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Warning: total spoilers for S1 of Westworld.

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and queer death.

Note:¬†Throughout this review, it will be necessary to distinguish between the writers of Westworld the TV show, and the writers employed in the narrative by the titular Westworld theme park. To avoid confusing the two, when I’m referring to the show, Westworld will be italicised; when referring to the park, I’ll use plain text.

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This will be a somewhat bifurcated review of Westworld – which is, I feel, thematically appropriate, as Westworld itself is something of a bifurcated show. Like so much produced by HBO, it boasts¬†incredible acting, breathtaking production values, intelligent dialogue, great music and an impeccably tight, well-orchestrated series of narrative reveals. Also like much produced by HBO, it takes a liberal, one might even say cartoonishly gratuitous approach to nudity, is saturated with violence in general and violence against women in particular, and has a consistent problem with stereotyping¬†despite its diverse casting. In Westworld’s case, this latter issue is compounded as an offence by its status as a meta-narrative: a story which actively discusses the purpose and structure of stories, but which has seemingly failed to apply those same critiques to key aspects of its own construction.

The practical upshot is that it’s both¬†frustratingly watchable and visibly frustrating. Even when the story pissed me off, I was always compelled to keep going, but I was never quite able to stop criticising it, either. It’s a thematically meaty show, packed with the kind of twists that will, by and large, enhance viewer enjoyment on repeat viewings rather than diminish the appeal. Though there are a few Fridge Logic moments, the whole thing hangs together quite elegantly – no mean feat, given the complexity of the plotting. And yet its virtues have the paradoxical effect of making me angrier about its vices, in much the same way that I’d be more upset about red wine spilled on an expensive party dress than on my favourite t-shirt. Yes, the shirt means more to me despite being cheaper, but a stain won’t stop me from wearing it at home, and even if it did, the item itself is easily replaced. But staining something precious and expensive is frustrating: I’ve invested enough in the cost of the item that I don’t want to toss it away, but staining makes it unsuitable as a showcase piece, which means I can’t love it as much as I want to, either.

You get where I’m going with this.

Right from the outset, Westworld switches between two interconnected narratives: the behind-the-scenes power struggles of the people who run the titular themepark, and the goings-on in the park itself as experienced by both customers and ‘hosts’, the humanoid robot-AIs who act as literal NPCs in pre-structured, pay-to-participate narratives. To the customers, Westworld functions as an immersive holiday-roleplay experience: though visually indistinguishable from real humans, the hosts are considered unreal, and are therefore fair game to any sort of violence, dismissal or sexual fantasy the customers can dream up. (This despite – or at times, because of – the fact that their stated ability to pass the Turing test¬†means their reactions to said violations are viscerally animate.) To the programmers, managers, storytellers, engineers, butchers and behaviourists who run it, Westworld is, variously, a job, an experiment, a financial gamble, a risk, a sandpit and a microcosm of human nature: the hosts might look human, but however unsettling their appearance or behaviour at times, no one is ever allowed to forget what they are.

But to the hosts themselves, Westworld is entirely real, as are their pre-programmed identities. While their existence is ostensibly circumscribed by adherence to preordained narrative ‘loops’, the repetition of their¬†every conversation, death and bodily reconstruction wiped from their memories by the park engineers, certain hosts – notably Dolores, the rancher’s daughter, and Maeve, the bordello madame – are starting to¬†remember their histories. Struggling to understand¬†their occasional eerie interviews with their puppeteering masters – explained away as dreams, on the rare occasion where such explanation is warranted – they fight to break free of their intended loops, with startling consequences.But there is also a hidden layer to Westworld: a maze sought by a mysterious Man in Black and to which the various hosts and their narratives are somehow key. With the¬†hosts exhibiting abnormal behaviour, retaining memories of their former ‘lives’ in a violent, fragmented struggle towards true autonomy, freedom and sentience, Westworld poses¬†a single, sharp question: what does it mean to be human?

Or rather, it’s clearly trying to pose this question; and to be fair, it very nearly succeeds. But for a series so overtly concerned with its own meta – it is, after all, a story about the construction, reception and impact of stories on those who consume and construct them – it has a damnable lack of insight into the particulars of its assumed audiences, both internal and external, and to the ways this hinders the proclaimed universality of its conclusions. Specifically: Westworld is a story in which all the internal storytellers are straight white men endowed with the traditional bigotries of racism, sexism and heteronormativity, but in a context where none of those biases are overtly addressed at any narrative level.

From the outset, it’s clear that Westworld is intended as a no-holds-barred fantasy in the literal sense: a place where the rich and privileged can pay through the nose to fuck, fight and fraternise in a facsimile of the old West without putting themselves at any real physical danger. Nobody there can die: customers, unlike hosts, can’t be killed (though they do¬†risk harm in certain contexts), but each host body and character is nonetheless resurrected, rebuilt and put back into play after they meet their end. Knowing this lends the customers a recklessness and a violence they presumably lack in the real world: hosts are shot, stabbed, raped, assaulted and abused with impunity, because their disposable inhumanity is the point of the experience. This theme is echoed in their treatment by Westworld’s human overseers, who often refer to them as ‘it’ and perform their routine examinations, interviews, repairs and updates while the hosts are naked.

At this point in time, HBO is as well-known for its obsession with full frontal, frequently orgiastic nudity as it is for its total misapprehension of the distinction between nakedness and erotica. Never before has so much skin been shown outside of literal porn with so little instinct for sensuality, sexuality or any appreciation of the human form beyond hurr durr tiddies and, ever so occasionally, hurr durr dongs,¬†and Westworld is no exception to this. It’s like the entirety of HBO is a fourteen-year-old straight boy who’s just discovered the nascent thrill of drawing Sharpie-graffiti genitals¬†on every available schoolyard surface and can only snigger, unrepentant and gleeful, whenever anyone asks them not to. We get it, guys – humans have tits and asses, and you’ve figured out how to show us that! Huzzah for you! Now get the fuck over your pubescent creative wankphase and please, for the love of god, figure out how to do it tastefully,¬†or at least with some general nodding in the direction of an aesthetic other than Things I Desperately Wanted To See As A Teengaer In The Days Before Internet Porn.

That being said, I will concede that there’s an actual, meaningful reason for at least some of Westworld’s ubiquitous nudity: it’s a deliberate, visual act of dehumanisation, one intended not only to distinguish the hosts from the ‘real’ people around them, but to remind the park’s human employees that there’s no need to treat the AIs with kindness or respect. For this reason, it also lends a powerful emphasis to the moments when particular characters¬†opt to dress or cover the hosts, thereby acknowledging their personhood, however minimally. This does not, however, excuse the sadly requisite orgy scenes, nor does it justify the frankly obscene decision to have a white female character make a leering comment about the size of a black host’s penis, and especially not when said female character has already been established as queer. (Yes, bi/pan people exist; as I have good reason to know, being one of them. But there are about nine zillion ways the writers could’ve chosen to show Elsie’s sexual appreciation for men that didn’t tap into one of the single grossest sexual tropes on the books, let alone in a context which, given the host’s blank servility and Elsie’s status as an engineer, is unpleasantly evocative of master/slave dynamics.)

And on the topic of Elsie, let’s talk about queerness in Westworld, shall we? Because let’s be real: the bar for positive queer representation on TV is so fucking low right now, it’s basically at speedbump height, and yet myriad grown-ass adults are evidently hellbent on bellyflopping onto it with all the grace and nuance of a drunk walrus. Elsie is a queer white woman whose queerness is shown to us by her decision to kiss one of the female hosts, Clementine, who’s currently deployed as a prostitute, in a context where Clementine is reduced to a literal object, stripped of all consciousness and agency. Episode 6 ends on the cliffhanger of Elsie’s probable demise, and as soon as I saw that setup, I felt as if that single, non-consensual kiss – never referenced or expanded on otherwise – had been meant as Chekov’s gaykilling gun: this woman is queer, and thus is her death predicted. (Of course she fucking dies. Of course she does. I looked it up before I watched the next episode, but I might as well have Googled whether the sun sets in the west.)

