Archive for ‘Victorians’

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.”

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“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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February 8, 2012

and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

Yesterday was Dickens’ 200th birth anniversary and all over the internet (on twitter “Charles Dickens” was trending worldwide alongside “There is a Penis”) people were trying to explain what it is about his work that makes it so amazing. I will inevitably fail to do this.

I spent a lot of my life disliking Dickens. I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist when I was too young to see them as anything other than bildungsromans about virtuous boys and people with funny names. During my teens I read Dickens as a writer of not very good realist novels. I had to read Hard Times in my first year of college and that (with the opinions of most of my class and the addition of an unpopular teacher) was so easy to dislike.

The moment at which Dickens began to make sense to me, and I suspect this reflects very badly on me as a reader, was when I began to read him as weird. In Larry’s post here, he suggests that ‘…the more a Text (or even its Author, divorced as s/he may be from the Text’s semantics) diverges from a Reader’s expectations for what a Text ought to do, the more and more likely that Text will be dismissed as being “shoddy” or “poor”‘. And I needed a tradition, a particular lens to read him Dickens through, to appreciate how wonderful he was.* I’m not sure quite when I found it, but sometime in the last few years it has clicked into place.

And so last year when I first read this first paragraph of Bleak House…:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

… I was thinking about the Victorians and evolution and geology, I was thinking about the cleverness of that compound interest metaphor in this place, I was thinking how marvellous and evocative it all was, and I was thinking fucking dinosaurs and it was the first time I’d started reading Dickens and immediately felt such utter glee.

 

 

*(The Pickwick Papers – which is, after Bleak House, the Dickens work I’ve loved most – I read through a somewhat different lens, and one which took me rather less time to find)

 

February 6, 2012

Bram Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars

I wrote my most recent Kindle magazine column on public domain books while I was revising a conference paper on Egypt-themed fin de siècle invasion fiction. Naturally, then, I felt that the book deserved a few thousand words and that the 500-odd I had in which to write this column managed to say almost nothing. There’s a lesson here, and it’s probably the opposite of write what you know.

 

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When the Nineteenth century turned into the Twentieth, the British Empire was still going strong. This makes it all the more interesting that this period should have seen a trend of “invasion” fiction, in which Britain was the colonised, rather than the colonising country. Some of these would-be colonisers came from the actual colonised countries (the “yellow peril” novels, for example, used the threat of an expanding Chinese population); others were of a supernatural nature. Bulwer-Lytton wrote of a subterranean “Coming Race”. H.G. Wells had England invaded by Martians in The War of the Worlds, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula arrived from Eastern Europe.

Dracula is hardly obscure; it is the definitive vampire novel.  The character has entered pop culture in a vast range of iterations, from the cartoon “Count Duckula” to the magnificently awful film (available on youtube!) Shaitani Dracula.  Fewer people are acquainted with another invasion novel which Stoker wrote a few years later; The Jewel of Seven Stars.

The Jewel of Seven Stars is in part a product of late Victorian (and early 20th Century) England’s fascination with Egypt.  In it, an English scholar named Mr Trelawney, comes into the possession of the preserved or mummified body of an Ancient Egyptian queen and attempts to resurrect her. Malcolm Ross, the narrator, is in love with Trelawney’s daughter Margaret. Everyone is a little surprised to discover that the spectacularly beautiful mummified queen and the spectacularly beautiful Miss Trelawney are physically identical. Naturally (as in most books about reanimated corpses) things go horribly wrong.

In many ways The Jewel of Seven Stars is a weaker novel than Dracula, but a few things make it stand out. One is the way in which it dramatizes the sheer discomfort around various aspects of Egyptology and the colonial enterprise. It’s clearest of all in a scene where the mummified body is unveiled – mummy unveilings often turned into public events. Here, Mr Trelawney and his associates stand gloating at the body of the woman they have stripped while in the presence of a woman physically identical to her, whom they have sworn to protect.

The book is also notable for having two endings. Stoker’s original ending had Tera victorious – the narrator enters the room to discover that not only has she reawakened, but that all the witnesses to her resurrection are lying around petrified and glassy-eyed. When the novel was republished in 1912, Stoker was told to give it a less gruesome ending. He managed, magnificently, to give it one that (to me at least) seems even more ominous. What looks like a traditional, happily-ever-after wedding is undercut by Margaret’s decision to dress herself as the dead queen. I am tempted to read this as a sign that the two women have changed places – that the narrator is now sharing his bed not with the woman he loves, but with a centuries-old impostor. Perhaps even more disturbing is another explanation, that Tera has in some way possessed Margaret’s mind. Either way, Stoker’s ability to amp up the creepiness of his book while pretending to tone it down is something to be lauded.

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