Archive for February, 2011

There’s an interesting post by Matthew David Surridge over at Black Gate about defining epic fantasy, and an equally interesting response by author N.K. Jemisin. Being as how this is a subject near and dear to my heart, I can’t help but contribute some thoughts of my own. Surridge concludes his article with the following definition:

“An epic fantasy is a very long and fundamentally serious story set mostly or entirely in a fantastic secondary world, typically defined by the existence of magic and often fleshed out with maps, appendices, and other paratextual devices; it’s usually an encylopedic, stylistically direct, structurally uncomplicated story in which characters notable for their active agency combat a defined evil, often by forming an alliance, and generally are involved with a world-transformative event.”

It’s a comprehensive definition, and the article itself makes some very good points – and yet, I can’t quite bring myself to agree, because the more I think about it, the more it feels like a definition of one particular type of epic fantasy, and not the genre as a whole. To begin with, I’d like to consider Surridge’s suggestion that epic fantasy is fundamentally serious: that the world and story cannot be comedic. At first glance, this struck me as a reasonable requirement – until I remembered Redwall, a lengthy series of books created by the recently deceased Brian Jacques. Given that Surridge is willing to include William Horwood’s Duncton Wood in his epic canon – which, insofar as animal protagonists are concerned, falls within the same thematic territory as Redwall – Jacques’s work becomes a very interesting test case. For starters, and perhaps most importantly, it is indisputably aimed at young adults. One thing never discussed as part of Surridge’s definition was whether a series should be excluded on the basis of being YA, presumably because most people consider the answer, whatever they think it is, to go without saying, and perhaps also because, if we accept his requirement (I don’t) that epics be not only written in trilogies at a minimum, but trilogies with a combined minimum wordage of 250,000, then most YA books are automatically disqualified.

But Redwall, which runs to more than 20 stories set in the same world, is a definite contender. The vast majority of novels feature overlapping characters – that is to say, characters who appear in more than one book – and at least four whole volumes are dedicated to the lives of historical characters whose exploits underpin the mythology of all later adventures. Paratextual elements abound in the form of poetry, songs and maps. The crisis and conflict of each book is always a world-transformative event, the evil is always well-defined, quests are quested and alliances are most definitely made. And yet the series is also defined by its humour. The hares of Salamandastron, who count among the fiercest warriors in Jacques’s world, are innately comical creatures, affecting the mannerisms and speech patterns of the British aristocracy to such a degree that many of them, sans the fact of their species, wouldn’t be out of place in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Though the lead villains are always dastardly, their vermin armies of rats, ferrets, stoats and foxes are equally as prone to slapstick and fearful blubbering as they are to ruthless brutality. Comedy is built in to the bones of Redwall, not only as a means of softening characters and concepts that might otherwise be too frightening for younger readers, but because Jacques actively chose to write stories that were equally as capable of eliciting laughter as they were tears.

Beyond the comedy question, and with an eye to further unpicking the Black Gate article, Maria V. Snyder’s excellent Poison Study series stands as strong contender for the notion of YA epic fantasy – as, quite arguably, do the works of Tamora Pierce. But rather than build my definition only in accordance with existing titles, I’ll stop here and consider the question in abstract. The one aspect of Surridge’s definition with which I wholeheartedly agreed was the requirement that epic stories be set either mainly or entirely in a secondary world, one which is frequently (but not necessarily) typified by the presence of magic. In fact, I would go so far as to make it the starting point for my own definition, minus his clarifying remark that most such worlds are similar to medieval Europe. But in order to do that, I must first ask a different question: what are the other fantasy genres, and how are they different from epic? Surridge makes passing mention of heroic fantasy and gritty fantasy, and high fantasy is certainly a known term, but all of these share the secondary world qualification, and having chosen that single factor as a building block, I’ve brought myself to a place where any novel can constitute epic fantasy, regardless of scope, focus or direction, provided it belongs to a secondary world.

This makes for a helpful starting point: nothing more. Because, as tempting as it might sometimes be to have done with the whole question of fantastic subgenres by autocratically declaring everything set in a magical, non-earth world to be epic fantasy, with any other label like heroic or gritty relegated to the nomenclature of individual taste, doing so would be both an oversimplification of epic (hah!) proportions and a gross unfairness to writers who want to find their own, distinct use for secondary worlds. Were I to stop now, for instance, Catherynne M. Valente’s breathtaking Palimpsest would end up categorised as epic fantasy, which it isn’t. And here we encounter the real crux of the matter: a dilemma I’m tempted to refer to as the shelving problem. As things stand, even specialty SFF bookshops will have very few sections, despite the large number of admissible genres. Fantasy, SF and Horror will be honoured with their very own shelves, as, increasingly, will Paranormal Romance – though since coming to the UK, I’ve seen more than one bookstore boasting a Dark Fantasy section, which seems to be a rough equivalent. But the thing about shelving books is that, regardless of content, you cannot put them in two places at once*. Obviously, this is a stricture that applies only in the physical world, and not to definitional debates. And yet, when we think about genre, there is a tendency to behave as if the former principle – the shelving problem – is still the most important consideration; as though, in shaping our notions of genre, we must establish our definition after the fashion of international borders, trying to control not only what goes in, but what can be taken out.

