Distpatches from Abroad: Mansplaining

“Do you know about mansplaining?” asked the man I was sharing a cab with.

I wondered if the cab was moving too fast to jump out of. But then I’d be stuck in the middle of 6 lanes of Bangkok traffic in 110 degree heat. That was probably worse than a stranger mansplaining mansplaining to me. Probably. “Yes,” I said cautiously.

“I was just about to lecture you on American politics,” (we had been talking politics; he was British, I’m American) “but I thought of the article I just read and I thought I shouldn’t.”

“Um.” It’s a toss up what I hate more: talking about American politics and Trump or the American obsession with guns to non-Americans.

“It would have been so fun. I wish I had never read the article.”

“Is that the attraction of it, do you think?” I asked, somewhat recklessly. Yes, he had resisted mansplaining once and didn’t seem too upset, but I didn’t know him, and who knows what kind of abusive garbage he might spew? But here was a chance to get it from the horse’s mouth, from a man who had brought it up and didn’t seem hostile.

“It’s great to have a captive audience. And women are so polite, they always look interested and it’s a great way to pass the time,” he said cheerfully.

I changed my assessment of his hostility. (My British coworker, when I told her this story, said she thought there might have been a cultural misunderstanding there, that he was probably saying it tongue in cheek. I maintain that even if it was, it was still a hostile thing to say.)

“Hmm.” I sort of desperately tried to make small talk (the code in sharing cabs with strangers seems to be either you talk or you don’t talk. The lapsed conversation feels much more awkward) until I realized was doing the gendered task of keeping the conversation going. I stopped. The conversation lapsed.

I guess he wasn’t very good at conversation now that the crutch of mansplaining had been taken away from him.


Rose Under Fire meets Scatter, Adapt, and Remember

A few things came into my head tonight that I thought might be interesting to others.

First, I recently read the Book Smugglers’ review of Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein because Code Name Verity was so good and because I have no intention of reading her new book, but at the same time I also wanted to know more about it and readers’ reactions to it. (I don’t read Holocaust fiction. If I read about the Holocaust, my preference is non-fiction because the actual events are so horrific I cannot immerse myself in fiction without thinking about the real people who survived or did not survive what other people did to them. Actually, I generally can’t read fiction about war, US slavery, genocide, ethnic cleansing, famines or rape for the same reasons. I read non-fiction on these topics judiciously and sparingly and only when I have enough spoons.) This is what Thea of the Book Smugglers had to say at the end of her review (bold mine):

Rose Under Fire is one hell of a book. It’s a powerful, emotionally resonant historical novel about remembering and about surviving, and I truly appreciate and value that. That said, it’s also a story about a war that ended nearly 70 years ago. It’s also a story narrated by a beautiful, young, privileged, white girl who literally flies into a terrible situation. Please understand that I am not disparaging or arguing against the value of the rich canon of literature about the Holocaust, or the set of circumstances facing heroine Rose. I am simply saying this: there are so many wars, atrocities, even genocides that have happened in the last 70 years, and that are still happening now. Those truths and those stories are hardly represented today – much less in YA literature. And perhaps this doesn’t belong here in this review, but it’s something I am acutely conscious of, and I vow to do as much as I can to change this. Because I am inspired by Rose’s story and by this book, because I think it’s important to talk, to remember, and to experience that truth through storytelling, I vow to read and review books from other, more contemporary wars, from characters and authors other than that of the white, the privileged, the American and Western European. (I think I’ll start with Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, or A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah…)

So, there’s that, which I totally agree with.

I’m also reading Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz. I’m up to the section on famines. The author brings up the Irish Potato Famine, the famine of the Great Leap Forward in China, and the famine in Greece during Nazi occupation in WWII. And I’m conflicted. Why those three famines? One very well known to Western readers, one less well known (to me, China) and one slightly obscure (again to me, Greece), and all also 70 years behind us. What about the North Korean famine and the ongoing food aid the country receives to this day? Or Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia? (Like Thea, I feel I have to make the disclaimer. Just apply hers here, too.) The author does not tell us the reason she picked those three famines to discuss.

