#NoConfederate and the Need for More Imagination

I want to tell you a story about Stephanie in 2013.

In 2013, Ben and I went to see Under the Skin, a sci-fi film starring Scarlett Johansson that was being praised for its evocative imagery and feminist undertones. I left that theater feeling extremely dissatisfied and upset about what I had seen. It wasn’t the eerie, sometimes terrifying imagery that did it (that part was great). It was the fact that throughout the whole movie Johansson had only said a handful of words. She had gone around carrying out the orders of these aliens who had taken seemingly male bodies without having any say in the matter until she broke and sought some means of escape from a life of kidnapping men.

“But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?” Ben said (or said something like that). “It’s supposed to bring into focus the ways that women pursuing men can still be the will of the patriarchy.” And this was I think what the filmmakers intended. “But I already know it sucks to be a woman,” I said, becoming increasingly emotional. “I want stories that tell me how to make things better instead of just reminding me about how shitty everything is.”

At the time, I was working on my dissertation, which focuses on the role that personal narratives can play in adjusting how we view the world. My foundation assumption was something like this: When we encounter something we haven’t encountered before, we use the narratives we’ve heard to make sense of it. Consequently, the dominant narratives — the way that stories about a particular issue are usually structured — deeply influence how we receive and interpret all stories we hear.

An example: For a long time, the dominant narrative regarding abortion was that they were gotten by women who irresponsibly had sex outside of marriage and couldn’t be bothered to raise a child. We mostly assumed that it was teenagers that got abortions after youthful indiscretions. And if this is, in fact, the reality of it, citizens will make certain decisions about how best to deal with abortion, like abstinence-only sex ed in schools. But in the last few years, we’ve seen pro-choice groups deliberately trying to undermine that narrative by releasing statistics that show married women account for a significant number of abortions, including married women who already have other children. In 2013, New York Magazine ran a story of 21 women sharing their abortion experiences, and those women cited many different reasons for choosing to abort, like chronic medical issues, needing to care for other children, or being in bad relationships with the father. These different narratives suggest different approaches to policy — if it’s not teenagers doing this, then we need different solutions.

In my dissertation, I spend a lot of time thinking about common narratives about children with mental health issues and the ways that we judge real-life parents of mentally-ill children based on what we see via movies and television. I continue to believe that the media narratives that are available to us can deeply affect what we see as possible and/or probable in the real world. Which is why HBO’s new show Confederate seems like such a terrible idea to me. Many writers of color have already given detailed criticisms (like Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates) about why they don’t want want to give the show a chance, even with two black writers on the team, and I believe that theirs are the voices that matter most in this debate. But I also want to express my rejection of the show as a white Southerner. You don’t have to look far to see that the people of the South have a hard time confronting their racist past and present. Even those who are well-intentioned often have no idea what to do with themselves, as Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” shows; they struggle to find ways to express their identities as both Southerners and race-conscious individuals (because for some reason, Southerners need to express their solidarity as Southerners in ways that Midwesterners, for example, don’t; I blame the rest of the country for using the South as a dumping ground for making themselves feel less racist/homophobic/ignorant/etc.). I’m disappointed by the basic premise of Confederate because it offers nothing new for us as white Southerners of conscience, no new ways to imagine what a truly equitable society looks like and how we can enact it. An “alternate history” is allowed to remain “fantasy” in our minds, not necessarily forcing viewers to confront their everyday habits and practices. Not to mention it perpetuates the misconception that the South is the root of all racism, instead of the responsibility being shared by all of us who have benefited from white privilege.

I’m not saying that art (including television and movies) shouldn’t be a vehicle for cultural criticism, but there comes a point where criticism is not enough. We need radically new stories because they offer us radically new ways to imagine our relationships to others, and this includes our relationships to and among minority groups. Confederate gives us nothing new to work with.

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Skyrim & the Unequal Application of Bigotry Pt. 1

Aela_the_Huntress

Aela the Huntress, all-around bad ass

I’ve spent a large portion of my summer playing Skyrim, because I only play games after everyone has collectively decided that they are worth playing. I’ve really loved how immersive the experience has been (and I even downloaded a bunch of survival mods to push it further), and I’ve got a lot of thoughts about how the game deals with language, gender, and race, especially given the moment in time it appeared on the scene (2011). So hold onto your butts for Stephanie bitching about all the things that annoyed her about Skyrim.

Gender in Skyrim is an interesting thing. Like many games of this type, the gender of your character doesn’t affect game play. Males and females have equal abilities and opportunities, and the world is populated with men who keep house and clean and women who run lumber mills and work as sellswords. On the surface, then, Skyrim seems to be gender equitable society. However, this is undercut in a few ways. For instance, once a character’s gender is chosen, it is treated as absolute – any dialogue with gendered language (“shield-brother/sister,” for instance) is determined at that moment. Additionally, any clothing that you pick up, no matter what it looks like when you pick it up, becomes gender-appropriate when you wear it; a tunic and breeches you pick up off a man will turn into a dress when a female character puts it on. In short, Skyrim doesn’t permit any genderbending or nongendered characters. And while the playable character may marry men or women regardless of gender, they seem to be the only queer character in the entire country, since all other couples you run into are cisgendered and heterosexual.

