50 shades of bad and a few shades of good

50 shades of Grey has been lambasted from here to eternity. I’ll agree that in most cases it has been rightly lambasted. The prose is appalling and the dialogue is cringeworthy (‘Holy crap”, “my inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves”), the plot meanders about forever, the one-dimensional characters… I could (and frequently have) go on at length about this.

I could also rant and rave about the sexist messages and subtext in the book. The fact that it misrepresents BDSM, the fact that Christian breaks their contract by ignoring safewords, the fact that in pretty much every scene of note – including the one where the contract is drawn up – Anna is under the influence of alcohol, the fact that she repeatedly says no, states that she feels like an abuse victim (because she is), that his actions legally count as rape, that there are scenes when she runs away from him in fear, that after she drunk dials him he traces her phone and shows up and gives out to her and won’t let her drink, the fact that he stalks her, threatens her, tells her she can’t run because he will find her, convinces her that his mood swings are her fault etc. etc. etc. All are classic traits of abusive relationships. Like I said I could go on, and maybe I will at a future point, but if you’re interested in these arguments that it portrays an abusive relationship just follow the links in this paragraph. I’m not here today to talk about the bad things though.

No means no!!!

No means no!!!

But we have a tendency to only focus on the negative and, like I said, I don’t think I have anything game-changing to add to that side of the debate. I have a tendency to be cynical so in my bid to be a bit more positive in life I’m going to be controversial here and say that maybe 50 shades of Grey isn’t all bad, there are some (not insignificant) good points that should not be ignored.

  • This a HUGELY successful franchise, a massive money spinner whose popularity has launched the careers of thousands of writers in similar genres and really brought some credibility to self-publishing and ebooks in places like Ireland that haven’t really adopted it like the rest of the world. However, the most heartening thing about the whole phenomenon is that this HUGELY successful story was inspired by a successful woman writer (Stephanie Meyers), written by a woman, adapted for screen by a woman and directed by a women. In a world where industries like writing and publishing and film are traditionally dominated by men (pun intended), and in a world where this infographic rings dishearteningly true, this is a fantastic achievement for women and should be acknowledged as such.
  • This is a franchise written for women. Despite the highly problematic portrayal of relationships in it, and the justified worry that this portrayal may subconsciously influence people into normalising abuse and not recognising it when it occurs, there are still some positives to be gleaned from this relationship. One of my main problems with the porn industry is that it’s all for men. It’s all about men getting off and men enjoying themselves and women get nothing out of it. There is very little aimed at women, very little female sexual empowerment and agency or even very little female sexual representation except for the purposes of giving men orgasms and making them feel all macho and awesome. 50 shades has got women talking about sex and has normalised women’s sexual desires (not the specific desires represented in the book necessarily, but even the fact that we have desires at all seems to have come as a shock to some people). In our incredibly repressive, uptight, reserved society, I see this as a good thing. Porn where women get off too is good, and there is no denying that Anna enjoys some of the sex in the book, it’s just everything else that has her running in fear.
  • It has normalised non “vanilla” sex (to borrow a phrase from the book) and encourages people to explore sex and their own sexuality which I reckon is a good thing. Honesty and open mindedness is always positive, and it has helped dispel some of the notions that people tend to have about those who engage in non-traditional sexual practices. The BDSM is the book’s main hook, but I would caution anyone who intends to use it as a manual. Some of what’s represented in it is decidedly dangerous (don’t tie someone up with cable-ties, seriously, don’t, a trip to the emergency room is not sexy). And to be perfectly honest, none of the sex is that surprising (apart from Christian’s behaviour and refusal to uphold the contract), I’ve read about far more deviant and shocking sexual practices in ancient Roman texts than between the covers of this book so everyone needs to relax about the so-called depravity.
  • This point isn’t exactly positive, it’s more just speculation, but while I believe that we should criticise the book, and scrutinise it, as we should look at all art with a critical eye, a vast amount of the backlash has not been aimed at the book, but rather at the fanbase, mainly because they’re women. This angers me. Though the book gets people talking about sex and normalises women’s desires this is instantly dismissed (by people who usually haven’t read it and are usually men) as ‘Mommy porn.’ What a horribly condescending term! While the abusive relationship has the potential to have a negative influence on some of its fans, a lot of its fans are also sensible enough to realise this and read it as a guilty pleasure, they just enjoy the sex scenes while recognising the disturbed nature of the characters’ interactions. But this ‘Mommy porn’ criticism doesn’t look at the problems in the book, doesn’t look at the book at all. Instead it criticises and demeans women for wanting or doing or enjoying anything sexual or having any sexual agency whatsoever. We saw the same backlash at the Twilight fanbase of teenage girls and we will see it at the next predominantly female franchise despite its quality. Yet you never see this kind of backlash against male fans or male-dominated franchises like action movies or the WWE (which is arguably of equally bad quality). This policing of people’s tastes infuriates me, and while I feel that the abuse in the books needs to be highlighted I will not judge you for reading them or shame you for liking them (though in some cases I will point out why I don’t like them).
  • The sheer volume of the book’s detractors has gotten some people looking at relationships in a new light and has generally made people more aware of abuse, people who might not necessarily have become aware, had they not been exposed to this criticism and dialogue before or even been aware of this dynamic in fiction and in life.
  • And lastly, while I found the book pretty tedious to get through, there are hours of entertainment to be had from ingenious parodies of the series. From 50 shades of tae to 50 sheds of hay, to if the books were written by men, to Ellen Degeneres’  staring in 50 shades of grey, the lego trailer, the musical version, the Steve Buscemi version, the #IrishShadesOfGrey, Ellen Degeneres again – this time making the audiobook, this list of the exact shades of grey (all 50 of them), priceless google image searches, the list goes on. There is something for everyone, those who love it, those who hate it and those who are just looking for a laugh.

