Hugo Nominees 2015 — Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery

rat-queens-vol-01-releases

Let me preface this by saying I’m far from an expert on graphic novels. I’ve read some of Buffy Season 8 (but found it too weird for my tastes), and, more recently, some of the Fables series (until it got too disturbing), but after a few failed attempts, I’d concluded that I’m simply “not a comic book person.”

And then I read Rat Queens.

I ended up devouring the entire thing in one go.

The back of the book describes the series as “Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack.” But I’m not sure this description does it justice. It’s a Dungeons and Dragons-esque quest and monsters fantasy, except it’s about an all-female team of total badasses who joke and fight and scheme their way through life and have more personality in their little fingers than anyone in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny. The art style is just plain gorgeous to look at. And the characters… the characters! There’s Hannah, the reckless elf mage with a very short temper, Betty the Smidgen (like a halfling) who loves girls, sweets, being adorable and breaking and entering, Dee, the atheist introvert cleric, and Violet, the rebel dwarf fighter who shaved off her beard to make a statement but might just regrow it now everyone is copying her.

The secondary characters also have a lot of life to them, and the comic is bursting with diversity — diversity in skin color, in sexuality, in fantasy races (female orcs! Female trolls!), and even just in body type and general look. None of that “all female faces are alike” Disney thing here. They’re all different, and they’re all badass in their own way.

I was absorbed into their world within a couple of pages, and by the end, I was converted from a reluctant comic book reader to someone absolutely desperate to see what would happen next.

A very funny, tongue-in-cheek take on D&D adventure, that somehow also manages to have a strong emotional heart. I need the next volume immediately.

Hugo Nominees 2015: Novellas

Reading the Hugo nominees for Best Novella really revealed to me why people are so upset about the block voting of the Sad/Rabid Puppies. It’s not just about politics and keeping “untraditional” sci-fi/fantasy writers and fans out of the club. It’s about turning the Hugo into a joke of an award in the process.

Because these novellas were bad. Unbelievably, awfully bad.

I really tried to find the merit in them, to enjoy them, even. I was determined to evaluate the stories without any bias in mind. I was expecting them to be not to my taste, perhaps, but still decently written stories.

But the novellas that followed were an exercise in “how bad can a published sci-fi novella be?” Really bad, it turns out. Really, really bad.

Read More

The “Pills are Evil” Trope

Although I mostly enjoyed Brooke Soso’s plotline in the latest season of Orange is the New Black, the narrative arc exploring depression had one major flaw: it suggested that a therapist giving Soso a prescription for anti-depressants was dangerous and negligent, and that only therapy could possibly help her.

And this is a common problem even in progressive fiction. Therapy gets a pretty fifty-fifty treatment — some stories present it was pointless and weak, while others invoke it in a more positive way — but prescription medication for mental health is almost always presented as a bad thing. Anti-depressants, according to these stories, numb your emotions and transform you into a different person. They are not treatment but torture, and no one who actually wants to “be themselves” will take them.

Read More

Hugo Nominees 2015: The Dark Between The Stars by Kevin J. Anderson

Dark_Between_the_Stars_2014_1st_ed

In the wake of the Sad Puppies controversy at the Hugo Awards, Feminist Fiction will be looking at and reviewing every possible nomination — looking at merit without regards to politics. For more of my thoughts on the Sad Puppiesread here.

The Dark Between the Stars is the first in a new sci-fi series by Kevin J. Anderson, set twenty years after his previous multi-volume epic, The Saga of the Seven Suns. It’s one of the books put on the Hugo ballot by the Puppies, and it seems to support the argument that they’re simply after supporting “traditional, fun science fiction.” It’s a sci-fi epic, a Song of Ice and Fire in space, covering a vast world with a huge cast of characters, with a focus on being fun.

I was at a major disadvantage with this one, as I hadn’t read any of the previous series, but the book did a good job of catching up those of us who were new to the world. I might have missed things that a seasoned reader would spot, but I never felt too confused by the novel’s world — an impressive feat.

Unfortunately, the novel had two big problems that, when combined, made me give up reading it at the halfway mark.

