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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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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?

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

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, reviews.
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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 time January 10, 2011

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Well, Victor Kelleher Week turned into something more like Victor Kelleher Fortnight, unfortunately. I spent all of last week suffering the double effects of rather horrendous jet-lag and a dreadful cold, and I felt too weak to be able to blog adequately, so I apologise for stretching this on longer than I should have. I turn now to my final review of Victor Kelleher’s work (for now), of <em>Fire Dancer</em>. Spoilers follow.

<em>Fire Dancer</em> was my favourite book in this trilogy, and is the one that I reread the most as a teenager. I’m not entirely sure what appealed to me about it, and, after this most recent reread, I’m not convinced that it is the strongest in the trilogy (that honour goes to <em>Parkland</em>, in my opinion), but it’s certainly got its fair share of interesting themes and philosophical quandaries.

In the not-too-distant future, time travel moves from being a theoretical possibility to a reality.  Inevitably, time-travel tourism springs up as an industry, with wealthy people paying large sums of money for the privilege of journeying to the darker corners of prehistory and observing man’s distant ancestors. It is on one such trip that bored rich kid Josie and shy outsider Ivan (who is not rich, but won a free trip to the past after writing an essay on the Neanderthals for a competition) find themselves stranded in the past with only a clan of Neanderthals for company.

The pair are quickly discovered and adopted by the Neanderthals, and they slowly adapt to the harsher environment and lifestyle of these mysterious cousins of our own ancestors, finding companionship and kindred spirits among the clan.

That’s not to say that their journey is an easy one.  Josie, a 21st-century, strong-willed young woman, chafes at the restrictions placed on women in the clan. She wants to hunt, but only men are permitted to hunt, and has a combative relationship with Lheppo, an aggressive young warrior of the clan.  Eventually she manages to get her own way, and becomes an acclaimed hunter, saving Lheppo’s life and gaining the name Utha (‘Leopard Slayer’) in the process.  For Ivan, the adaptation is even more difficult. A gentle, studious outsider in the 21st century, the violence of hunting is utterly abhorrent to him. This makes him a non-person in the eyes of the Neanderthal clan.  But, like Josie, he slowly finds a place for himself in the Stone Age world, breaking the rules of the clan by becoming accepted as its first male shaman.

Josie and Ivan both felt somewhat out of place in the 21st century, and, once they give up on ever being rescued, they both realise that they have more purpose and fulfillment in their Stone Age lives.  And they both make stronger connections than just friendship, Josie and Lheppo becoming what is surely the earliest ever quarreling couple and Ivan finding love with Aghri, the daughter of the clan’s leader Kharno and its shaman Lhien.  This being the Stone Age, there is no contraception, and both Aghri and Josie fall pregnant.  In this way, Ivan and Josie realise with horror, they have contributed to the end of the Neanderthals as a species and the eventual dominance of Homo sapiens.  They are, in fact, creating their own ancestors.  Time, they realise, is not a continuous stream moving inexorably forwards, but rather exists in loops, where past and future affect one another in incredibly complex ways.  They have mixed feelings about this, but ultimately accept their roles as seed-carriers of the future with stoicism.

Just when both have become completely resigned to life among the Neanderthals, however, the future intrudes again: the time-travel ship arrives, a year after Josie and Ivan were abandoned, to bring them back to the future. After much soul-searching, Josie chooses to go back, but Ivan elects to stay, explaining that he feels much more alive – indeed, much more human – in the past.

Humanity Kelleher is obviously playing around here with notions of true humanity. We’ve seen already that he views humanity as something akin to conscious thought, but I would argue that in Fire Dancer, he’s got other things on his mind. Humanity, for him, is equated with humaneness, with living lightly on the earth, living with purpose, as if your whole existence depends on it.

‘You’re a hunter now,’ he [Ivan] explained, ‘and if you’re right, I’m on my way to becoming a shaman. Well, those aren’t just jobs or professions, like they would be in the future. Here a hunter or shaman is what we are, and once we accept those identities, we’re as bound by the rules as everyone else. […] We’ve become Neanderthals. There’s no going back.’

Victor Kelleher, Fire Dancer, p. 249.

The Neanderthals obviously offer Kelleher a wonderful mechanism to explore these ideas, as they are so full of potential for a writer – so familiar, and yet so distant, elusive and mysterious (how closely related were they to our own Homo sapiens ancestors? why did they suddenly die out?).  Of course, such themes run the risk of venturing into noble savage territory, but Kelleher is careful not to romanticise the Neanderthals or their lifestyle.  He does this mostly through Ivan, whose struggle to accept the brutality of life among the clan shows this life for the harsh, bloody existence that it is.

This was not the world he had visualised, aeons ago now, when in his other life he had written about Neanderthal people. Not this world of conflict and gore. He had had in mind a less testing place. Of wildness and adventure, yes, but nothing as basic and barbarous as this. Where life was to death as the hand is to the glove, the two fitting together intimately. Where endless and bloody conflict – or so he mistakenly believed at that instant – defined the whole of existence.

Victor Kelleher, Fire Dancer, p. 211.