50 shades of Grayskull

 

For the record I have not seen the film and have no intention of seeing it. I have read the first book in the trilogy, but slogging through that was a challenge so I didn’t bother with the other two. I’m just waiting for Valentine’s day 2016 so I can go see the Deadpool movie.

On finally finishing Harry Potter

So I finally finished reading the Harry Potter series. I started reading when it first came out, gave up around book five and went back to it last month because I had a long plane journey ahead of me, they seemed like an easy read for that environment and I’ve felt like there was a lot of pressure on me to read them or either justify why I hadn’t finished them (apparently ‘they were getting boring’ is not good enough). So I know I’m late to the party on this one and the internet has already flogged this horse to death but I’m gonna jump in and help give the old nag a good send off.

First of all, to be absolutely clear: I don’t hate the Harry Potter books. Really, I promise I don’t. A lot of fandoms seem to think that “This is not for me” = “I hate the things you like, they’re stupid and you’re stupid for liking them” and this provokes anger. I don’t hate them, initially I really liked them, the attraction just wore off after awhile. This post will probably be dry and uninteresting so I’ve added a load of Harry Potter memes to help lower the tone. Needless to say, spoilers are incoming.

potter-comic-hipster-voldermort Why I gave up the first time round The plots were getting repetitive and formulaic – quirky stuff happens with the Dursleys, school starts, lots of catch up and plot threads teased, go to school for hundreds of pages and conveniently learn the exact spells you’ll need to defeat Voldemort when he shows up again with some overly complicated plot in the last few chapters.

By the time the fourth came out I could tell she was succumbing to one of the symptoms of publishing success – your books turn into cinder blocks. They just get longer and longer. It happened to Stephen King, Iain Banks and George R Martin as well. While the fourth book was actually quite good in terms of pacing the series overall gets really drawn out and there’s an increasing number of scenes of angsty teenagers dawdling about, doing nothing relevant. Then the fifth book was just abysmal.

Part of what annoyed me is that they’re all going through a selfish angsty teenager phase which is fine and realistic but there was no counterbalance, everything got angtsy which can wear on you after several hundred pages. Then they faff about just going from class to class to DA to class and oh my god I hated school and even I wasn’t this angsty and don’t get me started on the end [SPOILER – a certain character fell through a curtain, a bloody curtain, and then a few pages later everyone was talking about how he was dead? I had to re-read the chapter to see what I missed] So I gave up after book 5. These pacing problems get so much worse in books 6 and 7

worldbuilding 

buckbeak

 

there’s not much I can add to the reasons why the time turner was a universe breaking device. But apart from that the whole creation of the wizarding world is a bit slapdash with each book clumsily rewriting and contradicting what went before. For example, why didn’t Peter Pettigrew show up on the mauraders’ map when he was basically living in Ron’s pocket? Also, Harry saw his parents die so why can’t he see thestrals until book 5?

Now please don’t get me wrong, again, some of the details are really good and some of the ideas and spells and devices etc etc etc that she comes up with are really inspired but the world is quite patchy and wizard society as it’s described doesn’t seem sustainable.

The thing that bothered me most is that this is a world where wizards co-exists with humans, except you wouldn’t know it. Surely one of the muggle born kids thought to bring a pen to school? Why do they all use quills, why does no-one have a phone, why does nobody think of using muggle weapons against Voldemort? Why oh why has nobody ever heard of technology? Presumably a lot of these kids have been using it prior to arriving at Hogwarts?

Also, a lot of the concepts had been done before, just as well or even better, magic schools, time travel, ringwraiths (sorry, I mean dementors) weren’t exactly new concepts. This isn’t inherently a bad thing but it meant that when the writing and the plot failed to keep my interest the world itself had to work triple shifts to do so and it didn’t always succeed.

Problems with Hogwarts

Welcome to Hogwarts, there the rules are made up and the points don't matter

This is a pretty dangerous school to be in (forbidden forest, Peeves, troll in the dungeon, a never ending queue of horrific injuries for Madam Pomfrey), health and safety should shut it down and the board would be sued for all they’re worth. It also fails to provide a well rounded education, this is explained a lot better in the Cracked video below but think about it, these kids are removed from traditional education at age 11 and never again learn history, maths, sex ed, anything. Also, the house system is really messed up. Does anyone else think that telling an 11 year old that you’re basically evil and now go live in the basement and talk to snakes might be a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Business Genius In fairness to Rowling, she’s a business genius. But that is one of my problems with the books. It seemed like often she was doing things to sell books rather than to make them better. Telling people that characters are going to be killed off became a bit of a gimmick, I know dozens of people who bought every book at launch just to read the last chapter and see who would die this time. Also, fair play and all for making Dumbledore gay, we need more positive portrayals of gay people in fiction, but she didn’t do that. She didn’t portray him as gay. She mentioned it afterwards in a press conference and not once in the books is he ever openly gay, in fact he’s basically asexual. I know lots of people started to read a lot into his friendship with Grindelwald but that’s just it, they were reading into it, it wasn’t necessarily there. If people didn’t cop it when reading the books before the announcement then you didn’t write it well enough, simple as, I’m all for subtlety but this is not that. If you’re going to make a character gay at least have the courage to show it, don’t shy away from it. At this point she was untouchable, I think having it confirmed in the text would have sent a much stronger message.

Can't read my Potter Face

“How can you call yourself a writer/fantasy fan/human if you haven’t finished Harry Potter?” On a lesser scale is the ‘But you like Lord of the Rings/Star Wars/Insert Media Franchise here, how can you not like Harry Potter?’ This got really wearing after awhile, as if people were questioning my judgement and my very ability to write purely on an issue of personal preference. And if you haven’t figured it out by now I’m stubborn and occasionally pig ignorant so I dug in my heels and decided if that’s how everyone felt about it then I bloody well wouldn’t finish them. Then you have to deal with equally annoying problem of people demanding you justify that decision or that fact that your world doesn’t revolve around these books.