First, the book simply has too many perspective characters. There must have been more than twenty in the first half of the book alone, and even at the 50% mark, new perspectives were cropping up, so there may be even more by the novel’s conclusion. Although some perspective characters showed up multiple times, many only appeared for a chapter or two. Many of these seemed to be characters from the original series, so spending a single chapter in their heads may be enjoyable for readers who know them well, but for me, it made things seem crowded and unfocussed.

The character hopping felt like a stylistic choice to focus on the world and the plot, rather than on a few characters and their journeys. That might suit a lot of readers, but I prefer to have a smaller number of characters to really connect with, no matter how sweeping the plot might be.

But this leads into the second major problem with the book. The writing style suggested a focus on plot, but in the first half of this 700 page book, nothing really happens. I haven’t given a plot summary of the book in this review, because there isn’t one.

Because yes, things happen. Occasionally, they’re even dramatic and compelling things. But they don’t build up into a plot.

Fifty chapters in, the main conflict seems to be emerging — it’s still not fully appeared, but there have been hints, a sense that something is Wrong on a universe level — but there are probably only four chapters in those fifty that are necessary to telling that story. Including a few different plotlines that will tie into the main story later is fine, but if I’ve read 350 pages of a book, I want a pretty good sense of what the main plot is, and an investment in it coming together. All I have at chapter 50 are ominous hints and a sense of foreboding that almost none of our many (many) perspective characters have encountered yet.

And this was definitely exacerbated by the number of characters and plot threads. There were a few dramatic and really engaging moments, but they’d be followed by many, many chapters following different plot threads, and when we finally returned, it would often be to find that months had passed in the world and that the dramatic plot thread wasn’t going anywhere immediately after all.

In the end, I just didn’t feel grounded anywhere in the story, even after hours and hours of reading. It may all tie together in a satisfying way by its conclusion, but reading even half of the book was a huge time commitment without much payoff, and so although the writing is decent and enjoyable, I won’t be putting in the time to find out what the second half has in store.

Not a Hugo worthy book for me, but one that may well appeal to others, depending on their narrative tastes.

The Modern Cinderella

1416506729_into-the-woods-anna-kendrick-560-500x413

2015 seems to be the Year of the Cinderella Retelling, with book and movie versions of the classic tale cropping up everywhere.

Disney released two Cinderella adaptations this year — the live action versions starring Lily James, and the new adaptation of Into the Woods starring Anna Kendricks. The first is a rather earnest, traditional retelling of the story, while Into the Woods seems dedicated to showing how mistaken such fairy tale dreams are. With such drastically different approaches in mind, it seems like the movies should have entirely different messages at their conclusions. And yet in both stories, the different Cinderellas find happiness, can find family, by learning to accept who they are.

And this is a thread I see in almost every modern Cinderella adaptation I find. Whether the adaptation is traditional or radical, the modern Cinderella is reframed as a story of self-discovery, rather than prince discovery, where she needs to have the courage to be truly herself to find her happily ever after.

Read More

Is it OK to read Go Set A Watchman?

20150326140533!US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_Watchman

Tomorrow is the official release day of Harper Lee’s “sequel” to To Kill A MockingbirdGo Set a Watchman. After 55 years of Lee insisting that she would never publish another novel, the manuscript of Go Set A Watchman was apparently discovered in a safe deposit box, and the now 89-year-old Lee consented to its publication.

The big question, really, is whether people should read it.

Read More

Hugo Nominees 2015: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

20518872

In the wake of the Sad Puppies controversy at the Hugo Awards, Feminist Fiction will be looking at and reviewing every possible nomination — looking at merit without regards to politics. For more of my thoughts on the Sad Puppiesread here.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu — nominated for Best Novel

The Three Body Problem is very focussed on the science side of science fiction. It’s ultimately a theoretical novel, using its “scientists are committing suicide, physics isn’t making sense and also there might be aliens” plotline as a framework for its various philosophical and scientific explorations.

It’s an interesting novel, and a worthwhile read, but I’m not convinced that it was entirely successful. Because while its philosophical elements were intricately thought out, many of the elements that made it a novel were undeveloped.

