Sunday, February 27, 2011

Recent Movie Roundup 12

My movie-watching slowed way down in the second half of 2010--the posts tagged 'film' from that period cover nearly all of the films I watched--but with winter the interchangeable action films and rage-inducing romantic comedies give way to more interesting stuff, and I've found myself at the movie theater again.
  • The Kids Are All Right (2010) - It's easy to imagine how this gentle, well-made but unexciting film somehow managed to make its way to such universal, but mostly overblown, acclaim.  There are the modest beginnings as an indie flick (with, admittedly, a top-drawer cast) that might incline reviewers to over-emphasize their praise.  There is the heartening subject matter, the marriage of Jules (Annette Bening) and Nic (Julianne Moore), which is rocked when their children make contact with Paul, the sperm donor who fathered them (Mark Ruffalo), and invite him into their lives.  There is the film's depiction of gay marriage and gay families as entirely normal, in the sense that the one the film revolves around is happy, loving, but still screwed up (in part by the pressure to be more happy and more loving than families with opposite-sex parents), and the way that the assumption made by Paul, that as a straight man, as the kids' biological father, and as, for a brief period, Nic's lover, he can appropriate this family for himself, is shut down by all the other characters and the film's ending, which reaffirms the family's power to endure.  These are all good qualities, but they don't quite make up for the fact that Kids is a little floppy, that as a comedy it is neither laugh-out-loud funny nor wry, and that its ending, in its rush to restore Jules and Nic's marriage, papers over rather than addresses or fixes the cracks that were present in it before Paul came into it, and thus feels a little unearned.  As a best picture Oscar nominee, and with Bening positioned as one of the stronger contenders for this year's best actress award (which is almost more baffling than the film's nomination; she's good, but not remarkable), those flaws are a lot harder to ignore.  At this point, Kids's quality has been blown so completely out of proportion to what the film actually achieves that even the things I liked about it--most notably Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, who give winning performances as titular kids, making them believably immature without being bratty--seem a little duller in the bright glare of all that unearned praise.

  • The King's Speech (2010) - This film's ecstatic reception, meanwhile, leaves me utterly baffled (all the more so because, while Kids is clearly an also-ran in all of its Oscar categories except possibly best actress, King is a shoe-in for best picture).  Again, this is a well-made film that is utterly unobjectionable in itself.  Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are very good as, respectively, George VI and Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who helped him overcome his stammer in time to take the throne from the abdicating Edward VIII and galvanize his people in the face of WWII (though Firth's performance is not a patch on his magnificent turn as another George, the grief-stricken title character in last year's A Single Man).  But the film itself is so small, so predictable, so proper.  There is almost no beat to either plot or characters that feels fresh or original (as others have noted, the plot is essentially that of a sports movie).  But for its historical aspect, The King's Speech does nothing to set itself apart from the many films that have told its story before, nor does it seem to be trying to tell a particularly excellent version of that story--apart from the performances, the film is not much more than adequate.  It's hard to escape the conclusion that the film is using history as a crutch, borrowing significance from the real George VI's symbolic role in the conflict that defined his nation's identity and role in the 20th century (while, apparently, distorting history, and George's political affiliations, quite significantly).  That that borrowing has been rewarded with praise and awards is incredibly aggravating.

    Even more aggravating is the film's positioning of itself as a fable of class-crossing friendship, with Logue, a commoner (whose ancestry and success at his practice have been severely downgraded in order to emphasize this point, as have the honors that George bestowed upon him before the war and the titular speech) helping George to become the ruler that Britain deserves, even as it pulls every classist, misogynist trick in the book in its handling of Wallis Simpson.  According to The King's Speech, Wallis's crimes are: that she wouldn't become Edward's kept woman, that she expected to be treated as an equal partner in their relationship, and that she was not sufficiently deferential to royalty.  All of which would have put me entirely on her side even if there were not scenes in The King's Speech such as the one in which Helena Bonham Carter's Queen Elizabeth remarks to Winston Churchill that Wallis's "hold" on Edward must be the result of dirty sex tricks she learned in a Shanghai brothel.  (To the obvious retort, that the film is trying to be accurate to how the royal family must have seen Wallis, one can only reply by pointing out that The King's Speech is only too happy to entirely reverse Churchill's position on the abdication crisis--he supported Edward to the bitter end--and as the Queen Mother is no less integral a part of post-war British myth one can only assume that the filmmakers thought that slut-shaming wouldn't alienate her from the audience.)  This is a problem for the film, which uses Wallis (and, to a lesser extent, Edward) as the closest thing it has to a villain, but it's a bigger problem for me, because it means I've been forced into sympathizing with someone who, in real life, was practically a Nazi, which you'd think a film that makes so much hay out of George's role in opposing the Nazis would find more objectionable than promiscuity.  Once you notice how much class and sex prejudice is involved in the film's handling of Wallis, the thinness of its egalitarianism becomes easier to spot, and The King's Speech emerges as a disturbingly conservative film, politically as well as artistically.

  • Black Swan (2010) - I'm not sure what I was expecting from this film, but it certainly wasn't to be swept away as thoroughly as I was.  To be fair, a lot of this is Tchaikovsky's doing, not Darren Aronofsky's--the last twenty minutes of the film are essentially a compressed performance of Swan Lake, and the score features the ballet's signature music quite heavily--but one of the things that Black Swan does well is to take a story so familiar that it's become an insipid, bloodless cliché and turn it on its head, making it scary, sexy, and horrifying (in the same way, composer Clint Mansell weaves Tchaikovsky's music in and out of his own, Swan Lake-inspired, score, and uses it to evoke fear and tension as well as sweeping emotion).  This isn't a profound or complicated film.  Its ideas are straightforward and everything it does is right there on the surface.  But what's on that surface--Natalie Portman's riveting, exhausting performance as Nina, a technically accomplished but emotionally stunted ballerina who spends the film alternately seeking out and fighting off her dark side in order to embody the black as well as white swan; Aronofsky's claustrophobic direction and his evocation of Nina's deteriorating grasp on reality--is so well done, and so overpowering, that the film's thematic thinness hardly has a chance to register (an exception might be the film's final shot, which makes no sense--as if Aronofsky knew what ending his paralleling of Swan Lake and The Red Shoes demanded, but couldn't figure out how to get to it).

    Another thing I wasn't expecting, and which the film's otherwise enthusiastic reception has been surprisingly silent about, is the fact that Black Swan can very easily be read as a feminist story, and more precisely, as a feminist horror story, in which a supposedly romantic framework is revealed as a lethal trap.  What destroys Nina, after all, is the virgin/whore dichotomy--her inability to reconcile the "good" (which is to say, timid, defenseless, virginal) girl she's been raised to be with the "bad" (sexual, powerful, demanding) character she's been asked to play.  As the film's events recall and distort Swan Lake--Nina fears that, like the white swan Odette, she is being replaced by another dancer, and the company's director is paralleled with both the prince and the evil magician--they also cast a light on the system that drives the ballet company, in which women compete with and undermine one another in order to win the favor of a man, who sexually harasses and assaults his "favorites," then discards them when they're no longer young and beautiful--a system that has also produced (and discarded) Nina's mother, who has trained her daughter to be its perfect, and perfectly docile, participant.  When Mila Kunis's rival ballerina Lily, who doesn't play by these rules, who owns her sexuality rather than suppressing or performing it, tries to reach out to Nina, Nina's worldview has no terms in which to comprehend her.  She recoils from, and perceives as an enemy, her only chance of salvation.

  • True Grit (2010) - It's easy enough to take this film as a straight-up, comedic Western adventure, the Coen brothers doing their typical shtick of confounding expectations by not confounding them and simply telling the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (a fantastic Hailee Steinfeld) who hires a marshall to track down the man who killed her father, and goes with him on his quest.  As such, the film works very well--Jeff Bridges has taken to sprinkling each of his performances with a little bit of The Dude to give them a popular flavor, but that doesn't make his Rooster Cogburn any less successful; Matt Damon is also good as a Texas Ranger who starts out a buffoon and turns out to have a bit more substance to him (though the slight romantic undercurrent between his character and Mattie is a little disturbing given that Damon is 41 and Steinfeld is 14); most importantly, the plot moves well, the chases, gunfights, and standoffs are all appropriately thrilling, and the landscape is used beautifully.  But I have a niggling suspicion that the film is more sarcastic, and that its comedy is darker, than a first glance would suggest.  I can't help but wonder what we're meant to be laughing at--the buddy comedy antics between Mattie, Rooster, and Damon's LeBoeuf?  The whole notion of the Western adventure?  Or Mattie herself?  And if it's the latter, is that laughter benevolent or cruel?  Are we meant to see Mattie, who is vengeful, bloodthirsty, and, perhaps most importantly, obsessed with the power of money and the law to get her the things she wants, as verging on monstrous, and the high price she pays for avenging her father as a comeuppance?  Or is the film, as Stanley Fish suggests, reiterating No Country for Old Men's message of the universe's amorality, and holding up Mattie's determination to pay for the things she wants and make sure others pay for what they've taken, and to live as if the world were guided by a stark division between right and wrong even in the face of fate's capriciousness, as admirable?  I can't decide whether True Grit wants us to like Mattie, or fear her, or pity her, and I'm not sure the film does either.

