near-total and near-instant communicability and within a very short time, everyone on the planet was either dead or infected, and the virus self-replicates. As Lashraq says, “The cloud will be around a hundred years. The virus will be in everyone’s…blood. We’ll all be dead, but the rage goes on…”
I never intended to say that the virus nested in the sexual hormone center of the brain, stimulating testosterone levels in order to make men aggressive and women submissive (wouldn’t that just make women aggressive too?). I was only trying to say that the virus attacked the adrenal system as its point of origin, and that as adreneline ramps up, the virus then affects other systems; in men, this meant flooding the infected person with sexual hormones, which did make them more pheromone receptive and more aggressive, but the keyword there is “overdose”. This was not a virus that made men a little horny and a little testy. This was a virus designed to make its infected malevictims mindlessly and lethally violent. It didn’t make the females subservient, it merely depressed their adrenal response, meaning they don’t succumb to Rage. Instead, the virus attacked the female hormones that affect fertility. Why was the virus designed this way? Because it was a weapon. When deployed, it was meant to send the infected men on homicidal rape-murder sprees, killing off a large chunk of the enemy population and terrorizing the rest of it. The second half of the attack would be the lowered birth rate in the female survivors. That was it. That was what I wanted my virus to do. Could a real virus be gender specific in that way? Hell, I don’t know. It’s futuristic alien technology. It’s also worth pointing out that the virus wasn’t released on purpose, probably precisely because it was too effective.
Why are the women so subservient, then? Because it is a patrimonial society. Why is it a patrimonial society? Because it had to be. Let’s take another look at those first days after the Fall. Every man on the planet was infected with a virus that caused rape-murder sprees either when angered or when triggered by female pheromones. And now let’s look at Meoraq. Soon after meeting him, Mr. Yao directs the human survivors to observe a series of pit-like pores around his mouth which in certain animals, particularly reptiles, are used to detect pheromones. Meoraq talks throughout the book about how Sheul “gives a man the fires” if he happens to see a woman, but what he doesn’t realize he’s really talking about is that virus triggering when he breathes in female pheromones. Flashback to Lashraq and his friends, balanced on the knife-edge of extinction after the Fall. He has to repopulate the planet with men who go on rape-murder sprees in the presence of a woman and women who have trouble conceiving and carrying to term, and every day that he takes to think about it, more people are dying.
Bottom line, he did what he thought was best. He turned women, who had been equals prior to the Fall, into property. He did it so that they could be kept behind walls away from men, and he did it so those who were capable of bearing children could be forced to produce them whether they liked it or not. I’m sure he thought of it as protecting them and preserving his species. I doubt he ever thought those laws would be used to kill women like Lord Saluuk’s daughter, but the harsh reality of writing is that sometimes people read things that we didn’t intend to say.
Besides, of the three books I’ve written about aliens (Heat, Cottonwood and The Last Hour of Gann), this is my only patrician society. The other two were staunchly matrilineal. And I never heard a word about the way males were treated as second-class citizens. How odd.
3. The biggest problem I had with the book was the secondary characters, particularly the humans. Why was there no other decent surviving human?
*sigh* Because no one else survived? Because I’ve been criticized before for having a “cast of thousands” and the faceless mob was my only way to deal with 40+ extra people? Because “decent” people tend to disapprove quietly while the wrong sort speak up? But mostly because there is a very ugly facet of human nature that wants–needs–to find a scapegoat in the wake of catastrophe and Amber was it.
Although there was a small military presence aboard the Pioneer, most of its passengers and all of its crew were members of the Manifest Destiny Society, which was, as it was during the westward expansion, fueled by a zealous belief that they had been appointed by God to lay claim to new territory by virtue of their own innate superiority. Even Amber thinks of them as a cult. They were not bad people. I don’t think they were even particularly weak people, but they were people whose entire philosophy got slapped out from under them in an instant. They weren’t just people whose ship crashed; they were people who believed God wanted them to go to Plymouth and who instead crashed on Gann. Even more than the average survivor, if there is such a thing as an ‘average’ survivor, they were lost. And Scott took them in.
Scott was a Manifestor. He knew exactly how to talk to those people and he said all the right comforting things while Amber was there telling everyone they were never going home. He took charge–and if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about people in a crisis, they seldom question the guy in charge–and he started immediately rewarding loyalty with extra rations and tents. In short, he gave his supporters the best chance of survival. And if you don’t think his supporters would pick on Amber just because he did, you don’t remember high school.
Scott made it impossible for anyone to disagree with him and stay in the group and I want to make something very clear: No one could have walked away and survived, alone, on that world. There were decent people in that second group of survivors, but they had to choose between going along with stuff they didn’t agree with or walking off into the wilderness and dying for their convictions. I believe that people are mostly good, but I don’t know anyone who would choose the latter. (Edit: My sister insists she would have.)
4. I loved the religious aspect of it and thought you did a great job of challenging both sides of the faith coin – the atheist and the believer.
