June 24, 2017

Bulletpoints: The Mummy

I’d like to say I watched The Mummy so that you (the reader) didn’t have to, but judging by the near empty theatre the day we went to see it, I’m not sure I’ve saved anyone anything. Nor am I saying anything original in telling you that it’s a bad film, given that even everyone who’s in it seems aware of this. Russell Crowe is having the time of his life. Tom Cruise looks like he can’t believe these words are emerging from his face. Annabelle Wallis looks apologetic, as if she knows that she had a hand in the two terrible big budget films I’ve watched this summer. (It’s impossible to tell how Sofia Boutella, in the title role, feels about the movie or her own performance; the mummy spends much of the film resurrecting her own face.)

In any case, some thoughts:

 

  • I’ve been lazy about paying attention to this film’s marketing, but must assume that someone somewhere has explicitly said it’s a reboot of both the Karloff and Brendan Fraser films (I think the Dark Universe is meant to be a set of loose film reboots, but still). Because all of the commentary around the Tom Cruise Mummy seems to focus on those films to the exclusion of all else–as if the 1930s had been the start of the mummy story rather than a temporary revival. It’s not, particularly, because of a similarity in plot–and even those two films are only broadly similar in their choice of Imhotep as Mummy.

 

  • This looks (oh no) like a grumpy “why don’t kids these days read books” complaint, but I promise it’s mostly that mummy fiction comes from and is rooted in a really specific context (here I am, discussing this at some length), so that most later iterations of the genre feel like they’re missing some key part. Plus, that context is imperial Europe, and Hollywood can only (barely) invoke imperial America.

 

  • The Mummy deals with this by shifting some of the action to modern day Iraq (with frequent reminders that we’re in Mesopotamia, The Cradle of Civilisation), thus giving Tom Cruise an excuse to be there. The archaeologist points out that an Egyptian tomb in Mesopotamia is weird and probably important, but beyond that acknowledgement of geography the viewer is left to assume that the ancient Egyptians simply wanted to get this body as far away from them as possible. There’s a sort of collapsing of space here that feels familiar from imperial literature–Egypt is Egypt, obviously, it’s where the mummies and the pyramids etc are, but it’s also all of the East, and to some extent interchangeable with other parts of that larger orientalist whole.

 

  • And yet the film must still shift its action to England–it’s England, not America, that has a history with Egypt; English people’s habit of carrying home Eastern artifacts is what shifts the action to these shores.

 

  • There’s something going on with artifacts and what one does with them. The main action of The Mummy opens with Nick from New Girl and Tom Cruise (confusingly called Nick here), US soldiers and looters in Iraq, following a map to “Haram,” which they’ve chosen to interpret as “treasure, probably”. “Haram” (I know) turns out to be in the vicinity of a village that has been overrun with “insurgents”–you can tell they’re the bad sort of native by the fact that they’re destroying some ancient Mesopotamian statuary. Luckily our heroes, loveable rogues, get in and cause some explosions, one of which reveals the giant underground chamber in which Ahmanet has been contained. Nick and Nick-from-New-Girl’s plunder is clearly bad and shows no respect for the objects or their history–the archaeologist, Jenny Halsey, shows a desire to preserve them. Meanwhile, we’re reminded that the people with whom the US army is at war are hostile to their own history and want to wipe it out. Halsey’s removal of historical artefacts is thus contrasted both with the bad natives and (cleverly) the bad invaders–anxiously justifying itself by setting up these terrible alternatives. It’s all a bit reminiscent of your friend who isn’t racist and knows the British empire did bad things, but isn’t it great that the British Museum exists? And wouldn’t these artefacts be damaged if they weren’t there? (Sometimes your friend will even point out how ironic it is that a lot of the situations from which these important bits of heritage are being saved are in part due to the countries doing the saving. [It's like raaaaain ....])

 

  • Mummy fiction does this all the time. This is a genre based in the violation of human bodies, and because of this it not only works as a sort of distillation of the imperial project (empire is built on turning [black and brown] bodies into [consumable] objects), but also the awareness of that violation haunts the genre and it needs to constantly push back against it. And so there will always be a reason, completely plausible in-text, why this violation was necessary, even admirable.

 

  • It’s interesting, then, that the film so thoroughly sidesteps questions of empire. The important connection between Egyptian and British history, the reason Ahmanet comes to Britain, the source of our information about this ancient backstory is … the Crusades. I don’t wish to generalise (#notallCrusaders) but of the various encounters between Britain and Egypt, is this really the one most likely to have involved the uncovering and preservation of important historical and archaeological secrets about Egypt’s supernatural past? Later, we discover that Russell Crowe’s secret lair (of which more later) is a part of the Natural History Museum–not the British Museum, as this piece, for example, claims. You can (I’m probably going to) argue that the NHM is as much a product of empire as the BM; you can probably argue (I’m not going to) that the Crusades are as relevant or more so to British imperial history in 2017 than the entire nineteenth century. But it seems to me that, beyond those misleading opening sections (surely a movie about Americans being gross in Iraq is going to make a political point?) the film goes out of its way to avoid being visibly about empire. (It still is, of course. It’s a mummy story.)

 

  • The refusal to discuss the Victorians is even more pointed when we’re introduced to Russell Crowe’s Henry Jekyll, the Nick Fury of this Dark Universe (our world, but all our classic supernatural adventure stuff is real, like a crap League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Jekyll’s organisation Prodigium is clearly set up as a sort of framing narrative for this series of films; from the specimen jars present in his labs, we know we’re going to be dealing with Vampires and their ilk in coming installments.I find myself wondering about the choice to go with specimens rather than objects (the end credits do show various Egyptian artefacts, alongside what appear to be their catalogue numbers in a [the British?] museum); mummies and vampires as natural phenomena in no way connected with any sort of cultural grounding.

 

  • The major thing that attracted me to this film was the fact that the Mummy is female. Colonial space is always gendered (oh my america) anyway; one of my favourite terrible facts about the 19th century is the existence of mummy-unwrapping parties where groups of people would get together to strip a human corpse. There’s a full appreciation of the erotic potential of veiling and unveiling inherent in both the figure of the mummy itself and more generally popular depictions of sexy Eastern women (all those veils!). It’s not surprising, then, that early mummy fiction generally depicts the mummy as a woman. (Another reason this film is better read in the context of the books.) The film buys into this completely in its early depictions of Ahmanet–our visions of her are mediated through Nick’s daydreams/trances so they’re already fragmented; teasing glimpses of trailing strips of white fabric with beautiful limbs being revealed and then concealed.

 

  • (Here’s William Prime, in 1857, fantasising about tomb robbers violating a mummy: “What fingers tore the coverings from her delicate arms! What rude hands were around her neck, that was once white and beautiful! What sacreligious wretches wrested the jeweled amulet from its holy place between those breasts,once white and heaving full of love and life, and bared her limbs to the winds, and cast them out on the desert sand!” [From here, some more context here. It’s worth noting that Prime’s fantasy violated dead woman is also white and blonde.])