She goes on to say that mobility, food aid and sustainable use of agricultural land are essential to preventing famines and that “Famines and their accompanying pandemics are problems that we’ve been trying desperately to solve for hundreds of years.” (p 113). And that last part is where I disagree, where I think she dodged her own thesis. Famines are created. They are created by political will, either as the intended objective (as I understand it: North Korea, Stalin’s Great Famine, the Greek famine mentioned in the book) or as the unintended but acceptable (as collateral damage) effect of a different objective (The Great Leap Forward, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, the Irish Potato Famine). Some people may have been trying desperately to solve the problem of famine; others have deliberately pursued famine as a means to an end.

These two reading experiences came together for me and reminded me, once again, that it is SO hard for us to confront the atrocities that are happening right now, in our lifetimes, and it is especially easy when the people suffering Don’t Look Like Us, for a value of “us” that is the dominant one.

How many movies and books have been made in the US about the Holocaust? Compare that to how many books and movies, with the same popular appeal and reach, have been made about US slavery? We in the US live with the after-effects of slavery every day. It is inherent in our gun laws, in who can easily vote, in whose bodies are a battleground, who has access to education and health care, in every aspect of our laws and social institutions. The Holocaust was a terrible thing. Many people continue to live with its after-effects. But it is easier to say it’s over, the Nazis lost, besides, they were German anyway and that’s far away and long ago. If we looked, really looked at the legacy of slavery in this country, we would have to admit it’s not over and it’s not long ago.

I don’t have answers. I have questions. I struggle almost every day with the knowledge that my electronics, clothing and food were produced by slave labor–much of it the labor of children. I struggle with sexism and racism and so many more issues.

Like Thea I want there to be more books about all these things. Even if I personally am not going to read them, because at least they’d be part of our world view, part of the discourse, part of what’s in the public eye.

Classic Dr. Who: The Spider Planet

The Spider Planet series has not aged well. On the other hand, Cloud Atlas also had a white guy playing an Asian guy, so…we haven’t progressed much in the 40 years since then?

It’s a shame there’s so much racism and sexism in these, as they’re the last John Pertwee series, with a storyline that carries over a bit into the Tom Baker era. Besides the casting, there’s the, spoiler, Tibetan who is really a timelord who has the answer to everything, the othering and appropriation of Buddhist meditation, and the familiar all-white future of humanity. Someone actually says something like, stay home, this is men’s work. Also, for some reason this episode made me really want to know why only women are wearing skirts in the future. It seems as likely that both men and women wear skirts, no one wears skirts or only men wear skirts, but somehow it’s always women. Why?

My favorite scene–gesture really–comes near the end when the doctor admits he didn’t think of taking the blue crystal from Metebelis 3 as stealing. He touches one finger to the corner of his mouth and his face is full of rueful acknowledgement of his faults and it’s just kind of amazing. He already knows this is the end of this incarnation and it’s there in his face.

Pertwee and Baker have always been my favorite doctors. Looking back it’s because they are older and their faces are full of that life experience, and expressive of it. And the clothes. Pertwee had panache: velvety jackets, frilly collars and cuffs, great capes. Baker had a schtick, always in the coat, hat and scarf. As a kid, the scarf delighted me. I’m looking forward to see what Peter Capaldi does with the doctor.

In other news, I will never be done writing my synopsis. And writing my synopsis might lead to re-writing my query letter and then I’ll never be done with that either. Sigh. I really would like to be writing a novel again.

By the time you read this, I’ll be on a writing retreat. Writing. I hope.

