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Knowing Where You’re Headed: Harry Potter, Star Wars and BSG

I’ve been patently neglectful of this blog for the last few months; didn’t even realize until I logged in a few days ago that my last post was from mid-October. However, there are a few posts I’ve been meaning to get to for some weeks now, so I’m cautiously resolving to undertake a blogging revival in the New Year (we’ll see how long that sticks :)) To jump-start the process, I figured I’d talk about the creative pursuit that’s been consuming my time for the last 3 months: outlining.

If you’re a regular visitor to this space, you know that I’ve been working on the first book in a long series for the last 3 1/2 years (give or take). Last summer, I was still bold enough to say aloud that I was hoping to have my book in a state to be shopped around by the end of 2015 (haha. Ha.); even by the beginning of October, I was feeling cautiously optimistic about getting through a draft by year’s end. And then I hit a block. A scene that I’d thought was plotted solidly enough to write itself completely fell apart. All the plot building blocks that were balanced on the outcome of that scene started to tremble; I saw in a flash that I wasn’t quite sure why those bits of plot were important to my protagonist’s story, or how they were going to play out in the next book and the one after that. Warily, I took a step back and forced myself to take a hard look at the rest of 2015: two lengthy out-of-state trips, three major holidays, and quite a bit of Life Stuff that needed to be cleaned up and organized before the new year. And I decided it was time to shift gears.

So since the end of October, I’ve not added a word to my novel-in-progress. Instead, I’ve been sitting down with the fragments of loosely-plotted notions that gave this series its genesis starting almost a decade ago, and the very vague outline I drafted 3 or 4 years back, and going through the arduous process of trying to make it all fit together in a way that feels right.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve enjoyed every minute of it; in fact, I’m writing this post after a morning banging my head against a map and culture that I’m only now realizing needs a lot more development if I’m actually expecting to set a book in that place. But overall, the process has been extraordinarily rewarding. I’ve always thought of this series as comprising three sequential trilogies; the first two are now plotted and framed in a way that really makes me happy. Each individual book has an arc, framed by a few strong story questions; each trilogy has an overarching question and issue that needs to be resolved; and each piece contributes to the larger journey I want the protagonist to take. After almost 2 years grubbing in the trenches of scene-by-scene minutiae, it’s been a breath of fresh air to step back and look at everything from 10,000 feet up. When I encounter a sticky piece of plot, it’s refreshing beyond words to be able to step back from it and say “hmm… would this work better if I changed something all the way back in Book 4?” Which I can do, without consequence, because Book 4 has not passed under anyone else’s eyes at this point; there are no legions of fans devoted to things having played out in a particular way.

As opposed to, for instance, the fans who heard Leia Organa’s claim to remember her real mother, as “very beautiful, kind, but sad,” despite (as the prequels later established) Padme Amidala’s having died when her children were literally minutes old.

Of course, the media-analysis sites that I entertain myself with have had maybe more than an average amount of conversation around Star Wars continuity in the last few months (on that subject, yes, I’ve seen The Force Awakens; yes, I plan to say something about it here, probably in another couple days). I’ve followed that discussion with particular interest given my own project of the moment, but this isn’t a new issue for me. I think about it every time I consume a new series, as I try to figure out how much the creator(s) planned ahead of time and how much is invented on the road. And thus we come to my examination of the three series mentioned in the title of this post: Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica  (potential spoilers for all three series follow, though not for The Force Awakens).

First things first: I’ve consumed and enjoyed all 3 of these stories, and I fully admit that all of them have their problems. But I also think they serve as an interesting trio to look at when considering the relative virtues of outlining, retconning, and free-floating storytelling.

To all appearances, Harry Potter is on one end of the spectrum as far as planning goes. While not all of the ideas from JK Rowling’s original sketch for the series ended up in the books (see this interview, where she talks about doing a “hostage swap” in deciding which characters wouldn’t survive the series), she does a masterful job of laying out small details that become consequential later. Many people remember the first mention of Sirius Black on Page 14 of Sorcerer’s Stone; for me, the moment that brought home Rowling’s finesse with details was when I went rummaging back through Half-Blood Prince descriptions of the clutter in the Room of Requirement searching for something that might be the Sword of Gryffindor. There are swords, of course, but none of them are Gryffindor’s: however, there’s also this.

Seizing the chipped bust of an ugly old warlock… he stood it on top of the cupboard… [and] perched a dusty old wig and a tarnished tiara on the statue’s head… (P527)

That tiara, of course, is Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem, and one of Voldemort’s horcruxes. Just tossed casually into the mix. The only other series easily brought to my mind that shows this level of forethought is Babylon 5, and that show was explicitly conceived by its creator as a novel for television with a clear beginning, middle and end.

If JK Rowling started out with a destination in mind and stayed more or less on the same path to get herself there, George Lucas seems to have taken a different tack. It’s generally accepted by Star Wars fans that when A New Hope was released in 1977, Lucas had not yet decided that Luke and Leia were siblings or even that Vader was Luke’s father (thus the clumsy ret-conning that has to happen in Return of the Jedi when Obi-Wan explains that his account of Anakin’s fate “was true… from a certain point of view.”) Then, of course, there is the disconnect between the prequels and the original trilogy. While the quote from Leia about remembering her mother is probably the most-often cited example, the one that caught me was in this review by Tor.com’s Ava Jarvis recounting her experience of watching A New Hope for the first time after having seen the prequels:

I definitely believe that the prequels did more damage than not to the original trilogy—and that damage isn’t limited to the sudden appearance of the idea of a mitochondria midi-chlorian driven Force, the wrong most often cited by fans. The cracks go deeper than that—including making the final confrontation between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan feel stilted, in a way it wouldn’t have had there been actual passion and concern and, yes, chemistry between the two.

After watching A New Hope for the first time in a long time, and doing so for the first time with Revenge of the Sith fresh in my brain, I can’t help but agree with her point. Even in their stilted interactions in the prequels, Obi-Wan and Anakin can be believed to have genuine affection for one another, and as far as the audience knows, the last time they saw one another was on Mustafar, after Obi-Wan had cut Anakin down and left him to die. With that reality in mind, seeing them calmly circle each other in the corridor on the Death Star, fighting without so much as a flicker of emotion, feels… well, it feels funny, to say the least.