 

  • 19th Century mummies are women because the East is just mysterious and feminine boutella mummy chainsand because the Victorians like to turn their anxieties into something they can also want to fuck, but perhaps most importantly because they’re violable. In these books about mysterious undead women with supernatural power, and later in films about male mummies risen from the grave to be reunited with their true loves, it’s other women who are possessed or kidnapped or expected to play host to the reincarnated spirit. It’s unusual to see a plot in which the male hero’s mind is the one taken over; and Ahmanet’s attempts to resurrect Seth in Nick’s body require him to be held down while she straddles him and so are presented to us as a sort of sexual assault.  Being terrible, the movie can’t really commit to this disorientation–we’re in Nick’s head throughout so that his possession appears more a minor annoyance than anything, and he’s still The Hero, while Ahmanet is the one presented to us as an aesthetic/sexual object. At one point, when she has been captured, she’s chained into a submissive position and tortured by having mercury pumped into her body while the characters (and the camera, and so us) hang around watching her.

 

  • Ahmanet is a brown woman, and that matters not just because of the specific ways in which she’s sexualised/sexually voracious/grotesque (there’s literal bits of missing skin on her for much of the film), but in the ways she’s contrasted with the beautiful white, blonde woman (the archaeologist, Halsey, who quickly becomes “Jenny”). Even while being possessed by an evil Egyptian death god (really, though) Nick recognises which woman deserves his allegiance and which deserves to be thrown about the room. White womanhood remains precious beyond the grave.

 

  • There was a brief, and wonderful moment when I genuinely believed that Nick’s heroic trajectory would involve accepting the necessity of his own death–it seemed a fittingly current plot development. He does accept the possibility of dying … and then survives. The spirit of Set has now entered into Nick, who the surviving members of Prodigium discuss as a potential ally. Should the franchise survive long enough for this to happen, this “Egyptian” god will therefore be represented by a white American man. Meanwhile, Marwan Kenzari gets to be unnamed attractive Prodigium employee (imdb tells me his character’s name is “Malik”) and Courtney B. Vance plays the only named black character (unless we count Ahmanet herself) and the first named character to die.

 

  • A brief note on the film as horror: The Mummy has decided to interpret the mummy genre as a subset of zombie horror, which is fair enough, since both involve reanimated corpses. Ahmanet calls up several dead bodies to do her bidding, from ordinary people who appear to have been buried under London to the crypt of Crusaders whose discovery opens the film. (It’s not clear to me if she can only do this to human bodies–she leaves a perfectly good woolly mammoth in the museum.) This leads to a scene in which Cruise’s Nick is swimming slowly through a submerged crypt, followed by a bunch of reanimated Crusaders, still in chainmail, and swimming very slowly also. It’s almost as if the film is rebelling against the recent trend of fast-moving zombies by slowing down the zombie chase entirely. It’s hilarious. Meanwhile, Nick is hallucinating/being haunted by a dead Nick-from-New-Girl. Other horror tropes–scary animals in swarms (spiders, ants, crows) appear to be working with or controlled by Ahmanet; though the cows in the field adjoining the scene of her resurrection seem unconcerned. The film does an excellent Final Girl scene–Jenny, having done literally nothing to ensure her survival, is seen alone, shivering, alive and holding a knife.

 

  • And then there’s the film’s own final scene, which I’m not sure what to make of. Obeying the compulsion to dress a bit like a mummy (Ahmanet didn’t seem to have time to get solid clothes, though she’d clearly youtubed some hair tutorials), Nick has wrapped some strips of cloth around his hands, resurrected his best friend, and … travelled to Egypt to have “adventures”. The last thing we see are these two American men, on horseback, kicking up a sandstorm, and riding towards some pyramids, as if someone had watched Lawrence of Arabia and understood that it was good but not why. I doubt the film is meant to invoke all that this image implies, but even the commitment to the image is rather telling.
June 22, 2017

Jared Shurin (ed), The Book of the Dead

From three years ago, a slightly-edited review of an anthology of original mummy fiction. Published in Strange Horizons, and brought to you by my shady Victorianist past. I was reminded of this review’s existence because of the recent film The Mummy, starring Sofia Boutella (as the Mummy) and Tom Cruise. (Thoughts on that are forthcoming, probably, but please know that it is terrible.)

 

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The mummy story emerges from a nineteenth century that is saturated with Egyptomania. Which is to say, of course, that it emerges very specifically from imperial Europe’s troubled history with Egypt. “[S]ince this accursed Egyptian style came into fashion . . . my eldest boy rides on a sphinx instead of a rocking-horse, my youngest has a papboat in the shape of a crocodile, and my husband has built a watercloset in the shape of a pyramid and has his shirts marked with a lotus,” John J. Johnston quotes from an 1805 letter to the London Morning Chronicle in his introduction to Unearthed, an anthology of classic mummy stories. Robert Southey complained in 1807 that “everything must now be Egyptian, the ladies wear crocodile ornaments, and you sit upon a Sphinx in a room hung round with mummies.” Europe was never exactly unaware of Egypt, but Napoleon’s invasion of the country in 1798 opened it up for European scrutiny in ways that it never had been before. Egyptology as a discipline begins with the Description de l’Égypte; nineteenth century knowledge about Egypt, whether fact or fiction, was produced in the context of, and in the service of, empire. (This is the basic premise of Edward Said’s Orientalism.)

Which raises a question about how these two books—The Book of the Dead, an anthology of original mummy stories, and its companion volume, Unearthed, both edited by Jared Shurin—present themselves, and how they are packaged. The Book of the Dead is dedicated to Amelia B. Edwards, feminist, writer, women’s suffragist, and founder of the Egypt Exploration Society. Both volumes contain introductions by a member of the EES, and both end with an advertisement for it. This shouldn’t be a surprise—Jurassic London have clearly stated that these books are published in partnership with the society. But in a post-Orientalism (not, alas, post-orientalism) world, it’s hard to stomach this uncritical celebration of Europeans producing knowledge about Egypt in light of how that knowledge was, and in some ways still is, put to use. It’s probably worth noting at this point that as far as I can tell, all the writers in The Book of the Dead are British or American.

Fortunately, many of the best stories in the collection take as their impetus the complex, uncomfortable historical relationship between the west and Egypt. One of these is Adam Roberts’s “Tollund,” which is certainly aware of the power inherent in the creation of knowledge, of who gets to produce it and who has it produced about them. “Tollund” is a reversal of our expectations of a mummy story; not only is the preserved body in question a bog body in Jutland but the scientists who come to study it and have a terrible adventure in the process are named Hussein, Suyuti, el-Akkad, and el-Kafir el-Sheikh. It’s not always subtle; the phrase “occidental exoticism” appears and the characters spend a lot of time sitting around discussing the inferiority of these barbaric Northerners. It doesn’t need to be; a number of the stories in the collection critically examine the roots of the genre, but this blatant overturning of it delighted me.

Other stories in the collection deal with the transport of Egyptian artefacts to museums across the western world. Louis Greenberg’s “Akhenaten Goes to Paris” has its title character travel to France to visit a father who is currently on display in a museum. Paul Cornell’s Rameses I wakes up in a museum in Canada. Den Patrick’s “All is Dust” has canopic jars stolen . . . from the British Museum. The turning of bodies into objects and the attendant undercurrent of discomfort that comes with this has been a part of the mummy tradition since its inception; fittingly, Unearthed begins with Theophile Gaultier’s 1840 short story “The Mummy’s Foot,” which has a young man buy a disembodied foot to use as a paperweight. One of mummy fiction’s most uncomfortable moments comes in Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, when the Egyptologist Professor Trelawney unwraps the perfectly-preserved body of the Egyptian Queen Tera. The unrolling of a mummy for an audience was a popular spectacle in the mid-nineteenth century, and once it is done Trelawney and his associates stand gloating over Tera’s beautiful naked body. But also in the room is Trelawney’s daughter Margaret, who is for supernatural reasons the physical double of Tera. As long as Margaret is present, it is impossible to entirely think of Tera as an object—and so the sense of violation is brought uncomfortably home.

