Top Ten Things I Hate in Fictional Romances

I rarely ship fictional characters, because I rarely ever read a fictional romance I find convincing. Not uncoincidentally, pretty much all of these are things I dislike about fictional het romances, because so many of our cultural norms for het romances are warped and coercive and, frankly, really fucking weird.

  1. Where creepy and/or abusive behaviours are “romantic”. This includes: watching strangers sleep, entering their space without permission, and pretty much anything that has to be justified by the phrase “it’s for your own good”. Oh, hello Twilight!
  2. Where the (female) love interest is a prize for the (male) protagonist. As in, for example, the dishearteningly popular Ready Player One. DON’T DO THAT. (If we’re gonna be intellectual about it, this is a layover from 12th-century chivalric ideals of knights fighting each other for the hand of The Most Beautiful Woman Ever. It’s objectification, pure and simple.)
  3. Where a supernatural(ly hot) woman pronounces her love interest The Kindest Man In The World. This is a good sign that the novel (which may or may not be Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer) is not actually interested in the woman as a person: it’s just male fantasy, of the Nice Guy variety.
  4. Where No Really Means Yes. I fucking hate it when persistence makes a love interest change their mind, because what kind of message does that send? (Remember Mr Collins from Pride and PrejudiceNobody deserves that.)
  5. Where a woman Just Needs A Man to settle down and stop being so uppity and weird and unfeminine. *cough*Eowyn*cough* Ooh! Also Bella in Our Mutual Friend.
  6. Where there is a significant age gap. I mean, this is particularly a problem when there are literal centuries between the couple (Twilight again! But also the elf-human relationships in The Silmarillion). But I also can’t get past May-December romances in things like Parable of the Sower, where a godsdamn fifty-year-old man sleeps with an eighteen-year-old girl (even consensually).
  7. Where a woman stays at home while her love interest has awesome adventures. Enough said.
  8. Where a man makes his love interest shelter behind him even if he has clearly never fought anything ever. Except in some historical or historical fantasy novels, ’cause men were shitty in the past.
  9. Where there is an angel in the house. Basically, all of Dickens’ women. They are saintly, altruistic, good at household chores and, generally, boring. And utterly fictional.
  10. Where the queer couple dies. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is as awesome as you have heard; but it does destroy an awesome queer relationship (along with a lot of other things). The wider point is that: queer people almost never get decent fictional relationships, because we all lead Tragic and Unfulfilled lives, obviously.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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Review: The Compleat Discworld Atlas

The Compleat Discworld Atlas is a lovely book. Let’s get that out of the way first. Thick, richly-illustrated pages describing each of the colourful countries and lands that make up Terry Pratchett’s Discworld; one of those elastic loops to keep the book closed; an impressively detailed fold-out map, complete with lines of latitude and longitude (appropriately adjusted for a flat world), magic concentrations and temperature ranges. It’s very geeky. And, for a Discworld fan like me, it’s…fun.

But less fun than it should be. Because there’s a sense in which a book like this (which was, it seems, one of Pratchett’s last creations) misses the point of Discworld. Discworld was built out of a series of jokes. There are consistencies between the books, especially as the series goes on, but we always have the sense that Pratchett’s happy to bend the setting around the story he wants to tell. It’s not a place that was ever meant to be mapped. (I think there’s actually a joke to that effect in the preface to one of the books. It goes something like: “This book does not contain a map. Feel free to draw your own.” Fourteen-year-old me loved that.)

That’s…not a problem per se. The problem is, I think, is that this particular book completely misses the sense of fun and parody and transgression that characterises Discworld as a body of work. (There are fun Discworld maps that exist! I’ve seen an Ankh-Morpork map drawn by Stephen Player which I particularly covet.) It takes itself too seriously, its mock-encyclopaedic objectivity unleavened by the wit and wordplay of the novels. (There are some puns. They are leaden and over-explained.)

And codifying Discworld in an atlas like this makes the novels’ Anglocentrism particularly overt and particularly problematic. Everyone knows that Ankh-Morpork is the heart of the Discworld. It is its vital, beating heart; it feels like a real city even in the early novels. It’s also pretty explicitly a London analogue. That’s sort of fine in the novels, because Pratchett was a British author, and the books’ humour is specifically British, and most of their main characters are recognisably British in some form or another (with a few exceptions): so it makes a certain amount of sense that this vast and teeming world should be filtered through a British point of view.* But the objectivity of an atlas means that equal weight is ostensibly placed on each country. Which makes it very obvious when many of those countries are made up of vaguely racist stereotypes. Seeing “wives” listed alongside “camels” as an export from an African-coded country of nomads was a particular kick in the teeth: a vicious form of sexism thrown off as a careless, racist joke.

