Posts Tagged ‘Identity’

Warning: full spoilers for The Echo Wife

Trigger warning: discussion of grooming, manipulation, and domestic abuse

Doctor Evelyn Caldwell is an award-winning researcher in the field of cloning, a pioneer whose creation of the Caldwell Method for imbuing clones with memories has won her professional acclaim. But at the pinnacle of her career, her success is marred by the knowledge that her soon-to-be-ex-husband and former collaborator, Nathan, has stolen her research to clone himself a more docile, submissive version of Evelyn to be his new wife. As she works to keep the full details of Nathan’s betrayal a secret, however, Evelyn’s efforts are undermined by her clone, Martine – who might not be as docile as Nathan hoped for after all.

Since I finished The Echo Wife last night, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it; and it is also – beautifully, brilliantly – the kind of book I can’t properly discuss without spoiling it utterly. From the outset, nothing went as I’d expected it to: instead of having the reader discover Nathan’s infidelity along with Evelyn, her narration begins at a point where she already knows what her husband has done. The shock realisation comes when Evelyn agrees to meet with Martine and discovers that she’s pregnant: something which shouldn’t be possible, not least because the existence of a fertile clone threatens the tightly-drawn ethical parameters within which Evelyn is allowed to work. But before Evelyn can fully grapple with the implications of Martine’s pregnancy, the stakes are changed again when Martine kills Nathan in self-defense and calls Evelyn for help. Furiously aware that, if Martine’s existence and Nathan’s death are discovered, her own career will be irreparably damaged, Evelyn agrees to help Martine – first to bury the body, and then, when it becomes apparent that Martine can’t lie to Nathan’s colleagues about his absence forever, to clone a replacement Nathan.

Told from Evelyn’s perspective, the main events of The Echo Wife are interspersed with the fraught recollections of her own personal history: not only her marriage to Nathan, but her relationship with her parents, which is steadily revealed to hold up a dark, horrific mirror to Evelyn’s adult life. That Nathan has been an abusive partner to Evelyn is clear, as is the fact that her father, too, was violent to her and her mother. Yet Evelyn herself is not a sympathetic character: for all that we’re never in doubt as to how fundamentally her upbringing has shaped her fears, her mannerisms and motives, this doesn’t excuse her mistreatment of the people around her – most notably Martine and her assistant, Seyed – nor does it compensate for how she sees the clones she creates: as tools when living, biowaste when dead. The process by which Evelyn “conditions” the clones to better resemble their progenitors – to give them the same scars and imperfections as their originals – is as brutal as you might imagine; Evelyn notices with distaste that she’s lost a great many assistants who couldn’t handle seeing it. Only Seyed has lasted, because only Seyed is able to understand that the clones aren’t really people, however closely they might resemble them – except that, as we eventually discover, this has never been true at all.

Showing up at the lab with Martine after hours to start their work on Nathan’s clone, Evelyn is shocked to discover that Seyed has been stealing supplies from her – at first, he says, to sell to pay off his student learns. It’s this which prompts Evelyn to tell him the truth about Martine, the death of Nathan and their plan to clone his replacement to conceal both crimes; trapped by Evelyn’s professional power over him and her ability to ruin his own career by reporting his thefts, Seyed has little choice but to assist her in return for silence. Later, however, as he becomes increasingly upset by Evelyn’s callousness towards Martine, Seyed confesses to a darker truth: not only was he really stealing for Nathan, but he’d helped him work on a project he now knows to have been Martine’s creation. By this point, Seyed has almost completely unraveled due to the trauma of the situation, revealing that he’s always believed the clones to be people and has participated in their deaths regardless; Evelyn, however, is without sympathy, either for his opinion or his decline.

Throughout the weeks that Evelyn and Martine spend together recreating Nathan, Evelyn develops a sort of cognitive dissonance about Martine’s existence and identity. While still thinking of clones as disposable un-people, she takes to thinking of Martine as human-with-a-qualifier. Evelyn is horrified by each new discovery she makes about Martine’s situation, and rightly so: though created in large part to give Nathan the child that Evelyn never wanted, she has been kept away from doctors and knows little about her own pregnancy; she cannot sleep until 9:30pm and wakes unfailingly at 6am, the better to be the perfect domestic helpmeet; she is constantly passive, waiting to be given instruction to act, or to stop once having started, to the point of being unable to attend to her own needs without permission. When Nathan tried to murder Martine – the act that led to her killing him in self-defense – he did so because a conversation with Evelyn had prompted Martine to ask, for the sake of her own curiosity, whether wanting a child was something she had a say in; if she was allowed to want differently, even as a hypothetical. Just asking the question made Martine a failure in Nathan’s eyes, all of which is deeply – and understandably – unsettling to Evelyn. And yet this doesn’t cause her to reevaluate her belief that clones aren’t people: Nathan’s actions are upsetting because of what they say about him, about the man Evelyn lived with for so many years, and because Martine is, in her eyes, different, not because clones have a personhood and autonomy that ought to be respected otherwise.

Despite Seyed’s deterioration, Evelyn successfully clones a new Nathan, who just as successfully is sent home with Martine, his circumstances and incomplete memories explained with a story about having been on a last private holiday before the baby’s birth that ended with a car accident. (A car accident, Martine reveals, is the same story the original Nathan told her when she first woke up, to explain the gaps in her memory; she didn’t know she was a clone until Evelyn told her.) Four months pass: Martine’s baby is born and Seyed resigns, his lips still sealed by a pact of mutual destruction. Yet Evelyn is off her game, frustrated that Nathan’s creation – her greatest success – is one she can’t reveal publicly. And then she receives another frantic call from Martine, who has uncovered the original Nathan’s darkest secret: that Martine was not his first attempt at recreating Evelyn, but his thirteenth. While replanting their garden, Martine has unearthed the bodies of her twelve failed predecessors. Eleven of the clones, Evelyn discovers, are physically deformed, while the twelfth looks perfect and, thanks to the fact that clone flesh decays much more slowly than the regular kind, looks only newly dead despite having been in the ground for at least two years.

Digging through Nathan’s old files, Martine and Evelyn find his workbooks and learn that each of the previous clones not only had a name, but that each name corresponded to a letter of the alphabet: Martine’s name begins with an M because she was attempt thirteen, while the first clone had an A name. The same notebooks also imply that Nathan had been planning, eventually, to dispose of Evelyn herself. With Martine refusing to live another day with the clone of a serial killer – albeit one who doesn’t know about the bodies in the garden – and Evelyn refusing to kill her greatest work, a last minute plan is concocted to salvage the situation. Recovering the uncorrupted body of Martine’s most recent predecessor, the women wash her, dress her in Martine’s clothes and stage a hanging, hoping to fool Nathan into thinking his new wife is dead – though to Martine’s deep distress, in order to sell the deception, she is forced to leave her baby, Violet, behind.

