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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.

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On wish-fulfillment fantasies January 15, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, reviews.
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4 comments

When I was in the early years of secondary school, I invented a character called Amber. She was short, slender and pale, with a cloud of dark hair and one bright blue and one bright green eye (in other words, what I considered the epitome of beauty at the time). She lived in twelfth-century Ireland. Her father was the illegitimate son of an Irish ruler, and her mother was the daughter of a Japanese nobleman. Her Irish grandfather had five children by his first wife, seven by his second, and six illegitimate children, and the entire family had basically carved up the entire west coast of Ireland among themselves through a combination of ruthless diplomacy and strategically tactical marriages. Amber was married to Pagan Kidrouk (that is, she was married to the fictional character on whom I had a massive crush), and they had an ever-increasing brood of perfect children. Pagan had hitched his star to Amber’s family’s cause, and the two of them spent their time riding from relative to relative, keeping the whole family’s quest for political power afloat, forging alliances and seeing off competition. Amber’s younger sisters were in her social circle and they all treated one another with complete respect and love at all times. Even the backstory of how Amber’s parents got together was over-the-top: her father, despairing of ever finding his One True Love™, had mournfully cast a multilingual message in a bottle into the sea in the hope that whoever found it would seek him out and agree to marry him. The bottle wound up in Japan, and Amber’s mother’s decision to marry her Irish father essentially saved her from the events of the Genpei War. The entire story was completely ludicrous.

In other words, she was my teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy. Amber joined an existing and ever-expanding cast of alter egos whose stories I recorded in diaries over a series of years beginning in early childhood and continuing for the duration of my time in secondary school. Sometimes I didn’t commit their stories to paper, but rather narrated them to myself in my head as I went about my daily life. They all existed in a range of time periods – some belonged to families of witches in pre-Christian Ireland, others had been captured by Vikings and lived in exile, while others were my contemporaries in late-’90s Australia. These alter-egos shared certain key characteristics and experiences: they were the best at everything they did, they (mostly) had perfect husbands or boyfriends who fell in instant love with them and whose identities were entirely subsumed by the causes that were important to the characters and their families (in other words, they were love interests who required no sacrifices or effort because they existed only to support the characters’ lives), they shared a social circle with their siblings (who were usually younger sisters whose interests aligned perfectly with those of my characters), and they were valued and rewarded for their competence and hard work with acclaim and adoration.

A lot of people treat the wish-fulfillment fantasies of teenage girls as something inherently damaging, ridiculous and embarrassing. I cannot bring myself to participate in such blanket condemnation. I’m much more interested in working out why particular fantasies (especially published fantasies such as the Twilight or Hunger Games series) gain such traction in particular instances. My own (unpublished) fantasies are pretty explicable: I wanted to be loved but feared having to change anything about myself in order to attain it, wanted to be admired and rewarded for what I perceived as my talents, and wanted the kind of relationship with my sister that I saw happening among siblings in my favourite stories. To put it more bluntly, I felt uncomfortable and powerless in my own skin and set about creating stories in which I had power and control. I cannot regret or feel embarrassed about doing so. My alter egos made my teenage years infinitely easier. Whenever I felt frightened or sad, I was usually able to lift my spirits by imagining a better world, and I was able to motivate myself to work or continue at things I found boring by telling myself that my idealised characters wouldn’t give up in the face of boredom or difficulty.

This is not to say that wish-fulfillment fantasies aimed teenage girls should be above scrutiny. Although I believe that they are treated with scorn to a much greater degree than the fantasies aimed at teenage boys or adult men (I don’t see, for example, Batman or James Bond receiving the amount of contemptuous vitriol aimed at Bella Swan or her fellow YA paranormal romance heroines), nothing is above criticism, and reviewers and bloggers should be honest in pointing out things that bother them in media that they encounter. It is with this in mind that I turn to a book that has been receiving a lot of internet buzz among YA reviewers and commentators, Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

The main character in this work, Karou, lives a carefree existence as an art student in Prague, flitting from cafe to cafe and hanging out in an interestingly bohemian circle of friends. She has a secret existence as a messenger for the shadowy, supernatural figure Brimstone (who raised her), which enables her to travel instantaneously anywhere in the world. Her position as Brimstone’s protege grants her certain privileges – as long as she has enough currency, she can wish for whatever she wants, even the impossible (such as dyeing her hair permanently blue). In other words, Karou can do what she wants, go wherever she wants, and has a real-world existence that is already pretty cool. However, secrets from her unremembered past slowly begin to catch up with her, and as she is drawn more and more into Brimstone’s world, she realises she is in deadly danger, and that her identity as seventeen-year-old, human Karou is a lie.

So far, so harmless wish-fulfillment. The world Taylor has created is quirky and engaging, and great fun to hang around in. However, there is one element of Daughter and Smoke and Bone that bothered me so intensely that I had to devote the remainder of this blog post to it. Karou has no female friends.

This is not entirely correct. Karou has one female friend, Zuzana, who is a fellow student at the art school. However, Zuzana is marked from the start as being no equal to Karou: she is an ordinary human girl and knows nothing about Karou’s supernatural adventures. And, most importantly, she is already safely paired up with a boyfriend.

Literally every other young female character is portrayed as competition for Karou. Her human ex-boyfriend Kaz (whom Karou doesn’t even much like) acquires a new girlfriend whose sole characteristic seems to be jealousy of Karou. Even Zuzana admits to finding Kaz attractive and castigates Karou for giving him up. And a major plot point hinges on another female character being jealous of Karou’s appearance and envying her the (unwanted) attention she receives from another male character. In this way, Karou is marked as being both more desirable than all other female characters (because multiple male characters pursue her, and her alone) and more discerning (because she rejects the affections of those would-be love interests due to character flaws which are portrayed as being obvious only to her). So not only are the other female characters in competition with Karou, Taylor gives us the impression that they are stupid for doing so, because they appear blind to the flaws in the male characters which only Karou perceives. This is a sadly familiar pattern in wish-fulfillment fantasies aimed at women: we find it in Twilight and its imitations, as well as in a lot of paranormal romance aimed at adult women (such as The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series).

