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.

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 Mists of Avalon – Pluralism and Feminism

I’ve been spending my summer reading time working on books for my SLA (Specialized Literature Area) Exam, which is focusing on the New Weird (hence all the China Miéville reviews recently). However, I was starting to get frustrated and overwhelmed with the project and allowed myself a “real” summer reading book, something that wasn’t geared toward any project or exam I’m currently working on. I’m not sure how I picked Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, but I got my boyfriend to bring it home from the library and read the first half of the book in about two days. The second half took the rest of the week, but I can now turn back to my exam reading feeling somewhat refreshed and ready to look at the New Weird with new eyes.

I’m not going to try to summarize the plot; suffice it to say that The Mists of Avalon is a retelling of the King Arthur legends from the point of view of the various women involved, mostly Arthur’s half-sister Morgaine and his wife Gwenhwyfar. It is a work of epic proportions: 900 pages, spanning 60+ years. What the story is really about, though, is the rise of Christianity against the worship of the Goddess at Avalon. As Britain becomes a “Christian land” with a “Christian king,” the worship of the Goddess is practiced less and the isle of Avalon fades farther and farther into the mist. Much of this is represented as a power struggle between Morgaine, a priestess of Avalon, and Gwenhwyfar, the Christian queen reared by nuns and ruled by her fear of sin and guilt over her love of Lancelet. These two women hold a great deal of sway over Arthur, Morgaine as the mother of his only child and Gwenhwyfar as his lawfully wedded wife. Morgaine, however, refuses to fully exploit her power, hiding away her son, Gwydion, from Arthur until he is grown.

What I found most interesting as I was reading this book was the way my loyalties changed throughout. The characters in this novel are well-constructed; I both hated and sympathized with almost every one of them throughout the course of the narrative, which I always take as the sign of good characters (this is one of the main reasons I love Battlestar Galactica). I often perceived the women of Avalon as shrewish as they insisted Arthur maintain the status of Goddess worship alongside Christianity, like they were not acknowledging the complicated materialities of Arthur’s position, how he must manage so many people in order to keep peace. I tended to side with the Merlins, Taliesin and Kevin, who argued for plurality: that all Gods are one God no matter what name he is called by, and that the time of Avalon had passed, so the best thing to do was to infuse Christianity with as much of druidism and Goddess worship as possible. Thus, Kevin steals the Holy Regalia of the Goddess in order for it to be in the world, incorporated into Christian worship. What brought me back to the side of Avalon, over and over again, was the reminder that women were getting really and truly hosed under the brand of Christianity that was coming from Camelot (there were other groups of Christians that were finding themselves persecuted for accepting the pluralistic view that Taliesin preached; Kevin is something of a different story, I think). I think that the scene between Gwydion and Niniane toward the end of the novel is very telling, as Gwydion, who does not ascribe to Christianity seeks to police Gwenhwyfar’s sexual liasons in the same way the Christian priests would, but Niniane refuses to participate and Gwydion kills her. The new system of gender hierarchy is not strictly a Christian one, but it is pervasive and unstoppable.

Which leads to my complaints about the end of the novel. Morgaine’s discovery of the Goddess in the small chapel dedicated to Mary and the simple joy that nuns of Glastonbury experience in their lives represents for her that the Goddess lives on in the world in a new form, that her work was not in vain, and that she should have listened to Kevin all along. At the same time, I’m infuriated that Morgaine is okay with the sexual rights of women virtually disappearing, and I’m dissatisfied that the novel’s ending suggests that all has worked out for the best. A pluralist society is not really pluralist when not everyone accepts and acknowledges the pluralism, which is exactly what Morgaine and the women of Avalon argue for when they ask Arthur to protect Goddess worship in his kingdom.

All in all, The Mists of Avalon was a very fun immersion; I had forgotten what it’s like to lose myself in an epic fantasy. I think, though, that the novel’s feminism is beginning to feel a bit dated, and I’m now interested in reading some more recent feminist fantasy masterpieces.

P.S. I tried to watch the TNT movie adaptation, but only got through about 5 minutes. It was unbearably cheesy and I hated how everyone was automatically older than they were in the book.

The Scar – Agency and the Lack Thereof

China Mieville’s 2002 novel The Scar is a loose sequel to Perdido Street Station, set in Bas-Lag several months after the events of the previous novel. Like its predecessor, The Scar won the British Fantasy Award, and it was nominated for the Arthur C. Clark, the Philip K. Dick, and the Hugo awards.

