Archive for the ‘Critical Hit’ Category

I’ve been comparatively quiet on the SFFnal blogging front of late, partly because I’ve been busy with every other aspect of my life, but mostly because I’ve been feeling burned out on the same endless cycle of arguments. Back in high school, I once spent a frantic evening completing a history assignment I’d technically had months to complete: we were meant to cut out daily articles in the newspaper pertaining to the Israel-Palestine conflict and explain how each current event was informed by the history we’d learned. The relevant clippings in hand, I found myself writing paragraph after paragraph explaining the exact same thing in slightly different words. It was an exercise in creative repetition, but it did win me that year’s history prize, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Without wanting to compare the current discourse in SFF to the Israel-Palestine conflict, I’ve started to feel much the same way about engaging with it¬†as I did when writing that history assignment. By this point, surely, all the salient points have already been made by all the key parties, multiple times and in myriad different ways. We know why the debate started, and we know why it’s ongoing. The problem is that, no matter how eloquently we make these same points over again, new offences¬†stemming from the original conflict continue to occur, and merely pointing out why that’s happening isn’t getting us any closer to solving it. Which isn’t to say that making those breakdowns isn’t still important or useful: it is. I just don’t always have the strength for it right now.

Enter the announcement of programming for World Fantasy Con 2016.

There’s a good breakdown of what’s happened here, courtesy of Sarah Pinsker, while the program itself can be found here,¬†but in a nutshell, the issue is this: there are more references to H.P. Lovecraft in the program than to women or POC; there’s a use of offensive language; and there’s little to no acknowledgement of any recent writing in the genre.

This last point is the one I want to address.

By Sarah Pinsker’s count, of the thirty-two separate works cited in the program, only four were written in the last twenty years. Four. Pinsker, who saw an early draft of the proposed programming, raised this particular issue prior to publication with the head of programming, Darrell Schweitzer, in relation to a specific example. Here is Pinsker’s¬†account¬†of that exchange:

The Animal Fantasy panel with the “recent” example of Watership Down? I pointed out that was written before I was born. Kij Johnson and Ursula Vernon have written amazing award-winning animal fantasy in the last few years. He said “Watership Down is recent compared to Aesop and Chaucer.” AESOP AND CHAUCER. The modern field doesn’t stand a chance.

And here, according to the program, is current, full description of the Animal Fantasy panel:

19. Animal Fantasy. The form has been around since ancient times, and in recent years Watership Down, Walter Wagnerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow, Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman et al. and several other such books did very well. Is this sort of fantasy still being written? What is its appeal?

To break this down, Watership Down was first published in 1972 – which is to say, 44¬†years ago. Wagnerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow came out in 1978, which is 38 years ago. The Fox Woman, by contrast, came out in 1999, a mere 17¬†years ago, but whether viewed individually or as a collective, referring to all these works as the product of¬†“recent years” is blindingly inaccurate. It’s also, quite tellingly, an elision highlighted by the very next question:¬†if the works you’re describing as successful are truly “recent”, asking if they’re “still being written” ought to be redundant.

To truly appreciate the ridiculousness of this, imagine if a major gaming con, like PAX, announced the following panel description in the year 2016:

19. First Person Shooters. This type of game has been around since gaming began, and in recent years¬†Doom, id Software’s¬†Wolfenstein 3D,¬†¬†Rare’s GoldenEye 007¬†et al. and several other such games did very well. Are these sorts of games still being made? What is their appeal?

The only way someone could write such a panel description in good faith is if they know so little about the topic they’re proposing as to be unaware of the genre’s development, which in turn suggests they’re ill-equipped to investigate its output. Can you imagine a bunch of panellists trying to talk intelligently¬†about what’s happening with FPS now – the types of title being released, the reasons people play them, the developments in the industry – while admitting themselves to be¬†largely ignorant and/or dismissive of anything that happened after Quake? Can you imagine a panel about modern FPS¬†whose members looked confused and frustrated when the audience asked about Overwatch, or who¬†didn’t think¬†Counter-Strike¬†had that big an impact on the genre? That’s how out of touch¬†the Animal Fantasy panel – and, indeed, the bulk of WFC’s programming – looks to me.

Of course, I don’t yet know who the panellists are, which is clearly going to inform how the Animal Fantasy panel (among others)¬†is handled: whether the conversation sticks to the era suggested in the outline, or if¬†newer works and developments are actually mentioned. But on the basis of what I saw at WFC in Brighton in 2013, which had a similarly retro bias in the programming, this is a con that’s more than capable of fielding myriad¬†panellists whose¬†genre knowledge doesn’t extend much past the mid-eighties. Indeed, it’s a con whose programming seems increasingly tailored to just that set while simultaneously claiming to be a modern, relevant industry con.

To borrow the gaming example again, the objection isn’t to the presence of panels discussing classic or older games, which can be a lot of fun and very informative for younger congoers wanting a better sense of their history: it’s behaving as if¬†it’s not history at all – as if the genre still only really consists of Pacman, Return to Zork and the original Tomb Raider – while waving a vaguely disparaging hand at everything that’s happened since. Even if you don’t like the newer developments, you need to be able to acknowledge that they’ve happened, and to have some understanding of how they worked and what they did, in order to compare them to your preferences. But acting as though they’re invisible, as though they never really happened at all? That’s not only insulting to the audience, it’s just plain wrong.

And lest anyone take umbrage with the comparison of animal fantasy to FPS, the latter accounting for far more works in its field that the former:¬†I chose that example precisely because FPS is well-known enough for the dissonance to be jarring. But animal fantasy, while a smaller subgenre, has nonetheless developed a lot since the 70s. To take the blindingly obvious example that somehow isn’t mentioned in the programming, I grew up reading Brian Jacques’s Redwall series, which began in 1986 – the year I was born – and only ended with his death, the final book released in 2011. The Duncton Wood¬†series, published between 1980 and 1993,¬†were another big influence, as was¬†the TV show The Animals of Farthing Wood, aired between 1992 and 1995, which was an adaptation of the books of the same name, originally written in the late seventies. There’s also Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series – a staple of Australian literature – whose publication runs from 1958 to 1999, with both a live action film and an animated TV show produced in 1993 and 1994, respectively. None of which is exactly recent (while still managing to be more recent than the panel description), but which contextualises the crucial shift¬†in the genre.

As Pinsker pointed out, Kij Johnson has written multiple works that fall into this category, all more recent than the 1999 example given in the programming, as has Ursula Vernon, notably her award-winning comic, Digger. There’s also Daniel Polansky’s The Builders, released last year with Tor. But in “recent years”, the majority of animal fantasy stories aren’t novels – they’re animated films and shows. Disney’s Zootopia, released in 2016, was an unparalleled critical success, but hardly arrived in a vacuum: all those cartoon adaptations mentioned above – Redwall had one too, along with¬†The Animals of Farthing Wood and The Silver Bumby,¬†to say nothing of the classic Watership Down film¬†¬†helped to pave the way for it, as did countless others. I could sit here all day listing animal-centric animated films¬†from the last thirty years, both literary adaptations and originals (The Secret of Nimh, Happy Feet, Kung-Fu Panda, Cats Don’t Dance, An American Tail, A Bug’s Life, Ice Age), and while I won’t, the fact that I can is exactly the point: unless you want to outlaw 90% of the discussion, you can’t have a sensible panel about animal fantasy as a subgenre without mentioning animation. You literally can’t, because that’s where the bulk of that particular subgenre exists, and that’s where it’s been thriving for twenty years.

Talking about animal fantasy purely in terms of novels makes as much sense as, well, applying the same restriction to a discussion of superheroes: yes, those books exist, and yes, they’re worth mentioning, but you’re kind of missing the main event. But I can already pretty much guarantee that, barring some major behind the scenes changes, you’re not going to get a WFC panel which addresses that fact. Many of you can probably guess why. For those who can’t, however, let’s run with this theme a little longer.

Elsewhere in her Twitter thread on the WFC programming, Sarah Pinsker mentions that seminal author Shirley Jackson, whose centenary this is, rates only a single programming mention compared to H. P. Lovecraft’s ten. On its own, that might not bother you, but compare it to the programming in 2013, which marked what would have been Arthur Machen’s 150’s birthday. An entire programming stream¬†was made in Machen’s honour – Machen @ 150 – celebrating his works, his life and his influences on the genre, which amounted to eight separate panels¬†explicitly invoking him in their premise. Similarly, in 2014, Robert Aickman’s centennial earned him seven different events commemorating his work. But Shirley Jackson’s centennial merits only a single event and a single mention – even though the program itself describes her as having written “much of the greatest and most distinctive horror of the 20th century”.

It’s not a coincidence that Shirley Jackson’s centenary merits only a single panel compared to what was organised for Aicken and Machen, just as it’s not a coincidence that the animal fantasy panel mysteriously makes no reference to the medium in which the bulk of those stories are produced. It’s not just that the programming is manifestly disinterested in the genre’s progress¬†in the last twenty years – it’s that all those earlier, apparently more “definitive”¬†works are only a curated selection of what’s considered classic and acceptable, which definition skews heavily towards male and “serious” and away from anything female, youthful or “frivolous”, like animation or YA.

If the position was, really and truly, that recent works are garbage, and that the only things worth discussing in SFF happened prior to 1996 (or 1986, for preference) then Shirley Jackson would merit at least as many programming items as Aicken or Machen – but she doesn’t, because she’s a woman. If the position was, really and truly, that there hasn’t really been any notable animal fantasy since 1999, then Brian Jacques, Elyne Mitchell and the wealth of early cartoon adaptations should at least rate an acknowledgement in the panel description – but they don’t, because kids’ animation isn’t respectable fantasy, Jacques wrote middle grade books, and Mitchell, assuming the programming team have even heard of her, is a woman. It’s the same logic which said that including a favourite in-joke of Schweitzer’s was more important than not using a racist slur in the programming titles (“Spicy Oriental Zeppelin”, though this, at least, seems to have been changed): they simply didn’t see the offence as a problem.

It’s not that I think Darrell Schweitzer and friends¬†sat down at a table and asked, “Okay, how best can we exclude and minimise the contributions of women, people of colour, queer writers and anyone under fifty in our programming?”, though they could hardly have done a better job of achieving that outcome if they had. It’s that bias is an insidious, often subconscious thing, and where you’ve learned¬†to only view particular things as worthy or important, regardless of the¬†actual worth or importance of what’s on offer, you need to make an active effort to look at the whole picture. If your argument is that genre is an unbiased meritocracy – if that’s what you truly aspire for conventions and awards ceremonies alike to look like, the best works and writers rising to the top regardless of any other consideration – then the presence of homogeneity in your lineup should concern you, because it’s a sign that someone, somewhere is putting their hand on the scales.

Here’s the thing about awards lists and panel slots: they’re exclusive by definition, which means that someone, somewhere is always going to be¬†miss out, whether personally or in terms of their preferences. Unless you’re handing out trophies for participation, then you’re always going to have arguments about how it was a travesty that so-and-so didn’t make the cut, and there’s always going to be both a political and a promotional aspect to whose names get bandied about. There’s no such thing as a perfect, absolutely objective nomination or adjudication process, because those decisions are ultimately based on individual preferences, and everyone has subjective reasons for liking what they like. That’s the nature of the beast, and it applies across the board, whether you’re talking about the Oscars, Crufts or a local primary school science prize. But when there is a massive, visible dissonance between what’s being created and what’s being praised – when that dissonance just so happens to map to wider social bigotry against particular groups and people – then it’s not unreasonable to advocate for a fairer process. There is, after all, a world of difference between the top prize going to the kid with the most awesome baking soda volcano you’ve ever seen, even if you thought the girl with the string beans was better, and watching some grinning lug who turned in a pile of horseshit take the trophy away from both of them.

 

The WFC 2016 program is frustrating, not just because it’s so manifestly disinterested in the ongoing development of SFF, but because it can’t even pretend with any degree of subtlety that its objections to those developments are anything other than a deep-seated preference for the opinions of straight white men. I’ve harped on the animal fantasy panel because Schweitzer’s response to Pinsker about it perfectly encapsulates the dissonance in his attitude, but it’s the same thing wherever you look. For god’s sake, there are more references to men born in the 1800s than to any women, living or dead. How can that possibly make sense at a convention where people are meant to go to discuss the genre’s future? How can such a convention even have a future, when it’s so hellbent on dismissing the reality of its inheritors?

Which, in a wider sense, is what’s happening right now with the Sad Puppy campaign and the Hugo Awards.¬†Asked to share the¬†playground equally with the other children, the Puppies lasted five minutes before deciding it was better to smash the swings and shit on the slide than let anyone use the shared equipment for games not of their orchestration. My toddler has more reasoned emotional responses, and he’s three.

But we know all that. We’ve said it before. What else is there to say?

Warning: major spoilers for the entire Captive Prince trilogy.

Trigger warning: discussion of rape, slavery, child abuse, paedophilia.

Late last year, a friend recommended I try the Captive Prince trilogy by C. S. Pacat, describing it as an excellent queer fantasy romance series. I made interested noises and then, somewhat typically, forgot about it until it cropped up again on my tumblr dash. I don’t know what alchemical combination of blogs I’m currently following to make this so, but thus far, everything I’ve ever read, watched or played on the basis of hearing about it through tumblr has been something I’ve loved, or at least enjoyed despite whatever criticisms I’ve made of it. That being so, and as it was my birthday that weekend, I shelled out for an ebook of the first volume, Captive Prince, and decided to give it a try before bed.

I stayed up until 5am to finish it, then read the next two volumes – Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising –¬†in less than a day. They’re not long books, but length aside, I couldn’t put them down, and given how much I’ve recently struggled to stay immersed in any story long enough to finish it, that’s saying something. The series is, as advertised, a queer fantasy romance, but while it’s certainly SFF, it counts as fantasy only inasmuch as it’s set in an original secondary world – there’s no magic or mythical creatures, with the focus instead resting on romance and politics.

These are not, by a long shot, perfect books; in fact, they contain a great many elements I traditionally despise, and which would ordinarily cause me to run a mile in the opposite direction. Which is, in part, why I’ve spent the past three months drafting this review: to get my head around exactly how and why I enjoyed them anyway. Because I did enjoy them, for all that I’m about to launch into a lengthy, detailed criticism of their failings, and as easy as it would be to simply write them off as a guilty pleasure, I feel like they deserve more than that.

Here’s the blurb for Captive Prince, the first volume:

Damen is a warrior hero to his people, and the truthful heir to the throne of Akielos, but when his half brother seizes power, Damen is captured, stripped of his identity and sent to serve the prince of an enemy nation as a pleasure slave.

Beautiful, manipulative and deadly, his new master Prince Laurent epitomizes the worst of the court at Vere. But in the lethal political web of the Veretian court, nothing is as it seems, and when Damen finds himself caught up in a play for the throne, he must work together with Laurent to survive and save his country.

For Damen, there is just one rule: never, ever reveal his true identity. Because the one man Damen needs is the one man who has more reason to hate him than anyone else…

Straight away, then, it needs to be acknowledged: this is a world in which slavery, and especially sexual slavery, is normative, and where the primary romance is between a character who, at the outset, is enslaved by the other. Also salient is the issue of race: Laurent is white, while¬†Damen, who’s described as being olive-skinned and dark-haired, is not. Those are going to be hard limits for some people, and with good reason. It’s not something I want to minimise or elide. As I recently had cause to say elsewhere, the fact that I can discuss these elements at a remove is a consequence of privilege: that I enjoyed – or was, rather, able to enjoy – the books otherwise is both personally disquieting and a concession I’d never expect¬†of anyone else.

That being so, it’s also relevant – to me, at least – that Captive Prince was first published online, as¬†an ongoing original ¬†fanfic/slash story, with the first two volumes serialised between 2008 and 2012: by contrast, the content of Kings Rising, which only came out this year, is entirely new. Online,¬†there’s an explicit culture of tagging and author/reader interaction in digital slash circles, both for fanfic and original works, that serves to contextualise which elements of a story are intended for reader critique, and which are explicitly included as a deliberate kink. It’s why, I’ve discovered, there are tropes and stories I’m happy to read in fanfic that I’ll baulk at elsewhere, and nor am I the only person of whom that’s true. It makes a significant difference to know that the author knows that a particular trope or exchange is problematic, and is writing it that way on purpose, as an exploration of flawed humanity or as a dead dove indulgence, instead of having to wonder if they genuinely think it’s okay.

Thus: while I’ve clearly come late to the party and didn’t see the original discussions surrounding, in particular, the early chapters of Pacat’s work, when they were first posted online, the fact that this engagement took place at all – that the story was written in expectation of such engagement – seems relevant to analysing it now. Master/slave romances are a longstanding staple of both erotica and slash, and while that fact doesn’t magically exempt them from criticism either in terms of individual execution or as a discreet phenomenon, it does situate the device itself as, well – a device, one Pacat recognises as such, and which she likely discussed with readers when the story first went up; a discussion to which I have no access, but which nonetheless impacted how and why the story was told as it was.

Here is the thing¬†I struggle with about erotica/romance: the fact that something is explicitly written as a sexual fantasy doesn’t exempt it from criticism, but nor is a reader who enjoys such fantasies automatically wrong to read them uncritically. The act of writing is always an act of fantasy, of construction, but sexual fantasies, by their very nature, occupy a uniquely personal space. It is quite possible to compartmentalise what one finds acceptable in normal life versus what one finds arousing in fantasy, as fiction, within a controlled narrative space; and yet it’s also possible to confuse the two on both ends, to assume that privately desiring a thing excuses its uncritical replication, or to trust that¬†such uncritical replication means there’s nothing to criticise in the first place. Our kinks are our own, but to a large extent, they’re also socially influenced, and as such, the primacy of particular narratives, uncritically viewed and ubiquitous, can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The issue becomes further muddled if we attempt to draw that salient distinction between sex and romance, particularly in the context of their interrelated tropes. Sexual fantasies are not the same as romantic fantasies, though there may be some overlap. Speaking personally – which, on the ultimate Your Mileage May Vary topic, is really all I can do – I have a deep mistrust of erotica whose romance elements are meant to be inferred from the hotness of the pornography alone, particularly in instances where the sexual fantasy elements either negate or raise serious questions about the healthiness of the corresponding emotional relationship. Which is where we run into something of a unique, arguably moral but certainly critical, conundrum: how, exactly, does one negotiate the intersection of kink with criticism?

On the one hand, it can’t be denied that the idea of sexual slavery is, for many, an arousing fantasy; and more, that their enjoyment of the concept¬†in fiction isn’t contingent on it being portrayed exclusively as a meta-fantasy of the characters. By which I mean: however abhorrent one might find the concept of sexual slavery in real life, such that physically indulging in such¬†play¬†would (one hopes) take place only under the pre-negotiated auspices of safe, sane and consensual or RACK, the very fact of knowing that a story is fictional, and therefore a fantasy constructed for the reader, can void the need for the characters to engage in similar negotiations.¬†Consent is therefore established, not between the protagonists, but between the reader and the work itself: instead of safewording, all we need do is set the book aside, the characters undamaged by virtue of being imaginary. That being so, a story doesn’t need to internally establish the immorality of slavery, sexual or otherwise, in order to scratch the itch of an otherwise deeply consent-oriented kink.