Classic Dr. Who: The Green Death

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’ve been watching some classic Dr. Who to remind me of what I used to love so much about the show. I’ve pretty much hated new Who since Donna. Why did she have to be assertive and screechy? Why was the fact that she was not-typically attractive linked to her not being romantically attracted to the doctor? (Unlike those more conventionally attractive companions, who were blond or slim and feminine even while saving the world and disgustingly infatuated. Please.) And finally why the hell didn’t they let her die the hero’s death that she wanted instead of consigning her to her dead-end hopeless life where she didn’t even have a memory of all she’d become? In other words, I stopped being able to ignore the writers’ and producers’ misogyny. And it’s only gone down from there, until each episode of new Who is a torture of waiting for the moment I, as a lifelong female fan of Dr. Who, will be betrayed. I keep watching, hoping they will prove me wrong, and they keep meeting my low expectations.

Sometimes I think the writers of new who think they’re writing for The Highlander: There can be only one! No one can be as smart, resourceful or interesting as the doctor and there certainly isn’t any space for another timelord any more, even when the convoluted logic of the show would allow for it. Like that episode with the doctor’s daughter–they killed her off real quick didn’t they? And don’t even get me started on Clara. It’s the wasted potential that gets me the angriest.

Anyway, this wasn’t intended as a post about misogyny, but about how so many social concerns have remained the same over the 50 years of the show’s history. (Although misogyny is one of those things.)

Take The Green Death from 1973. It was produced either just prior to or smack in the middle of the 1973 oil crisis and during the economic uncertainty of the decade.  The series takes place at the site of an old coal mine in Wales, where laid-off coal miners are protesting the loss of their jobs. Concern about fossil fuels, unemployment and problems with the economy sound familiar? The facility is being used for a new oil refining process that is being touted as clean and having minimal waste byproducts. UNIT is called in to investigate some suspicious green deaths, and ultimately is ordered by the prime minister to protect the site/blow up the mine, against the advice of scientists, to contain the infection. Profit and productivity are king, with death, pollution and the environment afterthoughts that can be cleaned up later.

Sounds a lot like today’s fracking. It especially echoes the current situation in Balcombe, England, where the government has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money for police to protect the energy company that is conducting fracking from…taxpayers. And where fracking is touted as clean and having minimal waste byproducts, while meanwhile it is poisoning our ground and water, and using up clean water and creating shortages.

There are also the “kooks” who believe in alternative energy sources like wind, solar and tidal energy and who are protesting the pollution and destruction of the environment.

Change a few words, and The Green Death isn’t about the 1970s oil crisis; it’s about fracking and 2013’s struggle between climate change deniers and everyone else. We have made some progress in the acceptance of alternative energy sources and the idea is no longer so fringe, although it is not by any means mainstream.

What else hasn’t changed? The misogyny. I was probably too steeped in the 80s brand of misogyny, or I just didn’t want to remember, the patronizing treatment of Jo, by the doctor and everyone else. Surprisingly, the brigadier seems to treat her as an equal more than anyone else. (Although thank god female actors aren’t expected to whimper today as much as they were in the 60s and 70s, especially the young ones. How did they even stand themselves? And did all that really make men feel manly?) All the men talk down to her, and she plays scatter-brained blond for them and offers to fetch them coffee. No doubt her mother told her men don’t like smart women. And the doctor engages in underhanded manipulation the equal of anything under Moffat, when he tries to prevent Jo from making her own decision about leaving him for the “kooky” professor (who totally has the same 70s haircut as Jo).

But actually, is the misogyny the same, or is it worse? I’m jumping back and forth between the Pertwee and Baker eras as episodes sound interesting and not in any particular order. In my head cannon, audiences loved Sarah Jane Smith because she had agency, and Ramona, in both her incarnations, was supposed to keep an eye on the doctor–and was just as smart and resourceful, and of course was a timelord herself.