Within a month, during which time Martine suffers without her daughter as a guest in Evelyn’s home, Nathan shows up with Violet, begging Evelyn to help him care for her – despite the extraordinary lengths to which his original went in order to acquire a child, without a helpmeet wife on hand to take on the primary burden of childrearing, clone-Nathan cannot handle parenting alone. To his shock, Evelyn agrees, and installs herself, Martine and Violet in her childhood home in the country – the home where, we have finally learned, Evelyn’s own, submissive mother once killed and buried her abusive husband in the garden, hidden beneath the roses, just as the original Nathan and his twelve dead failures are hidden by Martine’s horticulture. With Nathan still none the wiser about Martine’s continued existence, Violet splits her time between living with him and Evelyn/Martine. With Evelyn now installed in her father’s old study, she has started to study Martine in exchange for letting her keep Violet, yet also teaches her, just as her father once taught Evelyn. The novel ends on Evelyn’s chilling satisfaction with this state of affairs: she doesn’t feel, now, that anything should ever have to change.

At first glance, it’s easy to assume that the titular echo wife is Martine, being a softer, secondary version of Evelyn herself. Yet as the novel progresses and the parallels between Evelyn’s parents, Evelyn and Nathan, Nathan and Martine, Martine and Evelyn become apparent, it’s clear that Evelyn is as much an echo as Martine, while Martine is equally an echo of Evelyn’s mother. Like Evelyn’s mother, both women have endured a marriage to an abuser; yet Evelyn, like her father, also ultimately becomes one. Both Martine and Evelyn’s mother have buried their husbands under the rosebushes, that classically feminine flower maintained by hard work and careful pruning – “stress stimulates growth”, Martine’s mother once told her of gardening – itself a powerful metaphor for both familial nurture and the more brutal, synthetic accomplishments of Evelyn’s Caldwell Method, her in-lab conditioning. By the end of the book, we understand, the final act of violence which precipitated Evelyn’s mother’s murder of her husband was his breaking Evelyn’s wrist; consciously or unconsciously, the first time Evelyn breaks the bones of a clone, she also chooses the wrist. Echoes within echoes, just as Evelyn has, from the very first, resented the ways in which Martine resembles her/their mother.

Clones are not people, in Evelyn’s eyes. She has brutalised and killed hundreds of them, thinking of it as little more than the disposal of unfit tools, of medical waste. Her horror at Martine’s discovery of Nathan’s twelve dead would-be brides is as much because he viewed them as brides, not tools, as because they resemble her – and yet, when Martine articulates exactly this hypocrisy, pointing out that if Nathan had done what he did with permission, in a laboratory setting, to people who weren’t cloned from her, then Evelyn would be fine with it – Evelyn brushes it off. She deliberately takes advantage of Martine’s docile programming to force her to let the clone-Nathan live, even though this forever ties an unwilling Martine to him via Violet’s existence; even though a pre-programmed killswitch would enable them, this time, to make his death look like natural causes. This coercion is not new to Evelyn, whose suppressed rage and violence towards Martine she recognises as mirroring the worst of her father’s personality. I’m not a monster, she says, more than once – because the clones aren’t people, and therefore killing them doesn’t count; because she doesn’t act on her more savage desires to hurt Martine, whether physically or emotionally (though she does still hurt her emotionally); because, by the end of the book, her tutoring sessions with Martine are not limited by the hourglass timer her father used when teaching her.

And then there’s Seyed, whom Evelyn breaks emotionally while only ever thinking of her own disappointment at his betrayal of her, the inconvenience of having to replace him. Crucially, at the moment when she discovers his thefts and makes the decision to tell him the truth – to make him an accessory to her own illegal activities so as to prevent his reporting them – she notes the possibility that he might choose to report her regardless:

I didn’t know what I would do if he said anything outside of the very narrow field of good answers available to him.

I suppose I would have done whatever was necessary.

In this moment, however veiled her internal language, Evelyn is potentially ready to kill Seyed, just as Nathan was once potentially prepared to kill her. That Nathan wrote of his intentions in a similarly ominous yet non-specific way – “The only thing left to decide is what to do about Evelyn” – only highlights the similarities, the terrible echo, between them. Abuse is cyclical: the majority of those who are abused do not go on to become abusers in turn, and yet some do. From the very first page of The Echo Wife, we bear witness to Evelyn’s struggle not to turn out like her mother – not to fidget, not to flutter – and yet, until the end, we don’t understand the full horror of her choice to adopt her father’s mannerisms instead. It’s her father that Evelyn copies for her survival – never look back, never apologise – and yet it was her soft, fluttering mother who finally killed him, a lesson which remains opaque to Evelyn even as she takes up residence in his study, apeing his role in her household built of Martine and baby Violet.

What are childhoods, but programming and conditioning laid upon a person a more randomly, less calculatedly than that achieved in a lab? Nathan wanted a child so badly that he created a clone-wife whose body and personality were geared towards providing one, and yet the clone-Nathan who decides that Violet is too difficult to raise without Martine’s help is still, in every important respect, the same Nathan who buried twelve women to acquire her. Evelyn aborted a pregnancy during her marriage rather than bear a child she didn’t want, and yet she accepts the patriarch’s role in the home she makes with Martine and Violet, content for Martine to serve as sole caretaker in exactly the way that Nathan intended of her. When Evelyn and Nathan fought about her abortion, him blaming her for his choice to take an academic job in anticipating of supporting their family, Evelyn recalls her response:

I told him that he was a coward, seeking refuge in the comfort of a child who would admire him without question, and colleagues who would never know how sloppy and useless his labwork was, how limited his dreams were.

Evelyn believes that this criticism doesn’t apply to her by the end, as she still takes little interest in Violet – and yet, quite arguably, this denunciation applies to her relationship with Martine, whom she installs on the other side of her father’s desk, taking up the child-Evelyn’s role as Evelyn replaces her father: a helpmeet and colleague intelligent enough for Evelyn to bounce ideas off of, just as Nathan intended, but not so smart as to surpass her. That the situation is ultimately of Nathan’s doing doesn’t change the hypocrisy of Evelyn disdaining in Nathan an impulse she justifies in herself. We see this, too, in her judgement of the original Nathan’s failure to have formed any close relationships with his colleagues, such that none of them see anything amiss when clone-Nathan replaces him; none of them, Evelyn surmises, truly knew him. Only Martine could claim that much. Yet at the same time, she holds herself aloof from her own colleagues and, once clone-Nathan is out in the world, laments the fact that, if she were to be likewise replaced, only Martine would truly notice the difference.

But then, in Evelyn’s estimation, Martine is a tool that Nathan has made; she thinks of her explicitly in these terms, and sees no shame in using that tool to its (her) purpose. Why should she feel guilty for doing so, when she didn’t bring her into the world? And here we have yet another parallel: that of clones with children, clone-makers with parents. Martine has been made from Evelyn without Evelyn’s permission; and yet, despite that lack of consent in her creation, Evelyn still, on some level, considers Martine hers, because she comes from her. She is not autonomous, just as the clones in Evelyn’s lab are not autonomous – they exist at the will (we assume; the matter isn’t greatly explored) of their originals, who have the ultimate say over whether they live or die. Though Evelyn’s practices are legal, they are equally as disturbing and coercive as the actions of her father, who believed that his child was his to mold, her wrist his to break; a man who, like Nathan, did not think his docile wife’s programming extended to bloody self-defense and bodies in the garden.