The Plot: Bellis Coldwine, a former lover of Isaac Grimnebulin, has been forced to flee New Crozubon as all of Isaac’s friends and acquaintances begin disappearing, courtesy of the New Crozubon militia. Bellis books passage to a New Crozubon colony by working as a translator, but on the way her ship is commandeered by a New Crozubon spy and then by pirates. Bellis, the passengers and crew, and the ship are taken to Armada, a city constructed of other stolen ships and led by a pair of sinister figures called the Lovers. As this pair constructs schemes within schemes and persuades public opinion to their side, Bellis works with the New Crozubon spy to get a message back home.

I really like novels that feature “constrained cities”: cities that occupy a single (albiet large) building, cities that a hemmed in by external forces like nature, cities that occupy space ships/space stations, etc. So I found Armada completely fascinating, the details about social organization in the confined space, descriptions of living quarters carved out of what were formerly functional ship spaces, the public garden that had been built by raiding parties traveling to shore to steal dirt, and so on and so forth. What I like about these constrained cities is how often we see social structure affecting and being affected by physical structures; for example, what we think of as a family unit changes when there isn’t enough room for each group of husband, wife, and children to have their own quarters. Armada didn’t disappoint; in a city where the primary income is brought in through piracy, the residents have developed particular ways of divvying up the spoils, including those humans who are brought into residency against their will. Each riding has its own rulers and policies since the city has grown too big to be managed as a unified whole, as we see when the Lovers begin trying to do just that.

Bellis Coldwine was an interesting heroine. I found her immediately appealing because of the way she carefully considers her options in various situations: “Bellis sat still. She was not intimidated by this man, but she had  no power over him, none at all. She tried to work out what was most likely to engage his sympathy, make him acquiesce” (14-5). In the same way, she considers how others, especially the Lovers, are using language to persuade others. She is, in short, a rhetorician, weighing her available means of persuasion and analyzing the means of others throughout the novel as she navigates her way back to New Crozubon. If you read my posts about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, you know that representations of rhetors and rhetoric in fiction is one of my primary concerns, and I really consider The Scar a win for rhetoric.

I kept thinking, though, as I was reading, that this novel seemed to be less political than Perdido Street Station; while the social organization of Armada is interesting, it also seems very tied to a particular physical organization and, consequently, has few implications for “real life”. I’ve decided, though, that this novel is just as political, but in a different way; rather than being a story about people getting together to do something, this is a story about not having agency. Bellis realizes at the end of the adventure (for lack of a better word) that she had been a tool the whole time, first of one man, then another. While she did influence the events that happened, she could not do so in any kind of informed or strategic way, because she never had enough information to really know what she was doing, even when she was very good at doing it. And Bellis was very good at persuading others, manipulating some events to (what she thought was) her advantage. When Bellis realizes that she had no real agency in the events, though, she simply accepts this, since her “service” does ultimately earn her a ride back to New Crozubon (so does that count as agency? I feel so conflicted…). It is Bellis’s reaction to this revelation that made me feel a bit, well, cold toward her; I found that I had been pulled into sympathizing with Bellis more than maybe I should have because I immediately grabbed onto what I saw as our commonalities (“You’re a rhetorician?! I’m a rhetorician too! We should hang out sometime!”). Her utilitarian reaction to being a pawn, though, rankles my sense of justice even as it caters to my cynicism. At the same time, the ambiguity I feel toward her now (she can be a right bitch at moments) makes her even better as a character, and I can think of few female fantasy characters written by men who have impressed me this much.

One last thing that I would like to note is that I think in this novel we see some inklings of Embassytown in Bellis’s work as a translator. She is frequently admonished to pay no attention to what she is translating, to only let the words flow through her, but this is, of course, impossible until she begins translating the abstract scientific language of Kruach Aum. That is, the language can only flow through her if it is language she doesn’t understand in the first place — if it isn’t really language to her at all because she cannot interpret it.

 

Perdido Street Station – Rape, Crime, Identity, and Social Constructions

China Mieville’s 2000 novel Perdido Street Station was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula in 2002 and won several other awards, including the Arthur C. Clark Award and the British Fantasy Society’s August Derleth Award. It also put him on the map for science fiction scholars, and since then, he’s been one of the most-often examined contemporary writers in science fiction journals.