That being said, Kelleher is clearly using the Neanderthals – and Josie and Ivan’s experience with them – to make some pertinent comments about the twentieth century (the time in which he was writing). There is much to be learned, he argues, from a people who live with thrift, whose existence is little different from that of the animals upon which they prey, where the idea of owning more than the essentials necessary to sustain life is ridiculous.  Humanity is not about things, it is a state of mind.

Responsibility Once Josie and Ivan accept the role that their accidental abandonment on the shores of the past has given them, they do not shrink from it. By their very presence, they are proof of the existence of time-loops, and, rather than cursing the cruel position in which fate has placed them – carriers of the seeds which will destroy the people among whom they feel most welcome and usher in the ancestors of the people with whom they feel no kinship – they embrace it stoically.  This also allows Kelleher to get in a few remarks about the lucky, bizarre and complicated accidents responsible for the entire sweep of human history.  As Josie notes:

‘We didn’t choose for an animal to crash into the ship; or for the ship to take off before we could scramble back on board. It all just happened.’

‘Okay, so it was an accident. That’s still a hello of a lot different from saying it was meant to be. Listening to you, anyone would think there’s a purpose in our being here.’

[…] ‘Maybe there’s a purpose behind it all,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘Who knows? Maybe we’re … the seeds of the future.’

Victor Kelleher, Parkland, pp. 250-1.

Freedom This is probably where Kelleher gets most into the whole noble savage thing.  In Fire Dancer, he argues that true freedom exists when people embrace a lifestyle free of choices, free of security, where life is harsh, possessions are few and where most energy is focused on the struggle to stay alive.  Ivan and Josie find purpose and kinship among the Neanderthals, and acceptance which they never possessed in the 21st century.  And if the past and the future are one codependent loop, we are lost in the stream of time, always at the mercy of where it takes us.  We might as well sit back and revel in the freedom this gives us.

This is the final review of the trilogy. I will probably follow it up with a post about the most significant themes and concepts explored by Kelleher in this series of books.

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.

_____________________

* 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.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow June 12, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood.
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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?

Things don’t get no better, better than you and me March 20, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl.
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24 comments

Months and months ago I mentioned on Livejournal that I was intending to write a series of posts about my favourite literary couples – although I planned to expand that to include platonic couples, groups of friends, and families. Now I’ve finally got my act together and started working on this, and so I bring you the first of what will be a series of posts. This one is a rather arbitrarily-selected group of couples (in the romantic sense of the word). When selecting them, I had three criteria:
1. That they be a couple from a book or series that means or meant a lot to me
2. That they not be the sort of people usually found on such lists (no Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy)
3. That they be characters from books

The last criterion was simply to avoid massive headaches as if I’d included other types of texts, I’d be here still writing this after I’d finished my PhD!

Looking at the couples I came up with, I feel a bit disappointed at the heteronormativity of my list, and I know it’s more through my own fault than that of existing literature: There are great stories with GLTBQ couples, but I haven’t read many of them (with the possible exception of Written On The Body by Jeanette Winterson). But I certainly don’t blame the straightness of this list on the ‘lack of good GLTBQ couples in literature’; that’s an unfair argument, and the fault is entirely my own.

At this point, I should warn you that there are spoilers for:
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
The Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott
Galax-Arena and Terra-Farma by Gillian Rubinstein
Romanitas and Rome Burning by Sophia McDougall
The Space Demons trilogy by Gillian Rubinstein
The Troy Game series by Sara Douglass
The Tomorrow series and Ellie Chronicles by John Marsden
The Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor
The Obernewtyn series by Isobelle Carmody
The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan

1. ‘I touch the place where I’d find your face’: Breaking my heart into tiny, tiny pieces, every single time
Lyra and Will from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

They save the multiverse together by falling in love and acting on that love. Then they realise that they can’t live in the same universe, and they have to close all the windows between all the universes, or all consciousness will leak out of the entire multiverse. I cried for three days straight when I read how their story ended, and it’s still heartbreaking to think about.
Theme song: ‘Set the Fire to the Third Bar’ by Snow Patrol.
I find the map and draw a straight line
Over rivers, farms, and state lines
The distance from ‘A’ to where you’d be
It’s only finger-lengths that I see
I touch the place where I’d find your face
My finger in creases of distant dark places

Even the video clip is Lyra and Will-esque.

2. ‘What’s that waiting about?’: An (arranged) match made in Heaven (Together, they fight crime!)
Captain Anji and Mai from the Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott.

The best thing about this pair is how practical they are, and how well matched. Anji is a shrewd military leader and manages to gain a great deal of prestige simply by showing up with his band of mercenaries at the right time in a threatened kingdom. But his success is almost equally due to Mai’s talents as a merchant – most particularly, her ability to negotiate and drive a hard bargain.

I’ve written before about how much I love this series because it’s a fantasy series that makes middle-class talents and middle-class occupations heroic, which is a very rare thing. I also love it because of the central couple. Anji and Mai marry for diplomatic and economic reasons, but they share a mutual respect that eventually blossoms into a practical, adaptable, generous kind of love. It’s not an all-consuming, country-destroying passion, and sometimes, you know, it’s nice to recognise that love doesn’t have to be that way.