Sharply written, disturbing and thought-provoking, The Echo Wife is the kind of book that lingers with you long after you’ve finished reading it. Though the subject material will be understandably too dark or upsetting for some, for those who can stomach it, the story is extremely worthwhile, and should definitely be in contention come awards season.

 

A while ago, I found myself in an argument about romantic tropes and the prevalence, both historical and ongoing, of certain of the more toxically misogynistic ones. It’s a conversation I’ve thought about often since, partly in that frustrated, fridge-moment sense of realising exactly what you ought to have said many months after the fact, but mostly because I felt that most people involved were functionally on the same side. It was just that neither the catalysing comments nor the subsequent blowup had established the contextually vital but easily missed distinction between genre and device, which lead to a very unhelpful conflation of the two, and ever since then, I’ve wanted to better articulate that point.

When we talk about the romance genre, we mean a subset of stories where romance is a primary or central narrative focus, and which can be roughly grouped into romantic subgenres depending on their usage of particular settings and tropes, or various combinations of same. Romance as device, however, is the presence of one or more romantic elements¬†in a narrative whose primary or central focus lies elsewhere, and which, no matter how well-executed the romantic aspects, would more properly be grouped with a different set of literary genres or subgenres. The inevitable overlap of the two – and it is inevitable, as per the immortal adage – is further muddied by their¬†tendency to¬†share common tropes derived from different, albeit related,¬†traditions, like similar-sounding words whose etymologies are respectively Greek and Latin (hysteria vs histrionics, for instance), and which therefore carry separate baggage. That being so, and while there’s often utility in discussing them as a single thing, different contexts call for a different approach.

Nor, I would argue, is romance the only narrative element to exist as both genre and device: quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just that¬†romance-as-device tends to be viewed as a sort of common literary holding: something we’re all “allowed” to draw on, regardless of background, without being seen as impinging on someone else’s turf. The same is also generally true of¬†crime-as-device, as opposed to crime-as-genre, and for the same historical reasons: namely, that in both these cases, the device-usage long predates the modern genre-usage. But when it comes to more unified¬†constructions – schools of writing where, by and large, the device and the genre have evolved together and have subsequently come to be seen as special and elevated by their adherents: namely, literary fiction and SFF – gatekeepers tend to raise stronger, more public objections to the validity of their respective device-usages in other genres, viewing it instead as either a dilution of or a failed attempt to properly engage with their traditions.

Fascinatingly, the logic behind these respectively jerked knees is almost diametrically opposite despite leading to functionally identical reactions. Literary fiction, which is prone to thinking of itself as the only real kind of literature, resents its styles and structures ¬†being appropriated by or tainted with the trappings of “lesser” pulp genres, and so considers the idea of litfic-as-device to be somewhat tawdry and embarrassing. SFF, by contrast, is so used to being vilified as pulpy dross that SFF-as-device is invariably seen as cause for circling the wagons. Either litfic is poaching geeky tropes without acknowledging their origins, as per the standard operating procedure whenever SFF stories popular enough to become¬†“classics” are suddenly said to have “transcended genre”, or else it’s a hamfisted attempt by some other “lesser” genre – usually romance, which invariably ends up being dogpiled by everyone – to ape traditions they¬†neither understand nor respect.

(Meanwhile, both romance- and crime-as-device are held to benefit from a sort of snobbish literary elevation when used by other genres. Their core elements, this argument goes, are spices rather than staples, and therefore better suited to seasoning than sustenance. This is bullshit, of course, but self-important purity seldom recognises taste as a variable.)

All of which brings me, in a rather roundabout fashion, to my recent contemplation of¬†the difference between queer stories written for a straight audience and those written for a queer audience, and what it means when those categories overlap (as they also invariably do, as per the above). It’s an issue with a lot of different¬†intersections depending on your entry point, but there’s one angle in particular that’s been bothering me: m/m romances written predominantly by and for allo/straight/cis women versus m/m stories written predominantly by and for queer people. Which, right away, presents a glaring imbalance, in that the majority of stories about queer men, even when they’re written by queer writers, are still being written by women, given the fact that both romance and fanfic, where the bulk of queer romances are found, both have a heavily female-dominated authorship.

That doesn’t mean they’re the only two genres that matter, of course, nor does it mean that queer male writers are absent from those spaces.¬†I can think of several notable queer men writing¬†in SFF (John Chu, Kai Ashante Wilson, Hal Duncan, Yoon Ha Lee), all of whom are excellent, all of whose works feature queer male characters. Nor is the queerness in their writing incidental, in the sense of passing without notice: even when present as a single¬†element within a wider narrative framework, it still remains powerfully situated. But¬†overwhelmingly, in my subjective experience, queer male authored m/m work falls more frequently under the auspices romance-as-device than romance-as-genre.

There are many possible reasons as to why this is, not least the fact that, as queer writers remain marginalised, queer romances of any kind are still more likely to be written by straight authors, period. Combine this with¬†the particular double standards surrounding the outward presentation of traditional gender roles, which portray women as being both naturally more empathic than men while hiding potential sapphism under the banner of Gals Being Pals, and you have a situation where¬†straight women – or closeted queer women, for that matter – are still less likely to be assumed to be queer on the basis of their characters than straight or closeted men who do likewise. And because homophobia is Still A Fucking Thing, Goddamit, Why The Hell Aren’t We Past This Yet?, that’s an assumption many men remain leery of risking, whether¬†consciously or not.

Which makes me wonder if, in part, the apparent dearth of queer men writing m/m romance-as-genre is also a product, at least in part, of the same cultural¬†gendering that sees romance-as-genre as being inherently feminine, and therefore a lesser endeavour. I don’t mean that purely as an evocation of misogyny within the gay community, although that’s certainly a potential factor, but rather in terms of literal socialisation. Romance of all kinds is so thoroughly entrenched as a female preoccupation that it’s pushed on AFAB kids from a young age, even when they’re ambivalent or hostile towards it, while AMAB kids who show any sort of interest in it are still considered suspect. Meaning, in essence, that one group is more likely to receive a cultural primer in romantic tropes – and to internalise the message that romance is meant for them – than the other, regardless of who they really are.

And the thing is, for far too many of us, one of homophobia’s first and most prominent weapons was the assertion that gender-deviant behaviour meant we¬†somehow¬†weren’t¬†our gender, not properly: a devastating attack for those of us who are trans or nonbinary, but equally confusing to those who are¬†cis, but who didn’t yet know that orientation isn’t synonymous with identity. In both cases, coming to queer adulthood has often meant relearning which traditionally “gendered” things, originally rejected as collateral in an amorphous desire for¬†self-expression, might now be cautiously reclaimed, and which things we might have adopted, not out of any real passion, but because their gendered associations were as close as we could once come to being ourselves.

Regardless of the reasons, however, the fact remains that a great deal of m/m romance-as-genre is now written predominantly by and for women. In this category I include both stories where the m/m pairing is primary, and where it appears as a secondary pairing in a largely f/m ¬†or, more rarely, f/f plot. And in considering that fact, I feel – very personally; which is to say, with no real attempt at objectivity – that there is a vast difference between m/m stories which are actually accessible to queer men, or which at least try to be, and those which aren’t. I say this as someone who is genderqueer and bi, which status renders me a liminal creature even to myself, and which often leaves me feeling as though I have no real claim to any particular experience. I know what I feel I am, but I can’t explain that without explaining myself, and in this instance I politely decline to do so on the grounds that, even if I knew how, it would constitute an entirely separate essay. Say this, then: my yardstick for whether a female-authored m/m story is friendly towards a queer male readership is based on how comfortable I’d feel recommending it to my actual queer male friends.