Additionally, misogyny is widespread in Skyrim, even if a female Dragonborn isn’t on the receiving end of it. Sneaking around bandit lairs gives you a chance to overhear complaints about unfaithful women lying about the fatherhood of their children, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. One of the most disturbing quests is recovering a necromancer’s journals from Yngvild Barrow. The barrow is filled with ghostly women, and reading the journals reveals that Altermeri necromancer Arondil, after being shunned by the attractive young women of Dawnstar, retreated to the barrow to continue his experiments. After reanimating a number of female corpses to obey his orders, Arondil found their company agreeable, with heavy overtones that the relationships became sexual, and when a live women was captured by his reanimated slaves, he tried a different kind of experiment to create these spectral beings that, when touch, produce “a sensation unlike any other, as if her essence were invigorating [his] very soul, connecting with [him] on a level no woman of flesh and blood could do” (Arondil’s Journal #4).

At the end of the dungeon, after defeating Arondil, the Dragonborn enters his bedroom to find one of these spectral women in his bed.

Susannathewickedfun

Susanna the Wicked, who ends up dead in Blood on the Ice

The Blood on the Ice quest in Windhelm also involves a necromancer targeting women. The quest unfolds much like a police procedural, with the Dragonborn stumbling upon a crime scene, questioning the witnesses, talking to the priestess of Arkay for the forensics report, and following the blood trail to the killer’s den. At first, the wrong man, Wunferth the jarl’s wizard, is imprisoned, either on the word of busybody Viola Giordanno or the actual killer Calixto Corrium. Then, when the Dragonborn returns later to Windhelm, another woman has been killed, and Wunferth is able to provide knowledge that gives the Dragonborn the chance to stop the real killer.

These two quests are in part so disturbing because of the façade of gender equality throughout the rest of the game, but no one has to die for Skyrim to be misogynistic. Let’s take a few moments to consider Haelga, the owner of the Bunkhouse in Riften. She’s a generally unpleasant woman, rude to the Dragonborn and, according to her niece Svanna, abusive. Svanna is equally disgusted by Haelga’s philandering ways, asking the Dragonborn to help take Haelga down a notch by finding the Marks of Dibella she has bestowed upon the three lovers she’s taken in the last month and rubbing them in her face.

That’s right, people, it’s Slut Shaming: The Quest.

Haelga

Haelga, who likes having sex

So I went around finding these Marks of Dibella, just to see what would happen, and you know what one of the men, Bolli, said to me? He said that he thought she had slipped something into his drink, a very serious accusation that never gets followed up on. Moreover, because Bolli and Haelga are often seen together socially (in fact, you can overhear a conversation between them about possibly running away together), this sounds a lot like a man who regrets having a sexual encounter with a specific person (or at least getting caught) and now claims rape, which is exactly the narrative that men’s rights activists use to discount claims of rape made by women. Eventually, you collect all the Marks of Dibella, you go back to Haelga, she asks you to keep quiet because if people found out she was practicing “the Dibellan arts” she’d be run out of town, and Svanna is pleased to see her aunt eat crow.

A few things here about how this quest maybe should have played out:

1. If Haelga did in fact slip something in Bolli’s drink, that should have been treated as more serious. There should have been an option to investigate the claim and a stricter punishment than just embarrassing her.

2. If Haelga did not in fact slip something in Bolli’s drink, that claim should not have been made by Bolli or he should have been chastised or punished for the claim. The way this plays out just further reinforces a damaging narrative that people lie about being raped and therefore we should not take rape claims (especially rape claims made by men about women) seriously.

3. Or maybe a quest about shaming a woman who likes to have sex with multiple partners (including relatively kinky sex, given the kinds of items you can find in her room) should have been completely removed from the game entirely. Or maybe another option for resolution of the question could have been written in, a resolution that involved Svanna learning that it’s wrong to shame people for their desires and Haelga learning to treat the people around her better.

Of course, how a player feels about this entire quest depends a lot on how they feel about Haelga. If Haelga were more likable, players may have been more reluctant to take on this quest (depending on how they are role playing the game). However, like Svanna, the player is expected to feel satisfied, I think, by Haelga getting what’s coming to her. Additionally, the question of religious freedom is never completely explored here: Haelga claims that her sexual activities are in honor of Dibella, but that she would be ostracized if found out, but we have no one else in the game that can either confirm or deny her assessment that casual sex is part of Dibellan worship. And whether it is or isn’t, a claim of religious persecution should be taken more seriously in a game where one of the primary narratives, the Civil War, is weighted heavily with questions of religious freedom (I’ll be taking up the Civil War in another post focused on race).