On the other hand, and regardless of whether the presence of slavery is either intended or able to satisfy a kink, we are not wrong to critique it, and especially not when its inclusion is narratively unexamined. Slavery still exists, both sexually and otherwise; its victims are myriad, their stories appalling. Its impact on histories both individual and collective is staggering, indelible, undeniable and ongoing, and even without any personal experience of or connection to such suffering, we have every right to be horrified by narratives or characters which do not unequivocally denounce it, or which feature it at all, for that matter.

Likewise in this instance, given the historical intersection of racism with both slavery and pornography (both straight and queer), it’s impossible to argue that race simply doesn’t matter, or insist that the characters be judged wholly on the basis of the setting. Calling a mandingo¬†portrayal a kink instead of a trope (for instance) doesn’t make it any less racist – but then, the intersection of racism with fandom is something we, meaning white fans, are still notoriously bad at navigating. The “don’t like, don’t read” culture of fanwriting, which is frequently cited as grounds for critical exemption, is a case in point. While fair enough in theory – fans are, after all, working for free, for pleasure – this doesn’t change the fact that the persistent elision of POC characters, coupled with the joint problems of authorial¬†stereotyping and reader pushback when they do appear, can make a space that otherwise prides itself on its inclusiveness both hostile and alienating to fans of colour, who are then further criticised for violating fan¬†etiquette when they react. As ever, it’s a problem of wider social problems converging in fanspace: fanwriters didn’t create racism, but we can certainly bring it with us, and as Captive Prince began in fanfic communities, it’s certainly a relevant aspect of the discussion.

And then, on that perennially metaphoric third hand, there’s the issue of¬†critical narrative immersion: the decision to accept that slavery is part of the worldbuilding, and to separate our judgement of its objective immorality from our judgement of how skilfully (or not) the world and its characters are¬†constructed, and how they work on their own terms. This is a tricky thing to do, inasmuch as it involves embracing a deliberate form of cognitive dissonance: the parallel rendering of two disparate opinions on the same subject, both accepted, yet never quite reconciled. It’s this third path I find myself taking with the Captive Prince trilogy, further contextualised by my awareness of the other two options. Doubtless, there are some who’ll perceive me as drastically overthinking things, while others might assert that I’m thinking too little, or from the wrong perspective. That being so, the best I can attempt is honesty, both emotional and intellectual: to show my working where possible, and to admit the lack of it otherwise.

Here, then, is the short version of my opinion, by way of prefacing the longer one: Pacat is an excellent writer, one whose style and depth both demonstrably improve as the series progresses. That the first book was written online, in the context of fanfiction and that community’s discussion of both kink and sexuality is, as mentioned, salient in examining its portrayal of sexual slavery, particularly in comparison to the third. The abiding impression I have – or instinct, rather¬†– is that, having used the concept of sexual slavery as a kinky premise for a story being updated live, the setup meant as an excuse for¬†Damen to be deposed and enslaved by his half-brother rather than as¬†a nuanced exploration of culture, Pacat was unable to go back and change things¬†once the story took off.¬†This potentially explains why the first book treats sexual slavery as a normative, largely unexamined central focus; why the second moves almost completely away from slavery without ever really addressing it; and why the third attempts, albeit tentatively, to acknowledge it as wrong without ever really probing its initial acceptance and the implications thereof.

All this being so, and with the best¬†will in the world, it’s clear that Pacat is writing from a position of unexamined white privilege. Even if her initial introduction of sexual slavery was meant wholly as a kinky plot device, its wider implications for Damen’s history unconsidered at the outset, there is no such excuse (if we can call it that) for blithely assuming that the image of a brown-skinned man in chained service to a white man would be narratively neutral. That Damen’s race is never considered salient to his slavery within the story¬†doesn’t change what it evokes to the reader.

Or rather, what it can evoke: from my perspective,¬†Damen’s race feels like an unacknowledged elephant in the room of the Captive Prince fandom. I’ve seen it¬†mentioned as a problem online exactly once, while a staggering amount of fanart involves Damen in chains, cuffs and collar. That he wears all these things at one time or another doesn’t change the fact that replicating them in fanart – emphasising them above other options – is a choice, and one made fairly consistently. That Laurent whips Damen nearly to death in the first book, resulting in permanent scarring, likewise invokes a very specific, very ugly history; as do the times¬†when Damen is referred to as a barbarian, cur or savage.¬†That these insults are delivered exclusively in relation to his culture and warrior-status rather than his race doesn’t change their potential, awful resonance for readers to whom these are all deeply personal, lived insults, nor does it justify their inclusion Because Worldbuilding. No matter how perfectly explained and narratively consistent the internal logic of a setting – no matter how many in-book justifications exist to try and soften the parallels¬†– we all, creators and readers both, bring our world and its history with us. That is inescapable.

Paradoxically, it’s Pacat’s utter obliviousness on this front – and, as a consequence, the obliviousness of the narrative – which made it tolerable for me. (Which isn’t, I hasten to add, the same as defensible; see above re: parallel judgements.) If Damen was insulted on the basis of his skin colour or ethnicity, I suspect I would’ve flung my Kindle at the wall; instead, he’s slandered on the basis of being Akelion, with his countrymen¬†casting identical slurs at the Veretians. The comparison of these countries is an interesting one:¬†Akielos is heavily based on ancient Greece, while Vere is more reminiscent of a decadent, pre-revolutionary France, though in this setting, both nations were originally part of a single empire and exist now at an identical technological level. As such, while Damen’s colouring is less common in Vere and Laurent’s less common in Akielos, there’s enough of a shared heritage that Damen isn’t exoticised for his looks. In fact, it’s Laurent who’s more often fetishised on this count, regardless of the observer’s nationality.

That being said, things turn murky again on re-examining the issue of slavery. Like ancient Greece, Akielos is a slave culture, and at the start of the first book, our assumption is that the same is true of Vere. In fact, from Damen’s introductory perspective, Vere’s version of slavery is far more horrifying in its abuses than anything practised in Akielos, and as such, we’re inclined to sympathise with his outrage (which is, note, a different thing to agreeing with his corresponding defence of his homeland’s practices). The problem is that Damen is, in this respect, an unreliable narrator – not intentionally, but by virtue of cultural ignorance. The story is premised on the deposed, imprisoned Damen, along with a contingent of trained slaves, being sent as a gift to Laurent’s uncle, the Regent of Vere; this makes slavery seem normal in Vere, as does the presence of ‘pets’ kept by the nobility for sexual use.

Not unreasonably, Damen assumes the pets are slaves, and so, in turn, does the reader. It’s only later that we discover this isn’t true: pets are more akin to courtesans, occupying contractual, paid positions. With this information in hand, the opening scenes in Vere – which are, to say the least, both violent and debauched – are cast in, if not a redeeming light, then one in which consent isn’t quite so thoroughly disregarded. Damen and the other slaves are still vilely mistreated, but given the slow reveal of the Regent’s particular monstrousness, it’s not initially clear that¬†this abuse is ultimately the Regent’s doing alone, rather than constituting a widespread cultural practice.

As such, once it becomes clear that Vere is not, in fact, a slave culture, our perception of Damen’s outrage – and of him – is necessarily forced to shift. From the outset, we know that he’s slept with slaves before, and that slaves are prized, treated gently, and praised for their submission in Akielos. Indeed, it’s the abuse of this submissiveness that rouses Damen’s ire, to the point where he intercedes with Laurent to have the other slaves gifted¬†to an ambassador from neighbouring Patras, who knows enough of their training and value to treat them kindly. The slaves themselves – or one in particular, Erasmus, whom we take as being a spokesman for the others – are grateful for this opportunity; the question of freeing them is never raised. Which is where, once again, we run up against the intersection of kink and criticism: the¬†‘submissiveness’ in question is described in ways that make it feel highly reminiscent of BDSM, with submission offered as part of a reciprocal relationship involving a duty of care, both emotionally and physically, on the master’s behalf. Erasmus’s new master, for instance, is outraged by his rape in Vere, expressing a heartfelt refusal to sleep with him until or unless the other man is ready.

And yet, for all that we’re meant to be thinking of BDSM – for all that masters under the Akielios/Patras system care greatly about the wellbeing of their slaves – this is still an arrangement without consent. Slaves are taken as captives and trained; the practice is a legitimate source of anger in Vere, whose people suffer in border raids. Damen, raised to view this type of slavery as normative, sees nothing wrong with it, and as this seemingly ‘gentler’ alternative is being contrasted with the violent environs of Vere, the narrative doesn’t encourage us to question his assessment. But¬†Vere, despite the depravity of its Regent, is not a slave culture; Akielos is. Yet even in his captivity,¬†Damen doesn’t engage in any real reflection on the wrongness of of slavery (though Laurent makes some pointed remarks about it before then) until Kings Rising; at which point, now freed and fighting to reclaim his country, he eventually pledges to end the whole institution.

Obviously, this is a positive development, for all that it feels like too little, too late; and yet I can’t help thinking that, once again, the problem lies with Pacat’s inability to edit those early chapters. The first book,¬†Captive Prince, treats sexual slavery as an uncritically examined kink/conceit in a way that the subsequent two volumes do not, but on which their events are nonetheless based. This forces Pacat to walk a very thin line in expanding on her own, unalterable canon: to address slavery as an evil – and to acknowledge¬†the past abuses of the protagonists – without presenting them as wholly irredeemable, at least within the context of her world. That she manages this is a testament to her skill as a writer; nonetheless, I’d be remiss not to point out that the problem is one of her own making. Or, looked at another way, a problem of success: had the stories remained online, contextualised by fanfic’s tagging and commentary system – or had they been less popular, such that editing might have passed unnoticed prior to mainstream publication – my reaction might well have been different. At the very least, it might have been easier to distinguish intention from accident.

As if further complications were required, there’s also¬†Laurent’s early treatment of Damen to consider. At base, the Captive Prince trilogy is an enemies to friends to lovers narrative, with each book representing one of those three stages. However unexamined the wider issues of slavery and consent raised by Pacat’s cultures and worldbuilding might be, it works in the series’ favour that there’s no introduction of romance between Laurent and Damen until the two are eventually placed on an equal footing. And yet – again – the offences of the first book cast a long shadow: in particular, three early offences¬†that set the tone for Damen’s early hatred of Laurent. Namely: Damen is badly whipped at his instruction; is forced to engage in a fight where, if he loses, he’ll be raped by the winner (which involves him being prepped for penetrative sex beforehand); and is given oral sex by a pet, with Laurent instructing said pet on what to do.

Definitionally, these latter two acts – the prep and the oral sex –¬†are forms of rape, but the narrative never acknowledges them as such. Damen wins the rape-fight by knocking out his opponent, and therefore escapes having to either rape or be raped, but that doesn’t change what was done to him beforehand, even if it never comes up again. Similarly, in the instant with the pet – which is orchestrated by people other than Laurent, whose complicity is politically forced – although Damen is initially unwilling and unaroused, ¬†Laurent’s instruction results in his physical enjoyment of the act. While the two later discuss this event, it’s never described as a violation; which, on the one hand, is Damen’s prerogative, and as we’re in his perspective, we’re clear on his lack of trauma. If such a scene were present in a fanfic, I’d expect it to be tagged for dubcon – and perhaps, as per the story’s initial serialisation, it was. It’s exactly the sort of scene I can imagine being written for erotic value, as an explicit kink/fantasy, but as stated earlier, the ambiguity on this point, absent any authorial footnoting, is¬†a source of personal unease.¬†The whipping, however,¬†has a different derivation, and is, somewhat strangely, situated within the narrative as being the most forgiveable of these actions despite being the most violent.

There are three major contextualising reasons for this.

Context the first, which constitutes a major reveal of the final book: that Laurent has known all along that Damen is Damianos, the man who killed his brother Auguste six years ago, ending a war that resulted in Akelios annexing a northern Veretian province, the death of Laurent’s father, the king, and the ascent of his uncle to the regency. Context the second, which a canny reader can intuit from various, increasingly obvious clues from the first book onwards, but which isn’t explicitly confirmed until the third: that Laurent’s uncle, a paedophile, abused him for years after his brother’s death – was able to do so without any threat of discovery or oversight precisely because Auguste was dead, and Laurent was left alone. And context the third, which leads directly to the whipping: after the rape-fight, whose conclusion involves Damen being propositioned by an underage boy, Nicaise (who we later learn is the uncle’s pet), Damen and Laurent have the following exchange:

“So my slave is bashful in the arena. Don’t you fuck boys in Akielos?”

“I’m quite cultured. Before I rape anyone, I first check to see if their voice has broken,” said Damen.

Laurent smiled.

This conversation happens in a bathing room, where Damen is shortly instructed to wash Laurent – not with any sexual overtones, but as a servile chore. Nonetheless, Damen becomes aroused, and when Laurent notices, this happens:

“Don’t be presumptuous,” said Laurent, coldly.

“Too late, sweetheart,” said Damen.

Laurent turned, and with calm precision unleashed a backhanded blow that had easily enough force to bloody a mouth, but Damen had had quite enough of being hit, and he caught Laurent’s hand before the blow connected…

Damen let his gaze wander downwards – wet from chest to taut abdomen – and further. It was really a very, very nice body, but the cold outrage was genuine. Laurent was not even a little amorous, Damen noted; that part of him, quite as sweetly made as the rest, was quiescent.

He felt the tension hit Laurent’s body, though the tone didn’t change overmuch from its usual drawl. “But my voice has broken. That was the only prerequisite, wasn’t it?”

Damen released his grip, as though burned. A moment later, the blow he had thwarted landed, harder than he could have imagined, smashing across his mouth.

Get him out of here,” said Laurent.

From Damen’s perspective – which is to say, the only perspective we’re given – Laurent is capricious, violent and cold: the kind of person who’ll whip a slave bloody for a minor infraction, or enter him in a rape-or-be-raped fight against a violent opponent for fun. He doesn’t introspect about Laurent’s motives, because he doesn’t need to: he only needs to hate him and survive.

From Laurent’s perspective, however, things are rather more complex. His abuser, who is currently engaged in a labyrinthine effort to see him discredited, dead or preferably both before he can take the throne in his own right, has just handed him the man he hates most in the world as a slave and publicly¬†ordered him not to kill or harm him, such that any disobedience will see Laurent suffer. Trying to get around this injunction, Laurent pits Damen in the only kind of fight that won’t violate his uncle’s command – because it’s his uncle who encourages the rape-fights, though usually between willing pets – against one of his uncle’s men, who Damen subsequently defeats.When they then discuss this fight, Damen¬†makes a joke about his own willingness to rape, which Laurent, a rape victim, construes – not unreasonably – as a threat. He reacts accordingly.

And it’s here, at the crux of this context, that we find the real reason I stuck with Captive Prince despite its rape-fixation – a device I find nominally abominable – and other problematic elements: the psychology. The steady reveal of Laurent’s motives and characterisation – accompanied, of necessity, by the similar reveal of his uncle’s monstrousness- is one of the most wrenching portrayals of abuse and gaslighting that I’ve ever seen. Damen and Laurent are both deeply flawed characters, and Pacat, in writing them, is aware of this. The point of their eventual romance isn’t to prove that either man was ever perfect, or to suggest that perfection is a retroactively bestowable state, but to engage with the psychological and emotional complexities their relationship presents, unpicking the reasons for their initial, mutual antipathy.

The fact that Laurent’s abuse remains opaque to Damen for much of the trilogy while becoming increasingly clear to the reader is a neat trick of characterisation and writing both. It simply never occurs to Damen, whose blind trust in the goodness of family is why his half-brother, Kastor, was able to capture and enslave him in the first place, as a possibility. For the same reason, Damen doesn’t understand the combination of tolerance, kindness and brutal honesty with which Laurent treats his uncle’s pets. When Damen rejects Nicaise, for instance, Nicaise becomes hostile to him; dangerously so. When Laurent appears both lenient with Nicase’s actions while criticising his person, it confirms Damen’s belief in Laurent’s cruelty; yet Laurent, in these moments, is speaking from awful¬†experience, his words as cutting to himself as to Nicaise, though only he knows it:

“Do you take wine, or aren’t you old enough yet?”

“I’m thirteen. I drink whenever I like.” Nicaise scorned the tray, pushing at it so hard it almost overbalanced. “I’m not going to drink with you. We don’t need to start pretending politeness.”

“Don’t we? Very well: I think it is fourteen by now, isn’t it?”

Nicaise turned red, under the paint.

“I thought so,” said Laurent. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do, after? If I know your master’s tastes, you have another year, at most. At your age, the body begins to betray itself.” And then, reacting to something in the boy’s face, “Or has it started already?”

The red grew strident. “That isn’t any of your business.

“You’re right, it isn’t,” said Laurent.

Nicaise opened his mouth, but Laurent continued before he could speak.

“I’ll offer for you, if you like. When the time comes. I wouldn’t want you in my bed, but you’d have all the same privileges. You might prefer that. I’d offer.”

Nicaise blinked, and then sneered. “With what?”

A breath of amusement from Laurent…

“I don’t need you. He’s promised. He’s not going to give me up.” Nicaise’s voice was smug and self-satisfied.

“He gives them all up,” said Laurent, “even if you’re more enterprising than the others have been.”

“He likes me better than the others.” A scornful laugh. “You’re jealous.” And then it was Nicaise’s turn to react to something he saw in Laurent’s face, and he said, with a horror Damen didn’t understand, “You’re going to tell him you want me.

“Oh,” said Laurent. “No. Nicaise… no. That would wreck you. I wouldn’t do that.” Then his voice became almost tired. “Maybe it’s better if you think I would. You have quite a good mind for strategy, to have thought of that. Maybe you will hold him longer than the others.” For a moment it seemed as if Laurent would say something else, but in the end he just stood up from the bench and held his hand out to the boy. “Come on. Let’s go. You can watch me get told off by my uncle.”

Reading this scene the first time, it’s easy think that Laurent’s perception of Nicaise is jaded, unconcerned – especially as the reader, like Damen, is still new enough to the fact of Nicaise’s status to be horrified by it. Nor does that final line carry the same resonance as it does on a reread, as the revelation of the Regent’s paedophilia is yet to be made. Knowing what comes later, however, many such early exchanges are rendered chilling. More than once, the Regent criticises Laurent for being “childish“, repeatedly belittling him as someone unfocused, selfish, disloyal. That he still rebukes him like a child is an early warning sign, yet similarly easy to miss on a first pass:

The Regent’s expression changed. “I see you can’t be talked to. I won’t indulge your current mood. Petulance is ugly in a child and worse in a man. If you break your toys, it is no one’s fault but your own.”…

“I heard you killed your horse.” [said Damen]

“It’s just a horse,” said Laurent. “I’ll have my uncle buy me a new one.”

These words seemed savagely to amuse him; there was a jagged, private edge to his voice.

The reveal, when it comes, is a suckerpunch¬†precisely because it’s been so long in building: we know that the Regent is trying to outmanoeuvre Laurent, but not what the history is between them. And then, having backed Laurent into a political corner – enabled, in part, by Laurent’s decision to protect Damen, who just saved his life – in full view of the court, this happens:

“There. It is done. Come,” said the Regent to Laurent, extending his right hand…

Laurent came forward, and knelt before him gracefully, a single kneecap to the floor.

“Kiss,” said the Regent, and Laurent lowered his head in obedience to kiss his uncle’s signet ring…

After a moment, Damen saw the Regent’s hand lift again to rest in Laurent’s hair and stroke it with slow, familiar affection. Laurent remained quite still, head bowed, as strands of fine gold were pushed back from his face by the Regent’s heavy, ringed fingers.

