Writing masculinity

What better anthology to read at a largely testosterone-fuelled event like a 24 hour bike race than one intending to discuss masculinity? And so it was that I read c0ck, edited by Keith Stevenson and Andrew Macrae.

ETA: I have been reminded that the best way to pronounce the title is with a Scottish accent – “cawwwk” – and then it doesn’t sound nearly so rude.

I got into the Australian sf scene just after this anthology came out in 2006, and despite hearing good things about it and seeing it for sale at numerous cos, I only got around to buying it at WorldCon this year. I feel that I am now a bona fide member of the scene. I read it in a day – it’s only 130-odd pages long, and I’d already read the longest piece in it earlier in the week. Lying in my sleeping bag, my brain started analysing my reactions, and I couldn’t go to sleep until I wrote this:

Taken individually, many of these stories are just sf/f/horrow; quite good, mostly, but not necessarily exceptional in the issues of ideologies they present. However, being collected in this anthology – with such a provocative title – means they create something of a gestalt: they become a sum greater than their parts, forcing the reader to acknowledge and consider the particular modes and methods of characterisation utilised (if, that is, you follow the type of reading suggested by the editors). As a collection, these stories interrogate ways of being male (and, conversely, female) that are possible, acceptable, or viable. The very idea of what it means to be a man is questioned and investigated. In 137 pages, these authors use sf in particular in ways that to me are exactly what the genre should be about: they tell engaging, sometimes creepy, stories, all with quite different characters, and they suggest ways of thinking about ourselves and society that might, hopefully, lead to change in those ways of thinking.

Yes, I get a bit pompous late at night. Anyway, I primarily bought the anthology because of Paul Haines’ Ditmar-winning “The Devil in Mr Pussy (or How I Found God inside my Wife),” which was exactly as creepy and shudder-inducing and brilliantly written as I have come to expect from the man. One of the things I really like about Haines is he in some ways so domestic a writer – most of the stuff I’ve read is set in suburbia, with normal people as the characters – that it is intensely believable and, therefore, intensely horrific. In this case, a couple move into a new house and are trying to have a baby. He’s also trying to write, and ends up taking the cat’s antidepressants. Weird, weird things happen. This was a well-deserved Ditmar win.

I liked most of the other stories in the anthology. Cat Sparks’ “The Jarrah Run” was another favourite, set on an alien world, and kinda interrogating the idea of the knight errant, and “Honeymoon” by Adam Browne and John Dixon was also excellent, with a clever take on suitors fighting for the hand of the maiden. All up, I think the collection basically succeeds in its aims. If nothing else, I was forced to ask of each story what it was saying about masculinity, whether that was realistic or stereotypical, whether I subscribed to that idea or not, and the implications of all of those. There’s violence, and control issues, and sex (lots of sex), helplessness, frustration, and a variety of relationships with women and other men. I’m pleased to have finally read it; I think it’s a really interesting part of the Aussie spec fic scene of the last few years.

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