Obviously, Lucas’s story has been presented to the world over a much longer time frame than Rowling’s (38 years, so far, compared to 8), and serialized stories’ changing their details from one installment to the next is nothing new. But even so, it still seems to me like the better storytelling choice is not to change course mid-stream; once you’ve set a piece of your history in place and shaped other aspects of the tale around it, and gotten readers and viewers invested in that history, that piece ought to stay put. Even if it proves inconvenient for you later.

Of course, there’s another way of dealing with inconvenient plot details, and that’s the strategy employed by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore when he realized he’d misnumbered the humanoid Cylons (with one of the “many copies” models being identified #8, presumably leaving the “final five” as 7, 9, 10, 11, and 12). Moore wrote a few lines into one episode mentioning a 13th model, “Daniel,” that had been scrapped early on in mass production (and thus, viewers were led to assume, was not counted as part of the set), and then was startled when fans leapt on this new character as a source of potential answers to the show’s many unanswered questions. Desperate for some damage control, Moore released an official statement through his podcast saying that “[Daniel] is not part of the plan for the end of the show.”

In the first interview linked above, Moore also notes that he didn’t really start thinking about how he wanted the show to end until he was developing the fourth season. Given that the show introduces its first mysteries in its miniseries, and nearly every over-arching plot (Kara Thrace’s uniqueness, the identity of the “final five” Cylon models, the destiny of Hera Agathon) is embedded in some sort of mystery, this style of plotting seems like a risk, to put it mildly. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many fans rated this ending among the worst in science fiction TV history.

I know that many writers don’t like outlines, and I know that serialized fiction has succeeded for a long time and in many media with writers not worrying too much about an overarching plan for their stories. However, when I write, I try to tell stories that I would enjoy as a reader; and comparing my experience of these three series just leaves me more convinced than ever that I’m taking the right approach. So I may not get back to writing for another couple weeks — but when I do, I will know where my protagonist ends, and how he gets there. And I think I’ll tell a better story because of it.

Diversiverse Book Review: A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

I chose this book to read for Aarti‘s 2015 #Diversiverse Challenge, but it’s one that’s been on my radar for a while. I’d heard Somali-American author Sofia Samatar compared to Ursula LeGuin; I’d heard the book described as one that is, above all else, a love letter to the power of books and reading. These were the things that drew me to request it from my local library, but when I picked it up, I wasn’t without reservations. Most of the reviewers I’d seen mentioned first encountering Samatar through her poetry; a few of them drew comparisons with Gene Wolfe. Both of these elements made me worry that her novel would be too dense and fanciful for my taste. But when I cracked the book open, the first paragraph was enough to tell me that the LeGuin comparison was accurate.

Because I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses. I did not know the vastness of the spice markets of Bain, where the merchants are delirious with scents, I had never seen the morning mists adrift above the surface of the green Illoun, of which the poets sing; I had never seen a woman with gems in her hair, nor observed the copper glinting of the domes, nor stood upon the melancholy beaches of the south while the wind brought in the sadness from the sea. Deep within the Fayaleith, the Country of the Wines, the clarity of light can stop the heart: it is the light the local people call “the breath of angels” and is said to cure heartsickness and bad lungs. Beyond this is the Balinfeil, where, in the winter months, the people wear caps of white squirrel fur, and in the summer months the goddess Love is said to walk and the earth is carpeted with almond blossoms. But of all this I knew nothing. I knew only of the island where my mother oiled her hair in the glow of a rush candle, and terrified me with stories of the Ghost with No Liver, whose sandals slap when he walks because he has his feet on backwards.

The amount of world-building that’s evident from this one paragraph almost literally took my breath away. I know from the author bio that Samatar wrote the book while teaching English in South Sudan, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know enough about East African cultures to recognize whether any of the cultures in the novel are influenced by them (in the way, for example, that most traditional fantasy is heavily influenced by medieval Europe). There are things that “felt” African to me, like the fact that the protagonist’s father has two wives, but there are also vast swaths of the culture that I was pretty sure are at least halfway invented. Mythical figures like the Ghost with No Liver are thrown in casually, mentioned once and then never again. The fact that each member of a wealthy family has an external soul — a jut, a small statue unique to that individual — is explained on Page 5 and then forgotten for a hundred pages, until it suddenly becomes a very important marker of the difference between the haves and have-nots. From a craft perspective, the richness of the setting was far and away the thing that impressed me most.

The other thing that’s probably evident from that sample paragraph is the care with which Samatar crafts her prose. If I hadn’t known she was a poet before I began, I would have guessed before I got very far into the novel. Not only is the narrator’s first-person text beautifully composed, but there are other types of prose embedded within the book: folk tales, prayers, songs, and snippets of other voices. Not since Watership Down have I read a book that includes aspects of its world’s mythology that are both long enough to disrupt the story and not disruptive at all.

Of course, I think this is in large part because A Stranger in Olondria is not a plot-driven book. In a single sentence, the plot goes more or less like this. Jevick is a young pepper merchant, on his way to the big city for the first time, when he meets a girl with a terminal illness and enchants her with a demonstration of his literacy (uncommon in both their cultures); shortly after he gets to the city, he begins to be haunted by her ghost, begging him to write her story down, which he eventually does. There are, of course, complications having to do with what needs to be done for her to find peace, and what it means to be someone who sees ghosts, and along the way Jevick meets a number of interesting people on their own journeys — but really, this book is only half about its central plot.

The back cover blurb puts it this way: “As civil war looms, Jevick must face his ghost and learn her story: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that seductive necromancy, reading.” I would focus on something slightly different — this is the first book I have seen that tells the classic genre story of the farm boy seeking adventure while actually taking the time to demonstrate the learning curve that goes along with that. Jevick learns the Olondrian language from a tutor on his father’s estate: that doesn’t mean he can speak fluently when he gets to the city. His home language doesn’t have a written form. His worldview and experiences aren’t mirrored in any way by those of the larger world he falls into, and that’s disorienting — and Samatar takes the time to show us that.

