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Vaulting ambition March 3, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, childhood, memories.
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An alternative title for this post: Why Gymnastics Is Exactly Like An MFA Course (Sort of. Mostly).

Yes, this is another response to that article by (thankfully, former) MFA professor Ryan Boudinot. See also Foz Meadows, Laura Lam and Chuck Wendig for some further context. At first glance, I might seem an odd person to be adding my voice to the mix. I’ve never done an MFA (and don’t plan to), I’m not a writer of fiction and have no intention of ever being one in the future.

However, I was a gymnast for ten years.

You might be forgiven for wondering what the hell that has to do with Ryan Boudinot, creative writing courses or this whole kerfuffle, but allow me to explain. Gymnastics left me with a collection of bizarre anecdotes, excellent time-management skills, very good balance in certain contexts, and messed up feet and ankles. It also provided me with a clear example of something many people – including, it seems, Ryan Boudinot – fail to understand: nobody is born so talented at a skill that they cannot improve with practice and teaching. The myth that innate talent is enough to get someone awards, acclaim and success is profoundly damaging. It gets applied to creative pursuits all the time, but they are skills like any other, and if I extend it to gymnastics, the ridiculousness of the myth becomes apparent.

I started gymnastics when I was seven years old, encouraged by my mother, who had noticed that I seemed to spend every waking moment climbing trees, turning cartwheels and doing handstands against the walls of buildings. My initial classes were an hour a week, squeezed in on Saturday mornings after swimming lessons, and their aim was simply to get the children who attended moving, building up a collection of skills of increasing difficulty. By the time I was seventeen, I was training twelve hours a week, in three four-hour sessions which began with an hour of strength and conditioning, followed by three hours spent practicing the same skills again and again until they were consistently perfect, stringing the skills together into routines and repeating those routines until they could be performed with the illusion of effortlessness. The goal of all this was to perform those routines in annual regional and state-level competitions, and hopefully get good scores and win lots of medals.

I started with what might be considered the baseline requirements to get by as a gymnast: I was small, I was slim, I was able-bodied and physically fit. I was at a disadvantage in that I hadn’t started as a four-year-old, and because I was extremely inflexible. In other words, the potential was there.

But without lessons and training I wouldn’t have got anywhere: I would have been just another child turning cartwheels on the school playground. I got better because I practiced, and I got better because of teaching. Whether it was for one hour a week or twelve, my execution of various skills got better through repetition, and the difficulty of those skills increased over time because I was able to build on the basics I’d learnt to begin with and apply the same principles to more complex skills or combinations of skills. And I was able to improve because my coaches knew what to do to make me better.

I had multiple coaches over the years, but the best ones combined excellent communication (that is, they were able to convey with words what I needed to do with my body to make a routine look effortless) with a good feel for each of their coaching charges’ strengths and weaknesses, ensuring that we didn’t just work on the apparatus we liked or the skills that came easily to us, and creating routines for us that covered up areas of weaknesses and emphasised areas of strength. (For example, my lack of flexibility made certain common elements of floor routines really difficult and inelegant for me, so my coaches substituted them with moves which highlighted my upper-body strength.) And with coaching and practice, I got better every year: stronger, with the ability to do harder skills, and a more intuitive sense of what to do with my body if I wanted it to tumble, flip, twirl or leap in a specific direction. In my first ever competition I leapt up onto the beam, promptly fell off, climbed back on, only to lose my balance and fall off again. By the time I quit, I was learning how to do backflips on that same apparatus. I am profoundly grateful to the series of patient, perceptive coaches whose hard work helped to get me to that point.

I was never going to set the world on fire as a gymnast. I would never compete in the Olympics – the height of my ambition was a handful of apparatus medals at the annual regional competition. But I learnt a really useful lesson at a very early age: with practice and, crucially, proper training and support, I could start as an absolute beginner at something and show constant, steady improvement over a month, a year, or a decade. My point in all this is not to demonstrate that every able-bodied child who starts young enough is born with the talent to become an world champion gymnast. My point is that practice, repetition, and, above all, the support of teachers will lead to improvement in just about any skill. And writing is a skill like any other.