In The Book of the Dead, Louis Greenberg’s Akhenaten moves constantly between the states of person and object—unable to bluff his way through airport security as a living person he begins the story by traveling to Paris as cargo; once there he is able to hide in a museum by pretending to be one of the exhibits. In his perorations about Paris (a city he quite likes) in the guise of a living being Akhenaten is subject to multiple instances of casual racism and suggestions that he go back to where he came from—including in the Place de la Concorde, which has at its centre the Luxor Obelisk. As fond as Akhenaten is of the modern world, it’s clear that he is more welcome in Paris when he is an artifact than when he is a person.

If the museums preserve mummies as objects, we’re also reminded that they can be destroyed, and even consumed. As Johnston reminds us in his introduction, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europeans even ingested powdered mummy as a form of medicine. Roger Luckhurst’s “The Thing of Wrath” takes for its inspiration stories of rags from mummies being imported from Egypt to the USA in order to make paper for newspapers. Jenni Hill’s “The Cats of Beni Hasan” is based on the use of mummified cats (tons of them were shipped to England in the nineteenth century) as fertilizer.

Two stories in the collection deal with the physical consumption of mummies. “All is Dust” has a group of old friends accidentally snort some dead mummy along with cocaine—the only one it affects is the Egyptian character who turns into a vengeful murderer. In Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Bit-U-Men,” a reanimated mellified man (or not a man—its gender is ambiguous throughout) allows for its body to be used in the production of American confectionery. This story, which later contains a reference to “mummy brown” ink, centers the consenting human owner of the body and in doing so invokes thousands of mummified bodies that were used in various ways without the possibility of consenting, and harks back to the tradition of mummy stories built upon the sense of unease created by the inability to wholly erase the humanity of these bodies-as-collectable/consumable-objects. “Bit-U-Men” is probably the strongest story in the collection, both in the ways it harks back to and interrogates the traditional mummy story and in its fittingly thick-as-honey prose.

Headley’s story is one of many in the collection that play with that other great trope of mummy fiction—the love story. Early fictional mummies are usually female and beautiful; Gaultier’s Hermonthis, for example, possesses “the purest Egyptian type of perfect beauty.” Whether this was connected to a more general feminization of the Orient, or the erotic potential of veiling and unveiling (all those public mummy-unwrappings!) Victorian mummy fiction is full of the beautiful undead, whether they be beautiful and deadly (like Queen Tera, or even Rider Haggard’s Ayesha) or harmless like Hermonthis or Haggard’s Ma-Mee. Lou Morgan’s “Her Heartbeat, An Echo” has another Egyptian princess fall in love with a modern man—a museum security guard who refuses to treat her as an object and offers to share his lunch. The susceptibility of thousand-year-old beautiful princesses towards random British men is another fine Victorian tradition, but there’s something rather nice about this particular iteration of it. The eroticized female mummy takes on a different form in Michael West’s rather muddled story of rape and revenge, “Inner Goddess,” while David Thomas Moore’s “Old Souls” adapts the reincarnated lovers trope as a retelling of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter (complete with a reference to the film, so that we know it knows it’s doing it).

Jesse Bullington’s “Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb” is one of the few stories that refer to later cinematic iterations of the mummy. Seth Rasul (I don’t know how common “Seth” is as a modern Egyptian name; I suspect its use in two consecutive stories in this collection has more to do with its familiarity as an English or American name) is of Egyptian descent and the target of racist bullies at his British school. He also loves mummy movies and retreats into them when he is the target of abuse; in his head he is the mummy, a boy on whom he has a crush is a werewolf, said boy’s girlfriend is a vampire. I can’t help reacting rather uncomfortably to this story, which in most ways I love. It’s well done; Bullington never oversimplifies the complex relationships members of minority groups can have with the media we grow up with. And yet and yet and yet. Part of the point of “Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb” is that immigrants and minorities tend not to exist very much in mainstream culture, so that our relationships with the things that are conceivably “ours” can be possessive, even when we’re the monsters. Perhaps when it’s done this convincingly it’s irrelevant that Bullington (as far as I know) has never been a queer brown kid in a white school. And yet I keep coming back to that (all British/American) table of contents and think that maybe it does matter.

At the most basic level mummy stories are about dead bodies, and so about death and what you can and cannot keep holding on to. Maurice Broaddus’s “Cerulean Memories” and David Bryher’s “The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey” focus on the physical aspects of this; the ways in which keeping a dead body around is rather horrifying. Glen Mehn’s “Henry” takes the opposite route with a focus on the virtual—if everything stays on the internet forever, how do you let go? This question of how you face the death of someone you love is at the heart of the last story in the collection, Will Hill’s “Three Memories of Death.” Hill’s story takes the form of a philosophical debate carried out by two men over decades, and it’s quiet and elegiac; a reminder that this genre can also be intensely personal.

Much of this review seems to consist of describing the ways in which these stories adapt classic tropes. Because even where there’s a clear, critical engagement with those tropes, most stories in the collection still feel very traditional. Sarah Newton’s “The Roof of the World” feels like a classic Victorian adventure set in the Pamir Mountains—I’m not convinced it’s a mummy story, but I like the genre enough not to mind. And despite its undercurrent of political commentary (or not “despite”; the original stories often do this too) Luckhurst’s “The Thing of Wrath” is very much a cozy Victorian horror story, complete with frame narrative (abandoned midway) and bad title. I love the mummy story because it’s rooted in a historical moment with which I’m fascinated; a collection like this one, where the strongest pieces focus on interrogating the origins of the genre and where attempts to update it feel more like window dressing than anything else, isn’t much of an argument for its resurrection. Perhaps Hill’s story is a fitting end to the collection, a reminder that sometimes it is necessary to let go.

 

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Rereading this has reminded me that someday I want to reread Louis Greenberg’s story alongside Beatrice Alemagna’s Un Lion à Paris (this is mostly a children’s literature blog, nowadays). Someday.

June 6, 2017

April and May Reading

By the time I sat down to write about what I’d read in April, it was nearly June (it is now very much June). Thus: a two month reading post, in which, as you’ll see, not very much actual reading was done.

 

Alex Wheatle, Straight Outta Crongton: Naturally I’ll be writing about this at length eventually, but some preliminary (potentially spoiler-y?) thoughts: firstly, there’s something interesting going on with time here. Straight Outta Crongton has as one of its major characters Elaine, older sister to the protagonist of Liccle Bit, but it’s set a few years before that novel, when Elaine is in her mid teens and hasn’t yet met Manjaro. So it’s a prequel; that in itself isn’t unusual–but all its cultural references are current. So either all three books take place in a much tighter time frame than I’ve been assuming (and even then, considering Obama is the former US president in this book that can’t be all), or Crongton is outside time for the space of the books (much as it’s set in a place that isn’t real), or this is the current book and Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights are set in the future. It’s also in many ways darker than the first two books, and thinking about that both in terms of This Historical Moment and of Wheatle’s switch to a cast of mostly women is interesting to chew on. It’s good, which is the important thing.