Honestly, I think I might enjoy this book more on a second reading. On my first readthrough, I kept almost putting it down, feeling as though the plot were moving too slowly, but then I would hit something that’d draw me back in, like a short story embedded in the larger text that covers the backstory of one of Jevick’s friends, or a song about a girl who’s tricked into marrying a demon and then escapes to go back to her family. This book is dense and layered and not the sort of thing that’s meant to be read quickly (which, honestly, was probably my other problem: I fully confess that I’m a skimmer on first reads). It’s not always immediately clear who’s narrating; the order of events is sometimes not what you’re expecting. Reading it, I felt a bit like I have on the occasions when Husband has tried to get me to watch anime with him, like I’m having to twist my brain around to a new way of looking at the world.

This isn’t a book for everyone. The negative reviews I found on Goodreads tended to be from people complaining that nothing happened (mostly true, in comparison with more traditional fantasy novels) or that the protagonist was flat and uninteresting (again, I’d probably say guilty as charged); I think that, like Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, it is much more “literary” than it is “fantasy,” even if it takes place in a world that doesn’t exist. But I’m glad I read it, and I will be recommending it to my more poetic and anthropologically-inclined friends.

Diversiverse 2015: I’m doing it, and you should too!

I just signed up to participate in Aarti’s 2015 Diversiverse Challenge for the second year. Basically, the idea behind Diversiverse is for bloggers and other readers to increase the visibility of authors of color in all genres, by reading one book written by a person of color, and posting a review of it between October 4th and 17th. Your review can be on your blog, if applicable, or through a system like Goodreads or even Amazon, as long as you’re able to link it back to Aarti’s site.

I had a great time with this event last year. I read two books: Ash, by Malinda Lo, and Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson. And since doing it, I’ve found myself eyeing the bookshelves when I walk into a store looking for books by authors I might not have heard of to add to my list. Aarti’s challenge led me to think more about picking diverse books off the shelf, which prompted me to check out Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings, and Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (all books I’m glad I read). For this year’s challenge, I think I’m going to try to read and review 3 or 4 books, and to choose authors whose work I’m not familiar with in hopes of finding more people to add to my “must read” list.

I hope you’ll join me! If you’re interested, go to the Diversiverse link above to sign up.

Hugos Review 2015: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

When I decided to register as a supporting Hugos member this year, I resolved that I would read all the nominated novels and try to make my best unbiased judgment – but from the start, I suspected that The Goblin Emperor would get my vote. So as I’ve reread it these past few days, I’ve been musing on the qualities that make me deem a book worthy of the Hugo. There’s been a lot of discussion of this in the fan community in the last few months. People have debated the relative merits of a rip-roaring good tale versus well-crafted prose; the value of using a story as a platform to increase the representation of diverse groups in fiction – or to explore real-world social problems; and whether the best stories are those rooted in the characters, worldbuilding, big ideas or plot. And the more I read across the genre, the more I’m coming to peace with the fact that there are no right answers to these questions. SF/F is a big tent with space in it for everybody; the important thing is that we’re here because there are stories in the genre that we love. And if we’re adding our own stories, I suspect that regardless of our other motivations for writing, on some level, we want people out there to love them, too.

So in approaching my Hugos ballet this year, I used a strategy that I hope will serve me well as I approach nominations in the future: read as widely as I can, and then pick out the stories I love best for recognition. This time around, for the 2014 Best Novel category, that’s The Goblin Emperor.

I’ve talked about this book here before, the tale of the biracial prince whose birth was the result of his elven emperor father’s ill-advised and brief political marriage to a goblin princess. Our hero has spent most of his life in exile with only an embittered cousin for company, and the story starts when he’s awakened with the news that there’s been an airship accident, his father and three elder brothers are dead, and he’s now the emperor of the elflands. It’s a book that seems, at a glance, to have all the tackiest qualities that non-fantasy-readers associate with our genre. The setting is quasi-medieval, a nation on the cusp of its industrial revolution. The population’s comprised of elves (with white hair and skin and gray eyes), goblins (with black hair and skin and red eyes), and those of mixed heritage (with skin that comes in varying shades of gray). The characters have long, polysyllabic names that are easy to confuse on a first reading (examples: Beshelar and Berenar; Csevet and Csethiro; Telimezh and Tethimel).

Maybe most of all, the language is vexingly complex, with two forms of address for first and second person (the author uses ‘we’/’I’ and ‘you’/‘thou’ to distinguish them) and different titles for men, married women, and unmarried women, with three different prefixes depending on the bearer’s social standing (a man of average, noble or high noble stature, for instance, would be correctly titled as Mer, Osmer, or Dach’osmer, respectively). In the course of a few pages, the same character might be referred to by personal name, family name (which is actually a stem to which different suffixes are attached depending on the individual’s gender and marital status), and title-plus-family name without blinking an eye. Oh, and did I mention the emperors take imperial names that are even longer?

In spite of all this, when I picked the book up last year, I couldn’t put it down. And I think that’s almost entirely to do with Addison’s crafting of her main character, Maia Drazhar (AKA His Imperial Serenity, Edrehasivar VII. I did warn you about the names). Although Maia’s story is presented to us in third person, it may as well be a first-person account. We see everything through his eyes, which lets Addison craft a classic “stranger comes to town” introduction to her world, and then gloriously subvert the trope by reminding us that this particular stranger doesn’t have the luxury of time to learn his way around. He has a government to run.

I’ve read a number of negative reviews of this book, and those that don’t identify the wordplay as the reason they bounced off the story tend to focus on its slow pace. It’s true that there are whole paragraphs devoted to things like “the emperor is dressed by his stewards; this is what they dress him in; isn’t it odd that an emperor isn’t allowed to dress himself.” There are no swordfights, and very little magic. The “conflict,” such as it is, ostensibly focuses on Maia’s attempts to figure out what happened to his father’s airship, and then unravel various political conspiracies within the court while dodging the efforts of those who want to remove him from power – but as far as I’m concerned, the real story here is about Maia’s journey from becoming the emperor to beginning to be the emperor.