There is a vague conceit that the atlas has been partially compiled by Rincewind, the cowardly wizard-hero of some of the earlier Discworld novels, who comes with his own bundle of (partly-unexamined) insecurities and prejudices. But this is mentioned once in the preface and then never again; the text has none of the colour that might otherwise serve to distance narrator from author. (See, by way of contrast, the Discworld companion book Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, which is a delight throughout, sprinkled with quintessentially Ogg-ish gems like “If you go to other people’s funerals, they’ll be sure to come to yours.”)

I don’t want to say “this is a terrible book”. Pratchett gets a lot of leeway from me, in part because it’s impossible for me to have any kind of critical distance from his novels. But this doesn’t feel like Discworld, this overly fannish work of codification and reification. (It’s perhaps telling that the Discworld Emporium, the company licensed with selling Discworld merchandise, is listed as one of the copyright holders.) Or, rather, it feels like the worst of Discworld. The map itself may turn out to be a lovely reading companion; but I can’t imagine ever really going back to the gazetteer. Which is a shame, given how expensive the whole package actually is.

*Even so, I think Interesting Times and Pyramids might make me uncomfortable if I read them for the first time now.

Review: La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage is the first novel in The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman’s prequel trilogy to the metaphysical YA juggernaut that is His Dark Materials. Which means, inevitably, that it comes with a whole load of not-necessarily-fair reader-response baggage. (I can’t imagine anyone reading La Belle Sauvage without already having read the original series. But maybe that’s short-sighted of me.)

I found it an odd beast, compared with His Dark Materials. Our Hero is Malcolm Potstead, a precocious eleven-year-old whose parents run the Trout, a country inn a couple of miles from Pullman’s alternative and vaguely steampunk Oxford. (The Trout is a real, and moderately famous, pub; one of the delightful things about reading La Belle Sauvage is tracing its characters through slightly different versions of places that really exist.) When the nuns at Godstow Priory, just opposite the Trout, take in a baby girl called Lyra (who’ll grow into the heroine of the later books), Malcolm gets drawn into the machinations of a secret society called Oakley Street, which works against the oppressive state church which controls the Britain of the novel. He becomes a spy for Oakley Street alethiometrist Hannah Relf, taking her news of Lyra and the church’s incursion into his school and anything else vaguely unusual.

The novel intertwines chapters from Malcolm’s point of view with chapters from Hannah’s. This feels unusual in a novel that’s ostensibly YA/MG (although it’s something that Pullman’s done before, with Mary Malone’s chapters in The Amber Spyglass). What’s more, Hannah’s chapters are (unsurprisingly) markedly different in content and feel than Malcolm’s. They’re filled with worries about academia and Oakley Street politics and her spywork, the complexities of functioning as an adult in a very real, and very hostile, world. Malcolm’s chapters are no less complex, exactly, but they register the world in a different way: to his single-minded and still childish intelligence, the world is a puzzle to be solved, not quite participated in as a full agent. So, when a great and unprecedented flood comes to Oxford, threatening to put Lyra in the way of her father Lord Asriel’s enemies in the church, Malcolm’s solution is one only a child could come up with: ride the flood (in his canoe La Belle Sauvage) to London, to take Lyra to her father there.

The flood chapters are…interesting, and don’t exactly seem to take place in the same world as His Dark Materials. As John Clute points out in Strange Horizons, they are Spenserian rather than Miltonian: they take place in an England (or, an Albion) populated by hidden, allegorical magic beings (Father Thames, for instance, pops out of the flood at one point). As Malcolm, Lyra and their abrasive, accidental companion Alice float down the swollen river, chased by Lord Asriel’s enemies, they encounter strange and mist-bound perils, which they escape through a combination of fairytale logic, ingenuity and childish literalness of thought. I couldn’t help comparing the linearity and narrow focus of this Spenserian quest structure with the much more exploratory bagginess, the dead ends and reversals and multiple plotlines, of His Dark Materials. (If I recall correctly, Hannah Relf’s chapters in La Belle Sauvage end when the flood comes, leaving us with a single narrative thread to follow.) Put more simply: Father Thames doesn’t feel like something that can exist in the wonderful but ultimately scientific-rational world of His Dark Materials. His is a less comprehensible magic, one unencompassed by Hannah Relf’s understanding of the world as a web whose threads, however tangled, can be followed at least in theory.