Theme song: ‘Yours and Mine’ by Calexico’ (the song only comes in at 3.50, but it’s the only Youtube clip I could find).
Horses are chomping at the bit
The gate is nearly busted down
Moment before the calm of the storm
And everyone’s blood goes wild
Except yours and mine

3. ‘Everyone’s got a theory about the bitter one’: Kid-lit’s very own Spike and Dru
Presh/Wai-Chan and Allan ‘Allyman’ Manne from Galax-Arena and Terra-Farma by Gillian Rubinstein.

I have a huge soft spot for these two. Galax-Arena was the first book where I realised I was utterly uninterested in the heroine and wanted to read only about the villains of the piece. And what villains they are! Presh is from the streets of China, Allyman’s from the streets of Birmingham. They are among the ‘peb’ (‘people’) of the Galax-Arena, a circus arena in outer space that functions more like the Colosseum in Ancient Rome. The performers, all talented acrobats snatched from homeless, forgotten existences in the poorest cities of the world, believe they’re performing for aliens. In actual fact, their adrenaline is powering the immortality of wealthy, impossibly old people. If a performer dies, the rush of adrenaline is even greater.

Allyman eventually ends up as a recruiter for the Arena, with Presh initially as a sort of enforcer, and later, after falling pregnant, is abandoned in Terra-Farma, a place where the female children of dispossessed people are given away to wealthy men in countries with low female populations (such as China). The pair are profoundly messed up, with morality that is grey at best, and yet they are much more compelling than the mousy heroine of the story, Joella. I love them to bits.

Theme song: ‘To the Moon and Back’ by Savage Garden
Love is like a barren place and
Reaching out for human faith
Is like a journey I just don’t have a map for

5. ‘We spoke in tongues we never wanted spoken’: Across the barricades
Noviana Una and Marcus Novius Faustus Leo from the Romanitas series by Sophia McDougall.

Do I really need to explain this one? I adore stories about star-crossed lovers, particularly when they come from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Marcus is heir to the Roman Empire (but a Roman Empire which never ended, and is roughly contemporaneous with our own times). Una is a fugitive slave. But they met one another when they both possessed nothing but their lives – and even those were threatened – and they are delightfully co-dependent as a result.

I love them because they’re both such introverted, private people, and yet both of them find extroversion thrust upon them against their will: Marcus because, well, he’s of the Imperial dynasty and lives his life in the spotlight, and Una because she can read minds and thus hear the thoughts of everyone around her. They are so similar it’s uncanny, and I really hope things work out for them in the third book.

Theme song: ‘The Sea’ by Van She (the most introverted band I know).
And you said
Time would change these things
For you will always be the same
[…] Now that I’m awake
You know that we are broken
The tiny hand is past with doors
Were shut that now are open
.

6. ‘Why don’t you close your eyes and reinvent me? We can unwind all our flaws’: This is so messed up I need my head examined
Asterion/Weyland and Cordelia/Caela/Noah/Eaving from the Troy Game series by Sara Douglass.

This couple spend the first two books of this series hating (Asterion) and fearing (Noah) one another, mutually antagonistic. Noah (or Cordelia and Caela as she is then, wishes only for the love of Brutus. Asterion wishes only for Brutus’ ‘kingship bands’, which Noah has hidden. This being a Sara Douglass series, Asterion does some unspeakably awful things to Noah involving her womb (he plants an imp in it and causes the imp to be ripped out through her back), and then this is the start of a beautiful love affair of great epicness.

Theme song: How could it be anything other than ‘Mezzanine’ by Massive Attack?
We can unwind
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will lead to
We’ll see to
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine
We can unwind all our flaws
.

7. ‘No one’s gonna take me alive’: Love is about compromises
Ellie and Lee from the Tomorrow series and Ellie Chronicles by John Marsden.

And oh, what compromises! These two fell in love while fighting a guerrilla war (as 16-year-olds) against invaders of Australia. Living rough in the bush, leading raids on their former home town, blowing up airfields, being condemned to death, Ellie and Lee find the time to fall spectacularly in, and then out, of love, while coping with PTSD, bullet wounds and having to grow up way too fast.

Their on-again, off-again relationship spans the entire war and its aftermath, and I’ve always appreciated that Marsden had the guts to show with these two that love is not easy, it’s not the cure for everything, and it’s not necessarily empowering or a protection against depression and other kinds of psychological illness. It just is.

Theme song: ‘Knights of Cydonia’ by Muse
No one’s gonna take me alive
The time has come to make things right
You and I must fight for our rights
You and I must fight to survive

8. ‘Where small birds sang and leaves were falling’: Love is not just for the young
Gordianus and Bethesda from the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor.

These two are in their fifties and have known one another since Gordianus was a starry-eyed, penniless young Roman traveller and Bethesda was a surly Egyptian slave. (I admit, the beginnings of their relationship are a bit…troubling, and I have heard of the argument that any relationship between a master and a slave is non-consensual, as the power imbalance makes consent impossible. BUT! Gordianus frees Bethesda and they then enjoy what appear to be thirty very happy years of marriage.)