As someone who wrote a story about her book boyfriend being in love with her idealised character, I have a lot of sympathy for teenage (and not-so-teenage) wish-fulfillment fantasies depicting their protagonists being pursued by a multitude of love interests. It’s a powerful trope for girls who may be feeling unlovable or simply baffled at how to have romantic relationships. However, this desire to be desired should not be portrayed at the expense of functional friendships among teenage girls. Portraying all female relationships as inherently competitive and antagonistic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in the real world whereby girls and women view all other girls and women with suspicion, undermining one another instead of supporting each other. I can say from personal experience that it has been extremely rare, from adolescence onward, that my close female friends and I were in competition for the same things (apart from, on occasion, the best grades in class).

I am not saying that there is a moral imperative for YA authors to write every relationship between female characters as being devoid of competition or even hostility. However, when every single such relationship fits this paradigm, I fear we have a problem. It’s the main reason that I will be much more cautious in seeking out works by Laini Taylor in the future. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. It has the dubious honour of being the narrative which caused me to evaluate every text (particularly those aimed at teenage girls) against whether or not its protagonist has (non-antagonistic) female friends. This has become my version of the Bechdel Test. It’s not a perfect gauge of a story’s quality, but it goes a long way towards creating a favourable impression.

Stepping into the same river twice June 16, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, films, memories, meta, television.
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I am 28 years old. I have spent most of my adult life as a student. I only moved out of home five years ago, and I only moved out of sharehouses and student accommodation nine months ago. I have a long-term partner, but no children. All this is relevant.

I was thinking about stories, and how important age and circumstances are in determining meaning and how you react to them. There are some stories I can come back to time and time again, and get different things out of them every time. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like that for me. I’ve been watching and rewatching it since I was twelve years old, and it means something different every single time. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is another story like that for me. Each time I rewatch it, I feel I’ve barely scratched its surface. It reveals its secrets so slowly. I’m somewhat afraid to reread His Dark Materials in case it stops being this kind of story to me. It meant so much to me, it gave so much to me that for it to stop meaning and giving would be unbearable.

There are other stories which I think gain something from being reread with adult eyes. The young-adult literature of Victor Kelleher falls into this category. I first read his work as an eleven-year-old, and continued revisiting it throughout my teenage years, but the true horror and weight of what he was saying doesn’t really hit home until you’ve reached adulthood and had some of your illusions shattered. There are other stories which mattered as much to me as Kelleher’s when I was a child and a teenager – the works of Gillian Rubinstein, Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles and John Marsden’s Tomorrow series – but for which rereading provokes only nostalgia and the restored memory of what it felt like to be fifteen, and burning with outrage, passionately emoting and dreaming fervently. The stories remain wonderful, but they offer me no new truths in adulthood, only a window into the child I used to be. This is of value, of course, but it’s not the same thing. The vast majority of works aimed at children and teenagers that I’ve enjoyed and read or watched in adulthood evoke much the same feelings.

I grew up watching the films of the Marx Brothers (I first watched Duck Soup in a cinema when I was three years old), and I always found them hilarious. What I didn’t notice until I was well into adulthood was the deep undercurrent of sadness and alienation running through them, and the tendency for Groucho, Chico and Harpo to make self-deprecating jokes, to make themselves figures of fun, to paint themselves as mercenary, petty criminals in order to get in first before someone else said the same things. There’s a defensiveness to all their quips, a brittle, knowing edge to all their humour that you only see when you’re older, and when you know more about the history of immigration to the US.

And then there are the texts for which meaning and enjoyment is, I think, contextual. I read Wuthering Heights as a fourteen-year-old and thought it was a tragic love story. I read it again at twenty-two, and thought it was a horror story, a Greek myth about gods and mortals. At eighteen, when I went through a phase of reading Russian literature in translation, Tolstoy moved me to rapturous tears, while Dostoevsky appalled and repelled me. Isobelle Carmody’s works can only truly be appreciated by teenagers. To an adult, they are dangerously naïve and lack any kind of nuance. At 28, my favourite book of Jane Austen’s is Persuasion, while at sixteen I would have said Pride and Prejudice. When I was fourteen, people told me I would cry my eyes out over the ending of Casablanca, but I was unmoved. My reaction? I hated Rick, swooned over Victor Laszlo (I was going through a bit of a thing for revolutionaries and resistance fighters) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. If I am earnest now, I was a million times worse then. But I suspect, were I to watch the film again, my reaction might be very different. At fourteen, I read The Mill on the Floss and felt nothing. At twenty, I read Daniel Deronda and felt profoundly moved.

I remember my mother telling me, when I was a passionate armchair revolutionary in high school, that as an adult I would find repellent the Holocaust stories, tales about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Middle East conflict that I pored over as a teenager. I didn’t believe her, but she was right. I don’t want to look any more. I used to love uncompromising rebels, and now I prefer diplomats and passive resistance.

I don’t think all of this is down to age, in and of itself. Taste plays a role, as does environment, and the ethos of the age in which you grew up and which informed your tastes. My mother, for example, loves Charles Dickens and finds Zadie Smith contrived and emotionless. I find Dickens cloyingly sentimental, emotionally manipulative and hypocritical, while Zadie Smith evokes feelings of awe and floods of tears in me. I don’t think baby boomers will uniformly share her views, no more than I think Gen Y people will uniformly share mine, but I suspect our respective generations may have affected our tastes to some extent. (That said, my father loves Zadie Smith and was, indeed, the one to introduce me to her work.)

For as long as I can remember, my favourite Shakespeare play has been The Tempest. I suspect I see it with different eyes than the first time I encountered it as a twelve-year-old watching the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production. And I suspect it will mean something very different when I am an old woman. My point in all of this is that although it is possible to step in the same river twice, it is not possible to do so for every river. Some stories are static, and can mean only one thing at one particular age in one particular place. And some others are always changing, and go on and on forever.

Liebster Award November 26, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, life, memories.
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2 comments

I was nominated for a Liebster Award. Says Catie, who nominated me, the Liebster Award is a meme for small blogs (with under 200 followers) where you answer 7 questions and then ask a new set of 7 questions to 7 people. I’m not going to tag other people, but I will answer the questions provided by Catie. And they are:

1. Have you ever read a book that changed your life, or your reading habits?
A book, or rather series of books, did both of those things – at the same time. Most of you probably know that I’m going to say the His Dark Materials trilogy, and you’ll probably know why. But to recap:

When I first read HDM, it pushed my reading habits in a much more fantasy-oriented direction than previously. This led, firstly, towards me developing an interest in medieval literature, which ultimately led to me becoming a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, meeting an amazing group of friends, and my current boyfriend, and deciding to, if at all possible, live in Europe for the remainder of my life.

