Posts Tagged ‘Imperialism’

I watched Disney’s Jungle Cruise last night. It’s my own fault; we wanted a family movie, and I was too lazy to heed the meh-to-critical reviews I’d glimpsed flitting by on social media. How bad can it be? I thought. After all, I’m a fan of trashy action. My expectations were low. Sure, it’s based on a Disney ride, but so was Pirates of the Caribbean, and even the sequels were mostly watchable. Why not try it?

With the benefit of a day’s hindsight, I can say with confidence that there are three things I liked about Jungle Cruise, and three things only:

  1. the startlingly incongruous but nonetheless excellent re-recording of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters;
  2. the fact that Jack Whitehall’s character, MacGregor Houghton, is canonically (and fairly unambiguously, even though they don’t actually use the goddamn word) gay; and
  3. the CGI leopard, Proxima.

Otherwise, Jungle Cruise is a bloated, nonsensical slog, attempting to sew together the various narrative beats of The Mummy (1999), Tomb Raider (2001) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) in a vain attempt at recapturing past magic while simultaneously managing to be more regressive than films made thirty years ago. The 127 minute runtime is a vivid red flag: if you cannot make Emily Blunt and the Rock doing jungle cruising fit a tight 90, or at the very least less than two hours, then you’re doing something fundamentally wrong.

The plot: In 1916, Englishwoman Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) drags her foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to the Amazon in search of the Tears of the Moon, a legendary flower said to be able to cure all diseases, but which was supposedly hidden away by the Puka Michuna tribe after a group of Spanish conquistadors tried and failed to steal it 400 years ago, and were cursed for their hubris. The Houghtons sign on to sail the river with Frank (Dwayne Johnson), a charming but untrustworthy jungle cruise captain, but are pursued by the avaricious German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who wants the Tears of the Moon for himself. (There’s also an entirely redundant subplot starring Paul Giamatti as Nilo Nemolato, the harbourmaster at Porto Velho, but we’ll get to that shortly.)

Structurally, Jungle Cruise is a mess: there are three different antagonists, multiple plot points either peter out into nothing or are never fully addressed, and the characterisation is woefully inconsistent, such that it has the distinctive feel of a frankenscript, cobbled together out of the butchered remains of various drafts without too much care as to how they fit together. Given that the film boasts three listed scriptwriters and four story credits for a total of five different writers, plus a whopping six producers, none of whom are also the director, I feel confident stating that, at the very least, there was no coherent overall vision, which sounds wanky as hell when talking about fucking Jungle Cruise, but it’s always grating to watch a bunch of mediocre dudes rake in millions of dollars for the kind of end product that wouldn’t merit a passing grade in a college-level scriptwriting class.

Take Paul Giamatti’s character, for instance. We’re introduced to Nemolato as someone to whom Frank owes money, such that Nemolato is trying to claim his boat in payment. Lily initially meets Frank when he’s broken into Nemolato’s office, mistaking him for Nemolato. Frank plays along to get the job, but is very quickly revealed as a fake. Then there’s a string of action sequences where Frank first fake-fights his pet leopard (though we don’t yet know she’s a pet) to make Lily choose him as captain, and then a big getting-onto-the-boat-while-being-chased bit, where Frank is chased by Nemolato and Lily is chased by agents of Prince Joachim, who then shows up in a submarine to have at them. They get away eventually, and then… Nemolato completely vanishes from the narrative, only cropping up briefly at the finale. We never learn why Frank owed him money and there’s no closure to any of it, rendering the entire subplot completely pointless.

Similarly, it’s never clear why Lily, an apparent doctor of botany, believes so fervently in the magical tale of the Tears of the Moon. We know that her father told her the stories when she was little, but not why they’ve continued to matter to her as an adult, or what scientific basis she has for thinking there’s truth in the legend about the conquistadors. This apparent tension between a woman of science obsessed with a fairytale is never so much as addressed, let alone resolved: we’re just meant to trust that Lily is right because she’s the protagonist, ignoring how her actions serve to undermine her apparent expertise. That MacGregor also makes a passing reference to their uncle being the one to try and disown him when he admitted to being gay, rather than their father, feels like a vestigial hint of backstory from an earlier draft that was subsequently altered; likewise the fact that the Royal Society is apparently happy taking money from the German Prince Joachim during the height of the war, without this evident treason ever being raised again, let alone brought to catharsis. We get multiple scenes of Lily and Frank filming each other with a black and white silent camera, whose recordings we see on screen, but this is never brought up again, either. Even the fact that Lily can’t swim, which is introduced early on in true Chekov’s Gun fashion, never goes anywhere meaningful – even though she eventually has to try, the conditions for Frank to effect a dramatic rescue are present independently, in that she ends up stuck in an underwater cage while operating an ancient mechanism to reveal the Tears of the Moon.

