Posts Tagged ‘Stories’

Whenever we watch a film or read a book, regardless of genre, we always approach the narrative with a set of basic assumptions about its content. If the story is set in the present day, we’ll expect a certain degree of familiarity with the context, though obviously, these expectations will vary in accordance with where we live and where the story is set. If the story involves a discipline or profession with which we’re intimately acquainted, we’ll likely be more critical of its portrayal than otherwise, because any liberties taken or errors enforced will stand out to us. By contrast, if the subject matter is new, or if it involves something we only recognise as a vague conceptual outline, we’ll be more inclined to take the writer’s word for it – an accurate until proven in- mentality. Which is, somewhat paradoxically, how genre stereotypes often get started: if our only, first or primary exposure to a concept is through fiction, and if we automatically assume that what we’re shown is well-researched, then seeing it presented differently at a later date – even if the subsequent portrayal is more accurate – might trigger our scepticism, especially if we’ve seen multiple versions of the original lie, now leant a¬†greater authority by the act of reiteration.

As such, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between an assumption based on fact, like our own, first-hand¬†knowledge of a profession or practice, and an assumption which is itself based on other assumptions, like a popular, romanticised version of a certain historical era. For all that humans are voracious learners, we don’t always consider¬†how or why we’re absorbing information until someone asks us to provide a source, and by then, it’s often too late.

But what happens when you apply this habit of assumptions to purely fictional concepts?

Science fiction and fantasy stories are full of impossible ideas which nonetheless influence our thinking, taking on lives of their own. Dragons don’t exist, but depending on how we first encountered them, we’re likely to have an opinion about their essential nature; on whether (for instance) they’re more properly treasure-hoarding monsters like Smaug, mystical protectors like Falcor, or soul-bonding companions like Mnementh and Ramoth. But while we might prefer a certain type of dragon, we’re also willing to accommodate changes to their mythology: our assumptions are more fluid than fixed, and if we see something new, our first thought won’t be that the writer is incompetent or misinformed, because we understand that fictional truths are malleable.

As such, we’re supremely unlikely to challenge the presence of a wide and varied range of¬†dragons in SFF: the¬†comic¬†swamp dragons of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld don’t preclude the ferocity of Daenerys’s Drogon or the thoughtfulness of Temeraire, and even when we encounter dragons who completely subvert our Platonic ideal of the species – who don’t breathe fire, who can’t fly, who might be feathered instead of scaled – we still accept the possibility of them, because, well, it’s fiction! Dragons aren’t real, and so they can be whatever we want them to be, up to and including a shapeshifting race of scaly humanoids who live in a mountain-tree. But at the same time,¬†we often hesitate to extend the same degree of¬†narrative diversity to persons who actually exist, even within the parameters of fiction, because it violates one of our assumptions-based-on-assumptions, that women can’t or Vikings didn’t, and therefore hits¬†a mental stumbling-block.

Which, as I’ve said before,¬†is a problem. Particularly in SFF, we’re used to the idea that unreal elements – magic, dragons, FTL travel – are anchored to the narrative by the presence of realism in other areas, like believable characters and settings; but when we start using familiar as a proxy-term for real, we run the risk of letting ill-formed assumptions dictate the limits of the possible – and when we’re dealing with fundamentally impossible situations, that’s an even more pernicious habit than usual. Which begs the question: what are our limits, exactly, when it comes to accepting fictional scenarios? Obviously, there won’t be a universal answer, but in terms of trying to establish a personal one, I’m going to borrow a terminology of limits from BDSM, which is surprisingly applicable: that is, the concept of hard limits, soft limits and requirement limits.

For these purposes – that is, a discussion of narrative preferences – I’m using the following definitions: a hard limit is an element¬†whose inclusion we won’t tolerate under any conditions; a soft limit is an element we’ll entertain under particular conditions, but which otherwise breaks us out of the story and/or compromises its realism; and a requirement limit is an element without which we’ll struggle to enjoy the story at all. Speaking personally, then, and by way of quick example: I would consider the presence of three-dimensional female characters to be a requirement limit. If you effectively eliminate women from the narrative, then you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that you’ve constructed a realistic setting; and even if you include a host of plausible, plot-centric reasons for their absence (all male armies, gender-based plague) I’m still going to look askance at your decision to do so. By the same token, a soft limit would be something like owner/slave romances: I’m not wholly averse to them, but I strongly dislike seeing the issues of consent and power imbalance handwaved Because Feelings.

As to my hard limits, though: that’s an interesting question. Certainly, there are narrative elements for which I have a strong dislike, but in most instances, I’d still classify them as soft limits – that is, as devices that only bother me when they’re done badly,¬†instead of at all¬†– and with the exception of specific triggers, I suspect the same is true for most people. But if we’ve only ever seen an element written badly, or if it’s something we haven’t encountered before, we might reflexively write it off as unrealistic, when what we really mean is that it pushes a limit we weren’t conscious of having, or that its unfamiliarity takes us out of our comfort zone. Engaging with narrative is ultimately a question of immersion, the willingness of a reader to suspend their disbelief, and as with BDSM scenes, it’s difficult to do that if we don’t trust the other party not to accidentally hurt us.

(I have a theory that the emotional comedown we sometimes¬†feel on finishing a powerful story¬†is an equivalent phenomenon to sub-drop, which suggests the interesting counter-possibility that the lethargy and self-doubt often experienced by authors on completing a novel is a type of dom-drop, too. In both instances, there’s a neurochemical rush brought about by intense emotional stimulus – the act of either connecting with a story, or controlling it – that comes to a sudden end, and if we then, for instance, find ourselves feeling guilty about the extent to which we’re obsessing over fictional characters or frightened that what happens next is beyond our control, I see no reason why that couldn’t lead to other knock-on, physical effects. That being so, there’s a commensurate argument to be made that participation in fandom may work as¬†a form of aftercare for creators and consumers alike: a way of reassuring ourselves that our feelings are valid and reaffirming our preferences, which adds a whole new dimension to creator/fan interactions. But I digress.)

