Posts Tagged ‘Stephenie Meyer’

I have a theory.

Firstly: these are four little words which should strike fear into the hearts of men, especially when coming from me. You have been warned.

Consider, then,¬†the stereotype of hardcore science fiction: heavy on detail, short on character, long on nitty-gritty and emotionally ambivalent. A crude stereotype, but despite being far from universally accurate, there’s an argument to be made that hard SF is the traditional province of male geeks exactly because of the above descriptors. Which isn’t to say that women don’t or shouldn’t read it, or that¬†a given work¬†ceases to be hard SF if it invalidates any of the above categories, or even that the genre lacks female characters. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, for instance, is both fabulously philosophical and supported by a wonderful knowledge of human nature, while Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire is built on immaculate details of technology and society, with chapter time shared equally between vividly written male and female protagonists. But if you were of a mind to analyse the readership of hard SF, it still seems likely that most of them, regardless of other¬†demographic factors, would be male.

Of itself, that shouldn’t surprise us. Little boys have been raised for years¬†with rockets and trains and plastic guns, and for much of the¬† – still¬†relatively recent¬† – history of geekdom,¬†things like video games, Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer and¬†even straight fantasy¬†were deemed by normal society to be the sole province of dysfunctional, dateless nerds. The idea¬†of geekhood as an equal opportunities employer is¬†something which,¬†it seems, despite the long-established existence of female geeks, has only recently¬†occurred to¬†the mainstream world. There are various reasons fo this, and a great deal of iconic female sci-fi/fantasy at which to point the expostulating finger. For instance: Tamora Pierce, author of The Song of the Lioness quartet, grew up resenting the lack of female warrior heroes in fantasy novels and thereinafter set about writing some of her own, with brilliant results. Gene Roddenberry was prevented by¬†network politics¬†from making the first Star Trek captain female, but that didn’t stop Uhura and Janeway from getting their dues. Most obviously from the point of my generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer proved that popularity and geekdom weren’t like oil and water: not only was it possible to put a beautiful blonde in a horror setting¬†who didn’t get killed off in the first five minutes, but TV shows could be fantasy-based and still pull in the big ratings.

In fact, if you look at the past fifteen years of film, books and broadcasting, you’ll see a meteoric rise in mainstream awareness of fantasy. Commensurate with the rise in special effects technology, there have been¬†innumerable film adaptations of classic sci-fi/fantasy novels – not to mention TV shows –¬†once computer processing power made the concept seem¬†more viable and less cheesy. Even before the advent of J.K. Rowling in 1997, the mantle of World’s Best-Selling Author belonged to Terry Pratchett. Throw in a diverse range of sci-fi fantasy programming – The X-Files, Roswell, Charmed, Firefly, Stargate, Sliders, Farscape, True Blood, Heroes, Supernatural – and it’s plain to see that public awareness of the geeky sphere is bound to have skyrocketed since the mid-nineties, if only by dint of a casual glance at the TV guide or ticket office.

All of which has helped to¬†take social notions of geekdom away from the hard SF, lone-nerds-in-basements days of yore and instead present something friendlier, more gender-neutural. Women, of course, have been reading fantasy alongside men for as long as it’s been a separate genre, but with the patina of mass-appeal thus gained, publishers have seemingly¬†felt able to try something new, with the consequence that previously well-established genre boundaries in the world of sci-fi fantasy have started to fall by the wayside. Ever since¬†the established stereotypes of Who Buys¬†What went flying out the window – and¬†though¬†this has undoubtably occurred, it’s still debateable as to when – geeks en masse have proven to be such a diverse demographic that the¬†blurring¬†of¬†genre lines, far from deterring¬†potential readers,¬†has acutally become an individual draw.

Which brings me to the current trend in paranormal romance and urban fantasy, and that¬†particular proliferation of vampires. While there’s a case to be made that fanged fiction is the literary equivalent of a dot com bubble – certainly, no trend goes upwards forever – I’m sceptical of the notion that it will all come to nothing. Urban fantasy, apart from anything else, has always been the gateway drug of make-believe: particularly on television, viewers who might otherwise be put off by fantastic elements are comforted by the simltaneous presence of what is real and familiar, while others of us get our kicks from seeing the norm subverted. The fact that Harry Potter and Edward Cullen have helped move this phenomenon from screen to page seems overdue, and not in the least bit faddish. Which isn’t to say that public opinion won’t steadily turn elsewhere until the Next Big Thing – that’s only human nature. But for all that vampires are the current flavour of the month, the idea that they’ll vannish between airings is absurd – Stephenie Meyer no more invented the oeurve than did¬†Anne Rice.

Both¬†despite¬†and because of this broadening of geekishness to new and wonderful realms, hard SF¬†remains a beloved, male-dominated genre in its own right.¬†But¬†if one were interested in drawing conclusions about the varying ends of a given spectrum, paranormal romance would seem to be as feminine and popular a fantastic subsidiary as hard SF is masculine. Which is why,¬†to reach a long-awaited point, I don’t think it’s going anywhere: because for the first time, fantasy has found a foothold which isn’t mainly male or gender-neutural by virtue of diversity, but expressly, purposefully¬†feminine – and proud of it.¬†More than anything else, the current boom in paranormal romance¬†feels like the response of¬†a¬†market which has hitherto existed, but remained largely untapped, populated by the kind of intelligent,¬†imaginative women who might shy away from picking up a Harlequin romance novel, but who still – often without realising it¬†– have been hankering for a little bit of literary lust.¬†

Ironically, it’s taken¬†a surge in YA fantasy for this to become apparent, assuming the legions of¬†grown women¬†lining up to buy Twilight are anything to go by. But if there’s one thing the sexual revolution and the mainstreaming of fantasy have taught us, it’s that guilty pleasures – even when they’re not so much guilty as wildly,¬†passionately longed-for pleasures – are nothing to be ashamed of.