Secondly, HDM got me a career as a newspaper book-reviewer! When I was 16, I read what I considered to be a very poor review of the third book in the series, The Amber Spyglass. I wrote the reviewer – the children’s books editor at The Sydney Morning Herald – a very snotty letter accusing her of not reading the book before she reviewed it. Rather than throwing my letter in the bin, she offerred me the opportunity to write my own review. This led to a ten-year career writing reviews and interviewing authors for various Australian newspapers.

Finally, HDM saved me, because it introduced me to the people at bridgetothestars.net at a very low point in my life. Those people were there for me when no one else was, and I’ve met so many people I love through that site. btts introduced me to the best friend I will ever have, a woman I consider to be my fourth sister. More broadly, btts was my introduction to online fandom and online friendships and community more broadly, and it remains my gold standard in all such matters, a model of how to do fandom and do friendship right.

I will never stop being thankful to His Dark Materials. It changed my life in such profound ways.

2. If you could recommend one book to the world, what would it be?
To be honest, I’d like to recommend the entire corpus of Victor Kelleher novels, but if I had to select just one, I’d say The Beast of Heaven, which is a deeply unsettling, remorseless and transcendentally beautiful exploration of what it means to be conscious and human. I doubt I will ever read another book more perfect than that. It encapsulates my views on human nature, morality, history and the future completely.

3. Do you read when you’re out and about or just at home?
Obviously I read a lot for my PhD, so by definition I read while I’m out and about – in libraries. I also read for pleasure when I’m out and about. I tend to carry novels with me everywhere, and my favourite thing to do is sit alone in cafes and read.

4. Is there any genre that you don’t read, and why? Or do you only read one particular type of book?
I pretty much read everything, although I tend to steer clear of epic or heroic fantasy written by men. Modernist literature isn’t my cup of tea either, although I’ve enjoyed books by Faulkner and some poetry written during this time period.

5. What is the first book that you remember reading?
The first novel I remember reading was Rainstones by Jackie French. It’s not actually a novel, but rather a book of short stories, but I was immensely proud of myself at the time for being able to read a ‘chapter book’. I’d obviously read picture books before then, and had lots of books read to me by my mother, but I don’t remember the first.

6. What is the last book that you read that was outside your comfort zone?
I read a book of crime stories in German over the (northern) summer, and that was out of my comfort zone because I’m still not completely fluent at reading in German. But it was good to push myself.

7. If you had to memorise a novel or book of poetry to preserve it à la Fahrenheit 451, which would it be and why?
This question makes me so uncomfortable and upset! It reminds me of this neo-Victorian novel I read a few years ago, which has a scene where one character asks the (bookish) protagonist to imagine a scenario where every copy of the great works of the literary canon are being drawn along a conveyor belt into a furnace. The protagonist has a gun. If she shoots and kills a human being, the conveyor belt stops. Reading it, I started to hyperventilate. Is one human life worth more than the Western literary canon? It is unbearable to be forced to confront that question.

In light of that anecdote, I think I’d have to say the complete works of William Shakespeare should be saved. I’m uncomfortable with the notion of canon – any canon besides a personal canon, that is – and yet I love the plays of Shakespeare and can see how they have influenced so much writing in English and say such interesting things about humanity. And on a more political level, I love how the foundation of the English literary canon is a collaborative effort of people who stood somewhat outside the boundaries of ordinary society, and its prime mover was an aspirational, lower middle-class man who somehow managed to educate himself and say such clever things. It appeals to my socialism and belief in the power of education.

I’m not going to tag anyone, but if you’d like to join in, consider yourselves tagged. These are my seven questions:

1. How have your reading tastes changed in the past ten years? In the past five?
2. Do you read book reviews? Do you think they influence your reading habits?
3. What is your opinion of sites such as Goodreads and reviews on Amazon?
4. Do you note down quotes from books or poetry? What is a quote that means a lot to you?
5. Which fictional character did you identify with as a child or teenager? Looking back, do you think that identification was accurate?
6. What is the most important thing you learnt from a work of fiction?
7. And I’d also like an answer to the same question I was asked: in a Fahrenheit 451 scenario, which book would you save?

Dystopiana*, Australiana** January 25, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, life, memories, reviews.
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6 comments

I’ve always found it a combination of surprising and amusing when people talk about the recent dystopian YA boom as if it’s a new thing, as if Suzanne Collins plucked The Hunger Games out of the (dystopia-free) ether and opened the floodgates to a host of imitators. (Well, that’s sort of what happened, but that’s beside the point.) Growing up in Australia in the 90s, basically everything I read was dystopian, before I even knew what the word ‘dystopian’ meant.

The first author I got into in a major way (and who, indeed, has the dubious honour of writing the first novel-length book I ever read) was Jackie French, whose hippie-like existence in a small town near Braidwood informed her futuristic science-fiction novels for children. While she’s better known for other works, at age seven, my favourite books of hers were a five-part series, beginning with Music From the Sea, set in an Australia so parched by the sun that humans have become nocturnal and are living a lifestyle reminiscent of early farming/gathering societies. That somewhat gentle introduction to the ‘harsh Australian weather’ subgenre of dystopian literature led me to darker fare that mixed its narratives of personal and communal heroism with pointedly political calls to arms.

John Marsden’s Tomorrow series is the environmental-political Australian dystopian series par excellence. Beginning with a bang with Tomorrow, When the War Began (a title which implies that its story could happen on any particular tomorrow), this seven-book series follows the adventures of a group of rural Australian teenagers who return from a camping holiday in the bush to find that the country has been invaded, their hometown was the focal point of the invasion, and everyone they love has been rounded up and imprisoned in the local showground. The teenagers retreat to the bush and become a guerrilla resistance force, all the while agonising over whether their actions are just. Written against the backdrop of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, this series brought home the realities of war to an entire generation of Australian teenagers more used to thinking of conflict as something that happened ‘over there’.

I actually don’t think that the Tomorrow series is the best of 90s Australian dystopian YA fiction, although it has great emotional resonance and Marsden’s evocation of the Australian landscape, and the unease most Australians feel within it, is spot on. But the later novels lack the believability that made the first few so powerful, and an ill-advised spin-off trilogy means the series ends, if not with a whimper, not really with a bang either.

No, in my opinion, there is a three-way tie for the best stories of this genre between the works of Victor Kelleher, Gillian Rubinstein and one particular novel of Ruth Park’s.

