Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Warning: spoilers

In many respects, Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth is a superb, original novel; in others, it is a needlessly frustrating one. In the days since I finished reading it, my thoughts in each of these directions have met, overlapped and – for the most part – separated out again without resolving the dissonance, leaving me to wonder which aspects of storytelling I most value in a work, and why. If I skew towards the negative, am I being unduly harsh on a novel which I ultimately enjoyed and whose sequels I plan to read? If I skew towards the positive, am I being overly kind to a story whose discrepancies come more sharply into focus the longer I have to consider them? What matters more to my stance as a reviewer: the feelings I had while reading a book, or my tempered analysis of it? In this case, I’m honestly not sure, but I hope that writing this review will be clarifying for someone, even if it isn’t me.

Gideon the Ninth begins with its titular heroine trying and failing to run away from home to join the cohort, aka the space army – trying, because the home in question is the Ninth House, a sect of necromancers set on a desolate planet in a system run by same; failing, because Gideon, who is not a necromancer despite being raised by them, knows too many House secrets to be allowed to leave. Her planned departure is thwarted by the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, aka Harrow, her sole age-mate in the Ninth after a terrible plague wiped out all the other children during their infancy. Harrow, a highly skilled necromancer and heir to the Ninth, is a constant thorn in Gideon’s side, and has been for their entire lives.

But as it turns out, Harrow has need of Gideon. The immortal Emperor of the Resurrection – a man who became God and a God who became a man, who has ruled for ten thousand years – has sent a missive to the Houses asking for each necromantic heir and their sworn cavalier to come to Canaan House on the First planet, a planet of ruins and mystery, to undergo trials to become Lyctors: the immortal, most powerful Hands of the Emperor. Or, almost immortal: after nine thousand years, the existing First Lyctors have dwindled in number – hence the need for trials to attain replacements. In order to attend, survive and pass the trials, Harrow needs a cavalier primary: a swordsman, bodyguard and confidant. And as her existing cavalier is manifestly not up to the task, that leaves Gideon to fill the gap.

Arriving on the First, Gideon and Harrow – and, by extension, the audience – are soon introduced to the representatives of the other Houses, all with their own agendas. Under the guidance of the enigmatic Teacher and a literal skeleton crew (because necromancy), the necromancers and cavaliers are given one single rule to start them on the journey to Lyctorhood: open no locked doors in Canaan House without permission. But the First is a dangerous place to be, and when people start turning up dead, the stakes are raised: it’s not just about becoming a Lyctor any more – it’s about surviving.

For the first two thirds of the story, Gideon the Ninth is a tense, characterful and wholly original species of locked room mystery. Though Gideon has grown up around necromancers, she has no real understanding of the various theorems and methods they employ, and as such, the readers learn these details along with her. Rather than making this an excuse to infodump, however, Muir uses Gideon’s ignorance as a deliberate tease: though the system of necromancy feels both compelling and well thought out, it maintains a tense mystique by dint of being under-explained, discussed primarily by experts who, with few exceptions, have no reason to give a 101 rundown of their discipline. As a narrative technique, it reminds me most of the way we slowly learn about gems, fusion, the diamonds and the history of Homeworld in the early seasons of Steven Universe: an organic, background tuition that rewards an attentive audience with glimpses of a hidden, but nonetheless coherent, whole.

In this context, the trials that Gideon and Harrow start to undergo – to say nothing of the process by which Harrow works out what the trials are – make for gripping reading. We’re given enough identifying glimpses of the other characters to get a feel for them without being led by the hand, and as their motives start to become more distinct, this characterisation – with what is ultimately revealed to be one glaring exception – bears up admirably.

And it’s here that we enter true spoiler territory: because while the first two thirds of the book are exceptional, it’s the final third that gets a little dicey. For me, this was exacerbated by the fact that, until I reached the end of Gideon the Ninth and saw that it was book one of a series, I’d been thinking of it as a standalone novel. In my defence, until you finish the final chapter, there’s nothing printed anywhere in/on the physical copy to indicate otherwise, which I’d argue is a discourtesy to the reader: knowing whether a book is part of a series changes your expectations of its structure, and it was confusing in the extreme to feel that the build-up of the first two thirds, all of which centred around the mysteries of Lyctorhood, had suddenly become secondary to a different, belatedly-revealed conflict. This would’ve been forgivable if said conflict had made sense; instead, however, it has the unfortunate effect of making certain key aspects of what came before feel weird and illogical.

Specifically – and to those who want to remain unspoiled, turn away now – the problem lies in the Big Reveal about Dulcinea Septimus, the chronically ill necromancer of the Seventh House. At the finale of the book, we learn that Dulcinea is not who she pretends to be: instead, she is Cytherea, one of the Emperor’s still-living Lyctors who, for reasons that don’t really parse, has decided to try and kill off the would-be Lyctors. To quote the explanation she gives to Palamedes Sextus, one of Gideon and Harrow’s allies:

I knew that if I ruined his Lyctor plans – killed the heirs and cavaliers to all the other eight Houses – I’d draw him back to the system, but I had to do it in a subtle enough way that he wouldn’t bring the remaining Hands with him. If I had arrived in full force, he’d have turned up on a war footing, and sent the Lyctors to do all the dirty work like always. This way he’s lulled into a false sense of… semisecurity, I suppose. And he won’t even bother coming within Dominicus’s demesne. He’ll sit out there beyond the system – trying to find out what’s happening – right where I need him to be.