I’ll see as I watch more episodes. What’s my memory of the show, what’s actually in the show, what’s the subtext. I’ve already learned that the doctor was emotionally manipulative even on the early shows  (Hartnell’s doctor doesn’t count, he was obsessive scientist manipulative in that he didn’t care about anyone but himself, and so much changed when he left the show and the creators decided to keep going.)

Oh, does anyone know if those are real Welsh accents? I could understand them remarkably well but I can’t understand a thing Stacey on Gavin and Stacey says. And I just love the doctor’s pride in his cross-dressing talents.

The Green Death

Some Tips for TV Ladies (and all others) Who Want to Go On Living

Trigger warning: violence against women, violent images, violent self defense suggestions

Since I finished Orphan Black, and I’m not allowed to watch The Wire without my husband, I’ve been looking for a new TV show to inhale watch on Netflix. Someone mentioned MI-5 was good and there are a lot of episodes so I thought I would give it a try.


I got to the second episode and it was WTF, hell, no time.

Meet Helen, a trained agent, who makes no attempt to save her own life.

Helen, a trained agent, makes no attempt to save her life.

Helen, a trained agent, makes no attempt to save her life.

Helen is admin, not a field agent, but at the beginning of episode 2 when she’s angling to get into the field, she very clearly states: I’ve taken all the trainings.  This could be a cool story line, right? The woman stuck in a gendered class of employment who longs for something else and believes she has what it takes to make it as a field agent. Wrong.

Helen is not the hero of her own story. She’s motivation-bait for her coworker, Steve (or something, I’ve blocked it out of my mind already). Steve is the hero, and Helen is here to make sure he goes down the proper path of fulfilling his mission, feeling a shit-ton of grief and making the right choice of taking the next step in his relationship with the woman in his life.

Presumably, training for British spies involves at the least self-defense, unarmed combat, weapons training, negotiation–actually I have no idea what training for real spies is like–but on TV it seems the men get training in all those areas. And Helen has taken all the trainings, remember? She said so. Her superiors allowed her into the field, so she must have taken them and done well.

But when her life is threatened, does she do any more than gasp and look blondly terrified? Why, no, she doesn’t. Sure there’s a thug with a gun, but the mastermind criminal holding her–not very securely I might add–is threatening to put her hand in boiling oil (which eww, as a call out to the specifically gendered violence against women in areas of Asia, is disgusting).

Never mind that she’s got one hand completely free (the one you can’t see in the screenshot), her feet are untied and, oh yeah, he’s not holding her in a very secure way.

So what could our trained Helen do?

She could stomp those little black boots on his toes or instep and break them. I bet the pain would make him take notice, maybe even loosen his grip

She could kick his knees and do some serious damage because she’d be kicking against the joint. Knees aren’t meant to bend that way, but they will under pressure

She could head-but him, not my personal favorite, but she could break his nose

She’s also got that free hand. Maybe he has a gun on him. Maybe he has a knife. She could elbow him in the ribs and then slam her fist into his nose/temple/throat. She could gouge out his eyes, hook his nose or mouth and cause some distracting pain. Or my personal favorite (I am not a bloodthirsty person, but depictions of women on TV drive me to it. The writers had a CHOICE. They MADE THIS ONE. We don’t all get choices all the time. In real life, women are assaulted and killed without a chance to defend themselves, but this is NOT REAL LIFE.) Anyway, back to my personal favorite and the favorite of women everywhere: she could grab his testicles and twist/yank/squeeze his brains out.

Oh, wait, did I mention that he’s not holding her very securely? That arm is not around her throat. There is absolutely no reason that in terror for her life Helen could not turn into his hold so she’s facing him and make it a lot harder for him to dunk her in oil without dunking himself. And then she could attack him in any of the ways mentioned above but face to face, because, yanno, she’s a trained agent.

But no, she dies and poor Steve finally finds a negotiating point and manages to save himself…too late for Helen, who’s just another incapable, weak woman sacrificed on the TV altar of women are victims… to keep us real-life women victims too.