Malfoy - Dungeon

The message I know they’re kids books but the morality is fairly one-dimensional until the last two books where she makes the same attempt at course correction she did with her world building. having a hat tell an 11 year old their destiny is a bit messed up. The good characters are always good, the bad characters are always bad (except for Snape) and the writing kind of ends up very lazy on this part. Also the ‘chosen one’ narrative can be tedious, predictable and boring. It’s a great excuse for Harry not even trying to learn things that can help him defeat Voldemort and getting away with being a dick for much of the time. And the mother’s love thing is nothing short of deus ex machina.

You're a Hairy Wizard

But it’s getting people reading! I’m not wholly convinced about the Harry Potter as a gateway drug to books argument. Sure, a lot of people read Harry Potter who didn’t usually read. Then they stopped. Then maybe years later they picked up Twilight or the hunger games or whatever the YA media darling of the moment was. The people who read a lot growing up and happened to read Harry Potter are the people who would have read a lot anyway without reading Harry Potter.

Also, as much as I love reading and want kids to read more just because it’s popular doesn’t give it a free pass from criticism. See the Twishite series to understand why.

Jehova's Witness - Snake

The romantic subplots I was never convinced by any of the romance in these books. They’re badly written and Ginny is a non-entity. She doesn’t have much of a personality, she seems to just exist as nothing more than a love interest, there’s no chemistry between her and Harry on page or screen. the only time she almost becomes a character in her own right is her function as a plot device in book 2

Dumbledore - gurrl

I liked the books up to a point, I even really enjoyed some of them. A lot of the preceding will sound really bitter but it’s not meant to be. These books just aren’t for everyone, but I did enjoy the first few growing up. I learned a lot about what I do and don’t like from reading them which in turn has helped my own writing. For nostalgia’s sake (and hypocrisy’s sake, while we’re at it) I did one Harry Potter tourist thing in London. Maybe I should be a bit easier on a series that just didn’t live up to it’s hype but it’s hard to stop reading critically if you’re a writer. Having recently finished the books I know I was right to stop when I did. They’re a good story but they have a lot of problems and lets just leave it at that.

DSCF1519

World Book Day

So it was World book day yesterday. I got a bit confused because of the time difference here and almost missed it entirely which is why this post is late. (For those of you who don’t know, I live in China now)

So here is a list of books on/about China that I have downloaded to read for the year that’s in it:

The Journey to the West Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China The Travels of Marco Polo Romance of the Three Kingdoms

 

 

 

I’ve provided Amazon links but a lot of these books, especially the older ones, are available for free on project gutenberg and it’s completely legal.

I haven’t read any yet but I’ll try to review them as I do, I think I’ve got a decent selection of fiction, non-fiction, modern and older texts but feel free to leave recommendations in the comments. Hope everyone had a fantastic World Book Day!

Short Story Sunday: ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ by Paolo Bacigalupi

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I bought this as part of the Humble Bundle months ago. Beacuse it was a lot of books at once it was a while before I got around to reading it. I’ve been dipping in and out of it over the past few weeks. Paolo Bacigalupi is a multi-award winning sci-fi author and it’s easy to see why. This is his debut collection of short stories and ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ was first published in 1999. His stories are original, deep, multi-layered and political. They also feature characters from many different cultures and backgrounds which I loved and you don’t see often enough in science fiction.

However, I found I couldn’t read this book for extended periods of time. It’s quite dense. Worldbuilding is Bacigalupi’s biggest strength but it turns into a weakness as well. ‘A Pocketful of Dharma’ is set in a cyberpunkish version of China told from the point of view of a young street beggar. A new, organic city is growing in the centre and the rich and important are moving there while Jun and his ilk are left on the ever-more squalid streets below relying on the generosity/guilt of tourists to survive. He innocently obtains a data cube that everyone and his mother is after. The data cube turns out to contain the consciousness of the Dalai Lama, who cannot reincarnate until it is destroyed. This is about to cause a war between China, Tibet and several others who all want it for their own ends.

The story is good but so much worldbuilding is crammed into so small a space that I can’t help but feel it needed more room to breathe. Casual references leave you wanting more, a lot more. Making the reader work and not belabouring and tiring out every detail can be a good thing but there is a lot of detail without very much explanation. There’s the character and the socio-economic strata of his world, there’s the city he lives in and the spongy living city he aspires to, there’s the life of the gangs around him, there’s the higher political problems, the technology, and the thumbnail sketches of the various other characters that Jun encounters with their own vague motivations… it’s a lot to take in on every page, so much so that it’s hard to get lost in the story itself, and it’s a good one. The characters also take a back-seat in this story, Jun’s the only one I ever felt was a real character. I have this problem with the worldbuilding in some of his other stories but not the character problem thankfully.

It’s definitely worth reading. It paints a bleak, complex picture of people oppressed by society but that picture is highly imaginative and, though he made me work for it, I’m glad I took the time to read it.

Notable lines: A vast biologic city, which other than its life support would then lie dormant as humanity walked its hollowed arteries, clambered through its veins and mailed memories to its skin in the rituals of habitation.

On Losing Iain Banks

(First published in Three Monkeys Online)

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.
It was just a stage I was going through.”

This is the blurb on the back of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. They are the first words of his I ever read and, at the age of thirteen, I knew I had to continue reading. Nothing was going to stop me. To say it was an eye opener is a bit of an understatement, but I loved it. The plot and characters were sick, twisted, vivid and oh so human behind it all. I’ve read it several times since and have the audiobook on my ipod for nights when I can’t sleep.