As a statement viewed on its own, the logic of this hangs together. In the context of the novel up until this point, however, it manifestly does not, which makes the nearly forty page long, emotionally fraught battle sequence that follows ring frustratingly hollow once you’ve had a spare moment to think through the implications.

For instance: we are told, over and over again, that there is no communication allowed between Canaan House and anywhere else in the system, even in the case of an emergency. During the trials and until their completion, the First is meant to be functionally cut off. This only changes by accident, when the members of the Second House, frightened by the ongoing deaths and affronted by the seeming lawlessness that permits them to happen, kill Teacher and send an illicit transmission, which only reaches the Emperor because it’s not strong enough to reach a neighbouring planet and because his ship, for undisclosed reasons, is the only one close enough to hear it. During the Emperor’s brief appearance at the finale, we’re given no reason to believe he suspected Cytherea of treachery prior to this point, and by the same token, we’re also told he either can’t or won’t set foot on the First again – so why was he near the system at all? How was Cytherea’s plan meant to work, if she couldn’t possibly count on the Emperor showing up in response to her disruption?

And if, as seems to be implied, Cytherea wasn’t already suspected of treachery by the Emperor, then why not simply attack him elsewhere instead of constructing a needlessly elaborate plan to draw him back to the First? It’s hinted at that the Emperor can’t be killed except on the First (or possibly by the being entombed forever on the Ninth; the details are deliberately hazy, presumably for future plot reasons) but if so, there’s good reason to have been clearer on this point, just as it makes no sense to emphasise the lack of outside communication and then hinge the whole finale on its ultimate necessity.

Working backwards from this point, we end up with yet more questions about Dulcinea/Cytherea’s actions prior to being exposed. Most pressingly: how was she able to send her murderous bone construct after Gideon and the two members of the Fourth House when she was under constant medical supervision by Harrow, Palamedes and Camilla? The logical answer is that the construct was acting autonomously – but if so, then why, when Gideon and one of the Fourth were sleeping in the same room, did it only murder one of them? It’s hinted that there’s a long-game reason for this – “You don’t even know what you are to me,” Cytherea tells Gideon, along with, “I’ve spared you before,” – but given that, to all intents and purposes, Gideon dies during the finale, an act of self-sacrifice that elicits no reaction from Cytherea, who was literally trying to murder her at the time, this feels like an inadequate explanation. And as whatever special feelings Cytherea might have for Gideon presumably don’t extend to Harrow, the fact that Dulcinea helped Harrow on multiple occasions – not just to understand the trials, but to survive them – further muddies the water.

Throw in the fact that Cytherea’s appearance is the first time we learn anything at all about the existing, original Lyctors, and it’s hard not to feel frustrated. To all intents and purposes, she’s a reveal that comes out of nowhere, taking the existing emotional conflict and mystery the book had worked so hard to build – the megatheorem, Ianthe’s ascension – and steering it in a different direction. Without such a hard left turn at the end, I might have been content to ignore other, seemingly minor questions about the worldbuilding, but when the narrative rug gets yanked out from under your feet, it’s human nature – in my case, anyway – to wonder if that ultimate instability was hinted at in earlier, smaller missteps.

Such as: if Cytherea was the only threat to the trialgoers all along, then why was Teacher so adamant that other, dangerous entities were lurking in Canaan House? If Gideon was raised by people who feared and hated her on an isolated, desolate planet with no access to anywhere else, then where did she get her comics, sunglasses and pornography? What’s going on in the rest of the empire, and how much of it does Gideon know about? If the Emperor is actually as benevolent as the ending implies (which, that’s a whole other area of potential criticism re: imperium, albeit a sidebar to the plot of this first instalment) then why is he constantly at war? And why, in a space-age setting with guns and magic, are cavaliers expected to learn swordplay? It’s the kind of detail that seems like it should have some minor in-world justification – I’m honestly not picky; swords are cool and I’m very hyped to see them here – but none is ever provided.

(Also, I could do with fewer descriptions of eye colour. Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% a sucker for Interesting And Pretty Eyes, but given how striking Muir’s descriptions are otherwise compared with how repeatedly she describes the same people’s eyeballs, it ends up being a little too much of a good thing.)

All these nitpicks don’t mean much on their own, but taken collectively, they’re not so much grating as disappointing – as, indeed, is the aforementioned part of the ending where Gideon seems to die. I say seems to, because there’s so much about Gideon’s mysterious backstory that we don’t yet know – to say nothing of the fact that we’re dealing with literal necromancy – that I don’t trust for a hot second that she’s actually permadead. If she is, my queer ass will be pissed as hell, because giving me an awesome snarky lesbian protagonist and then killing her is profoundly Not Bros; but if she’s not, I still have a deep and abiding dislike of the Surprise Cliffhanger Death trope. Making Harrow think Gideon is dead for an emotional gut-punch is one thing; making the reader think so too is quite another. It feels like a gotcha! moment to me, an unwelcome flirtation with the dead lesbian trope – and if it’s not a flirtation, then that’s even worse, because AUGH.