“Laurent. Why must you always defy me? I hate it when we are at odds, yet you force me to chastise you. You seem determined to wreck everything in your path. Blessed with gifts, you squander them. Given opportunities, you waste them. I hate to see you grown up like this,” said the Regent, “when you were such a lovely boy.”

In this moment, Laurent is utterly alone; is revealed to have been alone¬†ever since Damen killed his brother and protector. This doesn’t excuse his mistreatment of Damen, but it does contextualise his rage, and as a reader, there’s something powerfully compelling about telling an abuse survivor’s narrative this way: as a trauma whose¬†consequences, even when witnessed by others, are frequently¬†misunderstood by them. Laurent’s soldiers repeatedly describe him as “frigid“, referring to the fact that he never takes lovers; like Damen, they assume he’s emotionally cold, not that he’s protecting himself. Throughout¬†Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising, during their scattering of emotionally and/or sexually intimate moments, Damen frequently reflects on the odd gaps in Laurent’s knowledge without ever realising their cause. Or rather, he knows part of the cause – that Laurent, in every aspect of his life, is someone who wants to remain in control, while physical intimacy¬†requires both trust and negotiation – but not the base reason why. It’s an exquisitely consistent piece of characterisation, and one that Pacat writes with absolute believability.

That Pacat is able to take the hostile dynamic between Damen and Laurent presented in the first book and make anything legitimately romantic of it, let alone something quite affectingly so – even to a reader both conscious of her elisions and critical of the premise – is nothing short of astonishing. Though Damen notes¬†Laurent’s physical charms¬†in Captive Prince, there’s no hint of romance or genuine attraction between them until the power imbalance is addressed in Prince’s Gambit, and the two begin to engage in something approaching equality, with no consummation until the two are on an even footing. This is a vital point: whatever blunders Pacat makes with regard to slavery and despite her racefail, she is scrupulous in acknowledging the pitfalls of a power imbalance on a nascent romance.

At the same time, her skill in this respect also serves to cast her failures into stark relief. Returning to the issue of Akeilos being a slave culture while Vere, despite its initial appearances, is not, we’re put in the unfortunate position of reading a narrative in which our primary slave character is a man of colour, with¬†slavery as an institution is predominantly enforced¬†by his own (mostly POC) nation. Particularly given the later reveal – again, in Kings Rising – that Laurent is a secret abolitionist, something which had hitherto only been hinted at, there’s a jarring dissonance in the realisation that Damen, an enslaved character, has been more accepting of slavery throughout the books than his putative (white) master. Which… yeah. To use a technical term, that is super fucked up.

And yet (and yet), for all the series fails to examine slavery as an institution, there’s a very real examination of power imbalances, abuse and self-perception. Even when legally and physically enslaved, Damen always considers himself a¬†prince: he never adopts a servile mindset, nor does he ever become, in the emotional sense, a victim, remaining instead a warrior in enemy territory.¬†After the regent makes a failed¬†attempt on Laurent’s life at the end of¬†Captive Prince,¬† Damen and Laurent are forced into an uneasy alliance: Damen will try to keep Laurent alive in order to prevent a bloody, pointless war between Akielos and Vere, and by the start of Prince’s Gambit, though still technically a slave, Damen is no longer subject to the powerless indignities of the first book, but is treated in all important respects as a soldier and advisor. His servility thus becomes more theoretical than practical, and though he ultimately emerges as someone distressed by and opposed to slavery, the experience doesn’t touch his fundamental confidence.

Whereas Laurent, by contrast, has spent the years since his brother’s death¬†effectively fighting a¬†rearguard action, trying desperately to protect himself¬†from his uncle without any friends or allies. Though perceived as cold and calculating, his position has been a source of fear, not confidence – fear of abuse, of abandonment,¬†of murder. The more Laurent comes to trust Damen, the more his confidence in his own judgement unravels: he can’t believe he’ll be treated kindly, let alone find pleasure in anything they might do, which leaves him more fundamentally¬†vulnerable – both around Damen and otherwise – than Damen ever is, despite his ostensibly greater position of power.

Ultimately, the Captive Prince series is a deeply problematic¬†but nonetheless highly compelling narrative: one in which both protagonists are intrinsically flawed, and where certain of their actions, both independently and towards each other, are morally reprehensible, regardless of whether the narrative always recognises this fact.¬†And yet their characterisation, the contextualising politics and the underlying psychology of their interactions is deft enough to make them both sympathetic; to ¬†transcend their horrific beginning¬†in the service of a romance that is genuinely affecting. Or so it felt to me, at least – as ever, Your Mileage May Vary, and as stated at the outset, I’m not going to argue with anyone who finds the fundamental problems with the story too glaring or painful to like anything else about it.

 

Though the first book is the weakest of the trilogy,¬†Pacat writes a superb long game, where successive revelations cause our ¬†understanding of the characters and their situations to turn on a dime. She is also, in every technical respect, an extraordinary writer. Her prose has a lyrical, graceful economy that’s utterly enviable, her characterisation ripe with psychological nuance: the same story in lesser hands – the same devices in lesser hands – would have nowhere near the same effect.¬†Indeed, I’m still slightly baffled by how much I enjoyed the books despite my criticisms, and yet whenever I open them, I fall right back into the story. For all their failings, I already know these are books I’m going to read again, and while I can’t recommend them without significant racefail caveats, their success – both in terms of fanwriters moving into the mainstream and as a prominent example of queer romance – is¬†representative of the changes currently overtaking the genre.

I can only hope we continue to do better.

Warning: total spoilers for the Vorkosigan Saga. 

Recently – which is to say, since the last week of March this year – I’ve taken advantage of moving continents, with all the travel, lack of internet access and desire for creature comforts that entails, to reread Lois McMaster Bujold’s complete Vorkosigan Saga in chronological order (though excluding the two stories which take place hundreds of years earlier in the same setting). This decision was chiefly sparked by my initial reading, also in March, of the latest instalment, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, which – apart from being excellent – also reveals that Cordelia and Aral, parents to series star Miles and protagonists in their own right of Shards of Honour and Barrayar, have been in a twenty-year polyamorous relationship with Oliver Jole, Aral’s former aide and current Admiral of the Sergyar fleet. Whether or not you consider this a latestage retcon depends largely on whether you consider Miles Vorkosigan to be a reliable narrator of his mother’s life, and on your parsing of the various updates the Miles-centric novels have provide about his parents prior to now. To me, the reveal felt like a natural one, fully in keeping with the characters as we know them; but then, as ever, your mileage may vary.

That being so, it feels notable that¬†at least one person has been writing polyamorous Aral/Cordelia/Jole fic since 2010, and with what feels now to be a scary degree of prescience; or at least, with such a close understanding of the characters as to successfully pre-empt Bujold’s intentions. It’s actually worth comparing the two, if only because it makes for a fascinating example of exactly how insightful fanwriting can be in its¬†interpretation, not just of the source material, but the specific psychology of the characters.

In their May 2010 fic, As You Tap on Your Glass, writer Dira Sudis attributes the following observation to Cordelia:

¬†Aral wasn’t often physically demonstrative in such a casual way with men under his command, though he had become quite fond of any number of them. Then, too, many of them–especially his secretaries–were the subjects of his occasional crushes, a phenomenon Cordelia observed with delight and tried never to acknowledge as such out loud, since Aral didn’t seem to quite realize it himself.

Jole was certainly a crush, she thought. Aral’s eyes always lit up when he talked about his latest bright young man, which he did fairly regularly. Any form of shop talk came to include a rather endearing digression on Jole’s virtues, winding down thoughtfully into musings on where best to deploy him when he had outgrown his role as Aral’s prot√©g√©, as they all did after a year or two.

So Jole had, somehow, found the knack of setting Aral at ease enough to be playful, and that made Cordelia like him even better than she had a moment before. She kept still, watching to see if she might spy anything else, and then Aral stood and stretched, tilting his head back toward the ceiling. Jole’s intent gaze followed him up like a compass needle to north, like a flower’s face to the sun, and Cordelia realized abruptly that it was not only that Jole liked the man inside the uniform–he liked the¬†body¬†inside the uniform.

Cordelia’s face heated and her heart leapt, and she found herself smiling rather the same way Aral did when he talked about Jole. In that very instant Jole became quite completely her favorite of all Aral’s prot√©g√©s and all his crushes. She had in a single glance discovered something she had not realized she longed for–rather like the first time she had unexpectedly heard a Betan accent on Barrayar. She wanted, with the sudden intensity of homesickness, to cross the library and take Jole aside, to gossip delightfully about the man at the center of both their lives, to share this particular joy with someone who would appreciate it as she did.

But the impulse popped like a soap bubble as Jole looked quickly away–afraid of being caught in that gaze, because Jole was Barrayaran, of course. And Barrayarans were tediously heteronormative as well as tediously insistent on strict monogamy–on the appearance of strict monogamy, anyway, and for some people merely the appearance of the appearance. Aral was, of course, notoriously sincere in his appearance of strict monogamy. He had no reason not to be, since his crushes tended to be on his irretrievably unavailable bright young men, all determinedly heterosexual and all too aware of Aral’s exalted rank to contemplate any form of intimacy, let alone the sexual variety.

All but Jole, it seemed.

Not only is this excerpt wonderfully written, but it compares quite strikingly to a similar conversation between Cordelia and Jole at the start of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen:

“…Aral talked to me about nearly everything – I was his only safe repository for that part of himself till you came along – but he was always a bit cagey about how you two got started… I go off to visit my mother on Beta Colony leaving him in no worse straits than another of his unrequited silent crushes. I come back to find you two up and running and poor Illyan having a meltdown – it was like talking him in off a ledge.” Aral’s utterly loyal security chief had never come closer to, if not weeping with relief, at least cracking an expression, to find in her not an outraged spouse, but an unruffled ally. I knew Aral was bisexual when I married him. And he knew I was Betan. Melodrama was never an option, Illyan. “The only surprise was how you two ever got past all your Barrayaran inhibitions in the first place.” Not that she and Aral hadn’t discussed Oliver in theory.

A flash of old amusement crossed Jole’s always-expressive face. “Well – I’m afraid you’d think it was all more Barrayaran than Betan. It doubtless involved a lot less talking, which I cannot regret. The standard for declassification is still fifty years, isn’t it? That sounds about right to me.”

Cordelia snickered. “Never mind, then.”

Jole cocked his head in turn. “Did he have that many, er, silent crushes? Before me?”

“I ought to make you trade” – Jole made his own never mind, then, gesture, and Cordelia smiled – “but I’ll have pity. No, for all that the capital was awash with handsome officers, he more appreciated them as a man would a good sunset or a fine horse, abstractly. Intelligent officers, he recruited whenever he could, and if they happened to intersect the first set, well and good. Officers of extraordinary character – were always thinner on the ground. All three in one package -”

…No wonder that Aral had recruited Jole as nearly on the spot as the paperwork and his physicians permitted. The other recruitment had come rather later.

What this comparison says to me – aside from the fact that Dira Sudis is an excellent writer who ought to be recruited to work prominently on a Vorkosigan TV series, assuming we’re ever lucky enough to get such a thing – is that, however surprised¬†some readers were by the events of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, they’re hardly incompatible with Bujold’s established characterisation if an outside observer was able to correctly intuit how such a relationship¬†might play out a good five years before Bujold made it canon.

Which raises the question: exactly when did Bujold, in the privacy of her writer’s mind, establish this background triad?

As a character, Jole first appears in The Vor Game,¬†which was released¬†in 1990 – the sixth book in order¬†of publication, but the fifth – including the novella The Mountains of Mourning, but ignoring the centuries-earlier precursors of Dreamweaver’s Dilemma and Falling Free – in order of chronology. His appearance there is so briefthat, when I first read the Vorkosigan Saga, I barely noticed; this time, however, with later events now¬†firmly in mind, his introduction strikes a very different chord. Indeed, given the brevity of his appearance, the care taken to describe him feels, if not incongruous, then certainly meaningful, not least because Bujold seldom takes the time to give such detail about a character who barely says a word. We first meet Jole at Aral’s side, with Miles – aged twenty – observing him as follows:

He [Aral] was flanked by his aide, a tall blond lieutenant named Jole. Miles had met Jole on his last home leave. Now, there was a perfect officer, brave and brilliant – he’d served in space, been decorated for some courage and quick thinking during a horrendous on-board accident, been rotated through HQ while recovering from his injuries, and promptly been snabbled up as his military secretary by the Prime Minister, who had a sharp eye for hot new talent. Jaw-dropping gorgeous, to boot, he ought to be making recruiting vids. Miles sighed in hopeless jealousy every time he ran across him. Jole was even worse than Ivan, who while darkly handsome had never been accused of brilliance.

“Thanks, Jole,” Count Vorkosigan murmured to his aisde as his eye found Miles. “I’ll see you back at the office.”

“Yes, sir.” So dismissed, Jole ducked back out, glancing back at Miles and his superior with worried eyes, and then the door hissed closed again.

And that, despite an entire paragraph of description – and what, in retrospect, looks suspiciously like a deliberately punning, in-jokely use of the word hot – is all we see of him until the very end, when Miles, having rescued the Emperor and stopped a war, is reunited with his father, accompanied again by Jole:

Lieutenant Jole, suppressing a grin himself, arose from the other side of the comconsole desk and guided Yegorov gently and mercifully back out the door. “Thank you, Lieutenant. The Admiral appreciates your services, that will be all…” Jole glanced back over his shoulder, quirked a pensive brow, and followed Yegorov out. Miles just glimpsed the blond lieutenant drape himself across a chair in the antechamber, head back in the relaxed posture of a man anticipating a long wait, before the door slid closed. Jole could be supernaturally courteous at times.

According to the timeline established in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, he and Aral are already romantically involved during the events of The Vor Game – which is to say, during these scenes.¬†As Bujold goes out of her way to make Jole visible – and to establish his handsomeness; a doubly unusual move, as she’s writing in Miles’s perspective, and young Miles especially is ordinarily too Barrayaran to make such open judgements about other men – it’s not unreasonable to wonder if she had the notion in mind even then, if only at the level of a future possibility. Certainly, it feels noteworthy that, in both of Jole’s brief appearances, he looks back at Aral as he leaves the room, as does the fact the fact that neither appearance contributes anything to the narrative beyond affirming Jole’s presence within it. In both instances, he exits stage left almost instantly: he doesn’t need to be there, except that he is. And Bujold, whatever else can be said of her, is not a writer known for her inclusion of pointless detail.

Barrayar, although the second novel chronologically, is seventh in publication order, having initially been released in 1991, just a year after The Vor Game. Given that it covers the events of Miles’s birth and Vordarian’s¬†pretendership, it nonetheless contains two noteworthy exchanges on the subject of Aral’s relationships.The first¬†is a conversation between Cordelia and Vordarian, wherein the latter attempts to unsettle the former’s faith in her husband:

He paused, watching her watch Aral. One corner of his mouth crooked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of his wine.

“Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”

Vordarian choked, sputtering… “He told you that?” he wheezed in astonishment.

“No, Vorrutyer did. Just before he met his, um, fatal accident.” Vordarian was standing frozen; she felt a certain malicious glee at having at last baffled a Barrayaran as much as they sometimes baffled her. Now, if she could just figure out what she’d said that had thrown him… She went on seriously, “The more I look back on Vorrutyer, the more he seems a tragic figure. Still obsessed with a love affair that was over eighteen years ago. Yet I sometimes wonder, if he could have had what he wanted then – kept Aral – if Aral might have kept that sadistic streak that ultimately consumed Vorrutyer’s sanity under control. It’s as if the two of them were on some kind of weird see-saw, each one’s survival entailing the other’s destruction.”

The second¬†is between Aral and Cordelia, when the former discovers the latter comforting Lieutenant Koudelka and reacts angrily, much to Cordelia’s chagrin:

¬†“That remark you made in front of Kou was totally out of line.”

“What, I walk in to find my wife… cuddling, with one of my officers, and you expect me to make polite conversation about the weather?” he bit back.

“You know it was nothing of the sort.”

“Fine. Suppose it hadn’t been me? Suppose it had been one of the duty guards, or my father. How would you have explained it then? You know what they think of Betans. They’d jump on it, and the rumours would never be stopped. Next thing I knew, it would be coming back at me as political chaff. Every enemy I have out there is just waiting for a weak spot to pounce on. They’d love one like that.”

“How the devil did we get onto your damned politics? I’m talking about a friend. I doubt you could have come up with a more wounding remark if you’d funded a study project. That was foul, Aral! What’s the matter with you, anyway?”

“I don’t know.” He slowed, and rubbed his face tiredly. “It’s the damn job, I expect. I don’t meant to spill onto you.”

Cordelia supposed that was as near as she could expect of an admission of his being in the wrong, and accepted it with a little nod, letting her own rage evaporate…

“So if you’re having visions of, of playing King Arthur to our Lancelot and Guinevere in that – pig-head of yours, forget it. It won’t wash.”

He laughed a little at that. “My visions were closer to home, I’m afraid, and considerably more sordid. Just an old bad dream.”

“Yeah, I… guess it would hit a nerve, at that.” She wondered if the ghost of his first wife ever hovered by him, breathing cold death in his ear, as Vorrutyer’s ghost sometimes did by her. “But I’m Cordelia, remember? Not… anybody else.”

He leaned his forehead against hers. “Forgive me, dear Captain. I’m just an ugly scared old man, and growing older and uglier and more paranoid every day.”

On the surface, both these sections would seem to moot the idea that Bujold had early designs on the idea of Jole as a future romantic partner, being as how the one invokes the awful notion of bisexuality being negated¬†by monogamy, while the other shows Aral grossly overreacting at the prospect of Cordelia being with someone else. And yet, at the same time, a constant theme of the Vorkosigan Saga is personal growth, and particularly in the context of Cordelia’s Betan attitude to sex and gender creeping into wider Barrayaran society. Aral’s lurid, self-destructive relationship with Ges Vorrutyer takes place eighteen years prior to Miles’s birth, while his affirming relationship with Oliver Jole begins eighteen years after it. Miles – or rather, Cordelia – represents a steadying midpoint in Aral’s romantic life, and as such, I’m disinclined to view that particular piece of symmetry as accidental.

More to the point, I imagine Bujold was intensely aware in writing The Vor Game and Barrayar that the Aral of one was by no means the Aral of the other. From the outset, Aral Vorkosigan has always been a character whose beliefs and behaviour are¬†subject to extraordinary change. Of course¬†the Aral of Barrayar, only just returned to nascent political respectability despite his new Betan wife, carrying significant psychological baggage over both the death of her predecessor and what he did in its aftermath, would react with rage and terror to the prospect of a second infidelity scandal. Cordelia’s line about Aral being monogamous is harder to swallow, though more because it represents an objectively angrifying stereotype than anything else. That Bujold is an overwhelmingly progressive writer doesn’t prevent the odd bias squeaking through, and it’s to her credit that, rather than doubling down on these early gaffes, her subsequent works more often make the effort to explode them. Yet even so, a statement about Aral being monogamous some eighteen years prior to meeting Jole – and more, one made distractedly, in response to a seeming¬†non-sequitur – seems a thin thread on which to hang all later canon.