  • How to Train Your Dragon (2010) - Like The Kids Are All Right, this feels like a film that I would have enjoyed a lot more had I watched it closer to its release date, and before the hype surrounding it got completely out of hand.  Dragon, which is loosely based on a series of children's novels by Cressida Cowell and tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, clearly trying to work the same magic Mike Myers did with Shrek but not quite managing it), a young viking who tries to prove himself to his father by downing one of the dragons who plague their village but ends up befriending and learning to ride the creature, whom he names Toothless, does defy the conventional wisdom that non-Pixar animated films are thinly plotted and use pop-culture humor as a crutch, and is a sweet, enjoyable film.  But it is by no means the rousing success that some reviewers (and the voters for the best animated picture Oscar) have called it.  The plot is overstuffed, and rather than tying together, the film's many themes--Hiccup's inability to take a life, in defiance of the viking ethos; the tense relationship between a father and son who love each other but have nothing in common; the triumph of brain over brawn, as Hiccup uses the lessons he learns from training Toothless to gentle other dragons despite his unimposing physique; the necessity of trying to understand your enemies in the hopes of making peace with them (somewhat undermined when it's revealed that the dragons have only been attacking the viking village because they've been forced to by a bigger, meaner dragon, to whom no such attempts at understanding are extended)--get in each other's way.  For both of these reasons, the characters are obscured, never developing beyond their types.  Like most children's stories, Dragon is manipulative, trapping us with moments of tenderness and high emotion, but whereas Pixar earns the right to be manipulative by crafting unique, carefully detailed stories and characters, Dragon's manipulation is predictable and by the numbers, and the only unexpected note in the film--the high price Hiccup pays for saving his village--arrives too late and is handled too glibly to truly resonate.  Dragon is by no means a bad film, and certainly a step above the various Shrek sequels and uninspired Shrek-imitators that Dreamworks in particular has been producing in the last decade, but it's a far cry from worthwhile in its own right.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, February 21-25

Before I get to the week's reviews, I'd like to mention that the Strange Horizons readers' poll, where you can vote for your favorite stories, poems, articles and reviewers, is open until March 6th.  Vote early and vote often (though only your last ballot will count).

Now the reviews: the week kicks off with Jonathan McCalmont (who has just joined Strange Horizons's staff as junior articles editor and a contributor to the blog--welcome aboard, Jonathan!) writing about Mira Grant's Feed, which he argues is a vicious satire of the state of contemporary journalism.  William Mingin discusses Harry Connolly's Game of Cages, a dark fantasy detective story and the second in the Twenty Palaces series featuring Ray Lilly.  We end the week with some nonfiction in Raz Greenberg's review of Douglas E. Cowan's Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television, which Raz concludes is more about transcendence than SF film and TV.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Passage by Justin Cronin

In my recent post about M.J. Engh's Arslan, I noted how much of its time--the mid-70s--the novel seemed, most particularly in its conviction that America, still reeling from the cultural clashes of the 60s, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, was on the verge of collapse.  A few days later, Keith Phipps, writing for the AV Club, made the same observation about Stephen King's The Stand.  Even defaced by King's ill-considered 1990 expansion of the novel, which moved its setting from 1980 to 1990, Phipps writes, The Stand is unmistakably "a product of the '70s," suffused with that decade's sense of disintegration and impending doom.
I enjoyed The Stand from start to finish, but never as much as in its first third, when the fast-acting "superflu" known as Captain Trips destroys an America that was already destroying itself. The government—the same one that recently lied to the American people about Watergate and the origins and scale of the war in Vietnam—uses terrifying violence to enforce an official story. Television broadcasts get overrun by black militants who perform public executions for a dying populace, getting in some last licks in a race war that's about to become irrelevant. The superflu is a poison, but it's also a catalyst, exacerbating and speeding up the conflicts already in play. It's less a new development than the last chapter in the story of an ongoing American apocalypse.
Justin Cronin's The Passage has received more than a few comparisons to The Stand.  Before reading the book, I chalked this up to marketing--the first in a projected trilogy, The Passage was sold for a fantastic seven figure sum, to which add yet another seven figures for the film rights, purchased by Ridley Scott, and its publishers are presumably eager to associate it with a known bestseller--or to superficial similarities between the two books' plots, both of which revolve around an event that rapidly depopulates the US--in The Passage, the escape, from the military base where they were being held, of a group of prisoners who had been exposed to an experimental longevity drug which causes them to transform into, essentially, vampires--and around a group of survivors that bands together in its aftermath.  It was only once I started reading The Passage that I realized just how accurate, how perfectly descriptive, the comparison was.  The Passage truly is The Stand for the 21st century.  The similarities in plot turn out to be anything but superficial--in both novels, the boss villain congregates his followers in Las Vegas, while the characters' sole hope of salvation lies in Colorado; both feature a wise, spiritual black woman who provides the characters with moral and practical guidance (in The Passage there are two such characters); both culminate in a nuclear explosion that destroys the main antagonist; both overlay the struggle for humanity's survival with a struggle between cosmic forces of light and dark, who recruit the heroes and villains to their war.  Even more surprising is how much Cronin sounds like King--that same stream of clichés and stereotypes, skillfully strung together into an engaging, effortlessly readable narrative by a voice whose folksiness is as deliberate as its erudition.  Or rather, how much more King-ish than King he sounds, King himself having hit on this voice only intermittently and imperfectly in the last fifteen years.

Most crucially, The Passage is a novel of its moment in exactly the same way, and with almost exactly the same concerns, as The Stand.  Like the 1970s, our present moment is one of turmoil and uncertainty, suffused with that Yeatsian sense of things falling apart (one suspects that the only reason The Passage fails to include, among its many epigraphs, any reference to "The Second Coming" is that the poem has been made slightly trite by its overuse in works of popular culture, including of course The Stand).  The US is once again reeling from a costly and ill-advised war, a contentious and divisive presidency, and cultural clashes that expose the deep rifts in its society and the issues of race and class that are at their core.  Its citizens are once again eying their government with distrust and even fear.  Just like The Stand, The Passage roots its story in these fears and divisions, which it intensifies in order to make its point.  The opening chapters, set in 2018, depict an America in which the drive towards militarization and the security state has run amok.  The Iraq war was followed by one in Iran.  9/11, by a terrorist attack on the Mall of America.  Jenna Bush is governor of Texas (and, rather improbably given the timeframe, former first lady).  Hurricane Katrina's devastation has been dwarfed by its sister Vanessa, which demolished New Orleans, reducing it to a toxic swamp, and the area around it to a corporate-run, crime-ridden reclamation zone and tourist attraction.  Gas prices have skyrocketed, a federal database keeps track of citizens' movements, and military checkpoints impede travel between states.  It's in this atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and unchecked government power that Project Noah, whose actual purpose is not longevity but using its super-strong, near-immortal test subjects as bunker busters, is allowed to come into existence and, like the bioweapons project that dooms humanity in The Stand, to create a weapon so powerful that not even its creators can control it.

As in The Stand, the cultural commentary of The Passage is concentrated in its long opening segment, which depicts the events leading up to the escape of the original twelve vampires and the immediate aftermath of that escape.  Once human civilization fades away, the pop culture references do as well, but even the most glaring difference between the two novels' plots--the fact that The Passage, rather than continuing its story immediately after the apocalypse, flashes forward nearly a century and is set among characters who have had no experience of the old world or its annihilation--isn't enough to obscure their similar preoccupations.  As the characters set about building a new civilization, they are also figuring out what went wrong and how to avoid the same mistakes, thus continuing the callbacks to the novels' respective eras in a more subdued manner.  The Passage resumes its story in California, in a former refugee camp that now styles itself First Colony, whose inhabitants have created a tiny heaven in hell.  Not only are they kept safe from the "virals" by high walls and lights that make day of night, but, governed by their constitution, which assures "an Equal Share" to all citizens and safe haven to "Walkers" who emerge from the wilderness, they've managed to create, in the midst of terrible danger and hardship, a mostly-just, benevolent, and even post-racial and sexually equal society.  Nevertheless, after 90 years, the colony's numbers are dwindling and its life-saving lights are starting to fail, so when Amy, the last test subject of Project Noah and the only one to receive its life-extending benefits without losing her humanity, arrives in camp and reveals that someone in Project Noah's former headquarters in Colorado is looking for her, an expedition of young people sets out there with her in the hopes of finding a cure.

