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Tremontaine Season One created by Ellen Kushner

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Welcome to Tremontaine, the prequel to Ellen Kushner’s beloved Riverside series that began with Swordspoint!

A duchess’s beauty matched only by her cunning; her husband’s dangerous affair with a handsome scholar; a foreigner in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a mathematical genius on the brink of revolution­. Suddenly long-buried lies threaten to come to light and betrayal and treachery run rampant in this story of sparkling wit and political intrigue.

Written serially by six critically acclaimed authors, Tremontaine is a tale of intrigue, manners, treachery, and cleverness that will delight readers.
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Last month, I reviewed Bookburners, the first Serial Box series to see a physical publication from Saga Press; now, I turn to their second, a very different prospect in a number of ways. Tremontaine, rather than being a world created for the purpose of a series, is a return to a world Ellen Kushner devised in the 1980s: the world of Riverside, of the novels Swordspoint, Privilege of the Sword, and The Fall of the Kings, of some seminal queer fantasy and foundations of mannerpunk. It’s got quite the legacy to live up to, therefore.

The plot of Tremontaine is set twenty years before Swordspoint, the first of the Riverside novels; as a prequel series, it occupies an interesting place in revealing the pasts of several characters we know from those books – although none of their protagonists, who are at most newborns at the time of this series. Unlike Bookburners, this isn’t episodic storytelling; the plot is broken up into discrete episodes, but they’re more like the episodes of The Night Manager than Supergirl, each one telling part of the whole and not really working in isolation. The writers of the episodes have varied ways of dealing with that; some are excellent at slipping in the relevant details to their episode, along the way, for those reading monthly, while others seem to treat the story as if Tremontaine will be read in one go, not including that information.

There are really three plots to Tremontaine, all intertwined. Duchess Diane Tremontaine is trying to recoup the fortune she lost on a failed mercantile venture (the ship went down); Ixkaab is in disgrace with her Kinwiinik Trader family after a catastrophic failure; Rafe is trying to found his own revolutionary school of thinking – and pass his university exams; and Micah… is mostly buffetted around in Rafe’s wake. For having such a complex set of plotlines, they all come together relatively quickly, as the principals meet or interact, mingle, and their interests coincide or run counter to each other. The shape of the plot as a whole is well-controlled, and Kushner’s editorial oversight of the project in keeping things moving is judiciously used, such that seeds are planted earlier for later revelations that one does not see coming but hindsight reveals were always there.

That’s not to say that the writing is necessarily even. While most of the episodes are excellent, and Kushner’s own ‘Arrival’ makes a perfect pilot for Tremontaine, there are a couple which don’t work quite so well. Joel Derfner’s ‘Shadowroot’ takes a long, convoluted journey to get to its destination, and telegraphs from the very start what takes a long time to come, without much really to justify that time. Some of the most complex chapters are the best though; in ‘The Dagger and the Sword’, Alaya Dawn Johnson uses a nonchronological approach to intersperse two timelines in a really brilliant way that reminds the reader of TV heists like Hustle, and that really spark along and advance both plot and character.

Unsurprisingly, Tremontaine has a lot of those hanging around; across thirteen episodes involving storylines revolving around three (or four?) principals, a certain number of background characters are going to be necessary. The principals themselves are well realised; from Kushner’s introductions of each in ‘Arrivals’, they’re clearly distinctive and distinct characters, each of whom has a different agenda and set of priorities, and the way those play out across the series is beautiful. From Diane’s increasingly desperate grip on control of the Tremontaine fortune, to Kaab’s torn loyalties between her romantic entanglement with the beautiful forger Tess; from Rafe’s burning need to create a new institution of learning to Micah’s pursuit of mathematical certainty, they’re each vivid and fascinating. Micah is also that rare thing in fiction, a well-portrayed autistic character, who is also a viewpoint character; the authors between them really did a lot of work to try to accurately portray life as someone neuroatypical amongst a neurotypical crowd who don’t know what makes you different.

The background characters are all just as vivid; Tremontaine is like a TV series that not only cast great actors in its main roles, but also used every character actor it could find in the background. They have distinctive voices, mannerisms, and approaches to the different characters; they have individual motivations which we either see from their point of view or through observation. If there’s an exception, it’s in House Tremontaine’s second swordsman, Reynald; while a little of his character is revealed, throughout all his appearances it remains essentially flat, and none of the authors really give us enough to get to grips with to care much about him.

