Posts Tagged ‘Pregnancy’

It’s strange how the simplest chain of events can lead to an epiphany.

For instance: while reading this post over at gaming webcomic The Trenches yesterday evening, I clicked on a link to an eight-year-old blog post written by someone using the handle EA_Spouse. Finding the post to be extremely well-written and curious about the woman behind it, I did a quick Google search and learned that her real name was Erin Hoffman, that she was a game developer and – as of  2011 – a published fantasy author. Naturally, I looked up her work on Goodreads, where the synopsis of her first novel, Sword of Fire and Sea, piqued my interest enough that I headed straight over to Amazon and downloaded a sample chapter. Though it didn’t take long to read, I found myself so caught up in the story that, rather than relegate the book to my Wish List,  I bought the whole thing on Kindle outright. It was already late, but even so, I kept right on reading until 3am – which is when the epiphany struck.

Because as much as I was enjoying the book, a part of me was confused by my enthusiasm for it. Of all possible stories, why did this one appeal so strongly? To contextualise the personal significance of that question, it’s perhaps necessary to explain that I am, at present, nearly eight months pregnant with my first child, which state has played merry hob with my attention span and energy levels ever since the first trimester. Writing – and particularly creative writing, as opposed to blogging and essays – has proven increasingly difficult, but so too has reading: despite my best intentions, I keep drifting away from stories, unable to achieve my usual, crucial state of early immersion. Most likely, there’s a biological reason for this, or a combination of them – altered hormones, increased exhaustion, all the usual culprits – but it also seems to be an issue of increased sensitivity. By which I mean: while pregnancy hasn’t magically changed my personality, it’s definitely sparked a loss of patience, resulting in what I’ve taken to referring to as a drastically decreased tolerance for bullshit. Things that would irk me ordinarily are amplified in their irksomeness, and being aware of the dissonance hasn’t stopped it from influencing my decisions.

All of which is a way of saying that, when it comes to bugbears and errors in narrative, I’m currently much less inclined than usual to forgive, ignore or otherwise exempt them. Instead, they achieve a new emphasis which, when combined with my decreased attention span, leaves me much more likely than usual to abandon the book altogether. Or maybe being pregnant has nothing to do with it; maybe I’m just evolving as a reader, and this particular evolution has simply manifested at a time when the particular vulnerabilities and stereotypes of pregnancy have left me open to endlessly second-guessing myself, as though my thoughts and opinions have necessarily become suspect by virtue of being generated in proximity to a fetus. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see, though even if my current impatience does wear off, that shouldn’t render all decisions touched by it invalid. The point being: why, when I’ve spent months giving up on novel after novel, should Sword of Fire and Sea prove so dramatically exceptional? At the risk of damning with faint praise (which I don’t want to do, as I’m genuinely enjoying the book), it’s not a breathtaking, original masterpiece. Though fluidly written, neatly characterised and solidly worldbuilt, both setting and plot are nonetheless comprised of familiar, if not borderline generic fantasy elements – not an inherently negative quality, but one still relevant to analysis. On the technical side of things, the characters smile too often, the romantic acceleration feels both overly rapid and oversimplified, and at times, the prose verges on purple, as per Hoffman’s unique habit of describing the sound and timbre of voices using food and nature-heavy metaphors. At base, though, Sword is a solid, well-paced adventure with strong RPG-esque roots (unsurprising, given the author’s professional background) – not gamechanging, but respectable and, for my money, quite good fun. (I especially like the gryphons.)

And so the niggling question remained: if I really am hypersensitive to narrative flaws, then what makes Sword exempt? And that’s when I realised: I haven’t been taking issue with all flaws, universally, but rather with a particular subset of flaws whose presence in SFF narratives is so ubiquitous that, up until last night, I hadn’t rightly distinguished them as belonging to a separate category. Further complicating matters, my decreased attention span has been skewing the data: some books I’ve been setting aside, not because I dislike them, but because their complexity and depth requires more cognitive energy than I can currently muster.  But once I removed them from the equation and focused solely on books which, regardless of whether I’d finished them or not, had all bothered me in similar ways – novels which, overwhelmingly, could be fairly categorised as light or easy reading – the similarity of their flaws was obvious: All were stories whose treatment of gender, race and/or sexual orientation had rubbed me the wrong way, most usually through the use of unhelpful stereotypes and problematic language, but occasionally exacerbated by poor or inconsistent worldbuilding. And once I made that connection, I realised my current tendency towards sharper criticism and decreased patience was part of a trend whose origins demonstrably predated my pregnancy; and yet being pregnant was still a relevant factor, in that my lack of energy had prompted me to look for more lighter, easier books than normal – exactly the sort of material that was proving so problematic. Which meant that Sword stood out to me, not because it’s thematically original, but because it’s a fun, straightforward adventure fantasy that doesn’t demean its female characters.

Which isn’t to say there’s a dearth of amazing, thought-provoking, gender-positive (or race-positive, or sex-positive) fantasy available for consumption. Certainly, there’s less of it than the alternative, if only by dint of historical volume; but even so, there’s definitely been a recent surge of awesome into the market. But simply by virtue of being in a minority, such works are overwhelmingly (and rightly) conscious of their status as counteragents. As many recent arguments have shown, there’s a demonstrable schism in SFF between those who view the racial, social and sexual homogeneity of the classics as being integral to the genre, and those who argue actively for the importance of diversity and the respectful representation of a wider range of cultures, characters and settings; and though the latter argument has considerable traction, the former still tends to represent the base fantastic default. As a result, while both positions are fundamentally representative of different political stances, members of the former camp tend to think this is only true of their opponents: by their definition, the traditional position must also be an inherently neutral one. According to this logic, then, politics cannot be subconsciously enforced through narrative: if no political judgement was intended, then none can be rightly taken. By contrast, actively seeking to incorporate one’s politics into one’s writing is unambiguously a political act – and therefore the antithesis of neutrality. And as the default is deemed to be neutral rather than equally political, then consciously political writers aren’t seen to be redressing a narrative imbalance, but rather needlessly seeking to create one.