Nobody springs from the womb as a fully-formed, award-winning fiction writer. Writing is a skill that needs to be taught. It is improved by practice, and by working with teachers who can recognise areas of strength and weakness. Bestselling, award-winning novels don’t just fall out of a writer’s brain and onto the keyboard. They are honed and shaped by critique and training. Maybe that training takes the form of an MFA. Maybe it doesn’t – maybe a writing workshop, writers’ group or critique partner is more your style. And maybe you still won’t win awards or sell millions of copies of your novel, but your writing will be better. I’m tired of this almost mystical reverence for creative endeavours, whether music, fiction-writing or visual art. It’s a lazy justification for avoiding collaboration, training or criticism of your work. No, we do not start on equal footing when it comes to writing, even when you take away structural inequalities such as wealth, gender, race, disability and so on. As with any other skill, some people are going to find writing easier, some are going to find it more fun, and some might have a better sense of where the money and/or acclaim lies than others. But the fact remains that anyone who writes is going to get better through a combination of practice and the support of good teaching. I learnt that by doing gymnastics as a child and teenager. It’s a shame Ryan Boudinot didn’t get that same teaching.

Linkpost lifts us up where we belong February 27, 2015

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This week’s linkpost is up a bit early, and contains many fabulous things.

I’m a huge fan of Sophia McDougall’s review of Birdman: over at Strange Horizons. In it, she compares the film to Boris Johnson. It’s an apt comparison.

Here’s a great interview with Samantha Shannon. ‘Cities are made of narrative’ indeed.

Aliette de Bodard’s description of her subconscious as a library is a fabulous metaphor, and one that I might steal myself!

There’s a great set of guest posts over at Ladybusiness on ‘What books are on your auto-recommend list?’ (For the record, mine are the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, the Pagan Chronicles series by Catherine Jinks, Space Demons, Skymaze, Shinkei and Galax Arena by Gillian Rubinstein, Parkland, Earthsong, Fire Dancer and The Beast of Heaven by Victor Kelleher, the Romanitas trilogy by Sophia McDougall and the Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott.)

Episode 4 of Fangirl Happy Hour is up. This week Ana and Renay are talking Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, Jupiter Ascending and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. I’m not quite as critical of S.H.I.E.L.D. as they are, while I think there’s room for difference of opinion about the feminism of Jupiter Ascending, but as always, I appreciate their thoughts.

The first few guest posts about representation and diversity are up on Jim C. Hines’ blog.

Shannon Hale talks about gender segregation at readings she’s done at schools. It’s heartbreaking.

I thoroughly enjoyed this article by Robert Macfarlane about language and landscape. Beautiful stuff.

I really liked the recent BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. This interview by Julia Raeside of Claire Foy, who played Anne Boleyn, goes a long way towards explaining why.

For reasons that will soon become apparent, although I can’t provide a link to it, the #readingAuthorName hashtag on Twitter has been a powerful and positive movement. It works like this: think of an author whose works moved you and shaped you into the person you are. Tweet about it. Add the hashtag #readingAuthorName (obviously replacing AuthorName for the author’s actual name). Feel happy.

Linkpost is all around us February 16, 2015

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This post is somewhat late, and as a result you may have seen some of the material included in it elsewhere. Hopefully, however, there will be enough new material for everyone to enjoy.

First up, a powerful post by Kari Sperring about the unseen, unromanticised ‘women’s work’ undertaken by older women. Athena Andreadis’ older post ‘Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction’ is an excellent companion piece. Rounding off this trio of posts on older women, check out Catherine Lundoff’s (frequently updated) post of recommendations of SFF literature featuring older women.

I’ve really appreciated Malinda Lo’s series for Diversity In YA on perceptions of diversity in book reviews. There are currently two posts published of a three-part series.

Rachel Manija Brown is gathering recommendations for diverse literature. (Content note: discussion of abuse.)

I’m not eligible to nominate people for awards myself, but I am using Amal El-Mohtar’s nominations post as a source of recommendations.

As an Australian, I’m pleased to see that Alexandra Pierce has started writing a regular column at Tor.com on Australian and New Zealand SFF publishing news.

I’m a big fan of The Book Smugglers, as I find the blog a breath of fresh air and positivity in what can sometimes be a very negative internet. As such, I’m thrilled that their first foray into publishing has been a success, with a BSFA nomination for one of their short stories, ‘The Mussel Eaters’ by Octavia Cade.