The Plot: Isaac, a scientist studying out-of-mode theories who has a khepri artist as a lover, is approached by a garuda who has had his wings removed with an interesting commission: to make him fly again, whether by wings or some other means. In the course of his research, Isaac inadvertantly releases a brain-sucking parasite onto the city of New Crozubon, a parasite with no natural predators for thousands of miles. In the course of amending his mistake, Isaac gleans allies from several groups, including the New Crozubon criminal element, the wingless garuda, the newly sentient Construct Council, mercenaries, political activists, and a creature from another dimension. Even after Isaac and his crew manage to save the city, the oppressive regime in power and a criminal kingpin continue to hunt him as the perpetrator, and he is forced to flee the city.

I read Joan Gordon’s article “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship” before Perdido Street Station itself and, consequently, had her ideas about hybridity and social organization in my head as I was reading. It’s true that, as Gordon argues, Isaac’s plan requires many different kinds of people in order to work, but I also saw the novel as examining the many ways in which we construct difference. Much like The City and the City, we see many spaces where differences are upheld on tenuous logics, like the separation of the two khepri neighborhoods, Creekside and Kinken. The residents of Kinken, Isaac’s khepri lover Lin reflects, construct Creekside as a ghetto in order to not be living in a ghetto themselves. Likewise, there is a division between the the cactacae who live within the Glass House, supposedly keeping their traditions alive, and those who live without. But we also see several places where differences are real and not constructed, notably with the Construct Council and the Weaver (and I would like to say that I think Miéville does an excellent job of creating characters that fall outside of human ideologies, here with the Weaver and with the Arakei in Embassytown).

I’d really like to spend some time with the garuda, another place where we see real, as opposed to constructed, difference: first with Yagharek and then with the New Crozubon garuda Isaac meets in the Spatters. Before I started off my summer reading with Perdido Street Station, I did a small project on Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy, and I’ve been thinking a lot about her philosophy that utopias in SF happen too suddenly, that humans can’t get to utopia without a great deal of hardship and resistance. Thus, the Xenogenesis Trilogy shows this resistance as well as the small steps towards a better humanity, while questioning some of the ideologies that inform our ideas of “better” (see, for instance, Zaki and Miller). I think that we see something similar with the garuda; their ideology of the individual results in something of a utopian society, but it’s a society that is completely unworkable in the space of New Crozubon, as we see with the hierarchical structure of the garuda in the Spatters, the need for someone to be in charge in order to keep the others safe. I feel like this is an important reminder of how deeply physical space affect societal construction; what seems to be the best way for the garuda to live in small tribes in the harsh desert landscape does them little good in the city where different resources are necessary for survival.

I found Kar’uchai’s meeting with Isaac deeply affecting for a number of reasons. First of all, I felt like Miéville had somehow broken our writer/reader contract by making me sympathize with a character who turned out to be a rapist. I felt like, in some ways, my choice had been stolen, my choice to reject or accept Yagharek after being given all the information. And I was upset that the closing section of the novel seem to present Yagharek as somehow redeeming himself for his crime by plucking his feathers and not being a garuda any more. At the same time, I realized that I was committing the same mistake that Isaac does, by reading the rape of Kar’uchai through my own ideological conceptions of rape. Really, murder is a much worse crime, but I wouldn’t have felt as upset by finding out that Yagharek had killed someone. More importantly, though, Kar’uchai forces Isaac (and the reader) to reconsider how our concepts of rape interpolate the “rape victim” as somehow different from victims of other crimes. She says, “I was not violated or ravaged […] I am not abused or defiled … or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was … judged […] Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims” (609-10) The one crime of choice-theft for the garuda, with its many possible manifestations, asks the reader to reflect on the underlying logic of our own criminal system and the way that system ranks the severity of crimes.

  • Gordon, Joan. “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station.” Science Fiction Studies 30.3 (2003): 456–76. Print.
  • Miéville, China. Perdido Street Station. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000. Print.
  • Miller, Jim. “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler’s Dystopian/Utopian Vision.” Science Fiction Studies (1998): 336–360. Print.
  • Zaki, Hoda M. “Utopia, Dystpia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Science Fiction Studies 17.2 (1990): 239–51. Print.

Fire – Women, Beauty, Children, and Risk

Kristin Cashore’s 2009 novel Fire  is a companion to Graceling rather than the sequel I was hoping for. Instead, we travel back in time with Graceling‘s primary antagonist Leck to witness his first attempt to take over a kingdom, this time the Dells, a land separated from the seven kingdoms by an impassable mountain range. While Fire doesn’t continue the story of Katsa, it does pick up on several of the themes from Graceling that I found interesting.

