I’d meant to post this ages ago (and thought I had, but since I cannot find it anywhere I must have been wrong) but Niall Harrison is asking people to email him their lists of the best works of SF by women in the last ten years. I’m currently agonising over my own list, but I hope more people will send in theirs. Entries to be in before midnight (British time, I assume) tonight. Please send in suggestions – it’s a good thing that Niall is doing, and I look forward with interest to the results.
(Contains spoilers for multiple books)
One of the great moral dilemmas I struggle with is my love of Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub*. However much I adore it, I’ve never been able to ignore some of the sinister opinions in the text.
Vidal is an attractive young marquis who must flee to France after a drunken duel in which he may or may not have killed his opponent. He decides to take with him a beautiful young woman who he has been attempting to seduce. Unfortunately, her older sister decides to come instead in order to protect the younger sister’s reputation. Vidal is furious when he finds out he’s been tricked, and attempts to rape her. She defends herself by shooting him in the arm; he realises that she must be a nice girl if she’s willing to defend her honour like this; a couple of hundred pages later they are in love and able to marry with parental approval. Meanwhile, the mother and sister of our heroine (whose biggest crime is to be crass and lower middle-class) are never redeemed.
Another Heyer book, The Convenient Marriage, has a charismatic aristocrat try to take revenge on an old acquaintance by kidnapping and raping his wife. The wife in question manages to knock him out with a poker and run away before rape occurs. Later, her husband fights him (with swords), wins, and the two men become friends again. The whole attempted-rape-of-wife thing is forgotten, and one imagines the man will be a valued dinner guest in the couple’s household for years to come. One person who will not be invited to dinner is the husband’s former mistress, who aided the would-be rapist in some of his (earlier, less rapey) plans. That bitch.
Moral: pretty much anything an attractive man does is excusable in some way. Forgive and forget, eh?
Devil’s Cub was published in 1932, and The Convenient Marriage in 1934. Heyer’s politics were not progressive (her anti-semitism in a few places is pretty jarring). And I’m not a historian, so I don’t really know how socially acceptable rape was in the late 1700s or the 1930s.
I’ve spoken before of my desire to finish Stephanie Laurens’ books so that there won’t be any more of them for me to read (this is a perfectly logical reason to do such a thing). Yesterday I read The Promise in a Kiss, a prequel to her Cynster books. It was published in (I think) 2002.
This book features an Evil Guardian who manipulates our heroine into attempted theft by threatening to rape her little sister. Things are sorted out, the hero is heroic, and…it turns out the man wasn’t planning to rape the child after all. The threat (and the whole plot, including the theft) was for the lulz, because what else is there to do for fun when you’re a bored aristocrat?
Sebastian humphed. He looked down on his old foe, knew the wound he’d delivered would cause serious discomfort for weeks. Counseled himself that that, together with all that would come, was fair payment for all Helena had suffered—that he couldn’t, no matter what he wished, exact further physical retribution. “You and your games—I gave them up years ago. Why do you still play them?”
Fabien opened his eyes, looked up, then shrugged—grimaced again. “Ennui, I suppose. What else is there to do?”
And it’s so sad that the
Evil Guardian Ennui-afflicted Charming Gentleman has no children! And he’s not an actual rapist. And he ends up being a close friend of the hero and heroine, and they’re genuinely sad when he moves to America. So…that’s alright then, I guess? The real villain of this book is the hero’s sister-in-law: she’s pushy, presumptuous, and will later in the series be blamed for her son’s murderousness and general sociopathy.
I suppose it’s progress – in seventy years there’s been a shift from actual rapists being condoned to people who only threaten rape as a manipulative tool being condoned. Clearly the Laurens book is a massive victory for feminism.
*My life is hard.
And we’re well into May.
April was a really busy month workwise, and I found myself reading quite a bit of fluff. May is likely to continue in the same vein, though I do have the new China Mieville book, and I’m also planning an Iron Council reread when I’m done with it. Here is the rest of what I read in April, anyway:
Victoria Alexander – What a Lady Wants and A Visit From Sir Nicholas: I’ve mentioned reading some of Alexander’s books over the last few months, and it’s probably obvious that I’m susceptible to light fiction that appears in series form. A Visit From Sir Nicholas is interesting that way, in that it’s historical romance, and it’s the same family, but is set a generation or so later, in the Victorian age. It also makes lots of references to A Christmas Carol and was in general quite entertaining and fun (and won a Romantic Times Viewers Choice award). What a Lady Wants on the other hand felt a bit pointless – I spent most of it wondering what the two lead characters were whining about.
