Tag: feminism strikes

Review: Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures, the tenth in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, is a “Discworld discovers” story. (See also: The Truth, in which Discworld discovers newspapers; Soul Music, in which Discworld discovers rock music, or Music With Rocks In; Going Postal, in which Discworld discovers post offices.) In this case, Discworld discovers Hollywood.

Our Hero is Victor – “Can’t sing. Can’t dance. Can handle a sword a little.” – a student who has dedicated his not inconsiderable intellect to remaining a student. In fact, he has elevated laziness to an art form: he spends not insignificant effort in keeping himself fit, for example, because it’s too much effort dragging an unfit body around. He finds himself unexpectedly drawn to Holy Wood, a sandy bay in the middle of nowhere where the Disc’s newest industry is starting up. Here, together with Ginger, a fledgling actress, and Gaspode the Wonder Dog, the Disc’s only talking dog, he finds himself equally unexpectedly becoming a star.

Oh, and investigating the strange Lovecraftian horrors Holy Wood is awakening from behind the walls of a false and hollow reality…

The plot’s never the most important thing about Pratchett’s books, though. (I’d be hard-pressed to describe the actual plot of Moving Pictures, and I only read it about a month ago.) It’s not even his characters, although many of them have become fan favourites, as close and familiar as friends.

No: Pratchett’s line is in interrogating the narrative structures that underlie our culture and our expectations of reality. In that respect, he is actually surprisingly formally innovative – surprisingly, that is, for such an unabashedly popular writer, though his fans have been pushing people to his work for years.

Moving Pictures is an excellent case in point, though it’s not really a fan favourite – perhaps because it’s missing the savage flashes of explicit social criticism some of his works exhibit. (From Guards! Guards!: “we were dragons. We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless, and terrible. But…we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.”) It’s a veritable tissue of structural irony, packed with a plethora of narrative levels. At its heart, it’s a tale that twists Hollywood sidelong by transplanting it into a fantasy world; asks us to look afresh at the silent-movie tropes that are by now embedded into our own cultural consciousness. On the Discworld, the magic of Holy Wood eventually makes those narratives real, makes them all the characters can see; which blinds them, almost disastrously, to the incursion of those monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions.

These narratives, says Pratchett, prevent us from seeing what’s really real. And they’re inherently unfair: Ginger, for example, can only get parts playing passive damsels in distress, there to be kidnapped and rescued, because that’s the only narrative Holy Wood has for women; and so that becomes what women are in the real world. And Gaspode is continually being passed over for a much more photogenic dog, Laddie, who is also terminally stupid: because Laddie looks the part, he must actually be the hero, the clever one, the one who leads the humans to safety.

And this is complicated by the fact that Moving Pictures is set in a world – the Discworld – which canonically runs on story. On the Disc, million-to-one chances always work. It’s a place that’s aware of itself as fictional, an immersive fantasy world continually destabilising itself as such. And Moving Pictures especially is intensely intertextual, packed with references to famous films and moments in Hollywood history (there is, for example, a re-enactment of that shot of Marilyn Monroe standing over the grating). There’s even an in-universe explanation for this: the idea that is Holy Wood takes the same form across many worlds. These moments are, again, acknowledgements of the fictionality of the novel and the world and the situation – and yet, even that acknowledgement is destabilised by the fact that there is an in-universe explanation. It’s a hugely playful novel, one which also takes its characters seriously enough to have real warmth.

The point of this post, I think, is that the Discworld novels are a lot cleverer than I think I’ve given them credit for in the past. In fact, I think Pratchett might well be the Dickens of the twenty-first century: a popular writer who deals in kindly caricature and savage humour, who’s doing some real work beneath the densely detailed surface of his fiction. Dickens wove Themes throughout his long books; Pratchett did postmodernism, ironising the stories we choose to tell, and the stories we unconsciously live by. If you’ve not read anything by either of them, you’re missing out.