Most Australians of my generation will be familiar with at least one book by Kelleher, Taronga, as it was widely studied in high school during our teenage years, but I’ve always felt Kelleher was tragically unrecognised. His trilogy beginning with Parkland, which I reviewed here a while back, is both a Cassandra-like warning and a hopeful shout of encouragement. In each book, in different ways, he wipes the slate clean, so to speak, recreating subtly different Gardens of Eden to see if, once tempted with consciousness, human nature could ever lead us anywhere other than destruction.

Gillian Rubinstein is also concerned with human nature in two very good series of hers, the Galax-Arena series and the Space Demons trilogy. I have blogged about Galax-Arena in relation to The Hunger Games already, so suffice it to say that the series is, at its heart, about the exploitation of (often poor, always defenseless) children at the hands of (often wealthy, always privileged) adults, and can be read as a metaphor for the way First World countries can only ‘live’ as well as they do by (figuratively) killing the Third World.

The Space Demons trilogy is a little different, because it uses its broader dystopian concerns as a backdrop on which to set four or five parallel coming-of-age narratives. Four (and later more) young people find themselves sucked into the virtual world of their computer games (and, in Shinkei, the third book, of cyberspace), within which they must resolve their numerous personal issues, and, as becomes increasingly apparent, the problems that beset the world. The final book reads like an idealistic call to arms, a plea to remember dreams in the face of privilege, cynicism, exploitation and fanaticism, and is one of the best intertwinings of the personal with the political that I have ever encountered.

Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif makes it onto this list simply because its dystopian nature isn’t immediately apparent, and the way it sneaks up on you is absolutely terrifying. You think you’re reading a fantasy book about family tensions, parental expectation and an island paradise populated by real-life mermaids, and then Park will give a throwaway reference to the characters having never seen a butterfly or a certain breed of animal because they’re extinct. It’s chilling.

Why, then, were Australian YA authors rushing down the dystopian road a good two decades before their (mainly American) counterparts? I have several theories, but what I’ve always felt was the mostly likely cause is the intersection of Australia’s bizarre geography and bizarre history and social mythology (mythology in the sense of stories people tell about themselves).

Australians cannot quite make up their minds about these things. On the one hand, there’s this weird sort of pride in the harshness of our landscape, and on the other, there’s the fact that very few Australians actually live in it. Australians, for the most part, cling desperately to the coastal cities, and yet there’s this constant awareness that just around the corner, there’s this vast, parched desert or dry bushland just waiting to be set on fire and burn your house to the ground. As an Australian, the recent climate change debate has always struck me as very odd because, well, if we were talking about global warming in my first grade class in 1991 and the salinity problems of the Murray-Darling basin in my fifth grade class in 1995, and the hole in the ozone layer since forever, it’s not as if suddenly clued-in politicians have only just become aware of it.

Couple this anxiety about the physical features of the land with a general sense of anxiety about the location of the land itself and about one’s place in it (and by this I mean that a dominant strand of the Australian mythos has always been an uncertainty about where and what Australia actually is***) and you get this narrative of discomfort and unease. Australian literature, by and large, does not feature people ‘lighting out for the territories’ in search of freedom and prosperity. Instead, one heads off into a hostile wilderness where general weirdness goes on.****

All this combined to make Australia a fruitful breeding ground for dystopian literature. When these novelists wanted to play around with their fears for the future, their belief in multiculturalism or political anxieties, the Australian experience provided a physical and mythological backdrop for the stories that arose. It would be wonderful if the new dystopian craze introduced these wonderful works to a wider audience.

__________________
* I know that’s not how you decline Greek.
** Also, this is not about Mad Max.
*** As demonstrated by the common use of ‘the West’ to describe a group of nations of which (usually Anglo, almost always white) Australians see themselves as part, despite the fact that the only place to which Australia is west is New Zealand.
**** Think Picnic At Hanging Rock. Think Walkabout.***** This is why the Tomorrow series is so powerful, because the civilised space of hearth and home has been rendered dangerous, and the story’s heroes find the normally hostile wilderness a welcoming haven.
***** This is, obviously, a literary trope mainly employed by white (usually Anglo) Australians, and I think stems from a sense of guilt at what was done to the indigenous inhabitants of the land which Australian culture (until very recently) felt profoundly uneasy examining in an open way. And so it was explored in this slantwise manner.

It don’t matter if you’re black or white… November 29, 2011

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…but if you’re grey, forget about it!

Reading books in a series which you loved as a child or teenager is on occasion an unsettling experience. Some childhood favourites stand the test of time, remaining as true in adulthood as they were in youth. The works of Gillian Rubinstein, Adele Geras, Catherine Jinks and Philip Pullman remain thus for me. Those of Victor Kelleher I get even more out of than I did as an adolescent. Some of the things he says are hidden until you’ve lived long enough, I think. If any of these authors were to write another book in the series I enjoyed, I would be delighted.

But sometimes, looking at the books of your childhood with an adult eye is a confronting and disappointing experience. Something about them doesn’t stand up. Themes which previously seemed intensely relevant to your life appear less significant, or at least less well-expressed. The truth which you previously drew from such books is less true, less significant, less burning.

I’m sad to say that, upon reading The Sending, the latest in Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles, I realised this series was of the second type. Spoilers follow.

Carmody is, above all things, possessed of a unique ability to understand and convey the mindset, hopes, fears and dreams of a particular type of teenager. This teenager is one who is shy, artistic and bookish, hyper-empathetic and self-aware, and just realising what a cruel place the world can be. There are some adults like this, but not so many. I was one such teenager. Her books, with their message that if we all were more empathetic and compassionate, the world would be a much better place, resonated deeply with me.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think empathy and compassion are wonderful, admirable qualities, and that we should strive towards them at all times. But I can no longer look past Carmody’s converse argument, which is that lack of empathy and compassion is a sort of sickness or disease. (This is something she argues pretty much across the board in her books: in the Obernewtyn books and in Alyzon Whitestarr, characters can perceive a mental sickness in the antagonistic, non-empathetic characters, while in the Legendsong books, multiple worlds are literally dying because people in them can no longer hear the ‘song’ which is the metaphor for the harmony of creation.)

Such an explanation seems to me to remove responsibility from such characters for their actions, and it removes responsibility from the heroic, empathetic characters to help the former. But, more unforgiveably, it removes ambiguity and nuance. I find this problem most pronounced in the Obernewtyn books. The heroes are all noble-minded, compassionate and pacifist, the villains are all mindlessly violent, bigoted and acquisitive. The heroes have tragic pasts that they rise above. The villains have no backstory.

