Archive for ‘Victorians’

June 24, 2017

Bulletpoints: The Mummy

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

In any case, some thoughts:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Jared Shurin (ed), The Book of the Dead

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

November 24, 2016

Adventuring

Back in July, I wrote a short thing for Scroll.in, based on some thoughts I had after Keisha McKenzie’s really great set of tweets about Pokémon Go. At the time, I was also sorting through some of the thoughts that would become this review, and I’m not sure if reading them together might be instructive, or if I’m likely to repeat myself quite a bit. Anyway, the published version of this piece is linked above; here is a slightly edited (or slightly less edited) version:

 

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Amidst the flood of Pokémon Go stories that have dominated the news in the last week or so (to whatever extent a single story can be said to have dominated this week’s news) one recurring theme has been that of the game’s straying into the real world in unfortunate ways. This is unsurprising—the very aspect of the game that is newsworthy is the relationship between its virtual space and the tangible, material space that we all exist in. Exhorting its users to “step outside and explore the world”, the game turns travelling through mundane urban landscapes (more rural areas haven’t been quite as well catered for) into an adventure, making you the protagonist of your own fantastic quest.

There is both joy and genuine radical potential in this sort of transformation of space—as anyone who has ever been a child ought to recognise. Children turn environments made for people not them into different spaces all the time, layering fiction over fact to create a space for play. Other groups also perform versions of this reimagining of space—some practitioners of parkour, for example, describe the practice as a subversive way of reclaiming urban spaces by using them in unconventional and disruptive ways. In a sense, Pokémon Go might be said to be performing the sort of “re-enchantment” of the world that Michael Saler describes in As If, his study of fantasy and virtual reality as responses to modernity. Which is all (as far as it goes) wonderful.

Yet the subversive potential of reimagining the world depends largely on who is doing this reimagining.

Keisha E. McKenzie, an academic, technical communicator and consultant, compares Pokémon Go’s overlaying of real and virtual terrain to the mapping of the world by European explorers in the age of Empire. “Wherever their maps showed the fountain of youth or the city of gold, even if those locations overlaid entire nations and peoples, they claimed the right to go, explore, discover, and capture, and people’s lives became their gamespace.”

It’s hardly surprising that much of modern fantasy, and its associated virtual reality, grows directly out of the genre sometimes called imperial romance—in these adventure stories, the strange terrain through which our heroes must travel in order to complete the quest is that of Asia, or Africa, or South America. They return home wiser, better (and often richer) men. Considered through this body of literature, the vast majority of the globe sometimes appears to exist purely so that British men will have somewhere to have adventures. This would all be very charming, but obviously it’s no coincidence that the genre’s heyday coincided with that of European imperialism. Explorers were romanticised in popular culture, with “real” accounts of their doings proving as popular as adventure novels, and there was an open understanding that the readers of these stories, both real and fictional, would grow up to participate in the protection and governance of the empire. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, however, explorers were running out of “blank space[s] of delightful mystery” (as Conrad describes them in Heart of Darkness) to map, explore and claim. Again, it’s no coincidence that the beginning of the twentieth century should see a flowering of fantasy and science fiction, providing heroes with new worlds (and planets) in which to go questing. Spaces in which, essentially, to be imperialists.

The colonisers had had a vested interest in ridding the land, as far as possible, of competing histories and significances, discounting existing, indigenous cultural and geographical understandings of the space (at this point the author goes off into a separate monologue about the historical uses to which Terra nullius was put). The effect of this in narrative was to rid the territory of any purpose other than the protagonist’s personal or material quest. In fantasy, of course, this is literally true—the fantasy world only exists for the purposes of the quest narrative. Diana Wynne Jones begins her brilliant Tough Guide to Fantasyland (a tourist’s guidebook that takes on practically every cliché of the genre) with the injunction to “find the MAP … if you take this Tour, you are going to have to visit every single place on this Map, whether it is marked or not. This is a Rule.” Local landmarks, where they appear, figure as stages of a sort of obstacle course on the protagonist’s journey to collect (or destroy) the magical object. Or they are reduced to a form of scenery–as Farah Mendlesohn notes (in Rhetorics of Fantasy), the fact that the hero moves through the space has the effect of rendering the world itself static. (The local population is similarly mostly absent, though it sometimes presents another obstacle in the form of a faceless barbarian horde.)

To be able to treat a space as something inherently designed for one’s own personal material or spiritual benefit is to be in a position of power, and these particular spatial power relations continue into the real world and into other genres of writing—at one level, King Solomon’s Mines, Eat, Pray, Love and The Hobbit are all versions of the same story. That this power, this assumption of the fundamental availability of spaces and of one’s own welcome within them, are not available to everyone has become clear over the weeks since the popularity of Pokémon Go has risen—see, for example, Omari Akil’s piece on the potential danger of playing the game as a black man in America, or the conversation initiated by Ana Mardoll, among others, around the difficulties of playing the game for people with disabilities.