First, the characters. The Three-Body Problem has two protagonists, one of whom is a well-considered and interesting character, and one of whom is a cipher for plot to happen around, without much of a personality and with a family that appears and disappears at the whims of the plot. Our more interesting protagonist, Ye, first appears against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, and the life and choices that follow are fascinating… but with, I think, too much left unsaid. Some of this could be a cultural issue, either based on an assumed Chinese audience’s existing emotional knowledge of the Cultural Revolution, or just on different literary conventions, but I found that Ye’s character wasn’t really explained enough for my tastes. I could step out of the book and piece together her motivations, but  the book never attempted to give us much of an emotional connection with her or to guide us through her thoughts. Obviously that’s a stylistic choice, and some people will undoubtedly find that bare-bones approach to character and emotion compelling, but as a character-driven reader, it left me wanting more.

The novel’s narrative style was also slightly distracting in its inconsistency. Almost every chapter seemed to have a different approach, from a typical third-person writing style, to an omniscient narrator reporting back on events like a historian, to characters telling their own stories, to conversation transcripts, to scientific papers and beyond. There were sections where we learned what had been happening “off screen,” as though the protagonists were also learning these details at that moment, but it was unclear how, exactly, any of them had gathered this information.

The Three Body Problem features extended segments in a virtual-reality world, and these were the novel’s most successful, as they provided the opportunity to explore various philosophical and mathematical concepts without reference to context. In this virtual reality world, great thinkers from across history meet together to try and solve the question of how to predict something seemingly unpredictable. The plot here is somewhat bare bones and slow moving, but the virtual world was compelling, and I was equally fascinated by the theoretical discussions and the mystery of this “virtual” world itself.

Unfortunately, this virtual reality has much less significance to the overall plot of the novel than a reader might initially assume. Although its existence is explained, it doesn’t tie into the plot very well, and feels more like a diversion in the end, making it retroactively unsatisfying. Like many other parts of the novel, it also doesn’t quite make sense. In parts, we’re told that each player has their own unique playing world, but in other parts, we meet other players in game, like it’s all one big MMO.

The result is an often fascinating read, but not, in my opinion, a satisfying novel. It tried to invoke too many ideas, without developing much of them beyond the philosophical elements. I’ve seen people state that this novel is mostly the backstory or set-up for the two much more compelling sequels, which I can believe, and the writing intrigued me enough that I may just pick up the next book’s English translation, when it’s released, to find out.

The Three-Body Problem won’t be at the top of my Hugo ballot, but I have no doubt that it will feature at the top of many other readers’ lists, and rightly so. The key issue here is how highly you weight a novel’s ideas over its execution — if you want a cerebral book that will intrigue you and make you think, it’s a great example. But if you want a book with characters who make you feel, you’d be advised to look elsewhere.

The Problem with Dead Girls

While browsing through a bookshop at the weekend, I noticed a new Young Adult novel called Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls.

I want to be clear, before I write anything else, that I know nothing about this book beyond that title, and I’m not making any value judgement about it in particular. It could be a fantastic novel. It could be a powerful exploration of all the issues I’m about to discuss. But Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls is a punch in the gut of a title, because it evokes that far-too-common trope of the tragically beautiful dead girl.

A couple of years ago, young adult fiction had a major problem with Dead Girl covers. In some instances, the image was relevant to the plot. In others, the image was simply used to create a sense of the ethereal. But in they were united by the presence of an Ophelia-like figure, young, usually pale-skinned, in a floating (probably white) dress, floating underwater or lying dead on the ground. These novels weren’t tragedies, but paranormal stories. Sometimes, they were even stories where the girl depicted on the cover had powers of some kind, yet the image used to sell the stories was one of ethereal passivity.

Because that, in the end, is what the dead girl trend really shows — female protagonists in the ultimate position of passivity. If they’re dead, they cannot take any action again — they cannot fight back, cannot assert themselves, and can only be defined by others. We love the idea of a beautiful young girl poetically succumbing to death, as Ophelia does, embracing the peace and simplicity it provides.

