Archive for ‘genre’

February 27, 2014

Two posts about Courtney Milan

I’ve said in the past that I like to think of the regency romance as being set in a sort of fantasy world where things like the slave trade and gross economic inequality don’t exist—because if they do, our protagonists are thoroughly implicated in them. Even if they’re the ‘nice’ ones who think that small poor children should not be forced up chimneys, or that one should be kind to one’s servants, or at least learn their names, or that the slave trade is maybe not that good (standards for ‘nice’ being pretty low here), it’s hard to think of them as sympathetic in any way. Romances that draw our attention to these social realities as part of their elucidation of their protagonists’ characters manage to annoy me far more than ones that don’t mention any of this.

Courtney Milan’s books, though, are in one sense set firmly in the past of the real world. Recently I’ve been reading her Victorian-England-set Brothers Sinister series—I cringe a bit (a lot) at this title, but at least Oliver, Sebastian and Robert (none of whom are actually brothers, though they are related) are left-handed. And also these books are kind of great.

It’s obvious that there’s research involved; specific parliamentary reform acts, medical and scientific developments, social history, all of these are placed at the centre of the various stories in ways that ought to jar with the genre-romance format, but usually don’t. There’s an amusing moment in the afterword to The Duchess War where Milan, describing the radicalisation of workers in 1860s Leicester, admits that they really did not need a pamphlet-writing duke to stir them up, since they were managing quite well on their own. Why is Robert there, then? Because romance novel. It’s a concession I’m willing to grant her (though unlike pretty much every other minor historical change she makes, it doesn’t make 1800s England a better place). Apart from stray moments like this, though, it’s fiction that is solidly grounded in the material reality of its time. More realist than most realist fiction then, despite its basis in a genre one of whose strengths is a frequent departure from reality.

But then there’s the science thing, and I think it might be the most important of all. A minor character in the first few books in the series is Sebastian Malheur, the most reviled scientist in England, a Darwin supporter and a scandalous discusser in public of the sex lives of plants. These minor references are more serious than they might at first seem. As Milan herself says in the afterword to The Duchess War, “[e]very piece of historical fiction alters history in at least some tiny regard”. But this is more than a minor change; putting a geneticist in the same time and place as Darwin (Milan’s drawing on a lot of Mendel’s work, as she explains) could have enormous consequences.

Then in The Countess Conspiracy (spoilers all over this, sorry) we discover that what has been presented as Sebastian’s work so far has been that of his friend Violet Waterfield, who was in no position to publish (or be read, or taken seriously) because she’s a woman. This particular book has Violet discovering the chromosome, considerably earlier than was done in our world. Milan has already suggested, as I say above, that the minor changes she makes in her universe could have larger consequences, and this one is pretty huge.

So that’s where we end the series (I think there is to be one more book, but I’m not sure how far into the future it takes us), with scientific knowledge considerably further advanced than it was at this stage in our own world’s history. And while I’m not convinced that this makes The Countess Conspiracy science fiction (it is definitely fiction about science), I’m willing to argue for it, and I’m pretty sure that any sequel to it would be at least alternate history. Can SF claim Courtney Milan? Probably.

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In The Heiress Effect, we are introduced to Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian student in England. Particularly in the years since RaceFail, I’ve seen a lot of Writing The Other conversations in my various corners of the internet– why it’s important, how to do it, how to react to criticism of how one is doing it. I don’t know if Milan hangs out in the same parts of the internet as I do, but in many ways she’s done everything right; she’s read first-hand accounts of Indian students in 19th century Britain (including Gandhi’s, but she names a few less obvious ones at the end of the book), the 1857 war is namechecked*, there’s even an almost-reference to the Bengal Renaissance. Anjan isn’t only an angry freedom-fighter, though there’s plenty of anger there, he recognises that his own presence in England, studying law, requires a certain amount of complicity; his relationship with Britain is as tied up in his class position and family (and caste, though the word isn’t mentioned) as it is in the fact of being a brown man in 19th century England.

Here’s the thing, though. When Milan writes about, say, anxiety disorders, as she does with Oliver’s aunt Frederica, she doesn’t feel the need to have the character speechifying about it. I assume that this is in part because none of the characters is in a position to speechify; normally, when the books deal with historical fact that doesn’t commonly show up in romance novels there’s a note in the afterword. Anjan, on the other hand, is constantly explaining himself–to Emily he explains that brown people can have complex feelings towards their colonisers, that the British Empire is kind of bad, and that vegetarians exist; to her uncle Titus he explains that Indians don’t all force their wives to commit sati and that Hindus are generally monogamous. 19th Century English people had a number of fascinating ideas about Indians and I’m well aware of this, but underlying all of these authorial choices is what feels to me like an assumption that Indians in books still need to be explained, that their literary presence is an opportunity for a teaching moment. And I’ve read historical novels whose authors have clearly done no research at all into India (*cough Libba Bray cough*) and as long as that sort of thing is seen as normal and acceptable perhaps we do need to be explained (no wonder Anjan falls in love with the first person who bothers to learn to pronounce his name). And perhaps posts like this are proof that You People Will Never Be Satisfied. I’m not, though.

