I’ve been slow with this as I hoped to reread it before our discussion. I’m well on my way with that though not yet finished, but there is no reason my tardiness should delay the discussion any longer.

Here is what the jury said:

“We are all familiar with books in which the setting is some sort of fantasy/feudal blend and the gender roles appear unexamined and uninteresting. So one thing we loved about Lifelode was the way the society’s hierarchical, feudal social structure included both a traditional view of marriage, through which hereditary power is passed on, and an established tradition of polyamorous relationships. Life here is comfortable and relatively egalitarian; through Walton’s characters, we see the power inherent in traditionally feminine social roles. But Lifelode takes place at just that moment when the cozy village of Applekirk finds itself threatened by an alien and terrifying new monogamous order…”

One of the things I admired about this book was its clever reversal of social arrangements so that polyamory represents a kind of cozy pre-industrial stability and monogamy an unnatural, restrictive, and unreasonable demand.

I think the book says some interesting things about the work traditionally assigned to women — there is something extremely pleasurable to me in the cooking scenes and in the magical responsive house — and I’d love to talk about those.

It has nothing to do with gender, but the way time is played about with, especially in the beginning of the book is very deft and impressive conceptually and maybe does shadow in some way the fluidity of Applekirk’s sexual and romantic mores.

And I’m sure you all have things you’d like to talk about, too. Whenever you’re ready!

19 comments on “Jo Walton, LIFELODE

  1. I am an enormous fan of Lifelode (but I also have to take a second to say that everyone who cared about books as a teenager should read Walton’s newer book, Among Others).

    I loved the focus on “work traditionally assigned to women” and the steady intensity with which Walton reminds us of how important that work is and how much it contributes to happiness, peace, and stability. I do think there’s a comment on gender in the fact that all priests, for all the different kinds of gods, go naked; in fact, one basically recognizes a priest by his or her nakedness.

    I also have to ask, without too much rudeness to people who care about spoilers: Karen, did you (and did other people who read it) pick up on the subtle intimations that one character will die? I missed it completely, and ended up feeling like I should have noticed over and over and over.

    • I also missed the clues to the character’s death, but went back and looked for them after it happened. They’re subtle — kind of like such clues in mysteries — but I missed them in part because I didn’t want to see them and in part because Taveth probably didn’t want to see them either and kind of brushed past her own awareness that she never saw that person past a certain age.

  2. Because of Taveth’s ability to see future selves, I was aware of the possibility of death without expecting it.
    One thing I’m noticing more strongly on this second pass through is Hanethe’s sense of entitlement. She has, or remembers having, a certain contempt for the field hands. She treats Taveth like a servant and is surprised by the respect she gets from the rest of the family. Maybe this is just Hanethe or maybe the plague wiped out a more hierarchical way of thinking. I’m curious about the history of Applekirk although I’m told, or maybe because I’m told, that they don’t keep histories and barely even remember the devastating plague.

  3. I love the first 1/2 or 2/3 of this novel; the part with all the fighting is OK-just not as interesting to me. The sense of time–the cycles of farm life, etc.–are very well described in the first few pages and the way we see how the characters think/feel at the time of the events and in retrospect is well realized (and I think would be hard to convey that doubled vision but I felt the book accomplished that layering). I like the family relationship–multiple sex partners is fine but they have to be sensitive and let the others know what’s going on. Relationships in real life are so complex that I completely accepted the younger wife and why she felt a need to take more lovers and I loved the resolution of why she decided not to leave and Taveth’s reaction to that new relationship. I like the various ways children react. I find it refreshing to have a main character who’s proficient at cooking & cleaning and likes doing it but is occasionally upset that others don’t acknowledge her work. I particularly like how subtly, matter-of-factly the information is delivered…and the realization of how much this world or some in in would change if children would only be born to married couples. I just finished teaching “Mountain Ways” by LeGuin and
    this story is an interesting comparison.

  4. I’d love to join the book club, but am having trouble getting a copy of Lifeload. None in the St. Paul library system. All the ones in the Hennepin County system are out until May. Nook doesn’t have it. Anyway, I am here but unable to comment.

  5. I’m disappointed you can’t get the book, Eleanor, as I’d really be interested in your take on it. I’m just up to the army arriving in my reread and like Margaret I don’t feel that the book needed such a big moment, such a massive confrontation. But I’ve been thinking mostly on this second time through about the society of Applekirk and how I feel about it. Utopian feudalism — there is a clear hierarchy and the house of the lord is a place of plenty. Inside this house, there is a lot of freedom to find your life’s work and follow it, whatever it may be, although the lord himself (or herself) has obligations that can’t be ducked. What’s less clear is the degree of freedom enjoyed by the 800 other people in the village though it seems, in the glimpses we get, like a lovely pastoral pasture of plenty. Happy children. Shared labor. Village dances. Although there was once a devastating plague, everyone now seems a picture of health.
    And very clean! Of course, there’s magic to keep it so and the absence of all that pollution-causing industry. (I’m peculiarly unsettled when I know characters in books are filthy — I keep waiting for the moment they clean up. And in the same odd way, I really enjoy the scenes in which Taveth is doing the laundry and cooking her pies. The children are as little trouble as children usually are in books and movies. I’m just back from visiting my grandsons and I’ve been reminded that caring for children is exhausting, but very repetitive and not terribly cinematic.)
    I keep thinking of the place as cozy. I like the fact that this coziness is partly attributable to the uninterest of the gods in Applekirk. But when you put it together with the feudal setting it makes me a bit uncomfortable.