The mechanism itself, of course, also makes no narrative sense. We’re told early on about the existence of a Special Magical McGuffin Arrowhead that somehow unlocks the way to the Tears of the Moon, which Lily steals from the Royal Society during a daring escapade. When the history of the arrowhead is finally explained, we’re shown a magical sequence where a morally wounded tribal chief, with his dying breath, does something to hide the Tears forever – but when Lily and Frank come to find them, there’s a massive secret structure built to keep the thing safe. So what did the chief actually do, beyond hide the key? Who knows! It would only take a single line of dialogue to explain the apparent incongruity, but apparently, nobody could be bothered to include it. And then there’s the bit about how the jungle will reclaim the cursed conquistadors (who are mostly portrayed via CGI, as monstrous half-human creatures made of snakes and bees and other jungle-dwelling creatures) if they ever leave sight of the river… except they do leave the sight of the river, multiple times; it’s actually just that they can’t go too far. But how far is too far? Who knows! And what does reclaim mean, in this context? We’re shown the men being pulled back into the jungle by vines, but they end up trapped in stone for hundreds of years because they get tricked into a big hole where the jungle can’t bring them to the water, even though the hole is in the jungle, which… I guess means they were previously getting taken back to the river if they went too far from it? But the same magic that makes them into snake-and-bee people is apparently flummoxed by a hole? But if they get turned to stone, the Tears of the Moon can lift their curse somehow? Who knows!

It’s a mess, is what I’m getting at, and while I hardly went in expecting vivid historical accuracy, it’s a mess made worse by the fact nobody involved would appear to have any deeper knowledge of the places and period in which it’s set than could be gleaned by smoking a blunt and scrolling through Pinterest moodboards.The fact that we’ve got a cackling, villainous German prince in WWI is almost the least of these problems, though as was also the case with Wonder Woman (2017), I’m uncomfortable with Hollywood’s recent trend of retconning pre-1920s Germany into The Unambiguous Bad Guys, as though WWI was always meant as an opening gambit in the rise of fascism instead of a global clusterfuck. Neither is it explained how MacGregor has managed to avoid conscription; even a throwaway line about family connections or being a conchie would work, but instead we have him addressing the Royal Society on Lily’s behalf about how the Tears of the Moon could be used to cure soldiers at the front without anyone mentioning why he hasn’t been sent there himself.

At one point after being knocked out, MacGregor comes to mumbling wistfully, “I dreamed I was lunching at Boodles,” a line nobody could write if they’d taken two seconds to double-check what Boodles actually is: now as in 1916, it remains a high-end jewelry store, not a restaurant. It’s the same sort of careless error that gives an English toff a Scottish surname for a first name, presumably because the American writers think of Britain as a homogenous lump. (The fact that they accidentally chose a name with a particularly loaded history is, by contrast, merely funny. Probably they were just thinking of Ewan.) Similarly, a frustrating amount of fuss is made over Lily’s decision to wear pants – this is mildly understandable coming from Frank, who’s been in Brazil forever (though the repetition is still tiresome), but much less so from MacGregor, given that, in 1916, pants-wearing women were a vastly more commonplace sight than before the war, as civilian women took over traditionally male jobs and began to dress accordingly. It ought to be a minor point, but the film makes such a big deal of it in Lily’s case without ever mentioning the context that, for me, it came to be representative of larger failings: specifically, the decision to set a film in WWI while almost completely erasing anything of relevance to it. Even Prince Joachim cutting about Brazil in a submarine and wanting to be Kaiser forever is completely detached from the war effort: his character could be a pirate, a British nobleman or literally anyone else, and it wouldn’t impact the story in the slightest, except for making his ownership of a submarine just a hair less plausible.

Which is where we run up against the real reason why all these small anachronisms and incongruities really rankle: imperialism, and the various ways in which the film treats it as merely a colourful backdrop against which to set an uncritical, unresearched romp. Which, to be clear: I am very much in favour of romps, in general! The Mummy (1999) is one of my go-to trashy action comfort watches, and it is likewise set in the waning years of British imperialism, with Western characters seeking to uncover a magical artifact in another part of the world. But while, with my critical hat on, I can acknowledge the various ways in which The Mummy is flawed in its portrayals, in addition to having strengths in other areas, it also has a coherent sense of being set in the 1920s, acknowledging the wars which have shaped both the narrative context and, as such, the characters, even minor ones. Jungle Cruise, meanwhile, lacks this in spades: our introduction to Frank shows him giving an Amazon river tour to a boatload of wealthy British tourist families, adult men as well as women and children – I repeat, it is 1916, there is a fucking war on, the fact that Brazil remained neutral until 1917 by no means made travel there from England either safe or a common holiday destination – part of which involves an “attack” by an apparent “cannibal” tribe, the Puka Michuna, who are later revealed to be working for Frank to help sell the atmosphere during his tours.

