thoughts when I read: the Taliban, zombies, and James Tiptree

I’ve been reading The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Lemmon, a nonfiction book about a young Afghan woman who starts a dressmaking business under the Taliban. The story begins as the Taliban are rumored to be approaching Kabul; we meet Kamila as she’s getting her diploma — which is about to become a worthless piece of paper — and stay with her through her new firsts. The first time she looks out a window and sees a woman beaten, knowing intervention would be pointless; the first time she must go to the market accompanied by her younger brother, navigating with difficulty in a chadri with a small, obstructed view of the world. When her parents are forced to leave the city, Kamila must find a way to support her sisters without leaving her home. Though she’s never sewn in her life, she decides to start a dressmaking business — a business that eventually takes over their house and provides a living for a number of families in the neighborhood.

It’s an interesting book in all the ways you might imagine; the things that people living under a tyranny can do to help each other, or not; the braveries and the turnings-away; the small dignities and the things that must be let go. The ways that human beings are always more than the sum of their society’s rules. The view from the ground when the shelling started.

All that aside, however, I was struck by how much it reminded me of a certain type of science fiction story — and particularly, of “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree. “Screwfly” is the story of a biological instinct gone wrong. Gradually, in a wave starting out in the tropics, the urge to mate is replaced in human males with an urge to kill. Women (and, of course, some men) begin being violently murdered. No one knows what’s happening or why, though all sorts of useless committees meet and the outbreak of “femicide” is deplored. One of the viewpoint characters, a male scientist, returns from an extended stay in the tropics to find a United States that is quietly, eerily different. The hotel he’s in seems normal, but when he goes outside he sees that it’s mostly men on the street. There’s a small group of young women in baggy clothing, subdued and walking quickly; the only lone woman nearby struggles to catch up to them, though she doesn’t seem to know them; and wordlessly, they accept her.

At the end, one of the few remaining women realizes the human race has been “treated” by aliens, as we might treat a colony of pests. A simple biological fix to interfere with our reproductive cycle, and the species will end itself, leaving the world untouched and available.

The concept itself is mechanical; the glory is in the execution. The quotation at the beginning of the story is from Schopenhauer: “All man’s religion and metaphysics is the language of his glands.” The tyranny of instinct (specifically, sexual instinct) and our enslavement to it is one of Tiptree’s themes (“A Momentary Taste of Being,” “Your Haploid Heart,” “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death,” “And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hill’s Side”) and she delineates with painful clarity how beautiful, how compelling, instinct seems when we succumb to it. “Painful” clarity because she was clearly not someone who privileged the “natural” or took refuge in the idea that instinct was given us by a merciful God to show us the path. On the contrary, God’s will may just be the pretty embroidery we create around what we’re already drawn to do by our self-interested DNA. She ran a cold-eyed, investigative stare over the whole process, with a logic that leaves you more uncomfortable when you finish one of her stories than when you picked it up.*

In “The Screwfly Solution,” new religions spring up built around misogyny; women are the dirty, wrong, evil part of the human race that God wants gone. When a young soldier has this explained to him — by the person who killed the woman who was with him — he’s deeply moved, and later says, “It’s like he was my father; I can’t explain it better than that.” You have to think it must also feel right and good when the female preying mantis snaps the head off her mate — that if mantises were intelligent, that would probably be a sacred moment. Because if something feels deeply meaningful, it must be deeply meaningful, right? Ha, ha, human race. Not in Tiptreeland.

(By the way, one of Tiptree’s other major themes is the need for kindness. Of course there’s a need for it, in the universe as she presents it. Whenever I re-read her, I’m struck by how the two authors I consider most insightful are so completely different. Surely I can’t think both Tiptree and Austen are right about the world? And yet I do.)

But back to Khair Khana. I wasn’t reminded of “Screwfly” simply from the Taliban’s misogyny. It was the transformation of the familiar world — the same sort of thing that gives, say, zombie movies their power. The idea that you could be walking peacefully down the street in front of your house, and suddenly a group of apparently normal people will rush toward you and try to chomp out your intestines — or rush toward you with nightsticks and begin shouting abuse because you spoke too loudly or your clothes rustled when you walked. (Indeed, this was one of the hallmarks of the Taliban’s religious police– they were unpredictable. It wasn’t enough to wear a chadri or be accompanied by a male relative or refrain from addressing men. There was no moment of safety.)

When Kamila walks the streets of Kabul, she wears baggy clothes under her chadri. She goes carefully. She makes sure to have her younger brother with her when she can, and to have a story ready. To take the back streets. To not engage notice.

It’s a new world. And it happened quickly. Just like in zombie movies.

I remember when “Screwfly Solution” was published, and the author was accused of being a paranoid feminist with an ax to grind. I thought, “You’re missing the point of the story! It’s not a prediction. It’s not about villains, either.” And it’s still not a prediction, but I never thought that a couple of decades later I’d find eerie similarities. That damned Tiptree was just too good in working out details.

So: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. I’d feel better if it were science fiction.



* And if you find this view of life as disquieting as I do, you may also enjoy this story by Seth Fried.

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