50-Word Review: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island is celebrated travel writer Bill Bryson’s account of a farewell trip around England before he moved to America. It’s sexist in that nauseatingly Middle England way that tells you unconsciously that you’re being a bore if you take offence. And is not even that funny.

(Micro-post because it’s Friday evening and, really, this book deserves nothing more.)

Doctor Who Review: Oxygen

This review contains spoilers.

Well, the space zombies were not actually as bad as I feared. We’re not in the-moon-is-an-egg territory yet.

Oxygen is a horror story whose ultimate villain is capitalism. Following a distress signal, Bill and the Doctor find themselves on board a mining space station whose crew is nearly all dead – killed by their own spacesuits. Those intelligent spacesuits are now hunting down the survivors, taking their dead occupants along for the ride. So: space zombies.

At root, Oxygen is satire. Its conceit is that, this far out in space, oxygen is enormously valuable; so the corporation running the station supplies oxygen “for personal use only” – through the suits, rather than filling the station up with air. If the workers aboard the station want more oxygen, they have to buy it. Capitalism at its most efficient! It’s an exaggeration of the kind of financial logic that makes budget airlines charge you to check in. And the Doctor’s ghoulish conclusion at the end of the episode is that the suits (there’s a wonderful play on words that equates the spacesuits with “suits” – the accountants, lawyers and compliance officers popularly equated with The Man, and popularly portrayed as zombified by such allegiance) are murdering their occupants to save money – the crew have become unproductive and are to be replaced by a fresh one, and what’s the point of giving idle hands valuable oxygen? (And that sentiment feels chillingly Victorian, or even Trumpian.)

I think the episode’s power as satire, though, is diminished by its failure to understand capitalism as a truly overarching social system. I am aware, by the way, that this is but an episode of Doctor Who and I cannot expect it to do everything; but I do think there are a couple of ways Oxygen could have gone to be a little less…mendacious about capitalism’s power.

The moment of the episode that really sticks out to me here is the moment – in many ways the emotional crux of the episode – when Bill’s spacesuit malfunctions, anchoring her immovably to the station floor while an undead horde approaches. The survivors try to carry her, but are informed by the malfunctioning spacesuit that this is “an illegal move”. “Health and safety”, one of the survivors explains. It’s funny and makes a kind of sense against the satirical framework of the episode up until that point, but, crucially, makes no sense when the solution to the spacesuits’ behaviour is revealed: why would a company so obsessed with the bottom line that it’s prepared to kill its workers care about health and safety? Health and safety doesn’t exist because it’s intrinsically good for companies; on the contrary, it gives rise to a hell of a lot of paperwork they could probably do without. Health and safety exists because legislation has ensured that it potentially costs a company much, much more in damages not to do it. But, if this is a company that can, again, kill its workers (and I definitely read this as a systematic practice, not an isolated incident), then surely we can assume that no such legislation exists any more?

My point is, I suppose, that, far from being the party-pooping capitalist gremlin it’s popularly imagined to be, health and safety legislation is actually a quite astonishingly effective way of making sure that companies don’t kill people wantonly any more. And Oxygen‘s failure to recognise that is surely a failure to imagine capitalism properly.

The other moment that takes the wind out of Oxygen‘s sails, so to speak, is another throwaway line, this one at the end of the episode: the Doctor tells Bill that the upshot of the events on the mining station is that two of the survivors go to “head office” and make a complaint. And so ends capitalism.

What?

I mean, this underestimates capitalism’s ability to defend itself to an extent that’s actually laughable. And, again, it’s supremely easily fixed. Perhaps the company folds, and everyone sees that killing people in the name of efficiency is not good for the brand. Perhaps the legal battle stretches on for years, and in the end new, far-reaching legislation is put in place.

But the conclusion “and they all lived happily ever after” is one that doesn’t even make sense for Doctor Who‘s moral universe, and it certainly isn’t helpful for the project of the episode. The way out of capitalism isn’t whistleblowing alone; it’s years and years of legislation, of hard work that isn’t monetised, of sustained political activism. We can start at whistleblowing, certainly. But that’s not where we’ll end. And, generally, the Whoniverse tends to resist such easy answers.

