Home » Essay
Category Archives: Essay
Back when The House of Binding Thorns came out last year, Aliette de Bodard wrote a guest post for this blog about the treatment of pregnant people and the trope of dead mothers in science fiction. Now that In the Vanishers’ Palace, a brilliant queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a science fictional universe and with mothers playing key roles in the plot, has come out, she’s back here with a follow up…
On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures
I’d expected motherhood to impact my life, because of course having young people in the household and being responsible for them will bring about huge changes.
I hadn’t expected it to make me so keenly aware of erasure in media and stories.
To put it bluntly, mothers are just not there . While pregnancy is either monstrous or sacred, either body horror or the delivery of the chosen child, motherhood is defined by its absence. We aren’t characters: we are people-shaped holes. We are empty spaces or hollowed-out characters, whose sole purpose–when the story bothers to give us one–is to erase ourselves for the sake of our children.
By far the most obvious hole is that left by death: our books and media are littered with the death of mothers of main characters. Star-Lord’s mother in Guardians of the Galaxy, Elizabeth Swann’s mother in Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones’s mother in The Last Crusade–the list is endless. The death can be at birth, can be off-stage, can be in the story, but it’s always either a minor inconvenience, something so far ago that it’s never even mentioned, or mined for a main character’s pain (and said character is almost always a cis man). We talk a lot about the fridging of women characters (and rightfully so): whenever a mother walks on stage I brace myself for the slamming of the refrigerator door, for it seems that we belong there permanently, our corpses there to serve, at best, as pleasant memories or motivations for our children. Nothing quite becomes us in life as our leaving it.
But there are other deaths. There are the mothers not mentioned and not named, as if they were utterly trivial (Belle’s mother is never mentioned in the original Beauty and the Beast; Arwen’s mother is similarly not mentioned in the Lord of the Rings movies , Killmonger’s father in the otherwise excellent Black Panther gets plenty of screen time, his mother doesn’t even rate one explanation). And then there are mothers who fail to have a story other than caring for their children, whose entire personality and motivations are subsumed in the act of motherhood (Lady Jessica in Dune, Frigga in the Thor franchise, who actually manages to both fail to have a plotline unrelated to her two kids and to be fridged in the second Thor movie).
One of the ways in which is this utterly toxic, in addition to killing off the actual characters, is that this devalues the work done by mothers by making it seem invisible and unnecessary: we seldom see the tremendous amount of work that goes into raising children (because dead mothers are usually replaced with indifferent, absent or abusive authority figures rather than warm adoptive parents ). And when works that centre complex, thoughtfully depicted motherhood are written, they are dismissed as of no importance, over-centred on boring relationships and over-concerned with trivial matters.
Whenever I bring dead mothers up, I generally get two explanations: the first is the natural occurrence of death in childbirth, and the second one is that this is a convenience, for how could a hero (especially but not only teenagers) go off on adventures with their mothers alive?
Let’s get the first one out of the way first: yes, death in childbirth was a major cause of death… in the past. But so were the deaths of children (a quick reminder that in 1800 more than 40% of children would die before seeing their fifth year), and popular media has way more dead mothers than dead infants (or people dying from typhus or cholera or a myriad ways lives were cut short, historically speaking). To say it otherwise: we are being awfully selective, as a culture, about which historical truths we’re choosing to perpetuate. Not to mention the fact that in we’re in SFF and that historical accuracy isn’t the best justification when we’re dealing with stories that have dragons and fairies and spaceships in them.
The second one… the second one is part of an underlying fallacy that I’m sympathetic to: the idea that mothers can protect their children against everything. I understand the desire and where it stems from, but the truth is that this is an impossibility. There are things far too large for parents to protect their children from (failure to protect a child against the consequences of war isn’t a parental failure, and it’s victim-blaming of the highest order to pretend that it is); and even if I could materially protect my children from events… the reality is that I cannot keep them forever safe, and nor should I. Part of parenting (and especially motherhood) is the art of gracefully letting go: of accepting that my children will have their own lives and their own challenges to face, and that such challenges, no matter how I may wish otherwise, will be dangerous. And yes, some of this will happen before they are ready, but our children cannot and will not always be ready for everything in spite of every one of our efforts.
The other underlying fallacy is that mothers and adventures are incompatible, which is a terrible thing to assume on two fronts: the first, that mothers themselves cannot have adventures (see above for my objections: obviously motherhood is an important thing in mothers’ lives, but mothers’ lives cannot and should not be reduced to the importance of their children). The second is the fallacy that it is impossible for families to have adventures together: that any children’s adventures (I use “children” here as the opposite of parents rather than as an age category) have to be exclusive of parental presence. It is a very particular perception, coming from a society with socialization greatly stratified by age as well as strong individualism, which makes us see adventures with parents or older people (or, for that matter, parental presence in our lives ) as undesirable rather than commonplace occurrences.