And yet – and yet! – the reason this is an emotionally bifurcated review, despite how much time I’ve spent laying out my grievances, is because the rest of the book – the parts that work – are absolutely amazing. Both in terms of the narration and the character banter, Muir has gone all-in on a mixture of modern snarkasm and gothic shade, the effect of which is equal parts hilarious and (in a good way) disturbing. The descriptions of necromancy and bone magic are graphically vivid in the most linguistically skilled and memorable ways; the plotting is tight, and – I cannot emphasise this enough – the concept of angry lesbian necromancers in space is so goddamn appealing, it’s hard to put into words. It’s like our collective inner teenage gothgirl got to rub her little queer hands all over science fiction, and I love how unapologetically For The Aesthetic the resulting story is, both thematically and narratively.

The real strength of Gideon the Ninth, however, is the enemies to friends to almost-dating arc of Gideon and Harrow. Their banter is crisp, their emotional histories, both singly and when intertwined, are complicated and tragic, and Muir does an absolutely spectacular job of making you root for the two of them – not just as a couple, but as individuals. I’ll be genuinely, heartbreakingly angry if it turns out that Gideon is permanently dead, but despite my misgivings about the end of the book, it’s a measure of how much trust Muir’s writing earned otherwise that I’m confident enough in my happier suspicions to be eagerly awaiting the next volume.

Gideon the Ninth: it’s a hell of a debut novel, and while the structure is buggy near the end, there’s a great deal of scope for future instalments to rectify matters, or at least to clarify them. I’d still prefer to have that clarity now, of course, but the bulk of the narrative does so much right that, until I can judge the whole series in its entirety, I’m willing to give the wobbly parts the benefit of the doubt. I don’t recommend it without reservation, but I do recommend it strongly – and that, I think, is the most important thing.

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 goes) 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 race 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 gets shit done at the micro – and ultimately, that’s what we’re aiming for.

 

 

In the secret library of my mind, I still own every book I’ve ever bought. Though the hands giveth away, the heart remembers. Even when there are no physical gaps on my shelves to indicate what’s gone, the absence still provokes a certain lurch, like a missing step. I mourn the loss of books which, at the time, I felt certain I’d never actually read, or would never read again; I lament the folly which caused me to get rid of “inessential” works – that is, anything I wasn’t actively planning to reread at the time. I even regret the loss of particular children’s reference books, not for any sentimental reason, but because they’re actually very good starting places for worldbuilding research – or would be, if I hadn’t given them all away.

It’s not as if I make a habit of shedding books. I cling to paperbacks like a baby possum clutching its mother’s stomach. It’s just that, when I do get rid of things, I tend to do it en masse, while under the undue influence of my-room-is-clean-let’s-do-this-thing euphoria. As a kid, I’d take boxes of my old books to the local second hand store, then walk away clutching a whole twenty dollars – which, to a twelve year old, is basically millions. As a teenager, I turfed out a few books before heading to university, then more when my parents moved house. (And then again, to my infinite regret, when my college boyfriend convinced me that the much-loved and complete sets of Garfield, Snoopy and Footrot Flats I’d spent nearly twenty years acquiring were too childish for an adult to keep lugging round.) Every time, I thought I was doing the right thing, and every time, I experienced the same crushing disappointment when, having forgotten my former ruthlessness, I instinctively reached for a book that wasn’t there. Never again, I vowed.

And then we moved to England.

It was the turfout to end all turfouts. To give you some idea of exactly how many books I used to have, before we left, I gave away five boxes of children’s fiction and reference, five of adult works, put another nine boxes aside for safekeeping in Australia, and still had enough books left to fill the twelve boxes that came with us to the UK. I even gave away almost my entire collection of Anne McCaffrey – a decision so foolishly heartbreaking that, for three years afterwards, I managed to convince myself that it had never happened. I only realised the truth this month, when we came back to visit relatives (and to finally reclaim our things) and realised how much I’d thought I’d kept aside was, in fact, missing.

And now, today, it’s my birthday. All month long, I’ve been buying books with birthday and holiday money, stocking up on titles that are rare outside Australia, rummaging through secondhand stores and plotting to once again reconfigure my office when we get home, the better to squeeze in just one more shelf. I’ve even rebought some secondhand McCaffreys, to replace the ones I abandoned. But the real gift I’ve given myself is this: the permission to never, ever get rid of any books again. As a kid, I was able to build a library because I spent my entire childhood in the same, big house with the same, bookish parents. I had stability, space and encouragement, and I used those things to fill my room with dinosaur magazines, books on sharks and castles and the human body and, of course, fantasy novels. I took my library for granted, and so, when the need or opportunity arose, I never thought twice about frittering bits of it away.