 

*I know Emily is very sheltered but the only way in which I can account for her not having heard of the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ at all is that her uncle is deliberately keeping the newspapers away from her. Which is plausible, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary unless as an excuse for Anjan to also explain that conflict; another teaching moment.

January 9, 2014

Anna Katharine Green, The Affair Next Door

This is what I was reading while almost everyone else in the country was watching the first new Sherlock (she said smugly. And then Sherlock was available to watch online and then I did almost immediately so please feel free to mock any further smugness).

On the subject of Miss Marple’s greatness, I’m fond of this piece by Sarah Rees Brennan.

A version of last weekend’s column.

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The question of who wrote the first detective novel, like all questions of genre-origins, is one that probably isn’t worth answering, though it’s always worth discussing. Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is often given this credit (Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is sometimes cited as the first English language detective novel), and it’s as good a place to start as any. Poe’s Dupin is a genius, the sort of person who is regularly consulted by the police, and has an admiring audience at any time in his companion, the narrator of the piece. It’s a convention that shows up in later detective stories as well—Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings being particularly well known examples. It makes sense; a story narrated by Holmes or Dupin would verge on incomprehensible (and probably quite annoying) without someone more like the reader to interpret. Agatha Christie takes it further and provides in Hastings a narrator whose words generally make the reader feel considerably more on top of things than Hastings himself. I love all of these fictional detectives but a thing in common they have is an assumption that they will be listened to. The very presence of their narrator-companions attests to this; these men exist within the books as listeners, their presence is proof that there is something worth listening to. And yet I prefer the ordinary witness who has to struggle to be heard, who cannot take for granted a world in which her opinions are immediately worthy of respect; the detective who doesn’t look like one. I am suspicious of an Agatha Christie reader who prefers Poirot to Marple.

Long before Christie (and before Conan Doyle) there was Anna Katharine Green, the American author of a number of nineteenth century detective stories. Most of Green’s stories focused upon another great detective, Ebenezer Gryce. But her hero is fallible, and in The Affair Next Door Green introduced Amelia Butterworth, a nosy, middle-aged woman who manages to out-deduce even Gryce.

It’s not easy to be a woman and be taken seriously in nineteenth century New York, and Amelia is very aware of this. Modesty is not an option; only a very strong sense of self-worth can survive her constant setting-aside. Amelia may not have had the opportunities for experience that her male counterparts have had but, she says, “though I have had no adventures I feel capable of them”. She must constantly be on the alert lest compliments she receives have a patronising tone, she changes her name to one she thinks sounds more sensible, she is ridiculed as a busybody. And yet it is she who finds the vital clues, she who proves Gryce wrong and saves two innocent men from wrongful arrest.

The Affair Next Door is wonderful because Amelia is wonderful. She is exactly what she seems to be—a woman in her fifties, concerned with appearances (she purposely feeds two young guests poor meals so that she won’t appear to be trying to impress them), far too nosy and unaware of how ridiculous she often appears. But it’s okay that she is all of these things, and these traits help her, and we’re never allowed to forget that she’s more than that. She’s acerbic, prejudiced (“I don’t like young men in general” she informs us), worried about her writing style (“Excuse the metaphor; I do not often indulge”). In some ways she reminds me of Miss Marple; the two women are vastly different in temperament, but in neither case are appearances deceptive. Whether it is Miss Marple’s gentle Victorian demeanour, or Miss Butterworth’s pushy society spinster, these women’s greatest strengths are exactly the things for which others dismiss them. By the end of the novel Amelia Butterworth has won Gryce’s respect (she collaborates with him in two more mysteries) but we’re under no illusions. With or without his support, she will still have to push to be heard, every time.

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September 9, 2013

Were-lizard? (There lizard!)

Occasionally, non-Indian SFF fans ask me if India has an equivalent tradition to the werewolf– stories of humans turning into animals (or animals into humans). I’m no expert, and traditions of the supernatural differ wildly across the country, so I usually say something vague about human-snake transformations and leave it at that. But now there’s this.

This was the front page of this Sunday’s HT City, and was brought to my attention by Aadisht.

It appears to be advertising a show called Shapath: Super Cops vs Super Villains (Monday to Friday, 9pm). The caption, in case it’s not clear enough, reads: “Kya zeheriley chipkali-manav ke atank ko rok payenge supercops?”*

I’m assuming the answer is yes, but I really, really want to find out.

*(“Can the terror of the lizard-man be stopped by the supercops?” Or, why I am not a translator.)

April 10, 2013

Bet Me, choice and body horror

About halfway through Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, the protagonists have decided that they want to stay away from one another. Neither of them particularly wants a relationship with the other person (though they are attracted to one another), and (naturally) a series of increasingly unsubtle signs that they are destined for one another makes them uncomfortable.

