This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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Podcast by: Steph Farnsworth
Mutants As An Operator of Supremacy:
Utilising The Priory of the Orange Tree
The Priory of the Orange Tree, a book released in 2020 to critical acclaim and with a sequel soon to follow in 2023, examined the tropes of fantasy and carefully dismantled them. Queens handed power to democracies, old religions were challenged for misogyny, and cultural differences were celebrated rather than shunned or forced to assimilate. One central plot is that every single Queen of Inys looks exactly alike, and can only have a daughter. It is revealed later in the text that this is due to a witch’s curse, that made every Queen (and her descendent) in the image of her.
This piece will therefore examine the concentrated power of blood lines in speculative fiction, and how The Priory of the Orange Tree highlights and then tries to dismantle this white supremacist trope. Making a mutant child specifically in the (white, abled) witch’s image has links to eugenics and the racist and debunked ideas surrounding phrenology.
Additionally, the work of Cohen and scholars such as Flanagan will be called upon to examine the role of mutants (and themes of biopunk) in adhering to genetic fetishism (Haraway, 2006). The clone, of course, has been a staple of science fiction and a source of bio-anxiety for audiences and the general media ever since stories of Dolly The Sheep broke in the late 90s. But the clone is a tool of authors, and a tool for a specific ideology and biological discomfort.
The Priory of the Orange Tree can become a template for beginning to dismantle this trope of the chosen one and of the idealized body, but first it must be fully and thoroughly examined in literary and speculative traditions.
About the Author: Steph Farnsworth is a PhD candidate at the University of Sunderland examining the role of mutants in media and audience relationships to them and biotechnology. Her research sits at the intersection of posthumanism and Gothic theory. Steph Farnsworth is also a founder of the academic network MultiPlay, which takes a multidisciplinary approach to video game studies.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 4: Blurring Bloodlines, which will take place at 4:25 PM GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Steph Farnsworth, who is a PhD candidate at the University of Sunderland examining the role of mutants in media and audience relationships to them and biotechnology. Her research sits at the intersection of posthumanism and Gothic theory. Steph Farnsworth is also a founder of the academic network MultiPlay, which takes a multidisciplinary approach to video game studies.
I’m Stephanie Farnsworth, a PhD candidate at the University of Sunderland. My research involves creating mutant theory – work that sits at the intersection of the Gothic and posthumanism. This paper will look at the subject of clones, and their relationship to supremacist ideas.
The Priory of the Orange Tree was published in 2019 by Samantha Shannon, before the world was plunged into the COVID-19 crisis – an ironic twist of fate when this epic fantasy detailed the closing of borders after the spread of a draconic plague. In many ways, this 800-page novel set in a historic fantasy world details the very real biological anxieties that have seeped into the era of the 2000s. This particular paper will focus on one specific facet of biological anxiety, or bio anxiety, that is woven throughout the tale: the fear of the posthuman, and in particular of the posthuman agent that is outside of personal control - whose future and autonomy lies in the vested interests of the powerful.
Much of this time will be spent employing theory immersed in the particular subgenre of biopunk - a subgenre termed by Lars Schmeink and linked to science fiction. Biopunk is a useful term to delineate texts or stories that examine genetic or biological dystopias – clones, mutants, body augmentation, and plagues being particular staples of the genre. The figure of the clone is the major icon of The Priory of the Orange Tree.
It, of course, must be noted that Ursula K Le Guin warned of taking too strictly the genres and boundaries between science fiction and fantasy for they are man-made and capitalist driven by bookstores that need handy subcategories for consumers.
And it was Arthur C Clarke who said that " Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This is true; there is a blurring of the genres in The Priory of The Orange Tree. But the themes of biopunk persist throughout, with genetic dystopias the backbone of the novel, the label biopunk offers a handy distinction when applying theory that looks at biological anxiety and tensions. But instead of the usual iconography of syringes and lab tanks being tampered with: It is through magic that the book reveals a line of cloned queens.
Magic traditionally has been used in historic fantasy settings to provide a sense of comfort and safety in lands which are harsh, cold, inhospitable and pose far greater threat to human life than we ever truly see. Magic provides control for the reader and reassurance. No matter how dark a plot may get, magic can do the impossible and rescue our heroes.
Yet, In The Priory of the Orange Tree and for protagonist Queen Sabran Berethnet, the main subject of this paper, magic has been a betrayer. The woman she loves, Ead, lying about her mage status while Sabran thought the magical protections offered to her were from the Saint she believed to be blessed with, and not her lover. And then finally, Sabran finds the Saint’s protection a lie – and her own face a lie- created by the malevolence and bitter control of a cruel and calculating witch, Kalyba. She herself is an exact genetic copy of Kalyba.
In this novel, the West is largely ruled over by the Queen of Inys – Sabran Berethnet. There have only ever been queens since the first ‘Saint’ who ruled, as each heir has all been girls that look exactly alike. Throughout the ages, this line has been defined by women, who are all compelled to take a husband so that they may have a daughter made in their image, a daughter who is destined to replace them.
The appearance of each queen had been attributed to the power of the Saint and only increased the allure of the queena, the magic bolstering the fervent belief the people had in each queen to rule. However, as the novel rampages on it is revealed that the Saint – the idealized and romantised man – had no such power at all, and that a spell had been placed on him by the witch Kalyba the true mother of his children (and not the ‘Mother’ of the Priory who defeated the most magnificent and terrifying dragon and threat to all humanity). More shocking still, is that Sabran discovers that Kalyba was in fact the adopted mother of the Saint, and groomed her son, bewitched him and then left him with a legacy of a line in exactly her (white and normative) image. It is a disconcerting period for Queen Sabran who, by the end of the novel, decides that the lies upon which the monarchy was built have only concentrated power away from the public and so decides to end the monarchy.
