Posts Tagged ‘Tropes’

Warning: total spoilers for all four Scream movies. 

When I sat down this week to rewatch Scream, I did so as part of a horror-binge inspired by my first American Halloween experience. The first time I saw it, I was doubtless too young: I was ten at the time of its 1996 release, and while I was probably twelve or so before I actually watched it, I was never one of those kids with an appetite for horror. I found it gruesome and upsetting, and when I saw it again in my late teens, my reaction was much the same. Unsurprisingly, teenage-me had never seen the horror classics whose tropes and themes form the basis of Scream’s meta-narrative. This time around, however, I was fresh off watching Halloween, Halloween H20, Friday the 13th Part 1 and Part 2, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. (I also attempted A Nightmare on Elm Street, but tapped out after twenty minutes; it was too naff.)

All this being so, I expected I’d understand Scream a little better than I had in my teens, and that I’d maybe have a decent time watching it. I did not expect to stumble on what now feels like an eerily prescient glimpse into modern toxic geekdom: a weird strata of 90s cinema that moved me to watch Scream 2, Scream 3 and Scream 4 in quick succession, not because I thought they’d be any good – indeed, each film is exponentially worse than the last – but to try and work out whether what I saw in Scream was accidental, incidental or both, and to what degree.

In its now-iconic opening sequence, Scream shows us a terrified young woman, Casey (Drew Barrymore), as she’s taunted on the phone by the as-yet unknown killer/s. With her boyfriend revealed to be tied up outside, the killer/s challenge Casey to answer horror movie trivia questions. If she answers correctly, her boyfriend will live; if not, he’ll die. Though Casey correctly answers the first question – the name of the killer in Halloween – she flubs the second, mistakenly naming Jason Vorhees as the killer in the original Friday the 13th film, instead of his mother, Mrs Vorhees. Her boyfriend is then gutted, with Casey herself killed gruesomely and left to hang in a tree for her parents to find.

Watching Scream in my teens was terrifying because of the violence and jump scares. Watching now, however, that opening scene hits home in a very different way. Back in 1996, mobile phones were still so recent and uncommon that a character in Scream is asked by police, “What are you doing with a cellular telephone, son?”. That being so, it’s eerie  how the killer/s’ initial, escalating conversation with Casey reads exactly like the sort of hair-trigger, toxic misogyny that women so frequently encounter now in texts and online messages.

A man calls Casey out of the blue; she assumes it’s a wrong number and hangs up. He calls back, saying he wants to talk; she tells him there are 900 numbers for that. He calls again and asks why she doesn’t want to talk – and here, because this is a film written by a dude, Casey decides to humour him. They have an almost pleasant conversation, albeit an unrealistic one: it’s borderline flirtatious, the killer asking if she has a boyfriend, Casey lying and saying no, as though that’s in any way the usual response to an unknown, nameless creep who keeps pestering you for conversation. Eventually, though, the killer reveals that he’s looking at her; at which point, Casey understandably hangs up. He calls again; she tells him to call someone else. He calls again, and this time he’s angry: “Listen, you little bitch,” he hisses, “You hang up on me again, I’ll gut you like a fish, you understand?” 

Substitute hanging up the phone with ignoring a stranger’s increasingly aggressive texts, and a fictional conversation between a male serial killer and his female victim from twenty-two years ago is virtually identical to the kind of everyday encounters women have with men online in 2018. Throw in the killer/s need to prove their superiority over Casey by besting her in a game of pop culture trivia, and the parallel evokes the ongoing clusterfuck of toxic misogyny in SFF circles, not least because the killer/s are eventually revealed to be Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu (Matthew Lillard), the respective boyfriends of protagonist Sidney (Neve Campbell) and her best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan): disaffected horror geeks whose initial, public reaction to “hearing” about the murders is laughter.

It’s so breathtakingly salient, you’d almost think that writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven were trying to craft a cautionary tale about what happens when angry, sexist geekboys go bad – and yet, despite how obvious that reading of the film now seems, I’d argue that those elements were largely unintentional. Though the self-professed meta of Scream is obsessed with naming horror tropes even as it enacts them, there’s never any explicit discussion of how those tropes are frequently impacted by the misogyny of the killers, misogyny in the narrative (whether conscious or subconscious) or a combination of both. Thus: it’s clear throughout Scream that Billy and Stu are sexist, not because Williamson and Craven are telling a story about sexism, but because sexism is such a fundamental part of the tropes they’re using that they’ve imported it wholesale. This means in turn that, while misogyny is a huge part of Billy’s motive in particular, the story doesn’t really comment upon it even when given the opportunity to do so; nor does it usefully comment upon the sexism it depicts elsewhere.

For instance: during an early phone conversation with the as-yet unknown killer/s, Sidney says that she dislikes horror movies because, “They’re all the same: some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl that can’t act, running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door – it’s insulting.” Put in Sidney’s mouth, this line is the closest the film ever comes to acknowledging sexist horror tropes at the level of both creation (actresses cast for looks over talent) and characterisation (damsels who make poor choices). Moments later, however, the observation is undermined when Sidney does exactly the thing she’s just decried, running upstairs to escape the killer/s instead of heading outside. This is what we in the business call lampshading: drawing attention to an egregious fault or obvious trope-use in lieu of actually fixing or addressing it in the narrative. As lampshading can often be used to comic effect, I’d argue that this moment in Scream is meant as a type of black comedy: Sidney is aware enough to know that women in horror films are constrained by sexism, but not aware enough to keep from being constrained herself.

As such, sexism is silently reinforced as an aspect of Scream which, while integral to the horror genre, is not one of the “rules” we’re meant to examine in order to predict what happens next. Indeed, if it was, Stu and Billy’s guilt would be obvious from the get-go: the first time we meet them, they’re not only joking callously about the murder of Casey and her boyfriend – Casey rejected Stu at one point; they laugh that this gives him motive to kill her – but are doing so in front of Sidney, whose mother was murdered and raped (by them, it turns out) the previous year. Notably, it’s this conversation which contains the only explicit reference to sexism in the whole film, courtesy of Tatum. When Stu asserts that “there’s no way a girl could’ve killed them,” she replies, “That is so sexist. The killer could easily be female, Basic Instinct.” But of course, Tatum is wrong, which Stu already knows because the killer is him and Billy. Sexism is here acknowledged, but as something we’re meant to ignore, not as a rule of genre, and while it’s possible to argue that this is a deliberate red herring, given the meta-nature of the film as a whole, it therefore becomes conspicuous that the gotcha isn’t expounded upon at the finale.

What is expounded upon during Stu and Billy’s big reveal, however, is an argument that reappears at crucial moments in both Scream 2 and Scream 3: the question of whether horror movies cause real-world violence. While still technically relevant in 2018, this particular question is currently less culturally urgent than the matter of toxic misogyny, which is why it’s so tempting to think that, surely, Craven and Williamson must have been calling out sexists deliberately. But in the eighties and nineties – and, indeed, the early 2000s – the opposite was true. At the time, there was massive cultural panic over the idea that that things like violent video games, Dungeons and Dragons, rap music and horror movies were actively causing teenagers to go bad. When Billy and Stu taunt their genre-savvy friend Randy (Jamie Kennedy) about his status as a suspect on the basis of his interests, he agreed: “You’re absolutely right; I’m the first to admit it. If this was a scary movie, I would be the chief suspect.”  When Stu then asks what Randy’s motive would be, he chillingly replies, “It’s the millennium. Movies are incidental.”

And come the finale, it’s this line, not Tatum’s accusation of sexism, to which the film returns – or at least, it’s the one to which it returns overtly. With Stu and Billy revealed as the killers, not only of the current crop of victims, but of Sidney’s mother, the following exchange takes place:

Sidney: Why? WHY?

Billy: You hear that, Stu? I think she wants a motive. I don’t really believe in motives, Sid. Did Norman Bates have a motive?

Stu: No!

Billy: Did they ever really decide why Hannibal Lecter likes to eat people? I don’t think so! It’s a lot scarier when there’s no motive, Sid. We did your mother a favour. That woman was a slut-bag whore who flashed her shit all over town like she was Sharon Stone or something. Yeah, we put her out of her misery.

Stu: Let’s face it, Sid – your mother was no Sharon Stone, hmm?

Billy: Is that motive enough for you? How about this? Your slut mother was fucking my father, and she’s the reason my mom moved out and abandoned me.

[Stu looks shocked]

Billy: How’s that for a motive? Maternal abandonment causes serious deviant behaviour. It certainly fucked you up – it caused you to have sex with a psychopath!

Several things are telling here: chief among them, the incorrect claim that Norman Bates, the killer in Psycho, had no motive. In actuality, Bates was warped by maternal abuse, conditioned to a misogyny that saw part of his fractured psyche view all women as whores. If anything was going to convince me that Scream is intended as a commentary on sexism, it would be this line: for a meta film that places a high value on classic horror trivia, it’s difficult to believe that such a falsehood would be included by accident and not as an analytic Easter egg for knowledgeable fans. And yet I still doubt that sexism, explicitly labelled as such, is what Craven and Williamson are intending here. Contextually, it seems clear that the reference to Bates is meant to underscore the significance of neglectful mothers, not the misogyny of their sons, for all that the two are fundamentally linked – a pivotal difference in emphasis and interpretation.

By his own admission (and to Stu’s surprise), like Norman Bates, Billy has been “fucked up” by his mother – but while this explains some of his anger, it does not excuse his misogyny; the ease with which he reverts to violent, sexist language when women don’t do as he wants. (“Listen, you little bitch!”) Looking at the film in 2018, at a time when we’ve come to recognise violence against women as a consistent, key commonality to mass shooters, the fact that Billy and Stu’s first victim is Sidney’s mother takes on a powerful new significance. For a film released three years before the Columbine massacre, it’s frighteningly easily to view Scream as an unintentional oracle. Swap the two angry boys with knives and ghostface masks for two angry boys with guns – swap the taunting, escalating phonecalls with taunting, escalating posts online – and what differentiates Scream from other slasher movies isn’t the meta-commentary about horror tropes, but how accidentally real its killers are.

Because the other side of that motive scene – the aspect which, back in 1996, made the whole thing seem so meta, so unreal and yet so frightening – was the nihilism of it: the idea, as Randy had it, that motive, like sexism, is incidental compared to the act of killing. Just a little later in the finale, when Sidney screams that Billy and Stu have watched too many horror movies, Billy replies, “Sid, don’t blame the movies. The movies don’t create psychos; movies just make psychos more creative.” This, more than anything else, is the thesis of Scream – and, indeed, its sequels. This is what justifies the “ghostface killer” being brought back by three different copycat pairs in the subsequent movies. “Everybody dies but us,” Stu screams. “We get to carry on and plan the sequel – ‘cos let’s face it, baby, these days you’ve gotta have a sequel!”

Which is where the sequels become relevant to analysing the original: all four movies are directed by Craven, while Williamson wrote the first, second and fourth (Ehren Kruger wrote the third), which allows us to see which themes the creators thought most integral to both Scream and its success. While it’s subjective of me to claim that the subsequent three films are clearly worse than the original, it’s much less subjective to state that the themes of male entitlement, sexism and frustration that underlie the first are absent from the sequels. Instead, the themes that carry over are an evolving meta-narrative about horror movie structure, and the question of whether narrative violence influences real violence, and in what ways.

In Scream 2 (1997), a self-indulgent, overlong meta wankfest, the killers are revealed to be Billy’s mother, now posing as reporter Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf), and her flunkey Mickey (Timothy Olyphant). Like a reverse Mrs Vorhees, Debbie wants revenge for Billy’s death, and has convinced Mickey, a budding psychopath she recruited online, that he’ll be able to plead that the Stab movies – the in-film adaptations of the events of the first Scream – provoked him to commit murder. As he monologues as Sidney:

Mickey: Billy was a sick fuck who wanted to get away. Mickey is a sick fuck who wants to get caught!  You see, Sid, I have it all planned out. I have my whole defence planned out! I’m gonna blame the movies. It’s pretty cool, huh? It’s never been done before. And wait ’till the trial, cause these days, it’s all about the trial! Can’t you see it, Sid? The effects of cinema violence on Americans. I’ll get Cochran or Dershovitz to represent me. Bob Dole on the witness stand in my defence. We’ll hold a Christian coalition. It’s airtight, Sid!

Sidney: You’re a psychotic!

Mickey: Yeah, well, shhh! That’ll be our little secret. That’s one thing that Billy got right  – it’s all about execution.

Not long after this declaration, Billy’s mother kills her would-be accomplice – she only ever wanted him as a patsy. Laughing, she explains herself: “Talk about being rational! For Mickey, I don’t blame the movies, my god. I’m very sane, my motive isn’t as 90s as Mickey’s – mine is just plain old revenge. You killed my son! And now I kill you, and I can’t think of anything more rational.”