Obviously, queer men are not a hivemind. Obviously. (See above, re: personal and not the least objective.) My friends are not your friends; I’m not trying to make a universal point, but to tease out how this deeply subjective thing currently feels to me. Because when I look at the female-authored m/m romances on my shelves, or the f/m-centred romances featuring secondary m/m relationships – all of which are either SFF, YA or a combination thereof, and therefore more likely representative of portrayals of male queerness in those genres than in romance otherwise – overwhelmingly, the thematic backdrop to those pairings falls into one of two categories: the horrific¬†sexual abuse of one partner coupled frequently with the violent torture of the other, or the pining of a gay virgin for a man¬†who didn’t know he was queer until they found themselves together, all sexual elements neatly sublimated beneath romance. For brevity’s sake, let’s call these categories violent and chaste.

To be clear: I’m talking here about books I like. Books I love in some cases, or which I have a deeply conflicted relationship to in others, but books in any case about which I feel strongly. Taken individually, they’re all engaging stories with varying faults and strengths, and which have very little in common besides their m/m leanings and the vague umbrella of their non-romantic genres. But¬†having noticed this dichotomous trend, I can’t unsee it, and therefore can’t help but want to analyse it. And thus, the following deeply subjective opinion:

I feel as though the violent stories, at least in part, are a reaction to both the broken bird trope and the long, long list of narratives in which women are subject to every form of sexual violation. As such, I suspect they’re more likely to be written by queer women than straight; women who are deeply aware of the risks of violence produced by homophobia, and who, while wanting to explore the ramifications of that violence, are understandably reluctant to add to to a body of literature already glutted with stories of female abuse¬†in general and the violation of queer women in particular. I understand exactly the logic in these instances, and yet I flinch from recommending such stories to queer male friends for the same reason that I hesitate to recommend misogynistic grimdark stories to female friends, or queer tragedies to queer friends: the horrors might be real and well-written, but that doesn’t mean we want to read about ourselves being destroyed.

The chaste stories, by contrast, I feel are more likely to be written by straight women than queer; women who are either uncomfortable with or cautious of portraying the physical, sexual aspects of queer male relationships, but who nonetheless feel deeply affected by their emotional component. To me, it always feels like there’s a disconnect to these narratives, one where poetic euphemism so fully supplants any bodily sense of arousal or wanting, let alone confusion or shock, as to betray a lack of familiarity with what it means to question your sexuality, or to feel shamed into hiding it. The lack of sex scenes isn’t the issue; it’s the total abstraction of sexual desire without actually writing an asexual character, coupled with the general lack of internal debate or crisis. It’s queer boys on perpetual stealth mode except for when, all of a sudden and without any apparent drama, they come out, and while these stories can still be quite beautiful, there’s a weightlessness to them, an abstraction from queer experience, that makes me hesitant to recommend them, either.

What both categories have in common, however – not universally, but frequently enough to rate a mention – is the invariable distancing of both characters from any sort of queer community or friendship. In the violent stories, it’s usually due to the focus on abuse, isolation or being closeted: even if other queer characters are present, the abused man is made lonely in his abuse, so that only his lovers or assailants are ever really privy to his secrets. In the chaste stories, by contrast, it’s because the queer men are predominantly surrounded by straight people, such that all the queerness flies under the radar right until it doesn’t. Which is, I cynically suspect, a part of the appeal for some straight authors: given that more of the population is straight than queer, the kismet of meeting a soulmate¬†is made to seem even more wondrous if the odds were lower in the first place, and even moreso if your protagonist thought he was The Only Gay In The Village. Hence the poetic tendency to put the emotional connection on a lust-ignoring pedestal: it’s pure and perfect as much because they found each other at all as because of any other reason, so why sully it with sex?

As personally and as profoundly as I understand why so many women, straight or otherwise, find meaning and enjoyment in m/m stories, I’m increasingly saddened by how few of those narratives¬†seem to consider the possibility of a queer male audience, or which assume that audience’s needs to be identical to a female one. It should surely be possible to write for both groups at least some of the time, and while I freely admit the limitations of my own perspective – I can, after all, only speak to what I’ve read myself – the existence of a discernible pattern is nonetheless disquieting.

 

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.

Warning the First: The following views are those of a disgruntled person. Long-term conclusions may be more moderate with hindsight.

Warning the Second: Spoilers for All The Things.  

Internets, I have finally snapped on the subject of YA dystopias.

Half an hour ago, I ran myself a bath and settled in with¬†Fever, the sequel to Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, which I read last year and particularly enjoyed. Rather than recap the story so far, I’ll refer you to Goodreads should you require a detailed plot summary, but in brief, the setting is a romantic/sexual dystopia, and at the end of Wither, protagonist-narrator Rhine had just escaped her forced marriage with the help of her love-interest Gabriel.¬†Fever¬†picks up their story immediately after this point, with our two young lovers scrambling out of the ocean to – they imagine – freedom. Heading inland, they encounter a carnival and are quick-smart captured by Madame, the proprietor, for whom this title is also a job description. Within about ten seconds, Madame has given Rhine a new name – Goldenrod – and taken her up in the still-operational Ferris wheel to talk about becoming one of her girls, where, despite her fear, Rhine can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the world seen from on high:

The seat rocks a little as I settle into it. Madame sits beside me and pulls the overhead bar down so that it locks us in. We start to move, and I’m breathless for an instant as we ascend forward and into the sky.

The earth gets father and farther away. The tents look like bright round candles. The girls move about them, shadows.

I can’t help myself; I lean forward, astounded. This wheel is five, ten, fifteen times taller than the lighthouse I climbed in the hurricane. Higher even than the fence that kept me trapped as Linden’s bride…

Even my brother, who is all practicality, would have his breath taken away by this height, these lights, the clarity of this night sky.

And that’s when I stopped reading.*

Because all of a sudden, it hit me: I’d seen this device before. In the opening scenes of Carrie Ryan’s The Dead-Tossed Waves,¬†the second volume in her YA zombie dystopia series, protagonist Gabry and her love-interest Catcher defy the rules to enter a zombie-infested amusement park. Not unsurprisingly, things go wrong pretty quickly; nonetheless, there’s still time for some opening nostalgia about carnivals:

The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going. They said it reminded them of the before time. When they didn’t have to worry about people rising from the dead, when they didn’t have to build fences and walls and barriers to protect themselves…

Even after the Forest was shut off, one last gasp at sequestering the infection and containing the Mudo, the carousel kept turning, the coasters kept rumbling, the teacups kept spinning. Though my town of Vista was far away from the core of the Protectorate, they hoped people would come fly along the coasters. Would still want to forget.

