Hugo Nominees 2014: Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

neptunesbroodNeptune’s Brood is the most painful book I’ve read in a long, long while.

The prose isn’t bad. The worldbuilding is incredibly in-depth. There’s action and intrigue and space pirates and mermaids. But the execution of the story was so painful that I could barely force myself to read halfway through the book, let alone to the end.

Ostensibly, Neptune’s Brood is about a financial historian named Krina, who’s searching across the universe for her missing sister. As the novel opens, we’re not told why she’s hunting for her sister or why she might be missing, but eventually we learn what Krina has known all along: the two of them were tracking down the biggest fraud in history, trying to figure out what happened and collect any millions that may have gone unclaimed in the aftermath, and they angered the people involved along the way.

But Neptune’s Brood isn’t really about Krina. It’s what I’m going to call “financial fantasy.” It’s all about a fictional financial situation. The financial instruments that are used. Their history. How they’re abused. The problems that they cause. And this isn’t just a background for a plot. This is the plot. The financial system is the protagonist of Neptune’s Brood. It receives whole chapters of explanation and exploration. And hey, if speculatory financial systems in universe-sized economies are of interest, you might get a lot more out of this book than I did. But if you’re looking for a novel, this isn’t the place to turn.

Because, yes, there is a plot. Sort of. But Stross doesn’t seem to care about it. It’s constantly interrupted by massive info dumps about economics. It has no real structure or sense. The first person narration withholds information from the reader to create “intrigue,” but it only creates frustration. Meanwhile, the prose style fluctuates wildly, the novel switches between first and third person even when our first person narrator is present in a scene, and information is repeated in an almost identical manner multiple times. The narrative makes some attempts to set itself up as a diary, or a historian’s report, or something vaguely along those times, but it never bothers to keep up the conceit, to explain how the supposed narrator knows what happened in places she never was, with people she never communicated with. It’s the most flimsy and inconsistent novel I’ve read in a really long time.

And yet the effort is clearly there. The world has a lot of depth and thought put into it. The effort was just in the wrong place. For example, Stross seems to love world-building. Really love world building. But he doesn’t want to put anything in that world. Characterization, plot, emotion, compelling action… they’re all a distant second to explaining the novel’s setting, over and over again. We land on a new planet, and we get pages and pages and pages telling us about its politics, about its economics, about its uranium deposits and the exact technical terms for this kind of planet. We know more about a city where we’ll spend thirty pages than we do about any of the characters.

I stubbornly stuck with the book to the end, not caring about the characters, not really knowing what their aims where, not caring too much about the mysteries, in the hope that the end would provide some great payoff. But spoiler alert: it doesn’t. It doesn’t even properly end. In the final two chapters, a few revelations are thrown out, and we end up in a space battle… which basically involves the protagonist saying “space battles are boring,” the narration skipping over any action, and the novel ending so abruptly that it’s almost as if the author had to wrap it up in ten seconds before his laptop battery died. Did characters live or die? What were the consequences of this dramatic turn of events? What even happened during this grand finale? Who knows? Who cares? The characters and the plot never really mattered, so they’re dropped almost in mid-air, leaving the reader to stare at the blank page and wonder what on earth just happened.

And yet, this novel is nominated for a Hugo award. Because of name recognition? Because of the depth of the world building and economic thought? I don’t know. Economics enthusiasts may enjoy this one, but as a novel, it fails almost entirely.

Missing Arianne Martell

A video of new Game of Thrones cast members was released at San Diego Comic Con last week, featuring the faces of new characters including Doran Martell, some of the Sand Snakes, and Trystane Martell. But notably missing was Arianne Martell.

Arianne Martell, for non-book readers, is the eldest child of Prince Doran and the heir to Dorne. Although Dorne is the one place in the Seven Kingdoms with absolute primogeniture, meaning the eldest child inherits regardless of gender, Arianne finds evidence that her father means to ignore her inheritance in favor of her younger brother, and becomes determined to defend her right to rule. She’s also described as having “olive skin,” making her, along with the other Dornish, one of the most prominent non-white characters in the series.

And her absence from the casting video shouldn’t be totally shocking. I doubt they’ve finished casting the entire season yet. Except that, in the casting press release, they describe Trystane as “heir to Dorne,” suggesting that, even if Arianne somehow ended up in the series, she wouldn’t be the character she was in the books. At best, she could still be Trystane’s sibling, attempting to supplant her brother with her schemes — either as an elder sibling who was overlooked, or as a younger sibling who wants more power than she has. That, at least, could lead to an interesting plotline. At worst, she’s been deleted entirely and her Myrcella-related plotline given to Trystane. Either way, it’s hard to imagine a greater irony than Trystane being declared the heir to Dorne in the show, when Arianne’s entire plotline is about her fighting the possibility that her brother will be declared heir instead of her.