But since I’ve become an adult – living in smaller places, packing and repacking my possessions with each new move, living for weeks or months or years with furniture chosen by landlords and not nearly enough storage space – I’ve come to appreciate the immense psychological value of a library. I feel comforted and whole in the presence of books, and always have done, and always will do. Having grown up in a house that boasted reading material in every room, I now find bookless rooms to be cold, unfinished, uncomfortable. Browsing in bookshops calms me down the way tea or coffee calms other people, regardless of whether I end up buying anything. Even when their weight becomes impractical – and even though I now have a Kindle – I always travel with multiple books to hand, partly because I can’t bear the thought of running out of things to read, but mostly because there’s no surer way to make myself feel at home in a hotel room than to put a stack of novels on the nighstand.

And now, finally, I have the same library-spawning privileges I did as a child: a place that’s mine, a supply of shelves, and the sure and certain knowledge that I won’t be moving again for a good, long while. The whole time we’ve been in Australia, I’ve been rounding up the books I left in storage like papery sheep, ready to ship them home with me.. I’m building my new library, and this time, it’s for keeps. In the nineteen days we’ve been here – and without counting Kindle purchases – I’ve bought twenty-two books: an average of more than one day.

Hello. My name is Foz, and I’m a bookaholic.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If someone too poor or otherwise unable to buy a specific product is given that product for free, has the product’s creator lost a sale?

In most instances, I’d argue, the answer is no. You can’t lose money that doesn’t exist in the first place, or which your potential customer is unable to spend on whatever it is you’re selling. What you’ve lost, if anything, is a specific product, and therefore the opportunity to sell it to someone who can pay. If Lamborghini were to give me a free car, for instance – or if some altruistic third party were to do so instead – then either they’ve lost the money they could’ve earned by selling that specific vehicle elsewhere, or they’ve lost the opportunity to sell to me directly. In the latter instance, though, they haven’t lost a sale, because someone actually did buy the car; and in the former instance, while they might have lost a sale, they haven’t lost my sale, because the chances of my being able to afford a Lambo in this lifetime, let alone wanting to buy one if I could, are slim to none. The only way for Lamborghini to lose my sale, therefore, is if I were both willing and able to buy a car from them, but elected not to – and even then, I’d still be within my rights as a consumer to look elsewhere.

I mention all this because Terry Deary, author of the Horrible Histories series, has not only said that libraries are defunct, but accused them of stealing the income of authors – “cutting their throats and slashing their purses”, as he rather dramatically has it. “Books aren’t public property,” he says, “and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They’ve got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.”

Ignoring his rather snide and sexist slighting of Blyton, as though authors are somehow fundamentally less deserving of recompense if they happen to be middle-class women who do it for fun (the horror!), the linchpin of Deary’s argument seems to hinge on his belief that, because his books were borrowed more than 500,000 times from public libraries last year – earning him the maximum return of £6,600 under the PLR scheme – he’s effectively lost out on the £180,000 he feels he ought to have had if he’d instead sold 500,000 extra copies. Never mind the fact that all those library copies were themselves bought and paid for in the first instance, such that, by virtue of being in a library, they’ve collectively netted him more money than if they’d been bought by members of the public: the maths he’s used to reach his £180,000 figure is predicated on the assumption that every single person who’s borrowed his books was otherwise both willing and able to pay for them – an assumption which is categorically false.

He then tries to bolster his outrage by saying:

“What other industry creates a product and allows someone else to give it away, endlessly? The car industry would collapse if we went to car libraries for free use of Porsches… This is not the Roman empire, where we give away free bread and circuses to the masses. People expect to pay for entertainment. They might object to TV licences, but they understand they have to do it.”

Well, actually, no: they don’t. Ignoring the fact that not every country has a TV licencing scheme, even in the UK, it’s entirely legal to watch regular programming online, for free, using sites like BBC iPlayer and 4oD, so long as you only watch catch-up and not live streaming. More pertinently, perhaps, Deary has clearly never heard of radio, video rental, museums, art galleries, or, indeed, the internet – because if he had done, then there’d be no excuse for making the claim that libraries are some lone, perverse bastion of free panem et circuses in a world where absolutely everything is paid for otherwise.

And then, of course, there’s the moral/historical angle: “Because it’s been 150 years, we’ve got this idea that we’ve got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers,” Deary moans. “This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.”

The bolding above is my own, and it’s there for a reason. Take a good, long look at that sentence – specifically, at the crucial use and placement of the word wanted, whose past tense indicates that allowing the impoverished access to literature is something we don’t want to do any longer; or rather, that Deary believes we shouldn’t. There’s so much wrong with this statement that I hardly know where to begin. With the fact that, under Deary’s ideal system, the poor are only entitled to literature while they’re of school age, perhaps? With the fact that most of the literary benefit one experiences while a student comes, not from English class, but the school library? Or how about the novel idea that treating support of literacy in poverty as a quirky Victorian prerogative rather than an ongoing social necessity is not only morally repugnant, but incredibly shortsighted when one depends for one’s living on the existence of a literate, interested populace?