This trend of putting dead girls on covers has faded recently, but the desire to put dead girls in novels has only seemed to increase. Readers of genre fiction should be used to the idea of a female character — probably the male protagonist’s girlfriend — dying so that the protagonist is motivated to act. But the Dead Girl trope has become a really popular element of realistic YA as well, especially in the currently booming sub-genre of “suicide fiction.” Because, it seems, there’s no better mystery than a dead girl — the why of her death, the how, the who she really was behind her mask. She can no longer speak for herself, so she becomes abstract, a puzzle to be solved, if only the protagonist can gather all the pieces. She is only seen through others’ eyes, but she also loses any privacy along with her agency, and narratives built around piecing together a dead girl have a voyeuristic feel, as we pry into the girl’s life and uncover all her secrets and dark sides.

But, like the paranormal girls in the books with the Dead Girl covers, these female characters are rarely shown to be helpless. Although the trope often invokes the Ophelia aesthetic, these stories often work to deconstruct the idea of these “nice girls.” They are so wrapped in tragedy that they must take their own lives — because rarely is the reason simply “depression” with no further explanation — and often probing that tragedy reveals all sorts of darkness that no one noticed while they were alive. It plays into the duality of those book covers again — the sense of ethereal, beautiful passivity of death, but also the threat that these girls are somehow deceiving people, that they are not so pure and good and passive after all. This could be argued to be adding depth to the characters, but when paired with this dead-girl passivity, it’s less depth and more duality, dancing into the other familiar trope of the hidden temptress, the witch in innocent clothing.

And so we come to Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls. In five words, this book invokes every problem discussed above. It’s about “suicide letters,” so the girls killed themselves, and have left a mystery behind in their letters to be solved (or else, why mention them?). These aren’t just girls, already a weaker and more innocent descriptor, but beautiful girls, girls so beautiful that that’s the first thing we learn about them. Their deaths are all the more tragic, because they were beautiful, one word evoking that Ophelia trope so that the cover image doesn’t have to. And it’s important that we know these suicide notes were from beautiful girls, because that changes how we view them — they become more poignant, almost ethereally so, but they also become slightly more dangerous and potentially deceptive. We have a lot of expectations in mind for suicide notes from beautiful girls.

And those expectations are, indeed, how the book describes itself — “sexy, dark and atmospheric.” The book’s description suggests that it doesn’t feature any suicide notes, probably isn’t about a suicide, and is only about one dead girl (her beauty unspecified), but that hardly matters, does it? Beautiful suicidal girls are too evocative a title opportunity to pass up, and the tone they create, like all those girls lying dead or dying on covers a couple of years ago, is all that matters. And girls are far more powerful in imagery when they just happen to be beautiful, and just happen to be dead.

 

The Wolf Among Us by Telltale Games

image

Telltale Games feel like the modern successors to the old point-and-click adventure games. They’re about story and character, guiding our protagonist through the tale and trying to figure things out as we go, but they avoid the randomly trying to combine objects and retracting your steps a hundred times that the old games required. Instead, our influence on the story is mostly about choices — what we say, how we judge people, what we think is the right way to proceed.

I already reviewed the Game of Thrones game, which I’ve been loving, and thanks to the recent Steam sale, I decided to try another Tell Tale story based on a property that I’m not familiar with — The Wolf Among Us. In The Wolf Among Us, you play Bigby, aka the Big Bad Wolf, the sheriff of a community of fairytale characters forced to leave their home world and live in New York City. The game has a hard-boiled crime feel, with Bigby as the much-mistrusted investigator who must solve the case of a girl’s beheading in a dangerous and crime-ridden town.

The result is excellent. In fact, it’s quickly become one of my favorite games of all time. With a gripping plotline, shocking twists and compelling, morally complex characters, The Wolf Among Us sucked me in and made me utterly invested in its world far before the first chapter was done. The Telltale game style of movies that you control — you make the choices, you click to throw that punch, you are responsible for what happens — makes the entire experience incredibly absorbing, and incredibly real.

There are several important female characters in the game, with the main one being Snow White, a brave, no-nonsense, work-by-the-books figure who wants to help everyone in Fabletown but doesn’t always go about it in quite the right way. She is, as this article in the LA Times suggests, a huge influence on the gameplay experience, as the player becomes absorbed in her and Bigby’s tension-filled relationship and has to constantly question whether a harsh or violent approach to crime-solving is really necessary, when it might destroy any goodwill Snow has for us. Snow is a tough character, and a sympathetic one, who both helps and impedes our protagonist, and who, refreshingly, isn’t always the gentle one either. She has issues of her own to deal with, and the clashes between her and Bigby drive some of the tensest moments of the story.