Cloning has fascinated the world, and haunted science fiction stories, throughout the modern era but particularly since the creation of that famous sheep, Dolly in 1996. Dolly was the first cloned animal created through an adult cell by nuclear transfer. The subsequent media coverage was feverish. Dolly died at an early age for a sheep, just six years old, and this triggered a wave of suspicion in the press that her death was the result of her creation. One study debunked this theory, with co-author Professor Sandra Corr stating that “we conclude that the original concerns that cloning had caused early-onset [osteoarthritis] in Dolly were unfounded.” This did little to appease those who had already firmly made up their minds on the issue of cloning, from the press talking about the evils of cloning to many states in America in the early 2000s passing legislation that curtailed cloning and its research – with an estimated 46 countries that have banned human reproductive cloning. The likelihood of human clones was always as tangible as colonising Mars in the near future, there was no desire and no push from scientists to undertake this process, and crucially no funding to do so, and yet the bans were still enforced. The anxiety of clones were enough to dictate legislation.
This fear has been repeatedly reflected in media. Jasonoff cited the dystopian Boys from Brazil, a film where Mengele plotted to rule the world with clones of Hitler, as an example of the wild anxieties surrounding cloning in fiction. Jasonff added that: “ The possibility of creating identical copies of nonhuman mammals morphed easily into nightmare visions of industrially manufactured, intellectually subjugated, enslaved human beings, like the subhuman populations rolling off the assembly lines in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World.”
Jasonoff further asserted that Dolly was a trigger point for humanity being able to question how far we could go in the pursuit of controlling what was believed to be uncontrollable and ungovernable: nature.
Posthumanist philosopher Braidotti claimed that Dolly was an example of commercial enterprise and biology mixing in a way that had not previously been noted. She remarked “The cloned individual, moreover, will be saddled with a genotype that has already lived. He will not be fully a surprise to the world. People are likely always to compare his performances in life with that of his alter ego.”
This was the desperate fear of Sabran who at one point hired a physician to attempt to make an elixir of life, with little success.
As my colleague Greg Mc Guinness often says the difference between transhumanism and posthumanism is that the former is an ideology while the latter is a philosophy. Posthumanism, a philosophy of life, and society beyond the terms of humanism (which are so rooted in Eurocentrism and its structures) has one particular strand that is identified as encapsulating the most perverse fears (as Braidotti termed them) of the excess of biotechnology, and it is this strand that has so dominated our media and the tale of the Clone Queen Sabran Berethnet. Ironically, it is this strand of posthumanism reaction that is led by ideas of humanism: the white, European, abled body as the centre of intellectualism. The idea, of course, being of the old science fiction scene of the man in the laboratory tinkering with life, but far from the days of Frankenstein's creature which was deemed a monstrosity for violating the conventional norms of life, now biotechnological advancements see fiction speculate on the idea of agents, posthumans, AIs and clones alike walking among the population, unknown and yet better than us. The concept of better than us is rooted in the fear of displacement by the very supremacist values that are encoded in Western society. The clones, the ‘fake’ humans, will somehow be purer, more beautiful, more able and better than us. The system designed to devour the least powerful will work its way up.
The cloned Queen locks in the idea of a ‘chosen one’ that can secure and steady the fates of the people of Inys. The chosen one is a critiqued figure in science fiction and fantasy alike, a way to concentrate power in a narrative around those most privileged. If a bloodline determines heroism in a story then can that story be accessible to audiences? There was the ultimate attempt to protect the perceived purity of a bloodline from the witch Kalyba, making each ancestor exactly in her own image of a white able bodied woman. White supremacy is codified throughout the line, and there can be no exceptions until the witch herself is killed.
As Braidotti stated “...the posthuman condition introduces a qualitative shift in our thinking about what exactly is the basic unit of common reference for our species, our polity and our relationship to the other inhabitants of this planet.”
The societal problem extends to the personal as Toffoletti remarked that “One of the reasons why the clone is horrifying is because it threatens the uniqueness of each individual. If you can make a clone of yourself, then who is the ‘real’ you? Will your clone look like you? Act like you? Or possibly come to replace you?”
With a long history of queens all looking alike, and all left with the same experience of having their doppleganger daughter replace them, the Berethnets had deeply insecure and often very short lives. But their personal confinement was nothing to the stasis in which Ascalon and the wider Queendom of Inys had been left in. Forever to be ruled by the chosen legacy – of white women, a true girl boss era – the public of Inys had little say, and may even face being burned alive for denying the Saint – until Sabran Berethnet herself learned of the lies behind her power.
The cloned queen was a remarkable political coup by the witch Kalyba, one that perhaps even biotech-sceptic Francis Fukuyama might have nightmares of. A power that was undone by the honesty and love of a queer woman of colour, a truth revealed to the ugliness and arrogance of all supremacies that seek to hold onto power in any world around them where the people are always far more remarkable than the crown. The Priory of the Orange Tree successfully shone a light on this persistent and problematic trope throughout the speculative fiction genre, and the only conclusion the novel and Samanatha Shannon could provide was to end it once and for all. The chosen one is a long standing biopunk trope, the main hero bound to their fate by the code their blood carries. It is a trope ill-fitting to the world of books which forever must exist to try to invite readers into their worlds.