The Gland of Milk and Honey

Davina Lee, Dance Until the World Ends (2020, JMS Books)

See Davina Lee’s full catalogue here.

Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.

I took these words from the opening of José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, an era-defining work of queer theory first published in 2009. Muñoz’s book, subtitled ‘The Then and the There of Queer Futurity’, allowed queer theory to turn to a more positive way of thinking, to consider the future as opposed to the past: queer theory began as an academic discipline at the height of the AIDS epidemic, trying to think through queerness at a time when queerness was perhaps more aggressively marginalised than ever. Thinking about queerness—I’m going to use the term ‘queer’ here in the sense that queer theory does, which is to say anything that challenges the heterosexual, binary-gender norms of our society—is actually thinking about the future. It’s thinking about how we could be different. Thinking, in other words, about how we might disrupt the norms of our society to come up with something better for everyone.

I don’t know whether or not Davina Lee’s Dance Until the World Ends is a utopia—more on that question later—but it’s certainly queer. It’s a work of speculative fiction and of lesbian romance, of fantasy and fairytale, sci-fi and of cli-fi. In it Lee imagines a world that has torn up the rule book of our heteronormative society, upsetting all the beliefs and practices that make it, adopting new ways of thinking about relationships, gender, power and sex. Bodies are made strange, divided into haploids and diploids, queens, workers and drones. Social structures take some getting used to; the post-enlightenment, Western model of the nuclear family is nowhere to be seen. Sex is both a private practice and a frank, exuberant public one, the subject of intimacy, but also of ecstatic, arcane rituals carried out for all to see. What appears at first to be a love story—it soon becomes much more than this—unfolds against this world between two diminutive haploid women, Lina and Arabel.

The queerness of Dance is not just societal; it extends to bodies themselves. Both the strangeness and familiarity of this world’s bodies are revealed gradually, not easy to pin down for at least the first few chapters. They both are and are not human. Indeed, one of the novel’s most remarkable achievements lies in just this fact, and in the way Lee writes in such a moving, sensuous manner about bodies with which we have to learn to be familiar, learn to be comfortable. Dance teaches us to feel at ease with these bodies as the story progresses: they never feel fetishised and nor do they feel tokenised, and the narrative certainly never falls into any of the weird, quasi-colonial tropes beloved of certain Hollywood movies which I couldn’t possibly name.

As well as their inter- and intra-gender dimorphism—the aforementioned split into haploid and diploid—these are bodies with scent glands; the human sense of smell, notoriously poor as compared with other animals, has advanced here to something much more sophisticated. Scent glands are used for semi-voluntary forms of communication, and scent may betray a character’s intentions if the scent information they release is at odds with what they say. Thus, in the scene which introduces Lina, we see a school teacher scenting a warning to her students which ‘Lina could smell…in the air, by the alpha pheromones she released.’ Pretty quickly, though, as Arabel joins Lina in the novel’s first chapter, it becomes clear that scent, too, has both public and private functions:

Arabel smiled upon seeing Lina, and released a bit of mating pheromone as she puckered up for a kiss. Lina happily obliged, letting herself fall into the trance provided by Arabel’s heady scent.

“You naughty girl,” Lina chastised. “You ought not to be scenting in the tunnels. You never know when there might be children about.”

Arabel shrugged, and took turns rubbing the back of her ears—the place where her scent glands were located—against the side of Lina’s neck. Lina’s eyelids fluttered, and she nearly swooned until Arable clamped her teeth on an earlobe and hauled her back to reality.

“You’re trouble,” Lina said.

“And that’s exactly why you love me,” Arabel proclaimed, wrapping her arms about Lina’s neck.

Scent can often feel like the primary way of experiencing this world, and the novel has descriptions to match; Lee’s prose is filled with intense, luscious accounts of the smells of fruit, fire and flesh. It’s interesting for this reason that the scent gland becomes an erogenous zone, unabashedly sexualised, and I can’t decide whether or not this is refreshingly different or somewhat familiar (it’s a common experience), just like the sexualisation of mouths in our own world, wherein speech is our most social bodily process, and taste is one of our most intimate. Scent glands form a central part of sex, and we learn, in a pleasing set of counterintuitive turns, how scent glands feel, how they taste, how they look, in depictions that are often frankly and forthrightly yonic:

Lina continued ever closer to Arabel’s glistening scent gland, enjoying the drifting of mating pheromones she was getting.