That being so, the concept of light or easy reading is suddenly cast in a whole new perspective. If, not unreasonably, we classify such light novels as being stories which exist primarily to entertain, and whose base construction and principles are deemed to be uncontroversial when measured against the genre’s traditional values – stories which, by implication and intention, should be fun and easy to read – then what we’re also saying is that, in an overwhelming number of instances, such light stories are also traditional stories. Because if we accept that political SFF novels are written, not just to entertain, but to subvert both our real world expectations and the traditions of genre, then to a certain extent – or at least, to a certain readership – they cannot possibly qualify as light, because the act of being consciously political disqualifies them. By dint of striving to change or challenge our assumptions, such stories actively encourage introspection in ways that, quite arguably, light books don’t. Which isn’t to say that traditional novels can’t be complex or introspective – clearly, many of them are. But the whole point of default narrative settings – of elements which, by virtue of their traditional weight, can exist in a story unchallenged – is that the audience isn’t meant to question them. Instead, we’re simply meant to be carried along by the novel, engaging in a purely escapist or entertaining narrative – and as a process, that state of passive, unintrospective enjoyment is exactly what light stories are  meant to invoke.

This, then, is my epiphany: that all too often, describing an SFF novel as easy reading is functionally synonymous with describing it as traditional, in the very specific sense that, by definition, easy novels are neither subversive nor politically difficult. Which is why my current search for easy reading has resulted in so many failures and a significant loss of tolerance: because invariably, the light books I’ve picked up have been written in the belief that certain of their default settings, which I find to be both irksome and problematic, are inherently and inoffensively neutral. And because I disagree, it’s impossible to be passively carried along by the story: instead, I wind up reading actively, angrily, in a way that the author doubtless never intended. Under those circumstances, trying to find a light novel to read has proved virtually impossible. By definition, stories which don’t employ the traditional defaults tend overwhelmingly to be challenging and complex, while novels which do are either intentionally cerebral or unintentionally aggravating.

And that, to cut a long story short, is why Sword of Fire and Sea so particularly caught my interest: because it manages to be that rare creature, an SFF read that neither exemplifies the traditional defaults nor strives for political significance beyond the simple fact of this divergence. It is, quite simply (and yet not so simply at all) an adventure story that neither demeans its female characters nor makes a narrative point about not having done so – a light, easy read that nonetheless isn’t traditional. And right now, that feels like the most refreshing thing in the world.

Advertisements

“I see that some of you are sitting with your legs crossed?” says the midwife – or asks, rather. Her inflection makes it a question. She scans the early pregnancy briefing’s female attendees – most of whom, indeed, have one knee resting on the other. A brief pause; then she smiles and shakes her head, a combination that positively radiates smug condescension. “Not when you’re pregnant,” she chides. “It could hurt your lower back.”

Just for a moment, the implied praise leaves me feeling superior: after all, I’m not sitting with my legs crossed, which surely means I win points of some sort. Then I come to my senses. I’m sitting that way by accident, not design, and anyway, I’m starting to feel suspicious of all this well-meaning but restrictive advice. Around me, the whole room rustles as twenty-odd women guiltily rearrange their limbs. We’re like children who’ve been told to sit up straight by the teacher: nobody wants to be seen as transgressive; everyone needs to look keen to learn. Yet what harm, really, could sitting with crossed legs do? Certainly, it won’t hurt our as-yet-too-premature-to-be-called-babies, and at absolute most, it’ll cause us a bit of discomfort – and admittedly, that’s a reasonable thing to want to bear in mind. But there’s a world of difference between telling us of a potential minor consequence and outright mandating that we never take the risk in the first place: the former is enlightening, while the latter is frankly censorious.

“Why take the risk?” is a phrase that crops up a lot with regard to pregnancy. Sure, there’s no proof that a glass of wine now and then could harm your baby, but why take the risk? In all probability, resting a laptop on your stomach won’t overheat your womb to the point of miscarriage, but why take the risk? It’s a question I’ve quickly learned to loathe for the pure and simple reason that it reeks of obsessive protectionism. Why risk cycling, or eating a few extra donuts when you crave them? Why risk jaywalking when you might get hit by a car? Why risk the odd cup of coffee with all the problems caffeine could cause?

Actually, though, caffeine intake can be a legitimate concern for pregnant women, as it’s been reported that a high caffeine intake can double your risk of miscarriage – but of course, that’s a meaningless statement unless you know what your risk of miscarriage actually is to begin with. And this can be an extremely difficult thing to pin down: reportedly, 30% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage – that’s one in three – but the statistic lowers to between 15% and 20% in instances where the pregnancy is confirmed. Or, to put it another way: the longer a pregnancy goes on, the lower the rate of miscarriage, meaning that the 10-15% difference can be accounted for by failed implantations – miscarriages that happen so staggeringly early in the process that the pregnancy itself was likely undetectable and which, rather than being dramatic events, are virtually indistinguishable from a woman’s normal period. That’s still a generic statistic, however – the presence of particular medical conditions or genetic histories puts some women at a higher than average risk of miscarriage, which in turn makes the overall statistic higher for everyone, regardless of their actual individual risk.

So what does that mean for your caffeine intake?

Ideally, it should imply the exercising of common sense on a case by case basis: your normal coffee intake is probably fine, but guzzling energy drinks likely isn’t (unless you’re not thrilled about being pregnant to begin with; in which case, there are myriad relevant organisations available to help) – but if you’re at a high risk of miscarriage and wanting to be super-careful, then it might be worth considering a no-caffeine policy for the duration of your pregnancy; or for the first trimester; or maybe not at all, if you’re already stressed and depressed and abstaining from a dozen other favourite things; or even if you just really, really need your morning latte. What I’m getting at is this: while it might seem more efficient in the short-term to condense all of the above into a simple, one-line bullet point about how caffeine can make you miscarry, the long-term consequence isn’t to inform pregnant women about their options, but to make us fearful of error. The devil is in the details – or in this case, the relevance. An occasional Coke won’t kill me, and I refuse to feel guilty about it.