When looking at these phenomena holistically, we might call this the unequal application of misogyny — other women in the game appear to experience misogyny and rape culture regularly while the playable character is exempt. I’m left with somewhat mixed feelings about this. If, for instance, misogyny were equally applied, players would be punished for choosing a female character, and that’s not a good thing. On the other hand, this kind of unequal application may allow male players of women characters to further ignore the misogyny around them because it doesn’t affect them. Think about how often men have argued that street harassment isn’t that big of a deal because they never see it happening. Action RPGs like Skyrim could have the potential to be pieces of procedural rhetoric about the regular experiences of misogyny.

Alternately, if Skyrim really were to present an equitable society in relation to gender, we could have men being turned into sex slaves by necromancers of both genders and women necromancers preying on other women.

So, other Skyrim fans, what do you think? How did you experience gender in the game?

 

P.S. In Part 2, I’ll be taking up the issue of race in Skyrim, as well as the Civil War storyline.

Old Man’s War: What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

OldMansWar(1stEd)Today I’m taking a look at John Scalzi’s 2005 novel Old Man’s War, which was nominated for a Hugo in 2006. This was my first Scalzi, though I’ve been well-aware of his Twitter activity for a while, and I was excited to jump into one of his novels. My husband and I listened to it on audio book during our summer road trip, and in this post, I’ll be recounting some of our thoughts and reactions as we were listening.

The Plot: John Perry, a widower in his seventies, signs up for the Colonial Defense Forces in order to leave Earth and discover what else the universe might have in store. After having his consciousness transferred into a new, young body, he and other elderly recruits travel the galaxy protecting human colonies from hostile alien forces. One by one, Perry’s friends perish, but he is unexpectedly reunited with his late wife… or, at least, someone wearing his late wife’s face.

The World and Tone: In Old Man’s War, humans have spread throughout the galaxy, snatching up habitable planets as quickly as possible in fierce competition with alien races. However, on Earth, folks know almost nothing about what’s going on in the stars; the Colonial Union carefully controls information about galactic colonization and primarily recruits from Earth’s Southeast Asian populations for its colonists. For Westerners like John Perry, the only hope of seeing the stars is by signing on as a soldier – a point of complaint for some of the novel’s more xenophobic characters. In fact, John has no information about exactly how the CDF will get him fighting fit when he signs himself over to them for a period of enlistment of no less than ten years; he can only assume that they will repair his aging body in some way. For readers (at least for Ben and me), this divide between Earth-paradigm and CDF-paradigm is marked by a sudden change in tone. Up until John starts bootcamp, we were reminded of some of our least favorite tropes from early hard SF (Larry Niven’s Ringworld is always the one we go back to) where men, usually experts of some kind, sit around discussing basic science things while women provide some color commentary if they say anything at all. Old Man’s War features a former medical doctor opining about the possible treatments for aging the CDF will use on them and a physicist discussing the improbabilities of the space elevator that transports recruits up to the Colonial Union’s orbiting station – both men. Our protagonist is appropriately ignorant of such things to give him a plausible reason for us to hear it.

Then, John gets to bootcamp and things take a turn for the weird, starting with John’s drill instructor, who had, at a low point in his life, adopted a talking car advertisement mascot as his personal credo – an ad that John had created. This whole section contains nods in a few different directions – including to Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote copy for an ad agency, and David Lynch’s film Wild at Heart – and marks our move into an absurdist tone that continues until John’s breakdown during an assault on the Covandu, an alien race that stands only an inch high and that is best defeated by stomping.

But we move out of this absurdist tone again when John is stranded behind enemy lines during his next skirmish and is rescued by the Ghost Brigade, the CDF’s special forces unit made up of individual’s whose genetic donors died before their enlistment deadlines. Ghost Brigade soldiers are artificially aged and given expansive physiological and mental advancements, since their personalities are created from scratch without memories of previous bodies or lives to inhibit them. One of the soldiers that rescues John, Jane Sagan, was grown from his late wife’s DNA. The Ghost Brigade, with John riding along, is given the job of capturing or destroying a piece of technology from the alien Rraey on a former human colony. John and Jane survive but are separated following the battle, and the novel ends with John hoping for a reunion once their terms of service are concluded.

I really wanted to like this book. Scalzi’s Twitter persona had won me over enough that I kept hoping things would get better… but they never did, and I think the real problem was that this novel was trying to be too many things at once. Scalzi has talked about Heinlein as an influence, but for me the clear forebear of Old Man’s War was Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, especially in terms of its construction; in both novels, we follow protagonists from skirmish to skirmish while watching them confront new realities along the way. On the other hand, the middle section of the novel fit in with the tradition of the absurdist war novel ala Vonnegut, Pynchon, and Heller (and Haldeman’s Forever War fits into this tradition as well to an extent). The problem, though, is that by switching back out of that absurdist tone into something more in line with typical action movie aren’t-special-forces-types-cool, the novel undermines a lot of the interesting things it did in its absurdist phase.