There are exceptions to these rules, and I treasure them all: Jackie and Rose Tyler in Doctor Who, the numerous mothers in Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince trilogy, Jess and her mother (and her four sisters) in Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives trilogy, Tralane Huntingore and her daughters in Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels, Essun and her daughter in NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Consort Jing in Nirvana in Fire, Mme de Morcerf in Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, Queen Talyien in KS Villoso’s Wolf of Oren-Yaro, Anyanwu in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Cordelia Naismith in Barrayar, Lillian in Victor LaValle’s The Changeling…
In my own fiction, I made a deliberate choice to have mothers as characters, and to have them with their own vastly different stories. My latest book, In the Vanishers’ Palace, is a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they are both women, and the Beast is a dragon… except that Yên, my impoverished scholar and Beauty analogue, has a mother who is the village healer, who is very much present and important in Yên’s life; and Vu Côn, the shapeshifting dragon who is Beast analogue, is herself a mother to two teenage children, who are both an important part but not the main thrust of Vu Côn’s own life or story. I wanted to make a not very subtle point that mothers are their own characters: Yên’s own mother is crucial to Yên’s view of the world, but she also very much has her own outlook and her own life: she is the village healer and aims to remain that way, unlike Yên who only dreams of escape. And meanwhile, Vu Côn is certainly struggling with two over-inquisitive dragon children on the cusp of adulthood, but the main thrust of her own story is her relationship with Yên (she takes Yên as payment for a debt, and finds herself attracted to her–knowing that she cannot act on that attraction because she’s Yên’s mistress and there is no consent between master and servant).
I think of this, and of the mothers in my other stories and books, as necessary work: as my own brick in the wall to make sure that mothers aren’t erased, that the holes we have become in the fabric of stories are instead filled with genuine, complex and rich characters instead of faceless, nameless and unimportant cyphers. Some days I worry that my stories are such small stones in a universe full of such holes, but then I remember that every wall is built brick by brick, and that not everything can go up as fast as I’d like. I remember that we have to try–that we all have to try, because how can we do otherwise?
 Throughout this blog post, I’ll be making a deliberate gendered distinction, because the set of expectations is vastly different between cis mothers and fathers. People who don’t fall in either of these categories (trans, non-binary people, and other marginalised genders and sexes) are even more at risk of erasure, othering, demonization, etc.
 I’m talking about the movies here: in the books Arwen’s mother is Cerebrían, who passes into the West prior to Arwen’s meeting with Aragorn following torture at the hands of Orcs (which is again erasure but of a different kind).
 The idea that adoptive parents and adoptive families in general are trumped by blood relations, no matter how much love they might have poured into raising children, is another hugely problematic one.
 Source: https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality
 Some parents are terrible, abusive and should be excluded from lives: I’m not saying parental presence should be the norm or that all parents are loving–simply that their absence cannot and should not be the only narration that exists.
Things Can Only Get Better is the personal account of a Labour supporter who survived eighteen miserable years of Conservative government. It is the heartbreaking and hilarious confessions of someone who has been actively involved in helping the Labour party lose elections at every level: school candidate: door-to-door canvasser: working for a Labour MP in the House of Commons; standing as a council candidate; and eventually writing jokes for a shadow cabinet minister.
Along the way he slowly came to realise that Michael Foot would never be Prime Minister, that vegetable quiche was not as tasty as chicken tikki masala and that the nuclear arms race was never going to be stopped by face painting alone.
Do you remember the evening of May 1st, 1997? Do you remember the morning and day that was May 2nd, 1997? Do you remember that things can only get better? That was the first day in my life that I lived under a Labour government. It’s my second political memory. It’s a memory full of joy, and awe, and amazement, and surprise. For John O’Farrell, it was the culmination of nearly two decades of hard work as a Labour activist; and so, over the course of the six months following victory, he wrote his political memoirs of Labour’s time in the wilderness: the result is, of course, Things Can Only Get Better.
This isn’t a standard memoir; really, it’s a series of snapshots in the life of a Labour supporter, taking in each election in which O’Farrell took any active part from the General Election of 1979 that brought Margaret Thatcher to power to that of 1997, which finally removed the Conservative government from office. Things Can Only Get Better is therefore a little parochial at times: Scotland, for instance, which underwent a political earthquake in 1997 unparalleled until 2015, gets only a brief mention, and England outside London barely more than that. When talking about the political mood, it’s notable how often O’Farrell means the political mood in London specifically, or even just in Battersea.
However, that limitation aside, Things Can Only Get Better is actually rather fascinating in one particular way that is often overlooked: the hard work of actually running an election campaign on the local level. O’Farrell worked as ward secretary, campaign agent, and campaign organiser in various elections of various scales over the course of the Tory dominion, and he talks about the processes involved in running a campaign operation. The complete lack of glamour and lack of general recognition volunteers get is something he drives home to the reader with a real sense of the importance of the work.
O’Farrell’s history of the Labour Party’s 1980s wilderness years seems to presage a lot of their new wilderness years in the 21st century; the infighting and desperation, and the arguments over the soul of the party. Things Can Only Get Better sides solidly with the Blairites, because they brought Labour to power, even while acknowledging that Blair was pawning the soul of the party for victory. Obviously, written in 1997 and published in 1998, the decade that followed was something that O’Farrell couldn’t predict, from the Iraq War and erosion of public ownership of public services (such as health and education) to the huge expansion of gay rights and the strengthening of our relationship with Europe.