The new issue of Lackinton’s is out. I’ve been enjoying reading through its stories, and particularly liked ‘Tiger, Baby’ by JY Yang, with art by Likhain. You can find links to further works by both writer and artist in the biographical information at the bottom of the story.

Finally, Jupiter Ascending was ridiculous, joyful fun. Kate Elliott thought so too.

Where young linkposts would meet when the flowers were in bloom February 6, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, fandom, linkpost.
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It’s Friday afternoon, and that means it’s high time for your weekly links. Most of these were gathered via Twitter, because I follow some fabulous people over there, and they keep finding and doing wonderful things.

A.C. Wise’s monthly post for SF Signal on women to read in SFF is filled with some great recommendations. This post is part of a series, so if you want more recommendations, you’ll be able to find them in the related posts links under the article.

Jim C. Hines is calling for guest posters to write on representation in SFF, so if you think you fit the criteria, you should definitely try and submit something. He’s already run a previous series of posts on this subject, which were collected as an ebook, the sales of which have gone to support the Carl Brandon Society’s Con or Bust programme. The call for guest posts runs until tomorrow, so get in now if you want to be included.

I’m really looking forward to Aliette de Bodard’s new Xuya short story. She’s posted an excerpt on her blog.

This post by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz about the struggles people face when trying to speak up (or even speak at all) is powerful and important.

Kate Elliott’s short-story collection The Very Best of Kate Elliott is out on the 10th February. She’s been blogging up a storm recently. I particularly appreciated her guest post at The Book Smugglers on self-rejection and the courage to say yes.

Also from Kate Elliott, ‘An Illustrated Love Letter to Smart Bitches and Trashy Books’, which does exactly what it says on the tin. I’m not a regular reader of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (which recently celebrated its tenth birthday), but I am a firm believer in unapoletically loving the things you love, and not shaming other people for their fannish choices, so this resonated with me a lot.

This guest post on Ladybusiness by forestofglory is full of great short-fiction recommendations that I will definitely be checking out.

Finally, I went on a bit of a Twitter spree about cultish behaviour and abuse dynamics in fandom. These tweets should be considered the preliminary stage of a more detailed post that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Charles Tan was kind enough to collect my tweets together on Storify.

Happy Friday, everyone! Enjoy Armenian teenager Vika Ogannesyan singing ‘Plava Laguna’ (the opera song from The Fifth Element).

Linkpost makes the world go ’round January 30, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, linkpost.
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Welcome to what I hope will become a regular feature here at the Geata: weekly posts of links to wonderful things. There are no criteria for inclusion: the links will just be things that have caught my eye in any given week, but I’m trying to focus on positive and/or thought-provoking material from a diverse range of perspectives. This is all part of my goal of collaborative and community-building writing for this year.

It was a great week for SFF podcasts. I particularly enjoyed Amal El-Mohtar and Natalie Luhrs on Rocket Talk with Justin Landon, talking about all things blogging and reviewing.

Fangirl Happy Hour is a new project by Ana of The Book Smugglers and Renay of Ladybusiness. Their second podcast is on sex and romance in science fiction, nominations for the Hugo Awards and The Very Best of Kate Elliott (which has rocketed to the top of my wishlist).

Renay also wrote a fabulous, heartfelt post about being betrayed by stories that the rest of your community has universally praised. Read the comments too.

A. Merc Rustad’s short story ‘How To Become A Robot In 12 Easy Steps’ is something I didn’t realise I’d been wanting until now. Almost anything I could say here will be a spoiler, but I feel I should provide a content warning for depictions of depression.

Amal El-Mohtar’s short story ‘The Truth About Owls’ hurt my heart in the best possible way.

No Award is not a new blog, but it is new to me, and is a breath of fresh air. I’m often frustrated by the US-centrism of the online conversation on media and social justice, so I’m thrilled to find a blog by a pair of Australians tackling these issues from an Australian perspective.

Finally, I really appreciated Foz Meadows’ epic blog post on Teen Wolf. I don’t agree with all her conclusions, but I am particularly happy about her comments on Scott McCall, whose gentleness, kindness and adoration of powerful women goes against all the usual stereotypes about boys raised by single mothers.

I hope you all have fabulous weekends. Since Eurovision is officially upon us, why not generate your own Eurovision song title?