I love Gordianus and Bethesda because in most of the books I read, adult couples are either absent or not discussed, and I find their relationship really heart-warming. After 40 years, Gordianus still thinks Bethesda is the most beautiful woman in the world, and remains both impressed and terrified by her subtlety of mind. For her part, Bethesda seems to love Gordianus, although the books are told from his point of view so it’s difficult to know what she’s really feeling.

Theme song: ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’ by The Pogues
Take my hand, and dry your tears, babe
Take my hand, forget your fears, babe
There’s no pain, there’s no more sorrow
They’re all gone, gone in the years, babe
.

9. ‘The will to greatness clouds the mind, consumes the senses, veils the signs’: Awwwww
Domick and Kella from the Obernetyn series by Isobelle Carmody.

I adore Domick and Kella because they’re just so adorable. He’s a Coercer, she’s a Healer. He’s a bit arrogant, a bit of a loner, and a bit at odds with the non-violent ideals of the rest of the Misfits. She’s compassionate, sociable, chatty, and totally horrified by any thought of violence. All together now…AWWWWW!

Of course, the fact that I loved Domick and Kella so much made it inevitable that Carmody would kill Domick off. I’m still bitter about that.

Theme song: ‘The Farthest Star’ by VNV Nation
Redeeming graces cast aside
Enduring notions, new found promise,
That the end will never come.

We live in times when all seems lost,
But time will come when we’ll look back,
Upon ourselves and on our failings.

Embrace the void even closer still,
Erase your doubts as you surrender everything:

We possess the power,
If this should start to fall apart,
To mend divides,
To change the world,
To reach the farthest star.
If we should stay silent.
If fear should win our hearts,
Our light will have long diminished,
Before it reaches the farthest star.

{Bonus awesome – the final lines of this song seem very Elspethy: Wide awake in a world that sleeps
Enduring thoughts, enduring scenes.
The knowledge of what is yet to come.
]

ETA; Jordan pointed out that I forgot to include my Space Demons couple. Well, you can find them here!

10.’Why don’t you play the game?’ : Best ‘It could never be, but I wish it would’ couple
Mario Ferrone and Elaine Taylor from the Space Demons trilogy by Gillian Rubinstein.

These two would never work. Even Rubinstein herself admits it in the epilogue to Shinkei, the third book in the series. Elaine grows up to be a famous dancer, touring the world. Mario grows up to be a ‘live fast, die young’ computer game writer, who occasionally phones up Elaine to tell her his life will be incomplete unless she marries him. ‘So far,’ Rubinstein writes, ‘she remains unconvinced’.

I shipped these two before I knew what shipping was. It seemed inconceivable that they could go through so much (being sucked into computer games and forced to work out whatever issues they might have – hate in Space Demons, fear in Skymaze and dreams (and the breaking thereof) in Shinkei) and not fall in love. Oh, how naïve I was!

I like Elaine and Mario because it’s a partnership of equals, and because the books are all about the need to work together, be less isolated and insular and live as part of a community. And, let’s face it, if you’ve travelled through an alternate reality built out of one another’s fears and dreams, you don’t really have much to hide from one another.

This pairing would never work out, and it’s not written for us to interpret it as working out, but I can’t help liking it quite a bit.

Theme: How could it be anything other than ‘Digital Love’ by Daft Punk?
You wrap your arms around too
But suddenly I feel the shining sun
Before I knew it this dream was all gone

Ooh I don’t know what to do
About this dream and you
I wish this dream comes true

Ooh I don’t know what to do
About this dream and you
We’ll make this dream come true

11. ‘The gentle genocide in your eyes’: Token Every Woman Loves a Bad Boy couple
Nick and Mae from The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan.

Because come on, if you’re not shipping them, you’re insane!

Theme songs: ‘Gentle’ by Strawpeople, just for that above quote, and
‘Love is a Stranger’ by Eurythmics
Love is a stranger in an open car
To tempt you in and drive you far away
[…]And love, love, love is a dangerous drug
To take you away and leave you far behind
.

Book learning November 19, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, memories.
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The only wars my family waged were with pen and paper.

Madhur Jaffrey, Seasons of Splendour.

As someone who lives a little too vicariously through books (and the occasional film or television series), the idea that a person might fight his or her battles on the page really resonates with me. For me, books have always provided if not guidance then at least aspirations. For almost as long as I can remember reading, I have latched on to particular characters and attempted, with varying degrees of success, to emulate them. There have been a lot of articles and posts recently about female role-models in literature (prompted in part by the upcoming release of the New Moon film and the inevitable bout of hand-wringing about the message Bella Swan sends to impressionable young women) and this post is prompted, in part, by these articles. I’ll do a links round-up over at Livejournal so you can see the sorts of things that are being said, if you’re interested.

I’m quite proud of my literary role models, on the whole.