It’s at this point that I need to deliver a spoiler, if you can fairly apply the term to a film like Jungle Cruise: after a certain amount of signposting, Frank is revealed to be Francisco Lopez de Heredia, one of the conquistadors who tried to steal the Tears of the Moon 400 years ago, but who broke with his fellows when they started attacking the Pika Michuna, preferring to defend the tribe who’d saved them from certain death. The curse has kept him alive ever since, and now he gives river tours.

At a crucial point in the film, the protagonists are “captured” by the Puka Michuna – a trick Frank had originally arranged to help scare Lily away, and which he wasn’t able to cancel once he realised she was carrying the Special Magical McGuffin Arrowhead. As part of the act, the Puka Michuna leader, Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón), demands that Lily give back the arrowhead, which is important to her tribe; but when her friendship with Frank is revealed, she’s happy for Lily to keep it, going so far as to translate it for her to help her continue her quest. That the arrowhead was only recently brought to London, where Lily stole it, is never mentioned; we don’t know how the Royal Society came into its possession, but the question of giving it back to the Puka Michuna is never raised. At one point, Trader Sam refers to the tribal outfits Frank has them wearing as “ridiculous costumes,” and there’s also a cringy scene where MacGregor teaches various tribespeople how to use his golf clubs, cuing the inevitable callback scene where one of said tribesman rescues him during a fight by hitting his assailant with one of them, proudly naming the club – “driver!” – as he does so.

And I just.

Both in attempting to fix the racism of their original Jungle Cruise ride and in the film’s portrayal of the Puka Michuna, Disney is clearing the lowest possible bar by not portraying its indingenous characters exclusively as savage, headhunting cannibals. As such, there’s a glimmer of an attempt at positive representation in having Trader Sam and the Puka Michuna turn out to be the good guys – and in fairness to Veronica Falcón, she does a great job with the little she’s given to work with. But hanging a lampshade on a trope is not the same as subverting it, and especially not when the apparent alternative to “savage headhunters” is “native tribe who calls their own traditional clothing ridiculous costumes, are cartoonishly awed by Western inventions, and happily hand over sacred sites and relics to Western adventurers.” The comments made here by writer Michael Green are particularly revealing. To quote the article:

“What we felt we could still play with is a lot of false preconceived notions,” Green says of the scene. “At the time when this film takes place, a lot of people coming from where those tourists were coming might think of those natives as backwards tribes. And we could instead be poking fun at people’s expectations of it.”

In other words, Green’s way of giving his indigenous characters “the dignity they deserve” is to completely detach them from their own culture: see, they’re no longer “backwards,” because they’re helping the white people! See how cute it is, that they liked the golf clubs? And look, now nobody’s making the white characters feel awkward about taking their sacred relics and invading their sacred sites, because they don’t care anymore! Now they’ve got a job working for a former conquistador playing parodies of themselves to ensure that white tourists keep thinking of them as savages, which they definitely aren’t, because they like white people now! Isn’t progress wonderful?

For fuck’s sake.

Which brings me back to the whole cursed conquistadors thing: once Frank’s secret is revealed, we get a flashback sequence where he narrates his past, explaining that the reason the lead conquistador, real historical figure Lope de Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) came searching for the Tears of the Moon in the first place was… to save his dying daughter. Coincidentally, it’s this scene that gets the rad Metallica redo of Nothing Else Matters playing in the background, which I guess is meant to subtly emphasize how Nothing Else Mattered To Aguirre But His Daughter, which is very much a Cool Motive, Still Murder moment, on account of how the Aguirre in the movie goes on to commit a massacre of the natives on her behalf, while the actual real historical Aguirre – you know, the dude someone associated with this film presumably Googled at least once, if only to spell his name right – was nicknamed the Wrath of God for his acts of cruelty and violence, which coincidentally included murdering his daughter, albeit so she wouldn’t suffer at the hands of his enemies when he was finally brought down.

Naturally, then, the wikipedia page for Jungle Cruise describes Aguirre’s mission as a “noble expedition,” which is a very fine and normal and not at all horrific way to describe the presence of any conquistador in South America, let alone one historically famed for his violence. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone edits it out in the future, but here’s a screencap showing that part of the current entry, just for posterity:

So, you know. Choices were made, there! Interesting narrative choices, to completely erase the context of what a conquistador was and why they spent so much time massacring the indigenous peoples of South America, while reframing a famously violent individual who murdered his daughter as just a doting dad who snapped. Truly inspiring stuff.