This is not an entirely illogical endeavour, as shown by the above flirtation with an exclusively secondary world definition of epic fantasy. Cast the net too wide, and you end up trying to argue that black is white just because homogeneity is easier to describe. But by the same token, the borders of genre cannot be rigid things. Enforce them too stringently in accordance with too specific a set of principles, and last week’s debate is the inevitable result. Because ultimately, the most common conventions of genre should not be mistaken for the genre itself. The fact that many epic fantasies run to multiple volumes and hundreds of thousands of words, for instance, does not mean that length must be a defining characteristic of epic fantasy. To steal from scientific parlance, that is an instance of confusing correlation with causation. Definitions should not hinge on establishing what is most common; rather, they should ask what is most indispensable.

And so – tentatively, as I am not a perfect, all-seeing, all-tapdancing omniscient – I would suggest that epic fantasy can be defined by the following conditions:

1. Any story which is set, either mostly or totally, in a secondary world; and

2. Which is concerned, either mostly or totally, with the politics and/or history of that world; and

3. Whose arc and resolution, either mostly or totally, involves the use of either magic or technology specific to that world; and

4. Whose characters, either mostly or totally, are instrumental in bringing about the conclusion.

Of all those points, the one I’m least confident in is 3. To my knowledge, I’ve never read a fantasy novel that lacked for magic of some description, or whose fantastic elements weren’t justified by some type of mythic, unobtanium-fueled or genius-dreamed technology. However, that is not to say that such a novel is a thematic impossibility, and if one was written that still met the criteria for 1, 2 and 4, I would be hard-pressed not to term it epic fantasy. For me, the question of whether magic is a necessary component of genre lies right on the borderland between a common characteristic and an indispensable characteristic. For now, I’m working with the assumption that it’s slightly more the latter than the former, but in the end, given that the act of creating a secondary world is automatically an engagement with the fantastic, regardless of whether that world functions exclusively according to the laws of Earth science, I could be persuaded otherwise.

So, that’s my two cents. What’s yours?

*Unless you’ve got multiple copies, but that’s not really the point.

Consider the following thought process:

1. People who look different are easier to tell apart than people who look the same.

2. Audiences are better able to distinguish between characters who are described or shown to be physically dissimilar to one another.

3. Physical dissimilarity in such instances is often established through differences in hair, skin and eye colour.

4. People of Caucasian descent have a wider range of natural hair and eye colours than people of other races.

5. Narrative tokenism is a natural consequence of physical dissimilarity being used to create visually distinct characters.

6. Creating a visually diverse cast of characters is not the same thing as creating a racially diverse cast of characters.

All stories exist within a tradition of storytelling. Unavoidably, that tradition is both connected to and influenced by external culture. We live now – and have done for some time – in a multicultural society, a fact which is in absolutely no danger of changing. I don’t know what first sparked the notion that diversity was best expressed by the image of one male and one female of every ethnicity all standing together like the denizens of a transnational Noah’s Ark, unless it’s Walt Disney’s fault, but for whatever reason, and while I acknowledge that there’s an undeniable egalitarianism to this approach, the symmetry of it seems to have become an unquestioned narrative trope.

This is not a good thing, for two main reasons. Firstly, as described above, it leads to tokenism. An important clarification, before we go any further: this is neither the only cause of tokenism, nor is it the most common. But particularly in visual media, it is easy to conflate visual dissimilarity among characters with racial diversity, and in a context of Caucasian dominance, this cannot help but lead to instances of the human hair colour quartet – blonde, brunette, red and black – being used to represent diversity, with non-white characters frequently fulfilling the black-haired quotient. Secondly, and as a direct result of this, it leads to a situation where casts are considered to be diverse if they contain one or two non-white characters, and where an equal distribution of different ethnicities therefore becomes seen as the moral ideal.

On the surface, this latter consequence might not seem particularly problematic – certainly, there are worse ideals to have – and yet it is still polluted by the dual contaminants of aesthetic balance and white privilege. After all, ensuring that a range of ethnicities be represented in roughly the same ratios is not the same thing as ensuring that the main characters are drawn randomly from that pool, and despite the best intentions of such diversity, there’s still an underlying assumption in our society that at least two such characters must always be white. This creates an extremely problematic working model of racial diversity within narrative: one where the only constant is the presence of white characters who, despite an equal opportunities orbit of POC colleagues, are still more likely to be the protagonists than not.

What got me thinking on all of this is the extent to which visual diversity as a means of distinguishing characters is a particularly common ploy in book serials and TV shows aimed at preadolescents. Back when I was nine or so – a burgeoning tween, at any rate – it seemed that everywhere I turned, characters in books and on TV were being set apart from each other on the basis of colour association. Some of these were more genuine attempts at diversity than others. The five main characters of Capitan Planet, for instance, were all from different parts of the world, belonging to entirely different cultures and ethnicities; additionally, each character was given command over a particular element, which was in turn associated with a specific colour. Thus, Kwame was African with earth magic (green); Wheeler was North American with fire magic (red); Linka was Eastern European with wind magic (purple); Gi was Asian with water magic (blue) and Ma-Ti was South American with heart magic (yellow). A much less tactful example is the Power Rangers franchise, where each Ranger was literally described in terms of colour. In the original series, this meant that the white male characters were the Red, Blue and Green Rangers, respectively; the white female character was Pink Ranger; the black male ranger was Black Ranger; and the Asian female character was Yellow Ranger, none of which is particularly encouraging.