When the media first started comparing Stephenie Meyer¬†to J. K. Rowling, my hackles rose. Insofar as I could tell, both the mood and execution of their respective¬†series seemed entirely different, a suspicion which was confirmed when, last month, I finally finished Twilight, the first book of Meyer’s quartet. Drifting through the¬†life of Bella Swann is, in its own way, peaceful:¬†the writing flows smoothly from page to page, a continuous, soothing¬†rhythm comparable to soft music.¬†The pace is good, and the characters are, by and large, believable. Given that I’m no longer wracked by teenage angst, however, I wasn’t nearly so invested in the ups and downs of¬†Bella’s relationship as I once might’ve been.¬†Consequently, I¬†found the in-depth description of Edward’s every pose and expression frustrating, a troublesome sour note which,¬†by itself, caused me to¬†stop reading for two weeks¬†at the halfway point.¬†It’s not that Meyer writes¬†clunkily – far from it. It’s simply that, as an¬†adult, my attention is fixated less on the¬†physicaility of fraught exchanges and more on their content.

From friends and reviews, I knew that Jacob Black was supposed to become a competing love interest later on, and a werewolf to boot. Invariably, this knowledge changed my expectations for the character: I was looking for someone to rival Edward by displaying a different kind of magnetism, helped along by the ancient were/vamp battle mojo. I was, therefore, extremely disappointed with the reality. Had Bella Swann gone to Forks and never met Edward Cullen, I felt, it was unlikely that she would’ve looked twice at Jacob. Which, of course, would be a different story; but the point of Edward and Bella is one of destiny –¬†that regardless of the circumstances under which they met, the pair would fall in love. From Twilight, the same cannot be said of Jacob Black, and although this isn’t a plot hindrance in the first book, I suspect it may become so later on.

As a heroine, Bella is markedly different from those around her, both in her perceptions and actuality. Her internal monolouge¬†describes her as feeling older, quieter, awkward, more distant than her teenage friends, contrasted with a childlike naivety when it comes to all things Edward. In actuality, Bella is, inded, different, but not in the way she imagines. Forks fits her like a glove, such that, despite her protestations,¬†it’s hard to imagine her ever living boisterously in Phoenix under the hot sun, pale and quiet as she is. Indeed, presented with her physical appearance, preference for classical¬†music and love of Jane Austen, one instinctively places Bella in an English locale: somewhere¬†soft, green and glowing from frequent rain. It’s a measure of Meyer’s¬†ability that she pulls off this deception with ease, allowing Bella’s¬†self-perception to shield us from¬†just how¬†much she does, in fact, belong. This skillful tension¬†permeates the narrative,¬†and is arguably Twilight’s real heart – not¬†romantically, but in terms of craftsmanship.¬†It’s why the book works, and the reason it holds together: a solid sense of place.

The ending, however, troubled me, not only because it departed from that environment, but because Edward’s decision to¬†save Bella undermined the entire narrative. In order to allow for even the barest physical interaction, Edward’s danger and ferocity¬†are systematically blunted throughout the book, until it becomes difficult to believe¬†they ever really existed. Similarly, his inner struggle to resist feeding on Bella has, by the end, vanished, such that the climactic moment of choice¬†–¬†to keep her human – poses neither threat nor tension. Over and over again, we have been told that Edward is dangerous to Bella without actually witnessing it; which suggests, ultimately, that he isn’t.¬†Compare this to¬†the¬†turmoil of vampire¬†Angel’s¬†TV relationship with¬†Buffy Summers. Admittedly, Buffy is significantly ¬†stronger than Bella, such that Angel can physically attack her without killing her outright; nonetheless, it’s impossible to doubt his dark side. The same cannot be said of Edward Cullen.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Twilight. At¬†its best, Meyer’s style is captivating, while the story flows steadily from outset to conclusion. Despite this, however, I don’t want to finish the saga. What made Twilight successful was its grounding in Forks, and the extent to which that environment was built, bones-up, to reflect Bella Swann. Outside those parameters and with Edward’s danger dissipated, the story can only be continued by making it more complicated,¬†introducing new elements and moving the protagonists to new locations. At best, this style of serialising¬†can¬†make each successive volume a new first, with each story standing slightly apart from the others, unique despite a linear chronology. At worst, it devolves into the kind of add-on storytelling all too common in Hollywood sequals – notably Pirates of the Carribbean –¬†in which¬†a¬†stand-alone¬†first instalment is undermined by the introduction of a larger, unfamiliar world. The Twilight Saga will, I suspect, fall somewhere between these two points: Meyer has left enough undone to merit further exploration, but following through will invariably take the story away from what made it work in the first place, prolonging the initial catharsis by setting the characters on a¬†largely circuitous¬†route.

In fairness, I should read the rest of the series before passing final judgement;¬†maybe Bella and Edward will pull the story¬†through. Either way, Meyer isn’t the new Rowling, but that doesn’t stop her from being a skilled author in her own right, and certainly one worth keeping a¬†careful¬†eye on.