Arabel moved the tip of her finger to the top of Lina’s scent gland and drew it slowly downward around the outside, close, but never touching Lina’s sensitive gland itself.

It feels far from accidental that scent glands resemble vulvas; one of Lina’s own is referred to early on as a ‘tight, moist slit’, even if we have to wait until the novel’s climax to see the near-consummative image of a ‘tongue plowing straight through the center of her scent gland.’ It’s difficult not to think of the conceptualisations of women’s genitals for which psychoanalysis has long been criticised, wherein a clitoris is a debased penis, a vagina a housing for a true penis:

The clitoris is conceived as a little penis pleasant to masturbate so long as castration anxiety does not exist…the vagina is valued for the “lodging” it offers the male organ. (Luce Irigaray, ‘This Sex Which is Not One’)

Yet the scent gland is an opportunity to break out of this framework; it is an erogenous zone radically removed from the implications of reproduction; it is sexually receptive, and yet it engages in complex signalling processes with the world. Dance is, we might say, a novel with a powerful olfactory fixation.

While we’re on the subject, and appropriately enough for a story which seems to have turned the family unit on its head, the plot is a twist on what Sigmund Freud called a ‘family romance’. Lina, a small and insignificant haploid, has visions and dreams of herself as something more, perhaps of noble birth; just like in any fairytale, she turns out to be right. Her heroine’s journey leads to her learning more about herself and her people, and finds that self-knowledge is the key to helping others to a better life.

So where does utopia fit into all of this? Gradually, masterfully, we learn that this is a vision of the future. There’s no Statue-of-Liberty moment. But through a series of gentle revelations it’s made clear that Lina and her people are not so unlike today’s humans: in one particularly inspired scene, she has a vision of a human body without any scent glands, and finds it alarming and grotesque at a point when we, reading her story, have long-since ceased to be shocked by hers. An author’s afterword, incidentally, goes into much more detail regarding these questions, but I won’t touch upon it here.

But actually, at first glance, Dance has many of the hallmarks of a dystopia. There are gentle suggestions of catastrophe in the past: one of the mechanisms deployed to drip-feed information is a metatext called The Book of the Origin, a volume forbidden to the people of Lina’s community. ‘Too long,’ the Book reads, ‘had humankind strayed from the path of righteousness. And so it was that the land would become barren, the water poison, and even the very air thick and choking.’ The novel’s quiet ecology comes not just through these frank accounts of environmental destruction in the past, but through humdrum details: we first see both Lina and Arabel working ordinary jobs concerned with preserving environmental equilibrium, one in air filtration and the other in waste management. And in addition to this dark history, there are other calling cards: dense and impenetrable social hierarchies, an always-present threat of violence from initially-unspecified ‘rebels’, carefully organised and carnivalesque displays of public exuberance, brief escapes from reality found in drugs and sex.

Some of the most compelling scenes in the novel come when these elements are combined. The showpiece that brings the first act to a close is the clearest example of this, an elaborate mix of festival and ritual known as the ‘Queen’s Fertility Gala’. Part of the novel’s sense of intimacy arises from the careful shifts between private and public displays of affection, and this one is no different. Whereas in an earlier scene we see Arabel fashioning skimpy party outfits from strips of hazard tape, here, in a manner that feels significant, outfits are made instead from organic matter:

Lina continued exploring the area around Arabel’s scent gland, while she sent her fingers blindly tracing out the vines that wrapped around Arabel’s chest, squeezing her tiny breasts from above and below, before running over each shoulder to be tied off around back. Lina held a nipple in each hand, rolling it between her finger and thumb. Arabel threw back her head and moaned. There was no mistaking the scent now—the air around Arabel was thick with it.

“Once we get these covered with leaves,” Lina whispered, while casually rolling and tugging Arabel’s nipples, “you’ll be all set. At least for the top half.”