The fantasy cannot re-enchant the world without being fundamentally connected to the world, and in the past few days we’ve been reminded of this several times when the demands of the real and virtual spaces have collided—such as the appearance of Pokémon at Auschwitz, at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and at the 9/11 memorial, spaces with too much cultural significance (and specifically, places of mourning) to be easily subsumed into the landscape of the quest (and there’s an important conversation to be had about which are understood to be sacred ). There have also been gruesome stories of people coming across corpses while playing the game.

The possibility of stumbling across a (real) dead body is remote, but there are plenty of good reasons to be wary of Pokémon Go, and other people have already articulated them. It’s unlikely that it will make much of a difference (and sources of joy are few enough in the world at the moment that it’s hard to judge anyone who chooses to ignore the dire warnings). But many of those who play the game will find themselves inevitably negotiating the obstacles that are part of the real world; constant reminders of who does, or does not, have power over the space, and who fantasy quests are really for.

 

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June 20, 2016

Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree (and general remarks on the Carnegie shortlist)

I read The Lie Tree in February and didn’t write about it at the time; I’d hoped to have found the time for a proper reread while discussing and writing about the Carnegie shortlist but when is there ever time for anything? As a result, the book I think might most reward discussion is the one I’m writing about least. It seems unfair.

The Lie Tree opens in a Victorian world similar to but not quite our own–one of the people with whom I discussed the book compared this setting, and its treatment, to that of Joan Aiken’s Wolves books, and that comparison works well for me.

Faith Sunderly and her family are in the middle of a rather hurried move to the channel island of Vane. Faith’s father, a reverend and a natural scientist, is an acknowledged expert in fossils; he has been invited to Vane to help excavate the caves on the island. That’s the official story; Faith knows very well that her father isn’t in the habit of taking his family on these research trips. It soon becomes clear that the Sunderlys have left England for a reason–rumours are flying about the authenticity of the Reverend Sunderly’s research, particularly of one particular fossil. In the newspapers, he is being publicly condemned as a fraud. And when the Reverend is found dead, Faith’s family seems more invested in disguising the possibility that it may have been the result of a suicide than they are in investigating her father’s murder.

The “lie” tree of the title (referred to in the book as “the Mendacity Tree”, a far superior, and Hardinge-y, word) has been brought to the island in secret by the Reverend, and only Faith knows where it is hidden. The tree feeds on lies, absorbing them to produce fruits that give the one who consumes them knowledge. In her quest for the truth, then, Faith finds herself in a horrifying position of power, responsible for a wave of dangerous lies and rumours circulating across the island. In some ways this all feels reminiscent of Hardinge’s last book, the (perfect) Carnegie-shortlisted Cuckoo Song, with its protagonist’s growing realisation and acceptance of the fact that people have the power to hurt other people and that we have to know this about ourselves and find ethical ways to live with it–the major difference, I think, is that Cuckoo Song feels a lot more internal to its protagonist’s head than The Lie Tree does. Faith is an outsider and an observer– though she’s less detached than her own narrative suggests.

That detachment is, perhaps, one of the things that contributes to a general sense of lacking nuance–or perhaps it’s simply the fact that this book is middle-grade and set in a period its readers may need to be educated about. This is most present in the book’s treatment of gender–it’s not enough that we see Faith consistently being valued less by the people around her, or see her mother struggling to survive with the only tool she’s allowed (charm), we must have characters who say things like “a girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can. If she is not good, she is nothing. Do you understand?” I don’t wish to suggest that no Victorian (or, indeed, no currently living) person would ever utter those words, but for a writer of Hardinge’s quality they feel disappointingly pat. It’s disappointing too because I am still, by inclination, a Victorianist (I seem to have stumbled into twentieth century literary studies by accident), and there’s so much to play with in a setting like this one, with regard to gender and religion and science. The Reverend Sunderly’s actions have stemmed from his growing panic at the ways in which his scientific discoveries and his religious beliefs don’t match up (I’m amazed and disappointed that no reviewers have chosen to title their pieces on this book “Crisis Of Faith”); there are fossils and accounts of weird nineteenth century travel and lady-explorers and women who are in love with other women, and this fantastic gloomy island and all of this should be the perfect fodder for Hardinge, whose prose is always delicious and off-kilter and yet doesn’t quite sparkle as much here as I expect it to.

It has to be said that the individual character notes and relationships are still done really well. Compared to, say, Fire Colour One, The Lie Tree actually does understand, and signal, the gendered power relations embedded in Faith’s initial idolisation of her father and dismissal of her mother. As Faith’s understanding of her situation grows so does her understanding of Myrtle, who may not be the best or most likeable of people, but makes sense. As far as prose, character, and general goodness go I enjoyed The Lie Tree more than anything else on the Carnegie list. But judging Hardinge by her own other works, as far as I’ve read them, this feels less impressive to me.