The biggest theme of O’Farrell’s book, though, is also the reason I’m posting this review out of sequence, the day before election day; as Things Can Only Get Better hammers home time again, it is vital to take part in democracy. It is vital to vote. Polls, time and again, are proved wrong in the book, because people don’t turn out, or because they lied to pollsters; a counsel of despair is a false counsel, because you, the voter, can take part, and O’Farrell has some very choice words for those who claim that both sides are the same:
Other people told me they were not voting because ‘they’re all the same’. As if the party of Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit and Nicholas Ridley was the same as the party of Neil Kinnock, John Prescott and Dennis Skinner. The idea that there’s no point in voting because ‘they’re all the same’ is just intellectually lazy. You don’t have to wholly endorse everything one particular candidate stands for, you just have to consider one person as preferable to the other. If all of them are completely unacceptable, then stand for election yourself. Nothing gets my hackles up more than people who should know better copping out of the political system because they think they are above it. (p215)
That quote also illustrates one of the great strengths of Things Can Only Get Better; O’Farrell, a writer for Have I Got News For You and Spitting Image, and occasional joke-polisher for then-Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, is funny. He’s angry, he’s passionate, he’s political, and all of that is interspersed with brilliant bon mots, and moments that undercut his moral severity; O’Farrell isn’t above poking fun at himself or at the foibles of the Labour Party, any more than he’s above making cracks at the expense of the Tories. Some of the things O’Farrell goes after are the easy, obvious targets, but he’s also willing to do the harder political lifting too.
In the end, Things Can Only Get Better is a paean to the importance of getting stuck in and persisting to create change; I look forward to O’Farrell’s sequel, Things Can Only Get Worse, to be released in September, bringing the story up to the current election. Now, go out and vote on Thursday, write O’Farrell’s last chapter for him… and let’s make it a hopeful, progressive one!
Rather than reviewing these books, I’m just going to talk about some of the things they do; specifically, some of the wonderfully queer things they do. Since I am covering both An Accident of Stars and A Tyranny of Queens, there will be SPOILERS in this post, as well as TRIGGER WARNINGS for discussion of rape and sexual assault. The blurb of An Accident of Stars can be found here.
These books are the portal fantasy of my heart. In a way that something like Every Heart A Doorway appears to have been for others, the Manifold Worlds tapped into everything I loved about portal fantasy, everything books like Narnia ever set up for me, and also into everything I never saw in portal fantasy: real consequences, real people, real lives. This is a series that engages with issues of mental health, consent, different manifestations of queerness, power, perceptions and how they can be clouded, and even the very idea of narrative; that is a backbone of the whole duology, in fact. The Manifold Worlds are meaty, meaty books to get your teeth into.
Let’s start by talking about queerness. This is a series which not only has multiple trans characters, but it also depicts multiple ways of being trans, and ways of relating to one’s body. Yena, who we meet in An Accident of Stars, is a trans woman, who used a magical ritual to bring her body in line with her self-image as a woman. This is, per the worldbuilding Meadows does in her primary secondary world, a fairly standard thing; not exactly common, but no stigma attaches to it, and it’s just something you can do. However, another character, Naruet, a trans man we meet in A Tyranny of Queens, does not wish to change his body; mention is made early on of his binder, and later in the book he talks explicitly about not wanting to change his body, for various reasons. Again, this isn’t judged; it’s simply his choice, and that’s all that matters: he’s a man with this body, and that’s fine too. Meadows has built a world so incredibly powerfully accepting for trans people in a way reality isn’t, yet, and reading it feels like coming home.
This is also a world where sexuality is seen as much more fluid, and polyamorous bisexuality the assumed norm. In both An Accident of Stars and A Tyranny of Queens, Meadows gives us multiple models of relationships in various forms, whether couples or larger groups, of various gender combinations, and none are valued or devalued; the central theme is trust and mutual respect and openness. Meadows makes it a point to build every good relationship on those foundations, and reveals, in A Tyranny of Queens, that a key relationship was built on manipulation and lies and shows how much damage that can do to everyone around the manipulator, but especially their primary victim.
Indeed, The Manifold Worlds deals with sexual assault and other kinds of trauma on multiple occasions; sexual assault is most explicitly a theme in A Tyranny of Queens, but trauma of all kinds runs through both books, including of physical injury, complete culture shock, and the result of abuse. Saffron, one of the viewpoint characters and protagonists, has PTSD which becomes gradually more pronounced in An Accident of Stars, climaxing in her treatment by a counsellor in A Tyranny of Queens and the complete failure of those around her to understand her PTSD, except for a character who was victim of a rape, but not believed by anyone; Meadows doesn’t expicitly make statements, but does expect the reader to draw a particular conclusion. Further, Leoden, the primary antagonist of An Accident of Stars, is revealed to have been literally brainwashed and mindwiped by his consort Kadeja, who takes over the role of primary antagonist for A Tyranny of Queens; the reactions of different characters to this revelation – including disbelief, blaming him, and blaming themselves for not protecting him or seeing it – are portrayed with an incredible complexity, and an emotional empathy which doesn’t stop Meadows from coming down on one side of the issue. Trauma isn’t the only engagement with neurodiversity in The Manifold Worlds; the aforementioned trans man, Naruet, is portrayed as being autistic, and characters in A Tyranny of Queens adapt to his needs and requirements virtually without comment or without pressuring him to neurotypicality.
On a more purely narrative level, The Manifold Worlds is interesting for how it deals with the idea of narrative. In both books, there is the order of the Shavaktiin, “mystics and storytellers who believe that history is shaped by human stories” (to quote the glossary), who both observe and involve themselves in events as recorders and as influencers. Meadows plays with the way the Shavaktiin abrogate agency to the Great Story whilst also having to exercise it all the time in their choice of interventions in service to it; An Accident of Stars, in fact, turns on the idea of how much agency Shavaktiin are allowed to display, and A Tyranny of Queens takes up that thread, with interesting consequences for what we might call genre-savviness, only rather less genre-specific and more related to the shape of human narrative.