Bet Me was recommended to me as a funny, fat-positive romance novel. It’s certainly the first, and to some extent the second–though I take issue with some aspects of it. It’s also a book that bases its plot on a well-worn trope of the genre, only to completely to undo it. Because the bet plot is a staple one. Our hero (or in at least one book I’ve read, our heroine) bets he can seduce our heroine (or our hero, presumably), but finds himself falling in love with her; heroine finds out about the bet at the worst possible time and will not believe he really cares for her; true love prevails and our hero is forgiven because men will be men or something. In Crusie’s book this is all a misunderstanding– it’s Min’s evil ex-boyfriend who tries to make the bet with Cal, and though Cal doesn’t accept it, Min, overhearing, thinks he has (we’re not told if she is a romance reader).

But as these characters struggle to deal with their increasing tolerance for one another,it seems fate has other things planned for them. A childhood treasure lost by Min turns up again after she has joked about loving Cal forever if he’ll get it back for her. Attempts by both parties to avoid one another result in their sitting next to one another in a movie theatre. As Min’s friend Bonnie complains, “True love is beating you over the head to get your attention”.

A lot of the romance I’ve read (and I can’t claim to be an expert) is in dialogue with the idea of love as irresistable, overpowering force that overrides the free will of its protagonists and gives them no choice but to be together. Characters seen as resisting this (because who wants to lose the ability to choose?) have to learn to trust in whatever higher power is in this case seen as being in charge of things – destiny becomes an external, supernatural force that a) cannot be countermanded b) knows what’s best for us all anyway.The supernatural force that, at multiple points in the book, is literally yelling “THIS ONE” in Min’s or Cal’s ears. If Bet Me bases its plot on the undoing of one of the genre’s tropes, it also literalises one of its most enduring metaphors.

And so I don’t think the violence of Bonnie’s “beating you over the head” metaphor is accidental, particularly when it turns out to be less metaphorical and more violent than you’d expect.

 

“She said yes,” Cal said, reaching for his toast. “However, I cannot bring her because I will not be seeing her ever aga—” His fingers brushed the metal top of the toaster and he burned himself and dropped the phone. “Damn it,” he said and put his scorched fingertips in his mouth.

“Calvin?” his mother said from the phone.

He picked up the receiver. “I burned myself on the toaster. Sorry.” Cal turned on the cold water and stuck his fingers underneath the stream. “Anyway, I will not be seeing Minerva Dobbs again.” He stepped away from the sink onto something hard and his foot slipped out from under him and smacked into the cabinets. “Ouch.”

“Calvin?” his mother said.

“I stepped on a knife.” Cal bent to pick up the peanut butter knife and smacked his head into the counter. “Hell.”

 

Cal and Min will [spoiler alert! except not really] get together, of course, and the book suggests they will be very happy. But you have to wonder to what lengths destiny would have gone had they not succumbed exhausted to its machinations. From the middle of the book onwards Cal and Min are hostages, not protagonists, of the romance plot–a supernatural entity that they cannot see or control is forcing them together and inflicting physical violence upon them when they do not immediately go along with it. Imagine destiny as a child playing with dolls, smashing their faces together and making kissing noises. Now imagine those dolls are sentient.

 

November 29, 2012

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home

Blaft recently published an English translation by Aliyu Kamal of this Hausa novel. Quite besides the merits of the book itself (and I enjoyed it) what I’m really excited by is what it represents to have an Indian publishing company commissioning and publishing Nigerian genre fiction. There’s already a lot more south-south collaboration than a lot of people are aware of (apparently Bollywood is an influence on Hausa literature, though I don’t think that’s so much the case with this particular novel), and I’d be even more thrilled if someone would publish translations directly from, say, Hausa to Hindi. But I’ll take English too.

 

From last weekend’s Left of Cool column.

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Judging by past example, when a form of literature becomes associated with a particular place it’s probably not going to be spoken of in the most flattering of ways. In the eighteenth century, Grub Street in London was famously associated with literary hacks and news writers – some of whom were probably perfectly good writers, though you wouldn’t think it to hear some of the more respectable contemporary writers on the subject.

In Nigeria in the 1980s, the label “Kano Market literature” began to be applied to Hausa language popular fiction, also known as Littattafan Soyayya, or “love literature”. These books, apparently, have often been condemned – for corrupting young minds, for being too heavily influenced by Bollywood, for being vulgar, or formulaic, or trivial. The usual complaints, in fact; particularly since this is now a field of literature dominated by women. Early critics of the novel made similar arguments (though maybe not the Bollywood one), and even now the same arsenal is regularly brought out to criticise the romance genre, another field dominated by women writers. Which isn’t to say that some of these criticisms aren’t true.