Similarly, I’ve grown weary of being told that I can’t eat soft cheeses for fear of getting a listeriosis infection, which – yes – could cause pregnancy complications or even bring about miscarriage, but which is monumentally unlikely given how rare listeriosis actually is. It’s worth taking the time to unpack this one, given the vigour with which it’s assumed to be a true and, as a consequence, socially policed: while pregnant women are 20 times more likely to develop listeriosis than the rest of the population, the number of listeriosis cases reported for all of 2004 in the USA – including infections suffered by pregnant women, which make up 27% of all reported cases – was 753, at a rate of only 2-3 per million people. Which makes it a legitimately rare condition, even accounting for the extra vulnerability brought on by pregnancy – a vulnerability which isn’t even specific to listeriosis, by the way, but which is rather a consequence of having an overall weaker immune system, meaning that any old bacteria can cause more issues than usual. And while it’s true that listeriosis can have particularly nasty consequences for unborn babies (infected mothers aren’t at anywhere near the same risk, and in fact tend to experience only flu-like symptoms) the point is that you’d have to be spectacularly unlucky to contract it in the first place. Not a risk-taker, not irresponsible or foolhardy: unlucky. Listeriosis is a contaminant bacteria; outbreaks of it are tracked to the source, monitored, reported and contained the same way a sudden spread of E. coli would be. You’re not going to get it from a commercially well-known product.

The same sort of bad reputation applies to sushi and sashimi, too:  while common wisdom assumes that raw fish is necessarily full of undesirable elements that could hurt a growing baby, the fact is that eating fish, whether raw or cooked, is actually extremely good during pregnancy. Sure, improperly frozen sashimi might contain parasitic worms, but that’s no more risk than you’d usually be taking, and the consequences are no more dire for pregnant women than they would be otherwise – and the same goes for eating other types of raw seafood. The only possible issue is with fish that has a high mercury content, like flake and tuna, and even then, the recommendation is to limit your servings, not avoid it entirely.

And yet we’re told to avoid it all – no cheese, no salmon, no unpasteurized yogurt, no alcohol, no barbecued meats (they might be undercooked and could therefore lead to a toxoplasmosis infection, which, as with listeriosis, is both bad for the baby and exceedingly rare); my sister-in-law was even told to avoid eating salad if she hadn’t seen it prepared herself, in case the ingredients were somehow contaminated – because why take the risk? Here’s why: because I’m an actual human being, not a womb with legs, and because maybe – just maybe! – the enjoyment I derive from eating a really nice wedge of blue cheese outweighs your need to make me afraid of rare bacteria and conditions which, if cited by any other member of the population as a reason for abstaining from the vast majority of delicious foods would have you peg them instantly as a paranoid hypochondriac. Never mind that once you eliminate meat, seafood, salads and a big whack of dairy, you’re pretty much left with carbohydrates, fats and sugars – that is to say, food which is high on energy but frequently low in nutritional value, and which all and sundry will judge you for eating too much of as vehemently as they’d judge you for eating Stilton (either because you’re seen to be putting on too much weight or because they assume you’re growing a child on nothing but cake and donuts and are therefore an irresponsible, undeserving mother – I mean, is it really so hard to ask that pregnant women all look a uniform size 8 except for the perfect beachball belly on front while subsisting entirely on hummus and carrot sticks? God.).

And this is what makes me angry: that facts which have been edited to the point of fearmongering are not only passed on to pregnant women as inviolate gospel, but lent weight as such by dint of being delivered in the same breath as legitimately useful, unambiguous and instantly applicable information, such as the fact that taking folic acid supplements both prior to conception and in early pregnancy can severely reduce the likelihood of a child developing neural tube defects, or that because the pregnancy hormones relaxin and oxytocin have set about making your joints looser, it’s much easier to tear or sprain your muscles during high-impact exercise. Not every piece of data can be safely converted into a soundbite; nor should it be.

But the reality is that, in this modern, oh-so-litigous society of ours, both doctors and manufacturers alike are terrified of being sued, either for failing to adequately warn their patients about possible risks or for producing a foodstuff which, for whatever reason, might cause that unfortunate one-in-a-million person to miscarry. Last month, for instance, I was at something of a low ebb, plagued not only by first-trimester nausea and the throbbing pain of an as-yet-unremoved wisdom tooth, but a horrific phlegmy cold foisted on me by my husband, the walking disease vector. (Seriously: the man cannot travel more than ten kilometers without catching something.) Almost in tears of pain due to my sore throat, I momentarily forgot the (again, sensible but occasionally misleading) pregnancy injunction on taking any medication that isn’t paracetamol and started gulping down Honey & Lemon Strepsils. It wasn’t until the next day, by which point I’d had about eight of them, that I noticed the warning on the packet saying they weren’t for pregnant women. Utterly panicked, I rang my GP to find out what damage I’d done – only to be told that, in actual fact, there was no danger at all; that the label was essentially a precaution on the offchance a pregnant woman did one day suffer some ill-effects. A legal safeguard, not an actual warning. I hung up the phone feeling drained and cross – but even so, I stopped taking the Strepsils, just in case.

In any number of ways, pregnancy makes you more vulnerable than usual. Physically, emotionally and chemically – to say nothing of all the other offshoot stresses that spring up around the process – your body is doing strange, frequently unprecedented things, many of which can be painful or unsettling. You are anxious. You are elated.You are busy. You are exhausted, short-tempered and probably about eighty thousand other emotions, at least seventy thousand of which you’re bound to obliviously inflict on your undeserving nearest and dearest because your self-awareness mechanisms are haywire, too. You are, in other words, extremely vulnerable to fear and manipulation, particularly as regards your child-to-be: fear about their development, fear of hurting them, fear of making a mistake. And in that context, giving pregnant women abbreviated, twisted information – however much easier a summary sheet might be to produce and distribute than an in-depth analysis – will inevitably contribute to their fears; and that’s really not good, either.