Having thus appeared in The Vor Game, Jole vanishes again until Cryoburn – fourteenth in publication order, fifteenth in chronological, released in 2010 – where he appears in the epilogue as a pallbearer at Aral’s funeral, having graduated in the intervening years to Admiral of the Sergyar fleet. This is a small but noteworthy appearance, smoothing the way (at the time) for his multiple mentions in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, which book is fifteenth in publication order, but fourteenth chronologically, released in 2012. Aside from being referred to here as Commodore rather than Admiral, that promotion being forthcoming, there’s a tantalising hint of things to come – or things to be subsequently revealed, rather – in the epilogue, where Ivan, discussing a missive from home, says:

“…Thank God, now Aunt Cordelia switches to telling me all about Commodore Jole’s new sailboat – the Sergyaran seas don’t dissolve human skin the way Ylla’s do, happily. He took them all out for a sail, good. And no one drowned. Much better.”

That being so, it seems reasonable to infer that Bujold was planning to reintroduce Jole at least two books ago, and was dropping small hints as to his continued importance. Personally, I’m inclined to think her plans for his starring¬†in a future can be traced¬†the point at which she first introduced him, though not necessarily as a romantic object for either Aral or Cordelia. And yet there’s a rightness to Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen¬†that makes me wonder exactly how long a game Bujold’s been playing. From the very first book – both chronologically and in order of publication, for once – which is to say, from Shards of Honour,¬†released in 1986 – Cordelia is painted as a woman who wants children, plural; who was, in fact, tricked into not applying for a promotion by a former lover who promised offspring in return for letting him take the job. On Beta Colony, having more than one or two children is viewed as antisocial, and in Barrayar, Cordelia’s desire for a large family is clearly stated:

Now, family size: that was the real, secret, wicked fascination of Barrayar. There were no legal limits here, no certificates to be earned, no third-child variances to be scrimped for; no rules, in fact, at all. She’d seen a woman on the street with not three but four children in tow, and no one had even stared. Cordelia had upped her own imaginary brood from two to three, and felt deliciously sinful, till she’d met a woman with ten. Four, maybe? Six? Vorkosigan could afford it. Cordelia wriggled her toes and cuddled into the cushions, afloat on an atavistic cloud of genetic greed.

This desire is railroaded by Miles’s health issues: not wanting to make their first son feel inadequate, neither Cordelia nor Aral hurries to give him siblings. That Miles goes on to have six children himself – or to plan them, anyway; his ambitions in that direction are likewise clearly stated at the start of Diplomatic Immunity, though the last two don’t appear until Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen – could well be seen¬†as a sort of cathartic¬†substitution, both emotionally and narratively, and in the hands of a lesser writer, that’s all we – and, by extension, Cordelia – would ever get.

But Lois McMaster Bujold is not a lesser writer, and¬†among its many other qualities, the Vorkosigan Saga has always been distinguished by the centrality it gives to women’s narratives, women’s voices, even – or perhaps especially – in stories otherwise concerned with traditionally masculine themes. Considering this aspect of the series in its chronological ordering, Shards of Honour sets the tone with its contrasting of Betan and Barrayaran gender norms. Though the sexual violence to which various female characters are subjected, and with which Cordelia is intimately threatened, feels somewhat oldschool-gratuitous in 2016, the fact that Sergeant Bothari is likewise understood to be another of¬†Vorrutyer’s victims is still damnably subversive. More shocking, and of equal modern impact, is the role played by the Betan uterine replicators, forcing Barrayar to take custody of the children conceived by its rapist soldiers – a technology whose introduction to that world becomes a toppling domino of social change. And then, in the epilogue, it’s a female medtech, recovering the bodies of the dead, who offers a poignant lens through which to view war and its losses:

‚ÄúThe Barrayarans are all so army-mad,” she explained. “I always like to put them back in their uniforms. They mean so much to them. I‚Äôm sure they‚Äôre more comfortable with them on.”

Ferrell frowned uneasily. “I still think he ought to be dumped with the rest of the garbage.”

“Not at all,” said the medtech. “Think of all the work he represents on somebody‚Äôs part. Nine months of pregnancy, childbirth, two years of diapering, and that‚Äôs just the beginning. Tens of thousands of meals, thousands of bedtime stories, years of school. Dozens of teachers. And all that military training, too. A lot of people went into making him.” She smoothed a strand of the corpse‚Äôs hair into place. “That head held the universe, once.‚ÄĚ

In Barrayar, it’s Cordelia’s actions which see Vordarian dead and the empire saved, her plot to storm the palace enabled, over and over again, by the male underestimation of women. It’s Drou, Princess Kareen’s former bodyguard, who knows the secret way into the palace, her importance and competence both overlooked by allies and enemies alike on the basis of her gender, just as it’s Kareen’s bravery and reason which sees Vordarian first lose his grip on power. Alys Vorpatril, giving birth in fear and pain amidst the violence of civil war, is no less heroic than Cordelia Vorkosigan, mounting her assault on palace and pretender to save a child whose disabilities render him expendable in all eyes save her own. And then, with the day saved and Aral offered the Regency during Gregor’s minority, it’s once more a gendered oversight that leads to Cordelia having more power over the future of Barrayar than anyone bar her and her husband realise:

Her silent promise to Kareen was made policy when she and Aral, as a couple, were officially appointed Gregor’s guardians by the Council of Counts. This was legally distinct somehow from Aral’s guardianship of the Imperium as Regent. Prime Minister Vortala took time to lecture her and made it clear her new duties involved no political powers. She did have economic functions, including trusteeship of certain Vorbarra holdings that were separate from Imperial properties, appending strictly to Gregor’s title as Count Vorbarra. And by Aral’s delegation, she was given oversight of the Emperor’s household. And education.

“But, Aral,” said Cordelia, stunned. “Vortala emphasised I was to have no power.”

“Vortala… is not all-wise. Let’s just say, he has a little trouble recognising as such some forms of power which are not synonymous with force. Your window of opportunity is narrow, though; at age twelve, Gregor will enter a pre-Academy preparatory school.”

“But do they realise…?”

“I do. And you do. It’s enough.”

This description ¬†– “forms of power which are not synonymous with force” – could well be a tagline for the series. Not only does it encompass Miles’s ferocious intelligence, applied with devastating effect despite his physical limitations, but it also encompasses the emotional, the cultural and – overwhelmingly – the traditionally feminine. In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles’s desire to solve the mystery of Elena’s origins ultimately results in the death of her father, Sergeant Bothari, at the hands of her furious mother, his victim during the short-lived Escobar War. Yet the plot itself is also underwritten by Elena’s desire for autonomy, and Miles’s various reactions to it: the tension lies in his simultaneous yearning to give her what she doesn’t want (a life on Barrayar, with him) and what she does (a chance to prove her competence), both of which are technically within his power to bestow, yet neither of which he can give her – paradoxically, from his lovelorn perspective – without her say-so.

Similarly, The Mountains of Mourning – one of the most powerful, affecting novellas I’ve ever read – ¬†hinges in its entirety on a woman’s demand for justice. Though Miles is ultimately her instrument, it’s Harra’s voice that matters most: her bravery and courage in seeking redress for the murder of her disabled baby daughter, Raina, whose story becomes the secret heart of Miles’s own:

Miles had sworn his officer’s oath to the Emperor less than two weeks ago, puffed with pride at his achievement. In his secret mind he had imagined himself keeping that oath through blazing battle, enemy torture, what-have-you, even while sharing cynical cracks afterwards with Ivan about archaic dress swords and the sort of people who insisted on wearing them.

But in the dark of subtler temptations, those which hurt without heroism for consolation, he foresaw, the Emperor would no longer be the symbol of Barrayar in his heart.

Peace to you, small lady, he thought to Raina.¬†You’ve won a twisted poor modern knight, to wear your favour on his sleeve. But it’s a twisted poor world we were both born into, that rejects us without mercy and ejects us without consultation. At least I won’t just tilt at windmills for you. I’ll send in sappers to mine the twirling suckers, and blast them into the sky…

He knew who he served now. And why he could not quit. And why he must not fail.

In The Vor Game, it’s the actions of Cavilo – or rather, Metzov’s sexist underestimation of her – that sees an invasion plot fall apart. More prominently, the entire, steady reveal of Cetaganda¬†is that, despite centuries of conflict, the male-dominated Barrayaran military caste has never understood the vital role haut women play in running Cetagandan society, having assumed their public invisibility to be synonymous with political irrelevance. Miles, indeed, initially makes the same error; yet over the course of the novel, as he aids the haut Rian, he stumbled up¬†a steep learning curve to the contrary. Even in Ethan of Athos – a novel about a character from a planet of men, which is itself a delightful subversion of the many historically sexist, fetishistic instances of planets of women in SF – the titular Ethan, in his quest for new ovarian cultures with which to continue the next generation, only emerges unscathed thanks to the intervention of Elli Quinn, causing him to re-evaluate the influence of women on a world¬†devoid of same:

Ethan paused in front of the bathroom mirror before turning out the light, and studied his own face. He thought of Elli Quinn, and EQ-1. In a woman, one saw not charts and graphs and numbers, but the genes of one’s own children personified and made flesh. So, every ovarian culture on Athos cast a woman’s shadow, unacknowledged, ineradicably there.

And what had she been like, Dr. Cynthia Jane Baruch, 200 years dead now, and how much had she secretly shaped Athos, all unbeknownst to the founding fathers who had hired her to create their ovarian cultures? She who had cared enough to put herself in them? The very bones of Athos were molded to her pattern. His bones.

“Salute, Mother,” Ethan whispered, and turned away to bed. Tomorrow began the new world, and the work thereof.

In Labyrinth, which introduces soon-to-be-Sergeant Taura, the central narrative hinges on Miles’s recognition of the humanity and personhood of a girl raised to believe herself inhuman and, as a consequence, unloveable. In The Borders of Infinity, having infiltrated a prisoner of war camp, it’s the women whose discipline and aid allow Miles to effect a rescue, though tragically at the cost of one of their number. Though Brothers in Arms is concerned almost entirely with the appearance of Miles’s clone-brother, Mark, it’s the spectre of Cordelia’s Betan judgement – “What have you done with your baby brother?” – that dictates Miles’s actions. This same question motivates his actions at the start of Mirror Dance, with Cordelia’s frank acceptance of Mark – along with the actions of Elena Bothari-Jesek, Elli Quinn, Sergeant Taura and Kareen Koudelka – ultimately bringing him in from the cold. And parallel to all this action, it’s Cordelia again who delivers one of the most powerful judgements, not just of Barrayar, but of patriarchal cultures generally, in SF:

“There are, as you have just seen, two agendas being pursued here tonight,” the Countess lectured amiably. “The political one of the old men – an annual renewal of the forms of the Vor – and the genetic agenda of the old women. The men imagine theirs is the only one, but that’s just an ego-serving self-delusion. The whole Vor system is founded on the women’s game, underneath. The old men in government councils spend their lives arguing against or scheming to fund this or that bit of off-planet military hardware. Meanwhile, the uterine replicator is creeping in past their guard, and they aren’t even conscious that the debate that will fundamentally alter Barrayar’s future is being carried on right now among their wives and daughters. To use it, or not to use it? Too late to keep it out, it’s already here. The middle classes are picking it up in droves. Every mother who loves her daughter is pressing for it, to spare her the physical dangers of biological childbearing. They’re fighting not the old men, who haven’t got a clue, but an old guard of their sisters who say to their daughters, in effect, ‘We had to suffer, so must you!’ Look around tonight, Mark. You’re witnessing the last generation of men and women who will dance this dance in the old way. The Vor system is about to change on its blindest side, the side that looks to – or fails to look to – its foundation. Another half generation from now, it’s not going to know what hit it.”

As Miles recovers in Memory, he revisits the grave of Raina, his small lady, anchoring himself to the past he almost lost. Komarr, by contrast, introduces Miles to his future – to Ekaterin, whose internal narration of a marriage gone loveless and soul-destroying is painfully raw and honest. Parallel to the romantic elements of A Civil Campaign, the political aspects centre on male efforts to control women, to varying degrees and with varying purposes, but all stemming from the same seed of gendered entitlement. Ranging roughly from least to most offensive, there’s¬†Miles’s bungling attempts to woo Ekaterin, the Koudelka clan’s restriction of Kareen’s movements,¬†Ekaterin’s¬†meddling family members, and, at the more sinister end, a count creating over a hundred daughters using uterine replicators and left-over ovarian cultures to populate his barren district. There’s also Lord Dono Vorrutyer’s transition from his previous incarnation as Lady Donna, and the outrage with which this is initially greeted, to say nothing of the backroom politicking of Lady Alys Vorpatril, wrongly assumed by certain men to have no political power despite her many years at the Emperor’s side.

The follow-up story of Miles and Ekaterin’s marriage, Winterfair Gifts, is something of a Cinderella tale for Taura, and yet of equal importance is her status as a detective; of a woman¬†whose testimony is believed, despite her outsider status. In Diplomatic Immunity, the ultimate reveal is of a Cetagandan genetic agenda being carried out by a rogue servant, ostensibly acting at the behest of their dead Imperial mistress; balancing this concern is the imminent arrival of Miles and Ekaterin’s twins. Indeed, the story opens with Miles, somewhat comically, reviewing a vid of their (scientifically enabled, replicator-based) conception, with the story closing on their birth – but not before a similar event is witnessed on the Cetagandan planet of Rho Ceta, a new generation distributed to their familial constellations as the Vorkosigans look on. (As Aral¬†says in Mirror Dance, “All true wealth is biological.”)

In Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Ivan – a previously womanising character – finds himself in a marriage, initially of convenience, but growing into love. As well as engaging in a nuanced discussion of family – and particularly the relationships between grandmothers, mothers, daughters and sisters – Ivan’s union with Tej provides his mother, Lady Alys, hope of finally laying down a long-standing emotional burden: that of burning hair in offering to¬†her dead husband on the joint anniversary of his death and Ivan’s birth:

“This is a Barrayaran ceremony for remembrance,” said Lady Alys, turning to Tej. “It was always my intention, when Ivan married, to turn this task of remembrance over to him, to continue or not as he willed. Because… memory isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” Her hand reached out and gripped Illyan’s, who gripped it back in a disturbed little shake, though he smiled at her.

“Thirty-five years seems long enough, to me,” Lady Alys went on. “Long enough to mourn, quite long enough to be enraged. It’s time for me to retire from remembering. From the pain and sorrow and anger and attachment, and the smell of burning hair in the fog. For Ivan, it’s not the same, of course. His memories of this place are very different from mine.”

“I never knew,” said Ivan Xav, shifting uncomfortably. “All that.”

In Cryoburn, whose in-depth discussion of death, cryo-revival, family and the value of life provides a masterful narrative leadup to the suckerpunch of Aral’s death, the central political mystery hinges on, quite literally, giving a woman back her voice – Lisa Sato, who speaks for the living and the dead, and whose restoration to life stands in melancholy contrast to the monumental passing of Aral Vorkosigan.

Among male protagonists, Miles is already somewhat unique, in that, while he’s known in the setting primarily as a great man’s son, narratively, by dint of Cordelia being the viewpoint protagonist of Shards of Honour and Barrayar – by virtue of her actions, which we know to be extraordinary – he is also a great woman’s son. Miles himself reflects on this, in, aptly enough, The Vor Game,¬†wondering:

So why do I never think of my ambition as ship command like my mother before me?¬†Captain Cordelia Naismith, Betan Astronomical Survey, had been in the risky business of expanding the wormhole nexus jump by blind jump, for humanity, for pure knowledge, for Beta Colony’s economic advancement, for – what had driven her? She’d commanded a sixty-person survey vessel, far from home and help – there were certain enviable aspects to her former career, to be sure. Chain-of-command, for example, would have been a legal fiction out in the farbeyond, the wishes of Betan HQ a matter for speculation and side bets.

She moved so wavelessly through Barrayaran society, only her most intimate observers realized how detached she was from it, fearing no one, not even the dread Illyan, controlled by no one, not even the Admiral himself. It was the casual fearlessness, Miles decided, that made his mother so unsettling. The Admiral’s Captain. Following in her footsteps would be like firewalking.

Which brings me, at long last, back to Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, and why it matters so much that, all thoughts of continuity aside, Cordelia gets this story – this catharsis – in particular. The Vorkosigan Saga, for all it takes its name from Aral and Miles, was her story first, and as such, it would do¬†her a grave disservice to suggest, whether overtly or through implication, that she fade into the background with Aral’s death, or that her dreams die with him. As unusual as it is to see any story about polyamory, let alone one where two remaining partners negotiate a new relationship following the death of the central person they both loved most, it’s equally unusual to see such a late-life romance – Betan expected lifespan of 120 aside, Cordelia is still in her seventies – written sexually. Throw in the fact that Cordelia is twenty-six years Jole’s senior and her technologically-enabled new¬†bid for motherhood, and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is very much a unicorn novel.

And that, in every effect, is what Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan deserves. The fact that she has six grandchildren, no matter how dearly beloved, does not moot her own desire to raise six of Aral’s daughters with the man he most loved in the world. The fact of her loss – of hers and Jole’s – does not moot their mutual desire for new love, new beginnings, new recovery. The Barrayar of this sixteenth book is very different from the one first written in 1986, because for thirty¬†years, Cordelia has been shepherding its progress within in parallel to Bujold’s shepherding of their progress without.

In Shards of Honour, Aral Vorkosigan ¬†couldn’t retire from Barrayaran politics to raise a family, no matter his yearning to do just that; but in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Jole is able to step away from the military and become a professor, following his long-buried love of science as he rears his sons – his, Aral’s and Cordelia’s – alongside Cordelia’s daughters on Sergyar, the planet first traversed, discovered and colonised by Captain Naismith and Commander Vorkosigan. These social changes are poignantly referenced in an exchange between Cordelia and her eldest grandson, Alex, who feels uneasy about his own lack of any military enthusiasm:

“Your granda never went to war, you know. War came to him. And he learned to deal with it because he had to. If his older brother hadn’t been killed, if he’d never become the heir, if Mad Yuri’s war had never happened, I suspect he might have gone on to be… possibly not an artist, but I’d bet an architect. Probably one of those men who takes on vast public projects, as complicated and demanding as commanding an army, because all that Vorkosigan energy would have found its path somehow.” Like a river running in flood down from his own Dendarii mountains, bursting its banks. “Building Barrayar in another way.”

Alex’s face had gone still. “But I am the heir.”

“But living, now, in the Barrayar your granda remade, which is not like the one he inherited. You have more choices. You have all the choices you can imagine. It would have pleased him very much to know that was a gift he gave you. That your life didn’t need to be like his.” She hesitated. “Nor like your da’s, or his granda’s, or like anyone’s but your own. To the top of your bent. Whatever that bent turns out to be.”

If the revelation of Aral, Jole and Cordelia’s relationship constitutes a material change in the narrative, that’s only because the narrative of the Vorkosigan Saga has always been concerned with¬†change. Though Bujold’s early writing is ahead of her time in many ways, it’s still evident in later books that she – and her philosophies, her understanding of the world and people – are growing, evolving. Changing. This has never been a static series, and whether or not there are any more books to follow – and I dearly hope there will be; may Lois McMaster Bujold have a Betan lifespan herself, and never lose the urge or ability to write – this solid refusal to confine Cordelia to perpetual mourning is important beyond its continuation of a beloved saga. She has a new life, and a new(ish) partner – one who loved Aral with her, and who therefore understands more intimately than anyone else exactly what he meant to her, without casting her in his shadow.