 

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I’ve been blogging the whole of the Carnegie shortlist for three years now, and in both previous years, even when I’ve been underwhelmed by the shortlists themselves, I’ve had a clear favourite, a book I think is genuinely brilliant, and that I wholeheartedly support. (Neither Liar & Spy in 2014 or Cuckoo Song in 2015 won, incidentally.) This year, that isn’t the case.

My posts on the individual books on this year’s shortlist are in the tag above, but to recap:

I enjoyed Sarah Crossan’s One but am dissatisfied by Crossan’s refusal to produce characters with some depth to them and by the book’s inability to face up to the questions about voyeurism it seems to want to ask; Nick Lake’s There Will Be Lies is mediocre and hates fat people (but that’s okay, I’m willing to hate it back); Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here is fine I guess (but that’s about it); I found Kate Saunders’s Five Children on the Western Front manipulative and a bit too eager to give me a history lesson (and a lot too willing to leave the empire out of said lesson); Marcus Sedgwick’s Ghosts of Heaven is ambitious in plot and form but doesn’t follow through; I think Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves is a good, accomplished book whose flaws unfortunately outweigh its positives; Jenny Valentine’s Fire Colour One just doesn’t hold together and is unthinkingly sexist. I am no fun at parties.

Clearly I should stop doing this, since apparently I just hate all books. But the Carnegie fascinates me; both as a children’s literature academic and as someone who studies empire and national identity. Prizes help make literary culture, and the Carnegie, beginning in 1936, is the British children’s literature canon of the last 80 years, and has fascinating things to say about Postimperial Britain and children’s literature. (And you should absolutely be following Dr Lucy Pearson’s Carnegie Project, here.)

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

What else? There’s a general trend towards death and despair, but far too much has been written (and far too many pearls have been clutched) on that subject. This is intertwined with a general privileging of young adult narratives over literature for middle-grade or younger readers, which feels like a shame–this has been a really good few years for middle-grade fiction, and it has been barely acknowledged. Issue Books, to use a reductive term, are also rewarded–there have been books on all three shortlists whose presence feels reducible to what they are About.

And finally, what does this suggest about today’s winner? This year’s shortlist has one added factor thrown in–that The Lie Tree, not content with winning the Costa Children’s Book Award (as Five Children on the Western Front did; and The Ghosts of Heaven was nominated as well), has also won the Costa Book of the Year, i.e. critical acclaim among books written for adults; the judges might need to really love something to knock something with that sort of cultural heft off the top spot.

To me The Lie Tree is the best book on this shortlist, yet I find myself reluctant to wholeheartedly champion it. This goes back to the whole awards-create-literary-culture thing; I don’t want a cultural narrative in which The Lie Tree is a more celebrated book than Cuckoo Song because I value the good things about Cuckoo Song more than the good things about The Lie Tree. Still, it is the best book here, and it’s the one I must throw my weight (take that, Nick Lake) behind.

Given my lack of success in predicting the result in previous years, I suspect this means the winner will be Lies We Tell Ourselves.

May 13, 2015

Jared Shurin (ed), Irregularity

A review of this in a recent issue of Vector.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been reviewing a couple of children’s literature shortlists recently and I’m so bored of having to stick “this is a very white list of authors, isn’t it?” into my reviews of things [and it's such a dull thing to keep having to write (always stuck somewhere unobtrusive, because it's such a ubiquitous annoyance that it's never the most interesting thing about the book)]. I’m not sure what Irregularity‘s excuse is; I had a related complaint with another Jurassic London anthology last year.

Some good stories in here– Rose-Innes and Roberts in particular. As a whole I was insufficiently whelmed.

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Irregularity (edited by Jared Shurin) was published to coincide with the Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. This connection sets the collection in a very specific context—the 17th-19th centuries in the history of science, the age of enlightenment. Most of the stories sit comfortably within this framework; the earliest, Richard de Nooy’s “The Heart of Aris Kindt”, is set in 1632; the latest, Simon Guerrier’s “An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought”, in 1854.

The focus of the anthology (helped along by, to put it mildly, not the most diverse list of contributors) makes it inevitable that the majority of these stories are of Northern Europeans doing science in Northern Europe. But the age of enlightenment is also the age of empire (what did we think they needed all those ships for?), and occasionally this fact comes into play in these stories as well. The fatal game in Rose Biggin’s story is played out in Port Royal, and the role of empire is explicit in Roger Luckhurst’s “Circulation”, which is proper Victorian horror. It’s also the disturbing undercurrent to Henrietta Rose-Innes’s “Animalia Paradoxa”, one of the strongest stories in the anthology. Rose-Innes’ unnamed protagonist is in search of a spectacular new animal for the collection of a rich patron in France, but he’s prone to thinking of the African men he’s hired to help him as collectibles as well.