With all that being so, the final nail in the coffin is the film’s emotional continuity. By far the greatest offense on this count is Frank’s apparent desire to die: he wants the Tears of the Moon, we learn, because he wants to end the curse and pass on. Which ought to make sense for an apparent immortal, except for how it’s completely incongruous with every other aspect of his character the film has shown us up until that point. He loves his leopard, Proxima; he’s invested enough in his business to be fighting with Nemolato about money; he has friends and a burgeoning love interest in Lily; and he’s never shown as world-weary. Even once we get the reveal about his origins, there’s no regrets about his past life as a conquistador, not even in the movie-friendly terms of his betrayal of Aguirre, when he chose to defend the Puka Michuna against his friend. He just… suddenly wants to die, and it comes out of nowhere – and is also ultimately proven insincere: when Lily uses the Tears of the Moon to break the curse after he turns to stone (how does any of this work again? oh, forget it), he has no emotional response to having his wishes countermanded. Case closed.

And then there’s Lily herself, who, despite apparently being a doctor of botany, is never once shown to act within her field of competence, such that it ends up feeling like a wholly irrelevant detail. We get her naming a couple of flowers at one point in passing, but that’s it. All her motivation is tied to the myth rather than the science, but so much emphasis is placed on her initial desire to go through the Royal Society, to whom she even submitted a paper on the subject, that her motivations never make sense at all. When magical things start happening before her eyes, there’s no talk about her reconciling them with science, even though she’s surprised – the implication is that she was somehow expecting this, or something like it, all along. As such, I can’t help but compare her unfavourably to Evie Hammond of The Mummy (1999), played by Rachel Weisz. Unlike Lily, Evie’s field of competence as a librarian and student of ancient history and languages is acutely relevant, while her initial disbelief in magic and ghost stories is part of what drives the plot along, both literally and emotionally. But even though a great many beats from that film have been borrowed by Jungle Cruise – including the iconic introductory scene where Evie topples and sways on an unsupported ladder, here repurposed for Lily’s break-in and escape from the Royal Society – they’ve been copied soullessly, without any real understanding of what made them work the first time.

Which is perhaps why the chemistry between Lily and Frank is so sexless: they feel like two adversarial bros becoming friends, not developing lovers. Oh, there’s a great deal of angry banter and occasionally quippy back-and-forth, but it’s missing that certain essential something between the actors and in the dialogue to make it feel more than platonic. There’s some attempts at soft moments and meaningful conversations, but either they come off stilted or the directorial emphasis is elsewhere, as when Frank recounts his true history while narrating a flashback, which looks cool on screen but robs us of any emotional connection over the truth between him and Lily.

But you know who does have chemistry with Frank?

MacGregor.

When Lily and MacGregor first come aboard Frank’s boat, it’s MacGregor he has the heated yet oddly playful argument with about his excessive luggage, most of which gets tossed in the river (though not his booze, which Frank agrees can stay). Early on, we saw a boatload of tourists groan at Frank’s terrible puns; but then he tries one on MacGregor, who goes all soft and genuinely loves it – unlike Lily, who rolls her eyes. While Lily is off elsewhere, it’s MacGregor who has a quiet, confessional conversation with Frank about why he’d follow her “into a volcano” – because when he refused marriage to a woman and effectively told his family he would never marry, because his interests lay “elsewhere,” she was the one who stood by him.- In response to hearing MacGregor say he was shunned for “who I love,” Frank makes understanding eye contact, raises a glass and says, “to elsewhere.” It’s MacGregor, not Lily, who bonds with Proxima, Frank’s beloved leopard, and MacGregor who undergoes the most character development, starting out hesitant and unhappy, but progressing into enjoyment. To draw yet another comparison to The Mummy (1999), it’s MacGregor who most resembles Evie Hammond, though I suspect the writers meant to model him more on her rakish, reckless brother Jonathan, played by John Hannah. It’s just that, narratively, the opposite is true: it’s Jonathan and Lily who find the MacGuffins that kick off their respective adventures, with Evie and MacGregor the ones who follow along; Evie and MacGregor who get the requisite “makeover by the locals to look hot for the love interest” scene, as MacGregor steadily undresses in the heat and ends up with Puka Michuna tattoo ink on his face, which Frank, not Lily, grins and teases him about.

