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Daughters of a Coral Dawn

by Katherine V Forrest

(Naiad Press, $7.95, 226 pages, paperback; first published 1984; this edition January 1986. New edition September 2002, Alyson Publications, not seen by this reviewer; paperback, $13.95.)

Although outwardly completely human, Mother is an alien from the planet Verna III, brought home to Earth by Father, cover scanwith whom she has a passel of seemingly human daughters. But, as they grow older (which they do much more slowly than humans do), it becomes evident that the daughters are far more intelligent than the Earth-humans around them. This might be tolerable were it not for the fact that this near-future Earth has reverted to a complete male domination, with testosterone being the currency of the day; the world is rather like a George W. Bush wet dream, to put it succinctly if unsubtly. Might is right, and it's the men who've seized the might.

The daughters go out and marry Earth men, by whom they in turn have daughters who seem fully human but are in fact as talented as their mothers. And the daughters have daughters...

By the time there are thousands of this all-female clan, the world situation has deteriorated yet further, the male tyranny having become yet more oppressive; a means of artificial fertilization has become available, but has been outlawed because it would diminish the male grip upon the female thralls. The women of the clan decide that they should leave to find another world to claim as their own -- a habitable planet of which Earth has not yet become aware, of course, because otherwise the males will hunt them down and either try to exterminate them or, perhaps even worse, try to bring them back. The logistics of locating such a world and getting there are not so daunting as they might seem, because, despite their femaleness, many of the clan members have, because of their hyperintelligence, risen to fairly high-ranking positions with the scientific/technological hierarchy.

The first half of this book -- which very much falls into two halves -- concerns all of the above and the journey, aboard a seized super-starship, to the planet, which they christen Maternas in honour of the still-jaunty Mother, the only heterosexual among the thousands-strong party of settlers. At Mother's insistence, the women appoint a new leader, perhaps the most intellectually talented of them all: the synthesist Megan.

In the second half, Maternas is accidentally discovered by a ship from Earth containing three hyper-chauvinist males and a young female lieutenant, Laurel. After an attempted rape by one of the males, and after Laurel has described how she has been harassed and bullied throughout the flight, it is evident that the males cannot be allowed to stay. On the other hand, neither can they be allowed to go back to Earth and report their discovery. There are some difficult decisions ahead for Megan.

And some equally difficult decisions ahead for Laurel, too. Should she return to Earth, her home and, despite everything, the world to which she has at least some emotional allegiance; or should she stay in the semi-idyll of Maternas? Previously a practising heterosexual, can she adapt to the homosexual ways of the women of Maternas?

To a large extent, Laurel's mind is made up for her, because she falls headlong in love with Megan. For her part Megan, who has hitherto preserved her virginity in the interests of maintaining distance from and impartiality towards her people, finds to her intense annoyance that she's fallen completely for Laurel...

Unabashedly a work of lesbian evangelism, Daughters of a Coral Dawn is a work of very considerable charm, a quasi-allegory (genetic considerations alone make it a dubious candidate for straightforward science fiction, and the astrophysics is bizarre) that manages to make its profoundly anti-male sentiments, despite their irrationality (all blanket descriptions of millions of individuals are by definition irrational), quite unexceptionable, quite inoffensive. Where perhaps one really ought to take offence, because this sort of sexism is the cousin of racism, instead one grins and understands.

In part this is because of the sensitivity and sympathy with which Forrest draws a few of her central characters. One grows genuinely to like Megan, Laurel and Minerva, the latter being the historian who carries the main burden of the story in, particularly, the first half of the book. Outside this central circle, Forrest's hand is less sure; many of the women are just blurs distinguished only by their names, the three men are of course merely crude stereotypes, and Mother becomes fairly swiftly a rather annoying caricature. But that doesn't really matter because one becomes so involved in the tales and emotions of those three protagonists.

For the lascivious, there are a few fairly graphic sex scenes, the last of which seems to go on forever for no reason other than attempted titillation. These scenes, although written with an extremely appealing wry yet loving lyricism, seem to have been grafted onto the main body of the book in order to establish its credentials -- political or commercial -- within its perceived market ghetto. It's as if Forrest had been told that there was no real market for sf with a lesbian theme, so she should aim primarily for the lesbian erotica reader and hope that reader would tolerate the rest. This is actually a very great pity, because Daughters of a Coral Dawn is far too interesting and pleasing a book to be confined to any ghetto.

Copies of Daughters of a Coral Dawn were until very recently rather hard to find, because the book had been out of print for quite a while. However, in September 2002 Alyson Publications released a new edition (not seen by this reviewer; paperback, $13.95). Unfortunately, Alyson is a press whose main focus seems to be gay porn (oops, I meant "erotica"); back to the ghetto with a vengeance for this very charming, certainly non-pornographic work -- but at least it's readily available once more. Whatever your sexual orientation, Daughters of a Coral Dawn is a book that's worth your time.


Review by John Grant.


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