    • I can see where your unease comes from, Karen; the life seems quite ideal before the god-confrontation and you’re right that we don’t really know what the “lower class” are like. They are willing to come as a mob–education doesn’t seem to be big part of the world and that always bothers me. I thought Walton was deliberately playing with some of the heroic, high fantasy tropes by having her characters be women and men who don’t want to fight and no one goes off on a quest, etc. The first part was entertaining, warm and comfortable even if notes of despair from the past were there, and I thought well written. Eleanor, the copy of the book from the library says only 800 were printed and I don’t know if it’s out in paperback yet. I’m taking credit for the Eugene library having it because I have been giving them the Locus and Tiptree Award lists for years and they buy most of them including small press like Small Beer.

  6. I am getting Among Others on my Nook, and I will try to get Lifeload. But I will be reading it when you have moved on to something else. I’ll just hang around and take notes.

    • Eleanor, Lifelode does not appear to be widely available; the only places I found it were on Amazon and directly from NESFA Press, and in both cases it’s only in hardcover and $25. It’s not in my library, either, and there are no paperback or ebook editions, alas.

      • It’s too bad this has been so hard to find. Let’s do Alice Kim’s “Beautiful White Bodies” next as that’s online in the Strange Horizon archive.

  7. Lifeload from the Hennepin Count Library, I mean. A cozy fantasy sounds right up my alley.

  8. I find myself more sympathetic to Hanethe than I might have expected, given how unpleasant most of the other characters find her and what Karen calls her “sense of entitlement.” Her true lifelode was taken away from her, first by the plague, and then by her principled stand when she was part of Agdisis. That would certainly leave me angry as well.

    • I’ve been thinking about the characters and I completely agree with Nancy..and I think our opinion of Hanethe speaks to the strength of Walton’s writing: making a character seem obnoxious (or at least called that by others) and still making her interesting, even sympathetic is not an easy task for an author.
      I am going to be on a panel at WisCon about the Tiptree Award so I have been making my criteria list
      and Lifelode fits them well: 1)explore and expand gender/sexuality roles natch (the simple idea of how life would change here & even more in the fictional world if babies were born only to “legitimate” marriage; 2) well written–means lots of things–for this work for me, the intro pages setting up the world and keeping so many different characters interesting and realistic (not stereotypes–both negatives and positives for all; 3) memorable/worth re-reading/something that makes me (who reads a lot so plots etc. get a little blurry often) keep the story in mind–oh, yes, that one–This novel worked well for me on both readings and has enough unusual aspects that I will remember it.

      • There’s a very classic plot shape in which the hero must save the community, but, in so doing, unfits himself to live in it and must leave. This is what happens with Shane and with Frodo and many others I can’t think of just now. One of the things I love about LIFELODE is to find this classic hero’s tale with an old woman in the hero role.

  9. I meant to say with a crabby old woman in the role.
    What do you all make of the change to the world at the end?

    • In looking at the end again, I realized that somewhere along the way I began to think dismissively of Jankin. Partly this was that he went along with Dolkis, partly it was that he was careless about his sexual relationships, but mostly I think it was because Taveth thinks of him dismissively (once she gets over the lust). But when he first appeared, I was enchanted by him because of his desire to learn everything. I frequently feel that way, and to a great extent, Jankin represented the lifelode I might choose in that world.

      I suspect the merger (is that the right word) of Hanethe and Jankin is going to bring science into the world of the gods, and things will change, even in the idyllic world of Applekirk. Curiosity will find a place, and that will upend things. I tend to think of it as a good change, but, as I said, I identify with the lifelode of learning everything.

      And yeah: a crabby old woman in the classic hero’s role!

  10. I felt the same about Jankin, but also found it interesting that in this world where multiple relationships are the norm, casual sex is not. Jankin operates in a different context and his reflexive flirting is understood as such only by the character who has recently lived outside Applekirk. It began me thinking of the ways in which family and sexual connections are stabilizing and the ways in which they’re not. Although polyamory is standard in Applekirk it’s still conducted in customary ways, with rules and permissions. We never see an unrequited passion and to the extent that Jankin’s behavior is de-stabilizing, we never know for sure how much of that is due to Jankin’s misunderstanding of the rules and how much to the goddess’s tampering of everyone’s mood and emotion.
    Of course, Jankin’s crime is not his lust so much as his complicit silence in Dolkis’ plan to ruin the family. Still, I was pleased to find in the end that it’s Hanethe who saves the world and Jankin who chooses what the new world will be. He’s not the most trustworthy character in the book, but he is perhaps the most imaginative.
    Dolkis is the only completely unsympathetic character and that seems fair, given the impact on our own world of religious fanaticism. It seems fair, but not particularly interesting.

  11. Are we about done with LIFELODE? I’ll give it a couple of days to see if there’s any juice left in any of these topics and then shall we look at Kim’s story?