Indian publishers Blaft recently brought out Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home, a translation by Aliyu Kamal of the soyayya novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne… by Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu.

At first glance, this is clearly a novel of wish fulfilment. Rabi is the virtuous wife of Alhaji Abdu, a prosperous man who despite his wealth hardly gives her enough money to pay for the household goods to feed herself and their nine children. Matters get worse when Abdu takes another wife, who fights with Rabi. Soon, Rabi and her children have been kicked out of the house with no means to support themselves other than the help that Rabi’s and Abdu’s horrified families can give them. Despite this, Rabi prospers, setting up a successful cooking business, sending her oldest son to college, and finding a wealthy husband for her eldest daughter. Meanwhile, things rapidly go downhill for Abdu. His wife is unfaithful to him and his business fails when a fire in the market burns down his stall and most of his stock.  In the end, destitute and remorseful, he is forced to come back to his wife, hoping that she will take him back.

In her introduction to the book, Balaraba Ramat states that she’s purposely writing against men who treat women “as a sort of slave to be bought or sold at the marketplace”, “[believing] her to be completely worthless”. Yet although the book’s primary impulse is against treating women as discardable, as a woman I sometimes found it an uncomfortable read. In the world of the novel, women are constantly pitted against one another in order to better their own positions. Rabi’s situation at the beginning of the novel is bad enough, but it’s the presence of the new wife, Delu, that makes it intolerable. And then there’s the marriage of Rabi’s daughter Saudatu to Alhaji Abubakar, who has already discarded his two quarrelsome previous wives, after beating up one of them. What seems to be a happy ending for Saudatu thus has an undercurrent of unease. At the beginning of the book Rabi consoles herself with the thought that at least Abdu “didn’t marry and divorce his women friends at will”. Saudatu has been the perfect wife and daughter-in-law, but is she really safe from the same fate as her mother’s?

There’s also the discomfiting situation at the end of the book, when Rabi states repeatedly that she does not want her husband back (and why would she?) but is pressured into doing so by the men around her. Power has shifted drastically within the household, but Rabi is still in a marriage that she does not want, and it’s clear that the novel recognises this.  And it’s at moments like these that Sin Is a Puppy That Follows You Home leaks out of its formulaic structure and becomes something darker and more complex.

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July 3, 2012

Constance Myburgh, “Hunter Emmanuel”

 

The last of the Caine Prize stories. I’ve fallen hopelessly behind on this project, and the winner of the prize was to be announced today. I’m not sure why it took me so long to start writing about what was probably my favourite of the shortlisted stories (pdf here). This is an opinion that I don’t think most commentors on the prize share – and I suspect the difference is that I come to it as at least partly a genre reader. Because Hunter Emmanuel, Myburgh’s titular character, has read his noir.

The story begins when Emmanuel and his colleagues find a human leg hanging from a tree. Emmanuel is a former policeman who now works as a lumberjack, though we’re told nothing of the circumstances that led to this shift in career. When the mysterious leg shows up, Emmanuel is seized with a need to discover the truth. To do this he draws on his own training and contacts, but also on the crime fiction he’s evidently fond of reading.

Hunter Emmanuel’s debt to fiction is hard to miss. He’s constantly narrativising events as he experiences them, and the syntax of the story changes whenever this happens. An idle thought about the weather turns into “Either way, he knew the wind would howl tonight”; he needs the drama of story.

This concern with narrativising himself extends to the women in the story – Emmanuel is hideously sexist. Ugly women have no place in the story he’s writing for himself – he refers to the policewoman Sgt Williams as having failed in her duty somehow simply by not being attractive enough. When the leg is traced to a young prostitute named Zara Swert (“a one-legged whore. Friday nights didn’t get better than this”), Emmanuel’s attitude towards her is just creepy. He enters her hospital room under false pretenses, touches her face while she sleeps, and expects her to be someone he can confide in. “she looked like someone, someone he could talk to”. As for her physical appearance, “She looked washed-out, but after what she’d been through who wouldn’t be? Also, she was, he thought, probably prettier that way.” Later;

The world seemed suddenly very unpleasant, and Emmanuel had to imagine Zara Swart’s face and also her bandages from many different angles before it began to feel like a place he could deal with.

Zara asks Emmanuel why he is so interested in her case and his answer, I think, is central to this story.

He leaned closer to her, he couldn’t help ut.

‘I was there. I found your leg. That shit is traumatizing. I need closure.’

He loved those words. They made sense, even when they didn’t.

 

And so Emmanuel will pursue this mystery, not out of concern for the victim but out of a simple desire for narrative closure that is entirely focused on the mechanics of the case rather than on the people involved. But Myburgh will not give him that closure. The people responsible for hanging the leg up the tree are found; but their action was seemingly random. The people responsible for cutting off the leg are found – but Emmanuel does not learn what they wanted with it, or why they should have subsequently abandoned it in a forest. We know that the shadowy villains of this story are covered with Vaseline so that one cannot get a grip on them – this, apart from feeling utterly random (unless my reading of crime fiction is a lot narrower than I realise) could equally apply to the facts of the case. Emmanuel realises that “how” isn’t enough knowledge for him; he wants “why” as well, and it turns out that human motivations simply will not fit into the story-shaped spaces he has left for them. There’s a point to be made here about the arrogance of the detective story’s desire to know the world and to place it into ordered sequences of motive and method. And about its inevitable failure to do so.

