For a while now, I’ve been hearing chatter about Seth Dickinson’s upcoming debut, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, due for release in September this year. Some of what I’ve heard has been extremely positive; some has been less so. Either way, I was intrigued enough to be interested, and today I finally read the first two chapters, which are currently available online at Tor.com.
My gut reaction thus far: creeping unease.
At a technical level, Dickinson writes extremely well. His prose is clean and sharp and compelling with a good sense of pace, and he has a knack for conveying great scope with few words. He’s also telling a story about queer people, people of colour, women, imperialism, politics and colonialism, which is always going to interest me at a visceral level, and as such, I was never bored.
The thing about writing SFFnal stories is that, no matter how fantastic the setting or distant the future we might write, they’re still ultimately shaped by our very real, very human now: by our cultures, past and present, with all the attendant histories and contexts that entails. Sometimes, the connection is more obvious than others, as when we’re deliberately trying to evoke the shadow of ancient Rome or Renaissance Italy, but however we might invent, dissemble, hybridise, paraphrase or otherwise imagine new worlds, we’re not making anything out of whole cloth. Our fingerprints pattern the weave, reminding us of the reality we’re trying, however briefly, to escape, and whether we do it consciously or not, the process still occurs, as inevitable as sunrise.
Thus: when Dickinson writes about the Empire of Masks, with its paper money, bureaucratic service exam and sterile hatred of unhygienic behaviour, which here means homosexuality in all its permutations, what I think of is a cross between Imperial Britain and Imperial China, the language and bigotry of the former married to the institutions and scale of the latter. Adding to this impression, the denizens of Falcrest, home of this chimerical empire, are described as follows:
“This was the first impression Baru had of the Falcrest people: stubborn jaws, flat noses, deep folded eyes, their skin a paler shade of brown or copper or oat. At the time they hardly seemed so different.”
Anglophone language and epicanthic folds: it’s not a subtle marriage, and in these two chapters, it feels like Dickinson has smashed imperial China and Britain together without much regard for the consequences of the fit. Which, ordinarily, might raise my eyebrow without stirring complaint – generally speaking, I’m a fan of cultural mashups, especially incongruous or startling ones. But here, given the prominent focus on homophobia and queer persecution, I can’t get past the real world implications; or, more specifically, the real world history.
Because beyond the horrific history between Britain and China, which frequently involves the former exploiting the latter, there’s the inescapable fact that Imperial China didn’t have anything even vaguely resembling the institutional homophobia Dickinson is describing, because in China – as in so many other parts of the world impacted by white colonialism – the sort of scientific, medicalised, systematic homophobia that situated being queer as an illness was a Western import. Nor is this a difficult fact to ascertain, as per the very first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on homosexuality in China:
“The existence of homosexuality in China has been well documented since ancient times. According to one study, homosexuality in China was regarded as a normal facet of life in China, prior to the Western impact of 1840 onwards. However, this has been disputed. Many early Chinese emperors are speculated to have had homosexual relationships, accompanied by heterosexual ones. Opposition to homosexuality, according to the study by Hinsch, did not become firmly established in China until the 19th and 20th centuries, through the Westernization efforts of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China. On the other hand, Gulik’s influential study argued that the Mongol Yuan dynasty introduced a more ascetic attitude to sexuality in general… Either way, it is indisputable that homosexual sex was banned in the People’s Republic of China from at least the twentieth century, until it was legalized in 1997.”
By comparison, the first British anti-sodomy law was the Buggery Act of 1533, which gave the crown the power to deal with an offence that had previously been handled exclusively by the Christian ecclesiastical courts. Consider this excerpt, for instance, from the Wikipedia article on homosexuality and psychiatry in a Western context:
“The view of homosexuality as a psychological disorder has been seen in literature since research on homosexuality first began. However, psychology as a discipline has evolved over the years in its position on homosexuality. Current attitudes have their roots in religious, legal and cultural underpinnings. In the early Middle Ages the Christian Church tolerated, or at least ignored homosexuality in secular cultures outside the Church. However, by the end of the 12th century hostility towards homosexuality began to emerge and spread through Europe’s secular and religious institutions. There were official expressions condemning the “unnatural” nature of homosexual behavior in the works of Thomas Aquinas and others. Unti the 19th century, homosexual activity was referred to as “unnatural, crimes against nature”, sodomy or buggery and was punishable by law, and even death. As people became more interested in discovering the causes of homosexuality, Medicine and Psychiatry began competing with the law and religion for jurisdiction. In the beginning of the 19th century, people began studying homosexuality scientifically. At this time, most theories regarded homosexuality as a disease, which had a great influence on how it was viewed culturally.”