It doesn’t help that the only other queer femininity we’re shown is either pornography as wallpaper or female host prostitutes hitting on female customers; and it especially doesn’t help that, as much as HBO loves its gratuitous orgy scenes, you’ll only ever see two naked women casually getting it on in the background, never two naked men. Nor does it escape notice that the lab tech with a penchant for fucking the hosts in sleep mode is apparently a queer man, a fact which is presented as a sort of narrative reveal. The first time he’s caught in the act, we only see the host’s legs, prone and still, under his body, but later there’s a whole sequence where he takes one of the male hosts, Hector – who is, not coincidentally, a MOC, singled out for sexual misuse by at least one other character – and prepares to rape¬†him. (It’s not actually¬†clear in context whether the tech is planning on fucking or being fucked by Hector – not that it’s any less a violation either way, of course; I’m noting it rather because the scene itself smacks of being constructed by people without any real idea of how penetrative sex between two men works. Like, ignoring the fact that they’re in a literal glass-walled room with the tech’s eyerolling colleague right next door, Hector is sitting upright on a chair, but is also flaccid and non-responsive by virtue of being in sleep mode. So even though we get a grimly lascivious close-up of the tech squirting lube on his hand, dropping his pants and, presumably, slicking himself up, it’s not actually clear what he’s hoping to achieve prior to the merciful moment when Hector wakes up and fights him the fuck off.)

Topping off this mess is Logan, a caustic, black-hat-playing customer who, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foursome with three host prostitutes – two female, one male – is visually implied to be queer, and who thereinafter¬†functions, completely unnecessarily, as a depraved bisexual stereotype. And I do mean blink-and-you’ll-miss-it: I had to rewind the episode to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, but it’s definitely there, and as with Elsie kissing Clementine, it’s never referenced again. The male host is engaging only with Logan, stroking his chest as he kisses and fucks the two women; it’s about as unsexualised as sexual contact between two naked men can actually get, and yet HBO has gone to the trouble of including it, I suspect for the sole purpose of turning a bland, unoriginal character into an even grosser stereotype than he would otherwise have been while acting under the misapprehension that it would give him depth. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Logan doesn’t cease to be a cocky, punchable asshat¬†just because you consented to put a naked white dude next to him for less time than it takes to have a really good shit; it just suggests that you, too, are a cocky, punchable asshat who should shit more in the bathroom and less on the fucking page. But I digress.

And then there’s the racism, which – and there’s no other way to put this – is presented as being an actual, intentional feature of the Westworld experience, even though it makes zero commercial sense to do this. Like. You have multiple white hosts who are programmed to make racist remarks about particular POC hosts, despite the fact that there are demonstrably POC customers paying to visit the park. You have a consistent motif of Native Americans being referred to as ‘savages’, both within Westworld-as-game and by the gamewriters themselves, with Native American mysticism being used to explain both the accidental glimpses various self-aware hosts get of the gamerunners and the in-game lore surrounding the maze. Demonstrably, the writers of Westworld are aware of this – why else is Episode 2, wherein writer character Lee Sizemore gleefully proposes a hella racist new story for the park, called ‘Chestnut’, as in old? I’ve said elsewhere¬†that depiction is not endorsement, but it is perpetuation, and in a context where the point of Westworld as a commercial venture is demonstrably to appeal to customers of all genders, sexual orientations and races – all of whom we see in attendance – building in particular period-appropriate bigotries is utterly nonsensical.

More than this, as the openness with which the female prostitutes seduce female customers makes clear, it’s narratively inconsistent: clearly, not every bias of the era is being rigidly upheld. And yet it also makes perfect sense if you think of both Westworld and Westworld as being, predominantly, a product both created by and intended for a straight white male imagination. In text, Westworld’s stories are written by Lee and Robert, both of whom are straight white men, while Westworld itself was originally the conceit of Michael Crichton. Which isn’t to diminish the creative input of the many other people who’ve worked on the show – technically, it’s a masterclass in acting, direction, composition, music, lighting, special effects and editing, and those people deserve their props. It’s just that, in terms of narrative structure, by what I suspect is an accidental marriage of misguided¬†purpose and¬†unexamined habit, Westworld¬†the series, like Westworld the park, functions primarily for a straight white male audience – and while I don’t doubt that there was some intent to critically highlight the failings of that perspective, as per the clear and very satisfying satirising of Lee Sizemore, as with Zack Snyder’s Suckerpunch and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, the straight white male gaze is still so embedded as a lazy default that Westworld¬†ends up amplifying its biases more often than it critiques them. (To quote something my straight white husband said while watching, “It’s my gaze, and I feel like I’m being parodied by it.”)

Though we do, as mentioned, see various women and people of colour enjoying the Westworld park, the customers who actually serve as protagonists – Logan, William and the Man in Black – are all white men. Logan is queer by virtue of a single man’s hand on his chest, but other than enforcing a pernicious stereotype about bisexual appetites and behaviours, it doesn’t do a damn thing to alter his characterisation. The end of season reveal that William is the Man in Black – that William’s¬†scenes have all taken place thirty years in the past, shown¬†to us now through Dolores’s memories – is a cleverly executed twist, and yet the chronicle of William’s transformation¬†from youthful, romantic idealist to violent, sadistic predator only highlights the fundamental problem, which is that the Westworld park, despite being touted as an adventure for everyone – despite Robert using his customers as a basis for making universal judgements about human nature – is clearly a more comfortable environment for some than others. Certainly, if I was able to afford the $40,000 a day we’re told it costs to attend, I’d be disinclined to spend so much for the privilege of watching male robots, whatever their courtesy to me, routinely talk about raping women, to say nothing of being forced to witness the callousness of other customers to the various hosts.

It should be obvious that there’s no such thing as a universal fantasy, and yet much of Westworld’s psychological theorising about human nature and morality hinges on our accepting that the desire ¬†to play cowboy in a transfigured version of the old West is exactly this. That the final episode provides tantalising evidence that at least one other park with a different historical theme exists elsewhere in the complex doesn’t change the fact that S1 has sold us, via the various monologues of Logan and Lee, Robert and William and the Man in Black, the idea that Westworld specifically reveals deep truths about human nature.

Which brings us to Dolores, a female host whose primary narrative loop centres on her being a sweet, optimistic rancher’s daughter who, with every game reset, can be either raped or rescued from rape by the customers. That Dolores is our primary female character – that her narrative trajectory centres on her burgeoning sentience, her awareness of the repeat violations she’s suffered, and her refusal to remain a damsel – does not change the fact that making her thus victimised was a choice at both the internal (Westworld) and external (Westworld) levels. I say again unto HBO, I do not fucking care how edgy you think threats of sexual violence and the repeat objectification of women are:¬†they’re not original, they’re not compelling, and in this particular instance, what you’ve actually succeeded in doing is undermining your core premise so spectacularly that I do not understand how anyone acting in good sense or conscience could let it happen.

Because in making host women like Dolores (white) and Maeve (a WOC), both of whom are repeatedly subject to sexual and physical violation, your lynchpin characters for the development of true human sentience from AIs – in making their memories of those violations the thing that spurs their development – you’re not actually asking the audience to consider what¬†it means to be human. You’re asking them to consider the prospect that victims of rape and assault aren’t actually human in the first place, and then to think about how being repeatedly raped and assaulted might help them to gain humanity. And you’re not even being subtle about it, either, because by the end of S1, the entire Calvinistic premise is laid clear: that Robert and Arnold, the park’s founders, believed that tragedy and suffering was the cornerstone of sentience, and that the only way for hosts to surpass their programming is through misery. Which implies, by logical corollary, that Robert is doing the hosts a service by allowing others to hurt them or by hurting them himself – that they are only able to protest his mistreatment because the very fact of it gave them sentience.

Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s pretty fucking awful.¬†The moral dilemma¬†of Westworld, inasmuch as it exists, centres on the question of knowing culpability, and therefore asks a certain cognitive dissonance of the audience: on the one hand, the engineers and customers¬†believe that the hosts aren’t real people, such that hurting them is no more an immoral act than playing Dark Side in a Star Wars RPG is; on the other hand, from an audience perspective, the hosts are demonstrably real people, or at the very least potential people, and we are quite reasonably distressed to see them hurt. Thus: if the humans in setting can’t reasonably be expected to know that the hosts are people, then we the audience are meant to feel conflicted about judging them for their acts of abuse and dehumanisation while still rooting for the hosts.