One of the things I think Pullman is interested in, then, here and in his earlier trilogy, is the difference between childhood and adulthood, and, more precisely, the transition between them. Malcolm’s story may look like Spenserian allegory, but it’s not immediately clear what it might be an allegory for. Certainly not innocence: like His Dark Materials’ Will, and older Lyra to a certain extent, Malcolm and Alice are forceful about getting what they need for Lyra (nappies and bottle feeds are major plot drivers), and about escaping those who hunt them. They break into shops and houses, they are canny about how to elicit people’s sympathies, they don’t hesitate to use violence. Which isn’t to say that they are horrible people, of course (although I remain, frankly, unconvinced about Malcolm); merely that Pullman is pushing back against conventional representations of the child. As I’ve said, the novel’s form suggests that, for Pullman, the difference is one of outlook: a child’s (or teenager’s; Alice is fifteen) view of the world is narrow, specific, and observant, and occupies a position of relative powerlessness, while an adult’s is strategic and participatory, looking for networks and intersections with a view to influencing and inhabiting them. Adults create the waterways that children navigate, to force a metaphor perhaps too far.

So it’s a book about power and powerlessness (and wouldn’t this post have been so much shorter if I’d realised that an hour ago?). It’s very much a first-in-series novel, so it doesn’t come to any conclusions (unlike Northern Lights, the first His Dark Materials novel, which stands by itself very nicely both plot-wise and thematically) – which, to me, makes it feel vaguely unsatisfying. As does the fact that I don’t think Pullman does Spenser nearly so well as he does Milton. Faerie requires a lighter, more ethereal touch which Pullman’s storytelling is too robust to deliver. La Belle Sauvage feels like – well, not exactly a minor work, but nothing equalling anything in His Dark Materials either. In the most clichéd of reviewerly sign-offs: it remains to be seen what he’ll do with its sequels.

Top Ten SF Novels I Want to Read

  1. The Warrior’s Apprentice – Lois McMaster Bujold. I suspect this will be on my must-read list for a while.
  2. New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson. I read Robinson’s 2312 last year and it was much better than I expected it to be and I’ve heard good things about New York 2140.
  3. Binti – Nnedi Okorafor. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while. It’s a novella, though, which means it’s stupidly difficult to find in libraries or bookshops.
  4. Dhalgren – Samuel Delany. I mean, I’m picking randomly from Delany’s backlist here, on the basis that Nova surprised me and I want to read more.
  5. The Word for World is Forest – Ursula Le Guin. Because it’s sort-of in the same series as The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, both of which are fantastic, dialectic novels. And I’m kind of on a vintage SF kick at the moment.
  6. Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer. This is popping out as one of the canonical works of SF of the last few years, and it’s always sounded pretty awesome to me.
  7. Bats of the Republic – Zachary Thomas Dodson. I’ve been revisiting old Tournaments of Books, in preparation for this year’s (less than a month away! squee!), and remembered that this existed and that I want to read it and it more-or-less counts as SF. Sadly, no bookseller in the UK apparently seems to stock it.
  8. Downbelow Station – C J Cherryh. I’ve heard Cherryh’s SF spoken of as quiet, considered, political, paying attention to relationships between people – just the kind of SF I like.
  9. The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I vaguely want to read this, for completeness’ sake and because the Long Earth series is moderately interesting. I probably won’t get round to it for a while, though.
  10. Raven Strategem – Yoon Ha Lee. I liked Ninefox Gambit? It was…unusual? I’m not in any hurry to read the sequel, but I’d borrow it if I found it in my local library.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: A Tale for the Time Being

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being follows Ruth, a novelist in her forties living with her husband Oliver on an island off British Columbia. Once upon a time, she finds on the beach a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing the diary of a depressed teenager called Nao, who’s struggling to integrate back into the Japanese society her parents come from after her father loses his job at a Silicon Valley company.

The novel braids these narratives together: Nao’s diary, in which she tries to save her suicidal father, rootles around in her family history, and generally descends into the seedier side of Tokyo; and Ruth’s response to Nao’s diary, her attempts to find out more about Nao and her fate.