Yes, this book has dense language, and complicated names. But it also has beautiful conversations between Maia and his bodyguards about whether they can also be his friends, about whether an emperor can have friends. It has an eighteen-year-old kid realizing that he will never again in his life have a moment’s solitude. It has him attempting to do the right thing by attending the funeral for the airship crew who died with his father, only to realize that his presence turns that funeral into a spectacle that’s all about him. Maia spends the book trying to figure out how to be Edrehasivar VII while still holding on to some semblance of himself, and that’s the journey that intrigued me.

The other part of my realization that what makes a “good” book is subjective is that one person’s un-put-downable book will leave someone else cold. I know that there are many people who won’t be drawn into this one, and there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve picked up a number of books on the basis of glowing recommendations and set them down unfinished. But for me, what makes a book grab hold and not let go is the opportunity to delve deeply into a character and a setting; to explore questions about identity and one’s place in the world; and to walk away feeling like I’ve stood in someone else’s shoes for a while. For all these reasons, The Goblin Emperor will get my vote for the Best Novel Hugo this year.

Hugos Review 2015: The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin (Cixin Liu)

If you’re at all tied in to the genre fiction world, you’ll likely have heard of The Three-Body Problem. It was already on my reading list for some time before it was added to the list of Hugo nominees; it’s been getting all kinds of buzz, including being a pick for the io9 book club a few months ago. Annalee Newitz’s review starts with the line “If you love computers, this novel  should be on your must-read list.” This framing made me suspect that I might not be the book’s intended audience, and after having finished it I can confirm that supposition; if not for its Hugo nomination, I might have put it down unfinished. But at the end, I’m glad I read it, and I won’t be at all upset if it takes home the Hugo this year.

A quick summary for those who’ve missed the buzz: The Three-Body Problem is a novel by Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin. Liu has won China’s Galaxy Award (China’s highest prize for science fiction) nine times; his first book was published in 1999; and The Three-Body Problem is, as near as I can tell, the first of his works to be translated into English. The translator, Ken Liu (no relation), is a well-respected sci-fi writer in his own right, whose short story “The Paper Menagerie” swept the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards in 2011. Three-Body Problem is the first in a trilogy, and the other two books are out in China but have not yet been translated.

At its heart, The Three-Body Problem is an idea book. It raises fascinating questions about the salvation (or salvageability) of humanity, the importance of technological progress, and human tribalism, while also exploring complex ideas from math and science, particularly physics (the English language title refers to a term from classical mechanics). It’s most definitely hard science fiction, which isn’t my usual bread and butter. Big chunks of the book are spent explaining complex physics concepts (both real and fictionalized). The characters are also flatter and more peripheral than what I tend to prefer in my reading. That aspect of the book reminded me a bit of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which I set down unfinished because I found it too much like a set of political essays presented by talking heads. Liu Cixin has said in interviews that he was inspired by American science fiction authors from the “golden age” (Arthur C. Clarke is one I’ve seen cited in several places) and this book definitely captures the feel of that era — a classic sci-fi story in most any sense of the word, with the possible exception of its location.

When the book opens, we’re in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution, where a young woman has just seen her father killed for continuing to teach (and proclaim his belief in) Einstein’s theory of relativity. But most of the story takes place in the near future; the main character, Wang Miao, is a researcher developing a new nanotechnology who starts having strange experiences. Scientists he knows are killing themselves because they say the laws of physics are no longer working as expected. When he takes photos with his fancy new camera, there’s a countdown on the negatives when they’re developed. And when he starts trying to explore possible linkages between these phenomena, he finds himself drawn into a MMORPG called Three Body (the book’s Chinese title) that depicts a world with massively unpredictable seasons and weather, whose people are able to dehydrate themselves to survive great heat and cold, but which has also had to reinvent its civilization from scratch thousands of times when the planet’s been destroyed by natural forces of one kind or another. Wang is fascinated by the game, which he eventually realizes is simulating life in a tri-solar system (where the planet is sometimes in stable orbit around one star, subject at other times to the heat and gravitational pull of two or even all three stars at once, and sometimes thrown far from any of them). But he can’t shake the feeling that there’s something deeper going on…

I struggled with the first half of the book, where Wang is going from place to place and person to person trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on. But once Liu started to tip his hand about what was causing the strange phenomena, I was hooked — at least conceptually, if not always in execution.

Warning: spoilers for the book’s central ideas and plot arc beyond this point.

What Wang and the readers discover in the second half of the book is that the online game, Three Body, is part of a grand movement that’s been organized by the supporters of an alien civilization from Alpha Centauri (which, incidentally, is a binary star system with a third star close enough to influence the orbit of any planets, whose denizens have survived through dehydration methods remarkably similar to those used in the game) who have started the process of invading Earth. Their fleet won’t arrive for four hundred years, but to make sure that humans don’t outstrip them technologically in the meantime, they’ve sent ahead a fleet of sentient, self-replicating protons (the explanation of this aspect of the Big Plot is is the high-powered physics stuff I was alluding to earlier) to mess with the laws of physics as they’re currently understood, and basically stop human scientific advancement in its tracks.

Wang also learns that the aliens first became aware of Earth because the young woman we met in the book’s first chapter, Ye Wenjie, later became involved with China’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence; when she received a response to China’s Voyager-type initial contact message, warning that the aliens who’d received China’s signal would destroy human civilization if they could pinpoint which planet the first contact had come from, she sent word back to the effect that “humans aren’t worth saving. Come take our planet and do better.”

In the decades since, the human supporters of the “Trisolaran” aliens have fragmented into two main groups, those who view the aliens and their world through a quasi-religious lens (and are less inclined to actively work in support of the invasion than in attempting to solve the three-body problem and allow the Trisolarans to live in peace) and those who see them as the ones who will come to rid Earth of the corrupt human influence. This is where my sociologist brain really began to appreciate the story; Liu does some fascinating work with exploring the range of human reactions to the knowledge that another “superior” culture is out there, and that it’s coming to destroy the human world. Several characters offer interesting takes on the idea that human civilization feels worthless now that they know that it’ll all be over in 400 years. There’s a great moment at the very end of the book where a common analogy for advanced civilizations — that Trisolarans are to humans as humans are to bugs — is turned around, and a character points out that humans and bugs have been at war for millennia upon millennia and the bugs aren’t beaten yet.

