Pointed social commentary undermined by unfortunate world-building choices

Shadow of Earth — Phyllis Eisenstein

SHDWFRTH1979

Eisenstein is probably better known for her Alaric the Minstrel stories, if only because that’s still an on-going series; the most recent Alaric story, “Caravan to Nowhere” appeared in 2014’s Rogues. As it happens, Eisenstein is one of those authors for whom I discover in retrospect I am a completist, so I could have reviewed Born to Exile, the first Alaric fix-in. Instead I decided to go with the considerably more obscure Shadow of Earth, a tale of a modern American  woman who finds herself trapped in a backward world where her only value is as a brood mare of rare breed: a full-blooded white woman! 

Some aspects of this novel have aged more gracefully than other elements.

The book starts off happily enough, with 20-year-old Celia Ward in love with older Larry Meyers, a grad student whose mysterious Project drives the book. The parsimonious Larry hired Celia to tutor him in Spanish but they soon became lovers, and as far as Celia knows, happy ones.

Alas for Celia, she is utterly ignorant of the story of Bluebeard and so when she stumbles over Larry’s hidden stash of guns she does not immediately flee. When asked about it, he reluctantly reveals that his Project is a device that gives him access to another version of the Earth, an undeveloped world where modern guns are a valuable trade good.

Larry does give two sensible reasons for keeping his device, created more or less by accident, a secret. The first is the other Earth, still resource rich, would be exploited by our world. The second is he is afraid of how the US would use the shadow world in the context of the Cold War; nuclear weapons could be launched for the shadow world into unsuspecting cities in our world1.

Larry does offer to show her the other world, and she is intrigued enough to take up on that offer. This expedition goes well until the moment they appear in the shadow world, at which point she is ambushed, captured and dragged off by two local captors. Larry’s fate is unclear.

Just to give you an idea of how olden timey books paced things, all of the above occurs in the first 28 pages of this 329 page novel.

In short order, Celia is stripped of her goods, enslaved and sold. Dragged across the untamed forests of the New World by troubadour Rio, she is presented to the Marquis de los Rubios, a man whose perception of himself as a breed apart from his subjects demands a consort like Celia; like Celia, he is blond and he intends to make sure his legitimate heir is as well.

How Celia feels about all this does not enter into anyone’s calculations. Women have no rights in this world and most people are baffled that she is unhappy to become the valued child-factory of a well-born man. In the short run she has no choice but to submit to rape and forced pregnancy in a world without civil rights as we know them, easy hygiene or modern medicine. In the long run she keeps an eye out for a chance to escape.

When Larry appears, it seems as though salvation is at hand. Alas, it wasn’t a coincidence that she got kidnapped within minutes of appearing in the shadow world with Larry and in any case Larry has overplayed his hand with the locals, having become far too integral to local power struggles for his own good.

On rereading this, I found it could be divided nicely into the interesting parts – Celia’s desire for and struggle for escape back to her world – and the, hrm, somewhat unfortunate and implausible world-building. Second one first and I’d like to soften what is going to follow by acknowledging that Eisenstein is American and Americans often have some pretty weird ideas about Catholics.

The big difference between Celia’s world and the shadow world is that in the shadow world the Armada succeeded, England was crushed and without England to finance the grand success of Protestantism, Catholicism won and the Spanish Empire remained the dominant one in the world (although it’s badly eroded by the time of this novel). With no Protestant nations of note, the advances needed for the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the modern world did not occur, with the result the level of technology in the shadow world is hardly more advanced than it was in the days of Elizabeth I.

Yeah.

I’ve seen “modernization requires Protestants” elsewhere; it’s a throw away detail in GDW’s 2300, for example, where Mexico embraces modernity by rejecting the Catholic Church. For historical reasons the US has a long and rich history of anti-Catholicism – Pope’s Day, where effigies of a pope were burned, was celebrated as late as the 1890s in the US - and of course the Americans famously sacrificed their only Catholic President to the unslakable baptist gods of Texas in 1963, probably as part of some sort of fertility rite.

An unsympathetic reviewer might also wonder if there was an element of “technological advancement is incompatible with Mediterranean-adjacent levels of melanin” going on here, again a perfectly normal element to find in an American SF author’s work. I think the last time I encountered the “only white woman in the territory” card  was in an episode of Escape (a radio show of the 1940s and 1950s) and while the author sharply critiques the worldviews that give rise to the shadow world’s ethnically stratified society and the Marquis de los Rubios’ obsession with racial purity, I thought the critique was undermined by the way the book    embraced certain stereotypes in service of the narrative.

I did wonder what was going on elsewhere on this planet, without the voracious European empires competing to establish control over as much of the world as they could reach. This Spanish Empire’s control is a pretty feeble thing and it seems to have reached a high water mark a long time ago. What happens to China spared the Anglo-Chinese Wars? What happens in Africa absent the Scramble for Africa? The technological limitations of the shadow world and the focus on the book on Celia’s predicament mean those questions cannot be answered from the text.

Setting aside the dodgy world-building, there are aspects of this I genuinely liked; there is a reason I own my little collection of Eisensteins. Celia is an interesting character and I have to give the author points for the success with which she makes Larry utterly loathsome and the way she ties in his exploitation of Celia with how all the other men in this try to use her. Even Rio, probably the most sympathetic male in the book, spends much of the book looking at Celia in terms of how she fits into his needs and desires.

There’s also a strong thread in favour of modern conveniences and modern medicine but as recent history shows, access to those goes hand-in-hand with access to a complete suite of civil liberties. It does no good to have the technological ability to control fertility if women are denied access to said technology.

As hard as it may be for modern audiences to imagine, when this book was written women’s rights were in the process of expanding; the ERA had not yet been killed and the War on Women wasn’t an integral, inalienable part of a major American party’s zeitgeist. Reminding people of what life could be without those newly won rights was perfectly reasonable and it’s a shame that in the years since this was published so many people took stripping those rights away as an aspirational goal.

Shadow of Earth bears some similarity to the far better known Kindred by the late Octavia E. Butler2; this is not a coincidence, I suspect. The two books were published almost simultaneously – Kindred in July 1979 and Shadow of Earth in September 1979 - and they draw on overlapping but not identical concerns. Butler had better command of her prose and a sharper awareness of certain issues and I suspect that is why Kindred is well known and Shadow of Earth is not.

Shadow of Earth is very much out of print, the only edition of which I am aware being the one in my hands.


  1. He talks about planting a nuclear device in physical locations corresponding to e.g. Moscow (which I assume would have shadow world Moscow on it), then porting them over but actually the first version of his device would work perfectly fine on an ICBM
  2. I seriously considered calling this a Kindred for White Women but I thought that was too mean.

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