With his marriage to Ekaterin and the arrival of all his children, Miles has achieved the love and security he’s craved since confusedly proposing to Elena in The Warrior’s Apprentice¬†at age seventeen. Why should Cordelia’s wishes be any less respected by the narrative? Why shouldn’t she, too, have more than one love, and be happier for it?

In Komarr Рagain, at the ending; Bujold has an enviable talent for endings РMiles shyly tells Ekaterin of his previous loves and lovers: Elena, Elli, Taura, Rowan, Rian. In asking where he found each woman, and where she subsequently ended up, Ekaterin swiftly discerns a pattern to which Miles himself is oblivious: he leaves his women stronger than he found them, better for having known him, which realisation leaves her to pass posthumous judgement on her late husband, Tien:

Tien had protected her proudly, she reflected, in the little Vor-lady fortress of her household. Tien had spent a decade protecting her so hard, especially from anything that resembled growth, she’d felt scarcely larger at thirty than she’d been at twenty. Whatever it was Vorkosigan had offered to this extraordinary list of lovers, it hadn’t been protection.

Say, then, that Aral Vorkosigan had this same knack: that Cordelia and Jole, though grieved by his passing, are stronger for having loved him Рstrong enough, in his absence, to love each other, not in his memory, but for themselves alone. Say that Cordelia has it, too: that Aral was stronger for loving her Рstrong enough, in her presence, to love more than one person, not in memory of the man he used to be, but in celebration of the man he became. Say that Jole has it. Say that he and Cordelia have it together. Say that love is not a funeral pyre, but the phoenix that rises from it.

The stories of mothers are not erased by the stories of their sons; the two are intertwined. It’s only habit that lets us fade the one into the background, foregrounding the other, forgetting which came first. Likewise, the stories of wives do not end with the deaths of their husbands; they go on, as they went on before – as Alys and Ekaterin and Cordelia go on – just in a new direction.

At the time of writing this, I am thirty years old; as old as the Vorkosigan Saga, which I have now read twice. And if I am not reading it still in thirty more years – when my own son is nearly as old as Miles; when my husband is in his seventies – I will be very much surprised.

 

Do you like Hayao Miyazaki? If so, then Fran Wilde’s Updraft¬†is the book for you.

That’s a big claim, so let me back up and explain it. The first volume in Wilde’s Bone Universe series, Updraft is narrated by Kirit, a young woman who lives in a city of living bone towers high above the clouds. Eager to past her wingtest and become a trader, Kirit’s dreams are abruptly derailed when she breaks Tower Law and encounters a skymouth, one of the invisible, tentacled monsters that periodically threatens her home. Taken by the Singers, the mysterious order who governs from the Spire, Kirit must struggle to make sense of her city and its secrets¬†in order to survive – and to save the people she loves.

All the way through Updraft, and despite the clear originality of the setting Рinvisible creatures! bone towers! РI had a niggling sensation of familiarity. And then it struck me: Miyazaki. Across all his many films, certain elements are consistently present, if not always exhibited in the same ways: single-person flying machines, capable young heroines whose primary relationships are platonic or familial rather than romantic, tentacled monsters, lost history. All these elements are central to Updraft, and given the skilful pacing and construction Рto say nothing of how neatly everything hangs together at the end while still leaving enough unanswered questions to explore in subsequent novels Рthe overall effect is like reading a novelized Miyazaki story.

The setting, in particular, is an extremely visual one, and it’s a testament to Wilde’s skill as a writer that she manages to so clearly convey such a unique visual space and its occupying society¬†in such clean, quick prose. Small details like the use of bone scraps in lieu of paper, the breeding of batlike flying creatures and small spidery insects by tower residents, the use of symbols and songs as teaching tools and the construction of the ubiquitous wings used to traverse the city are all incorporated seamlessly into the narrative, fleshing out the environment like a series of accomplished panning shots. It’s exactly the sort of novel that not only deserves, but structurally begs for an adaptation, and were such a thing to happen, I’d be first in line to see it.

Updraft is an amazing first novel, and I highly recommend it. Wilde has created a truly captivating setting, an intriguing culture and a memorable set of characters, and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Content warning: all the spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inqusition. 

Trigger warning: some discussion of slavery and sexual abuse.

Late last year, due in no small part to the visibility of its online fandom, I finally discovered the Dragon Age games. Seeing that there were three of them, I started Рas is traditional Рwith the first one, Dragon Age: Origins. Unsurprisingly, given that both were created by BioWare, the gameplay mechanics reminded me of nothing so much as Knights of the Old Republic Рmorality engines, dialogue trees and a politically diverse circle of supporting characters engaging with a mute (to the player) protagonist; being attacked in temporary arenas between one map and the next; even the battle menus and combat style felt similar. Though underwhelmed by the ridiculousness of the female body types on offer (NOT EVERY NPC NEEDS THE SAME IMPLAUSIBLY PERFECT BOOBS REGARDLESS OF AGE OR HEIGHT, OH MY GOD), offput by the smattering of bizarre (both contextually and as a narrative choice) misogyny and lukewarm on the general DNDishness of the setting, I nonetheless found myself getting sucked in.

My first Warden was a Dalish elf, Lyna Mahariel. I fell into romancing Alistair with her almost by accident, which is precisely why the relationship was¬†so compelling: it felt¬†natural, a slow-burn progression from comrades to lovers, and despite a brief flirtation with Zevran, Lyna stayed with him. Yet even when the ease of the connection made me think the game was subtly engineered to give Alistair and the Warden a happily ever after, the plot itself proved satisfyingly more complex. Depending on my actions and despite being¬†romanced, Alistair could still become a wandering drunk or the king of Ferelden, assuming he didn’t stay a Grey Warden – and even with that particular outcome, Morrigan’s actions at the finale were an unexpected complication. Though I ultimately stalled out on the final battle – as is typical of me when first playing a¬†game, I’d largely ignored such vital things as weapons upgrades and advanced tactics in favour of the emotional storyline, and thereby left myself critically underpowered – the franchise had won enough of my favour that I moved straight ahead to Dragon Age 2.

And fell instantly, brutally in love with it.

Ordinarily,¬†when given the chance to make a custom game protagonist, I stick to women, not because I dislike male characters, but because I’m so rarely offered the choice to play as anyone else. Years ago, in a deliberate departure from this norm, I rolled a male Jedi in Knights of the Old Republic. Despite having played the game three or more times by that point, I’d never realised Bastila was a potential romance option: I’d only ever played as a woman, and while I’d always found her more compelling than Carth, it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that a male protagonist would get different dialogue options until I saw it mentioned online. But when I tried to play that way, I was shocked by how quickly I became bored. There are so many stories about talented, exceptional men taking command in a crisis that the game itself felt vastly less original than when I played as a woman: those opening scenes, instead of being revelatory, felt utterly clich√©. At the time, I’d encountered so few visibly queer narratives in any form of media – and none at all in video games – that I couldn’t even articulate the problem as one of homophobia in KOTOR’s construction. Instead, there was just a nameless sense of frustration, exclusion: why should I have to enjoy the game less in order to access more of it? Why couldn’t I romance Bastila as I was?

Despite winding up in a hetero romance in Origins – I never quite warmed enough to Leliana enough to want to pursue her, though Isabela, in her brief appearance, charmed the hell out of me – I appreciated the visibility of queerness as an option. Going into DA2, however, I knew that Anders was a male romance option, which I hadn’t known initially about Zevran or Leliana. In fact, that was almost all I knew: I’d seen fanart of some¬†other characters¬†online, but for whatever reason, most of what had crossed my path involved Anders. Armed with this knowledge, for the first time in over twenty years of gaming, I chose to play a male character in direct anticipation of the fact¬†that he could – and would – be queer. Like me, I thought, hands gripping the controller. Hawke is queer like me. And what was more, the game itself was going to let me prove it.

An invisible detail, at least at the outset. But knowing I could act on it – knowing it mattered – made the story new for me in a way I hadn’t expected; made it intimate, powerful. My warrior Hawke, who looked like Aragorn and snarked like Sam Vimes – who could’ve passed for any one of dozens of fantasy heroes in films and books and TV shows – was queer, not just because I said he was, but because the game agreed. I had no idea who Anders was, but goddamn, was I ready to find out.

And then it happened. Or rather, Fenris did.

Given a paucity of options, scraps can feel like a banquet. Possibly I knew, in some habitual mental recess, that Anders wasn’t the only queer romance option available to me, but starting the game, that’s certainly how it felt. I never imagined that all four love interests – four, not five; I haven’t yet played with Sebastian – would be accessible regardless of Hawke’s gender, let alone that¬†I’d be tempted by all of them. (Though Morrigan is straightlocked, she and¬†Leliana struck me as having more and better chemistry than either did with my Warden.) But having begun the game with a specific option in mind – an option which already felt revelatory, even before I’d met the mage – I didn’t expect to be so comprehensively swayed by an alternative.

I can’t pinpoint the precise moment¬†I sold my soul to Dragon Age, but it probably involves lyrium tattoos and the voice of Gideon Emery, is what I’m saying.

Fenris, as a character, isn’t easy to woo. By turns, he’s defensive and laconic, prickly and aloof. If I had to pick the single biggest failing of Origins as a game, it would be the Warden’s silence: it’s hard to get a solid read on character¬†reactions when half of every conversation is¬†rendered without body language, inflection, tone. But Hawke, however you play them, is an undeniable presence – a character whose foibles exist, not just in the player’s mind, but on screen. I’d meant to romance Anders, but his intensity soon proved far more¬†unsettling than even his spirit possession. “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe!” he vows, at a point where Hawke has done nothing more than flirt while exhibiting kindness to mages. It was – and is, I believed, intended to be – a red flag, hinting at the tragic events of the game’s finale: a violent, possessive promise whose fervency is utterly disproportionate to the not-even-yet-a-relationship to which it refers. And besides, I was fascinated with Fenris, a character whose trope-riddled construction ought to have undermined him – he is, in every literal particular, a touch-starved amnesiac elven ex-slave with magic tattoos, waifu combat prowess and impossibly white hair; the archetypal¬†broken bird¬†in every way but¬†gender – but which only served to make him more compelling.

Seventeen hours into the game, having bungled all my initial interactions with Fenris, I quit and restarted in order to romance him properly. Even though I was playing through the exact same levels back to back, I never lost my interest.

Right now, I’ve just embarked on¬†my second, also back to back playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition. (I’ve also got a new Origins game on the go – romancing Zevran, this time – but while I’m having fun, I’m enjoying Inquisition more.) The third game confused me when I first tried it, not least because the combat and controls are so markedly different to those of DA2. The jump button is contextually ridiculous, the open world slows the emotional pacing – doubly so in my case, as I’d assumed personal quests would trigger automatically, and so missed many pertinent conversations -and it’s easy to miss the subtleties of the war table. Almost, I gave the whole thing up after the first few hours. But given how much I’d loved DA2, I decided to stick around, if only to give Inquisitor Callum Trevelyan the chance to romance Dorian. (In this new game, I’m Asha Adaar, and flirting with everyone I meet. It’s glorious.)

But the thing is –

The thing is, I meant for this to be a post about Thedas itself: about the politics and problems of the various games, where I stand on mages and templars, and how this all impacts my love of the characters, whose backgrounds and personalities are, with a few notable exceptions, overwhelmingly well-constructed. And we’re still going to get to all that stuff: the real meta is forthcoming. But what I had to say first – what I want to make clear – is how fucking important these games are to me, in their exploration and open acceptance of queerness. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, the extent to which I currently overidentify with Krem Aclassi and Dorian Pavus cannot be measured by your human science. Dragon Age¬†is the first time I’ve ever played as¬†a queer character in video games, at a time when I badly needed exactly that sort of representation, and for that gift, I will love it forever, flaws and all.

Which is why – or one reason why, at least – I feel profoundly irritated by criticism of Dorian’s portrayal in Inquisition:¬†specifically, the idea that his companion quest¬†is badly written because it’s about his queerness. This is a position for which I would maybe have some sympathy if Dorian was the only queer character in Inquisition, instead of – as is actually the case – one of six (or seven, depending on your Hawke). Even if we discount non-romanceable characters – and I’d rather not, frankly; the fact that the Inquisitor can’t sleep with Krem or Hawke or Leliana doesn’t make their presence in the narrative any less important – we’re still left with Sera, Josephine and the Iron Bull, none of whose arcs are contingent on their sexuality.

Nor, despite hinging on Halward’s rejection of Dorian’s queerness, is his quest unrelated to the main plot. In a narrative driven by a Tevinter magister’s misuse of blood magic, Dorian’s arc serves as a poignant microcosm of the whole: where Corypheus attempts to forcibly remake the entire world, Halward Pavus attempts to forcibly remake his son. In a game where the Inquisition allies with the mages at Redcliffe, this comparison is rendered even more devastating by the actions of Alexius, Dorian’s mentor, who similarly abuses magic in an attempt to save his own son, Felix: an awful, inverted parallel to Halward’s actions, but with far greater repercussions. Just as pertinently, the inclusion of what amounts to magical conversion therapy in Thedas – we’re never told exactly what “change” Halward meant to affect, but the implications are universally frightening – is powerful all by itself, not least because it doesn’t end in tragedy. Off the top of my head, I can think of exactly one narrative that engages with queer conversion and still has a happily ever after – the 1999 film But I’m A Cheerleader¬†– and while there are doubtless others, that doesn’t detract from their rarity.

What irks me most about this dismissal of Dorian’s arc, however, is the way in which it implicitly categorises Sera, Bull and Josephine as not queer enough.¬†This might seem paradoxical, given the nature of the original complaint,¬†and yet we have an unfortunate cultural tendency, in our discussions of queerness, to situate gay men as being somehow more queer than anyone else; or at least, more significantly so. In this context,¬†I’m thinking particularly of¬†bi/pan erasure: left to their own romantic devices, Bull and Dorian end up together, and yet every complaint I’ve seen which¬†cites this as part of Dorian being an¬†obviously¬†queer character neglects¬†to complain likewise of Bull.

Oh, but it’s not like that! Dorian is flamboyant, and Bull isn’t! Dorian draws attention to his sexuality, and Bull doesn’t!¬†Listen, I don’t know what game you guys were playing, but it’s Bull who initiates all the early flirting and sexual banter: he’s open about his queerness from the outset, whereas Dorian takes a long time to be anywhere near so comfortable. By the same token, the fact that¬†Dorian is cultured and witty doesn’t make him flamboyant, and even if we’re talking about his clothing choices, Bull’s the one who goes around top-half naked except for a leather harness, joking about his pecs. I’ve often seen Dorian criticised along such lines, but never Bull – even, or perhaps especially, when such observations more rightly apply to him.

It’s¬†like a kind of¬†straw¬†pareidolia: the seeing of stereotypes where none exist, the better to criticise them. Nor is it the only such example of what I’m coming to think of as the DA fandom’s peculiar meta-blindness: a sort of, if not exactly wilful, then stubborn oversimplification of culture and context. Which isn’t to say¬†that I’ve never read any good DA meta, or that the franchise itself is somehow flawless – neither of those things are remotely true. Rather, I suspect, it’s a reflection of confusion in the source material. As a franchise, Dragon Age is¬†intensely invested in discussing the politics and ramifications of¬†fictional axes of oppression (mages, elves) in a setting that borrows heavily from historical axes of oppression (slavery, aristocracy), but which frequently stumbles when it comes to current axes of oppression (race, gender), all of which intersect with each other in various complex ways.

The practical upshot is that, as the creators have a tendency to neglect the current implications of their fictional and the historical elements in unfortunate ways, fans are correspondingly quick to confuse creation with endorsement: that is, to conflate the deliberate inclusion of particular fictional or historical injustices with the unconscious perpetration of current prejudices. This loss of subtlety can be particularly vexing when it comes to historical (or historically inspired, at least) axes, which are most often a synthesis of the fictional and the current, though in one particular instance, I have every sympathy as to why.

I want to tread very carefully here, but given how integral the concept is to the morality problems of DA2 and Inquisition in particular, I don’t think it’s possible to unpick the world of Dragon Age without addressing slavery. And so – carefully, carefully – I’m going to try.

Right off the bat, it needs to be acknowledged: slavery, with all its awful, degrading consequences, is a theme¬†more current than historical, no matter how much some of us¬†pretend otherwise. That being so, the issue – the concept – is vastly more personal to some than others, and for a number of different reasons. Because of my privilege, I’m not one of those people, but that doesn’t make me magically objective on the topic: it just means that, no matter how abhorrent I find the particulars, I’m not going to hurt myself by discussing them, though I may well, despite the best of intentions, hurt others in the attempt. As such, I’m going to try and situate this analysis firmly in the context of Thedas itself, drawing on historical comparisons only if absolutely necessary.

In DA2, the primary conflict is between mages and templars, with Anders and Fenris acting as mirrored exponents for the¬†extreme end of each position. Anders, a human apostate escaped from the Circle, is outraged by the abuse and captivity of mages, seeking to free them by (almost) any means necessary. Fenris, an elven slave escaped from Tevinter, which is run by magisters, doesn’t believe that mages can be trusted without oversight. Anders compares the Circle to slavery; Fenris, who has been a slave – and subject to considerable, horrific abuse in that capacity – disputes the comparison.¬†It’s also pertinent to note that, whereas Anders belongs to a human majority, Fenris is an elf, which makes him both a minority and a member of a race specifically targeted for slavery. Further compounding this from a player’s perspective, although this element isn’t discussed in-game, is the fact that Anders is white, while Fenris is brown.

What’s also deeply relevant, in terms of how magic works in Dragon Age, is the fact that mages are oppressed along a fundamentally fictional axis. By this, I don’t mean to say that mages aren’t hurt in realistic ways, or that their treatment has no real-world parallels: they are, and it does. But as with the various¬†supernatural creatures of True Blood – a show which made overt and frequent comparisons between, for instance, anti-vampire sentiment and the historical persecution of black and Jewish people – the fundamental, inborn quality which sees mages classed as dangerous isn’t just a racist myth of inferiority, but a thing which actually exists in context. Namely: mages have magic, which grants them access to the Fade, where demons live. Mages can be corrupted or possessed by demons, either accidentally or willingly. Mages have the capacity to use blood magic, some of which discipline is merely stigmatised, but much of which involves material hurt to others, and all of which, if mishandled or poorly executed, can result in demonic release or possession.

This being so, all mages, trained or untrained, regardless of their intentions, are at least potentially dangerous by virtue of what they are: the seed of fear used to justify their oppression is, at base, true. In fact, the Dragon Age system of magic is one of the more damning and punitive I’ve ever encountered in fiction. In other settings, for instance, it’s common for mages to be dangerous only when untrained: accidental harm can be clearly distinguished from intentional harm, making¬†rational caution of mages easier to distinguish from irrational fear. But in Dragon Age, whenever mages dream, they have to listen to actual whispering demons. Mages are constantly under siege from malevolent entities seeking to corrupt or control them, and while it’s often said in-world, usually by someone like Anders, that “Tevinter exists, and the world hasn’t ended”¬†– meaning, there is a place where mages live without Circles, and it hasn’t imploded¬†– the fact that Tevinter not only spawns Corypheus, who does almost destroy the world, but is a slave-based empire responsible for centuries of imperialism makes it… not a morally compelling argument.