More recently still, a decaying carnival appeared in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, another YA dystopia about which I had very mixed feelings. Midway through, heroine Tris and her love-interest Four climb an abandoned Ferris wheel to use it as a vantage point during a wargame:

Four sits down on the edge of the carousel, leaning against a plastic horse’s foot. His eyes lift to the sky, where there are no stars, only a round moon peeking through a thin layer of clouds…

When I stare up at the Ferris wheel from the ground, my throat feels tighter. It is taller than I thought, so tall I can barely see the cars swinging at the top. The only good thing about its height is that it is built to support weight. If I climb it, it won’t collapse beneath me…

When I look at the city again, the building isn’t in my way. I’m high enough to see the skyline. Most of the buildings are black against a navy sky, but the red lights at the top of the Hub are lit up. They blink half as fast as my heartbeat.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with three separate YA dystopias all including amusement parks. After all, they’re dystopias! It makes sense that the characters would encounter the ruined edifices of modern times, and from an aesthetic point of view, there’s something particularly powerful and haunting about the imagery of an abandoned Ferris wheel. But what jerked me out of Fever was less the presence of a repeated motif than what its usage seemed to represent: the romanticising of our present, and therefore a softening of the pertinent social criticism that ought to be an inherent part of dystopian fiction.

That’s a big claim, I know. But before I go on to defend it, I’d like to present a fourth except in contrast to the previous three, taken from yet another YA dystopia: Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. Here, protagonist Tally and her friend Shay are hoverboarding along the tracks of an old roller coaster – something Shay has done before, but which Tally has not.

It was like a hoverboard course made solid, complete with tight, banked turns, sharp climbs followed by long drops, even loops that took Tally upside down, her crash bracelets activating to keep her on board. It was amazing what good shape it was in. The Rusties must have built it out of something special, just as Shay had said…

Tally followed at top speed, rocketing up the spindly track. She could see the ruins in the distance: broken, black spires against the trees. And behind them, a moonlight glimmer that might have been the sea. This really was high!…

Suddenly, the board dropped out from under her. It simply fell away from her feet, leaving her flying through midair. The track below her had disappeared…

Then Tally saw the framework of the roller coaster ahead. Only a short segment was missing… Her momentum had carried her to the other side of the gap! The board must have sailed along with her, just below her feet for those terrifying seconds of free fall.

She found herself cruising down the track, to where Shay was waiting at the bottom. “You’re insane!” she shouted.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

“No!” Tally yelled. “Why didn’t you tell me it was broken?”

Shay shrugged. “More fun that way?”

“More fun?” Her heart was beating fast, her vision strangely clear. She was full of anger and relief and… joy. “Well, kind of. But you suck!”

At first glance, it might seem fairly arbitrary as to why I’ve chosen this final scene as a contrast to the others. All four excerpts show female protagonists either experiencing or thinking about the decaying rides of modern-day theme parks; all four mention the height and the view – which is understandable – and all four ladies are in places they shouldn’t be: Rhine has been captured by Madame for trespassing, Gabry is going into a forbidden area, Tris is risking her neck to climb a rickety structure and Tally is breaking multiple laws to follow Shay’s lead. Stylistically, there’s an obvious divide in that DeStefano, Ryan and Roth are all writing in the immediate first person, while Westerfeld uses omniscient third, but that’s vastly less important than the subtext of each scene. Neither is it divided along romantic lines. True, Tally is the only one not thinking about or travelling with a boy, but that’s only because she hasn’t met her love-interest yet, and this is a long-game point.

No: it’s¬†that Westerfeld’s characters are the only ones to find a new use for their carnival, and whose appropriation therefore makes us critique its original purpose. Tally and Shay are the only ones having fun.

Rhine rides her wheel passively – she’s been forced onto it, after all – but takes the chance to reflect on how carefree our world used to be, before it broke into hers. Gabry’s thoughts run down similar paths, despite the fact that she never actually makes it onto a ride. Tris and Four turn their own wheel into a vantage point, true, and there’s a moment prior to their¬†ascension¬†when another character jokes about what a present-day version would entail –¬†‚ÄúA Dauntless Ferris wheel wouldn‚Äôt have cars. You would just hang on tight with your hands, and good luck to you.‚ÄĚ –¬†but this introspection ultimately goes nowhere: the scene is about Tris’s bravery and her relationship with Four, not a commentary on funfairs, and though their climb is dangerous, the Ferris wheel is not forbidden territory.

But in Uglies, there’s a double subversion to Shay and Tally’s scene. Not only have they broken the rules by visiting the ruin, but their use of the tracks as a hoverboard route is much more dangerous than if they’d found and ridden a still-functional roller coaster. Where the original ride was safety masquerading as danger, Shay turns the tables on Tally, tricking her into doing something genuinely risky: jumping an unknown gap. And while Tally’s first reaction is anger, she’s also a bit elated, too – her success is thrilling, empowering, and all the more so because the threat of mishap was real. While DeStefano and Ryan invoke a deliberate nostalgia for the present day through the inner thoughts of their characters, and where Roth’s narration makes us consider the image of a decaying past without offering hope for the future, Westerfeld makes his audience realise that, compared to Shay and Tally’s world, our own is safe – but perhaps, in some fundamental way, less satisfying because of it.

As a subgenre, dystopia has its roots in social criticism. The big adult classics – Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – all end bleakly for the protagonists: their purported futures are warnings, and at least part of their purpose is to make us wonder what horrors our own bad, real-world decisions could ultimately engender. This is not to say that all adult dystopias are concerned with social what-ifs: Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning The Road is unremittingly bleak, devoid of human society – an apocalyptic vision more than a twisted take on human folly – while William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a study of children breaking down into violence, barbarism and anarchy in the absence of any higher moral guidance. By contrast, the archetypal YA dystopia – Lois Lowry’s The Giver –¬†ends on an ambiguous note, leaving its young protagonist, Jonas, hovering somewhere between death and salvation; either way, though, he is free. While Orwell’s Winston is crushed into conformity, Huxley’s savage driven to suicide and McCarthy’s nameless father murdered, Jonas’s story ends on a vision of hope. The closest comparison is with Atwood’s Offred – we don’t see whether her escape succeeds, though the epilogue assures us of her world’s eventual¬†recuperation¬†– but even then, this knowledge is divorced from Offred’s voice. If the job of adult dystopia is to caution, therefore, it seems fair to suggest that the role of YA dystopia is to reassure: not, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, because they tell us that broken societies are¬†survivable, but because they tell us broken societies can be changed.

Which tradition is now upheld by Fever, The Dead-Tossed Waves, Divergent and Uglies¬†alike: even in the case of any as-yet incomplete series, the narrative arc is such that progress is definitely on the agenda. And yet, for all that, there’s a maddening dearth of danger and consequence both in the bulk of YA dystopias – danger, which is here distinct from action, and consequence, which is here distinct from loss. Battle scenes and dead companions are staples of YA dystopia, and yet they tend to feel like punches pulled, potential roundhouse blows swerving away from successive protagonists and into their nearest and dearest. Loss¬†is the moment when Divergent’s Tris loses both her parents and keeps on fighting; consequence,¬†though, is where Katniss Everdeen – the battle-scarred heroine of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – is left to live with PTSD, irrevocably haunted by the catastrophe of war. Loss, to draw a comparison with another recent bugbear of mine, hints at romanticised damage; consequence does not. Similarly, action is successive protagonists being thrown into battles where the stakes are either death, which seldom afflicts main characters, or the sort of coercion that leaves no marks (and which, when combined with loss, is typified by an absence of psychological scarring). Danger¬†is when the risks involve actual physical and/or mental change – and when the protagonist doesn’t emerge unscathed.