And given the lack of chemistry between Lily and Frank, when the moment came for Lily to risk her life’s work to save one man with MacGregor looking on… it was very hard not to think about an alternate reading, where the sister who defied the family to protect her queer brother was willing, once again, to take a risk for him, to save the man he loved. Instead of an ending where MOC Frank goes back to rigidly class-and-race-conscious England to live with Lily, we might’ve had an ending where MacGregor escaped his homophobic nation to keep exploring less judgemental parts of the world with his new Spanish boyfriend – but Disney would no more have made that movie than have reimagined Lily’s character as biracial and indigenous, on a quest to recover a relic of her mother’s people from the Royal Society with the aid of her highly-strung but well-meaning white half-brother, which would’ve been a vastly better story. So far (which isn’t very far at all), but no further: that’s the measure of Disney’s progress these days, and at times like this, it’s largely worthless.

Anyway! Jungle Cruise sucks, but even though Metallica still slaps, happily, you don’t have to watch the movie to listen to them. Cool CGI leopard, though.

For a while now, I’ve been hearing chatter about Seth Dickinson’s upcoming debut, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, due for release in September this year. Some of what I’ve heard has been extremely positive; some has been less so. Either way, I was intrigued enough to be interested, and today I finally read the first two chapters, which are currently available online at Tor.com.

My gut reaction thus far: creeping unease.

At a technical level, Dickinson writes extremely well. His prose is clean and sharp and compelling with a good sense of pace, and he has a knack for conveying great scope with few words. He’s also telling a story about queer people, people of colour, women, imperialism, politics and colonialism, which is always going to interest me at a visceral level, and as such, I was never bored.

However.

The thing about writing SFFnal stories is that, no matter how fantastic the setting or distant the future we might write, they’re still ultimately shaped by our very real, very human now: by our cultures, past and present, with all the attendant histories and contexts that entails. Sometimes, the connection is more obvious than others, as when we’re deliberately trying to evoke the shadow of ancient Rome or Renaissance Italy, but however we might invent, dissemble, hybridise, paraphrase or otherwise imagine new worlds, we’re not making anything out of whole cloth. Our fingerprints pattern the weave, reminding us of the reality we’re trying, however briefly, to escape, and whether we do it consciously or not, the process still occurs, as inevitable as sunrise.

Thus: when Dickinson writes about the Empire of Masks, with its paper money, bureaucratic service exam and sterile hatred of unhygienic behaviour, which here means homosexuality in all its permutations, what I think of is a cross between Imperial Britain and Imperial China, the language and bigotry of the former married to the institutions and scale of the latter. Adding to this impression, the denizens of Falcrest, home of this chimerical empire, are described as follows:

“This was the first impression Baru had of the Falcrest people: stubborn jaws, flat noses, deep folded eyes, their skin a paler shade of brown or copper or oat. At the time they hardly seemed so different.” 

Anglophone language and epicanthic folds: it’s not a subtle marriage, and in these two chapters, it feels like Dickinson has smashed imperial China and Britain together without much regard for the consequences of the fit. Which, ordinarily, might raise my eyebrow without stirring complaint – generally speaking, I’m a fan of cultural mashups, especially incongruous or startling ones. But here, given the prominent focus on homophobia and queer persecution, I can’t get past the real world implications; or, more specifically, the real world history.

Because beyond the horrific history between Britain and China, which frequently involves the former exploiting the latter, there’s the inescapable fact that Imperial China didn’t have anything even vaguely resembling the institutional homophobia Dickinson is describing, because in China – as in so many other parts of the world impacted by white colonialism – the sort of scientific, medicalised, systematic homophobia that situated being queer as an illness was a Western import. Nor is this a difficult fact to ascertain, as per the very first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on homosexuality in China:

“The existence of homosexuality in China has been well documented since ancient times. According to one study, homosexuality in China was regarded as a normal facet of life in China, prior to the Western impact of 1840 onwards. However, this has been disputed. Many early Chinese emperors are speculated to have had homosexual relationships, accompanied by heterosexual ones. Opposition to homosexuality, according to the study by Hinsch, did not become firmly established in China until the 19th and 20th centuries, through the Westernization efforts of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China. On the other hand, Gulik’s influential study argued that the Mongol Yuan dynasty introduced a more ascetic attitude to sexuality in general… Either way, it is indisputable that homosexual sex was banned in the People’s Republic of China from at least the twentieth century, until it was legalized in 1997.”