Stop, collaborate and listen! Blogging goals for 2015 January 25, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in announcements, blogging, internet.
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One of my goals for this year is to post a lot more on this blog, and to do so with a bit more coherence in terms of content and aims. Last year was my year of speaking up. I made a conscious choice to talk more, to join conversations online, and to ignore the little voice saying, ‘but why would they want to speak to you?’ and just see what happened. The result was a whole bunch of new friends, some really interesting conversations, and the courage to raise my voice in situations where previously I would have kept quiet. So I want to build on this and approach blogging — and the entire online conversation about books, media, writing, reviewing and stories — with my intentions laid out clearly from the start.

These intentions can be summed up rather handily with the phrase ‘stop, collaborate and listen’ (with apologies to Vanilla Ice and good taste, I guess). It’s not as silly as it sounds.

Stop
This is probably going to be the hardest element of the three. The current culture of the internet communities in which I hang out is primarily one of passivity: passively reblogging and retweeting other people’s words without engaging or reflecting to any great degree. This is something that is very hard to unlearn. This is not to say that reblogging or retweeting are terrible things in and of themselves: it’s crucial to get other people’s words and perspectives out there, and there are many occasions in which spreading news and information quickly is of critical importance. But I sometimes worry that we’ve sacrificed context and reflection for ease of dissemination.

So when I’m talking about stopping, what I really mean is taking the time to stop, think, and evaluate the wider context in which particular tweets and posts appear. Can I guarantee that the information being spread is correct? Do I have the time to investigate the truth of any given post? Do I have the time to investigate the context in which it appears? Is the poster or source someone whose voice I want to amplify? If not, is there someone else saying the same thing who is more deserving of what little amplification I may provide? Are there multiple people saying the same or similar things, and would the information benefit from adding their voices to the mix? Would a post benefit from additional commentary by me, and do I have the time and ability to provide such commentary? These are all things I’m trying to stop and consider before hitting the reblog button or firing off those 140 characters.

Essentially what I’m saying here is that if I don’t have time to stop and investigate the wider context of something, I don’t have time to hit retweet, reblog or share.

Collaborate
One of the things I love the most about the internet is that it has opened my eyes to myriad, diverse perspectives. I can talk and listen to people from all over the world, people whose life experiences are different to my own, and who carry these experiences with them when telling their own stories or reacting to the stories of others. I am only one person, and no matter how much I listen to and empathise with people whose backgrounds and experiences are different to my own, I can only bring my own perspective to any given piece of media or any given situation. And I think our understanding is enriched and deepened by seeking out a broad range of people and listening to what they have to say.

It is with this in mind that I want to work harder at finding opportunities for collaboration in writing and reviewing. In some situations, co-reviewing might be the way to go, although it remains to be seen whether my blog (read on a good day by about fifty people) is an appropriate venue for such reviews. I also feel very strongly that I should be hosting guest reviews or interviews, but again, my limited reach might be unhelpful in this regard. However, I wanted to at least raise the possibility and say that yes, I am very interested in opportunities for co-reviewing and hosting guest bloggers, and please do get in touch if you want to participate.

There is one other form of collaboration which is a bit more passive, but certainly more achievable by me at the moment. I’m talking about linking to and sharing the words of others. I want to make regular link posts a feature of this blog (probably with a mirror at Dreamwidth). One of the features I admire most in my favourite review blogs is the provision of multiple links to other reviews of the same work so that readers can get a wide range of perspectives and thus a bigger picture of the conversation going on around any given text. That is definitely something I will be incorporating into this blog.

Listen
This is probably the most important goal of all, and it is ultimately all about context. I want to stop and think before sharing the words of others or adding my voice to the conversation, and I want to work with others so that the conversation is enriched by a multiplicity of perspectives, and this involves listening and investigating the wider context. This means finding a balance between the source and the words or actions themselves. I will continue to give more weight to praise and criticism by reviewers praising and criticising depictions of things they themselves have experienced. But I will give even more weight to the words of writers and reviewers who work hard to amplify marginalised voices, who act as mentors, who offer kindness and support, who take abuse and harassment seriously, no matter the target, and who welcome conversation, collaboration and the space for dissent and a diversity of opinion.

That’s why listening is so important. Whereas last year I was trying to find the confidence to speak, now I want to find the patience to listen. My impulse has always been to leap right in, as I feared missing out on important conversations if I didn’t react in real time. But the words will all still be there, and I will still have my spaces in which to respond to them. Listening will allow for a more thoughtful response.