The bulk of the novel is concerned with this passage across a vampire-infested wasteland.  There are several tense set pieces, including a narrow escape from First Colony, whose inhabitants fall under the boss villain's sway, and an interlude in that same villain's feeding colony outside Las Vegas.  There is also a slow revelation of the villain's history and the means by which he compels humans to do his bidding, and some very good action scenes.  For all this, The Passage is not a particularly taut novel--is, in fact, positively flabby.  There's a very strong sense that, again following in King's footsteps, Cronin indulged himself, wandering down alleyways of story and character before getting back to the main narrative thread.  The 2018 segment includes several chapters told from the point of view of Anthony Carter, a death row inmate recruited into Project Noah, which delve into his past, eventually revealing that he was innocent of the crime he was sentenced to die for.  But in the future chapters Carter is entirely absent, and though it's obvious that The Passage's sequels will return to him there's little justification for his presence in this novel.  There are no such narrative dead ends in the future-set portions of the novel, but there are a lot of characters, each with their own plotline and point of view.  One would expect the author of a horror novel to start with a large cast in order to kill several of them off, but Cronin is surprisingly timid on this front, and even as the novel converges on its finale in Colorado there is no corresponding convergence of its cast, and the narrative frequently cuts away from the action to catch us up on what all the characters are doing.  Nor is the denouement much to write home about--Cronin tries to hang a lantern on this, but the solution the characters discover to the vampire problem is such a classic bit of vampire lore that most readers will have considered, and dismissed it for being too obvious, hundreds of pages before it's revealed, and in fact much of the novel is concerned with the characters learning things about Project Noah that we had already found out in the opening segment.  That The Passage works is mainly down to Cronin's facility with the King-ish voice, and more than that, to its soapy elements--a melange of star-crossed lovers, sibling rivalry, and difficult parent-child relationships that underpins the novel much more strongly than the vampire plot, and at just the right level to give the narrative shape and urgency without overwhelming it.  Quality-wise, there's not much between The Passage and The Stand (though like a lot of modern retreads of 70s and 80s stories I find The Passage a little too polished, and think it could have stood a bit of The Stand's messiness and rudeness), and if you've already read, and didn't fall absolutely in love with, King's novel I think it's probably safe to give Cronin's a pass.  But I also think that The Passage's message is more positive and more palatable than The Stand's.

Both The Stand and The Passage are religious novels, in the sense that they are stories about characters trying to figure out how to live their lives in a context that includes supernatural, world-governing forces (though The Passage's villain is more mundane than The Stand's Flagg, there is clearly a force for good--identified by several characters as God--guiding many of the characters' actions and acting towards humanity's restoration).  But the fundamental difference between Cronin and King's novels is that while in The Stand the central religious struggle was between good and evil (or, more faintly, between industrialization and the warlike impulse, and a more modest, more natural way of life), in The Passage it is between hope and despair.  As much as vampires, it is with despair that the novel's characters and the remnants of humanity they encounter struggle with.  First Colony, whose inhabitants have lived under constant threat of annihilation for 90 years, constantly loses members who "let it go," committing suicide in the face of their life's hopelessness.  As the novel opens, several characters have discovered that the colony's batteries are about to die and that the lights are going to go out, and are struggling to decide how, and if, to live with that knowledge.  The vampires' psychic attacks take advantage of despair, which ultimately leads to First Colony's destruction.  Each of the characters' storylines could be described as an examination of the relative advantages of hope and hopelessness (a troop of soldiers encountered in Colorado, whom one of the characters joins up with, view hope as an encumbrance, and espouse a philosophy of "giving it up"--letting go of all hope of survival--before engaging in battle) and a choice between them.

The Stand ends on a dark and somewhat hopeless note, with survivors Harold and Frannie abandoning the fledgling human colony in Colorado because it's gotten too big, and begun evincing some of the qualities of territorial, warlike thinking that they associate with humanity's demise, and both fear that the cycle is merely starting itself up again (the extended edition ends even more grimly, with Flagg surviving his alleged destruction and starting up his corruption of humanity in a different location).  The implication is that while a handful of people can form a just and decent society, once their numbers swell to the point of requiring government and organization, the rot sets in and destruction is an inevitable outcome.  Though it's possible that The Passage's sequels will reach the same conclusion--as the novel ends several of the main characters are poised to encounter large-scale human civilization for the first time in their lives--the novel itself not only ends hopefully but proceeds with hope throughout.  It is never stated with certainty that vampires have reached beyond the Americas, and the narrative is interspersed with documents presented at the Third Global Conference on the North American Quarantine Period at the University of New South Wales, which takes place a thousand years after the vampire outbreak.  Cronin is assuring us that humanity will not only survive but that civilization itself will reemerge, that the events of The Passage will come to be thought of as merely a chapter, however grisly and significant, in human history.

This is, to my mind, part and parcel of The Passage being a novel of its time.  The Stand was written in a time in which fear of one's government and fellow citizens were running high, and it can thus be read as a screed against the very notion of human civilization.  The Passage's era, for all its similarities to the 70s, has different preoccupations--chief among them the fear of outside enemies, which has legitimized the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law.  First Colony survives as a just, peaceful society because its members manage to hold on to hope.  When they surrender to fear and despair, the colony devolve into martial law and civil war.  The rest of the novel treats hope, and the impulses towards justice and kindness that it encourages, as a survival strategy, in a very definite rebuke to the present-day attitude that our times are so difficult and so unusual that we can no longer afford the luxury of civilized behavior.  So, for all their similarities, The Passage seems to be aiming at a message that is the exact opposite of The Stand's--not that civilization will doom humanity but that it is the source of our salvation.  It's been thirty years since Stephen King treated "The Second Coming" as prophecy, and 90 years since the poem was written about an entirely different period of turmoil and seemingly imminent catastrophe.  In all that time there have been catastrophes, but humanity has recovered from them, and artists have gone on to repurpose Yeats to express the hopelessness of their moment in time.  The Passage is not a particularly good novel, but it possesses an awareness of that fact that I find refreshing and worth applauding.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, February 14-18

This wasn't a conscious plan on my part, but it seems rather appropriate that on Valentine's Day, Strange Horizons should have run T.S. Miller's review of Robert Silverberg's The Last Song of Orpheus, a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Miller finds Silverberg's retelling oddly cold, but his review is as much a discussion of the myth itself, of earlier, including medieval, versions of it, and of other retellings of myths by genre writers.  Hannah Strom-Martin is a great deal more positive about David Moles's alternate history novella Seven Cities of Gold, whose only flaw, she concludes, is that it may be too clever, too layered, and too sophisticated for its own good.  Kelly Jennings, on the other hand, is disappointed by Lois McMaster Bujold's Cryoburn, which, she concludes, teeters on the edge of engaging with issues of economic inequality and exploitation, but veers away in order to tell a fun, consequence-free adventure story.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Women Writing SF: Further Reading

There are a few more books in my reading project that I haven't written about, but as I have less to say about them I'll probably leave them for my next recent reading roundup.  In the meantime I've gone back to my TBR stack with a slight feeling of letdown--there are a lot of books there I'd like to read, but I've enjoyed this project and the new vistas it's opened to me.  For the rest of the year, then, here are some more science fiction books by female writers that I hope to get to (besides, that is, more of the four I've written about).
  • Tricia Sullivan - If either Sullivan's Maul (which came second in Niall's best of the decade poll) or her most recent, and very well-received, Lightborn, had been available for the Kindle I would have added them to the reading project.  As it is I hope to get my hands on copies, electronic or physical, in the near future.

  • Zoo City by Lauren Beukes - Beukes's debut Moxyland was one of the books I read for this project, but I found myself, though impressed, with little to say about a book that seemed more like a demonstration of Beukes's talent and ideas than a complete work (Martin Lewis has a write-up for his reading project here, though).  Her follow-up has garnered some ecstatic reviews, however, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

  • Justina Robson - Along with Gwyneth Jones, Robson is probably the highest-profile female author of British SF, but none of her novels have ever called out to me.  Her Natural History ranked third on Niall's top ten, which is reason enough to give it a look.  Of the rest of her bibliography, Living Next Door to the God of Love seems to be well-regarded, and she's also got a short story collection, Heliotrope, coming from Ticonderoga Press this year.

  • Nalo Hopkinson - I've basically been meaning to check out Nalo Hopkinson's writing since the mid-nineties and have somehow never gotten around to it.  Midnight Robber and Brown Girl in the Ring seem to be the places to start.

  • C.J. Cherryh - I seem to have made my opening forays into SF just a smidge too late for Cherryh, who peaked in the 80s with Hugo wins for Downbelow Station and Cyteen.  Her 2009 novel Regenesis got a lot of fans talking about her in rapturous terms, so I think I'll look out for those two novels.

  • Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge - Nic at Eve's Alexandria wrote a post about this book recently that intrigued me.  It's just been rereleased, though again without a Kindle edition.
Any other suggestions?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, February 7-11

This week on Strange Horizons, Roz Kaveney discusses the suddenly very topical Deep State by Walter Jon Williams, a novel about a popular revolution in the Middle East powered by the internet.  Sara Polsky is impressed by the Kate Bernheimer-edited My Mother She Ate Me, My Father He Killed Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, in which authors from the literary and genre ends of the scale retell fairy tales.  Finally, Niall Alexander raves about Joe Abercrombie's latest The Heroes, which he calls a return to form after the disappointment of Best Served Cold, and an expression of Abercrombie's fondness for gore and unsavory characters.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Women Writing SF: Arslan by M.J. Engh

The first time I tried to read Arslan I was seventeen or eighteen.  The book came to me via Amazon's recommendation engine, which in those days, before I found an online community of readers, was my main source of new and unfamiliar titles.  I recall not knowing much about the book before buying or reading it--just that it was well-regarded, and that it told the story of the invasion and conquest of the United States by the titular general.  The book began calmly enough--narrated by Franklin L. Bond, the principal of a middle school in Kraftsville, Illinois, on the day that Arslan's forces roll into town, its opening scenes follow Bond as he steadfastly tries to calm his staff and students and to prevent any bloodshed.  Then came the chapter's climax, a celebratory dinner held by Arslan for his forces in the school gymnasium.  At the end of the dinner, Arslan brings out two students, a boy and a girl, and, before his appreciative men and the horror-struck staff--which includes the boy's mother--rapes them both.

