Archive for ‘the machine’

January 17, 2013

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

I was writing all these Christmas and children’s lit/YA-themed columns and thought it would be a good idea to write about sex in toilets instead. One doesn’t want to get into a rut. Erm.

From Sunday’s column:

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Friends and well-wishers have over the past few years occasionally expressed shock that I haven’t read Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. I’ve been both intimidated and a little sceptical about the sheer brilliance they claim for this novel; at any rate, it was enough to make me curious about DeWitt’s latest work. Lightning Rods was written a decade ago. If the delay in publication was due to the difficulty in finding a publisher, considering the novel’s subject matter it’s not hard to understand why.

Joe (he has no surname and the most everyman-ish first name he could possibly have) is a not-very-successful salesman of vacuum cleaners who has previously worked as a not-very-successful salesman of encyclopaedias. Almost the only thing he seems exceptional at is masturbating, which he complicates through the imagining of erotic scenes which have to sufficiently adhere to their own internal logic before they can serve their purpose. Joe’s great moment of inspiration comes when he decides to use his strengths to get ahead, utilising his own masturbatory fantasies as the basis for a scheme to get rid of sexual harassment in the workplace; a scheme that essentially involves the installation of high-tech glory holes in the disabled toilets. The “lightning rods” programme soon spreads to offices across America, running into all manner of problems that Joe had never anticipated (the difficulty of preserving anonymity where race is involved; the complications that arise when people use the toilets for their stated purpose), yet somehow this utterly ludicrous idea is a rampaging success.

Told in a tone that is equal parts uncritical biography and business report, Lightning Rods documents the phenomenal success of Joe’s project. One of the targets (and there are many here) of DeWitt’s satire is the language of corporate culture, and all the meaningless platitudes of Human Resources, all the euphemistic rubbish that any of us has ever put on our CVs, are employed here in the most artfully-unselfconscious of ways. Some of this language has become so normal a part of the way we communicate that we barely notice it here – which is, of course, part of the point.

It’s hard to entirely dislike Joe, even as the novel tears him, and everything he stands for, apart. There’s a sense throughout that he’s earnestly working all of this out from first principles, as if there were no studies of sexism in the workplace, no research of psycho-sexual urges, nothing for him to cling to. He even buys himself a Programming for Dummies textbook in order to develop the rudimentary software the programme requires. Naturally he gets things very wrong, but it’s easy to believe that he genuinely wants men to harass women less at the workplace (or at least, not to risk getting into trouble for it; Lightning Rods is as much a skewering of workplace gender norms as it is anything else), or that he really believes that his height-friendly toilet is going to revolutionise the lives of little people and people with disabilities.

By the end of all of this, Joe’s ideas begin almost to sound plausible, even healthy. Men stop calling in sick to work. Productivity is increased. We read of one male employee whose ability to relate to women on a personal level is enhanced by  his sexual satiation in the workplace, another couple whose relationship proceeds independently of their anonymous sexual encounters with one another. Naturally everyone cannot benefit equally – only one woman in a thousand, Joe claims, has the temperament to face this job with equanimity.

Corporate language and culture, workplace sexism, pornography; Lightning Rods has a wide range of targets, and it manages to bring them all down. More, it does this in a detached, deadpan style that is a joy to read. I’m not sure how she’s done it, but DeWitt has managed to write a cliché-ridden, bloodless book, and have this somehow be the greatest possible proof of her skill as an author. I’m left delighted, and also shaking my head in disbelief.

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January 7, 2013

Studies

In school in Delhi in the mid/late 1990s it was a commonly done thing, when boys asked girls out, for the girl to explain that she had no time for a relationship, that she was “busy with her studies”. I didn’t do this; for one thing, no one would have believed it (exhibit A: my maths, physics and chemistry marks). But then, I can’t imagine anyone believed that was the real reason anyway, even when someone smart and quiet and capable of good grades said it. If I thought about it at all (I didn’t, much) I assume I thought it was a way to let someone down kindly; it’s not you, it’s me. Now I wonder if letting people down kindly was the problem. To turn down one teenaged boy you had to make an excuse that left you unavailable to all teenage boys, you couldn’t reject a relationship with this boy without rejecting relationships, full stop.

Perhaps we should have stuck with that other classic form of Indian maidenly rejection- the adoption of the rakhi brother* that at least acknowledged the individuals in this relationship/non-relationship, rather than reducing us all to our component genitals. (We were, of course, working on the assumption that everyone was heterosexual and cisgender, even as some of us were learning that we weren’t).