This is exactly the sort of book I love to curl up in: baggy, expansive, imperfect and, most importantly, full of heart and authenticity. I’ve been thinking quite a lot over the last year or so about postmodernism and irony: how novels using postmodern techniques like author inserts and footnotes and textual bricolage (novels like Mark Z. Danielewski’s 27-volume The Familiar, or, gods bless it, Catherynne Valente’s Radiance) tend to point out the artificiality of text and narrative without actually doing anything about it.

Which can be fun. But it’s 2018, a year into the Trump presidency and a spitting distance from Brexit. We know by now that narratives are unstable and that neither the tale nor the teller can be trusted absolutely.

No, what I like most about A Tale for the Time Being is that it uses the techniques of postmodernism not to ironise narrative but to authenticate it: to point out the ways it connects people in an uncertain world.

I wrote last week about Twice Upon a Time, Stephen Moffat’s last episode for Doctor Who, is concerned with the idea of timeless moments, with existing asynchronously as memory. A Tale for the Time Being does something similar, only, you know, better.* Ruth rations herself to reading a single entry of Nao’s diary per night, so that she reads about Nao’s experiences at roughly the same pace as Nao lives them. In doing so, she forgets, and elides, the time that lies between them. She starts looking for evidence of Nao and her family outside the diary, concerned for Nao’s wellbeing. It’s Oliver who has to point out to her that everything Nao describes must have happened some years before, for the diary to have crossed the Pacific. If anything was going to happen to her, it would have happened already.

And yet. There’s a speculative element to this book, a hint of magical realism, which will probably annoy some lit-fic readers, but which I found quite lovely. Pages of the diary disappear: one minute they’re crowded with handwriting, the next they’re quite blank. It makes literal that elision of time that happens when we read, our sense that the narrative is happening now even though we know rationally that the ending’s already written. Ruth hasn’t read to the ending yet. So, for her, it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t happened.

There’s also a scene near the end of the book (trying to avoid spoilers) when a dream of Ruth’s appears to influence something that happens in the diary; when, in other words, Ruth gives Nao the concrete help she’s been longing to give her throughout the novel. Again, that impossible elision of time, the sense that narrative and life are happening simultaneously. The diary is timeless, a moment to be experienced asynchronously, a constant now (Nao).

That collapse of time benefits both Ruth and (if we’re to read the diary as “true”) Nao. Nao learns something about her past from Ruth’s possibly supernatural help, and she also gains comfort just from writing her diary. She writes it to “you”: “if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me”. She addresses “you” as a particular friend. Nao’s diary is a cry for help. Ruth reading it, even in the future, makes it an act of connection, a friendship.

And Ruth gets connection from the diary, too: a connection back to her roots in Japan. (Like Nao, Ruth is Japanese American.) A Tale for the Time Being is acutely aware of the artificiality of text and narrative; it’s aware that we cannot really ever know if Nao’s diary is real, if at some point Ruth has taken over writing it, if, as Ruth fears, Nao died in the 2011 tsunami. But it also knows that it doesn’t particularly matter. Stories are our lifeblood. They create miraculous connections across time and space and culture, between a forty-year-old on a quiet Canadian island and a teenager in a teeming Japanese city. They help us help each other – even if it’s only by reimagining each other’s futures.

*It’s interesting that I’m defining A Tale for the Time Being pretty exclusively against other texts. I’m sure there’s a reason for that. I don’t know what it is.

Doctor Who Review: Twice Upon a Time

Twice Upon a Time was 2017’s Christmas episode of Doctor Who, and, glory be, Stephen Moffat’s last episode ever. I remember astonishingly little of it.

I remember that the First Doctor was in it, because Stephen Moffat liked to fuck around with Doctor Who mythology for no discernible or interesting purpose. (Oooh, but using the past tense just then felt so good.) I remember the First Doctor being outrageously and obviously sexist, for, as Andrew Rilstone points out, no internal narrative reason: this isn’t an episode that’s interested in the history of the Doctor, it’s interested in the history of Doctor Who, and TV was outrageously and obviously sexist in the 60s, and so the First Doctor is sexist. This all feels like Moffat’s final dig at those pesky feminists who pointed out time after time that his female characters are always enigmas, romantic interests, cyphers with no lives of their own – anything but fully human. “Look,” he says, “this is what real sexism looks like! I’m much more enlightened than this!”