Conclusion
I want to reiterate that these are goals and guidelines for me, and for me alone. If others find them helpful and want to make use of them, feel free, but I intend no prescription here. But I talk so much about judging people by how well their actions match their stated intentions that I thought laying my own intentions out here would give me a bit of accountability. We’ll see if I live up to these lofty intentions of my own at the end of 2015, at which point I will pause for reflection and, if necessary, adjust or rework my goals. For now, however, they seem like a good place to start.

A long way down November 13, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, reviews, television.
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This post will contain spoilers for Season 1 of The Fall. It will also involve discussion of misogyny, rape culture, sexualised violence and murder.

The first episode of Season 2 of The Fall will air tonight. The release of the new season has prompted a flurry of discussion of the same elements certain critics disliked in the first season: the show’s perceived sexism and voyeuristic attitude to gendered violence. While I understand where such criticism is coming from, I think it is misguided.

The Fall is the story of the hunt for a serial killer in Belfast who targets victims of one demographic: attractive, young, single professional women. It’s an unusual show in that we know who the killer is from the first episode, following him as he goes about his daily life as husband, father and grievance counsellor, and as he goes about his hidden life as a misogynistic, unspeakably cruel killer. As such, the focus and point of view of the show is split evenly between that of Paul, the killer, and Stella, the police officer leading the investigation into his crimes. It is this focus on Paul and insight into his mind that has led, in part, to condemnations of the show for misogyny. The other problem is that in making Paul a viewpoint character, his murders are shot through his eyes, and so the audience sees the women he kills as he sees them: helpless dolls whose murdered bodies are his to handle (the way he bathes and lays out his victims’ bodies in their own beds — in which he has killed them — is one of the most horrifying aspects of the show).

That being said, I think it’s very clear that the show is condemning such actions. We are not voyeurs gazing on the dead women: we are voyeurs gazing in horror at the workings of Paul’s mind.

The show’s broader context supports such a reading. This is due in great part to the character of Stella, who repeatedly condemns Paul’s actions as the work of a misogynist, who is herself a sexually independent woman, and who calls out the wider culture as supporting the extremes of Paul’s actions in refusing to condemn smaller, more everyday forms of misogyny. The writer has also stated in interviews his insistence on portraying Paul’s victims before he murders them, so that the viewers can see them as human beings with jobs, friendships and familial and other connections. This acts as a sort of direct refutation of Paul’s perception of them.

Most importantly, it’s one of the few shows to receive mainstream acclaim I’ve seen to include an explicit discussion of rape culture and the ways it enables murders like those of Paul’s victims to take place. Stella has several conversations with her (female) colleague Reed about the ways women and girls warn each other about male violence, and about the way that they must be constantly guarded against a culture that will try to blame them for their own abuse. Stella also shuts down a male colleague describing one of Paul’s victims as ‘innocent’. What if his next victim is a sex worker? she asks. She refuses to let any discussion of innocence or blame enter the narrative of the case.

There is one final, and most horrifying, example of the show’s condemnation of society misogyny. Paul’s pattern in his murders is to build up to them by initially sneaking into his victims’ empty houses and moving their belongings around in subtle ways in order to assert his control and unsettle them. His second victim notices that her belongings have been moved and calls the police. Rather than believing her, they try to deny her own experience and knowledge of her own space. There’s no sign of a break-in, they say. Could her things have been moved by her cat? She is sure that this is not the case, but their words put doubt in her mind, so that when they ask her if she could stay with her sister, she feels as if her fears were unfounded and decides to stay put. Of course, after the police leave, Paul sneaks back in and murders her in a way designed to cause maximum, drawn-out terror and trauma. In this way, although Paul is the one to actually kill the women, The Fall shows how damaging, misogynistic societal attitudes (particularly the refusal to believe women when they say they feel unsafe) contribute to and enable his murders.

In this way, The Fall, while heartbreaking, terrifying and harrowing to watch, is much less harmful than, say, the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, which purports to be a series condemning violence against women, but which actually engages in a great deal of victim blaming. While it is not enjoyable to watch women killed in situations of extreme psychological torment, it is satisfying for once to see the blame for their deaths put where it truly lies.