Elves, by contrast,¬†while similarly fictional, are mistreated solely on the basis of a racist myth of inferiority: they might not actually exist, but the axis of their oppression is certainly real. Which means, returning to the specific setup of DA2, that comparing Fenris with¬†Anders – to say nothing of the two camps they ultimately represent – is an activity rife¬†with pitfalls. Mages are human – or elven, or Qunari – and their magic is inborn. It can’t be repressed and, except at the expense of being made Tranquil, which is abhorrent, it can’t be removed. At the same time, magic itself – the act of having magic at all – is arguably terrifying. Even without the prospect of a child being taken from their parents to be raised in a Circle, Jedi-style but without the galactic kudos, being a mage means a lifetime spent contending with literal demons. Being a mage is like being born with a sword in your hand: the presence of the weapon is no guarantee of aptitude, you’re as likely to cut yourself as do harm to others, and it makes you a visible target of mortal fear and monstrous appetites both.

In short, mages vs templars in Dragon Age is a morality problem with no obvious, easy solutions: the ultimate in quis custodiet ipsos custodes. The potential danger posed by mages¬†doesn’t justify the abuse to which they’re subjected¬†under the Circle system, but nor is the general fear of mages irrational. Contextually, magic is almost like a disease vector, with demonic abuse as the virus: skill and intention won’t necessarily prevent a¬†mage from infecting themselves or others, which leaves vigilance as the only real recourse. It’s zombie apocalypse logic in a fantasy setting, but hard to identify as such because, in most other fantasy settings, which create our collective expectations of the genre’s baseline, magic-users aren’t persecuted with anywhere near so valid a reason.

And for players trying to navigate moral decisions surrounding the use and restriction of magic, the issue is further compounded by the fact that, in all three games, it’s magic that fuels the enemy, and mages from within the protagonist’s camp who ultimately betray their allies. It’s worth analysing this pattern in-depth, if only because the actual gameplay mechanic – which is to say, the handwavy justification for the creation of multiply-spawning, must-be-killed-to-death enemies for the party to encounter – can often serve to obscure exactly how fucked up the situation is when viewed at a remove.

In Origins, on joining the Grey Wardens, the protagonist learns that the Wardens are initiated by drinking darkspawn blood, a ritual which, if it doesn’t kill them outright, will shorten their lives and eventually require them to commit suicide. In Redcliffe, it’s the Arlessa’s decision to keep her son, Connor, away from the Circle that leads to¬†his demon possession and the death of almost an entire town. At the Circle on Lake Calenhad, the rebellion of a cabal of mages leads to the death or possession of almost their whole¬†number, along with every templar bar one – Cullen Rutherford, more of whom later – who was trapped with them. In the Brecilian Forest, the Dalish Keeper, Zathrian, is revealed to have used his magic to create¬†a monstrous werewolf, whose bite has infected hundreds of innocents over a period of decades. In Orzammar, the Paragon Branka becomes so consumed with the need to replicate an ancient magical technology that she allows her friends and lover to be consumed by darkspawn; is even willing to kill other dwarves in order to make new golems. And after all this, there’s the final sacrifice: Morrigan’s magic can help to defeat the archdemon, but at the cost of virginal Alistair, who prizes¬†family connections and romantic fidelity, siring a child he’s never allowed to see with a woman he hates. “Good” magic might beat “evil” on the battlefield when reduced to the status of a tool defined by the hand which wields it, but it’s the callousness of a power-hungry apostate that packs the emotional suckerpunch at the finale, and with everything that’s come before, it’s hard to view it as an isolated incident.

Similarly, in Inquisition, despite the ostensible division between mages and templars when it comes to picking allies, abuse of magic and demonic interference is the root problem in both camps. Corypheus, the long-dead Tevinter magister-turned-demigod, uses both primeval red lyrium – an effectively magical substance – and various mages and demons to try and destroy the world. Demons pour into Thedas from a rip in the Veil, and while, as always, magic is used to combat magic, the emotional betrayal of the finale comes when Solas, the elven apostate, is revealed to be the trickster god Fen’Harel, whose quest to remake a past age anew was ultimately what caused the rise of Corypheus and the near-breaking of the world.

And thus, returning to DA2, the strangeness of the contrast between Fenris and Anders, templars and mages. The city of Kirkwall, where the story unfolds, is also called the City of Chains, having been founded by Tevinter mages and famed, once upon a time, for being a major slave-trading hub. The Gallows, where the Circle mages now live, was formerly reserved for slaves, and in snippets throughout the game, we also learn the city itself is constructed in such a way as to make the Veil thinner. Blood magic is performed more easily, yet goes awry more often, while demons are stronger, more powerful there: the legacy of Tevinter and its magical priorities, or (possibly) something darker, buried underground. While there’s a clear thematic comparison in mages living where magisters once kept slaves – and while it’s clear that the resident templar Knight-Commander, Meredith, has always taken a hard line against her charges – we also learn at the finale that her ultimate descent into madness is the result of infection by red lyrium: by, in essence, the very same magic she feared. And once again, it’s the resident apostate, Anders, who concludes the game with an emotional betrayal, orchestrating a magical explosion that kills hundreds of innocents in a strike against, not the templar order, but the Chantry, which in Kirkwall was run by a moderate.

I don’t know how else to say this but baldly: by game’s end, Anders is a terrorist. Blowing up the Chantry is a literal act of terrorism, being as how it constitutes a military strike on a non-military target, and if it were performed by a character who wasn’t an attractive white guy, I’m guessing that description of him wouldn’t be so rare. And no, before you mention it, in this specific instance, I don’t care that the Chantry is ultimately responsible for creating the templar order: Grand Cleric Elthina appointed¬†Knight-Commander Meredith, but she was also trying to compromise with the mages, blocking Meredith’s call for the Right of Annulment. Anders, in picking the Chantry as his target, specifically states, “There can be no half-measures… there can be no peace. I removed the chance of compromise because there is no compromise.”¬†Only a Sith deals in absolutes, and that is not the language of someone who’s sorry to murder strangers.¬†

The extent to which the extremity of this stance can be¬†attributed to Anders being possessed by Justice/Vengeance – and therefore the extent of his personal culpability, were the spirit removed- is going to vary depending on who you ask. Personally, I’m inclined to judge him – him meaning Anders/Justice as a single entity – in the context of his actions throughout the game, and in that light, he remains consistent throughout. Romantically, I shied away from Anders because of his violent intensity, and given his claim to Hawke¬†that “Justice disapproves of my obsession with you,” I’m inclined to view his¬†earlier promise –¬†“I would drown us in blood to keep you safe!”¬†– as a sign that, even when acting on his own impulses, Anders is still possessed of some frightening qualities. And¬†Justice, by the magical rules of Dragon Age, was originally a pure spirit. From the examples set by Wynne and Cole, we know it’s possible for benevolent spirits to remain benevolent while possessing humans; similarly, according to Solas, good spirits can become “twisted”, their nature “defiled” by humans who misuse them. Even though it’s Justice who convinces Anders to fight the oppression of mages, therefore, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that Anders himself corrupts the spirit to Vengeance.

But however you attribute Anders’s actions, canonically speaking, it’s hard to argue against his hypocrisy. Speaking to Fenris, he¬†says of the Circle mages, “They’re slaves! You should want to help them.”¬†And yet, despite having made this comparison, Anders is singularly dismissive of Fenris’s actual experience of slavery, saying to Hawke, “He has let one bad experience colour his whole world. Surely you want someone more open-minded?”¬†Worse, in the same conversation – and despite his vehement objection to Cullen’s claim that “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me,” – he says of Fenris – to Hawke, but in Fenris’s hearing –¬†“He seems less a man to me than a wild dog.”¬†This is an abominable insult, and quite deliberately so: in fact, it’s a rare, clear instance where the fictional, historical and current axes of oppression all completely align. Fictionally, elves are oppressed in Thedas, with one of the most common slurs – “rabbit” – being animal in nature; by the same token, Anders is also aware that Fenris’s name, given to him by his abusive former master, means “little wolf”. Historically, slaves have often been compared to animals in such derogatory terms; which is why, currently, referring in particular to a brown man as a “wild dog” – especially when the speaker is a white man – is reminiscent of some truly ugly things.

But of course, Anders is an attractive white man presented as a viable romantic option for the protagonist, and so we – culturally conditioned creatures that we are – don’t readily stop to consider that he is simultaneously written as a prejudiced hypocritical terrorist; and more, that he is written this way on purpose. We are meant to be morally conflicted by Anders, just as we are meant to be morally conflicted by Morrigan and Solas – and yet, over and over and over again, in discussions of all three characters, I see their deliberate failings written off as BioWare’s¬†accidental failings, as though the writers are merely including problematic or offensive dialogue for no good reason, and not because it’s serving the purpose of demonstrating bigotry in the characters. Morrigan’s appropriation of elven culture in Inquisition isn’t the result of¬†BioWare failing to¬†consider the negative implications of a human drinking from the Well of Sorrows, but a deliberate choice designed to make the player uncomfortable; hence the clear comparison with Dorian, who understands exactly why he, as a human mage from Tevinter, shouldn’t be the one to steal elven secrets, even if the intention is preservation.

Inarguably, part of the problem is the sheer complexity and length of the games themselves. A single¬†playthrough of Inquisition¬†alone can take upwards of eighty hours, and even then, you’re not going to witness anywhere near the full total of cutscenes and dialogue options. Being a compulsive dork, I tend to play through the first time with a Wiki open on my iPad, just in case I get stuck; the phenomenon I’m observing, that meta-blindness, may simply be the result of multiple players writing from incomplete perspectives. If you don’t take Dorian to the Arbor Wilds and ask him his opinion at the Well of Sorrows, for instance, it won’t be immediately obvious that his¬†counterexample to Morrigan exists – and yet, at the same time, I can’t help thinking that whiteness, beauty and romantic availability go a long way towards fostering the automatic assumption that, regardless of what such a character said, if it makes them look bad or cruel or bigoted, it’s a writing error until proven otherwise. See also: Solas telling a Tal-Vashoth Inquisitor that “Qunari are savage creatures… but you have shown a subtlety in your actions,”¬†which insult has lead someone to ask, without any apparent irony, “Does BioWare not realise what they’re doing?”. Yes, random internet person: yes, they do. They want you to think Solas is an asshole.

There is also, I’ve found, an even more disturbing parallel to this phenomenon of presumed white character innocence: assumed brown character guilt. For every post I’ve seen that criticises¬†BioWare for unintentionally painting Solas or Morrigan in a bigoted light, I’ve seen at least three others castigating Dorian – not the writers, but Dorian himself – for being a former slave owner.

Take a moment for that particular double standard to sink in.

By this toxic, racist logic, if a white character is problematic or bigoted, it’s because BioWare made a mistake and didn’t realise the negative implications – but if a brown character is problematic or bigoted, it was clearly intentional, and the character cops the flak. Consider, for instance, the problem of Vivienne: a black woman whose racial identity, as others¬†have pointed out, is almost an afterthought, unattached as it is to any particular region in Thedas. Vivienne is often criticised for being cold, impersonal or cruel, but while I’ve sometimes seen the more problematic aspects of her characterisation attributed to BioWare, who perhaps¬†didn’t consider¬†the current racial implications of making their lone¬†black female character an advocate for systematic oppression (an unchanged Circle, in this case), more often than not, she’s simply dismissed as unlikeable.

Dorian’s case, I feel, is slightly trickier (see above re: privilege and slavery), and yet his characterisation as a “slavery apologist” niggles at me. Specifically: it niggles because a similar claim isn’t ever made of Cullen Rutherford.

Why Cullen, you ask? Allow me to explain:

In Origins, Cullen is the lone templar survivor of the disaster at the Lake Calenhad Circle, a deeply traumatic experience which – somewhat understandably – leaves him with a vehement fear of mages. As such, when we see him in DA2, he’s Knight-Commander Meredith’s right hand; that he ultimately aids Hawke and the mages against her (if you take that option) doesn’t change the fact that, for the seven year duration of the game’s events, he’s been complicit in some pretty horrific atrocities, including summary executions, regular torture and confinement, mages being unfairly made Tranquil, and their systematic rape and sexual abuse. That Cullen hasn’t necessarily done all these things himself doesn’t¬†absolve him of his role in letting them flourish; certainly, he knows about some of it, and does nothing. But by the events of Inquisition, he’s finally learned to question: though still traumatised, he’s willing to work with mages, and acknowledges them as people. Give the man a cookie!

Particularly in DA2 – which is to say, in with reference to the Kirkwall Circle, supervised by Cullen – we’re encouraged to compare Circle conditions to slavery. And certainly, whatever we might conclude about the innate dangers of mages and the practises of Circles elsewhere, in that time and place, it’s a very apt comparison. Dorian, by contrast, is raised in Tevinter – a place where elves are enslaved by virtue of being elves, but where humans can choose to indenture themselves as an alternative to poverty. This latter option is historically reminiscent of Rome, on which Tevinter is largely based, but at the same time, it’s very clear that Tevinter is its own ecosystem.

Many moons ago, I expressed my irritation with a phenomenon I think of as Sexism Without Sexists: stories where women are oppressed as a narrative default, but where the male heroes are never shown to be overtly sexist, thus enabling the creation of stories¬†where female agency is restricted (and female characters correspondingly minimised) without damaging the likeability of the male protagonists. Since Origins, Tevinter has been established as a slave-owning country, and seldom treated with any moral subtlety as a consequence. Which, yes, on the one hand, if a country is pro-slavery, we can be pretty sure they’re not a bunch of stand-up guys. But on the other hand, one of¬†the most horrific things about slavery is the fact that, for those not enslaved, it becomes a background element: that life goes on around it, facilitated by it, and mostly without critiquing it. And in both DA2 and Inquisition,¬†it’s clear that BioWare is trying to move beyond simplistic, Black Hat notions of Bad Guy cultures, even if they are still using literal evil monsters like Corypheus (because fantasy tropes). Together with the changes to Tevinter, this shift is exemplified by the steady development of the Qunari from ‘conveniently warlike culture of monstrous-looking invaders’ to ‘startlingly original and complex culture of weirdly socialist, polyamorous, non-monogamous philosopher-warriors’, which is definitely a change for the better.

Similarly, in addition to establishing Tevinter and the Qunari as convenient Bad Guys, Origins also set the precedent for both nations being majority dark-skinned, or at least non-white, which… I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s problematic. By the same token, whitewashing both races in future games as a “fix” to this would’ve been equally unpalatable – and so, instead, BioWare has gone about giving their cultures nuance and depth, trying to create something positive from the mess of their early mistakes. If we’d never heard of Tevinter before Inquisition, that would be one thing; but as part of a developing narrative about an established world, it’s vital to look at how portrayals of both Tevinter and the Qunari have become more complex since Origins.

And thus, Dorian Pavus: a character intended to represent a positive scion of¬†Tevinter without making obnoxious use¬†of Slavery Without Slavers. It would’ve been easy in the extreme to paint Dorian as an abolitionist from birth; to make him a convenient exception to everything we hate about his country. Instead, BioWare took the harder option of acknowledging that yes, good people, however we define so perilously nebulous a term, aren’t magically immune to the uglier sides of the cultures which raise them; that questioning has to be learned. Dorian is critical of slavery, but that doesn’t mean he automatically accepts that abject poverty is somehow marvellous, either. Consider, in-game, the treatment of Kirkwall’s Circle mages; the treatment of elves in Ferelden alienages. Whether fictional, historical or current, a system of oppression doesn’t have to be called slavery in order to be morally reprehensible, or to mimic certain of slavery’s abuses.

(By the same token, when Solas says to Dorian, “If you wish to make amends for past transgressions, free the slaves of all races who live in Tevinter today,” the fact that Dorian replies with “I… don’t know that I can do that,” isn’t apologia for slavery, but a literal statement of fact. He, Dorian, physically cannot do this thing, because Dorian is only one person. When Solas says “you” in this conversation, he’s talking about Dorian in the singular, not Tevinters in the plural, as contextualised by their previous remarks: Solas, being a provocative shit, is suggesting Dorian do an impossible thing, and Dorian, being honest, is acknowledging that he can’t, not stating that he shouldn’t.)

The care taken to construct Dorian’s perspective, however, is most obvious when you compare his remarks on slavery to those of Fenris. In DA2, during Fenris’s personal quest, the slave Orana¬†exclaims, “Everything was fine until today!”¬†To which Fenris, quiet and raw, replies, “It wasn’t. You just didn’t know any better.”¬†This remark is a reference to Fenris’s time with the Qunari Fog Warriors on Seheron – people who helped him during his first separation from Danarius, but who he subsequently killed on his master’s orders. (“Are you my master now?” Orana asks next. And then, when Fenris says not, “But… I can cook. I can clean! What else can I do?”) Slavery, as Fenris knows all too well, is a mindset as much as an institution: obedience, even (or perhaps especially) to one’s abusers, is a habit not easily broken.

And Dorian understands this, too. Asked about slavery, he says, “Back home, it’s… how it is. Slaves are everywhere. You don’t question it. I’m not even certain many slaves do.”¬†His subsequent statement – “Some slaves are treated poorly, it’s true. But do you honestly think inescapable poverty is better?” – isn’t exactly a glowing denunciation; at best, it reads as flippant understatement mixed with false equivalence. Yet even so, you’ll have to explain to me, please and thank you, why this is a fundamentally more repugnant, more utterly unforgivable statement than Cullen’s claim, in DA2, that¬†“Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me.”¬†Dorian, however wrongheadedly, is at least acknowledging that slaves don’t deserve to be mistreated; Cullen’s statement is far more viciously biogted, denying his charges even their basic humanity. And whereas Cullen has personally presided over the monstrous abuse at¬†the Kirkwall Circle, Dorian, we’re told, has never seen his family mistreat their slaves, nor owned any himself. He spends the rest of the game – this comment being made early on – expanding his horizons.

Dorian Pavus¬†has far fewer sins to his name than Cullen Rutherford when it comes to the abuse of powerless people under his control, yet of the two, it’s Dorian who’s more often cast as irredeemable, Dorian’s fans who are asked to justify their affection. The truth is, both men are¬†morally complicated- BioWare, it seems, don’t do anything so dreary as simplex morality if they can help it – and both are offered redemption by the narrative. Cullen wants to find a new way for mages and templars to work together; Dorian wants to reform Tevinter. I’m not going to criticise anyone who draws the line at absolving them for their sins or who fundamentally dislikes either character, but I can and will point out the hypocrisy of fandom, as a collective entity, routinely pardoning the straight white man while demonising the queer brown one.

Returning briefly to the topic of queerness: while I understand the disappointment some fans felt regarding the romance options in Inquisition – specifically the fact that, unlike in DA2, the love interests had static¬†orientations, rather than being protagsexual – I also think there’s value in acknowledging that queerness isn’t amorphous, but is constructed from multiple different identities. A protagsexual Dorian, for instance, by dint of being bi/pan, wouldn’t have had the same conversion therapy arc; or at the very least, it couldn’t have been told the same way. The fact that two people are queer doesn’t mean they have identical experiences of queerness, and as much as I’d love to romance Cassandra as Asha Adaar – and as much as my gleeful bisexual heart will forever love DA2 for making everyone bi/pan, it’s literally canon, fight me – it’s equally important to acknowledge a spectrum of sexual preferences and their potentially different narrative impact. (Dear BioWare, if you’re listening: why not alternate this approach from game to game? Make the next DA protagsexual again, and the one after that more specific. ALL THE QUEER ROMANCEABLES, huzzah!)