On the whole, portal fantasy doesn’t have major traumatic psychological consequences for the characters, and the portals they step through are usually into worlds far more familiarly normative. Foz Meadows, in The Manifold Worlds, throws those norms completely out of the window, and does so with gusto and relish; reading these books was like coming home to me, to a place I was welcome and known in, and where the friends I know exist and have a home too. For all the marginalised people out there, I cannot recommend these books highly enough.
TRIGGER WARNINGS for discussion of ciscentricity, allocentricity, intersexism, and gender essentialism, and for quoted anti-trans and anti-intersex slurs apply to the following essay, as well as SPOILER WARNINGS.
Too Like the Lightning has been feted and critically acclaimed, and now nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I read it back when it first came out, after hearing about how well it supposedly handled queerness, and especially gender in the context of queerness, from a number of people whose opinions on the topic I usually respect; I did not agree with these assessments. I’ve been asked a number of times to discuss more fully my issues with the presentation of gender in the novel, so, with the Hugo Awards now open for voting, it seems like this might be the moment, to let voters see what this particular genderqueer person thought of the presentation of gender in the book. For context, I’m a bisexual nonbinary person and my pronoun is they.
It’s worth establishing some baseline elements. Supposedly, the world of Too Like The Lightning is a post-gender world; “gender, we were supposed to be past that too”1 the narrator says of the world. This is somewhat undermined by the way other characters occasionally make reference to biological sex2, and by the way sex is referred to as being “neutered egalitarian copulation” when done outside of the gender binary3. This is also evident in titles; the frontispiece of the book references “His Majesty Isabel Carlos II of Spain”4, and another character is given the title “Princess”5. We can therefore see that this supposed post-gender world is no such thing, but that gender is apparently not something normally discussed – Mycroft, the narrator, says to the reader that “you must forgive my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s, my ‘he’s and ‘she’s”6 on the very first page of actual prose we encounter, as opposed to what appears to be the societal norm of using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.
Mycroft is, then, instantly established as breaking the societal norms by their use of gendered pronouns; indeed, on multiple occasions, Mycroft directly addresses the reader on the matter of using them, and tends to justify it in the most distressingly binarist and allocentric of terms, very early in the text, for instance saying that gendered pronouns “remind you [that is, the putative future reader] of their sexes” and that “gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors [that is, us, the reader] as it is to us”, despite the putative reader Mycroft addresses protesting that their “distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place”7. Indeed, Mycroft states that the singular they is the product a “prudish” era, and a “neutered”7 (in this case, meaning unsexual, desexualised) pronoun. Another character states that “sex is in everything… If you don’t believe that, you need to get laid”8; thus we see binarism and allocentricity as apparently common beliefs.
The text, however, cannot support the weight of Mycroft’s reasoning in the way it uses gender; most egregiously, in the fact that the Mukta, the prototype of a fleet of vehicles that is now planetwide, is gendered as female9, and in the gendering of a hypothetical person used in a simile10. Beyond that, however, children are gendered; rather than referring to Bridger as a child, Mycroft refers to them as a boy11. There’s also the repeated turn of phrase, “a day on which men had honoured their Creator in ages past”12; none of these examples can be seen to be referencing sex, except that of Bridger, and if that’s meant to be sexual, that’s a strange comment on Mycroft and Palmer both.
The exceptional case in which Mycroft as narrator does, however, use ‘they’ is of characters whose gender they are unable to guess; particularly of Utopians, because of their manner of dress13. Mycroft also briefly uses they of Eureka, whose status as a set-set means they’ve never been exposed to the outside world, and whose nerves are all rewired as input modes; but very rapidly, Mycroft in narration switches to using she, for no clear reason14.
The most interesting, and problematic, case of how Mycroft refers to a character in this particular book is the case of Dominic Seneschal, who presents as aggressively male, although is explicitly described as having “breasts beneath that taut waistcoat, that the thighs and pelvis which the coat’s high cut displays are very much a woman’s”15; Mycroft refers to them as “the woman… is the boldest and most masculine of men”16, and uses the pronoun he for them throughout the text. So far, this would seem to simply be Mycroft following the gender preferences of the character; however, Mycroft puts the term “she-man”17 into the mouth of the putative reader about Dominic. If the term is unfamiliar to you, perhaps a close analogue, ‘shemale’, might not be; it is a slur against trans women, which has no place without serious critique of the term going on around it and the user being very explicitly called out for its use18.
The way Mycroft’s gendering works is consistently unclear; the narration suggests that Cousins should always be pronouned with she because of their caring role, “maternal heart[s]” and “flowing robes”19. Carlyle, however, because of genitalia, is referred to as he, something which you’ll note does not constrain the way Mycroft refers to characters such as Dominic; there’s a confusion of whether genitalia or role plays the centre of how Mycroft chooses pronouns, perhaps most pronounced when Mycroft genders Chagatai as female:
With Chagatai, however, your guess [that is, the guess of the putative future reader as to why Mycroft genders Chagatai female] is wrong. It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes. I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood berserks them. That strength wins her ‘she’.20
The way that passage assigns gender to Chagatai is based on the stereotypical image of the mother, something that follows for a lot of the way characters gendered as female are portrayed.