I closed the book, put it away, and spent the next few months refusing to look it in the eye.  Had it occurred to me, I might have, like Joey on Friends, put Arslan in the freezer.  The next time I culled my books, Arslan went to the local library, where for all I know it has been traumatizing unsuspecting readers ever since.  But a part of me felt guilty for letting a book terrify me so thoroughly, and when Arslan came up, every now and then, in conversation as a difficult but brilliant work of science fiction, I would shift uncomfortably.  At the end of 2010 Gollancz Masterworks reissued Arslan, and Adam Roberts's admiring foreword (excerpted on his blog) convinced me to give the book another try.  This time around, I made it all the way to the end, and I can certainly see where all the praise and respect are coming from.  I can also see that my reaction--if not quite its vehemence--was exactly what Engh was aiming for in that opening chapter.  What is less clear to me, however, is whether I truly made the wrong choice all those years ago, when I left Arslan unread.

After his explosive entrance, Arslan makes his home in Kraftsville and sets about remaking it.  A curfew is declared.  Firearms are confiscated.  Soldiers are billeted with the local families, who act as hostages to their guests' safety.  (It is interesting to note just how methodically Arslan goes about violating the first few amendments to the US constitution.)  Arslan himself makes his home with Franklin and his wife Luella, into whose house he also brings Hunt Morgan, the boy he raped, and Betty Hanson, an attractive young teacher from Franklin's school, who are obviously both intended for Arslan's amusement.  Franklin, with his gruff manner and steady nerves, becomes Kraftsville's de facto leader, which puts him in Arslan's company even more than their sharing a house would, and gives him a chance to get to know the man, who is as devoid of cruelty as he is of compassion, utterly dedicated to his creed, in which strength is the ultimate moral virtue, and to his master plan for the human race.  To this plan's end, Arslan informs Franklin, he plans to make Kraftsville self-sufficient.  Phone lines and later electric power are shut down.  The high school students are shipped away, and replaced by foreign (male) soldiers and (female) prostitutes.  The county's borders are closed down, on pain of death.  Machinery, medicine, anything that can't be manufactured and maintained within the town, are all confiscated.  This is all, Arslan explains to Franklin, his plan to save humanity, to stop the rampant exploitation of resources that will surely doom the species, but when Franklin pushes him Arslan admits that his hopes of creating a sustainable human race are flimsy, and sooner rather than later he shifts his efforts to plan B--saving the planet from us by sterilizing all the world's women, and the bringing about the extinction of the human race.

Before we go any further it should be acknowledged that this is all utterly absurd.  When the narrative voice shifts, in the middle segment of the novel, to Hunt, who becomes Arslan's protégé and travels with him to the -stan country from which he emerged to conquer the world, we get a flimsy but borderline plausible explanation of how Arslan managed to leverage Soviet nuclear capability into a threat that would bring the entire world to its knees before him, but even this is not enough to rationalize the novel's events.  It might be possible to segment rural America into self-contained chunks with manageable populations, but what about the cities, or even the suburbs?  How do you make New York self-sufficient?  Hell, how do you put together an army that could conquer New York, or Chicago, while conquering the rest of the world at the same time?  Surely at some point the occupation army would outnumber the occupied population, and yet Arslan directs all his forces from Franklin's living room.  Most importantly, how do you get the millions of people who would have to be involved in it to carry out the extinction of their own species?  All of these things are impossible, and Engh tacitly acknowledges this when she, for example, whisks Hunt and Arslan from the Midwest to the Middle East and back again (at the same time that Arslan is supposedly dismantling the planet's mechanized and electronic infrastructure) as if by magic--as though Kraftsville were the only solid place on Earth, and everything outside it were a hazy, ill-defined non-space in which distance had no meaning, because it is all Not Here.

This is, of course, exactly how Franklin, who left Kraftsville as a young man but returned because the price of success was "being cut off from the people I understood and the things I believed in," whose response to the news of the President's capitulation to the threat of nuclear war is that "everything we ever heard about Washington must be true," sees the world.  Nowadays we'd call Franklin a Red Stater.  In 1976, when Arslan was published, he was probably intended as the self-ordained last bulwark of a beleaguered masculinity, and of a way of life that had just finished going ten rounds with the counter-culture movement, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement, a battle whose outcome was still unclear but which, it must have seemed very likely (at least to men of Franklin's ilk) would be anarchy and indiscriminate violence.  As Arslan puts it, "in the very ascendancy of your power, disintegration!  The upheaval, the upswelling, of savagery, of violence."  (Which, like the novel's grounding in the Cold War, just goes to show, yet again, that no future is as foreign as the recent past's future.)  Arslan, with his delicate mannerisms, his ambiguous sexuality, his palpable ethnicity (it's difficult to call someone racially prejudiced against a person who has overrun their home-town, killed its people, and raped its children, but nevertheless the insistence with which Franklin's gaze is drawn to Arslan's dark skin and Middle Eastern features leaves very little room for doubt) and his undeniable, lethal strength threatens not only that way of life but that concept of masculinity.

As Adam puts it in his introduction, Arslan's premise is "an iteration of a particular US paranoid invasion fantasy: from Floyd Gibbons's The Red Napoleon (1929) to Red Dawn (1984), US popular culture has luridly imagined the one military catastrophe--occupation by a foreign enemy--that the USA has never, in actuality, suffered."  Franklin is precisely the sort of man whose internal narrative, once it adjusted to the unthinkable scenario of the US capitulating to invaders, would cast him in the lead role of one of these tales of triumphant resistance, and he immediately sets about forming a Kraftsville underground, which originally functions as a secret police and loyalty patrol, but whose ultimate goal is to kill Arslan.  It should come as little surprise that a middle aged school principal fails to overthrow a world-conquering tyrant, and that the arc of the novel--which spans nearly twenty years--bends towards Arslan's victory, and even the success of his plan for auto-extinction.  What is more surprising, and even more disquieting, are the similarly dispiriting results of the parallel battle between Arslan and Franklin over Hunt's soul.  As Arslan explains to Franklin, his strategy with Hunt is "First the rape then the seduction," and as the people of Kraftsville, including Hunt's parents, recoil from what they now perceive as a damaged, tainted person, Arslan steps in to fill the void.  He procures a prostitute for Hunt, teaches him to ride and shoot, and encourages him to question the Mom-and-apple-pie dogma with which he was raised (Engh's background was in the study of ancient Rome, and the relationship between Arslan and Hunt is quite clearly intended to recall the one between an aristocrat and his catamite).  Hunt's seduction by Arslan is not only the failure of a single teacher to keep a single boy from corruption, but the failure of a whole way of life.
it took a convulsive effort to realize that it was exactly the good people, it was especially the better people, who were the loathsome hypocrites.  My father and my mother, and all the other reasonably intelligent, reasonably nice, reasonably successful people I had ever known--they were the ones who spoke out dogmatically for truth, beauty, and goodness, while with every action of their lives they cast votes for falsity, ugliness, and corruption.  And Mr Bond, of course--Mr Bond was a particularly prime specimen, because he made his living teaching hypocrisy to children.
It was Arslan who showed me the possibility of living honestly.  Even his deceits were straightforward--tools as simple in purpose and exquisite in design as the guns he equally loved.  He lied; but he did not pretend.
It's customary to praise an author of difficult, sophisticated fiction by saying that they make such believable people of their characters that they are impossible to dislike.  Arslan achieves something even more difficult.  It crafts its three leads so carefully that the reader has no recourse to the relative comfort of either hating or liking these these thoroughly unpleasant, occasionally admirable people.  Arslan is a monster, but a predictably charismatic one, and just as he seduces Hunt, and later the citizens of Kraftsville, so does he seduce the reader--as Adam points out, the second most disturbing scene in Arslan comes at its end, when Engh manipulates us into rooting for her title character.  Hunt is irredeemably twisted up by abuse--Arslan's, but also Kraftsville's, which rejects him after his rape.  He's pitiable, but hard to look at.  Franklin is the novel's moral center, the only character able to put up any resistance to Arslan's charisma, and in that capacity he reminds us, and those who follow Arslan, of the brutal cost of his policies.  He's also the only person in Kraftsville who doesn't consider Hunt complicit in, and tainted by, his own rape.  But Franklin is also deeply prejudiced and narrow-minded.  Perhaps more importantly, he fails.  His determination to keep fighting is an endearing trait at the beginning of the novel, but an off-putting one as the finality of Arslan's victory, and the paltriness of Franklin's power, become more apparent.

The novel revolves around these three men and the battle of wits and will between them, which is also a battle for a dominant philosophy of life and a definition of masculinity--Franklin's uncomplicated steadfastness, Arslan's narcissistic fascism, Hunt's sarcastic nihilism.  It's typical for novels that discuss masculinity to sideline femininity and female characters, but Arslan takes this tendency to extremes that shocked me even more, in adulthood, than that opening scene of rape did in my teens.  If I have ever in my life read a novel that is so dismissive of women's character, personhood, and agency as this one, I am struggling to recall it.  It's been a long time since I expected female authors to automatically write feminist or even woman-friendly fiction, but nevertheless I found myself, as I got further into the novel, checking and rechecking Engh's biography to make sure I hadn't misremembered her gender.