81MlgoowULLCase in point: At one point, a new recruit joins John’s unit, a man who used to be a U.S. member of congress. Even before he’s seen his first battle, the politician goes about telling anyone who will listen about how the Colonial Union deploys the CDF too frequently without first searching for diplomatic solutions. The politician has been researching the alien race his unit is slotted to meet in combat, the Whaidian, and argues that they are an artistic, communally-oriented society with whom the Colonial Union could arrange a mutually beneficial treaty if they only tried. Other members of the unit, especially the veterans, write the politician off as ignorant and idealistic (and it doesn’t help that he takes the pedantic, condescending tone of old, white, male politicians everywhere), and no one is surprised when he attempts to talk the Whaidian and is brutally killed. At the same time, John’s current superior officer notes that the politician was right – that troops are deployed too quickly and diplomatic solutions are never sought. She argues, however, that the best way to enact change is for individuals to work within the system by climbing the ranks until they are the ones giving the orders. Her ambitions are cut short with her own death.

I got really annoyed with this whole sequence. First of all, I’m frustrated by the way that the only character voicing an alternative to military intervention is so unlikable; we are clearly supposed to roll our eyes at him along with the veteran soldiers. Secondly, this politician character raises some important points: are humans just blasting their way through the galaxy? Is this just Manifest Destiny all over again? There’s a lot of talk about survival in a hostile galaxy, language that has long been used to justify violent colonialism and ethnically-based violence. But those points are just swept under the rug as we move to focus on John’s relationship with the woman made from his wife’s genes and the particular affordances and drawbacks of spec-ops troops grown in vats.

But this has become a prominent trope in the last ten years: talk a lot about peace while ultimately blowing things up. To call out a few recent examples, the film Wonder Woman showed Diana on a quest to bring peace, but she killed a lot of people to do it, and the final sequence of the movie was just destruction porn (which is my biggest complaint with the contemporary wave of super-hero movies, a genre near-and-dear to my heart). Her lasso of truth isn’t used for truth-telling in the end; it’s used for smashing things. Or consider the recent run of Star Trek films, a franchise born out the idea of peaceful, diplomatically-driven exploration of the galaxy turned into a bunch of explosions. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two acts of Wonder Woman and I’ve liked what I’ve seen of the new Star Trek movies, but I’m troubled by the fact that we seem to have such a hard time imagining something other than armed conflict.

Final Thoughts: I’m not ready to write Scalzi off entirely – Old Man’s War was, after all, his first novel – but I was too troubled by the way we’re asked to just go along with the idea that our protagonist is a grunt with no power to enact any kind of change to really enjoy this book.

2312: The Unknowability of the Other

2312 coverAfter reading something (relatively) old, I moved on to something (relatively) new: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012 novel 2312, which was nominated for the 2013 Hugo and won the 2013 Nebula. It was also honored listed for the 2012 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, given to works that explore and expand our understandings of gender.

The Plot: 2312 opens shortly after the death of the apparent political leader of Mercury, Alex, and introduces us to Alex’s granddaughter Swan Er Hong, first described as “a person most inclined than most to try things just to see.” As Alex’s colleague from across the Solar System arrive on Mercury to pay their respects – and search for hidden messages – Swan, currently working as an artist, is caught up in political intrigue. And while this political intrigue, which features class warfare on Earth and AIs being given sentience and human-like bodies, moves along most of the action of the novel, at its core, 2312 is a romance, as Swan finds herself falling in love with Wahram of Saturn, a man who could not be more opposite herself.

The World: Like much of Robinson’s work, the plot of 2312 is more of a conveyance for ideas and characters than anything else, and the world of 2312 is rich with both. For instance, one of the most interesting thing for me reading this book was watching myself try to wrap my mind around a post-capitalist society, which was featured most prominently in the character’s ability to travel at will – no one has to worry about paying for transport, or what they’ll do for food or lodging when they get there. No one seems to ever have much luggage to carry with them; in fact, the only personal property anyone seems to have is their qubes, which work much as modern-day smart phones do, but with built-in AIs. Without the incentive of money, people are able to do whatever work they choose – Swan once designed terraria, but has since become an artist primarily working in abramovics and goldsworthies. There do seem to be certain social prescriptions on this, as Wahram mentions that all Jovians do some time in civil services (and he found he was good at it, so he kept doing it). These social constraints remind readers that while Mercurial Swan and Jovian Wahram, as spacers, have more in common with each other than they do with the people still on Earth, we are still looking at two different cultures that have grown out of two different material realities. Jovian custom, for instance, is for children to be conceived and raised in creches of six adults for greater stability, while Mercurials have no problem with pairs.

