Melbourne writer S.A. Jones’s novel, The Fortress (Echo Publishing), imagines a dual society: the world as we know it exists, and within its bounds is a walled matriarchal city-state inhabited by ethereally beautiful Amazonian citizens known as the Vaik. Men can enter Vaik society, but only under strict conditions – they may elect to spend time in The Fortress voluntarily in order to atone, or they can be assigned to live in The Fortress as punishment for their transgressions against women in the outside world. While they are resident there, men must submit to the Vaik, and abide by the four pillars of their society: ‘Work. History. Sex. Justice.’
The novel’s protagonist, 42-year-old businessman Jonathon Bridge, has all the trappings of a high-flying corporate life: cocaine, wealth, a corner office and expensive suits. He has a strong sense of self-importance and entitlement and a lack of regard for the impact of his actions on others, particularly women. ‘I think there’s something in you that’s faulty, or just not there at all,’ his pregnant wife Adalia tells him. ‘Like some empathy gene is missing’. When Adalia discovers Jonathon’s infidelity along with his participation in and cover up of sexual abuse at his top-tier firm, she gives him an ultimatum: enter the Fortress as a supplicant for one year, or lose his marriage and fatherhood. ‘You need to learn insignificance,’ she tells him. ‘You need to know what that’s like. How it feels’.
‘You need to learn insignificance…You need to know what that’s like. How it feels.’
Jonathon chooses life with the Vaik, desperate to redeem himself as a husband and father, and not fully comprehending his decision. He thinks it will be a tough but manageable assignment; after all, he is used to winning. Like many men, Jonathon’s idea of what life will be like in The Fortress is skewed by erotic schoolboy fantasy. While he expects a year of playing out his fantasies, the reality is a wake-up call. While in the Fortress, men must strictly follow the directions of the Vaik; they cannot ask any questions of the women. It is this ‘embargo on enquiry’, Jonathon contends, that is ‘the principle that allowed The Fortress to function. It wasn’t the stockpile of weapons in the perimeter wall or the exhaustion that left the men hungry for nothing but sleep and food, but the way the mind slid around and around the same culs-de-sac’. Jonathon pines for his wife and the baby daughter who is born while he is exiled; he has ample opportunity for self-reflection and is unprepared for how the experience will shape him, both physically and psychologically. The Vaik tell him: ‘You have no say here. You neither accept or refuse. You are emptied out, ego-less.’
The Vaik are a long-established society, an Indigenous culture existing for thousands of years with native laws and language, cryptic practices and rituals. Myths and legends surround the history of The Fortress. While they currently live peacefully with their neighbouring society, the book tells of a past skirmish and attempt to overthrow the Vaik which saw their territory shrink but also resulted in a treaty granting them sovereignty. The book’s colonising society is deliberately genericised, but it is hard not to see this is a political comment in an Australian context; Jones imagines a social model which gives Indigenous people agency and self-determination, in direct contrast with the relationship between white colonisers of this country and its first peoples.
Jones’s book is part of a growing body of speculative fiction that brings a critical lens to the hot mess of patriarchy and systemic misogyny; part of a subset of literature that imagines a reversal of power between men and women. The Fortress is reminiscent of Naomi Alderman’s Women’s Prize winning novel The Power; in which young women are possessed of the very literal ability to hurt or kill, with electric shocks administered from their fingertips.
Jones’s book is part of a growing body of speculative fiction that brings a critical lens to the hot mess of patriarchy and systemic misogyny.
The primary source of power in Vaik society is the omnipresent and enigmatic Mother; it is never clear (to Jonathon nor to the reader) whether this being is real or imagined, mortal or divine. The idea of a looming – and not necessarily benevolent – matriarch is present in other speculative fiction: in The Power the matriarch is called Mother Eve, in Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich’s dystopian novel, Mother rules over society; in other novels of this genre the overlap of mother and mother nature blur into eco-feminist idealism. In Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, a breakaway group of women set up a survivalist camp in the Cumbrian moors; while patriarchal society is challenged, so is the accompanying separateness of humans from nature and the short-comings of a capitalist and consumerist society. These fictional matriarchal societies are self-sufficient and form communally; they share responsibilities for child care and farming; they live close to the land and are governed by the seasons; they engage in physical labour and are strong and prepared for combat.
The Fortress is environmentally beautiful; it has lush gardens and is fringed by the ocean. The Vaik trade their natural resources for supplies and infrastructure from the outside world, including access to men and their sperm for reproduction. Men who are resident with the Vaik cannot refuse requests for sex from them; fathers have no parental rights or responsibilities. In a way, Jones flips and highlights the control of female bodies and reproduction central to both Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God. The battleground of reproduction recurs in this literature because it is the most valuable human resource, one where women are indispensable and with which they can be controlled. We see this played out over and over again in the real world, in debates about abortion and fertility, and in legal and ethical tussles over decisions about women’s bodies. This will only increase as fertility technologies become more sophisticated and we invent new ways to make humans.
In a way, Jones flips and highlights the control of female bodies and reproduction.
In The Fortress, young women are raised away from the male gaze; they are trained in self-defence, and their birthrights are safety, agency and pleasure. This creates a complex dynamic when Jonathon is befriended by Ulait, a 13-year-old Vaik girl. It’s a friendship which is confronting for both Jonathon and the reader; the boundaries of paternal and sexual intimacy are blurred. Indeed, all of Jonathon’s significant relationships during his time with the Vaik are complicated by his obligation to engage in non-consensual sex.
It is to Jones’ credit, then, that the novel can deal with these complexities while being unashamedly erotic. In a recent interview in The Big Issue, Jones says of the explicit sex in the novel: ‘Parts of the book are pornographic…It is written to elicit sexual arousal. I wanted people to be boldly invested in this book. It wouldn’t have worked to write something entirely cerebral’. Jonathon’s loss of power – both authoritative, and over his sexual activity – forces him to empathise with the young women in the firm where he used to work and better understand the lasting impact of sexual assault on their lives.
These are prescient points in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and their inevitable backlash via counter-campaigns. Too often the default point of view on female experience is male; the cultural reflex when discussing the impact of sexual harassment on women is continually derailed by society’s urge to shift the focus back on men – his career, his family – rather than the victim. To an extent, The Fortress is complicit in this. Speculative fiction can offer us an uncompromised female perspective – It is interesting to ponder Jones’s choice to inhabit a male point of view in a novel with misogyny as a central concern. We follow Jonathon on his hero’s journey and witness his transformation and successful return to society; the female characters are sketches, accessories to his experience. He is a difficult character to empathise with, knowing his history of sexual predation.
Too often the default point of view on female experience is male…the impact of sexual harassment on women is continually derailed by society’s urge to shift the focus back on men.
In both Jones’s and Alderman’s novels, the behaviour of women endowed with authority mimics the worst aspects of the patriarchy; physical and sexual violence, the removal of consent, and the ability to punish and oppress. Both books raise interesting questions about privilege and the systemic abuse of power; they are experiments in thinking about the conditions for shifting power to women and the repercussions of doing so. Counter-campaigns to movements like #TimesUp fear a kind of dangerous femaleness which needs to be contained – books like these, then, expose the thinness of these claims by showing what real dangerous femaleness could look like.
The changes Jonathon undergoes during his time with the Vaik are monumental, a little predictable and perhaps too easily won. However, the convincing world Jones builds in The Fortress allows for the exploration of many important questions: how we can best live together in society; what the possibilities might be for a shift in the power dynamic between genders – men, women and non-binary – and what conditions it takes to motivate a person to radically change themselves and their relationship to other people.