By comparison, the first British anti-sodomy law was the Buggery Act of 1533, which gave the crown the power to deal with an offence that had previously been handled exclusively by the Christian ecclesiastical courts. Consider this excerpt, for instance, from the Wikipedia article on homosexuality and psychiatry in a Western context:

“The view of homosexuality as a psychological disorder has been seen in literature since research on homosexuality first began. However, psychology as a discipline has evolved over the years in its position on homosexuality. Current attitudes have their roots in religious, legal and cultural underpinnings. In the early Middle Ages the Christian Church tolerated, or at least ignored homosexuality in secular cultures outside the Church. However, by the end of the 12th century hostility towards homosexuality began to emerge and spread through Europe’s secular and religious institutions. There were official expressions condemning the “unnatural” nature of homosexual behavior in the works of Thomas Aquinas and others. Unti the 19th century, homosexual activity was referred to as “unnatural, crimes against nature”, sodomy or buggery and was punishable by law, and even death. As people became more interested in discovering the causes of homosexuality, Medicine and Psychiatry began competing with the law and religion for jurisdiction. In the beginning of the 19th century, people began studying homosexuality scientifically. At this time, most theories regarded homosexuality as a disease, which had a great influence on how it was viewed culturally.”

With these two different narratives in mind, here’s the view of homosexuality held by Dickinson’s fictitious imperial Falcrest, as described in Chapter One:

“She went into the school, with her own uniform and her own bed in the crowded dormitory, and there in her first class on Scientific Society and Incrasticism she learned the words sodomite and tribadist and social crime and sanitary inheritance, and even the mantra of rule: order is preferable to disorder. There were rhymes and syllogisms to learn, the Qualms of revolutionary philosophy, readings from a child’s version of the Falcresti Handbook of Manumission.”

Clearly, then, this is type of homophobia is far more in the British mould than the Chinese. And thus my unease: because while Dickinson’s Masquerade, as his empire is externally known, is a fictional culture, what it evokes, in terms of real world comparisons, is a narrative wherein an undeniably white, colonial, homophobic agenda is being utilised by POC against other POC. Throw in the fact that, post-Western influence, modern China was, for a period, intensely homophobic – something the casual reader is more likely to know about than, say, the passion of the cut sleeve – and you have a narrative that, whether intentionally or not, subtly reinforces the stereotype of homophobia as a predominantly non-Western, non-white problem.

Further complicating matters is the planned trajectory of the titular protagonist – that is, of Baru Cormorant – as a woman from a formerly queer-friendly culture having to repress that part of her identity in order to rise through the Falcresti ranks, the better to one day change their ideology. To be clear: I have absolutely nothing against the idea of a story where a secret outsider strives to change a toxic system from within; that’s good stuff. The problem is that, by the end of Chapter Two, Baru – now eighteen – is set to leave her home island of Taranoke for life in the imperial service, having aged eleven years since the start of Chapter One. And while, as stated, Dickinson writes with great technical skill, for a story that’s being set up to portray Baru as the intended saviour of Taranoke culture, it’s troubling that we see her behaviour almost exclusively through the lens of Falcresti mores.

By which I mean: beyond its queer and polyamorous acceptance, we’re shown very little about Taranoke culture, and thus don’t have the proper sense of what Baru is setting out to avenge or protect beyond a deeply simplistic narrative of Homophobia Is Wrong. Baru’s time at the Falcresti school under the sponsorship of her patron, Cairdine Farrier, is the kind of thing I could easily read books about in its own right, but which in either case demands far more attention than two brief chapters can supply, no matter how well written they might be. Instead, we see far more of Baru’s acceptance of Falcresti logic than we do comparisons or conflicts with what she was taught before then; even the other students seem to have accepted the colonial mandate that the families and family structures they’ve known all their lives are wrong, as per this section in Chapter Two:

“Children began to vanish from the school, sent back out onto the island, into the plague. “Their behaviour was not hygienic,” the teachers said. Social conditions, the students whispered. He was found playing the game of fathers –

The teachers watched them coldly as their puberty came, waiting for unhygienic behaviour to manifest itself. Baru saw why Cairdine Farrier had advised her on her friendships. Some of the students collaborated in the surveillance.”

This level of indoctrination and complicity, presented in the absence of any compelling reason as to why the Taranoke students are so quick to abandon their own culture, is utterly jarring. We don’t get a sense of fear or coercion or other social changes beyond the plague and its impact; the children are seemingly cut off from their parents and families long before then, and it’s all glossed so quickly that what should be a nuanced explanation of cultural change and colonialism – but which is still the apparent heart of the novel, given that Baru is meant to be motivated by her time here to come back and fix everything – is instead rendered in brief, like an unimportant aside before the real story starts.

As a queer reader, the portrait Dickinson paints of Falcresti homophobia is genuinely unsettling, which is why the commensurate lack of attention paid to Taranoke customs feels like such an imbalance. Two chapters in, and all we know of queerness so far is that people suffer for it: Baru loses one of her fathers to the invaders, her cousin is threatened with molestation under the guise of corrective rape, Taranoke is colonised, and Baru’s two external allies both abandon her when they learn what she did to try and protect her cousin.