The invisibility of women, to the narrative as well as the three leads, is particularly startling when one considers that one of Arslan's most important themes is rape--the physical rapes that Arslan commits, and the metaphorical rape of the US by his invasion, which the novel returns to again and again.  And yet it's only men's rapes that the narrative lingers over, and only through men's eyes that the horror of rape is expressed.  Women, meanwhile, simply endure, like animals.  Hunt is raped alongside a girl from his class, who struggles "but it was hardly what you could call a contest."  After the rape she "lay tumbled there till the two soldiers hauled her up and walked her stumblingly off the stage."  We never hear from her again.  Hunt's rape, meanwhile, is a battle: "from the second he realized the scene that had been set for him, he was fighting ... Arslan had trouble keeping Hunt under.  The boy fought with flailing arms and legs; ... Then through a lull in the din I heard Hunt's cry--a muffled, wordless squawl of anguish and shame and rage. ... They led Hunt past us, and he walked upright, not half-collapsed like Paula."

Hunt's narrative is a brilliant, disturbing, heartrendingly raw description of a rape victim seduced by their rapist.  Rejected by his friends and family both for being a rape victim and for accepting the gifts and protection of the only friend he has left, Hunt is confused by feelings of self-loathing and guilt into accepting and eventually returning the love of the man who violated him--because his is the only love on offer.  Both Hunt and the supposedly good people around him take it for granted that having been raped makes him ineligible for the love of a better person, and so Hunt clings to the only form of affection still left to him.  (I was reminded of Margo Lanagan's story "The Goosle," which depicts a similarly disturbing relationship with similar skill.)  What's interesting is that not only would we expect the victim in this story to be female, the reality of rape being what it is, but that there is a female victim of rape in the same circumstances as Hunt who could easily have taken his place at the center of this narrative--Betty Hanson, Arslan's other sex slave.  As in the case of Hunt and Paula's rapes, the narrative distinguishes between Hunt's angry, combative initial reaction to Arslan's violations to Betty's terrified but essentially passive one--Franklin reports hearing screams from Betty's room, sounds of struggle from Hunt's.  The possibility that women might fight their rapists or try not to give them the satisfaction of hearing them scream, that women might possess feelings of pride that a rape would injure, or experience rage as a result of rape, is never given space by the narrative.  Betty's screams are the last we hear of her.  Almost as soon as she arrives in Franklin's house Arslan tires of her and packs her off.  Like Paula, she's never heard from again.

Part of the problem is the dominance of Franklin's narrative voice in the first half of the novel.  Franklin isn't a bad man.  He doesn't approve of rape, whether it's done to men or women, and the fact is that there is nothing he could do to stop Betty or Paula's mistreatment, no more than he could have saved Hunt.  But it's pretty obvious that the rape of women doesn't bother him nearly as much as the rape of men, that it simply doesn't strike him as important, in the grand scheme of things.  When teenage Russian prostitutes arrive in town, and Franklin dryly comments that now they know what has happened to the girls from Kraftsville's high school, that's not just a stiff upper lip.  He gives a damn, but not much beyond a moment's stern disapproval, after which he moves on to more pressing matters.  Franklin moves heaven and earth to try to save Hunt's soul from the corruption of Arslan's abuse, but when Arslan brings Hunt a prostitute to restore his injured manhood, and years later when he returns to Kraftsville with a prepubescent girl as a gift for Hunt, Franklin thinks of them only as temptresses, obstacles placed in Hunt's path back to righteousness: "she was enough older than Hunt to matter; and in some ways, of course, she was ages older. ... She was a cheery little creature, I had to say that for her, but at absolute maximum she was worthless."  The possibility that these girls, too, are victims who need saving never seems to occur to him.

But Franklin isn't the only vector from which this un-personing of women is absorbed.  Arslan, of course, is incapable of noticing the humanity of anyone not himself, and Hunt is too twisted up to notice women when his mentor seems to think so little of them, but the novel's narrative itself encourages this view of women as blanks to be acted upon.  The novel climaxes with Arslan, who has disbanded his army and plans to live out his life in Kraftsville, defending the town's women from a gang of rapists.  Throughout the battle, Kraftsville's women--many of whom were raped by Arslan in their teens--are a passive, undifferentiated clump, who take no part in their own defense.  They are a "crowd of women," a "mob of females."  They "squeal," "shriek," and "chatter."  And, of course, Arslan's plan for engineering the end of the human race short-circuits female, not male, fertility.  In the world of Arslan, women seem to be defined by what goes into, or comes out of, their vagina.

Aside from the quickly-dispatched Betty and Paula, there are three named female characters in Arslan, each with a personal connection to one of the three leads.  Luealla Bond is initially portrayed quite positively, as a level-headed person whom Franklin can trust to keep her head in a crisis.  In the early months of Arslan's presence in the Bond house Luella, like Franklin, grits her teeth at the tyrant's presence and perseveres in the face of the abuses he commits under her roof (she also, unlike Franklin, extends her sympathy equally to Betty and Hunt).  But as the occupation draws on Luella become more and more passive, relegated to her home and her kitchen, serving her husband, Arslan, and Arslan's troops.  Years later Hunt muses that Luella, "fulfilled for me (as, I increasingly thought I saw, for Franklin) the role of devoted and honored servant, privileged to criticize, to manage, and to share, but neither to initiate nor to command," and when she dies Franklin realizes that "I felt very little personal grief ... the real blow was practical and selfish.  Luella had kept everything running smoothly.  No wonder she'd been tired."  Hunt's mother Jean is also at first a positively drawn character, strong enough to endure the unbearable sight of her own son's rape.  When Hunt tries to reconnect with his parents after several months in Arslan's care, however, Jean becomes entirely passive, and that passivity destroys their relationship when Hunt's father makes it clear that, like much of Kraftsville, he considers Hunt irreparably damaged by his rape, and culpable in his own abuse.  For the rest of the novel, Jean remains trapped between the two men, incapable or unwilling to assert herself.  She doesn't seem to share her husband's disgust with their son, but neither does she make any effort to stop him when he gives Hunt an ultimatum to stop "seeing" Arslan as a condition of coming home, nor does she express any preference or exert any control on the question of who does or does not get to live in her house.  The change in both women could be taken as an effect of life under occupation and in drastically reduced circumstances, but as none of the point of view characters give much thought to what life is like for women in Arslan-controlled Kraftsville, this is left for us to surmise.

The only woman with anything like power and agency in Arslan is also the one whom the novel most thoroughly makes Other.  When Arslan returns to Kraftsville after several years' absence in the novel's second part, he brings with him his lover Rusudan and their son.  Franklin is shocked to see anyone, much less a woman, who can hold their own against Arslan, who can argue with him and elicit from him human irritation and anger, rather than inhuman calm and self-satisfaction.  Hunt, who hears about Rusudan long before he meets her, is baffled by Arslan's claim that he loves her: "I did not understand, I could not conceive, what such a verb as love might mean to Arslan."  We share Hunt's incomprehension and Franklin's surprise.  It seems inconceivable that a person as monomaniacal as Arslan could feel an emotion as messy and human as love, or that another person could share his life in the mundane way that Rusudan does.  But Arslan does nothing to make Rusudan comprehensible.  We see her only through Hunt and Franklin's puzzled eyes, and she herself has no voice--or rather, she has a very loud, frequently raised voice, but it is a babble, as she never learns English and all of her speech is in a language that neither Franklin nor Hunt can understand.

Shortly after her arrival in Kraftsville Rusudan is brutally murdered.  The murder is assumed to have been political, but for the rest of the novel the possibility is repeatedly raised that Hunt killed Rusudan out of jealousy.  Before that question is resolved--in a typically ambiguous manner that leaves Hunt's actual culpability in Rusudan's death up for grabs--we get an in-depth look at Hunt's take on Rusudan, which is simultaneously dismissive and deeply envious.  Seen through Hunt's eyes, Rusudan is animalistic, reduced to her body and its functions--"She was garish, she was cheap, she was third-rate Technicolor"; when Hunt witnesses a fight between her and Arslan he notes how "The woman's face streamed and dribbled (when Rusudan wept, she wept wholeheartedly), her wild hair, beautiful sometimes in its munificence, was fuzzed and snarled now"; when Arslan takes their child from her soon after its birth, Rusudan "shrilled at him from her bed (deprived, for the time, of her body, she was all ugly now)"--while he desperately tries to argue that it's he who has the meaningful, deep connection to Arslan--"He would not have spoken to Rusudan of friendship"; "By what right had he suffered for Rusudan?  It was I, not Rusudan, whom he had led through Karcher's woods, to whom he had whispered 'Look.'"