Amanda Quick – Mischief: The title (which really put me off the book) turned out to have nothing to do with the story. This is a romance set in alternate-History Regency England, where the craze for Egyptology (I’ve mentioned before that Imperial Britain’s fascination with Egypt is something I love reading about) is replaced because some British explorers found an island kingdom called Zamar with an equally fascinating history. Both main characters are obsessed with the island – he is the man who first discovered it, and she analyses the facts he reports and publishes papers under a male pseudonym. It was great fun to read, though the plot (they are investigating the truth behind her best friend’s death) was less entertaining than the setting. I spent quite a bit of time wondering if the alt-hist aspects of the book meant that I could classify it in my head as Spec Fic. I have decided that I can.
Georgette Heyer – Arabella: Old favourite. There is a comical dog, there is the recognition that Regency England also contains lots of un-picturesque poor people, and there is a hero who actually recognises that he has been an arse and apologises for it.
Elsie J. Oxenham – The Girls of the Hamlet Club: As some of you know, my Masters’ thesis focused on school stories, and I’ve grown up reading a lot of Girls’ Own literature. This is the first of the Abbey Girls books – a series that is absolutely massive. I’d read The Girls of the Hamlet Club a few years ago and have only read the later books in the series since. Coming back to this one, I was surprised at how different from the others it was – there’s a half-written post on this which will be published soon.
C.S Lewis – Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength: Since I’ve had reason to refer to these books a few times lately, I thought a reread might be in order. Result: I still think Out of the Silent Planet is a decent space-travel story. It has some good aliens, some lovely alien landscapes, and it does First Contact rather well. And the religion stuff isn’t too jarring at this point, partly because the greedy businessman and the mad scientist are both pretty obvious villains without our needing much convincing. The book is also made better by the hints about another Martian race who were wiped out by a cataclysm, and who Ransom (the Very Christian philologist who is the main character of this series) is fascinated by.
Perelandra was intolerable. It’s a pretty colour palette, and some of the underground sections are genuinely terrifying, but the long, simplistic theological debates? Lewis seems to enjoy writing “debates” where one of the characters is either a complete strawman or a bit of an idiot – see for example that awful bit in The Silver Chair (which may or may not be based on Lewis’ debate with G.E Anscombe, and I don’t particularly care) – and all they really do is to make their author seem smug, simplistic, and incapable of questioning himself.
That Hideous Strength was the one I was looking forward to because I hadn’t read it in a while and had good memories of it. Evidently I had forgotten the hilarious scene where Jane (the female half of a couple who have been terribly misguided by modernity, education, and all this “gender equality” rubbish) is told by a resurrected Merlin that she’s the wickedest woman in Britain because she and her husband were fated to have a baby who would Save the World but then they went and used birth control! It’s possibly the greatest anti-reproductive rights argument I have ever encountered. What would have happened if the Virgin Mary had been on the pill? Lewis asks us, Had you ever thought of that? Had you?
I cannot say that I had.
Also, what is with Miss Hardcastle? Did Lewis really write a lesbian character?
Having said which. Despite the utterly bizarre/reprehensible politics of this book, I really enjoyed it. It’s dystopic, has sections that feel like classic science fiction (along with classic SF’s cheerful disregard for actual science), and contains Merlin and a bear.
I wonder how Lewis would feel at being included in this post. Other than his own, all the books are by women, and most of them romance writers.
This week’s column was swayamvar-based, since Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega had just ended (sadly before I’d ever seen an entire episode). Being sadly unoriginal, I stole a lot from this post I wrote a couple of years ago.
[An edited version was published in yesterday's New Indian Express]
Of the many things I admire about our rich and ancient culture (its excellence at building things, its fondness for good stories, its invention of the gol gappa) my favourite may just be the swayamvar. Let’s face it, our ancestors, in common with most ancestors the world over, have had a pretty dismal showing where women’s rights are concerned. Yet the swayamvar allowed women at least a nominal choice in who they would marry; an important decision in a world where (judging by the epics) your husband might be banished to the forest at any moment and you would have to tolerate living with him in the close confines of a hut.