And I think the story does its best to make the world seem alien and unknowable from the beginning. A couple of paragraphs into what seems a work of basic crime fiction we have the phrase “a hundred-year-old alien crashed to the ground” and we’re left hanging for a few further paragraphs before it becomes clear that we’re talking about alien pine trees.

It’s tempting to quote the whole of the final section of this story (please just read it and make it easier on us both); Emmanuel begs Zara for a reason, but she only connects his need for answers with a seeming masculine need to “save us” and walks away leaving Emmanuel to reflect on how differently this all should have gone.

Why was he here? He was so sure this would all end back in the forest, that whatever trail of blood he’d find would lead back to the shadows there. And yet here he was. On a fokkin street corner on Main Road. No, it was as he feared. The shadow was everywhere.

[ ... ]

If it wasn’t for the fact that I can’t even solve my own fokkin life, thought Hunter Emmanuel, I could make a best ever, real-life private investigator.

 

Here are some other people who wrote about “Hunter Emmanuel”:

The Reading Life
Black Balloon
Ikhide
bookshy
Backslash Scott
The Mumpsimus

 

 

Earlier today, after rereading the story, I decided that my own favourites for the Caine Prize were this story and Rotimi Babatunde’s “Bombay’s Republic”. I think, based on the reactions of the people who blogged this award with me, that Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s  “La Salle de Départ” was the favourite, and while I admired the story very much I’ll always pick messy and ambitious over well-executed and familiar. I stand by my seemingly unconventional reading of Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial”, but the very fact that it was so unconventional means that perhaps it didn’t do as good a job of conveying what I thought it was as I thought it had (read back through that sentence, weep for the English language).  Billy Kahora’s “Urban Zoning” pulled me in just with the sheer goodness of its writing but what is more important is, of all the stories on this shortlist, Kahora’s is the one that most strongly invoked in me the feeling that talking about and judging ‘African writing’ should be a complex thing, worthy of as much self-doubt as we can muster up.

The winner of the prize has now been announced on twitter, and it’s a choice I’m very pleased with. But I’d recommend going through all the stories on this year’s shortlist – it’s an exciting collection and I’m glad to have read it.

June 12, 2012

Sarah Wendell, Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels

I was going to write a long, self-indulgent thing here about how I read romance novels, but a few hundred words in, even I couldn’t be that interested anymore. Sarah Wendell’s most recent book did make me think about what I do as a reader of this genre, though, and some of this thinking was quite uncomfortable.

Nevertheless.

I wrote about Wendell’s book for last Sunday’s Left of Cool column. The mysterious book in question is Sarra Manning’s Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend (whether it is a Romance Novel is up for debate); my fellow readers will doubtless out themselves in the comments if they feel like doing so.

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A few months ago a new book by an author I like was published. For days afterwards, as we read in our separate cities, two friends and I would text and email one another constantly. Between the three of us we have multiple English degrees and two of us are professional reviewers. Our comments to each other did not reflect this; we were entirely caught up in the heroine’s bad relationship decisions and our own concern and frustration with them.

The whole experience made me think about whether we read differently when faced with certain genres. I was reminded again of this set of interactions by Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels.

Wendell is one of the founders of the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which takes an irreverent but loving look at romance novels. Wendell had previously collaborated with the blog’s co-founder, Candy Tan, on Beyond Heaving Bosoms, a guide to the genre. For all its ostensible purpose as a primer, this was clearly a book for the romance fan. Its flow charts, extended snarking at cover art featuring Fabio, and exasperated fondness for hackneyed plot devices were all addressed to an audience who know and love these books for all their ridiculousnesses.

On the surface of it, Everything I Know About Love … is more of the same sort of thing. Once again we have the irreverent tone. The alarming alpha males of some earlier romance novels are stigmatised as “rapetastic assclown heroes” and the phrase “sword o’ mighty lovin’” appears – strictly in a what-not-to-do sort of sense. But something else is going on here.

The central thesis of Wendell’s book is that readers of the romance novel learn from it valuable lessons that help them to negotiate real life romance – though, as the author hastily informs us, this does not mean that they -we- are unable to distinguish between fiction and reality. This isn’t a contradiction but there is a tension here throughout; is romance just another genre that happens to take human relationships for its focus, or is it unique in the way its readers engage emotionally with it?