And how children are conceived is another interesting point, as spacers have come to identify something like eight genders rather than two, as scientific and technological advancements have allowed them to bring out testes and small penises in individuals designated female at birth (the resultant individual being a “gyandromorph”) and vaginas and wombs in individuals designated male at birth (“androgyns” or “wombmen”). Additionally, adaptations can be made in utero for “bisexuals,” who have female breasts and male and female genitalia, among other kinds of gender manifestation and identification. These physiological changes were initially prompted by the longevity treatments that have extended spacers’ lives (Swan is in her 130s and Wahram in his 110s, both considered to be in their prime) – yet another contributing factor in the social shifts we see in spacer cultures. Swan can trade off a career as a terraria designer for a career as an artist because she has time to train in a new field and no economic incentives to continue to specialize in just one. We also see looser family structures as parents fall out of touch with children over time, and long term friendships (like that between Swan and Zasha, who parented a child together) are characterized by individuals suddenly dipping in and out of each other’s lives.

In fact, the novel is designed to place primacy on face-to-face communication; with renegade qubes about monitoring digital channels of communication, the only way for Swan and Wahram’s group to plan actions in secrecy it to collect themselves from the various reaches of the solar system. And yet the face-to-face, with all the nuances of body language and non-verbal cues is not enough – the central theme of 2312 is how unknowable another mind is and will always remain. This becomes clear with the discussion among Swan’s group about whether or not they can be sure that some qubes have attained sentience and whether or not these qubes are anything but the AI-equivalent of sociopaths. But while that conversation focuses on the organic/artificial divide, the story moves on after the qubes are safely quarantined – as I said before, this is primarily a love story. As Swan debates marrying Wahram (a daunting notion for someone as driven by her whims as Swan is), she considers the follow:

Maybe to say that someone was “like this” or “like that” was just an attempt to stick a memory to a board where you organized memories like butterflies in a lepidopterist’s collection. Not really the generalization it seemed, but just a stab at understanding. Was Wahram anything like what she might say about him, if she tried to say something? He was like this, he was like that – she didn’t really know. One had impression of other people, nothing more. Never to hear them think, only to hear what they said; it was a drop in an ocean, a touch across the abyss. A hand holding your hand as you float in the black of space. It wasn’t much. They couldn’t really know each other very well. So they said he is like this, or she is like that, and called that the person. Presumed to make a judgement. It was such a guess. You would have to talk with someone for years to give the guess any kind of validity. And even then you wouldn’t know. (571)

Swan ultimately seems to accept Wahram’s proposal as a kind of challenge – while she may have once imagined a life with Wahram as boring (as he loves his routines), this mystery of his mind entices her.

Among the many things it is, 2312 is a study in personalities, and I wonder about which characters other readers were drawn to. I personally found Swan off-putting – she’s impulsive, moody, and risk-prone. She struggles to see and understand the resentment that Earthlings feel toward spacers; she’s slow to grasp larger political repercussions beyond her gut feelings. Meanwhile, in Wahram, I found a kindred spirit, especially in the care he takes in his routines and how his careful observations of others. Of course, this reading is deeply personal; my own personality falls somewhere between these two, and it is Wahram’s characteristics I wish to cultivate while Swan’s moodiness is too like my own for comfort. But, political action seems to require both: while Wahram seems to have a better sense of what the people of Earth want, their values and motivations, Swan is the force that pushes everything forward.

And no doubt about it, this is a political book. Intermixed with the narrative are lists and excerpts from the scholarly works of the future that contain cutting commentary on Earth’s current state, economically and environmentally. And if there are rhetorical lessons put forward here, it’s that while individuals may remain largely unknowable to use, the collective is easier to gauge. For a time, while Swan tries to force an improved material realities on an impoverished area of Africa, Wahram works with a group aiming to recover the land that was once Florida by moving dirt from other parts of North America to the now-submerged coasts of the peninsula and spends his time reflecting on the wide-spread sense that this is good work, work worth doing, because it was organized by the Earthlings of the area and is happening according to their own needs and desires. After this experience, when Swan is burnt out by the setbacks and sabotages she’s come up against in her own project, Wahram suggests releasing the animals back on Earth, a proposal that Alex’s group had been planning for years, because the return of the animals would allow Earthlings to adapt on their own terms, in their own locations, and with a sense of nostalgia for what once was – a point with important implications during this present moment of environmental crisis for readers.

Final Thoughts: 2312 is a rich novel with the kind of multivocality I’ve come to expect from Robinson (you can read him talking about Bakhtin’s heteroglossia in this interview), but it’s not terribly often that I want to talk with other people about a novel as much as I’ve wanted to talk with others about 2312, and the reason is that it moved me deeply, and like Tom Haverford of Parks and Rec having an emotional experience with a piece of art,

Tom Haverford Art

I keep reflecting on the experience and wondering at all the different elements that came together to provoke this sense of wonder in me.

