I wish people would spend less time ragging on other genres, whichever genre it might be, and spend more time figuring out what it is about those styles, settings, tropes, and thematic preoccupations that makes someone else's brain go ping!

Why? Skipping the stuff about how talking to an audience of like-minded readers about how the people in the church across the way aren't real Christians that other genre is bad and wrong is a real gutsy stance there, tiger, and skipping the stuff we've been over before about how people who have different tastes from you are not evil and also deserve books?

The act of reading is not actually about being confirmed in your concept of the world at all times. Sometimes it's about looking at what someone else finds important and interesting and worthwhile, and considering those things. Sometimes you have to learn how to do that or read those texts, say by talking to a friend or taking a class to get the necessary context, and sometimes it comes easy; actually, in some of the better-written cases, it comes easy. You can get as much of this out of something that's uproariously entertaining as you can something that's serious and dense. Sometimes it's fun. Sometimes it's profoundly uncomfortable.

We call this learned skill of learning to see how someone else looks at the world empathy.

That skill is why people ban and burn books which portray experiences or accounts of the world that frighten them and, incidentally, why we're not supposed to read Mein Kampf. It's why authors in every minority consider it so important to get works by and about people of their particular minority group read. It's why reading -- it doesn't matter what -- is still considered educative in most if not all societies with high literacy. A book contains a whole lived experience, just in the nuances and spotlighting and wording of metaphors; it is the thing that permits you to understand some of what it is like in someone else's head, since we don't yet have mind melds or telepathic unicorns.

You will probably now see where this is leading.

Saying that a kind of story is wrong and bad, when you think about it this way, goes farther than the story. If every genre, every literary mode, expresses the lived experience and priorities and desires and concept of the world of a kind of person -- those authors, editors, and readerships -- then it translates very easily into saying how that person sees the world is stupid, wrong, and bad. I dismiss their priorities and desires and worldview as legitimate.

This can be what you, in fact, want to say. Dismissing someone else's worldview as legitimate is a choice that we, as humans, can make. It can range from minor to profoundly hurtful to the person who hears it -- in fact, I'm pretty convinced now that I think about it that this is why people get really worked up about these genre fights -- but wanting to make others feel dismissed, either to hurt them or to shore up one's own position in a particular social hierarchy by peeing on the outsiders, is also a choice adults can and do make. People choose to close their ears or minds, to disdain something instead of trying it or finding out about it or admitting that it is not to their taste but valid as someone else's every day. People choose to disdain others every day.

I think, though? If that's the choice someone's making, let's not make it about the books, because that choice has nothing to do with the books. Let's have that choice be made in full awareness and expressed in full awareness.

Let's own our shit, shall we?

(And that is why I wish people would spend less time ragging on other genres.)
Okay, so a couple of us are talking about The Box aka "Button, Button" and just how terribly easy it is to break that plot. I mean:

"Hi, push this killing button and I'll give you all this money!"
"No, thanks."
"Moving on, then."

Or, as [livejournal.com profile] tanaise paraphrases the NPR blog on the matter, "It is not a hard decision for me because I AM NOT A HITMAN."

And this makes me wonder whether many specimens of that sort of moral-choice horror story aren't actually about the moral choice, about Would you kill someone? but more, subtextually, about "So...if it was like this and this, would I be allowed to kill someone? How 'bout now?"

When is it okay, socially, for me to just kill someone?*

Because, y'know, sometimes people are just getting so much joy out of the thing.

*This also applies to the "Ethnic drug lords killed my family/kidnapped my blond daughter/etc. and now I must middle-class raaaaaaaage!" genre of film.
I spent most of this evening avoiding my book tucked up in bed with my feet under the duvet, reading A Civil Campaign. This was impeccably soothing. I forgot about that clause in my contract wherein I read a certain minimum amount of fiction or I go insane. Fiction trucks are converging on the Casa and will resupply the populace in short order.

I am sort of taken aback at how Bujold's (somewhat?) reputation as a feel-good author matches with the methodical way she gives you enough to care about her characters and then dismantles them with sheerest efficiency (which is less this book than Mirror Dance, but they're sort of all one book). Part of that's the luxury of the well-written series; you can set things up in books one or two, build them through four or five more, and pay them off like a stunning blow to the head in book !whatsitnumber -- I'm thinking of Miles's letter in A Civil Campaign here, which sent me straight into tears, and wouldn't without all that raw context to work with.