So: let’s all do our best to flesh out incomplete data where and when we find it, shall we? And in the mean time, I can get back to stuffing my face with camembert and donuts.

(And for those who are curious: yes. I may be a little bit pregnant.)

Warning: all the spoilers.

Trigger warning: some rape and pregnancy squick.

Earlier today, the husband and I went to see Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, after which we watched Alien, which I’d actually never seen before. I’m extremely glad I did, because if nothing else, it offers a whole new perspective on Prometheus, viz: that the latter is actually a reboot of the former. The visual, narrative, structural and thematic similarities between the two are such that, when coupled with Prometheus’s ending, it’s an extremely difficult thesis to ignore; at the very least, Scott is borrowing heavily from his original, and while I’ve not yet seen anyone else make the comparison, if you watch the two films back to back, the relationship between them is undeniable.

But first: Prometheus itself. Considered in isolation, it’s surprisingly hard to categorise with any degree of accuracy. Though ostensibly SF/horror, the tone and pacing are much more philosophical, concerned primarily with abstract questions of identity, genesis, belief and kinship. At the same time, though, the bulk of the characterisation is thin, if not actively dependent on stereotype, which causes a weird, occasionally mesmerising disconnect between the actions of the protagonists and the narrative arc. Having discovered archaeological evidence that the same images of giants, together with the accurate depiction of a distant star system, have appeared in geographically and temporally different cultures throughout history, scientific couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) set out aboard the Prometheus in search of an alien race they call the Engineers, who Shaw in particular believes created humanity. However, the ship itself has been financed by dying industrialist Peter Wayland (a heavily made-up Guy Pearce) at the expense of his company, Wayland Enterprises, and is nominally under the command of captain Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an icy professional who doesn’t believe in Shaw and Holloway’s theories. Also on board, apart from sympathetic pilot Janek (Idris Elba) and a handful of interchangeable engineers and scientists, is David (Michael Fassbender), an enigmatic robot in the employ of Wayland. Fassbender’s performance is perfect: we’re never quite sure about the extent to which David’s personal motives (which he claims to lack) overlap and intersect with his programmed directives. He’s quiet, polite and inhuman, but with an implied depth of insight and evident sense of wonder that balance eerily with his detached courtesy. It’s David and Shaw whose experiences and interactions form the real basis for the film, and one that makes for an interesting mix of themes.

If you’ve seen any other films set in the Alien universe, then I don’t really need to tell you how the plot progresses: mysterious ruins are discovered, the party splits up, infection/infestation occurs, people die, fire is employed in defense of humanity, corporate greed forces the crew to stay when any sane person would flee, the female lead gets forcibly impregnated by an alien monstrosity with an accelerated growth rate, a big alien boss with a grudge against humanity is revealed, everyone bar the female lead and the robot dies, and the alien threat is averted (for now) in a climactic final battle; the film ends with Shaw flying away in an alien craft piloted by David’s dismembered (but still functional) head. None of which was new or surprising, but all of which was entertaining to watch: the 3D used in Prometheus is superb, the soundtrack is gorgeous, the visuals compelling, and the overall story something I’m glad to have watched. As an action movie, it isn’t half bad (though it does lag briefly in the middle).

The real heart of the film, however, is in the contrast between Shaw’s quest for the creators of humanity and David’s strange relationship with his human creators. My favourite moment comes when Holloway, drunk and dispirited after having discovered that all the Engineers are dead (or so he thinks), laments his inability to ask them the big question: why did they make humanity? To which David, deadpan and quiet, asks why Holloway thinks humanity decided to build robots. “Because we can,” says Holloway, as though this is the most obvious thing in the world – but when David asks if Holloway would be content to receive such an answer from humanity’s creators, Holloway just snorts and rolls his eyes, as if to say, But that would never happen to us . We’re different, and you’re just a robot. The arrogance of Holloway’s disconnect is staggering, such that we feel real sympathy for David; but when, moments later, the robot deliberately contaminates Holloway’s drink with an alien biological sample – not maliciously, but as part of a calculated plot to try and find a cure for his dying master – our sense of his humanity is instantly eroded. Shaw, meanwhile, is caught in a constant balancing act between her faith in God and her scientific belief that the Engineers created humankind. When questioned about the contradiction – shouldn’t she take off her cross, Holloway asks, now that she has proof the Engineers seeded Earth? – Shaw smiles and answers, “But who made them?” Confronted later by the growing evidence that the Engineers weren’t as benign a force as she’d imagined, Shaw retreats into her faith, only to have it tested in other, more horrible ways. And yet she survives with both her faith and her hunger for answers in tact, flying off into the unknown with only the remnants of a created being to keep her company on her quest to understand why humanity’s creators turned against them.

Despite this solid and compelling philosophical core, however, the rest of the characterisation is disappointingly lackluster. Vickers is little more than a cold, blonde ice maiden; Wayland is the archetypal dying industrialist looking to prolong his life; Janek is the loyal captain; the other crew members – Fifield, Millburn, Ford, Chance and Ravel – are by turns anonymous and textbook; even Holloway, for all his greater significance, is strangely generic – supportive and loving to Shaw and a believer in their work, but completely undeveloped in terms of his own history and motives. The Engineers, too, are unfathomable, due in large part to the fact that we never learn anything tangible about them: not why they made humanity, not why they abandoned it, nor even why they subsequently turned to the creation of biological weapons – the aliens whose predations are the film’s main source of threat – with the intention of unleashing them on Earth. There’s a sense in which this enforced ignorance is deliberate: a way of leaving the story open-ended, so that we, like Shaw, are still left with unanswered questions, the better to preserve the sense of mystery. But there’s also a sense in which the lack of answers undermines the integrity of the narrative – because in the absence of any concrete explanation, certain elements of the plot and worldbuilding start to look less like deliberate omissions and more like accidental discontinuities, some of which occurred to me while watching the film, and the rest of which are classic fridge logic.