The Demolished Man: Typography and Language

Cover 1After a very, very long vacation, Speculative Rhetoric is back, this time with even more ambitious reading plans. I’ve decided to mark the occasion of me throwing myself back into the world of reading and writing about speculative fiction by reviewing the very first winner of the Hugo Award, Alfred Bester’s 1953 novel The Demolished Man. In the course of his varied career, Bester wrote for television, radio, and comics (he created DC villain Solomon Grundy) as well as science fiction short stories and novels.

The Plot: The Demolished Man is best described as a police procedural in a world with telepaths – when antagonist Ben Reich sets out to commit a premeditated murder, he is more concerned with someone catching him before he can act than he is with how he will carry out the crime itself. Reich is a vicious businessman, completely convinced that his primary competitor, the D’Courtney Cartel, will ruin him and that the only way to prevent that from happening is to kill its head, Craye D’Courtney. This paranoia is both fueled by and results in recurring dreams of a man with no face constantly appearing in Reich’s life. Having decided on his plan of action, Reich blackmails/bribes Class 1 esper (a powerful telepath) Augustus Tate to aid him by shielding his mind from other espers, but his carefully laid plans are completely disrupted when D’Courtney’s daughter interrupts Reich during the act and he is unable to permanently silence her before she escapes. Once the murder is discovered, Class 1 esper and police Prefect Lincoln Powell is faced with a whole party of suspects and a missing eye witness. Reich and Powell find themselves in a race to locate the missing woman, while the true motivation for the crime continues to unfold.

The World: What we know about the world of The Demolished Man is mostly glimpsed through brief references, but humans have apparently colonized much of their solar system and have relatively easy transport throughout. Contemporary society is highly capitalistic, as seen with Reich’s drive toward creating a transport monopoly, and heavily branded – one character is a famous writer of jingles that Reich visits to infect himself with an earworm, a further measure against prying espers. The espers themselves are the most wide-reaching feature of the novel, though they continue to be a minority in the population. Telepaths are organized into a Guild that has established the class system based on a telepaths ability, educational and recruitment programs, and regulations regarding marriage, employment, and appropriate ethical behavior for espers. Should an esper break these regulations, they are exiled from the Guild for a period of time, and no Guild esper will communicate with them telepathically; one character describes this as being like an able-bodied person forced to live in a community of deaf and blind people, never able to fully engage with others.  The Guild requires that espers marry other espers, in the interest of producing children with telepathic abilities. Additionally, due to espers throughout society, including in the police force, pre-meditated crime happens rarely, because an individual’s intentions are detected before they can act.

Cover 2As I was preparing to write this post, I found this quote from Bester’s essay “My Affair with Science Fiction” describing the events that followed his first published story winning an amateur story competition in Thrilling Wonder Stories: “Two editors on the staff […] took an interest in me, I suspect mostly because I’d just finished reading and annotating Joyce’s Ulysses and would preach it enthusiastically without provocation, to their great amusement.” I was struck by this statement because I had described The Demolished Man as a science fiction version of British modernism, chocked full of awkward Freudianism, with the plot hinging on Reich’s oedipal compulsions (spoiler alert: D’Courtney is Reich’s father, though Reich seems to have repressed his knowledge of this fact to the point of unconsciously misreading messages sent by the other man). Sections of the novel are devoted to Lincoln Powell diving into the psyche of D’Courtney’s daughter Barbara who, after becoming catatonic as a result of witnessing her father’s murder, is regressed to an infant state to mentally grow up once more and thereby come to cope with the trauma – a plot device that allows the electra complex to make an appearance as Barbara and Lincoln fall in love with each other as he raises her out of infancy and into adulthood. It’s actually this Freudianism that takes the misogyny of the era from irritating to downright creepy for me; while Lincoln has a grown woman with whom he’s developed a close friendship (Mary) who loves and is in love with him, he wants the woman who he raised through childhood and adolescents (although it appears that Mary did most of the work).

While I may have rolled my eyes at the psychoanalytics of The Demolished Man (much in the same way I roll my eyes as D. H. Lawrence), I can see why it would have been chosen as a Hugo winner, as it does what science fiction as a genre is best at: Bester takes one change to the world as we know it (the existence of a relatively large number of telepaths) and explores the social implications of this change, especially in matters of law enforcement. I was particularly drawn to the question of what counts as evidence; while Lincoln is sure from the start that Reich was the culprit, he needed to find the right kinds of evidence to convince the Mosaic Multiplex Prosecution Computor, or “Old Man Mose,” that the case is solid enough for the District Attorney to move on it. Lincoln can’t just dive into Reich’s brain and pull out the memory of the murder, for instance, and have it count as proof within a court of law as such an act would be a violation of due process and, perhaps, Guild regulations. There’s also the issue of the limitations of espers themselves. Lincoln Powell is a Class 1 esper, one of only a few very powerful telepaths, yet even can’t “peep” a whole group of people at one time. Interrogating a mind to the depths that are required to determine a murderer who is hiding as well as Reich is requires time, energy, and focus, and in the end, the entire Guild must channel their power into Lincoln for him to adequately breach Reich’s repressed knowledge and emotions toward D’Courtney.