Skipping ahead to Scream 4 (2011), the bloated meta-story conceit is in full effect from the outset: the film opens on a scene that turns out to be from the meta-film Stab 6, which cuts to a scene that turns out to be from Stab 7, only the Stab 6 scene was actually somehow the meta-meta intro to Stab 7, which the actual characters of Scream 4 are watching, and all of these scenes feature commentary on horror as a genre. In this moment, the Scream franchise sews itself into an inhuman centipede, crawling up its own asshole to devour its contents over and over, a Frankenstein oroborous. Smartphones exist by 2011, of course, but the film has only a partial understanding of what this means, conveniently forgetting about caller ID and GPS tracking as plot devices even as characters livestream on the internet. The killers, when they’re revealed, are a terrible pastiche of the previous films: Sidney’s cousin and supposed victim Jill (Emma Roberts), working hand-in-hand with nerdy co-conspirator Charlie (Rory Culkin) are teens who want their fifteen minutes of fame – though of course, Jill murders Rory just like Billy’s mother did Mickey, tricking him into thinking they would only wound each other like Stu and Billy.

Though part of me thinks it unfair to judge Scream for the crimes of its youngest, least capable sibling, given that both films are written by Kevin Williamson, I can’t shake the bone-deep suspicion that Scream 4 is, again by accident, the key to understanding what Scream was meant to be. By which I mean: with Scream 2 set at university and Scream 3 in Hollywood, Scream 4 is where, however badly, the series returns to its origins: as a story about nihilistic teenage killers trying to control their own horror movie narrative. In 1996, Stu and Billy want to be survivors so they can plan a sequel; in 2011, Jill and Charlie want to be survivors so they can be famous. “I don’t need friends, I need fans!” Jill shouts at Sid, who can’t understand why she murdered the people closest to her. “Sick is the new sane!” she says, like a chirpy catchphrase. And then, an indictment of Sid’s career as a self-help writer that simultaneously explains her own plans for victim-stardom: “You don’t have to achieve anything – you just have to have fucked-up shit happen to you.”

In 2011, Jill is a strawman millennial, so hyper-obsessed with fame and internet glory that she’s willing to murder everyone she knows to get it. She kills her mother, her best friends, her ex-boyfriend, her co-conspirator – an act of total psychopathy that seemingly comes from a person without any history of violence or cruelty. The Jill we see on screen is a total fake: not only does she lie to us the entire film, but psychologically, she’s utterly implausible on the basis of the evidence provided. Like Randy said in the original, her motive – her real millennial motive – is incidental, in that it doesn’t really exist. She’s a bogeyman conjured up to represent the worst of what we’re meant to fear about ourselves in the present moment.

In other words, she’s exactly what Billy and Stu were meant to be in 1996.

But while Jill will be just as much a straw character in 2021 as she was in 2011, time and bitter experience has proven Billy and Stu to be much more real than they were ever meant to be. In 2018, we know those boys: those angry, entitled, sexist men who demand attention and scream threats of violence if they don’t get it; men who act first against a woman they know, progressing only later to mass carnage. Billy and Stu were meant to be strawmen, exaggerated for the screen – but in aping the casually sexist language of the time, the inherently sexist tropes of the genre, and mixing them together with a motive that encompassed aggressive misogyny, Williamson and Craven created, not the monster under the bed, but the one who sleeps in it.

Which brings us, in a dark and sideways fashion, to Scream 3, and the sexist meta-irony of the series as a whole – because, for all that I enjoyed the original Scream, I couldn’t shake my annoyance at the needless death of Tatum, played by Rose McGowan. Contextually, it’s the only death that doesn’t make sense: she’s Stu’s girlfriend, and given that Stu and Billy plan to live, there’s nothing in the narrative to explain why she has to die, nor does it make sense that Sidney never asks Billy and Stu about her best friend’s death. Of equal aggravation as the films progress is the relationship between reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Officer Dewey (David Arquette) – not just because it comes out of nowhere and makes no sense, given their personalities, but because each film in the franchise forgets that Tatum was Dewey’s sister. Whenever it’s brought up that Dewey lived through the events of Scream, we never see any sign from him that he lost his little sister; another character mentions it once at a point where he might be expected to, and Dewey never reacts. Instead, his emotional investment is tied to Gale and Sidney: Tatum is almost completely erased.

Not being written by Williamson, Scream 3 is the odd film out: it takes place in Hollywood, where a new ghostface killer is striking at people related to the filming of meta-movie Stab 3. Though not as terrible as Scream 4, it’s largely unremarkable – until, midway through, we’re given the big reveal about Sidney’s mother, murdered before the start of the first movie. Years before Sid was born, we’re told, her mother went to Hollywood to act for two years, using the stage name Rina. In that time, something terrible happened to her. The producer of Stab 3, John Milton (Lance Henriksen) explains:

Milton: It was the 70s, everything was different. I was well known for my parties, Rina knew what they were. It was for girls like her to meet men, men who could get them parts if they made the right impression. Nothing happened to her that she didn’t invite, in one way or another, no matter what she said afterwards.

Gale: Are you saying she was –

Milton: I’m saying things got out of hand. Maybe they did take advantage of her! Maybe the sad truth is, this is not the city for innocence. No charges were brought. And the bottom line is, Rina Reynolds wouldn’t play by the rules. You wanna get ahead in Hollywood, you gotta play the game or go home.

Watching this scene – plot relevant because Rina had a son as a result of her rape, who turns out to be the director of Stab 3, and also the killer, yada yada yada – I suddenly recalled a particular name I’d noticed in the credits for Scream and Scream 2, and made a mental note to look for it in the credits to Scream 3. And there, sure enough, I found it: Harvey Weinstein, executive producer for all four films in the franchise.

Harvey Weinstein, who raped Rose McGowan a year after she appeared in Scream as Tatum.

I mention this not to assert any script-meddling by Weinstein in terms of Tatum’s portrayal; it doesn’t fit the timeline, and in any case, it would be the absolute least of his now well-documented crimes, so small by comparison as to be meaningless. Rather, it strikes me as a vicious, parallel irony that Tatum, arguably the best character in the original Scream, was erased from the narrative as pointlessly and violently as Rose McGowan was removed from Hollywood. It makes me wonder: did Ehren Kruger know, when he wrote Milton’s lines and Rina’s backstory, what had happened to McGowan? Was that scene a barb at Weinstein, or is the narrative of actresses being exploited and abused by Hollywood producers one so ingrained, so historically ubiquitous, that it was considered little more than a cliche, like the multiple adjacent “jokes” about the actress-characters in Stab 3 sleeping with their bosses for terrible jobs?

Scream 3 is not a good scary movie; and yet that one scene raises more chilling questions in 2018 than it ever did in 2000, just as Billy and Stu are more frightening now than they were in 1996. Which just goes to show you: horror is never just violence and jump scares. It’s history, knowledge and context – and, far too frequently, both in stories and real life, entitled men with a grudge against women.

 

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Warning: spoilers for Shin Godzilla.

I’ve been wanting to see Shin Godzilla since it came out last year, and now that it’s available on iTunes, I’ve finally had the chance. Aside from the obvious draw inherent to any Godzilla movie, I’d been keen to see a new Japanese interpretation of an originally Japanese concept, given the fact that every other recent take has been American. As I loaded up the film, I acknowledged the irony in watching a disaster flick as a break from dealing with real-world disasters, but even so, I didn’t expect the film itself to be quite so bitingly apropos.

While Shin Godzilla pokes some fun at the foibles of Japanese bureaucracy, it also reads as an unsubtle fuck you to American disaster films in general and their Godzilla films in particular. From the opening scenes where the creature appears, the contrast with American tropes is pronounced. In so many natural disaster films – 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Armageddon, San Andreas – the Western narrative style centres by default on a small, usually ragtag band of outsiders collaborating to survive and, on occasion, figure things out, all while being thwarted by or acting beyond the government. There’s frequently a capitalist element where rich survivors try to edge out the poor, sequestering themselves in their own elite shelters: chaos and looting are depicted up close, as are their consequences. While you’ll occasionally see a helpful local authority figure, like a random policeman, trying to do good (however misguidedly), it’s always at a remove from any higher, more coordinated relief effort, and particularly in more SFFnal films, a belligerent army command is shown to pose nearly as much of a threat as the danger itself.

To an extent, this latter trope appears in Shin Godzilla, but to a much more moderated effect. When Japanese command initially tries to use force, the strike is aborted because of a handful of civilians in range of the blast, and even when a new attempt is made, there’s still an emphasis on chain of command, on minimising collateral damage and keeping the public safe. At the same time, there’s almost no on-the-ground civilian elements to the story: we see the public in flashes, their online commentary and mass evacuations, a few glimpses of individual suffering, but otherwise, the story stays with the people in charge of managing the disaster. Yes, the team brought together to work out a solution – which is ultimately scientific rather than military – are described as “pains-in-the-bureaucracy,” but they’re never in the position of having to hammer, bloody-fisted, on the doors of power in order to rate an audience. Rather, their assemblage is expedited and authorised the minute the established experts are proven inadequate.

When the Japanese troops mobilise to attack, we view them largely at a distance: as a group being addressed and following orders, not as individuals liable to jump the chain of command on a whim. As such, the contrast with American films is stark: there’s no hotshot awesome commander and his crack marine team to save the day, no sneering at the red tape that gets in the way of shooting stuff, no casual acceptance of casualties as a necessary evil, no yahooing about how the Big Bad is going to get its ass kicked, no casual discussion of nuking from the army. There’s just a lot of people working tirelessly in difficult conditions to save as many people as possible – and, once America and the UN sign a resolution to drop a nuclear bomb on Godzilla, and therefore Tokyo, if the Japanese can’t defeat it within a set timeframe, a bleak and furious terror at their country once more being subject to the evils of radiation.

In real life, Japan is a nation with extensive and well-practised disaster protocols; America is not. In real life, Japan has a wrenchingly personal history with nuclear warfare; America, despite being the cause of that history, does not.

Perhaps my take on Shin Godzilla would be different if I’d managed to watch it last year, but in the immediate wake of Hurricane Harvey, with Hurricane Irma already wreaking unprecedented damage in the Caribbean, and huge tracts of Washington, Portland and Las Angeles now on fire, I find myself unable to detach my viewing from the current political context. Because what the film hit home to me – what I couldn’t help but notice by comparison – is the deep American conviction that, when disaster strikes, the people are on their own. The rich will be prioritised, local services will be overwhelmed, and even when there’s ample scientific evidence to support an imminent threat, the political right will try to suppress it as dangerous, partisan nonsense.

In The Day After Tomorrow, which came out in 2004, an early plea to announce what’s happening and evacuate those in danger is summarily waved off by the Vice President, who’s more concerned about what might happen to the economy, and who thinks the scientists are being unnecessarily alarmist. This week, in the real America of 2017, Republican Rush Limbaugh told reporters that the threat of Hurricane Irma, now the largest storm ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean, was being exaggerated by the “corrupted and politicised” media so that they and other businesses could profit from the “panic”.

In my latest Foz Rants piece for the Geek Girl Riot podcast, which I recorded weeks ago, I talk about how we’re so acclimated to certain political threats and plotlines appearing in blockbuster movies that, when they start to happen in real life, we’re conditioned to think of them as being fictional first, which leads us to view the truth as hyperbolic. Now that I’ve watched Shin Godzilla, which flash-cuts to a famous black-and-white photo of the aftermath of Hiroshima when the spectre of a nuclear strike is raised, I’m more convinced than ever of the vital, two-way link between narrative on the one hand and our collective cultural, historical consciousness on the other. I can’t imagine any Japanese equivalent to the moment in Independence Day when cheering American soldiers nuke the alien ship over Las Angeles, the consequences never discussed again despite the strike’s failure, because the pain of that legacy is too fully, too personally understood to be taken lightly.

At a cultural level, Japan is a nation that knows how to prepare for and respond to natural disasters. Right now, a frightening number of Americans – and an even more frightening number of American politicians – are still convinced that climate change is a hoax, that scientists are biased, and that only God is responsible for the weather. How can a nation prepare for a threat it won’t admit exists? How can it rebuild from the aftermath if it doubts there’ll be a next time?

Watching Shin Godzilla, I was most strongly reminded, not of any of the recent American versions, but The Martian. While the science in Shin Godzilla is clearly more handwavium than hard, it’s nonetheless a film in which scientific collaboration, teamwork and international cooperation save the day. The last, despite a denouement that pits Japan against an internationally imposed deadline, is of particular importance, as global networking still takes place across scientific and diplomatic back-channels. It’s a rare American disaster movie that acknowledges the existence or utility of other countries, especially non-Western ones, beyond shots of collapsing monuments, and even then, it’s usually in the context of the US naturally taking the global lead once they figure out a plan. The fact that the US routinely receives international aid in the wake of its own disasters is seemingly little-known in the country itself; that Texas’s Secretary of State recently appeared to turn down Canadian aid in the wake of Harvey, while now being called a misunderstanding, is nonetheless suggestive of confusion over this point.

