“Totems” by Ben Baldwin.
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Archive for 002
Jonathan Clements traces the origins of Takeshi Koike’s Redline back into 1960s baseball, 1970s sci-fi racing and 1980s cheese…
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The wide variety of metaphor and symbolism available in speculative fiction allows authors to tackle a bewildering variety of topics. One of the most disturbing issues that authors can wrestle with is child abuse. This month I present three recent stories that broach the subject using entirely different sets of tropes: historical slipstream, near future SF, and secondary world fantasy. Child abuse is an extremely emotional subject and must be handled with care. Presumably some authors could exploit it for a cheap emotional boost, but it seems that just about every editor knows better than to allow such a story out of the slush pile. The authors here take their subject matter very seriously.
Two recent stories are told from the first person perspective of the victim, now grown. The narrators of both Richard Bowes’ novelette “Pining to be Human” (described as autobiographical) and Rachel Swirsky’s “The Monster’s Million Faces” are men who were molested by strangers as children. In “Pining,” (July/August Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) the time period is the 1960s. The (unnamed) narrator is messed up in a whole number of ways: he had a childhood concussion, he was molested by a man in the subway when he was thirteen. Since then he’s flunked out of one college, graduated from another by the skin of his teeth, sold himself for sex to men who think he’s underage (which gives him the money for his therapist), dodged the draft with the help of his therapist, and lived as part of a bisexual love triangle that melts down dramatically. He makes a living as a writer for awhile before completely losing it thanks to his drug habit, and finally winds up in rehab after hitting rock bottom.
This is mainly a straight-up piece of historical and character fiction. A light fantastic motif comes in from the “Witch Girls,” characters from the play “Dark of the Moon,” that show up at various intervals in his life. In the play, they are evil characters who trick the Witch Boy, who wants to be human to live with his mortal love, into staying a Witch. The narrator is completely upfront about decoding the symbolism here: when his college theatre department puts on the play, everyone uses “Witch boy” as code for gay and “Human boy” as code for straight. At the very end, when he has finally decided to clean up instead of descending into chaos and death, the Witch Girls show up in a comforting and soothing role, indicating that he is finally making peace with himself, his sexuality, and his identity.
“The Monster’s Million Faces” (September on Tor.com) is set in the near future. Aaron was abducted as a child, held for five days blindfolded and with ears plugged, molested repeatedly, then dumped back into his old life. He is a functional adult, working for a law firm, but when a female co-worker harasses him he flips out and gets violent, hence, the therapy. The key technology in the story is memory grafts. The idea is that erasing memories doesn’t really work, but you can implant positive resolutions to those memories. The problem is in finding an imaginary resolution that will actually provide the victim with lasting comfort. Once the patient and therapist come up with such a scenario, it will be implanted into the brain with concomitant stimulation of the amygdala.
“People need different things — resolution, confrontation, revenge, absolution, the answer to a question. We’ll keep inducing hypnosis until we find a scenario that works.”
She leaned forward, catching my eye.
“This is just the start — bandaging the wound, as it were. You’ll still need therapy afterward.”
I waved off her provisos. “Won’t I remember sitting here, talking about it? Won’t I know it’s fake?”
Dana shrugged. “We’ve known for a long time that false memories feel true. Intellectually, you’ll know it’s fake. Emotionally and therapeutically, it’ll be true for you.”
The bulk of the story consists of Aaron working through different scenarios: revenge fantasies where he kills the man (who he never saw and can hardly imagine), times when the man asks for forgiveness, times when he is re-violated, all different kinds of images. At the same time we get glimpses of his life: his alienation from his parents, his inability to form meaningful relationships, his view of his life as ‘claustrophobic’ and ‘lightless.’ At one point his father, who’s been told that Aaron’s off work because of a physical injury, says: “Young people heal up fast. You’ll be better any day now.” At that moment in the story it really twists in the knife: children may recover quickly from physical wounds, but psychic wounds can last forever. At the very end of the story Aaron finally does find a scenario that gives him some peace. It’s not perhaps the image or response that you’d expect to be positive, but it convinced me.