Emily Rodda’s Teen Power Inc series sat somewhere between these two examples, diversity-wise. Of the six main characters, four were white – mousy blonde Tom, light blonde Richelle, brunette Liz, and redhead Elmo – with two non-white characters then fulfilling the black-haired quotient: Nick was Greek and Sunny was Chinese. Insofar as every character narrated an equal number of books, it was an egalitarian system, but in terms of creating a visually diverse cast, it still felt as though the ratios were chosen on the basis of differing hair colour. Other series, such as the W.I.T.C.H comics and just about any fairy– or princess-based serial aimed at ten-year-old girls, will follow a similar pattern, though the latter examples are much more obsessed with Caucasian visual diversity than the former. Take a flip through the character sketches for just about any cartoon or anime, and you’ll witness a similar phenomenon: regardless of the racial diversity of the casts, many shows will deliberately create a unique colour scheme for each character, the better to set them apart – and if the fantasy aspects of a given story can be subtly expressed with the help of such visual cues, then so much the better.

And speaking of SFF, take a moment to consider the racial makeup of successive Star Trek crews, or the desired character balance of a typical Dungeons & Dragons party. Perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor too far, but it nonetheless strikes me as a relevant that in both these instances, imaginary humanoid races – be they Vulcans, Cardassians and Klingons or orcs, gnomes and elves – are usually deployed on something of a ‘one of each’ basis. The starship Enterprise might well be a shining beacon of diversity, particularly given the era in which it was created, but in each successive franchise, the pattern was always for more human crew-members than alien, with the latter characters made special and distinctive by the fact that nobody else in the main cast shared their heritage. Similarly, the foundation of any successful D&D campaign is a balanced party, in terms of race as well as skill. You don’t want everyone to play an orc anymore than you want everyone to play a halfling,and as those sentiments extend to novels, too, the typical makeup of myriad Tolkien-derivative quest fantasies, such as Terry Brooks’s Shanara novels or the massive Dragonlance series, therefore depends on an even mix of character backgrounds: the archetypal motley crew.

So here, ultimately, is my question: why is the single most common expression of diversity in narrative contingent upon creating casts of characters whose individuality is defined by their collective difference? Why, unless those characters are white – or, in fantastic instances, human – is there an unspoken law against writing a cast where multiple characters share the same racial, ethnic or religious background? Why is it necessary that POC characters go constantly two by two, one male and one female, in narratives where the majority of characters are white? Does it have something to do with the fact that our childhood stories are saturated with the logic of colour association, or are those narratives a subconscious simplex of tokenism in the adult world? I am not saying that colour association in children’s stories is an inherently vicious idea, nor am I arguing that ‘one of each’ narratives fail at genuine diversity. But it strikes me that if notions of visual dissimilarity, cultural symmetry and aesthetic balance are continuing to fuel the logic used to create casts of characters, then we might not be approaching the issue with as open a mind as we should be. Sadly, the real world is neither perfectly symmetrical nor innately egalitarian, and if our best efforts to display it as such still persist in conflating white privilege with realistic diversity, then the problem is more pervasive than we think.

Elsewhere on the internets, authors N.K. Jemisin and Kate Elliott (among others) have been speculating on the question of whether women write epic fantasy differently to men, and if so, to what extent that difference might be off-putting to male readers. A key aspect of this discussion hinges on sexuality – specifically, the question of the male gaze versus the female gaze. It is not unreasonable to assume that straight male writers are more likely to describe their heroines in sexual terms than they are their heroes, and vice versa in the case of their straight female counterparts: after all, most authors borrow from their own experience. This isn’t to say that straight writers never sexualise their own gender, but either consciously or unconsciously, some readers might well be gauging new books on the basis of the author’s chromosomes – and perhaps they’re not entirely wrong to do so.

Looking back on my own early introduction to epic fantasy, it’s easy to detect a pattern of preference for female writers. Beginning with Sara Douglass and Anne McCaffrey, I soon discovered the works of Robin Hobb, Katharine Kerr and Elliott herself, all of whom remain favourites to this day. Tolkien, by contrast, took me much longer: though I enjoyed The Hobbit as a pre-teen, it took me several abortive attempts before I finally finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though (male) friends urged me to try David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan, the results were mixed: I never got into Eddings, was frustrated by the extent to which Feist had cribbed his worldbuilding from The Silmarillion, hated Goodkind’s obsession with sexual violence and couldn’t push myself past the first book of Jordan’s mammoth series. Not that I eschewed all male-authored epics – George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet are both absolutely incredible. But though I’ve certainly disliked and/or abandoned epic series written by women, it seems my conceptions of the genre have been primarily formed by works which are either written in the female gaze, or which feature female POV protagonists who share equally in that role with men.