Iain Banks is a Scottish author and The Wasp Factory is his first book, published in 1984. He publishes science fiction as Iain M. Banks and (for lack of a better word) mainstream fiction without the ‘M.’ To this day when people ask me what my favourite book is I barely hesitate before I reply “Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks.” While my love for the works of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and a meagre handful of others verges on the obsessive Use of Weapons sticks out. It is the only book, that when I finished reading it, I wrote a letter to the author. I never worked up the guts to send that letter but a few years later it was the first book I ever got signed by the author. I frequently go back and read the first few pages and they never lose their impact:

‘Tell me, what is happiness?’
‘Happiness? Happiness … is to wake up, on a bright spring morning, after an exhausting first night spent with a beautiful … passionate … multi-murderess.’
‘… Shit, is that all?’

This is followed by gorgeous descriptions of a wine glass with veins of light snaking through it and when I read it I’m breathless and excited and ready to write my own fiction just to attempt to reach that level of brilliance.

I’ve always preferred his science fiction to his mainstream fiction. His aliens are more original than any I’ve ever read about before, more than just a re-skinned human. His ‘Culture’ books were so detailed and unique that on more than one occasion in college I toyed with the idea of writing essays about them. Somehow I could never quite convince my lecturers that this was a good move.

The State of the Art is what first got me into short stories. I was quite snobby about them before, thinking they were truncated novels or mere ‘practice’ for aspiring novelists. But the stories Descendent and Road of Skulls were so powerful that I immediately changed my opinion and began my own stuttering attempts at the deceptively complex genre he had opened my eyes to. His mainstream works can never be considered mundane or normal either. They are laced with the surreal and the intensity that marks his fiction. The Bridge is another novel whose opening pages I frequently return to when I’m feeling fatigued by this writing lark. I can’t say anything more about it without spoiling it but if sci-fi isn’t your thing, or if your stomach is a bit too weak for The Wasp Factory, go read The Bridge.

Only a few days ago, on the third of April, Iain Banks announced that he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the gallbladder and likely has less than a year to live. His novel Quarry will be his last. He has not ruled out chemotherapy to extend his life but it seems unlikely that he will. In his usual dark humour he has asked his partner to become his widow and the two are on their honeymoon now. Well wishers can leave messages for him on his website. I still can’t quite process this information. Even though I only met him for one brief, wonderfully surreal moment, I feel like I know him. I get this way about a lot of authors and I imagine it must be the same way other people feel about actors or pop singers they obsess over. But after reading so much of his work over the years, it’s had such a big influence on me that I can’t help but feel like someone close to me is slipping away.

No author has challenged my perceptions of writing as much as Iain Banks. From an early age he cemented my belief that the literary fiction VS genre fiction divide is superficial at best. He writes across genres and all his books carry the same intensity, the same oddness and the same detail that marks all his work.

I was already aware that certain books were not considered ‘proper’ to read or as worthwhile as others. Some friends in school laughed at me when I read Terry Pratchett, they said the covers were babyish. I was a swot so many eyebrows were raised when I sat down the back of the class with copies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy instead of Penguin’s classics. My Granny was forever buying me Jane Austen novels. I admit that I sometimes felt ashamed and embarrassed about reading these kinds of books but try as I might I still find Jane Austen incredibly tedious. I sat an exam on her in college without ever finishing one of her books (and passed quite comfortably). Nothing ever stuck with me as much as speculative fiction. Iain Banks was the first author who proved to me unequivocally that there need be no gap between genre and literary. Each can be as fun and as deep as the other. Since then I’ve never been ashamed of liking something, even things traditionally perceived as low culture. At the same time I don’t disdain literary fiction as being pompous and plotless. I enjoy them both and I’m glad I encountered Banks’ fiction at such a young age.

One of the things that first endeared him to me were the critics’ quotes he chose to include in the opening pages of The Wasp Factory:

‘Perhaps it’s all a joke, meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish’ – The Times

‘A silly, gloatingly sadistic and grisly yarn… bit better written than most horror hokum but really just the lurid literary equivalent of a video nasty’ – Sunday Express

‘No masterpiece and one of the most disagreeable pieces of reading that has come my way in quite a while… Enjoy it I did not’ – Sunday Telegraph

‘A repulsive piece of work and will therefore be widely admired. Piles horror upon horror in a way that is certain to satisfy those readers who subscribe to the currently fashionable notion that Man is vile’ – Evening Standard

‘Read if you dare’ – Daily Express

He had the sense of humour to know that his work would be different and he embraced these reactions and kept writing anyway. There are a lot of writers I enjoy but very few I look up to. Banks is one of them and his books have been on my shelf for as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer. I don’t claim to love everything he wrote. For example Dead Air wasn’t my kind of thing and Transition had some brilliant moments and characters but, what I feel was a flawed execution of the premise. That being said, ten years from now, when someone asks me what my favourite book is I bet good money that my reply will still be “Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks.”

REVIEW: My Summer Reads

So I recently spent a week abroad. I don’t do so good on sun holidays because I burn easily enough in Ireland and I like doing stuff instead of lying down, which I do quite frequently at home for free. Prior to leaving I was told I could only bring five books to keep me going because the bags would be too heavy, they’d cost extra, I’d make someone else carry them, blah blah blah. So I brought four books and my kindle (fight the system!). Here are some micro-reviews of the ones I read.

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.

13147230This is a Pratchett’s first foray into sci-fi since he wrote Strata back in 1981. It is about parallel universes and the travel between them. Pratchett and Baxter manage to get around the complicated confusing plots of certain other authors I could mention by making these worlds uninhabited by humans. Our earth is a freak or ‘Joker’ earth where humans evolved. Across the Long Earth sentience is quite rare but there are lots of interesting versions of the world out there and the absence of humans lets the authors explore more interesting topics, such as what happens once resources become infinite? The technology to travel, or ‘step’ to these other earths is very very cheap. What happens when anyone can get gold or land or anything they need right next door for free? And next door to that, and that… The book ends on a hell of a cliffhanger though so while I’m waiting for the next one I think I’ll have to read more of this Baxter guy.