For reasons which are complex and fascinating enough to merit an essay of their own, a staggering number of YA dystopias with female protagonists are concerned with sexuality and romance. In these stories, partners are chosen by higher powers (Matched and Crossed, Ally Condie), love is branded a disease (Delirium and Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver), teenage pregnancy is a way of life (Bumped and Thumped, Megan McCafferty), and brides are stolen freely (Wither¬†and Fever,¬†Lauren DeStefano). At the other end of the scale are female warriors: gladiators-turned-revolutionaries (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire¬†and Mockingjay,¬†Suzanne Collins), questing cage-fighters (Blood Red Road, ¬†¬†Moira Young), face-changing dissidents (Uglies, Pretties, Specials¬†and¬†Extras,¬†Scott Westerfeld), soldiers-in-training (Divergent¬†and Insurgent, Veronica Roth) and zombie-fighting survivors (The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Dead-Tossed Waves¬†and The Dark and Hollow Places,¬†Carrie Ryan).¬†All of these books provoke questions about identity and agency;¬†all of them, too, relate to ongoing political discourse about the role of women in society, whether in terms of sexual freedom or women as front line fighters. But while some of them actively embrace this critical aspect – seeking, in the spirit of dystopia, to make us question both the real world and the fictional – others instead provoke only a sense of gratitude for our distance from their settings. They might still be reflective of current issues, but they shy away from making us make the connection, because their ultimate purpose isn’t to encourage questions.

And this, to return to my opening statement, is why I’ve finally snapped. It’s the Ferris wheel effect: a nostalgia for the present day rooted in being grateful for what we have, rather than in asking where we’re headed. It’s dystopia with the safeties on¬†– and that is, to me, an alarming inversion of how the genre should work. I have nothing against stories being written purely for escapist purposes, but dystopia is not the ideal genre for it. Of course, as in all things, your mileage may vary,¬†in which case you’re wholly entitled to disagree. Yet I’d ask that you ask yourself: what, exactly, is escapist about an uncritical dystopia? While critical protagonists set out to change society, allowing us the fantasy of ¬†being world-altering revolutionaries, uncritical protagonists remain wrapped up in themselves, dealing with immediate, personal obstacles rather than tackling their root causes. Such characters can still change the world, of course – or rather, be instrumental in its change – but the difference is one of intention: their rebellion stems from a desire to be left alone, not to combat injustice, and this difference shows in how the story treats them. They are kept safer than their critical counterparts – exposed to action and loss, rather than danger and consequence – because if something sufficiently bad were to happen or be realistically threatened, then their stories would no longer stand as purely escapist fictions: the audience would no longer want to share in their experiences.

Trigger warning for this paragraph, because we’re going to talk about rape and sexual assault – which are, for me, the crashing, trumpeting elephants in the room in far too many dystopias. On the one hand: these are big issues that ought not be treated lightly. I can understand entirely why authors shy away from mentioning them. They are dark themes, frightening and raw, capable of completely transforming the tone and scope of a book. On the other hand, though: if you build a dystopian society based around the capture, sale and slavery of women – and particularly if the reason for this is tied to pregnancy – then you are automatically inviting this threat to exist. More, if your protagonist is female and she’s trying to escape this world, then you have guaranteed the relevance of this threat. This doesn’t mean your character must be assaulted. It does mean, however, that you need a convincing explanation as to why. Not mentioning it at all, even in passing, strikes me as a form of erasure; a denial of consequence, and a dismissal of the very real trauma suffered by millions of women. If the audience can reasonably infer that rape is a thing that happens in your dystopia, then you are doing a disservice both to us and to the intelligence of your heroine to keep it hidden. The real world has a vile enough culture of silencing without extending a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to fiction, too.

To be absolutely, brutally clear: I am in no way saying that what YA dystopias need is for more teenage girls to be raped. I am saying that in instances where the plots of YA dystopias are heavily concerned with the control of women’s bodies and female sexuality, failing to even mention rape or assault as part of those societies is not only unrealistic, but an undermining of discourse.

In Delirium, Lauren Oliver does an excellent job of pointing out the perils of her society – all save one. In a world where everyone is effectively lobotomised at eighteen to ‘cure’ them of amor deliria nervosa – love – it makes perfect sense that kindness, hugging, casual touching, kissing and other such tactile displays of affection would all be taboo, reclassified as symptoms of the disease. She mentions, too, the reality of cured parents sometimes killing their children out of anger or exasperation, unable to form the usual parental bond, while married couples – forbidden to choose each other for emotional reasons – consent to be matched by the state. The book is beautifully written and world-built, exquisitely characterised and absolutely compelling. Yet there’s a hole in the heart of it, a question I can’t quite shake: the cure erases love, yes, but what about sexual desire? The two are not synonymous, and though there’s some overlap in which areas of the brain control them – both involve the anterior cingulate cortex, which is connected to the amygdala – sexual brain-mapping lights up multiple other regions. Which begs the question: in a world without love and greatly reduced compassion, where emotions are muted but where – we assume, given that people still reproduce the traditional way – human beings continue to experience sexual arousal, what sort of horrors go on behind closed doors?

Oliver’s world is totalitarian. Its military forces are cold and unyielding, freed from the usual human compassion for their charges. Love might be impossible among the populace, but as the story continually demonstrates, violence is not – and at least for me, that opens the door for a society rife with sexual abuse. Incorporating that possibility into the story, however, would have radically changed its scope. I understand why Oliver chose instead to tacitly infer that the cure, as well as erasing love, also eliminated rape. Delirium is still one of the best dystopias I’ve read in years, and a book I heartily recommend. For all that it doesn’t treat with societal sexuality, it nonetheless counts as a critical dystopia, commenting powerfully on freedom of choice, totalitarianism, propagandising, religion and individualism, inviting direct contrast with present day issues. Yet it, like far too many of its fellows, shrinks from discussing institutionalised misogyny and the specific issues of female oppression.

And this is a problem for me, because it seems to cut to the heart of a different discussion: the perennial questing after strong and varied female characters in SFF. I dislike the oft-floated image of YA books didactically Teaching Lessons To Teenagers; dislike, too, the inference that writing for young adults inherently entails a greater moral responsibility than writing for adults. The primary point of fiction – any fiction – is not preaching. But the lack of a moral burden is not the same as an absence of critical thought, and it strikes me that maybe one of the reasons we’re still having this conversation about the merits of various female characters is because, despite our best efforts, we’re still stuck in a mindset of gender protectiveness, particularly in YA. By which I mean: if you consider the image of a little boy hitting a little girl to be inherently worse than if he were hitting another boy, then we have a problem.