In his “Big Idea” interview on John Scalzi’s website, Liu suggests that much of Chinese science fiction portrays aliens as inherently noble-minded, and he felt it was more realistic to posit that any civilization advanced enough to enter space would view any other civilization it found there as a threat to its existence. I think this is a fascinating idea, and one that I hadn’t seen in science fiction before. And as you might guess from my summary of the central plot threads, it’s not the only element in the story that made me feel that way.

So if you like hard science fiction and aren’t too bothered by lightly-developed characters, this is almost certainly going to be a home run book for you. And even if you don’t fit that profile (and especially if you read primarily Western authors), I’d still recommend you check it out purely for the uniqueness of the core concepts. This one might not be my kind of book, but it’s still a very worthy contender for the award.

History Through Two Lenses: On Watching Star Trek/TOS

Until very recently, my Star Trek literacy was shockingly low, at least by the standards of my uber-nerdy social group. I had conscientiously watched the two new JJ Abrams movies, more-casually watched two original movies (so casually, in fact, that while I’m sure that I’ve technically seen Wrath of Khan, I couldn’t tell you what the other one was), and caught a scattered handful of episodes from TOS, TNG, DS9 and Voyager. So when Husband and I found ourselves in search of a new show for our weeknight evenings, I suggested we start Star Trek from the beginning. If nothing else, I figured, it’d give us a nice long stretch before we had to worry about choosing another show.

We’re still in the earliest stages at this point, Season One of the original series, and I’ve already noticed my Star Trek literacy increasing. I know what a Vulcan nerve pinch is now; I also feel much better able to appreciate the satire of John Scalzi’s fabulous novel Redshirts. That said, I find that my purest enjoyment of the show is happening on the meta level — in fact, on two different meta levels. Whenever we hit hit one of those inevitable moments that cause people to roll their eyes at TOS, Husband cringes, turns to me and says “I promise it gets better!” And every time, I shrug and say “Sweetheart, I’m a storyteller and a sociologist. I’m fascinated by all of it.”

Some of the conscious liberal philosophy built into the original Star Trek seems to be fairly common knowledge even outside the Trekkie fan base. I already knew, for example, that TOS was the site of TV’s first interracial kiss. I also knew about Roddenberry’s carefully considered decision to make the bridge of the Enterprise a multiracial, multinational place, and I’d heard Nichelle Nichols’ fabulous retelling of her meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where he talked about the importance of the American people’s seeing a black actress playing something other than “a black role.” But there were other elements of show design and storytelling that I wasn’t aware of until I started watching. In the first pilot episode, which features an almost entirely different crew, we see that Roddenberry originally intended for the Enterprise to have a female first officer who (gasp!) wore the same uniform as the men.That level of equal treatment might not have made it into the later series (I’m looking at you, miniskirts and go-go boots), but there’s still plenty of ideology in TOS that I don’t think was par for the course in 1960s TV. One early episode, “The Arena,” boldly suggests that even “bad guys” rarely see their own actions as evil-for-evil’s-sake. Another, “The Menagerie,” features a character with substantial physical disabilities, who can’t easily communicate with his peers, as one of the judges in a court-martial, implying that his judgment is as sound as anyone else’s. The episode isn’t perfect — there’s some unexamined disabilism elsewhere, and the ending’s  pretty problematic — but coming more than 20 years before the passage of the ADA, it still seems very forward-thinking.

In addition to marking the places where the show was ahead of its time, I’m having fun picking out moments where the attempts at progressivism haven’t aged quite so well, or where it didn’t occur to the creators to question their base assumptions. There’s one episode, “Mudd’s Women,” where the walk-on heroine ends up living happily ever after because she just has to BELIEVE she’s beautiful to be desirable to men. In an era when women were still expected to wear makeup every day, I see what they were trying for, but it looks dated to modern eyes. And don’t even get me started on Kirk’s endless string of nameless love affairs: I’ll just go out on a limb here and guess that even if Majel Barrett‘s first officer had remained a part of the series after the pilot, she would not have been engaging in such “wanton” behavior. As entertaining as the social commentary is, though, what I find most interesting is unpacking the plot tropes.

Unsurprisingly, TVTropes.com has a lot to say about Star Trek, but I found this passage particularly illustrative:

The show’s writing was good, the cast had great chemistry and the characters themselves were very memorable, to the point of creating three new archetypes: The Kirk, The Spock, and The McCoy. In fact, this series created so many new tropes that it has left an unmistakable mark on both television and pop culture ever since. Not to mention inspired a lot of mostly affectionate parodies.

Whenever I’m watching an episode, I can’t help but feel like I’m seeing the norms of sci-fi storytelling developing before my eyes. In the evil twin episode, “The Enemy Within,” when a transporter malfunction basically splits Kirk into id and superego, “evil Kirk” spends most of his energy screaming and attacking people, making him eminently distinguishable from “good Kirk”; it’s only at the end of the episode that we begin to see the writers playing with the idea of not being able to tell them apart. When the Romulans make their first appearance in “Balance of Terror,” where the Enterprise is forced to violate the Romulan “neutral zone” in a presumed act of war and then discovers that the Romulans look a little too much like Vulcans (certainly not an allegory about either the Cold War or the suspicion that fell on Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor), after Kirk’s brilliance leads to their successfully outmaneuvering the other ship, the enemy captain blows up his own ship and crew after saying poignantly to Kirk, “You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”

I recently discovered that one of my local nerd cronies is also doing her first TOS watchthrough right now; when we discussed it, she said that the thing she likes best about the show is that the stories don’t turn out the way she expects. Star Trek created so many storytelling tropes, she argued, that contemporary writers seeking to avoid cliches have no choice but to go in a different direction. I agree with this in part, but I also don’t think it’s the only explanation for the change; one recent episode got me thinking about how broader norms for “likeable” characters have changed in the last 50 years.