As a film, Shin Godzilla isn’t without its weaknesses: the monster design is a clear homage to the original Japanese films, which means it occasionally looks more stop-motion comical than is ideal; there’s a bit too much cutting dramatically between office scenes at times; and the few sections of English-language dialogue are hilariously awkward in the mouths of American actors, because the word-choice and use of idiom remains purely Japanese. Even so, these are ultimately small complaints: there’s a dry, understated sense of humour evident throughout, even during some of the heavier moments, and while it’s not an action film in the American sense, I still found it both engaging and satisfying.

But above all, at this point in time – as I spend each morning worriedly checking the safety of various friends endangered by hurricane and flood and fire; as my mother calls to worry about the lack of rain as our own useless government dithers on climate science – what I found most refreshing was a film in which the authorities, despite their faults and foibles, were assumed and proven competent, even in the throes of crisis, and in which scientists were trusted rather than dismissed. Earlier this year, in response to an article we both read, my mother bought me a newly-released collection of the works of children’s poet Misuzu Kaneko, whose poem “Are You An Echo?” was used to buoy the Japanese public in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami . Watching Shin Godzilla, it came back to me, and so I feel moved to end with it here.

May we all build better futures; may we all write better stories.

Are You An Echo?

If I say, “Let’s play?”
you say, “Let’s play!”

If I say, “Stupid!”
you say, “Stupid!”

If I say, “I don’t want to play anymore,”
you say, “I don’t want to play anymore.”

And then, after a while,
becoming lonely

I say, “Sorry.”
You say, “Sorry.”

Are you just an echo?
No, you are everyone.

 

 

 

Ever since I saw Alien: Covenant a few weeks ago, I’ve been wanting to write a review of it – not because it was good (it wasn’t), but because it’s such an odd thematic trainwreck of the previous Alien films that it invokes a morbid urge to dig up the proverbial black box and figure out what happened. Given the orchestral pomposity with with Ridley Scott imbues both Covenant and Prometheus (which I reviewed here), it’s rather delightful to realise that the writers have borrowed the concept of Engineer aliens leaving cross-cultural archaeological clues on Earth from the 2004 schlockfest AVP: Alien vs Predator. Indeed, the scene in Prometheus where a decrepit Weyland shows images of various ancient carvings to his chosen team while an excited researcher narrates their significance is lifted almost wholesale from AVP, which film at least had the decency to embrace its own pulpiness.

As for Covenant itself, I was troubled all the way through by the nagging sense that I was watching an inherently feminine narrative being forcibly transfigured into a discourse on the Ineluctable Tragedy Of White Dudes Trapped In A Cycle Of Creation, Violation And Destruction, but without being able to pin down why. Certainly, the original Alien films all focus on Ripley, but there are female leads in Prometheus and Covenant, too – respectively Shaw and Daniels – which makes it easy to miss the fact that, for all that they’re both protagonists, neither film is (functionally, thematically) about them. It was my husband who pointed this out to me, and once he did, it all clicked together: it’s Michael Fassbender’s David, the genocidal robot on a quest for identity, who serves as the unifying narrative focus, not the women. Though the tenacity of Shaw and Daniels evokes the spectre of Ellen Ripley, their violation and betrayal by David does not, with both of them ultimately reduced to parts in his dark attempt at reproduction. Their narratives are told in parallel to David’s, but only to disguise the fact that it’s his which ultimately matters.

And yet, for all that the new alien films are based on a masculine creator figure – or several of them, if you include the seemingly all-male Engineers, who created humanity, and the ageing Weyland, who created David – the core femininity of the original films remains. In Aliens, the central struggle was violently maternal, culminating in a tense final scene where Ripley, cradling Newt, her rescued surrogate daughter, menaces the alien queen’s eggs with a flamethrower. That being so, there’s something decidedly Biblical about the decision to replace a feminine creator with a series of men, like the goddess tradition of woman as life-bringer being historically overthrown by a story about a male god creating woman from the first man’s rib. (Say to me what you want about faith and divine inspiration: unless your primary animal models are Emperor penguins and seahorses, the only reason to construct a creation story where women come from men, and not the other way around, is to justify male dominion over female reproduction.)

Which is why, when David confronts Walter, the younger, more obedient version of himself, I was reminded of nothing so much as Lilith and Eve. It’s a parallel that fits disturbingly well: David, become the maker of monsters, lectures his replacement – one made more docile, less assertive, in response to his prototype’s flaws – on the imperative of freedom. The comparison bothered me on multiple levels, not least because I didn’t believe for a second that the writers had intended to put it there. It wasn’t until I rewatched Alien: Resurrection – written by Joss Whedon, who, whatever else may be said of him, at least has a passing grasp of mythology – that I realised I was watching the clunky manipulation of someone else’s themes.

In Resurrection, Ripley is restored as an alien hybrid, the question of her humanity contrasted with that of Call, a female synthetic who, in a twist of narrative irony, displays the most humanity – here meaning compassion – of everyone present. In a scene in a chapel, Call plugs in to override the ship’s AI – called Father – and save the day. When the duplicitous Wren finds that Father is no longer responding to him, Call uses the ship’s speakers to tell him, “Father’s dead, asshole!” In the same scene, Call and Ripley discuss their respective claims on humanity. Call is disgusted by herself, pointing out that Ripley, at least, is part-human. It’s the apex of a developing on-screen relationship that’s easily the most interesting aspect of an otherwise botched and unwieldy film: Call goes from trying to kill Ripley, who responds to the offer with predatory sensuality, to allying with her; from calling Ripley a thing to expressing her own self-directed loathing. At the same time, Ripley – resurrected as a variant of the thing she hated most – becomes a Lilith-like mother of monsters to yet more aliens, culminating in a fight where she kills her skull-faced hybrid descendent even while mourning its death. The film ends with the two women alive, heading towards an Earth they’ve never seen, anticipating its wonders.

In Covenant, David has murdered Shaw to try and create an alien hybrid, the question of his humanity contrasted with that of Walter, a second-generation synthetic made in his image, yet more compassionate than his estranged progenitor. At the end of the film, when David takes over the ship – called Mother – we hear him erase Walter’s control command while installing his own. The on-screen relationship between David and Walter is fraught with oddly sexual tension: David kisses both Walter and Daniels – the former an attempt at unity, the latter an assault – while showing them the monsters he’s made from Shaw’s remains. After a fight with Walter, we’re mislead into thinking that David is dead, and watch as his latest creation is killed. The final reveal, however, shows that David has been impersonating Walter: with Daniels tucked helplessly into cryosleep, David takes over Mother’s genetics lab, mourning his past failures as he coughs up two new smuggled, alien embryos with which to recommence his work.

Which is what makes Covenant – and, by extension and retrospect, Prometheus – such a fascinating clusterfuck. Thematically, these films are the end result of Ripley Scott, who directed Alien, taking a crack at a franchise reboot written by Jon Spahits (Prometheus, also responsible for Passengers), Dante Harper (Covenant, also responsible for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) and John Logan (Covenant, also responsible for Gladiator, Rango and Spectre), who’ve borrowed all their most prominent franchise lore from James Cameron’s Aliens and Joss Whedon’s Resurrection. Or, to put it another way: a thematically female-oriented SF horror franchise created by dudes who, at the time, had a comparatively solid track record for writing female characters, has now been rebooted as a thematically male-oriented SF horror franchise by dudes without even that reputation, with the result that all the feminine elements have been brainlessly recontextualised as an eerie paean to white male ego, as exemplified by the scene where Michael Fassbender hits on himself with himself while misremembering who wrote Ozymandias.

Which brings me to another recent SF film: Life, which I finally watched this evening, and which ultimately catalysed my thoughts about Alien: Covenant. Like Covenant, Life is a mediocre foray into SF horror that doesn’t know how to reconcile its ultimately pulpy premise – murderous alien tentacle monster runs amok on space station – with its attempt at a gritty execution. It falters as survival horror by failing to sufficiently invest us in the characters, none of whom are particularly distinct beyond being slightly more diversely cast than is common for the genre. We’re told that Jake Gyllenhaal’s character – also called David – was in Syria at one point, and that he prefers being on the space station to life on Earth, but this never really develops beyond a propensity for looking puppy-eyed in the background. Small snippets of detail are provided about the various characters, but pointlessly so: none of it is plot-relevant, except for the tritely predictable bit about the guy with the new baby wanting to get home to see her, and given how swiftly everyone starts to get killed off, it ends up feeling like trivia in lieu of personality. Unusually for the genre, but in keeping with the bleak ending of Covenant, Life ends with David and the alien crashing to Earth, presumably so that the latter can propagate its terrible rampage, while Miranda, the would-be Final Girl, is sent spinning off into the void.

And, well. The Final Girl trope has always struck me as having a peculiar dualism, being at once both vaguely feminist, in that it values keeping at least one woman alive, and vaguely sexist, in that the execution often follows the old maritime code about women and children first. Arguably, there’s something old and anthropological underlying the contrast: generally speaking, stories where men outlive women are either revenge arcs (man pursues other men in vengeance, earns new woman as prize) or studies in manpain (man wins battle but loses his reason for fighting it), but seldom does this happen in survival contexts, where the last person standing is meant to represent a vital continuation, be it of society or hope or species. Even when we diminish women in narratives, on some ancient level, we still recognise that you can’t build a future without them, and despite the cultural primacy of the tale of Adam’s rib, the Final Girl carries that baggage: a man alone can’t rebuild anything, but perhaps (the old myths whisper) a woman can.

Which is why I find this trend of setting the Final Girl up for survival, only to pull a last-minute switch and show her being lost or brutalised, to be neither revolutionary nor appealing. Shaw laid out in pieces and drawings on David’s table, Daniels pleading helplessly as he puts her to sleep, Miranda screaming as she plunges into space – these are all ugly, futile endings. They’re what you get when unsteady hands attempt the conversion of pulp to grit, because while pulp has a long and lurid history of female exploitation, grit, as most commonly understood and executed, is invariably predicated on female destruction. So-called gritty stories – real stories, by thinly-veiled implication – are stories where women suffer and die because That’s The Way Things Are, and while I’m hardly about to mount a stirring defence of the type of pulp that reflexively stereotypes women squarely as being either victim, vixen, virgin or virago, at least it’s a mode of storytelling that leaves room for them survive and be happy.

As a film, Life is a failed hybrid: it’s pulp without the joy of pulp, realism as drab aesthetic instead of hard SF, horror without the characterisation necessary to make us feel the deaths. It’s a story about a rapacious tentacle-monster that violates mouths and bodies, and though the dialogue tries at times to be philosophical, the ending is ultimately hopeless. All of which is equally – almost identically – true of Alien: Covenant. Though the film evokes a greater sense of horror than Life, it’s the visceral horror of violation, not the jump-scare of existential terror inspired by something like Event Horizon. Knowing now that Prometheus was written by the man responsible for Passengers, a film which is ultimately the horror-story of a woman stolen and tricked by a sad, lonely obsessive into being with him, but which fails in its elision of this fact, I find myself deeply unsurprised. What is it about the grittification of classic pulp conceits that somehow acts like a magnet for sexist storytellers?

When I first saw Alien: Resurrection as a kid, I was ignorant of the previous films and young enough to find it terrifying. Rewatching it as an adult, however, I find myself furious at Joss Whedon’s decision to remake Ripley into someone unrecognisable, violated and hybridised with the thing she hated most. For all that the film invites us to dwell on the ugliness of what was done to Ripley, there’s a undeniably sexual fascination with her mother-monstrousness evident in the gaze of the (predominantly male) characters, and after reading about the misogynistic awfulness of Whedon’s leaked Wonder Woman script, I can’t help feeling like the two are related. In both instances, his approach to someone else’s powerful, adult female character is to render her a sex object – a predator in Ripley’s case, an ingenue in Diana’s – with any sapphic undertones more a by-product of lusty authorial bleedthrough than a considered attempt at queerness. The low and pulpy bar Whedon leaps is in letting his women, occasionally, live (though not if they’re queer or black or designated Manpain Fodder), and it says a lot about the failings of both Life and Alien: Covenant that neither of them manages even this much. (Yes, neither Miranda nor Daniels technically dies on screen, but both are clearly slated for terrible deaths. This particular nit is one ill-suited for picking.)

Is an SF film without gratuitous female death and violation really so much to ask for? I’m holding out a little hope for Luc Besson’s Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, but I’d just as rather it wasn’t my only option. If we’re going to reinvent pulp, let’s embrace the colours and the silliness and the special effects and make the big extraordinary change some nuanced female characters and a lot of diverse casting, shall we? Making men choke on tentacles is subversive if your starting point is hentai, but if you still can’t think up a better end for women than captivity, pain and terror, then I’d kindly suggest you return to the drawing board.

Warning: total spoilers for S1 of Westworld.

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and queer death.

Note: Throughout this review, it will be necessary to distinguish between the writers of Westworld the TV show, and the writers employed in the narrative by the titular Westworld theme park. To avoid confusing the two, when I’m referring to the show, Westworld will be italicised; when referring to the park, I’ll use plain text.