This is a consistent problem with the way Mycroft approaches femininity. The first time this appears is in a reference to “practiced femininity”21, something which ought to have no meaning in this supposedly post-gender world. However, this “practiced femininity” is apparently incredibly and inherently sexual, and makes others think of sex, something against which Mycroft states they have no defence. A later discussion of a different character talks about a “display of ‘wife'”22; this is part of a series of pages describing a conversation with Danaë, who is described as acting and appearing in incredibly gendered ways, and builds up to “the husband wrenching the kimono back to bare the honey-wet vagina”23. This section is apparently why Mycroft feels they have to gender all the characters in the narration; because of the way Danaë uses a particular idea of femininity as a weapon.
Now, so far, almost all discussion has been about how Palmer’s choice of narrator has gendered characters, albeit with one exception noted above2. But the problem extends beyond Mycroft. Two chapters are narrated by another character, Martin Guildbreaker, who uses they as the pronoun of choice in them24; however, in discussing the vital statistics of interviewees in their chapters, Martin marks gender in one case (a character Mycroft has not encountered), but not in the other (a character Mycroft has gendered as male)25. A later example is the way two characters gender Carlyle Foster, gendered by Mycroft as male, as female in a discussion, until Carlyle is mentioned as having a penis, at which point both characters switch to using the pronoun ‘they’26; if the point of the pronoun were the transgressive reference to sex and gender, surely it should be consistent or change to he?
Perhaps the strangest example is that of the animated toy soldiers brought to life. They are brought to life with “attitudes of hundreds of years ago when those ancient toy soldiers were made; one of those attitudes Mycroft explicitly mentions in this description is “They use ‘he’ and ‘she'”27. However, in the actual quoted dialogue of the toy soldiers, the only pronoun we ever hear them use is they28; however, they are gendered by other characters, as Thisbe refers to the Major as “he”29, strangely.
The single most problematic portrayal in this book is one that reveals issues with the whole society of Too Like The Lightning, and that spills over and becomes worse in the sequel, Seven Surrenders, revolving around Sniper. In the first book, Sniper is pronouned as he, but Sniper is “tantalisingly androgynous” and “Sniper’s publicity team has worked so hard to keep the public from learning the androgyne’s true sex”30. Indeed, the genital configuration of Sniper is such a mystery to the public that it is something to be discovered by the media31, and a sibling of Sniper’s refers to something being “a public mystery to rival what’s in Cardie’s [that is, Sniper’s] pants”32. Indeed, dolls are made of Sniper for people to play with, including as sex toys; these final category of dolls come as “fully anatomical Sniper-XX and Sniper-XY models”33, suggesting that either Palmer or the world, or both, believe that chromosomes only come in these configurations, and define an exclusively binary set of genitalia, neither assertion of which is true. All this revolves around a character who is, in book two, revealed to be intersex; at this point the narration ceases to use the pronoun he and switches to the pronoun it to refer to Sniper34. If you are unaware, it as a pronoun refers to objects and sometimes animals; but people, adults, are not generally referred to as it, and it is incredibly offensive to almost all intersex people to pronoun them as it, with the exception of those few who reclaim it as their own pronoun, knowing how controversial it is.
All of these choices reflect worldbuilding choices Ada Palmer made, and arguably, they could be justified as being part of the world Palmer chose to build. But there are no constraints on Palmer’s choice of worldbuilding; she could have, instead, built a truly genderless world. She could have built a world where Sniper’s being intersex, Carlyle’s penis and Dominic’s gender identity have no relevance whatsoever; where there truly is not gender or sex differentiation in society, only biologically. Instead she built one which claims to have this while significantly undercutting it; that’s an authorial choice, and one that led to her book punching me in the face35 repeatedly. Insofar as it is related to her choice of narrator in Mycroft, there are a number of other characters who could relate the story; but Palmer chose to give us Mycroft, who forces gendering on us because it’s part of an Enlightenment style they adopt. However, it is notable that the Oxford English Dictionary, in talking about the usage of “they”, makes reference to historical use of the singular they in the Sixteenth Century; and one of the most prominent writers in English of the period, Jane Austen, used the singular they across her body of writing36. The style Palmer is having Mycroft emulate has no constraint against the use of the singular they.
In sum, this book has severe issues with ciscentrism, allocentrism, intersexism, and gender binarism and essentialism. Palmer cannot justify this by saying her hand was forced; she chose this set-up for the book, she chose how to present gender, she chose to have other characters reinforce Mycroft’s assertions about sex and gender, and she chose the whole frame in which the discussion in the book takes place. Too Like The Lightning isn’t progressive or doing interesting things with gender: it is painful, regressive, and I’m going to be ranking it below No Award in the Hugo voting. You, of course, should do as your conscience dictates.
Edited to add links to some others’ interesting, differing opinions on the approach to gender in Too Like the Lightning:
Please note all page numbers refer to the pagination of the 2016 first printing first edition hardback published by Tor Books. Many thanks to my paid sensitivity reader for this essay, who asked to remain anonymous.
