The Falling Woman
by Pat Murphy
1987 Nebula Winner for Best Novel
Starting in 1987 the Nebula award for a period of four years went to women and three of their novels dealt with distinctly feminist themes. It was odd reading through this period and seeing the contrast between how each author handled the same themes. In fact if I was going to single out a period of the Nebulas to examine it would start here and run through Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea for three reasons:
First, the four winners represent a paradigm shift in the SFWA. While female authors had been rising to prominence in science fiction throughout the 1970's only three Nebulas for novels had gone to women before this point. After this things are close to evenly distributed.
Second, because there is overlap in themes it is an interesting study in post-feminist writing. The days of the shocking feminist theme are ten years gone at the point that The Falling Woman won and each author wound up in a very different place. One effectively ignored gender issues, one built the transitions into the story, one was still trapped in the anger of revolution, and one looked to the results of it.
Third, the despite the similar themes these are four very different books in structure, content, and quality. In order we have a dark fantasy, space opera, Vietnam war story with a light fantasy overlay, and a more traditional genre fantasy. That may sound like a lot of fantasy but each of them is unique.
So let's get started with The Falling Woman. An archeologist who has visions of the past is digging in Mayan ruins. Her estranged daughter comes to the dig to try to reconnect with her mother while recovering from traumatic changes in her personal life. The Mayan priestess who was the cause of the Mayans to abandon their cities and is the only vision of the past able to communicate with the archeologist warns that ancient evil forces are starting to stir as the Mayan calendar begins to turn to a new age. The priestess demands a return to the old ways but the cost for that may be high.
The plot itself isn't particularly great but Murphy's characters are the book's strength. The archeologist has recovered from a ruined life mainly by fleeing her family and her daughter's return throws that recovery in risk. Her husband had not been physically abusive but drove her to a mental breakdown. Her daughter's life is dominated by abandonment and that continues after she arrives in the jungles of Mexico. Neither of them are presented in a completely positive light; while the archeologist may have been a victim she has also victimized others with some of her behavior. They have friends and lovers with equally textured lives. Consequently the supernatural aspects of The Falling Woman feel buried beneath the human drama that is the real point of the novel.
That brings us to the real theme of the novel: the women in the book are all victims but they turn that on other people and being hurt didn't excuse them hurting others. It is not strictly men tearing down women in the book. The men also provide genuine support (as opposed to simply "rescuing" the women) and in one situation a couple mutually take advantage of each other. The past features powerless women being overwhelmed by men but things have changed by the point the novel starts and the relationships between the genders have become equal.
The fulcrum of a reader's reaction to this novel is how much they appreciate how Murphy handles her characters. The fantasy elements while intersped throughout the novel are secondary to the story of a daughter who is lost attempting to connect with a mother who has never been a mother. Unlike the previous two novels I reviewed those elements are well written and they are not dressed in sloppy writing. For this reason I'd recommend reading The Falling Woman even though it wouldn't go on my list of best science fiction and fantasy novels.