With these two different narratives in mind, here’s the view of homosexuality held by Dickinson’s fictitious imperial Falcrest, as described in Chapter One:
“She went into the school, with her own uniform and her own bed in the crowded dormitory, and there in her first class on Scientific Society and Incrasticism she learned the words sodomite and tribadist and social crime and sanitary inheritance, and even the mantra of rule: order is preferable to disorder. There were rhymes and syllogisms to learn, the Qualms of revolutionary philosophy, readings from a child’s version of the Falcresti Handbook of Manumission.”
Clearly, then, this is type of homophobia is far more in the British mould than the Chinese. And thus my unease: because while Dickinson’s Masquerade, as his empire is externally known, is a fictional culture, what it evokes, in terms of real world comparisons, is a narrative wherein an undeniably white, colonial, homophobic agenda is being utilised by POC against other POC. Throw in the fact that, post-Western influence, modern China was, for a period, intensely homophobic – something the casual reader is more likely to know about than, say, the passion of the cut sleeve – and you have a narrative that, whether intentionally or not, subtly reinforces the stereotype of homophobia as a predominantly non-Western, non-white problem.
Further complicating matters is the planned trajectory of the titular protagonist – that is, of Baru Cormorant – as a woman from a formerly queer-friendly culture having to repress that part of her identity in order to rise through the Falcresti ranks, the better to one day change their ideology. To be clear: I have absolutely nothing against the idea of a story where a secret outsider strives to change a toxic system from within; that’s good stuff. The problem is that, by the end of Chapter Two, Baru – now eighteen – is set to leave her home island of Taranoke for life in the imperial service, having aged eleven years since the start of Chapter One. And while, as stated, Dickinson writes with great technical skill, for a story that’s being set up to portray Baru as the intended saviour of Taranoke culture, it’s troubling that we see her behaviour almost exclusively through the lens of Falcresti mores.
By which I mean: beyond its queer and polyamorous acceptance, we’re shown very little about Taranoke culture, and thus don’t have the proper sense of what Baru is setting out to avenge or protect beyond a deeply simplistic narrative of Homophobia Is Wrong. Baru’s time at the Falcresti school under the sponsorship of her patron, Cairdine Farrier, is the kind of thing I could easily read books about in its own right, but which in either case demands far more attention than two brief chapters can supply, no matter how well written they might be. Instead, we see far more of Baru’s acceptance of Falcresti logic than we do comparisons or conflicts with what she was taught before then; even the other students seem to have accepted the colonial mandate that the families and family structures they’ve known all their lives are wrong, as per this section in Chapter Two:
“Children began to vanish from the school, sent back out onto the island, into the plague. “Their behaviour was not hygienic,” the teachers said. Social conditions, the students whispered. He was found playing the game of fathers –
The teachers watched them coldly as their puberty came, waiting for unhygienic behaviour to manifest itself. Baru saw why Cairdine Farrier had advised her on her friendships. Some of the students collaborated in the surveillance.”
This level of indoctrination and complicity, presented in the absence of any compelling reason as to why the Taranoke students are so quick to abandon their own culture, is utterly jarring. We don’t get a sense of fear or coercion or other social changes beyond the plague and its impact; the children are seemingly cut off from their parents and families long before then, and it’s all glossed so quickly that what should be a nuanced explanation of cultural change and colonialism – but which is still the apparent heart of the novel, given that Baru is meant to be motivated by her time here to come back and fix everything – is instead rendered in brief, like an unimportant aside before the real story starts.
As a queer reader, the portrait Dickinson paints of Falcresti homophobia is genuinely unsettling, which is why the commensurate lack of attention paid to Taranoke customs feels like such an imbalance. Two chapters in, and all we know of queerness so far is that people suffer for it: Baru loses one of her fathers to the invaders, her cousin is threatened with molestation under the guise of corrective rape, Taranoke is colonised, and Baru’s two external allies both abandon her when they learn what she did to try and protect her cousin.
It’s queer tragedy porn in a fantasy context, and from what I’ve been told about how the book ends, that never really changes; arguably gets worse, in fact. And while I applaud Seth Dickinson for wanting to tell a story about how Homophobia Is Bad, complete with a cast of characters who are queer and female and POC, I can’t applaud his apparent decision to do so by making said characters suffer unbearably because of their orientation, the better to let the audience know that Homophobia Is Wrong.
The problem, then, is that The Traitor Baru Cormorant comes across as being a novel about queer oppression that is – whether intentionally or not – written for a straight audience: that is, for people who can find novelty and drama in stories about unrelenting queer oppression because they’ve never personally experienced it, whereas those of us who have just want, by and large, to read about queer people being people, preferably complex ones who get their fair share of happy endings rather than the traditional tragedy.
So, yeah. I’ll reserve full judgement for when (and if) I make it through the rest of the book, but right now, it doesn’t bode well.