The first character I can remember pretending to be, was, fittingly, Sara Crewe from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (I had spent many years pretending to be fairytale princesses before that, but I choose to ignore that as I feel my identification with these princesses was more due to the fact that they wore pretty dresses and jewellery.) For those of you not familiar with the character, Sara is the daughter of an English soldier who lives in India as part of the colonial administration. She grows up pampered in a London boarding school run by the cartoonishly vile Miss Minchin, until her father’s death, which leaves her penniless. Miss Minchin, who spoiled Sara because she hoped to get rewarded by the wealthy Captain Crewe, finds herself responsible for a girl she detests. Overnight, Sara’s life changes. Instead of being the favoured student at the school, she is now a drudge teaching the younger students. She has to move out of her luxurious rooms into a cold attic, eating scraps where before she had dined on delicacies.

What I loved about Sara was not so much the grace with which she endured this change in circumstances but the way she chose to endure them. You see, Sara was a reader. (‘She doesn’t just read books, Miss Minchin, she devours them,’ her father says.) More importantly, she was a storyteller. The thing that kept me covering wooden crates with red crepe paper (to make them look like Sara’s ‘battered red footstool’) and drawing fireplaces on bits of paper in order to stick them on my wall to recreate Sara’s attic bedroom was the power of Sara’s imagination. ‘Suppose,’, she would say, meaning, ‘Imagine something better than here’.

A Little Princess was an early lesson for me in the power of the imagination to overcome the most horrendous circumstances. The book articulated something I’d only just begun to understand: that books offered readers another, infinitely more wonderful world.

The next book to set my imagination on fire to such an extent was Adèle Geras’ wonderful The Girls in the Velvet Frame. What, you might ask, did a story about five Jewish sisters growing up poor in pre-Israel Jerusalem have to do with a seven-year-old middle-class Canberran in the early 90s? For me, it was two things: the warmth of the sisters’ relationship (and their relationships with their widowed mother Sarah and unmarried, ageing aunt Mimi), and the perfection of Geras’ characterisation.

I loved the matriarchal world of the Bernstein sisters, as I saw (and valued) a similar quality in my own family (which is made up of very strong women with very close relationships). And I loved, in particular, two of the sisters: dreamy Naomi, who saw the world through rose-coloured glasses and used storytelling to occupy her two younger sisters, and practical, cynical Chava (‘I always expect bad things to happen, because then bad things don’t disappoint me and the good things come as a nice surprise’). There’s a lot of Naomi and Chava in me, and there is a lot of stubborn, determined Dvora in my younger sister Mimi. I recognised this even then, and I identified passionately with Geras’ characters.

When I was ten, along came one character who would blow them all away with sheer awesomeness. I’m referring, of course, to Pagan Kidrouk, from Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles. I read these books initially as I was invited to a talk given by Jinks at the sadly now defunct Griffith Library, and I fell in love with the snarky, sarcastic, scarily intelligent hero. It’s been a life-long love affair: if Pagan were to walk out of the pages of the books today, I would follow him to the ends of the earth, even if all he did was make disparaging remarks about my intelligence and rage at the stupidity of mankind.

Part of the appeal of Pagan lay in his identity as a literate intellectual in a largely illiterate, anti-intellectual world (the books are set during the Third Crusades). He was irresolutely bookish, with a rich, if angry, intellectual life going on in his head. He has always appealed to my book snobbery, which in my preteen days was even more fierce than it is today. I read, therefore I am would’ve been my motto if I’d heard of Descartes. Pagan made even the illiterate characters recognise the value of reading: Lord Roland, the knight whom Pagan serves, remarks (giving me a quote that has always resonated with me), ‘People who read are always like you. You can’t just tell them, you have to tell them why.’ I swooned, and I’m still swooning today.

The Tomorrow series by John Marsden also provided me with a set of inspirational characters. After briefly cheating on Pagan with Lee (haha), I settled down into a more sedate appreciation of this classic Australian series. I honestly think it was one of the most important cultural artefacts of my generation. For about five years, everyone was reading these books. When a new one came out, we’d all be discussing them on the playground, speculating about who would live and who would die. They were, for my generation, bigger than Harry Potter, and for that they’ll always have a special place in my heart: although I loved being a reader because it set me apart, I also enjoyed it when my classmates and friends read so that we could discuss books.

I also adored the characters because they rang so true. Not one of them is a stereotype or a cardboard cut-out placed in the book as a mouthpiece for Marsden’s views (which happens so often in so many YA books). Oh, sure, it was very clear what Marsden’s views were, but he let them seep through organically, whispering at the margins of one of the most gripping plots I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Marsden’s teenage characters, from Ellie the tomboyish, self-reliant narrator to Fi the sheltered princess, from Robyn the pacifist Christian to Lee the depressed, revenge-obsessed artist, taught me how to be brave. They taught me that war was hell and that I had a moral obligation to do all that I could to prevent it, and they taught me that teenagers were the most powerful, most adaptable, most resilient and most resourceful creatures on the planet.