Finally, Lucius Shepard has a novella, “The Taborin Scale,” in the Summer 2010 issue of Subterranean that features an abused child. We start with George, a numismatist who enjoys spending his vacations in Teocinte. This country lives in the shadow of a gigantic dragon, Griaule, who is literally as big as hills. It hasn’t moved in centuries, but likewise hasn’t rotted away. There is much debate as to whether it is living or dead, but Teocinte does a good trade in relics (real and fake) related to the dragon. In one bundle of odds and ends that George buys, he finds a dragon scale. It attracts the attention of the prostitute Sylvia (not her real name), who offers to be his companion for two weeks in return for the scale. As George is cleaning and polishing the scale, it transports them in time. They are in the same place, but there is no town and no gargantuan dragon. There is a small dragon that looks like Griaule might have in its youth. It herds George and Sylvia towards water, and then leaves them alone.
They both adapt quickly to their circumstances, attending to practicalities such as food, water and shelter. In a few days, George forages away from their camp and finds himself in an altercation with some unfriendly people who have also been transported. In the process he rescues a child from them.> Peony had been suffering almost daily abuse at their hands. As they are running back to their camp, the young dragon shows up again to let George know that he needs to stick closer to his own camp after this. So George, Sylvia and Peony come to form something of an ad hoc family. Peony is a desperately damaged individual. She had been sexually abused routinely by both her mother and her father. After they were transported in time another fellow, Edgar, joined them. Instead of rescuing or helping her, he joined in the abuse. She is only occasionally coherent, and is mostly checked-out from reality. She believes the dragon is talking to her in her mind.
The first night after George rescued Peony, someone came to him as he was sleeping and gave him a quick blow-job. He assumed it was Sylvia, thanking him for rescuing the girl. But a few months later, he has cause to doubt. He and Peony are out foraging for food, and they stop to nap. He wakes up to find the girl fondling him. He pushes her away and lectures her about not having to do that anymore. But he begins to doubt himself — was it Sylvia that first night? Did he push Peony away fast enough? Was there something prurient in their relationship? He distances himself from Peony even more, forbidding her to even hug him. At this point she’s so disassociated it doesn’t seem to affect her much.
Eventually Edgar tries to infiltrate their camp, bringing a friend along. George kills the friend and Sylvia kills Edgar, acts that bear emotional consequences. Not long after that, the dragon herds all the transportees into an amphitheatre (shifting time again) for the big finale, which I’ll leave to the reader. It is appropriately cataclysmic. In the epilogue we skip forward about a decade. George and Peony live together as father and adopted ward, but there are rumors of an inappropriate relationship. However, having suffered amnesia regarding everything that happened before the cataclysm, Peony seems to have transformed into a relatively healthy, functional adult.
This story is complemented by several footnotes. In one, there is an implication that the world George and Sylvia live in is actually our own Earth at some other time. In another, we learn a bit about what George thinks has actually happened when they were transported through time:
9. Though a rift in time or dimensionality would seem to be indicated, George subscribed to the theory espoused by Peri Haukkola, holder of the Carbajal Chair of Philosophy at the University of Helvetia. Haukkola believed that people under extreme stress could alter the physical universe even to the point of creating pocket realities, and George assumed that a reality formed by Sylvia’s self-avowed identity crisis comprised the relatively empty landscape they currently inhabited.
This seems like a somewhat random note in the story, but the narration returns to it a few times. I wonder if it isn’t pointing to the possibility that this adventure is a pocket universe created by Peony — the dragon Griaule, shadowing over everything, would represent her universe of abuse. The people transported to the pocket universe rescue her from her abuse and start to care for her. When they finally kill her abusers, the cataclysmic event happens, washing her clean of her memories and allowing her to be in some way reborn. I may be forcing this reading of the story, but it gives heft to some of the rather gargantuan metaphors lurking around the tale. I strongly encourage you to go and read this one and see what interpretation strikes you. Like all good literature this story can be read on multiple levels.