But let’s return to Deary’s primary argument – that his 500,000-odd library rentals represent some 500,000 lost sales – and why it’s so inaccurate: first, because it assumes that he gained no sales by virtue of readers encountering his books in the library and later deciding to buy them; second, because it assumes that everyone who borrowed his books was similarly able or inclined to buy them, and only went the library route out of sheer cheapness; third, because it likewise assumes that the figure of 500,000 borrows corresponds to 500,000 discreet individuals; fourth, because it ignores the fundamentally obvious point that many, if not most people will try all sorts of things for free for which they’d never readily pay money, or for which they wouldn’t pay money without a free sample first; and fifth – and specific to Deary’s case – because his books are aimed at a middle grade audience, meaning that his readers and the persons who actually hand over money are overwhelmingly two different sets of people, with the latter tending (one suspects) to be the parents and relatives of the former.

Those last two points in particular are worth expanding on, because they’re linked in quite a significant way: that is, that parents are about infinity times more likely to buy specific books for their children when in possession of cold, hard proof that their gift will actually be read, rather than mouldering quietly on a bedroom shelf. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least ten books or series that my parents bought me in my pre-teen years as a direct result of my having borrowed and re-borrowed the library copies: they knew they were making a successful purchase, and I in turn was getting something I wanted. Without libraries, I’d never have bought the entirety of Geoffrey McSkimming’s Cairo Jim and Jocelyn Osgood stories, or convinced my mother to shell out the princely sum of nearly thirty Australian dollars for my own hardbacked copy of the Pan Macmillan Book of Greek Gods and Heroes – a book, I might add, which I still possess today. As wrongheaded as Deary’s comments are, they’d at least be marginally more comprehensible if he wrote for adults, who have direct control over their discretionary spending – but children?

All my life, I’ve been a patron of libraries. Even now that I’m an adult with my own disposable income, I still use them. Why? Because, not unreasonably, I’m reluctant to outlay money on unknown authors if I can sample their works beforehand for free. My book-buying budget is limited, and I want to make the most of it: now that I have a Kindle, I’ll often download sample chapters, and when I have time to browse through bookshops at leisure, I’ll read the first few pages to help me make a decision, but ultimately, neither method guarantees that a book will be worth my time and money. And so, I’ll try the library: that way,  I lose nothing on books I don’t like, but can still discover new authors – and once I’ve discovered an author I like, their books go on my ‘automatic purchase’ list. Tamora Pierce and Sara Douglass are both authors I discovered through libraries in my early teens; thus  hooked, I proceeded to buy their entire respective works, even the titles I’d already read, because the idea of not owning them was insupportable. Libraries are an investment in the creation of new readers, and if Deary thinks for a second that nobody has ever bought his books as a direct result of having encountered them first in libraries, then I’d venture to suggest that he’s in the wrong profession.

Libraries don’t inhibit a writer’s profits: they add to them – not just through the PLR scheme, but through the creation of new readers and the maintenance of a literate, book-hungry populace. And while, as I’ve said, Deary is wholly wrong in his assertion that libraries are unique in providing entertainment or creative content for free, they are unique (or at least, almost unique, the internet having joined their ranks) in promoting an actual, necessary life-skill – literacy – among those parts of the populace who might otherwise suffer for its inaccessibility. The idea that such beneficence should begin and end with the classroom (and where does Deary think many poorer students are getting not only their assigned reading and reference books, but free internet and computer access, if not the library?) is a social Scroogism that ill becomes a professional author even moreso than it would any other person, and particularly one who writes about history.

So here, then, is my advice to Mr Deary: conduct a campaign to have your books removed from libraries everywhere. Petition schools and librarians, call the distributors, go by in person and tear up their copies if you have to, but rid the freeloading reading world of access to your work; and when, having done so, your annual income fails to increase to the tune of £180,000 pounds? Then, Mr Deary, I will laugh at your hubris – and buy someone else’s books.

As years go, 2012 has been something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, I’ve parted ways with my publisher, thereby indefinitely delaying creation of the final book of the Rare, while my only publication has been a single poem in the summer edition of Goblin Fruit. On the other hand, though, I’ve nearly finished one new novel, made a promising start on two others, and produced full outlines for five more;  this blog has picked up enormously, too – I even started writing for the Huffington Post – and I have a forthcoming short story in a digital anthology, more news of which as it comes. Reading-wise, I sadly fell short of my stated goal of 200 novels; still, 115 isn’t a bad effort, and as this was the year I finally obtained a Kindle, a solid 30 of those were ebooks. Looking back on my resolutions for 2012, however, it’s disappointing to find that I’ve achieved exactly one of them, and then only technically: having planned to read at least one non-fiction book a month, I managed a grand total of eighteen such works spread out across the entire year, which is better than nothing, but nonetheless something of a shortfall. Neither did I finish writing a novel by the end of February – or even the end of December, for that matter – and I certainly didn’t get fit. What I did do, however, was move cities, change jobs and fall pregnant, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining my failures elsewhere. All in all, then, 2012 has wound up being a very different year to the one I’d envisaged having, but ultimately, it’s been wonderful.