The next author to play such a significant role in my moral and intellectual development was the wonderful, eloquent, word-weaving Philip Pullman. He gave me such great gifts: the character Lyra, from his His Dark Materials series, who is probably my favourite fictional heroine, and is definitely the most heartbreakingly human character ever to stalk the pages of a book, and the book The Tiger In the Well, which gave me a speech which has informed my political beliefs to this day. These books didn’t exactly change my beliefs (I was an atheist already, I was in favour of knowledge and consciousness and life, I was a social democrat, I was appalled by unchecked capitalism) so much as confirm them and articulate them in a way that I could not have done myself. No books have ever meant more to me than His Dark Materials and nothing has ever had, or will ever have, such a profound effect on my life.

In His Dark Materials, the idea that a very small event has the potential to create millions and millions of universes is a crucial theme. Well, the fact that my sister overheard me complaining about lack of books (I was put off by the cover of Northern Lights, which had animals on it: I’ve never been particularly interested in stories about animals) and forced Northern Lights into my hands utterly changed my life. I would not be at Cambridge without Philip Pullman.

There are several other book, film and television characters who are important to me: Amelie from the movie Amelie (who gave me unrealistic expectations about life, but introduced me to the joys of quirkiness and serendipity), Sulien ap Gwien from Jo Walton’s Tir Tanagiri Saga (who showed me that one could have a fulfilled life without romantic realitionships), Una from Jo Walton’s Romanitas series (whose intense introversion and observation of other people is something with which I identity strongly) and the characters in Joss Whedon’s television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly (who taught me that the family that you choose for yourself, united, can never be defeated, and that misfits can save the world).

These characters are in some ways more important to me than the themes of the texts in which they appear. As I took on all these characters and integrated them into my identity, they ceased to be the creations of their respective authors and became something different. I hesitate to say that they taught me how to be, since of course I am not as stoic as Sara Crewe, as resilient as Naomi and Dvora Bernstein, as intelligent as Pagan Kidrouk, as brave as the teenagers in the Tomorrow series or as all-around awesome as Lyra. I don’t have the courage of my convictions of Dan Goldberg and Sally Lockhart, I don’t brighten the lives of those around me as much as Amelie Poulain, I’m not as loyal as Sulien, I’m not as determined as Una and I’m not as good a friend as the characters in Joss Whedon’s shows. But all these characters taught me who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to live. Although I do not live up to their standards, that I value these standards says something essential about my identity.

‘All’s there to love/ Only love’ August 3, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, life, memories, music, reviews.
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4 comments

This is not the post I intended to write. This is the post that came to me in an opium-induced dream…er, no. This is the post that popped into my head as I was wandering back from Mill Road, trying to think of ways to avoid packing my belongings up in preparation for moving house. The idea, however, has been bubbling around in my mind since Raphael came to visit in April. We were talking about music, and about the first band, song or album that caused us to really listen to music in a different way.

For me, that band was Massive Attack. The album was Mezzanine. The song was ‘Risingson’. The year was 2001.

When you are a child or young teenager, you listen to music in a rather undiscriminating way (I use ‘you’ to mean ‘me’, of course). The first people to inform your tastes are your parents, and you listen to their music in a rather passive way. You might end up preferring several bands over others, but you do not yet have the tools to articulate why. Thus, I liked The Pogues, Paul Simon, Deborah Conway, Steeleye Span and Annie Lennox, but didn’t really have any reason for doing so beyond a vague sense of liking the sound.

The same goes for when you get a little older and begin to be influenced more by your friends, the radio and music videos (well, if you’re a 90s child who grew up watching Rage and Video Hits or their equivalents). You like certain songs and bands because the people around you like them. Hence, Savage Garden, Hanson, Regurgitator, Backstreet Boys, Silverchair, Aqua and a truly bizarre parade of one-hit wonders (The Mavises? Eiffel 65? Shanks and Bigfoot?). But again these are the tastes of other people and not your own.

So what changes? Well, for me at least (a person who loves to reduce life to a series of ‘She turned a corner and everything changed’ moments), I listened to one song, and then one album, by one band, and it totally changed the way I listened to music, to the extent to which I believe that nothing I did before that moment can truly be called ‘listening to music’.

When I was 16, in early 2001, I went around to an acquaintance’s house with a bunch of other friends. We were meant to be preparing for a group oral presentation on Oedipus Rex for our English class, but, as in so many cases, we abandoned work in favour of socialising. One of my friends put on a CD. It was Mezzanine by Massive Attack.

I had heard their song ‘Teardrop’ before; it had been all over the airwaves in 2000, and I had enjoyed it and been seriously creeped out by its video clip. But I hadn’t thought about the band beyond that. As the scratchy, sinister notes of ‘Angel’ melded with Horace Andy’s silky singing, I pricked up my ears, and began to really listen. By the time we’d got to the next track, ‘Risingson’, I had begun to do something I’d never done before when listening to music: listening with half my ear attuned to the lyrics (which I was analysing like a literary text) and half my ear attuned to the way the lyrics and sound were perfectly fused:

‘Where have all those flowers gone?
Long time passing
Why you keep me tsk and keep me tasking
You keep on asking.’