This is possibly reading too much into teenaged girls’ perfectly kindly impulse to spare people pain. But I think of it when rape culture suggests that a woman who has consented to a relationship with one man is therefore available to all men. I think of it when Delhi police, in last year’s horrifying Tehelka piece, explain that a woman who was going to have sex with her boyfriend anyway is hardly justified in crying rape when a bunch of his friends join in. I think of it when we still haven’t gotten rid of the “two-finger” test, in which someone can shove a couple of fingers into you, decide that you are “habituated” to sex, and therefore cannot have been raped- because all men, and all sexual encounters, are the same thing really. I think of it when Anurag Kashyap thinks it reasonable and natural that “the lament of a boy who has been rejected by a girl and is expressing his feelings musically” should take the form of the generalised violent hatred of women displayed by Honey Singh’s “Choot”.

And I suppose I think of it to a far less serious extent when family members and friends of family members treat marriage as a goal in itself, independent of who the person one marries is (assuming of course, that he’s a he, and not of the wrong caste or social background. Or at least not muslim or black – or, my grandfather insists, american). This not wanting to get married is just a phase, insists a cousin (my age!) when I tell her I don’t have plans to do so in the near future, you’ll be lonely if you’re not married to someone. An unspecified someone, whose only attributes are broadly generalised negatives- not the wrong gender, not the wrong caste, not the wrong degrees from the wrong colleges, not cruel, not ugly, not fat, not shorter than you — and if you have found this man why are you complaining? My parents still sigh over the end of my last relationship with someone who was for many reasons exactly what good Indian parents are supposed to want; but those reasons weren’t why I loved him. The (tragically) recently shut down “Nice Guys of OK Cupid” mocked the stereotype of the Nice Guy™ who believes himself to be entitled to sex from the women he’s attracted to because he’s a nice guy; he’s not like those other guys who stupid women inexplicably choose over him. He’s been so kind for so long, when is he going to get the sex he’s owed? The only way any of this makes sense is if women as a whole are fundamentally flawed, and foolish enough not to want him. As if nothing about individual men mattered except that they not be violent or openly horrible.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that when the patriarchy (or the kyriarchy, generally) makes it hard for us to believe that women are human beings with individual subjectivities, it also in a wayturns men into an amorphous blob — to me, this is the natural conclusion of the “if him, why not me?” logic. And this isn’t a “What About The Mens?/The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too!” conclusion because while this logic may be demeaning to men, it’s proving to be life-threatening to women.

And I’m not sure what any of this means; I certainly don’t mean to suggest that this “why not me?” attitude to women doesn’t come from a place of the grossest entitlement, and I don’t think my family wanting me comfortably “settled” is necessarily propping up the patriarchy. I don’t know if gendered violence (or indeed racist violence, or classist violence or or or) is going to just magically vanish if we all take the radical step of treating individual people as if that is what they were, but then the sheer amount of structural change something as simple-sounding as this would require is terrifying.

I’m lucky in my immediate family, in that they’re far less invested in my adherence to the trappings of ordinary adult life than many I know. If I can scrape together funding I’ll be starting a PhD later this year, and at the back (and occasionally the forefront) of many of my conversations with them has been the terrible fact that this means I’ll be in my thirties before they can reasonably bring up the marriage thing again. Finally, a good decade-and-a-half later, I’m using the “busy with studies” excuse to opt out of heteropatriarchal relationships.

Except if there’s one thing the last three weeks in Delhi have reminded us (as if we needed a reminder beyond mere existence in this city or any other) it’s that opting out isn’t an option. And I think it’s amazing that my entire country is coming out and having this conversation, and that we can finally hope for things like police reform and better laws (and please, please make marital rape illegal) but beyond all of that there’s the thing where we need to initiate the personal and structural reforms that allow us to conceive of people first and I’m not sure how to even begin.

 

 

*Yesterday “spiritual leader” Asaram Bapu suggested that the victim of the recent gang rape in Delhi was to blame for not calling her attackers her brothers. Such is the power of the Rakhi, it seems.

December 11, 2012

On the body of Howard Mollison

A few years ago, J. K. Rowling wrote a blog post in which she ranted about the use of “fat” as an insult. Naturally, this being the internet, lots of people gushed at how wonderful this sentiment was- while others pointed out that Rowling’s treatment of fat in her own books was far from ideal.