As I type this, I’m exactly 35 weeks pregnant, which means that I look like a planet and feel like a walrus. Whatever else it brings, therefore, 2013 will be inescapably known as the year I become a parent, the prospect of which is both thrilling and frightening all at once – and is, as such, the reason why I won’t be making any resolutions for 2013. My life is about to utterly change, and as I know just enough to know that I can’t possibly know how big that change will be, it doesn’t seem fair or sensible to set myself any specific goals beyond the obvious hope to that I’ll learn my way, find time to relax, get some writing done and not fuck it up too badly. Oh, and that I’ll be sufficiently un-pregnant by the time my birthday rolls around to enjoy a soothing glass of champagne.

This being so, and in light of the fact that blogging represents my greatest non-biological triumph of 2012, I’ve opted instead for a rundown of the ten most popular pieces I’ve written this year. Thus:

1. Rape Culture In Gaming, 11 June 2012: A detailed explanation of what rape culture is, why it exists and how it’s perpetuated in the specific context of gaming and online culture. This was, by an order of magnitude, my most widely viewed piece of 2012, racking up almost double the number of page views of the next most popular entry.

2. Bullying & Goodreads, 10 July 2012: A rundown of the issues surrounding the creation of the STGRB website, with emphasis on reviewer etiquette, online bullying and criticism. Though the initial kerfuffle has died down somewhat, the subsequent conversation is still ongoing, and likely will be for some time.

3. Lamenting The Friend Zone, Or: The “Nice Guy” Approach To Perpetrating Sexist Bullshit, 9 April 2012: An angry deconstruction of the sexism and gendered cultural pressures that underlie the stereotypical concept of the friend zone as deployed by a certain subset of self-professed ‘nice guys’. Despite the overwhelming success of my rape culture piece, this entry technically beats it hollow thanks to widespread quoting and circulation on tumblr.

4. PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical, 8 December 2012: A long and reference-heavy debunking of the commonly held assumption that history, and particularly Western history, is exclusively straight-white-male dominated. Given that it’s only been live for three weeks, I’m a little amazed that this piece managed to come in fourth.

5. Penny Arcade vs Rape Culture, 2 June 2012: A precursor to the rape culture in gaming post, this was a specific assessment of webcomic Penny Arcade’s reaction to the extremely vile Hitman: Absolution trailer, and how it was symptomatic of bigger industry problems.

6. The Problem With Fanservice, 28 August 2012: A takedown of the ubiquitous, deeply problematic presence of fanservice in anime, and why it impacts on my enjoyment of the medium.

7. Racism, Revealing Eden and STGRB, 3 August 2012: An examination of the fallout surrounding the overt-yet-apparently-unintentional racism of self-published YA novel Revealing Eden, with reference to the STGRB site. It’s worth noting that the second book in the series, Adapting Eden, is due out in January 2013, so there’s a good chance the furor will start back up again with a vengeance.

8. Tony Harris Is A Sexist Ass, 15 November 2012: A response to the sexist ranting of comics writer Tony Harris about fake nerd girls, with emphasis on intentionality vs interpretation and cognitive dissonance as relevant to subconscious bias.

9. The Creepiness Question, 27 August 2012: A personal account of an unsettling childhood encounter contextualised by a discussion of male creepiness, gender roles, victim blaming and hypocritical double standards for female behaviour.

10. Why YA Sex Scenes Matter, 27 June 2012: A look at why the prevalence of positive sex and romance in novels aimed at teenage girls is not only culturally significant, but revolutionary. I’m rather pleased this piece squeaked into the top ten; for most of the year, it was languishing in obscurity, but thanks to a recent revitalization on tumblr, it’s picked up dramatically.

And finally, by way of a bonus: my recent guest post for The Book Smugglers on the bad boy trope, and its evolution into something deeply problematic.  Huzzah!

So, that’s my 2012 in a nutshell. Now bring on 2013!

 

Here’s a contentious statement: A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write. Stories reflect our culture even as they shape it, and as culture is an intrinsically political concept — in the sense of not only shaping and reflecting the politics of the people within it, but actively seeking to comment on how and why this happens — so too is storytelling. At base, fiction is an attempt to answer two different questions with a single answer: nobody can ask what if without first establishing what is. Assumption is as much a part of narrative as invention, and often betrays as much, if not more of the writer than anything they consciously create. Like it or not, our politics — by which I mean, our moral, social and spiritual beliefs about the world as refined through the lens of our individual biases, ignorance, privileges and experience — drive our assumptions; and in fiction, our conscious and unconscious beliefs about what is become the parts of the story we assume the reader already knows — the characters, tropes and logic we assume to be universal, or at least unimportant, and which therefore require neither examination by the audience nor explanation by us. They’re our personal default settings, where personal is the operative word: not everyone will share them, and we forget that at our peril.