(Tangentially, I haven't picked up Diplomatic Immunity yet, but I can kind of understand why the Miles books slowed/stopped/something. I can feel the downward trajectory of the structural arc there, the big structural arc. Part of it's the change in format: they go, by necessity, from military/space opera/caper books to whodunit/thriller plots to science fiction Regencies, and the other formats are harder to sustain. But the real tell? Everyone involved in those books has grown up, learned, developed their traumas, been utterly shattered by them, and picked up the pieces to the middle ground. They've found life. And that's...inevitably where the kinds of stories we tend to tell end.)

But anyways.

It makes me wonder if I'm going at this by the wrong end, in fact. If instead of carrying a big stick and writing dark little books, I should make like Sharon Shinn and Lois McMaster Bujold and write these popular books that appear light and fun on the surface, until you scratch them a few layers deep. Not just carry a big stick, but walk softly.

Because, y'know. Mirror Dance kicked just as many kinds of shit out of me as the end of Perdido Street Station. But I bet more people picked up Mirror Dance and the books before it and the books after, and kept on reading, and bared their bellies for that emotional shitkicking of their own will.
I'm reading The Dispossessed (please no spoilers, since I'm not yet finished) and have just noticed a terribly, terribly clever thing.

(Well, first off, it's another book that owes a great deal to the picaresque: Shevek's progress through two societies and all the elements thereof, his recasting as child to student to physicist to labourer to superstar to social revolutionary, used as a comment on those societies. And very much involved with the question of truly, this is the best of all possible worlds. I'm starting to wonder just how much of science fiction has those strains of Candide in it; how much is actually necessary for the form.)

One of Shevek's few discourses on actual physics and the theory of time he's always supposed to be working on is at a party where he gets very drunk. An industrialist straw-man character (sorry, he is) argues that clearly time is linear, and Shevek explains that time is perceived as linear, but is periodic, circular. That it's both at the same time.

So think about the actual structure of the book. It's in alternating chapters, present-past-present-past, telling the story of Shevek's time on Urras in the present and catching us up slowly on his childhood, education, life, and so forth on Anarres. Now, I have not yet finished reading, but I'm about 70 pages out from the end, and I have read much in my life, and I know how to feel the curve of a narrative structure under my hand. And that past-thread is going to come around again. It's going to return to the moment at which the present-day thread opened, bringing it new weight, bringing a sense of closure to the narrative.

It's going to circle.

So what we have here, folks, is a book about contradictions, about how time is both linear and periodic/circular, written with a structure that is both linear and periodic/circular.

That is a wicked smart subtle way to do your thing.
#8 -- John M. Ford, The Last Hot Time

This book, above and beyond keeping me up way too late for two nights in a row until I finished it, has illustrated a few things for me.

One is what [livejournal.com profile] mrissa (and others, clearly, but I see her talking about it most) terms "Minnesotan"; all the emotional content in The Last Hot Time is frozen about five inches below a layer of composure and distance. Not in a way that means the writer does not know how to connect up the emotion; it's quite deliberate, and there are clues to that in the way that its protagonist, Danny, who's later Doc, has a Worst Fear that involves losing control of his emotions. There's a sense that beneath the somewhat cool exterior, if you opened the right door or turned the right valve, there is a mess of emotion and motivation and hurt and joy that would explode so hard it would knock you five blocks southwards, and that's what drives this book. This is a book written at least halfway in the subtext, which too is thematic, being about a Chicago between a very different notion of Faerie and what's called The World. You have to work for this book, stretch out your hand some and meet it.

I like that.

The second thing? Is where my failure-to-connect, as a reader, is with the bulk of genre lit sex scenes. Because there are two sex scenes in this book -- one near the middle, and one at the end. And let me say, they are neither of them vanilla sex scenes. They're reasonably kinky if not hardcore, and they're not soft-focus, and they're important -- vital -- to the turn of the plot and characterization.

They are possibly the most loving sex scenes I've ever read. After the second, which closes the book? I, on instinct, hugged said book and cried a little. The good kind.

And I think, perhaps, this is why your generic Paranormal Urban Fantasy sex scene (yes, I know I pick on PUF a lot; you can throw most epic fantasy sex scenes in this particular bucket too, Kushiel's Dart and The Fires of Heaven and the early Dark Tower books and, I am told by my wonderful peoples, The Queen's Bastard, and we will not talk about horror sex since in horror sex is a different signifier than in fantasy) well, leaves me cold. They're just sex scenes, in a way. The emotional foundation of them -- and every scene between characters has an emotional foundation, doesn't matter if they're doing the dishes or having an orgy -- isn't love. It's usually...dominance. Or competition. Or fear-not-really-fear-maybe. Or anger. Sex is such a very competitive sport in fiction of late. I must say, my sex life (yes, kids, once upon a time Leah had a sex life) has never reflected that much foundation in negative things, in really bad reasons to be sleeping with somebody. And if it did? I'd be worried about why I was sleeping with that person and my good friends would hopefully perform an intervention. Sex based in dislike leaves me cold.