I’ve been trying to make a list of fat people in the Harry Potter books, and these are the ones I’ve come up with so far:

  • Vernon and Dudley Dursley (and I think Vernon’s sister Maude). These characters are unpleasant. They’re also portrayed as greedy, particularly in Dudley’s case. Dudley’s parents are blamed for spoiling him by allowing him to indulge in unfettered greed. At one point the character is physically turned into a pig.
  • Crabbe and Goyle. Big, and also greedy. To the point that, in a castle filled with strange potions and mischievous poltergeists, it is easy to drug them with inexplicable chocolate cake. With that level of self-preservation I’m impressed they manage to survive till the last book.
  • Moaning Myrtle. At least, she claims to have been teased for being fat, and the text describes her as “squat”.
  • Hagrid and Madame Maxime. Both these characters are described as large; understandably, since they’re half-giant. Neither is “fat”.
  • Neville Longbottom. Has a round/plump face, to the best of my recollection. He either loses the puppy fat or Rowling chooses not to mention it as he becomes a stronger character.
  • Horace Slughorn. Fat, greedy, cowardly. Weak.
  • Molly Weasley. Plump, maternal, more concerned with her family than with her appearance.

 

So it’s not that (or not entirely that) the good characters are never overweight in these books, though they generally aren’t. It’s that when they differ from body norms, as they sometimes do, there are ‘good’ reasons. Hagrid cannot help being half-giant, and Molly Weasley’s plumpness both emphasises her difference from someone like Petunia Weasley and places her in a tradition of comfortable maternal figures (Lily Potter can be beautiful and ethereal, because she’s dead). But if you’re Dudley Dursley, or Horace Slughorn, or Crabbe or Goyle, your fatness is linked explicitly to your food habits and what they say about you. You can’t just be fat without its being a character trait; you can’t have thyroid-related issues (which St. Mungo’s could probably just magic away), or because you have a disability that means you can’t exercise, or because of genetics unless one of your parents was literally of another species. No one’s suggesting that Rowling interrupt the story and have Madame Pomfrey lecture the class about, say, PCOS. But she could treat fat as just another physical marker—like glasses or hair and eye colour, and not as an indication of a fundamental inability to avoid cake. She does not.

The Casual Vacancy’s Howard Mollison is a bit of a slughorn—if the world of Harry Potter had room for sexually creepy men. He’s a social climber, he’s smarmy, and he really loves food. He runs a delicatessen. Rowling’s first action is to inform us that he and his wife don’t share a bed, and that:

A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed.

(n.b. this has never been my first thought upon seeing a fat person and I can’t imagine I’m alone in this)

Here are some reasons to dislike Mollison:

  1. He’s a bigot.
  2. He’s a snob.
  3. He pervs on schoolgirls.
  4. He cheats on his wife.
  5. He pays his daughter negligible sums of money to keep his cheating on his wife a secret.
  6. He thinks drug addicts should just go cold turkey and why are they choosing to do drugs anyway?

Parminder, Howard’s doctor, is convinced that his various health problems are a direct consequence of his weight, which could be fixed with “a few lifestyle changes”. Parminder does not share Howard’s views with regard to the continued access of people from the Fields to healthcare and social services. These people need state-provided medical care, she argues. You know who’s a real drain on resources? Fatties.

‘Oh, you think that they should take responsibility for their addiction and change their behaviour?’ said Parminder.

‘In a nutshell, yes.’

‘Before they cost the state any more money.’

‘Exact—’

‘And you,’ said Parminder loudly, as the silent eruption engulfed her, ‘do you know how many tens of thousands of pounds you, Howard Mollison, have cost the health service, because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?’

A rich, red claret stain was spreading up Howard’s neck into his cheeks.

‘Do you know how much your bypass cost, and your drugs, and your long stay in hospital? And the doctor’s appointments you take up with your asthma and your blood pressure and the nasty skin rash, which are all caused by your refusal to lose weight?’

As Parminder’s voice became a scream, other councillors began to protest on Howard’s behalf; Shirley was on her feet; Parminder was still shouting, clawing together the papers that had somehow been scattered as she gesticulated.

‘What about patient confidentiality?’ shouted Shirley. ‘Outrageous! Absolutely outrageous!’

Parminder was at the door of the hall and striding through it, and she heard, over her own furious sobs, Betty calling for her immediate expulsion from the council; she was half running away from the hall, and she knew that she had done something cataclysmic, and she wanted nothing more than to be swallowed up by the darkness and to disappear for ever.