For instance: as a teenager, I wrote a number of escapist stories that all began with a bored, frustrated girl of about my age being suddenly rescued from maths class by magic, aliens or something similarly fantastic. I’ll give you three guesses as to my least favourite subject — but while I was fully aware of replicating my own bias, I never saw the harm in doing so. And why would I have? It was my bias. The fact that it was fairly benign doesn’t change its status as an assumption, viz: an aspect of the story that I didn’t intend the prospective reader to question, and whose universality I therefore took for granted — not because I thought that everyone secretly hated maths, but because I wasn’t interested in the feelings and opinions of people who liked it. While the primary point of narrative is certainly to make the reader think, imagine and question beyond the norm, that can only happen if both reader and writer agree on what normal actually is; and if the reader’s own opinions and experiences aren’t encompassed by the writer’s take on what’s normative — if, in fact, they are absent altogether, or else marginalised, twisted and scoffed at — and the reader notices the dissonance, then the likelihood is that they’ll become hostile to the author, or at least to their assumptions, and conclude that the speculative, what if elements are fundamentally flawed by virtue of having been extrapolated from an inaccurate view of reality.

Here’s another, considerably less benign assumption my teenage self made: that white people live in cities and towns, while brown people live in tribal groups in the forest, desert or plains. Not that I’d have phrased it that way if you asked me outright — obviously, I knew people of all nationalities could live in all types of places! But subconsciously, from the culture in which I lived and the tropes I’d absorbed from exposure to other narratives, I’d nonetheless internalised the idea that the type of civilisation I found familiar must always be the work of white people. One brief flash of self-awareness at the age of 14 made me wonder if, just maybe, there was something offensive in my having a lone black character speak in broken English; the thought made me profoundly uncomfortable, and hopefully to my credit, I abandoned that version of the story not longer after. The one that ultimately replaced it, however, while certainly better in some respects — brown people building cities! egads! — was just as racially inept as its predecessors. This time, I wrote about a continent where the indigenous race was dark-skinned, long-lived, innately magical and not-quite-human, and where the human population was descended either from escaped slaves (black) or colonist farmers (white) — and despite having ostensibly created a setting where white-skinned humans were the minority and had arrived last of all, I still managed to have a light-skinned royal family and predominantly white protagonists.

The fact that I had good intentions doesn’t make those early stories any less problematic, and while it’s true that I wasn’t trying to write politically about race, that doesn’t change the fact that I’d internalised enough negative stereotypes that not only had I failed to recognise them as negative, I didn’t even understand they were stereotypes. I had simply assumed that the tropes I’d employed were acceptable, neutral defaults, as inoffensive and apolitical as the classic fantasy usage of elves and dwarves. But our choices always speak to our opinions, whether we mean them to or not. Familiarity is synonymous with neither inoffensiveness nor neutrality, and while the infinite variety of human taste and experience makes it impossible to please everybody, let alone equally, there’s a wealth of difference between causing offence by actively challenging the assumptions of others, and causing offence by failing to challenge your own.

And the thing is, even if you’re aiming for the former option, you won’t always succeed: partly because, as stated, it’s impossible to please everyone, but mostly because we all still need some basic assumptions to work from. A single piece of fiction cannot question the entirety of itself, because then you’d be questioning questions — an infinite recursion without answer or end. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to ever challenge assumptions, either; the point is to accept that, all too often, it’s the things we take for granted — the things we neither explain nor question — that say the most about us as writers, political beings, and as people. The argument that stories shouldn’t be judged for anything their authors think is irrelevant therefore strikes me as having fundamentally missed the point of criticism: Creators shouldn’t have a monopoly on interpreting what they’ve made, while the assumptions which underpin a work are just as important as the inventions which make it unique.

To take one example, I’ve written before, in detail, about my issues with default narrative sexism in SFF: instances where fictional worlds and cultures are anchored in sexist social logic for no better reason than that the authors have assumed its existence either to be so fundamental to sentience, or its use as a trope so unremarkable in narrative, that they never considered excluding it. Or, alternatively, their efforts to write an equal society might come burdened with a whole new set of sexist assumptions, the most common one being to masculinise women without feminising men — there’ll be plenty of empowered female soldiers, leaders and spies, but not so many male nurses, teachers and domestics. (A big part of real-world sexism is still to exalt traditionally male pursuits as being objectively desirable for everyone while discrediting female ones as being objectively undesirable for everyone, but particularly for men.)

And then there’s the current, depressing trend in YA discrimiflip novels: stories which all too often base their supposedly egalitarian messages on simplistic, binary notions of discrimination and privilege by taking a mainstream, powerful group (men, the cisgendered, straights, white people, the able-bodied) and turning them into the victims of those their privilege currently discriminates against (women, QUILTBAG people, POC, the differently abled). Ostensibly, this is meant to engender sympathy for the other side among members of privileged groups, but when poorly handled — as, with few notable exceptions, it overwhelmingly seems to be — the egalitarian intention is buried by the surrounding weight of negative assumptions, foremost of which is the idea that there’s anything simple or binary about discrimination to begin with. The most notable recent example of such a discrimiflip novel is arguably Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden, where white people are Pearls and black people are Coals, but there are others, too: Laura Preble’s forthcoming Out, where Perpendiculars (straights) are considered abnormal in a world run by Parallels (gays), and Claire Merle’s The Glimpse, which, while not a straight social flip, nonetheless pits Crazies (those with mental illnesses) against Pures (who don’t).