(And since it's so obviously fantasy fodder -- you know that precious few people, exposed to the reality of a relationship where all the intimacy was based in fear or anger or dominance or competition, would actually stay in that relationship. And that knowing makes everything in those books, the people and the plots and everything, less real to the reader.)

So in this space where there's a dearth of depictions of sex -- and remember, we're dealing with non-vanilla kinky sex here -- which is not ooh-naughty, not butterflies-and-flowers, but healthy, human, real people sex, there is this book. Which contains sex had by characters who are real and whole and care about each other's well-being in ways that don't have to be twisted and brooding and respect and like each other. And it is clear-eyed. The Last Hot Time is, yes, discussing greater thematic issues of power and in part using kink as a straight-line symbol for that (which is what most kink in genre books seems to be tied to, pun not intended). And if you think about it like that? I think having kinky bondage-oriented sex between people who love and respect each other before, during, and after? Makes a very strong statement about power and its use and its ethics.

Which is also what is lacking for me in most genre sex scenes.

Beyond all that, which is largely an intellectual-critical approach?

Having read this book, I wish I could have met the man who wrote it and bought him a drink or three.
(I promise I will be better about book reportage this year.)

#1 -- Oscar Wilde, The Happy Prince and Other Stories

Reread, but I haven't read it since I was about thirteen, so I guess it counts again. When I pulled this out of the bookshelf at my parents' house over the holidays my mother expressed surprise that she let a teenager read Oscar Wilde. In fact, I think I was seven. *cough*

These are interesting; they're, in their way, extremely moral and somewhat didactic, but not in a way that offends me. And I think that's because all through, he's sneaking in little bits of commentary on class, on social justice, on the natures of people. Authority is not necessarily good in these stories, and while they're also explicitly Christian, they aren't so in a way that toes the party line. The bottom line seems to be: I'm not going to lie to you. If you do good things, really good things, you will probably get pissed on for it. And that's not an excuse to duck the human obligation of doing good things.

I like Oscar Wilde. He didn't lie to me.

#2 -- Ekaterina Sedia ([livejournal.com profile] squirrel_monkey), Locomotive to Crimea (in draft)

No talky about crit books!

#3 -- Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories

Rudyard Kipling, on the other hand, is didactic and moral and smarmy. And racist. And considering he was completely contemporaneous with Oscar there, who didn't do those things, he has no excuses.

#4 -- Chris Coen ([livejournal.com profile] clarentine), Kith and Kin (in draft)

Crit book!

#5 -- Nicholas Christopher, The Bestiary

I suspect this was pitched along the lines of The Da Vinci Code. That is not apparent when you look at its cover flaps, which made me a bit sad.

Two things I don't feel I ever need to read about again: the Accepted Text Version of the whole seventies drugs/Vietnam/Orientalism experience and the Frictionless American White Male.

The Vietnam thing is...okay. I understand Vietnam was a very sucky place to be forced to go at that point in time. However, there seems to be an accepted rote narrative of how one either was forced to go to Vietnam and fight the terrible war for The Man (or avoided it), and how everyone who wasn't off doing that divided their time between virtuous protest marches, ingesting every kind of drug they could lay hands on, screwing all the time, and realizing that yes, Asia and India existed. Perhaps even had religious traditions one could sort of paddle about in, like a kiddy pool free after purchase of a Buddha statue or decorative wall hanging involving Sanskrit writing. It is not apparent how one financed this lifestyle. Perhaps one had a trust fund, I dunno.

This is a narrative that is just as hit-the-posts, fill-your-bingo-card, rote as the Going Down to Faerie book, as your Generic European Quest Fantasy. It blurs by in a muddle of non-detail and a certain kind of smugness: wow, we protested the war and spent our time getting high and having sex instead. Weren't we progressive and smart! It's the smugness that puts me over the edge: guys, no you weren't. I suppose every generation must find its own awesome, but what you were up to is pretty outdated and backward now, the march of time being what it is and the next generation always finding better ways to be more progressive and liberal than thou (and it will happen to me too, while I'm all like "we fought for anti-racism and gay rights!" and the kids going "that is so last Tuesday, loser"), and nostalgic self-congratulation about how awesome you were thirty years ago isn't really going to change that.