Try this at home. Well, don’t try it on your friends and loved ones. Find someplace that teaches women, specifically, self-defense, and then go beat the hell out of the padded attackers. It’s scary. It might give you an adrenaline headache. You might hurt your hands on the punching bag. You might have to be told 100 times how to punch correctly. Or, hell, you might have untapped skills as fighter. You might feel really good slamming all your aggressions out on a punching bag or a man in a head-to-toe padded suit. You might find you like hitting things. It’s made me feel a little better just to list all the ways Helen could have wrecked serious damage on the bad guy and been the hero of this episode.

(Also, MI-5? I wanted to give you credit for making the villains white supremacists, but the only character of color was totally sidelined and not able to be a hero in this narrative that I’d imagine directly affects him. Instead, we got white savior Steve.)

Maybe next time I’ll talk about a show that pleasantly surprised me.


Once Upon a Time

Luther, why do you fail me so?

Seeing is Understanding, and Five Things I’ve Learned About Teaching Self-Defense, Blair MacGregor

The Narrative of Women in Fear and Pain, Kate Elliott

Somewhere out there is an excellent post by Julliet Marillier about self defense and women that I can’t find. Does anyone know what I’m talking about?

Kitchen Sink Links

Foz Meadows being brilliant. This is the best explanation of the difference between male and female narratives I’ve seen.

In het-male-oriented action stories where the hero gets the girl, his manly efforts at saving the day serve as the narrative justification for the romantic outcome: he has done X, therefore he wins the lady. But because the story is all about the hero’s wants and needs, we’re very rarely shown why the lady likes X beyond a sort of implied, innate correlation:obviously ladies like X – or at least, this particularlady does, because otherwise, she wouldn’t be in the story. Her emotional complicity is a given, because the story doesn’t care about how she arrives at (from the hero’s standpoint) the correct decision; only that he gets his reward for performing X. In het-female-oriented romance stories, the resolution of conflict between hero and heroine serves as the narrative justification for the romantic outcome: he has done Y and she has done Z, therefore they win each other. The story is aboutboth their wants and needs, and while there’s often a stronger emotional focus on the heroine, the why of the hero’s attraction is still deemed important.

Go read the rest. The brilliance continues. I wish I could be so smart. Seeing is Understanding. This post by Blair MacGregor creeped me out and I thought I knew a thing or two about creepy men after working with domestic violence victims (their word not mine) for the district attorney’s office.

“No, I don’t,” I blurted out, and described how that man knew precisely where the lines of “inappropriate” behavior were drawn, and had spent the last couple of years nudging those lines whenever he came across a woman he considered “available.”  I mentioned he’d been called out for failing to heed polite turn-downs, that he got offended when the turn-down became less polite.  I mentioned how women who weren’t even the focus of his attention breathed a sigh of relief when he left the room.

You probably already read Libba Bray’s post On Writing Despair. If not, bookmark it for when you need it. If my dentist projected these videos of Hypnotic Wind-powered Kinetic Sculptures by Anthony Howe on the ceiling I would be a much happier patient. via thisiscolossal.com

It Must Be That Time of Year Again: A Response to Has Fantasy Forgotten the Consequences of Violence?

There’s a post up at A Dribble of Ink, Has Fantasy Forgotten the Consequences of Violence? by Adam Calloway that asks

…it occurred to me that I was writing a fantasy novel with almost no violence (outside of a fistfight or two). The plot is resolved through hard work and cleverness. It got me to wondering why there aren’t more fantasy (or science fiction) novels that deal with issues outside of violence?… Is it time that genre media diversifies into non-violent narratives as well?

If we take for granted the fact that four out of every five fantasy books will have a non-negligible amount of violence in them, then should the discussion be less about whether fantasy has too much violence, and more about the purpose the violence serves?

I think this is the real discussion. I’ve suggested that violence works best when we’re forced as readers to confront both the action and consequence.