To which the only possible response is: fuck off.

Or, more politely: if you have to go back to the 1960s to find stories more sexist than yours, you’re doing something wrong.

What else? The World War I Christmas truce, “it never happened again, any war, anywhere”. (For what it’s worth, this isn’t actually true: there were Christmas truces in 1915, and unofficial truces up and down the front throughout the year.) Rusty the Good Dalek, for no discernible reason. An invisible glass woman. A project to record the memories of the dead, which goes nowhere interesting. Yet another fucking suggestion that Bill is romantically interested in the Twelfth Doctor. And the appearance of the Thirteenth Doctor, crashing the TARDIS as is traditional, and causing a tsunami of “women driver” jokes among the misogynists of the world.

The human brain’s wired to retain narrative; the reason why I end up writing more about plot than anything else is because that’s what I remember a month or two after I read or watched or heard whatever I’m writing about. That I can only remember fragments of Twice Upon a Time therefore suggests something about its approach to narrative; viz., that it has none.

Moffat’s never really been interested in stories as such, the work of plot you have to put in to reach the climax, the building of emotional investment you need to get to the payoff. He’s interested in set pieces, in gimmicks, in moments like snowglobes; in pretty pictures. And, in that sense, Twice Upon a Time is Quintessentially Moffat.

I think, structurally, what the episode’s trying to suggest is that the Twelfth Doctor will always exist somewhere in time, as will the First Doctor, like a picture, or, indeed, a TV show. A frozen and asynchronous now. Ceasing to be in the future does not negate your being now. This is an idea that’s always been latent in Doctor Who, and, indeed, in most time travel narratives which see the past and the future as places you can visit at will. If people who have died still live, in a place you can access, have they really died at all?

And it’s an interesting idea. Of course it is, to us humans who live in the flow of time and always want to escape it. It’s just that Moffat-Who is not especially capable of dealing with it in any kind of profound way. After all, the analogy between regeneration and death only goes back to David Tennant’s time on the show; before that, the emphasis is on the beginning of a new life, not the end of an old one. Moffat fails to make a case for why it’s so important that the Twelfth Doctor’s memory sticks around; he’s consistently failed, in other words, to build our interest in, and empathy with, the character, because he’s consistently failed to tell stories.

You cannot build a story out of set-pieces. You cannot build a character out of moments.

Let us hope for better things from Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whitaker.

Ten Books I Utterly Failed to Read in 2017

…that I planned to read in 2017, obviously.

  1. The Warrior’s Apprentice – Lois McMaster Bujold. Last February I vowed to read the Vorkosigan saga in 2017. I have many abject reading failures under my belt, but this probably one of the abjectest.
  2. The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin. I have had this on my TBR pile at least since November. Probably before that, even. This is particularly egregious since it is borrowed from a friend who has probably given up all hope of seeing it again.
  3. The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. See above.
  4. Three Moments of an Explosion – China Mieville. I bought this to celebrate moving to London last April. It is still sitting near the bottom of my TBR, because of library books and borrowed books and my inveterate habit of, gasp, buying more books.
  5. PopCo – Scarlett Thomas. Uh, see above again. I do actually want to read these books! I am just tyrannised by some slightly obsessive habits when it comes to my TBR.
  6. The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I mean, I should have read this years ago, it’s a Terry Pratchett novel. Ah, but it’s not a Discworld novel, is it. And the Long Earth series got kind of tedious a while ago.
  7. Infidel – Kameron Hurley. The library has Rapture. The bookshops have God’s War. None of them has Infidel. Godsdammit.
  8. The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden – Catherynne Valente. MUST. HAVE. ALL THE VALENTE. Although I didn’t do too badly Valente-wise last year, actually (I managed Palimpsest, Deathless and The Melancholy of Mechagirl, plus some short stories online and a load of Patreon posts WHICH DEFINITELY COUNT).
  9. Saga Volume 5 – Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. I can’t believe I didn’t manage any Saga last year. Well, actually, I can, since my new local library has a sadly impoverished graphic novel section and £15 for 120 pages still feels like too much even if they are beautiful pages and I can technically afford it. Maybe 2018 is the year that I get over that. Maybe.
  10. King Rat – China Mieville. I did manage a Mieville last year – The Last Days of New Paris – but for me it was one of his drier books, and I’m hoping King Rat is more on the Gothic-Lovecraftian-screaming-void-of-meaning side of his work.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)