‘They’re bad men, but they’re OUR bad men’ May 10, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in meta, reviews, television.
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One of my maternal great-grandfathers was what people today would call a ‘colourful racing identity’. It sounds a lot more glamorous than it actually was. Although my grandmother has some interesting stories about family friends known only as ‘Slippers’ and ‘The Colonel’, and her father waking everyone up whenever he’d won big and flinging all the money on the bed, the reality was much more sordid and terrifying than those stories would suggest. In actual fact, my great-grandfather’s gambling habit meant that my grandmother had essentially left school at the age of eight. She was constantly sent to the door to tell bailiffs attempting to evict the family that her parents weren’t at home. One absolutely heartbreaking story she told me involved her mother giving away her new (and much-needed) coat to another child because that child didn’t have a mother and my great-grandmother felt sorry for her. Most chilling of all, the only reason my grandmother grew up in Sydney was because one night her father came home in an absolute panic, and they had to pack up the entire house and flee from Melbourne in order to escape some kind of gang-related threat to his life due to debts. My point is that the charming image conjured up by the words ‘colourful racing identity’ covers a multitude of horrors.

That is what makes Peaky Blinders, a miniseries set in the underworld of Birmingham in 1919, so refreshing. It provides a fictional account of the eponymous gang with their fingers in just about every criminal pie: race-fixing, protection money, gun-running, gambling. The Peaky Blinders (so named because they hide razor blades in their flat caps with which to slash and blind their victims) are mainly drawn from the Shelby family, a multi-generational gang whose stranglehold on the streets is due to a combination of competence, compromise and the ability to incite terror. The local police are corrupt, and prefer to let the Shelby family run things if it means stability and order. For the most part, the poor and dispossessed of Birmingham accept the devil’s bargain they have made with the Peaky Blinders, feeling that paying protection money and turning a blind eye to the gang’s criminal activities is an acceptable price to pay if it provides them with a degree of wealth and security.

That’s not to say there aren’t tensions. The young Shelby men have returned, traumatized, from the battlefields of World War I, only to find that the women – shrewd, tough-as-nails Aunt Polly, and angry, romantic Ada – have been running things just fine, if not better, on their own. Tommy Shelby, who views himself as the gang’s de facto leader, has to reconcile his own grand vision for the Peaky Blinders with the more limited, but safer, scope planned by his aunt.

At the same time, the gang relies on its ability to control the shifting network of alliances of the streets, contending with IRA cells, communist agitators attempting to unionize the factory workers, Traveller families who control the racetrack, Chinese textile workers who moonlight as opium den operators, and, one of my favourite characters, an itinerant fire-and-brimstone street-preacher played by Benjamin Zephaniah. It’s a complicated balancing act of carrot and stick, and when it works, it works because the various players have understood correctly the psychology, needs and fears of their opposite numbers. All sorts of connections and obligations come into play: most of the men were soldiers together, the Shelby family has blood ties to some of the Traveller families, as well as an Irish background that complicates their interactions with the IRA members, and Ada Shelby is secretly in love with the leading communist organizer.

What works so well in Peaky Blinders is that the writers manage the tricky balancing act of showing the true horror of what the Shelby family (and their allies) do to maintain control, as well as the fact that they probably are the best option for the dispossessed people they terrorize. There is no glamour in what they do: Tommy Shelby can move from charming to chilling in an instant, and he is in no way a safe person to be around. There is a violence and brutality involved in people’s everyday lives, and survival requires that they walk past such violence with their eyes averted. Most people in the show lead such precarious existences that their every decision is based on a pragmatic sense of cost, benefit, compromise and danger. The streets of Birmingham may be controlled by bad men, but they are bad men from those very streets, and the choice to give them control is made by the very people who live beside them.

‘Mars is there, waiting to be reached’ March 28, 2014

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‘It’s like Pacific Rim, only with the characters as twelve-year-old girls,’ said my partner, who had snatched up Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees and read it before I had a chance. Coming from him, this was high praise, and I opened the book expecting great things. Be warned, this review contains some minor spoilers.