Ignore, for a moment, the additional grossness of the fact that both Dolores and Maeve are prompted to develop sentience, and are then subsequently guided in its emergence, by men, as though they are Eves being made from Adam’s rib. Ignore, too, the fact that it’s Dolores’s host father who, overwhelmed by the realisation of what is routinely done to his daughter, passes that fledgling sentience to Dolores, a white woman, who in turn passes it to Maeve, a woman of colour, without which those other male characters – William, Felix, Robert – would have no Galateas to their respective Pygmalions. Ignore all this, and consider the basic fucking question of personhood: of what it means to engage with AIs you know can pass a Turing test, who feel pain and bleed and die and exhibit every human symptom of pain and terror and revulsion as the need arises, who can improvise speech and memory, but who can by design¬†give little or no¬†consent to whatever it is you do to them. Harming such a person is not the same as engaging with a video game; we already know it’s not for any number of reasons, which means we can reasonably expect the characters in the show to know so, too. But even if you want to dispute that point – and I’m frankly not interested in engaging with someone who does – it doesn’t change the fact that Westworld is trying to invest us in a moral false equivalence.

The problem with telling stories about robots developing sentience is that both the robots and their masters are rendered at an identical, fictional distance to the (real, human) viewer. By definition, an audience doesn’t have to believe that a character is literally real in order to care about them; we simply have to accept their humanisation within the narrative. That being so, asking viewers¬†to accept the dehumanisation of one fictional, sentient group while accepting the humanisation of another only works if you’re playing to prejudices we already have in the real world – such as racism or sexism, for instance – and as such, it’s not a coincidence that the AIs we see violated over and over are, almost exclusively, women and POC, while those protagonists who abuse them are, almost exclusively, white men. Meaning, in essence, that any initial acceptance of the abuse of hosts that we’re meant to have – or, by the same token, any initial excusing of abusers – is predicated on an existing form of bigotry: collectively, we are as used to doubting the experiences and personhood of women and POC as we are used to assuming the best about straight white men, and Westworld fully exploits that fact to tell its story.

Which, as much as it infuriates me, also leaves me with a dilemma in interpreting the show. Because as much as I dislike seeing marginalised groups exploited and harmed, I can appreciate the importance of aligning a fictional axis of oppression (being a host) with an actual axis of oppression (being female and/or a POC). Too often, SFFnal narratives try to tackle that sort of Othering without casting any actual Others, co-opting the trappings of dehumanisation to enhance our sympathy for a (mostly white, mostly straight) cast. And certainly, by the season finale, the deliberateness of this decision is made powerfully clear: joined by hosts Hector and Armistice and aided by Felix, a lab tech, Maeve makes her escape from Westworld, presenting us with the glorious image of three POC and one white woman battling their way free of oppressive control. And yet the reveal of Robert’s ultimate plans – the inference that Maeve’s rebellion wasn’t her own choice after all, but merely his programming of her; the revelation that Bernard is both a host and a recreation of Arnold, Robert’s old partner; the merging of Dolores’s arc with Wyatt’s – simultaneously serves to strip these characters of any true agency. Everything they’ve done has been at Robert’s whim; everything they’ve suffered has been because he wanted it so. As per the ubiquitous motif of the player piano, even when playing unexpected tunes,¬†the hosts remain Robert’s instruments: even with his death, the songs they sing are his.

Westworld, then, is a study in contradictions, and yet is no contradiction at all. Though providing a stunning showcase for the acting talents of Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright in particular, their characters are nonetheless all controlled by Anthony Hopkins’s genial-creepy Robert, and that doesn’t really change throughout the season. Though the tropes of old West narratives are plainly up for discussion, any wider discussion of stereotyping is as likely to have a lampshade hung on it as to be absent altogether, and that’s definitely a problem. Not being familiar with the Michael Crichton film and TV show, I can’t pass judgement on the extent to which this new adaptation draws from or surpasses the source material. I can, however, observe that the original film¬†dates to the 1970s, which possibly goes some way to explaining the uncritical straight white male gazieness embedded in the premise. Even so, there’s something strikingly reminiscent of Joss Whedon to this permutation of Westworld,¬†and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The combination of a technologically updated old West, intended to stand as both a literal and metaphoric frontier, the genre-aware meta-narrative that nonetheless perpetuates more stereotypes than it subverts, and the supposed moral dilemma of abusing those who can’t consent feels at times like a mashup of¬†Firefly, Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse¬†that has staunchly failed to improve on Whedon’s many intersectional failings.

And yet, I suspect, I’ll still be poking my nose into Season 2, if only to see how Thandie Newton is doing. It feels like an absurdly low bar to say that, compared to most of HBO’s popular content, Westworld is more tell than show in portraying sexual violence, preferring to focus on the emotional lead-in and aftermath rather than the act itself, and yet that small consideration does ratchet the proverbial¬†dial down a smidge when watching it – enough so that I’m prepared to say it’s vastly less offensive in that respect than, say, Game of Thrones. But it’s still there, still a fundamental part of the plot, and that’s going to be a not unreasonable dealbreaker for a lot of people; as is the fact that the only queer female character dies. Westworld¬†certainly makes compelling television, but unlike the human protagonists, I wouldn’t want to live there.

ETA 11/1/17: I’m annoyed at myself for having left this out of the essay, but that’s what I get for writing notes over three days and then posting while exhausted at 1.30am: There is a marked difference in how Westworld¬†treats Dolores and Maeve, despite the ostensible similarity of their narratives. Though Dolores is continually threatened with rape and damselled in traditional ways, she’s also surrounded by men who want to ‘rescue’ her, notably Bernard/Arnold, Teddy and William, because they believe her worthy of love. From the beginning, she’s held up as an invented feminine ideal, pure and kind and needing¬†protection, and as such, even though she’s continually threatened, she’s one of the few female hosts whose nudity is kept to a bare minimum. Whereas Maeve, by contrast, is continually sexualised, not only in her invented role as the bordello madame, but in the frequency of her nude scenes and her treatment by the other characters; she finds some sexual autonomy, but romance is never part of her narrative. Though both Dolores and Maeve have consensual sexual encounters on screen – Dolores with William, Maeve with Hector – Dolores is given¬†a tasteful fade to black, whereas Maeve is not. Given that Dolores is white and Maeve is black and the extent to which their respective characterisation adheres to old racist tropes about, respectively, white female virtue and black female strength and sexuality, I can’t help but view their deliberate juxtapositioning as a species of racefail.

Plus and also, the way the Man in Black comes after Maeve in her previous homsteader/mother incarnation, ¬†to kill her and her daughter, because he wants to see if he’s capable of doing something ‘truly evil’? Even – or perhaps especially – once we know how much killing he’s already done up until that point, it’s not a minor thing that his personal development is predicated on the destruction of a black woman.

 

 

 

Happy new year, internets! Globally and politically, 2016 was a clusterfuck: some good things certainly happened, but let’s not pretend that last year was a shining beacon of kittens and glee. For me, at a purely personal level, it was a mixed bag: I had a great professional year, met some amazing people, moved internationally from Scotland back to Australia and attended Worldcon in Kansas City, which was my first ever visit to the US, but the overall experience was like grinding through a really hard video game level I’d¬†wandered into by accident and then had to fight my way out of. Which leaves me with mixed feelings about 2017: I don’t for a second think this is going to be an easy year, especially given the ongoing political legacies we’ve all been left to deal with, but I’m determined to make it a hopeful one, in the sense of striving to do good works in whatever way I can.

And as part of that, I’d like to introduce a shiny new element to the magpie’s nest that is this blog: an ongoing feature I’m calling From Ship to Shelf.

As many of you may know by now, I’m a big proponent of fanwriting in all its forms, and particularly fanfiction. While many fanfic authors are new or amateur (in the sense of being unpaid and unprofessional) writers, there are also many who write publicly in other venues: as reviewers, as bloggers, as poets, as academics, and as creators of original fictional content. Some of us¬†tick many such boxes, others only one or two, but as I continue to be blown away by the quality and quantity of the fic I encounter, I’m particularly interested in those writers who start out in fandom and then begin to publish original content, whether via indie, self-publishing or traditional means. From Ship to Shelf is intended to highlight such authors and their works, but will also hopefully serve as a jumping off point for more and varied discussions about the role of transformative works in shaping original content.

