The Maerlande Chronicles by Élisabeth Vonarburg

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Originally published as La Chronique du Pays des Mères (1992)

 

 

Background

Nuclear war has ravaged the planet and its population, large areas of Europe have been irradiated and rendered inhospitable, sea levels have risen, and a genetic imbalance has afflicted Humanity; women outnumber men 70 to 1.

The future of humanity lies in the strict supervision of the bloodlines in the Mother’s Land, or Maerlande. After the Decline, men restructured their society, enslaving women and sequestering them into brutal and violent Harems. The oppression and forced servitude of women gave rise to revolts against the Chiefs of these Harems and out of the turmoil came a voice, the voice of Garde, who argued in favour of non-violent emancipation and who preached the Word of Elli, out of whose womb came the Earth and all who live upon it, and who would forever weave her Tapestry.

But a thirst for revenge against the Harem Chiefs, and an impatience for action, drove a group of women to act before Garde’s non-violent means came to fruition. Garde herself was executed, and resurrected, and executed again. The male-organized Harems were then displaced, and mimicked, by the female-organized Hives, which were just as violent as the Harems before them.

Eventually the Hives evolved into the utopic-like Mother’s Land, or Maerlande, and split into self-governing provinces. Lisbeï, our protagonist, is born in one of these provinces, almost 500 years later.

 

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Story

Lisbeï begins her life in the Garderie, where all children born of the Bethely bloodline, in the province of Litale, are raised. There she meets Tula, her best friend, love of her life, and half-sister. Together they learn about Elli and the Tapestry that she is forever weaving. Lisbeï’s part in that Tapestry is to succeed her own mother, Selva, who Lisbeï doesn’t meet until leaving the Garderie, as the Capta, or Mother with a capital M, of Bethely.

The Malady that has affected humanity is forever evolving, however, and Lisbeï contracts it later than anticipated, rendering her sterile. Lisbeï, who has become somewhat bitter in regards to the role that is slipping away from her, and in an act of teenage rebellion, explores the ancient underground of Bethely, against the wishes of her mother, and discovers an old notebook which brings the past of Maerlande and its beliefs into question.

After Lisbeï is declared sterile, and replaced by Tula as Capta of Bethely, she is sent away, to the biggest city in Maerlande, where she learns more about herself, about the position and the plight of men, and her society in general.

 

About the Author

Élisabeth Vonarburg was born in Paris, France in 1947 and moved to Chicoutimi, Quebec, Canada in 1973. She has written more than fifteen novels in the science fiction and fantasy category and translated into French more than twenty, including Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. She was also the literary director of the French-Canadian science fiction and fantasy magazine Solaris for eleven years, from 1979 to 1990.

Publication History and Awards

The original French version of the novel was published in 1992 by Québec/Amérique and won the Aurora Award the following year. The first edition of the English translation, entitled In the Mother’s Land, was published the same year by Bantam Spectra Books and was nominated for the Triptree Award in 1992 and won the special citation of the Philip K Dick Award the following year. A second English edition was published in 1993 under the title The Maerlande Chronicles by Edge/Tesseract Books.

 

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Commentary

I started reading the French version first. What struck me the most while reading it was Vonarburg’s use of language: French, like all romance languages, assigns genders to everything, and Vonarburg plays with this in the novel. Since the world is populated predominantly by females, the words for objects, living beings and time have evolved to reflect this influence. For example the months of the year, mars, avril, décembre (March, April, December) are changed to marsie, avrilie, and décème, whereas the seasons, printemps, hiver (spring, winter) are called printane and hiverne. Children in French are called ‘enfants,’ but since most of the children and the authorities of this world are women, every child is called an ‘enfante.’

English has evolved over time to drop the genders of words and so I was curious to see what the translator of the novel, Jane Brierley, had done to keep that aspect of the book and I was surprised to see her results: March becomes Marsa, and winter becomes wintra; ‘children’ is hard to feminize in a genderless language, but she gets around it by writing ‘childreen.’ Furthermore, when a group of women are riding horses they become ‘cavalieras’ and when they are visitors they are called ‘visitas.’

In sum I think that Vonarburg’s book is a very good example of French science fiction and that Jane Brierley’s translation is more than just faithful to the original, it is very creative in regards to language in its own right.

Unfortunately the English version of the novel, published by Tesseract Books, is no longer in print, nor is it available in ebook format. Used copies are of course available from Amazon or from AbeBooks.

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