Posts Tagged ‘Thoughts’

I didn’t make it to Worldcon this year (as you can tell by the intolerable air of jealousy I’m suddenly generating) but thanks to John Scalzi, I’ve just had my attention directed towards this clip of Chris Garcia winning the Hugo Award for Best Fanzine. And as I watched it, all I could think was, this is why I love SFF; why genre pwns my soul. Because we give awards, not just to the people who make awesome things, but to the people who love awesome so much that they put time and effort and passion into intensifying, discussing and spreading the awesome. Because fandom is what continues to ensure that SFF isn’t just a label, but a community. And because a grown man can get up onto the stage on our biggest awards night in floods of tears, embrace everyone, forget not to swear, sit down crosslegged to hug his award and have a friend speak for him – and receive nothing but applause.

Because that is how we roll.

Reading through the second book of Ally Carter’s excellent Gallagher Girls series, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, on the bus home yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly struck by how the representation of schools in YA writing is, in many ways, reflective of the wider problems of modern education. Now, when it comes to the subject of education generally and high school in particular, I am not what you would call an objective commentator: I have passionate opinions, and I like to share them. I mention this by way of establishing from the outset that my perception of modern education and its problems are not necessarily universal. (I like to think it should be, but that’s another story.)

The point being, high school is problematic, and regardless of differing opinions on why that is or how it might be fixed, the simple assertion that  problems do exist is not a controversial statement. And so, while reading a book about a spy academy for teenage girls, it occurred to me to wonder why some types of school are held up as interesting, awesome and excellent in YA novels, while others either blend into the background or, at worst, are depicted as hateful, prisonesque institutions. At first glance, this is something of a ridiculous question: YA is about teenagers, teenagers go to school – is it any wonder, therefore, that depictions of education in YA should vary, too? Well, no: but probing a little deeper, it’s possible to discern an interesting pattern about the types of school on offer.

To start with, let’s consider the cool schools. These are places where the actual content of various classes is depicted as positive and interesting, not only to the characters, but to the readership – and more, where the skills they teach are of demonstrable use to the protagonists. These are the schools that cause real-world teenagers to read about them and think, man, I wish I went there, and what should be instantly significant about this is not that such schools exist, even hypothetically, but that their status as such is contingent on the combination of three factors in varying ratios: glamour, agency and relevance. Dealing with the foremost of these, it’s undeniable that cool schools train their students to be, well, cool. Carter’s Gallagher Academy is a school for spies; J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts trains witches and wizards; and, though they don’t attend schools in the modern sense, Tamora Pierce’s heroines nonetheless learn to be knights and police officers in institutional settings.

Undeniably, then, glamour is a factor: to borrow Monty Python’s favourite example, who wants to read a book about a school for chartered accountancy? But even so, there’s something significant in the narrative success of schools whose aim is to churn out graduates with qualifications for a particular career: the idea of educational relevance. Beyond the novelty of reading about single-focus schools, all these stories show students being trained for an identifiable purpose, taking on difficult assignments not just through their own adventuring (though this also happens), but because the structure of the institution demands that they do so. Regular homework, genuine danger, obedience to teachers and repetitious training are never omitted or skimmed for the sake of making school look like a cakewalk: instead, they are emphasised, because in a setting where teenage protagonists are allowed to have personal ambitions – and more, where these can be actively pursued through school – then all those educational necessities which in the real world are seen as tedious, pointless and intrusive suddenly become interesting, worthwhile and relevant. Put bluntly, it’s one thing to sit resentfully through hours of geography class without the slightest idea of when it might ever be useful, and quite another to read about a scenario where, in order to prepare for their future career as a globe-trotting spy, a teenage protagonist sits down to memorise all the world’s countries and capital cities. Sure, actually doing the memory work would be difficult, time-consuming and perhaps even dull, but the end reward – being a spy – would more than compensate for it.

And then there’s the question of agency: the fact that teenage attendees of cool schools are not only expected to know what they want from life, but are frequently allowed leeway in their efforts at pursuing it. By and large, cool school teachers don’t care about standardised testing: they care about the material, about preparing you for the real world; they stand up for their students, support independence, encourage critical inquiry and – most importantly – treat teenagers as though they’re intelligent enough to have real opinions. As a result, the students of cool schools get to have genuine adventures without being constantly told that doing so is impossible, illegal or irresponsible. Which isn’t to say that their actions never have consequences, or that no one ever gets punished for breaking the rules, or even that adults never call them idiots. What it does mean, however, is that there’s a general acknowledgement that the most important, powerful and significant moments of one’s secondary education do not necessarily take place in class or as a result of school-sanctioned activities, and that a certain amount of disobedience is to be, if not actively encouraged, then certainly expected as part and parcel of growing into an independent adult. Thus, while Professor McGonagall has no compunction about taking house points or assigning detention (for instance), we never see any evidence that particular crimes at Hogwarts have lasting consequences beyond the (drastic, rarely issued) threat of expulsion. At cool schools, there is no such thing as a permanent record, and if you can’t see the link between the freedom to make mistakes without endangering your whole future and an assertion of teenage agency, then I’d be so bold as to suggest that you’ve forgotten what high school is like.