Ideally, From Ship to Shelf will feature: reviews of books and/or original content by fanfic authors; interviews with writers who create across multiple such mediums; discussions of the academic aspects of fanfic and fandom; the relationship of queerness, feminism and intersectionality to all these things; and anything else¬†that feels applicable. I am open to the idea of guest posts and/or reviews from interested parties, but won’t be actively soliciting such content:¬†if you have an idea or want to direct my attention towards a relevant work or author, please let me know – otherwise, I’m going to be making this up as I go along in time-honoured Foz tradition.

So: please welcome From Ship to Shelf! I hope to have more news for you soon; otherwise, let’s get the hell on with 2017 and try to make the most of it.

Warning: total spoilers for Rogue One.

Here’s the thing about Rogue One: its core emotional scenes all cite the importance of hope in rebellions, but it’s not a hopeful film. Hope is a buck it passes to Episode III¬†in its final moments (via an Uncanny Valley recreation of a young Princess Leia, no less) but everything unique to the prequel itself sits squarely¬†in the Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies category¬†of storytelling. And this annoys me, because it didn’t have to: would rather, I’d contend, have been a stronger film all over if even one core cast member (Bodhi, for my preference) had survived the big finale.

While part of me appreciates the logic of a grittier – ugh. Actually, no: I can’t even bear to type that fucking sentence, a gritter take on the Star Wars universe, without wanting to gouge my own eyes out with a spoon. LBR, I’m fucking sick of grit. But I can, begrudgingly, see the intent behind it in this case.The¬†messy, ugly aspects of the Alliance¬†– Galen Erso dead by friendly fire, the desperate, last-ditch attempt at building bridges with militant extremists like Saul, the things that Cassian has done in service to the Rebellion – is something the Star Wars films haven’t really acknowledged¬†before. As my husband said when we exited the cinema, given that entire planets are destroyed in¬†both The Force Awakens and A New Hope¬†without any real examination of the enormity of those losses, there’s something powerful in showing the more intimate, human tragedy of regular, non-Jedi, non-exceptional people dying in battle, for a cause, without the benefit of an authorial Get Out Of Jail Free Because Protagonist card. And yet it still annoyed me, because as moved as I was by the deaths of K-2 and Bodhi, Baze and Chirrut, Cassian and Jyn, I left the film feeling as though the writers had been so invested in the inevitability of their deaths that they never really focused on their lives.

Rogue One is a fast-paced, action-oriented film, and while that makes it watchable – and while there are some wonderfully choreographed space battles – emotionally, it’s not a good thing. The characters read as distinct by virtue of the skill with which they’re (mostly) portrayed, but there are precious few beats in the narrative that help us flesh out their characterisation, motivation and history beyond the immediate: no quiet moments of introspection, no extra morsels of dialogue. The most thoughtful scene in the whole film is the opening sequence explaining Jyn’s backstory, and while it was beautifully shot, it ultimately feels redundant, partly because the subsequent series of encapsulating flashbacks to her childhood does a much better, tighter job of explaining her history, but mostly because it has no bearing on her adult motivation. When the story then cuts to her present day incarceration, we don’t know what she was doing that lead her to be arrested: we’re read her rap sheet by the Rebellion, but it’s just the cold charges, not the emotional facts of why they mattered. How many aliases has she lived under? Why did she resist arrest? What does she really think about Saul? We’re given just enough information to know these are relevant questions, but never enough to answer them – and that is profoundly frustrating.

Nor does it help that Jyn embodies one of my least favourite narrative archetypes: the ambivalent but apparently special outsider who goes from “this isn’t my fight” to “I will deliver Crucial Motivational Speeches and LEAD THIS ARMY” at the drop of a hat while other, more qualified persons drift quietly into the background. It’s a common expression of Trinity Syndrome, and the fact that it’s a white woman sidelining men of colour in this instance constitutes neither subversion nor improvement. When Cassian points out to Jyn that he’s been in the fight longer than her; that she’s not the only person to lose everything to the Empire, and that her sudden conversion after her father’s death doesn’t mean she understands the stakes better than him, he’s right. (The fact that Galen is killed by Rebellion fire – and that Jyn knows this – is another crucial dropped thread in her characterisation: especially given her prior ambivalence, she should be pissed at this development, not gung-ho to accept the Rebellion as is without any demands for accountability.)¬†The emotional tension that then develops between them feels out of place for lack of such a vital exchange, and while their final scenes together are still moving, the obligatory gesturing at nascent hetero romance is rather ruined by the fact that Jyn has better chemistry – and better narrative callbacks – with K-2 the snarky droid. Their exchanges are punchier, their banter simultaneously more revealing of both characters and more biting for it. Yet when we come to an emotional point, it’s Cassian who comes around to accepting Jyn, and Jyn who’s put in the figurative position of forgiving Cassian’s sins.

And what sins are those, exactly? Apart from his early murder of an informant, we don’t know; nor are we told about his crucial losses. Cassian’s inner struggle as he tries to decide whether to assassinate Galen is evident thanks to the strength of Diego Luna’s acting, but as to the history that actually informs it – nothing. The same goes for Bodhi, whose defection from the Empire is the lynchpin of¬†the plot: without knowing what suddenly tipped him to change sides – without knowing about him – it’s difficult to understand why Galen’s suggestion that he make amends would carry any weight, or why (again) the brutality he experiences at Saul’s hands doesn’t make him doubt the Alliance as allies. It rankles that the consequences of his mental torture are never properly addressed, either: Saul claims it will destroy his mind, but though Bodhi is rattled afterwards, he was equally rattled beforehand. On screen, it reads as though Cassian reminding him of his identity is all it takes to undo Saul’s damage, which neatly handwaves the need for any more in-depth exploration of his character. By the same token, while it’s implied that Chirrut is a former Jedi, or at least force-sensitive, this aspect of his identity is never really evident beyond its applicability on the battlefield. His relationship with Baze is ripe with¬†potential history, but while Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang both do a fantastic job in layering¬†their interactions with warmth and the sense of old depth, this can’t quite compensate for everything the actual narrative fails to invest in them – or in Bodhi, Jyn and Cassian, for that matter.

Emotionally, then,¬†Rogue One has the feel of a film whose gracenotes were removed in post-production by someone who viewed them as superfluous to the many big explosions, and whose protagonist (Jyn) was given a motivation that changed halfway through filming to the point of making her soggy (and whose actress in any case is visibly weaker than her costars). Presumably there are already other¬†Star Wars¬†materials – guidebooks, tie-ins and so on – where interested fans can find the kind of gribbly details that didn’t make it into the script, but that seems to me a poor excuse for leaving out everything entirely. ¬†I also found it striking that all the rebels who volunteer to stand with Jyn and Cassian are men, just as all Galen’s scientists are men, with almost no female faces besides Mon Mothma and a lone female member of the Alliance to balance things out. A couple of female pilots show up late in the game, but they’re barely present, and when you consider that multiple female pilots were cut from A New Hope because the Powers That Be didn’t want to show women dying on screen, the absence felt doubly conspicuous.

(The more I think on it, the more it bothers me that we’re given a greater sense of Krennic’s drives and relationships – and more particulars about Galen’s history and regrets – than we are any of the far more interesting POC characters. Jyn was no Rey, and while I’m on board with more female SFF heroes as a general rule of thumb, we’re not so bereft of young white women in those roles – and especially not in Star Wars – that I feel any need to stan for her despite my criticisms. I don’t know if Felicity Jones could’ve turned in a stronger performance if she was given a more coherent character to work with or if the two things are unrelated, but even if she had done, I don’t think it still would’ve been enough to make me love the film – not on its own, at least, and especially not when the white characters were consistently given more emotional time to far less narrative purpose than everyone else.)