Which brings me, at long last, to the overwhelming number of YA-related arguments in the recent past over issues such as romance, racism, feminism, conduct and reviewing, and what strikes me as being the primary unifying factor in every instance: the presence of a dispute about interpretation versus intention — which is to say, a criticism of the author’s assumptions on the one hand, which cannot help but also be a partial critique of the author themselves, and the assertion that such criticism is unreasonable, irrelevant or unfair. Over and over again, in arguments about the portrayal of romance in YA novels (for instance), certain authors have been accused of presenting as healthy and desirable relationships which critics claim are literally abusive, toxic and dangerous, and regardless of where you might stand when it comes to individual novels, the fact remains that this debate has been stymied in large part by an overwhelming uncertainty as to whether such criticism is valid, and if so, to what extent.

The recent emergence of YA as a mainstream, successful genre and the overwhelming popularity of series like Twilight among both teenage and adult readers has fundamentally altered the concept of YA reviewing — which is to say, has ended its status as a separate kind of reviewing altogether. Prior to the advent of Harry Potter, it seems fair to say that YA novels were reviewed, not as books that anyone might like to read, but as books for children, the crucial difference being that, as children weren’t (and to a certain extent still aren’t) presumed to care about issues like politics, equality, feminism, bias and privilege, pretty much nobody was reviewing YA novels with those aspects in mind, let alone considering that their handling, presence or absence might be a relevant factor in judging the success of a given book. After all, we’ve traditionally maintained different critical standards for stories that are intended purely for entertainment value — action movies, for instance, are still graded wholly differently to serious drama — and prior to J. K. Rowling, what else was YA meant to be for but entertaining children? Certainly, there’s a long history of literary praise for youthfully-oriented issues-based novels, but that’s still a far cry from mainstream cultural analysis, and anything that smacked even slightly of magic or escapism was exempt from scrutiny (until or unless it was old and vaunted enough to be deemed a ‘classic’, of course, in which case scholars were right to treat it with reverence).

But now, in addition to the rise of digital reviewing – which, as I’ve said before, is particularly skewed towards genre novels – YA is being treated seriously. Not only did the success of Twilight prompt a flood of romantically similar titles, all of which have found themselves subject to the same scrutiny vis-a-vis the promotion of stalking and female passivity as the original, but it directly contributed to YA being critiqued for things like whitewashing, straightwashing, cultural appropriation, sexism, racism and homophobia, too — issues which had previously been the critical domain of mainstream literature, if and when they were discussed at all. Which, often enough, they weren’t, literary fiction being possessed of its own, separate-but-related battles with misogyny, classism, genre snobbishness and white male homogeneity. (Suggesting, perhaps, yet another reason why so much political literary criticism has fallen on YA of late: the old establishment still has its barriers up, so that those of us who wish to critique the negative assumptions of writers as manifested in fiction and deemed reflective of society have necessarily had to look elsewhere.) But still, the tension between those who view YA as pure escapism and those who hold it to a greater accountability remains, well, tense — because for every writer of YA who isn’t trying to be political, but whose assumptions about what is necessarily encode their opinions anyway, there’s a flock of readers ready and waiting to dissect their work as a manifestation of culture.

A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write; nor should they be, regardless of the intended age of the audience. Though pop cultural analysis has been sneered at in some quarters as an attempt to give trash entertainment a significance far above its station, it can’t be denied that the mainstream is a powerful reflection of our collective cultural subconscious: the assumptions and stereotypes we all quietly learn from childhood, but which many of us never learn to recognise openly, let alone question. Every time we construct a story without any thought as to the assumptions we’ve made that underpin it — assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ableness, privilege, ignorance, bias, identity — we run the risk of replicating the very problems we might otherwise condemn; or at the very least, of being lazy thinkers. The fact that it’s impossible to please everybody shouldn’t make us afraid to challenge ourselves or others; rather, we should try harder to ensure that we’re not alienating people through ignorance. But most importantly of all, we need to accept that no story is told in a vacuum: that the politics, beliefs and assumptions of authors are at least as important to the structure and creation of their narratives as those elements which are purely fictional — and that sometimes, there can be real and significant overlap between the two.

A poem inspired by this amazing tumblr of people reading on the subway.

underground books

.

hands more varied in colour than

the pages they turn pause,

spread into lectern-cradles for words

 .

as open-edged as breath, whose authors span

cities, countries, centuries more

varied than the scintillant plumage of birds;

 .

each face unguarded, caught engrossed

in worlds-that-are-worlds-that-are-not (that are nonetheless

temporarily more real than

 .

the darkened tunnels their carriage crossed

before this; may each voyage bless

them – eye, heart, ear & tongue) – and

 .

when they land, bookblinked & isolate

on concrete sands,

let them recede gently, like seafoam;

 .

let them be slow to close the cover; let them be late

for work; let ink & stories stain our hands

like henna, honey, loam.