So, to recap: cool schools have glamour. They make the students work hard, but towards well-defined goals that are actually relevant, both to the real world and to their personal ambitions. They are understanding of error: punishments are personal and immediate, rather than long-term and general. They have good teachers and interesting subjects, with an emphasis on curiosity and independent research. Students at cool schools have agency, and are treated like adults-in-training rather than merely teenagers. This, to my way of thinking, distinguishes cool schools in YA fiction from most actual schools, but you’re allowed to disagree. (Note: real world schools can still have awesome teachers. If I’m asserting any dissonance in that regard, it’s that awesome teachers in cool schools never have to answer to an underfunded, over-nannied bureaucracy and are actually well-paid for their services. Which, you know. Matters.) Hopefully, though, you’ll agree that the characteristics listed above, with the exception of glamour, are all good things.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that writers – that is to say, intelligent, creative people working in a profession that cares absolutely nothing for their school marks or qualifications  – have a tendency to question the current educational system. Without wanting to assume my own experiences to be even vaguely universal, I can’t have been the only teenager who knew that they wanted to write stories for a living (or play sport, or be a musician or an artist or a dancer), and who therefore dedicated thousands of hours throughout high school to personal projects utterly unconnected with anything on the curriculum. Quite arguably, the fantasy of cool schools is as much for the authors as it is the readers: what would our teenage years have been like if, instead of being forced to learn things we’ve never found a use for and have subsequently forgotten, we went to schools specifically structured around our interests? What if our passions hadn’t had to compete with our coursework – if every school was like the one in Fame, only geared to our personal interests? What if we’d been taken seriously as teenagers?

It’s a rosy-lensed hypothetical, to be sure. Back here in reality, even radical educational reform would never allow for the kind of schools we all secretly yearned to attend. But even so, our desires come through in our writing: testing the waters, trying to see what school could be like if people like us were in charge. Both Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier play with the idea of different secondary systems: in Liar, the protagonist attends a class called Dangerous Words, where censorship and media dishonesty are discussed, while in Fairy, subject-centric schools are run on lines designed to foster traits valued in their particular professions, so that the rules of a sports high emphasise teamwork, discipline, obedience, punctuality and coordination over everything else. It goes without saying that YA novels feature a certain amount of escapism, but while the base assumption about teenagers is that they all want to escape from school all the time, the idea that they might be taking refuge in stories about better schools is not nearly so normative.

And when, in such novels, the teenage protagonists do rebel against school, it’s usually for very good reasons: either the school itself is terrible, or it has become terrorised. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, for instance, Marcus sets himself up in opposition to authority because his rights are being violated: government politics are interfering with freedom of speech, his best teacher is being muzzled, and the principal has started using particular students as informants. In Libba Bray’s trilogy about Victorian schoolgirls, Gemma Doyle and her friends use magic, courage and cleverness to make lives for themselves beyond what society expects of them as women, escaping the confines of a college that, for all its sorority, only wants to turn them into wives. To quote the final book, The Sweet Far Thing:

“They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.” 

Which brings us, finally, to the traits of mediocre schools in fiction: how are they characterised? Usually, it’s enough that the characters have more important things in their lives than what goes on at school: that they’re learning elsewhere, and – more particularly – that such external subjects are of greater interest and relevance than the content of their classes. The characters in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, for instance, are both exceptional individuals and largely self-taught: Betty is a master of disguise, Luz is an inventor, DeeDee a chemist, Oona a hacker, and Ananka an observant intellectual. While it would be foolish to ignore the glamour factor of these interests, what’s important is that the girls are independent, resourceful and clever, pursuing their passions in their own time precisely because a traditional school environment would only limit them.

As I’ve previously had cause to mention, science tells us that the human brain continues to develop throughout our teenage years and doesn’t actually settle until sometime in our twenties. The upshot of this information – or at least, one of the social upshots – is that many adults consider their suspicions about teenage childishness to be correct. This is why schools and universities are compared to daycare centers: because students cannot be trusted to act like adults, must be coddled and protected and talked down to, protected from agency and relevancy and all the danger that comes from actually acting like an independent person held to be responsible for your own actions. Never mind that the same research about brain development talks about the power of teenagers to sculpt their own identities by exercising their intellect – by thinking, by acting, by engaging with the world – and the far from radical notion that a good way to encourage this behaviour might be to, you know, treat teenagers like adults. Oh, no: their brains are not ready! No one should do anything that matters until they’re twenty-five!

But how can the brain develop if the person attached to it is only ever treated like a child?

And this is why, to come to the long-awaited point, the depiction of schools in YA is so reflective of the current problems with Western education: both narratively and in terms of the real world, writers and readers understand the disconnect between what school is meant to achieve, and how it actually works. Passionate students must follow their interests outside the classroom. Adventurous, inquisitive, questioning students are disproportionately punished in the long term for misdemeanours that are, at base, attempts at critical thinking and independence – skills that schools are theoretically supposed to foster, but which in practice they actively suppress . Average students drift through classes without a sense of either purpose or agency, unable to find meaning in lessons that most of us forget by the time we’re twenty, and which have no bearing on anything they might care about otherwise or be interested in doing.

And so they turn to fiction: stories where the schools are genuinely good; or where, outside of school, there’s a means of learning relevant, interesting things with friends; or where, if the school is terrible, there’s a way of fighting back. Over and over, we tell ourselves stories of how things could and should be different, to the point where novels – and through them, authors – are in a sense picking up the shortfall left by school itself: suggesting interests, provoking passions, encouraging dreams and critical thinking and courage and independence, proving that there are at least some adults who understand that the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.