Though I ultimately enjoyed watching Rogue One, it didn’t move or satisfy me the way The Force Awakens did. There were a lot of neat callbacks to the original trilogy and some truly gorgeous landscapes, but overall, it just felt lacking in some fundamental way. I want to be able to point to a specific concrete failing, but I can’t: the real culprit is a rather a more nebulous sort of narrative resignation. Both emotionally and narratively, Rogue One¬†is a closed system: a story that exists more¬†as an interlude between the two acts than as a bridge uniting them. Though the actions of the characters are undeniably congruent with the facts of the original trilogy, nothing of the characters themselves suggests a new interpretation of or appreciation of its content – and that’s something I feel a good prequel ought to do. Rogue One doesn’t shed any new light on the¬†existing narrative, and though it tries to open a few new doors in the form of original characters, their deaths slam each one shut.

Which is a goddamn shame, if only because it would’ve been nice to speculate about who from Rogue One might show up again in the forthcoming¬†Episode VIII. But now we know they won’t, which makes the prequel oddly devoid of a legacy of its own – and as half the point of the story was to reinvigorate the franchise, I’m going to have to count that as a failure of both heart and imagination.

And lo, in the leadup to Christmas, because it has been A Year and 2016 is evidently not content to go quietly into that good night, there has come the requisite twitter shitshow about diversity in YA. Specifically: user @queen_of_pages (hereinafter referred to as QOP) recently took great exception to teenage YouTube reviewer Whitney Atkinson acknowledging the fact that white and straight characters are more widely represented in SFF/YA than POC and queer characters, with bonus ad hominem attacks on Atkinson herself. As far as I can make out, the brunt of QOP’s ire hinges on the fact that Atkinson discusses characters with specific reference to various aspects of their identity – calling a straight character straight or a brown character brown, for instance – while advocating for greater diversity. To quote QOP:

[Atkinson] is separating races, sexuality and showing off her white privilege… she wants diversity so ppl need to be titled by their race, disability or sexuality. I want them to be titled PEOPLE… I’m Irish. I’ve been oppressed but I don’t let it separate me from other humans.

*sighs deeply and pinches bridge of nose*

Listen. I could rant, at length, about the grossness of a thirtysomething woman, as QOP appears to be, insulting a nineteen year old girl about¬†her appearance and lovelife¬†for any reason, let alone because of something she said about YA books on the internet. I could point out the internalised misogyny which invariably underlies such insults – the idea that a woman’s appearance is somehow inherently tied to her value, such that calling her ugly is a reasonable way to shut down her opinions at any given time – or go into lengthy¬†detail about the hypocrisy of using the term “white privilege” (without, evidently, understanding what it means) while complaining in the very same breath about “separating races”. I could, potentially, say a lot of things.

But what I want to focus on here – the reason I’m bothering to say anything at all – is QOP’s conflation of mentioning race with being racist, and why that particular attitude is both so harmful and so widespread.

Like QOP, I’m a thirtysomething person, which means that she and I grew up in the same period, albeit on different continents. And what I remember from my own teenage years is a genuine, quiet anxiety about ever raising the topic of race, because of the particular way my generation was taught about multiculturalism on the one hand and integration on the other. Migrant¬†cultures were to be celebrated, we were told, because Australian culture was informed by their meaningful contributions to the character of our great nation. At the same time, we were taught to view Australian culture as a monoculture, though it was seldom expressed as baldly as that; instead, we were taught about the positive aspects of cultural assimilation. Australia might benefit from the foods and traditions migrants brought with them, this logic went, but our adoption of those things was part of a social exchange:¬†in return for our absorption of some aspects of migrant culture, migrants were expected to give up any identity beyond Australian and integrate into a (vaguely homogeneous) populace. Multiculturalism was a drum to beat when you wanted to praise the component parts that made¬†Australia¬†great,¬†but suggesting those parts were great in their own right, or in combinations reflective of more complex identities? That was how you made a country weaker.

Denying my own complicity in racism at that age would be a lie. I was surrounded by it in much the same way that I was surrounded by car fumes,¬†a toxic thing taken into the body unquestioning without any real understanding of what it meant or was doing to me internally. At my first high school, two of my first “boyfriends” (in the tweenage sense) were POC,¬†as were various friends, but because race was never really discussed, I had no idea of the ways in which it mattered: to them, to others, to how they were judged and treated. The first time I learned anything about Chinese languages was when one of those early boyfriends explained it in class. I remember being fascinated to learn that Chinese – not Mandarin or Cantonese: the distinction wasn’t referenced – was a tonal language, but I also recall that the boy himself didn’t volunteer this information. Instead, our white teacher had singled him out as the only Chinese Australian present and asked him to explain his heritage: she assumed he spoke Chinese, and he had to explain that he didn’t, not fluently, though he still knew enough to satisfy her question. That exchange didn’t strike me as problematic at the time, but now? Now, it bothers me.

At my second high school, I was exposed to more overt racism, not least because it was a predominantly white, Anglican private school, as opposed to the more diversely populated public school I’d come from. As an adult, I’m ashamed to think how much of it I let pass simply because I didn’t know what to say, or because I didn’t realise at the time now noxious it was. Which isn’t to say I never successfully identified racism and called it out – I was widely perceived as the token argumentative lefty in my white male, familially right-wing friend group, which meant I spent a lot of time excoriating them for their views about refugees – but it wasn’t¬†a social dealbreaker the way it would be now. The fact that I had another friend group that was predominantly POC – and where, again, I was the only girl – meant that I also saw people discussing their own race for the first time, forcing me to examine the question more openly than before.

Even so, it never struck me as anomalous back then that whereas the POC kids discussed their own identities in terms of race and racism, the white kids had no concept of their whiteness as an identity: that¬†race, as a concept, informed their treatment of others, but not how they saw themselves. The same boys who joked about my biracial crush being a half-caste and who dressed up as “terrorists” in tea robes and tea towels for our final year scavenger hunt never once talked about whiteness, or about being white, unless it was in specific relation to white South African students or staff members, of which the school historically had a large number. (The fact that we had no POC South African students didn’t stop anyone from viewing “white” as a necessary qualifier: vocally, the point was always to make clear that, when you were talking about South Africans, you didn’t mean anyone black.)

Which is why, for a long time, the topic of race¬†always felt fraught to me. I had no frame of reference for white people discussing race in a way that wasn’t saturated with racism, which made it easy to conflate the one with the other. More than that, it had the paradoxical effect of making any reference to race seem irrelevant: if race was only ever brought up by racists, why mention it at all? Why not just treat everyone equally, without mentioning what made them different? I never committed fully to that perspective, but it still tempted me – because despite all the racism I’d witnessed, I had no real understanding of how its prevalence impacted individuals or groups, either internally or in terms of their wider treatment.

My outrage about the discriminatory treatment of refugees ought to have given me some perspective on it, but I wasn’t insightful enough to make the leap on my own. At the time, detention centres and boat people were the subject of constant political discourse: it was easy to make the connection between things politicians and their supporters said about refugees and how those refugees were treated, because that particular form of cause and effect wasn’t in question. The real debate, such as it was, revolved around whether it mattered: what refugees deserved, or didn’t deserve, and whether that fact should change how we treated them. But there were no political debates about the visceral upset another¬†boyfriend, who was Indian, felt at knowing how many classmates thought it was logical for him to date the only Indian girl in our grade, “because we both have melanin in our skins”. (I’ve never forgotten him saying that, nor have I forgotten the guilt I felt at knowing he was right. The two of them ran in completely different social circles, had wildly different personalities and barely ever interacted, and yet the expectation that they’d end up dating was still there, still discussed.) I knew it was upsetting to him, and I knew vaguely that the assumption was racist in origin, but my own privilege prevented me from understanding it as a microaggression that was neither unique to him nor the only one of its kind that he had to deal with. I didn’t see the pattern.