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

I’ve meant to read more of Palahniuk since I read Fight Club. Marla Singer is more messed up in the book than she is in the film but she doesn’t hold a candle to Shannon McFarland. Invisible Monsters deals with a supermodel who becomes severly disfigured and her various methods for dealing (or failing to deal) with both this and her pre-existing insecurities. There are plenty of twists and funny moments, particularly with Shannon’s parents. The book deals a lot with reinvention and plays with identity and gender – particularly with transgender characters and the hyper-sexualisation of the modelling world. Another major theme is self-destruction and self-mutilation. Because of her deformity she is quite literally the silent protagonist. It’s no Fight Club but definitely worth a read (particularly the remix version) .

WARNING: I can take a lot of gore in books – not so much in films, but in books usually nothing is too gruesome for me – and there’s a scene in this book that made me physically ill. I had to stop reading get some fresh air and cancel my plans for the evening. Not for the faint hearted.

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard

This one was a bit of a struggle. The premise was great: global warming has been accelerated exponentially due to solar flares and the equator has become uninhabitable. The book follows a team of scientists at the borders of the uninhabitable zone studying the ecology and trying to find a way to delay or at least document the advance of the floods. This is hard sci-fi and is very well written for the first half. The narrator is compelled by this drowning world and the book has quite a few Heart of Darkness moments as the environment’s devolution parallels that of the characters. However the imagery is endless (there are only so many ways to describe a lagoon before it gets boring) and while beautifully written the plot stagnates at points. He spends quite a lot of time hammering home his themes as well which makes the already introspective character a bit too detached for me. I reckon if it had been told in the first person he could have avoided most of these pitfalls. I stopped in the middle to read other books so when events accelerated near the end I found it hard to get into again. But it’s only 170 pages long so definitely worth a try.

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

So after all the hype around Slaughterhouse Five I don’t know what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t a war novel. The Western World obsesses over WWII to the neglect of all other tragedies so I definitely wasn’t thrilled to be reading yet another book about it. I’ve read a lot of excellent holocaust narratives and this one starts out very blandly. The first chapter is a bit tedious but then the time travel and alien abduction starts. This has nice parallels with Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil as both stories try to discover new ways to talk about trauma and the answer unanimously seems to be evasion and surrealism. It’s an excellent book that plays with narrative conventions. Now I finally know where the phrase ‘So it goes’ comes from and why so many people get it as a tattoo. Vonnegut repeats this phrase to provoke every emotion under the sun in reaction to death, highlighting how omnipresent it is.

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

I only got one chapter into this on the plane home so my opinion is still pending. But so far it’s pretty interesting. Standard enough sci-fi opening (until a bit at the very end of the chapter which makes me think this one’s going to be pretty low on the Mohs scale) but told in a very compelling way. If it’s any indication of the way the rest of the book is written I’ll stick with him for the long haul.

Game of Thrones Fatigue

So Season 2 is drawing to a close. What have we learned? Peter Dinklage is awesome (not that we needed to be reminded), this season is much less anchored without Sean Bean, and boobies solve everything.

Sean Bean Death Statistics

When will the madness end?

Awhile ago I wrote a post about prostitution in the first few books basically trying to come up with a possible explanation for the sheer volume of violent sex scenes, however, try as I might, I couldn’t come up with an explanation for the addition of even more violent sex scenes (almost exclusively against women) in the TV show other than more boobs = higher ratings = more money to roll around in. Sex may sell but the lack of male nudity is particularly vexing, at least balance it out HBO!

At the time I was planning to write a post reviewing each episode of season 2, I even mentioned it in the comments, because I was still caught up in the excitement of the New Big Thing. Way back in the distant past of last summer I was all for Game of Thrones (or GoT as all the cool cats are calling it). It was exam season so in an attempt not to study I turned to TV for a distraction. Actual real life TV, not internet TV (desperate measures for desperate times).

I watched all of season 1 as it aired and immediately bought the first four books off amazon. I read them all over the summer, the per cent read on my kindle crept up ever so slowly. I took breaks to read other books. Had one tantrum after a certain event and stopped reading for a while, got bored on several occasions and took holidays from Westeros. Then my cousin kindly lent me Dance with Dragons. I couldn’t hack it though, reading it in bed was a dangerous past time, one slip and I could have broken my nose. So I got the kindle edition instead. Some day soon murders will be committed with the hardback edition and bloodied copies will be held up in plastic evidence bags in courtrooms (just how George would have wanted it).

Overall the whole process of discovering TV show, getting really excited, reading all the books and getting sick of the whole thing took about 5 months(ish).

Now that push has come to shove as it were, I can’t bring myself to review each season 2 episode individually. I’ve tried watching and can’t. A few minutes into the second episode I found myself looking wistfully at the ironing and started tackling that instead. This is the only way they can keep me interested, if I watch them while doing something marginally less interesting; the flat has never been cleaner! I think I’m suffering from overexposure. After a summer long binge on slowly declining prose I’m sick of it (quite literally, in bed with a throat infection today, maybe I’m allergic).

The problems I have with GoT are x-fold (x because I can’t be bothered to count and I reserve the right to add more reasons as more books and episodes are released).