So governments: if you’re out there, and you want to really improve your education systems? You could do a lot worse than asking some YA authors (and – gasp! – teenagers) what they think. Because in the end, we never resented  school for being school. Instead, we resented it for all the things it should have been, and could have been – but wasn’t.

As has been mentioned previously, I took it upon myself last month to reread all fifteen volumes of Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry series – or rather, to reread the first thirteen books in preparation for broaching the final two. Reaching the end of a story you’ve been following since adolescence is always a precarious act: for any number of reasons, the potential for betrayal and disappointment is enormous. I won’t lie, internets. I was nervous. But despite those fears, the ending made me cry, the plot was skillfully was closed out, and I walked away with a feeling of profound satisfaction. Roald Dahl once wrote that “no book ever ends when it’s full of your friends”, and I’ve never felt this to be truer than in the case of Deverry, if only because the entire premise is one of reincarnated characters – as long as they keep being born, their stories will always continue. In final paragraphs appended to the glossaries and pronunciation guides of almost every volume, as well as in quick asides throughout the narrative proper, Katharine Kerr has adopted the voice of Cadda Cerrmor (as the last book names her) – a writer inhabiting modern-day Deverry who she credits as the ‘real’ author. It’s a small detail, but one which lends a wonderful balance to things. Through all its twisting timelines, the series is as much about the history of Deverry itself as it is the myriad lives of the characters, and by providing a glimpse of that country’s future, Kerr has imbued it, not just with a sense of lineage, but potentiality.

In that sense, there’s tremendous significance in the small details which help to close out the series. Though Branna’s invention of the spinning wheel and Neb’s discovery of germs might seem like small things when placed alongside dragons and the end of the Horsekin war, we still experience a little frisson of excitement on hearing them mentioned:  a recognition of the seeds of modernity, and an unshakable sense that Deverry is one of those rare worlds which keeps on turning even in the absence of a reader. Though there are battles, false goddesses and magic aplenty in Kerr’s series, we’re never fooled into thinking that the fate of all Deverry hangs on any one of them – or rather, if it does, then not in the traditional way.

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right. Tolkien, as always, gets something of a free pass for having invented the trope, but even in his case, the whole point of Middle Earth’s elaborate backstory is that everything has already happened: the climactic battle with Sauron is literally the last hurrah of a world in decline, a handover between a magical, imagined past and our own, human future. But where Tolkien was fully cognisant of the shape of his own story, many subsequent authors copied his pattern without, perhaps, a full appreciation for its consequences. Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

The different cultures and races present in Deverry, while seemingly cast in traditional molds – humans, elves, dwarves, dragons, shapeshifters and hordes – are each dealt with in respectful, original ways. Though the elves have long since lost their fabled cities and are reduced to living as nomadic plainsdwellers, Kerr doesn’t fall into the trap of making their previous civilisation a perfect one, even though we still mourn its loss. Rigidly maintained caste systems and a fearsome body of magician-priests stood side by side with beautiful architecture and advanced magics, contrasting sharply with the comparative egalitarianism of their nomadic descendants. Though an elven royal family has been maintained even down the long years of exile, it has never held any special power, being more a ceremonial acknowledgement than anything else. As the elves grow settled again, reuniting with their lost colonies and living openly alongside humankind, there’s a sense of genuine loss: not just for the end of an era, but in the slow, encroaching return to their old monarchy, as Prince Dar becomes increasingly important in response to the Deverrian respect for kings.

At the other end of the scale, the Horsekin and Gel da’Thae, while cast as the villains both historically and in the more present struggles, are never reduced to the role of bogymen. Though undeniably savage in parts, their culture is whole and internally consistent, and as much damaged by their past actions in some respects as was the elven civilisation they destroyed. The bard Meer is a beautiful example of this, not only because he’s a genuinely compelling character, but because his blind devotion to false  lore confronts us with the damage that results when knowledge is lost or destroyed, or when actions are undertaken in ignorance. To a greater or lesser extent, all the cultures of Deverry suffer this particular affliction. Records have been lost, oral traditions have become mired in half-truth, and the steadfast commitment of one character or another to their chosen way of life is always threatened when they encounter other cultures. Just as the shapeshifting Drwgi contrast the dwarves both elementally and in terms of identity, so too do the differing human communities – the free, isolated families of the Rhiddaer, the feudalistic Deverrians and the democratic yet slave-trading Bardekians – contrast each other. Though some practices and thoughts are held almost universally in contempt or esteem, there are always exceptions. Despite what the characters might believe, nothing is fixed.