Possibly this makes me unusual, but I suspect not. There must be other women readers who discovered epic fantasy at a time when there were at least as many female-authored series on offer as male, and who gravitated towards those books, not because they were making a conscious decision to read within their gender, but because they were offered a choice, and simply found that those were the books they tended to prefer. But even given that bias, I still enjoy books written in the male gaze, Joe Abercrombie’s breathtaking First Law series and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss being two recent cases in point. Despite how the previous paragraph might serve to characterise my tastes, I have no objection whatever to reading in the male gaze, provided the story itself has caught my attention (as, of course, all stories must, regardless of who writes them). But were I to conduct a thorough, honest assessment of my favourite novels and authors, though both genders would be represented, books featuring the female gaze would dominate. As I am not a robot, my predilections are not conveniently fifty-fifty, but because I don’t disqualify books from my reading list on the basis of probable gaze alone, I don’t think that’s a problem.

What is problematic, and what prompted Jemisin to write her own piece on the topic, is the number of male readers who find themselves so disquieted by the presence of the female gaze in epic fantasy as to question whether those stories qualify as epic fantasy at all, or who, at the very least, are hesitant to read them. After all, the genre was begun by a man, and many of its seminal works are written predominantly in the male gaze: surely this implies a certain heritage, a certain focus, which is less to do with gender than it is the definition of genre? Why, if I can admit my own gender bias, am I so concerned with the idea that some male readers might have a different one?

Regarding the first of those questions, I’m sympathetic to the idea that a certain percentage of the epic fantasy readership was drawn to the genre by what were, at least originally, a fairly specific set of narrative parameters, and who now see those strictures being undermined or ignored by later writers. In terms of how epic fantasy has been changing over the past few decades, gender is far from being the only relevant factor. Traditional high fantasy, sword-and-sorcery epics are, if not on the wane, then in increasing competition with grittier, darker, unromantic works on the one hand, and more complex, multicultural, morally ambiguous tales on the other. That’s not a perfect binary division by any means, nor is it a sliding scale,  but by virtue of being a comparatively subconscious consideration in all of this, it’s arguable that the gender question has become emblematic of the more obvious changes in epic fantasy. With extraordinary works like Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy contributing to the move away from eurocentric mythologies, heterosexuality as standard and all-white casts, I can see how, for some readers, modern epic fantasy is not their epic fantasy – and as their epic fantasy came first, it must therefore be the true epic fantasy, an undisputed benchmark these other books simply don’t meet. Rubbing salt in the wound is the fact that they never attempted to do so.

I understand that. I do. But that doesn’t make it right. Because there is simply no such thing as a static culture – or rather, there is, and it is synonymous with dead culture. There is no law forcing these readers to like Jemisin’s work, or Elliott’s, any more than I’m required to like Terry Goodkind. But my dislike of Goodkind doesn’t allow me to claim his books aren’t epic fantasy, even though the themes and plot devices which characterise his work don’t line up with what I love about the genre, and which for me define it. And in fact, to return to the topic of the female/male gaze as specific to depictions of sexuality, Goodkind’s work provides a different kind of test case: whether or not a book which features descriptions of sex can still be described as epic fantasy. Having read the first four volumes of his Sword of Truth series, I can confidently vouch not only for their sexual content, but for the fact that those scenes are written firmly in the male gaze. Despite this, nobody has ever suggested that Terry Goodkind is anything other than a writer of epic fantasy. So the idea that the sexual content of Jemisin’s work (for instance) is enough to disqualify it from the genre seems ludicrous. The objection isn’t to the presence of sex at all – it’s to the idea of sex written from the female gaze, and while that might be a legitimate hurdle for some male readers, or to readers of any gender who object to reading about sex, it is firmly a question of individual taste, not genre.

Which leads us on to a meatier, more complex question: why, if this debate is really based on personal gender preferences, do I care about the intransigence of a particular set of male readers? After all, not only have I acknowledged my own biases, but I’ve stated a belief that having a perfect fifty-fifty split is neither automatic nor necessarily desirable. Well, yes – but to me, there’s something significant in the fact that, while women might prefer books written from the female gaze, we are also happy to read about the male gaze, too. In point of fact, we are allowed to do so, because it is, to a certain extent, expected. I don’t just mean that in the sense of early epic writers being mostly male, either. It’s that socially, a consequence of feminism has been the acceptance of feminine enjoyment of what used to be solely masculine pursuits. As a child, I was able to dress in blue, wear pants, play with trucks and aspire to be an astronaut if I wanted. I did experience a certain level of censure for my tomboyishness at various points, but by and large, society was on my side. Today’s girls can act like yesterday’s boys. But today’s boys cannot act like yesterday’s girls without encountering a much more extreme reaction. Any little boy who wants to dress in pink, wear skirts, play with dolls and grow up to be a ballerina will instantly find the world a more hostile place than I ever did. From the outset, his sexual orientation will be suspect. Because his behaviour runs counter to the social norm, he will be ostracised and declared unmasculine.