Tremontaine is a real triumph of Serial Box’s and of Ellen Kushner’s; this expansion of the Riverside universe really shows us sides of it we hadn’t seen before and expands it beautifully. I’m looking forward to the second season omnibus.

Disclaimer: Ellen Kushner is a friend.

If you found this review helpful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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Love Is Love eds. Sarah Gaydos & Jamie S. Rich

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The comic industry comes together in honor of those killed in Orlando. Co-published by two of the premiere publishers in comics—DC and IDW, this oversize comic contains moving and heartfelt material from some of the greatest talent in comics, mourning the victims, supporting the survivors, celebrating the LGBTQ community, and examining love in today’s world. All material has been kindly donated by the writers, artists, and editors with all proceeds going to victims, survivors, and their families. Be a part of an historic comics event! It doesn’t matter who you love. All that matters is you love.
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On June 12, 2016, a year ago today, a man went into a gay club in Orlando on Latin Night and shot 102 people, killing 49 of them. The outpouring of grief, solidarity, and love in the wake of the Pulse shooting was powerful and moving, and hasn’t finished yet. One of the forms that outpouring took was Marc Andreyko, a gay man and writer of queer comics including Batwoman and Manhunter, bringing together a number of luminaries of comics, and the publishing houses IDW and DC, to create Love Is Love, which came out on January 4th and immediately sold out; the second print run also sold out within days of release, but my partner managed to snag me a copy…

Love Is Love is a slightly strange thing to discuss, because I’ll be discussing personal reactions to a tragedy that shook my community to the core; but those responses need praise and criticism for the narratives they are part of and perpetuate, in some cases positively, in others less so. I won’t address every single one of the one-to-two-page contributions, but I’ll highlight the ones I find most significant in one way or another.

One of the constants of the book is direct relaying of personal reactions to the shooting. For instance, Jeff Jensen, in ‘Thoughts and Prayers: A Confession’ (illus David Lopez, lett Dezi Sienty), talks about all the actions he could have, but did not, take in the wake of the shooting, and how he only gave thoughts and prayers – a message that, had it included more ideas of concrete action, or more condemnation of failing to make prayer into action, would have worked far better. On the other hand, the untitled comic by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir (illus Emma Vieceli, col Christina Strain, lett Neal Bailey) brings a humour and a pathos to reactions to the events; it records a conversation with someone’s parents, who want him, in the wake of the shooting, to be careful, be himself, be safe, be brave. It’s beautiful and heartwrenching in its truth. Matthew Rosenberg’s piece (illus Amancay Nahuelpan, col Tyler Boss, lett Ryan Ferrier) is about his reactions to being asked to contribute, as a straight white cis guy, to this anthology; his footnotes to the comic include resources to support people who AREN’T straight white cis guys in comics, and works really beautifully.

Other stories use superheroes; some do it beautifully, and thoughtfully, such as ‘Pulse Shooting: the shooter inside the club is dead’, a Batman story by Marc Guggenheim (illus Brent Peeples, col Chris Sotomayor, lett Comicraft’s John Roshnell) about the complexity of coming to easy answers in this particular case, where the shooter’s motives are such a tangle of religious fanaticism, internalised homophobia and sexual self-loathing. It’s empathetic to both shooter and victims and has a subtle balance that really strikes one. Others, such as ‘Harley and Ivy in Love is Love’ by Paul Dini (illus Bill Morrison, col Robert Stanley, lett Cipriano), simply show love, in this case queer love, as normative; it’s a single page comic that shows the compromises Harley and Ivy make for each other, the neogitations they go through, and what they do for each other, and it is beautiful. Dan Didio’s piece (illus Carlos D’Anda, lett Carlos M. Mangual) has some of that power, using DC’s queer heroes (and for once owning up to some really awful elements of DC’s past, such as Extraño) to talk about the progress made and the road yet to go… but at the same time, it serves as a reminder of just how few queer characters there are, and how few of them headline their own titles. Others are straightforwardly misjudged, such as Matt Wagner’s offering, ‘Every Little Bug’s Got A Honey To Hug’, a splash page featuring no less than three heterosexual couples, two single people, and not a single queer character, as if this was any kind of relevant statement; and Sterling Gates’ ‘Why’ (illus Matt Clark, col Mike Atiyeh, lett Saida Temofonte) is simply terrible, being far more about Supergirl and her response to this real tragedy and how it links in with the loss of Krypton than anything specific to the shooting itself.