This sentiment comes out particularly in how the series handles religion. Just as Raena and Rocca, devout priestesses of Alshandra, display pure, heartfelt faith in a being who, unbeknownst to them, only ever pretended to be a goddess, Meer’s trust in his sacred traditions provides a sharp counterpoint to the faith of Deverry men and women, whose deities, if not actually malevolent entities in disguise, were still only ever a product of belief, and not the other way around. Though the only true zealots we ever encounter are devotees of either Alshandra or Aranrhodda, we’re nonetheless forced to ask ourselves why we find their beliefs so discomforting. It’s not just the content of the rituals which matters, nor even, to a certain extent, the violence with which those beliefs are pursued. Rather, it’s our knowledge of whether particular beliefs are true, beneficial, benign, false and/or hostile which ultimately shape our reactions. The dweomer of the Light is both true and beneficial- representing the great Light that shines behind all the gods – while the worship of most established deities, if ultimately false, is still benign. Aranrodda’s worship is equally false, but hostile, concerning itself with vengeance and malfeasance; the same is true of Alshandra, but to a much greater extent. At the far end of the continuum is the dark dweomer, being both true – the actual counterpoint to the Light – and hostile in its practices. As Deverry is a fantastic place, we are in a uniquely objective position when it comes to passing such judgement on the beliefs of other people. In the real world, of course, things are never so simple – but then, the people of Deverry are all real in their own minds: they cannot judge as we do, and so act largely in ignorance of truths they cannot possibly know.

Sexuality – particularly as relates to feminism – is another main theme of the books. Though there is no one definition of strength, many of the strongest characters are female, almost all of whom must struggle to follow their own desires in opposition to various cultural demands. A throwaway Cadda Cerrmor line in one of the later books, noting that the stories are set in a time before women learned to control their pregnancies through the dweomer, pointedly underlines the reality of life without contraception. If the series can be said to contain a dearth of women who are willing mothers, this is only because we’re witnessing a society in which willingness has absolutely nothing to do with motherhood, even for those who embrace it. Lacking any control over their own pregnancies in a society where producing heirs is paramount, women have children as a matter of course: not only is doing otherwise almost impossible, but wanting to remain childless is unthinkable. By focusing on women who actively challenge this mentality, Kerr might seem to modern women, who have a choice in childbearing, to be pushing an agenda: but in fact, she only demonstrates the process by which they came to have that choice. However we might judge a character like Dallandra, for instance, we cannot help but be pierced with rage and sympathy at the plight of Bellyra, a fiercely intelligent queen driven to suicide by a combination of royal imprisonment, a well-meaning but careless husband and, significantly, post natal depression.

Though possessed of original magic, brilliant characterisation and memorable storytelling, in the end, it’s the worldbuilding, history and cultural commentary I love most about Deverry. By creating a world with a unique sense of its own past, present and future, Katharine Kerr has succeeded in building a real place – a sprawling, fascinating realm adjacent to our own, and made accessible through the mother roads of mythology, imagination and truth.

I’ve just read this wonderful post by N. K. Jemisin, about – among other things – how she became an epic fantasy fan. Every geek I’ve ever met has a story, not like this, but an origin myth: the Tale of the Turning Point, wherein the first seeds of their fascination were sown. And somehow, just by reading it, a different story has fixed itself in me, and as I can’t think of anything else to do with that story but tell it here, I will.

So:

There is a door in your heart. It wasn’t always there. But when you were a child, you dreamed the door, walking the hallways of your own blood with outstretched hands until suddenly, there it was! You didn’t open it straight away, though. The door is a question, and once asked, it can never lie unanswered. Most of us creep up to our door -contemplating it in odd moments, perhaps, or resting a tentative palm on its wood, daring ourselves to one day turn the handle. And when we finally do, it’s no one thing which prompts us, but a natural act, as familiar a motion as brushing our own hair.

Behind the door is a room – not empty, as we might expect, but heaped with all the loves and lessons of childhood. Though precious, it is also cluttered, and so we set about cleaning house, each of us according to our nature. But whether we cling to some things or discard them all, the end result is an emptier room than there was before, sweet and clean in anticipation of being filled up again. And where before our childhood passions ruled our hearts according to whim, now we have each been given a door, and mastery over the things which pass its threshold.

But even so, who can long resist the lure of an empty room? Flush with the novelty of our newly-opened hearts, we fill them indiscriminately with wild and glorious things, with magpie-treasures and scraps of lore, feathers and thoughts and rags, and if some of these things are perhaps, in truth, not equal to our impression of them, then that is only right, just as any colour in an empty room, no matter how gaudy elsewhere, serves to brighten it. And because of our love for them, these first possessions swell with pride and fill the room near to bursting, until the very door itself strains against its hinges and threatens to break.

Rather than let this happen, we dim our passions, shrinking them back to a manageable size. Our love is not less – in fact, our hearts have grown – but now, we are more judicious in its bestowal. Once again, we consider the furnishings of our secret room, and set about reordering them. Perhaps we only tweak a thing here or there; perhaps we throw everything out and start anew. But either way, we must always remember that the room and its fittings are destined to change from this point on: that what fills it now did not always fill it before, and that this is simply what it means to live. Not without very good reason should we disdain old loves, nor should we take lightly any decision to lock the door, no matter if our purpose is to prevent intrusion or escape. The heart was built to be many things, but a prison is not among them.

The door is a riddle, and one to which we do not know the answer. Not yet. But one day – and that day comes differently for all of us – we will cross its threshold for the last time. We will turn our key in the lock, switch off the lights and gaze out a window that wasn’t there before. And if we are very lucky, the sight of what lies beyond will make us smile.

But that’s another story.      