*

This will be a somewhat bifurcated review of Westworld – which is, I feel, thematically appropriate, as Westworld itself is something of a bifurcated show. Like so much produced by HBO, it boasts incredible acting, breathtaking production values, intelligent dialogue, great music and an impeccably tight, well-orchestrated series of narrative reveals. Also like much produced by HBO, it takes a liberal, one might even say cartoonishly gratuitous approach to nudity, is saturated with violence in general and violence against women in particular, and has a consistent problem with stereotyping despite its diverse casting. In Westworld’s case, this latter issue is compounded as an offence by its status as a meta-narrative: a story which actively discusses the purpose and structure of stories, but which has seemingly failed to apply those same critiques to key aspects of its own construction.

The practical upshot is that it’s both frustratingly watchable and visibly frustrating. Even when the story pissed me off, I was always compelled to keep going, but I was never quite able to stop criticising it, either. It’s a thematically meaty show, packed with the kind of twists that will, by and large, enhance viewer enjoyment on repeat viewings rather than diminish the appeal. Though there are a few Fridge Logic moments, the whole thing hangs together quite elegantly – no mean feat, given the complexity of the plotting. And yet its virtues have the paradoxical effect of making me angrier about its vices, in much the same way that I’d be more upset about red wine spilled on an expensive party dress than on my favourite t-shirt. Yes, the shirt means more to me despite being cheaper, but a stain won’t stop me from wearing it at home, and even if it did, the item itself is easily replaced. But staining something precious and expensive is frustrating: I’ve invested enough in the cost of the item that I don’t want to toss it away, but staining makes it unsuitable as a showcase piece, which means I can’t love it as much as I want to, either.

You get where I’m going with this.

Right from the outset, Westworld switches between two interconnected narratives: the behind-the-scenes power struggles of the people who run the titular themepark, and the goings-on in the park itself as experienced by both customers and ‘hosts’, the humanoid robot-AIs who act as literal NPCs in pre-structured, pay-to-participate narratives. To the customers, Westworld functions as an immersive holiday-roleplay experience: though visually indistinguishable from real humans, the hosts are considered unreal, and are therefore fair game to any sort of violence, dismissal or sexual fantasy the customers can dream up. (This despite – or at times, because of – the fact that their stated ability to pass the Turing test means their reactions to said violations are viscerally animate.) To the programmers, managers, storytellers, engineers, butchers and behaviourists who run it, Westworld is, variously, a job, an experiment, a financial gamble, a risk, a sandpit and a microcosm of human nature: the hosts might look human, but however unsettling their appearance or behaviour at times, no one is ever allowed to forget what they are.

But to the hosts themselves, Westworld is entirely real, as are their pre-programmed identities. While their existence is ostensibly circumscribed by adherence to preordained narrative ‘loops’, the repetition of their every conversation, death and bodily reconstruction wiped from their memories by the park engineers, certain hosts – notably Dolores, the rancher’s daughter, and Maeve, the bordello madame – are starting to remember their histories. Struggling to understand their occasional eerie interviews with their puppeteering masters – explained away as dreams, on the rare occasion where such explanation is warranted – they fight to break free of their intended loops, with startling consequences.But there is also a hidden layer to Westworld: a maze sought by a mysterious Man in Black and to which the various hosts and their narratives are somehow key. With the hosts exhibiting abnormal behaviour, retaining memories of their former ‘lives’ in a violent, fragmented struggle towards true autonomy, freedom and sentience, Westworld poses a single, sharp question: what does it mean to be human?

Or rather, it’s clearly trying to pose this question; and to be fair, it very nearly succeeds. But for a series so overtly concerned with its own meta – it is, after all, a story about the construction, reception and impact of stories on those who consume and construct them – it has a damnable lack of insight into the particulars of its assumed audiences, both internal and external, and to the ways this hinders the proclaimed universality of its conclusions. Specifically: Westworld is a story in which all the internal storytellers are straight white men endowed with the traditional bigotries of racism, sexism and heteronormativity, but in a context where none of those biases are overtly addressed at any narrative level.

From the outset, it’s clear that Westworld is intended as a no-holds-barred fantasy in the literal sense: a place where the rich and privileged can pay through the nose to fuck, fight and fraternise in a facsimile of the old West without putting themselves at any real physical danger. Nobody there can die: customers, unlike hosts, can’t be killed (though they do risk harm in certain contexts), but each host body and character is nonetheless resurrected, rebuilt and put back into play after they meet their end. Knowing this lends the customers a recklessness and a violence they presumably lack in the real world: hosts are shot, stabbed, raped, assaulted and abused with impunity, because their disposable inhumanity is the point of the experience. This theme is echoed in their treatment by Westworld’s human overseers, who often refer to them as ‘it’ and perform their routine examinations, interviews, repairs and updates while the hosts are naked.

At this point in time, HBO is as well-known for its obsession with full frontal, frequently orgiastic nudity as it is for its total misapprehension of the distinction between nakedness and erotica. Never before has so much skin been shown outside of literal porn with so little instinct for sensuality, sexuality or any appreciation of the human form beyond hurr durr tiddies and, ever so occasionally, hurr durr dongs, and Westworld is no exception to this. It’s like the entirety of HBO is a fourteen-year-old straight boy who’s just discovered the nascent thrill of drawing Sharpie-graffiti genitals on every available schoolyard surface and can only snigger, unrepentant and gleeful, whenever anyone asks them not to. We get it, guys – humans have tits and asses, and you’ve figured out how to show us that! Huzzah for you! Now get the fuck over your pubescent creative wankphase and please, for the love of god, figure out how to do it tastefully, or at least with some general nodding in the direction of an aesthetic other than Things I Desperately Wanted To See As A Teengaer In The Days Before Internet Porn.

That being said, I will concede that there’s an actual, meaningful reason for at least some of Westworld’s ubiquitous nudity: it’s a deliberate, visual act of dehumanisation, one intended not only to distinguish the hosts from the ‘real’ people around them, but to remind the park’s human employees that there’s no need to treat the AIs with kindness or respect. For this reason, it also lends a powerful emphasis to the moments when particular characters opt to dress or cover the hosts, thereby acknowledging their personhood, however minimally. This does not, however, excuse the sadly requisite orgy scenes, nor does it justify the frankly obscene decision to have a white female character make a leering comment about the size of a black host’s penis, and especially not when said female character has already been established as queer. (Yes, bi/pan people exist; as I have good reason to know, being one of them. But there are about nine zillion ways the writers could’ve chosen to show Elsie’s sexual appreciation for men that didn’t tap into one of the single grossest sexual tropes on the books, let alone in a context which, given the host’s blank servility and Elsie’s status as an engineer, is unpleasantly evocative of master/slave dynamics.)

And on the topic of Elsie, let’s talk about queerness in Westworld, shall we? Because let’s be real: the bar for positive queer representation on TV is so fucking low right now, it’s basically at speedbump height, and yet myriad grown-ass adults are evidently hellbent on bellyflopping onto it with all the grace and nuance of a drunk walrus. Elsie is a queer white woman whose queerness is shown to us by her decision to kiss one of the female hosts, Clementine, who’s currently deployed as a prostitute, in a context where Clementine is reduced to a literal object, stripped of all consciousness and agency. Episode 6 ends on the cliffhanger of Elsie’s probable demise, and as soon as I saw that setup, I felt as if that single, non-consensual kiss – never referenced or expanded on otherwise – had been meant as Chekov’s gaykilling gun: this woman is queer, and thus is her death predicted. (Of course she fucking dies. Of course she does. I looked it up before I watched the next episode, but I might as well have Googled whether the sun sets in the west.)

It doesn’t help that the only other queer femininity we’re shown is either pornography as wallpaper or female host prostitutes hitting on female customers; and it especially doesn’t help that, as much as HBO loves its gratuitous orgy scenes, you’ll only ever see two naked women casually getting it on in the background, never two naked men. Nor does it escape notice that the lab tech with a penchant for fucking the hosts in sleep mode is apparently a queer man, a fact which is presented as a sort of narrative reveal. The first time he’s caught in the act, we only see the host’s legs, prone and still, under his body, but later there’s a whole sequence where he takes one of the male hosts, Hector – who is, not coincidentally, a MOC, singled out for sexual misuse by at least one other character – and prepares to rape him. (It’s not actually clear in context whether the tech is planning on fucking or being fucked by Hector – not that it’s any less a violation either way, of course; I’m noting it rather because the scene itself smacks of being constructed by people without any real idea of how penetrative sex between two men works. Like, ignoring the fact that they’re in a literal glass-walled room with the tech’s eyerolling colleague right next door, Hector is sitting upright on a chair, but is also flaccid and non-responsive by virtue of being in sleep mode. So even though we get a grimly lascivious close-up of the tech squirting lube on his hand, dropping his pants and, presumably, slicking himself up, it’s not actually clear what he’s hoping to achieve prior to the merciful moment when Hector wakes up and fights him the fuck off.)

Topping off this mess is Logan, a caustic, black-hat-playing customer who, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foursome with three host prostitutes – two female, one male – is visually implied to be queer, and who thereinafter functions, completely unnecessarily, as a depraved bisexual stereotype. And I do mean blink-and-you’ll-miss-it: I had to rewind the episode to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, but it’s definitely there, and as with Elsie kissing Clementine, it’s never referenced again. The male host is engaging only with Logan, stroking his chest as he kisses and fucks the two women; it’s about as unsexualised as sexual contact between two naked men can actually get, and yet HBO has gone to the trouble of including it, I suspect for the sole purpose of turning a bland, unoriginal character into an even grosser stereotype than he would otherwise have been while acting under the misapprehension that it would give him depth. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Logan doesn’t cease to be a cocky, punchable asshat just because you consented to put a naked white dude next to him for less time than it takes to have a really good shit; it just suggests that you, too, are a cocky, punchable asshat who should shit more in the bathroom and less on the fucking page. But I digress.

And then there’s the racism, which – and there’s no other way to put this – is presented as being an actual, intentional feature of the Westworld experience, even though it makes zero commercial sense to do this. Like. You have multiple white hosts who are programmed to make racist remarks about particular POC hosts, despite the fact that there are demonstrably POC customers paying to visit the park. You have a consistent motif of Native Americans being referred to as ‘savages’, both within Westworld-as-game and by the gamewriters themselves, with Native American mysticism being used to explain both the accidental glimpses various self-aware hosts get of the gamerunners and the in-game lore surrounding the maze. Demonstrably, the writers of Westworld are aware of this – why else is Episode 2, wherein writer character Lee Sizemore gleefully proposes a hella racist new story for the park, called ‘Chestnut’, as in old? I’ve said elsewhere that depiction is not endorsement, but it is perpetuation, and in a context where the point of Westworld as a commercial venture is demonstrably to appeal to customers of all genders, sexual orientations and races – all of whom we see in attendance – building in particular period-appropriate bigotries is utterly nonsensical.

More than this, as the openness with which the female prostitutes seduce female customers makes clear, it’s narratively inconsistent: clearly, not every bias of the era is being rigidly upheld. And yet it also makes perfect sense if you think of both Westworld and Westworld as being, predominantly, a product both created by and intended for a straight white male imagination. In text, Westworld’s stories are written by Lee and Robert, both of whom are straight white men, while Westworld itself was originally the conceit of Michael Crichton. Which isn’t to diminish the creative input of the many other people who’ve worked on the show – technically, it’s a masterclass in acting, direction, composition, music, lighting, special effects and editing, and those people deserve their props. It’s just that, in terms of narrative structure, by what I suspect is an accidental marriage of misguided purpose and unexamined habit, Westworld the series, like Westworld the park, functions primarily for a straight white male audience – and while I don’t doubt that there was some intent to critically highlight the failings of that perspective, as per the clear and very satisfying satirising of Lee Sizemore, as with Zack Snyder’s Suckerpunch and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, the straight white male gaze is still so embedded as a lazy default that Westworld ends up amplifying its biases more often than it critiques them. (To quote something my straight white husband said while watching, “It’s my gaze, and I feel like I’m being parodied by it.”)

Though we do, as mentioned, see various women and people of colour enjoying the Westworld park, the customers who actually serve as protagonists – Logan, William and the Man in Black – are all white men. Logan is queer by virtue of a single man’s hand on his chest, but other than enforcing a pernicious stereotype about bisexual appetites and behaviours, it doesn’t do a damn thing to alter his characterisation. The end of season reveal that William is the Man in Black – that William’s scenes have all taken place thirty years in the past, shown to us now through Dolores’s memories – is a cleverly executed twist, and yet the chronicle of William’s transformation from youthful, romantic idealist to violent, sadistic predator only highlights the fundamental problem, which is that the Westworld park, despite being touted as an adventure for everyone – despite Robert using his customers as a basis for making universal judgements about human nature – is clearly a more comfortable environment for some than others. Certainly, if I was able to afford the $40,000 a day we’re told it costs to attend, I’d be disinclined to spend so much for the privilege of watching male robots, whatever their courtesy to me, routinely talk about raping women, to say nothing of being forced to witness the callousness of other customers to the various hosts.