Just about the only character with any hint of moral ambiguity was Domick, a Misfit (ie one of the good guys) sent to infiltrate the Council (the baddies) and send back information. The horrors he sees cause him to sever ties with Obernewtyn and renounce non-violence. This is an entirely explicable and justifiable character arc. When you’re fighting evil, you can’t help but become a little bit morally grey.

But of course there’s no place for nuance in the world of Obernewtyn. Someone like Domick can’t exist. So he’s killed off in The Stone Key, the fifth book in the series.

I realise I’m taking Carmody to task for not writing the kind of book I want to read. She’s free to write whatever she wants, and I’m free to stop reading, but I honestly feel her arguments would be stronger if things weren’t always so morally clear-cut. Why, in a six-book series with a cast of characters that takes up five pages of the book, does only one person display an ounce of moral ambiguity? Why do all the other characters who suffer abuse, discrimination or horrors of some kind go mad, become consumed by grief or fear, but never, ever get angry or reevaluate their beliefs? And why does Carmody think that ‘he just loves to hurt those weaker than himself/is power-hungry’ is a catch-all explanation for cruelty and injustice?

I will keep reading, because I’ve been doing so for nearly 15 years, but I fear a terrible fate has befallen me. I’ve grown up too much to get any life-defining, resonant truth out of the Obernewtyn books, and am continuing to read out of a mixture of nostalgia and a desire to find out how it all ends.

NB: I should add that in spite of this problem, I do find Carmody a very fine storyteller. There was not one point at which I wanted to close the book, and I gulped the whole thing down in just over a day. I have no issues with the overall story or themes. I just think they are weakened by problematic characterisation.

‘Oh, this book. Oh, my HEART.’ May 12, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, life, memories.
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This was my involuntary response after (and during) reading Savage City, the third book in Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy. I read the book with a kind of desperate, yearning hunger. I’d been waiting for it for several years, I loved its characters (in particular, its heroine, fierce, introverted, determined Una), and I couldn’t bear not knowing how things would end.

The last time I read a book like that, I was 22, and it was the final Harry Potter book. I think this is significant, because the last time before that, I would’ve been in high school, reading Darksong, the follow-up to Isobelle Carmody’s Darkfall. And, indeed, this was the way I read all my favourite books, as a child and teenager.

I devoured them, much the same way as Sara Crewe (a childhood heroine) is said to ‘devour books’ in A Little Princess. Their characters were as real, as close to me, as real people. Their lives mattered as much or more. I felt every blow that landed upon them, and I wanted their happiness with a fierceness that I couldn’t even believe I was capable of feeling. When I read those books, curled up in the wing chair in the living room, my feet resting on the coffee table, as a child and teenager in Canberra, I was oblivious to everything else, as my family will attest. I didn’t hear when people spoke to me. I didn’t notice when the natural light disappeared. My heart-rate increased. My mouth was dry. I was terrified for the characters.

I’m so much more detached these days. Oh, I still enjoy books, and I still find books that I love, but it is a different kind of love, a different kind of enjoyment. Less emotional investment and identification, more literary analysis and serenity. More thinking, less feeling.

I cannot regret these changes. They snuck up on me as quietly and imperceptibly as the day I looked at my old dolls and realised I no longer knew how to play. That girl, who cried for three days without stopping upon reading the ending of The Amber Spyglass, who rewrote Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles because she couldn’t bear not knowing what happened to Pagan, who finished the sixth Harry Potter book and then sat on the floor, literally beating her fists on the floorboards, begging her sister and mother to finish the book so she could talk to someone, anyone, about what had just happened, she is both me, and not me. I lived like that, I felt like that, it shaped me and strengthened me and taught me.

She was me, she is me, and I love her. But she is mostly gone.

And that is why I am so grateful to Romanitas, and to Sophia McDougall. She has written something that allowed me to get back, if only for a few hours, to that place, to that girl, once more. It was wonderful. It was perfect. It could never have been any other way. But it was exhausting. Loving in such a fierce, desperate, focused way, caring that much, feeling that much – I honestly don’t know how I did it.

One voice January 2, 2011

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[Spoilers for Earthsong by Victor Kelleher.]

Kelleher’s second book in the Parkland trilogy is more ambitious than its predecessor, and, perhaps because of this, is somewhat less successful. As a child, I reread Earthsong less than the other two books in the trilogy, although I cannot remember exactly what it was that failed to appeal to me.

As with Parkland, Earthsong is set in a dystopian future. In this book, global warming made Earth uninhabitable for human beings, who, after trying various ways to remain (including building colonies under the sea) despite the dangerous atmospheric conditions, migrated to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, which is supposed to have conditions similar to early Earth and which in the book was terraformed to make it inhabitable for human beings. After several centuries, the off-worlders decide to send human beings back to Earth in the form of frozen embryos, in order to repopulate it. Travelling with these embryos are teenagers Anna and Joe, who are given the grandiose title ‘the First Parents’.

Straight away, things go wrong. The heat shields on Anna and Joe’s ship (a sentient being named Walter) are damaged, causing them to crash-land thousands of kilometres away from where the transport ships (carrying the embryos) have landed. Worse, Walter himself is damaged by the landing and undergoes a personality change of sorts, transforming from an impersonal, intelligent machine into a crazed, spiritual being who seems overwhelmed by life on Earth. He becomes, in fact, a shamanic figure. Accompanying Anna and Joe are two other robots, Trog (whose name evokes troglodytes, of course), who is no-nonsense and practical, and Og, who speaks in parables, quotes and sayings.

While Anna and Joe at first think they have a straightforward journey to retrieve the transport ships and begin the project of repopulating Earth, it quickly becomes apparent that Earth has changed in the absence of humans. All its animal life, from rats and cats to snakes and sharks, seems to possess sentience and consciousness. Animals that previously lived solitary lives seem to have developed the ability to live commnunally and organise themselves like humans. Anna and Joe find themselves in constant conflict with the fauna. Fearful and harried on all sides by vicious attacks by animals such as rats, eagles and lizards, they proceed slowly. All the while, Walter seems away with the fairies, speaking of the voices he can hear and spouting mystical insights into the nature of the universe and humanity. He claims that he hears the whole earth speaking with one voice, which he calls the voice of God or good (it’s not clear, as his own ability to speak is compromised by this point and he constantly jumbles his words. The confusion between God and good is, of course, deliberate on Kelleher’s part, as Kelleher cannot resist a bit of theological confusion).