What does all this mean for male readers of books written from the female gaze? Simply this: that some may feel they lack the social permission to enjoy them. Arguably, the traditions and origins of epic fantasy make the male gaze an expected default, no matter the author’s gender – Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, for instance, is written from the first person perspective of a straight male protagonist. It must therefore come as a shock to some male readers to encounter a book whose sexual moments describe, not the woman’s mouth or breasts, but the man’s arms and stomach. Suddenly, a scene which would otherwise be sexy or tame has turned radical, threatening. It is pornography in which the position of the camera is reversed, and when the intent is obviously to evoke emotion or create arousal, how are they to feel? Are they being feminised against their will – or worse, made to feel a glimmering of homosexual attraction? Are they allowed to submit to the author’s intentions and accept the scene’s sexuality, or must they try to resist it? Either way, and even if the reader doesn’t consciously pin down the source of his disquiet, he is jerked out of the story, and perhaps made to feel an intruder in his genre of choice.

If so, this isn’t something that can be overcome in an instant. It is part of a larger argument: the struggle, not just for female equality in traditionally male fields, but for male equality in traditionally female fields. Part of that inevitably involves male acceptance of the female gaze; but another component is also a change in the reigning definition of masculinity, not just in the minds of men, but women, too. Particularly in epic fantasy, I’m hard-pressed to think of many heroes who espouse traditionally feminine attitudes, are trained in traditionally feminine duties, or whose overt sexuality, at least in part, doesn’t derive from a traditionally masculine appeal. Two who do spring to mind are !Xabbu, a protagonist in Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet, and the Fool, also known as Amber and the Tawny Man, who appears in three of Robin Hobb’s trilogies. While the former is a romantic interest for the lead female character, the latter is inferred to be gay. Be aware, the Fool is a favourite character of mine, but in this instance, he might serve to illustrate a wider problem: that male characters ascribed traditionally feminine values within epic fantasy are either gay or viewed as effete and sexually unappealing to the women with whom they interact. They are, in a word, fops.

This is a shame, as foppishness is our primary case study within epic fantasy for feminised but still heterosexual male characters. The stigma of fops and dandies comes from the idea that a worst thing a man can do is act like a woman, and the only fops whom literature – particularly romance literature – likes to redeem are those who, as per the Scarlet Pimpernel, turn out not to be fops at all. Perhaps more tellingly, the idea of the dandy comes from an exaggerated, stereotypical and negative perception of femininity to begin with: women who share a fop’s traits are equally one-dimensional characters, but they, at least, have the excuse of their gender. If that is their behaviour, then it cannot be helped, whereas a straight male fop must cultivate his persona, and is damned for it accordingly. This isn’t to say that fops – or rather, superficial, self-obsessed, world-weary, easily bored elites with more money than sense – are entirely unrepresentative of the human species; nor am I contending that we ought to find them attractive. Rather, it seems as though they are the only consistent example of straight male characters in epic fantasy to be portrayed with feminine characteristics, and as those characteristics are negative, it doesn’t do a lot for the idea that traditionally female attitudes are something that men (or male characters) either should or would want to adopt.

Thus, the female gaze in epic fantasy does not disqualify a work from being epic fantasy. If it undermines, it does so through no more radical an action than showing one half the populace what the other finds attractive; but perhaps it might also be used to posit what we could find attractive, if only society were a little bit different, and to suggest to the current readership that they need not go in fear of their own sexuality. Books no more turn straight men gay than being allowed to wear pants turned women into lesbians. What changes is culture – and what is culture, but the way we view ourselves? No matter how intent we are on standing still, the world will always turn around us. And with that in mind, the question for those of us who take pride in our enjoyment of stories set in different times and places must then become: do we seek to set a limit on that difference? Or can we find room in our infinite selves for something more?

Those are the worlds I dream about. So, yes. I think we can.

So, we’ve been watching Season 1 of Fringe on iTunes, and have just finished episode 7. And while I appreciate that this is only a tip-of-the-iceberg, start-of-a-long-game thing, and while I’m still enjoying the show, a number of things are bugging me. They are:

1. Each episode begins by focusing on one or more strangers who will, inevitably, either die or be subject to something truly weird in the space of the first five minutes. While this is a nice narrative device in the sense that we come to care for these people, and by extension care about discovering what was done to them, by whom and under what auspices, it’s also five minutes of every episode which isn’t spent developing the protagonists – and this early in a series, I really feel like we could do with more of that. For instance: who the hell is Astrid? How did she come to be working for Olivia, or even for the bureau? She doesn’t seem to have come from the Pattern unit, so what qualifications have marked her out to be transferred across when Olivia was? What makes her exceptional within what is undeniably an exceptional unit? So far, we know two things about her: she did a bit of Latin, and knows some basic cryptography, which in context makes her a dumping ground for skills that later plots might require, but which fall outside the knowledge of the main characters. That’s it. No wonder Walter can’t remember her name.

2. Another problem with these opening sequences: they necessitate a lot of narrative double-handling, which possibly bulks out the episodes, but also detracts from the tension and the sense of stakes being upped. Viz: we meet the people to whom weirdness is about to happen, shit goes down, and then, when our protagonists get on the scene, they discuss EXACTLY WHAT WE HAVE JUST SEEN HAPPENING – which, yes, must logically precede their forming theories about each event, but which means the audience ends up hearing the same information twice, but from different people. On their own, the visuals would be dynamic. On their own, the discussions would be attention-grabbing. Together, they are deeply unnecessary.