 

This whole scene turned my stomach (which, theoretically, could stop me eating and make me thin again; thanks, Rowling!) Because at no point is it even a possibility that Howard’s weight might be the result of anything other than a fondness for cheese. Other people have legitimate problems that Howard is dismissing (and he is, he’s a piece of shit), but Parminder’s not arguing that Howard is failing to understand the complexities of addiction in the same way as others might fail to understand the complexities of weight. She’s arguing that he’s a fat, selfish parasite who is taking up resources he wouldn’t need if he would just eat less. The text doesn’t wholly endorse Parminder at all times (she is, for example, a terrible parent) but at no point does it seem to go against the content of this argument. Instead, towards the end of the book it mawkishly contrasts Howard’s time in hospital with that of a small boy.

In the theatre upstairs, Howard Mollison’s body overflowed the edges of the operating table. His chest was wide open, revealing the ruins of Vikram Jawanda’s handiwork. Nineteen people laboured to repair the damage, while the machines to which Howard was connected made soft implacable noises, confirming that he continued to live.

And far below, in the bowels of the hospital, Robbie Weedon’s body lay frozen and white in the morgue. Nobody had accompanied him to the hospital, and nobody had visited him in his metal drawer

Robbie is a small child and a victim of circumstances. Howard is alive, receiving decent medical care, and somehow this is a travesty because Howard’s illness is his own fault.

September 22, 2012

A friend (@mycrotchetyluv on twitter)  posted this picture a few days ago. I blinked when I saw it.

 

Shupee

Newspaper caption: Woman buys Renoir worth ₹50 lakh at flea market for ₹ 350. Virginia resident was planning to throw away the painting and keep the frame.

 

I’m typing this on a laptop (it’s a Dell) bought in India a couple of years ago. My keyboard doesn’t have a ₹ sign; I don’t know if that’s something that future laptops sold in this country will have. It hasn’t been a bother to me thus far. My last laptop was bought in Ireland and had both € and £ signs. It did not have the $ sign but that felt more like a minor rebellion than an inconvenience.

Longitude is measured from Greenwich, north is the top of the map, the value of famous paintings is described in currencies other than my own (unless they’re bought in India or by Indian artists and sometimes not even then). We’ve only had a rupee sign a couple of years. Have Indian companies that manufacture laptops/computer keyboards started to include a ₹ key yet?

Either way, I wasn’t expecting to be so disoriented when I saw it in this context. It is good to have a ₹ sign.

June 15, 2012

Daisy Rockwell, The Little Book of Terror

My review of Rockwell’s book appeared in the Sunday Guardian last weekend. Here’s the original version of that piece, complete with some art stolen (with permission!) from Rockwell’s Flickr page.

Colleen LaRose

Self-radicalized Woman with Small Stuffed Bear

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As an artist, and one of a family of artists, Daisy Rockwell understands how crucial images are to the way we understand things. Her grandfather Norman Rockwell was responsible in his day for some truly iconic imagery. In The Little Book of Terror, a collection of essays and art, Rockwell considers the iconography of terrorism in America in the decade or so since 9/11.

Early in the book, Rockwell presents the reader with a series of portraits of her friend (and co-blogger at the website Chapati Mystery) ‘Sepoy’. This series is based on the nine rasas of Sanskrit aesthetic theory –Rockwell holds a PhD in South Asian literature- and the extent to which tone affects a picture is immediately obvious. The bhayanaka (fear) and raudra (anger) paintings are familiar in an uncomfortable way – Sepoy is a brown-skinned man with a beard. But then we flip to hasya (humour) and shaant (peace), and everything changes; the man we see before us here is not the man from the earlier pictures.

Photographs of terrorists in newspapers usually appear after the fact. We get an endless parade of mugshots and passport photographs; no one is smiling. No one looks like a person with human emotions, interests, or family ties. At no point are we asked to confront the idea that people who do smile and who do have lives and interests are also capable of killing people, or of blowing up buildings. And so, conveniently, at no point are we forced to ask why.