In the episode, “Court Martial,” Kirk is called to task by Starfleet High Command on charges of negligence causing the death of an Enterprise crewman. For most of the episode, we’re treated to video and computer evidence suggesting that Kirk genuinely made a mistake, pushing the wrong button in a tense situation and flushing the crewman out into space. But in the end, it becomes clear that the crewman faked his own death; blaming Kirk for an earlier incident that derailed his career, he was determined that The Great Hero should meet a similar fate. When we finished the episode, I looked at Husband and said “wouldn’t it be more interesting if Kirk really had made a mistake?” **

Thinking about it later, I remembered a film studies course I took in college where we learned about the New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. The filmmakers from this era, whose famous movies include Bonnie & Clyde, The Godfather and The Graduate, made a point of demonstrating the moral ambiguity of their protagonists, telling stories that weren’t so clearly “black and white”; the change is generally viewed as drawing its inspiration at least in part from the changing American zeitgeist after the Vietnam War.

Contemporary audiences are used to gray heroes. Whether we’re talking about Walter White, Greg House, or Tyrion Lannister, modern characters make complicated choices, and sometimes they do bad things. On purpose. But even though Rick Blaine let the Nazis drag Ugarte away at the beginning of Casablanca, and Rhett Butler slept with ladies of ill repute and ran the Union blockade, both of them ended up clearly on the side of the “good guys” by the ends of their stories. I suspect that earlier audiences weren’t so keen on ambiguity in their heroes.

So all in all, I’m enjoying my Star Trek education so far, and looking forward to seeing what other sci-fi tropes I can trace back to this universe — and for what it’s worth, the experience is confirming my earlier belief that it’s worth our time as storytellers to dig into the history of our genre. If nothing else, knowing what came before will stop you from being like a friend of mine who reportedly got about 100 pages into Lord of the Rings on a first reading and then threw it aside, saying, “This is the most cliched book I’ve ever read.”

Know your book’s genealogy: something can’t be a cliche if it came first. Go forth and read and watch and think, and your writing will be better for it.

**(For the record, Husband’s answer to my question about whether the other way of ending the story would be better was “You’re going to LOVE Next Gen.” I’m looking forward to it.)

Hugos Review 2015: The Dark Between the Stars, by Kevin J. Anderson

This book had some fun moments. I finished it, which is saying something (not always the case for books I read these days). However, I do not think it is award-worthy.

In my last Hugos review, I talked about how Jim Butcher’s Skin Game fell into the category of “a good book, but not for me”; a little too stand-alone, too action-packed, too deeply rooted in the tropes of genres I’m not generally excited about. Anderson’s Dark Between the Stars had a number of elements that should have inclined me toward ranking it higher than Butcher’s book. It’s a huge, sweeping story, the first in a trilogy; it includes interesting worldbuilding and cultural stuff; and it focuses as much on small human moments (where “human” might mean human/human, human/robot, human/alien, or some other sentient-being interaction) as it does on big space battles. And yet, in my opinion, its problems outweighed its strengths.

The basic elements: The Dark Between the Stars seemed to me to be classic space opera, telling a broad, sweeping story through the eyes of what seemed like dozens of narrators (I didn’t actually count). It continues a story from an earlier trilogy, The Saga of Seven Suns, set in a universe where humans have moved out from Earth to colonize a number of planets with the help of alien technology. There’s one major alien race, the Ildirans, who the humans are allied with to the point of interbreeding, and several others (the gas-giant-living hydrogues and extinct, buglike Klikiss) who are or were human enemies; the setting also includes highly advanced robots called “compys,” and at least 2 intelligent elemental-like species, the fiery faeroes and watery wentals. A brief aside: I figured out all of this world-building detail without needing to reference the earlier books, which is a point in Anderson’s favor. Compared to other “related series” that I’ve read, I would say the book stands alone.

The story also seems like classic sci-fi fare to me; there is a new, dark threat in the universe, in this case embodied by literal clouds of darkness that come from nowhere and engulf ships, people, and planets. This threat is particularly terrifying to the Ildirans, because their home planet, in a system with (surprise) seven suns, is never dark; darkness has a weightiness in their culture even stronger than it does in, er, mainstream American culture. Besides this central plot, there are also sidebars touching on everything from the OCD/PTSD of a woman orphaned as a little girl to a disintegrating marriage to the aftereffects of war on the sentient psyche.

I was looking forward to this book, because my tastes generally incline more toward fantasy epics and I was excited about familiarizing myself with how some of the epic tropes look different in a sci-fi setting. But after I finished the first chapter, I had to hand the book to Husband (the sci-fi reader in the house) and ask “so, are all sci-fi epics this clunky and info-dumpy?”

I felt as though Dark Between the Stars had a lot of potential that wasn’t fully realized. The worldbuilding was genuinely interesting, with core concepts elaborated on in novel ways; for instance, because the Ildiran race is linked through low-level telepathy, every individual can always sense the larger collective, and this filters into their culture through details like the fact that almost all Ildirans fear being alone. The diversity representation was also pretty strong; lots of female characters (some likeable, some unlikeable), lots of physical diversity among the human contingent (including many dark-skinned characters and a paraplegic freighter captain), and I even think I may have spotted a same-sex relationship, though it was left somewhat ambiguous. Finally, there were a number of really likeable characters who I wanted to hear more from… and that, regrettably, is where this review will turn away from praise.

Because the book had so many different plot threads and so many different narrators, I felt as though none of the characters reached their full potential. Every time I found myself getting interested in an individual’s narrative arc, I’d be swept away from them to spend half a dozen chapters on other plotlines I wasn’t as invested in. This is always a risk with multiple viewpoints, but Dark Between the Stars seemed to take the problem to an extreme. I finished the book feeling as though I didn’t know any of the characters much better than I had when I first met them. I also found myself not very interested in the A-plot, the looming shadows of darkness. I was much more excited to read about the tensions between the couple fighting over custody of their son, or the young woman whose reaction to her father’s dying from a disease he contracted as an interplanetary explorer was to secret herself away in a sterilized lab where she intended to find cures for all the diseases in the known universe and then hold the cures for her personal use. I certainly don’t object to wide-ranging stories (I read A Song of Ice and Fire, after all), but it seems to me that if your reader’s dragging her feet every time you try to take her back to your central plot backbone, there may be a flaw in your storytelling.