At a micro level, then, there’s a lot that’s good about Oxygen: apart from the satirical elements I’ve mentioned above, the Doctor has a great line about being responsible for bad stuff:

You know what’s wrong with this universe? Believe me, I’ve looked into it. Everyone says it’s not their fault. Well, yes, it is. All of it. It’s all your fault. So, what are you going to do about it?

Which to me looks like a recognition of the state of complicity that capitalism puts all of us into; although the Doctor is feeling guilty about leaving Bill behind to be potentially zombified at this moment, so I think there’s a possibility that this line unhelpfully conflates capitalist complicity with the Doctor’s patriarchal god complex. Still.

At the macro level, though, Oxygen doesn’t quite do enough work to give itself real teeth as a satire. “The Doctor against corporate greed” has been done a number of times before (see, for example, Sleep No More, which even had a similar industrial spaceship setting), as has the link between zombies and capitalism. The latter’s practically a trope now, in fact. Oxygen is a better episode than Knock Knock; but it’s not exactly good, either.

Doctor Who Review: Knock Knock

This episode contains spoilers.

Ah, well. I suppose three good episodes in a row was too much to hope for.

Knock Knock is the requisite Scary Episode of this season. It starts off very scary indeed (well, bearing in mind that I used to get freaked out by the Daleks) and goes downhill quite rapidly.

So. Bill and five friends-of-friends are searching for a student house to rent and having abysmally little luck when a mysterious stranger played by David Suchet approaches them and offers to rent out his mansion for an absurdly low price – provided they don’t go into the tower.

Pro tip, student househunters: never, ever rent a room off a mysterious stranger you just met. Particularly one played by David Suchet.

Against all common sense, the gang sign the Landlord’s contract and move in. But why do the floorboards creak so in the empty corridors? What’s the noise like tiny footsteps that one of the housemates keeps hearing above his head? Why does the tree outside sway in the non-existent wind? And what about Pavel, the housemate who’s not been seen for a day?

These are profound questions, well asked. The paranoia and claustrophobia build up in the house until it’s nearly unbearable, and the differing reactions of the housemates – some passing it off as a prank, some genuinely terrified – are a nice touch. (Actually, Knock Knock has overtones of the spin-off series Class, thanks to its diverse ensemble cast, each with an actual character to play rather than what feel like inherently supporting roles.)

And then – the tension breaks as doors slam and shutters seal themselves and the walls knock, knock, knock. The housemates are trapped.

But they are, at least, trapped with the Doctor, who’s been helping to move Bill’s stuff in and has refused to leave since then. The Doctor quickly gets to the heart of the action and solves the mystery, and Everything is Made Better by Love. Overacted love.

Doctor Who has two problems with horror stories. The first is that 45 minutes is really too little time to build up enough tension to make it scary while also having a decent payoff for that tension. It is possible to strike the right balance, as Blink proved, but it’s difficult.

The second is that the writers always try and make the payoff emotionally meaningful, usually in a way that is entirely, painfully unsubtle. Again, it is possible to have an effective, meaningful payoff, but, again, it’s difficult, especially on a show still nominally aimed at twelve-year-olds.

In this case, the episode is trying to be about parenthood. Specifically, it turns out, the Landlord has been keeping his mother alive by feeding people to the alien woodlice which infest the house. Only he’s told her, for…reasons, I guess? that she’s his daughter, and that as her father he knows best.

That’s the battleground of Knock Knock: who knows best. When the Landlord’s mother discovers the truth, she also discovers that she can control the woodlice. That would be an interesting device, if it was established as a point of worldbuilding: that the lice respond specifically to motherhood, or something like that. But it isn’t. Apparently motherhood just gives her a natural authority – which she uses, effectively, to commit suicide and kill her son along the way.

Mother knows best!

And there are troubling overtones of parenthood in the relationship between Bill and the Doctor, too. Embarrassed by his presence – an embarrassment which I read as Bill fearing her new housemates might think she was sleeping with him – Bill pretends that the Doctor is her grandfather. She repeatedly tries to get him to leave the house in a way that makes it clear that she’s trying to set some boundaries:

This is the bit of my life that you’re not in.