Point for point, Hunt's observations on Rusudan make him out to be that old-fashioned stereotype, the misogynistic homosexual.  Hunt's sexual orientation is ambiguously defined--the only people we see him sleep with with other than Arslan are women, but they are the women procured for him by Arslan, and there are vague hints in the chapters narrated by Hunt that during his sojourn away from Kraftsville he had male lovers as well--and, in all likelihood, was demolished by Arslan's rape and abuse along with the other parts of Hunt's identity, so that by the time he leaves Kraftsville he is probably best described as an Arslan-sexual.  Nevertheless, stereotypes of homosexuality, and particularly the ones that the people of Kraftsville would ascribe to, attach themselves to Hunt throughout the novel.  Unlike Franklin's matter-of-fact, linear narrative, the chapters narrated by Hunt are discursive, slipping in time and space and between fact and fabulation.  His voice is solipsistic, erudite (an erudition granted to him, at least in part, by Arslan, who has Hunt read philosophy and poetry to him), ironic, and disinclined to make moral judgments.  Arslan may not turn Hunt into a homosexual, as Kraftsville comes to believe, but he does turn him into the sort of person that, in Franklin and Kraftsville's worldview, is associated with homosexuality--nihilistic, morally relativistic, intellectual, and unpatriotic.  It is Hunt, however, who triumphs at the end of the novel.  While a graying Franklin makes ever-more futile gestures of resistance against an enemy who has long since triumphed, and an untouchable Arslan retires to enjoy the fruits of his labor, it's Hunt whose narrative voice ends the novel, as independent of either of these two men--and of Kraftsville's opprobrium--as he ever will be.  The novel leaves him hunting in the forests, the new man who has taken over the old man's pursuits as well as his world.

It's in this tension between old and new American masculinity that I begin to see a reason for Arslan's dismissiveness towards women.  Arslan is an assault on Franklin's type of masculinity, on the narratives of triumphant resistance that its premise deliberately recalls.  In order to achieve that assault, it assaults its readers.  When Arslan returns to Kraftsville for the last time, Franklin observes that he has extended the tactic he used with Hunt, "First the rape then the seduction," to the whole town.  Arslan the novel takes that tactic with its readers.  The opening scene that so terrified me as a teenager was intended to do just that, and the rest of the novel is Engh's seduction of her readers, her slow persuasion of us onto Arslan's side.  To the men whose concept of masculinity Engh is trying to shatter, a woman's rape in the opening scene would not have achieved that shock.  Our misogynistic culture teaches us that being rapeable is a component of femininity, but that it negates masculinity (or, as Arslan puts it "When a woman is raped, then she is perhaps by so much more a woman ... But when a boy is raped, he is by so much less a man").  To see a male character get raped is an assault on the male reader that a woman's rape wouldn't have been, and for the seduction part of the novel to get under that same reader's skin by confounding all expectations that Hunt will rebel against Arslan and avenge his violation, the object of the seduction must also be a man.  The problem with this tactic is that it is aimed exclusively at men.  Just as Arslan scarcely bothers to seduce the women he rapes and saves his attentions for Hunt (and just as his seduction of Kraftsville is focused on its young boys, to whom he becomes a mentor), Arslan the novel is only interested in seducing its male readers.  The problem with the novel turns out to be its lack of interest, not in its female characters, but in its female readers.  We don't get seduced.  The opening rape scene is as much an assault on us as it is on male readers, but the rest of the novel ignores us.

Ultimately, I'm both glad and sad that I didn't persevere with Arslan when I was seventeen or eighteen.  Part of me thinks that I could never have grasped even a fraction of this brilliant, fascinating, frustrating, disturbing novel at that age, that even if I'd managed to finish it I would simply have thrown it aside in incomprehension and disgust.  Another part of me thinks that I would have felt Arslan's force more strongly, and could have better sympathized with its goal of dismantling thoughtless, jingoistic patriotism, at a time in my life when I was less educated about feminist issues, less primed to notice how a book treats its female characters and readers.  What's done is done, however, and though I certainly don't regret reading Arslan--for all that I've written about it here, there is still so much more to say, and I'm certainly not qualified to plumb its full depths--I can't help but feel that I haven't been fully repaid for the trauma it deliberately inflicted on me, because I wasn't its intended audience.  That's not exactly a point against the novel, but it might be a point against other women reading it.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, January 31-February 4

The last Strange Horizons review of January is Edward James's take on Kate Elliott's Cold Magic, which is actually a reflection on the two fantasy sequences Elliott has already written, to which the trilogy that Cold Magic begins is a continuation.  On Wednesday, Graham Sleight reviews Susan Hill's ghost story The Small Hand, which he finds a little old-fashioned in its willingness to tie up all its loose ends, especially compared with other modern literary ghost stories like The Little Stranger.  Yesterday Nathaniel Katz made his Strange Horizons debut with a review of Haruki Murakami's After Dark, a novel which, according to Nathaniel, makes a fantasy setting out of nighttime Tokyo.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Here We Go Again

The voting form for the Locus Award is online, and for the second year running, Locus continues in its policy of giving its subscribers a full vote, while non-subscribers' votes count for half (the policy was actually introduced three years ago, but in the 2008 awards it was decided upon only after the votes were counted).  I wrote last year about why I think this is wrong, but just to recap briefly: I think that to ask people to vote in a poll where they get half a vote is an insult, and I don't think that we should take it.  If Locus wants to close its awards to its subscribers only, that's their right.  But right now it looks as if the magazine wants to enjoy the cachet of having the largest voting base in the field while treating some of those voters as second-class citizens.  I don't think they should get away with this.  If you're not a Locus subscriber, I urge you not to vote in the Locus poll.

I should note that I've been considering becoming a subscriber myself, now that the magazine's digital edition is available for the Kindle.  This development--I had honestly believed that cooler heads would finally prevail this year and the vote-weighting system would be retired--leaves me feeling a lot less interested in doing so.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Pull the Trigger

The story thus far: On January 28th, Bitch Magazine posted a list of "100 YA Novels for the Feminist Reader."  The list is affiliated with Bitch Magazine's lending library, and was posted by Ashley McAllister, who is listed on Bitch's staff page as library coordinator.  Predictably, commenters began suggesting additions to the list and, in smaller numbers, objecting to the books on it.  On January 29th, commenter Pandora objected to the inclusion of Jackson Pearce's Sisters Red, a retelling of Red Riding Hood in which two sisters hunt werewolves, citing objections raised against the book in a post made last July on the blog The Book Smugglers.  In that post, the bloggers highlighted a scene in which one of the sisters scornfully watches dressed-up girls waiting to enter a night club and muses that they are inviting attack.  Both reviewers felt that Sisters Red didn't do enough to complicate or counteract this victim-blaming perspective.  That same day, commenter scrumby protested the inclusion of Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels on the grounds that a scene at the end of the book, in which one of the heroines subconsciously uses her magical powers to conjure beings who rape the five men who raped her mother, endorses the use of rape as a means of vengeance.

McAllister's response to both complaints was to admit that she hadn't read the two books (on Sisters Red: "While I read most of the books on this list, there were a few that I just researched"; on Tender Morsels: "This book came as a recommendation to us from a few feminists, and while we knew that some of the content was difficult, we weren't tuned into what you've just brought up") and that she and other Bitch staffers would read (or reread, as the case may be) them over the weekend with the objections raised in mind.  Yesterday, February 1st, McAllister posted a comment titled "Revisions to the list," announcing the replacement of Sisters Red, Tender Morsels, and a third book, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, which is narrated by a girl who has been held as a captive sex slave for five years and is anticipating being murdered by her captor (no objection had been raised to Living Dead Girl in the comment thread until that point, but later comments from Bitch staffers indicate that they received comments on the list via e-mail).
A couple of us at the office read and re-read Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl this weekend. We've decided to remove these books from the list -- Sisters Red because of the victim-blaming scene that was discussed earlier in this post, Tender Morsels because of the way that the book validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance, and Living Dead Girl because of its triggering nature. We still feel that these books have merit and would not hesitate to recommend them in certain instances, but we don't feel comfortable keeping them on this particular list.
(Emphasis in the original.)

Outraged reactions began pouring in.  Authors Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Kirstyn McDermott, Maureen Johnson, Ellen Klages, Lili Wilkinson, E. Lockhart, Jeff VanderMeer, A.S. King, Penni Russon, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Alina Klein--possibly alerted by Margo Lanagan's tweet on the subject--chimed in with their disapproval, some of them asking for their books to be removed from the list.  The twitter hashtags #bitchplease and (when that turned out to have been taken) #speakloudly (an existing hashtag that protests censorship of media) played host to protests of Bitch's decision.  Blog posts from John Scalzi, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Colleen Mondor, and the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books publicized the issue.  At present there are nearly 200 comments on the original Bitch Magazine post, nearly all of them condemnatory, many equating the decision to replace the three books with censorship and book-banning.

My thoughts: In a nutshell?  I don't think that anyone involved in this debacle comes away looking too good.

I think the fact that Bitch's editors recommended books they hadn't read is inexcusable.  When McAllister responded to Pandora about Sisters Red, I took her meaning to be that the list was compiled by several editors, each of whom contributed titles they thought were appropriate, but that no single editor had read all 100 books--similar, in other words, to how The New York Times, Amazon, and Locus compile their recommended reading lists.  Her reply to scrumby about Tender Morsels, however, indicates that the process was more informal, and that books may have been selected based on recommendations by people not affiliated with Bitch, and perhaps in an entirely ad hoc manner.  Nowhere on the list itself or on the blog post publicizing it is this noted, and that's simply not acceptable.  The responsibilities of librarians is a subject that has come up several times in this discussion, and surely one of the most basic of these is not to recommend a book without very good evidence--ideally the evidence of one's own reading--that it is worth the recommendation.