Robin Stevens, Cream Buns and Crime: Because I read every Robin Stevens book about ten minutes after it becomes available, I’d also been buying her Wells and Wong short stories as they came out as ebooks. Cream Buns and Crime is in part a vehicle for getting those short stories into print, so that alongside the couple of new stories and other material in this collection, I was effectively getting a bunch of things I’d already got. Which is not an unusual thing for a publisher to do, but did make the book a bit underwhelming as a New Robin Stevens Book. The couple of new stories are good, though I’m slightly offended at the break from the Hazel-writes-the-novels, Daisy-writes-the-shorts tradition (one of these is a Junior Pinkertons story, and one is narrated by Beanie.

Hope Larson, Brittney Williams, Sarah Stern, Goldie Vance Vol. 1: The friend who lent this to me grabbed my interest by claiming it was a girl detective story, set in a 1950′s hotel, with a queer romance subplot–all of which made for a convincing argument. She did not mention the drag racing and cold war anxieties  (in retrospect, I ought to have expected both) or indeed the space! plot (which I did not expect). I don’t know how I feel about the comic’s choice to so completely identify with its heroine’s 20th century American fears of The Russians, however plausible that might be for this setting, but it’s still really charming.

Innosanto Nagara, My Night in the Planetarium: Nagara has featured in these monthly lists of reading before for his alphabet and counting board books, A is for Anarchist and Counting on Community. This is a few steps up as regards reading age–where the audience of A is for Anarchist was probably going to have to rely on parents for conversations about what “Zapatista” meant (which was one of the book’s strengths, of course), this has brief, accessible explanations of colonialism, censorship and recent history, woven into an autobiographical story. The art continues to be great, and I think Nagara’s achieving a really interesting balance between taking big things seriously and making them accessible to very young readers.

Rick Riordan, The Dark Prophecy: I don’t know that I have much to say about this, given that it’s mid-series; I did enjoy it, but was also a bit underwhelmed. The previous book set up a horrifying, complicated situation (wrt one character’s history of abuse, and her relationship to the man who abused her); the abuser is not in this book, which is nice; but the problem seems rather to have vanished for the duration of his absence, which is … hm. On the other hand, I’ve been reading these interconnected series since they started and there’s something so nice about (how to say this without sounding patronising? I don’t mean to be) seeing Riordan’s politics evolve, and seeing the books increasingly value particular forms of community and safety. (Also there’s a very good elephant.)

Elsie J. Oxenham, Stowaways in the Abbey; Strangers in the Abbey:  Readers of this blog know of my series-completionist side, which has led me to make unfortunate choices in the past. These two were the result of a visit to Barter books some weeks ago. I’ve read most of the Abbey series at some point or another, but my knowledge of the “retrospective” titles (see) is patchy. As with many fill in titles both of these are heavy on the foreshadowing (see for example Jen’s insistence that Joan is going to call her daughter Janice, and that said daughter will be May queen at school and will choose lobelias for her flower, or all the discussion of the marriageability of the various Marchwood brothers). While I was reading I was having thoughts about the level of emotion these books allow their characters to show (too much, she said disapprovingly)–it’s all heightened to a point that feels ludicrous to me, but then there are solid reasons for that, and if this was a genre other than Books For Mid-Century Girls they would probably be more clearly theorised. Still, these are extremely far from being among the better Oxenham books.

May 7, 2017

Malorie Blackman, Chasing The Stars

chasing starsI have a review of Malorie Blackman’s most recent novel in Strange Horizons this week–most of my thoughts on the book are therefore to be found over there. Both as an SF novel and as an adaptation of Othello I found it … not great, but intriguing. In the review I read it in the context of the other texts that it is (both explicitly and implicitly) bouncing off, and suggest that it works better as an intervention into those works than it does as a thing in itself. Which is all fine.

But that isn’t the only context in which I’m reading the book–it’s also a children’s book, and more importantly (this year, at least) it’s a Carnegie-eligible children’s book. It appeared on the list of nominations for the Carnegie medal, as well as being shortlisted for the Guardian and Waterstones prizes and longlisted for the Jhalak prize. Some further thoughts, then:

I’ve been reading this book as an adult, a science fiction fan, and a person who knows Othello relatively well; and my particular reading of it means that I find it harder than usual to imagine how the book would work in the absence of those contexts. (The internet suggests that lots of people are coming to it that way, and many seem to be enjoying it.)  It also makes judging it in light of the Carnegie criteria seem rather meaningless.

(But let’s try anyway: with the exception of the Love At First Sight trope the characters and their development do make sense; there’s clever use of “literary conventions and techniques” though not necessarily as I think those criteria intend; the resolution is credible; I’m going to stop now because the Carnegie criteria always feel weird and limited to me.)

In the review I mention very briefly the fact that Olivia’s interest in film becomes a marker of class. I was trying not to give too much away, and also not get boring and rambly, but that is not a concern on my own blog, so here are some details.

For most of the book, the only characters we see Olivia interacting with, other than her brother, are the refugees. We know that Vee’s interest in old-timey films is weird because she tells us so, and also because when she makes movie references in conversations with her new crew they seem to be confused by them. But–these characters are also former “drones”, a sort of underclass who work in the mines, most of whom were born into these conditions. There’s a point in the book where Nathan points out that drones do not have the opportunity to watch films and read books, so that the access that Vee has always taken for granted, and which is a basic condition of her particular hobby, is specifically a function of her class position within the universe. Vee is taken aback, assimilates this into her understanding of the universe, moves on; it’s a throwaway scene, though one of many in which Nathan and his friends draw attention to the fact that Olivia has watched films and they have not.

[Here be spoilers]

Late in the book we discover that the serial killer aboard the ship is Doctor Sheen, the colony’s sole doctor who has never herself been a drone. Sheen wants to get back to Earth–with her knowledge of the drones and their allies she can easily buy her freedom–and has been killing off those on the ship towards this goal. She is, however, willing to see Vee as an equal and a potential ally, because “You have a love of literature and films and music and art, all the things that separate us from beasts and drones.”

And I’m wondering how this knowledge, that a familiarity with certain sorts of culture is both a marker of power and a weapon itself, sits with a book which is itself a reworking of a classic (and is thus made richer and deeper in the reading by the reader’s knowledge of its intertext/s), and there’s a lot here that is rich and interesting and that I’m not sure yet what to do with.

 

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The other thing that I could not fit into the review was the revelation that at one point, when Vee and Nathan are having sex, the act of cunnilingus is described as “to go where no one had gone before”. I’m not sure whether Star Trek exists within the universe of the book, but I’m choosing to believe this is a widely-used euphemism among Olivia’s people.

April 30, 2017

Another Carnegie Project

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noticed that I’m not, as I was this time last year, reading and reviewing the shortlist for the Carnegie medal–and will probably not be surprised.

Last year (why make more words when I can use my old ones?), I said this:

So what have the last three years’ Carnegie shortlists had to say about British children’s literature, other than that the judges and I don’t seem to agree on very much? Well for one, that non-white authors don’t write it. In each of the last three years (and I’d be interested in going back a few more years to see if things are better at any point) the shortlist has been composed entirely of white authors. This year I was so annoyed to see it happen again that I decided I’d read all the books by non-white authors on the nominees list. There are 93 entries on the nominees list. There are 4 books that I know to be by authors who aren’t white– and hopefully some I’ve missed, because those numbers are dismal. The Carnegie shortlist loves talking about race–though as Karen Sands-O’Connor points out here, it seems to prefer it when the whole thing can be conveniently displaced onto America, as with last year’s winner Buffalo Soldier, last year’s shortlist-ee, Ghost Hawk, and this year’s Lies We Tell Ourselves. (Or Australia, in last year’s Middle of Nowhere, or another planet, as with Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men.) (And the celebration of books like The Child’s Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston and Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper suggests a reluctance to engage with the ways in which structural racism allows certain books to be published and lauded.)