I also felt like the craft on this book needed work. The prose was flat, without much in the way of either wit or poetry (and I say that as someone who regularly skims through flowery prose), and the explanations of the setting and context were thrown out in chunks that didn’t flow with the narrative at all, particularly in the early chapters. In that regard, this book felt like either a first novel (which I know isn’t the case) or one that was rushed through its editing stage.

I know that there’s been a tremendous amount of controversy during this Hugo season about the contrast between “fun books” and “important books,” and I suspect one of the reasons this one made it onto the ballot is because it’s undeniably in the first category. But I would argue that even undeniably “fun” books with no aspirations to literary merit — like Butcher’s Dresden Files, which the author himself describes as “dopey little wizard books,” or Gabaldon’s Outlander books, which she started as “practice” — should still meet a minimum standard for story construction, writing, and craft if they’re going to be seen as exemplars for our field. This book didn’t meet that standard, and for that reason, it will not be getting my Hugo vote.

Hugos Reviews 2015: Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

I’ve signed myself up to vote on the Hugos for the first time this year. If you’re someone who follows nerd news, you’ll likely already know that a lot of people are signing up for the first time because of nerd-politics (if you want a good summary of what’s going on, I’d recommend Kameron Hurley’s Atlantic article here; for a very nuanced and lengthy analysis, check out GRRM’s extended series of posts, starting with this one). I’m not going to discuss the controversy in any depth here; you can probably guess my views from the angle I’ve chosen to present in my linked articles and from other things I’ve posted on this site. What I am going to do — stated now in the presence of witnesses — is read and review here all of this year’s nominees for Best Novel (and possibly some other nominated works, stay tuned).

And so: Skin Game, by Jim Butcher. Book 15 in his series The Dresden Files. My one-sentence review would boil down to something like “I enjoyed reading this book; I admire the craft and research that went into writing it; if it were to win the award, I wouldn’t feel like that win was undeserved; but it’s not really my style, and I don’t think I’ll be voting for it.”

Like most people, I’ve heard the buzz around this series for a long time; I have several friends who are members of the Butcher fan club, and who rave about the Dresden books as the most compulsively readable stuff they’ve encountered in a long time. So I read the first one, Storm Front, a few years back, and was mostly unmoved. And though all the reviews I’ve read say that the series picks up speed in about Book 3 or 4, I wasn’t really interested in following Harry Dresden on his further adventures. I don’t typically get drawn into detective stories, or urban fantasy, or books whose proportions favor action scenes over other stuff (the main reason I also haven’t had much success picking up Butcher’s Codex Alera series), and I generally prefer tightly serialized series like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire to more standalone ones like Pratchett’s Discworld. Although Dresden Files clearly has an overarching plot, this book also had a tightly self-contained story arc.

All that said, if you are a fan of any of the things I list in that last sentence above and you haven’t tried out Dresden Files yet, I’d recommend you drop what you’re doing and give it a shot.

For those even less familiar with the series than I am, I’ll note that it follows the ongoing adventures of Harry Dresden, a wizard living in contemporary Chicago. In the first book, Butcher’s basically giving us private-eye-with-a-supernatural-twist (kind of like where Angel started), but by Book 15, things have gotten considerably more complicated. Dresden’s amassed a whole collection of complex powers, debts and social connections, and there’s no more simple private eye work.

The management of those complexities was one of the things that impressed me most about this book. While I certainly felt my ignorance of the previous books and the past relationships between characters as I read, I wasn’t crippled by it. Butcher did a good job of giving us enough information about each character that I could remember who they were and what their relationship to Dresden was. Trying to imagine someone having a similar experience if they picked up GRRM’s A Storm of Swords without having read the previous books hurts my brain.

In addition to handling the intricacies of a long series, Butcher did a good job with the self-contained plot of this book, too. Basically, because of the web of obligations Dresden’s woven for himself, he’s pulled into a Grand Heist that forces him to temporarily ally himself with a handful of sometime-adversaries who he’s not at all sure he can trust to watch his back. The action sequences are a little more tightly packed together than I usually seek out in my fiction, particularly as things heat up in the second half of the book, but each one is appropriately suspenseful and very well-described. Butcher’s bio in the back of the book describes him as “[a] martial arts enthusiast whose resume includes a long list of skills rendered obsolete at least two hundred years ago,” and his familiarity with the combat side of things definitely shows.

I also enjoyed what seems to be a fairly comprehensive use of magical sources in Butcher’s worldbuilding. The magical forces in Dresden’s world include, among others, Judeo-Christian archangels, medieval European fairies, demons connected to the 40 pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot for his betrayal of Christ, Tibetan temple guardians, and the Greek gods. While this certainly doesn’t cover every culture’s magical or mystical elements, I liked the fact that these different systems coexist in the same setting; this aspect of the story reminded me a bit of Gaiman’s American Gods.

In terms of plotting, I liked the fact that the stakes were different from what you might expect for a story that reminded me, in places, of a well-crafted D&D dungeon crawl. Dresden isn’t in this for the money; he’s worried about his family and friends. And as he gains more power and more associated obligations, he’s worried about what’s happening to him in exchange. I like angsty characters, so I appreciated the angst that surfaced from time to time in this one. Butcher also pulls off a few very well-played plot twists, one of which had me paging back through the book to look for examples of “that thing that I’ve been doing all along that you probably didn’t notice.”

There wasn’t anything specific about this book that I didn’t like. Other critical reviewers (3 distinct links) have argued that Butcher’s writing is objectifying to women; I didn’t really feel that here (although I will admit that Dresden does seem to have at least the potential of a romantic relationship with almost every unattached woman he shares a scene with). I might have liked a little more time spent on low-key interactions between characters, but that’s a style/preference thing rather than a criticism. Taken for what it is — a pulpy romp through a fantasy Ocean’s 11 — I’d call this a very fun little book. And if you like this kind of stuff more than I do, by all means, go pick up a few of these and read. I’m told you won’t be disappointed.