Part of the problem is that it’s not very clear what these lessons are that readers are learning. Wendell herself admits that most of these valuable lessons are learned in kindergarten (fitting, since the book’s title is a nod to “all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten”). Chapters are headed with glib lessons of the type “we … know our worth”, “we know how to ask for what we want”, “we know that happily-ever-after takes work” (Wendell ruefully acknowledges where these spill over into self-help clichés. What about more specific lessons? A reader says she learned “that sex can and should be good for the female,” and I am simultaneously happy for her and saddened that this needed to be said. Another claims “I finally know what a butt plug is for.” This is great, but it’s not exactly an apologia for the genre.

Romance, arguably, does not need to be defended – though the level of kneejerk dismissal it inspires in many makes it very tempting to do so. But the book is framed as a defence; its argument is that the genre is worthwhile because it provides its readers with something useful. Yet this is ultimately a bit pointless. It’s hard to imagine that non-fans would buy this book, and certainly only fans will know the joy of arguing with Wendell’s list of the best romantic heroes. In any case, a spirited defence of a genre needs to do much better than “reading and thinking about relationships leaves people better equipped to handle relationships”. Yet as ultimately toothless as it is, Wendell’s book does have me thinking about my own strategies of reading, and my sometimes-uncomfortable relationship with the Romance. If Everything I Know About Love … needed a reason to exist, (and as with the genre itself, why should it?) this would be a good enough one for me.

 

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May 4, 2012

Sheri S Tepper, The Waters Rising

I wanted to like The Waters Rising. Tepper’s book had been dismissed by practically everyone who had talked about it at all; I’d have liked to be the one to discover some brilliant, redeeming reading of the text, and one that would cause its inclusion in the Clarke award shortlist* to make sense to me.

Dan Hartland and Maureen Kincaid Speller have both reviewed the book in the past week – I share most of their opinions about the book’s flaws. I did occasionally wonder if the theme of the book had something to do with free will; Xulai and Abasio both struggle in the later parts of the book with the idea that their lives and futures have been manipulated in such a way as to give them very little choice. And in one of the scraps of the world’s history that we gather, it is discovered that a large portion of the population was wiped out by machines able to find and eliminate people who were thinking the wrong thoughts. Charles Stross suggests in a recent post that his Rule 34 (also on the Clarke shortlist) is in part about a world where, among other things, “ our notion of free will turns out to have hollow foundations”. It’s just possible that Tepper planned to do something along those lines. If so, it would not change the fact that the book is directionless, bizarre, and flaps around for ages before suddenly cramming all manner of lunacy into its final quarter.

But what I really want to think about is Dan Hartland’s comment about feeling forced to read a text as satire. While reading the book I found myself thinking (or tagging bits of text with) “you’re joking” so many times that I had to eventually consider the possibility. Dan concludes that the novel as a whole is too incoherent to allow for a reading as sustained satire, but I can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that the point of this book is an author trying out what she can get away with.

“In order to allay suspicion, I am about to sing something pastoral and suggestive of bucolic innocence.”

There’s nothing particularly notable about the prose, except that the human-horse interactions (and human-chipmunk interactions) are rather too Narnia. What is interesting though, is the text’s approach to providing information – the shifts in perspective from one character to another seem designed to conceal rather than reveal information. The result of this is a situation in which it is obvious to the reader that some form of manipulation is happening, and that the book knows far more than it’s willing to tell just yet. I found myself admiring the sheer audacity of it.

So if this blatant teasing with information is one of the things Tepper is trying to get away with, what are the others? There’s the talking horse which so upset Christopher Priest; presumably because talking animals traditionally fit better with fantasy than science fiction. But there is a reasonably scientific (by the rather elastic values of science that most SF employs) explanation for this in-text. Plus, as Farah Mendlesohn says, “any sufficiently dilapidated far future planet is indistinguishable from fantasy”. Sometimes the far future planet in question is the Earth. (The “any sufficiently advanced technology” maxim might equally be used to excuse the fantastic elements that are not explained – souls that glow and shapeshifting animals among them). Ultimately the strongest argument I can make against the text’s being science fiction is the one Adam Roberts makes here - its flavour is not sfnal. (And once again I’m reminded that applying rasa theory to the Western concept of genre might be rewarding; I wonder if Roberts is familiar with it?) And – keeping in mind that intent means very little – I wonder how much of this determined non-SFnality, in a book about global warming and genetic alteration, was deliberate.

‘Here, madam, you seem a pleasant cephalopod, please accept this with my compliments.’ 

The Sea King is another element of the book that makes me wonder. Because SFF has done giant squid so often by now, that each new giant squid seems as much or more comment on the genre than a plot element in its own right.

Then there are things like this:

“Oh, mares,” said Blue**, shaking his head. “They always have to be whinnied into it. Or . . . subdued.”

“Why, Blue,” cried Abasio in an outraged voice. “That’s rape.”

Blue snorted. “I have long observed that human people do not care what they do in front of livestock, and believe me, what some humans do during mating makes horses look absolutely . . . gentle by comparison.” He stalked away and stood, front legs crossed, nose up, facing the sea.