Apparently, I just can’t shut up this week. Which is odd. Because usually when I write long, link-strewn blogs about Important Politicky Stuff, it acts like a mental catharsis, allowing my opinions to recede to the hindbrain, there to simmer quietly. This week, however, everything has snowballed forwards, forcing me to keep blogging. I understand completely if you’re sick of this, in which case, I apologise. Possibly this whole outpouring is nothing more than the fevered byproduct of being stuck at home with a cold. But before my inevitable return to sloth, I have (at least) one more thing I want to discuss on the topic of feminism, criticism and YA reviews: the question of intentionality vs interpretation.

It’s long been an acknowledged that no story has only one correct interpretation. True, statements made by the author might be viewed as slightly more canonical – for lack of a better word – than those of other commenters, particularly when it comes to the semantics of worldbuilding, but by and large, we understand that it is entirely possibly for readers to come up with interpretations of the books they read that had never occurred to the authors, and which they certainly didn’t include on purpose. Where such discoveries are positive and/or thought-provoking, the vast majority of authors will accept them with gracious glee, happy to have a critical readership who approves of their storytelling. But when it comes to negative interpretations – no matter how thought-provoking – we authors have a tendency to play the intentionality card. We try to explain what we really meant, to insinuate either openly or subtly that the reviewer has simply missed something crucial in the narrative or brought their own, biased assumptions with them, and the thing is, we won’t always be wrong. There is, after all, a world of difference between critiquing a book on the basis that you found problems with it, and critiquing a book on the basis that you wish the author had written a different book entirely, or that you just don’t like the genre. But even allowing for such problems of mismatched readership, we are left with considerable room for readers to legitimately identify negative themes in the stories they read, even where those themes directly contradict the intentions of the author.

Recently, I had something of an epiphany with regard to racism, viz: declaring myself to be anti-racist, no matter how deeply I adhere to the sentiment, does not magically prevent me from subconscious racism. I am not a perfect being. I make mistakes, and more importantly, I am a product of the culture in which I live – a culture which, sadly, is less than perfect when it comes to embracing  diversity. Knowing this, I try to identify my mistakes and then learn from them: I want to be a better person, and that takes constant work. I am acutely aware, for instance, of the fact that there is only one non-white member of the cast of Solace & Grief, and while I didn’t consciously set out to engage in tokenism, any criticism of the novel along those lines would be entirely justified. I cannot unwrite what I’ve already written; I cannot unpublish what I’ve already published; and even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to. What I can do, however, is acknowledge the problem and try to do better next time. The fact that I made a mistake doesn’t make me a racist – but declaring myself not to be racist doesn’t prevent me from making mistakes, either.

Which brings me back to the question of feminism in YA novels, and the debate surrounding negative reviews. YA paranormal literature is currently dominated by female authors, a vast majority of whom would – I suspect – be offended by the suggestion that their novels could be seen as perpetuating anti-feminist sentiments. Certainly, some have taken public affront at criticism of their books for exactly that reason, as was the case when Jackson Pearce reacted to the assertion that Sisters Red encouraged a victim-blaming mentality by publicly explaining her own intentions on the blog in question.

A brief aside, before we go any further: my husband and I, like any normal couple, argue. Because he is a philosophical logician and I am a slightly crazy author, however, these everyday arguments frequently overlap with multiple pedantic meta-arguments about the differences between what was actually said and what we meant to say. And there is a difference, sometimes a very crucial one: it might not matter most of the time, but as soon as one of us phrases something such that the other person is offended, we both have to stop and separate out the intention from the effect. It’s no good just dismissing the other person’s outrage on the grounds that we meant something entirely different – the fact is that we’ve caused distress, and the most dickish thing you can do at that point is refuse to apologise or even discuss it simply because that wasn’t what you meant.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Despite the fact that I love YA, there’s still a large number of popular novels I haven’t yet read – or which, if I’m honest, I don’t intend to read, unless it’s to justify my engagement in conversations where they continue to crop up. I believe in making up your own mind about something firsthand, rather than just taking the popular word for it, but if twenty different reviews by intelligent, adult women all complain about the same problems of anti-feminist sentiment in the same subset of YA novels, then I’m not about to dismiss them out of hand. And if, as an author, you take offense at the idea that something uglier than what you intended is being talked about in connection with your novel: well, offense is your prerogative, but the fact that you wrote something doesn’t mean you get to play intentionality as a trump card in every subsequent debate. You can intend all you want, but when it comes to debates about sexism, racism, homophobia and eurocentrism in the wider SFF community – or when it comes to discussions of rape culture and alphaholes in the wider romance community, for that matter – the record is pretty clear on the fact that these negatives cultures do exist; that they are perpetuated subconsciously more than actively; and that we need to discuss them if they’re ever going to be fixed.

You, personally, are not being called an anti-feminist: certain aspects of your work are. And if you can’t appreciate that distinction – if you continue to try and prejudice intentionality over interpretation every time someone takes offence – then perhaps you shouldn’t be in the debate to begin with. But regardless of your participation, that debate will continue to be held. Because it matters. Because we care. And because perpetuating a culture of YA novels whose heroines are being sold short is not something we want to do.