But we digress. The bulk of the thing behind this objection is that rote narratives -- The Standard Vietnam Seventies Experience, the Standard Faerieland Experience, the Standard Abused Child Experience -- are meaningless. Unless you can invest them with personal meaning and detail, unless you can make them apply to a referent that does mean something interesting and concrete, they're really just plug-in conflict sets. They mean nothing anymore. They've been worked smooth. And so you can't expect them to mean anything to the reader. It's got just about the amount of investment, conflict, emotional arc, and excitement as reading about someone renewing their driver's license.

The second thing is a little quicker to explain: the Frictionless American White Male. You have this archetype character who travels all over, falls in love with women and gets his heart broken, has fraught interactions with father figures, goes to war, comes home, etc. It's basically a modern edition of the picaresque character. The problem is...the picaresque character was never really meant to be a character. If you look at stuff like Candide, which is not the earliest by far but one of the classic examples of the genre, the character is a vehicle for the satire; they are thrust into these situations relatively unaffected by the last because they're a narrative device, not a person.

However, if you are writing about a person who we're supposed to see as a person? You may wish to reconsider not having all these experiences even put a dent in them. The next time they fall in love should have roots in the last time they fell in love; the going to war and having trauma nightmares should last past the end of that particular chapter-episode, because really, trauma isn't a hobby you pick up and put down. Basically, the experiences need to motivate the character, and if he doesn't change, period, despite going through all these things? If he's the same person he was at the beginning? He is then Frictionless, and you have failed to make me give a variety of turds about him or feel he is in any way real.

So yeah. Those. I don't want to read those anymore.


That got long.

Think I'll make some lunch now.
Finally saw Batman: The Dark Knight tonight with [livejournal.com profile] ksumnersmith and [livejournal.com profile] thesandtiger, making us officially the last people on the internets to see this movie.

I really, really liked it. This movie cuts. It is indeed dark, and fairly unapologetic about that, and it has a coherent arc and line on every level: plot, character, symbolism, theme, place. They all work together, and echo off each other and resound in ways that sets the whole thing to vibrating. I loved the discussion of ethical lies. I loved the discussion of faith, and the hero one needs versus the hero one deserves. Heath Ledger's Joker quite seriously scared me into immobility.

So it cut, but for me at least, it missed the bone -- so close, and missed the bone. And I spent my walk home from the after-movie pie tonight trying to figure out why.

Spoileriffic discussion ahoy )
So not perfect. Almost perfect, and flawed oh so slightly, and hard and utterly beautiful.

I suspect I'm going to write a reply to this sometime soonish or later, the "how I would have done it" version. The one that cuts, and does not say why. The one that does not come to you. That you have to reach your hand out, and take, and slice up your own two hands to derive from it a moral argument, and with that can feel an impact and an understanding fifty times deeper than anything a character could explain. Mostly because it bothers me more when something is so close than when it misses the mark entirely, and I can still feel the frightened gloom of Gotham sitting in the back of my head, kicking for some damned emotional resolution.

So yes. Watch this. Watch for how it weaves together its symbols and questions and reiterates them over and over, has the argument with itself again and again, and comes to no good choice but many wise conclusions. This is what superhero fiction is supposed to be.

This is the drama of ethics.

This is how it's supposed to be done.
(Published in accordance with the Tenets of Book Reporting and the support of Viewers Like You.)

So far this year... )

(I'm willing to make a bit of comment on anything up there if anyone's curious. Just haven't had time to be book-reporting good and proper this year.)

#47 -- Patricia Briggs -- Iron Kissed

I was skittish on this one because of [livejournal.com profile] buymeaclue's post on it back in January, but in looking for some candy books to break up the (lovely but dense) diet of John Crowley and Robertson Davies and Iain Banks I'm on currently, I came back around to this series. And it was solid enough, if embracing all those quirks of Paranormal Fantasy that somehow, in a very short while, because accepted canon: werewolves work like so. Vampires like so. The appropriate relationship between werewolves and people is thus. I have things to say about that, but I also have a way to say and explore them in fiction, and since I am a writer and not really a book reviewer I will save that for where I live.

What I do want to talk about is what happens to Mercy at the end, and the reactions around it: both fictional and those in the readership that were discussed on LJ last winter.