“Isn’t Abasio your friend?” the Sea King asked him.

“Friends do not call their friends rapists,” said the horse without turning around.

 

It seems incredible to me that I’m supposed to take this seriously. I must assume I’m not.

 

None of this necessarily adds up to any sort of unified reading of the text as parodic; but then, as I said above, I don’t think it’s supposed to be. But I think we might be being trolled, and on the whole I’d feel more kindly towards the book if this were the case.

 

 

 

*The award finally went to Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb, a book I thought was excellent. It’s nice to be proved right.

** the talking horse

 

May 3, 2012

Some fantastic voyages

Last weekend’s Mint Lounge was a travel special, and I was asked to talk about some of my favourite journeys in fantasy. Hopefully I don’t need to clarify that I wouldn’t necessarily want to be on all of these journeys; but they’re lovely, and they’ve stuck with me.

A link to the Lounge version here, or a slightly edited piece below.

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It’s a cliché of the genre that most works of fantasy begin with a map; from Tolkien’s beautiful depiction of the route to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit to the steampunk-inspired beginning of HBO’s Game of Thrones. A big part of the joy of secondary world fantasy is in exploring the worlds created; world-building may often serve as an excuse for shoddy writing, but it can also be a joyful thing in itself.

Many works of fantasy are built around a quest of some sort. The quest is one of the most basic forms of narrative there is, but it also provides an excuse to further explore these worlds. There are people who complain that, for example, the bulk of The Lord of the Rings is basically a long walk through Middle-Earth. This is absolutely true, and it’s wonderful if you like that sort of thing (most of the time, I do). But the fantasy journey can contain scenes of genuine wonder even for the unbeliever, and I think the examples below achieve just that.

 

Ged’s Pursuit of the Shadow:

In Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea a young wizard, unleashes a terrifying shadow that haunts him for long after. Eventually he comes to the realisation that he must face the thing that he has released into the world, and he follows it into unchartered realms of the ocean. Many fantastic journeys are made memorable by an undercurrent of fear. Characters are pursued by enemies, or face the knowledge that there is danger all around them. Ged’s pursuit of his shadow is completely different. The hunted becomes the hunter, and a sense of triumph colours the whole venture.

With hand and spell Ged turned his boat, and it leaped like a dolphin from the water, rolling, in that quick turn. Faster than before he followed, but the shadow grew ever fainter to his eyes. Rain, mixed with sleet and snow, came stinging across his back and his left cheek, and he could not see more than a hundred yards ahead. Before long, as the storm grew heavier, the shadow was lost to sight. Yet Ged was sure of its track as if he followed a beast’s track over snow, instead of a wraith fleeing over water. Though the wind blew his way now he held the singing magewind in the sail, and flake-foam shot from the boat’s blunt prow, and she slapped the water as she went.

 

Arthur Gordon Pym goes South:

The voyage documented in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is not one that a sensible reader would wish to be on, replete as it is with shipwrecks, cannibalism, and ghost ships. Eventually most of the ship’s crew is slaughtered by a tribe of savages.

This is all very unpleasant, but the book’s most memorable journey is the small section after this litany of horrors has come to an end. Pym, Peters, and the ‘native’ they have taken captive drift further towards the Antarctic in a canoe. As they travel South the narrative takes on a numb, detached quality. Yet “we were entering upon a region of novelty and wonder”; the water turns white and warm, and white ash occasionally rains down upon the travellers. And then, in a sudden burst of activity, the boat rushes towards a cataract, a chasm opens, and Pym sees “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow”. And on this weird, ambiguous note, the book abruptly ends. Pym’s journey is no one’s idea of a dream vacation, but it’s impossible to forget.

 

…and Caspian goes East:

C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian embarks upon a quest to find the seven lords who remained faithful to his father. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is most people’s favourite Narnia book. There are echoes here of The Odyssey, with its perilous seas and series of strange and magical islands, and of Coleridge in a nightmarish episode in which an albatross figures strongly.

Yet the best part of the voyage comes after all islands have been left behind. In a way this is the reverse of Pym’s journey above. In both cases the sea becomes warmer and calmer, but where Poe’s book speaks of drowsiness, Lewis gives the impression of extreme clarity. The sun becomes bigger and brighter; where Poe’s ocean turns milky, here the water is so clear that entire civilisations of mer-people can be observed fathoms below. And when the water does turn white, it is because it is covered in flowers.

We never find out what is at the utter East; we are left with the image of Reepicheep the mouse paddling his coracle over the wave at the end of the world, “very black against the lilies”. It is enough.

 

Dhrun in the Forest of the Tantravalles:

About half of the plots in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse books involve people travelling on one quest or another. And yet Dhrun’s journey in the first book, Suldrun’s Garden, stands out.