We also have a great, frightening villain in the form of Bloody Mary (of the “say it three times in the mirror” fame), and several other morally complicated female characters who help or hinder the case. But it should be noted that the case revolves around the murder of prostitutes, and the game doesn’t shy away from that — not a count against it, necessarily, but something players should be aware of.

Unfortunately, The Wolf Among Us does have a big problem with diversity. Unless I blinked and missed it, there’s absolutely no diversity in this sizeable cast of characters. Talking pigs and toads, sure. Trolls, yes. But non-straight, white characters? Not that I could see. Even without racebending, these characters clearly exist in the world — Aladdin’s lamp plays a minor part in the story, if only as a prop — but they’re nowhere to be found. And while this might be an adaptation problem, depending on the diversity found in the original graphic novels, it’s something that could and should have been addressed, with a bit more care and ingenuity.

But as a gameplay experience, The Wolf Among Us is absolutely stellar. It’s probably not a game for people who focus on strategy and care a lot about battle mechanics, but if you’re a gamer who plays for story, like me, then this is the perfect thing to immerse yourself in. Bring on Season Two.

#AskELJames and the Twitter Mob

Everyone will probably have heard by now of this weekend’s most disastrous failed publicity attempt, the Ask EL James hashtag.

Pretty much everyone knows that asking the internet community for input is daring at the best of times. If you’re the author of a much-hated cultural phenomenon, such a request becomes dangerous to the point of lunacy.

And the internet responded as you might expect. Among a few genuine questions, there was an avalanche of criticism and attacks, ranging from witty comments, to “witty” comment, to downright vitriol.

These events aren’t uncommon. And most commentators on events seemed to find them justified — the books are awful and glorify abuse, after all, and she wrote them, so she should get “burned” by the internet mob. The idea of her reaction was as hilarious to people as crafting the tweets themselves. And since it was the “liberal” mob that threw down Twitter justice from on high this time, people seem to think this behavior is perfectly fine, while condemning it when it strikes against people they like more.

But here’s the thing. Thanks to the distancing powers of the internet, people often seem to forget that the victims of these attacks are not abstract concepts. The language of these dogpiles usually suggests that people are attacking an idea — the romantization of abuse, in this case, or the popularity of poor writing, but equally seen in that oft-mocked phrased, “ethics in video game journalism.” The idea might be liberal and progressive, or it might be rooted in sexism and homophobia, but in the end, its an idea that people think they are forwarding, and an idea that’s under attack.

But, as Chuck Wendig pointed out, the internet is real life, and the people involved are real people. The internet mob acts without mercy, because ideas don’t have feelings, and bad ideas should be challenged, but when people come to represent those ideas, as they always do, and they get bombarded, then there’s no progress, only cruelty.

I’m not going to try and argue that EL James’ books are well written books (because they’re not) or that they don’t perpetuate a lot of terribly sexist, racist, homophobic and otherwise harmful ideas (because they do). And I think those books should be challenged and discussed extensively. But I doubt that EL James sat down in her study on a dark and stormy night, cackling evilly, and plotted to write an atrocious bestseller that was offensive in almost every possible way. The story came from her brain, but, unless I’m being incredibly naive, the harm was almost certainly subconscious and unintentional, a product of ignorance and of a society that reinforces all these ideas for us since birth. That doesn’t mean she gets a free pass to escape criticism. But it does mean that people should not feel free to try and destroy her online. She hasn’t “earned” abuse because of a novel that she wrote. No one deserves to be attacked and mocked and insulted by a massive horde of strangers, baying for your blood — and while there might be some extreme exceptions to that rule, an author of an unexpectedly successful but deeply troubling novel isn’t one of them.

Criticism can be incredibly effective — and incredibly humorous — without needing to turn into a mob against an individual. And when tens of thousands of tweets are sent with the hashtag #AskELJames, invoking a specific individual’s name not for dialogue but for a barrage of internet disdain, it is an internet mob, no matter how valid those initial criticisms may be.