Rogue Queen (1955) Book Analysis
by L. Sprague de Camp
For such a thin little book, there was a lot to unpack here, so I apologize for the length of this review. At face value, it is an enjoyable, fun, sci-fi from 69 years ago. Some of the most amusing things about it are the attempts to make it seem futuristic. I enjoyed reading it, but the takeaways regarding gender and relationships leave a lot to be desired.
On the planet of the Ormadz, women are the rulers and men are slaves. The concept is based on bees – there is one Queen who has sex with a bunch of men so she can make babies. Her staff (workers, soldiers, etc) are all women. Men are either used for baby-making, or slaves (called Drones). When a baby-making man gets too old to service the queen, he’s killed. The story follows Iroedh, a worker with an interest in history who has a deep friendship with baby-maker Antis. She is part of a contingent who travel to visit with aliens who have landed on the planet. The aliens are humans who are there to survey the terrain and people. They have a Prime Directive idea of not interfering with the planet’s wars, of which Iroedh’s queen wants them to participate. After a classic love triangle fatality, Iroedh blackmails two of the humans into helping her rescue Antis, her eventual love interest. She, Antis, and another couple from earth (Block and Barbe) end up on the run. There’s a lot more that follows, but in the interest of spoilers and space, I’ll leave off explaining the rest.
It’s an interesting read, that’s for sure! As I said above, the most interesting things about it are how futuristic it’s supposed to be, but how 1950s it still is. The set-up is unique because we’re given this strong woman at the outset and it’s not until she has described the Terrans, in comparison to herself, that we understand what the aliens look like (and that she is indeed an alien). Usually you get the dry “he had green skin, etc etc” but this was a good way to do it. It’s definitely a well-wrought novel designed with purpose – it’s not a lark.
There’s a bit about a prophecy that made me roll my eyes, because anything to do with prophecy and fate in science fiction usually rubs me the wrong way, but the way it’s handled was quite clever and amusing. It surprised me.
The characters are distinguishable and interesting but not overly deep. They consist of Daktablak (Doctor Block), Barbe, Iroedh and Antis, along with some secondary characters. They are often spokespeople for broader issues or concepts and feel a little flat overall. The love stories were contrived and distract from the plot. There are also some odd choices – at one point the group are wandering in the woods for days. One character pretty much collapses from undernourishment but the others don’t seem to understand why. That made no sense to me.
The novel was also (unintentionally) funny. The “futuristic” library is on microfiche! As the one character describes: “Their library is photographed down small on little cards that one reads with an enlarging machine, but I like to read in bed and one cannot hold the machine on one’s lap in the bunk.”
I howled at this.
One character also has a notepad to take notes. Like a physical note pad. Oh, the 1950s!
This is part of a series (the Viagens Interplanetarias, which is what I'm going to call my womb from now on)! De Camp is not an author I’m familiar with, but he was a big deal 70 years ago – he wrote over 100 stories and was a major player in the interim war period (my favorite period of history, I might add).
Some interesting facts!
- He coined the use of the word “extra-terrestrial” for aliens. What a time to be alive.
- He was married for 61 years!
- He wrote a story called “A Gun for Dinosaur”. I that need in my life.
The approach he took in this story, treating sex as “decidedly non-erotic and non-exploitative” paved the way for other authors to include sex and gender science fiction and use the genre to critique it. So, thank you De Camp. While your story is not progressive today, I can see how in the 1950s it might have been borderline risqué.
Overall, a fun novel. It moves at a fast pace, I was never sure where it was going plot-wise, and there are some amusing attempts at futuristic social and technological advances. If you want to read a sci-fi from the 50s, I recommend this one.
I give it 3.5/5 Viagens Interplanetarias!
Analysis - Here be Spoilers!
There is so much here! I hope you find it as interesting as I did!
Don’t get me wrong – I understand that de Camp was coming from a 1950s perspective and that as progressive as a few people were back then, they were still stilted by their social experiences and biases. I’m sure in fifty years people will look at contemporary novels today and laugh at their ideas of the future.
The book gets less progressive the further you get into it. At the start, there’s a matriarchal society that is at war with other matriarchies, with female workers and soldiers. All the characters, except for Antis, are female. Then the humans show up and we’re given a crew of diverse characters (more on that later) but there’s only one woman (Barbe), and she’s a secretary of sorts. I tried to think of her as Yeoman Janice Rand from Star Trek rather than a glorified notetaker. But hey! She has a job.
There’s a classic love triangle as the impetus for action, bouncing the woman from one controlling, angry man to another less-controlling man. She takes no time to process this or be on her own. And Barbe also takes the time to try and teach the Avtini women how to apply whatever makeup you use with a powder puff. She claims it’s “how one catches a male.” Honey, you don’t need to catch any man. Wear makeup because you like it!
I will repeat, I know that this was written in the 1950s.