Mohamed Mahmood Alessa with his cat, Tuna Princess

In her “Rogues Gallery”, a set of portraits at the end of the book, Rockwell explores the idea that these people, suspected or convicted terrorists, are human. She is working from photographs, but in most cases these are not the sort of photographs likely to show up in the newspapers. So we see Umar Farouk Mutallab (the “underpants bomber”) trying on a new hat; Mohamed Mahmood Alessa (arrested while attempting to join a militant group in Somalia) with his cat Tuna Princess. Accompanying all of these are little notes about their subjects – Alessa’s mother would not let him take the cat with him (he took instead a bag of sweets which was later confiscated by the FBI); Aafia Siddiqui has a PhD in neuroscience; Abdulmutallah’s picture was taken on a school trip to London. Next to a portrait of John Walker Lindh we have the deadpan “His Arabic is reportedly quite good”.

As she draws attention to these unfamiliar images of terrorists Rockwell also questions familiar ones. A picture of Osama bin Laden has become iconic over the past decade and it seems significant, given the cultural power that his face still holds, that there was so much secrecy attached to his body after his death. Another chapter examines a picture of Saddam Hussein undergoing dental care in custody. This is a startling piece of propaganda, Rockwell contends. On the one hand, the picture shows a detainee receiving top class medical treatment (the chapter, titled “The Best of All Possible Care”, begins with a smiling picture of the Abu Ghraib torturers Charles Granier and Lynndie England). On the other, a trip to the dentist has more immediate associations with excruciating pain for most Americans than anything the word “torture” can conjure up.

A chapter titled “Little Green Men” seems at first oddly out of place. Yet so much of this book is about facing our alien others. “They all look the same” is the caption of one picture. Rockwell is democratic about who her aliens are: her Indian neighbours in Allahabad at one moment, and dog-walkers in Chicago (viewed by a visiting Indian family) at the next.

The title of this chapter also seems appropriate for the style of Rockwell’s art, in which the realism of the photograph is combined with a riot of improbable colours. This too is a making strange of the familiar and making the familiar strange – some of her men are literallygreen.

Taliban leader Mullah Omar continues to enjoy a pastoral existence somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan, despite the drones’ best efforts.

“The state […] is a makeup artist”, declares Amitava Kumar in his introduction, and it’s true that the narratives served by these pictures tend to further the state’s ends. But what are we to do with the story of Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to set off a bomb in Times Square? Shahzad read out a prepared statement, explaining his reasons. Yet no one seems to have listened, the media more intent on creating its own narratives of how he was “radicalized”. “Radicalization” comes from outside; it is not how we describe people who have arrived at their own motives. The first picture in Rockwell’s book is captioned “Self Radicalized Woman With Small Stuffed Bear”. Rockwell is willing to be a makeup artist too, and a far more colourful one.

“I don’t believe Rockwell is interested in convincing a viewer that even terrorists can be forgiven”, says Kumar. “There is too much irony in her paintings, and often, also glitter”. The book begins with the question “Why Do They Hate Us?”. I think Rockwell’s contention is that anyone who wants to begin to even ask that question honestly (and this is in some ways a deeply moral book) must be willing to see these aliens as fundamentally human.

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February 12, 2012

Kuzhali Manickavel, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies

I bought Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings before I’d heard of Kuzhali Manickavel or Blaft Publications, purely on the strength of the title and cover. Since then I’ve grown rather evangelical about both author and publisher. Blaft published this e-chapbook of a new Manickavel story a few months ago and it was, unsurprisingly, excellent.

I wrote about Eating Sugar, Telling Lies for my Left of Cool column last weekend.

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How long should a piece of writing be? At what point does flash fiction cross into short story into novelette into novella into novel? And how big does a book have to be before it is split into two volumes? There are approximate answers to some of these questions (mostly of the “I know it when I see it” variety); some are simply a question of categorising things for ourselves. Yet others are the result of the material limitations of creating books – what size of page is easiest to hold, shelf, and pack; how many pages it is practical to print at one time; what amount of paper can be securely bound.

If there’s one thing the internet has reinforced for us it’s that a piece of writing doesn’t need to achieve a minimum word count to be a complete work in itself. So you have writers turning even to twitter for their medium – Teju Cole, the author of Open City, works wonders within 140 characters. And it is possible now to buy works in electronic format that would never have made it through the practicalities of the printing side of publishing.

Kuzhali Manickavel’s debut collection of short stories, Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some of Them Have Wings, was published by Blaft a few years ago. Manickavel’s stories are often structurally experimental, usually dark and occasionally very funny. But she continued to work mainly with the short story form. Unless she were to write another themed collection, it seemed that those of us who admired her work would have to keep seeking her out in various short fiction magazines (and on her wonderful, infrequently-updated blog).

