Galactic Suburbia is 82
In which we talk sexism in the industry, feminist space opera, childbirth and babies in comics, space cowboys, and the hidden value of translators. Also, Watson is a girl now!
News and Links
The SFWA Bulletin Discussion:
Foz Meadows dissects the Malzberg/Resnick article causing most of the controversy and protest.
Jim Hines curates a massive list of protest blogs/tweets on the issue (though as he himself makes clear this is not a comprehensive collection of links to the entire debate, or every post on it – just the ones protesting the sexist attitudes published in the Bulletin, as proof they were not anonymous).
Ann Aguirre on her experiences of sexism in the SF industry.
Alisa’s Observations Part I & Part II
Tansy on Why It’s Important (And Why We’re Still Talking About the SFWA Bulletin)
New Women vs Tropes in Video Games: Damsels In Distress, the trope so widespread that this is Part 2 of a 3 part series.
Lambdas: the LBGTQ Literary Awards! Some speculative fiction representation there…
ALEX: Space Cowboys; Chase the Morning, Gates of Noon, and Cloud Castles – Michael Scott Rohan; Hawk and Dove, Karl Kesel and Barbara Kesel (5 issues, 1986); X-Men #1
ALISA: The Rook, Daniel O’Malley; Saga; Small Blue Planet Ep 4: Israel; Quick PhD update
TANSY: The Other Half of the Sky, edited by Athena Andreadis & Kay Holt; Elementary
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Cloud Castles: the re-read
Spoilers for the first two books, Chase the Morning and Gates of Noon – although really, there’s three books, surely it’s no spoiler to say that Stephen survives and has further adventures?
Stephen Fisher, no longer quite such the hollow man as previously; oh look, the brief love and forgiveness of his ex-girlfriend has worked not quite a miracle, but certainly wrought some change. Whodathunkit. When this novel opens, Stephen is in an intriguing position: he remembers the Spiral all the time when he’s in the Core, he’s deliberately had many adventures there – but his life in the Core isn’t harsh or empty enough to give it up. In fact, he’s now the head of his company and he’s got a brand new, very interesting project on the go. No on-going relationship, but still – he’s not the hollow, use-and-leave type that once was. Which is good, right?
The ultimate reveal is brilliantly constructed. Up to that point… well, the story threatens to feel a bit samey. In fact, it is: there’s challenge from the Spiral affecting Stephen’s life in the Core, and he goes out and faces it and there are ups and downs, and something Big from out near the Rim challenges Life As We Know It. All of these things happened in the previous novels, and they happen here too. But the great thing about Rohan’s writing is that it still manages to be interesting and thoroughly enjoyable. For instance, in the mythos he’s mined: there’s been voodoo; and Asian myth from Buddhism to Hindu to animism; and here, Rohan brings it back to Europe. In terms of action, the first two books were similar in involving ships; here, the focus shifts to the possibilities of air travel (AIRSHIPS!). And I swear Rohan must himself have taken up fencing between Gates of Noon and this book, because the fights seemed to get a whole lot more technical… which I kinda skimmed occasionally. And while some of the side characters are the same – really, who could ever get sick of Mall? Really? And there are new characters too: happily, to my mind, especially another woman, who gets a bit more fleshed out than Claire or Jacquie ever managed to be in the previous books.
Yes, there’s some annoying repetition with Stephen bemoaning his life – but Gates of Noon was definitely the worst for that, and his growing/filling up has largely curbed that. And yes, the portrayal of women is not always great – Stephen occasionally has a ‘private’ leer which the reader is privy to – but Mall gets to be Amazing. This could be problematic, because clearly it’s not realistic and it’s annoying if the only woman has to be so much better than any of the men to warrant any air time: but it does entirely fit the idea of Mall being over 400 years old, and moving outwards on the Spiral, and therefore – like Jyp is, to a lesser extent – becoming… clarified. And she’s not the only woman, which helps.
So I firmly believe these books deserve their space on my shelf.
The Gates of Noon
Probably spoilers for Chase the Morning.
Ah Stephen. Forgotten the Spiral, really? At least it didn’t happen immediately… still, it shouldn’t be a surprise that your brain couldn’t cope with the weirdness for very long. Too much career, too many one-night stands, to enjoy.
Until it reaches in to grab you again.
In Chase, a lot of Stephen’s hollowness seems to stem from his long-ago break-up with the lovely Jacquie. Here, Stephen has got himself – and his company – involved in a project to ship the cargo of a charity irrigation system to Bali precisely because of her name. But the project is dogged by malign forces, it seems, such that they cannot organise to move it any closer to Bali than Bangkok. And with a little bit of pushing from external forces, Stephen Fisher – the Hollow Man, defeater of nasty forces last time he ventured into the Spiral – manages to find his way out of the Core again, and sets up a rather unusual method by which to deliver his cargo. It involves an ancient steamer, a seven-foot tattooed Maori, and an outlandishly mixed crew. Also another magician-type, although Ape is nothing like Le Stryge, which is about the best that Stephen can hope for. Cue adventures.
As with Chase, many of the awesome things I remembered are indeed still present. I love Rohan’s descriptions of battles, and also his evocation of sailing – be it on seas or stranger tides. The very idea is still utterly captivating – sailing into the dawn or dusk, into the clouds! – as is the idea that places have shadows. Actually, perhaps they’re closer to Platonic ideals, since they capture what is and was and will be; the essential nature of a place, even if never actually existed anywhere but in the imagination of very many people. And the idea of moving out into the Spiral as somehow refining people, as well as places, is also a wonderful one for story.