The Plot: The Dells is a kingdom populated with both regular varieties of recognizable animals and people and monster varieties: unnaturally brightly colored creatures with the mental abilities to ensnare regular human and other animals in order to make them easier prey. While monster animals are widely prevalent, monster humans are much more rare; in fact, there is only one, named Fire after her widely colored red hair. Lady Fire lives in relative seclusion in the northern part of the kingdom for two reasons: 1) many people are unable to control their attraction to or strong reaction against her and she must constantly be on her guard, and 2) her father, Lord Cansrel, basically ran the kingdom into the ground through his control over the previous king and insatiable desire for chaos and strife. As much as Fire prefers her quiet life, teaching local children music and how to guard their minds against the monsters and spending her evenings with childhood friend and part time lover Lord Archer and his father, the unrest in the kingdom results in Prince Brigan, commander of the King Nash’s army, escorting her to the King’s City to assist in wartime preparations and spy operations. For some time, Fire resists using her impressive mental abilities to break into the minds of captured spies and enemies, but twins Prince Garan and Princess Clara convince her of her responsibility to the kingdom. As Fire gets more involved with political intrigue, she also gets more involved with Prince Brigan and his daughter Hanna, before finding herself facing young Leck, the ugliest mind she has met yet.

Fire is primarily a romance, and to a certain degree it put me in mind of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls; both feature women who wish they could travel and live without the necessary trappings of their lives, but who both come to understand that “with great power comes great responsibility.” The important difference is, of course, that Paladin of Souls is about a middle aged woman, not a young one, and that plays into the narrative and its critiques. Fire is a more conventional romance with a young beautiful lady and a young powerful prince…who happens to have a five year old daughter. As I skimmed through the reviews on Goodreads, several commented, whether positively or negatively, on the sexual and marriage politics of the novel, and that is a very large part of the novel. However, I would disagree with those who criticized the novel for its pro-casual sex stance; I think it’s more complicated than that. Archer, the most promiscuous character of the novel, is not treated kindly for his choices; as he blames Fire’s rejections of his frequent proposals of marriage for his sometimes unseemly behavior, Fire refuses to take the blame, telling him that he was responsible for his own actions and that those actions made him somewhat distasteful to her, even as she continued to love him as a friend (she ends their relationship as lovers halfway through the novel). Those women who do sleep with Archer face the consequences: both Princess Clara and Mila, one of Fire’s guards, end up pregnant. Brigan’s youthful relationship with a stable girl results in his daughter (the mother passed away shortly after the child’s birth). One of the reasons that Fire does shy away from casual sex, even as she so easily entices so many men, is because she refuses to risk children, who would undoubtedly be monsters as well. In fact, Fire takes herbs that will make her permanently barren, even though she deeply desires children and feels so jealous of Clara and Mila in their pregnancies.

Where the novel does depart from the social mores of some segments of our own society and of some depictions of “courtly” life is in what is at stake with a unexpected pregnancy. When Mila declares, “I’m ruined!”, she is not referring to her chances at getting a good husband or some risk of her being disowned by her family. Instead, because Mila is a soldier who uses her wages to support her sister and her sister’s children, her pregnancy will interfere with her ability to make money. Women are not socially punished for having children out of wedlock, and Mila is found another job that she is able to perform. Even bastards may be declared heirs without anyone batting an eye.

The feminist features of Cashore’s novels are complicated; she neither criticizes women for desiring children or upholds the assumed imperative of motherhood. At the same time, her texts do follow pretty standard, and somewhat disturbing, romance narratives in which young women are unable to fully be themselves, to feel all their feelings, until the right men come along. So I continue to feel ambivalent about this pair of novels, and I guess I’ll have to check out the third one, Bitterblue.

Graceling – Evil Rhetors and Female Survivors

Kristin Cashore’s debut novel Graceling was published in 2008, about two and a half weeks after Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. I make a point of saying this if only to remind myself that there is very, very little possibility that the novels are actually in conversation with each other, and instead they are perhaps reflecting larger cultural shifts. I read Graceling as part of the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge (henceforth the WoGF) since Cashore had been on my radar for a while, but I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I pretty much inhaled the novel; I read about half of it last night while I should have been reading for class, but no regrets.