This year, the award went a step further in achieving an entirely white longlist as well, this time provoking some level of pushback from authors and critics. CILIP have announced that there will be a review (they’ve also included some of the usual “this has started a useful conversation” nonsense that makes me rageous, but moving on …), and that there may need to be structural changes–including to the existing criteria for examining the books. I’m curious to see how this turns out, but the current state of British publishing doesn’t make me too hopeful.

So why not give up on the Carnegie altogether? Honestly, I’m tempted. My academic work tends to focus on the British children’s literary canon, and like many people who work with a canon I spend a lot of time worrying that in producing more work on (e.g.) Arthur Ransome and C.S. Lewis and Mary Norton I’m just reinscribing their centrality to British children’s literature. But I work on Britishness after empire; and literary awards, and the creation of national literatures, are a key part of how this imagined community articulates its nationhood to itself.

This is particularly the case with the Carnegie, an award set up specifically as a British children’s literature award, and one whose parameters have shifted with shifting ideas of what that word “British” might encompass. Owen Dudley Edwards (British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War, Edinburgh University Press, 2007) notes that while the award at its inception in 1936 had claimed to reward “the best book for children published in the British Empire”, this wording morphed within a few years to refer to “England” (probably a result of parochialism rather than a deliberate attempt to exclude writers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). In 1944 the criteria changed again to specify “a British subject domiciled in the United Kingdom” and “published in Great Britain”. And so forth. (The current eligibility criteria merely require the book to have been published in the UK first, or within three months of its first publication, which avoids that minefield at least.)

All of which means that if you’re studying Britishness and children’s literature, the Carnegie medal is pretty hard to ignore. If the books rewarded by the medal change with a changing understanding of what a “British” book might be, one is compelled to notice what is not rewarded by the medal–where the limits of this Britishness lie. When, 82 years into the creation of the award, it has never been won by a non white writer … well.

 

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Here is the complete list of nominees for the medal for 2017, according to the website. On it, there are eight books that I’m aware of by authors who aren’t white. There are some omissions that confuse me (were neither of  Catherine Johnson’s two most recent books eligible?); and googling the names of unfamiliar authors and titles is of necessity a crude method for determining something like this, so there may be others I’ve missed (and I’d be grateful to be corrected if so).

 

Booked, by Kwame Alexander

Alpha, by Bessora and Barroux (trans. Sarah Ardizzone)

Chasing the Stars, by Malorie Blackman

Where Monsters Lie, by Polly Ho-Yen

Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence

The Girl of Ink & Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Crongton Knights, by Alex Wheatle

Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon

 

In an alternate universe, this might have been the shortlist for the medal (how many black and brown writers on a list is enough?). Given the rather shameful stats for the publication of children’s books by BAME authors, the last year or so has been unusually good for rewarding them.  Orangeboy was shortlisted for the Costa and won a Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, The Girl of Ink and Stars is on the Jhalak shortlist and won another Waterstones prize as well as the overall prize,  Nicola Yoon’s second book was a National Book Award finalist and is on the Waterstones list (and Everything, Everything is being made into a film, for what that’s worth), Crongton Knights won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, Malorie Blackman has won literally everything that isn’t the Carnegie (she was on the shortlist for Pig Heart Boy nearly ten years ago) and has been the Children’s Laureate. This is not an attempt to argue for the merit of these books (some of which I have not yet read) over the ones currently on the shortlist. It’s to say that, if one were to pick a shortlist of eight possible contenders from the nominations list (something like the Shadow Clarke), the list above would have been plausible.

 

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Alex Wheatle pointed out in this conversation on twitter that one of the reasons the Carnegie is so influential is precisely that it is shadowed–that schools (and other groups, like the one I’ve been a part of for the last few years) read and discuss the books in question, so that if books by BAME and other non white authors are not shortlisted they’re entirely removed from the conversation.

All of which is a longwinded way to say: I’m not interested in contributing to a conversation that has to take place in the absence of these authors. I don’t have the institutional power to take people with me, but instead of the official shortlist, this year* I’ll be reading and writing about my possible shortlist instead. I’m cheating a bit, since I’ve read some of them already. I wrote about Crongton Knights here and The Girl of Ink & Stars here, and my review of Chasing The Stars will be appearing in Strange Horizons in the next few days. I’m particularly curious about Nick Poole’s suggestion that “there may be a case for changing the criteria to protect the prize from unconscious bias”, so am considering returning to the books I’ve already read and reflecting on how they do or don’t work with the existing criteria upon which the books are judged. As the Millwood Hargrave and (when it’s out) Blackman reviews will show, I’m not expecting to adore these books or rage about how their authors were robbed–as a reviewer my default position is grumpy. But if I’m to direct my critical energy at anything, I’d rather it be these books than their absence.

 

 

 

 

*I’d like to say “this summer” and map this project onto the actual Carnegie timetable, but I also have a thesis to finish writing …

 

April 4, 2017

March Reading

March was a great month for buying books (far too many ebooks, trips to bookshops in London that I like, including what could so easily have been a final chance to go to New Beacon [but it wasn’t]), but it was also a heavily research-focused month so that I didn’t actually get that much read. I did get into the excellent habit of reading one story from Speak Gigantular before bed each night–the sort of civilised reading habit that I’ve always found rather awe-inspiring in other people. Apart from the Okojie, each of the books mentioned here I read in a day or so, so that I don’t feel like I did very much reading at all.

 

Patrice Lawrence, Orangeboy: I’ve written about this already; I think it’s great. It’s a gentler book than its premise (protagonist, who is a black teenage boy, is found with drugs on him and the girl who gave them to him has died sitting next to him) suggests, though always alive to the implications and the dangers of the situation. It’s also just … good; in its prose, in how it’s paced, in its random art references.

Irenosen Okojie, Speak Gigantular: As I say above, I read this in bits and pieces over a longish period of time. As a result, I don’t have a strong sense of the collection as a collection; I have a sense of how it all fits together, but need a more condensed reread to really be sure. But the individual stories that make up Speak Gigantular are frequently great, and weird, and upsetting. I’ve half committed to writing about this collection in more detail, so I’ll be returning to it very soon.

Chloe Daykin, Fish Boy: The blurb on the front of this is probably not one for the ages: “a talking mackerel changes everything …” Fish Boy (which is a lot better than that blurb) is about Billy, who loves the sea and David Attenborough, is terrified by his mother’s mysterious illness, and really wants to be friends with the new boy, Patrick. While swimming, he meets and grows increasingly close to a mackerel shoal, particularly to a fish he names Bob. I’m going to be writing about this at greater length, but I really liked its invocations of friendship and family and uncertainty and caring, its northernness, and its slight air of apocalypse.

Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything: This book was absurdly readable–I started it on a lazy evening, read straight through and was done a couple of hours later. Its romance is over the top but satisfying, its use of various formats (text and email, but also backwards writing and medical reports and book reviews and creative dictionary definitions) good, the illustrations (by David Yoon) are nice. But (as I say elsewhere) there are also what feel to me like significant weaknesses–and the final act in particular feels less like the miracle the characters need and more like a cop-out.