  1. It should have been a trilogy The first two books (in my opinion) are the strongest and the most action packed. Then they get gradually more dragged out as they fall into a wormhole and time is warped so that nothing happens for hundreds of pages. In Dance with Dragons sweet FA happens until the end, and even then, shocking deaths and gritty plot twists are no longer that shocking or gritty the 20th time they happen.
  2. Too much repetition this is really a sub-complaint from number 1 as I believe this is a consequence of the series being stretched over 7 books rather than a nice neat trilogy.  In every book one character is travelling across a continent. Seen one seen ’em all. I don’t mind reading about the few interesting things that happen on these journeys but there’s only so many campfires and tired voyagers I can take before it all gets a bit samey. A lot of stuff repeats itself in the series but I’ll stick with this example because (MINOR SPOILER INCOMING) by the time Brienne sets out on her journey to find Sansa (one of her many treks across the continent) the trope gets completely absurd. We know even before she begins that the whole thing is futile because, by virtue of Sansa’s POV we know Brienne is heading in the complete wrong direction! The whole way along we know that these chapters are pretty much pointless. Now semi-interesting stuff happens at the end of Brienne’s plotline but the entire thing drags out for ages beforehand telling us virtually nothing. Her whole plotline could have been compressed without loosing anything (/SPOILER)
  3. Gritty gets dull without substance The many deaths are no longer shocking. They get fairly predictable and they don’t stick. We know it’s coming so we’ve gotten over it before it happens and quite often once a character is killed they’ll be back later. A quick guide to GoT deaths: if you don’t actually see a character die – as in there is no way they can physically recover and the viewpoint character sees them actually take their last breath – then they’re probably not dead. And if they definitely are dead I’m going to bet by book 7 there’ll be a 50% chance they all come back as white walkers. It’s hard to mourn characters once you recognise this pattern. The last time a death surprised me was (one of the many) at the red wedding. Gritty ‘realism’ can only take you far. If your prose and characters can’t carry it then it becomes a gimmick like everything else and I believe Martin’s characters are less and less capable of picking up the slack. Also, having read a lot more of the books than I had when I wrote that last post, I no longer stand by my vehement defense of Martin’s use of sex as realistic, plot relevant and useful to explore characters. 

    A concise summary of books 1-5

  4. Too much is kept behind the scenes In a series where incresingly little happens – or as a former GM of mine said ‘events happen, but the general plot just trundles along at a snails pace‘ – Martin can’t afford to be coy and maddeningly obscure about absolutely everything. I’ll never complain that nothing happens in Westeros, I just get angry at reading more and more details of feast preparations, when these feasts largely serve as exposition to try and get me to memorise thousands and thousands of minor characters, while at the same time so much is actually happening just never described. Events at the tower of joy are only ever hinted at but in away that make them seem pivotal. Too much exposition (and sexposition) spaces out the interesting stuff until he finally adds insult to injury in Dance with Dragons when fascinating, exciting and plot essential events finally happen during a feast in Winterfell (when *spoiler* eats *spoiler*) and it’s barely referred to! The meal is described in the usual boring detail and it was only afterwards on the Westeros forums I learned all the details. Now one or two events like this are fine. This subtlety encourages speculation and keeps his fan base loyal and adds some much-needed depth. I don’t give a fiddler’s what they eat or wear but I want more than occassional hints at the bigger picture.
  5. We’ve Stagnated I’ve already gone on for longer than I intended but by the end of book 5 most characters haven’t moved very far and don’t look like they’re going to move any time soon. The next few books will either be incredibly exciting as he plays catch up to get all the characters in roughly the same place and to fullfill all the many themes he’s been setting up and plot events he foreshadowed then ignored. Or else they will continue in the way they have been going: with very little happening on-screen/page and a hasty wrap-up crammed into the last hundred pages.

I Quit

So I took part in the GoodReads Reading Challenge last year and without thinking I signed up again this year. It is only now, five months into it, that I realise exactly why I didn’t like it:

  • I already read quite a lot. I don’t need some pseudo pressure to read more
  • Gamification works for some things, such as study, exercise, things that aren’t traditionally fun (or at least things I don’t find fun). However, when I turn something I already enjoy into a game it sucks all the fun out of it. Instead of just enjoying what I’m reading I keep thinking ‘I must update my status now’ or ‘I’d better read quicker to catch up.’
  • It’s not an accurate measurement of how much you read. I could breeze through comic books at the rate of knots (or whatever the measurement is for speed of page turning) and add a few books a week. Or I could sit down to a behemoth like Ulysses or Atlas Shrugged and it would take forever and a day but still only count as one book.
  • I tend to read a lot of unpublished stuff. I read a lot of stuff for writer friends such as novels, poems and stories. These take up a lot of time because not only am I reading them because they’re awesome but I am also trying to help improve them in any way I can so I have to read slower, pay more attention. These cannot be added to the challenge because they are unpublished therefore do not have ISBNs.
  • I read a lot of other things that don’t count. I read poetry online, but it may only be one or two poems rather than an entire collection. I read lots of essays and journals, none of which count either.
  • In the process of editing my class’s anthology I read it in its entirety about seven times and I read lots of sections more often than that. This took up a lot of time and I don’t feel like spending more time on it adding it to the challenge seven separate times.

I didn’t make the target of 100 books I set myself last year because I was reading so many essays and journals for my finals. Today I saw I was 14 books behind the challenge this year (already) and I know I’ve been reading plenty. It annoyed me. I thought of all the books I had to read to catch up and it felt like a chore. And the day reading becomes a chore is the day I’m doing something radically wrong. So I quit.

Don’t get me wrong, gamification can be great technique if you’re trying to develop a new habit but it’s been a habit for me since I was old enough to read. So I’m going to continue reading for pure pleasure (over 90% of the time) and occasionally for research (which can also be fun, because I’m that boring). And, if I get really desperate I’ll divert my gamification efforts towards exercise instead.

A Cautionary note on “Historical” Fiction

There is one important word in the phrase ‘Historical Fiction.’

Clue: That word is NOT ‘Historical.’

If you want to learn history pick up a text-book, or a first hand account, or watch a documentary. Historical Fiction is fiction, first and foremost.

I won’t deny that some historical fiction novels are extremely accurate while others show brief glimpses of accuracy but you should not come to the genre actively seeking enlightenment on what life was like ‘back then.’