1. Page 337↩
2. Eg Thisbe questioning Mycroft on Mycroft using male pronouns in conversation about a character with breasts, page 248↩
3. Page 322↩
4. Page 5, frontispiece in the style of an Enlightenment-period printed book↩
5. Page 48↩
6. Page 13↩
7. All references to page 27. Note also that “neutered” is a term many intersex and trans people regard as a slur, per this poll.↩
8. Page 331↩
9. Page 35↩
10. Page 43↩
11. Page 24↩
12. First encountered on page 14, but repeated multiple times through the book, always using ‘men’↩
13. Page 361, although note that earlier Mycroft has gendered Utopians based on an unknown and unclear metric, pp156-7↩
14. Page 57-8↩
15. Page 89↩
16. Page 90↩
17. Page 94↩
18. See Wiki for more on the term ‘Shemale’↩
19. Page 70; see also page 269, where Cousins’ wraps are referred to as “dresslike” and feminine – although this femininity seems to derive as much from them being worn by Cousins as anything else, with a certain circularity↩
20. Page 237↩
21. Page 30↩
22. Page 48↩
23. Page 50↩
24. Page 163-174, 339-349↩
25. Martin describes Tsuneo Sugiyama as female on page 165 in giving their vital statistics, whereas their recitation of the vital statistics of Cato Weeksbooth does not give a sex or gender↩
26. Page 368-9↩
27. Page 66↩
28. See for instance the dialogue of the soldiers on page 19, where they consistently use they↩
29. Page 26↩
30. Both page 138↩
31. Page 143↩
32. Page 299↩
33. Page 139↩
34. This happens on page 98-9 of Seven Surrenders, according to Marissa Lingen, who discussed the presentation a little more here↩
35. For an explanation of the term “punching in the face”, see this blog post by Ann Leckie↩
36. The Oxford Dictionary, and specific references to the singular they in Jane Austen’s corpus↩
If you found this essay helpful, please support my ability to write on this blog by contributing to my Patreon.
As you should all be aware by now, from my review on Monday of The House of Binding Thorns among other intimations, I am incredibly fond of Aliette de Bodard, both as an amazing human being and as an incredibly good writer; before The House of Shattered Wings, she provided a blog post here on the topic of diversity and gender roles in her Fallen Paris setting and her writing more broadly, which I greatly enjoyed. So when she asked if anyone would like to host a post on the topic of motherhood in fiction, and further intimated that the stunningly excellent artist Likhain had provided an illustration for the piece, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. It’s a brilliant essay, and I am so glad to have the honour to share it with you:
Horrific pregnancies and dead mothers: motherhood in fiction and how I learnt to love my pregnant character
You know where you stand with mothers in fiction and media.
They die in childbirth, they die of illnesses, they’re dead long before the story starts, allowing the main character perhaps a modicum of angst, perhaps a touching memory of safety–allowing for danger and conflict, for which it would seem that peculiar loss of safety is a prerequisite. And it’s mothers specifically–fathers tend to be a source of interrelational conflict, because they tend to have those fascinating jobs and lives–because they have an existence outside their children, whereas mothers’ jobs seem to stop somewhere between giving birth and raising their kids (a job that incidentally is devalued as being natural and easily accomplished when it’s anything but!)
Laura’s mother and mother-figure Gabriela both die in Logan, Peter Quill’s/Star-lord’s mother likewise in Guardians of the Galaxy. The mothers in Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are both dead before or shortly after the story starts. Queen Amidala dies in childbirth at the end of Star Wars III. And that’s just the first few examples I could think of, off the top of my head!
And, if mothers have a rough time, pregnant women have it even worse. Births in SFF tend to be monstrous or holy. Ripley in Alien incubates an alien that will erupt out of her body and kill her. Melisandre in Game of Thrones gives birth to a horrific demon. Pregnancy is body horror, a twisted, dreadful experience exploited for viewers kicks.
At the other end of the spectrum, pregnancies can be sacred: necessary for the accomplishment of prophecies, the only hope of devastated worlds and oppressed people: the vampire Darla gives birth to Connor in Angel, an impossibility fated to kill a powerful demon; Kee is the only pregnant woman in the world in the movie version of Children of Men, the symbol of hope for mankind. Someone, after all, has to carry the chosen one, but Heaven forbid they should actually matter. They’re a vessel whose own bodies don’t belong to them, a thing to be worshipped and protected; an abstraction on the way to some more important story (Darla in Angel literally kills herself to give birth).
When I started writing my novel, The House of Binding Thorns, I was onto my second pregnancy, and beyond annoyed.
The book is set in an alternate Gothic turn-of-the-century Paris, a city devastated by a war between magical factions and where the powerless struggle to survive amidst political and magical intrigue. I wanted one of the main characters (Françoise, a queer Vietnamese/Annamite who is the lover of Berith, a Fallen angel, and expecting her child) to be pregnant, because pregnancy is an important part of life for some of us–and because I wanted to tackle families and motherhood in this book.
It turned out to be a hard balancing act. I wanted the pregnancy to be dangerous, because it was disingenuous not to acknowledge childbirth as a major cause of trauma and death for women; and I wanted it to be magical because it was a dark fantasy book–and I had to do all this without turning it into body horror or chosen one narrations!
It turned out the trickiest one to avoid was the sacred pregnancy. I was simultaneously pregnant while writing the book (a very weird experience but one that allowed me to be reasonably confident I was describing symptoms and mindset of the character reasonably accurately), and it was my second pregnancy, so body horror was very far from my thoughts. Though I did wait until after I gave birth to research particular life threatening complications: it turns out that in a 19th Century setting without antibiotics or healing magic the main difficulty is finding pregnancy/birth complications that don’t actually kill the character!
