Hadrian's Rage: the power of gay love, the rainbow symbol, the printed word and funhouse mirrors
by Drew Rowsome -
Being a big fan of Patricia Marie Budd's novel Hadrian's Lover, I was very excited to receive a copy of the sequel Hadrian's Rage. Here's hoping it becomes an epic sci-fi saga that runs to many, many volumes.
The basic premise of Budd's dystopic post-apocolyptic books is that a small community of gays and lesbians have survived the end of the world by building a walled (as in Hadrian's wall) community near Hudson's Bay. The novels posit a world where homosexuality is the status quo and heterosexuality is seen as evil. Budd has said that she wrote Hadrian's Lover as a way to get students - Budd is a teacher and from the evidence a very fine one - to think about their attitudes towards to the LGBT community and to fight prejudice.
A few chapters in and world events made Budd's writing eerily, uncomfortably prescient. The massacre in Orlando illustrated just how much hatred still exists in the world for sexual minorities, how much violence we face. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican US presidential nominee, and his walls scarily echo the walls around Hadrian. I began to wonder if this, with so many raw wounds already, was a good time to read Hadrian's Rage. Would I be too influenced by current events and my own anger, tears and rage, to enjoy it or assess it fairly? Was Hadrian's Rage affecting me so strongly because of what was happening in the real world around me?
And then I realized that one of the points of Hadrian's Rage is that there has never been and, horrifyingly, may never be, a time when the themes don't resonate. Every time I flinched at the suffering of the "strais" or read a polemic on heterosexual rights, I squirmed with fury - which is exactly what Budd was trying to make a reader do. Being a gay man, I may not be the target of Hadrian's Lover, but if it helps a straight, bi or questioning reader find their way to the conclusions that jumped off the page at me, I'm happy to nominate it for the gay canon.
Budd can be pedantic and the characters do have a tendency to make long speeches that can grow repetitive. Fortunately this is balanced with enough plot, intrigue and sexual/emotional passion to fuel a telenovela and I chalked it up to the genre: sci-fi can be dry and long-winded, especially when it is illustrating another world or a theme that the author is passionate about. Turns out that Budd is up to something else.
There is a crucial sub-theme happening that cracks Hadrian's Rage wide open and makes it far more than a polemic. The world of Hadrian is very cleverly and precisely imagined with all the sci-fi trappings (very much extrapolated from extensive research as evidenced by the footnotes) including the "voc" which is a holographic, contact lens, radio wave form of communication that is primarily visual. The parallel to our ever present cell phones is not incidental and unavoidable. Books in a printed format are a rarity in Hadrian because in the ravaged world, trees are too precious to be pulped. When one of the characters is stripped of his voc as punishment he discovers a cache of books in a museum and, showing the treasure to his fellow soldier and soon-to-be-lover, Budd writes,
"This is where I come to read . . . Yeah, the old-fashioned way with a book in my hands, flipping pages instead of blinking to scroll. It's like nothing I've ever experienced before, the world around me vanishes, and my mind is drawn into the illusion created by these lines. I don't see words anymore; I - I see people, I see places, I hear conversations." As he speaks, Frank's fingers softly caress the spines of books lined up like soldiers at attention on the shelf. He stops at one particularly large book, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. "It's absolutely brilliant. Nineteenth century warfare, but also love and complications in relationships and the whole social structure of society. Really, it's not very different from what we have here in Hadrian except for the obivious sexual orientation of the characters. That aside and, well, we're all alike; you know what I mean?"
Tolstoy is a nobler aim than Herbert or Martin, but I'm not sure it is a good hook for a young adult audience. However it does set Budd free and suddenly the plot kicks into high gear and Hadrian's Rage becomes less literature and more page-turner. Budd also experiments with form - there are newscasts and a futuristic form of tweeting that are integrated into the text to further the plot and emphasize the theme of alienation which twists back to the major theme of sexuality and acceptance. It should also be noted that Budd has expanded her net to include gender identity and that issue's place in the world of Hadrian adds a powerful sub-plot.
It initially bothered me that Budd wrote eloquently about heterosexual longing but gave short shift to the power of gay sex and love. For her purposes, it was necessary and is redeemed in a, very late in the book, exploration of men in love that blossoms into a very clever parallel structure that makes Budd's point conceptually, emotionally and in a way that is a compulsive read. At that point any lapses in style or literalism were completely forgiven and I mourned that there were only a few chapters left.
It still makes me queasy to read about "strais" or "breeders" lamenting their lack of rights but hopefully it makes a strai or potentially-breeding reader make the connection and have their eyes opened. A re-interpretation of the rainbow symbol in particular resounds in a way that I found quite pointed, disturbing and wonderful. Budd has created a noble teaching tool, a funhouse mirror cry out against the current events that are ripping at the psyche of all of us, but she has also crafted a novel about the pleasure and power of reading that is pleasurable and powerful.