Back when I was a teenager, the prospect of turning into an adult troubled me. Surely, I thought, it must involve some sort of brainwashing: what else could possibly explain such a drastic shift in priorities? At best, the process seemed to involve forgetting adolescence more than learning adulthood, and what was worse, I couldn’t see an intermediary phase. One minute, you were a normal person, happily making mock of authority and sleeping through class; the next, you had an actual job and a proportionally decreased sense of humour. It seemed like such an unreal metamorphosis that despite all evidence to the contrary, I half-believed it couldn’t happen to me. Though my body might age, inside I would always be the same person I was at nineteen, forever hovering on the cusp of adulthood without ever properly crossing over.

I was wrong, of course, but it’s taken me until now to understand why.

At the time of this writing, I’m twenty-four years old. As a teenager, I never used to think about what being in my twenties would mean beyond the advantages of legalised drinking and enough disposable income to afford it as a passtime. Sure, I had plans for the future, but they were plans for me – for the person I was, a person I couldn’t actually imagine changing – and therefore disconnected from any notions of age. Besides, being in my twenties wasn’t the problem: twentysomethings weren’t old (or at least, not too old) and compared to my parents, teachers and lecturers, they weren’t actually adults, either. Perhaps that’s why I essentially looked forward to my twenties as something of a static state: except for the necessary profusion of twenty-first birthdays I could anticipate attending, nothing of adult significance would actually happen. I would study, socialise and carry on much as I always had, but without the hindrance of parental supervision. If someone had told me then that I’d be engaged at twenty and married the next year, I would have told them they were an idiot. Marriage was something adults did, and therefore high up my list of things I planned to avoid. Happily, it didn’t work out that way.

Near the end of high school, my favourite teacher took it upon himself to try and forewarn our history class about the perils that awaited us in the Real World. Seated on the edge of his desk and smirking only a little, he informed us, as adults seemed wont to do back then, that Life Would Go By Quickly. We might have planned on being young forever, he said, but sooner than any of us expected, we’d be receiving our first wedding invitations, and after that, there’d be christenings to attend. We laughed, but there was a gleam in his eye that put an edge to that laughter. Could he be right? Despite my determination not to grow up, I thought about that moment often in the following years, not least of all before my own wedding. As the first of my friends to tie the knot, I had unexpectedly caused the first half of his prophecy to come true. But that still didn’t make me an adult. Did it?

The truth is, my twenties have proven to be more significant than I ever imagined, not least because my definition of significance itself has changed. Slowly but surely, other friends have gotten married or engaged, announced pregnancies or split up, come out or moved countries or changed jobs. And slowly but surely, I’ve changed, too. I don’t remember the first time I decided to spent a quiet Friday night indoors rather than going out with friends, or what prompted me to start shopping with the intention of keeping a full cupboard rather than only ever buying the ingreedients for specific meals. But now, my end-of-week celebrations are as often held at home as not, and even when I haven’t been to the supermarket, there’s always enough food in the fridge for lunch. After years of being told by my mother to tidy as I go and thinking it a waste of time, suddenly, it’s starting to feel like common sense. The house still exists in a regular state of mess, but a lesser mess than it was even a year ago, and I’ve started cleaning more regularly. Where once I used to put off unpalatable tasks for as long as possible, now I find myself trying to get them out of the way. Friends come over for dinner more often than for parties.

And that’s just the obvious stuff.

There is no brainwashing, flip-switch moment to adulthood. There never was. There never will be. Trying to explain to my teenage self about the satisfcation of cleaning the house on a weekend would inevitably produce as skeptical a response as if she tried to convince an even younger Foz that playing with toy horses could be anything other than fun. No matter how long we’ve been alive or how much the process of living has changed us up to a certain point, somehow, we humans continually manage to convince ourselves that the only the way we feel right now is real: that being happy with ourselves is enough to make any further development impossible. But we are all changing constantly. The fact that I no longer play with my toy horses doesn’t mean that I was wrong ever to do so, or that the rightness I felt as a teenager was illusory: it just means that Foz-Now is different to Foz-Then, despite our being made up of the same essential components. And right now, at the tail end of a week which, for one reason or another, has made me feel that perhaps I am an adult after all, or at least firmly on my way to becoming one, it seems that the greatest threat to people of different ages understanding one another lies in the subconscious assumption that there is such a thing as just the right amount of life experience; and that too little or too much makes us either callow idiots or forgetful fogies.

The paradox of being human is that, once we learn something, we can’t unlearn it; but until we’ve learned it, we can’t imagine what the lesson will feel like. Now that I’m a twentysomething, I can’t go back to what I was before; but until they roll around, I don’t know what further changes my thirties will bring, either. I want to go forwards, but not at the expense of forgetting who I was. Because underneath all my old concerns about brainwashing lurks a deeper fear: that somewhere down the track, I could change into a person of whom my earlier selves would actively disapprove, not just because I was older, and therefore somewhat alien, but because my age had lead me to view my youth – or rather, the motives and passions of my youth – with contempt. Growing up no longer concerns me. Growing ignorant does.

Why do we remember some things, and not others? Mixed in with all the significant moments and epiphanies are any number of mundane recollections, things that stand out now only by dint of how much life has changed since then. I remember running across the tarmac at primary school, my half-empty bag swinging side to side across my shoulders. I remember kissing my first boyfriend by the science block at the end of recess, simultaneously thrilled and embarassed at the intimacy. I remember walking to the train station at the end of innumerable Year 12 days, fantasising about the end of school and the music I’d play to celebrate being free. I remember the first time I saw the man who would one day became my husband, shyly tidying his philosophy books off the dining-room table in a borrowed apartment. Small things. But they matter.