3. All right. Look. I get that there’s a long game afoot here. Particularly in television, I applaud the long game! But in the course of seven episodes, there has not been a lot of continuity in terms of the Pattern. To clarify: there has been some continuity regarding John Scott, Massive Dynamic and Walter’s having worked on a proto-version of every goddamn oddity they encounter, but this continuity is being undermined by the number of crazy twists we’re being given that DON’T appear to relate to these things, including but not limited to: the role of the bald man, Walter’s relationship with the bald man, what Walter might have done to Peter as a child to change him permanently, Olivia’s violent stepfather, and why Agent Loeb and his wife are apparently working for the other side. I know, I know. Seven episodes isn’t a long time. But with so much to learn in such a short span, and with not all of it clearly linked, the plotting just feels… busy.

4. A related point: dangling or ill-explained plot points, such as the question of how Peter was able to know something he didn’t know he knew, just because Walter knew it. Possibly this links into a bigger plot, or to Walter’s childhood experiments? It’s not clear! But in that unclarity, the whole climax of episode four makes no sense, because the Big Magical Thing that needed explaining isn’t actually explained. Instead, we get a story about how Peter and Walter were saved by the bald man after a car crash years ago. This allows us to understand Walter’s motives, but not what happened next in that episode. And then there’s the omissions: where is Peter’s mother? Is she dead or alive? Given all the father-son tension and the fact that Walter’s been locked away for fourteen years, her absence from the narrative past a brief reference in the first episode is starting to irk me. I’d like to think that I’ve just not being paying enough attention, that some remark has already been made to explain why nobody mentions her, but even if she is dead, and that’s what I’ve neglected to comprehend, her absence still shouldn’t be this total. Or so it seems. Oh, and we’ve also seen two different methods employed for talking to the newly dead, and despite the fact that the success of the first one is what cemented Olivia’s trust in Walter back in episode one, everyone is still shocked at the idea of reanimating a dead man in episode seven – and despite the desperate need to do so, no one thinks of suggesting that first method. Huh.

5. The traumatic details of Peter and Olivia’s lives. Really: it’s not enough that our heroine has a bad history with men, falls in love with her partner despite this and then is betrayed by him both emotionally and professionally in a way which still allows some soul-crushing ambiguity as to whether or not he really was evil after all – we have to give her an abusive stepfather who she shot in defense of her mother when she was nine? And she tells Peter about it without prompting when doing so is an admission of attempted murder, a fact she’s clearly been concealing for years? GAH. Oh, and then, THEN, in what is only the fourth episode, Peter is tortured! Just like that! And then he calmly walks away from it without any evident psychological damage, despite the fact that the method by which he was tortured – electrocution – strongly resembles the experiments Walter used to conduct on him as a child, a similarity which is glaringly evident to the audience but apparently not to Peter himself? And despite the intimation in episode one that Walter was an abusive father – which Olivia rejected to Peter’s face on the strength of having known both men for all of a day – all of Peter’s interactions with or about him are either jocular or world-weary, with no glimpses of what this might cost him otherwise. Nope. Not buying it.

6. Yes, Walter is a mad scientist. He crazy! And very endearingly, well-actedly so. But even in the space of seven episodes, his quirks have grown repetitious. For example: any time he lists the multiple things he’s thought or discovered, he always forgets to explain the most vital one and has to be prompted. He has a food obsession. He cannot remember Astrid’s name and keeps calling her something else. He is inappropriately impressed by the evil accomplishments of enemy scientists. He drives Peter bonkers. All lovely traits, but if they are all that we ever see of Walter’s personality forever and ever, amen, then I will be disappointed. Unpeel the man! I want to see glimpses of who he was before the madness, and not just the subsequent caricature.

Other than that…

OK, actually, yes. Those are some quite significant complaints. But for the moment, I shall persevere in the hope that the pace picks up. Or else, J. J. Abrams. Or else!

Street Hawker

Posted: February 10, 2011 in Fly-By-Night
Tags: , , , , , ,

Tomorrow, we head to Bristol. We’ll spend a week there, and then head to London for another week, before coming back to St Andrews. That means waking up at early o’clock tomorrow, which means I should already be in bed, but right now, I don’t care about any of that, because I’ve just met my first hawk.

It’s Thursday night. We went to the pub to see a friend who’ll be gone by the time we get back. We stayed, we talked, we drank a bit, and then we headed home. Walking through the city, inebriated undergraduates were everywhere, roaming in packs. And then I stopped, because there was something in the road, occupying a space usually inhabited by parked cars.

It was a hawk.

It was there, and it was strange, and it was beautiful. And then the man to whom it belonged – older, slender, Scottish – got out of his Jeep, smiled, and asked if I’d like a closer look. I thought he was offering to hold it up for me, give me an inspection that way. Instead, he handed me a thick leather falconer’s glove, which I put on my left hand. Then he bent down, undid the hawk’s jesses – red, with silver bells – and placed her on my outstretched arm.