The messiah aspect of the pregnancy was harder to avoid: because of the unusual family structure (not so much the queerness, which is par for the course in the universe, but the Fallen/mortal lover dynamic which is very unusual in-universe) it was rare and therefore precious, and it’s a short step from there to “awe-inspiring”, especially in a post-apocalyptic city of broken streets and destroyed monuments, where it takes on the heft of hope without any deliberation or effort on my part.
I tried to avoid that by making it matter to the characters, so that neither Françoise nor Berith were reduced to mothers of the special child, and by making them, not the child, be the target of political intrigue. In fact, at one point a character explicitly says that the child is not a problem, because “who would teach (them) vengeance?”
Berith and Françoise have to navigate the tricky waters of expectant parenthood and adjust to becoming parents while having their own lives and their own communities. And I’ll only mildly spoil the story by saying that they both survive–that they’re not fridged as some sort of sacrifice for their child’s survival (which is doubly significant as they’re queer in a stable relationship, and we all know how these ones have a tendency to end in media: badly). They can have all the time to discover that the trickiest thing may not be carrying the child to term or giving their life for them, but rather the long, long years of actually raising said child.
But that’s a story for another day!
Art by the truly fantastic Likhain, aka Mia Sereno, whose work you really ought to check out either by clicking through earlier in this sentence or on the image itself. Seriously, support an amazing artist!
Now for the giveaway! I’ve got two copies of the beautiful Gollancz mass-market paperback edition of House of Shattered Wings to give away to two lucky winners, so enter here…
Laura Lam first crossed my radar when her debut novel, Pantomime, came out in 2013; notable for being a YA novel with an intersex bisexual protagonist, I was not a fan. Since then, the publisher, Strange Chemistry, has gone under, leaving a number of horror-stories in their wake about author treatment and editorial standards; but Pan MacMillan picked up the Micah Grey trilogy and republished the first two books last year, with Masquerade, the last book, out for the first time ever this week!
SPOILERS follow for the Micah Grey trilogy
The first two books of the trilogy (I have my copy of Masquerade, of course, but haven’t read it yet!) follow Micah Grey as he tries to escape from his noble family, first by joining a circus (in Pantomime, which also recaps his life to the point of running away, and why he did so) and then as part of a magic show (in Shadowplay, which draws on some of the themes of Pantomime and fleshes out Micah’s past). Micah is an intersex person who usually identifies as a man and uses “he/him” profiles; due to the prejudices of his society, he is in the closet, and when he comes out to some of the other key characters, there are a variety of reactions. Some are, of course, painful queerphobic rejections, which are rather distressing to read but are portrayed without much sympathy for the person rejecting Micah; but there are also reactions which are completely accepting of Micah, and those are portrayed well and beautifully. Similarly, bisexuality seems to be largely a fact of life in the circles Micah moves in; he has some internalised queerphobia from his noble upbringing, but there doesn’t seem to be any biphobia or homophobia amongst the characters we meet in his adult life.
Laura Lam has since also gone on to write some fascinating near-future science fiction, in the Pacifica series; the first of these, False Hearts, came out last year, with Shattered Minds to follow in May.
False Hearts is one of the best books about an investigation into a crime involving a cult in a near-future setting to have come out in the last year (there were enough to say that, yes); it’s a fun fast-paced and thoughtful story that really digs into some cyberpunk ideas and stylings, including the use of neurohacking. But it’s mentioned here because the protagonist is queer, very openly and happily bisexual, in a society where sexuality doesn’t seem to be an axis of oppression; this is a book that is very willing to engage with a variety of sexualities and, indeed, gender identities, although that latter category is far less foregrounded. The semi-sequel (set in the same world, but with different characters), Shattered Minds, looks set to be equally exciting!
Finally, as mentioned yesterday, Laura Lam is one of the essayists included in the Nasty Women collection, which also features a variety of takes on feminism – including some explicitly about queerness!
But now that I’ve told you about why you should be reading Laura Lam’s work, here’s a chance to win one! I have TWO copies of the new paperback edition of Pantomime to give away, anywhere in the world; see the link below to enter! This giveaway will be open until 00:00 GMT on March 16th!
With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it’s more important than ever for women to share their experiences. We must hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil. Nasty Women is a collection of essays, interviews and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century.
People, politics, pressure, punk. From working class experience to sexual assault, being an immigrant, divides in Trump’s America, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, Repeal the 8th, identity, family, finding a voice, punk, role models, fetishisation, power – this timely book covers a vast range of being a woman today.
Nasty Women is a phrase that, of course, became popularised by now-President Trump during the election campaign, referencing Hillary Clinton, his (more qualified, more honest, BETTER) opponent in the Presidential election; in the wake of the horrifying election of the Misogynist-In-Chief, new Scottish independent press 404Ink decided to put together a collection of essays by “nasty women”.
It’s an interesting collection; Nasty Women consists of 22 essays (although the ARC I’m reviewing only included 20), by a mix of authors from different backgrounds – women of colour, a woman with disabilities, women talking about a variety of religious experiences, and a trans woman (namely, punk rock icon and Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace). As a whole collection therefore, it’s usefully intersectional; rather than focusing on a specifically cis, white, Scottish, Christian/nonreligious experience of being a woman, it contains a variety of different ways of being a woman.