But then ebooks became a viable way to publish short fiction, and in 2011 Blaft published an e-chapbook of a new Manickavel story, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies. This odd little piece is set in Tamil Nadu, in a house that seems so big that its own inhabitants don’t seem quite sure what it contains. Secret stashes of Doritos or dead bodies could pop up in the next room.The maidservant appears to have abandoned her job, and her employers speculate over why. The narrator is one of these; her companions known only as “the Family Cataract” and “Gorgeous George”.  Various middle-class clichés about the behaviour and motivations of servants are deployed (they will steal anything, they like to be patronised by their employers) to explain the absence of “The Thieving WhoreQueen”, the only name by which The Family Cataract knows her. The truth turns out to be quite different.

Eating Sugar, Telling Lies is an uncomfortable fable about class and gender and the things we choose to look away from, and one which is far more complex than its length gives it any right to be. The Family Cataract cannot be bothered to learn the names of her servants and parrots various banalities about the tendencies of “these people” but she is also the one most strongly affected by the terrible discovery they make. The female characters make it clear that they know the threat of sexual violence, but they tolerate and have long friendships with GorgeousGeorge who claims to have had sex with a fourteen-year-old servant girl last year. The narrator herself seems the most sympathetic of the characters until the very last line of the piece. The tangled, contradictory and deeply dysfunctional set of relationships that these characters have to class, to sex, to each other and to themselves is revealed for the mess that it is. Set against all of this, the child’s voice reciting the nursery rhyme in the title (and there again, you’re forced to think about the English language and the implications of power it contains) is a brilliant, perverse contrast.

Jonathan Franzen was widely quoted this past week for suggesting that ebooks are damaging society. Franzen is entitled to his opinion, but when the existence of ebooks allows for the existence of brilliant, bitter pieces of work like this one? I think it’s very clear that he’s wrong.

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November 7, 2011

Further thoughts on Snuff

[For a far more lucid account of many of the things that bothered me about this book, see Abigail Nussbaum's piece here.]

I posted a review here a few days ago, but it had a limited word count and was for a general audience. But there were other aspects of Pratchett’s new book that I wanted to discuss. Obviously there will be many, many spoilers. I’m dividing things into subheadings to keep it all coherent.

 

Race

There’s a thing quite a lot of SFF has done – discuss race relations using actual different races (dwarves, trolls,etc) as opposed to merely people with different coloured skin. One of the problems with this way of talking about race is that it has tended to make the various other races represent people of colour (or any other group that is non-mainstream, as ridiculous as it seems to talk of nonwhite people being non-mainstream when they surely make up most of the world’s population) whereas the ‘humans’ have tended to represent white westerners. A recent example of this for me was China Miéville’s Embassytown, which I read as partly based on British colonialism in Asia.

In the Discworld no race is an obvious stand in for a real world community – there are obvious similarities, but the roles which particular races assume may shift with each plot, and (sometimes) with whichever classic fantasy trope Pratchett is currently playing with. And there are sympathetic, real characters from most races. Yet I think there’s still a tendency to centre the human. Human characters on the Disc can be marginalised (see werewolves, vampires, zombies) but in a generalised manner that shows the dynamics of the process more than it references any realworld racial group. In Snuff, the victims of the slave trade are goblins, the people doing the trading humans. But also in Snuff, I think there are signs that Pratchett is acknowledging this. The quoted bit below is from a section in which Carrot and Angua interview an elderly goblin lady.

[Angua] waited with Billy Slick while Carrot went on the errand, and for something to say, she said, ‘Billy Slick doesn’t sound much like a goblin name?’ Billy made a face. ‘Too right! Granny calls me Of the Wind Regretfully Blown. What kind of name is that, I ask you? Who’s going to take you seriously with a name like that? This is modern times, right?’ He looked at her defiantly, and she thought: and so one at a time we all become human – human werewolves, human dwarfs, human trolls … the melting pot melts in one direction only, and so we make progress.

 

Edit: I’m now wondering how it would be to Unseen Academicals in the light of this book. With UA’s focus on racism in other books (the main character is an orc) rather than – if such a distinction can be made at all – real-world racism.

 

Slavery

I’ve touched on this in my official review: the Discworld books may deal with some very serious subject matter, but they generally end nicely. Sometimes characters have died and the ending is bittersweet, but it’s never entirely bitter. On my twitter feed a couple of weeks ago Alex Keller said  he was in the mood for Pratchett because he needed a “human decency boost” and I felt that was an apt description of how I feel reading these books.