Perhaps, then,¬†our idea of realism in this context is less to do with¬†facts and more a question of feelings. A¬†story doesn’t have to be literally realistic, in the sense of conforming to real-world rules, in order for us to believe in the premise; rather, it just has to feel authentic, in the sense of convincing us that the setting is internally consistent, and while our notions of narrative authenticity are always going to be informed by our assumptions, we can still take a flexible approach.

Enter the concept of fanfiction: stories written about settings and characters with which we’re already familiar, but which exist for the express purpose of changing them. By its very nature, fanfiction plays with our expectations: we go in knowing exactly what happens in canon, but every story still interprets and alters that canon differently, and if the original work is incomplete – a show still airing, a film trilogy missing the final instalment, an ongoing series of novels – any fics written before the end are going to have different jumping-off¬†points to those written post-completion. For instance, while it’s common practice for fanwriters to reverse or ignore particular canon deaths, not every fic which features canonically dead characters is¬†a retcon. Instead, it might have been written at a point in time before the deaths had happened, extrapolating future events on the basis of an endpoint that was¬†subsequently superseded: a bifurcation in the timeline, rather than an attempt at overwriting it, and readers will have to navigate the distinction.

As such, fanfiction requires its audience¬†to continually adjust their assumptions, not just about what might happen, but about what has happened already, even when this means uprooting our base concept of the¬†original story. Donald Rumsfeld’s famous line about known unknowns is a strangely apt description of this process, and is therefore worth quoting, not least because the man himself would probably shudder at the comparison:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Or, to put it another way: we know the fic will draw from canon¬†(known knowns) and that parts of it will be excluded or altered (known unknowns), but not what original material the writer will contribute (unknown unknowns). To this, I would also add a fourth category, constituting our base assumptions about narrative and worldbuilding in general: things we hold to be relevant or true, but don’t consciously take into consideration unless forced to do so (unknown knowns). And fanfiction likes to play with these, too – for instance, by making small, pertinent alterations to an otherwise real-world setting and treating them as normative, rather than as an integral aspect of the plot. Which isn’t to say that original fiction doesn’t do likewise. It’s just that, for whatever reason, fanworks seem more willing to take the concept further, making blanket changes to social/sexual norms instead of simply inserting magic into familiar settings.

By way of example, I recently read a Wild West AU where everything was as you’d expect, except for the blanket social acceptance of homosexuality and lack of racism; the primary romance was between two newly married men, while the external conflict involved a pernicious neighbour trying to steal their ranch, and none of the cultural changes were ever questioned. For all that Hollywood can produce something as utterly batshit and ahistorical as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,¬†I’ve never seen a mainstream narrative write an alternate history for the express purpose of exploring social equality in a different era – but steampunk guns, anachronistic swearing and giant mechanical spiders? No problem.

As an inevitable consequence of being human and having¬†opinions about the world, we’re always going to take our assumptions with us into fiction. But being concerned with realism – or rather, with authenticity – and Malinda Lo has a fascinating essay on the subject, for anyone who wants to explore it in greater detail – doesn’t mean we should have to sacrifice whole fields of narrative possibility for lack of historical or personal precedent. The point of SFF isn’t to convince us that these stories could happen here, but to create a hypothetical elsewhere, parallel to our own, that’s sufficiently internally consistent, or engaging, or preferably both, for us to immerse ourselves anyway.

And if there are dragons involved, then so much the better.

 

 

 

Recently, I tried to watch the new Netflix series, Marco Polo, and made it through three whole episodes before ragequitting in a fit of disgust. It wasn’t the lacklustre pacing and derivative scripting that got to me, though they certainly didn’t help: it was the Orientalism and rampant misogyny that saw every female character – all of them women of colour – either viscerally sexualised or defined solely by their relationships with men. That the show took the character of Khutulun, a Mongol warrior who famously vowed¬†never to marry unless her husband could best her at wrestling, and turned her into a smirking seductress in a leather skirt was bad enough; but having her¬†father state that Khutulun’s ‘virginity’ was ‘promised’ to a warrior who could defeat her – reframing an arguably feminist decision as a sexist mandate and thereby stripping her of its agency¬†– had me spitting fire. The first episode alone introduced not one, but two separate female characters by showing them in the throes of sex, their laboured panting audible even before the camera cut to their nudity; other women were shown in the periphery of shots designed to give prominence to men, off to the side even when the ostensible purpose of the scene was to introduce the ladies.

But amidst all the dehumanising nakedness and concubine orgies, what really struck me was a comparatively small detail: the positioning of the camera in the few scenes showing the Princess Kokachin interacting with her young daughter. Even in moments where the two women were ostensibly its sole focus, the camera was still painting them with an outsider’s perspective – we saw them from a distance, like strangers observing a ritual, rather than intimately, from their own eyes. When men interrupted these scenes – which, inevitably, they did – the framing felt like a pre-emptive extension of their gaze, slewing back to confirm that yes, we were viewing the women at a remove, rather than tightening to suggest, as the narrative context otherwise did, that this¬†was a male intrusion into a private, female space. Though not as overtly gratuitous as the surfeit of naked ladies, the direction in these moments felt equally dehumanising for its failure to recognise that women can have a gaze of their own; can be the active participants within a¬†narrative, rather than merely passive subjects.

Have You Met A Human Woman

In the field of developmental psychology, there’s a concept called object permanence: our¬†awareness¬†of the fact that things continue to exist even when we can’t see them. The fact that babies lack an understanding of object permanence is why they can be entertained by games like peek-a-boo or grow distressed when a parent or cherished object is out of sight: in their perception, whatever they can’t see has ceased to exist. Adults, of course, are meant to know better, but when it comes to the portrayal of women in film¬†especially, I often wonder if certain creators lack object permanence about their female characters: if they only exist in sight of men, and otherwise fade away.

It’s not just a question of our telling stories that are primarily about men as a cultural default, though this fact is often used, somewhat paradoxically, to excuse the very problem it represents. If the protagonist is male, the logic goes, then it only makes sense that we’d see any female characters purely through his eyes – an argument that conveniently ignores the many narratives with male heroes that still make time to fully develop and humanise their secondary male characters. Ladies in these stories are treated as accessories, not participants: their individuality is less important than their adornment of someone else’s triumph, and as such, what they do on their own time doesn’t matter.