The eldest child of princess Suldrun, Dhrun is fated to rule the Elder Isles. But he is kidnapped by the fairies, and a changeling left in his place. After a childhood spent among the fairies of Thripsey Shee, Dhrun is cast out to make his own way in the world. To help him he has a magic purse and a sword that comes when called. But he is also cursed to carry seven years of bad luck.

There’s something of the fairytale to Dhrun’s story (as he insouciantly defrauds trolls and defeats ogres before joining a medicine show), and Vance makes use of a droll, courtly style that is reminiscent of Perrault. But the real wonder here is in Vance’s ability to tell a genuinely dark story full of things like slavery and sexual abuse and still infuse the whole with the luminousity of something remembered from early childhood.

My God, it’s full of elephants:

An elderly hero is on his way to the city of the Gods, which he plans to blow up. What he doesn’t realise is that if he succeeds it will mean the end of the world. Someone has to stop him, but he already has a massive head start.

This is the problem that confronts the characters in Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby’s Discworld graphic novel The Last Hero. The solution, naturally, is to build a spaceship powered by specially-fed dragons, fly off the edge of the world, and count on gravity (or whatever the equivalent of gravity is for a flat world on the back of four elephants on the back of a turtle) to make sure that ‘down’ eventually turns into ‘up’.  Needless to say, things go horribly wrong. This is expected when you have a mad genius, a cowardly wizard and a simian (“Ankh-Morpork, we have an orangutan…”) on board. There’s a moon landing, all sorts of shenanigans involving flatulent lunar dragons, and somehow it all ends happily enough.

 

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March 26, 2012

Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw

My co-columnist and friend Aadisht is taking a break from the Left of Cool column, and so from April I will be writing it every week. For now, here is last weekend’s column.

 

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Five siblings gather at their father’s deathbed. As the oldest son, a parson, deals with the last rites and some alarming revelations about their father’s past, the youngest son and son-in-law wrangle with each other over the will. The two youngest daughters must resign themselves to the fact that they can no longer live in the ancestral home. They must also cope with smaller dowries than they had hoped for, coupled with the added social stigma of a father whose fortune was made in (and whose title paid for by) Trade. The world which these characters inhabit is an elegant, civilised one, but it’s also one in which those around you are quite willing to eat you alive. Because Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw differs from most works that invoke the nineteenth century in one rather important particular. All of her characters are dragons.

Fans of the author’s previous work will be familiar with Walton’s propensity to play with the mixing of genres. In Farthing she fused a traditional country house murder mystery with an alternate-historical universe in which Britain had continued its policy to appeasement. Tooth and Claw draws heavily on the concerns of the Victorian novel, but because it is fantasy, it is able to do something more; it literalizes these concerns, and makes them far more concrete.

The book’s title comes from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, where he describes nature as “red in tooth and claw”. The inherent savagery of nature is an idea that is easy to associate with the Victorians (this is after all the age of Darwin, and the survival of the fittest in the animal world). But there’s also the savagery of Victorian society – in putting ruthless, cold-blooded creatures into this extremely civilised setting, it’s hard to miss the underlying idea that Victorian society was an equally bloodthirsty place.

For fans of the Victorians (and of Austen, who is not Victorian but forms a part of this story’s influences) the greatest pleasure afforded by Tooth and Claw is the manner in which tropes of nineteenth century fiction translate to Walton’s fantasy universe. The legal quibbles would fit well into something like Dickens’ Bleak House (although unlike Bleak House, and with far greater excuse, Tooth and Claw contains no incidents of spontaneous combustion). The role of women in this dragon-centric world also has some striking parallels to nineteenth-century fiction. Rules of etiquette around proper conduct are transmuted into social mores around flying, hunting and (in the absence of elaborate dresses) hats. There’s the issue of female virtue; a primary preoccupation of novels where too much perceived proximity to a man, however unwanted on the woman’s side, might lead to social ruin (see the plot of nearly every Regency period romance ever written). Walton is able to invent dragon biology and so creates a situation in which fallen virtue is made concrete and visible. In this universe, female dragons begin life with golden scales. It is only after they have their first romantic or sexual encounter that they “blush” and begin to turn to the shade of red or pink that they will sport for the rest of their adult lives. Selendra, a young female dragon, is pursued by the local parson (a sleazier Mr Collins) and by blushing over a dragon she refuses to marry, faces the prospect of ruin. Her brother has as his mistress another fallen woman, the scion of a great family who is – another trope of Victorian fiction, the orphan returned to her rightful position – triumphant at the end. This is perhaps the one unconvincing subplot; society’s willingness to forget her dubious past simply doesn’t work as well when her scales are visibly pink. A book in which everything implied is made literal may find it hard to adequately depict hypocrisy.

Given the preponderance in recent years for literary mash-ups that bring together classic literature and all manner of supernatural creature, it’s surprising that there haven’t been any dragon-centric attempts. If Walton has shown us anything, it’s that dragons make most things better.

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