In the show’s defence, most of Arianne’s significant actions could be given to someone else to streamline the plot. The only way her storyline has affected the other players in the series, at least so far, has been its impact on Myrcella, and it would perhaps be simpler to give that story of Myrcella’s betrothed. But this isn’t just a problem of whether the plot can still make sense, or whether the audience can remember yet another new character name. They’ve erased a competent, defiant, influential female character of color, and replaced her with a white male character. They’re taking away a female character’s fight for power that is rightfully hers, and handing that power to exactly the sort of character she fears will take it from her, assumedly for the very reason she fears she will be overlooked. Not only that, but if they erase Arianne’s role in the Dornish plotline, they’re erasing one of the few fantasy plotlines where a female character fights for (or manipulates, depending on your perspective) another female character, to win them both more power. Even if the storyarc itself is given to Trystane, that very compelling element will be lost.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised, given the show’s track record of misinterpreting and ignoring female characters and minimizing any hints of diversity. But this is, I think, the first time a highly significant and influential female character has been erased altogether. And since Arianne’s storyarc has lots of room for both big dramatic moments and ample nudity, two things the show seems to love, I can’t help thinking that both sexism and racism played a part in deciding that Arianne was better off as Trystane.

Marvel So Far: The Incredible Hulk

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Despite being the movie that Marvel forgot, The Incredible Hulk has a lot of interesting elements. It’s a superhero movie set post origin story, and one that deals with the horrific side effects of supposed superpowers. The plot is built around the “superhero” searching for a cure. And for the first half, at least, it’s shot as a monster movie, where the monster also happens to be the protagonist — delaying the moment you see him, only offering the audience brief glimpses, showing the destruction and not the creature, and then having him emerge out of the fog for a big, dramatic reveal.

Unfortunately, “interesting” is pretty much the last word you could use to describe the movie’s female characters. Or its conclusion. Or… well. Maybe it was forgotten for a reason after all.

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Seven Years since Deathly Hallows

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It’s been seven years since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows! Or it was on July 21st. I’m not sure I’d celebrate “seven years since” for anything else, but with Harry Potter, seven years seems particularly significant.

I’ve rarely written about Harry Potter here, in part because it feels somewhat untouchable. I’m reluctant to poke and analyse something that has meant so much to me pretty much as long as I can remember. I read my first Harry Potter book when I was 8, and remember desperately waiting for Prisoner of Azkaban to be released. The final book came out in the summer before I started college, and the final movie came out the year that I graduated college. Harry Potter provided the framework for so much of my life.

But articles like this have me reflecting not just on the books, but on the fandom around them when they were still being released. The crazy theories, the intense shipping, the “Big Name Fans”… and the fan responses to certain characters. Hermione Granger was, of course, a massive fan favorite, and perhaps more of a flawed character than we gave her credit for (I at least never noticed how ruthless she is). Lots of the shades-of-grey-at-best male characters, like Draco Malfoy and Snape, received endless adoration. But most other female characters received a less excited welcome. Lavender Brown was reviled for being shallow, Cho Chang was too emotional, Fleur Delacour was ridiculous and annoying, and Ginny was a bitch, a slut and/or a Mary Sue, depending on the critic.

The series is generally light on female characters, with the Weasley family ratio somewhat representative of the number of male vs female characters as teachers, in positions of power, and in the background at Hogwarts (were Hermione, Lavender and Parvati the only Gryffindor girls in Harry’s year? Was Pansy Parkinson the only Slytherin girl? Where were the others?). But the response to the female characters that did exist was often vitriolic at best. And the more I think about these secondary characters, the more I want to look into them and people’s reactions to them. I’ve been feeling the urge to reread Harry Potter for a while now, and the seventh anniversary of Deathly Hallows seems like the perfect time.

So keep your eyes peeled for more Harry Potter content on here in the near future. Character studies, a look at fan culture, and probably some general analysis and 11-year-long denial that Sirius really died. Because if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the past seven years, it’s that there’s nothing I like talking about more than Harry Potter.

Hugo Nominees 2014: Parasite by Mira Grant

13641105Mira Grant has been nominated for the Hugo Awards twice before with her novels Feed and Deadline, but has yet to win the grand prize. So, will Parasite be the book that earns her the win?

Well, to be honest, no. Parasite is a fun enough read, but there’s nothing groundbreaking or inventive about it, and its merits are marred by its predictability and unsatisfying conclusion.