Look at the way the episode frames Bill’s boundary-setting. We know, of course, that there’s something badly wrong with the house, and that the best chance for Bill and her friends is if the Doctor sticks around. So, not only does the Doctor refuse to leave; we as viewers are forced into recognising that he’s right not to leave, because, after all, grandfather knows best!

Except the Doctor isn’t Bill’s grandfather. And Bill is an adult woman. What this episode is doing is trampling all over her agency, undermining all the work the series has done to establish her as smart and independent and progressive. Being the Doctor’s companion, being under his protection, apparently makes it OK for him to infantilise her in a way that the narrative structure of the episode validates and supports.

This, by the way, is pretty similar to the Doctor’s relationship with Clara.

Knock Knock wants to be a moving exploration of the power of parenthood. In fact, what it is is a look at two very fucked up parenthood models. That’s the core problem of Moffat-era Doctor Who for me (note: this episode was not actually written by Stephen Moffat): it tries to make us believe in, and root for, relationships which are not just flawed but actually, dangerously rotten to the core. It doesn’t know what healthy relationships look like. That’s why its more emotion-driven plots don’t work.

Next time, zombies in space. Really?

Top Ten Characters Who Struggle

I was thinking this morning that I’ve read quite a few books recently about characters for whom life is a struggle; not because they have to contend with dystopias or ravening monsters or war or tragedy, though some of them do, but just because, you know, emotions, or because being a human means that sometimes you don’t want to get out of bed and talk to other people. So this post sort of leads on from my review of Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution.

A couple of these also aren’t books, because I thought thematic coherence was more important than pedantry. In this one, isolated instance.

  1. Marya Morevna – Deathless, Catherynne Valente. “You will live as you live anywhere. With difficulty, and grief.”
  2. Katin – Nova, Samuel Delany. There’s a fantastic bit in Nova, which is a novel all about perception and subjectivity, where Katin says (I haven’t got the book with me, alas, so a paraphrase) that if someone seems to respond negatively to something he says he goes over all the different ways the conversation could have gone in his head. And the Mouse, bless him, says, “I like you, Katin. I was just busy, is all.” Something like that goes on in my head practically every day.
  3. Harry Potter – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany. Now, in the original books Harry is at best inoffensive (Philosopher through to Goblet) and at worst irritating and entitled as only a teenager can be. But grown-up Harry is a different prospect altogether: traumatised by the Dursleys’ abuse and by the Battle of Hogwarts and by years of sharing Voldemort’s fucking mind.
  4. Kesha – Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink. A podcast, not a book. At some point Kesha, the narrator, says something like: “I’m afraid of nearly everything, nearly all the time. But it doesn’t stop me doing what I need to do.”
  5. Meg Carpenter – Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas. I am not going to shut up about Our Tragic Universe; it is hands down my favourite book of the year so far. (Apart from my reread of The Scar, which I’m not counting.) Meg is slightly having a mid-life crisis, stuck in a toxic relationship with a useless boyfriend and half in love with an older man. And wondering if we are all living in a computer simulation, and about what the point of an afterlife would be, and whether there really is a Beast on Dartmoor. And about stories. And her life gets incrementally better, bit by bit, throughout the book; so there’s never any huge revelation or massive argument or great triumph; just a climb to hope and new possibility. It’s utterly lovely.
  6. Pencil Khan – The Glass Republic, Tom Pollock. Pen’s surviving with PTSD after being possessed by a creature of barbed wire in The City’s Son. But, like Kesha, she doesn’t let it stop her do what she needs to do.
  7. Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. Lirael opens with its eponymous heroine contemplating suicide. I sort of wonder whether this actually gets treated seriously enough by Nix, because she doesn’t just think about it in an emo-teenager sort of way, she actually goes up out onto the mountain and prepares to jump off. But, in any case, I think this story of lonely Lirael finding a purpose and friendship and a family is a hopeful one.
  8. Zan – The Stars are Legion, Kameron Hurley. Zan has lost her memory. Over and over again. She knows she’s done terrible things, but can’t remember exactly what, or why. And still she goes on.
  9. Bellis Coldwine – The Scar, China Mieville. Actually I am going to mention The Scar. Bellis fascinates me. She’s thoroughly unlikable, and yet Mieville gets us to sympathise with her, gets us under her skin. She’s torn away from her city, without any way back. And she keeps her grief raw, refuses to accept her new reality, as a form of defiance against her captives: the only method of resistance she has.
  10. Grace Marks – Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood. Grace is another character who uses her emotional instability as a weapon, a weapon that eventually grants her a kind of victory. She resists reading by doctors and vicars and others who want to co-opt her experience, her selfhood, for their own social or commercial ends. And she, too, goes on.