As is often the case with a themed collection, a number of the stories here are variations on the same central idea—that ordering and knowing and mapping and exerting power upon and destroying are all inextricably bound up in one complex knot. (“’He’s mapped us,’” says a character in Rose Biggin’s “A Game Proposition”, “in a tone that meant murdered us.”) The strongest of these is E.J. Swift’s “The Spiders of Stockholm” in which a young girl befriends the spiders that live under her bed, only to unwittingly kill them one by one as a visiting scientist tells her their names. This is basic fairy tale logic—to know a thing’s true name is to have power over it—but it’s also at the heart of the enlightenment project. The child protagonist makes these two systems of understanding the world fit together surprisingly well. “Knowledge is power” is hardly an original idea, but the lonely, detached perspective of Swift’s Eva would make up for greater sins than this, and “The Spiders of Stockholm” really is powerful and lovely. Though it’s unfortunate for both stories that Swift’s should be placed immediately after Biggin’s, which treads similar ground.

In Kim Curran’s “A Woman Out of Time” humans aren’t the ones imposing order upon the world, but the creatures upon whom order is imposed. Unknown forces (in my head a version of Terry Pratchett’s Auditors) watch Emilie du Chatelet in alarm as she threatens to discover too much too soon. Humans are not entirely powerless, though, and Curran’s nameless narrators have plenty of help from the patriarchy.

It sometimes feels as if all of Irregularity is at war with Linnaeus—he is indirectly responsible for the death of Eva’s spiders, is one of the driving forces that leads Henrietta Rose-Innes’s protagonist to hunt for the chimera in Africa, shows up (as a sympathetic figure) in Tiffani Angus’ “Fairchild’s Folly” grappling with the question of whether or how one might classify love. It always comes back to the question of classification—to what extent it’s harmful, to what extent it’s natural and human, to what extent the universe is classifiable. None of these stories makes reference to William Blake’s Ancient of Days; I’m not sure if this is a pity or a relief.

This drive to impose order, whether innately human or not, extends in some ways to Irregularity itself. The Afterword, by Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring, suggests a relatively ordered understanding of the history of scientific progress; dependent on success and failure (the collection is dedicated to “failure”), strewn with “false leads” and “dead ends” but largely teleological. But then there’s the best story in the collection, Adam Roberts’ “The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle”.  This story is gloriously silly, the whole thing is an extended pun; but it’s also chaotic, its framing of the history of human thought destabilising the collection completely.

Some of the most powerful (and the most powerfully weird) SF stems from this sort of chaos—the thing that doesn’t belong exploding into the world. Nick Harkaway’s framing narrative tries to place the book Irregularity itself in this position, but it feels rather inconsequential. More successful is M. Suddain’s The Darkness”, a version of the great fire of London, as told by Samuel Pepys, but with an inexplicable black hole and multiple instances of cruelty to bears.  It’s very cleverly done, with Pepys’ account (convincing, at least to me, in its stylistic details) of life going on as normally as possible juxtaposed with the giant vortex slowly consuming the city. Guerrier’s “An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought” takes for its starting point another great moment of literary rupture, that megalosaurus “forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill” at the beginning of Dickens’ Bleak House. Guerrier’s alternate history brings together the history of this book, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs and Ada Lovelace but it doesn’t have anything like the same effect; the story is too concerned with signposting its sources.

This is a problem general to a number of the pieces that make up this collection. There are honourable exceptions—Swift, Suddain, Rose-Innes, whose quiet, clever story bursts into weirdness at the end, James Smythe’s brilliant, over the top prose. But too often these stories are a little too well-researched, a little too carefully signposted, a little too written to spec. And the whole is underwhelming as a result.

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April 11, 2015

Newcastle: Eclipse

There was a solar eclipse a couple of weeks ago! It was very exciting. British media kept warning people about not permanently damaging their eyesight, Newcastle locals huddled together to look at the sky and tremble, Niall yelled at clouds (I may be exaggerating slightly), and I indulged in some occidentalism.

(Here is a column)

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In the power of a primitive and barbaric ruler Allan Quatermain and his companions need some way of getting the other inhabitants of the kingdom onto their side, escaping execution and putting the rightful heir on the throne. One of Quatermain’s companions, John Good, carries an almanac which lists important celestial activity—including a conveniently timed (lunar, in this case) eclipse.

HaggardI can no longer remember whether H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines was the first time I encountered the story of the educated Europeans who use their superior knowledge of astronomy to their advantage in this way. I also have no way of knowing whether it is the earliest iteration of this trope—one of the things that makes the book so enduringly entertaining is the fact that it is the perfect storm of adventure story clichés so that only the most unsullied reader could come to it without the sense that she had seen a lot of this before. There’s a hidden kingdom in Africa with an unknowably ancient past, a corrupt usurper, a prince with a birthmark that proves his royal status, a beautiful native girl who must be saved from becoming a human sacrifice (and who will fall in love with a white man because if nineteenth century fiction teaches us anything it is that white Europeans are irresistible). But most important are the credulous natives for whom the ability to recognise an eclipse is proof of supernatural power.