After an encounter with some whales that have developed the ability to talk in Morse code, Anna and Joe discover the truth of this brave new Earth: the sea colonies, knowing that they were going to die, made a fateful decision to splice human genes into those of all living beings on Earth. This meant that all creatures – and even some large trees – eventually developed human characteristics: the ability to reason, to live in groups and work for the common good, to defer gratification, in short to be conscious. Unfortunately, these characteristics seem to only manifest themselves as the worst, most destructive human qualities: brutality, dog-eat-dog competition, cruelty.  The whales speak with horror of ‘the swarms’, which, it is soon revealed, are insects – with human intelligence – that, by virtue of superior numbers, presumably – hold the rest of creation in their sway.

[H]uman guile and cunning had taken on monstrous shape. Yes, human guile and cunning, that was what they were up against. And human kindness? Human compassion? What had happened to those qualities? Had they somehow fled the world? Had they been lost – left out perhaps – when the human genes governing intelligence were spliced into the rest of creation? Had the last colonies passed on only their aggression and their drive for dominance? Was this the truth behind the one mind, the one voice, Walter had referred to? It was a horrible thought which she flinched away from. A world without love! Without gentleness or care or fellow feeling! She could not bring herself to face such a prospect.

Victor Kelleher, Earthsong, pp. 219-220.

Leaving the science aside, it’s worth stopping and considering this concept for a moment. Can you even begin to imagine what it would be like to live in a planet where every living being possessed the worst characteristics of humanity, and human intelligence? In Kelleher’s imagination, it would be horrific – a dangerous and threatening place of constant war. It is so bad that Anna and Joe are uncertain as to whether they ought to animate the embryos, horrified at the thought of bringing up children in a world of conflict and danger.

Meanwhile, Walter embarks on a mission to communicate with the swarms, hoping to convince them – and, by extension, the other inhabitants of Earth – of the value of peaceful coexistence.  He is adamant that if people – by which he means all living and sentient beings – could just communicate better, the world would be a harmonious place for all.  Anna and Joe, besieged by the swarms, have almost given up hope, but Walter is ultimately successful, and the book ends with Earth poised on the brink of a newer, gentler future.  On the surface, Earthsong is thus a much gentler and more hopeful book than Parkland, but as is usual with Kelleher, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Humanity Because Kelleher defines humanity as consciousness, his definition of humanity in Earthsong is much broader than in Parkland, encompassing all creation.  While indulging in many descriptive pages of the horrors of an Earth populated in this manner – the scenes where Anna and Joe are besieged by lizards, rats, snakes, bats and insects are like something out of a horror movie – he ultimately arrives at a rather cheerful, hippy-like understanding of how this might work.  If we are all human, we all speak with one voice, and if we could only listen to this voice and speak to one another, we would live in peace, tranquility and harmony.

This is obviously meant to be a metaphor for the present state of affairs on Earth – that we, as people, must turn away from the violence and greed in our natures and recognise our common humanity if we are to escape destruction.  This is all very well and good, but it strikes me, as it struck me when I first read Earthsong, as overly optimistic.  And if ‘humanity’ means all beings on Earth, this only complicates matters. How are we to recognise our common ‘humanity’ if we’re all eating one another, for example?

Responsibility If Kelleher falls somewhat short in his exploration of the theme of humanity in Earthsong, he truly succeeds in the theme of responsibility.  This book is, in a sense, all about responsibility.  In particular, it is about the peculiar nature of human responsibility: the greatest responsibility we have is that towards future generations, and yet this requires us to make decisions for a future of which we are entirely unaware.* And these decisions will, of course, affect and shape that future.

Joe and Anna initially deplore the actions of the sea colonies: knowing that they (the sea colonies) were going to die out, they were freed from the responsibility of behaving responsibly:

The underwater colonies had acted irresponsibly, distributing their genes throughout a planet without the thought for the consequences. […] Despite her disapproval of what the last people had done, she couldn’t bring herself to blame them. In their place, faced with extinction, she might well have done the same.  After all, to live on in other creatures was better than nothing.

Victor Kelleher, Earthsong, p. 168.

Most horrifically, of course, Joe and Anna are forced to suffer the consequences of decisions made by these ancient people, who did not take responsibility for their actions.  The parallels between this book, and our own world, are fairly clear.

Freedom As I began this section, the book The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson popped into my head. That book is all about humanity’s destructive nature, and how we would like to be able to start again, with a blank canvas, a clean slate, a new Eden, and how that probably isn’t possible. Earthsong seems be be set on such a blank canvas, an Earth healed and cleansed of the effects of humanity’s brutal destruction – but of course it isn’t.

I think we all like to imagine that if we had the freedom to begin again, we’d do things differently, we’d be better, gentler, kinder. Kelleher, in his way, is warning us that there are no second chances.  Even an Earth wiped of all human beings is not free from human influence.  We may not have a Titan to retreat to, and we certainly won’t have an Earth to return to, so we need to start thinking about what sort of future our decisions might make.

The final book in this trilogy, Fire Dancer, is in many ways the most intriguing, because it is not set in the future but rather our distant past.  In it, two human beings have the extraordinary and terrible responsibility of having to make decisions knowing full well what effect they will have on the future. I will be reviewing it some time early next week.

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* Being who I am, this makes my thoughts turn to religion, and in particular the story of the Fall.  The parallels – between the story of Adam and Eve, Anna and Joe and the sea colonies – are apparent to me, although I might be reading too many things into this.  Faced with extinction, the sea colonies had to make a decision about a future in which they had no stake, while Anna and Joe also had to make a decision on behalf of the unborn embryos for which they are responsible.  Being human – like Adam and Eve – they possess free will, but they do not possess the ability to comprehend the outcomes of their actions and decisions.  Anna and Joe, like their Biblical counterparts, are the first parents, while the sea people are the end of their genetic line, of course.  I need to think further about what all these connections mean.

One people December 29, 2010

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[Spoilers for Victor Kelleher’s book Parkland.]

‘We are all one people,’ Cassie tells her friends, Ralph and Boxer, repeatedly throughout Victor Kelleher’s book, Parkland. This would be unremarkable, except that Ralph is a half-human, half-gorilla much more comfortable with the gorilla side of his nature, while Boxer is a human-chimpanzee hybrid who struggles against his society’s dismissal of him as an animal not worthy of the human consciousness he possesses.