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

Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution

Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays – some from Hurley’s blog, some written specifically for this volume – about oppression of all shapes and sizes, in geek culture specifically and the Western world more generally. There’s a lot about feminism, including her Hugo-award winning essay “We Have Always Fought”. But there are also essays about racism (“What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Race in America”) and classism (“The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live”)  and the abuse of creators’ power (“Let It Go”). In short, it’s a collection covering anything and everything in geek culture and beyond that challenges the white male status quo.

Like all of Hurley’s work, and despite the insinuations of the cheerfully irreverent cover, it is not a book that offers easy answers. Which is to say, it does not peddle the brand of upbeat geeky feminist positivity channelled by books like Sam Maggs’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy (though, don’t get me wrong, that kind of work has a place too); it’s a book whose focus is squarely in revolution, and all the blood and sweat and tears that real revolutions entail.

A central theme of Hurley’s is perseverance, endurance, persistence: the work that’s involved in Being a Writer, in being a responsible creator, in fighting the system’s biases – sometimes just in surviving. The collection weaves personal material in with its politics: so we have, for example, the harrowing “The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance”, which should be required reading for everyone with an influence on health policy on both sides of the pond, sitting alongside “Becoming What You Hate”, a short piece about the controversial blogger Requires Hate and the ethics of assumed identities on the internet. This is generally symptomatic of the book’s eclectic approach: while notionally it’s divided into four sections – “Level Up”, “Geek”, “Let’s Get Personal” and “Revolution” – to be honest I’m not sure how meaningful these distinctions are. The message of all of them – if there is a single message – is simply that the fight for equality is not over, and perhaps never will be; that after every victory there are countless battles yet to fight.

On a personal note, and weirdly, I found this idea comforting rather than dispiriting. I think there’s a cultural narrative in the West – it’s quite a capitalist narrative really – which casts life as a quest for something specific, whether that’s a dream job or a perfect partner or a social life that makes Kim Kardashian seem like a stay-at-home, a quest at which you either succeed and become immediately happy and graceful and self-confident, or fail and remain a miserable loser for the rest of your life. Hurley’s collection, with its stories of personal and political endurance, is a counter-cry to that narrative, reminds us that the great story of the world is not, in fact, about us as individuals at all. We’re more like those extras at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields who maybe get to stab an orc or two, if we’re lucky. After every victory, there’s always another battle to fight: so it’s OK, actually, not to be OK all the time. It’s OK to cut ourselves some slack, so long as we pick up that sword again after a while and keep fighting.

After all: we have always fought. And we always will.

Doctor Who Review: Thin Ice

This review contains spoilers.

Two not-bad episodes of Doctor Who in a row? Good lord.

Thin Ice, written by Sarah Dollard, sees the Doctor and Bill arriving in London, 1814, by accident. (They’d been aiming for London, 2017, so I guess by the standards of these things they weren’t too far out.) It’s the year of the last Frost Fair, when the Thames froze solid enough that markets could be held on the ice. Bill is delighted and charmed by her visit to Olde Englande, until she isn’t: the Doctor and Bill spot green lights under the ice, surrounding unwary wanderers and dragging them down into the depths. Investigating, they find themselves digging into the underbelly of Regency England, the racism and the poverty and the oppression. Why is there a massive sea-creature chained at the bottom of the river? What are the dredging-yards doing? Why are the upper classes such dicks?