When discussing the presence of¬†women in narrative, we often use the Bechdel Test as a basic means of gauging whether or not female characters both exist in plurality and engage¬†with one another. As yardsticks go, it’s something of a blunt instrument, in that it pays no attention to the type of character or representation on offer, retaining its usefulness only because the achingly low bar it represents too often goes unjumped. More recently, as a means of compensating for these limitations, the Mako Mori Test was coined to take account of the actual roles of women in narrative – a test of context rather than dialogue, and another important axis of representation. When it comes to the presence and characterisation of women in cinematic narratives, however, I’d like to suggest a third such tool: the Solo Test, which a film will pass if it:

a) shows a female character alone;

b) in a scene that neither begins with a man leaving nor ends with a man arriving;

c) that doesn’t focus primarily or exclusively on¬†her¬†physical attractiveness.

Though the Solo Test could quite easily be applied to other types of narrative, it is, I feel, of greatest relevance to film: a medium whose time constraints often necessitate smaller core casts than can be managed in serial narratives and whose culture is powerfully male-dominated, both in terms of creation and focus. The test is meant as a measurement of gaze and visual imperative, because,¬†to put it bluntly, I’m sick of watching films that will happily take the time to show us how male characters behave while alone or in private, but whose female characters only show up when the men do – women who are never viewed alone, in their own right, unless they’re getting out of bed (naked) or into the shower (naked) or otherwise caught in the act of cleansing¬†or dressing themselves. It’s astonishing how many films still treat female solitude with a sneaking-into-the-girl’s-locker-room-mentality,¬†as though the primary value in a woman alone is necessarily voyeuristic, her feelings relevant only inasmuch as they decode the mystique of her secret reactions to men.

There are, of course, contextual limitations to the usefulness of such a test – as, indeed, is the case with the Bechdel and Mako Mori. An equally useful variant of the Solo Test, for instance – and one that provides a helpful counterpoint when assessing the treatment of male vs female secondary characters – let’s call it the Sidekick Test – might focus on the depth of characterisation afforded to any non-protagonist by asking similar questions, such as:

a) Are they shown in isolation?

b) Do they have conversations and/or demonstrable interests that don’t involve the protagonist?

c) Are they defined by more than their sexuality?

Whether used separately or in combination, these tests can hopefully provide an interesting analysis of gaze, and especially cinematic gaze, as a means of assessing whose individuality and personhood is considered narratively relevant to a given story, or suite of stories, and whose is considered optional. Nor is the applicability of such questions restricted wholly to issues of gender; applying them on the basis of race Рor along multiple such intersections, as per comparing portrayals of white women with portrayals of women of colour Рcan provide an equally relevant (and revealing) analysis. Though the language of camera angles and comic book panels is crucial to the establishment of a visual gaze, the idea of a narrative gaze Рthose facts of characterisation that creators deem relevant vs their expression within the story Рis similarly important, and goes a long way towards describing the role and focus of non-protagonist characters.

While the bulk of characterisation comes through engagement and interaction, we shouldn’t¬†underestimate the importance of silence and solitude: the way a person behaves when the metaphorical cameras are off, when they exist for nobody but themselves. It’s in these moments that we see characters at their least guarded, their most honest, and if this space and privacy is routinely denied to women – if we see them only ever as others do, at a public remove, or else as voyeurs intent on their bodies – then we deny them personhood and object permanence both: we force¬†them to exist as performers alone, and never for themselves.

more of this, please

I first became active online when I was eleven or twelve, back in 1998; I’d just started high school. To use the internet, I had to go into my mother’s study and use a 56k dial-up modem that sounded like a series of cartoon pratfalls. My first proper blog, if you can call it that, was attached to my Elfwood account, after which I¬†progressed steadily¬†to fourms, private sites, and finally to actual blogging and collaborative platforms. I posted poetry, short stories, book and film reviews, and political opinions,¬†but though I got into plenty of arguments and even made a few friends, I doubt I had more than a dozen or so readers at any one time, and most of them were people I knew IRL. I was shouting into a void, but that was fine, because I’d never expected an audience: I just wanted to write, to get my thoughts out, and to put them somewhere that wasn’t a poorly-labelled Word document on a shared computer.

All through my teens, I kept it up. For a brief period during university, I even had my own paid website, called Wordwench, maintained and coded by my then-boyfriend. Though there were sometimes long hiatuses between posts, and despite the trail of abandoned sites and usernames I left behind me over the years, I always wrote, even when I didn’t know who I was writing for, or why, or whether anyone was listening. You can backdate my desire to be an author to the same year I discovered the internet, too; and maybe that’s significant, and maybe it’s not, but either way, even when I was too shy and paranoid to ever put my actual novel-attempts online, I kept writing them, kept blogging and arguing and posting opinions, because it never occurred to me not to. Aged sixteen, writing in response to a friend’s amazement at how much I wrote, I ended an otherwise wholly unmemorable poem with a single decent phrase:

“My words are a sonar, a path to be walked.

I write like a whale sings.”

And even though the sentiment now feels bombastic and self-aggrandising, at some base level, ¬†it still also feels true. I write as a form of self-navigation. I don’t know how not to write, how to just have thoughts unmediated by ink and script and keyboard. The older I get, the more I feel like a chimaerical creature, three-headed, trifurcated into distinct personalities – how I seem to strangers, how I seem to friends, how I see myself – whose only point of overlap is the part of me that writes; which is, perhaps,¬†the only real part. I so often feel dissonant within myself, but words are anchors, words are steel and sky and the blood that hammers me in place, the fire that keeps me functioning when all other sparks go out. When I have been depressed, sunk in dark trenches, lit only by small hopes as dimglowing and treacherous as anglerfish, it has always been three words, the same three words, that pull me out again: what happens next?¬†I thought it was a mantra I conjured in high school, words to sooth the moon from my eyes on endless insomniac nights, but years later, my mother told me I’d said the same thing in childhood, too, whenever a bedtime story ended. What happens next? my girlself asked, and perhaps that’s why she grew up to be a writer. How else could she find answers?