They're wearing PITH HELMETS, ffsIn Enid Blyton’s The Secret Mountain a family is kidnapped by the sun-worshipping inhabitants of a hollowed out mountain, also in an unidentified part of Africa. Once again a diary containing information about an eclipse saves the day (another life lesson from this genre seems to be that of always carrying a diary of some sort on one’s adventures); the father hurls a well-timed knife at the sun and the world gradually goes dark. Then there’s Herge’s Tintin adventure, The Prisoners of the Sun, which sets a version of this story in Peru and has its main characters captured by the  worshipers of an Inca sun god (the comic’s research fidelity to Inca myth is dubious to say the least). Tintin has NOT had the good sense to bring some form of celestial calendar with him, and it’s only owing to the merest coincidence that he happens to find a scrap of newspaper that happens to  mention the eclipse that is soon to take place. Once again the sky is darkened and everyone panics except the smug Europeans who alone know what’s happening.

If it seems a bit unlikely that all these native cultures should have spent thousands of years worshipping celestial bodies without figuring out that occasionally eclipses happen, that’s because it is. European adventure fiction oscillates wildly between the conviction that the natives are primitive and ignorant and the worry that they’ve been around a while and might know stuff. As ever it’s that man of science, Professor Calculus, who knows that something is amiss. As his companions look smugly upon the terrified crowd he (under the misapprehension that this is all a play) praises their acting.  Even Calculus has seen or read this story too many times to think it’s really real.

tintin eclipse 1 tintin eclipse 2

A couple of weeks ago I stood with a crowd of people in the middle of a city watching the sun disappear. You wouldn’t think this would be an unusual sight in the north of England, but it was quite an Event, with a screen set up by a local observatory in case the clouds should, er, obscure the sun. Fists were shaken heavenwards at any passing clouds that dared. Eventually the skies darkened even by local standards; there was something eerie about the quality of the light. Perhaps the gods were angry.

And then it passed, and the light was normal again, and the natives cheered.

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July 30, 2013

Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds

Backstory: I wrote 650-odd words about The Best of All Possible Worlds for my column this weekend (and you can read it here)- then, because I felt I’d spent so much time on the popculture-as-human-artefact aspect of it that I hadn’t talked about the stuff about the book that really annoyed me, expanded the piece with a rant of another 1000+ words. As you do. So here you go.

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Centuries from now, people will still be reading Shakespeare. I know this not because his work is so wonderful (though it is pretty amazing) as to be immortal, but because I have it on the best possible authority: Star Trek. The original series and the movies based upon it contain a number of references to the bard, including a rather wonderful one about reading him “in the original Klingon”

Shakespeare has survived in some form on Cygnus Beta, the planet on which most of the action of Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds takes place. Cygnus Beta is populated by peoples descended from four other planets, of which our own is one. Its popular cultural references are, presumably, inherited from all of these planets as well as some that are the product of its own multicultural history. But most of those mentioned, or the ones the (Terran, or Earth-based) reader notices, are from Earth.

So what aspects of our culture have survived into whatever point in the future this is? The Wizard of Oz (movie, not book)—Delarua, our narrator, describes a character as looking like “a tall, middle-aged Wicked Witch of the West except not, you know, being actually green”. The Indiana Jones movies. Casablanca. A Superman movie, in 3D. Othello. What doesn’t make it is Star Trek, but I’ll come back to that.

The Best of All Possible Worlds takes its title from Voltaire’s Candide and like Candide is something of a picaresque adventure. After the destruction of the planet Sadira, some of the remaining Sadiri seek refuge on Cygnus Beta. In a scientific expedition to assess the potential for the remaining Sadiri to intermarry with Cygnus Beta’s part-Sadiri population, a small group of experts visits each of a number of “taSadiri” colonies. They include Delarua, a woman from Cygnus Beta, and Dllenahkh, a Sadiri councillor. Delarua is our heroine, Dllenahkh is brooding and tragic. Naturally, this is a romance.

As a result it’s rather episodic—each new colony provides a different model of society and a different challenge. But many of these societies are drawn almost directly from (earth) popculture. There are Faeries, for example; Sadiri who have chosen to live entirely by the precepts of Terran folktales about elves and similar creatures. They are organised into the Seelie and Unseelie as in various stories, there’s something of the Eloi/Morlock divide from H.G. Wells, and definite hints of Tolkien. There are secret societies of telekinetic monks. Mysteriously, only aspects of Western pop culture seem to have survived.