It’s also got a variety of different approaches to essay in it; Laura Lam’s essay, for instance, is genealogical, looking at the history of the women on her side of the family, while Elise Hines’ essay is autobiographical, about her own experiences and history, and Alice Tarbuck’s essay is a historical survey of witchcraft and foraging as feminist praxis. Nasty Women, by taking in all these approaches, creates a more interesting and varied collection than any one form alone would, and allows for a variety of answers to the implied question of the title: what is a nasty woman?
There are some essays I want to single out for specific comment, but with 20 in the book, that obviously can’t be all of them. The one I found most interesting and engaging was Ren Aldridge’s ‘Touch Me Again And I Will Fucking Kill You’, a look at gendered sexual harrassment in the punk community, both the music and activist sides; taking a broad look at sexual harrassment as it is manifested on a community that often hails itself as progressive, and how the perpetrators of it are protected, and how that is changing slowly, it is a fascinating essay on a particular manifestation of a gendered heirarchy. It is also notable for being the essay most concerned with inclusivity; Aldridge puts an asterisk by “woman” throughout to demand the reader considers what the category means, explicitly invokes nonbinary people and trans women, and talks about issues of cisnormative and ciscentric thinking as well as misogyny.
A second essay I really want to pull out for its excellence is that of Claire L. Heuchan, ‘Black Feminism Online: Claiming Digital Space’. A mix of personal autobiography and discussion of racism and misogynoir in online (feminist) discourse, it really brings into stark relief the way so much of feminist discourse is centred around, and assumes, whiteness; and the way misogyny aimed at black women, online especially but hardly absent in the offline world, differs from that aimed at white women. It’s an interesting piece that also talks about carving out a space for oneself; Heuchan talks about the way she came to be a blogger and online presence, to the extent that she is known now for her work as Sister Outrider. I do need to add a caveat to this endorsement, though, and one that stands in stark contrast to the previous essay; while the essay, thankfully, does not reflect this, Heuchan is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, and outspokenly so on the blog this essay is about; for an essay collection with only one trans contributor, her inclusion can be seen as an error in judgement, regardless of the excellence of her essay.
Nadine Aisha Jassat’s essay ‘On Naming’ takes a different approach to looking at being a woman of colour in a white supremacist world; Jassat talks about the way her name is perceived and read by a white-dominated society, the way people make assumptions based on it, often racist ones, and the way it is often mangled by strangers and what that means to her as a person. It’s a fascinating essay on the importance of naming to identity, and the importance of claiming and asserting one’s name as an assertion of identity; one I perhaps overidentify with, albeit along a different and distinct axis.
The final essay that is a display of stand-out excellence is that of Bella Owen, ‘Liberation or Segregation’; it is the only essay in the collection to discuss disability, and it discusses it through a mixture of analysis and personal autobiography in a way that really drives home the ways that Owen has had to deal with an albeist society putting restrictions on her. The specific venue for much of the essay is music gigs, which are a theme running through many of the essays, but Owen’s experience of being a disabled woman at them is obviously different to that of Laura Jane Grace as a trans star, or Elise Hines as a music photographer who is a woman of colour. The specific and the general experiences drawn out in this essay are really noteworthy in that they are also stories we are rarely told, so it is good to have them seen.
No collection will be all gems, though, and two essays just did not work for me. The first felt simply badly written; Alice Tarbuck’s ‘Foraging and Feminism’ appears to be trying to emulate the writing of Nan Shepherd, who it praises, and Robert MacFarlane, which it dislikes rather strongly, but falling somewhere between into a kind of poetic nothing, which while making some strong points along the way, and ending on a powerful note, has a tendency to descend into some very strange romanticisations of the past and of certain historical practices as feminist in a way the evidence presented in the essay doesn’t seem to support.
The other is Chitra Ramaswamy’s ‘After Expecting’; while this is an excellent essay where it limits itself to Ramaswamy’s experiences of pregnancy, when it talks about wider issues of pregnancy, it falls into a couple of (common) errors. The first is a kind of mysticism around pregnancy that it seems to also want to dismiss, as if it is necessary and intrinsic to a woman and a deep secret, even while demanding that it be made more open and understood. The other issue reflects a failing noted above, of a failure to register trans issues; the essay suggests that “while death happens to all of us, birth happens to women.” Either this is suggesting that only women are born or, and it seems this is likely what Ramaswamy means, that only women give birth – which, of course, is not true, and erases AFAB trans people.
A final issue to bring out with the volume is an uneven use of content notes. It is unclear whether these were added by the editors, or requested by the authors, but a number of the essays which talk about sexual violence in various forms have them; however, those which include (necessary and relevant use of!) racial slurs, sexist language, etc, do not, and not all the essays which include passing mentions of sexual violence have content notes. Nasty Women could easily have paved the way and demonstrated an excellent and consistent approach to content notes, it is intead rather a mixed bag on that front.
However, despite some shortcomings, Nasty Women maintains a high standard of excellence across its essays, and has some really good insights into the lives of women; as Margaret Atwood says, it is “[a]n essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now.” I highly recommend it to you, and am looking forward to seeing what 404Ink do next.
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on an ARC of the book provided by the publisher, 404Ink, which does not include essays by Kaite Welsh and Anna Cosgrave. I put money into the Kickstarter that funded this volume, and I helped organise the launch of the book yesterday (6/3) at my place of work. Laura Lam, a contributor to this volume, is a friend.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.