Innosanto Nagara, Counting on Community: I read Nagara’s A is for Anarchist some months ago, and have since gifted it to a couple of friends with small children. I’m unable to say much that is useful about a board book, but this one is also great (though the numbers 1-10 leave less scope to play than the whole alphabet), the art continues to be good, there are several ducks, and I will also be passing this one on to actual children.

March 26, 2017

Patrice Lawrence, Orangeboy

orangeboyI don’t like thrillers. The specific ways in which tension works in a thriller narrative tend to register to me as actively unpleasant. This was true even before the last year or so made me spectacularly unable to deal with vulnerable characters being put at risk. But I knew I was going to be reading Orangeboy, however reluctantly–it was Carnegie-eligible (though not on the shortlist or longlist, but that is a matter for a separate post), Costa-shortlisted, Waterstones prize-shortlisted, Jhalak prize-longlisted; and it’s a work of YA about a young black character and by a black British author at a moment when both British publishing and Britain itself seem to be really doubling down on racial exclusion.

So I did the bad thing (I don’t really think this was a bad thing); early in the book, when our protagonist Marlon has been found with drugs in his pocket and a dead white girl next to him and I was particularly worried about where this was going to go, I flipped to the back of the book to see how it ended. Knowing where it was going to go made it a much easier book to read.

But all of this is perhaps overemphasising my reluctance–even before I’d had to check the ending, I was already surprised by how quickly and easily I’d fallen into the book.

Marlon is in his teens, a bit of a nerd, good at school but generally not remarkable. His father (who is responsible for naming him Marlon Isaac Asimov Sunday) is dead, his older brother badly injured in a car accident some years ago that killed his best friend Sharkie and has left him scarred and, among other things, unable to remember his little brother very well. As the book opens, Marlon is at the fair with Sonya Wilson, a pretty girl from school who has, out of the blue and to his utter bewilderment, asked him out. Marlon has avoided drugs in large part because of his older brother’s example, but Sonya gets him to try ecstasy. Then, as they ride the ghost train, she convinces him to hide the rest of the pills in his pants. And by the time they have emerged from the tunnel, she’s dead and he doesn’t understand what has happened or why. Suddenly, he’s involved not just with the police, but in deeper and deeper trouble, with someone who is clearly targeting him.

It’s interesting to be reading Orangeboy in the same year as I’ve read both (so far) of Alex Wheatle’s Crongton books, because though very different in tone (and Wheatle’s books feel directed at a younger audience) they work off one another in some interesting ways. As with both Crongton books, Lawrence’s protagonist is drawn into this dangerous series of events as a result of an older sibling’s previous choices. (Choice is a loaded word here, and we’re given plenty of opportunity to see how those choices are weighted, but at the same time, these characters are never merely hapless victims of circumstance. There is, for example, a definite moment when Marlon decides he’s going to put himself at risk to find out what happened to Sonya. Even if later events show that had he backed away his targeters still would have come after him, that decision still has meaning.) There’s also, as with Wheatle, a very specific and deliberate use of cultural reference not to underpin the text and give it a particular structure and meaning (or not only that, as that seems to be one of the functions of the quest literature references in Crongton Knights) but for colour, and warmth, and play.

So we get:

Walking through the estate, I tried to remember the streets I’d passed. Rothko Heights, Dali Court, Turner Tower. These ones were different. [...]

Mondrian, Blake, Hirst. This definitely wasn’t the way I came.

(c.f. the Notre Dame sections of Crongton Knights.)

Then there’s a throwaway detail that Marlon’s best friend is really named Titian. Marlon himself, as I’ve said, has “Isaac Asimov” as his middle names (his mother tells him it might have been worse, he might have been named after a minor Blakes 7 character*), and we learn later that his first name is “after Superman’s dad in the film”. His dad proposed to his mother in Klingon, his brother’s middle names are “Han and Luke”, he himself describes Tish’s new boyfriend as “a skinny version of Roy, the mad replicant from Blade Runner“. Some of this feels a bit clumsy (though I’m suppressing my “Star Trek and Star Wars?” scepticism); some of it’s marvellously built in; there’s a moment where he describes his brother’s crooked glasses and “the scar that almost cut his face in two” and doesn’t mention Harry Potter. But either way, I like the way it layers the Sunday family as composed of SF fans, their London as composed of art references, gives them, and their world, more to do and be than characters in a thriller. (The book’s cover also feels relevant here.) Perhaps the one character to suffer that fate is Sonya, whose death quickly shifts from being the central mystery to an unimportant aside, as the book reassures us that really it’s all about Marlon. (But perhaps this is not the time to complain about the Problem With All Narratives That Foreground A Protagonist.)

There’s lots to like, so here are some things: That Marlon has a mum who goes in to fight for him magnificently; that her, and therefore his, circumstances give him privileges that another character like D-Ice can’t count on; that moment where D-Ice invokes fairytale naming powers (if only to remind Marlon that they’re not real; Louis leaving the police force; the number of ways the book dramatises care between friends and family and community–from Tish’s willingness to date assholes for information that’ll keep Marlon safe to Marlon’s own choice to keep his mother safe from the knowledge that her words turned Marlon and Andre into targets (she’s bound to find out, but this again is one of those choices that mean something in and of themselves) to little things like bus drivers who slow down for women to catch them. I’m not reconciled to the genre, and I don’t think I’m going to enjoy reading about danger for a while; but in the spaces outside and around its thriller plot, Orangeboy manages, quietly, to build and make more imaginable things that feel nourishing.

 

 

* Because I’m friends with Erin Horáková (whose essay on Blakes 7 you should read), I feel compelled to point out that Orangeboy spells the title with an apostrophe and my loyalties demand that I register disapproval.

March 20, 2017

Jessica Langer, Postcolonialism and Science Fiction

I’ve been trying this year to gather together all my writing that isn’t already on the blog and put it here for easy reference. This review appeared in Vector in 2012.

(This is always a mildly embarrassing exercise in seeing how much my writing has/hasn’t  matured in the last few years. Rereading this piece, I’m mostly a little alarmed that “this book does interesting things, but it does not do all the things” appears to be a recurring ending in my reviews of academic works; see also this review from 2014 in Strange Horizons. Is this just me, or do other people feel tempted to come to this conclusion on a regular basis?)

 

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In her introduction to Postcolonialism and Science Fiction Jessica Langer speaks of two major science fictional tropes that have been a part of the genre since its inception. She calls these “the stranger” and “the strange land”; the grotesque alien invader and the planet to be conquered and settled by Earth. That these tropes function in ways that closely Langer pocosfparallel the real world history of colonialism is not a big leap to make. Particularly when, as John Rieder notes in Colonialism and the History of Science Fiction (2008), many of the genre’s foundational texts were written when colonialism was at its height.

Science fiction, then, provides us with another way to talk about our alien others who may here become literally alien. When violent encounters with the alien “other” are so fundamental a part of the genre’s history, what forms would a postcolonial SF take and what strategies would it employ? These are the questions that Langer attempts to address.

Before any of this Langer must first arrive at a definition of science fiction; a contentious issue, as she admits. Though gesturing toward more rigorous definitions from Darko Suvin and Carl Freedman, she ultimately rejects them. This is in part because the Western narrative of scientific progress (all but synonymous with “science” in most definitions of the genre) has had an unhappy relationship with the history of colonialism. As she demonstrates in a later chapter, the discourse of science was often used to serve the interests of the colonial project, often by “proving” that other races were inferior or less evolved. Langer contends that a postcolonial science fiction needs to expand its definition of science and foreground indigenous systems of knowledge as being as valid as (and in some cases more sound than) Western scientific thought. She sees no contradiction in a science fiction that also contains elements of the fantastic and the spiritual. In the introduction Langer aligns herself with Ursula K. Le Guin’s almost anti-definition of SF. Le Guin believes that there is so much overlap between the genres “as to render any effort at exclusive definition useless.” Certainly the works discussed, including Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) and Vandana Singh’s Distances (2008), blur genre boundaries.