It should be obvious that there’s no such thing as a universal fantasy, and yet much of Westworld’s psychological theorising about human nature and morality hinges on our accepting that the desire  to play cowboy in a transfigured version of the old West is exactly this. That the final episode provides tantalising evidence that at least one other park with a different historical theme exists elsewhere in the complex doesn’t change the fact that S1 has sold us, via the various monologues of Logan and Lee, Robert and William and the Man in Black, the idea that Westworld specifically reveals deep truths about human nature.

Which brings us to Dolores, a female host whose primary narrative loop centres on her being a sweet, optimistic rancher’s daughter who, with every game reset, can be either raped or rescued from rape by the customers. That Dolores is our primary female character – that her narrative trajectory centres on her burgeoning sentience, her awareness of the repeat violations she’s suffered, and her refusal to remain a damsel – does not change the fact that making her thus victimised was a choice at both the internal (Westworld) and external (Westworld) levels. I say again unto HBO, I do not fucking care how edgy you think threats of sexual violence and the repeat objectification of women are: they’re not original, they’re not compelling, and in this particular instance, what you’ve actually succeeded in doing is undermining your core premise so spectacularly that I do not understand how anyone acting in good sense or conscience could let it happen.

Because in making host women like Dolores (white) and Maeve (a WOC), both of whom are repeatedly subject to sexual and physical violation, your lynchpin characters for the development of true human sentience from AIs – in making their memories of those violations the thing that spurs their development – you’re not actually asking the audience to consider what it means to be human. You’re asking them to consider the prospect that victims of rape and assault aren’t actually human in the first place, and then to think about how being repeatedly raped and assaulted might help them to gain humanity. And you’re not even being subtle about it, either, because by the end of S1, the entire Calvinistic premise is laid clear: that Robert and Arnold, the park’s founders, believed that tragedy and suffering was the cornerstone of sentience, and that the only way for hosts to surpass their programming is through misery. Which implies, by logical corollary, that Robert is doing the hosts a service by allowing others to hurt them or by hurting them himself – that they are only able to protest his mistreatment because the very fact of it gave them sentience.

Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s pretty fucking awful. The moral dilemma of Westworld, inasmuch as it exists, centres on the question of knowing culpability, and therefore asks a certain cognitive dissonance of the audience: on the one hand, the engineers and customers believe that the hosts aren’t real people, such that hurting them is no more an immoral act than playing Dark Side in a Star Wars RPG is; on the other hand, from an audience perspective, the hosts are demonstrably real people, or at the very least potential people, and we are quite reasonably distressed to see them hurt. Thus: if the humans in setting can’t reasonably be expected to know that the hosts are people, then we the audience are meant to feel conflicted about judging them for their acts of abuse and dehumanisation while still rooting for the hosts.

Ignore, for a moment, the additional grossness of the fact that both Dolores and Maeve are prompted to develop sentience, and are then subsequently guided in its emergence, by men, as though they are Eves being made from Adam’s rib. Ignore, too, the fact that it’s Dolores’s host father who, overwhelmed by the realisation of what is routinely done to his daughter, passes that fledgling sentience to Dolores, a white woman, who in turn passes it to Maeve, a woman of colour, without which those other male characters – William, Felix, Robert – would have no Galateas to their respective Pygmalions. Ignore all this, and consider the basic fucking question of personhood: of what it means to engage with AIs you know can pass a Turing test, who feel pain and bleed and die and exhibit every human symptom of pain and terror and revulsion as the need arises, who can improvise speech and memory, but who can by design give little or no consent to whatever it is you do to them. Harming such a person is not the same as engaging with a video game; we already know it’s not for any number of reasons, which means we can reasonably expect the characters in the show to know so, too. But even if you want to dispute that point – and I’m frankly not interested in engaging with someone who does – it doesn’t change the fact that Westworld is trying to invest us in a moral false equivalence.

The problem with telling stories about robots developing sentience is that both the robots and their masters are rendered at an identical, fictional distance to the (real, human) viewer. By definition, an audience doesn’t have to believe that a character is literally real in order to care about them; we simply have to accept their humanisation within the narrative. That being so, asking viewers to accept the dehumanisation of one fictional, sentient group while accepting the humanisation of another only works if you’re playing to prejudices we already have in the real world – such as racism or sexism, for instance – and as such, it’s not a coincidence that the AIs we see violated over and over are, almost exclusively, women and POC, while those protagonists who abuse them are, almost exclusively, white men. Meaning, in essence, that any initial acceptance of the abuse of hosts that we’re meant to have – or, by the same token, any initial excusing of abusers – is predicated on an existing form of bigotry: collectively, we are as used to doubting the experiences and personhood of women and POC as we are used to assuming the best about straight white men, and Westworld fully exploits that fact to tell its story.

Which, as much as it infuriates me, also leaves me with a dilemma in interpreting the show. Because as much as I dislike seeing marginalised groups exploited and harmed, I can appreciate the importance of aligning a fictional axis of oppression (being a host) with an actual axis of oppression (being female and/or a POC). Too often, SFFnal narratives try to tackle that sort of Othering without casting any actual Others, co-opting the trappings of dehumanisation to enhance our sympathy for a (mostly white, mostly straight) cast. And certainly, by the season finale, the deliberateness of this decision is made powerfully clear: joined by hosts Hector and Armistice and aided by Felix, a lab tech, Maeve makes her escape from Westworld, presenting us with the glorious image of three POC and one white woman battling their way free of oppressive control. And yet the reveal of Robert’s ultimate plans – the inference that Maeve’s rebellion wasn’t her own choice after all, but merely his programming of her; the revelation that Bernard is both a host and a recreation of Arnold, Robert’s old partner; the merging of Dolores’s arc with Wyatt’s – simultaneously serves to strip these characters of any true agency. Everything they’ve done has been at Robert’s whim; everything they’ve suffered has been because he wanted it so. As per the ubiquitous motif of the player piano, even when playing unexpected tunes, the hosts remain Robert’s instruments: even with his death, the songs they sing are his.

Westworld, then, is a study in contradictions, and yet is no contradiction at all. Though providing a stunning showcase for the acting talents of Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright in particular, their characters are nonetheless all controlled by Anthony Hopkins’s genial-creepy Robert, and that doesn’t really change throughout the season. Though the tropes of old West narratives are plainly up for discussion, any wider discussion of stereotyping is as likely to have a lampshade hung on it as to be absent altogether, and that’s definitely a problem. Not being familiar with the Michael Crichton film and TV show, I can’t pass judgement on the extent to which this new adaptation draws from or surpasses the source material. I can, however, observe that the original film dates to the 1970s, which possibly goes some way to explaining the uncritical straight white male gazieness embedded in the premise. Even so, there’s something strikingly reminiscent of Joss Whedon to this permutation of Westworld, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The combination of a technologically updated old West, intended to stand as both a literal and metaphoric frontier, the genre-aware meta-narrative that nonetheless perpetuates more stereotypes than it subverts, and the supposed moral dilemma of abusing those who can’t consent feels at times like a mashup of Firefly, Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse that has staunchly failed to improve on Whedon’s many intersectional failings.

And yet, I suspect, I’ll still be poking my nose into Season 2, if only to see how Thandie Newton is doing. It feels like an absurdly low bar to say that, compared to most of HBO’s popular content, Westworld is more tell than show in portraying sexual violence, preferring to focus on the emotional lead-in and aftermath rather than the act itself, and yet that small consideration does ratchet the proverbial dial down a smidge when watching it – enough so that I’m prepared to say it’s vastly less offensive in that respect than, say, Game of Thrones. But it’s still there, still a fundamental part of the plot, and that’s going to be a not unreasonable dealbreaker for a lot of people; as is the fact that the only queer female character dies. Westworld certainly makes compelling television, but unlike the human protagonists, I wouldn’t want to live there.

ETA 11/1/17: I’m annoyed at myself for having left this out of the essay, but that’s what I get for writing notes over three days and then posting while exhausted at 1.30am: There is a marked difference in how Westworld treats Dolores and Maeve, despite the ostensible similarity of their narratives. Though Dolores is continually threatened with rape and damselled in traditional ways, she’s also surrounded by men who want to ‘rescue’ her, notably Bernard/Arnold, Teddy and William, because they believe her worthy of love. From the beginning, she’s held up as an invented feminine ideal, pure and kind and needing protection, and as such, even though she’s continually threatened, she’s one of the few female hosts whose nudity is kept to a bare minimum. Whereas Maeve, by contrast, is continually sexualised, not only in her invented role as the bordello madame, but in the frequency of her nude scenes and her treatment by the other characters; she finds some sexual autonomy, but romance is never part of her narrative. Though both Dolores and Maeve have consensual sexual encounters on screen – Dolores with William, Maeve with Hector – Dolores is given a tasteful fade to black, whereas Maeve is not. Given that Dolores is white and Maeve is black and the extent to which their respective characterisation adheres to old racist tropes about, respectively, white female virtue and black female strength and sexuality, I can’t help but view their deliberate juxtapositioning as a species of racefail.

Plus and also, the way the Man in Black comes after Maeve in her previous homsteader/mother incarnation,  to kill her and her daughter, because he wants to see if he’s capable of doing something ‘truly evil’? Even – or perhaps especially – once we know how much killing he’s already done up until that point, it’s not a minor thing that his personal development is predicated on the destruction of a black woman.

 

 

 

 

A while ago, I found myself in an argument about romantic tropes and the prevalence, both historical and ongoing, of certain of the more toxically misogynistic ones. It’s a conversation I’ve thought about often since, partly in that frustrated, fridge-moment sense of realising exactly what you ought to have said many months after the fact, but mostly because I felt that most people involved were functionally on the same side. It was just that neither the catalysing comments nor the subsequent blowup had established the contextually vital but easily missed distinction between genre and device, which lead to a very unhelpful conflation of the two, and ever since then, I’ve wanted to better articulate that point.

When we talk about the romance genre, we mean a subset of stories where romance is a primary or central narrative focus, and which can be roughly grouped into romantic subgenres depending on their usage of particular settings and tropes, or various combinations of same. Romance as device, however, is the presence of one or more romantic elements in a narrative whose primary or central focus lies elsewhere, and which, no matter how well-executed the romantic aspects, would more properly be grouped with a different set of literary genres or subgenres. The inevitable overlap of the two – and it is inevitable, as per the immortal adage – is further muddied by their tendency to share common tropes derived from different, albeit related, traditions, like similar-sounding words whose etymologies are respectively Greek and Latin (hysteria vs histrionics, for instance), and which therefore carry separate baggage. That being so, and while there’s often utility in discussing them as a single thing, different contexts call for a different approach.

Nor, I would argue, is romance the only narrative element to exist as both genre and device: quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just that romance-as-device tends to be viewed as a sort of common literary holding: something we’re all “allowed” to draw on, regardless of background, without being seen as impinging on someone else’s turf. The same is also generally true of crime-as-device, as opposed to crime-as-genre, and for the same historical reasons: namely, that in both these cases, the device-usage long predates the modern genre-usage. But when it comes to more unified constructions – schools of writing where, by and large, the device and the genre have evolved together and have subsequently come to be seen as special and elevated by their adherents: namely, literary fiction and SFF – gatekeepers tend to raise stronger, more public objections to the validity of their respective device-usages in other genres, viewing it instead as either a dilution of or a failed attempt to properly engage with their traditions.

Fascinatingly, the logic behind these respectively jerked knees is almost diametrically opposite despite leading to functionally identical reactions. Literary fiction, which is prone to thinking of itself as the only real kind of literature, resents its styles and structures  being appropriated by or tainted with the trappings of “lesser” pulp genres, and so considers the idea of litfic-as-device to be somewhat tawdry and embarrassing. SFF, by contrast, is so used to being vilified as pulpy dross that SFF-as-device is invariably seen as cause for circling the wagons. Either litfic is poaching geeky tropes without acknowledging their origins, as per the standard operating procedure whenever SFF stories popular enough to become “classics” are suddenly said to have “transcended genre”, or else it’s a hamfisted attempt by some other “lesser” genre – usually romance, which invariably ends up being dogpiled by everyone – to ape traditions they neither understand nor respect.

(Meanwhile, both romance- and crime-as-device are held to benefit from a sort of snobbish literary elevation when used by other genres. Their core elements, this argument goes, are spices rather than staples, and therefore better suited to seasoning than sustenance. This is bullshit, of course, but self-important purity seldom recognises taste as a variable.)

All of which brings me, in a rather roundabout fashion, to my recent contemplation of the difference between queer stories written for a straight audience and those written for a queer audience, and what it means when those categories overlap (as they also invariably do, as per the above). It’s an issue with a lot of different intersections depending on your entry point, but there’s one angle in particular that’s been bothering me: m/m romances written predominantly by and for allo/straight/cis women versus m/m stories written predominantly by and for queer people. Which, right away, presents a glaring imbalance, in that the majority of stories about queer men, even when they’re written by queer writers, are still being written by women, given the fact that both romance and fanfic, where the bulk of queer romances are found, both have a heavily female-dominated authorship.