That said, I don't see anything wrong with Bitch's decision to review the list upon receiving objections to it.  It's true that in the case of both Sisters Red and Tender Morsels only one objecting comment was received, and that in the latter case both the tone and style of the comment do not inspire confidence in the opinions it expresses (though how many objections were received via e-mail, and how many such e-mails objected to Living Dead Girl, is unknown).  But McAllister quite clearly states that the decision to remove the three books from the list wasn't taken purely on the basis of these comments, but that they merely sparked the reading that led Bitch's editors to make that decision.  That reading should have happened before the list was compiled, but that doesn't invalidate its results.  It's true, reading the three books in light of the complaints raised against them would probably have predisposed the Bitch editors to look for those problems in the book, but is that a bad thing?  And does it follow that the editors were incapable of concluding that the complaints raised against Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl were groundless?

Nor is the decision to remove books from a recommended reading list in any way comparable to censorship or book-banning.  I don't even know how to expand on this point, which should be entirely self-evident and not worth making, and yet more than twenty comments on the Bitch thread call the editors' actions censorship, and several others accuse them of book banning, despite the fact that Sisters Red, Tender Morsels, and Living Dead Girl's availability has not been affected one jot by their removal from the list.

I also think that the failure to acknowledge, on the part of nearly everyone linking to the discussion and many of the commenters on the Bitch post, that the three books in question were removed for three different reasons, is at best irresponsible, at worst dishonest.  John Scalzi writes that the removal happened after "someone complain[ed] in the comments to the list that Tender and a couple of other books are "triggering"."  Smart Bitches, Trashy Books quotes McAllister's explanation in full, but stresses the triggering complaint, then later characterizes Bitch's reaction as "Oh, noes, it hurt someone's feelings, that scary scary literature."  Colleen Mondor gives a play-by-play of the comment thread, but leaves out the actual substance of the complaint against Tender Morsels (she also quotes McAllister's comment in full, however), and her post is accompanied by a cover image of Tender Morsels but not the other two books.  Tansy Rayner Roberts's post similarly focuses only on Tender Morsels.  The #bitchplease and #speakloudly twitter streams are full of statements like ""Protecting readers" under any guise is still censorship," and "Your job is not to protect us from literature."  Anyone coming to the discussion from these sources could be forgiven for assuming that Tender Morsels had been removed from the list because it was triggering, or because its subject matter was difficult, rather than for its handling of that subject matter (the sole exception is Kirstyn McDermott, whose post is impressively comprehensive).  The comments on the Bitch post reflect this confusion.  Of the twenty-three comments that specifically object to Tender Morsels's removal, only five address, in even the vaguest terms, the specific complaint that it doesn't critique the use of rape as revenge, while eight comments claim that it was removed either for being triggering or for being disturbing.  There is much less discussion of either Sisters Red or Living Dead Girl, and hardly any of the latter's potentially triggering nature.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the triggering accusation became attached to Tender Morsels.  As opposed to victim-blaming or rape as revenge, issues positioned rather firmly within the consensus of Bitch's readership, trigger warnings--the idea that discussions of rape and sexual assault can trigger traumatic reactions in survivors, and that it is therefore incumbent on bloggers and writers to post warnings when such subjects are discussed, and to avoid directing their readers towards potentially triggering material--are a contentious topic, even in feminist circles.  To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about them.  And the more general complaint that a certain book's subject is too difficult for young readers is a beloved bugaboo of the YA community.  These are the weakest arguments in Bitch's arsenal (so weak that the latter was not, in fact, part of it), and they just happen to have become attached to the most popular of the three books selected for removal even though neither objection was actually raised against it (in fairness, the Bitch editors do themselves no favors by spotlighting the triggering issue over the other two complaints in later comments).  Meanwhile, the book that was actually removed for being triggering gets hardly any discussion.

Bitch magazine made a lot of mistakes in creating and presenting its list of 100 YA novels for the feminist reader, but when it chose to remove Sisters Red, Tender Morsels, and Living Dead Girl from the list it laid a very specific complaint against each novel.  Even if you take their narrative at face value, and many commenters have questioned its veracity, these complaints are all debatable--personally, I don't think that Tender Morsels validates rape as revenge, though I agree that it edges around Urdda's responsibility for her actions in ways that aren't entirely palatable.  But what's happening in the comment thread at Bitch, and in other places on the internet, isn't that debate.  It's a pile-on, driven by misinformation and perpetuating that same misinformation, recasting the issue as one of censorship and babying readers, and focusing on the most contentious issue raised in the discussion as if it represented the discussion as a whole.  Whether you're writing a recommended reading list, or a blog post, or a comment thread, it behoove us all to ground our opinions in solid experience and in even more solid facts.  I don't see that anyone, on either side of this issue, has done so.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Women Writing SF: Mary Gentle

Mary Gentle's name came up several times, in several contexts, in the discussion that sparked Niall's women in SF project--as an example of a female writer of science fiction who moved to the greener, more inviting pastures of fantasy, and as an example of a female author whose work is overshadowed by men doing similar work--I haven't read Gentle's Ash, but Adam Roberts argued that it did many of the things its fellow Clarke nominee (and later winner) Perdido Street Station did when it combined an SFnal attitude with a fantastic setting.  I have read, and loved, Gentle's historical fantasy 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, and this project seemed like the perfect opportunity to read her science fiction, specifically the Orthe duology--Golden Witchbreed (1984) and Ancient Light (1987).

Both novels are narrated by Lynne de Lisle Christie, a human sent to Orthe as an envoy.  In Golden Witchbreed she represents Earth's first contact wing, hastily erected and stretched thin following the discovery that every habitable planet within reach of Earth is inhabited (a discovery whose full implications are only glancingly addressed in either novel).  Young and inexperienced, Christie is tasked with smoothing relations with the leadership of Orthe's largest nation, and hopefully winning approval for the research team that preceded her to the planet, whose members have been restricted to the capital city, to do their work. The scientists are particularly intrigued by the structure of the society they've discovered, which is simultaneously tradition-bound and socially mobile.  The basic unit of this nation--called The Hundred Thousand for the number of such units it allegedly contains--is the telestre, which functions as home, family, and ethnic group.  Each telestre elects its leader, the t'an, and from these the regional leaders, and the crown--t'an suthai-telestre--are selected, but Orthean society remains fundamentally decentralized, with individual loyalty going to the telestre first, the nation and the self second, and deeply conservative about social change and technological advancement.  Its citizens are allowed great personal freedom precisely because they so rarely choose to exercise it in ways that are not harmonious with the needs of their telestre.  Christie finds herself befriended by the courtier Haltern and the general Ruric, and invited into the inner circle of the current t'an suthai-telestre, Suthafiori, who is amenable to contact with Earth but also needs to appease more isolationist factions.  To this end she sends Christie with Ruric and Haltern on a tour of the telestres, but no sooner have they departed than Christie is seized by an anti-Earth t'an and accused of being Golden Witchbreed--a member of the technologically advanced alien race that once ruled Orthe and enslaved its people, whose cruelty and depredations are at the root of Ortheans' anti-technology bias.  Christie escapes with Haltern and several others, and begins the first of several treks through the Hundred Thousand, along the way learning more about Orthean culture and history, and becoming more and more enmeshed in a plot to unseat Suthafiori and perhaps open the telestres up to attack.

The premise of Golden Witchbreed--ambassador from Earth gets tangled up in courtly intrigue on an alien planet--and a long middle segment in which Christie laboriously crosses a wilderness in order to escape her pursuers, both raise the specter of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.  Like that novel, Golden Witchbreed uses its plot, and the danger in which that plot places its protagonist, as a means of building a fantastically detailed alien society and exploring its sociology, psychology, and philosophy of life, and like The Left Hand of Darkness, Orthean society is shaped by a quirk of their physiology that relates to gender.  Ortheans are born genderless, and develop gender at puberty.  Unlike Russ and Jones, Gentle isn't writing an overtly feminist work, and she isn't as interested as Le Guin in exploring the meaning and implication of gender, but Orthean physiology is the excuse she uses to create a gender-blind society.  "How can you bring up a child if you don't know what sex it is?" Christie wonders when she discovers the Orthean life-cycle, and the answer that Gentle gives is the total absence of gender roles--a child raised without knowing what gender they'll settle into will expect all possible roles in life to be available to them.  It's not an entirely convincing argument (and it's an even greater leap to accept the entirely matter-of-fact attitude of Ortheans to homosexuality), but it's also not belabored.  Once Gentle has established the quasi-scientific reasons for her society's gender equality, she gets on with telling her story, and it just so happens that, though there are important male characters in both books--Haltern, and a mercenary, Blaize, who starts out pursuing Christie and later becomes her friend--most of the movers and shakers, including Ruric and Suthafiori, are women.

Golden Witchbreed's plot is more complicated than The Left Hand of Darkness's, and its last third in particular, in which Christie learns about Orthe's ancient history and is exposed to and altered by the planet's remaining Witchbreed technology, adds a level of complication to its plot that Le Guin never attempted.  Nevertheless, the comparison between the two novels is unkind to Gentle, and not just because Golden Witchbreed's greater length and complication draws attention to the elegance and simplicity with which Le Guin achieved such similar goals with so much less fuss and commotion (while giving up half her page-count to explorations of Gethenian culture which are extraneous to Genli Ai's adventures).  Like its cousin space opera, the planetary romance often seems to transpose the stories and tropes of epic fantasy to a futuristic, SFnal setting.  In his space operas Iain M. Banks often plays the two genres against one another, telling a fantastic story within an SFnal container in order to expose and explode the often reactionary and conservative assumptions that lie at fantasy's heart.  In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin maintains a distance between the quasi-fantastic, pre-modern escapades of the Gethenians and Genli Ai's SFnal, space-age attitude towards them.  Golden Witchbreed doesn't maintain that distance, and instead of exploring the fantasy genre from an SFnal perspective it seems to sink into it.  That Christie goes native on Orthe is to be expected, but that we go native with her isn't, and isn't entirely desirable.