It’s queer tragedy porn in a fantasy context, and from what I’ve been told about how the book ends, that never really changes; arguably gets worse, in fact. And while I applaud Seth Dickinson for wanting to tell a story about how Homophobia Is Bad, complete with a cast of characters who are queer and female and POC, I can’t applaud his apparent decision to do so by making said characters suffer unbearably because of their orientation, the better to let the audience know that Homophobia Is Wrong.

The problem, then, is that The Traitor Baru Cormorant comes across as being a novel about queer oppression that is – whether intentionally or not – written for a straight audience: that is, for people who can find novelty and drama in stories about unrelenting queer oppression because they’ve never personally experienced it, whereas those of us who have just want, by and large, to read about queer people being people, preferably complex ones who get their fair share of happy endings rather than the traditional tragedy.

So, yeah. I’ll reserve full judgement for when (and if) I make it through the rest of the book, but right now, it doesn’t bode well.

Trigger warning: appalling racism.

There are many kinds of anger.

There is anger at inanimate objects – sleeves getting caught on doorknobs, iPod headphones yanked from ears when the cord snagged unexpectedly. There is anger at circumstance – the ugly day full of mundane evils, the barked shin, the forgotten bill. There is anger at people – the friend who lies, the partner who cheats, the executive who cancels your favourite show. There is anger at power abused – the endless parade of politicians so corrupt that it makes you lose faith in society, the faceless voice from the bank that smugly ups your mortgage. There is anger at personal affront – the stranger who gropes you on the bus, the condescending boss who treats you like dirt.

And there is white-hot anger, so fierce you become the eye within the maelstrom of your own rage, calm as your pulse exceeds the beats of a marathon runner, calm as your fingers grasp and clench, calm as you grip your aggressor’s throat and squeeze.

This last I feel for Theodore Beale.

***

Recently, I blogged about sexism in the SFWA Bulletin. I wrote that piece as a self-declared comic rant, the tone inspired by anger at men who ultimately meant well, however offensive and outdated their efforts at showing it. I received a lot of support for having done so; but of course, there was a flipside. My anger, said some, was unseemly and unprofessional. My arguments were poorly reasoned. I was preaching to the choir. I was the gendered pejorative of choice. But the thing is, I can shrug that off. I deal out enough criticism that I expect to receive my share in return, and whatever form that pushback takes, it very rarely shocks me. By the standards of women on the internet, in fact, I’m pretty lucky. I’ve received a minimum of rape threats, I rarely get called a cunt, and if some of my detractors are uncivil, then I can usually dish it out in return. I was bullied, harassed, attacked and assaulted enough at school for being forthright, female and unfeminine that written threats just don’t chill me the way they used to. (They still chill me, of course. And I didn’t suffer nearly as much as others. Nonetheless, the comparison stands – and no, this isn’t an invitation to try harder.)

The point being, I have privilege, and that privilege protects me. I’m a middle-class, well-educated, straight white ciswoman with a functional, middle-class white family, and however much the misogyny gets to me at times, I can draw on that privilege – on that firmly entrenched sense of self-worth and the emotional, social and financial safety net which supports it – and fight back. I belong to the second most privileged group of people on the planet, and whatever abuse I still suffer regardless of that, I have the cultural status to counter it and be heard. As an individual, therefore, I’m hard to oppress. I have privilege. I have resilience. I have opinions.

And I have anger.

***

Don’t feed the trolls.

Don’t read the comments.

Don’t engage. You’ll only encourage them.

Don’t retaliate. It gives them publicity.

Just ignore them. They’ll go away.

Why bother? This argument never ends.

These comments enrage me as threats against my person don’t and can’t. These comments are apathy. They are exhaustion. They are a concession to the idea that some fights are too big to win, some problems too entrenched to fix, some evils too petty to countermand. I understand them, yes. Some days, I even feel them. But I do not believe them. However drained this interminable process of arguing for my rights and the rights of others leaves me feeling, I am yet to cede the ground. One day, perhaps, though I hope not.

But not yet.

***

Last week, author N. K. Jemisin delivered her Guest of Honour speech at Continuum in Melbourne. It’s a powerful, painful, brilliant piece about racism in SFF, and racism elsewhere; about the barbaric treatment suffered by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, my home, at the hands of white invaders, politicians, and most of the rest of the populace for the past two hundred-odd years. It’s also a call for Reconciliation within the SFF community: capital R, much like the Reconciliation our government has so belatedly and underwhelmingly – yet so significantly – attempted to make itself. She wrote in response to not only the recent strife within SFWA, but all the endless scandals of racefail and sexism and appropriation which have preceded it within reach of our collective memory; a memory she rightly names as short.