Discussing postcolonial literature in sweeping terms when most countries in the world might be considered postcolonial is a rather daunting prospect and Langer chooses to focus most of her attention on two specific contexts: those of Japan and Canada. She notes that postcolonial theory has often been constructed in terms of East versus West, with less attention paid to what she refers to as the “sites of trouble” that do not fit comfortably into this dichotomy. In Japan’s case, this complex relationship with colonialism comes from the fact that it too has a history of imperialism. The A-bomb, for Langer, “represents the collision of two imperialisms, Japanese and American,” and she focuses on the country’s conception of itself and its past since the Second World War. A section comparing various adaptations of Komatsu Sakyō’s Japan Sinks (1973) is particularly interesting here. In the case of Canada, Langer explores the postcoloniality of a settler colony. In a sense, the country is not really postcolonial since the colonisers have never left. Referring to works by Hopkinson, Eden Robinson and Larissa Lai, Langer considers both sorts of postcolonial subject–the immigrant and the First Nations peoples marginalised within the country.

A recurring concern is that of the critic Yamano Kōichi, who describes post-war Japanese SF as having “moved into a prefabricated house” (i.e. modelled itself entirely on American works in the genre). Any genre imposes certain limits upon those writing in it but SF’s historical link with empire makes the question of a postcolonial form of SF particularly hard to answer. Postcolonial writers can (and do) engage directly with the more problematic tropes but they will face, as Audre Lorde might put it, the difficulty of trying to bring down the master’s house with the master’s tools. This is true even of the most potentially radical form of SF that the book discusses: the online role-playing game.

The chapter on race and identity in the virtual world is the book’s most engaging. Colonialism at first may seem impossible in a limitless cyberspace which elides such physical markers of difference as race and gender. Even though the emergence of the avatar has led to a “re-embodiment” of online presentation, a player still chooses how she presents herself. Langer quotes Maria Fernadez’s assertion that players of MMORPGs “are authors not only of the text but of themselves.” Langer focuses on World of Warcraft which she reads as SF in part because of the presence in the game of a technologically advanced alien race. Her contention is that the in-game conflict between the Alliance and the Horde structures itself in terms of the familiar/other, civilised/savage, centre/periphery divide. Too much of this chapter is given over to a catalogue of the races within the game and the human cultural groups they represent and yet the chapter also manages to discuss the uses of cultural stereotyping and the politics of the virtual minstrelsy involved in playing as “the other.” (For a discussion that contains multiple iterations of the word “Bhabhaian” this is amazingly accessible.) Langer speaks of the potential for radical change in the game if players actively work counter to the politics of the framework, but I think she may be a little too optimistic. Earlier in the chapter she cites Lisa Nakamura’s criticism in Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity and Identity on the Internet (2002) that virtual identities limit our choices of how we present ourselves by “making only certain modes of presentation available” and surely this is equally applicable to attempts to radicalise World of Warcraft.

The vastness of the subject matter means that there is very little space devoted to individual texts. In some cases this is not a problem–the sections on Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (2004) are particularly enlightening–but other works, like Saladin Ahmed’s “The Faithful Soldier, Prompted” (2010), suffer. Yet it’s hard to see how this could have been avoided. There is relatively little scholarship in this area of science fiction studies, but there’s time enough for works with a narrower, yet deeper focus. For now, Langer’s book is a good place to start.

March 10, 2017

Bulletpoints: The Great Wall

You knew I wasn’t going to let something this silly and this spectacular pass.

 

  • I’m fascinated by how this film negotiates its multiple audiences and contexts. I’ve (you may have heard!) spent a lot of time with adventure narratives, the genre in which where a white man travels into the unknown East, gets embroiled in a native battle and proves himself the most capable person there, probably romances a hot local girl, and eventually returns to his homeland wiser and better, having done important character development out over there. The Great Wall is this story all over again. It’s also a story about gormless foreigners who show up and gape at everything. It’s more the former, because William (Damon) is the character through whose eyes we see most of the action.
  • We also see some stuff from the perspective of his companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal, a joy forever). There are … two? scenes that I can think of (maybe three if you count one very brief moment) where we see the Chinese characters doing anything without a European observer.
  • (I don’t know enough [or indeed anything] about Chinese cinema’s conventions for representing Europeans in cinema, or whether such conventions are in fact established, so I’m probably missing a lot)
  • Damon’s William is taken out onto the wall by Jing Tian’s Commander Lin. William has already seen Lin and the rest of her Crane Troops bungee jump harnessed from the wall (I know), armed with spears, in order to attack the invading army. Lin invites him to try the harness, even as one of the other women asks if they’ll be able to pull someone so heavy back up (we can see the English subtitles; William can’t). Lin “translates” her companion’s words as something complimentary and completely false; William grins fatuously. The audience giggles, of course this arrogant man thinks everyone’s saying nice things about him. Then: “I don’t think that’s what she said,” says William, still grinning, and we’re wrongfooted, suddenly we’re being laughed at (or, I suppose, have switched allegiance, depending on who the audience is and who they’re already more able to identify with).
  • William refuses to do the bungee jumping thing; Lin berates him for lacking (a word she translates as) faith, a quality which is important for working with other people (and raises the possibility that the Crane troops’ training is a series of corporate trust-building exercises). Later in the film, however, he does risk his life and jump off the wall (ziplining down a chain, so not quite the same extreme sport). When asked why, he throws Lin’s word back at her.
  • Or does he? The subtitles don’t suggest that there’s anything weird going on. I don’t have any faith in my recollection of the sound of a word heard only a couple of times in a language I don’t know to have a clear opinion here–and the two characters obviously have very different accents. But on one viewing I imagined William’s pronunciation sounded off enough to be something else entirely, and if that had been the case (it was probably not!) the film’s choice not to draw attention to it and to have Lin hear it with a straight face would be an interesting one–essentially putting the anglophone viewer in the position that we thought William was occupying in the earlier scene. Even if William has got the word broadly correct, given the number of cinematic traditions in which foreigners mangle language with their funny accents this scene feels notable for … not doing that? (Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Lagaan.)