In the very first scene of the film, for instance, we witness an Engineer – a giant, white-skinned man who bears more than a passing resemblance to Darth Malak in his underwear – standing alone as an alien spaceship flies away in the distance. The Engineer drinks the biological compound that’s later used to kill Holloway and which, by all accounts, appears to be the doom of his species. And yet he does this voluntarily, even though it instantly causes his body to disintegrate, right down to the level of his DNA. The reason for this scene is never explained. Why is the Engineer alone? Why does he drink the compound? Does he realise it will kill him? If not, why not? And if so, why drink it when there’s no-one else around? What planet is he on? None of these questions are answered during the course of the movie – and in fact, what little information we do glean only serves to make the first scene look self-contradictory. Similarly, the ultimate implication of both Shaw’s final voyage and Janek’s never-refuted supposition that the planet they’ve found is a military outpost both point to the fact that the Engingeers came from a different star system all together. But if that’s true, then why didn’t the archaeological evidence Shaw and Holloway found on Earth lead them there instead? More pertinently, it’s stated outright that the dead Engineers the crew finds were killed roughly two thousand years ago, while their earliest appearance in human culture is five thousand years old. So if the Engineers only decided to destroy humanity *after* leaving Earth, why leave behind directions to an outpost planet that they hadn’t yet colonised? In fact, why leave directions at all? We’re shown explicitly that the Engineers intended to send their biological weapons back to Earth, in which case, leaving messages in human culture to one day come to the source is redundant: the only reason humanity survived that long is because the aliens the Engineers bred to destroy us destroyed them first. Under those circumstances, the archaeological messages can’t be a warning, but nor are they viably an invitation. Instead, they appear only as a plot device: something Scott has orchestrated in order to justify his characters being where they are, but which, on the basis of the evidence presented, makes no narrative sense at all.

Other niggling issues also drew my attention: little glitches that made me question the overall story. Why does David think that infecting Holloway will help Wayland? Why does nobody chase after Shaw when she physically attacks two of her crewmates and runs away? Who is Janek working for, and how much does he know? Why, when we’re explicitly told that there are seventeen crewmembers on board, do we only ever see ten of them? This last might seem like a strange niggle, but it becomes relevant near the end, when Vickers is told to run for the escape pods while Janek and two of his companions stay behind to make a Heroic Sacrifice and crash their ship into the alien craft that’s headed for Earth, thereby saving humanity – because if there were still seven other people on board, people we never met and whose deaths we never saw, then it feels extremely odd that Janek and the others would tell Vickers how to save herself, but leave the rest of their crewmates to die. (It’s also worth mentioning that the three men who make the Heroic Sacrifice are all POC – the only three in the movie. I’m not quite sure what to think of this, but it does feel like something of a trope subversion that all three died nobly rather than running for their lives as plucky comic relief, or as the archetypal black dude who dies first.)

And then there’s the gender issues. Round about the midway point, Vickers initiates a conversation with Janek and actually seems to be thawing a little, prompting him to flirt with her. Vickers reacts in kind, but ultimately rejects him, at which point she turns to leave. Janek, however, stops her by asking an incredibly invasive question: is she a robot? Now, on the one hand, this is a narratively reasonable question: Scott’s Alien-universe movies do tend to contain secret robots, and as far as the audience is concerned, Vickers is definitely a viable candidate. On the other hand, though, Janek has asked this in direct response to Vickers choosing not to sleep with him, and even worse, her response, rather than saying yes or no, is to tell him to come to her cabin in ten minutes – they can have sex after all! And this is problematic for me, because even though Janek might plausibly be curious, his timing is gross, and Vickers’s response is grosser still, because the way she proves her womanly nature is to change her mind about sex. The whole scene did not sit well with me, and even though we don’t actually see the deed take place – the whole incident is, I suspect, narratively engineered solely to get Janek off the bridge, so that when the crewmates stuck outside call with an SOS, he isn’t there to hear it – and even though it effectively answers the question of Vickers’s humanity, it still comes across as sexist and offensive.

And then we have the Underwear Problem – or, more specifically, the fact that women in the future apparently don’t wear bras or singlets, but have instead reverted to wearing weird wrap-around boob tubes that look uncannily like bandages, and which come complete with matching bandage underwear. To wit, this:

and this:

Setting aside the infuriating ubiquity of Hot Terrified Women In Their Underpants as an SF/horror trope, what would have been so terrible about letting them wear bras or crop tops? Even Ripley in the original Alien gets a goddam singlet, despite the fact that her undies are literally and gratuitously about five sizes too small.  I just, I actually cannot get over this lack of bras. I mean, the first time we see Vickers, she’s doing pushups in what amounts to a boob tube, and I’m sorry, but it’s hard enough to get a strapless bra to stay put when you’re hugging your armpits at a party, let alone engaging in strenuous physical exertion like running for your life. I don’t even care that, from one perspective (although certainly not the one employed for the gratuitous cleavage shot pictured above), the boob tube bandages arguably cover more frontal cleavage than a real bra would, because once you’ve decided to have your female heroine running around in her underwear, you’ve pretty much abandoned the notion of modest costuming. As far as I can tell, the only possible logic behind the boob-wraps is because someone, somewhere decided they were more aesthetically pleasing than bras – but speaking as a person of somewhat busty dimensions, the absence of good, supportive bras is the exact fucking opposite of futuristic, and is in fact about as big a visual anachronism as having an axe on a spaceship.

Oh wait.

*facepalm*

But all of this is small beer compared to the big, endlessly problematic notion of forced alien impregnation. Insofar as the alien attacks go, I’ll give Scott some credit for trope subversion: twice in the course of the film, male characters are violently orally penetrated – and, in the process, killed – by phallic alien tentacles. This is visually disturbing on a number of levels, but given the near universal establishment of tentacle rape as a thing that happens to women, I’m going to give him a big thumbs up for bucking the trend. That being said, what happens to Shaw is awful on just about every level imaginable. If you have difficulty with the womb-biting vampire birth scene in Breaking Dawn, I’m going to issue a big, fat warning about Prometheus, because everything that happens to Shaw from about the three-quarter mark onwards is the ladypain equivalent of that scene in Casino Royale where Le Chiffre tortures James Bond by tying him naked to a wicker chair with the arse cut out and then repeatedly belting him in the genitals with a length of knotted rope, with bonus! psychological angst thrown in.