In terms of language, the most interesting aspect of this book was the ways Bester found to represent telepathic communication in typography, which further solidifies this notion that espers are not all-powerful – they must make a point to organize their communication much in the same way we do when we speak, not all talking over each other at once. In fact, the way TP communication is presented is more like the realities of spoken communication. Apart from more experimental poetry and the like, print text can only present speech as happening linearly – first one person speaks, then another. Even if the narrator describes these statements as happening at the same time, we still read one first, then the other. Bester uses a few typographical tricks to break up this linearity, like in this conversation between Lincoln and another detective.

Conversation

Lincoln Powell and Jackson Beck debate how to corner Ben Reich.

And here’s a couple of images of esper party conversation, one from before Lincoln called attention to the mess of a pattern they were making with their chatter and the more organized pattern that the guests arranged themselves in after.

Party

Before Lincoln chides his guests…

Party 3

and after.

The thing I really like about these typographical tricks is that they imply that, like most people, even telepaths can only focus on understanding one bit of language at a time, a limitation that becomes all too clear when you’re sitting in a presentation where the speaker has a screen full of text she wants you to read while you listen to her say something entirely different.

Final Thoughts: I don’t think I’ll ever feel compelled to read The Demolished Man again, much in the same way that I’ll probably never reread Joyce’s Ulysses. And while it does a few interesting things making it worthy of consideration for a Hugo, it had some stiff competition that year (though for this first year, no nominees were selected like in following years). Arthur C. Clark’s Childhood’s End also explores some of the psychological problems of a mind not ready to grapple with reality, but on a larger, societal scale. And in terms of its cultural impact, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is by far the most notable SF novel of 1953 (and probably would have been my pick for the Hugo).

Divergent – Critical Thinking Skills as Super Power

After a long hiatus (during which I was doing an unfortunate amount of grad school things), I am back to my inquiries in speculative fiction and rhetoric with Veronica Roth’s 2011 young adult novel Divergent. Divergent was a favorite among Goodreads users in 2011, and the film adaptation comes out later this month.

The World: Set in post-apocalyptic Chicago, Divergent presents readers with a society divided based on what qualities or ideologies individuals hold most dear. The five factions — Abnegation, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, and Amity — comprise people who have opted to live their lives committed to their faction’s guiding principle. Amity, commited to kindness and harmony, lives outside of town and tends the agricultural and water purification needs of the city, while Erudite, striving after knowledge, focus on scientific developments to keep food and water coming. Dauntless, whose guiding principle is bravery, take care of protecting the borders (though against what, no one knows). Abnegation, committed to selflessness, manages all goverment affairs (based on the assumption that power should be given to those who do not want it), while Candor, who value honesty, work to prevent corruption. Factions are supposed to be prized more highly than family ties, as an individual’s faction tells her who she truly is, and others can expect her to act in a predictable way based on her faction.

The Plot: We meet our protagonist, Tris, at the age of sixteen, right before she will choose her faction. Raised in Abnegation, Tris attends school with children from all factions where, at the end of their education, they are put through simulations to determine which faction they are most suited for. When Tris undergoes her simulation, she discovers that she is “divergent,” or suitable for multiple factions. Additionally, she is aware during simulations in ways that other are not. However, this ability might get her killed as divergent members of the population often disappear or die under mysterious circumstances once their divergence is discovered. While she is suitable for either Abnegation, Erudite, or Dauntless, Tris opts to join the Dauntless faction and spends the next few weeks training with other recruits. Though small and relatively weak when she begins, Tris rises through the ranks to graduate top of her initiation class. In the meantime, she also learns some family secrets and falls in love with one of her teachers, Four (so-called because he only has four fears, an highly valued characteristic in a faction that values bravery). However, the night after her graduation, all of Dauntless falls under a simulation (with the exception of a few key leaders) and begin invading the Abnegation part of the city, killing leaders and resistors along the way. As Four and Tris are both divergent and thus aware, it falls to them to do what they can to stop the massacre.

I have strong feelings in both directions about this novel. I’ll start with the bad because it’s easy and quick: I find the love story between Tris and Four annoying and uninteresting. I think this might be because it’s a stereotypical love story between teenagers with lots of “Does he like me or not?” It got old fast.