I wasn’t disappointed. Mars Evacuees is McDougall’s first children’s book, and it is set in a dystopian future in which Earth has been partly colonised by the Morror, an alien people who have transformed the climate to such an extent that it is becoming too cold to support human life. As an endless war rages on, groups of children are being evacuated off-planet to Mars, which has been partially terraformed into a climate that can sustain a human population. Their rescue comes at a price: all evacuees will be trained, and then conscripted into the military and expected to join the fight against the Morror. The narrator, Alice Dare, is the daughter of Stephanie Dare, a famous war hero. Although she struggles with the weight of expectation that this troublesome heritage causes, Alice is an essentially pragmatic child, and she spends most of the story putting any angsty feelings aside to be dealt with at a later, more convenient time. This is because she is preoccupied for most of Mars Evacuees with staying alive.

Although the colony on Mars seems at first to be a utopian safe haven, in which children from every corner of the world are given a multilingual education in everything from algebra to flying spaceships, its peace is shattered when all the adults disappear. At this point, schoolyard politics come into play: the strongest, meanest bullies take control, claiming most of the food supplies and the best quarters, terrorising the other children into submission. Alice and her friends – quirky, introverted Josephine, outgoing Carl and his younger brother Noel, along with one of the robots from the Martian colony – set out to find help. What they discover on their journey allows them to save not only the Martian colony, but also Earth itself.

Much of the charm of Mars Evacuees lies in its little details – Carl, like any sensible Australian, insists on taking a final swim in the ocean on Earth before the flight to Mars, and invents a game of ‘Getting Around As Much Spaceship As Possible Without Touching the Floor’, an unnamed tabloid newspaper lurches between praising the ‘plucky children of Mars’ and whipping up hysteria about social issues, a teddy-bear-shaped robot designed to teach the younger children is unintentionally terrifying. All these struck me as being very much the sorts of things that would be noticed by, and would matter to, a twelve-year-old child. Another brilliant touch is the moment when Alice, incensed at the bullying that Josephine is facing from some of the other children, explodes in anger. ‘It is not because of what you’re like, it’s because of what they’re like,’ she shouts. This needs to be printed on every classroom wall. The book does not delve too deeply into the interior lives of its characters, and so it is in these little details that we come to know their personalities.

At many times in the novel, I found myself tearing up. Not because it’s a sad story – rather, my tears were caused by the overwhelming sense of inclusiveness and hope Mars Evacuees inspires.* The main quartet of children is truly representative – Carl and Noel are Filipino-Australian, Josephine is African-Caribbean-British, and Alice is white British – and the broader group of evacuees comes from every corner of the globe. Their education is in the four most widely-spoken languages – English, Hindi, Mandarin and Spanish – and every child who already speaks one of those as a first language is required to be taught through the medium of another. Mars Evacuees is science fiction at its best: looking to the stars and imagining a better future. Like Pacific Rim (and unlike most recent dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction), the stakes feel truly global, and the effort to save the world is undertaken by people from every nation on the planet. The apocalypse is averted not by violent, selfish individualism, but by compromise, communication and empathy. Mars Evacuees tells us, again and again, that if we share, rather than take, pool our respective strengths rather than devalue some qualities as weaknesses, and, above all, if we listen rather than reach for weapons, the future of the world will be bright.

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*I must admit that one such moment was when Carl described Sydney. It’s so rare to read a (non-Australian) children’s book that mentions Sydney’s beaches, walking through Chinatown, and Darling Harbour and its amazing fountain (although I must say that most residents of Sydney would probably avoid such a touristy area). But it’s nice to see yourself represented, you know?

Oh, the humanity! February 2, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, fangirl.
Tags: , , , , , ,
5 comments

This blog seems to go through phases in terms of content, and its current incarnation appears to be Narrative Tropes That I Like (and Why Most Authors Do Them Wrong). This post is an attempt to unpack one such narrative trope, and to explain why, when done right, I love it so much. And that theme is non-human beings and the humans who love them (and why and how they love humans). I’ll accept pretty much any twist on this formula. Gods and humans? Vampires and humans? Angels and humans? Demons and humans? Fairies and humans? Sentient robots (or cyborgs, or androids or whatever you want to call them) and humans? Pencil me in! I love them all. The basic requirement is that at least one character is an entirely mortal human being (although they may have supernatural abilities of one kind or another) and at least one other is completely, utterly inhuman.

I like this particular (rather broadly-defined) theme because it has the potential to go almost anywhere, but, when done right, gives yet another answer to that all-important question: What does it truly mean to be human? And, in answering this conundrum with this particular set of tools, storytellers open up a whole new range of questions: If humanity equals consciousness plus emotions plus social cooperation plus empathy, what does that make a conscious, cooperative, empathetic robot? If vampires can feel love, what does that make them? Is human morality based entirely on human mortality, and, if so, what is the morality of immortals, and can it ever be reconciled with that of human beings?