What it is good at is giving you an interest in a particular aspect of history, making you want to learn about certain events or times. For example, I read the first two books in Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series and decided I wanted to know more about Genghis Khan so I looked him up online and I went to the library. At no point did I take Iggulden’s word as fact until I had it confirmed by a historian.

Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing, far from it. I love the Conqueror series but I’m also aware that it’s primary objective is to entertain, not educate. Iggulden is better than most when it comes to historical accuracy (Although he learned it after his Julius Caesar saga)

Here’s a few quick thoughts on historical fiction and some ways it differs from other kinds of fiction:

1. Character:

there’s lots of character driven fiction out there but for historical fiction the centrality of characters is imperative (doesn’t that sound awful fancy?).  The thing with historical fiction is we already know how it’s going to end – except in books that use only a historical setting with completely original characters and plot. if we don’t know a quick search on BBC history can tell us the answer. We know Brutus killed Caesar, we know Genghis invaded China, we know Rome won the Punic wars or that the North won the American civil war, we know that America ‘won’ the space race (Although I maintain that’s because they decided what constituted winning).

Therefore Historical fiction cannot keep us in suspense about the larger plot, especially if the main character is one of the more famous participants in these events. The only remedy for this is to make the characters extremely vivid, make it easy to relate to them, make us care about them so that we grow to care about the specifics of what happens to them. The subplot or romantic interest becomes important, even the details become more vivid. Yes Brutus killed Caesar in the senate house but hat was each of them feeling? How aware was Caesar of what was going to happen? Does the author make Brutus an assertive paragon of the republic bravely doing what had to be done or is he a cowardly senator pressured into it?

All of these are choices made by the author, they are what make it fiction.

2. Learn your history:

Just because the reader should not expect to learn any history doesn’t meant he author shouldn’t either. I’m not denying that people learn stuff historical fiction, I’m just saying it’s difficult to separate the history from the fiction.

actual inaccuracies Vs. Picking a version of history

author’s have to change stuff. They use their own interpretations, they pick specific versions of history or sides of a debate, they take advantage of periods when history is a little fuzzy or biased, sometimes they leave bits out to streamline the narrative, sometimes they make slight alterations to either a person’s character or an event to fit the story they are trying to tell, sometimes they fill in the gaps in history. All of these are choices. To make a choice you must first be informed on the subject.

There is NO excuse for shoddy research.

For example: Iggulden changed/fabricated a  lot of Caesar’s early childhood so that he cold set up his relationship with Brutus and explain their opposition more clearly. That’s fine. Getting simple things wrong, things which do not affect the plot in any way such as the  typical menu at a Roman feast, is just plain lazy(I’m looking at you Napier).

3. characters should not educate other characters!

I cannot state this enough but author’s should not try and catch the audience up or set the scene by having characters monologue the bleeding obvious at other characters (Yeah, I just used monologue as a verb. Got a problem with that?)

I mean that characters shouldn’t have a conversation where they explain to each other things about their world that they should already know by virtue of living in that world. No generals should not explain the structure of the army to each other, I’d have hoped they learned that before they became generals. Characters from the same city/nation/faction should not explain their customs to each other. Basically any conversation that starts with ‘as you already know…’ should set off warning bells.

But however will the audience understand? 

Forgive me if I’m wrong but isn’t that what narrators are for? Telling the story, explaining events, drawing the reader in, all that type of thing? John Stack has an excellent way of fitting this kind of exposition into dialogue without making it sound contrived. He has two main characters, one is a soldier in the legions from Rome. The other is a Greek and is captain of one of the first vessels in Rome’s tiny navy. In this context it would make sense that the characters have to explain stuff to each other as they work together. One doesn’t understand sea tactics, the other doesn’t get footsoldiers. One doesn’t understand Roman customs, the other Greek.

Please, if your characters explain stuff to each other make sure they have good reason to do so. If not ask yourself’ would it be better to leave it to my narrator to divulge this piece of information?’ Or, better yet ‘does my reader actually need to know this?’

I like historical fiction, there’s plenty of good novels out there and it’s a great way to get interested in history and discover things that you might otherwise have never heard about but remember that it’s first and foremost about the story.

Prostitution in Game of Thrones

There has been much criticism of Game of Thrones, especially of the TV series. It’s been accused of being sexist, racist, sexist, too violent, sexist and sexist again. Now most of this critisim has been levelled at the HBO adaptation so I’ve studiously ignored it but I was at a friend’s house the other day and she said she’d just finished reading the first book. While she thought it was good, it was far too sexist for her tastes. I challenged her on this and her response ran somehitng like ‘Oh the prostitution! it’s everywhere! so many prostitutes, is nobody safe?!’ only less hysterical.

So i decided it’s time to weigh in. I’m half-way through a storm of Swords part 2 so this will only really about the books up until there, not the TV show as that’s covered in more detail elsewhere.

SPOILERS AHOY!

The show added a lot of prostitution that wasn’t really in the original but I found the original quite feminist. Look at characters like Arya Stark, Daenerys Targareyn or Brienne Whatshername, especially in the later books, and it’s clear that there a numerous incidents of strong powerful women being progressive and assertive and all that good stuff in a world that doesn’t necessairly cater for this.

The negative first: Yes there is quite a lot of sex in the books. So? sex on it’s own is not a problem and I never felt that it was used gratuitously. Sexuality is used usually for plot points (i.e. when Sansa gets her period she’ll be forced to marry and sleep with Joffrey), to create a specific atmosphere (How creeped out were you when Robert Arryn was still breastfeeding at age 9?), or for character development (see the numerous scenes between Danerys and Drogo). So where does the negative come into it? Yeah, all the prostitutes are women, the men were too busy dying in various wars to branch out into prostitution. There are scenes of sexual domination over women and men often brag about it to other men because that’s what they do in testorone fueled war filled society. But at no point did I feel the narrator was condoning any of this behaviour, the only time sexual objectification of women felt normalised (for me at least) was when a particular character was normalising it. In this way we learned more about that character and his (or her) world view. Yes there are scenes of violent sex but for them not to take place at all would be implausible. Even in modern warfare and modern civilisation sex is a weapon and a tool and rapes occur all the time. In a society that is arguably more violent than ours it just wouldn’t be believable if it didn’t take place. G. R. R. Martin never claims that this is a desirable state of being.