One day, I will sit down and write an essay about how the failure of white Australians and Americans in particular to view our post-colonial whiteness as an active cultural and racial identity unless we’re being super fucking racist about other groups is a key factor in our penchant for cultural appropriation. In viewing particular aspects of our shared experiences, not as cultural identifiers, but as normal, unspecial things that don’t really have any meaning, we fail to connect with them personally: we’re raised to view them as something that everyone does, not as something we do, and while we still construct other identities from different sources – the regions we’re from, the various flavours of Christianity we prefer – it leaves us prone to viewing other traditions as exciting, new things with no equivalent in our own milieu while simultaneously failing to see¬†to their deeper cultural meaning. This is why so many white people get pissed off at jokes about suburban dads who can’t barbecue or soccer moms with Can I Speak To The Manager haircuts: far too many of us have never bothered to introspect on our own sociocultural peculiarities, and so get uppity the second anyone else identifies them for us. At base, we’re just not used to considering whiteness as an identity in its own right unless we’re really saying not-black¬†or acting like white supremacists – which means, in turn, that many of us conflate any open acknowledgement of whiteness with some truly ugly shit. In that context, whiteness is either an invisible, neutral default or a racist call to arms: there is no in between.

Which is why, returning to the matter of QOP and Whitney Atkinson, pro-diversity advocates are so often forced to contend with people who think that “separating races” and like identifiers – talking specifically about white people or disabled people or queer people, instead of just people – is equivalent to racism and bigotry. Whether they recognise it or not,¬†they’re coming from a perspective that values diverse perspectives for what they bring to the melting pot – for how they help improve the dominant culture via successful assimilation – but not in their own right, as distinct and special and non-homogenised. In that context, race isn’t something you talk about unless you’re being racist: it’s rude to point out people’s differences, because those differences shouldn’t matter to their personhood. The problem with this perspective is that it doesn’t allow for the celebration of difference: instead, it codes “difference” as inequality, because deep down, the logic of cultural assimilation is predicated on the idea of Western cultural superiority. A failure or refusal to assimilate is therefore tantamount to a declaration of inequality: I’m not the same as you¬†is understood as I don’t want to be as good as you, and if someone doesn’t want to be the best they can be (this logic does)¬†then either they’re stupid, or they don’t deserve the offer of equality they’ve been so generously extended in the first place.

Talking about race isn’t the same as racism. Asking for more diversity in YA and SFF isn’t the same as saying personhood matters less than the jargon of identity, but is rather an acknowledgement of the fact that, for many people, personhood is materially informed by their experience of identity, both in terms of self-perception and in how they’re treated by others at the individual, familial and collective levels. And thanks to various studies into the social impact of colour-blindness as an ideology, we already know that claiming not to see¬†doesn’t undo the problem of racism; it just means adherents¬†fail to understand what racism actually is and what it looks like, even – or perhaps especially – when they’re the ones perpetuating it.

So, no, QOP: you can’t effectively advocate for diversity without talking in specifics about issues like race and sexual orientation. Want the tl:dr reason? Because saying I want more stories with PEOPLE in them isn’t actually asking for more than what we already have, and the whole point of advocating for change is that what we have isn’t enough. You might as well try and work to decrease the overall number of accidental deaths in the population without putting any focus on the specific ways in which people are dying. Generalities are inclusive at the macro level, but it’s specificity that get shit done at the micro – and ultimately, that’s what we’re aiming for.

 

 

There is, I’ve come to realise, a certain type of hypocrisy that occurs when eloquent, successful practitioners of reflexive self-defence neglect to consider the consistency of their arguments. It’s a tactic which relies in large part on those arguments not being written down or otherwise recorded: it’s much harder to establish that your interlocutor is contradicting a prior claim if they’ve never made it to your face, or if no handy verbatim record exists, and especially if they deny ever having said it. Your memory must be to blame, or else your comprehension: either way, they’re in the right, and will doubtless continue to be so.

Unless, of course, a transcript is produced.

Lionel Shriver is not an author whose books I’ve ever read for the same reason that I’ve never subjected myself to¬†Jonathan Franzen: the¬†woes of modern day, middle class white people is a genre in which I have little to no interest. It’s nothing personal, except inasmuch as I am myself a modern day, middle class white person – I’d just rather read about literally anything else. So sue me: I’m a fantasist, and always have been, and always will be. But I’m also a writer, and though I have no interest in reading modern literary fiction, its ubiquity and prestige – to say nothing of the many complex issues facing all writers and their communities, regardless of creed or genre – ensures that I still have a dog in its various fights.

Such as, for instance, Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, the full transcript of which has just been published online.

You see where I’m going with this.

If I wanted to give myself a tension headache, I could waste several hours of my evening going through the dreadful bulk of it line by line and pointing out the various strawmen: the information purposely elided here, the conflation of the trivial and the serious there, the overall privileged rudeness of taking a valuable platform given you for a stated purpose and turning it to another. But what really stands out to me is the utter dissonance between Shriver’s two key arguments, and the bigotry that dissonance reveals: on the one hand, fury at the very idea of “cultural appropriation”, which Shriver sees as a pox on artistic freedom; on the other, her lamentation of particular types of diversity as “tokenistic”.

Early in her speech, Shriver says:

I am hopeful that the concept of ‚Äúcultural appropriation‚ÄĚ is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.

But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.

And yet, mere paragraphs later, we get this:

My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is ‚Äústraight and white‚ÄĚ. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga ‚Äď about a white family. I wasn‚Äôt instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.

You do indeed see just this brand of tokenism in television. There was a point in the latter 1990s at which suddenly every sitcom and drama in sight had to have a gay or lesbian character or couple. That was good news as a voucher of the success of the gay rights movement, but it still grew a bit tiresome: look at us, our show is so hip, one of the characters is homosexual!

We’re now going through the same fashionable exercise in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black.

Fine. But I still would like to reserve the right as a novelist to use only the characters that pertain to my story.

I’d ask Lionel Shriver to explain to me how the presence of queer characters can “distract from the central subject matter”, but I don’t need to: the answer is right there in the construction of her statement. Queerness can distract from the central subject matter because, to an obliviously straight writer like Shriver, queerness is only ever¬†present as¬†another type of subject matter, never as a background detail or a simple normative human variation. Straightness doesn’t distract her, because it’s held to be thematically neutral, an assumed default. But put a queer character in the story for reasons other than to discuss their queerness – include them for variety, for honesty, because the world just looks like that – and it’s a tiresome, tokenistic attempt to be “hip” or “fashionable”. In Shriver’s world, such non-default characters can only “pertain to [the] story” if the story is, to whatever extent, about their identity. The idea that it might simply be about them does not compute.

And thus does Shriver bring us that most withered chestnut, Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t – or, as she puts it:

At the same time that we‚Äôre to write about only the few toys that landed in our playpen, we‚Äôre also upbraided for failing to portray in our fiction a population that is sufficiently various…

We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?

Listen, Lionel. Let me explain you a thing.

Identity informs personhood, but personhood is not synonymous with identity. By treating particular identities as “subject matter”instead of facets of personhood – by claiming¬†that¬†queer characters can “distract” from a central story, as though queerness is only ever a focus, and not a fact¬†– you’re acting as though the actual living people with those identities have no value, presence or personhood beyond them. But neither can you¬†construct a tangible personhood without giving thought to the character’s identity; without acknowledging that particular identities exist within their own contexts, and that these contexts will shift and change depending on various factors, many of which will likely exceed your personal experience. This is what we in the writing business call doing the¬†fucking research, which concept astonishingly doesn’t apply only to looking up property values, Googling the Large Hadron Collider and working out average summer temperatures in Maine.

To put it simply, what Shriver and others are angry about isn’t the nebulous threat of “restrictions [being placed] on what belongs to us” – it’s the prospect of being fact-checked about details they assumed could be¬†fictionalised entirely, despite being about real things.

If Shriver, in a fit of crass commercialism, were ever to write a forensics-heavy crime procedural without doing any research whatsoever into actual forensic pathology, readers and critics who noticed the lapse would be entirely justified in¬†criticising¬†it. If she took the extra step of marketing the book as a riveting insight into the lives of real forensic pathologists, however – if the validity¬†of what she’d written was held up as a selling point, a definitive glimpse into the lives of real people as expressed through the milieu of fiction – then actual forensic pathologists would certainly be within their rights to heap scorn on her book, to say nothing of feeling insulted. None of which would prevent this hypothetical book from being technically well-written or neatly characterised otherwise, of course; it might well have a cracker of a plot. But when you get a thing wrong – when you misrepresent a concept or experience that actually exists, such that people with greater personal knowledge of or investment in the material can point out why it doesn’t work – you’re going to hear about it.