Nor is this the only important aspect of Inquisition which, from where I’m sitting, seems to get less praise than it deserves. In many respects, in fact, it’s rather revelatory, not least because the Inquisition itself is driven by women. The Inquisitor is saved from the fade by the spirit of Divine Justinia, then taken into custody by Cassandra and Leliana, the right and left hands of the now-dead Divine, who’ve taken it upon themselves to recruit, among others, Cullen and Josephine. This, too, feels like a correction of early DA errors: Origins in particular is notable for having established an ostensibly egalitarian world – or at least, a world in which women can equally fight and rule and lead in various capacities, and where the primarily religious organisation is female-dominated – while simultaneously making almost all the relevant, authoritative NPCs men. DA2 makes a stab at correcting this, but ultimately, Grand Cleric Elthina, Leandra Hawke, Patrice, Hadriana and Knight-Commander Meredith are either politely ineffectual or wickedly corrupt: it’s First Enchanter Orsino, the Viscount and his son, Commander Cullen, Danarius, Gamlen, the Arishok and a succession of male intermediaries who show a full range of moral complexity while nudging the plot along.

In Inquisition, however, not only does Josephine’s introduction render¬†the Inner Circle predominantly female, but the game’s entire narrative is arguably split, at least in part, along gender lines. This is, of necessity, subtly done; which is to say, the women are neither absent nor saintlike, the men made of sterner, more complex stuff than straw. Rather, we’re shown a series of power struggles in which women are granted a variety of roles, and where male arrogance is largely expressed as a function of contextual male privilege. Grand¬†Enchanter Fiona is pitted against Magister Alexius; Warden-Commander Clarel de Chanson against Lord Erimond; Cassandra against Lord Seeker Lambert (or his demon impersonator); Calpernia against Corypheus; Briala and Empress Celene against Duke Gaspard. Not all these struggles have the same dynamic, and yet, over and over again, Inquisition shows us what happens when women who’ve been manipulated and lied to by powerful men decide to fight back. Like Sera sticking up for the little people and the continual presence of small, domestic quests amidst far bigger crises, there’s a profound, continuous undercurrent of, not just inclusivity, but recognition of the fact that everyone matters¬†when you’re saving the world, especially if you’re planning to remake it as something better when you’re done.

Nor is it irrelevant that, out of all the main characters, the three with the most prestigious, political¬†backgrounds – Josephine, Dorian and Vivienne – are all people of colour. Cassandra, though technically royalty, is a warrior, not a diplomat: the other three are all consummate courtiers and intellectuals (though I wonder if, as a Nevarran, she might not be categorised as white-passing rather than white). Even the Iron Bull, who’s arguably a person of colour depending on how you categorise Qunari, is a spy, incisive, intuitive and literate in addition to being a massive, muscular brawler. And if you recruit the Templars, it’s Delrin¬†Barris who proves the most honourable of his company, one of few brave enough to speak up against the corruption and brutality of his commanders. In a genre which so often exoticises people of colour while simultaneously marking them as Other by the standards of what’s contextually¬†deemed civilised, it’s subversive as hell to take a European-inspired setting like Thedas – and particularly the deeply English/French duo of Ferelden/Orlais – and say that, actually, the people best suited to navigating these waters, out of everyone in the Inquisition, are all immensely competent outsiders: a straight black woman who’s risen to power on the basis of her extraordinary skill and acumen, a queer brown woman, nobly born, who’s managed to do likewise (and who’s bringing her family back into prominence with her), and a queer brown man from an enemy nation who still knows more about social etiquette and alliances than the commander of the Inquisition forces.

The fact that Inquisition gives us Krem, a trans male character whose companions all¬†unhesitatingly accept him as such – and whose friendship with Bull gives me feelings – is another such diverse highlight. In fact, all our escapee Tevinter boys are rather striking, a confluence I’m discinlined to view as coincidental.¬†Taken collectively, I’d contend, the Iron Bull, Fenris, Krem and Dorian represent four different facets of Tevinter society – the embedded Qunari; the elven slaves; the human soldier class; the aristocratic magisters – in an embedded, interrelated narrative that reads as a damning takedown of traditional, toxic masculinity.

The Iron Bull, while raised in the Qun to disregard romantic attachments, can nonetheless fall in love with¬†either the Inquisitor or Dorian. At the same time, his hypermasculine attributes of size and strength aren’t tied, as is so often the case with such characters, to heteronormative ideals, but are rather complimented by a relaxed, comfortable, kinky pansexuality. Fenris, whose relationship with Danarius is strongly coded to imply rape¬†(Danarius laciviously calls him “skilled” when taunting Fenris and Hawke; same sex relations in Tevinter are encouraged with favourite slaves; Fenris is touch-phobic), is one of a vanishingly rare number of male abuse¬†victims shown in games. His arc in DA2 is – or can be; is ideally, I’d argue – one of healing and self-acceptance. Rather than relying on isolation and stoicism, Fenris heals through his friendships, by learning to trust the people he cares about; by talking, however privately, about his trauma. Krem is a trans character whose personal history, while involving flight from his family and betrayal in the army, is nonetheless presented utterly without self-hatred. Krem knows who he is, and while he can acknowledge that his life hasn’t always been easy, he isn’t a tragic character: his friends and romantic partners accept him, he’s great at his job, he’s got a killer wry sense of humour, and he doesn’t take crap from strangers. He’s level-headed, successful and just a little bit shy: a portrait in all respects of the kind of positive, diverse masculinity we so badly need to see more of.

And Dorian? Dorian is a privileged man oppressed by the same strictures of toxic, heteronormative masculinity which ostensibly see him elevated. Rather than opt for a life of misogyny and self-hatred, married to a woman he doesn’t like, love or respect, he asserts his own identity and questions the world that raised him. Conditioned to expect only physical attachment – not, like Bull, due to any cultural mandate against romance, but because his romantic inclinations don’t run in an approved direction – he nonetheless finds love and self-acceptance in the Inquisition, eventually using what remains of his privilege¬†in the service of others. Put together, not only do all four men represent a spectrum of sexuality – Bull is pansexual, Fenris bisexual, Krem straight, Dorian gay – but their narratives engage with maleness¬†in very different ways. None of them is a queer tragedy; all of them are men of colour; and all of them present masculinity as fluid, adaptable, variable.

How many other games can boast as much?

There’s a heartbreaking moment in DA2 when Fenris, hurt¬†and vulnerable, asks – furiously, rhetorically –¬†“What does magic touch that it doesn’t spoil?” (He’s covered in magic lyrium. He’s talking about himself. My heart.) It’s a question few fantasy narratives, buoyed by the genre’s love of magic as novelty, would think to ask with any degree of seriousness, let alone seek to answer with such complexity. Whatever failings can be heaped on the Dragon Age franchise, it’s hard to deny that they’re striving¬†to tell new stories about a wide range of people; that they’re attempting, with each new game, to learn from prior mistakes; that their failures stem more often (now) from enthusiastic ambition than ignorance. In fact, they’ve created such a wealth of rich, detailed material that our critical analysis is still racing to catch up with the content: despite everything I’ve said here, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I look forward to finding more.

 

 

In news that should come as a shock to exactly no one, I can be kind of an asshole. What may come as a shock, depending on how long you’ve known me, is that I’m arguably less of an asshole now than I used to be. In my teens and early twenties, I said and did a lot of things I now find abhorrent, sometimes out of carelessness and not knowing any better, sometimes as a result of having¬†internalised a bunch of toxic bullshit, but sometimes just because I was being an asshole. And the thing about being an asshole – or one of the things, anyway – is that, even when part of you knows exactly what you’re doing and why, there’s another, louder part that doesn’t give a shit, or which conveniently chooses to reserve your shit-giving capabilities until such time as being an asshole is definitively proven to correlate with Having Fucked Up. Being human is not an exact science, and some things can only be learned the hard way, by making a wrong call and gauging its wrongness in retrospect.

Consider the following small act of assholery, performed when I was sixteen:

During a conversation with a close friend – and for the life of me, I can’t remember the specifics of the conversation; only that we were talking about another, mutual friend who’d been having a hard time –¬†I said, in a somewhat offhand way, as though it were obvious, “See, you’re more sympathetic, and I’m more empathetic. You see what’s happening to [friend], but you don’t really feel it the way I do. We’re just different like that.”

Part of me really believed this; or at least, believed it sufficiently in the moment, in the context of that particularly complex relationship, to have said it out loud. Nonetheless, even had it been an entirely accurate judgement – which, for the record, it wasn’t – saying it like that was still a dick move. I can’t even call it a backhanded compliment, because in my mind, it was very clear that empathy was the more desirable trait. I was rather asserting¬†a form of moral superiority over my friend: my kindness is better than your kindness, my understanding of people more intuitive. The irony of making such a claim in a knowingly hurtful way¬†wasn’t wholly lost on me, but I felt slighted by her, and¬†so couched a negative judgement in language which pretended an objectivity I didn’t remotely feel.

My friend was visibly irritated by the remark; hurt, as I’d secretly wanted her to be, and forced onto the defensive. I don’t remember the rest of the exchange, but that moment has stuck with me. Even though I knew the comparison was an insult prior to speaking, it wasn’t until afterwards that I really understood what it meant to have said it anyway.¬†I’d been an asshole, plain and simple: the opposite of empathetic, at least where she was concerned.

Reading Amy Sterling Casil’s recent SF Signal guest post, Special Needs in Strange Worlds: We Are All Disabled, therefore, this incident sprang instantly to mind. Says Sterling-Casil:

I have a severe, lifelong disability that could have cost my life on several occasions. It’s the reason I write what I do and am who I am. But it also means I can’t write the kind of thing you’re often presented with as reading material.

What’s my disability? I’m 5’6″, pretty much fit, active and healthy. Decent eyesight for an old lady. Okay hearing despite numerous loud concerts and shows during my youth. I don’t even have cancer or heart disease after smoking like a fiend nearly all my life. My liver even functions, although it shouldn’t.

I’m very fortunate.

But I hear you. Even when I don‚Äôt want to. I feel you. Even when I don‚Äôt want to and shouldn‚Äôt. I am empathetic. That isn‚Äôt the same as ‚Äúsympathetic.‚ÄĚ Many who are like me don‚Äôt make it out of their late teens and early 20s because of associated risky behaviors.

That sound you hear, dear reader, is my gritted teeth grinding together.

Let me put this bluntly: empathy is not a disability. Even if I take Sterling Casil at her notably unsourced word and accept her premise here – that empathy, as a specifically defined condition, is a direct, causative (rather than correlative) factor in the suicide and/or death by misadventure of young people – that does not make it a disability. Depression, along with various other mental health conditions and disorders, can be a form of disability, but¬†whether we define it as such depends largely on who “we” are and our reasons for doing so. According to the UK government, for instance:

A mental health condition is considered a disability if it has a long-term effect on your normal day-to-day activity. This is defined under the Equality Act 2010.

Your condition is ‚Äėlong term‚Äô if it lasts, or is likely to last, 12 months.

‚ÄėNormal day-to-day activity‚Äô is defined as something you do regularly in a normal day. For example – using a computer, working set times or interacting with people.

By this definition, I am – or have been – disabled, and yet I have never identified as such. Partly, this is because there’s an enormous cultural stigma around the acknowledgement, diagnosis and discussion of mental health problems as, well, actual problems. Even during my worst depressive episodes, it would never have occurred to me to think of myself as disabled. It’s a relative of the same prejudice which biases us towards assuming that disabilities are necessarily visible things, like missing limbs or striped canes: if a stranger can’t tell there’s something wrong with you, this logic goes, you must be totally able-bodied. Note, too, the wording: able-bodied, as though disability doesn’t apply to minds. But while I’m all for a more lucid, open dialogue about mental health stigma – or many such dialogues, even – it would be counter-productive to insist that anyone who fits the above definition (for instance) refer to themselves as disabled, regardless of their own beliefs or preferences.

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, there’s enough anti-disability sentiment in the world that, for many people, being open about an “invisible” disability can have real consequences: the loss of a job or promotion, for instance. Words, too, can have a powerful impact on our sense of self¬†depending on what they mean to us and – crucially – the circumstances of their application. For instance: I identify as queer, both because it’s a useful shorthand for expressing two facets of my personhood (bisexuality and genderqueerness) without requiring that I specify either, and because, growing up, it wasn’t a word I ever heard used as a slur. But for other people,¬†that’s not the case, and the fact that I’m happy to self-identify as queer doesn’t mean I’m going to foist that label on someone who thinks of it as an insult. By the same token, however, I don’t appreciate being told, as happened recently – and by a straight person, no less – that it’s offensive and wrong of me to call myself queer, because it was once an insult. (This person, who was in all other respects a charming, lovely individual,¬†literally fled the room rather than continue the conversation when I suggested that, as I was talking about myself, perhaps I should have some greater say in the word’s applicability than he did.)

All of which is a way of saying: if identifying as disabled is going to cause someone more problems, practical or emotional, than it solves, then I support their right to avoid the term without accepting that the concept of disability must therefore, of necessity, have negative connotations in all cases. The diagnostic applicability of a word is not the same as personal acceptance of it, and in keeping with the vital Hippocratic sentiment of first, do no harm, I’d rather err on the side of the individual.

But, as it happens, I do disagree with Sterling Casil: because while I might, on the basis of personal experience, accept the idea that empathy can be a correlative factor in depression, and is therefore potentially relevant to individual disabilities, I do not for a red hot minute believe that empathy alone, as described by Sterling Casil, is a separate¬†disability. Sadness is¬†not the same as depression, no matter how intensely we feel it, regardless of where it comes from. Sadness can be part of depression, certainly, but on this point, I’m putting my foot down: the two words are not interchangeable.

I first started to think ‚Äď maybe you‚Äôre not just ‚Äúsensitive,‚ÄĚ Amy, maybe you are truly different ‚Äďwhen I was at the Denver Worldcon in 2007. Wow, almost 10 years ago! I ended up as the ‚Äúexpert‚ÄĚ on a panel on what I‚Äôll call gene therapy…

Afterward, a young man came up to me, as if I was some kind of expert. This scared me; I soon realized it was he who was scared.

‚ÄúDo you think they‚Äôll come up with a cure for autism?‚ÄĚ he asked.

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs possible,‚ÄĚ I said. ‚ÄúA lot more likely than for something like Down Syndrome even though there is no single cause for autism.‚ÄĚ

 My son Anthony was born with Down Syndrome. This young chap would never know that, nor would he care if he knew.

First: the only reason “this young chap would never know” about Sterling Casil’s son – assuming he doesn’t read her post now, of course – is because she didn’t tell him, not because of his autism. I don’t fault Sterling Casil for declining to share such a personal piece of information with a complete stranger, but I fail to see how his ignorance is somehow remarkable when she was the one who opted not to remedy it.

Second, and far more importantly: the assertion that the man “would [not] care if he knew” is, quite frankly, so much offensive, inaccurate bullshit. Dear Amy Sterling Casil: making a snap judgement about a stranger’s capacity for compassion on the basis of their autism doesn’t make you “sensitive” and “different”, especially when you uncritically replicate the assumption in print – it makes you an asshole.

The young man wouldn‚Äôt meet my eye. He said, ‚ÄúMy wife and I both have autism. We want to have children but we don‚Äôt want them to have it.‚ÄĚ Uncharacteristically for someone with autism, he touched my arm.

As Jim Hines has already pointed out, not everyone with autism is touch-phobic. This is, again, a bullshit judgement.

He was so very frightened!

And this, right here, is the point where I saw red. Because, look: okay. People have different writing styles. And maybe, if I’m being very charitable, this sort of construction is part of Sterling Casil’s; not having read her before, I wouldn’t know. But to me, everything about this simple statement screams paternalistic condescension, and thereby betrays the awfulness of her¬†assumptions. This isn’t a calm judgement, but an exclamation: he was so very frightened!¬†The use of the double qualifier, so very, instead of just one or the other, and especially when followed by an exclamation mark, is¬†a¬†construction you commonly find in children’s books, not in reference to grown adults. It’s minimising language, the kind of thing you can imagine being said of Tom Kitten or Timmy fallen down the well: he was so very frightened! And then there’s the absolute narrative certainty of it: he was, not he seemed or he looked. Nothing in Sterling Casil’s previous description of the man speaks to visible expressions of fear: contextually, it doesn’t feel like the right word at all.

Maybe it’s just a literary failing: poor sentence construction utterly unaffected by subconscious bias about what autism is and how it functions. But somehow, I doubt it.

‚ÄúThere‚Äôs a reason God made autism,‚ÄĚ I said. I had already come to believe this was true.

‚ÄúI don‚Äôt believe in God,‚ÄĚ he said.

No. Okay? No. This is an asshole thing to say – a dick move of the highest fucking order. It doesn’t matter if¬†Sterling Casil believes it to be true: if she really felt¬†the man was “so very frightened” of his own autism, of the mere prospect of passing it along, why on Earth¬†would she think he’d find that assertion comforting? Never mind the declarative, false assumption that the man shared Sterling Casil’s faith sufficiently to be comforted by it in the first place: he’s asking about a cure, and you’re telling him¬†God doesn’t think he needs one? Wow.

Here’s a thought: if you can’t set aside your personal faith, or lack of same, in order to comfort someone with different beliefs – or worse, if it never even occurs to you that this might be the best approach – then maybe what you’re feeling isn’t empathy, but arrogance.

Some time later, I realized. He came up to me because of who I am, and said what he said, because of who he was. And my response was made for the same reasons.

I’ve read these sentences about forty times now, and I still can’t decide if they’re meant to imply that the entire exchange was preordained in some sense, or if it’s just a pointless acknowledgement of the fact that our personhood necessarily impacts our actions. Either way: um.

Autistic people have massive gifts. They are able to do things, think, and see the world in amazing ways. One of my favorite films, one which we view in some of the classes I share with students, is The Temple Grandin Story, starring Claire Danes. Temple‚Äôs wonderful teacher, portrayed in the film by David Strathairn, tells her mother (also wonderful, played by Julia Ormond), that Temple is different from other children. Both mother and teacher agree that Temple is: ‚ÄúDifferent, not less.‚ÄĚ

On the one hand, yes: being autistic doesn’t make you lesser than anyone else, and it sure as hell doesn’t preclude being talented. And certainly, an autistic perspective can¬†have some decided advantages over a neurotypical one, depending on¬†the person and the context. (I say can rather than does,¬†not because neurotypical is better more often¬†– it isn’t – but because different people are always going to have different strengths and weaknesses in different settings, regardless of attribution.) But on the other hand, I can’t quite shake my suspicion, especially given the film comparison and her earlier, stereotypical assumptions, that Sterling Casil is romanticising autism as the diagnosis of savants.

Abed - mildly autistic super detectives everywhere.gif

This conversation with the autistic young man was one of my turning points. It was then that I realized my perceptions really were different from most others. I had the opposite of autism. And even more: we are all different.

Again, as Jim Hines has already pointed out, empathy is not the fucking opposite of autism.¬†That some autistic people might not express their empathy in ways that are easily recognised by neurotypical persons doesn’t mean they don’t feel it, or that autism is somehow defined by a lack of it. The fact that Sterling Casil implies this to be so is doubly concerning when you consider how quick she is to associate an absence of empathy with sociopathy:

I suppose what bothers me most, now that I do understand these things, is that there is so little value in our society to the humane core that is inside nearly all of us. I see clearly, and hate, the sociopath who pulls our strings, making us dance to their wicked puppet rhythms. How many stories, how many films, how many TV shows do they get? It’s exhausting.