 

cloaks

  • I’ve seen “silkpunk” used to describe China-influenced (usually partly-Western) fantasy, and I have various quibbles with the term. However, this film really does have cause to claim the genre, if it wants it. It begins with Damon and Pedro Pascal’s characters, William and Tovar, on their way to attempt to trade (or steal) “black powder”–though they’re not, as far as I can tell, travelling along any of the silk routes there’s probably still a valid connection to be made re. trade, and it’s as traders that they first appear before the Chinese army. There’s a moment, late in the film, where the invading army are chased via the still-imperfect technology of (silk, presumably) hot air balloons. More than this, though, it’s a film filled with people in lightweight silk cloaks. Now, I’m aware that silk moves differently to the fantasy cloaks you see flapping dismally about in Northern Europe analogues–perhaps it’s because some of said Europeans were present, still in their sad thick cloaks, that I was constantly aware of that difference in movement.
  • I didn’t really know how to date this film, in part because it’s Not My Period, and in part because I suspect its own relationship to chronology is somewhat suspect. Better informed reviews have said it’s set during a version of the Song dynasty– possibly basing this conclusion on the fact that the capital city here is Bianliang and/or the widespread use of gunpowder (you can tell I’m getting all this off wikipedia, can’t you). Matters in Europe seem a bit more murky; William appears to have fought for “Harold versus the Danes” (cue comedy sound effect from a Danish friend to whom I subjected this), against the Franks, but also “for Spain”, which last suggests a rather 19th century understanding of European nationhood. (This is not the only oddly anachronistic thing about these characters–they also appear to have maps you can actually navigate with.) I enjoy this, in a way, because it feels like a way of treating European history with the cavalier, no research required, attitude that is so frequently applied to the rest of the world.
  • The plot: our protagonist and his companions, gormless, as I say, but good at fighting, are off Eastwards to find some of this magical black powder of which they have heard rumour. As they camp one night, a monster of some sort attacks them. They manage to sever an arm–it’s green and scaly. Some days later, they arrive at a (the) Great Wall, where they are imprisoned, and where everyone is alarmed to see the severed arm. It turns out a swarm* of giant telepathic lizards has been attacking North China every 60 years for the last two millennia. The current army has been preparing for this attack for decades, and the wall itself has been an integral part of its defence. William and Tovar have to decide whether to join this army and fight off the threat or steal all the gunpowder they can and get rich in Europe.
  • *We will be discussing my use of “swarm”.
  • Technology on the wall includes: hydraulic lifts, giant earhorns, giant scissors built into the walls.
  • After the first battle, the two Europeans arrive in the hall where lunch is being served freshly bathed, shaved and dressed. The entire room applauds–it’s not clear whether for the men’s prowess in battle or because their guests have discovered hygiene and should be encouraged to continue along this path.
  • At one point during the battle, Tovar (who is from Spain) uses a red cloak like a bullfighter to distract one of the taotei.
  • So, swarms. Early in the film we see the taotei dragging with them the corpses of their fallen companions as they retreat. My first thought, obviously, is “oh right, sentient beings with social structures and bonds.”And perhaps they do have these things. But very soon we learn that the whole army communicates telepathically with its queen, and to kill the queen is to immobilise the whole army. The taotei therefore are presented to us as a vast number of ancillaries to one queen, even though when severed from the link with her they seem to still be alive. I was feeling dubious about this presentation of vast numbers of people as undifferentiated hordes, and then saw that Max Brooks had been credited with some of the writing, and ah, right. Zombies.
  • So: monsters, opportunities for mass slaughter, and the sense that one isn’t killing an independently sentient thing. (Good monsters, though.)
  • Apparently the kingdom has been keeping several centuries of scholarship about the taotei–the scroll which they consult, we’re told, is 900 years old. This is pleasing.
  • The scroll adds further weight to a hypothesis–that magnets affect lizard telepathy. It’s not clear why they’ve waited centuries to try this out. But it’s a useful reminder that of course the writers of the scroll knew what magnets were, because otherwise they’re only mentioned in the context of William’s compassmaking skills. (He has maps, so a mere compass isn’t that impressive.)
    • My standards have been driven absurdly low, but I was pleased that no one in the film seemed in any way surprised when Commander Lin is put in charge of the Nameless Order, following the death of General Shao. I’m not sure how I feel about the movie’s more general treatment of gender–there are women in the army, and no one but Tovar seems particularly surprised to see them there, but they work only in the Crane troops (as killer trapeze artists/bungee jumpers) or as the drummers who communicate military commands along the wall. Only General Lin gets any actual speaking time, as far as I can remember, (apart from the one fellow soldier who speculates about William’s weight) and none of the other women are invited to the important meetings where decisions are made. Lin’s breastplate is, of course, the only one of the commanders’ to be breast-shaped. And yet, and yet. We’re left with the possibility of reading her relationship with William as entirely platonic (only Tovar’s reactions make it otherwise, and frankly I’m more interested in shipping Tovar/William), she’s a good fighter because she’s trained to be, she takes the final shot because she’s best qualified to do so.

great wall boob armour

  • The crane troop seems to be all women, and it’s implied that this is because they’re lighter than men on average. The women who spread information via drums are probably not subjected to this restriction, and it’s nice to know that the film leaves a niche for fat girls and it involves hitting things and making a loud noise.

 

March 4, 2017

February Reading

I didn’t read very much in February. I spent the first week attempting to read or reread all of Frances Hardinge’s work for this, but for most of the month reading has felt impossible and I’ve only gotten through two books (both short, both kidlit, one of which I’d read before). Still, these are them:

 

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jo To The Rescue: I don’t know that this should count as a book read in 2017, since I probably read it sometime around 1995. My copy (the same Armada edition I now have, with this technically accurate yet otherwise unattractive cover–pay particular attention to the face Margot Maynard (the child with red hair) is making) was lost in a house move at some point and I never found another, even as I managed to gradually re-build my collection of Brent-Dyer books. Recently a friend was selling some of hers, and I swooped in and demanded this one. Twentyish years on I like the holiday setting, in large part because it’s nice to see Frieda, Simone and Marie just hanging out and being adults together. I’m concerned by how amused everyone is about food-wastage (there’s still a war and presumably war rationing on; why is it hilarious that Joey burnt the eggs and spilt the milk and threw bacon at a burglar?). I’m also concerned by the ethics of doctor-patient relationships, and “I’ll introduce you to my pretty sister” as a method for reforming criminal harassers. In short: I have several concerns.

 

Catherine Johnson, Sawbones: I read this in preparation for reading Blade and Bone, Johnson’s most recent novel (and sequel to this). Sawbones is set (mainly) in late eighteenth century London, with a young apprentice surgeon as its protagonist. It’s a setting that you can do a lot with, and Johnson does–there are bodysnatchers and medical history and debates about ethics and reason (and whether stealing people’s bodies to dissect for Science! is okay) and that really satisfying sense of the interconnectedness of the world that you get from some historical fiction that takes the age of empire as its setting. Loveday, along with the mystery that drives it all, has links with the Ottoman empire; Ezra himself is mixed-race and from Jamaica; the girl he has a crush on has family connections with Holland–these (except the first) seem like relatively minor elements of the plot, but their presence changes the flavour of the narrative in what feel to me like crucial ways. Without being About empire, or About slavery, or About race, or About social history in general, it makes them crucial to its setting; the reader isn’t allowed Georgian London and coffeeshops and Ottoman intrigue unless they’re willing to also take slavery and dissected stolen corpses and empire. There’s a sense, as well, of young adults as actively participating in the intellectual life of their particular historical moment; and Ezra and Anna, his sort-of-girlfriend, have fundamental philosophical disagreements. Too often characters in children’s literature and YA seem to start from a position of political unawareness, which might make for an easy coming of age plot (character discovers injustice, gains knowledge, grows) but it serves to position that initial lack of engagement as normal. Sawbones doesn’t do that, and it doesn’t treat these characters as exceptional for their interest in the world.

Having said all of which, it seems a bit churlish to complain that the plot is rather lightweight and the characters (other than Ezra himself) rather thin, but those things are also true. I’m willing to forgive the book these things because it does so much that I like historical fiction to do (and because the blurb for the next book has the line “Ezra is not persuaded by the controversial theories of his French colleagues”), and I’m quite looking forward to the next.