A while back, I was shocked out of a book by a popular MG/YA writer by the casual violence of a pre-teen casually killing a foot soldier of the enemy. It happened in passing, on the way to the important confrontation, without emotional consequence for the character either immediate or in the future.

Good fantasy presents violence in a way that affects both the characters involved as well as the world in which the violence takes place.

That’s Adam again, but it’s essentially the thought I had as I began to write my own YA fantasy, which I couldn’t help but see as in conversation with the book by the popular writer. I was determined that violence would be relatively easy for some and relatively hard for others, but it would always have consequences, both immediate and in the future. Around the same time I read What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes and On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society Dave Grossman. Both those books talk about how hard it is, even for soldiers trained (read psychologically broken down and rebuilt as soldiers) and facing enemy fire, to kill. The latter includes information such as during World Wars I and II, only and estimated 15-20% of frontline soldiers actually fired their weapons and of that, many fired into the air instead of at the enemy. The numbers are even lower for earlier wars and, according to the author, hold true for whichever nation you study. Later, armies got much better at getting soldiers to kill, but even so, Karl Marlantes, who fought in the Vietnam War, talks as much about the times he didn’t kill as much as the incandescent joy he felt when he did.

Violence happens of course, but even in war, even in the Medieval Ages, which we think of as brutal and ugly (although this article by Kelly DeVries, a medieval historian, tells us they were actually very boring (sorry, the article has been moved beyond a paywall)) the actual hacking and mayhem occurred less than we like to think it did. And violence, when it is used, in our present day and stretching back into the past, is often used against women, children, marginalized people and, as Liz Bourke reminded us, against male soldiers captured in war.

A Song of Ice and Fire is very violent, but in many circumstances, the violence has meaning and far reaching consequences. After a fight or a battle comrades are grieved over, foes are cursed, tallies are taken. However, the series seems to focus on the consequences of shocking violence: an assassination, an ambush, an orchestrated martial campaign, a naval attack. Casual violence — especially sexual violence — often goes without comment or consequence. This is the type of violence that I believe detracts from a work

I agree with Adam. I can’t read the more explicitly violent books and I rarely see, much less enjoy, the blockbuster Hollywood movies because of their emphasis on meaningless, endless, gory violence and action for the sake of moving. It’s boring and offensive at the same time, to me. It’s also lazy, probably a symptom of our ongoing and never-ending wars (drone strikes, anyone?) and says something about the American psyche that we probably all don’t want to know. But it’s also a symptom of chasing the already has been done: The Matrix was incredibly popular, we’ll make another movie just like it, but with more violence! Some video game was incredibly popular (I betray my ignorance about them), we’ll make another just like it, but with more violence! Hollywood is still chasing what they imagine are the tastes of the 16-24 year old males (why should they be any more right about this than they are about what women like? Have you tried to sit through a “romcom” lately?) and the rest of our entertainment follows suit because for most of us our palate is so accustomed to it, we can’t taste it unless it’s bigger, bloodier, more violent than the last. Because we’re so used to it, we don’t see it.

Why am I writing this blog post? Because comments.

But realism, a few responders (notably mostly male at the beginning of the attack, sorry I mean conversation) cry. Stop trying to dictate my art, others cry, how dare you make me think that what I do may have real world consequences. But genre expectations; but Adam, you stupid; but only white Westerners live in a world without daily violence (and those Other People don’t feel it the way we do anyway); but diversity (Adam rightly points out that he’s asking for more diversity in fantasy because he loves it, not less); but promotion=evil, he just wants to sell books (I’d point out this book isn’t finished yet, and Adam is musing out loud about what it means to write a book without violence); but numbers! are you sure what you’re saying is true?

It all wearingly reminds me of last summer’s conversation about grim dark. Some of us want less violence; some want to examine the consequences of the mainly gendered violence in the media we consume; some of us love the anti-hero and tragedy, and some people knee-jerk and shout censorship! cooties! you (women, pacifists, communists, un-Americans) just don’t understand and are trying to take over the world anyway!