Before the year was out, I’d bought Mezzanine and Massive Attack’s two other albums, Blue Lines and Protection (Hundredth Window had not been released at that stage). Although Mezzanine remained my favourite (and is, in fact, my favourite album still), I adored the earlier albums too. But why? Why would albums about race relations, immigration and the transformed culture of early 90s Britain (Blue Lines and Protection) and about disgust with the hedonism of the Bristol scene (Mezzanine, which is also meant to be the best album to get high to) have anything to say to a nerdy, middle-class, shy Canberran teenager?

Well, it was the twofold nature of Massive Attack’s lyrics that appealed. On the one hand, they were highly specific, tied to trip-hop, Bristol, Britain, the 90s. On the other, they reached out for the universal with literary and musical allusions. They were at once intensely self-absorbed and personal and overwhelmingly communicative and broadly-focused.

Take ‘Five Man Army’, the fifth track from Blue Lines. The song is packed with internal references to the band (‘Wild Bunch crew at large’) and its history (‘When I was a child I played subbuteo on/ My table then I graduate to studio one/ ’Cos D’s my nom de plume you know but 3’s my pseudonym’). At the same time, it manages to squeeze in a selection of pop-cultural shout-outs (‘I take a small step now it’s a giant stride/ People say I’m loud why should I hide’; ‘See we’re rockin’ in your area rock beneath your balcony/ My baby just cares for me well that’s funny/ Her touch tickles especially on my tummy’; ‘It’s started by Marconi resumed by Sony/ A summary by wireless history and only’; and, arguably, ‘Money money money/ Root of all evil’). There are a series of thematic riffs running through the song, melded coherently, dropped and picked up again at exactly the right place but emphasised in a slightly different way (‘I quietly observe/ Though it’s not my space’ subtly reworks the opening lyrics of ‘I quietly observe/ Standing in my space’, for example). This is a rap song, the type of rap song that is all about talking oneself up, but it’s posturing via literary allusion rather than the usual bragging about one’s car, posse and sexual prowess.

Aside from the lines ‘I quietly observe standing in my space/ Daydreaming’, which has become a kind of personal mantra, ‘Five Man Army didn’t really speak to me in any kind of meaningful way (although I gained great pleasure unpicking the lyrics and musing on the way they fitted together). But there are many Massive Attack songs that seemed to be written especially for me.

‘Protection’ spoke directly to my teenage loneliness, my (misplaced, as it turns out) sense of grief and my desire to be cared for. It sounds pathetic now, but when I was 17, and entering my second year of unrequited love, hearing the beautiful voice of Tracy Thorn singing

This girl I know needs some shelter
She don’t believe anyone can help her
She’s doing so much harm, doing so much damage
But you don’t want to get involved
You tell her she can manage
And you can’t change the way she feels
But you could put your arms around her

I know you want to live yourself
But could you forgive yourself
If you left her just the way
You found her

meant so much. Every time I hear that song, I remember all my wasted emotion on a guy I referred to in my diaries as ‘You’ (with the capital Y) and stared at in what I thought was a wanly plaintive expression across classrooms.

All teenagers have a misguided sense of the significance of their own suffering, but I’m grateful that my personal emo soundtrack was ‘Protection’ and not ‘Welcome To The Black Parade’.

If I was an emo, I was also a wannabe hippie. I kid you not when I say that as a teenager I truly intended to live out my adult days as an environmental protester. And, would you believe it, Massive Attack have a hippie, ‘everyone hold hands together and sing kumbaya’ song. It’s called ‘The Hymn of the Big Wheel’, and it is sung by the incomparable Horace Andy, and it is beautiful.

I’d like to feel that you could be free
Look up at the blue skies beneath a new tree
Sometime again
You’ll turn green and the sea turns red
My son I said the power of axis over my head
The big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes

We sang about the sun and danced among the trees
And we listened to the whisper of the city on the breeze
Will you cry in the most in a lead-free zone
Down within the shadows where the factories drone
On the surface of the wheel they build another town
And so the green come tumbling down
Yes close your eyes and hold me tight
And I’ll show you sunset sometime again

I challenge you to listen to this and not be moved. It has an innocence and purity, and a knowing cynicism all at once. It could only have been written in the 90s, with the environmental movement hovering in the background, and the potential of the internet as a tool of both distance and closeness hovering beyond the comprehension of most people. The song makes you want to dance barefoot in the mud and watch the clouds, and then burst into tears at the thought of the butchered Tasmanian rainforests.

Then there’s the truly bizarre ‘Sly’. ‘I already know my children’s children’s faces/ Voices that I’ve heard before’. What the hell is that all about? And then we come to:

I feel like a thousand years have passed
I’m younger than I used to be
I feel like the world is my home at last
I know everyone that I meet […]

Wondering is this there all there is
Since I was since I began to be
Wondering, wandering
Where we can do what we please
Wondering

If you think about those lyrics, you know all you’ll ever need to know to understand me as I was then, as I am now, and as I will always be. ‘Sly’ expresses a mindset of mine that is expressed in a similar way by Jo Walton in The King’s Peace, the first volume of her two-part Arthurian alt-history series:

What it is to be old is to remember things that nobody else alive can remember. I always say that when people ask me about my remarkable long life. Now they can hear me when I say it. Now, when I am ninety-three and remember so many things that are to them nothing but bright legends long ago and far away. I do not tell them that I said that first when I was seventeen, and felt it too…So I have been old by my own terms since I was seventeen.