So: Shaw is infertile; she can’t have children. This is a source of evident sadness to her, something that Holloway has to reassure her about after he accidentally makes an offhand comment about how easy it is to create life. At the point at which we see them make love, Holloway has already been infected with the alien biological compound: he dies horribly not long after, forcing Vickers to literally set him on fire while Shaw watches rather than continue in his painful, bodily disintegration. Making this even worse, Shaw’s own father, an explorer or anthropologist of some sort, also died of an incurable, graphic virus – ebola, in fact. Understandably, Shaw is so distressed by watching her lover die that David has to sedate her – but of course, David is the one who infected Holloway to begin with. When Shaw comes to, David asks her (politely, of course) if she and Holloway have made love recently; when Shaw says yes, he does an ultrasound, and reveals both that Shaw is three months pregnant – impossible, as they only slept together ten hours ago, never mind her infertility – and that the foetus is abnormal. Unhesitatingly, Shaw tells him to get it out of her, to which David replies that he can’t: they don’t have the technicians on board to perform a cesarean. His solution is to suggest she go into cryo. Shaw refuses, so David forcibly sedates her. When she wakes up again, two fellow crewmates in quarantine suits have come to see her frozen. Shaw feigns unconsciousness, attacks them, and runs – in some considerable pain, as the alien-baby is trying to squirm free – to the special, super-expensive automated surgery pod in Vickers’s quarters. Desperate, she tries to program it for a cesarean, only to be told that the chamber has been locked for male use only (we later find out, through inference, that this is because it’s meant for exclusive use by the aged Peter Wayland, who’s secretly been on board the whole time).  Thinking fast, she tells it to perform abdominal surgery to remove an obstruction, jabs herself with a couple of painkillers, and hops in.

While Shaw is still conscious – and clearly able to feel pain, despite her medical injections – the pod cuts into her with a laser, opens up her uterus, and uses a metal grappling tool that looks frighteningly like the lovechild of an arcade grabber machine claw and an eggbeater to pull the writhing alien-baby in its placental sack out of her stomach and hold it overhead. Shaw is now trapped in the pod with a gaping abdominal wound and a predatory tentacled alien that wants to kill her – plus and also, the umbilical cord is somehow still linking it to her insides, so she has to physically pull the cord out of her goddam womb, at which point the pod wraps things up by closing a gash the entire length of her abdomen with giant metal staples. She then has to slide downwards and out of the pod by passing underneath the alien, slam the pod-lid closed, and then stagger, weeping and bloodied, into the hallway.

To summarise: an infertile woman who wanted children and whose partner died ten hours ago is forced to give herself an emergency c-section to rid herself of the ravenous alien baby he impregnated her with, alone, while on the run from her crewmates, without help or anesthetic. Also, despite the fact that her stomach is literally being held together with staples, she then spends the rest of the film running for her life while in obvious, crippling pain, alternately sobbing and injecting herself with painkillers. Fun times! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So how, then, does Prometheus resemble a reboot of Alien?

Barring the Engineer prologue and a brief scene on Earth, Prometheus contains exactly the same establishing shot and data that Alien does: the image of a spaceship with the written details of its name, function, crew, cargo and course superimposed over the top; both films also end with the lone survivor, a brunette Final Girl, dictating a last entry into the ship’s log, stating that the rest of the crew are dead, the ship was destroyed, they’re the only one left, and that now they’re about to travel elsewhere. Both are also accompanied in their escape by a small, inhuman companion – Ripley has a cat, Jones, while Shaw has the disembodied robot head of David. In Alien, the ring-ship the crew discovers is identical to the one piloted by the surviving Engineer in Prometheus; in both films, it’s a pair of white men who stumble on the larval face-sucking aliens and subsequently die. In both films, it’s the female protagonist who calls for the implementation of quarantine (Ripley is ignored where Shaw isn’t) and who subsequently suggests that the message which lead them there to begin with wasn’t an invitation or an SOS, but a warning to stay away. In both films, a robot secretly furthering the agenda of a corporate power turns on the crew, ignoring quarantine and disobeying direct orders in order to bring an alien sample on board, actively harming and endangering others in order to protect it. Both films also follow a very similar plot progression, kill off secondary characters in a similar order, and make graphic use of flamethrowers; even the title fonts are the same (both also pass the Bechdel test). Perhaps most importantly of all, however, the final scene of Prometheus shows an alien – that is, an Alien alien – emerging from the wreckage, created in its larval form by gestating in Shaw (the Holloway-monster she cut out of herself) then growing again in the body of the Engineer, which makes the whole of Prometheus look like nothing so much as a retcon of the entire Alien universe.

Given that fact, my suspicion is that there’ll probably be a sequel at some point down the line, restarting the Alien mythos in a suitably altered context (though whether Rapace’s Shaw will go on to be as canonically significant as Weaver’s Ripley remains to be seen). Over all, I found Prometheus to be an interesting movie: flawed in some ways, problematic in others, and peppered with enough apparent discontinuities and WTF moments that I couldn’t wholly settle into the story, but still entertaining and definitely one of the better SFnal flicks I’ve seen of late. (Though if you’d rather pass on the open-womb surgery scene, I can’t say I’ll blame you.)

One week ago, I blogged a piece about the necessity of feminism, a reasonable percentage of which was given over to a selection of pertinent links I’ve been filing away since April. Since then, it’s struck me that I’d like to make such posts a weekly endeavour, so that instead of just dropping pieces into a folder and potentially forgetting about them, I can actually group them together. As the vast majority of my bookmarks get dropped into either of two main folders – Feminism, Motherhood, Sexism and Sexuality and SFF, YA and Literary Culture – it only seems fitting to present those links here in two comparable categories: General and SFF, though doubtless there’ll be multiple points of crossover.