And there are the Sadiri themselves. I said earlier that Star Trek no longer seemed to form a part of this world’s pop culture, but perhaps that’s because on a more fundamental level the text itself is a piece of Star Trek fanfiction with the Sadiri being obvious stand-ins for the Vulcans. It’s probably a coincidence that this book should have been published soon after the 2009 reboot Star Trek which destroyed the planet Vulcan, leaving its survivors homeless and trying to establish a new colony, but this is hardly the only parallel between these two fictional races. The emphasis on emotional control, the part-telepathic skills, the arranged marriages that involve mental bonds, the violent rages of which Sadiri men are capable. One taSadiri community calls its treetop platform dwellings (shades of Tolkien’s Lothlorien) “t’bren”, a word that looks cod-Vulcan. In her acknowledgements Lord does not mention Star Trek. She says that the Sadiri were inspired by communities of fishermen affected by the 2004 tsunami, who were relatively safe in their boats as their homes and families (the majority of those killed were women) were destroyed. Yet the connections are impossible to miss, and every reviewer seems to have noticed them. In a different book this playing around with one of our major cultural artefacts could have been engaging, incisive, critical (and Star Trek offers a lot to play with from the critical point of view).

But this obsession with Earth’s popculture is only one of many things that eventually weigh The Best of All Possible Worlds down. These little tributes to earlier works may be fun, but they don’t lead anywhere, and all the resolution we’re offered is a happy ending for its lead couple whose romance, muted throughout, has never felt like the point of the book. Entire potential plots are bypassed or skimmed over—such as information about an abusive relationship in Delarua’s past, or an intergalactic slave trade. There are constant references to the originators of this world but these are never resolved. Which would be fine, if anything else had been.

And those homages mean that this is a science fiction novel obsessed with the past, not the future; which would explain why so many of the things its characters take for granted feel so out of keeping with the liberal, far-future setting. A situation in which most women stay at home while men go out to work or explore might be the norm in some fishing communities in 2004 or in the science fiction of the 1960s, but in science fiction published in 2013 and set further in the future it certainly requires examination. Then there’s the belief of the characters in genetic determination—the extent to which one is empathetic, cerebral or physical is credited entirely to how much of which planetary race one has in one’s genes. At one point it is implied that people from Earth are physically fundamentally superior to those of the other three planets, as they have developed all aspects of the self where the other “races” have each focused on only one. The Sadiri’s hunt for women with whom to mate is based entirely upon their bloodlines, and even though love is an option, there appears to be a government bureau to assess and sanction unions—the existence of this body is treated as a useful convenience. There’s also a widespread acceptance of the idea that (since Sadiri have significantly longer life-spans) the first generation of babies after the tragedy are to be sex-selected as female and then to be raised in order to provide brides for the remaining adult Sadiri—no one seems to find this creepy at all. Moreover, the models we’re given for relationships are strictly limited; polyamoury is a weird sexual thing only those strange city people do, and homosexuality isn’t even mentioned as an option till close to the end of the book. At least Star Trek fanfiction has traditionally had queer people in it.

The romance is one of the areas in which The Best of All Possible Worlds allows itself to play. Delarua’s first-person narrative sometimes knowingly parodies the language of the romance text; “I was quite sure at this point that my bosom was heaving in maidenly confusion”. As L. Timmel Duchamp points out here, Dllehnakh is very clearly the desired object of the romance, and it’s unsurprising that Delarua’s sections of the narrative are in the first person while his are in the third. But it’s in the resolution of the romance plot that we discover what is perhaps the novel’s most bizarre moment. Having discovered her love for Dllehnakh and convinced him that kissing is not icky, Delarua chooses to quote one of the most recognisable lines in the western canon. “Reader, I married him”.

Jane Eyre. What is going on here?

So Lord has chosen at the end of this book to evoke a book which is terribly concerned with miscegenation and racial purity (Rochester’s first wife, the “madwoman in the attic” Bertha Mason, is mixed-race, and Rochester seems to find this horrifying), and in which the violent, lying man tries to trick the impoverished governess into a wedding that would be legally invalid. Dllehnakh also has a former spouse, we’re told; she fell for someone else, “arranged” for Dllehnakh to find her cheating on him (as with Jane Eyre we only have the husband’s word for the extent of the wife’s culpability) and in a murderous rage he broke his rival’s jaw. We’re told that the Sadiri have different laws for crimes of passion, so this is okay. If Karen Lord is signalling that Jane Eyre is one of this book’s intertexts, another one seems to be the Star Trek: TOS episode “Amok Time”; the one in which Spock’s betrothal is cancelled just as he is entering pon farr (in Star Trek the “fuck or die” meme is canon) and he goes into a state of bloodlust in which he almost kills (and thinks he has killed) Kirk. We’ve already been warned that Sadiri men are incredibly strong when enraged, and towards the end of the book Delarua sees for herself just what that entails.