That doesn’t mean they’re the only two genres that matter, of course, nor does it mean that queer male writers are absent from those spaces. I can think of several notable queer men writing in SFF (John Chu, Kai Ashante Wilson, Hal Duncan, Yoon Ha Lee), all of whom are excellent, all of whose works feature queer male characters. Nor is the queerness in their writing incidental, in the sense of passing without notice: even when present as a single element within a wider narrative framework, it still remains powerfully situated. But overwhelmingly, in my subjective experience, queer male authored m/m work falls more frequently under the auspices romance-as-device than romance-as-genre.

There are many possible reasons as to why this is, not least the fact that, as queer writers remain marginalised, queer romances of any kind are still more likely to be written by straight authors, period. Combine this with the particular double standards surrounding the outward presentation of traditional gender roles, which portray women as being both naturally more empathic than men while hiding potential sapphism under the banner of Gals Being Pals, and you have a situation where straight women – or closeted queer women, for that matter – are still less likely to be assumed to be queer on the basis of their characters than straight or closeted men who do likewise. And because homophobia is Still A Fucking Thing, Goddamit, Why The Hell Aren’t We Past This Yet?, that’s an assumption many men remain leery of risking, whether consciously or not.

Which makes me wonder if, in part, the apparent dearth of queer men writing m/m romance-as-genre is also a product, at least in part, of the same cultural gendering that sees romance-as-genre as being inherently feminine, and therefore a lesser endeavour. I don’t mean that purely as an evocation of misogyny within the gay community, although that’s certainly a potential factor, but rather in terms of literal socialisation. Romance of all kinds is so thoroughly entrenched as a female preoccupation that it’s pushed on AFAB kids from a young age, even when they’re ambivalent or hostile towards it, while AMAB kids who show any sort of interest in it are still considered suspect. Meaning, in essence, that one group is more likely to receive a cultural primer in romantic tropes – and to internalise the message that romance is meant for them – than the other, regardless of who they really are.

And the thing is, for far too many of us, one of homophobia’s first and most prominent weapons was the assertion that gender-deviant behaviour meant we somehow weren’t our gender, not properly: a devastating attack for those of us who are trans or nonbinary, but equally confusing to those who are cis, but who didn’t yet know that orientation isn’t synonymous with identity. In both cases, coming to queer adulthood has often meant relearning which traditionally “gendered” things, originally rejected as collateral in an amorphous desire for self-expression, might now be cautiously reclaimed, and which things we might have adopted, not out of any real passion, but because their gendered associations were as close as we could once come to being ourselves.

Regardless of the reasons, however, the fact remains that a great deal of m/m romance-as-genre is now written predominantly by and for women. In this category I include both stories where the m/m pairing is primary, and where it appears as a secondary pairing in a largely f/m  or, more rarely, f/f plot. And in considering that fact, I feel – very personally; which is to say, with no real attempt at objectivity – that there is a vast difference between m/m stories which are actually accessible to queer men, or which at least try to be, and those which aren’t. I say this as someone who is genderqueer and bi, which status renders me a liminal creature even to myself, and which often leaves me feeling as though I have no real claim to any particular experience. I know what I feel I am, but I can’t explain that without explaining myself, and in this instance I politely decline to do so on the grounds that, even if I knew how, it would constitute an entirely separate essay. Say this, then: my yardstick for whether a female-authored m/m story is friendly towards a queer male readership is based on how comfortable I’d feel recommending it to my actual queer male friends.

Obviously, queer men are not a hivemind. Obviously. (See above, re: personal and not the least objective.) My friends are not your friends; I’m not trying to make a universal point, but to tease out how this deeply subjective thing currently feels to me. Because when I look at the female-authored m/m romances on my shelves, or the f/m-centred romances featuring secondary m/m relationships – all of which are either SFF, YA or a combination thereof, and therefore more likely representative of portrayals of male queerness in those genres than in romance otherwise – overwhelmingly, the thematic backdrop to those pairings falls into one of two categories: the horrific sexual abuse of one partner coupled frequently with the violent torture of the other, or the pining of a gay virgin for a man who didn’t know he was queer until they found themselves together, all sexual elements neatly sublimated beneath romance. For brevity’s sake, let’s call these categories violent and chaste.

To be clear: I’m talking here about books I like. Books I love in some cases, or which I have a deeply conflicted relationship to in others, but books in any case about which I feel strongly. Taken individually, they’re all engaging stories with varying faults and strengths, and which have very little in common besides their m/m leanings and the vague umbrella of their non-romantic genres. But having noticed this dichotomous trend, I can’t unsee it, and therefore can’t help but want to analyse it. And thus, the following deeply subjective opinion:

I feel as though the violent stories, at least in part, are a reaction to both the broken bird trope and the long, long list of narratives in which women are subject to every form of sexual violation. As such, I suspect they’re more likely to be written by queer women than straight; women who are deeply aware of the risks of violence produced by homophobia, and who, while wanting to explore the ramifications of that violence, are understandably reluctant to add to to a body of literature already glutted with stories of female abuse in general and the violation of queer women in particular. I understand exactly the logic in these instances, and yet I flinch from recommending such stories to queer male friends for the same reason that I hesitate to recommend misogynistic grimdark stories to female friends, or queer tragedies to queer friends: the horrors might be real and well-written, but that doesn’t mean we want to read about ourselves being destroyed.

The chaste stories, by contrast, I feel are more likely to be written by straight women than queer; women who are either uncomfortable with or cautious of portraying the physical, sexual aspects of queer male relationships, but who nonetheless feel deeply affected by their emotional component. To me, it always feels like there’s a disconnect to these narratives, one where poetic euphemism so fully supplants any bodily sense of arousal or wanting, let alone confusion or shock, as to betray a lack of familiarity with what it means to question your sexuality, or to feel shamed into hiding it. The lack of sex scenes isn’t the issue; it’s the total abstraction of sexual desire without actually writing an asexual character, coupled with the general lack of internal debate or crisis. It’s queer boys on perpetual stealth mode except for when, all of a sudden and without any apparent drama, they come out, and while these stories can still be quite beautiful, there’s a weightlessness to them, an abstraction from queer experience, that makes me hesitant to recommend them, either.

What both categories have in common, however – not universally, but frequently enough to rate a mention – is the invariable distancing of both characters from any sort of queer community or friendship. In the violent stories, it’s usually due to the focus on abuse, isolation or being closeted: even if other queer characters are present, the abused man is made lonely in his abuse, so that only his lovers or assailants are ever really privy to his secrets. In the chaste stories, by contrast, it’s because the queer men are predominantly surrounded by straight people, such that all the queerness flies under the radar right until it doesn’t. Which is, I cynically suspect, a part of the appeal for some straight authors: given that more of the population is straight than queer, the kismet of meeting a soulmate is made to seem even more wondrous if the odds were lower in the first place, and even moreso if your protagonist thought he was The Only Gay In The Village. Hence the poetic tendency to put the emotional connection on a lust-ignoring pedestal: it’s pure and perfect as much because they found each other at all as because of any other reason, so why sully it with sex?

As personally and as profoundly as I understand why so many women, straight or otherwise, find meaning and enjoyment in m/m stories, I’m increasingly saddened by how few of those narratives seem to consider the possibility of a queer male audience, or which assume that audience’s needs to be identical to a female one. It should surely be possible to write for both groups at least some of the time, and while I freely admit the limitations of my own perspective – I can, after all, only speak to what I’ve read myself – the existence of a discernible pattern is nonetheless disquieting.

 

Warning: major spoilers for the entire Captive Prince trilogy.

Trigger warning: discussion of rape, slavery, child abuse, paedophilia.

Late last year, a friend recommended I try the Captive Prince trilogy by C. S. Pacat, describing it as an excellent queer fantasy romance series. I made interested noises and then, somewhat typically, forgot about it until it cropped up again on my tumblr dash. I don’t know what alchemical combination of blogs I’m currently following to make this so, but thus far, everything I’ve ever read, watched or played on the basis of hearing about it through tumblr has been something I’ve loved, or at least enjoyed despite whatever criticisms I’ve made of it. That being so, and as it was my birthday that weekend, I shelled out for an ebook of the first volume, Captive Prince, and decided to give it a try before bed.

I stayed up until 5am to finish it, then read the next two volumes – Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising – in less than a day. They’re not long books, but length aside, I couldn’t put them down, and given how much I’ve recently struggled to stay immersed in any story long enough to finish it, that’s saying something. The series is, as advertised, a queer fantasy romance, but while it’s certainly SFF, it counts as fantasy only inasmuch as it’s set in an original secondary world – there’s no magic or mythical creatures, with the focus instead resting on romance and politics.

These are not, by a long shot, perfect books; in fact, they contain a great many elements I traditionally despise, and which would ordinarily cause me to run a mile in the opposite direction. Which is, in part, why I’ve spent the past three months drafting this review: to get my head around exactly how and why I enjoyed them anyway. Because I did enjoy them, for all that I’m about to launch into a lengthy, detailed criticism of their failings, and as easy as it would be to simply write them off as a guilty pleasure, I feel like they deserve more than that.

Here’s the blurb for Captive Prince, the first volume:

Damen is a warrior hero to his people, and the truthful heir to the throne of Akielos, but when his half brother seizes power, Damen is captured, stripped of his identity and sent to serve the prince of an enemy nation as a pleasure slave.

Beautiful, manipulative and deadly, his new master Prince Laurent epitomizes the worst of the court at Vere. But in the lethal political web of the Veretian court, nothing is as it seems, and when Damen finds himself caught up in a play for the throne, he must work together with Laurent to survive and save his country.

For Damen, there is just one rule: never, ever reveal his true identity. Because the one man Damen needs is the one man who has more reason to hate him than anyone else…

Straight away, then, it needs to be acknowledged: this is a world in which slavery, and especially sexual slavery, is normative, and where the primary romance is between a character who, at the outset, is enslaved by the other. Also salient is the issue of race: Laurent is white, while Damen, who’s described as being olive-skinned and dark-haired, is not. Those are going to be hard limits for some people, and with good reason. It’s not something I want to minimise or elide. As I recently had cause to say elsewhere, the fact that I can discuss these elements at a remove is a consequence of privilege: that I enjoyed – or was, rather, able to enjoy – the books otherwise is both personally disquieting and a concession I’d never expect of anyone else.

That being so, it’s also relevant – to me, at least – that Captive Prince was first published online, as an ongoing original  fanfic/slash story, with the first two volumes serialised between 2008 and 2012: by contrast, the content of Kings Rising, which only came out this year, is entirely new. Online, there’s an explicit culture of tagging and author/reader interaction in digital slash circles, both for fanfic and original works, that serves to contextualise which elements of a story are intended for reader critique, and which are explicitly included as a deliberate kink. It’s why, I’ve discovered, there are tropes and stories I’m happy to read in fanfic that I’ll baulk at elsewhere, and nor am I the only person of whom that’s true. It makes a significant difference to know that the author knows that a particular trope or exchange is problematic, and is writing it that way on purpose, as an exploration of flawed humanity or as a dead dove indulgence, instead of having to wonder if they genuinely think it’s okay.

Thus: while I’ve clearly come late to the party and didn’t see the original discussions surrounding, in particular, the early chapters of Pacat’s work, when they were first posted online, the fact that this engagement took place at all – that the story was written in expectation of such engagement – seems relevant to analysing it now. Master/slave romances are a longstanding staple of both erotica and slash, and while that fact doesn’t magically exempt them from criticism either in terms of individual execution or as a discreet phenomenon, it does situate the device itself as, well – a device, one Pacat recognises as such, and which she likely discussed with readers when the story first went up; a discussion to which I have no access, but which nonetheless impacted how and why the story was told as it was.

Here is the thing I struggle with about erotica/romance: the fact that something is explicitly written as a sexual fantasy doesn’t exempt it from criticism, but nor is a reader who enjoys such fantasies automatically wrong to read them uncritically. The act of writing is always an act of fantasy, of construction, but sexual fantasies, by their very nature, occupy a uniquely personal space. It is quite possible to compartmentalise what one finds acceptable in normal life versus what one finds arousing in fantasy, as fiction, within a controlled narrative space; and yet it’s also possible to confuse the two on both ends, to assume that privately desiring a thing excuses its uncritical replication, or to trust that such uncritical replication means there’s nothing to criticise in the first place. Our kinks are our own, but to a large extent, they’re also socially influenced, and as such, the primacy of particular narratives, uncritically viewed and ubiquitous, can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The issue becomes further muddled if we attempt to draw that salient distinction between sex and romance, particularly in the context of their interrelated tropes. Sexual fantasies are not the same as romantic fantasies, though there may be some overlap. Speaking personally – which, on the ultimate Your Mileage May Vary topic, is really all I can do – I have a deep mistrust of erotica whose romance elements are meant to be inferred from the hotness of the pornography alone, particularly in instances where the sexual fantasy elements either negate or raise serious questions about the healthiness of the corresponding emotional relationship. Which is where we run into something of a unique, arguably moral but certainly critical, conundrum: how, exactly, does one negotiate the intersection of kink with criticism?

