Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review - Bitch Planet, Book Two: President Bitch by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine de Landro, and Taki Soma

Short review: Meiko Maki is dead, and the reverberations resulting from that event echo through the lives of pretty much everyone. Also, a President everyone thought was dead is not so dead, and the women of the world appear to have had enough of the Fathers.

First, a brutal rape
Then, quests seeking out loved ones
Last, revolution

Full review: President Bitch is a brutal, intense, and amazing installment in a series that was already brutal, intense, and amazing. Set in the same patriarchal dystopian nightmare world as the first volume, where women who have been deemed "Non-Compliant" by virtue of being not submissive enough, or insufficiently attentive to their husband's needs, or being interested in women, or just being unattractive or obese, are shipped off to a prison planet dubbed "Bitch Planet" where they are supposed to be reeducated into good little women. In reality, the women in the "Bitch Planet" prison system are treated brutally, and in the first volume, some were assembled into a sports team intended to compete against male teams as an political exhibition, but instead everything went wrong for them and one member of the team ended up dead.

With the stage thus set, President Bitch sets about expanding the world and increasing the depth of the story. This volume opens up with what amounts to a flashback involving Meiko Maki, the woman killed at the end of the first volume, and how she ended up an "non-compliant" condemned to imprisonment on Bitch Planet. This sequence is harrowing - showing the length that parents will go to try to give their daughters a better life than the one allowed by the Patriarchs, and also showing the inherent corruption in the system that permits a man with a creepy fetish for young Asian girls to try to pressure those parents into handing one of their daughters over to him. The ultimate act that puts Meiko into prison is brutal and vicious, and entirely appropriate given the provocations that led to it. But what is striking about this portion of the book is the array of little background details about the world that crop up, from a mother being refused access to her daughter in a hospital, to the implications made about what is considered appropriate (and inappropriate) education for girls. Every aspect of the book serves to give the reader a view into the lives of the people who live in the dystopian society of the book, and the picture is stark and bleak.

Much of the book flows from Meiko's murder in book one. Meiko's father, not knowing Meiko is dead, agrees to travel to Bitch Planet to build a sports arena in the hopes that he can see her. His attempts to locate his daughter result in complete chaos for the administration, and allow much of what happens in the second half of the book to take place. Whitney, the former operative of the Specials Division finds herself removed from the staff and sent into the prison as an inmate - discovering that as a member of the oppressed class, her higher status was conditional and at the sufferance of the oppressors. Penny blames herself for Meiko's death. All of these threads become important plot elements as the story moves forward, serving as catalysts for other events that push the world to a larger scale and push the story further along. Although the story has not yet fully paid off on this score, Meiko's death seems to be the event that sets all other events into motion that ultimately results in fundamental change - in a sense, she seems destined to become the martyr that sparks the revolution.

Alongside those stories driven by Meiko's death is Kam's quest to locate her sister Morowa, also consigned to imprisonment on Bitch Planet, although her crime was gender falsification - in short, Morowa is a transwoman kept in the compound reserved for other transwomen. The story provides a sequence showing Morowa's incarceration, and the brutal, open transmisogyny that accompanies it, as well as the ways in which the inmates hold each other up in the face of the indignities heaped upon them. This sequence does make one wonder what the compound with the transmen would look like, as I cannot imagine that the Patriarchs would not imprison them as well. One suspects that there might be a revelation concerning such a collection of inmates at some point in a future volume. In any event, Kam's single-minded dedication to locating her sister is brings together all of the threads resulting from Meiko's death, and serves as the unifying force that drives the plot forward. But this story line also serves to highlight the pervasive nature of the prejudices that underpin dystopian society within which Bitch Planet exists. Whitney, knowing Morowa's status, repeatedly misgenders her when speaking with Kam, in part to needle Kam, but also it seems clear, because she simply cannot conceive of a transwoman being a woman. When the populations of the two compounds find themselves in contact with one another, the women don't see their fellow inmates as women, but rather men trying to take something away from them. Even the oppressed buy into the way the world is framed by the oppressors.

As compelling as the main story is, where this book really hits home are the small touches that fill the interstitial spaces between the featured characters. Elements like a coffee mug with a sexist joke on it, or a group of men in a meeting complaining that there are no women to get them coffee and laughing about the idea that women might learn construction-related skills, or the casual assertion that serve to highlight that the world depicted in Bitch Planet is not that far removed from or own. Little interludes like the corporate response to a trio of young men trespassing to take a short cut across private property feel almost as if they could be real. The real terror in Bitch Planet comes from the realization that there are people for whom the society it depicts is their fondest desire. Not people living far away, or in some other place, but people living in one's own communities, some of whom have their hands on the levers of power. Bitch Planet is powerful, in part, because it is a dystopian future that sits just on the edge of reality.

As if to hammer this point home, Eleanor Doane - the President Bitch of the title - enters the story to show that the world the characters inhabit was once not so very unlike ours. While her direct impact on the story, and the impact the followers she inspires, is readily apparent, her presence also serves to show that the state of the world as it is depicted in the "present" of the books is relatively new, having been imposed not just within living memory, but within the span of a single politician's career. The true horror of the world of Bitch Planet becomes clear when one realizes that most of the women struggling to live under the constraints imposed upon them by the regime grew up in a world in which their actions, their dreams, and their horizons were not so limited. Doane is not merely an agent opposed to those in power, she is a symbol that demonstrates that the government is not merely unjust, but is also illegitimate.

Bitch Planet: President Bitch is a harrowing volume in a harrowing series. Even when it takes a mildly hopeful turn, the series drenches it with brutality and violence. This is not the story of docile women living submissively under a misogynistic regime, but rather a story about rage and anger that is bottled up and vented in an almost indiscriminate manner. The pages of this volume are full of fury, but it is a justified fury that feels both unsettling and entirely satisfying at the same time. From the main plot, to the subtext, to the little background details, and even to the fictitious ads that pop up from time to time, every piece of this book serves as a powerful thread that are all woven together masterfully by DeConnick to yield a story that feels like a punch to the throat in the best possible way.

Previous Book in the Series: Bitch Planet, Book One: Extraordinary Machine

Kelly Sue DeConnick     Valentine de Landro     Taki Soma     Book Reviews A-Z


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