Posts Tagged ‘Choice’

Given how well-established she is, I’m something of a latecomer to Trudi Canavan’s work. Right now, I’m in the middle of her Age of the Five trilogy, which is what’s prompted this post; I’ve also read her Black Magician trilogy, the prequel volume, The Magician’s Apprentice, and the two most recent novels in the¬†Traitor Spy¬†series, which is set in the same world. Full disclosure: Trudi is a friend, and a very lovely person. However, that is hardly a sufficient basis on which to recommend her work, so on the off chance that you, like me, have come late to the party, here are some more compelling reasons why you should give her a try.

One of the most omnipresent epic fantasy tropes is that of prophecy: the insinuation that moments of great social, political and magical change must always be predestined, their success contingent on the agency of either a Chosen One or a classic¬†Five Man Band. Often, there’s a tendency for such characters to be defined by their destinies, such that the possibility of their choosing a different path is never really an option. In Canavan’s works, however, the element of prophecy is absent. The world still changes, and particular individuals often have a prominent say in how that comes about, but their success is never guaranteed, and frequently bittersweet. Instead, the emphasis falls on choice, consequences and conflicting cultures: the honest yet frightening idea that it is only ever people –¬†unguided by higher powers – whose actions change the course of history. Often, characters are forced to question both their own traditions and those of their enemies, sans any sense of moral absolutism. In this context, change is not just an excuse to declare old systems tyrannies while lauding their replacements as¬†infallible; rather, both characters and readers must front up to the idea that such distinctions, while instinctive and easy to make, are ultimately arbitrary.

Her conception of black magic is the perfect example of this. By using a terminology which has negative connotations not just in the world of Kyralia, but also in the minds of readers, Canavan forces us to reexamine one of the most basic biases of fantasy magic: the idea that using blood in rituals is always dark, dangerous and, by extension, morally unjustifiable. Given that black magic is an everyday part of enemy Sachakan life – and given, too, the hideous extremes to which its use is taken – it would be easy and, to a certain extent, expected that the practice itself be vilified in the narrative. Instead, the characters are forced to recognise that, no matter how distasteful they find black magic, it is not evil in and of itself – and more, that it using it may well be necessary for Kyralia’s defense.

In keeping with her emphasis on the actions of individuals, even Canavan’s most powerful characters are shown in a deliberative light, defined by the manner in which they make their choices as much as the choices themselves. There are villains, but not outright villains: no matter how opaque their motives might seem to the protagonists or how objectionable their beliefs, the enemy’s actions are always defined by culture and personality. The same is true of her heroes; nobody is¬†infallible, and everyone makes their own decisions. In this context, ignorance and biased assumption are the greatest evils, such Canavan’s most benevolent characters are always struggling to combat them. This extends to her narrative structure, too. In both the Age of the Five and Black Magician series, the initial confrontations which lead to war are portrayed as being so shocking and violent that both characters and readers automatically align themselves against the evils of the enemy. But as the stories progress, these initial assumptions are slowly peeled back, forcing us both to understand the enemy and to reassess our own ‘side’. Similarly, despite the advent of war in both her series, healing is lauded above and beyond martial prowess. In Age of the Five, the skills of the Dreamweaver healers in the aftermath of battle prompt something of a social reconciliation with the dominant Circlians, while two of the heroines in her Kyralian series, Tessia and Sonea, dedicate their strong magical gifts towards helping the less fortunate. A strong social conscience pervades these stories. No matter how entrenched a prejudice is or how understandable in the context of that society, the narrative never condones it.