Her name was Amy, he said. She is five years old, and a harrier hawk. And when he raised my other hand to touch her, she felt like satin.

The man has four birds right now, he said: two harriers, a kind whose name I didn’t catch, and a peregrine. He likes harriers because of their intelligence; they for live up to 25 or even 30 years, and are easy to train.

Like Amy the hawk.

He asked nothing for the privilege of holding the bird. Of all the people who stopped to look, I don’t know why he singled me out to hold her – maybe it was because I had a camera, or because I was visibly less drunk than the raucous students shrieking at the sight of the bird in the road. But in a night overcome with noise, both man and hawk were a pool of quiet, as though they’d stepped out of a different world. I don’t know why he was there, though our friend said afterwards that man and bird are known local quantities. When I handed Amy back, my arm wobbled slightly, and she reacted by stretching her wings, flapping briefly, yellow feet digging into the leather glove. I didn’t feel a thing. And then the falconer smiled, and I smiled back, and we walked away, leaving him surrounded by a staring crowd.

I love Scotland.

This past weekend, British author Brian Jacques, creator of the Redwall series, died of a heart attack. He was 71.

My grandmother gave me a copy of the original Redwall novel for my ninth birthday. She didn’t know it was the first book of a series, or that it was first published the same year I was born; she’d simply seen it and thought of me. Being a stubborn, contrary child, my usual reaction to being told I’d like something was to try and dislike it as swiftly as possible, just to prove how unpredictable I was, but grandma didn’t go down that road. She just gave me the book, and waited. The front cover showed a rearing horse hitched to a rat-filled wagon. The sky and surrounding air were tinged with purple, and in the background was a red stone abbey situated in a lush forest. It drew me in. And so, because it was a birthday present, because nobody had tried to preempt my tastes by telling me I’d like it, because the cover intrigued me, I started reading.

And was instantly hooked.

I can’t remember how I found out about the rest of the books in the series. What I do know is that I bought every single one, read them in order, then waited and waited and waited what felt like an interminable length of time for the next book, The Pearls of Lutra, to be released, a pattern which went on to dominate my childhood. Just as Jacques wrote slightly more than a book a year for twenty years, so did I reread his work on what averaged out as an annual basis, only slowing down as the gap between my own age and that of the intended audience grew too large to ignore. Even so, I kept up with Redwall until 2004, the year I started at university; the last five books are the only ones I’ve never read. That’s a long time to be under an author’s wing, but when the author is somebody like Brian Jacques, it’s definitely a good thing.

In the world of Redwall, protagonists were as often female as male; the same was true of villains. Though there were plenty of warrior characters, there were also healers, historians, builders, recluses and spiritual leaders: strength and courage had many different definitions throughout the series, and were never the sole prerogative of sword-carriers. Slavery, greed and warmongering were always the goals of various enemies; Redwallers and their allies fought for egalitarianism, charity and peace. Crucially for a young storyteller, Jacques never shied away from killing his characters, even when they were children, elderly or in love: I must have cried a hundred times reading his books, furious at the deaths of Rose and Methuselah, Piknim and Finnbarr, and yet I always came back for more. Even though it wasn’t safe, I cared about the world; and even though I feared losing them, I loved the characters. Just reading through plot summaries of his novels has brought tears to my eyes, so that suddenly, I’m nine years old again. And who knows? Maybe that means I’m not too old for Redwall, after all. Maybe I never was.

Farewell, Brian Jacques. You’ll be missed.

It’s still in rough at this point, but for those of you who are interested, behold: The Key to Starveldt!

(Apologies for the tiny graphic – the other images I have are all Adobe PDFs, and I can’t figure out how to make them into JPEGs for ease of use.)

As I type this, the edited pages for TKTS are sitting just to my left, and I am anticipating that a fully updated manuscript will be sent back to Ford Street  – who now have a shiny new website – by the end of this weekend. I can’t give you a concrete release date yet, but right now, it’s looking to be sometime in August/September 2011. Apart from all the work involved in sending final edits back and forth, printing the actual books and organising promotions, the fact that I now live in Scotland means that physically getting myself to the launch has become a much more involved process than it was for Solace & Grief. However, while it would be nice to be on hand when the book hits shelves, I understand that certain of you are keen to see what’s been happening to Solace, Sharpsoft and the rest, so regardless of what happens with my travel plans, I’ll do my best to ensure the book comes out as soon as it reasonably can.

So, there’s this online feminist publication called Bitch Magazine, famed far and wide for its intelligence and integrity. And a couple of days ago, their library coordinator, a woman called Ashley McAllister, posted a list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader, the actual contents of which (as opposed to the subsequent shitstorm) can be found here. All was well for about a day – people were commenting, books both on and off the list were being discussed – until this commenter (whose handle, aptly enough, is Pandora) unleashed all the evils of the internet by objecting to the list’s inclusion of Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce, citing agreement with an online review wherein it is argued that the story promotes a culture of blaming rape victims. Not having read the book myself, and being unwilling to judge a whole novel on the basis of a single paragraph, I’m not about to enter into a discussion of that interpretation, although I feel it’s important to point out that, according to those who have read it, there is no rape in Sisters Red. Regardless, as a result of Pandora’s complaint, Ashley McAllister admitted to not having read the book herself and, out of concern that its contents could act as a trigger to victims of rape or sexual assault, removed it from the list.