In these degenerate times the men have it far too easy. All a man has to do is get a good engineering degree, it seems; no one cares whether he is the best archer in the room anymore. Whether or not being the best archer in the room is likely to be a useful skill is, of course, debatable (if a forest exile is on the cards then it might well be), but at least it allowed for the power equation to be temporarily reversed. This is not the case with the modern arranged marriage, where the female’s less-than-wheatish complexion is as likely to work against her as the groom’s PhD in English literature is to him.
Which is why I have watched with guarded hope the resurgence of the swayamvar in recent times. In the summer of 2008 a number of news sources reported that a “young tribal girl” (most of them don’t seem to have bothered with her name) had chosen her groom through a swayamvar in which her father had asked the hopeful young men philosophical questions. Then there was last year’s TV show Rakhi Ka Swayamvar, which, though dreadful in almost every imaginable way, did at least show us a number of (presumably) eligible men competing for the attention of a woman who their families would almost certainly disapprove of. Like the traditional Swayamvar these shows tested men on skills completely unrelated to normal life: does one want a husband who can answer philosophical questions and dance, or one who can negotiate Delhi traffic?
Unfortunately, all good things are made impure by our sinful and unregenerate world. The Americans (who I am frequently informed are the source of unregenerate behaviour) took our idea of the swayamvar and perverted it, creating a situation in which multiple women competed for one man. Programmes like Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire and The Bachelor were so influential as to make Indian producers forget their culture and create the monstrosity Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega which ended last week. It is a national shame.
Should I, at some point in the future, hold a swayamvar myself, I’d like to test prospective grooms on skills that would be useful to me. I would shut a contender into a room filled with books and empty bookcases and see what shelving system he used. I would quiz him on the home delivery numbers of restaurants I like. I would ask him to buy me shoes and test his ability to chop onions. If one must have a husband, he might as well be useful.
Yesterday I gave my boyfriend a book-shelving problem to solve. He failed miserably at it, suggesting that I sort my books by size rather than genre or author. I am rethinking this whole swayamvar thing.
I think Wilbur Sargunaraj has the best idea.
The Chief Justice of India, K.G Balakrishnan, has been quoted in a number of papers today warning people against being “overtly paternalistic” with regard to a rape victim’s personal autonomy…when it comes to her choosing to marry her rapist.
A couple of things:
One, he’s absolutely right about respecting the victim’s decisions. People do what they can to cope, and it’s not always the most progressive or universally useful action. One sees a lot of this when complete outsiders hint that someone is not doing her duty by reporting a rape, whatever it will cost her.
Two, and this is where I say but. But does Justice Balakrishnan live in a different world from me? (Answer: yes). Because while I’m sure there are plenty of people disapproving of and passing judgment upon rape victims who choose to marry their rapists, should such women exist, I’m aware of many, many more stories where it hasn’t been a choice. Rape victims in this country are still treated with a great deal of disapproval for bringing the rape up in the first place, and not choosing to take this easy way of ending the scandal quietly is likely to bring upon them even more pressure. The choice between marrying one’s rapist and being cut off from all of ones support systems is meaningless, and I see no reason to “respect” such a choice or the people who forced it.
Three, would the number of victims marrying rapists be lessened if said rapists were found guilty by the courts and put in jail? I suspect it would.
People who have been reading this blog for a while probably know that I write a fortnightly column of fluff in The New Indian Express titled Practically Marzipan, and have been doing so since early 2008. Most of these columns have not been put on the blog – this is partly because I’m lazy, and partly because the blog and the column are (I think) addressed to different audiences.* But a couple of people who do seem to want to read the columns have asked me to put them up anyway, and so from now on I’m going to try to be more regular.
Recently a party I was attending descended into chaos when someone brought up the subject of sports. It started with a discussion of the merits and demerits of two particular major tennis stars that nearly led to bloodshed. Luckily, the subject was changed to football, and while things remained tense, the fear of actual physical violence was considerably lessened. The people doing most of the arguing, however, were young women. There were men at the party, but most of them were too busy looking surprised to join in.
I was brought up in a household full of sports-loving women. My mother is the local expert on cricket, and my aunt knows far more about tennis than anyone I’ve ever met. Yet when I went to school I was informed that sports was something that girls knew nothing about. It took a while to convince the people who said this that I did know what I was talking about. After that, however, things got really strange. Now that I had been established as a girl who liked sports, I was constantly told that I was unusual, and special, and superior to the majority of girlkind. With a family like my own, I had no reason to believe that this was true. But I did; everyone wants to think s/he’s special.