Since so many said it better than I can, just think about it with violence, general, instead of grimdark, specific:

Elizabeth Bear, I Love a Good Tragedy As Much as the Next Guy

If every woman’s going to be raped, if every hero is going to turn out to be a pedophile or a coward, if every halfway honorable man is going to be impaled, if every picturesque little town is going to be burned to the ashes… Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies is just as lazy a narrative as the one where all challenges are resolved by a handy Deus ex machina. And possibly a little more juvenile.

Foz Meadows, On Grittiness and Grimdark

Not unsurprisingly, therefore, many SFF readers – especially those who are female, POC and/or LGBTQ – are going to object to your definition of reality, not just as you’ve elected to apply it in an SFFnal context, but as an effective commentary on them, personally: because when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality – that a story cannot be honest, or your characters believably human, if there aren’t mechanisms in place to keep women oppressed, POC othered and LGBTQ persons invisible.

Liz Bourke with some facts about violence against men in war (think about why it’s so disturbing to talk about this kind of violence, but we accept depictions of the same kinds of violence against women without a blink—even me sometimes. We all swim in the cultural soup). Realism, Male Rape and Epic Fantasy

Kate Elliott reflects on consensual sex in fantasy in What is Your Consensual Sex & Love Doing in My Epic Fantasy?

Sophia McDougall on rape as wallpaper in The Rape of James Bond (The google results while I was looking for that were horrific)

I’ll leave you with Marie Brennan to end. Welcome to the Desert of the Real

I repeat: there’s nothing wrong with writing about violence (even bloody, horrific violence), sex (even nonconsensual sex, which is to say rape), or moral greyness. All of those things are real. But they are not the whole picture. Reality is not a desert in which we stagger from one tiny oasis to the next, barely sucking down enough muddy, stagnant water to stay alive. If you’re writing about the desert, ask yourself why, and where you’re going in it, and whether you’re following that path because it will take you somewhere useful, or just because everyone else has gone that way.

And finally, various people:

It’s fantasy! Why would you want to do the same old thing and keep the same old rules when you could make up anything? Isn’t that the point?

Reading Sayer in the 21st Century

Early paperback edition cover

Early paperback edition cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayer took some adjusting to. I had never read any early mysteries so at first the genre conventions were baffling. (Along with the actual 1930s Britishness of it, as opposed to the fake or “translated” Britishness we often get on this side of the pond.) However, it was also exciting to read something with no knowledge of the conventions and consciously compare and contrast them with the ones I’m familiar with, like pages and pages of dialogue without dialogue tags or physical descriptions. Sometimes it’s a bit of a game to figure out who is speaking and what exactly is going on as they react to action that is not described. And pacing. Holy moly is the pacing different. But that’s to be expected, since everything today is super fast paced. Movies from the 80s seem slow.

As a 21st Century reader, my biggest problem was Peter Wimsey’s treatment of Harriet Vane. There’s one scene where she’s in prison and he’s promising to prove her innocence but it hasn’t been going well. He takes out his feelings on Harriet Vane until he feels better and she’s red faced and upset. He leaves whistling, I believe. (I’ve returned the book to the library, so I don’t have the exact quote.) And then there’s, to my mind, the ethical question of whether it’s appropriate for Peter to repeatedly ask a woman in jail to marry him, when he’s the only one trying to prove her innocence. But that wasn’t even on anyone’s radar in the 1930s apparently.

I struggled more to get through Have His Carcase. Maybe because I would have liked more Harriet Vane. Maybe I didn’t care as much about the murder victim and didn’t feel like I could figure out the mystery before the author tells me the answer. Maybe it was the pacing. It also seems a less funny book at the beginning, though it gets funnier as it goes along, to the point where I laughed out loud a few times.

And maybe it’s all that plus some of those 1930s attitudes are less than charming.