(Poor Patricia Briggs. All her reviews about one thing. I picture her sitting at her keyboard with her Google Alerts on, tearing her hair, going "but dammit, what about the prose!")

I sort of walked into this book with armor. I knew that a secondary character rapes Mercy, and I remembered there was squickiness around it -- I didn't go to refresh myself on the reviews until afterwards. So I was kind of looking out for it, a little more emotionally divorced from the proceedings; either way, this was not going to hit me like a hurricane. So my reaction was never going to be as strong as Hannah's (which is going to be our exemplar reaction for today, sorry Hannah). The things that bothered her weren't the things that bothered me. Well. Not precisely.

I can see the rape happening. In terms of character arc, it was about time for Mercy to either get a kick right in the eyeball or begin the long slow road to invulnerable Suedom. I can only halfway see Tim doing it, because when you are insecure about your social skills, betrayal is much worse than initial dismissal: you're always half-sure someone's playing you anyway, and when it's true, that's all your worst fears come to the surface -- you react hard. So I will tentatively buy that, even though I don't buy his effective nice-geek cover and the sudden revelation of/transmutation into a dude who already had a few murders under his belt. That profile doesn't scan by me. In general, though, I felt that whole characterization a bit sloppy, in that if you'd done that a bit neater it would have really tied into this thing you have going on here way. The hose works, but we could've had five times the water pressure out of that baby.

The other thing I believe the emotional logic of is Adam's initial reaction to it. I'm not sure it's necessarily a sign of domineering possessiveness. Because frankly, if I didn't have these cursed omnivore's teeth I would also rip the faces off people who hurt the ones I love. I do it with my words already. I half-jokingly call it my Mama Bear urge. The emphasis is on bear.

The note struck totally wrong, however, was Adam's reaction to her after he's been shit-talked about withdrawing.

Mercy, throughout, has had a tug-of-war going about agency and control: her agency versus the idea the werewolves in her life have about how one expresses love and care to women. After this three-book issue is brought to a head -- with the rape, which is the ultimate blow to agency and control -- and she's reeling, Adam's pep talk is basically "you've come looking for my help twice now, so you acknowledge we have an interdependence, so you're mine and I will come fetch you if you try to go."

And according to the narrative, she takes it as you have a place here.

There is, in a sort of fucked-up way, that emotional content in there. I will not let you amputate your life and lose things you don't have to lose for the shame of something that wasn't your fault. Except, that's not what he says. He says:

"Ben says you might run. If you do, I will find you and bring you back. Every time you run, Mercy. I won't force you, but... I won't leave or let you leave either. If you can fight that cursed fairy drink, you can certainly overcome any advantage being an Alpha gives me if you really want to. No more excuses, Mercy. You are mine, and I am keeping you."
My independent nature, which would doubtless reassert itself soon, would be outraged by this possessive, arrogant, and medieval concept. But... (265)

What he said is not what the narrative appears to hear. And that reassertion...it doesn't happen.

Fatal breach of three books' worth of characterization ahoy.

The neurosis of abandonment she's fighting right then -- the rationale under which Adam's purported emotional content works -- is widely acknowledged by that narrative to be an implanted one. We see it implanted by the force of deus ex machina magic, in real time, on the page. If her personality is not going to reassert, this calls for a fundamental and permanent change in her personality. If it does, later, this calls for one raging, furious, break-ties-and-drive Mercy once she gets her actual personality back in place. God knows if someone said that to me in a vulnerable place, in a place where my freedom of movement and choice had been restricted so severely? If someone said that to me while I was eating myself up with guilt over the idea that my inability to fight someone off me meant that I had somehow wanted it: "If you can fight that cursed fairy drink, you can certainly overcome any advantage being an Alpha gives me if you really want to"? I would go halfway across the world from that speaker and never come back.

So Briggs creates herself a serious choice: Mercy must change, or the consequences must also rebound and basically take a wrecking ball to Mercy and Adam's relationship.

But the choice doesn't get made.

What we get is neither: a sort of shadow-country wherein she tells herself to buck up and interacts with people approaching normal very quickly, notably acts with confidence very quickly in confrontations both verbal and physical. She's attacked a bit later by someone who tried to kill her, and she doesn't flashback. She reacts like Old-Mercy.

And that, gentle readers, is what makes me disappointed in a book.

You want to punch me? Throw the damn punch. And if the punch breaks your thumb, take your lumps. Hit me and make it count. Ducking the choices you yourself set up is authorial cowardice. And I do not read for cowardice.

Write brave, folks. Write brave or just don't go there.

November 2016

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