So how do you fit the history of slavery into that framework? On the front inner flap of Snuff (I have the HB) we have “They say that in the end all sins are forgiven. But not quite all…” But how far can you approach something as vast and awful as the slave trade and tie it up neatly into a happy ending?

One of the things I think the text does to deal with this is to have a comparatively minor character discover what is happening. It’s not nice – there are piles of bones of corpses and tortured goblins on the verge of death. But Wee Mad Arthur has never been given a point of view in the earlier books – we don’t know what the inside of his head looks like and we don’t learn much about it here. As a result we’re distanced in ways we would not have been had a character with more depth – Angua or Cheery, or even Colon – seen what Wee Mad Arthur sees.

There’s also the fact that this book is comparatively muted, and that is despite the poo jokes. Of the characters that tend to provide the comic relief, Nobby is barely present until the end and Colon is (for a major chunk of the plot) unconscious. There are even less footnotes than usual.

But at the end the book seems completely at a loss. You have one evil instigator (who is offstage throughout) transported to Australia. The others involved get away all but completely – which may be an accurate depiction of history. But there’s an incredibly ill-judged moment when Colonel Makepeace, whose wife is one of the major figures behind the crime, pleads for her to be treated leniently because while he fully agrees that the slave trade was wrong and needed to be stopped, his wife “is a rather foolish woman”, “I do love her” and “I’m very sorry you’ve been troubled”. And this is framed in terms that suggest the reader is intended to feel sorry for him.

 

Children’s Books and Evidence

Snuff came out a few days after my birthday. One of the presents I received this year was this Dutch edition of The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business - for those unfamiliar with the book, a mole discovers that someone has defaecated on his head and sets out to find the animal responsible.

Yes there is a reason I have the Dutch edition. No, I don't speak the language.

In Snuff, Vimes’ son Sam is immersed in the works of Miss Felicity Beedle, an author of children’s books whose most recent work is titled The World of Poo (Miss Beedle had previously written Wee). Inspired, young Sam begins to collect samples of the different sorts of poo available (since the Ramkin country estate comes attached to a farm there is much variety) and to observe and record the differences between them.

Reading these two books within the same week brought home for me how forensic in nature many books for very young children are. In Thud!, young Sam’s favourite book had been Where’s My Cow? In this the narrator (who had lost his cow) walks around wondering if various animals are the eponymous cow and eliminates them from suspicion on the evidence of the sounds they make. (“Where is my cow? Is that my cow? It goes “Hruuugh!” It is a hippopotamus. That’s not my cow!”)    The urban equivalent made up by Vimes follows the same principle. The little mole in the book above visits each of his suspects, eliminating them only when they prove their innocence by showing that their faeces is completely different from the sort he has found. (Eventually he calls in the experts – flies – and finds that the dog is the culprit). There’s nothing particularly exciting or revolutionary about the revelation that gathering evidence and learning to make deductions about things are one of the major ways in which we learn about the world. Or that it makes sense that they should therefore be a big part of children’s books. But it pleased me anyway; particularly coming within the context of a detective novel.

 

The Summoning Dark/Landscapes of the mind

One of the major principles upon which the Discworld functions is the power of story – Narrativium. Most books in the series deal with this idea to some extent. Naturally, then, the insides of people’s heads are quite potent. Of late this has had one slightly annoying consequence, which is that every other story now ends with the protagonist playing out his or her mental battles on a literalised metaphorical landscape.

Thud! had something of this sort. In the course of his investigation Vimes becomes possessed? infected? by The Summoning Dark, a powerful, ancient entity from Dwarf lore. This leads to multiple mini-scenes in which the inside of Vimes’ mind is a city, the Summoning Dark is trying to get into the houses and a watchman (because Vimes is the sort of man who will keep a watch on the inside of his own head) follows it through the streets and prevents it from doing so.

Vimes and The Summoning Dark end Thud! on terms of mutual respect, and there’s an understanding that the thing will never completely leave. In Snuff, Vimes seems to have completely made peace with the presence of a demonic entity in his brain, and The Summoning Dark is now being used to give him superpowers – night vision and new linguistic skills. It’s a bit silly. But it also means that the internal/supernatural aspects of the book are more integrated within the action in the physical world. I’ll be interested to see whether Pratchett will find ways to avoid these mental landscape scenes in future books as well.