Six years ago, Sal was in a horrific car accident, leaving her brain dead. Miraculously, just before the doctors were ready to pull the plug on her, she woke up, with no memory of her past life, no trace of her previous personality, and no recollection of how to speak or walk or anything. Experts believe that her life was saved by her medical parasite, a tapeworm genetically engineered to provide potentially life-saving support to its human host. Since then, Sal has been supported and experimented on by the pharma company that produces the tapeworms, and has been trying to get on with her life.

But then the tapeworms start turning people into zombies.

They’re not called zombies in the book, of course, but Parasite is very much a zombie outbreak novel with a twist on the cause. People lose their minds. They stare blankly, and amble along, and eventually start eating flesh. All we’re missing is a cry for “braaaaiiiins,” and even that is included more subtly in the plot along the way.

The tapeworm-zombies do lead to some terrifying zombie apocalypse scenes, and there’s a lot of other horror elements in here to enjoy, from human experimentation to shades of Doctor Frankenstein. And as the situation gets more and more dire, Sal’s race to figure out what the hell is happening and how she can stop it is compelling.

But it’s also obvious. Really, really obvious. It’s obvious what’s going on. It’s obvious what’s happening to Sal. It’s obvious what the final “shock twist” will be about 50 pages in. And the obviousness just makes it all feel too neat, too predictable. How can horror be scary if we know the answers several hundred pages before they come up?

Worse, the “shock twist” is the only resolution we get in the book. Parasite is the first in a trilogy, and it really doesn’t stand alone. Book 1 is basically characters figuring out what’s going on, with the assumption that most of the action will come later. But having characters reach a conclusion doesn’t really make for a satisfying plotline. If I read a 500 page novel, I want to feel like I’ve got somewhere by the end of it, but I kind of felt like I’d just been dawdling up to the start line. If the other books in the series were out, I might feel differently, but as it stands, I just walked away from the book with a strong feeling of dissatisfaction.

Of course, there’s a lot to commend Parasite from a feminist fiction perspective. Diversity is the name of the game. A female protagonist, female friendship, casual inclusion of gay marriage and a bisexual character and lots of racial diversity… it really can’t be faulted there. But unfortunately, the plot just doesn’t measure up.

Parasite is an enjoyable light read, as long as you don’t expect too much from it… and as long as you don’t mind that no resolution is currently in sight.

Beauty and the Beast

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Beauty and the Beast is the ultimate “not like other girls” Disney movie.

Make no mistake, the animation and the music are gorgeous, Belle is a great character, and the dynamic between Belle and Gaston gives us some interesting scenes. But although Belle is intelligent and ambitious and wanting adventure, she’s explicitly set up as being different because of it. She doesn’t fit in, because nobody else she knows could possibly also like reading, or dreaming, or want their life to come to something.

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How much do promo images matter?

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The BBC have released their official promo image for the new season of Doctor Who. Although it’s nowhere near as controversial as last season’s “unconscious Amy” promo picture, the image has come under fire for reflecting the continuing sexism in Moffat’s Doctor Who.

Which begs the question: do promotional images really matter? They’re not stills from the show. They’re marketing tools, and as such, they might not even properly reflect the content of the show. They’re single images, a different medium from whatever they’re representing. How can we criticize something based on that?

But they do matter, precisely because they’re marketing tools. A promo pic is designed to represent the spirit of the show in a single memorable image, so that people get a sense of what it’s about and hopefully get excited to watch it. The promo pics might not always be entirely accurate, if there’s disagreement between the marketing department and the show creators, but they are supposed to represent the spirit of the show in a way that appeals to the masses.

And in television, they usually reflect this pretty well. Every year, Downton Abbey‘s promo pic is of the whole cast standing in front of Downton, telling us (accurately) that this is an ensemble show, set in a country house in the 1910s and 20s. Orange and the New Black, meanwhile, has had two different approaches to promo pics. The image for the first season focused on Piper, dressed in orange, in the middle of the other girls, who are less noticeable in grey. In contrast, in the second season promo pictures, Piper’s just one face in the group, showing that she’s now less important, and that the show has become a true ensemble. In Sleepy Hollow‘s image, Ichabod and Abby are center stage, glaring into the camera, with a couple of secondary characters in the background, and the creepy misty woods declaring that this is a horror show. And on and on and on. Promo pictures have a message. They are designed to represent the show.

So what does this latest promo pic tell us about the new Doctor Who? Fabulous new TARDIS, fabulous new Doctor. The Doctor stares into the camera, a challenging and perhaps even irritated expression on his face, while he stands in a power pose. He is commanding, authoritative, ready to take on the universe. And then there’s Clara. A smaller figure, more in the background. She’s looking into the distance, not at the camera, and so is not engaging with the viewer. She’s holding onto the TARDIS and standing with her knees bent, a much weaker position, with an almost dreamy smile on her face. She’s definitely the passenger in this image, the dreamy-eyed girl that the Doctor is taking on an adventure, not an adventurer in her own right. And it’s a far cry from previous Doctor Who promo pics, where the companions have been shown on equal footing with the Doctor, engaging with the camera, in power positions, ready to fight and explore.