I know a lot of women to whom this experience will be familiar. We all grew up with some interests that were not “conventionally” female, and were told by everyone around us that this made us unique. Cars, quizzing, comic books; all of these raised us in some way above other girls. We were placed in a position where it was convenient to think of other girls with mild contempt, for traditionally “girly” activities with scorn. We could, while being female ourselves, make blanket pronouncements about women that (somehow) were not meant to apply to us. It was a weird position to take, but none of us ever really examined it or noticed its inconsistencies.
Adulthood (and a few years in an all-girls college) taught me that no one runs entirely to stereotype, and that “female” activities (as if no man ever engaged in any of these) could be as engaging, and absorbing as those typically considered to be dominated by men. I like sports (though the women at the party put me to shame with their technical knowledge). I like romance novels. I wear a lot of pink. I quiz. I cheerfully admit to being technologically challenged. And I am surrounded by people who, being individuals rather than stereotypes, have eclectic sets of likes and dislikes of their own.
And so I have been known to bite off the heads of people who dare to compliment me now by telling me how unusual I am, or male geeks who whine about a lack of female geeks in their lives. Just last week I mentioned my own geekiness on twitter and a few minutes later received a message asking if I was single from someone who knew nothing else about me. Of course I’m glad if anyone approves of my tastes in things, but surely it’s possible to compliment me without an implied insult to the rest of my gender?
An edited version appeared here yesterday
*In that if you’re reading this blog you’re probably already into a lot of the stuff that I am into, and I tend to assume you’re familiar with what I’m talking about.
I was perhaps disproportionately pleased this morning to see this story in the Times of India*:
While pronouncing the verdict in the Dhaula Kuan rape case where a 20-year-old girl from Mizoram was gangraped by four men in a moving car the judge extensively criticized the prevalent practice of defence counsels of putting a question mark on the victim’s character to prove that her statement is unreliable. “It cannot be said that a lady who has already lost her virginity is an unreliable lady,” ASJ Gupta said in the judgement. …”Definition of rape is categoric to the effect that sexual intercourse is done without the consent or against the will, meaning thereby that an adult can have sexual intercourse with some other person only with his/her will,” the judge said.
This is the sort of thing we should all be able to take for granted – that if one was raped one would be able to accuse one’s rapist without being put on trial for…what, exactly? And that judges will be familiar with the definition of the term rape, and should be able therefore to apply it. It should be obvious, yet it never happens that way, and I retain the right to be disproportionately elated when it does.
Here’s the Outlook story on the same case.
* Especially since the last thing I’d read in the TOI was also rape related – the Delhi Times coverage a few weeks ago of the Madhur Bhandarkar case that argued that a) Rape can’t be rape if it happens multiple times and b) rape conviction laws are like, totally unfair to men. (Luckily, this evening someone linked me to this, which totally restores my faith in the paper).
I’ve been reading stuff. Here’s some of what I have been reading.
Leviathan – Scott Westerfeld
Official review will be out in the New Indian Express at some point in the near future, but I loved this. I’m rather wishing I’d managed to get the edition with all the gears and suchlike on the cover, but the artwork really is phenomenally good, and Westerfeld is an amazing writer. I like his main characters (even more so on a reread) and from the hints given about the second book in this series, Behemoth, I suspect that it has been written entirely for my delectation. I cannot wait. Here’s the trailer, anyway. It’s rather amazing.
Unseen Academicals – Terry Pratchett
In recent years there has always been a new Terry Pratchett book on my birthday. This year’s seemed like it would be a good one: a return to the Discworld (after the rather awesome detour into Nation, his alternate history Victorian YA that came out last year), a return to the Wizards, who haven’t been heard of in a while, and some football. The Wizards are required for reasons of economy to field a football team – a task for which they are spectacularly unsuited, though the Librarian is an excellent goalkeeper. Luckily, Trevor Likely, son of legendary Dimwell captain Dave Likely, works at the University and is able to initiate them into the world of the Shove, where who you support (and how you show it) matters far more than the game itself, which most of them have never seen. Meanwhile, Trevor must also look after his friend Mr. Nutt who says he’s a goblin but is possibly Something Else altogether and looks suspiciously like Wayne Rooney on the cover. The Nutt plot is something of a return to the earlier Discworld books; Pratchett uses the character to take on an element of a classic work of fantasy (I’m trying very hard not to give the plot away). Unfortunately, while I agree entirely with the conclusions he seems to come to, it comes across as rather too earnest. Then there’s Glenda, who I ought to have all sorts of problems with – she’s fat and competent and has a secret weakness for romance novels, and when she gets her romance it’s with a character who no one else particularly wants. I love her anyway.
