When I was 13, I read a lot of Piers Anthony, and when I say “a lot,” I mean a lot. The guy was pretty much all I read, from the Xanth series to the Incarnations of Immortality series, and even the Battle Circle and Bio of a Space Tyrant series, but my favorite of his books from that time would have to be the Apprentice Adept series. I read them again in my late 20s and thought they held up pretty well, so when I got on a bit of a nostalgia kick recently, I thought I’d give these another go, just to see if they were still pretty good. And the verdict is … well, mixed.
When I was 13, I realized that most of Piers’ books had a lot of sex in them (that may have been a reason I liked them as much as I did); what I didn’t realize was how much sexism they contained. As I was re-reading this series, I started finding some questionable quotes from them, of which these are some choice selections:
“She evinced the confidence normally associated with a larger person, though of course height was less important to a woman.”
“Stile could not pick among women; he had to have one shorter than he. Not because he demanded it but because society did; if he appeared among serfs with a girl who outmassed him, others would laugh, and that would destroy the relationship.”
“‘You have a Tourney to win,’ she reminded him, aptly changing the subject in the manner of her sex.”
“She smiled brilliantly and bobbed her cleavage about, enjoying her youthful form as only an old hag could.”
“…no one feared age like a middle-aged woman!”
“Yet she was a consummate actress, as so many women seemed to be.”
And perhaps the most egregious, from when he and one of his many paramours are running from the threat of death, hiding inside a hollow wall, and he attempts to get frisky with her but she speaks encouragement, but ultimately denies him:
“To speak readiness while withdrawing — that was often woman’s way.”
I mean, this stuff bypasses plain old sexism and start to take a walk in the land of misogyny. It’s really insulting.
It would be one thing to have these passages written from the perspective of the characters, to indicate their own motivations and feelings. There was another quote I thought to include — “What is a bitch, compared to oath-friendship?” — but in the context of the speaker and the culture (a werewolf, with a pack mentality similar to standard wolves), it fit the moment. But the other quotes were buried in the narrative, indicating that they represented more a philosophy of the author himself. It makes me realize that, much like with Dave Sim and Cerebus, it’s impossible to separate the author’s work from his own questionable philosophies. In the end, Anthony’s portrayal of women wasn’t just offensive, but it was also condescending and arrogant, as if this was just the way it was supposed to be.
The generalizations are insulting, as is the way Anthony writes the women characters to be servile to the men, more so because Anthony writes the women characters to be strong and speak their minds. That would suggest that the characters are independent, but it’s hard to call them such, since ultimately they’re all pawns to the male character. The only independent female characters out of the trilogy appears in the second book, and you can see her over there on the cover of Blue Adept. She’s strong-willed, fierce, and independent … but she’s also a man-hater who gets written out of the story by the end of the book. It’s almost like the only way a woman couldn’t be somehow used to Stile’s needs is if she couldn’t stand men at all, and it was even more insulting and demeaning. The theme mirrors the same theme from Sos the Rope, and I imagine that I’ll find that same sort of thing in the last two volumes of that series.
The weird thing about the series is that I knew from the first couple of chapters of Split Infinity that the story was going to keep going down that road, where Anthony developed his male characters and used the women as objects for them to use in one way or another (if they weren’t sleeping with Stile, they wanted to, and found other ways to be servile to him), but I still felt pretty compelled to read through the stories. Part of it was morbid curiosity, just to see how bad it would get, and to see if my memory of the stories had somehow betrayed me, but I can’t deny that the stories were interesting and compelling by themselves, either. Shoot, I re-read them all in the span of about a week, so regardless of his feelings about women, Anthony clearly knows how to tell a good story.
Something else that bugged me about the trilogy was the overbearing sense of arrogance, conceit, and condescension of the narrative. Stile, the main character, is basically an example of male perfection (enough so that I started to wonder if Stile is just a Mary Sue character), and while there’s some justification for this — he’s supposed to be a top player in the Game, which requires skill in several areas of sport and art — the way he speaks to other characters is irritating. Lots of “of course”s, “obviously”s, “always”s and “clearly”s are used in the way he communicates, none of them ironically, and after a while it becomes pretty grating. He’s self-confident (of course) and self-assured (obviously), and the few times that he’s not the best at what he does, he’s at least second-best (clearly), so it’s somewhat understandable, but he lacks empathy toward anyone else who doesn’t meet his own standards (always).
So, I re-read the series, and plan to finish off the Battle Circle series (I already picked up the rest of the books in the series), but I think after these, I’ll be done with Piers Anthony for good. I have some fond memories of the Incarnations of Immortality series, too, but I also remember all the women characters being patsies of men, even when they were the protaginists. And the less spoken of the Xanth series, I think, the better. Even when I was 13, I felt like those were a lot more juvenile than the stuff my friends were reading.