As well as encouraging cultural and social tolerance, Canavan’s stories also contain a strong element of sexual equality, both in terms of feminism and homosexuality. Her most recent novel, The Rogue, features three romances, all given equal prominence, each one concerning at least one point of view character: one male/female, one male/male, and one female/female. Similarly, her Sachakan women in The Magician’s Apprentice¬†are shown in a deeply sympathetic light: a group of wives who, despite being controlled primarily by their husbands, have nonetheless founded an underground political movement dedicated to promoting the welfare of other, similarly restricted women and offering sanctuary to those in need. There’s a lovely naturalism to these narrative elements, and a gentleness to their execution which is nonetheless powerful. By which I mean: the characters are never defined solely by these aspects of their personalities, nor do they become crusaders. Rather, they teach by example, encouraging change by living in such a way as to prove its worth.

Couple this with a fluid writing style, memorable characters and epic plots, and you have a set of books that are well worth reading. Canavan is an intelligent, compassionate writer with a knack for crafting believable societies, cementing her characterisation through conflicts that hinge on issues of personal choice, political freedom and, above all, social change.

Recently, I was drawn to¬†this article by feminist writer Monica Dux, in which she discusses the phenomenon of little girls dressing as fairy princesses. As I read, I found myself nodding:¬†there’s truth¬†to the idea that garbing small girls exclusively in¬†pink and lauding their beauty above all else¬†can lead to¬†problematic behaviour in adolescence – a bona fide Barbie mentality. And, like the writer, I was a tomboy¬†at school: at¬†seven, I was deeply obsessed with dinosaurs, loved¬†soccer, could¬†hold my own in a handball game with boys three years my senior, burned ants¬†with a magnifying glass,¬†built forts in the bush and played¬†video games whenever possible. I wasn’t¬†Pretty In Pink.¬†

But for all that, I can’t¬†help feeling that Dux has¬†cottoned on to¬†a genuine concern and drawn¬†a flawed¬†conclusion – specifically, that forbidding pink¬†and fairies is the answer.¬†Like¬†other parents mentioned¬†in her article, mine certainly never encouraged the Fairy Fixation, but neither did they actively forbid it. As a consequence, My Little Ponies jostled in my schoolbag alongside Starscream of the Decepticons; I dressed up as¬†the Man from Snowy River for my bookday parade, but also had a tutu in my wardrobe.¬†(I’ll give you one guess what colour.) Diversity isn’t just forcibly steering a child away from the norm, but actively offering them a choice. And if you stint the dominant side for long enough, sooner or later, you end up creating a different kind of imbalance.

There’s nothing inherently sinful about the colour pink: refusing it on grounds of its association¬†with princess-type deviance makes as much sense as declaring that lefhandedness is evil, a pahse I’d like to think this part of the world has grown out of.¬†The problem isn’t¬†the concept of fairies as loved¬†by children, but how¬†adults react to their use. Dux herself makes note of this – parents who praise their daughters as beautiful, pretty, sugar and spice when princessed up¬†– and yet her solution is not for adults to change their own behaviour. Rather, she advocates that they regulate costume use in children. As an approach,¬†this is virtually identical to telling teenage girls not¬†to dress provocatively if they don’t want to be wolf-whistled, instead of, as makes more sense,¬†trying to raise¬†boys who don’t judge women¬†by their clothes. Human weakness and pragmatism allows for some middle-ground, and there’s a case to be made that¬†dolls like Bratz and Barbie¬†capitalise on the colour pink to sell an unrealistic standard of beauty, but ultimately, girls should be free, in the gender-biased sense, to be girls. A¬†truck-hungry tomboy does not¬†lurk within every prepubescent glamour queen –¬†nor should it.

Minus the adult overzealousness, there’s still a distinct bias in the way toys are offered to children. Underneath all the gendered marketing, the fact is (and Dux agrees) that boys and girls are different. What needs to be encouraged is the idea that different isn’t automatically bad – not just between boys and girls, but girls and girls, boys and boys, and that it’s OK¬†to pick’n’mix your interests.¬†Girls who want to play rugby should still be able to frock up in pink, just as boys who’re happy¬†to play with dolls¬†should still be allowed to like cars.¬†It’s also a fact that children are cruel, and police difference within their small communities with a rigour and bias difficult in the politics-conscious adult world.¬†That can’t be changed entirely, but¬†I suspect it can be mitigated by¬†parental behaviour.