The reason that it's so easy to forget that Christie is an alien on Orthe, and that there exists a wider galaxy in which Orthe, much less the Hundred Thousand, is but a primitive and unimportant backwater, is that Gentle spends so little time describing future Earth.  We're told, very briefly, that the discovery of intelligent life all over the galaxy is a recent one, whose shock waves are still reverberating through human society, but that--aside from the quaintly 80s-ish revelation that China is the world's new superpower--is almost all we hear about Earth.  The other humans on Orthe are only briefly glimpsed, and seem to exist mainly so that Christie can have a reason to petition Suthafiori and become part of her court.  Their inability to make heads or tails out of Orthean society is otherwise inexplicable--it is, for example, utterly impossible that they should have been on Orthe for a year without even figuring out that Ortheans are born genderless, when Christie stumbles upon this fact through idle conversation within a few days of setting out with Ruric.  Christie herself is a rather carefully maintained blank--the better to soak up Orthean culture, of course, but also the better to stand in for present-day Western post-colonial diplomacy while still being, ostensibly, from a much-altered future Earth.  It's a balancing act that Gentle doesn't quite manage.  The plot against Christie and Suthafiori turns out to hinge on the fear that Earth will colonize, interfere with, or just try to take what it wants from Orthe, and though our experience of the world teaches us that this is by no means an unlikely scenario, there's nothing in Golden Witchbreed or its extremely amorphous portrait of Earth and its politics to suggest a particularly urgent or ugly version of interference that might justify, or make sympathetic, the fears that drive the novel's plot.  By leaving Earth out of the equation Gentle allows Golden Witchbreed to collapse into a secondary world fantasy with an engaging plot and rigorous and SFnal wolrdbuilding, and though on this level it is a very fine novel, there were too many hints of the novel it might have been for me to enjoy it without regret.

Happily, Gentle went on to write that novel in Ancient Light.  Set ten years after the events of Golden Witchbreed, Ancient Light pays off the dark mutterings about Earth's overextended diplomatic corps that cropped up occasionally in that novel by bringing Christie back to Orthe as a representative of a powerful corporation, PanOceania, which hopes to weasel its way around the government restrictions placed on contact with Orthe and trade for working Witchbreed technology.  As the Hundred Thousand remain as superstitious of the Witchbreed, and as wary of encouraging their or their technology's resurgence, as they ever were, PanOceania approaches their enemies, the other nations on Orthe: the emperor-in-exile in Kel Harantish, whose people claim to be descendants of the Golden Witchbreed, and the hiyeks, the coastal tribes who survive by using decaying Witchbreed machines to filter water and grow crops, both groups that have been kept in relative squalor by the Hundred Thousand's dominance over Orthe and their determination to stamp out the Witchbreed line and all forms of technology.  Removing the narrative's point of view from the Hundred Thousand and placing it among people whose suffering they have calmly tolerated in the name of protecting Orthe from the Witchbreed legacy punctures Golden Witchbreed's romantic perspective on them, and when it's revealed that much of what Christie fought to preserve in that novel has been allowed to die a natural death--Suthafiori is dead, and the telestres have not felt the need to name another ruler and have abandoned the capital city--it seems that the heroic age of Orthe is well and truly over.

As Ancient Light opens, Christie is older, more seasoned, and more battered-about than she was in Golden Witchbreed--in the intervening years, she's married and been widowed, and suffered some sort of psychological crisis that, we realize sooner than she does, is linked to her experiences with Witchbreed technology--and less willing to give herself wholeheartedly to Orthe and its culture (a minor but important note in the novel is the increasingly frantic status reports Christie receives from her underlings at the civil service job she took leave from in order to return to Orthe, asking her to return before yet another vital government service is co-opted by corporations).  What's interesting is how, despite this loss of innocence, Christie strongly resists acknowledging that she has romanticized the Hundred Thousand, and how thoroughly the novel enables this attitude by stressing the the danger that PanOceania represents.  Christie's mission director, an arrogant, ambitious young woman named Molly Rachel, views the Hundred Thousand's traditionalism as decadence and social regression, the abandonment of their cities as proof that their society has stagnated and perhaps begun to die.  The high-handedness with which she establishes a program trading aid and farming technology for access to the Witchbreed machines does little to conceal her avarice, and Christie rightly fears her thoughtless interference with Orthe's delicate political matrix, especially when the emboldened hiyeks begin attacking the Hundred Thousand.

The events of the novel quickly bear out Christie's concerns.  When a young woman on Molly's team goes native, as Christie did before her, she uses her position to heavily arm the hiyeks.  This leads Molly to call in PanOceania's security forces, led by Corazon Mendez, whose approach--to go in with maximum force and establish herself as the de facto leadership of the planet--is risible but might be the only way to prevent massive loss of life.  Taking advantage of this unrest is Calil bel-Rioch, a Harantish woman who stages a coup and names herself empress, with the end goal of reestablishing the Golden empire (again, notice how all the movers and shakers are women).  Not to contradict myself, but in this novel I occasionally found myself wishing that Earth were a slightly less prominent power.  The thrust of the novel is to show how every interference on PanOceania's part, and every counter-move that Christie makes, only destabilize the situation further, but as a result Ancient Light tends to downplay the role Ortheans play in their own downfall--how the Hundred Thousand's laissez faire attitude to events outside their borders and their indifference to Kel Harantish and the hiyeks' increasing distress created the conditions that Earth destabilized.  Ultimately, however, this doesn't matter.  As justified as the humanitarian reasons for interfering in Orthe's affairs might have been, the consequences of that interference are disastrous.  Christie discovers the true nature of the Golden Witchbreed's legacy, and the reasons behind the Hundred Thousand's bias against technology, but she does so too late to prevent a genocide.

In the immediate aftermath of finishing Ancient Light, I found its ending gimmicky, destruction for destruction's sake.  Now I think my problem was that the book's final chapters are too bound up with Christie's emotional reactions, and specifically her romantic attachments to various Ortheans, which are the weakest aspect in both books.  In Golden Witchbreed Christie starts an affair with a young Orthean called Falkyr which is very lightly described--a brief scene in which it begins, and later an approving comment from Haltern at Christie's happiness.  This is quite refreshing--the acknowledgment that as important as a love affair might be to Christie it isn't important in the grand scheme of things--but when Falkyr's father accuses Christie of being Witchbreed and forces her on her trek through the wilderness and Falkyr, like a true Orthean, stands by his telestre and abandons her to her fate, Christie's shock and betrayal feel unearned, and her grief over what to us seemed like nothing more than a fling entirely exaggerated.  There's a similar disconnect from Christie's relationship with Blaize, which develops into a grudging respect when they cross the wilderness together, but whose leap to deep friendship with an undertone of something more feels groundless.  Ancient Light does a better job building Chrstie and Blaize's relationship--he's angry at her departure and angrier that she's returned as PanOceania's representative, and their slow rapprochement as events unfold around them is the most believable, and the most convincingly romantic, relationship in both books.  So it's a little annoying when, a hundred pages from Ancient Light's end, Blaize informs Christie that she was always in love with Ruric, especially as this means that the disaster at the end of the novel is filtered through Christie's confused feelings for Ruric and her indecision between her and Blaize.  As important as Ruric is to both novels, the anguish Christie feels on her behalf feels, once again, unearned, and gets in the way of appreciating the magnitude of what's happening around her.

Once I got a little distance from the novel, however, I was better able to appreciate the guts it must have taken to write an ending as bleak and hopeless as the one Gentle gives Orthe.  The actual shape of the ending seems to beg a sequel--the novel ends on a very indecisive note, with most of the main characters gathered together as though about to launch into a last-ditch effort to save the day.  But the longer one looks for a loophole to the book's ending, the more obvious it becomes that there isn't one.  What Gentle has left off is only the actual business of death, but it is undeniable.  There is still, I think, destruction for destruction's sake here, and perhaps a little too much finger-wagging at present-day politics, but what Ancient Light's ending manages is to drag both novels decisively into the realm of science fiction.  Valor and tradition aren't going to save the day, and it is no longer possible to bury oneself in a noble warrior culture and forget about bureaucracy and office politics.  Ancient Light's ending is a cold equation--there is no escaping its deadly implications.

Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light appear to have been Gentle's only forays into science fiction, though I've seen Ash described as science fantasy, and part of the White Crow sequence apparently takes place in the near future.  A background in fantasy is apparent in both novels, both in the meticulous construction of Orthean society and in their preoccupations, but if Golden Witchbreed fumbled the balance between the two genres, Ancient Light ultimately masters it.  For all my problems with both volumes, there's no denying their richness and complexity, the irresistible allure of the story Gentle has written and the characters she's peopled it with, and the sophistication with which she handles some heady and tangled themes.  In any genre, she's definitely an author I'm going to read more of.