The Reef – Mark Charan Newton.
I’d been wanting to read this for a while, particularly since reading Newton‘s second book, Nights of Villjamur (which I really liked) this summer. I finally found it a couple of weeks ago in the secondhand section of Chapters and was unreasonably excited. The Reef is a coral reef that becomes the focus of a number of interconnecting plots involving scientists, terrorists and various forms of aquatic life including sirens, ichthyocentaurs, and (it’s not a spoiler if the cover illustration gives it away, is it?) a giant squid/kraken-monster. It’s obvious that Newton’s writing (and, I think, his gender politics but that’s another matter entirely) have matured considerably since he wrote this, the prose occasionally shifts from brilliant (luckily there’s plenty of that) to a bit awkward and it could have used more editing. However, in terms of ideas I found it richer and more ambitious than NOV. I’m not sure how far it’s supposed to be set in the same universe as his Legends of the Red Sun; elements (the Rumel, the random bits of old machinery lying around) from one seem to have made their way into the other. I’m hoping he returns to this setting at some point in the future (after the current series is finished with) – there’s a lot in it that is fascinating and that I’d love to see developed. In any case, I feel that the Legends of the Red Sun books would be vastly improved by the addition of a Squidbeast.
I am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas – Adam Roberts
Like most people, I’m a bit sick of zombies at this point. Adam Roberts’ Zombie infested version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol sounded like a good idea had I not been suffering from zombie overkill. But the preface (in which Roberts hopes that the idea behind the book will “thump upon the boarded-up windows of [the readers'] houses pleasantly, and no one wish to remake it as a major motion picture starring Will Smith”) sold me, and with such gems as “the churchman’s nose was bulbous and red, a fleshy appendage, but Marley bit into it as eagerly as if it had been a ripe strawberry” on the first page, I assumed this would be entertaining. And it really is, but I don’t think you could read it all at once. In small doses, well spaced out, the zombie jokes are funny and the illustrations (credited to one Zom Leech) are hilarious. Read at a stretch, though, Queen Victoria saying “we are not Zom-used” might drive anyone to commit violence.
Things We Are Not – (ed) Christopher Fletcher
I’m no good at reviewing anthologies of short stories by different authors. But this is a really good collection of queer short fiction. The title story, by Brandon Bell, is probably the best thing about the collection; working within a whole set of popcultural references that delighted me, Bell still manages a story that is not about these references. Eden Robins’ “Switch” was another story that stood out for me, with the sort of nonchalant weirdness that I actually associate more with the beginnings of speculative fiction novels. Perhaps this is why I was so annoyed when it ended. Then there’s “Reila’s Machine” by Therese Arkenberg and “The World in His Throat” by Lisa Shapter; good, classic science fiction – and “Pos-psi-bilities” by Jay Kozzi that is a sort of coming-of-age story with a comparatively slight Sfnal element. It’s a fantastic collection, it’s available here or on Amazon, and I think you ought to read it.
The Ask and the Answer – Patrick Ness
When I read Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go in January I was rushing between continents (it was something I bought in an airport and read on a plane) and as a result I don’t think I ever officially gushed about it here. But I did thrust it at a lot of people I met – as dystopian, science fictional, gender-aware (it won a Tiptree award earlier this year) YA literature it was exactly the sort of thing I was likely to love. The Ask and the Answer takes off from the rather cliffhanger-ish moment that ended the previous book. Todd and Viola, Ness’ protagonists, are separated, and set to work in different parts of the town. While Todd’s work lies among the Spackle, the original inhabitants of the planet, Viola becomes entangled with a terrorist group of sorts, that wishes to remove the truly sinister Mayor Prentiss from power. As Martin Lewis says in this review, this is not an adventure story, but a war novel. I’d forgotten just how relentless Ness is sometimes; I don’t know when I’m going to read this again because it is emotionally so exhausting. I don’t know where the third book (which I expect will be every bit as brilliant as the first two) will take the story, but I can’t imagine it’ll be anywhere pleasant.
What have you been reading?