At this point, author Diana Peterfreund – whose novel, Rampant, sits in 71st position on the list – weighed in, criticising the removal of Sisters Red and pointing out that most of the books on the list, including her own, could similarly be said to act as a triggers for different types of people. After a short exchange with McAllister failed to resolve the issue, Peterfreund requested the removal of Rampant in protest at Bitch’s censorship.

It’s possible that things might have stopped there, but a few posts later, a new commenter expressed outrage that Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan was on the list, too – this being a book which, for many reasons, has never been far from controversy. This time, McAllister’s reaction was to reread the book with the commenter’s objections in mind, and then, two days later, to announce that not only had Sisters Red and Tender Morsels been removed and replaced with different books, but so had Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. The last of these is particularly puzzling, as nobody whatsoever had complained about its inclusion.

And then, the internet exploded.

Readers of all stripes started vehemently protesting the removal, expressing disbelief and outrage that Bitch had effectively censored their original verdict in response to the comments of just two dissenters. And then, taking a leaf out of Peterfreund’s book, other authors began chiming in, either requesting the removal of their own books if they’d made the list, or condemning the removal itself if not. First Scott Westerfeld, then Justine Larbalestier, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Kirstyn McDermott, Maureen Johnson, Ellen Klages, Lili Wilkinson, Emily Lockhart, Jeff VanderMeer, A.S. King, Penni Russon, Paolo Bacigalupi and Alina Klein – which is a pretty fearsome list of authors, by the way – all made their thoughts known at the site, and now other authors (such as John Scalzi) and feminist websites (such as Smart Bitches) are blogging about it themselves.

Right now, I feel sorry for Ashley McAllister, despite the fact that what she did was stupid. Because clearly, she’s a proponent of good YA novels. And clearly, she was trying to do the right thing – or at least, what seemed to her to be the right thing at the time, being as how her original efforts were intended to make rape victims feel more comfortable with the list. I’m not going to slam that as a motive, because really, how can you? But as the thread itself points out, it is impossible to write a book, or review a book, or do anything even vaguely artistic or critical without running smack-bang into fact that someone, somewhere, will wish you hadn’t, and if your first response to criticism on the internet is to back down – even if your intention was to be considerate – then the question becomes, why put up a list you weren’t confident in to begin with? Saying, “Oh, but we didn’t notice that negative interpretation the first time around,” or pleading ignorance because you hadn’t actually read the book and were just going off what other people said, is the worst possible defence. Abdicating responsibility for your own critical judgement will not win you sympathy with authors and readers who come to your magazine purely to engage with exactly that, and who therefore expect you to defend your opinions as a matter of course.

So when you recommend a list of books for feminist readers, then quickly remove three of them because you didn’t realise that some people would consider them un- or even anti-feminist, what you’re actually saying is, the dog ate my homework. Because, to crib shamelessly from Neil Gaiman, it’s not as though the only true criticisms of Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl are hidden in a cave in the black fucking mountains. All you have to do is type any of those titles into Google, look for reviews, and pow! – controversy! In removing those books from the list, Ashley McAllister wasn’t just backing down, no matter how pure her motives. She was effectively acknowledging the fact that a feminist magazine, in seeking to create a list of feminist books, had done their research so poorly as to feel obliged to change their verdict after two commenters told them about controversies they should already have taken into account. The reason so many people spoke out against the removal of Lanagan’s work in particular isn’t because Pearce and Scott’s books are somehow less important or less worthy of defence: it’s because public, prominent and heated debate has raged about Tender Morsels since the moment of its publication – is still unceasing, in fact – and if the team at Bitch were so unaware of that maelstrom as to be blindsided by the outrage of a single ranting commenter, then what the hell else did they miss?

Having made the decision to remove the books in (presumably) ignorance of how that decision would be received, I can appreciate that neither McAllister nor the team at Bitch wants to back down again, even if the subsequent debate has made them regret the initial decision. Doing so would only compound the offence, and cement the idea that their critical approval can be swayed by whoever shouts loudest. But even so, I imagine there’s a lot of soul-searching going on at their HQ – and if, as so many people have said, they are otherwise known as a bastion of good sense and good journalism, then I imagine that, further down the line, a frank discussion of where they went wrong can’t be far off – even if we don’t all agree with the verdict.

Update the first:

Given that the reaction to this whole thing is still ongoing, I’m going to link here to authors and other notable peeps who blog about the decision as and when I notice them to have done so. Thus, you may also like to read the responses of:

Holly Black

Karen Healey

Margo Lanagan

Kirstyn McDermott

Diana Peterfreund

Update the second:

In the original version of this blog, I stated that Diana Peterfreund had asked to have her novel, Rampant, removed from the list in solidarity with Jackson Pearce. Since then, I’ve read Diana’s own blog (linked above) about the incident, and have therefore corrected her motivation.