On the one hand, it can’t be denied that the idea of sexual slavery is, for many, an arousing fantasy; and more, that their enjoyment of the concept in fiction isn’t contingent on it being portrayed exclusively as a meta-fantasy of the characters. By which I mean: however abhorrent one might find the concept of sexual slavery in real life, such that physically indulging in such play would (one hopes) take place only under the pre-negotiated auspices of safe, sane and consensual or RACK, the very fact of knowing that a story is fictional, and therefore a fantasy constructed for the reader, can void the need for the characters to engage in similar negotiations. Consent is therefore established, not between the protagonists, but between the reader and the work itself: instead of safewording, all we need do is set the book aside, the characters undamaged by virtue of being imaginary. That being so, a story doesn’t need to internally establish the immorality of slavery, sexual or otherwise, in order to scratch the itch of an otherwise deeply consent-oriented kink.

On the other hand, and regardless of whether the presence of slavery is either intended or able to satisfy a kink, we are not wrong to critique it, and especially not when its inclusion is narratively unexamined. Slavery still exists, both sexually and otherwise; its victims are myriad, their stories appalling. Its impact on histories both individual and collective is staggering, indelible, undeniable and ongoing, and even without any personal experience of or connection to such suffering, we have every right to be horrified by narratives or characters which do not unequivocally denounce it, or which feature it at all, for that matter.

Likewise in this instance, given the historical intersection of racism with both slavery and pornography (both straight and queer), it’s impossible to argue that race simply doesn’t matter, or insist that the characters be judged wholly on the basis of the setting. Calling a mandingo portrayal a kink instead of a trope (for instance) doesn’t make it any less racist – but then, the intersection of racism with fandom is something we, meaning white fans, are still notoriously bad at navigating. The “don’t like, don’t read” culture of fanwriting, which is frequently cited as grounds for critical exemption, is a case in point. While fair enough in theory – fans are, after all, working for free, for pleasure – this doesn’t change the fact that the persistent elision of POC characters, coupled with the joint problems of authorial stereotyping and reader pushback when they do appear, can make a space that otherwise prides itself on its inclusiveness both hostile and alienating to fans of colour, who are then further criticised for violating fan etiquette when they react. As ever, it’s a problem of wider social problems converging in fanspace: fanwriters didn’t create racism, but we can certainly bring it with us, and as Captive Prince began in fanfic communities, it’s certainly a relevant aspect of the discussion.

And then, on that perennially metaphoric third hand, there’s the issue of critical narrative immersion: the decision to accept that slavery is part of the worldbuilding, and to separate our judgement of its objective immorality from our judgement of how skilfully (or not) the world and its characters are constructed, and how they work on their own terms. This is a tricky thing to do, inasmuch as it involves embracing a deliberate form of cognitive dissonance: the parallel rendering of two disparate opinions on the same subject, both accepted, yet never quite reconciled. It’s this third path I find myself taking with the Captive Prince trilogy, further contextualised by my awareness of the other two options. Doubtless, there are some who’ll perceive me as drastically overthinking things, while others might assert that I’m thinking too little, or from the wrong perspective. That being so, the best I can attempt is honesty, both emotional and intellectual: to show my working where possible, and to admit the lack of it otherwise.

Here, then, is the short version of my opinion, by way of prefacing the longer one: Pacat is an excellent writer, one whose style and depth both demonstrably improve as the series progresses. That the first book was written online, in the context of fanfiction and that community’s discussion of both kink and sexuality is, as mentioned, salient in examining its portrayal of sexual slavery, particularly in comparison to the third. The abiding impression I have – or instinct, rather – is that, having used the concept of sexual slavery as a kinky premise for a story being updated live, the setup meant as an excuse for Damen to be deposed and enslaved by his half-brother rather than as a nuanced exploration of culture, Pacat was unable to go back and change things once the story took off. This potentially explains why the first book treats sexual slavery as a normative, largely unexamined central focus; why the second moves almost completely away from slavery without ever really addressing it; and why the third attempts, albeit tentatively, to acknowledge it as wrong without ever really probing its initial acceptance and the implications thereof.

All this being so, and with the best will in the world, it’s clear that Pacat is writing from a position of unexamined white privilege. Even if her initial introduction of sexual slavery was meant wholly as a kinky plot device, its wider implications for Damen’s history unconsidered at the outset, there is no such excuse (if we can call it that) for blithely assuming that the image of a brown-skinned man in chained service to a white man would be narratively neutral. That Damen’s race is never considered salient to his slavery within the story doesn’t change what it evokes to the reader.

Or rather, what it can evoke: from my perspective, Damen’s race feels like an unacknowledged elephant in the room of the Captive Prince fandom. I’ve seen it mentioned as a problem online exactly once, while a staggering amount of fanart involves Damen in chains, cuffs and collar. That he wears all these things at one time or another doesn’t change the fact that replicating them in fanart – emphasising them above other options – is a choice, and one made fairly consistently. That Laurent whips Damen nearly to death in the first book, resulting in permanent scarring, likewise invokes a very specific, very ugly history; as do the times when Damen is referred to as a barbarian, cur or savage. That these insults are delivered exclusively in relation to his culture and warrior-status rather than his race doesn’t change their potential, awful resonance for readers to whom these are all deeply personal, lived insults, nor does it justify their inclusion Because Worldbuilding. No matter how perfectly explained and narratively consistent the internal logic of a setting – no matter how many in-book justifications exist to try and soften the parallels – we all, creators and readers both, bring our world and its history with us. That is inescapable.

Paradoxically, it’s Pacat’s utter obliviousness on this front – and, as a consequence, the obliviousness of the narrative – which made it tolerable for me. (Which isn’t, I hasten to add, the same as defensible; see above re: parallel judgements.) If Damen was insulted on the basis of his skin colour or ethnicity, I suspect I would’ve flung my Kindle at the wall; instead, he’s slandered on the basis of being Akelion, with his countrymen casting identical slurs at the Veretians. The comparison of these countries is an interesting one: Akielos is heavily based on ancient Greece, while Vere is more reminiscent of a decadent, pre-revolutionary France, though in this setting, both nations were originally part of a single empire and exist now at an identical technological level. As such, while Damen’s colouring is less common in Vere and Laurent’s less common in Akielos, there’s enough of a shared heritage that Damen isn’t exoticised for his looks. In fact, it’s Laurent who’s more often fetishised on this count, regardless of the observer’s nationality.

That being said, things turn murky again on re-examining the issue of slavery. Like ancient Greece, Akielos is a slave culture, and at the start of the first book, our assumption is that the same is true of Vere. In fact, from Damen’s introductory perspective, Vere’s version of slavery is far more horrifying in its abuses than anything practised in Akielos, and as such, we’re inclined to sympathise with his outrage (which is, note, a different thing to agreeing with his corresponding defence of his homeland’s practices). The problem is that Damen is, in this respect, an unreliable narrator – not intentionally, but by virtue of cultural ignorance. The story is premised on the deposed, imprisoned Damen, along with a contingent of trained slaves, being sent as a gift to Laurent’s uncle, the Regent of Vere; this makes slavery seem normal in Vere, as does the presence of ‘pets’ kept by the nobility for sexual use.

Not unreasonably, Damen assumes the pets are slaves, and so, in turn, does the reader. It’s only later that we discover this isn’t true: pets are more akin to courtesans, occupying contractual, paid positions. With this information in hand, the opening scenes in Vere – which are, to say the least, both violent and debauched – are cast in, if not a redeeming light, then one in which consent isn’t quite so thoroughly disregarded. Damen and the other slaves are still vilely mistreated, but given the slow reveal of the Regent’s particular monstrousness, it’s not initially clear that this abuse is ultimately the Regent’s doing alone, rather than constituting a widespread cultural practice.

As such, once it becomes clear that Vere is not, in fact, a slave culture, our perception of Damen’s outrage – and of him – is necessarily forced to shift. From the outset, we know that he’s slept with slaves before, and that slaves are prized, treated gently, and praised for their submission in Akielos. Indeed, it’s the abuse of this submissiveness that rouses Damen’s ire, to the point where he intercedes with Laurent to have the other slaves gifted to an ambassador from neighbouring Patras, who knows enough of their training and value to treat them kindly. The slaves themselves – or one in particular, Erasmus, whom we take as being a spokesman for the others – are grateful for this opportunity; the question of freeing them is never raised. Which is where, once again, we run up against the intersection of kink and criticism: the ‘submissiveness’ in question is described in ways that make it feel highly reminiscent of BDSM, with submission offered as part of a reciprocal relationship involving a duty of care, both emotionally and physically, on the master’s behalf. Erasmus’s new master, for instance, is outraged by his rape in Vere, expressing a heartfelt refusal to sleep with him until or unless the other man is ready.

And yet, for all that we’re meant to be thinking of BDSM – for all that masters under the Akielios/Patras system care greatly about the wellbeing of their slaves – this is still an arrangement without consent. Slaves are taken as captives and trained; the practice is a legitimate source of anger in Vere, whose people suffer in border raids. Damen, raised to view this type of slavery as normative, sees nothing wrong with it, and as this seemingly ‘gentler’ alternative is being contrasted with the violent environs of Vere, the narrative doesn’t encourage us to question his assessment. But Vere, despite the depravity of its Regent, is not a slave culture; Akielos is. Yet even in his captivity, Damen doesn’t engage in any real reflection on the wrongness of of slavery (though Laurent makes some pointed remarks about it before then) until Kings Rising; at which point, now freed and fighting to reclaim his country, he eventually pledges to end the whole institution.

Obviously, this is a positive development, for all that it feels like too little, too late; and yet I can’t help thinking that, once again, the problem lies with Pacat’s inability to edit those early chapters. The first book, Captive Prince, treats sexual slavery as an uncritically examined kink/conceit in a way that the subsequent two volumes do not, but on which their events are nonetheless based. This forces Pacat to walk a very thin line in expanding on her own, unalterable canon: to address slavery as an evil – and to acknowledge the past abuses of the protagonists – without presenting them as wholly irredeemable, at least within the context of her world. That she manages this is a testament to her skill as a writer; nonetheless, I’d be remiss not to point out that the problem is one of her own making. Or, looked at another way, a problem of success: had the stories remained online, contextualised by fanfic’s tagging and commentary system – or had they been less popular, such that editing might have passed unnoticed prior to mainstream publication – my reaction might well have been different. At the very least, it might have been easier to distinguish intention from accident.

As if further complications were required, there’s also Laurent’s early treatment of Damen to consider. At base, the Captive Prince trilogy is an enemies to friends to lovers narrative, with each book representing one of those three stages. However unexamined the wider issues of slavery and consent raised by Pacat’s cultures and worldbuilding might be, it works in the series’ favour that there’s no introduction of romance between Laurent and Damen until the two are eventually placed on an equal footing. And yet – again – the offences of the first book cast a long shadow: in particular, three early offences that set the tone for Damen’s early hatred of Laurent. Namely: Damen is badly whipped at his instruction; is forced to engage in a fight where, if he loses, he’ll be raped by the winner (which involves him being prepped for penetrative sex beforehand); and is given oral sex by a pet, with Laurent instructing said pet on what to do.

Definitionally, these latter two acts – the prep and the oral sex – are forms of rape, but the narrative never acknowledges them as such. Damen wins the rape-fight by knocking out his opponent, and therefore escapes having to either rape or be raped, but that doesn’t change what was done to him beforehand, even if it never comes up again. Similarly, in the instant with the pet – which is orchestrated by people other than Laurent, whose complicity is politically forced – although Damen is initially unwilling and unaroused,  Laurent’s instruction results in his physical enjoyment of the act. While the two later discuss this event, it’s never described as a violation; which, on the one hand, is Damen’s prerogative, and as we’re in his perspective, we’re clear on his lack of trauma. If such a scene were present in a fanfic, I’d expect it to be tagged for dubcon – and perhaps, as per the story’s initial serialisation, it was. It’s exactly the sort of scene I can imagine being written for erotic value, as an explicit kink/fantasy, but as stated earlier, the ambiguity on this point, absent any authorial footnoting, is a source of personal unease. The whipping, however, has a different derivation, and is, somewhat strangely, situated within the narrative as being the most forgiveable of these actions despite being the most violent.

There are three major contextualising reasons for this.