Unless we’re talking about the singer, pink’s not my cup of tea (and even¬†then, I have to be in the right mood). There’s¬†a long¬†road yet to travel before society stops marketing towards the biases children have for themselves and starts venturing into new territory; in video games, at least, there’s been some headway.¬†Parental coddling¬†has a lot to answer for, and given the kind of adult¬†I’m turning out to be, I’m glad I never felt¬†pressured to¬†cling to pink and fairydust to win approval. Perhaps, to take a backwards leap, I’m turning into the adult I am precicely because I never felt that pressure. There’s also girls who’d feel similarly uncomfortable if forced towards tomboyishness – not that Dux advocates this, but it’s¬†one potential consequence of her solution.

And the moral of this story? That girls (and boys) can be pretty in pink, or not. The important thing is choice.

It’s hard to know whether the near-constant presence of Barrack Obama in the global media of late – compared to¬†the marked absence of John McCain from anything outside the American press – is¬†the result of a¬†broader campaign, a¬†reflection¬†of its success, or simply based on the novelty of a black American presidential candidate.¬†It might even¬†be a mixture of all three. But reading today about Obama’s stirring speech to a crowd of 200,000 in Berlin, it struck me that the¬†crux of this election¬†isn’t experience, race or even – to a certain extent – the age-old battle between Republican and Democrat. No.¬†Come 4 November 2008, what the American people will¬†vote on is a choice between isolationism and¬†a policy of global cooperation.

Throughout¬†history, American isolationism has had a sporadic role in world politics, notably in 1914¬†at the outbreak of WWI. While¬†George Bush’s attitude to foreign affairs doesn’t fall exactly into this category, his attitude has long been one of America versus The World, dividing the planet into those for the War on Terror and those against, an approach¬†which has¬†entailed precious little middleground and not much elbow-room for diplomacy.¬†As a policy, isolationsim¬†tends to suggest a self-assuredness that the country in question reigns supreme – in its own opinion, anyway¬†–¬†and therefore need not sully its hands in external affairs, except as a kind of global policeman.¬†Bush has simply pushed this to the next logical point: active interference, rather than passive, but still with the view that America is prima inter pares.

Should McCain be elected President, it seems likely that this approach will continue, possibly followed by a return to genuine isolationism, should circumstances allow. Certainly, I can’t see the opposite happening. Almost exclusively,¬†his pitch has been to the American people – pragmatic, in the sense that these are, after all, his voters, but symptomatic of a mindset which says: the rest of you can go hang. We haven’t asked for your opinion, and we sure as hell aren’t going to.

By contrast, Obama has set out not just to woo his constituency, but the world at large. And it’s working. Whether¬†or not other nations like America or agree with¬†its current foreign policy,¬†it remains an indsiputable superpower, and for many governments, the thought of a President who might actually bring their kind of diplomacy to the table, regardless which party he belongs to, is an exceedingly welcome change. As far as campaigns go, it portrays foresight, shrewd politics and a view that America needs to take the rest of the world into consideration – to compromise, not just¬†when a strongarm approach has failed, but because it’s good politics to do so.

But the question, as always, rests with American voters. Can¬†enough of them¬†be persuaded to care what the rest of the world thinks? Is the idea of a change in foreign policy more attractive than the prospect of same-old, same-old? Have the failings of the Bush government resonated strongly enough that McCain can’t play to the idea of change = danger, familiarity =¬†safe?¬†Does¬†increased global confidence in the President rate as an important electoral¬†consideration? Or is the idea of foreign policy beyond¬†military commitments¬†so far off the radar that when the polls open, everything will hinge on the pitch-and-toss of national concerns?

I can’t be sure. But as a citizen of the world beyond the States, I know what my plea to voters is.

Choose, America. But choose wisely.