Inevitably, there are comics that concern themselves more with guns than queers; Taran Killam’s Deathstroke one-page comic (illus Barry Crain, col Giulia Brusco, lett Joshua Cozine) manages to make the point in a humourous way directly related to the Pulse shootings and with some humour about the absurdity of the way comics treat violence. Mark Millar on the other hand has never been accused of self awareness, and his contribution (illus Piotr Kowalski, col Brad Simpson, lett Michael Heisler) is simply a lecture about the prevalence of guns in the United States, and the fact they can only be used for killing – there’s no attempt at specificity to the Pulse massacre, and indeed, it feels as if Love Is Love simply provided a Scottish man a chance to lecture Americans.

The two comics I want to draw out as uniquely moving to me, though, are first of all, Gail Simone’s beautiful contribution (illus Jim Calafiore, lett Travis Lanham, col Gabriel Cassata), which is beautifully written, slowly building up to its moment of both tragedy and resilience at the end: “You can’t stop us from dancing” comes to mean, in Simone’s hands, so much more than dancing. The other is Teddy Tenebaum’s contribution (illus Mike Huddleston, lett Corey Breen), which is about a father explaining to his child about homosexuality: it isn’t different, but because of the way it is perceived by others, it is, and the comic really draws that out and gives it power.

This barely scratches the surface of an anthology that has some really powerful, beautiful contributions, and some that were singularly misjudged, but in the end, Love Is Love is a powerful statement by the comics community, and meaningful, and beautiful. Love is, after all, love.

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River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

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In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.

Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.
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I’ve been excited about River of Teeth for a long time; not only is Sarah Gailey a great writer and a good friend, but this is a Western story about (the almost historical real phenomenon of) hippopotamus ranching. A novella… about hippopotamus ranching in the American South. If that concept isn’t enough to make you curious, I’m not sure what would be, honestly. There is one spoiler in this review, in white text after the disclaimer.

River of Teeth is an intense little novella. Essentially, it’s a caper story; Houndstooth is hired to get the feral hippos out of the Mississippi delta, and has to assemble a crew to do so. The start of the novella is the assembly of the crew and the coming together of the plan; it’s from there that Gailey throws in curveballs, ups the stakes, and really drives home the intensity of the plot outside the amazing sexual tension she brings to her writing. The plot gets ever twistier and darker, as Gailey introduces the true danger of the feral hippos in the bluntest way possible, and rather shockingly; and as Houndstooth’s past and present crash together in horrifying ways. River of Teeth simultaneously feels half its length, it’s that much of a quick read pulling one through every page, and twice it’s length, for the emotional intensity.

That emotional intensity is in part induced by the characters. River of Teeth is one of the most diverse books I’ve ever read; it has a core cast of six, of whom only two are white men, one is a nonbinary person of colour, and almost all of whom have queer sexualities, at least in my reading. Every character is fully formed and has a long-standing set of relationships with the other characters; River of Teeth is a bit of a novella of getting the gang back together, but Gailey handles that really well, and the idea of the past of the gang is one that she uses, rather than just applying for sentiment. It’s through these that Gailey injects a thread of humour into the novella; Houndstooth’s tendency to take himself too seriously, Hero’s gentle smiling in the face of… almost everything, Archie’s brilliant sly wit, all cut the tension to bearable levels while still not pretending it isn’t there. Even Cal’s sullen bastardry adds a kind of humour to River of Teeth, because Gailey empathises with him, even if he is still obviously a bastard; this novella has a lot of feeling and heart to it.

River of Teeth has one one romantic relationship, between Houndstooth, our protagonist, and Hero, the nonbinary person of colour; their romance is beautiful and slow-burn and not at all subtle, with Gailey really leaning into it and pursuing it as a wonderfully gentle, mutually pleasurable romantic entanglement. It’s a really sweet thing to read, a man and an enby in a happy relationship together that isn’t judged by anyone else in the book – part of the alternateness of Gailey’s alternate history is a lack of stigma against queer people (and indeed, no racism) – and one that is all too rare.

River of Teeth is one of those books that reads like one is coming home, really; much as the terrifying feral hippos aren’t something I’d want to encounter, Gailey’s vision of an alternate-history United States is one I’d love to live in. Especially if I got to meet Houndstooth and Hero. I really, really strongly recommend this one to you all!