And as a result, Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day – a man whose man affronts to humanity, equality and just about every person on Earth who isn’t a straight white American cismale are so well documented as to defy the utility of cataloguing them here, when all you need do is Google him – has responded to Jemisin with a racist screed so vile and unconscionable that the only surprise is that even he, a man with no apparent shame, felt comfortable putting his name to it.

“Let me be perfectly clear,” he says (my emphasis):

“Jemisin has it wrong; it is not that I, and others, do not view her as human, (although genetic science presently suggests that we are not equally homo sapiens sapiens), it is that we do not view her as being fully civilized for the obvious reason that she is not.

She is lying about the laws in Texas and Florida too. The laws are not there to let whites “just shoot people like me, without consequence, as long as they feel threatened by my presence”, those self defence laws have been put in place to let whites defend themselves by shooting people, like her, who are savages in attacking white people.

Jemisin’s disregard for the truth is no different than the average Chicago gangbanger’s disregard for the law…

Unlike the white males she excoriates, there is no evidence that a society of NK Jemisins is capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support. Considering that it took my English and German ancestors more than one thousand years to become fully civilised  after their first contact with an advanced civilisation, it is illogical to imagine, let alone insist, that Africans have somehow managed to do so in less than half the time with even less direct contact. These things take time.

Being an educated, but ignorant savage, with no more understanding of what it took to build a new literature by “a bunch of beardy old middle-class middle-American guys” than an illiterate Igbotu tribesman has of how to build a jet engine, Jemisin clearly does not understand that her dishonest call for “reconciliation” and even more diversity with SF/F is tantamount to a call for its decline into irrelevance…

Reconciliation is not possible between the realistic and the delusional.

I feel poisoned even typing that. Sickened. Trembling. I cannot even imagine how Jemisin feels. Nor am I attempting to speak for her. She is, without a doubt, one of the most brilliant women – one of the most brilliant people and writers, period – active in SFF today, and my voice in this matter is not a replacement for hers.

I am speaking because it would be a crime against conscience not to.

I am speaking because a world where men like Theodore Beale are left to speak unchallenged by the weariness of their opponents is not a world I want to live  in.

I am speaking because my privilege affords me a chance to be heard.

And I am speaking because of the bodily disgust, the rage and hatred and putrescence I feel for members of my own race, both now and throughout history, who speak of savages and lesser beings, of civilisation and the right to kill those outside or perceived to be incapable of it; who speak, as Beale does, as though people of colour are a genetically different, inferior species of human when compared to his Aryan ancestors.

This is my Reconciliation.

***

Theodore Beale is the bodily personification of everything that is wrong and rotten in SFF; everything that is hateful in society. He talks both of and to an accomplished, amazing, award-winning writer as though she were a child too ignorant and uncivilised to merit a response to her argument that makes no reference to her race; because, in fact, her race is the thing he really wants to rebuke. Too stupid. Too savage. Too black. Too African. His argument is repulsive, vile and violently racist on every possible level. He talks of laws that have legitimised the shooting of an escort who refused to engage in illegal prostitution with a client, laws that actively enforce one rule for whites and another for people of colour, as though the sexist and racist implications of both are not only morally justified, but intended by their creators – which, of course, they overwhelmingly are. It’s just that, more often than not, their proponents try to keep a lid on this fact, the better to fool the rest of us into thinking that racism no longer holds sway. (It does.)

If Theodore Beale isn’t cast out of the SFWA immediately, then that organisation is worth nothing.

If Black Gate continues to give Theodore Beale a platform, then that publication is worth nothing.

This isn’t just about Jemisin. It’s not even wholly about the fact that Beale has gone on record making excruciatingly racist comments; comments which are just the latest in a long and execrable history, and which he has publicly attached to the SFWA as an organisation by promoting them through its official Twitter feed.

It’s that Beale’s remarks aren’t just racist; they’re imperialist tracts straight out of the same 19th century playbook as phrenological proof of African inferiority and the White Man’s Burden, spiced up with the 20th century logic of the Ubermensch and bigotry couched as genetics. In a year when the fascist, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece has literally been rounding up “undesireables” like sex workers, trans* individuals, immigrants and the homeless and putting them into camps, any aggression that draws its strength from the none-too-tacit endorsement of colonial racism and racial purity is not only horrifically bigoted, but actively dangerous.  This is racism pulled from the very root of what racism means, unfiltered by any pretence at equitable discourse. Theodore Beale has gone straight to the arguments originally made in support of black slavery, and he has found them good.

As members of the SFF community, there is only one acceptable response to Beale, and that is to shun him utterly; to excise him from our genre like the cancer that he is, from convention to blog to column, and to enforce that ban as thoroughly and determinedly as we are able.

Because if we don’t, our Reconciliation will mean nothing.

We will mean nothing.