 

Sybil

Vimes’ wife’s characterisation is a bit patchy through the series. We know that she’s rich and aristocratic (“as highly bred as a hilltop bakery”) and kind. We also know that upon their marriage she signs all her property over to her husband. She’s a play on the (often “horsy”) upper-class woman who breeds dogs – or in this case dragons – and is forceful, hearty, not physically very attractive. She is big, fat, has a large chest, is rather pushy. In Guards! Guards! there’s a sense that Vimes has been swept into their relationship by her sheer momentum. In later books we do see comfortable domestic scenes and can assume (from her pregnancy and the birth of their son) that they have sex. There’s als0 an occasional return to the henpecked husband joke – notably Sybil’s attempts to improve Vimes’ diet.

Which is why I am on the whole delighted by her character in Snuff. We have the assertion that Sam ‘worships’ his wife, we have (Pratchett doesn’t do graphic sex scenes but still) bathtub sex. We have respectable flaws – Sybil’s heritage allows her to be less unsure about her identity than her husband, but her privilege blinds her to things as well. And her real involvement in the goblin cause is triggered by discovering that they can make great music – it’s the sort of petty, selfish, human thing that the text doesn’t draw attention to, but it’s there.

January 20, 2011

Piracy and privilege and property and publishing and other things that begin with P

Apparently people are talking about this again. This isn’t so much a post as a way of directing people who are interested to fantasyecho’s collection of links (which I found via Shweta Narayan).

Also to quote this, from qian’s first post there, because it is so familiar*:

“Order it from Amazon!” It takes a million years for the book to arrive, you pay a swingeing amount**, it’s held up at the post office and you have to drive out and pay taxes to collect it, and all the while you’re aware that it cost you four times the amount it cost an American to buy it. The worst insult? In almost every case, the author is not even contemplating that somebody like you will be reading it. You quite simply do not exist in their world.

*It’s not quite as bad as this in India anymore, because we’ve had a few really good online bookstores (Flipkart!) start up in the last few years. Plus there always have been a few good bookshops that could surprise you, if you lived in one of the major cities.
** “But the book depository has free worldwide delivery!” Here is the list of countries they ship to. I appreciate them and the work they do, but I really think they need to remove that “worldwide” from all over their site.
November 13, 2010

Various Links

The Carl Brandon Society are having a fundraiser to benefit the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship. If you enter you could win an eReader that comes pre-loaded with work by some amazing spec fic writers. Details here.

Via Queen Emily, this study seems to show that our brains can predict the future. Or something.
Here is a much (much!)-belated link: As most people who read Indian blogs will know by now, a few weeks ago there was a case of plagiarism involving the magazine India Today - editor Aroon Purie’s letter at the beginning of the magazine contained some rather distinctive lines that had been lifted from Grady Hendrix’s Slate piece on Rajinikanth. A number of blogs reported the incident – very few mainstream news sources did so (Aditya Sinha, who I like and respect, did a piece in the New Indian Express. His is the only article on the subject that I saw).
And then Mitali Saran, whose funny, indignant, personal column Stet is one of my favourite newspaper things, wrote a column on both the plagiarism and the Indian media’s reaction to it. Guess what happened?
Much respect to Mitali for standing up and making a big deal of this. And I hope Stet will soon be appearing elsewhere.
From plagiarism to piracy – Celine Kiernan would (understandably) prefer for you to buy/borrow her books, rather than illegally download them. The Speculative Scotsman did a post on the numbers involved, and this led to some fascinating discussion in the comments.
From piracy to pain – Aadisht had an article in yesterday’s Mint Lounge about the phenomenon of the 100 rupee novel. I am all too familiar with some of the books from which he quotes (I lent him some of them).
Catherynne M. Valente has a new book out and I am waiting most impatiently for my copy. The book is based in the Prester John myth and in order to explain who he was to those strange people who did not read Mandeville for fun (I know, right?) she wrote a post on Scalzi’s blog and made this magnificent and totally authentic video:

November 8, 2010

Read This Now, or Little Light is magnificent


This is not about self-esteem. This is not about self-help. This is a moral issue. This is an issue of the basic liturgy of human interaction–because it is our daily rituals that define the four corners of the world and the arches of the sky, it is our stories that tell us how to recognize our own faces, and we have been denied our place in the human liturgy for far too long and it is long past time to erupt up from the landscape that conceals us and demand, not just our rights, but the basic essential core of worth and decency that makes us people and therefore worthy of rights in the first place. We have been denied this and we have been told we are the problem.