Disclaimer: Sarah Gailey is a friend. Tor.com, the publisher of this novella, sent me a squishy hippo stress toy as promotional material for the novella, although I purchased the novella myself. (Also, if any of you read this and write or find fanfic about Hero and Houndstooth… please send it my way, I love them so much.)

SPOILER: At one point, Hero appears to have been killed. I almost put the book down at that point, despite how much I had until then enjoyed it, feeling almost betrayed. While they are wounded, Gailey very actively does not kill off her nonbinary character.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Shattered Minds by Laura Lam

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Ex-neuroscientist Carina struggles with a drug problem, her conscience, and urges to kill. She satisfies her cravings in dreams, fuelled by the addictive drug ‘Zeal’. Now she’s heading for self-destruction – until she has a vision of a dead girl.

Sudice Inc. damaged Carina when she worked on their sinister brain-mapping project, causing her violent compulsions. And this girl was a similar experiment. When Carina realizes the vision was planted by her old colleague Mark, desperate for help to expose the company, she knows he’s probably dead. Her only hope is to unmask her nemesis – or she’s next.

To unlock the secrets Mark hid in her mind, she’ll need a group of specialist hackers. Dax is one of them, a doctor who can help Carina fight her addictions. If she holds on to her humanity, they might even have a future together. But first she must destroy her adversary – before it changes us and our society, forever.
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Back in March, I wrote a piece about Laura Lam as a writer of queer speculative fiction; now, in June, her latest novel, again with queer elements, comes out, Shattered Minds, set in the same world as, and after the events of, False Hearts, although with a different set of characters and little direct connection between the two.

Shattered Minds is a mix of psychological thriller, corporate espionage novel, and heist story; Lam blends the three elements, which are admittedly relatively natural cohabitants, together to create an exciting and interesting plot which moves from one stage into the next very naturally. Underlying everything is the psychological element, with Carina’s extremely violent urges present throughout the book as a threat to those around her and as a kind of visceral violent shock punctuating and puncturing things like camaraderie. That’s paired with Carina’s and Roz’s flashbacks, to Roz’s work with Carina and to Carina’s childhood; both of these build to joint climaxes towards the end of the book which really punch home how much Lam has built a groundwork of violence and ethical questions together into an actually relatively pacific book. The corporate espionage blends seamlessly into the heist as Carina and the Trust work to take down Sudice, the core plot of Shattered Minds, with information an insider sent to Carina; the book follows the Trust unlocking that information and understanding it before deciding how best to use it, and the reactions of Roz and Sudice to this threat.

On the whole, the book is low key. Shattered Minds is tense, but it’s the tension of waiting for the violence, waiting for the extreme action; there are moments throughout of such action, including some which feel very much like classic cyberpunk as hacking involves virtual reality trips and interfaces, but this is largely a psychological exploration. Lam keeps the tension working well throughout the plot, making the reader want to know the answers to the mysteries she has set and seeded; each mystery links in to the rest, in a kind of complex interplay that Lam consistently excels at in her novels.

This introspective approach means Shattered Minds lives or dies by its characters, and Lam makes very sure it lives. With three viewpoint characters, it would have been easy to have them all on one side of the moral equation, or all agreeing to the same value systems; as it is, we also see Roz’s viewpoint, and Lam depicts it with an impressive level of empathy and understanding, without making her evil or heartless but instead someone who very solidly believes they are doing absolutely the right thing. Carina, meanwhile, is a fascinating character who constantly struggles with addiction, self-doubt, and homicidal ideation; Shattered Minds doesn’t shy away from the awfulness of any of this, but instead embraces it, and shows that Carina isn’t a bad person for what she thinks, but is defined, as the rest of the cast are, by what they do.

The third viewpoint character, Dax, is arguably the least morally complex; on the side that Lam expects the reader to be on throughout Shattered Minds, and with a palliative role for much of the book, he could have, in other hands, been a very simple, indeed boring, character. Instead, Shattered Minds gives us an incredibly human, and sympathetic, view of a trans man; Dax’s transness isn’t a central point of the novel but does affect his character, and Lam writes with an incredible power about it, such that a passage where he talks about having brought his body to fit his mind made me spontaneously burst into tears (the bottom of page 281 of the ARC, for reference). Dax’s presence isn’t the only queerness on the page; we also have a gay couple, a pair of secondary although still vital characters, who Lam treats with the respect and dignity she extends to every single one of the compact cast of the book.

