Home > Book, Genre, Reading Challenges, Review, scifi > Book Review: Zelde M’Tana by F. M. Busby (Series, Prequel) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Book Review: Zelde M’Tana by F. M. Busby (Series, Prequel) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Book Review: Zelde M'Tana (Series, Prequel)Summary:
Zelde M’Tana is one of the lost children, living away from UET influence and welfare or adults at all in gangs of violent kids.  But she gets captured and sent in outerspace on a journey toward being a sex slave on a mining planet.  When the ship mutinies, her chances for a future change for the better.

Review:
I picked this up because I heard it is the prequel for a black woman spaceship captain from a scifi series in the 70s.  I was intrigued (who wouldn’t be by that cover) but I was ultimately disappointed by the characterization of Zelde.

This prequel is designed to be able to be read as a standalone, so that’s how I approached it.  It’s not entirely clear what the problem is in this futuristic world, but it appears that an evil corporation known as the UET has taken over governing everybody and generally encourages violence and treats everyone like dirt.  There are a few escaped ships and some colonies they have set up on other planets where people live freely.  This prequel, then, basically tracks how Zelde comes to be escaped.

I almost stopped reading the book very early on during Zelde’s lost child years.  She is a lost child who joins a gang and winds up climbing the ranks.  There’s obviously a lot of violence.  What I wasn’t expecting was for Zelde to be a rapist.  In the context of the gang wars, when her gang overtakes another, she takes the leader of that gang and rapes him in front of everyone.  (She achieves this by tying a rope around his penis and tugging on it until he gets hard).  In one instance, perhaps in both, I’ve kind of tried to scrub it from my mind, she kills the man right after raping him.  Now, the thing to understand is, Zelde is not ever presented as an anti-hero.  She is 100% supposed to be a hero that the reader roots for.  We want her to escape UET; we want her to succeed.  But she’s a rapist.  A hero rapist isn’t a character I can get behind, and I wouldn’t want other readers to either.

I kept reading the book because I was wondering if this would ever be addressed.  If, perhaps after Zelde escapes and is able to get some education and safety she would realize what she did was wrong.  But that never happens anywhere in the book.  It’s really disappointing.

The second problem I have with the book, which is somewhat related, is in how it presents female sexuality.  Basically, in this world, all women will have sex with other women if a man happens to not be around and convenient right when they get their urge.  So, for instance, Zelde prefers men, but she’ll take a woman to pair up with if a man isn’t right handy.  She also will dump her female pairing the instant there’s a hint she can get with a man.  Similarly, there’s a triad relationship on the ship in which a man, Dopples, is paired with two blonde women.  The women read as sisters, although it’s possible they’re not.  In any case, this is one of our typical interactions with them:

She [Zelde] could never tell the two blonde women apart. The one who opened the door this time had bangs now–but so did the other, standing behind a little. Both naked, hair messed, a little sweaty and out of breath–were they having somebody else in here? no–not on Dopples; they wouldn’t dare that. Must be playing together, just by themselves. That figured–for two women, one man had to be short rations. (page 127)

It all feels like a misreading of female bisexuality.  Female bisexuality isn’t a result of an appetite for sex that is just so high it can’t be satiated by just one person or that must be satiated at every opportunity.  Bisexuality is not this idea that women need to have sex constantly and so will take just anyone, with a slight preference toward men.  While I appreciate that a book published in 1980 includes the idea that women can be attracted to other women it reads from the perspective of a male gaze idea of female bisexuality instead of the reality.  Similarly, not all women are bisexual and yet every single woman in this book seems willing to jump into bed with another woman if a man doesn’t happen to be available or in the context of a M/F/F threesome.  Not all women are bisexual.  Not all bisexual women prefer to pair up with men (some do, but not all).  Not all bisexual women are open to the idea of a threesome.  The only hint to the idea that not all women are bisexual that the book concedes to is that one character is asked at one point if she is “all for women” (page 257) as in are you a lesbian.  (She is not, if you were wondering).  It is just as erasing of bisexuality to operate from the assumption that all women are bisexual (but not all men) as it is to say none are.  Some straight men may like the idea that women are off sleeping with each other every time their backs are turned and that of course any woman would want to participate in a M/F/F threesome given the opportunity, but that is not the reality.

One final issue I had with the book, which is a bit minor but is still annoying, is a bit of grammar.  Almost every time a character says something like “would’ve” or “could’ve,” it’s spelled as “would of” or “could of.”  It does this outside of times the characters speak, so it’s not an attempt at dialect.

A positive to say about the book is the plot is fast-moving and covers a lot of ground.  Zelde’s life is eventful, and if a reader isn’t a fan of one phase, it will quickly change.  Also, Zelde’s race is not just mentioned and then forgotten.  Her existence as a black woman and what that means for her is confronted in the book in various ways.  Also, Zelde rocks a natural hairstyle and gauges her ears at one point while still climbing the ranks of the ship.

Overall, this 1980 scifi book contains a fast plot and interesting future but its representation of female sexuality may be bothersome to some readers.  Readers who seek to avoid scenes involving rape or being asked to identify with a rapist should avoid it.  Recommended to readers of classic scifi and those interested in seeing representations of black women in literature in the 1970s and 1980s.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: The now-defunct SwapTree (like PaperBackSwap).

Buy It

Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

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  1. April 26, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    Wow, this sounds incredibly problematic in so many ways. Like you, I have a real problem with any rapist – man, woman, child – being presented as a hero. And I think the way women are presented in this reads like a rather creepy male fantasy. It’s maybe nice that in some ways this was ahead of it’s time, but not something I’d be excited to pick up.

    • April 27, 2015 at 3:48 pm

      Yeah it reminded me a lot of how much scifi/fantasy was such a boy’s club back in the 1970s. (This came out in 1980, so it was written in the 70s). Part of me cringingly wonders if the author thought he was being progressive by having a woman a rape a man….but um, no.

      I was very disappointed since I was basically hoping for a Pam Greer movie style scifi book, and what I got instead was something moderately aware of race but woefully ignorant of issues of sexuality and womanhood. Le sigh.

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