All three are inhabitants of Parkland, a future vision of our Earth made more chilling by its very plausibility. Parkland is a zoo whose inmates are all apes: gorillas, chimpanzees, baboons – and humans. The keepers are humanoid but not human, and they keep the zoo’s population in check with the aid of leopogs, vicious dog-leopard hybrids. The visitors to Parkland are all animals – tigers, giraffes and so on – but they have a strangely human consciousness behind their eyes. The human residents of Parkland are, for the most part, content. The walls of Parkland provide them with food, medicine, clothing and every other material comfort. In Parkland, they are safe and civilised, unlike the savage humans of the BC (‘Before Cage’) era.

Cassie and her friends reject Parkland and everything it stands for. When they discover the keepers wrestling an unknown boy into the enclosures, they realise that they’ve been lied to all their lives: there is a world beyond Parkland’s walls, and there are free people living there. They become determined to escape.

But the feral humans are not the answer to their prayers. They are violent, harsh and believe in survival at all costs, a reflection of the savage, hunted lives they must live. The ferals reject Ralph and Boxer as abominations. And Cassie and her friends have other problems: Leon (as the feral boy is called) was implanted with a tracking device by the Parkland keepers as a means to signal the leopogs, which are to cull the feral population. Cassie, accompanied by her friends and Leon, realises that she must return to Parkland and confront its keepers. It is at this confrontation that she realises the true history of Parkland. Its keepers are aliens who view themselves as responsible for maintaining the balance of life on every planet in the universe. They have visited Earth twice: once to annihilate the dinosaur population (‘an evolutionary cul-de-sac’) and once to prevent human beings from destroying all other life on their planet. The result of that second visit was, of course, Parkland. After many tribulations, the worst of the keepers are killed, leaving Edwards, one of their ‘scientist class’, to work with the humans and the other apes to make Parkland a place of harmony, where the old human knowledge is retained but not abused.

Parkland is absolutely ruthless in its exploration of Kelleher’s main concerns: humanity, responsibility and freedom, and it’s worth examining just what conclusions the book reaches in terms of these three main themes.

Humanity. At its heart, Kelleher’s concern here is with what exactly constitutes a human being. Ultimately he leaves us with a definition of humanity that is quite fluid. Cassie, with all the zeal of an activist, passionately believes that all apes are ‘one people’. In her worldview, there are the people – the inhabitants of Parkland – and the others, the keepers who oppress and imprison them. In thinking thus, she is actually strikingly similar to the keepers themselves, who view all the inhabitants of Parkland as ‘the apes’, and think of themselves as elevated beings. (These two viewpoints consciously evoke colonialism to a great extent, of course.) Clarke, one of the keepers, even accuses his fellow-keeper Edwards of ‘going native’.

‘You’ve been in this body too long, d’you know that? It’s getting to you. You’re beginning to think like the apes.’

‘Maybe I am,’ Edwards conceded, ‘but then maybe that’s not the worst thing that can happen to us while we’re here.’

‘Meaning what?’

‘Meaning it’s a pity you haven’t been affected by the body you’re in.’ […]

He [Edwards] was standing at the gallery railing, holding both hands up before him as though studying them. ‘Me?’ she [Cassie] heard him murmur. Next he ran his hands slowly down his face, like a blind man examining his own features. ‘Me?’ he murmured again. ‘Me?’

– Victor Kelleher, Parkland, pp. 204 and 206.

 

The ferals, on the other hand, have a harsh, ‘you’re either with us or against us’ view of humanity. Apes are certainly not human beings. And human beings are not compassionate. They are Darwinist, survive-at-all costs, brutal individuals. The humans in Parkland are little better than collaborators in their own oppression.

Responsiblity Ultimately, although the ferals believe the fundamental responsibility of a human being is to survive (they take this to extremes, abandoning the weak members of their society in the face of attacks), Kelleher is arguing here that the fundamental responsibility of a human being is to be humane. Like most dystopian science-fiction, Parkland is written with a very strong warning to contemporary society in mind: maintain a balance, rein in our destructive and consumerist impulses, or suffer the horrific consequences. We can see, with the ferals, how strong the human urge to dominate and destroy can be. Even in the face of obliteration at the hands of the leopogs, Leon is still talking about the BC age as one of achievement and mastery:

‘But there wasn’t any civilisation,’ she [Cassie] objected. ‘Not until we were taken into Parkland.’

‘They probably told you that to keep you quiet,’ he [Leon] sneered. ‘I’d rather trust the stories, about how we could fly and build things, and how we could live in one place and didn’t have to run all the time. That was before the coming of the leopogs.’

– Victor Kelleher, Parkland, p. 127.

 

Freedom In Parkland, as in the other books of this trilogy, Kelleher links the concepts of responsibility and freedom together very tightly. This makes a lot of sense, as these are, of course, the impulses in humanity that constantly war with one another. The ostensible message of the book is that we are not free to do what we want, because the darker aspects of humanity would cause us to destroy ourselves. However – and this is what makes Kelleher truly remarkable as a writer for children, especially in the late ’80s – the book is more ambiguous than that.

It’s about cages – both physical and metaphorical. Who is more free – the Parklanders, who are secure, comfortable and safe, with every physical need taken care of – the ferals, or the apes, who lack a human consciousness and thus bear no responsibility for their actions? The book ends with Cassie and her friends poised on the brink of a new future, with Parkland a haven, rather than a prison, with the knowledge of the old times available to all who seek it, including the chimp-human hybrid Boxer. But Cassie’s qualms about Boxer’s enthusiasm for the old human knowledge (and the rapacious nature that bent it to destructive ends) undermine the book’s hopeful ending. Ultimately, Kelleher seems to be saying that to be truly responsible and free, to be truly human, is to be free to make mistakes.

Kelleher’s concern with maintaining balance and harmony on earth, as well as between the warring human impulses to create and destroy, finds further expression in the next book of the trilogy, Earthsong, which I will be discussing next. I look forward to seeing you all soon for the next installment of Victor Kelleher Week!

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow June 12, 2010

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Spoilers for the Tomorrow series in the post and the comments.

Massive, massive disclaimer: I am writing about Christianity here. I am not, and have never been, a Christian, and so my perspective here is one of an atheist discussing Christianity. Because I am an atheist, I view the Bible, as I view the sacred texts of other religions, as one of a literary genre (part pseudo-history, part moral guidance) rather than the word of God. As such, when I discuss it, I am discussing it as a literary text with tropes, themes and metaphors which other literary texts borrow and adapt.