Because the truth is, stories never end; we just exit them a while, like passengers alighting a train with no final destination. There’s always a thing that happens next, and a thing after that, and a thing after that, most of them small, but a great many not; and these are the things we live for. And now, such a thing has happened to me: I’ve been nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer, alongside four other people I immensely respect – Abigail Nussbaum, Liz Bourke, Kameron Hurley and Mark Oshiro – and even though there’s been controversy in other quarters, such that part of me feels I ought to discuss it, in truth, with everyone who’s already contributed, I don’t feel I can add much more to the discussion, and so you’re getting this instead: a rambling Once Upon A Time about a girl who was bitten by words, infecting her with liticism, which tragically has no cure but a life spent writing; and how, all these years later, I find myself with an audience, and a peer group, and a place in a community, and some small, tangible proof of the fact that enough of you like what I write here that you nominated me, and so – thank you.

That’s all I wanted to say, really. Thank you. It means a lot.

*This post was sponsored and proofed by Grammarly, a free proofreading service. 

Warning: spoilers for The Killing (Danish version)

Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have been watching our way through all three seasons of The Killing – an amazing Danish crime show following Sarah Lund, a detective based in Copenhagen, as she investigates a series of politically connected crimes, each one of which forms the backbone of a particular season. The quality of the scripts, plots, acting and overall everything are astonishingly high, and I’d unhesitatingly rate the series as one of the single best crime shows I’ve ever seen. The final episode, however, has left me feeling deeply annoyed – not because it’s inconsistent with everything that’s come before, but for precisely the opposite reason.

Right from the outset, The Killing sets itself up as a gritty, no-nonsense thriller series: lots of political backstabbing with undertones of noir. The tropes in play are textbook – Lund is a single parent; she has a difficult relationship with her son, and is so obsessed with the job that, particularly in season one, her dedication sees the rest of her life systematically lost or broken; there’s an overriding theme of power corrupting even good men; and, crucially, all the primary victims are women: two raped and murdered teenage girls (Nana Birk Larsen from S1, Louise Hjelby from S3), a tortured and murdered lawyer (Anne Dragsholm from S2), and a kidnapped child (Emilie Zeuthen from S3) – and yet their execution is anything but. Lund is one of the more complex, compelling female detectives I’ve ever seen, played with incredible skill and subtlety by Sofie Grabol, and despite the traditional use of women in refrigerators to fuel the plot, just the fact that each death is dealt with, carefully and in detail, over the course of an entire season, is itself a humanising change from the endless parade of procedurals in which multiple such deaths are investigated and forgotten within the space of a single episode.

It’s also notable that, despite other thematic differences, key tropes recycle – and, indeed, feature prominently – across all three seasons: in particular, the good politician forced to accept the corruption of his peers for the sake of political expediency; the duplicitous political aide whose decision to withhold key information “for the good of the party” invariably leads to more deaths in the long run; the ruptured-but-repairing marriage of a couple trying to parent a young child or children while dealing with a crisis; and, of course, the steady disintegration of Lund’s personal life, which in S1 alone includes breaking up with her partner, an abortive move to Sweden, the loss of custody of her son, the death of a colleague, and, eventually, the loss of her job (albeit temporarily). Given the fact that S1 is 20 episodes long, whereas S2 and S3 are only ten each, the tropes it uses really do cast a long shadow over the rest of the series; which isn’t, I hasten to add, an entirely bad thing. As I’ve said, each season is incredibly well-constructed, and even though familiar themes and elements tie them all together, there’s still a real sense of tension and mystery to each whodunnit.

But where Lund’s personal life is concerned, it doesn’t take long to realise that her universe is a crapsack one. Important family occasions and crucial conversations with loved ones are invariably interrupted by urgent, work-related phone calls or summonses. If Lund makes a promise to meet with her mother, son or partner, you can bet she’ll either fail to make the date or be entirely preoccupied during it, with her early departure taken as a given. This self-destructive pattern of events is hardly unique to The Killing – the fact that I’ve long since thought of her as Wallanderesque is proof of that – but it does seem more unremitting than usual, not because Lund falls into a bleaker pit than other, similarly obsessive detectives (she doesn’t), but rather because the promise of recovery is never really dangled before her, either. Lund’s personal life is monotone: once her move to Sweden is called off midway through S1, we know that things have fallen apart forever. This pattern only continues in S2: not only does she grow increasingly estranged from her son and mother, but as her fledgeling love interests turns out to be the killer, it sort of hits home the point that Lund is not a character for whom things will ever work out.

And that’s entirely fine. What bothers me about the ending to S3, though – a plot-twisty scene in which Lund shoots the killer dead in cold blood, not because he attacked her, but because she lacked any evidence with which to convict him, a vigilante-style action that sees her fleeing the country to escape justice – is that it takes this phenomenon to an unnecessary and unrealistic extreme, both narratively and in terms of Lund’s character. Narratively, it’s a weaksauce decision: not only did Lund have a new lead and new suspicions about the killer having additional victims, but three other prominent characters had actual evidence to support her theory. Had Lund stayed to stand trial rather than fleeing – or had she refrained from shooting the killer at all – their collaboration would have been natural; instead, with Lund fled, none of the other parties have any reason ever to meet again, which ensures that the matter stays buried, and while that might fit with the overall theme of politics winning out over propriety, it feels like a cop-out designed to ensure a bleak outcome in the face of common sense. Similarly, I couldn’t help feeling that such a dramatic action was out of character for Lund: not only did the shooting come at a time when she had more to lose than ever – having just reconnected with her son, become a grandmother, accepted a cushy new job and rekindled an old romance – but as far as the rest of the series goes, we’ve never seen her run away from anything, and especially not the consequences of her actions. Even though her shooting of the killer felt forced to me, I didn’t think it implausible; but her fleeing from justice felt wholly out of character. Lund has always broken the rules in pursuit of justice; yet every time, we’ve seen her stay and face the music. That the final season ended with her escape was deeply irritating – a decision I felt was made, not because it was in the best interests of the plot, but to ensure that the whole series finished on a suitably bleak and gritty note.