The event itself, though, is characterised by a much more violent eroticism. The Gala culminates in the making of ‘Royal Wine’, a clear human analogue to the royal jelly produced by bees (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, form a key influence on the social and cultural dynamics of the world of Dance). I don’t want to quote too much from this scene lest its impact be lessened; suffice to say that Lina must watch ‘helplessly’ as a shocking, even frightening ritual unfolds, and into which she is eventually dragged herself. It’s a key moment, and one which establishes without debate the dark workings of power in Lina’s world; appropriate, then, that it’s also the event which prompts her to embark on her heroine’s journey.

In a kind of microcosm of some of the novel’s wider ideas, though, Lina’s journey teaches her that things need not be this way. The violence which forms a centrepiece of her culture could just as easily be something else. Those events which make a spectacle of humiliation and pain could instead make one of pleasure. The forbidden texts and substances, the comfort and the knowledge they offer, could be made available to all. It’s a journey which finds its triumph in discovering a new, ecological and egalitarian imagination, one which melds the best elements of the past and the present, all in order to look with hope toward the future.

There’s a lot more I would want to say about the ecological thought of the novel. Lina’s coming-of-age is characterised by a oneness with nature, a sense of being in tune with the environment which, sure enough, is inseparable from a sense of being in tune with oneself and with others. The Great Tree which is spoken of in the ancient texts takes on a significance which Lina and Arabel come eventually to realise:

“I feel the sap flowing inside, its lifeblood, coursing through it, carrying nutrients from the leaves to the roots and back. I understand how it connects the land to the sun and the air, and how all of us are connected to the land and air, and therefore to the Great Tree.”

The Great Tree, which ought rightfully to be venerated, is not just an empty symbol, but a clear tie to the tree-shaped diagrams of evolution by natural selection, and the radical insight that ought rightfully to be at the centre of the Darwinian revolution: we are, all of us, more alike than we are different, and human kinship, whether with animals or plants, fish or trees, birds or bees, is not a metaphor but a very literal truth. ‘For any people of the Great Tree,’ the Book of the Origin reads, ‘are all of the same family.’ The novel’s approach to family, it turns out, is not to debase it but to perfect it: as Lina reaches a triumphant moment, it is no accident that she is able to perceive for the first time the scent of ‘familial love’, secreted by everyone she encounters.

In Greek, Lina’s name means ‘sunlight’; in Arabic, it is a young tree. And it just so happens that Lina’s journey teaches her to return triumphantly to her people with both these gifts in hand.

So does it take a catastrophe to turn the world queer? I’m not sure, but Dance Until the World Ends will have you wondering if it might be worth it.

Dance Until the World Ends is available from JMS Books now.

8 thoughts on “The Gland of Milk and Honey

  1. Wow. It has to be said, I had only heard of this book in the lead up to this blog post, and not researched it (I knew this was coming from Twitter, so wanted to come at it blind, as it were) so to find it was a transhumanist SF text has taken me by surprise. It’s also not a common trope, I can think of maybe three things that come to mind (one of which is a possibly Apocryphal tale about the making of Kevin Costners Waterworld, and one of which is a video game.) when slotting it into my mental diaspora of fiction.
    It makes me very curious not only about the book, but also about the thoughts that went into it. Nice job on the review/analysis, Lottie.

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      1. I haven’t read this book obviously, but in terms of Queer/Feminist SF Dystopia, there’s also ‘The Passion of New Eve’ by Angela Carter. It’s frankly heavy going though. It is perhaps at a completely different point on the literary spectrum though.

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  2. First of all, just realizing that ‘utopia’ is preceded by an ‘a’ rather than an ‘an’ is a reward enough (but I still want the book).
    For some reason, the characters’ descriptions, in their ‘Great Tree’ context, made me think of Ratatoskrs.
    The book seems very far out of my alley, which is why (prize or not) I’ll be adding it to my ‘to read’ list.

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    1. ‘Those in the north would call it Yggdrasil’, as one of the early excerpts from The Book of the Origin reads.

      I suppose you could say ‘an utopia’. It sounds like a very consonanty ‘yutopia’ when I say at aloud, though.

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    2. I wondered if some of the imagery was to do with the the three wells, particularly Mimir’s and Hvergelmir.
      The bringing forth of the sap, and the acquiring of knowledge.

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