Here, then, is the first installment of Weekly Feminist Linkspam.

General

SFF

You guys, that is literally how many links I’ve spotted since the start of September. ONE WEEK. Admittedly, a few of the SFF ones were written a while ago, but all of those are tied in to more recent pieces. Thats *counts* THIRTY-FIVE LINKS. In a WEEK.

Maybe it’s just been a really exceptional seven days for lady-matters, but somehow? I don’t think so.

*headdesk*

My husband and I saw Eclipse at the movies today. (Let the record state that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it was his idea, not mine – I went along with it on the grounds of being hungover.) I’ve only read the first Twilight novel; he’s read none, though we’ve watched all the films together. Beyond this, my knowledge of the series has been fleshed out via numerous and detailed internet plot summaries. Walking back from the cinema, we started talking about what we’d seen, and one way or another, this lead to my mentioning the existence of Renesmee, Bella and Edward’s daughter as of Breaking Dawn, and the circumstances surrounding her birth.

Here is what I know about Renesmee: being a special hybrid child, Bella is only pregnant with her for a month or so, and by the end of the book, the continuation of her rapid physical and intellectual development means that, after little more than a year of life, she resembles a bright, precocious six-year-old. Off the top of my head, I can think of six other instances of Magical Pregnancy and/or Fast-Growing Children in fantasy narratives, but even where the device is used with skill and integrity, I’ve come to realise that it bothers me on a number of levels. At the most basic level, it’s simply too…convenient. Nine months is a long time, and small children are complicated, narratively as well as in real life: someone always has to be with them, and though they can’t contribute much in terms of dialogue for the first few years, they nonetheless exert a significant pressure on the actions of those around them. In that sense, using magic to speed things up is an understandable reaction. But what are the costs?

Back in the days of Xena: Warrior Princess, there were a series of episodes given over to the story of Gabrielle’s daughter, Hope, the evil child of the dark god Dahak. After gestating for only two weeks, Hope attained the physical age of a nine-year-old in just a few months, going on to reach full adulthood not long after. Given her intended role as a villain, this sped up her confrontations with Xena and Gabrielle, not to mention the fact that, in a TV setting, you will never see a child grow from infancy to school-age unless the show is specifically about that sort of development (Full House) or there’s a reasonable way to keep them off-screen most of the time (Friends). If a baby is introduced elsewhere, however, the writers have a problem: what happens next?

If the whole point of introducing the child is the person they’re going to grow into, then leaping right ahead to that point certainly makes sense – but it’s also something of a cheap trick. The actions of TV characters are already constrained, certain choices forbidden them in order to maintain the static premise of their shows across multiple episodes and seasons. Confront this normalcy with the prospect of week-in, week-out pregnancy and/or childrearing, and even the least analytic of audience members knows that the threat is hollow: magical or otherwise, something is bound to avert it. Through all the formula and familiarity, the tension in television comes from our knowledge that, even if only once a season, one of the threatened changes will be carried out, forcing the characters to react. Someone will die, a relationship will end – but raising a child is too great a threat. We know the writers are bluffing.

Another example: in Season 4 of Angel the vampire Darla gives birth to baby Connor and dies, leaving Angel to raise his son alone. But, sure enough, the passage of a few episodes sees Connor stolen away by one of Angel’s old enemies, who takes the boy to a demon dimension where – conveniently – time passes at a different rate. Scarcely has his infant son been stolen than a portal opens at Angel’s feet and spits out an angry, vengeful teenager in his place. Fastwind through a series of increasingly melodramatic events, and we watch as the now-grown Connor saddles Cordelia with a speeded-up pregnancy of her own, bringing the trope full circle.

Beyond the realms of television, there are novelised instances, too. In Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire series, the main character, Alisa, carries and gives birth to a powerful, demonic and fast-growing daughter, Kalika, in the space of a few months. Though not evil, the same is otherwise true of Blessing, the daughter of Liath and Sanglant in Kate Elliott’s excellent Crown of Stars series, though this is the only instance of the trope I find palatable: nothing is circumvented because of it – in fact, it makes things more complicated – while Liath’s absence forces Sanglant to raise and protect their wilful daughter alone. In this iteration, it also helps that Blessing herself is a more realistic mix of childishness and maturity: her body might have developed quickly, but unlike Meyer’s Renesmee, she is still as naive, demanding and impatient as any toddler, and not just an angelic miniature adult. By contrast, the seven children of Snow White and Bigby Wolf in Bill Willingham’s Fables graphic novels progress from infancy to middle childhood in the blink of an eye for seemingly no better reason than that they can, a shortcut that allows their mother to continue her normal working life almost unimpeded. Rounding out the examples is the Icarii race in Sara Douglass’s Axis trilogy, all of whose offspring are sentient even before birth, able to communicate cogently via magic with both parents, thereby rendering the usual childhood troubles moot. This is possibly the weakest example, but even so, it is an instance of wherein normal human difficulties – such as parent/child communication – are erased with magic.

In each of the above instances, some explanation is given as to why these children grow so quickly. But even where that reason feels plausible, it also, with the notable exception of Elliott’s contribution, makes me sad. Because ultimately, what it seems to say is that motherhood – the process of carrying, birthing and rearing a child to an age where they are capable of walking, talking and learning on their own – is incompatible with a mother having separate adventures at the same time. That these parts of childhood must be removed from or circumvented in narrative, not because they might make for dull reading, but because they will inevitably curtail the actions of both parents (and particularly mothers) to such an extent that the story can no longer take place. That a fantasy heroine cannot be both a heroine and a mother at the same time; or at least, not a mother to small children. That it must always be one or the other.

Whenever it is that I have children, I hope that I’ll do my best by them. I don’t want to be selfish, neglecting their wellbeing and happiness for the sake of carrying on my own life as if I’d never had them, or as if they were no more than conversation pieces who’d changed me not in the slightest. But I refuse to believe that my own life, such as it is, will entirely cease to be. It will change, yes, in order to accommodate a different set of priorities, and I will change, too, because how could I not? It certainly won’t be easy. But in real life, parenting has no “skip to the school years” option. And every time I see a fantasy story take that route, a part of me worries that what I’m seeing isn’t just an easy television trope or narrative shortcut, but a warning about the perils of my future life.