The positive : As I mentioned there’s strong women (I might cover that in more detail some other time), the sex isn’t always a bad thing, and the prostitutes aren’t crawling out of the walls. It’s more the references to them that are everywhere. Frequently men are bragging about sexual exploits that probably never happened. Again we are learning about the characters themselves, this kind of dialogue doesn’t necessarily denigrate the women in and of itself. In fact there are occasions where it makes more of a show of the man who said it. But what about the poor prostitutes? I hear you ask.  Don’t they get a voice at all? Isn’t pushing them into the background as merely a conversation starter for men just as bad as sexually objectifying them? Well it would be if that was what was happening but it isn’t. In a world dominated by swords chivalry and patriarchy many women use their sexuality as an extremely effective weapon. Look at Cersei Lannister, her incestuous relationship with Jaime was born from love but also allows her to ensure the succession of the throne is entirely in Lannister hands. She was wed to a man she did not love and rather than weep and become a broken woman she took control of her sex life, refused to have his children and proceeds to gain more and more control over King Robert, then King Joffrey as the series progresses. She is effectively Queen of the land. Look at Daenerys Targareyn, how she grows as a character through her self affirming marriage with Drogo. One of the first positive acts in her journey to become Queen is loosing her virginity. Both sold as brides, virtually prostituted to gain power for their male relatives, yet they turn the situation around and claim the power for themselves. The Game of Thrones has room for Queens as well as Kings, and these Queens are just as well equipped using their sexuality in nefarious manipulative and even joyous life affirming ways. Even when it boils down to the prostitutes themselves Daenarys is virtually sold to Khal Drogo, Chataya is a pretty smooth business lady, Alayaya is shown as intelligent and kind, teaching herself to read, even Shae becomes a very important character despite some uncertainty over her motives in being with Tyrion (He pays her wages after all). The fact that Tyrion’s first wife was a prostitute turns out to be hugely important to his character development but again, I did not feel that the girl was necessarily portrayed as beaten down and exploited. She got paid for what she did and paid well, she chose to enter into it and Martin even tells s the story through his voice so that the violent sexual domination that followed is more of a psychological of profile of Tyrion’s inferiority complex than anything else. The girl is removed from the violence itself in this detached account, the narrative did not revel in it.

The setting : Once Upon A Time Tolkien became the god of all that is fantasy literature. And it was then decreed that all fantasy can only take place in a homogenous middle ages European society with magic thrown in. I think it was Ben Yahtzee Crowshaw who blamed Tolkien for the fact that the phrase ‘Standard Fantasy Setting’ can now be uttered without the slightest hint of irony. I mentioned the setting once or twice earlier in the post and I’d like to analyze it here. Despite all the ideology of fantasy as  genre where anything can happen it still has to be believable. That’s why, when author’s throw in tropes like magic, they tend to set their stories in a recognisable place where humans also believed in magic. hence the domination of the medieval from where people legitimately believed this stuff could happen. Along with that belief comes the limited opportunities for women etc.

I want to look at how this specifically functions in Game of Thrones though. Martin’s book is, above all else, political. it’s a character driven struggle for power and dominance over the rest of the land. To fit in all the violence and intrigue and to tie in with what most fantasy fans believe it makes sense that they’re fighting for is a Kingship. Now in a land like this the army and formation fighting is necessary. History has shown that facing this kind of weaponry armour, arms, stamina etc. are required, it takes a hardy bunch of lads. Women genetically speaking are not predisposed to develop the kind of muscle necessary and in societies like this they were not often given the chance to, more on that in a minute. (However Martin includes several female warriors and leaders: Danaerys, Brienne, The free folk beyond the wall, the leader of one of Tyrion’s wild hordes is a woman – So Martin does accept that women are just as good as men on the battle field before anyone gets angry about that). The men dominate in the ranks however, and frankly that’s because most of them are going to get killed. When all the men die the population needs to replenish itself so that’s one major reason why women are largely absent from the frontline in this series, logically speaking you need more women than men to reproduce quickly. Also in a society that has so many wars and conflicts that at this point I’m beginning to lose track, it’s natural that the vast majority of that societies’ wealth will be spent on wars. therefore, no universities. The careers for the common people are limites to trades. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, that sort of thing. A lot of these trades involve quite heavy physical labour that quite frankly is difficult and dangerous after about the sixth month of pregnancy, why are you pregnant? Oh yeah, because everybody died. However some women do not become attached or tied down, and even the ones that do often have careers in this world. How many landladies, female innkeepers, blacksmith, cooks  etc. are scattered throughout the books? Some of the women who are prostitutes are clearly doing it because they want to, look at Chataya’s in the later books.

Yes there is a lot of prostitution and un-consensual sex but in a series based around a throne, therefore an aristocracy, women are valued for breeding, preserving lines, purity etc. With purely logical reasoning it’s no surprise that the story Martin set out to write requires women’s sexuality has paramount importance to the plot. It simply wouldn’t be believable that a land with this kind of psyche wouldn’t have prostitutes. I think Martin handles his female characters admirably and for me, even the prostitutes have become some of the most memorable characters of the series.

Postscript: Let us remember that there are no equal opportunities for men in Westeros either. I have yet to hear someone saying that it’s sexist that all the men are conscripted into armies, sent off to war and killed before most of them get through puberty.