Harriet Vane: “There might be a few scattered houses on the road, but they would probably belong to fishermen, and ten to one she would find nobody at home but women and children, who would be useless in the emergency.” (p15)

Really? The women farmers and fishermen’s wives, who run the farms and houses while the men are gone, probably logistically a challenging job, who probably work beside their husbands, doing physical tasks Harriet would be hardpressed to do, who are probably tough and pragmatic and used to taking care of emergencies on their own, wouldn’t be much use in an emergency?

And then there are the casual racial and ethnic slurs. And while I don’t think “dago” has been much used since the mid-20th Century the n-word makes an appearance a few times. Dago was used freely in the book. While it doesn’t have the same visceral impact that current slurs have (no one has ever used it against me, and I’ve never heard anyone called it. I only know it from textbooks, and I probably only remembered it because it was used against my ancestors—but I was already safely considered white by the time I was reading those textbooks), the attitude behind it was shocking. And I don’t think I’ll ever be desensitized to the n-word. It was such a casual othering.

Reading Zelazny in the 21st Century Part II

Reading Nine Princes in Amber at the same time that I’m reading When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins, is illuminating.

She describes the era when women were thrown out of courtrooms for wearing a pants suit (while men wore sweatpants) and the rules for women’s basketball prohibited running because it might hurt their delicate reproductive organs and the ad below (from 1955) was not as foreign to them as it is to us. (“A good wife always knows her place.”)


(Housekeeping Monthly, 13 May 1955)

Nine Princes of Amber was published in 1970. The four daughters of the king of Amber are so insignificant in the struggle for the throne that they are not even mentioned in the title, while the ninth brother, who never makes an appearance is. The sisters are “girls”, “stupid” and “all bitches”. They cry a lot. And I have to say the image of Moire’s green nipples has stayed with me since I first read the book as a young teenager (and not in a good way).

But the blinders of the time it was written in also results in such convolutions:

“There were four men seated about the fire and two sleeping off in the shadows. The girl who was bound to a stake had her head turned away from us…” (p 67)

“I saw Deirdre raise [a weirwolf] in the air and break its back across her knee with a brittle snapping sound.” (p 71)

So Deirdre, a superhuman child of Amber, can break a weirwolf with one hand but she wasn’t able to fight off at least some of the six men who captured her? Really? (Later, during the fight up the face of the mountain Kolvir, it’s made clear that the ordinary inhabitants of Amber don’t match the royal family in strength or fighting skills.)

To a modern reader it’s a ludicrous flaw in the worldbuilding. To its creator and readers of the time it was invisible.

Reading Zelazny in the 21st Century

At the opening of the Isle of the Dead, Zelazny is setting out a fishing line of strangeness and ambience, reeling me in, word by word, until I trip. On page 2, “[Condoms] are almost gone now, I hear, the way of the Edsel, the klepsydra and the button hook, shot down and punctured by the safety pill, which makes for larger mammaries, too, so who complains?”

I thought, “Wow, this world is going to be weirder than I thought if men have large breasts.”

I contemplated this idea for probably 30 seconds before it hit me that he meant MEN go in for larger breasts on WOMEN.

Maybe I’m not used to reading first person POV for men, written by men, and here’s the kicker, presumably for men. Maybe I’m not used to reading books with this level of assumption about what is understood to be. Maybe I was so wrapped up in the words that I hadn’t kept any distance from them. These are all possibly true.

Now from what I’ve heard, Roger Zelanzy was a kind man. He was most likely not aware of his sexism. After all, 1969 was barely aware of its sexism, at least compared to today. (How many men today are aware of their own sexism unless it is pointed out by someone he will listen to?) Zelanzy could write this line, that to him was a fact of life so unquestionable, he did not see it as contributing to his world building of a foreign future that is still unknown to the reader. He could not envision me, or I assume any of the other 21st century women or men, taking him literally.