The Plot: Katsa is the orphaned niece of King Randa and his number one thug. Possessing superhuman abilities, called her Grace, Katsa can kill pretty much anyone or anything with ease; unfortunately, she discovers her power by inadvertently killing an adult cousin when she was six years old because she did not want the man to touch her. Disgusted by her role as Randa’s enforcer throughout the seven kingdoms, Katsa organizes the Council, a group of individuals from lords down to servants who seek to protect citizens in all kingdoms from the power-hunger of their kings. Through her work for the Council, Katsa meets Po, a Graced fighting prince from the peaceful island of Lienid who searches for his kidnapped grandfather. After refusing to do Randa’s dirty work any longer, Katsa removes herself from the court and travels with Po as he seeks more information about his grandfather’s disappearance. What they discover is the underhanded work of the supposedly kind and beneficent King Leck of Monsea, who is himself Graced with the ability to fog people’s mind with his words and make them remember events as he chooses. Po and Katsa’s goal becomes saving Leck’s daughter Bitterblue from her sick, twisted, perverted, evil father.

So, a few quick notes on things that I could harp on and on about — but won’t — and then onto the things that I thought were really interesting.

  • Once again, the character who could be characterized as the Rhetor, using language to shape people’s perceptions of reality, is the villain. But not just any villain; Leck is really sick and despicable. I couldn’t help but think of Baron Harkonnen. Ugh. This, of course, makes me sad because seeing rhetoric get such a bad rap always makes me sad. I mean, Katsa uses rhetoric too, most notably in the scene when she tenders her resignation to her uncle; it is not her actual actions that persuade him; instead, her words about what her actions might be cause him to see the situation in a very different way. Rhetoric.
  • I commented on the connections I saw between Graceling and The Hunger Games earlier, the primary one being that they both feature female protagonists who are buffeted about by various physical and political forces, but who survive through being extremely good at survival skills. Now, I’m all for girls doing traditionally “boy” things, but I’m worried about what these narratives say to and about girls who like to do or are really good at doing “girl” things. Can’t cooking or sewing or organizing a community event save somebody sometime?
  • I’m going to talk more about Katsa and Po’s relationship next, but I really hated how once Katsa found the right man, all of a sudden she’s breaking into tears whenever and wherever, as long as it’s on his shoulder.

So much for that. What I thought was best and really interesting about this book was the way it constructs sex. Throughout the novel, Katsa continually claims that she never wishes to marry and she never wishes to have children. One suitor, upon hearing this, claims that of course she’ll want children eventually because all women do. I really sympathized with Katsa on this point, seeing as I’ve heard the same line a few times myself. Moreover, Katsa’s desire to not marry is culturally situated; as soon as she marries, she will have wifely obligations, and she doesn’t want to have to serve anyone but herself, and given her long tenure under Randa, the reader can understand her want of independence. (Interestingly, Katniss of The Hunger Games also claims to never want children for equally political reasons: she does not want to produce fodder for the Capitol’s games. However, SPOILER ALERT she does relinquish because of Peeta’s own desire for children, and I’m interested to see how Cashore deals with this same issue in subsequent books, given that she’s taken a much more feminist stand concerning inherent motherliness in women in Katsa’s choice than Katniss perhaps made in hers.)

So what happens is this: Po and Katsa fall in love (of course). Katsa kind of hates it because it means that she wakes up in the night afraid he won’t be there instead of being completely sufficient within herself. She wrestles with it and tells Po that it’s all futile because she will never marry and they should really just part ways so they don’t have to deal with their feelings all the time. Po tells her that they can be more than friends but less than married, and oddly enough, Katsa had never considered just taking a lover (I’m guessing because of societal constructs that discouraged women from knowing about such things so they wouldn’t do it). However, instead of being swept away in a fit of passion, Katsa dwells on it a few days, making sure of her own choice, and then, after guaranteeing that they have a form of birth control, she chooses to have sex with Po. And I loved it: the thorough forethought, the arrival at a decision, the conscious responsibility — it’s a model that I wish we saw more of.

The other thing that really struck me as I was reading was the theme of female survivorship. Katsa is extremely good at surviving, and she frequently takes it upon herself to protect other girls, especially from male predators. That her Grace manifests itself when she feels threatened by the untoward advances of her cousin is notable considering what she and Po save Bitterblue from, and Katsa is frequently appalled by the fact that women need to be most able to protect themselves but are taught nothing about fighting or surviving by those who claim to be protecting them. Her choice at the end to hold fighting schools for girls throughout the seven kingdoms suggests that this will be a theme explore in the sequels. At the same time, the novel has little to say about the trauma of abuse (Bitterblue copes quite well in her stoicism) or about structural changes that might bring about greater safety for women.