To be clear: targeted physical violence against women is still as much of a global epidemic as sexual violence. It would be hypocritical to suggest that YA dystopias ought to tackle the latter but ignore the former, especially given their penchant for producing physically aggressive heroines who are just as strong or stronger than men, and seemingly without effort. Quite the opposite: I’m actually starting to wonder if, rather than representing an idealised physical equality, such warrior-heroines are really gifted with strength in order to keep them safe, in much the same way that their romance-seeking counterparts are protected from sexual violence by the pretense that it doesn’t exist. In both cases, it seems like the fictional solution to two of the biggest women’s issues going – our physical and sexual vulnerability – is not to confront them, but to erase the reason they exist. That’s what I mean by protectionism: we’re afraid to have our heroines suffer the same dangers as real-world women, and so we keep them safe, bestowing on them unnatural strength if they’re going to fight battles, or removing the threat of rape if they’re going to encounter sexual prejudice. This is by no means a problem exclusive to YA or even dystopia, but my suspicion is that this combination of genres in particular serves to magnify it.

Under such circumstances, then, is it any surprise that we’re still asking ourselves how best to write a wide and gorgeous range of women? It’s not that we don’t understand female versatility – it’s that deep down, we still shy away from having our female characters confront real danger and consequence. Fearful of writing victims, we pretend that victimisation doesn’t exist, and so disengage from the dialogue about how such victimisation might be halted; but of all genres, dystopia shouldn’t shrink from ugly truths – regardless of the age of the audience.

By the end of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Tally Youngblood has undergone multiple transformations: from her natural self to a cosmetically enhanced Pretty, and last to a fearsome Special. Offered the chance to return to who she originally was, she refuses and finds herself imprisoned: her allies want to indoctrinate her into thinking such a reversal is for the best. But Tally is stubborn. As dangerous as she’s become, the only way forward is for her to rewire herself, alone: to become something new, no matter how uncomfortable her self-acceptance makes other people.

And if YA dystopias are serious about offering social criticism – if they really want to discuss the role of women in society – then they need to do the same.

* For now. I do plan to finish the book!

Returning early from work on Tuesday afternoon, I found a slip of cardboard in my letterbox informing me that I had a package to collect. ‘Ah!’ I thought. ‘My visa and passport have been returned! Lovely!’ – whereupon I grabbed my purse and rode straight up to the post office. Once I reached the counter, however, I found myself thwarted by a Postal Chick.¬†The conversation went like this:

ME: Hello! I’ve got a package to pick up. Here’s the slip from my mailbox.

POSTAL CHICK: That’s fine. Do you have any ID?

ME: No, that’s what I’m here to pick up. It’s my visa application stuff.

POSTAL CHICK: I’m sorry, I can’t give you the parcel without seeing some ID.

ME: But all my ID is in the parcel. I can’t show you any ID until you give it to me.

POSTAL CHICK: You have no ID?

ME: No, I do have ID – it’s just all in the package. Look, I don’t have a valid driver’s license or a student card. My passport is my only form of photo ID, and that’s what I’m here to collect.

POSTAL CHICK: Do you have any other ID with your name on it?

ME: Yes and, again, no. All my cards still have my maiden name on them, but the package has my married name on it. Which I know, because I wrote the address. It’s a reply-paid parcel. I bought and sent it from here on Monday. That lady next to you served me.

POSTAL CHICK: Sorry, we serve millions of people a week. We don’t remember you.

ME, Internally: I’m sorry – you, personally, serve millions of customers per week in this tiny suburban post office, or Australia Post serves millions of customers? Because there’s a difference!

ME, out loud: Really? You don’t remember me?

NICE LADY WHO¬†HELPED ME ON MONDAY: I’m sorry,¬†no.

ME: Ah. Fair enough.

POSTAL CHICK: Do you have any utility bills in your name?

ME: No, they’re all in my husband’s name. I just pay them.

POSTAL CHICK: Do you have a lease agreement, then? A bank statement?

ME: I have no idea where our lease is, and I don’t have a current bank statement.

POSTAL CHICK, disbelievingly: You don’t have a bank statement?

ME, internally: OK. Does anyone on Earth keep their old bank statements lying around for just this eventuality? Do you keep your bank statements, Postal Chick? I think not!

ME, out loud: My bank statements come every two months. The next one isn’t due until July. The only one I have is, once again, in the package. I had to order it from the bank especially for my passport application. Which is what I’ve come to pick up. It¬† contains¬†my visa, my current passport, my childhood passport, my marriage certificate, my birth certificate, a bank statement¬†and a copy of¬†my ticket to¬†Heathrow. ¬†All my ID. In the parcel.

POSTAL CHICK: I can’t give you the parcel until you show me some ID.

ME: This is a chicken and egg dilemma! I can’t show you my ID until you give me the parcel, but you won’t give me the parcel because I don’t have ID! Look, the first time I had to get one of these back, I just had to sign for it at the door. What’s wrong with doing that here?

POSTAL CHICK: Yes, but that was because it was the postie delivering it. That’s different.

ME, internally: But that’s entirely stupid! Either there is a rigid, unbendable standard in place on showing ID to collect a parcel, or there isn’t! I could just as easily have lied to the postie as to you – but it’s my parcel! Addressed in my handwriting!

ME, out loud: This is ridiculous. Isn’t there anything else I can do?

POSTAL CHICK: You can’t show me any ID?

ME: No!

POSTAL CHICK: I’m sorry, but I can’t hand over the parcel without ID.

NICE LADY WHO HELPED ME ON MONDAY, listening in: What about the tracking number I would’ve given you from the bottom of the package?

ME, processing vague memories of a plastic-looking satchel-strip shoved in the bottom of my bag: Yes! I have that! But it’s in my bag. At home.

NICE LADY WHO HELPED ME ON MONDAY: Are you able to go and get it?

ME: Yes.

NICE LADY WHO HELPED ME ON MONDAY:¬†Then that’s fine. Just¬†come straight to the counter when you get back, and we’ll help you.

ME, internally: Thank you, Nice Lady! Now why the hell couldn’t the¬†damn Postal Chick have suggested that TEN FREAKING MINUTES AGO?

So I rode back home, found my bag, rode back to the post office, got my parcel and opened it at the counter. With a certain grim satisfaction, I pulled out my passport and waved it at the Postal Chick.

ME: See? ID!

End result: I have my documents back. But I hate Australia Post.

As a child, there are few things more heady than playing without adult supervision, and few things more crucial to healthy development. It’s a big part of learning to gauge social situations: particularly, the idea that it’s often necessary to behave differently depending on the circumstances. Looked at purely in terms of running around or socialising while adults¬†read in the next room, it’s a sensible – even obvious – assumption. Kids need to be on their own. Should they start picking up¬†bad habits – for instance, acting like hoydens¬†all the time –¬†then parents must rightly step in and explain why this behaviour is inappropriate. The very last resort is banning play itself, or forbidding a child to see certain friends, not just because it’s an extreme¬†measure, but because of the difficulties in enforcing it.¬†

Now, however, the rise in digital¬†gamespaces has¬†created a phenomenon that many parents are yet to recognise as significant: adolescent participation in virtual and¬†online¬†communities. Time was, punishing bad behaviour by revoking¬†a child’s TV, computer, phone¬†or game-playing privileges was a parental standard:¬†the ace up the adult sleeve.¬†But¬†with so many kids and teenagers relying heavily on new technology for social interaction, blacklisting internet use or taking away consoles has become the equivalent of prohibiting contact with friends. Unintentionally, some parents are upgrading their retaliatory arsenal from standard bombs to nuclear, and are therefore miffed and furious by turns when their child’s reaction seems over the top. The worst-case scenario is, undoubtably, that of Brandon Crisp, a 15-year-old who ran away after being banned from playing X-Box and was¬†later found dead. His father, who’d imposed the ban, is understandably grieved by the tragedy, but has also said that he now understands his son’s reaction.