Which is why, to finally come to the point, I had something of an epiphany tonight: that stories whose emotional outcome can be broadly inferred by what genre you’re in are almost always, on some fundamental level, going to disappoint me, because even though their individual events might surprise me, their actual endings won’t. All the way through S3 of The Killing, I kept on thinking, there’s no way this will end well. The absolute best that can happen is that they’ll save the girl –¬†because even gritty noir shows tend to flinch from killing nine year old girls in the final act! –¬†but otherwise, Lund is screwed, because she’s ALWAYS screwed.¬†And of course, that’s exactly what happened. Which isn’t to say I disliked The Killing – as I said earlier, it’s easily one of my favourite crime series. But while there were doubtless viewers for whom the ending came as an emotional suckerpunch, for me, it just felt like a bland continuation of the overall theme of bleakness; because once you firmly establish that there’s no room for Lund to end a season happily, then no matter how spectacular you make the cause of her unhappiness, past a certain point, I’m just going to struggle to find it in me to care.

And this made me realise, in turn, that I have just the same problem with romance narratives – or rather, with stories that are explicitly marketed as romance. By which I mean: if I know from the outset that Story X is a romance, then you’re simultaneously telling me the emotional catharsis of the ending – that the protagonists end up together, happily ever after. And sometimes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a story. But if I want to be surprised, there has to be some¬†emotional uncertainty. By definition, genre is always going to codify at least a few things about any given narrative. If I read a whodunnit, I can be pretty sure that a crime will be committed, and that at some point during the course of events, I’ll find out who the guilty party is. What isn’t certain is whether the criminal will be brought to justice, how the detective and/or protagonist will cope with it, and who’ll be hurt in the process. In other words, while I might know beforehand some of what happens, I won’t know how I’ll feel about it ’till afterwards, and that uncertainty¬†is what motivates me to get to the end.

Which is also why I tend to have a preference for romance narratives that appear in stories which aren’t earmarked as romance: because even though I natively want my favoured characters to end up together, the minute you tell me that the pairing is predestined, it takes away some of the clout of the finale, because it simultaneously removes the possibility of an emotional surprise. And sometimes that’s comforting; sometimes, as I’ve said, it’s what I’m after – just as at other times, I’m in the mood to feel cynical about life, the universe and everything. But the stories that really get under my skin are the ones that make me doubt; the ones whose climactic moments have me physically hunching forwards, desperate to learn what happens next – and a truly great story can make me forget what genre it belongs to. The first time I saw How to Train Your Dragon at the cinema, the climactic battle was so well done that, when Hiccup and Toothless fell through the sky, I actually forgot I was watching a children’s film, with all the narrative safeties that traditionally implies: I watched them fall, and my heart seized up, because just for an instant, I thought that one or both of them was going to die. The story was so well-crafted, I stopped watching through the lens of genre awareness and became completely immersed in the narrative, as awestruck and uncertain as if I were six years old, and for someone who spends as much of their life doing meta-analysis as I do, that’s no small thing.

So if this post has a point, it’s this: that, regardless of the genre in which you’re writing, emotional uncertainty is important. Audiences can tell the difference between fake conflict – aka, There’s Only An Obstacle Here To Make The Plot Work, Otherwise They’d Just Kiss On Page Ten And Get It Over With – and conflict that genuinely unsettles the characters; similarly, they can also tell the difference between forced bleakness – aka, We Decided This Story Was Going To Be Serious And Depressing, Therefore Nobody Is Allowed To Have A Happy Ending – and a story where tragedy feels organic to the narrative. It’s a subtle distinction at times, and as in all things fictional, YMMV, but far too often, I feel as though creators and audiences both fall into the trap of relying on the audience’s knowledge of genre to smooth over bumps in the plot and characterisation. After all, the human brain excels at filling in gaps: a lot of the time, we see what we expect to see, and if what we expect (for instance) is gritty compromise, then why stop and question the logic of Sarah Lund shooting an unarmed suspect when she had a new lead, a whole new life to live for, and several powerful, dedicated allies she could turn to for help? Easier just to shrug and say, well, that’s how this sort of story goes.¬†And as I’ve said, that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. But for me, it won’t ever really be a surprising thing – and sometimes, that’s a type of disappointment all its own.

*A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Grammarly, who offered to sponsor a writing-related post in return for an Amazon voucher valued at USD$50. I agreed to do so on two conditions: one, that I disclose that I was being paid, and two, that I actually liked the product. Which, from my limited usage, I do: ¬†some of the things it checks for, like use of the passive voice and particular grammatical constructions, are probably more applicable to formal or academic writing than informal blogging, but as a tool, I found it easy to use, and it’s certainly more thorough, and with a nicer user interface, than the spellcheck in Open Office. ¬†¬†

Trigger warning: some talk of rape.

“You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love ’till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other ’till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Love isn’t brains, children, it’s blood – blood screaming inside of you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”

– Spike, ¬†Lover’s Walk (S3E8)

To me, the above quote is one of the single best speeches in all of Buffy – it might even be my personal favourite. In his lone appearance in S3, Spike is forced into a brief alliance with Buffy and the newly-returned Angel, and instantly sees through their claims to be “just friends”. Superficially, then, his response is not only the emotional denouement of the episode, but a comment on their relationship.

Only, here’s the thing: Buffy and Angel do become friends. Their love has already reached its big romantic climax. Buffy has fought with Angelus, not Angel; they’ve only had sex once (the events of¬†I Will Remember You¬†are reversed, and therefore don’t count); and though they argue down the line, they don’t ever hate each other. The relationship Spike is describing doesn’t exist.

Or rather, it does – but not between Buffy and Angel. This entire speech is a neat foreshadowing of everything that happens between Buffy and Spike. They’re not friends; they never were. Buffy dies being loved by Spike – he collapses in grief at the loss – and then later, after she says she loves him, Spike dies for Buffy in turn. They fight and shag constantly through S6 – sometimes simultaneously – and frequently state their hatred for one another before then: in fact, this is the exact progression of events in Smashed and Wrecked, when they first have sex. In Dead Things, we even see them stand on opposite sides of the same door, reaching for each other, each one yearning against their better judgement – blood screaming inside them to work its will, while Out Of This World by Bush plays eerily in the background. When it comes to Buffy, Spike is unashamedly love’s bitch. This speech will never not be about them.