Shattered Minds is an absolutely fantastic novel; it balances quiet and loud, action and emotion, brilliantly, and in a very different way to most thrillers and science fiction novels, to stunning effect. I don’t think it’s Laura Lam’s best work (I think that is yet to come, and is going to cement her status as a modern master) but it’s head and shoulders above most of the genres it plays with.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received from the publisher, Pan MacMillan. Laura Lam is a friend, and will be launching Shattered Minds on 22nd June at Waterstones Glasgow Argyle Street in conversation with Kirsty Logan.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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The Manifold Worlds by Foz Meadows

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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.

Habibi by Craig Thompson

One a month, those sponsoring my Patreon at $5/post or more get to nominate, and then collectively choose, a work for me to review that month. Last month, they chose…
Habibi by Craig Thompson
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Sprawling across an epic landscape of deserts, harems, and modern industrial clutter, Habibi tells the tale of Dodola and Zam, refugee child slaves bound to each other by chance, by circumstance, and by the love that grows between them. We follow them as their lives unfold together and apart; as they struggle to make a place for themselves in a world (not unlike our own) fueled by fear, lust, and greed; and as they discover the extraordinary depth—and frailty—of their connection.

At once contemporary and timeless, Habibi gives us a love story of astounding resonance: a parable about our relationship to the natural world, the cultural divide between the first and third worlds, the common heritage of Christianity and Islam, and, most potently, the magic of storytelling.
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It’s well known that alongside science fiction and fantasy novels, I have a serious passion for graphic novels and comics; not just the superheroes that are the most recognised and public face of the genre, but a whole variety of the form of marriage of word and art. I suspect it is with this, as much as the content, in mind that my Patreon patrons asked me to review Craig Thompson’s giant magical-realist science fiction comic Habibi!

Before we go any further, for reasons that will become clear, I think it’s worth reminding you that I’m a white British Christian raised in a white, secular household with Jewish family and influences, so what I say should be read bearing that in mind.

The art, it is undeniable, is beautiful. Thompson has integrated Arabic calligraphy into Habibi stunningly, using it to transition, as panel borders, and as part of the story; the pseudo-abstract patterns he creates using the sentences, poems and words in Arabic throughout the book are stunning, and provide a beautiful backdrop for detailed, rich art throughout, that is more than a little reminiscent of Hergé’s Tintin work. Unfortunately, that extends to the approach to drawing ethnicity; Thompson has a tendency towards racial caricature, notably with his black and Arab characters, who really do embody the worst visual stereotypes he could possibly have come across.

That extends into the writing of Habibi. This is a story centred around a Muslim woman who is sold into marriage as a girl, enslaved, flees and becomes a sex worker (clearly marked in the story as shameful by Thompson), and then a courtesan of the Sultan; and her companion, a black fellow slave who she cares for as a son, who becomes a water trader, and then a eunuch, before being reunited with her. With the Middle Eastern setting of the story, then, we hit all kinds of negative and problematic tropes about Muslim and Arabic culture, actively reinforced by the author and narrative alike; Thompson isn’t interested in deconstructing these tropes, only reinforcing them. This isn’t a clever deconstruction of the idea of the sex worker as inevitably-raped, objectified, and somehow damaged, nor of the eunuch or other nonbinary presentation as damaged and distorted by childhood events; instead, it straightforwardly replicated both of these, in painful ways to read. Habibi also of course suggests that all (Arab) men fetishise and sexualise peripubescent girls and want to sleep with them; this is of course tabloid-fodder in the UK, and no more true of any ethnic or religious group than it is of any other.

The real disappointment is that wrapped in this shell is some fantastic writing. Habibi borrows the tale-within-a-tale approach of texts such as the 1,001 Nights; Dodola tells stories to Zam and to herself as a kind of survival mechanism and teaching tool. These include stories from the Quran, myths about Solomon, cautionary tales, and more; they play with the differences between the different Abrahamic texts and traditions; and they do some fascinating things with religious syncreticism. The setting is also, were it less steeped in racism, worthy of thought; in a post-abundance world, there’s a blend of magical realist and post-apocalyptic elements, which creates a strange kind of familiarity and distance with the work that has some interesting ideas wrapped into it.

In the end, Habibi is almost like two things put together; some beautiful art and narrative approaches with some fantastic worldbuilding, married to an awful lot of really racist, sexist, transphobic ideas.

If you found this review useful, would like early access to my reviews, or would like to be part of choosing what I read each month, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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The Problematic Presentation of Gender in Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning

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.

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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:

Yoon Ha Lee

Cheryl Morgan

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

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