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The Terrorists of Irustan, Louise Marley, Ace, 1999, 340 pp.

Note: This review has spoiler material in it; the secrets revealed here are crucial to a proper experience of the novel. If you have not read the book, stop reading this review now!

The Terrorists of Irustan is a difficult book to review. On one hand, it has a great deal to recommend it, such as Marley's lovely writing and her effective characterization. On the other, it is tremendously wrong-headed in many ways. The premise of the book is interestingly put together, but it has a gaping inconsistency that nearly scuttles the book altogether. And the philosophical implications of the events of The Terrorists of Irustan are disturbing, to say the least, and perhaps not entirely in the way that Marley intended.

Zahra is a Medicant on the planet of Irustan. She lives in a repressive, religious society, where men have all the power and women are property, wear veils, and have no rights. However, women are the only ones who deal with medical problems, and Zahra is the best Medicant in the city. The planet of Irustan provides a mineral, rhodium, that is essential to FTL communication, for all planets in the galaxy, and so other cultures (and the Port Force) have a strict policy of non-interference with the society of Irustan, as long as the supply of rhodium keeps flowing. Zahra and her circle of friends have one tragedy after another to deal with on Irustan and dream of the freedom that must be present on Earth. A prospective husband of a daughter had two previous wives that died under mysterious circumstances. Zahra has to treat an abused wife and send her back to the same situation until she dies of a particularly brutal beating. The women of her group conspire to start poisoning men, and the medical details are so distasteful to the men (religiously as well as culturally), that the women get away with it. But the poisonings start to draw attention from the Port Force authorities, and eventually Zahra becomes a fugitive from justice. At the end of the book, she is executed for her deeds.

Intertwined with this is the story of Jin-Li, a Port Force worker who becomes friends with Zahra. Jin-Li is known as Johnny to the other workers, and Marley starts Jin-Li off in a position of the typical male-gaze fascination. For example, Jin-Li catches a glimpse of Zahra's face without a veil and ponders this glimpse for the rest of the week. On page 137, Marley drops a bit of a bombshell, in that Jin-Li is female (and the bombshell is carefully detonated -- all sections from Jin-Li's point of view have no gender-specific pronouns for her, while narrative from other people's points of view use male pronouns because they think of her as Johnny). All of Zahra's imaginings of freedom and equality on Earth are a delusion -- Jin-Li began dressing as a man on the streets of Hong Kong for her own safety, and continued this practice so that she could move around freely in the society of Irustan (Port Force women are confined to the port area). This adds a bit of a twist to the story, and brings the criticism back to Earth itself. The twist also removes one of the few sympathetic male characters in the book.

My first difficulty with The Terrorists of Irustan is the fact that this repressive society grants women the power to be doctors. I understand that this is Marley's premise, and that it should be granted her as a starting point of the novel. Unfortunately, it's inconsistent with the rest of the book's construction of a fanatical, religious society. As I understand the current state of events under the Taliban rule of Afghanistan, for example, women are allowed to do nothing, not teaching, never mind anything like medical work. Again, Marley starts with the Medicants as a premise of the book, and uses it to create the drama, but it simply rang false against the context of Irustan. When power is held as nakedly as it is in Irustan, it is perpetuated a little more firmly than it would be by letting women be doctors. I am reminded of the moment in 1984 when Winston finally finds out the rationale for Big Brother's grip on society: power, pure and simple. Marley is perhaps trying to show that the mix of politics and religion creates rifts in the power structure, leading to practices that are not entirely rational to the self-interest of the elite. Unfortunately, I couldn't suspend my disbelief in the way that this worked itself out in the plotline.

Secondly, vigilantism always disturbs me, no matter the context, no matter the rationalization. In The Terrorists of Irustan, women are powerless. They are being beaten, abused, raped in the marriage bed, forced into the life of the unveiled (prostitution), and traded from father to husband as bits of property. However, the reign of terror that Zahra and her friends institute is perhaps not qualitatively different than the regime it reacts against. I understand that Marley uses the word "terrorists" very deliberately in the title. I also understand that the point of the novel is the uprising after Zahra's execution: at Zahra's funeral, women spontaneously rip off their veils as the first step in a revolution. That was why I was disappointed that the book ended at that point. What would happen next, when the vigilantism was over, and the women were striving for societal change instead of revenge? That's precisely the point of difficulty, the point of interest.

And lastly, most of the plotline of The Terrorists of Irustan is, fortunately or unfortunately, old hat in the genre at this point (apart from some interesting twists provided by Jin-Li and the direction which the ending gestures toward). Marley gives us some wonderful prose, and the book has a forward momentum that speaks of a great deal of craft on her part. But as I was reading, I didn't get a sense of originality or the shock of the new. The evils of a policy of non-interference has been done to death, and the repressive society as a focus for feminist anger has also had many a day in the spotlight. I am by no means implying that the message of the book, if it is something like tolerance and the need to fight injustice, is unnecessary. Nor am I implying that science fiction is not a place for feminism, or any other such criticism. All I'd like is something a little fresher, a little more unique.

Last modified: October 24, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (

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