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Oh, the humanity! February 2, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, fangirl.
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5 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.