Before I get down to my review of “Mantis Wives”, a couple of quick pieces of housekeeping. First, welcome to anyone who got here from Rush-that-Speaks! I hope I can keep up with the high expectations Rush’s readers must have. (And thank you so much for the link, Rush!) Second, a note: I’m not going to avoid spoilers in this review as I have been doing so far. Personally I really dislike getting spoiled for things, but I also find it much easier to say interesting things when I feel I don’t have to worry about spoiling people. So my plan for works that my audience can read quickly for free online, such as “Mantis Wives”, is to write whatever seems interesting in the assumption that if you care, you can go read it first.
“I doubt that enough feminist scholars and theorists have taken the pains to acknowledge the societal forces that wrench women’s emotional and erotic energies away from themselves and other women and from woman-identified values. These forces, as I shall try to show, range from literal physical enslavement to the disguising and distorting of possible options.” – Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, 1980.
“Mantis Wives” is one of the most hauntingly queer stories I’ve ever read. I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. The story is obviously quite unusual; it has essentially no plot or characters, only the barest sketches of a setting. It’s more like some kind of historical or instructional work than like a story, but it is also powerfully lyrical. I could reread that prose for days; it is as intricately crafted an artwork as the killings it describes. My real joy in “Mantis Wives”, though, comes from the queer sexuality that it articulates in between the lines of the lives mantises can imagine.
The story does a disturbingly good job of making us understand the beauty and the necessity, and yet also the needlessness and horror, of mantis sexuality. The narrator (whoever it is – more on my suspicions below) clearly knows that her readers will find it hard to believe that torturing one’s lover to death could be good, or good art. And so she justifies it to us over and over, often with rhetorical questions: “What else could there be between them?” She claims that mantis men desire these outcomes as much as their wives, despite the occasional resistance they seem to offer. (Given that mantis women do not ask their husbands about their experiences, we are left to wonder how a single speaker came to be so certain that both genders’ desires are for this violence.) There is, in the imagination of this narrator, probably no other way; several possibilities for kindness turn out to be nothing more than another variation in the infinite listing of artful deaths, and anything not within this framework “may be a trap”.
I hope that by now you’ve worked out where I’m going with this. There is in our society a structure of sexuality that appears to offer as many variations as it has participants, that is ideologically tied to the furthering of the species, and which it often seems impossible to question. Adrienne Rich called this “compulsory heterosexuality”; in other words, not just heterosexual sex, but the whole culture that makes heterosexuality in a very particular form seem beautiful, natural, and inevitable. The difficult thing is that with something like conventional heterosexual romance, a culture-wide belief that it is beautiful, natural, and inevitable more or less makes these things true. In “Mantis Wives”, Kij Johnson demonstrates how the process of interpreting biological drives into cultural production can inextricably link beauty and violence. It’s a deeply important argument, and one I’m thrilled to see getting as significant an acknowledgment in the SF community as a Hugo nomination.
“Mantis Wives” appears to offer no hope. In this way it reminds me very strongly of Tiptree’s short stories, which also often make tragic feminist commentary without offering utopian solutions. (Tiptree also has a deft hand with deeply alien minds and cultures; “Mantis Wives” is clearly powerfully indebted to “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death”.) In my opinion, however, “Mantis Wives” is not actually saying that mantises (or people) can never truly love each other without doing horrific things. This is where the unusual structure comes into play. Most narrative prose elides the question of who is telling the story and to whom. “Mantis Wives”, written as some kind of informational work, suggests strongly that the narrator is one of the people in this world, and is speaking to people who are real to her. My interpretation is that the narrator is a female mantis explaining the facts of life to a younger female, helping her understand what she will do soon and why it has to be this way. But our narrator is very concerned that we might not be convinced. Why else would she be so careful to tell us that the queer other life we have been dreaming of may be a trap? And yet, if she herself has never dreamt that dream, why does she only say “may”? Queer mantis sexuality, in which the distinctions between husband and wife are dissolved and the dreamer is only “a mantis”, is the only option for survival. Even as the explicit text claims that living, too, is dangerous, the structure of the story makes the reader’s mind insist that it must be possible.