All these moments that make up my life are no less right for having been superseded. The girls I used to be are no less real for having been made to grow up. One day, the same will be true of the woman I am now. But until then, I write this down. I write, so that I might remember. And maybe – just maybe – it will be enough.

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.

First, some links:

Clay Shirky on the collapse of traditional newspapers and the need to find alternative means of journalism;

Natalia Morar, who organised an anti-government flashmob on Twitter and is now hiding from arrest;

Oprah and other celebrities battling to be the first on Twitter with a million followers; and

SR7,  a company for hire that specialises in digging up dirt on employees for other companies.

Now, some thoughts, in no particular order:

 1. Journalism is essential. People both like and need to know what’s going on. However, journalism is not a naturally occuring resource. People must go out, obtain information, then analyse, write and relay it, a time-consuming process traditionally deemed deserving of monetary compensation. No matter how easy it is to copy an existing source online, that source first needs to come from somewhere; and before that, someone must decide that the source itself is newsworthy.

2. As has always been true of all creative endeavours (singing, painting, dancing), there are vastly more people who participate in these activities than are paid to do so. Largely, this is a question of enjoyment, creative expression and ease. Blogs have tapped into this in a big way. Most bloggers make no money. Many blogs are read by only a tiny handful of people known to the writer, or not at all. And yet, they are prolific, because even without monetary compensation, the vast majority of people simply enjoy writing them. Many readers employ a similar logic.

3. Despite having been around for a number of years, Twitter has only just hit the collective journalistic hivemind. Recent weeks have seen an explosion of articles on how it is being used, why it is damaging people, whether the concept is utterly pointless, and the implications of its ongoing development. Diverse examples of all these include:

– the now-notorious #amazonfail incident and its aftermath;

the Times bemoaning Twitter as a ‘rolling news service of the ego’ and then promptly signing up;

a warning that social networking sites are damaging kids’ brains at the same time Twitter is being added to the Brittish school curriculum; and

– the use of Twitter in both the Mumbai bombings and hyperlocal news sites.

4. Writing on the collapse of newspapers as we know them, Clay Shirky sums up the process of social revolutions thusly: “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.” He concludes by saying that what we need is a “collection of new experiments” to help us figure out how journalism – as distinct from newspapers – can keep working.

5. TV news isn’t going anywhere. Neither is radio, which has survived bigger technological upheavals. Print journalism is failing because the internet has ruined its monopoly on exclusive media. Unlike free-to-air radio and television, which have always had to contend with the notion that a majority of listeners won’t be paying directly for their content, newspapers have thrived as a one-to-one exchange: a set amount of money per customer per paper, with very few exceptions. It’s not that the internet devalues the written word, or that making journalism freely available is inimical to notions of profit: it’s that, without being able to charge on that one-to-one basis, newspapers cannot command anything like their previous volume of revenue. They’ve simply never had to compete with a medium that could do the same thing, better, for a fraction of the cost. And now they’re floundering.

6.  Spare a moment to consider the notion of Digital Rights Management – DRM – and its relationship to the newspaper fiasco. Although concerned parimarily with digital music copyright, the ongoing debate about encryption for games and, with the advent of the Kindle and other such devices, the pirateability of digital books and audiobook rights, the underlying problem is the same in both instances: defining notions of ownership for both users and creators in an era where digital copies are readily available. Books in particular have always been subject to the whims of borrowing and lending without falling apart, but might their new digital formats change that? Or are they an exception to the rule? For long stints of time, it’s nicer to read on a page than a screen, but what if screens are improved, or some other technology developed that is just as comfortable to use as paper? Will we still crave tactile connections

7. People might not like to pay for content, but as WikipediaYouTube and Linus Torvalds have already proven, many are ready, willing and able to create content for free. Open source principles clearly predate the current revolution, and consciously or not, they’re informing it. Remove money from the equation (or at least, give it a drastically reduced emphasis) and gaze anew at the crisis of print journalism. Blogs, tweets, viral news: many of the new news staples are ungoverned, unruly, disparate products of the hivemind – flashmobs, crowdsourcing – but that doesn’t mean they go utterly unpoliced or work without change or criticism. Hey, it’s a revolution, folks. We’re breaking and making at the speed of thought. Give us time to learn the ropes.

8. Way back in 1995,  Major Motoko Kusanagi once mused, “And where does the newborn go from here? The net is vast and infinite.” In 2006, she reaffirmed the sentiment. We’re not yet ghosts in the shell, but let’s keep an open mind. The future rests in us.

Somewhere in my workplace lurks a young woman, who, whenever I glimpse her at functions or in the lift, I cannot help but think of as the Dollybird. Note that I’ve never spoken to her, although we have occasionally swapped awkward smiles. My only knowledge concerns her wardrobe. Which is pink. Very, garishly, pink, complete with extraordinarily high heels, an abundance of gold ornaments, heavy make-up and violently peroxided hair. It’s a Barbie look, and while it’s so far distant from my own tastes as to occupy a different fashionverse, she’s not unattractive. But something about her always strikes me as slightly off, as though, despite the pride she clearly takes in her appearance, the clothes still sit uneasily on her.

