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.


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.

The Farthest Shore – Platonists and Sophists…again

As I have plugged away through the Earthsea novels, I have honestly become increasingly disenchanted. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why reading these novels felt like such a chore, like I was making myself work through them so I could get onto other, more interesting books. I spent a lot of time discussing my feelings about the novels with my intellectual partner Ben, who long ago got used to me talking my way around some issue before coming to some kind of conclusion, usually preceded by the phrase “I know what it is!” I couldn’t tell if it was just my perceptions of the issues with gender in the novels that were making me so grumpy about them or if I disliked them for other reasons. It wasn’t until I read blurb on the front of on of the paperbacks — “The Classic High Fantasy Series” — that I realized what was going on: I don’t like high fantasy. I never really have. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was younger and enjoyed them to a certain extent, but I only got halfway through the Silmarillion before deciding I couldn’t take it anymore. I just get impatient, and more so as I’ve gotten older. I say this now in order that readers may take my comments on the Earthsea novels with an appropriate grain of salt.

The Farthest Shore seems to mark the end of the first series of Earthsea books while Tehanu marks the beginning of a new era, at least in terms of Le Guin’s thinking about the novels. As such, it wraps up the story of Ged rather nicely with him embarking on a final quest in which he uses all of his magical power to save Earthsea from an evil sorcerer before secluding himself to a quiet retirement (though he returns in Tehanu). On this final quest, he takes young prince Arren, the boy destined to take the throne as the first king Earthsea has had in many, many years. I was upset by this book almost from the get-go: when Ged, now the Archmage of Roke, tells his fellow mages that he intends to take Arren with him on his quest, the mages ask why he takes a companion, since he went on his previous quests alone, and why his companion is this boy with no magical power instead of another mage. Rather than correcting the mages and reminding him that he always had help on his quests, Ogion on his trip to the ends of the sea and Tenar on his visit to Atuan, Ged just agrees that he did usually go on his quests alone. From that point on, I was just really annoyed with Ged, which was easy considering that Arren is the primary point of view for this novel and he often gets rather annoyed with Ged too, but when he’s not annoyed he’s preoccupied with hero worship. But, of course, Ged is a mage, is the mage, so who are we to question his methods?

What I did find really interesting about The Farthest Shore is the way it deals with the relationship between word and meaning, signifier and signified. In fact, the problem that is presented at the beginning of the book is that words, magic words, are losing their meanings. Arren’s father, a small-time wizard in his own right, says the spells for the Festival of the Lambs, but then tells his son, “I said the words, but I do not know if they had any meaning” (5). And, indeed, the lambs were being born deformed, indicating that the words had lost their meanings, their power. Notably, this loss of meaning is a geographic specific phenomenon; Ged and Arren travel to places where the words have lost their meanings while in other places the words still work fine (of course, Ged can always use the words, but what kind of Archmage would he be if he could not). In their time with the Children of the Open Sea, Ged and Arren witness the loss of meaning as the singers fail to finish singing the Long Dance because they cannot remember the words. So, there are two ways that the words are lost: when they are forgotten and when they are remembered sounds without power/meaning. What replaces the words is an extreme distrust of wizards which often manifests itself as either denial of wizardly power or a denigration of wizards are lazy or manipulative. Arren himself falls into this mindset for some time, thinking to himself, “That’s wizard’s talk, making things seem great by great words. But the meaning of the words is always somewhere else” (125). Mages, it seems, are reduced to sophistry to the islanders as the veil of illusion is lifted from their eyes.

Harkening back to my post on Anathem, I call attention to the Platonic/Sophistic debate that continues to play out in this text. I find the clear lines of the debate in this text interesting, given that Le Guin continues working in her theme of dualism: the recurring image of life and death as both sides of one’s hand emphasizes the argument that life is only recognizable because of death, light is only given meaning by darkness, etc. However, Le Guin does little to complicate the Platonic/Sophistic divide, and instead the onslaught of meaninglessness, or perhaps multiple meanings, is part of an undeniable evil.

Anathem – Those Evil Rhetoricians

I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what to say about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which was nominated for the Hugo in 2009. The problem is that every time I find a line of inquiry worthy of a blog post, I think, “But I really need to reread the book before I write about that.” Rereading a 900 page book isn’t a measure I’m ready to take yet. Anathem was an experience: part speculative fiction novel, part scientific illustration (or calca as they are called in the novel), part dialogue. It made me feel kind of dumb, to be honest, because most of the scientific and mathematic components of the book were, quite frankly, a bit beyond me (there’s a good reason why I study language instead of particle physics). At the same time, I feel somewhat compelled to write something about it, so I did what I usually do when I feel compelled to write about something that seems really really hard: I submitted a proposal to conference.

In this blog post, then, I’m going to be barely brushing on Anathem as a whole. Instead, I want to focus on one longstanding fued of particular importance to my work and which I was surprised to see playing out in such detail in the novel: Plato v. the Sophists. In the mathic world, it’s called the Halikaarn / Proc debate, but it amounts to the same thing: Halikaarnians believe that words have inherent semantic value, that mathematic proofs exist in some kind of perfect state in the Hylaean Theoric World and filter down into our consciousness, while Procians believe that words only have the meanings we proscribe to them. To a certain extent, we have a science v. rhetoric thing going on throughout the novel. Interestingly, at the time of the narrator’s story, the Procian New Circle is in acendancy, with their avout taking positions of power in the hierarchical structure of the mathic world while the Halikaarnians are doing honest work on actual science (or so it is painted by the narrator). In fact, the villains of the novel, for some time, appear to be the New Circle, throwing their weight around to get avout and playing with politics. And I personally found this depiction of rhetoricians slightly offensive, though perhaps not unexpected. After all, rhetoricians have never been popular, and the slimy politician iconograph (as they call established figures or conceptions that non-mathic people have about mathic people) is one that is never far away. Either that or we’re the ones who outright and stubbornly refuse to believe in Truth, Beauty, or Justice (with capital letters of course), making us cynical, jaded, and inclined to condescend to everyone. Which is exactly what the New Circle elders do. Furthermore, popular histories of the mathic world by non-mathic people frequently turn to the supposed epic battle between the Incanters, who had the power to change the future, and the Rhetors, who had the power to change the past by manipulating people’s memories. Of course, in these stories, the Rhetors were the bad guys.

I spent a lot of my time reading this novel feeling slightly grumpy about how the rhetoricians were being depicted (though I really and truly enjoyed the novel as a whole). At the same time, these are only the representations of the narrator, a young, naive, and sometimes painfully stupid young man. I spent a lot of time wondering how much of the bad press was Stephenson’s own ideas about rhetoricians and how much we can attribute to a sometimes unreliable narrator. I’m also left wondering what I should make of the end of the novel in light of the unflattering representations throughout: a Procian and a Halikaarnian come to a point of agreement about all those capital letter worlds and the narrator himself marries a New Circle avout, a young woman who knew she wanted to be in the New Circle from the very beginning (though her special skill in the novel is her ability to organize people, not do theoretical work).

So, with these thoughts in mind, I proposed a paper for the Pop Culture Assocation South / American Culture Association South Regional Conference in a few months. In this paper I’ll be looking at representations of rhetoricians in recent spec fic texts, primarily Anathem and Embassytown — in which we see linguistics and rhetoric set up in a dualistic relationship and in which rhetoric comes out on top. It should be interesting, and it will make me read Anathem again.