Buffy and Spike is my crackship. Not because they’re impossible together, but because they should be – and because, like crack, they’re unhealthily addictive.

Their relationship is every possible flavour of fucked up. From the moment Spike first shows up in S2, they’re enemies – but when Angelus tries to end the world, it’s Spike who helps Buffy defeat him. In S4, despite their mutual loathing, we go down the rabbit hole of their relationship twice – once in Something Blue, when Willow’s magic forces them together, and then again in Who Are You, where Faith flirts with Spike while wearing Buffy’s body, and we realise he’s equal parts angry and aroused at the prospect. In Goodbye Iowa, he even refers to Buffy as Goldilocks – a term of endearment he uses again in S6’s Gone, when the usage prompts Buffy to cut her hair short. But it’s not until S5’s Out of My Mind that he realises he loves her: a dream-revelation that throws him awake with a whispered, “Oh god, no. Please, no.” (Love isn’t brains, children.)

Some of what Spike does is deeply gross (the Buffybot) or outright indefensible (his abortive rape attempt) – and yet, I keep coming back to their relationship; as broken and dysfunctional as it is, it’s nonetheless compelling. Even now, I still can’t decide whether every loving, useful thing Spike does while unsouled – withstanding torture to protect Dawn, fighting on Buffy’s side, comforting her when nobody else even knows what’s wrong – either outweighs or is outweighed by those two awful, terrible things. Because, here’s the thing: we don’t blame Angel for the crimes he commits as Angelus. His soulless personality is so different to his human one that it’s easy to view them as a flipswitch binary: he’s either one or the other. Angel has a romantic relationship with Buffy; Angelus wants to torture, abuse and kill her. But Spike is much more ambiguous. His emotional evolution starts while he’s still unsouled, to the point where loving Buffy prompts him to get his soul back.¬†He’s so horrified by his actions in Seeing Red – the rape attempt – that, in his own words, he makes himself into the man she deserves: someone whose conscience would render him incapable of sexual violence.

And I just… OK. It’s impossible, literally impossible, to get away from the rape attempt (though apparently the fact that Xander did the same thing in S1’s The Pack is both forgiven and forgotten). You can’t ignore or downplay it, and while you can try and contextualise it for the purposes of discussing both Spike’s character and his relationship with Buffy, that still doesn’t change what he did. Thematically, though, there’s something significant in the fact that Spike stops himself – that he regains himself mid-assault, realises what he’s doing, and goes immediately to get his soul back. Because when Angel turns into Angelus after he and Buffy sleep together, the whole narrative becomes a metaphor for the fact that sometimes, men change once they’ve slept with you – they turn into monsters, and you’re left to pick up the pieces. It’s a theme that’s reiterated when Parker turns out to be a colossal douche, and to a lesser extent, when Riley starts seeing vampire gals on the side. Men turn into monsters, but overwhelmingly in the Buffyverse, they refuse to acknowledge it – except for Spike, who not only admits what he is, but actively tries to change.

See, the problem with Angel/Angelus being two extremes of a binary personality is that Angel is never held accountable (or at least, not by Buffy) for the things he does as Angelus. We never see him apologise: not for the way he treats her while evil, not for Miss Calendar’s death, none of it. Despite the fact that Angel’s whole redemptive arc is predicated on actively atoning for his vampire crimes, he still behaves as though it was all beyond his control. He doesn’t apologise for what he does to Buffy, because he’s not the one who did it – yet even if we consider that to be technically true, it still seems reasonable to expect him to seek forgiveness. Parker, however, has no such excuse: he’s a classic user, a weasel who avoids responsibility for his actions by claiming his motives were always obvious – that Buffy, or whichever girl he’s left broken-hearted, has simply misunderstood him. And then there’s Riley, whose response to being caught cheating is to issue an unbelievably selfish ultimatum: either Buffy can decide immediately that she still wants him around, in which case he’ll make an effort to earn back her trust, or she can stay angry and lose him forever. The speech that Xander gives Buffy at this point to convince her that Riley ought to stay is infuriating. He’s 1% right, in the sense that fairness doesn’t enter into it – Riley has given her an ultimatum, and as sucky as that is, she can’t abstain from making a decision – but given how incredibly shitty a thing Riley’s done by putting her in that position, he really doesn’t deserve Xander’s understanding; he certainly¬†doesn’t deserve Buffy’s. And despite his denials, it’s clear his real issue with Buffy is her greater strength: she didn’t need his protection, he felt insecure as a result, and when presented with an easy out – flying away to the Amazon if his demands weren’t met, instead of staying to make things right – he takes it.

And then there’s Spike.

He apologises for the Buffybot; he openly admits that he’s a monster. After his assault on Buffy, the first thing he does is try to redeem himself, because unlike every other man she’s ever slept with, he admits he’s done something wrong, and that he, Spike, is the culprit. And it’s not silent redemption, either: the guilt drives him mad, and when he comes back at the start of S7, not only the audience, but Buffy herself is left in no doubt that what he’s done – regaining his soul – has been an act of atonement: that he’s given himself a conscience, punished himself physically and mentally, and returned with no expectation of forgiveness to offer what help he can. And that, I think, despite everything, is at the core of why I keep coming back to Buffy and Spike’s relationship, why I can’t let go of it: as brutally fucked up as their history is, and despite the fact that Spike’s assault is arguably* the worst thing any partner has ever done to her, he’s also the only parter to accept responsibility for his actions, and to try and directly atone for them. Spike learns because of Buffy; he becomes a better man – or a better monster – through loving her, and I don’t think that’s true of any of the others; even Angel.