The prudishness of Barbe is frustrating and makes her infantile at times. She’s embarrassed when Iroedh wants to examine her breasts (since the alien doesn’t have any). Then Barbe gets even more embarrassed when Iroedh asks her whether she is going to be “fertilized”. I get it, it’s weird, but Barbe is on a mission to a world where she knows they have different customs. And she knows Iroedh has a different reproductive system. I mean, I would have laughed, but to be so embarrassed you “emit a sound of strangulation” is ridiculous. Living in the 50s must have been so restrictive (I mean, we know it was, but this exemplifies it).
Barbe, while being a prude and all about “catching those men”, at least takes charge. She tells Block off quite a few times when he’s being an idiot or blaming his mistakes on her, and she often makes decisions for the group or adds her input. For the 1950s she’s pretty strong and bucks a lot of stereotypes about women back then as naturally submissive.
All the other female characters (granted they’re aliens) are strong and intelligent and capable. But they are hardly in the story. Iroedh, the main character, is also these things … for the first 7/8s of the book at least.
I could have overlooked Barbe’s slight setbacks, but gender roles become are increasingly linked to biology in the book. The more Iroedh and Antis take on the human reproductive systems and traditional relationships, the more Iroedh drops her agency. It’s not like she’s regressed to a servant, but for example, Antis is being bossy and “Iroedh was surprised, first by his vehemence, second by the fact that she did not mind being bossed so much as she would have before her change.” This just reinforces the idea that “bossy” women are unnatural.
And it gets worse. Later on, Iroedh is talking to Barbe and says:
"… and the curious thing is, that whereas I used to be the
dominant one of the pair, Antis now makes all the decisions.
Of course I know more of the world than he, and he knows
I do, so we play a little game. I make a suggestion – very
tentatively, so as not to sound as if it were commanding him
– and he grunts and says he’ll think about it. Then next day
he bursts out: “beautiful, I’ve just had the most wonderful idea!”
And goes on to repeat my suggestion in the very words I have used. Isn’t it amazing?”"
No, Iroedh, you’ve just explained the biggest problem women face in the workplace (after harassment)! Barbe and Iroedh think this lack of respect from their partners is a joke. Iroedh talks about how much she loves the gender norms she is “naturally” falling into. Really? You love being “seen and not heard”?
Yet, I wonder. Is this episode meant to show how stupid it was(is) when men did(do) this to their wives? Or is it meant to be funny? I’m not entirely sure whether this is satirical to make a point or whether it’s just a joke. And the fact I can’t tell likely points to it being the latter. It’s very frustrating in a book that was heading in a such a non-sexist direction.
And then there’s my favorite 50s/60s demeaning act. Slapping. Men in the 50s/60s are always slapping women on the ass. It’s either a joking way to “punish” them for something mild they did “wrong” or it’s a territorial ownership thing. Either way, it’s degrading, and it always annoys me. She’s not a child that needs a spanking, even if you’re doing it in jest. (Retroactively) STOP IT.
Overall, when it comes to the ladies in this story, a great thing is ruined yet again by humans. The Prime Directive exists for a reason! Let the Queens rule!
The Avtini don’t appear to have any racial biases and the human crew is diverse. The main human characters are both white, but there is a black Captain, an Indian character, reference to someone named Lobos whom I’m assuming is Latinx, and an Asian character, none of whom are in service roles or appear to be any less capable than anyone else (as is often the case in stories of this era). That was a surprise – I was expecting maybe one person of colour, but this was more Star Trek than Forbidden Planet. There are some weird comments made though, like how the Indian man was pissed because his girlfriend wouldn’t go into stasis sleep (to wait for him to return from his mission) and hooked up with someone else – it’s stated that “he comes from a country called India, where they take a serious view of such actions” and that Indian people “take a more detached view” in terms of passion. I’m not even sure what the hell this is meant to imply. I must not be up on my 1950s stereotypes.
The Asian character, called Kang, speaks in broken English. I'm not sure what the point of that was, since there is no backstory as to why he has an accent (it’s not explained that the crew is from different parts of earth or colonies. At least he has a cool job (he’s a helicopter pilot).
And while this doesn’t deal with race, there is a hilarious passage about communism:
“We once had a sect or cult on Terra called Communists, who believed
as you do that love of the Community should take precedence over all
others. But their collectivistic love seemed to involve such fanatical
hated of everybody else and such implicated determination to impose
their system on the world that we had to exterminate them.”
EXTERMINATE THEM. Ah, the Cold War. The good old days when we had to worry about nuclear war, not terrorist attacks, incels, or global warming. Yay!
There aren’t any gay characters in the human crew, but I would argue that Vardh, one of the Avtini and Irodeh’s bestie, is coded as a lesbian. All the worker Avtini women are non-sexual, but Vardh has a certain love for Iroedh that comes off as stronger than friendship or sisterhood. She is always professing that she loves Iroedh more than anything, she does everything she can to make Irodeh happy/safe, and then, at the end, when Irodeh suggests she become a “Queen” she says: “What? To become a bulgy functional female like you and submit to the horrid embraces of some drooling drone? No thank you!”