Yes, it’s just an image. But it’s an image that tells us a lot. At best, this depicts what the BBC thinks most viewers want to see, the image that they think will appeal the most. At worst, it depicts precisely what we should expect from the new season of Doctor Who. Exciting adventures with a moody new Doctor, with his pretty little assistant along for the ride.

Hugo Nominees 2014: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

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If The Wheel of Time wasn’t also nominated for the Hugo this year, I’d say that Ann Leckie had an excellent shot at becoming the fifth female author to win both the Nebula and the Hugo for the same book. Ancillary Justice is well-written with good characters and a compelling plot, but, most importantly for an award-winning sci-fi book, it is also full of challenging ideas, including a unique take on gender.

Ancillary Justice tells the story of the last remnant of an ancient spaceship in a human body, determined to kill the multi-bodied leader of the universe for reasons that are initially unknown. The narrative is split between flashbacks, explaining why our spaceship protagonist is on this mission, and “present day” events, where she is hunting down the only method of killing this ruler while fighting for survival herself.

The first few chapters are very confusing. Ancillary Justice errs on the side of “we’ll throw you in the deep end and explain everything later,”  and it was a little too far into the deep end for my tastes. Who is this person? What are they doing? Wait, they’re a ship? How are they a ship and also a person? What is going on? Why are we in a flashback now? The opening pages made my head hurt, and not in an intrigued sort of way. But once the book offers more explanation and eases the reader into the world more, the story becomes intriguing, and then tense, and then intense, with lots of action and character growth and compelling emotion to keep you turning the pages.

But the most compelling and interesting part of the novel, to me, is its treatment of gender. It isn’t important to the plot, it’s only mentioned a few times by the protagonist, but after the whole “this person is a spaceship” confusion, its the most memorable element of the novel by far.

Our protagonist doesn’t see gender, and so refers to absolutely everybody in her thoughts as “she.” This is, of course, far more interesting than if she referred to everybody as “he,” since that would just make it a fairly traditional sci-fi/fantasy story. The protagonist struggles to correctly gender other characters in her dialogue with them, pointing out that different races and cultures have so many different ways of marking “male” and “female” that its almost impossible for an extensive traveller to guess which is which.

This gives the book a Left Hand of Darkness-type feeling, as it slowly trains the reader to stop defining the characters by gender (except this time, the “default” is a she, not a he). But when I say “slowly,” I mean slowly. I spent a lot of the book trying to figure out which characters were male and which were female, so that I could picture them “properly.” Occasionally other characters will refer to people as “he” instead of “she,” and that feels like a vital and hard-won nugget of information: now we know that this character is definitely male or definitely female. Except, as the main race of people in the book don’t differentiate between gender at all, this isn’t a definite answer but simply a revelation of how one particular character views another’s gender.

It should be simple — everyone’s referred to as “she” and gender doesn’t really matter — but it took a long time for me as a reader to accept it. The book’s characters resisted categorization every step of the way, and I still wanted to know what box I should fit them into. This got particularly ridiculous when it came to the ruler of the universe, who is thousands of years old and controls thousands of bodies. And yet, I still wondered: he or she? It was uncomfortably revealing to see how much my brain relied on gender when it was suddenly taken away.

I would recommend Ancillary Justice for its challenging take on gender alone, but, luckily, it’s not a novel that’s all concept and no plot. Its background gender ideas are supported by compelling and evolving character relationships, by a strong plot and plenty of tension and action and an explosive finale. It’s a novel that challenges the reader, and that isn’t always comfortable to read, but it aims to grip and entertain its readers too, and it succeeds on all levels. Highly recommended!

Giveaway

Things are going to continue to be quiet around here for the rest of the week (first deadlines and other author-related work kept me busy, and now I am taking a much needed BREAK — yay for long weekends!), but if you’re interested, the cover of my debut novel A Wicked Thing was revealed on IceyBooks this week!

There’s also a giveaway of an advanced copy of the book, as soon as its available, that runs until July 30th, so if you’d like to read it, hop over there and click the enter button. :)

And FeministFiction will be back on Monday with a review of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

Marvel So Far: Iron Man

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I’ll give Iron Man this: it tries.

It tries to include female characters and overcome sexist tropes. It doesn’t try very hard, and it doesn’t do a very good job, but the signs of effort are there.

Disclaimer: I’m not a comic book fan. Although I have picked up some tidbits about comic book plots here and there, I’ve never read them, so I’m commenting solely on the movie. This is definitely a casual viewer/laywoman’s review.

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