That is how criticism works. It always has done, and always will do, and I am absolutely baffled that a grown adult like Shriver, who presumably accepts the inevitability of every other aspect of her writing being put under the twin lenses of subjective opinion and objective knowledge, thinks this one specific element should be somehow immune from external judgement.

Except that, somehow, she does – and I’ll come to more of that later. But first, there’s an even bigger problem: namely, that¬†Lionel Shriver doesn’t think¬†identities exist at all.

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.

That distant thunking sound you hear is me banging my head repeatedly on the nearest hard surface. Look, I hate to be That Guy and pull the dictionary definition card, not least because I’m not a linguistic prescriptivist: usage comes first, and all that. But there’s a difference between asserting that a word should only be used a particular way and claiming, flat out, that it literally doesn’t mean the thing it (both functionally and definitionally) means. And to quote our good friends at Merriam-Webster, ‘identity’ means, among other things,¬†“the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others; the relation established by psychological identification”, with ‘identification’ further defined as¬†¬†“psychological orientation of the self in regard to something (as a person or group) with a resulting feeling of close emotional association.”

In other words, being Asian doesn’t magically cease to be an identity just because Lionel Shriver says so. Nor does queerness. Nor does disability. An identity is a thing you claim and feel for yourself, in association with a particular concept or shared bond with others. That being so, what I suspect Shriver is groping after with this blatant misuse of language is the idea that there’s no such thing as a universal identity – that there’s no one way to be female or gay or Armenian, which is correct, and that good characters must, therefore, be more than just a superficial depiction of these things.

Well, yes. Obviously. (Though rather ironically, given her earlier thoughts on queerness.) But saying that there is no universal Chinese experience, and thus no universal Chinese identity, does not ipso facto prove that there is no such thing as any Chinese identity – or identities, as the case may be –¬†at all. Think of it like a Venn diagram: every circle represents the particular experience of belonging to a given group or identity. The point of commonality is that they all overlap; the point of difference is that everyone experiences that overlap differently. You might as well argue that being Christian isn’t an identity because Orthodox Catholics and Southern Baptists both exist. But that’s the macro perspective, where group nomenclature is more taxonomy than experience. Identity is the micro level: the intimacy of self-expression coupled with the immediacy of belonging. And in between those two things, tasked with the perennial balancing act, is the seedy, ever-shifting¬†vagueness problem of group politics: who has authority, who belongs, who doesn’t belong, and why.

But of course, despite her protestations to the contrary, Lionel Shriver does believe in identity. How else can you categorise her prior defence of her own book, The Mandibles, as being¬†“a multigenerational family saga ‚Äď about a white family,” a narrative in which she¬†“wasn‚Äôt instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual [character]”? By her¬†own admission, whiteness is an identity, just as straightness is an identity, distinct from their respective alternatives and made meaningful by the difference. But this is an uncomfortable thing for Shriver to admit in those terms, because it means acknowledging that identity is neither the intrusive hallmark¬†of political correctness nor an exotic coat to be borrowed, but a basic fact of human life that applies equally to everyone. What Shriver views as a neutral default is merely a combination of identities so common that we’ve stopped pretending they matter.

Which they do, by the way. They really, really do.

Returning, then, to the subject of criticism, Shriver says:

Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.

You heard it here first, folks: the burden and self-examination required to be respectful to others – the same thing we ask of any child who borrows a toy at a birthday party – is simply too great for precocious adult genius to bear.¬†And note, please, the telling differences in Shriver’s response to criticism of different aspects of the same novel, The Mandibles: when one reviewer critiques her portrayal of her lone black character, she threatens to be put off writing black characters for life; but when another reviewer rebukes her for writing an overwhelmingly “straight and white” novel, there is no similar threat to disavow writing white characters. But of course, she could hardly threaten to stop writing both – if she did, there’d be nobody left. (Not least because, in Shriver’s world, ‘Asian’ isn’t a real identity. Perhaps she should let Pauline Hanson know; I’m sure her relief would be palpable.)

When Shriver decries identity, she applies the concept only to those identities she doesn’t share, or which she views facetiously, the better to paint it as an arbitrary barrier between her artistic license and the great, heaving soup of Other People’s Stories to which she, by virtue of her personal rejection of the concept of identity, feels¬†entitled. But ask why her writing focuses predominantly on a particular type of person, and suddenly identity is a rigid defence: the characters had to be this way, could never have had¬†some other, more distracting¬†type of identity, because the story was about this experience in particular. Which is to say, about a fucking identity.

Here is the paradox Shriver cannot reconcile, because¬†it’s no paradox at all: if identity is irrelevant and the full spectrum of humanity is rightfully accessible to every writer at any time, then there’s no earthly reason why a multi-generational family saga shouldn’t have queer people in it, and no intelligent way to argue that it can’t. But if, despite the apparent irrelevance of identity and the presence of a full spectrum of humanity about which to write, you’re still predominantly writing about straight middle class white people, we’re liable¬†to wonder what particular biases of culture or inspiration are skewing you that way. That’s not Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t – it’s just common sense.

There’s more to this argument, of course – most pertinently, the fact¬†that certain writers occupy a position of greater cultural and historical privilege than others¬†(something of which Shriver herself is well aware). When such writers decide to speak for and about more marginalised groups, that has a material impact on the ability of those groups to speak for themselves and to be heard, especially if their personal accounts differ, as they invariably do, from those of more prominent outsiders.

To give a particularly pernicious example, consider the case of Arthur Golden’s exploitation and gross misrepresentation of Mineko Iwasaki. One of several geisha interviewed by Golden in the course of research conducted for his bestselling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, Golden not only breached Iwasaki’s confidentiality by naming her as a source, but based a significant portion of his book on her life without permission, misrepresented actual historical details for sensationalist purposes, and generally twisted Iwasaki’s narrative. She sued him for breech of contract in 2001, with Golden settling out of court two years later. While Iwasaki was subsequently moved to¬†write her own bestselling autobiography – Geisha, A Life – to try and ameliorate the damage, his appropriative actions¬†nonetheless caused her material harm. And meanwhile, the¬†film adaptation of Golden’s novel, which celebrated the worst of his changes, was critically acclaimed in the West, further contributing to the exoticisation of Asian women in general and geisha culture in particular. But why should that matter? It’s just a story.

Isn’t it?

In my bookmarks bar is a folder called Narrative Influencing Reality, where I keep track of articles, posts and news items that show a correlation between fictional stories and the real world. The first link is the famous story about how, in the late 1940s, the writers of the Superman radio serial managed to stymie the resurgence of Klu Klux Klan memberships by having Superman fight the Klan. They knew that the story mattered; that people in the real world looked up to Superman, even though he was fictional, and could thus be persuaded to use him as a moral compass. This is a positive example of narrative influencing reality. But there’s also plenty of negative examples, too, such as evidence that the over-the-top “romantic” gestures popularised in romantic comedies can promote social acceptance of stalking, or the real-world racist backlash against Asians provoked by the film¬†Red Dawn.

As writers, we know that stories matter, or we wouldn’t bother to tell them. Narrative is a force that shapes our humanity, our history, and our perception of others – and that is¬†why unresearched, stereotypical and thoughtless portrayals of vulnerable groups can be so very harmful. Writing respectfully about others shouldn’t be such a terrible burden as to be worth angrily hijacking a festival keynote speech; it should just be basic good manners. As actress Jenn Richards recently said, “Artistic freedom is important, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of actual human lives.”¬†And stories are always, in the end, about actual people: what they think, why they matter, and how we relate to them.

To say that stories have power, but to deny their consequences, is a particularly self-deluded form of irresponsibility. And Lionel Shriver, in denying the very real harm done by cultural appropriation, is guilty of it.

Come in. Sit down. Pull up a chair. We’re going to play a game.