On the other hand, I really love that the super power of this world is, simply put, critical thinking skills. Tris, Four, and the other divergent are special because they can see the world around them from multiple viewpoints and take on multiple, sometimes conflicting, ideologies. And the fact that something as simple as taking on multiple perspectives can be a super power is a sharp warning about one possible future for us. In the subsequent novels (I’m currently listening to second of the trilogy, Insurgent, on audiobook), Roth explains that the faction system keeps people manageable by making them predictable; that is, keeping people committed to a single ideological framework is good for those in power (or those who are trying to come into power). And that reader can see each faction as having positive goals sharpens this critique, demonstrating that even values that we can agree are good are dangerous when they become a single focus. Of course, this kind of statement has been made frequently before. We’re familiar with the stories of those who pursue knowledge at the cost of human life, and we know why absolute honesty is not always the best policy. What Roth’s novel adds to this conversation is an illustration of how proponents of these values may interact. And while Tris’s rhetorical skills are not necessarily at the forefront of this first novel, I think they will become more important in the rest of the trilogy as she negotiates among various groups to stop a wannabe dictator from taking power.

The Year of Our War – Chronotopic Disruption

Steph Swainston’s debut novel The Year of Our War was published in 2004 and introduces readers to the Fourlands, a world inhabited by three races of humanoids: the Awaians, a winged race; the Rhydannes, a small cat-like race from the mountains, and the regular old humans. A fourth race, the Insects, has taken over the northern portion of the continent and continues to push south, destroying towns and turning them into Paperlands. The novel follows Jant Shira, a Rhydanne-Awaian hybrid whose light body and wings allow him to fly. Jant is a member of the Circle, a group of immortals ruled by Emperor San and charged with protecting the Fourlands. These immortals do not age or die from natural causes, though they can be killed in battle, extreme weather, etc. Jant is the Messenger of the Emperor, called “Comet,” and is addicted to a drug that allows him to access another world called the Shift. Jant finds himself embroiled in the internal intrigue of the Circle while the Insects sweep across the continent and the Emperor threatens to revoke his immortality if Jant can’t provide some answers.

Jant is one of the most interesting first-person narrators I’ve encountered in some time. I spent a lot of time feeling that he was really pathetic: his addiction makes him a weak link in the Circle, his desire to please leads to indecisiveness, and it’s hard to take him seriously when he tries to give orders. At the same time, he’s found himself surrounded by people who discount him due to his age (he was only inducted into the Circle around 200 years previously) or his weird tales of the Shift (which no one but an immortal can access without dying). He often finds his multiple loyalties conflicting as his personal life intersects with his official duties as Messenger. Despite his ability to fly and his status as one of the immortals, Jant has very little control over his own life, and his attempts to direct affairs are always usurped by the louder or the more insistent. This was perhaps one of the reasons I liked Jant as much as I did; he was frequently quite smart, but just as frequently not heard.

My favorite part of this novel is the way it plays with chronotopic disruption. The notion of the chronotope comes from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and is further theorized Michael Holquist. (Honestly, most of what I know about chronotopes is from talking to my boyfriend who knows a lot.) The idea of the chronotope is a narrative time and place that we expect together. For example, for a Wild West story, you expect a particular a particular place — the American West — and a particular time — the 1800s. With that particular time/place we expect certain things: six-shooters, saloons, horses, prostitutes with hearts of gold, train barons, etc. Likewise, we expect certain things out of cyberpunk stories: a futuristic, urban setting where the lines between biology and technology blur and an evil corporation is usually behind everything. Narratives can also combine chronotopes, so we get things like Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which combines space opera and Wild West chronotopes, without necessarily disrupting our expectations and, in fact, calling our attention to the similarities between the two. Swainston disrupts the fantasy chronotopes in The Year of Our War  in less pervasive ways; in most ways, The Year of Our War seems like a fairly straightforward  fantasy world: archers, troops on horseback, ladies and lords ruling over fiefdoms and swearing fealty to a king (or not), a magical world beyond the world, and so on and so forth. At the same time, we encounter very non-straightforward things: t-shirts, newspapers, marathons, drug addiction, and the like. The affect of this is that the reader ends up noticing when characters adhere to the fantasy chronotope and when they don’t; we pay much more attention to the details of the chronotope itself.

I’m beginning to think this chronotopic disruption is a key feature of the New Weird. When I think back to the difficulties I had with both reading and discussing K. J. Bishop’s The Etched City, I think that a large part of it was that the novel didn’t fit into any chronotope, at least not for long. What starts out as a Wild West story doesn’t stay that way very long. China Miéville’s work plays with chronotopic disruption as well; for instance, The Scar seems like it will be an escape-from-a-harrowing-adventure story, but, while Bellis Coldwine does escape, it is in no way through her own skill or cleverness. I’m really excited about Swainston’s second novel, No Present Like Time; I want to see how she continues to develop the Fourlands and the chronotopic disruptions.