I mentioned earlier that Delarua had been in an abusive relationship. Her former parter was Ioan, a man with incredible psychic powers, who has, since Delarua left him, been married to her sister Maria with whom he has had two children. It’s inexplicable that Delarua should not have warned her sister about this man, unless his powers continued to operate on her even then. That seems to be the case; at the end of a tense visit with her sister’s family Delarua runs away and Dllehnakh seems to mend the damage to her mind that Ioan has caused—damage more extensive than Delarua herself had realised. Ioan is caught, Maria and her children require therapy; Delarua opts out of this, as she presumably did the first time she left Ioan. What this means is that up to that point (relatively early in the novel) Delarua has been an unreliable narrator. The most redemptive reading for this book that I can come up with then, is this: that years of psychic torture by Ioan have taken their toll on Delarua and we’re meant to see her as an unreliable narrator, meant to question her romantic choices (soon after the encounter with Ioan she expresses interest in a young man because “what he didn’t have in looks he made up for in self-confidence”) and, particularly since Dllehnakh also has psychic powers and she has  let him into her head, meant to see that relationship as fundamentally sinister. “Reader, [he was a creepy, powerful man who messed with my head and] I married him”.

But the relationship is a relatively small part of the plot, and if this is a book about sinister mind-controlling men it’s a terribly unfocused one. I suspect I was right in my first assessment, and this is merely a set of charming references with little to tie it together and almost no engagement with the tropes that it endlessly invokes. It’s a mess.

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March 12, 2013

While on the subject of Angria/ Gondal (Ankaret Wells, Firebrand)

It occurs to me that while I’ve read a lot about the Brontës’ magical worlds, I’ve read very few of the stories set in them. I’m working my way through this book at the moment, and these stories are very … very. Their veryness is their chief characteristic. I’m charmed, but also I’m so glad you moved on to other things, Charlotte.

The Tiptree Award for 2012 was announced earlier this week, along with its regular Honour List. Winners and honour listees are here, and I’m intrigued by many of them. But I was particularly interested in Ankaret Wells’ Firebrand. I’ve loved her fanfiction in the past (she’s one of a very small number of people who sometimes writes Antonia Forest fic and does it well), and this looked excellent. I’d managed not to read any reviews other than the bit on the Tiptree list, so it came as a complete surprise that the story was set in a version of the Angria universe. But with steampunk.

[There may be spoilers]

Firebrand is a romance novel in a steampunk, fantasy setting (is this gaslamp fantasy? I’m never sure). Which means that its focus is those elements of the story that are pertinent to the romance. So we take for granted the existence of the weird, magical creatures known as the warplings, and the particular negotiations with them that Kadia makes- in a different genre this, not her relationship with the Duke, would be at the centre of things. What are the consequences of Micah Ellrington’s theft? How does religion work in this setting? How vast is Zashera’s spy network in Cordoza, and is it used for purposes other than to split up the Duke and his new fiancée? In a fantasy novel these could be failures of worldbuilding and I’m not entirely sure they aren’t here. But it makes sense for Kadia as a character (she’s not particularly observant, either of the people around her or the mechanics of the world) to drift through this setting without telling us much. Plus, it makes sense for the romance novel to focus on the two people at its centre without much regard for the world around them. Particularly when the whole thing is told in first person.

It doesn’t always work, of course. There’s a kind of suspension of judgement I think a lot of us commit when we’re reading certain parts of a romance novel; outside that very specific reading experience such things as intense sex scenes are often just really funny. Wells writes them better than many other authors. But the first person narrative means we’re also being forced to reconcile romance-novel-narrator Kadia with the Kadia of the rest of the book, who is funny and caustic and never mawkish.And Kadia’s voice is the best thing about Firebrand. I laughed out loud in public places.

Since this book is on the Tiptree honours list, it’s probably worth talking about how it deals with gender. One of the things that Firebrand does is to present us with a world in which it isn’t surprising (despite the semi-historical setting) for women to be engineers, traders or lawyers. It’s also a book that allows for relationships between women: at least as sisters, friends and stepmothers-in-law, though the stepmother-stepdaughter relationships aren’t all one could hope for. And it’s a book that takes for its heroine an adult woman who has lived through two unhappy marriages; though I don’t think we’re ever told Kadia’s age.

But it’s still a world in which gender inequalities exist, and are perpetuated even by the  “good” men whom we’re presented with. Zashera, the Emperor, takes raping women as his right. But he has a good side! I’m not sure if I loved this section for tearing that particular argument apart, or was disappointed in it for spelling it out:

“But — my God, Kadia, he saved my life. Is that supposed to count for nothing?”

A spattering rain-shower starts to blow past us, striking the battlements and turning the granite slick and wet. “I’m sure it would make me feel better about him, if I wasn’t a woman. Or if I had never cared about a woman. Or never met a woman. Or if I wasn’t born of a woman, but made of bones dipped in flesh in some kind of experimental furnace.”

[...]

“I think he’d take you gambling and throw a parade for you in the streets of New Trinovantium, and when he tried to steal your airship he’d argue to himself that all’s fair when you’re fighting a worthy equal.” My eyes feel hot and itchy with tears, but I’m too angry to cry. “Whereas he calls me my sweet delight and threatens me.”

 

If Firebrand is mostly good on gender, I have mixed feelings about how well it deals with race. There are certainly people of other races present in the two states– including a “copper-skinned lady with angular eyes” and a General with a bevy of beautiful daughters including one with “tight dark curls held back with a ribbon from her ebony brow”. What it doesn’t do (and am I contradicting myself, after offering excuses for the book’s not fleshing out its own world?) is give us more on the subject of its Empire, its colonies, — anything about this history of colonisation that doesn’t consist of bemoaning being regarded as wild colonials by the Home Archipelago.