Last week, I realised why; or rather, I pinpointed what, subconsciously, she’d been reminding me of. Namely: this cover of a book by Muslim author Randa Abdel-Fattah, called Ten Things I Hate About Me. It’s not a novel I’ve read, but as someone who routinely peruses the young adult section of the bookshop, it’s one I’ve picked up now and again, familiarising myself with the blurb. The reverse images of the same girl – one comfortably Lebanese, one striving for blonde – had stuck in my mind, and now, looking at my anonymous Dollybird, I realised with a jolt that this described her, too. Beneath her make-up, I finally saw the real structure of her face, her dark eyes, the minute natural blackness at the roots of her nearly-white hair. What I’d taken before to be a purposefully dark tan, part of the sundrenched Malibu look, I realised now was her natural skin colour, something every other aspect of her wardrobe suggested she was trying to downplay. Underneath all that Anglo Barbie pink-and-gold was a Middle-Eastern girl. And, like Abdel-Fattah’s heroine, she was hiding.

All this flooded to the forefront of my mind as I read Porochista Khakpour’s Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, provocatively entitled Islamic Revolution Barbie. As a little girl growing up in Tehran, Khakpour recalls her childhood love-affair with Barbie, a doll introduced to her by her similarly-infatuated mother, until the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s forced their family to flee, and her collection was lost. She subsequently rebuilt it in their new home, but talked about her growing unease with the dolls the older she grew, calling them by Iranian names and colouring their hair black. And yet, she says, despite the creation of Islamic equivalents to Barbie and Ken back in Iran, called Sara and Dara, the more-expensive black-market Barbie still prevails. Even though Mattel’s American sales have been steadily falling, girls like Khakpour have been buying.

If Khakpour had any bigger thoughts on the implications of a blonde Western doll selling so successfully at Muslim bazaars, she kept them to herself, focussing instead on her own personal relationship with Barbie in honour of the product’s 50th birthday. But reading her article, I thought how very human it was, that an icon so many Western feminists have come to revile for her unrealistic representation of female beauty can be, in other countries, a symbol of female emancipation. After all, Barbie ran for president before Hilary Clinton and reached the moon before Neil Armstrong, among her host of occupations; she’s remained unmarried for half a century and even broken up with her long-term beau for a younger man. And even when she was with Ken, you could hardly argue that he wore the pants: it was always all about Barbie. 

But generations of young western girls have had fifty years to get this message; fifty years during which it’s become increasingly part of their lives, and less a dream inspired by a childhood toy. Now, the need for a career-oriented doll is less powerful than the desire for girls’ rolemodels to present a realistic standard of beauty. If the injection of feminist principles into society could be said to come with a booster shot, then innoculation to the Beauty Myth is still some years away. But elsewhere, that first jab is still fresh, and the message of Barbie, while pertinent in one sense, has been rightly complicated by image problems that her original audience is just now beginning to appreciate. Because idealised though Barbie’s physique may be, she was never representative of a different culture, and despite the racial diversity of nations like America, she still looked like a large enough portion of the population that her beauty, although unrealistic, was never foreign.

And out of this confusion come girls like Abdel-Fattah’s Jamie/Jamilah, like my unknown office Dollybird. I’m not saying all would-be Barbie lookalikes are automatically prey to this scenario: as I’ve said before, some girls just want to be princesses, and aesthetics are different for everyone. But for many girls, the pressure to hide themselves, to become the Blonde Ideal in order to be seen as beautiful, is intense. Which is where I find the advent of Bratz dolls both proactive and, like Barbie, ultimately socially anachronistic: because although these girls are multi-ethnic and their bodies more cartoonish than that of their blonde progenitor, the emphasis on physical beauty remains. Consider the Devil’s advocate response: why make an ugly doll? But if we automatically define ugliness as anything less than what Bratz and Barbie currently epitomise, then we’ve already put our finger on the problem.

Ultimately, if we must have a concept of beauty, it should be personal, not externally idealised. And dolls, rather than icons of beauty or fashion, should just be things that little girls play with.

You can blame Nick Harkaway – or rather, his thoughts on waterboarding – for this post, which began life as a comment on his blog. So: my thoughts on the subject of simulated torture.

“Simulated drowning” makes the whole question of waterboarding sound like a question of virtual reality. Which is intriguing.

Say someone developed a perfect VR machine and plugged in a suspected terrorist without that person’s knowledge. For days, weeks or hours, the suspect undergoes what they believe to be excruciating physical torture, when in fact it’s all just skillful, pain-and-sensory simulated VR. Having subsequently divulged their information or, if innocent, made up enough to satisfy their captors, they are then unplugged, waking – disoriented and frightened – to find themselves whole and strapped to a table, their flesh undamaged.

Which begs the question: in this hypothetical instance, has the Geneva Convention actually been violated? Given the fact of psychological torture, one would think so, because the intent was the same as if actual torture had been employed, a sort of Orwellian examination of the limits of human endurance. Which would, by inference, suggest that simulated drowning, despite the name, cannot be differentiated from torture, the entire point of which is not to kill, but to extract information under threat of pain and the fear of more to come. How anyone can believe waterboarding doesn’t fall into this category is beyond me; but if a VR torture chamber were invented, would anyone condone its use as a more ‘moral’ alternative to conventional torture purely on the basis that no physical harm was done?

The thought of people responding in the affirmative frightens me.