Right. So, just to be clear: some people are absent a “humane core”, which Sterling Casil associates with empathy, but which “the sociopath who pulls our strings” presumably lacks.

UM.

A few psychologists call people like me empaths. I brought up ‚Äúsociopaths‚ÄĚ because like empaths, sociopaths also readily perceive the feelings and motives of others. Unlike sociopaths, empaths have no desire to harm others.

I would be deeply interested to know which psychologists Sterling Casil is referencing here, as her sentence construction leans on this vague reference to academic authority in order to support her subsequent claims about sociopaths. Given that sociopathy, contrary to the assertions of Steven Moffat,¬†is itself a highly flawed, disputed and arguably¬†outdated¬†term, I’m inclined to view this whole claim with a suspiciously raised eyebrow.

Some of us experience barriers and risks because we are so easily influenced by the feelings, ideas and emotions of others that we may lack a strong sense of self.  We are also highly susceptible to substance abuse and other forms of risk-taking behavior. There’s little to no scientific research done on us and nobody but we few survivors genuinely understands how difficult it is to be this aware of others and their feelings and motives.

The bolding and italics in that last excerpt are mine. Self-diagnosis of mental health conditions is one thing; inventing an entire condition seemingly out of whole cloth is another. The language Sterling Casil uses to describe empathy in the first half of this paragraph is both vague to the point of uselessness – what the fuck does that mean, “some of us experience barriers and risks”? – and worded to sound like an actual, academic definition; and yet, in the very next sentence, she admits that no such thing exists.

One researcher who has published a significant body of work is Dr. Ron Riggio at Claremont McKenna College. Ron believes that empathy is an essential leadership trait.

A quick Google search about Dr Riggio yields, among other things, a 2011 article whose concluding statement would seem to be the exact opposite of Sterling Casil’s claims about empathy – namely, that it’s a discreet and specific disability. Having spent the rest of the piece discussing the three different types of empathy invented by someone called Mark Davis – Perspective-Taking, Personal Distress and Empathic Concern – Riggio concludes by saying:

In reality, we all have some level of each of the types of empathy. The key is to understand the ways that we are empathic with others, and to realize the strengths and limitations of each type of empathy.

So… not what Sterling Casil is asserting, then. In fact, I can’t find a single piece of Riggio’s that categorises empathy as a disability at all, nor can I find any such claim made by another academic. No, Sterling Casil¬†doesn’t explicitly argue that empathy as disability is Riggio’s thesis, but he’s the only authority¬†she mentions in her entire piece, and as such, I’m inclined to think she’s gone looking for piecemeal opinions to support the idea that her particular brand of empathy makes her special, rather than acknowledging that empathy is a thing that most people have, but which they express in¬†ways not necessarily identical to her own.

It seems to me that assuming strong empathy to be a unique, special and rare quality possessed only by a¬†“few survivors”¬†is a failure of empathy and imagination both.

Even a hundred years ago, those with autism were so isolated and so misunderstood that the chances they would have the freedom and safe lives to build, make and create were slim and none.

Again, where the hell is Sterling Casil getting this from? I’m not denying that many¬†people on the autistic spectrum have both¬†struggled and experienced discrimination at various points in history as a result of their condition, but as the term autism has only been in use since 1911, discrimination against the autistic as a specific group¬†is a very recent phenomenon. More likely, as per the earlier example of different skillsets and perspectives being strengths or weaknesses in different contexts, their treatment was much more contingent on intersectional markers like gender, race and class (as, indeed, is still the case): a wealthy male aristocrat with idiosyncratic behaviour was much more likely to be accepted on his own terms, for instance, than a poor woman who did likewise. This generalised assumption of victimhood is so historically unsophisticated as to be fundamentally inaccurate – just another way in which Sterling-Casil badly misunderstands her subject area.

Our lives have changed and grown because of the FLK’s (Funny-Looking Kids) and FAK’s (Funny-Acting Kids). They are precious, valuable, essential.

What in the actual fuck¬†is this nomenclature doing in a supposedly pro-disability piece? By all means, let me know if I’m missing something – if these are terms affectionately coined and used by those with disabilities in reference to themselves – but on the face of it, situated in the utter mess of this article, my reaction is one of stunned disbelief.

Humanity will deserve to leave this planet and go to the stars, and we‚Äôll be able to survive and thrive‚ÄĒbecause of people like me.

On the basis of this piece, I beg to differ.

(This is an asshole thing to say. I’m aware of that. Let’s call it a little contextual irony.)

How can I possibly say we are all cripples?

Oh my god.

When a physically able person sees someone in a wheelchair and feels ‚Äúsorry‚ÄĚ for them, they should consider the different perceptions that wheelchair enables them to have. They see and hear things those who stand and walk do not. They get to live a different life. Different, not less.

I am not physically disabled, nor have I ever been. But I’m pretty fucking sure that, however positively or negatively one feels about using a wheelchair – about whether it’s something you “get” to do, as opposed to a thing you have to do¬†– it doesn’t grant you magical powers of intuitive perception. Rather, I’m given to understand, the things one¬†hears in a wheelchair that other people don’t aren’t¬†secret universal truths, but condescending assumptions about their¬†capabilities, ableist slurs and abuse, a whole lot of height-related awkwardness, and patronising platitudes from people who want to use their¬†existence as an inspiration. Everyone lives a different life, but that doesn’t mean there’s any utility in erasing the complications that particular disabilities, and our attitudes towards them, frequently present. Acknowledging the fact that people in wheelchairs can live rich, full lives on their own terms doesn’t mean there aren’t wheelchair-specific problems still to navigate, or that it’s wrong for some people in wheelchairs to wish they didn’t need them.

The opposite of feeling instinctively “sorry” for a disabled person isn’t assuming they’re totally happy with their lot in life and the unique perspective it affords them, but is rather to treat them like a fucking person: that is, to not make judgements about how they might feel about themselves – or anything else, for that matter – on the basis of first appearances and their membership, visible or otherwise, of an enormously diverse group.

I wrote one well-known story called ‚ÄúTo Kiss the Star,‚ÄĚ about a young woman named Mel Armstrong, wheelchair-bound, blind and spastic with a heart defect. Mel won the lottery to be housed in a hardened spaceship ‚ÄĒto get a perfect, near-immortal cyberbody‚ÄĒand travel to the stars. Hot damn! Mel doesn‚Äôt want to go. She‚Äôs in love with John, a handsome young man who‚Äôs been visiting her out of a partially misguided idea of charity. John‚Äôs been lying to Mel, as people will do. By the end of the story, it‚Äôs clear who the real cripple is. Not Mel ‚Äď she can and will go to the stars.

The “real cripple”? A minute ago, that was all of us – but now, all of a sudden, the word has acquired a decidedly negative inference. John is the “real cripple” – the person who’s ultimately¬†wrong and defective, despite being able-bodied – and do I really have to explain why that particular construction is still situating disability as a bad thing? UGH.

As Toni Morrison perhaps did not say, but I believe her to have said, so in my world, she has said, ‚ÄúI write in order to find out what I know.‚ÄĚ

As Amy Sterling Casil perhaps did not say, but I believe her to have meant, so in my world, she has said, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.”

Now, after writing this, I understand why I am so little satisfied ‚Äď these days, even disgusted ‚Äď with fictional stereotypes. These stereotypes are an imposition of a limited, false image or idea on others. I like to think that some day, these falsehoods will no longer be sold as ‚Äúentertainment.‚ÄĚ

Stereotypes like autistic people being bereft of empathy and disabled persons having emotional superpowers, perhaps? DO GO ON.

Differently-abled or abled like the majority on the ability spectrum, we can learn how to use the senses we do have better. Just as those who have lost their sight experience greater perception in other senses, and just as those who use wheelchairs see the world from a different perspective.

Dear Ms Sterling Casil: being blind¬†does not make everyone Daredevil, because not everyone who loses their sight does so in the same way, at the same time, under the same auspices. Also: enough with the wheelchair perspective! It’s starting to feel perilously like a height joke.

Viewed with the strongest perception that we can have at any given time, there is not one of us who is not a ‚Äúcripple.‚ÄĚ

And when everyone’s super, no one will be.

Also, uh. You realise there’s still a need to make specific accommodations for people with specific disabilities, right? That the issue doesn’t magically disappear if you randomly declare everyone disabled?

To overcome our mutual disability, it isn‚Äôt about the so-important ‚ÄúI‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúme.‚ÄĚ It‚Äôs about ‚Äúwe.‚ÄĚ It isn‚Äôt about what you want, it‚Äôs about who and what you are as well as everybody else.

We’ll never get off this planet, much less do the part life has given to us, if we keep on thinking about our isolated selves.

In other words, nobody should talk about their particular problems or specific needs, because treating disability as an amorphous, generalised concept is much more useful than acknowledging those it affects as individuals.

Money’s one thing, Vernor. Getting over our damn selves and feeling what others feel and respecting that: quite another.

YOU DON’T SAY.

Here’s a moral for you:¬†Assholes can still exhibit empathy in other contexts, because¬†being empathetic doesn’t magically stop you from being an asshole – even and especially when discussing your own empathy.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go shove my face in a pillow and scream.

ETA: I’ve gone through and changed Sterling-Casil to Sterling Casil, as I’d evidently been spelling my interlocutor’s name with a hyphen that doesn’t belong there. Just because I think she’s wrong doesn’t mean I can’t get her name right.

Yesterday, after tangentially mentioning Baen Publishing in a Twitter conversation about queer representation in SFF, several Baen aficionados took this as an invitation to harangue both myself and the person to whom I was was speaking about the evils of left-wing politics, both in genre and more generally. Mostly, this involved yelling about how socialism is evil and feminism is cancer, which was equal parts hilarious and horrifying, with a bonus discussion of Christianity in the context of various political systems. My personal highlight: the unironic claim, made by a Christian participant, that Christ was apolitical, which. Um. Yeah. About that:

You Keep Using That Word

Anyway.

While the thread eventually devolved in much the way you’d expect, the actual opening salvo by Patrick Richardson – made in response to the observation that Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, politically speaking, is somewhat at variance with the bulk of Baen’s catalogue –¬†was as follows: “It seems to be only the lefties that care about politics before story.”¬†Which view was quickly seconded by the same woman who later claimed that Christ was apolitical: “Of course! If the story is crap but the author is a nifty socialist, that’s totes awesome!”

Twitter, as anyone who routinely uses it can tell you, is good for many things, but nuanced, lengthy dialogue is¬†seldom one of them. And so, in addition to yesterday’s back and forth, I’m commenting here ¬†– because for all their brevity, these two statements perfectly encapsulate the fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of most anti-diversity arguments.

I’ll deal with the second claim first, as it’s always struck me as being the most wilfully obtuse permutation of the stance. The idea that pro-diversity voices are wasting time, money and effort promoting books we don’t actually like¬†is almost cartoonishly absurd; as though diversity is a naked emperor and we the masters of his empty wardrobe. Listen: I have a toddler, a husband, an active social life, a packed writing schedule, multiple online streaming accounts and a TBR pile that stretches into infinity. If you really think¬†I’m going to waste valuable energy¬†advocating for stories that don’t give me pleasure, then either you’re projecting – which, given the willingness of certain Puppies to thusly waste their own time, is a disturbingly real possibility – or you’re grossly overestimating your knowledge of human nature.

Having already discussed, at length, the dissonance between how¬†recommendations made on the basis of diversity can appear to others and what they actually mean, I won’t revisit the details here. The salient point, however, is this: once you acknowledge that a book recommended on whatever basis is, by virtue of being recommended, a book enjoyed, then it’s virtually impossible to claim that diversity advocates are wilfully dismissive of¬†quality. Nor is the intention to treat “diverse books” as a distinct subgenre,¬†one elevated above its fellows without any regard for category or content otherwise. This¬†is, in fact, exactly the kind of ghettoisation the pro-diversity camp is actively trying to avoid – all the diverse books on one niche shelf at the back, instead of being a normal, integrated part of genre. This accusation¬†likewise ignores the fact that, actually, it’s quite common to group and recommend narratives¬†on the basis of their¬†tropes (friends to lovers, the Chosen One) or¬†thematic elements (classic quest, mythological underpinnings), particularly when we’re speaking to personal preference.

The problem is that, when talking to someone¬†who doesn’t value diversity in narrative – often because they’ve simply never considered it to be a noteworthy factor in their enjoyment of a book, and not because they inherently object to its presence – it can be difficult to explain why it matters at all. Taste is always a murky thing to navigate in such arguments, but it’s an inescapable factor:¬†popularity and obscurity are both unreliable yardsticks where quality is concerned, and given the breadth of the human experience, there’s always going to be entrenched disagreement about what a good story is or should be; whether reading should¬†challenge our comfort zones or confirm them; whether it’s better to read a book that shows us our own experience or a different one. Nobody wants to be told what to like or how to like it, just as we all reserve the right to entertain ourselves on our own terms, and yet, to borrow a phrase, no man is an island. Taken collectively, our individual preferences can and do have an impact at the macro/cultural level that transcends their micro/personal origins, even though¬†the one is invariably a product of the other.

This is why the promotion of diversity is often discussed in moral/representational terms, particularly in connection with children: stories are our first and greatest window into the possible, and if those early adventures consistently exclude a large portion of their audience, or if certain groups are portrayed more complexly than others, then not everyone is learning the same lesson. Even so, the idea is never that diversity should take precedence over quality, as some seem to fear, but rather, that we should aim to create stories Рstories in the plural, not the singular, though still bearing in mind the interrelationship between the individual and the collective Рwhich are both diverse and good.

So what, then, of stories that are good, but not diverse? Where do they fit in? Because, on the basis of everything I’ve said here, there’s an argument to be made – and some, indeed, have made it – that you cannot have quality without diversity at all.

While this is a useful shorthand claim to make when looking at the collective end of things as they currently stand –¬†which is to say, when acknowledging the historical lack of diversity and the ongoing need to remedy the imbalance¬†– as a dictum removed from context,¬†it not only ignores the rights of the individual, both as audience and creator, but opens up the question of whether a diverse story is¬†diverse enough. It’s a difficult problem¬†to navigate, and one that gives me a frequent headache. On the one hand, it’s undeniable that white liberal feminism (for instance) has a long and ugly history of ignoring the various racial and homophobic aspects of misogyny as experienced by women of colour and the queer community –¬†that there is, as Kimberle Crenshaw said, an intersectional component to oppression. ¬†As such, praising a novel¬†for its diversity doesn’t mean those aspects of the story are automatically exempt from criticism; far from it, in fact, which is one more¬†reason why I find the accusation that pro-diversity equals¬†anti-quality so laughable. The advocates of diversity are simultaneously its sharpest critics, and always have been, because we’re the ones who care about getting it, by whatever definition,¬†right.

But on the other hand, it’s an inescapable fact that stories are finite: no matter how much detail a given setting might contain, the author can’t focus on everything, or they’ll have no focus at all. By the same token, nothing and no one is perfect, least of all because ‘perfect’ means something different to everyone: the fact that an author drops the ball in one area doesn’t preclude them succeeding in another, and while the function of criticism is to discuss such contrasts – and while every individual reader is perfectly entitled to decide for themselves how such lines are drawn; to make their own decisions about content and execution¬†– declaring imperfection the antithesis of success does all creative efforts a disservice.

Which brings me back to that mercurial element, taste, and the fear, as expressed by Richardson, that even¬†acknowledging diversity as a factor means putting¬†“politics before story”. It’s a telling phrase: by its very construction, it implies that politics are external to stories,¬†instead of being a material component and/or a relevant lens through which to view them. Which, I would contend, they are. It’s not just that the personal is political: it’s that the political is seldom anything else. The only impersonal¬†politics are those which¬†affect other people; which is to say, they’re only ever impersonal to some, not objectively¬†so. The conflation¬†of political questions with abstract concerns can only occur when the decision-makers¬†don’t meaningfully overlap¬†with those¬†their decisions impact. Political apathy¬†is the sole province of the ignorant and the unaffected: everyone else, of necessity, is invested.

Speaking personally, then, and setting aside any other salient, stylistic factors, the¬†point at which my preference for diversity will likely see me jolted from an otherwise good book, such that I may well¬†question its claim to goodness,¬†is the point at which the¬†narrative becomes complicit in dehumanisation, particularly my own. What this means is always going to shift according to context, but broadly speaking, if an author leans¬†on ¬†offensive, simple stereotyping¬†in lieu of characterisation, or if groups that might be realistically present or active within a given context are mysteriously absent, then I’m¬†going to count that a negative.¬†Note¬†that a¬†story which is, in some active sense,¬†about dehumanisation – a misogynist culture; a slave-owning family – is not automatically the same as being complicit in¬†that dehumanisation. This is an important distinction to make: whereas a story about dehumanisation will, by virtue of the attempt, acknowledge what’s going on, even if the characters never question the setting – say, by portraying complex female characters within¬†a restrictive patriarchal system – a complicit story will render these elements as wallpaper: a meaningless background detail, like the number of moons or the price of fish, without ever acknowledging the implications.

It’s not just that, overwhelmingly, complicit stories tend to be dismissive of people like me, though that certainly doesn’t help; it’s that, at the level of worldbuilding and construction, I find them boring. One of my favourite things about genre novels is learning the rules of a new time and place – the customs, language, history and traditions that make up the setting – and as such, I don’t enjoy seeing them treated as¬†irrelevant. For instance: if I’m told¬†that the army of Fictional Country A has always accepted female soldiers, but¬†that women are the legal subjects of their husbands, with no effort made to reconcile the apparent contradiction, then I’m going to consider that a faulty piece of worldbuilding and be jerked out of the story. Doubly so if this is just one of a number of similar elisions, all of which centre on women in a narrative whose complexities are otherwise lovingly considered; triply so if there are no central female characters, or if the ones that do appear are stereotyped in turn. (And yes, I can think of multiple books offhand to which this particular criticism applies.)

Call it the Sex/Hexchequer Test: if an elaborate, invented system of magic or governance is portrayed with greater internal consistency than the gender roles, then the story is probably sexist. Which doesn’t, I hasten to add, mean that it has nothing else to offer and should be shunned at all costs – imperfection, as stated above, is not the antithesis of success. But if someone wants to avoid the book on those grounds, then that’s entirely their business, and at the very least, I’ll likely be cranky about it.

And thus my preference for good diverse stories, which tend not to have this problem. It’s not a question of putting politics ahead of the story: it’s about acknowledging that all stories, regardless of authorial intention, contain politics, because people are political, and people wrote them. In real life, politics only ever seem¬†impersonal if they impact someone else; in fiction, however, that’s what makes them visible. Stories aren’t apolitical just because we happen to agree with them or find them unobjectionable: it just means we’re confusing our own moral, cultural and political preferences with a neutral default. Which doesn’t mean we’re obliged to seek out stories that take us out of our comfort zone this way, or like them if we do: it just means that we can’t gauge their quality on the sole basis that this has, in fact, happened.

And yet, far too often, this is exactly what diversity advocates are criticised for doing: as though¬†acknowledging the political dimensions of narrative and exploring them, in whatever way, deliberately, is somehow intrinsically bad; as though nobody sympathetic to certain dominant groups or ideologies has ever done likewise. Well, they have: you just didn’t think it mattered overmuch, because you agreed.

It’s not about quality, Mr Richardson; it never was. It’s about visibility – who lives, who dies, who tells your story¬†– and whether or not you noticed.