Context the first, which constitutes a major reveal of the final book: that Laurent has known all along that Damen is Damianos, the man who killed his brother Auguste six years ago, ending a war that resulted in Akelios annexing a northern Veretian province, the death of Laurent’s father, the king, and the ascent of his uncle to the regency. Context the second, which a canny reader can intuit from various, increasingly obvious clues from the first book onwards, but which isn’t explicitly confirmed until the third: that Laurent’s uncle, a paedophile, abused him for years after his brother’s death – was able to do so without any threat of discovery or oversight precisely because Auguste was dead, and Laurent was left alone. And context the third, which leads directly to the whipping: after the rape-fight, whose conclusion involves Damen being propositioned by an underage boy, Nicaise (who we later learn is the uncle’s pet), Damen and Laurent have the following exchange:

“So my slave is bashful in the arena. Don’t you fuck boys in Akielos?”

“I’m quite cultured. Before I rape anyone, I first check to see if their voice has broken,” said Damen.

Laurent smiled.

This conversation happens in a bathing room, where Damen is shortly instructed to wash Laurent – not with any sexual overtones, but as a servile chore. Nonetheless, Damen becomes aroused, and when Laurent notices, this happens:

“Don’t be presumptuous,” said Laurent, coldly.

“Too late, sweetheart,” said Damen.

Laurent turned, and with calm precision unleashed a backhanded blow that had easily enough force to bloody a mouth, but Damen had had quite enough of being hit, and he caught Laurent’s hand before the blow connected…

Damen let his gaze wander downwards – wet from chest to taut abdomen – and further. It was really a very, very nice body, but the cold outrage was genuine. Laurent was not even a little amorous, Damen noted; that part of him, quite as sweetly made as the rest, was quiescent.

He felt the tension hit Laurent’s body, though the tone didn’t change overmuch from its usual drawl. “But my voice has broken. That was the only prerequisite, wasn’t it?”

Damen released his grip, as though burned. A moment later, the blow he had thwarted landed, harder than he could have imagined, smashing across his mouth.

Get him out of here,” said Laurent.

From Damen’s perspective – which is to say, the only perspective we’re given – Laurent is capricious, violent and cold: the kind of person who’ll whip a slave bloody for a minor infraction, or enter him in a rape-or-be-raped fight against a violent opponent for fun. He doesn’t introspect about Laurent’s motives, because he doesn’t need to: he only needs to hate him and survive.

From Laurent’s perspective, however, things are rather more complex. His abuser, who is currently engaged in a labyrinthine effort to see him discredited, dead or preferably both before he can take the throne in his own right, has just handed him the man he hates most in the world as a slave and publicly ordered him not to kill or harm him, such that any disobedience will see Laurent suffer. Trying to get around this injunction, Laurent pits Damen in the only kind of fight that won’t violate his uncle’s command – because it’s his uncle who encourages the rape-fights, though usually between willing pets – against one of his uncle’s men, who Damen subsequently defeats.When they then discuss this fight, Damen makes a joke about his own willingness to rape, which Laurent, a rape victim, construes – not unreasonably – as a threat. He reacts accordingly.

And it’s here, at the crux of this context, that we find the real reason I stuck with Captive Prince despite its rape-fixation – a device I find nominally abominable – and other problematic elements: the psychology. The steady reveal of Laurent’s motives and characterisation – accompanied, of necessity, by the similar reveal of his uncle’s monstrousness- is one of the most wrenching portrayals of abuse and gaslighting that I’ve ever seen. Damen and Laurent are both deeply flawed characters, and Pacat, in writing them, is aware of this. The point of their eventual romance isn’t to prove that either man was ever perfect, or to suggest that perfection is a retroactively bestowable state, but to engage with the psychological and emotional complexities their relationship presents, unpicking the reasons for their initial, mutual antipathy.

The fact that Laurent’s abuse remains opaque to Damen for much of the trilogy while becoming increasingly clear to the reader is a neat trick of characterisation and writing both. It simply never occurs to Damen, whose blind trust in the goodness of family is why his half-brother, Kastor, was able to capture and enslave him in the first place, as a possibility. For the same reason, Damen doesn’t understand the combination of tolerance, kindness and brutal honesty with which Laurent treats his uncle’s pets. When Damen rejects Nicaise, for instance, Nicaise becomes hostile to him; dangerously so. When Laurent appears both lenient with Nicase’s actions while criticising his person, it confirms Damen’s belief in Laurent’s cruelty; yet Laurent, in these moments, is speaking from awful experience, his words as cutting to himself as to Nicaise, though only he knows it:

“Do you take wine, or aren’t you old enough yet?”

“I’m thirteen. I drink whenever I like.” Nicaise scorned the tray, pushing at it so hard it almost overbalanced. “I’m not going to drink with you. We don’t need to start pretending politeness.”

“Don’t we? Very well: I think it is fourteen by now, isn’t it?”

Nicaise turned red, under the paint.

“I thought so,” said Laurent. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do, after? If I know your master’s tastes, you have another year, at most. At your age, the body begins to betray itself.” And then, reacting to something in the boy’s face, “Or has it started already?”

The red grew strident. “That isn’t any of your business.

“You’re right, it isn’t,” said Laurent.

Nicaise opened his mouth, but Laurent continued before he could speak.

“I’ll offer for you, if you like. When the time comes. I wouldn’t want you in my bed, but you’d have all the same privileges. You might prefer that. I’d offer.”

Nicaise blinked, and then sneered. “With what?”

A breath of amusement from Laurent…

“I don’t need you. He’s promised. He’s not going to give me up.” Nicaise’s voice was smug and self-satisfied.

“He gives them all up,” said Laurent, “even if you’re more enterprising than the others have been.”

“He likes me better than the others.” A scornful laugh. “You’re jealous.” And then it was Nicaise’s turn to react to something he saw in Laurent’s face, and he said, with a horror Damen didn’t understand, “You’re going to tell him you want me.

“Oh,” said Laurent. “No. Nicaise… no. That would wreck you. I wouldn’t do that.” Then his voice became almost tired. “Maybe it’s better if you think I would. You have quite a good mind for strategy, to have thought of that. Maybe you will hold him longer than the others.” For a moment it seemed as if Laurent would say something else, but in the end he just stood up from the bench and held his hand out to the boy. “Come on. Let’s go. You can watch me get told off by my uncle.”

Reading this scene the first time, it’s easy think that Laurent’s perception of Nicaise is jaded, unconcerned – especially as the reader, like Damen, is still new enough to the fact of Nicaise’s status to be horrified by it. Nor does that final line carry the same resonance as it does on a reread, as the revelation of the Regent’s paedophilia is yet to be made. Knowing what comes later, however, many such early exchanges are rendered chilling. More than once, the Regent criticises Laurent for being “childish“, repeatedly belittling him as someone unfocused, selfish, disloyal. That he still rebukes him like a child is an early warning sign, yet similarly easy to miss on a first pass:

The Regent’s expression changed. “I see you can’t be talked to. I won’t indulge your current mood. Petulance is ugly in a child and worse in a man. If you break your toys, it is no one’s fault but your own.”…

“I heard you killed your horse.” [said Damen]

“It’s just a horse,” said Laurent. “I’ll have my uncle buy me a new one.”

These words seemed savagely to amuse him; there was a jagged, private edge to his voice.

The reveal, when it comes, is a suckerpunch precisely because it’s been so long in building: we know that the Regent is trying to outmanoeuvre Laurent, but not what the history is between them. And then, having backed Laurent into a political corner – enabled, in part, by Laurent’s decision to protect Damen, who just saved his life – in full view of the court, this happens:

“There. It is done. Come,” said the Regent to Laurent, extending his right hand…

Laurent came forward, and knelt before him gracefully, a single kneecap to the floor.

“Kiss,” said the Regent, and Laurent lowered his head in obedience to kiss his uncle’s signet ring…

After a moment, Damen saw the Regent’s hand lift again to rest in Laurent’s hair and stroke it with slow, familiar affection. Laurent remained quite still, head bowed, as strands of fine gold were pushed back from his face by the Regent’s heavy, ringed fingers.

“Laurent. Why must you always defy me? I hate it when we are at odds, yet you force me to chastise you. You seem determined to wreck everything in your path. Blessed with gifts, you squander them. Given opportunities, you waste them. I hate to see you grown up like this,” said the Regent, “when you were such a lovely boy.”

In this moment, Laurent is utterly alone; is revealed to have been alone ever since Damen killed his brother and protector. This doesn’t excuse his mistreatment of Damen, but it does contextualise his rage, and as a reader, there’s something powerfully compelling about telling an abuse survivor’s narrative this way: as a trauma whose consequences, even when witnessed by others, are frequently misunderstood by them. Laurent’s soldiers repeatedly describe him as “frigid“, referring to the fact that he never takes lovers; like Damen, they assume he’s emotionally cold, not that he’s protecting himself. Throughout Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising, during their scattering of emotionally and/or sexually intimate moments, Damen frequently reflects on the odd gaps in Laurent’s knowledge without ever realising their cause. Or rather, he knows part of the cause – that Laurent, in every aspect of his life, is someone who wants to remain in control, while physical intimacy requires both trust and negotiation – but not the base reason why. It’s an exquisitely consistent piece of characterisation, and one that Pacat writes with absolute believability.

That Pacat is able to take the hostile dynamic between Damen and Laurent presented in the first book and make anything legitimately romantic of it, let alone something quite affectingly so – even to a reader both conscious of her elisions and critical of the premise – is nothing short of astonishing. Though Damen notes Laurent’s physical charms in Captive Prince, there’s no hint of romance or genuine attraction between them until the power imbalance is addressed in Prince’s Gambit, and the two begin to engage in something approaching equality, with no consummation until the two are on an even footing. This is a vital point: whatever blunders Pacat makes with regard to slavery and despite her racefail, she is scrupulous in acknowledging the pitfalls of a power imbalance on a nascent romance.

At the same time, her skill in this respect also serves to cast her failures into stark relief. Returning to the issue of Akeilos being a slave culture while Vere, despite its initial appearances, is not, we’re put in the unfortunate position of reading a narrative in which our primary slave character is a man of colour, with slavery as an institution is predominantly enforced by his own (mostly POC) nation. Particularly given the later reveal – again, in Kings Rising – that Laurent is a secret abolitionist, something which had hitherto only been hinted at, there’s a jarring dissonance in the realisation that Damen, an enslaved character, has been more accepting of slavery throughout the books than his putative (white) master. Which… yeah. To use a technical term, that is super fucked up.

And yet (and yet), for all the series fails to examine slavery as an institution, there’s a very real examination of power imbalances, abuse and self-perception. Even when legally and physically enslaved, Damen always considers himself a prince: he never adopts a servile mindset, nor does he ever become, in the emotional sense, a victim, remaining instead a warrior in enemy territory. After the regent makes a failed attempt on Laurent’s life at the end of Captive Prince,  Damen and Laurent are forced into an uneasy alliance: Damen will try to keep Laurent alive in order to prevent a bloody, pointless war between Akielos and Vere, and by the start of Prince’s Gambit, though still technically a slave, Damen is no longer subject to the powerless indignities of the first book, but is treated in all important respects as a soldier and advisor. His servility thus becomes more theoretical than practical, and though he ultimately emerges as someone distressed by and opposed to slavery, the experience doesn’t touch his fundamental confidence.

Whereas Laurent, by contrast, has spent the years since his brother’s death effectively fighting a rearguard action, trying desperately to protect himself from his uncle without any friends or allies. Though perceived as cold and calculating, his position has been a source of fear, not confidence – fear of abuse, of abandonment, of murder. The more Laurent comes to trust Damen, the more his confidence in his own judgement unravels: he can’t believe he’ll be treated kindly, let alone find pleasure in anything they might do, which leaves him more fundamentally vulnerable – both around Damen and otherwise – than Damen ever is, despite his ostensibly greater position of power.

Ultimately, the Captive Prince series is a deeply problematic but nonetheless highly compelling narrative: one in which both protagonists are intrinsically flawed, and where certain of their actions, both independently and towards each other, are morally reprehensible, regardless of whether the narrative always recognises this fact. And yet their characterisation, the contextualising politics and the underlying psychology of their interactions is deft enough to make them both sympathetic; to  transcend their horrific beginning in the service of a romance that is genuinely affecting. Or so it felt to me, at least – as ever, Your Mileage May Vary, and as stated at the outset, I’m not going to argue with anyone who finds the fundamental problems with the story too glaring or painful to like anything else about it.

 

Though the first book is the weakest of the trilogy, Pacat writes a superb long game, where successive revelations cause our  understanding of the characters and their situations to turn on a dime. She is also, in every technical respect, an extraordinary writer. Her prose has a lyrical, graceful economy that’s utterly enviable, her characterisation ripe with psychological nuance: the same story in lesser hands – the same devices in lesser hands – would have nowhere near the same effect. Indeed, I’m still slightly baffled by how much I enjoyed the books despite my criticisms, and yet whenever I open them, I fall right back into the story. For all their failings, I already know these are books I’m going to read again, and while I can’t recommend them without significant racefail caveats, their success – both in terms of fanwriters moving into the mainstream and as a prominent example of queer romance – is representative of the changes currently overtaking the genre.

I can only hope we continue to do better.