All of these stories are intense and disturbing, and point to the lasting effects of child abuse and molestation. In each, the victims are disassociated and alienated from their realities; only somewhat functional in their own lives. Shepard’s novella also delves into the effect that abuse can have on others, as George begins to doubt himself and his own motives, and succumbs to fear that he could unintentionally perpetuate the abuse. I’d also note that Peony is what I’d describe as a more ‘typical’ abuse victim: she was abused repeatedly by family members. The men in the other two stories were molested in one-off encounters with strangers, which I understand is less common. In any case, this fundamental betrayal by the world leaves all of them unable to trust or to form meaningful attachments to other people. Of the three I’d say that Swirsky’s tale is the most horrific and intense, while Shepard’s is the best written. (I have long admired Shepard’s skill with prose and structure. He is one of my favorite stylists in the field, along with Jeffrey Ford.)
It strikes me that SF/F is particularly well suited to discuss intense emotional issues such as abuse. With its ability to cast stories into worlds of literalized metaphor, it can bring out the emotional significance of these themes in a wide variety of ways. In “Monster’s Million Faces,” Aaron gets to mentally confront his abuser in diverse guises, finally working out his fundamental question. The narrator of “Pining to be Human” wrestles with his identity, but finally sees the threatening Witch Girls as comforting figures. The oppressive dragon of “The Taborin Scale” ends in a fiery cataclysm. In each case this seems to lead to healing and a measure of peace. I hope that stories such as these can lead to a hope of comfort for real-life victims of abuse, and can lead non-victims to greater understanding of the continuing issues facing those afflicted.
In any hierarchy each oppressed group is always looking for someone else to look down upon. Science fiction and fantasy occupy a pretty lowly place on the greasy totem pole of literary respectability. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that, when last year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel shortlisted three books marketed as “Young Adult”, a few eyebrows were raised around the blogosphere. After all, “serious” literary critics often take the view that SF&F is actually for children, something that you should grow out of reading when you become an adult. Many people will be keen to prove that idea wrong.
Yet SF&F have a long and honorable tradition in providing fiction for teenagers. The “Heinlein juvenile” is often held up as an example of some of the best the genre has to offer. Hugo Gernsback firmly believed in providing science education for young people. And many writers today are enthusiastically jumping into the YA arena. There is clearly a connection here.
What, you might ask, has prompted this fit of introspection? Well, I recently had the pleasure of reading Holly Black’s latest novel, White Cat [Purchase]. It is a fine book, but I couldn’t help noticing the sticker on the cover proudly proclaiming “A novel for grown-ups from the author of Spiderwick”. Now, the central characters of White Cat are teenagers. Much of the action takes place in a school. The book opens with the lead character up on the school roof, which sounds like an affectionate nod to Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass [Purchase]. If this isn’t a YA book, I thought to myself while reading it, I don’t know what is. And yet, here was Gollancz eager to claim that it wasn’t. Perhaps the concept of YA is more complicated than I had thought.
It is possible, of course, that YA is simply that which we call YA when we point to it. As I understand it, however, Damon Knight’s famous dictum was not an attempt to establish himself, and his fateful finger, as the ultimate arbiter of SFness, but rather it was an early exercise in what we now call crowdsourcing. Knight was saying that if enough people thought a book was science fiction then it probably was. The same can be applied to YA, but that still leaves us asking what leads someone to classify a book as YA in the first place.
Those who wish to distance SF from YA tend to assume that writing for kids is somehow simplistic, less complex and less challenging than writing for adults. There are ways in which that is probably true. It is unlikely, for example, that anyone would publish a typical Gene Wolfe novel as YA. You don’t normally ask teenager readers to work that hard. But the corollary doesn’t hold. By no means every book published for adults is as complex and demanding as a Gene Wolfe novel. One of my guilty pleasures is Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books. I recently read the latest one, Tongues of Serpents [Purchase], and very much enjoyed it despite the lack of complexity (I raced through it in a day). I am sure that Novik’s books are read and enjoyed by many teenagers. And yet they are not published as YA.
Another possible indicator of YA-ness is the absence of certain themes. Parents are forever getting themselves in a tizzy over what their kids are reading. Sex, drugs, violence: these are all things that kids apparently need protecting from. So do publishers avoid these themes in choosing which books to market as YA? Not a bit of it. Remember all of the moral panic we had over Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels [Purchase], which features child abuse and gang rape? There can’t be many topics more potentially nightmare-inducing for teenagers than that, and yet it was happily published as YA.