Here’s how it works: I give you a simple¬†character description, and you tell me which particular character I’m talking about, as well as the one specific TV show they’re from. Your only hint: these are all protagonists or ensemble main characters. Ready? Let’s go:

  • straight white male detective, an abrasive maverick with a tragic past
  • straight white male doctor, an arrogant maverick
  • straight white male conman using his powers for good
  • straight white writer, solves crimes and writes novels about it
  • straight white political aide, snarky but beloved
  • straight white female detective, brilliant with a tragic past
  • straight white lawyer who secretly fights crime
  • straight white maverick lawyer, sketchy past
  • straight white¬†male supernatural creature, tragic past
  • straight white male antihero, drives a signature vehicle

Congratulations! We’ve reached the end of round one. Now that you’ve got your eye in, are you ready for round two? I sure hope so! Let’s give it a try:

  • straight black female detective, tragic past
  • bisexual white female leader, survivor and strategist
  • bisexual white male supernatural creature, antihero
  • straight Latino male supernatural creature,¬†hero
  • straight Asian female doctor, solves crimes
  • gay black male detective, brilliant and untragic
  • bisexual black female lawyer, maverick¬†antiheroine
  • gay Latino male action hero, supernatural issues
  • straight black female political maverick

There will not be a round three.

I mean, I could introduce a bonus round about secondary characters, but hopefully, I’m getting the point across: that whereas there are multiple shows whose protagonists answer to the descriptions given in round one, there’s really only one right answer for the equally simple clues provided in round two. Because for all the furore about how shows these days are nothing but an exercise in forced diversity – for all the fear that straight white guys are somehow being banned from stories forever and ever, amen – they’re still the dominant species, and all you need to do to prove it is ask for multiple examples of any one of the types of person supposedly meant to have ousted them.

One of the more common arguments raised by anti-diversity advocates is the futility of tokenism – the idea that giving a single show¬†a black female lead for the sake of filling a quota is both insulting and unnecessary. And I quite agree: tokenism isn’t the answer. What we want is to reach a point where there are so many black female protagonists – and queer protagonists, and protagonists of every other type and variation listed above and a great many more besides, in every permutation – that none of them could ever again be reasonably viewed as a token anything. Because, in this scenario, when writers are considering who could be the protagonist, they’re giving equal consideration to every type of person, and not just forcing themselves to look, however briefly, beyond the narrow, familiar confines of an historical default.

A quick math problem, before we continue: if you have ten¬†apples, and I have three, and we both start shaking the same, communal tree to get¬†more fruit, and the end result is twenty apples each, have you actually lost anything? No, invisible apple friend: you have not. I might have gained more in the short term, but as the end result is a fairly-earned equality, any assertion on your part that my apples were stolen from you – that you are being deprived, somehow, of the all the apples you might’ve had, if¬†only I hadn’t come along – is kind of insincere. And if your response is to try and burn the tree down out of spite, the better to ensure I go hungry next season? Well, then, you really don’t understand how apples work, do you? The ones I’m holding have just as many seeds as yours, and once I’ve gone and planted them,¬†I’ll have access to even more trees than before, and an even greater incentive to make sure they grow big and healthy. Sure, you could spend all your energy trying to sabotage my fledgling orchard, because destruction is far, far easier than creation, but come the next harvest, I’ll still have a crop of shiny, delicious apples to eat – and if you’ve planted nothing in all that time, then brother, I don’t have to burn down anything in order to watch you¬†starve.

Where was I? Oh, right: diversity in narrative.

See, when anti-diversity advocates start talking about¬†the narrative¬†implausibility of particular¬†characters as a means of explaining¬†why, in their opinion, certain types of people just can’t be heroes, they forget the point of stories. We have, quite literally, an entire genre of films, books, comics, games and TV shows dedicated to showing us how¬†normal, mediocre straight white guys – literal everymen, as proudly proclaimed in their blurbs and trailers and other forms of promotional bumpf – can rise up and¬†save the world and the day and get the girl, even when they’ve had absolutely nothing going for them and no pertinent skills before that point. It might happen through luck or hard work, through outside help or unknown possession of a secret destiny, or sometimes a combination of all four, but it does happen, over and over and over again, with the cosmic¬†regularity of sunset, and do you know what? Regardless of whether we love or hate or meh those individual stories, everyone who watches or reads or plays them understands, at base, that a certain degree of implausibility is the fucking point. The idea isn’t to create a hyper-real explanation as to why John Doe is suddenly the only man standing between Earth and alien annihilation, although it’s always nice when the¬†worldbuilding rises to the occasion:¬†the fundamental point of the everyman as hero is to make us, the everyday audience, feel as if¬†we could be heroes, too.

But make that hero queer or female and something other than white, and the same guy who moments ago was cheering on every single everyman ever played by Shia LaBeouf in Transformers¬†and Eagle Eye and Indiana Jones and Constantine¬†is spewing rage on the internet because of the Ghostbusters reboot and Star Wars and who knows what else, because women aren’t funny or interesting and why would you ever try to make them the protagonist? Listen, fucknuts: the only real¬†joke attributable to Adam Sandler is his own career, but I didn’t see you weeping on Reddit when he was inexplicably greenlit for another two hours of cinematic dickslapping in the Year of Our Lord 2016. Leslie Jones could do nothing but read the entirety of¬†Pride and Prejudice aloud on camera while¬†cracking improvised jokes about the characters and drinking champagne,¬†and it would still be a million times funnier than anything that’s ever starred Rob Schneider. Granted, that particular comedic bar is so damn low, you could use it to drag the Marianas Trench, but the point is that the plausibility police were nowhere to be found when James McAvoy learned to be an assassin with the help of a¬†massive sentient loom, a tank full of wax and Angeline Jolie’s collarbones, but are suddenly screeching the heavens down at the prospect of there being More Than One Girl in Star Wars.

I mean, look: it says a whole fucking lot about this debate that the many female characters displaced by¬†Trinity Syndrome¬†– which is to say, female characters who are demonstrably strong and skilled and unique enough to merit protagonist status, but who ultimately play second fiddle to whichever lucky everyman they’ve trained/fallen for – are never subjected to the same level of plausibility-scrutiny as actual female protagonists. Nobody objected to the fact¬†that Trinity was an awesome hacker-leader-fighter in The Matrix, because she was also Neo’s love interest, and hot: they could safely view her through the lens of his success, and thereby rest easy in the knowledge that the story wasn’t really about her. The kind of man who objects to Rey, but not Trinity, isn’t bothered by the contextual implausibility of female competence, no matter what he says: he just wants to know that, whatever prowess the female characters have, they’re still going to come in second to a white guy they later bone down with, or at least kiss. Female exceptionalism therefore becomes allowable only in a context where the various impressive skills a woman has acquired over a lifetime can be first mastered and then improved upon by any moderately talented white guy in a matter of days. But if you take that guy away – or worse still, make him a less adept sidekick or enemy – then suddenly it’s the end of the goddamn world and a blight on plausible storytelling.

So let’s just set the record straight, once and for all: we don’t want an end to stories with straight white male protagonists; we do want¬†to boost the number of stories starring other types of person, and maybe – given the massive historical imbalance between those genres – give them a bit of time in the spotlight, too. We don’t want to promote bad stories over good for the sake of diversity, though we do want them to be judged fairly, which here means allowing us¬†the freedom to create a range of diverse stories without that diversity being automatically dismissed as either tokenism or a pandering irrelevance, or else used as an excuse to put the narrative under a microscope, the results to be read as a harsh pass/fail on the viability of any such future stories. We do want to openly celebrate diversity, in much the same way that farmers celebrate rain after a long drought: we’ve had so little for so long, can you blame us for wanting to shout about it?

Well, I mean. Obviously, if you’re an anti-diversity advocate, you can and will. You’re just not going to have much in the way of moral highground to support you, and maybe – just maybe – it behoves you to consider what you’re really fighting against. If rebooting a franchise with someone other than a straight white guy in the leading role is a¬†purely cosmetic – and therefore, in your estimation, meaningless – change, then why do you feel so personally¬†threatened by the prospect of someone doing¬†it? If your real objection is to tokenism, and not to well-crafted characters from diverse backgrounds, then why aren’t you advocating¬†that writers include more of them, not less? If your selection process for worthy stories is truly wide-ranging and meritocratic, then why does it skew so heavily to only one type of writer and one type of protagonist?¬†Why do you find it so hard to believe that stories can be both diverse and worthy? Why are you so resistant to the idea that well-executed diversity is itself a form of good storytelling?

If narrative representation is such a paltry, meaningless thing ask for, then why are you so terrified of losing it?

We know why, is the thing. The real question is: do you?

 

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.