Right now, it seems to me that children are an adventure in and of themselves, and maybe we in the fantasy business are doing a disservice to that fact by too often taking the easy, magically-aided route as regards the formative years of their upbringing. Alternatively, I’m being ridiculous and oversensitive. But even if I were given the choice, I think I’d prefer to slog out those early years and know my future children better than to press a button and have them be ready for school. Which, ultimately, seems to be the biggest cost of this trope – a loss, not of time, but family.

Honest to goodness? I just don’t get the Republican party.

Let’s ignore, momentarily, the fact that I’m an atheist Australian left-winger opposed to gun ownership and creationism, and focus on the issue of contraception. John McCain, that cuddly ol’ cadaver, has recently expressed confusion as to whether condomns can stop the spread of HIV. His exact words on the subject, in fact, were: “You’ve stumped me.”

From this, it’s easy to see why McCain is opposed to sex education – he has none himself. The man is, after all, a conservative in his seventies. Back when he was in school, the liberated sixties were but a twinkle in their daddy’s eye, and there were certain things about which one simply did not speak in schools, let alone anywhere else. When AIDS became a big issue in the eighties, McCain was already in his fifties. Nowadays (in Australia, anyway) every child is, sooner or later, sat down and taught about the value of contraception: not just as a means of preventing pregnancy, but as the only reliable method of preventing STDs. I’ve known this since I was eleven. It didn’t make me want to have sex, and it sure as hell didn’t glamourise the concept, but it did ensure my everlasting belief in condoms.

Which leads us to McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, whose seventeen-year-old daughter, Bristol, is pregnant to a self-professed redneck with a poor disposition towards fatherhood. Now: I’m not attacking Bristol. If she chose her current circumstance, well, that’s her prerogative; and if she didn’t, she deserves sympathy. If her mother lived a more anonymous life, she wouldn’t have to endure being scrutinised, judged, shamed, defended, picked-over and used as an example by millions of strangers at a time when, more than anything, she probably wants privacy.  But even if she were Miss Jenny Everyteen from Hicksville, Iowa, she would still exemplify the problem of sex education – or rather, the lack thereof – in American schools.

The only cure for ignorance is knowledge. Not so long ago, respected European doctors believed that menstruation had nothing to do with pregnancy, but was, rather, an aberrant condition that would soon die out. Not long before that, most of the world believed that royalty were innately special, and that being born rich was a sign of God’s approval, while peasanthood implied that you’d done something to deserve it. Go back further still, and humankind poured libations of blood even for the Judeo-Christian God, while menstruating women (again) were isolated from the world at large, believed to be unclean.

Put simply: biological knowledge is not obvious. It has taken our species thousands of years to understand how our bodies work, how women conceive and how disease is transmitted, which understanding has culminated in surgeons, medicine, hospitals, obstetricians and contraception. Once, such information was kept hiden among an elite few, or else spoken of only in whispers. Now, we are able to talk frankly. Western representatives travel to stricken nations in Africa, teaching local communities how to guard against HIV/AIDS, while at home, women and men know to check themselves for stray lumps, the genesis of cancer. All such knowledge is derived from identical scientific principles, and from this data, we deduce ways of solving health problems before they become serious.

John McCain and Sarah Palin are against this.

We are not discussing abortion, which is a rightfully complex issue. Nor are we discussing morality, which touches on when to have sex, or with whom. Rather, we are entertaining the wacky notion of hygiene and disease prevention: the idea of intelligent measures, comparable to a flu shot, which enable men and women not to contract illness, and sensible learned behaviours, which allow couples to decide the circumstances under which they conceive a child. How such an idea might be construed as subversive or wrong remains a mystery to me, and yet, this is what the Republicans are arguing vociferously against: the idea that telling teenagers how to use condoms is good.

Time and again, statistics have shown that abstinence-only education has a much higher fail-rate than its sexual counterpart, elicting greater rates of teen pregnancy than any other approach (as Sarah Palin’s daughter can attest). It almost makes one wonder whether the decision is deliberate: that, like Anne Coulter, the whole party supports a return to traditional young marriage and pregnant housewifery, viewing sexual education as anathema to this agenda. The irony of women politicians advocating such a position is not lost, but neither is it unpredented; nor, oddly, does it gell with the Republican stance that young mothers stay in school or lose their welfare benefits. The only logical conclusion is that John McCain and his ilk believe sexual and biologcal consequences – disease and/or pregnancy – to be self-evident; and yet, as McCain himself is clearly ignorant when it comes to HIV, and as Sarah Palin’s methods of education have failed to serve her daughter, their party leaders epitomise the falsehood of this belief.

In short: the Republicans, in my estimation, are deeply, profoundly confused. Their policy is rooted in an era of sexual silence, the days of John McCain’s childhood and source of Sarah Palin’s morality, when there was no need to know why or how women fall pregnant, because this was all women were for: they married, they bred, they nurtured, and all else was the will of God. That sentiment no longer holds politically, and yet, its consequence lingers, breeding unforgiveable ignorance in a time when all other aspects of culture represent – if not vaunt – sexuality, without stopping to explain it. Whether the media should be curbed in this respect is a different debate entirely: in the interim, however, I cannot conscience such willful ignorance in adults, nor their desire for learned ignorance in the next generation. The fact that McCain and Palin desire to lead a whole entire country only makes their stance more shameful.

As much as I traditionally loathe the Australian Liberal Party, they’re at least a far cry from the Republicans. The closest we have is Family First, a minority party incapable of gaining federal governance in an effective two-party system, and except when Steven Fielding has to get his tie-break on in the Senate or says something spectacularly unsettling, very few people pay them any heed.

And as much as I’d love to be a U.S. citizen-for-the-day in order to vote for Obama, McCain and Palin make me glad I live in the planetary south, and not the deep.