At Worldcon this year I had the pleasure of sharing a panel with Alison Goodman, author of Eon [Purchase], and Hazel Edwards, co-author (with Ryan Kennedy) of f2m: the boy within [Purchase]. Both of these books contain positive portrayals of trans characters. Hazel’s book (which is not SF) actually features a central character who is a young person going through transition from female to male. It is rare to see adult books tackling such themes. If trans characters appear in books for adults it is almost certainly for sensational impact, or as the butt of cruel jokes. YA novels, I have found, are rather more likely to treat social issues like this seriously and sensitively.
Another potential definition of YA, and one that worked for me when I read White Cat, is that YA books have central characters who are teenagers. This seems to make sense on a fairly basic level. People like to read books containing characters with whom they identify. If you are a teenager, it makes sense that you would want to read books about teenagers. This would also explain why Novik’s books are not sold as YA.
Even here, however, there are complications. For her Hugo-nominated book, The Inter-Galactic Playground [Purchase], Farah Mendlesohn read every YA science fiction book that she could lay her hands on. One of the trends that she noticed in doing so is that YA science fiction has become less and less a matter of science fiction books aimed at teenagers, and more a matter of books aimed at teenagers that happen to have a science fiction setting.
The key issue here is that many YA novels don’t just feature teenage characters, they address issues that are of concern to teenagers: school, parents, first love, and so on. In much the same way as a romance novel can be dressed up in a huge variety of different settings, so a YA novel can be set in different countries, different time periods, and in outer space.
I should note here that Mendlesohn was not advancing “being about teenage concerns” as a definition of YA, she was simply remarking on a trend that she had observed. She felt it was unfortunate that a subgenre which, in the past, had done so much to inspire young people with a love of science, was now reduced to being wallpaper for tales of teenage angst.
Publishing, however, abhors a vacuum. It may go for a very long time sticking to a maxim of “X won’t sell”. For years, maybe decades, it will be impossible to sell a book that is seen to fit the description of X. And then one day an adventurous young editor spots an amazing book that she’d buy in a second if it wasn’t very obviously the very epitome of X. She takes it to her boss, who decides to indulge her whim, and suddenly, because this is such a great book, X is the new in thing and every editor is phoning agents asking them if they have any X-like novels on their lists.
Well, that’s the fairytale version anyway. I don’t think that we are quite on the cusp of a YA science fiction resurgence yet. But we are seeing a number of books that give me cause for hope. Cory Doctorow, for example, is starting to make a career out of publishing political science fiction for teenagers. His Hugo-nominated Little Brother [Purchase] was an extended rant against the evils of security theater. It encouraged young people to stand up against the creeping imposition of a “your papers, please” culture on Western society. His new book, For The Win [Purchase], is ostensibly about video games. But Doctorow says in the introduction that one of his objectives in writing the book was to teach young people about economics, so that they might know when they were being exploited. The novel is based around young people who work as “gold farmers” making money for others though their skill in video games. This is by no means a common teenage concern.
With The Windup Girl [Purchase] having swept almost all before it in this year’s awards, everyone will be looking for the next new book from Paolo Bacigalupi. It is already out, it is called Ship Breaker [Purchase], and if you haven’t heard of it that’s because it was published as YA. Once again this is a book that is by no means only about young love and awful parents. The book is set in a near-future America where young kids on the Gulf Coast are set to work on the difficult and dangerous job of salvaging valuable materials from the hulks of old ships. Like so much of Bacigalupi’s output, this is a book with environmental concerns very much to the fore. Like Doctorow’s work, it is very political.
A hot tip for next year’s Hugo is The Dervish House [Purchase] by Ian McDonald. His three near-future novels set in developing nations (the other two are River of Gods [Purchase] and Brasyl [Purchase]) have proved very popular, but industry gossip suggests that McDonald is moving on to something different. His next novel will apparently be a YA book. And indeed one of the most memorable characters in The Dervish House is a young boy.
The increased interest in YA science fiction isn’t only coming from established SF authors deciding to write for teenagers. Dystopian fiction is apparently all the rage in YA at the moment. I’m currently reading one of the hottest properties around, the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games [Purchase], Catching Fire [Purchase] & Mockingjay [Purchase]), and it is very good. It is a fast-paced adventure story with some deft plotting and interesting characters, but it is also much more than that.