And there are the Warplings, or ingenii, who do stand in to some extent as an Other race. We’re told very little about the warplings. Their physical appearance is strange but seems to be individually so; we’re not given particular physical markers that are common to the entire race. Everything around them is mysterious, except that somehow they or the warplands themselves seem to have the power to change humans as well.

“Some places the Home Islanders went to, and either enslaved the people who already owned the place or got outsmarted by them. Here, they fell asleep in the warplands and woke up to discover that some of their companions had changed in the night.”

I’ve written before of my discomfort with aliens as nonwhite race stand-ins. And the power imbalances here don’t make sense to me; apparently most of the human characters think it is completely acceptable to cheat the ingenii in financial transactions, to rob their graves, and to banish them from their houses– yet the ingenii appear to have supernatural powers that these human characters cannot comprehend. It’s the X-Men problem; in giving your supposedly oppressed class superpowers you justify and validate the fear in which the majority who is oppressing them holds them. Equally, I can’t help thinking (because they’re one of my pet subjects) of all those magical colonial monsters (mummies! The Beetle! She!) that popular 19th Century literature was so obsessed with. Which makes this particular plot element appropriate for the steampunk-ish setting as well as for the Brontës.

I’m also not sure what I think of Kadia’s cousin Isabel, who is part-warpling, particularly after Aliette de Bodard’s recent excellent post about mixed-race/half-human characters in fantasy. Certainly Isabel can (mostly) “pass” and the ability of some part-warpling people to pass is important to the plot. And she has mysterious powers inherited from the warpling side of her family, and uses them to faithfully defend her fully-human relative.

Having said all of which, I mostly loved Firebrand, enough that I’ll be reading Wells’ science-fiction duology soon. And I’d love to read more of her writing set in this world, possibly fleshing it out and tackling some of the trickier parts.

 

April 16, 2012

From the reading while brown chronicles

Gail Carriger’s Timeless has, early on, a werewolf smelling someone unusual. “Something spicy and exotic and – he paused, trying to think – sandy”.

The character he smells speaks Arabic and is implied to be Egyptian. This is not a spoiler – the Sphinx and some pyramids are on the book’s cover.

There is a tradition of having exotic Eastern characters be associated with the smell of spices.

Sometimes Eastern writers do this to themselves.

Werewolves have an acute sense of smell so probably can smell the difference in someone used to a different cuisine.

Perhaps Egyptian werewolves think English people smell of tea. We don’t meet any Egyptian (or otherwise non-European) werewolves in the series, so it’s hard to be sure.

Sometimes I smell of cloves. That’s because of my anti-acne gel, so if you notice it it’s probably because my skin is having a bad week. It’s politest not to point it out.

I mentioned the werewolf thing on Twitter. I said “You know, I’d prefer it if the Egyptian character didn’t smell “sandy” and “spicy” to a werewolf…”. I rolled my eyes. I went on with the book.

I enjoyed Timeless. I have enjoyed all the Parasol Protectorate books. I especially like Professor Lyall. In my head he looks like Paul Bettany. No one agrees with me about this, though I have many long casting discussions about these books.

Some people who saw my twitter update said they were less interested in reading the series if this was the sort of thing they could expect. I said no, no it’s really good.

I thought – what a pity if such a small thing should turn someone off reading a book entirely.

English is the only language I am really comfortable reading. Most things I read growing up had moments that threw me out of the text.

Perhaps being able to dismiss a book for alienating you thus (because you always assume that you’ll find something else that doesn’t treat you as other) is easier if you belong to a group of people for whom books generally are more likely to be written.

Perhaps my willingness to overlook the spicy, sandy Egyptian and go on with the book is unhelpful and unlikely to lead to change.

Perhaps I can shrug off occasional, throwaway orientalism in a book because it’s easier on me.

I think the racism in, say, Rider Haggard is quite funny.

I have a strange, antagonistic relationship with the books I read growing up. I love them and I also like to tear them to bits. I think it’s made me a better reader. If it was a relationship it would be very dysfunctional.

I argue for greater diversity of characters and settings in genre fiction. I think genre fiction (and all fiction, but genre still feels like mine in some way) would be better for this.

I feel uncomfortable when well-meaning allies argue for greater diversity on behalf of the poor Brown/Queer/ThirdWorld child who grows up reading English language fiction and never sees herself reflected in any of this.

Do they see me as fundamentally broken as a reader because I grew up that way? I don’t ask.

I think there’s lots wrong with me as a reader (insufficiently critical; sometimes dismissive; too lazy; not smart enough; too lazy) but I don’t think I’m broken.

If I had sufficient critical rigour there would probably be a Homi Bhabha quote here.

 

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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