“I just took away his identity, so I can understand why he got mad and took off. Before, I couldn’t understand why he was taking off for taking his game away,” he said.

It’s a notably drastic example, but one which does, perhaps, exemplify the problem: how do parents withold technological privilege now without simultaneously¬†removing avenues of¬†social contact? It’s a tough question, and one I don’t have an answer to, despite being sympathetic to both positions. It is also, however, something I’ve experienced myself.

When I was about twelve or so, my mother took me to coffee with one of her friends. This friend had a daughter, Michelle,¬†who, apart from being my age, was a born technology geek, and in this respect utterly dissimilar to her mother. The women chatted while I drank my hot chocolate; and then, quite suddenly, my mother’s friend mentioned how angry and irrational Michelle had been acting ever since she banned her from using the internet. Curious, I asked why she’d banned her; the friend replied that Michelle had been leaving a program open that used up their bandwidth. After a short discussion, it became apparent that the program in question was Kazaa, a two-way music download site of the old, pre-iTunes-and-collapse-of-Napster ouevre, and that the bandwidth was being used up because Michelle was allowing other users to download songs from her.

‘So why not just say she can’t use the site?’ I asked, puzzled and a little indignant on Michelle’s behalf. ‘Or that she can’t let other people download songs? Because taking away the internet, I mean, that’s a big thing. That means she can’t check her email, or chat to friends – ‘ both crucial when we were twelve – ‘or anything like that. It’s a big punishment.’ I tried very hard to stress this.

My mother’s friend frowned, shrugged and waved a hand.

‘Oh, but¬†I don’t care about any of that,’ she said, and promptly changed the subject.

In the scheme of things, it wasn’t a big incident,¬†but the injustice of¬†it frustrated me for some time afterwards. The punishment was grossly disproportionate to the crime, and what was worse, Michelle’s mother didn’t seem to care, even after it was explained and even though it explained her daughter’s behaviour. To her, the importance of chat and internet were nil, and so removing them oughtn’t have been a problem: my protest (and, presumably, Michelle’s) was just another sign of unwarranted complaint. Now, of course, I’m free to use teh interwebnologies as I please; Kazaa is long since gone, and I haven’t used Trillian for years. But it makes¬†me wonder: when I have kids of my own, will I understand what’s important to them?

And, more importantly, will I be willing to learn?

Imagine this image: a human brain in a vat. The brain has been removed from a real, live person and painstakingly wired into a machine which keeps it alive, utterly duplicating the necessary processes of organic flesh. Sight, sound and smell are simulated by clever contraptions, emotional surges provoke the correct chemical and hormonal reactions. To all intents and purposes, the being Рthe brain Рis real, their sense of self intact: they are simply no longer housed in a body.

Which begs the question: do they still have a gender?

It’s an interesting problem. Socially, gender is assumed¬†through assessment of¬†a person’s physical body, their voice, mannerisms, clothes and so on: but strip away all these things – remove even their possibility – and what is left?¬†Is the brain (we’ll¬†call it¬†Sam, a neatly androgynous handle) gendered depending on the sex of its¬†original body? Is it possible for a ‘female’ brain to wind up¬†ensconced in male¬†flesh, or vice versa? If one accepts that homosexuality is¬†more often¬†an innate predeliction than a conscious choice (certainly, I believe, it can be both or either), what role does the physical wiring of our brain play? Is it the only factor?¬†Does nurture always prevail over nature in matters of sexuality,¬†or vice versa? Is it a mixture? If so, does the ratio vary from person to person? Why? And so on.

Let’s lay some cards on the table. When it comes to sexual orientation, my¬†two rules of¬†thumb are:¬†

(a) mutual, intelligent consent; and

(b) the prevention of harm to others.

In a nutshell:¬†all parties have to agree to what’s happening, and no bystanders can¬†be hurt or unwillingly drawn in. While this doesn’t rule out¬†BDSM (provided,¬†of course, it¬†keeps within the bounds of said rules), it definitively excludes rape and¬†paedophilia, which, really, is common sense.¬†Anything relating to homosexuality and transexuality,¬†however,¬†is fair game.

A few more points, in no particular order:

1. Life is often unfair.

2. Life is often weird.

3. Insofar as evidence is concerned, human beings are still shaky on the definitive origins of personhood (souls v. genes, or possibly a blend of both), but most people will agree that brains and gender play a more important role in this than, say, knees and elbows.

4. Original notions of gender roles developed in the context of reproduction and childrearing, but provided both these things still occur in sufficient numbers to ensure the survival of the species, there is little harm in broadening or questioning their parameters.

5. People have, or should have, a basic right to assert their identity. Reasonably, there must be some limits of credulity –¬†there was only ever one Napoleon,¬† mankind¬†are distinct from dolphins – but within the recognised sphere of human gender and sexual orientation, it seems¬†counter-intuitive that¬†appearance should dictate¬†black and white¬†rules for what is, quite evidently, an internal and subtle determination.

Witness, then, the idea of transgender couples, in which one partner may undergo a sex change without ending the relationship. Witness, then, the case of Aurora Lipscomb, born Zachary, who identified as a girl from the age of two and was removed from her parents when they refused to forcibly contradict her. These are just two examples that buck the trend of traditional gender ideas, and rather than making us squirm, they should make us think. When and why did certain socio-cultural ideas of gender develop, and how do they change? Consider, for instance, the well-documented and widespread instances of winkte, berdache and two-spirit people in Native American culture, compared to the deep-seated fear of these concepts in western traditions. Look at the long-standing tradition of male homosexuality in Japan, particularly among samurais, and the role of Sappho in ancient Greek lesbianism. Think of hermaphrodites.

Point being, there’s a wealth of diverse and fascinating history surrounding the ideas of gender, sexuality and male/female roles, to the extent that many legal restrictions now placed on non-heterosexual couples and individuals are faintly ridiculous. Throw in the question of child-rearing, and there’s a tendency to reach for the nearest pitchfork. Personally, I find¬†debating my views in this matter difficult, if only because debate is meaningless without a modicum of mutually accepted middleground, and where¬†my opponents object to homosexuality and transsexuality as an opening gambit, it’s well-nigh impossible to discuss the matter of non-heteros breeding, adopting and/or applying for surrogacy without both sides resorting to instant moral veto of the contrary position.

Still, it’s always worth trying, and the whole issue fascinates me. Socially, I marvel at where the next hundred years could take us, and cringe at how far we might also fall. But in the interim, I return to the question of brains in vats, and how, within the parameters of such a hypothetical, gender is determined. Is it innate, biological, genetic, spiritual, chosen consciously, chosen unconsciously, socially conditioned, random, nurtured, culturally selected; or can the glorious gamut of human existence countenance the possibility that these options simultaneouly coexist as true, contributing on an individual¬†basis, in individual ratios? Or is that too confronting a thought?