To start with there are classical references of the sort you might expect to see in a literary novel. In Collins’ near-future America a rich elite, based in what is probably Denver, has subdued the rest of the country and lives in luxury while the rest of the country labors to support them, and starves. The people of the “Capitol” fairly obviously owe a lot to ancient Rome, even down to vomiting up food so that they can eat more at parties. The central conceit, the idea that each subject territory must send a young boy and girl every year to participate in gladiatorial games, is straight out of the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur.
From there, however, Collins’ political astuteness takes over. Rather than have the young tributes be eaten by a monster, she has them pitted against each other in a televised fight for survival in a dangerous wilderness environment. The winner will not just be a survivor, she will be a ruthless killer. I am sure that there will be academic papers written about Collins’ use of reality TV as a tool of political oppression. There may also be papers about how, while writing about how the Gamekeepers cruelly maneuver the young players to provide better entertainment for the TV viewers, Collins must surely be aware that she is deftly maneuvering her characters into yet more desperate situations in order to provide entertainment for her readers.
The gender subtexts of the book are interesting too. The central character, Katniss Everdeen, is a tough, resourceful young lady who is an expert hunter, lethal with a bow, and who became the breadwinner for her family when her father died. She is paired with Peeta Mellark, a charming but soft-hearted boy whose principal skill is decorating cakes. The UK publishers, perhaps not knowing what to do with science fiction for girls, put Peeta’s picture on the cover of book #1 (though that may just be a variant, I’ve seen pictures of a Katniss cover), and avoided people entirely for the other two. Despite this, and despite Collins having eschewed the usual tactic of resorting to initials so as to appeal better to boys, the books are selling like hot cakes.
And so they should. These are good books with subtle touches that any adult reader will appreciate. I noted with amusement, for example, that the selfish bully who becomes Katniss’s most dangerous opponent in The Hunger Games is called Cato. I’m sure that’s not an accident.
As for White Cat, I am still bemused. It is possible that the publishers had concerns about the nature of the plot. Holly Black speculates that in a world where magic is rare and illegal those with magical skills will very quickly fall into the clutches of criminal syndicates. Many of the characters are crooks of some sort, and while the hero, Cassel, is less immoral than the rest of his family, he is still an expert con artist. Maybe having a hero who is a criminal is the step too far that publishers won’t take.
Another possibility is that the comment is actually aimed at teenagers. The Spiderwick series is for younger children and Putting “adult” on the cover might be a subtle way of telling teenagers that this book for them, not for their younger siblings.
My favored explanation, however, is that this was just a marketing gimmick aimed at getting more adult readers for Holly. After all, she’s an excellent writer, and many of those people who complained about last year’s Hugos are doubtless reluctant to try her work, or that of anyone well known for writing for the YA market. They shouldn’t be. And neither should you. There are many fine books out there waiting to be read. If they are, on average, written in simpler language than some other books you are used to, well that just means you can read them more quickly, and thereby read more of them. Why not give them a try?
By one of those surreptitious coincidences that happen on the Internet, Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan spent a lot of their most recent podcast talking about the nature of YA fiction. You can listen to them here.
This month on The Salon we welcome three writers who identify as members of the LGBT community. Nicola Griffith, Hal Duncan and Catherynne M. Valente talk to Cheryl Morgan about writing LGBT characters.
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Cheryl Morgan talks to Jay Lake in a hotel room in Melbourne, Australia.
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Cheryl Morgan talks to Pat Cadigan at Heathrow airport shortly after their return from Finncon.
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This regular feature of Salon Futura highlights a number of significant book releases (and occasionally items in other media as well) in the month the issue is published. The selections will be made by Salon Futura contributors and staff, and occasionally by our podcast guests and interviewees.
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We are aiming to have copies of Dark Spires on sale at BristolCon. You can now pre-order the book at a special discount price of £6.99. If you are interested in a copy, please pre-order as we will not be printing many copies and pre-orders will be used as a guideline for how many we get done.
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September has been an interesting month. Reaction to Salon Futura at Worldcon was very positive, but then I went and won a Hugo as part of the Clarkesworld team and that rather distracted me. I did, however, bag an interview with Jay Lake, which you can find in this issue, and one with Seanan McGuire that we will have up next month.
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