And that’s before you’ve even got on to the fun bits of human-inhuman character interaction. One of the most pleasing things about shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that the forced proximity and shifting alliances of the human characters and supernatural beings causes a sort of blurring of the lines between humanity and inhumanity. The vampires become a bit more human, and Buffy herself becomes a bit monstrous, but this all happens so gradually that it appears entirely natural and understandable. The same goes for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – Sarah’s very success in her life on the run from murderous cyborgs necessitates thinking like them, feeling like them, and so the woman becomes a little bit like a machine. The Terminator Cameron Phillips is a foil to Sarah – a machine who discovers her own humanity.

But as much as I love Buffy and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, neither goes quite far enough in this direction (although the cancellation of T: TSCC means that we’ll never know if this was a deliberate narrative decision or not). I want women who walk with monsters and become monstrous but always remain human, and monsters who love humanity but remain monstrous. I want machines who gain consciousness and emotions out of love for human beings but remain strictly machines, and I want humans whose love for machines forces them to question their beliefs on personhood but never cease to be human themselves. I want humans who tremble at the reality of what their demon lovers are, but walk into their arms with their eyes wide open. I want demons who find humanity terrifying and humbling and disarming, and can do nothing but love before its power. In short, I want stories about human and inhuman characters who know exactly what each other are, and love each other for it.*

What I don’t want, however, is Twilight. You may think this is kind of a low blow – picking on a story that is almost universally loathed and considered to be of very poor quality, but I actually have a lot of time for wish-fulfilling paranormal romance stories aimed at teenage girls. I think they do a good job of exploring the way love feels at that age – overwhelming, all-consuming and full of terrifying transformative potential. I am probably odd in that it wasn’t the cliché-ridden prose, nor was it the glamorizing of abusive relationships (although I did hurl New Moon at the wall when it was blank for a few pages to indicate Bella’s catatonic state at being left by Edward) that made me give up on the story. No, I gave up on it when I realised that Meyer was going to turn Bella into a vampire so that she could live together, forever, with Edward. The most interesting thing about fictional relationships between mortals and immortals is that one will eventually die, and one will live on forever! (The other imbalances of power in the relationship are interesting too, because in the hands of a competent author, it’s possible to present the ostensible weaknesses of humanity as a kind of power too.) I need my mortals and immortals to be secure enough in their identities to allow themselves to change one another – but only up to a point. In other words, if such characters are a metaphor for anything, they should be a metaphor for the way the most important real-world relationships change people, but also make them more secure in their identities. True love – familial, romantic or platonic – gives people the space to grow and to be themselves more completely.

This particular metaphor, however, should only ever whisper in the margins. The worst thing a writer can do is saddle the relationship between humans and supernatural (or robotic) characters with too much real-world metaphorical baggage. A particular gripe of mine is the tendency to use the struggles of paranormal beings as an analogue for real-world civil rights movements. (Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood, I’m looking at you! Harry Potter is a culprit of this too.) So, your vampires have just come ‘out of the coffin’ and want to be accepted by human society? Don’t layer on the similarities with the LGBT rights struggle! Vampires – even if, as in the case of True Blood, they eventually are able to replace human blood with a synthetic alternative – kill people. At the very least, they hurt and exploit them. The analogy with LGBT people (or any other group that experiences real-world discrimination) is offensive.**

I’m for the gods, monsters and machines, the humans they love and who love them back. I’m for misfits of all types, who feel uncomfortable in their own skin (or metal, or whatever material angels are supposed to be made out of), and who cling to other misfits in the face of everything. I’m for the human and inhuman coming together and making each other whole.

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*I am not talking only about romantic love, although it’s true that in a lot of these stories, that it is the kind of love being explored.
**One of the many things I love about Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon trilogy is her acknowledgement and aversion of this analogy. One character is gay. He also happens to have magical powers. Magicians in the world of this series enhance their power by feeding people to demons. The character (who at that point has done no such thing) hid his magical abilities from his sister. When she angrily confronts him and says, ‘but you told me straight away when you realised you were gay’, he replies that his being gay doesn’t hurt anyone, but that being a magician is a potentially harmful thing.

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