I’m glad reader response has been so positive regarding the religious themes in The Last Hour of Gann, because it was the one thing that really worried me. I kind of hate to admit this, but I rarely think about my readers when I’m writing. I rarely think about my friends or family either. My book’s world and the characters who live there sort of squeeze out any other concerns. It’s only afterwards, during the editing phase, that I’ll be reading what I’ve written and suddenly realize, ‘Hang on, this could really honk someone off.’ Although all my books tend to have spiritual undertones, I usually present that spirituality in a fantasy setting, where gods often manifest and prayers are answered more or less immediately and tangibly.
In the case of Gann, religion was always a major aspect, both of the world as a whole and as a facet of Meoraq’s character, but it was vital that it be a religion of faith, rather than a walking, talking god. For most of the book, I was comfortable with these overt religious themes, but the closer I got to the ‘big reveal’, the more nervous it made me. I was horribly afraid readers would think I was dumping on Christianity, so much so that halfway through my first edits, I announced I wasn’t going to publish it. It would go into the folder with the other Dear-God-never-let-this-see-
It’s funny, isn’t it? After the body-piercing scene in Heat, all the centaur sex in Arcadia, the demons in The Scholomance, forced impregnation in Olivia, and internment camps in Cottonwood, religion was almost too controversial for me.
5. Most of your books feature a different type of creature/society and I know you’ve indicated you like to write about monsters. Is there any other reason you choose to write about aliens from lizards to bugs?
I had written about essentially humanoid aliens in Heat and always kind of considered it a cop-out. I initially wanted to make my Jotan more inhuman in appearance, but chickened out because I wanted the sex scenes to work. I also wanted the villain to be able to ‘hunt’ in plain sight, so he couldn’t be that unusual. So when the time came to write more aliens in Cottonwood and The Last Hour of Gann, I wanted to go as far from human as I could. Bugs and lizards are both popular alien tropes and both books were all about me bashing bad sci-fi movie tropes with my version of reality. Originally, the bugs were going to be on Gann, but I changed my mind at the last minute because I thought the exchanges between Sarah and T’aki worked better with a little bug than with a little lizard.
6. Neil deGrasse Tyson says that one of his fears is that alien life has studied humans and determined that we are too stupid to want to interact with. Any comments?
I’d think so too if studying humans meant I spent any time all monitoring Earth’s entertainment transmissions. In fact, we better hope they just choose not to interact with us intead of pre-emptively destroy us because otherwise Honey Boo Boo is going to bring about the end of all life as we know it.
7. How would you categorize your books? I see some refer to them as erotic but I don’t find them particularly so. They are certainly romantic in some sense. The relationships between characters are as important as the world that you’ve constructed.
Funny you should ask. I initially thought I was writing horror with a strong sci-fi or fantasy slant. My first e-publisher thought I was writing erotica (and writing it badly). And my readers apparently think I write romances. I’m beginning to think we’re all wrong, but for argument’s sake, let’s look at the industry’s definition of erotica and romance. I believe it was Cherry Adair who said romances include sex scenes as rewards for the characters’ efforts, whereas the sex scenes in erotica must drive the plot forward. In other words, the romance can be written without graphic sex, but erotica can’t. In that sense, I guess I write erotica because I couldn’t write any of my books without those scenes. But I’m the first to admit that the sex is often too weird to be erotic, even when the scenes are otherwise as hot as they come.
8.What books have you been reading? What makes a good book to you? Or what do you look for when you are reading?
About 90% of what I read is horror and apart from a few tried-and-true authors (King, Koontz, McCammon and Lovecraft), I read indie authors because, frankly, they’re the only ones who go dark enough. Some of my non-horror favorite authors include Peter S. Beagle, Dorothy Sayers, JRR Tolkein (of course), Rudyard Kipling and Neil Gaiman. I like to read books with strong, multi-dimensional characters, heroines that are more than just limp love-interests, and villains that are really and truly villainous. I like supernatural elements, but I hate cliches. And as most of my readers will be able to easily guess, I love a book that I can read all day or even all weekend. If the book holds your interest all the way through, it wasn’t too long and I don’t care how many pages it had.
9. What’s next for R. Lee Smith?
The next novel will be Pool, a snippet of which I included at the end of The Last Hour of Gann. In it, I get back to my B-movie horror roots, so don’t read it looking for a romance. After that, I have The Bull of Minos, my retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (spoiler: As Taryn MacTavish once said in The Care and Feeding of Griffins, Theseus is a crudhook). In my spare time, I’ve also been noodling around on a novella called The Land of the Beautiful Dead, my take on the zombie apocalypse and there might be a collection of short stories if I can think of a few more to round out the ones I have.
If you’d like to see what I’m up to, you can always drop by my blog at rleesmith.wordpress.com. During November, I am celebrating Nanowrimo with my ABCs of Worldbuilding.