And speaking of Angel: sit down and think for a moment about the basis for their relationship. S1 is only twelve episodes long. Angel doesn’t appear in all of them, and most of the time, his presence is fleeting. He and Buffy don’t even kiss until episode 7, and two episodes later, we’re meant to believe he’s in love with her – and while we later learn he’s been watching her quietly ever since she was called (which is incredibly creepy and stalkerish), the short timeframe strongly implies that her love of him is a youthful infatuation, at least initially. They’re together for a while, but a bit more than halfway through S2, he turns evil, and Buffy sends him to hell. When he returns in S3, he isn’t back on the field (so to speak) until about episode 7 – prior to that, he’s recovering. Though they get back together soon afterwards, when Joyce speaks to Angel about the “hard choices” he and Buffy have ahead of them, he breaks it off with her – and as sensible as that decision ultimately is, the way he goes about it doesn’t sit well with me. However immature Buffy was at the start of their relationship, she’s grown up enormously by that point, and instead of treating her like an adult – someone capable of knowing her own mind and making her own decisions – he takes the choice away from her, effectively dumping her for her own good. This is something he does again by returning in S4 without letting her know he’s there, and it’s also something we later see Riley do, too: indulging in paternalistic, overprotective behaviour despite her superior strength and emotional autonomy.

A sidenote here about Xander:¬†I cannot even begin to express how much it bothers me that his rape attempt from S1’s The Pack is never addressed in the narrative. Despite remembering everything he did while under the influence of the hyena spirit, Xander feigns amnesia in order to dodge the consequences of his actions, putting him on the same page as Angel, Parker and Riley. Never mind the fact that, at this point – which is to say, four episodes into the first season – he and Buffy have known each other for all of a month or so, and that realistically, if a guy you’d known for such a short amount of time sexually assaulted you while in an altered state, ¬†it ought to make you wary of him afterwards¬†at the very least. But this doesn’t happen, which I take to be an enormous failure on the part of the writers. The fact that Spike’s assault is more forceful then Xander’s doesn’t detract from the vileness of the sentiment – nor, indeed, from the fact that, whereas Spike regains his senses mid-struggle and stops himself, Xander has to be physically incapacitated by Buffy. But despite the difference in their demonic aspects – Xander is possessed by a hyena spirit, while Spike is soulless – the two states nonetheless appear to be rather similar, in that both are guided by primal urges while still retaining their base personalities. It therefore seems a telling sign of Xander’s status as a Nice Guy that, whereas Spike seeks redemption for what he’s done while still soulless, Xander doesn’t so much as apologise even when back to normal. Xander, it seems, has less decency at times than someone who physically lacks a conscience.

Which is, I think, the best definition for vampirehood in the Buffyverse. Becoming a vampire invests you with bloodlust and demonic strength while stripping you of your conscience: what’s left is who you were before, but influenced by power and hunger and unfettered by consequences, which is the perfect explanation for Spike. In S5’s Crush, he’s implicitly likened to Quasimodo – a troubled outsider whose love for Esmerelda (that is, Buffy) can never be reciprocated, because his motivations in pursuing her are purely selfish – and yet, in the same conversation, we’re also invited to sympathise with him, for the sake of the effort he makes. Spike’s soullessness means that he’s without conscience, but unlike Quasimodo, he tries to grow one, and eventually succeeds by regaining his soul – but this being something of a chicken and egg dilemma, his attempts prior to that are equal parts creepy, misguided and genuinely touching. He makes a shrine to Buffy, furnished with clothes and photos stolen from her house. He tells her about Riley out of a mix of self-interest and real concern, but when he realises how deeply she’s been hurt by it, we see him express contrition and empathy. In S5’s Triangle, we even see him rehearsing apologies, complete with a dented box of chocolates. In Crush, he threatens her with death at Drusilla’s hands unless she confesses being attracted to him, but at the same time acknowledges how wrong his own feelings are. And when Glory captures and tortures him, he withholds the secret of Dawn’s identity at great personal cost, because he knows how much her loss would hurt Buffy. Without recourse to a conscience, he’s pulled in different directions at once, trying to do the right thing but failing at least as often as he succeeds. The demon in him is selfish, lustful and possessive, but the good man, the poet, so long dormant, is fighting for control.

And then there’s the issue of the Buffybot. More than once in the course of the show, a character spurned or crossed in love resorts to magic or science as a way to regain control: Xander once, with his wildly destructive love spell in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered;¬†Warren twice, first with his own robot, April, and then with the enslavement, attempted rape and actual manslaughter of Katrina; Willow twice, first¬†with her abortive attempt to curse Oz and Veruca, and then with her erasure of Tara’s memory; and Spike twice, once with his abortive plan to cast a love spell on Drusilla, and then again with the Buffybot. (And that’s before you count Anya’s work as a vengeance demon.) As skeevy and gross as the two sexbots are, for my part, I find them vastly less disturbing than Xander’s attempt to actually put Cordelia in his power – at least the robots aren’t real people. (We see from the Buffybot’s point of view in one episode, which was mechanical enough to convince me it lacks true sentience.) In fact, Xander’s spell is uncomfortably close to Warren’s plans for Katrina, in that both men actually used magic to try and control their ex-girlfriends; the fact that Xander never killed or raped anyone doesn’t put him that much ahead of the game when you consider not only how narrow his escape was, but the fact that he’s never really penalised for it. By contrast, Spike abandons his plan to curse Drusilla when he realises their split is his fault, not hers, an epiphany that Xander never has, and which stands as yet another instance of Spike admitting his faults and learning from his behaviour when other, ostensibly more moral characters fail to do so under similar circumstances.

There is, I suspect, a rather awful reason for this – and, indeed, for why Spike alone of all Buffy’s lovers and love interests accepts responsibility for his actions. It’s all down to narrative impetus: we, the viewers, are meant to sympathise with Xander, just as we’re meant to sympathise with Angel and Riley. At base, we “know” they’re all good guys, and as such, their contrition is implied. We don’t need to see them apologise, because the surrounding story is structured to suggest that they’ve already been forgiven off-camera. But Spike, by contrast, begins as a villain. His developmental arc is the most dramatic and varied in the whole show, culminating in a ¬†radical¬†heel face turn at the end of S6. We need to see his redemption, because otherwise, there’s no reason to believe that it’s taken place – and to an extent, this makes sense: if the audience can reasonably infer that something has happened, then it’s a waste of script and wordage to insert it. The problem is that, if the good guys never apologise on screen, then their goodness is called into question – which is why ¬†the most fucked up relationship in the whole show is simultaneously the most equitable. Neither Buffy nor the audience can assume anything about Spike’s intentions that we aren’t actually shown, and as a result, he has to work the hardest out of anyone to be seen as good.