Also as with Chase, there are a couple of things that bugged me, and the main one was Stephen and his hang-ups. While the first book was mostly all “woe, I am a hollow man!”, this book is replete with “woe, I done wrong by Jacquie!” – which he did, right enough, but I could have done with a little bit less breast-beating. He does, true enough, make some attempts at restitution – and he was pretty nasty, so maybe I should cut him some slack as his conscience actually teaches him a lesson. But I didn’t have to be subjected to everything going through his head every time; it could have been indicated with a sentence or two, easily enough, especially the fourth or fifth or tenth time.
Also, bit of eye-rolling casual sexism. Irked me. It mostly does all right on the not-racist front – which, given it’s set largely in South-East Asia, is a relief. There are some bits where people’s mannerisms or characteristics are referred to as ‘oriental,’ at which I cringed a little, but on reflection those things are not usually coded negatively so… yeh, not sure what I think about that. But the inherent desire of the book is to balance tradition and ‘progress’, and I cannot fault that.
The other thing I cannot fault, and found also in Chase, is the very suggestion that there must be something MORE. More than career, more than sex-as-an-end, more than selfishness. Stephen finds that in action, but also in helping others; Mall and Jyp and others find it in becoming, and doing, what they are meant to be. It’s a worthy aspiration.
Is it very different from Chase? Well, the intention of the adventure is different, and Stephen doesn’t have to go through all the rooky, learning-to-be-on-the-Spiral stuff, so things happen a bit more immediately. There’s more sexual tension; there’s also more at stake, which I think made it work as a sequel. If it had been yet another “save that girl!!”, I am unlikely to have bothered. Plus, quite different places and different villains, which is great.
The Suck Fairy has been kind.
Chase the Morning
I have loved this book for a fairly long time now, but have not re-read it in a rather long time, leading to some sweating over the possibility of the Suck Fairy waving her wand. Fortunately, overall that was an unnecessary concern…
This is still a rollicking fun adventure story. Pirates! Evil! Rescues! Fights! Sailing ships!!
I still adore the concept of ships that can set off at dawn or dusk into the cloud archipelago, and that places exist in both the Core and the Rim. That is, places exist in what we understand as the ‘real’ world, but those places with long histories especially of trade and contact with the exotic, and thus I guess have a firm grip on the imagination, can exist… outside of the mundane. And this applies to imaginary places as well as real – so Prester John gets a mention, and there’s one rather awesome place I remember from one of the later books too. Rohan goes so far as to discuss and explain why this Rim world uses old-fashioned weapons, too, which shows that he’s put a deal of thought into it.
I like the characters, mostly. I still love Mall – apparently based somewhat on a real woman attested by occasional mentions in historical records – I love that she is fierce and independent and a superb fighter and a passionate friend. Jyp is still amusing, although seemed a bit… shallower this time around? That is, not as well-rounded as I seem to recall. Maybe he gets more interesting in the later books. And Le Stryge, a rather unpleasant magicky type, is magnificent. If chaotic neutral is allowed to swing towards evil and then towards good, that’s him.
And then there’s Stephen, our Point of View. I was intrigued to discover that I found him more interesting this time around, and not because I found him any deeper – exactly the opposite. There is less to him, especially initially, and that is indeed the point of the entire book. He’s hollow. He’s forced other people out of his life, he’s marginalised meaningful human contact, to progress his career – and he’s made to confront that as the story progresses. And while Stephen is an extreme example, I think it’s fair to say that Scott is taking a shot at a whole section of society who have sacrificed love, family, imagination and dreams on the altar of Getting Ahead.
The Bad, or at least The Less Good
There are two aspects that left me somewhat uncomfortable. One to do with gender/sexuality, the other to do with race.
In the first few chapters, Stephen is presented as almost Mad Men-esque in his approach to women. His descriptions of them are physical, and while not entirely callous he does call his secretary ‘girl’ and his gaze lingers long on boobs. However, this is not entirely approved by the narrative. In fact, his approach to sex and love is very definitely seen as part of his nature as nearing hollow-man status, and this disappoints a number of characters whom the story sets up as moral compasses. So that’s an interesting take. Additionally, there is a moment where a female character has a lesbian smooch and Stephen is aghast, and clearly suggests this is not a normal thing to do. Now, it does get written off as shock, this-isn’t-really-real, but one of the other characters has no adverse reaction to the kiss, and in fact makes Stephen feel pretty small and pathetic for the way he reacted. So, not entirely positive, but also not entirely negative. Which is better than entirely negative, I suppose?
Also, one of the women is damsel’d pretty early on. On the other hand, there’s Mall.
The racial aspect comes in with the voodoo aspect. There’s always an issue when a white writer uses a non-white religious/magical/ etc system to their own ends, especially when those ends are not entirely good. Now, Rohan does suggest through the story that the original positive aspects of the African/Carib beliefs have been twisted beyond recognition, and by a colonial desiring power at that, but there is no denying that this book essentially sets up Haitian voodoo as the Big Evil to be combatted. I’m not sure how to grapple with that, except that it made me somewhat uncomfortable to read such appropriation – even when Rohan shows every sign, here and elsewhere, of appropriating other religious systems just as wholesale, to his own ends. So at least he’s not limiting himself to non-whites? Also, voodoo is shown not to be entirely evil, which I guess is also something of a redeeming feature. Not entirely, but a little bit.
I still like it. I will read the sequels at some point in the near future. Hooray.