There are some great observations about oppression here: the series is obviously continuing its theme of multicultural understanding and tolerance. Bill remarks that 1814 is considerably less white than she expected (which, kudos to the production team, who have obviously worked to put multiple people of colour into actual important speaking roles, rather than just the token extra); the Doctor replies, “History is a whitewash.”

Huzzah! I honestly never expected to hear Twelve saying that.

And when Bill is angry and upset about a child being eaten by the creature under the ice, the Doctor explains to her that outrage is a luxury; that if she doesn’t pull herself together more people will die. It’s a smart choice, by the way, to have Bill and the Doctor in middle-class period costume, while most of those they interact with are working-class or lower; it makes for an interesting discussion of privilege, highlighting the sharp distinction between Bill’s relatively luxurious 21st-century lifestyle and the street urchins’ desperate, hand-to-mouth 19th-century existence.

Like Smile, though, I think some of the good, well-intentioned representational stuff in Thin Ice has some unintentional connotations. Specifically, I feel like Thin Ice‘s implicit comparison between 19th-century and 21st-century mores strays into self-congratulatory territory. Let’s not forget, after all, that we might expect Bill to know something about the luxury of outrage already, being both working-class (how much does that canteen job pay, anyway?) and a person of colour herself – as the episode points out. And it’s a shame that the only person who is outwardly racist is the villain of the piece, utterly uninterested in anything except capitalist progress, and so utterly irredeemable: it perpetuates the lie that only really evil people are racists, that a few powerful villains made the slave trade (which Thin Ice references both explicitly – Bill raises it with the Doctor, concerned that Regency England may not be safe for her – and symbolically, through the chained sea-creature) possible; when in fact the very opposite is true. Where’s the casual racism of Regency England, the beliefs so widespread that they were uttered entirely without conscious malice, as self-evident truths?

At the end of the episode, Bill is asked (as seemingly all the Doctor’s companions are at some point) to make a choice: whether or not to set the sea-creature free. On the one hand, it is clearly not a very happy sea-creature, and it is eating people. On the other hand, if it goes free it might eat some more people. “If your future is based on the suffering of that creature,” says the Doctor in his infinite wisdom, “what’s that future worth?” This is an excellent point, but sort of elides the fact that our future is still based on the suffering of others, because that’s what capitalism means. The system is founded on it; but Thin Ice suggests that solving capitalist greed is easy, as simple as freeing the chained slave and destroying the venture capitalist. Look at how ludicrously one-sided Bill’s dilemma is: there’s never any serious suggestion that letting the creature go will endanger London, whereas keeping it in chains is definitely Evil. (Compare this situation to the similar one in The Beast Below, when everyone thought that letting the space-whale go would cause the break-up of the ship and kill millions of people. That’s a better metaphor for the relationship between capitalist greed and Western society.)

And what about the Doctor’s speech to the capitalist villain keeping the creature chained up: “Human progress isn’t measured by industry; it’s measured by the value you place on a life”? To me, it seems that the Doctor is making an implicit comparison between the backward, oppressive values of the Industrial Revolution and our more enlightened times: we value everyone equally now! Isn’t that nice?

Except we don’t. People still die in crowded factories in China and India, working twelve hours a day to bring the West iPhones and fast fashion. Children still sift through toxic waste to find the minerals for Western touchscreens. Disability and chronic illness still plunge people into poverty in England. We haven’t solved racism, sexism, oppression; it’s important to remember that.

While I’m enjoying the social conscience that Doctor Who seems to be re-developing, I’d like to see episodes that reference colonialism and oppression actually dig a bit more into the implications of those metaphors, within the constraints of the format. It’s a show where literally anything could happen; so if we’re finally getting away from the white male patriarchy it developed during the last season, it would be good to see something properly radical come out of it.