– Jo Walton, The King’s Peace, Penguin, p ix.

I haven’t even got on to Mezzanine yet. In my mind, no one will ever make a more perfect album. (I know this is a controversial opinion among Massive Attack fans, since this was the album that caused serious fractures in the bands and marked a departure from Massive Attack’s original sound.) It is a brilliant, coherent unity of words, sound and theme. The songs can be paired to give a broader, more complex understanding of their writers’ ideas.

For example, ‘Inertia Creeps’ is a record of a destructive, unsatisfying relationship from the guy’s perspective. He knows there’s something not quite right going on (‘Will you take a string/ Say you string me along’), but he chooses to ignore it, so he can get some action, essentially. Two songs later (and it’s significant that the song between is called ‘Exchange’, since we exchange points of view) is ‘Dissolved Girl’, the same story told from the perspective of the girl. Only now do we have the complete story. She doesn’t love him, and he knows it, but says nothing. She stays because the alternative is worse, and says nothing. He can feel the inertia creeping, moving up slowly, and says nothing. She stays, despite the fact that the relationship is destroying her sense of self (‘Shame, such a shame/ I think I kind of lost myself again’). We’re meant to lose ourselves in love, but surely staying in a loveless relationship and allowing whatever happens to happen causes an equal loss of identity. A dissolution. It’s seriously powerful stuff, and I wish I could say that I appreciate it solely on an intellectual level.

Moving along, we come to what are in my opinion the ‘Big Three’ of the album (I adore ‘Teardrop’ to bits, but it’s so overplayed, and I will limit myself to saying that its lines ‘Love, love is a verb/ Love is a doing word’ are among my favourite song lyrics ever, and Liz Fraser’s vocals are incredible) – ‘Black Milk’, ‘Mezzanine’ and ‘Group Four’.

‘Black Milk’ has an illusion of simplicity. Its lines are short, brief, and almost curt. But a closer look reveals hidden depths. The hovering, dark notes of the music evokes the watery, dark corners of the ocean floor, and I almost picture a series of bizarre marine creatures, the lights on their bodies illuminating the gloom in the higher points of the music. Liz Fraser’s voice is incredible, cutting through the sinister music with shimmering clarity. The sound is amazingly cold, and amazingly pure. And what of the words themselves? They are beautiful, but kind of creepy at the same time:

Eat me
In the space
Within my heart

Unlike ‘Inertia Creeps’ and ‘Dissolved Girl’, which are about being lost in the lack of love, ‘Black Milk’ is about being lost in love:

All’s there to love
Only love

Next up is ‘Mezzanine’, in my opinion the most perfect song ever written (it could only be more perfect if it had a female singer soaring in above 3D and Daddy G). What can I say about it that I haven’t said already? I associate it with the SPOILER WARNING FOR THE ‘TROY GAME’ BOOKS relationship between Asterion/Weyland and Cornelia/Eaving/Noah in Sara Douglass’ Troy Game series, which is my model for Great Love And Its Power To Save The World And All People. Even as the lyrics allude to something I believe deeply (that true love is the instigator of personal improvement, and if it doesn’t change you, it’s not love), they are playfully punning:

I could be yours
We can unwind
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine

We can unwind
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine
Will see to
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will see to
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine
We can unwind all our flaws
We can unwind all our flaws

Flaws-floors. The song’s called ‘Mezzanine’. Get it? It’s glorious stuff. (By the way, you might’ve noticed that I changed the lyrics from ‘All these have flaws’ as the lyrics website has to ‘All these other flaws’. I may be wrong, but I think that the lyrics should read ‘All these other flaws’. It makes more sense if the song is punning on flaws-floors.)

Finally we have ‘Group Four’, which acts as a counterpoint to the bleakness of ‘Inertia Creeps’ and ‘Dissolved Girl’. This song is sung by a man (3D) and a woman (Liz Fraser), unlike ‘Inertia Creeps’ and ‘Dissolved Girl’, which each have only one singer. They are in harmony. They are not lost and dissolved and inert. They are found. She is a person again, with a sense of self (‘See through me little glazed lane/ A world in myself/ Ready to sing’). He has lost his apathy and inertia (‘Flickering I roam’ and ‘I see to bolts/ Put keys to locks/ No boat are rocked/ I’m free to roam’). All is right with the world.

I could go on, but this post is now longer than some of the essays I’ve had to write for uni, and I don’t know how short your attention spans are. I’ve put a lot of myself into this post, and it is more personal than anything I would normally write on this particular blog, but it had to be said. Massive Attack absolutely changed the world for me. They made me listen to music in a different way, and have had an extraordinary influence on the way I appreciated both my old favourite bands and every new song I heard. Never before had music shown me both the world, and myself, more clearly.