Thus: when Angelus is trying to end the world, Spike is trying to save it. When Xander is busy making threats and lying, Spike is saving Giles and keeping his promises. When Riley is out paying lady vamps to bite him, or sulking because Buffy’s had the temerity to put her own need to be strong ahead of his need to feel manly and protective, Spike is telling her the truth and offering quiet, undemanding support. When Willow and the others are smothering the newly resurrected Buffy, Spike gives her an out. And when absolutely everyone betrays her at the end of S7, it’s Spike alone who keeps faith with her. From villain to invalid to lovelorn drunk; from glowering menace to chaotic, defanged outsider; from frenemy to lover to ex; from assailant to madman to stalwart, both Spike’s personality and his relationship with Buffy undergo the most development in the whole show. He’s done some truly awful things, but when it really matters and everyone else has abandoned her, it’s always Spike, and Spike alone, who’s there to watch her back.

*I say arguably, because Angelus’s crimes are pretty horrific, too, and YMMV in terms of which you consider to be worse overall: there’s no sliding scale for evil, no definitive catalogue with which to determine their heinousness objectively.

Some thoughts on Buffy, in no particular order.

1.

There’s an alternating pattern to the season finales/big bads that I’ve never noticed before: it switches back and forth between a massive, apocalyptic threat that’s billed as such from the outset, and personal vendettas that slowly develop into something more dangerous. S1 is the Master (apocalypse); S2 starts out as Spike and Dru, but culminates with Angelus (personal); S3 is the Mayor (apocalypse); S4 starts out with Spike, but culminates with Adam and the Initiative (personal); S5 is Glory (apocalypse); S6 starts out with the Trio, but culminates in Dark Willow (personal); and S7 is the First Evil (apocalypse).

And the thing is, off the top of my head, I can’t think of another show that does this. Overwhelmingly, modern TV series seem obsessed with the notion that each successive season finale has to be bigger than the last, which eventually leads to melodrama and the collapse of the show, because you can only go so big before things get ludicrous (the Doctor Who reboot being a case in point). Which isn’t to say that Buffy doesn’t escalate – it does. But it does so gradually, interspersing the big events with more intimate drama, and that’s something I really appreciate about it. Apart from aiding character development, it establishes a strong narrative rhythm and builds the tension season by season without ever making the constant danger feel monotone. I wish more shows did the same thing, or at least mixed it up a bit.

2.

I hate Tara’s family. I hate them with a passion I reserve for few things in the Buffyverse, because for a show that’s all about fighting Evil with a capital E, there’s really a lot of moral ambiguity going on. Should we forgive Angel for the crimes he committed while Angelus on the grounds that he lacked a conscience and was therefore effectively a different person, or do we hold him accountable for everything he ever did? And if we forgive him, do we then forgive Spike his trespasses while unsouled on the same grounds, even though he was capable of enough actual goodness in the same state that he arguably should’ve known better? And so on, and so forth – the point being, however, that Tara’s family are monstrous without the excuse of actually being monsters. They raise her to believe she’s evil and demonic purely as a means of keeping a leash on her; she stutters and cringes around them, and the big reveal as to why they spent nineteen years trying to break her spirit? Then men in her family want her home, to cook and clean and keep house for them, because they’re misogynist, sexist asshats. Which makes me want to STAB ALL THE THINGS.

3.

As a corollary of the above: the episodes I find hardest to watch – the ones that provoke an actual, bodily response in me, so that I have to squinch* away from the television – are all episodes about the abuse, abandonment and gaslighting tactics of friends and family. Ted, Dead Man’s Party,¬†Gingerbread,¬†Family, Hell’s Bells and Seeing Red all squick me in ways that other episodes just don’t. Something I find intolerable both narratively and and in real life is false accusation: people being blamed or framed for something they didn’t do, especially in a situation where their ability to respond or defend themselves is compromised. It makes me physically sick and furious, and so I struggle with these stories. I might well do a fuller examination of them later, especially Dead Man’s Party, which is a special kind of fucked up.

4.

Every single POC character in the show – and it’s not like there are many – is either unlikeable or evil from the outset (Rona, Mr Trick), an ally who’s eventually revealed to be morally ambiguous at best or traitorous at worst (Robin Wood, Forest), or someone whose ethnicity/accent is played for laughs prior to their death (Chao-Ahn, Kendra, Hus) – or sometimes a combination of all three (the Inca Mummy Girl). This is so incredibly shitty, I cannot even. As many others have said before me: Joss Whedon might be great at white feminism, but his racefail is spectacular.

5.

As a character, Dawn is portrayed as annoying, juvenile, awkward and whiny, yet the reason for this is never really addressed. Early in S5, it’s strongly implied that Buffy struggles to get along with Dawn because, despite her false memories of their childhood together, she doesn’t actually have the personal development to go with it: even though she believes in their joint history, emotionally, she’s still at step one. It’s not until she learns that Dawn is the Key that Buffy is able to recognise her own irritation for what it is, and to try to curb it appropriately: the privilege of an only child grating at the sudden and jarring transition to sisterhood. But when Dawn realises what she is, the full ramifications are never addressed: that despite all her memories of growing up as a human girl, she’s still emotionally an infant. By the end of S7, Dawn is only three years old in real time, and so has been on the emotional learning trajectory of a toddler while simultaneously going through all the angst and physical development of early adolescence. This has got to be the suckiest combination ever, and when you add in all the accompanying traumas she experiences in that time – learning her memories are false, the death of her mother, Willow’s magic addiction, Tara’s death, the death and resurrection of Buffy, the threat of removal by child protective services, multiple apocalypses and kidnappings – the fact that she’s even vaguely well-adjusted at the end of it all is a fucking miracle.

So, yeah. Don’t be so hard on Dawn. In a show where pretty much every character gets the absolute shit kicked out of them on a regular basis, she still gets an incredibly raw deal – but unlike everyone else, her pain is regularly dismissed in-show as teenage melodrama, even by characters whose own broken, demon-filled adolescences should’ve left them with more sympathy. And in return, we hate her for it.

More thoughts later!

*Squinch is a word I made up to describe the reaction I have to things that make me uncomfortable. It’s a combination of squirm and flinch.

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.