I also write this from a position of some ignorance. For a variety of reasons (studying Jewish history and culture as an undergrad, and currently studying an Irish pseudo-history which draws very heavily on Genesis and Exodus), I am more familiar with the Tanakh/Old Testament than with the New, which I realise is a bit of a handicap when talking about Christianity. I know I have Christian friends who read this, and while it’s not your job to correct my interpretation of Christian belief, if I do get anything wrong and you would like to correct me, feel free to do so in the comments or by email.

With all this in mind, let me actually begin the blog post proper!

I’m a bit of a narcissist when it comes to this blog, and I tend to check its stats quite a lot. One of the things that comes up in the stats is the various links people have clicked on to reach the blog. Yesterday, one such link was the WordPress tag ‘John Marsden’. Out of interest, I clicked on this tag to see who else had written about Marsden recently. In doing so, I found myself of the blog of a Christian music, film and book-reviewer who had written a pretty good analysis of Tomorrow, When the War Began. One of his commenters made the point that the Tomorrow series was ‘anti-Christian’. As soon as I’d read this comment, it started to bother me, and it took me a while to put my finger on why. After much thinking, I realised it boiled down to two things: I can see very strong Christian elements in the Tomorrow series, and I find the division of things into ‘Christian’ and ‘anti-Christian’ categories simplistic and unsettling.

Let’s address the first point. I do not think that John Marsden himself is a Christian. He writes like an atheist or an agnostic. Is it possible for a non-Christian to write a ‘Christian’ book? My answer will probably differ from those of believing Christians, but let me explain what I mean.

The Tomorrow series is deeply concerned with matters of ethics and morality. It’s set in a war-zone, its characters are teenage guerrilla fighters, and one of its main themes is the characters’ struggle to reconcile the morality of what they are doing (killing other human beings) with their personal ethical or moral codes. This struggle is made more poignant by the fact that the characters are undergoing it at the time when most people tend to question what they believe and develop their personal ethical beliefs.

So far, I’d say that this is not necessarily ‘Christian’, although the central character and narrator, Ellie, several times expresses a belief in God, mentions that she attended church before the invasion and examines the morality of her actions against a moral code that clearly draws on Biblical morality. However, she also undertakes actions that do not tie in with Christian-based morality – as well as killing people, she has sex outside marriage, she steals (food and equipment and so on from houses abandoned during the invasion), lies and plans acts of violence and sabotage. In some ways, Ellie’s story can be seen as an exploration of the testing of faith, and whether it is possible to go on believing or being a moral person in times of great crisis and horror; there are several references to the Biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, which is about retaining one’s faith in the face of death and torment. And yet I don’t know if it’s possible to view Ellie’s story as a Christian story, and I don’t think that Christians would necessarily view it as such.

But what about the character of Robyn? She is definitely a Christian; Marsden mentions it many times. It’s in the portrayal of Robyn that I think I could argue that the Tomorrow series is a Christian series. Robyn is portrayed extremely positively. Ellie admires her greatly, and Robyn’s faith is depicted as the basis of her moral behaviour. Robyn, alone of all the teenagers in the books, refuses to kill or directly fight the enemy (she will destroy property and help organise raids to steal food and supplies). Two of the most powerful scenes in the first two books centre on Robyn’s refusal to commit acts of violence: she refuses to pick up a gun (and this is depicted as a real struggle for her) and she angrily rejects Lee’s accusations of cowardice for refusing to kill. He says something along the lines of ‘I won’t let you down’ and Robyn shouts at him, ‘How dare you imply that I am? Sometimes it’s harder to refuse to kill than to kill!’

Robyn’s struggle is in some ways a parallel to Ellie’s (as are Lee’s, Fi’s, Homer’s, Kevin’s and, in the early books, Chris’s), and because we see things through Ellie’s eyes, we, as readers, approve of Robyn’s stance (and the beliefs that underpin it) because Ellie herself approves. This is why I think to dismiss the Tomorrow series as ‘anti-Christian’ is simplistic. His Dark Materials is anti-Christian. The Tomorrow series might not be entirely pro-Christian, but it certainly isn’t anti-Christian.

This is where my second point comes in. I feel a profound discomfort when I see people dismissing certain books as ‘Christian’ or ‘anti-Christian’. As you can see from the example of Robyn, nothing is as clear-cut as that. I feel that if you see the world in such black and white terms, your own personal moral code must be very simplistic. I suspect I may be losing the agreement of Christian readers here (since, as I understand it, belief in a religion implies belief in the absolute morality or immorality of certain actions, irregardless of context or circumstances), but to me, morality can be pretty fluid.

By this, I do not mean that I have no moral code. Quite the contrary. From the ages of about 10 to 20, I thought almost obsessively about what I believed – whether I believed in any higher power, whether I believed in an afterlife, what I believed was right and wrong, what my purpose was as a human being. However, the development of my personal ethical philosophy was (and is) an ongoing process: my beliefs were constantly challenged by experiences and the growth of my knowledge, and I don’t think the evolution of one’s moral code ever really stops. And it shouldn’t. I profoundly mistrust people who have absolute moral values, because I think morality is the one thing which must constantly be reevaluated, tested and discussed. If the growth of your moral code stops at 12, or 18, or 25 or 55, it is a denial of the importance of all your experiences after that age to your development as a person. And I think belief (which is tied up in notions of morality) is something which should also be constantly tested, thought about and reevaluated.

How does this tie in with the Tomorrow series? Well, on this level, the comment that the series is ‘anti-Christian’ disturbed me. Just as I believe one’s experiences should influence the development of one’s morals, I believe in the power of literature to influence one’s development as a human being. It makes me sad to think that a Christian reader would gain nothing by reading the Tomorrow series, because I think that books fail if every person gets the same thing out of them, or if a person can only get one thing out of them. Reading the Tomorrow series as a 25-year-old is a profoundly different experience to reading it as a teenager – but I still learn things from each reading. I don’t understand how it isn’t possible for me to get one thing as an atheist and another person to get something different as a Christian from reading the Tomorrow series.

People who see the world – and its books – in such black and white terms cannot help but live an intellectually impoverished existence. In closing yourself off to a substantial proportion of the texts in the world due to a perceived lack of values, you are denying your ability to gain knowledge from a variety of sources and reexamine your beliefs according to this new knowledge. In the Tomorrow series, characters, both Christian and non-Christian, find their beliefs tested in the face of great hardship and challenge. Surely we, as readers, are equally able to do the same?