Reading Challenge Review: Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

A book set in high school (#36 on my 2015 Reading Challenge List): Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

I was deeply conflicted about reading this book. I’d heard all the common critiques, that its central message is anti-feminist, that it’s metaphorical “abstinence porn,” that its “sparkly vampires” cheapened the vampire archetype. I’d seen the ire unleashed against Twilight fans by “superior” nerds everywhere from Comic-Con on down. But as I’ve said before, I believe in reading broadly in your field, and whatever you might think of these books and their fans, you can’t deny their popularity. They’re a cultural phenomenon: I’m a fantasy author and a cultural sociologist. So, a couple of weeks ago, I requested the first book from the local library, brought it home (feeling a bit as though I should be carrying it in a brown paper bag) and settled in to read.

When I finished it a few days later, my overwhelming emotional reaction wasn’t disgust, or rapture. It was “meh.”

In case you’ve avoided the Twilight Saga even more completely than I have, a very brief summary: Bella Swan is a high school senior who’s just moved from Phoenix to Forks, Washington, a small town on the Olympia Peninsula. When she starts classes at her new high school, she’s intrigued by the very-attractive and very-mysterious Edward Cullen, who she realizes in short order is a vampire. He likes her, too, but insists they should stay away from each other, because she smells too deliciously tempting. And yet, against everyone’s better judgment, they start to date. I know the rest of the series’ plot in bullet point (Bella and Edward break up; Bella briefly dates a werewolf named Jacob; Bella and Edward get married and conceive a child, and then Bella needs to be turned into a vampire to keep the child from killing her), but I don’t think I’ll be reading the other books to learn the details.

I’ll admit, there was some interesting stuff in the text. For all the jokes about “sparkling vampires,” Meyer’s vampire worldbuilding was more thorough than I expected. She essentially argues that because vampires prey on humans, everything about them — their appearance, their voices, their smell — is designed to make them extra-appealing to humans, and the fact that their skin shines like tiny diamonds in the sun is part of that motif. She’s also got a vampire-conversion strategy that I hadn’t seen before, where any victim not killed in the initial attack will be transformed over a period of several days by the venom delivered in the vampire’s bite. There’s even some interesting hints of “vampire culture,” surrounding the question of when conversion is OK, and whether it’s ethical to eat humans (the Cullen family says no — as Husband put it, “they’re vegan vampires” who only eat non-human animals — but it’s hinted they’re not unique in this view).

The opening lines were also quite good, dropping us into a deadly conflict in medias res with these words: “I’d never given much thought to how I would die — though I’d had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.”

After that opening, though, things went downhill.

I wasn’t bothered by the romance. I understand the critiques about Bella’s lack of agency and stereotypically “good girl” behavior, and I’d certainly acknowledge those elements’ presence in the book; but I’m willing to accept that there’s a market for those kinds of stories. I was more bothered by the introduction of the werewolf, Jacob, when I realized that he was also an American Indian; the fact that he’s a member of a real-world Indian nation (the Quileute) and that the nation’s traditional belief system does include the story that they’re descended from wolves (at least, according to Wikipedia) made me feel somewhat better about it, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth.

Honestly, though, the biggest thing that bothered me about the book was its lack of substance. I’m not talking about the stakes: I’ve got no problem with a book’s central conflict being the challenge of getting through high school. But this book didn’t make me care about Bella’s problems. I didn’t believe her fears about not having any friends, because it was evident from the first pages that she was going to be “the special kid” in school. I’m also not talking about the suspension of disbelief necessary to make romance work: having been recently immersed in Gabaldon’s Outlander books, I can vouch for the fact that a hero and heroine can be the Most Desirable People Ever and also part of an engaging story. But this book didn’t have that for me. I didn’t really believe the romance; the dialogue felt stilted and the characters didn’t seem to have any real emotional connection.

As I read this story, with the soft-hearted vampire struggling to express his love for the mortal girl who’s like no mortal girl he’s ever met before, the thought that kept coming back to me was “Joss Whedon’s done this, and done it better.” I might have rolled my eyes at Buffy and Angel from time to time (best-ever summary of their relationship available for viewing here), but I also believed them. I never believed Bella and Edward were drawn to each other by anything other than chemical signals.

Though Twilight didn’t draw me in, it’s clear that it resonates with lots of people, and I think that’s absolutely fine; I’ve stepped up on my soapbox here more than once to defend the right to “like what you like,” the idea that no one should have to feel guilty for the fandoms they subscribe to. I also know that a lot of people hate the Twilight franchise with the passion of a thousand fiery suns, and I’d defend their right to that attitude, too. But after reading the first book myself, I’m left wondering what all the fuss is about. To me, this book didn’t seem worth the effort.

Reading Challenge Review: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (or, “Problematic Fandom Revisited”)

A book based on or turned into a TV show (#49 on my 2015 Reading Challenge List): Outlanderby Diana Gabaldon

The new Outlander cover, featuring the stars of the TV series that debuted on Starz in 2014.

The new Outlander cover, featuring the stars of the TV series that debuted on Starz in 2014.

I bought this book on a whim about 3 weeks ago, knowing very little about the plot beyond the one-line summary  of “historical romance in Scotland.” I had a vague notion time travel might be involved. I had seen video of Gabaldon talking about her writing process at a 2014 Comic-Con panel (and smiling as she said that she cheated in her worldbuilding because she could draw on history openly instead of having to hide the fact that she’d done so); I also knew she was one of the subset of authors who officially requests that no fanfic be written in her world. But I didn’t know anything about her novels.

The copy I bought was over 800 pages, and I read it in three or four days. When I found myself in my local bookstore last weekend, I scooped up the rest of the series (7 more 800+ page books) and staggered to the checkout counter. Saying I found Outlander compulsively readable is an understatement. The characters are well-drawn; the details of the historical setting (actually two different historical settings, but we’ll get to that in a moment) feel painstakingly researched; the prose is smooth and witty. The book is full of scenes to love, both big ones like the ritual Clan Gathering when all the associates of the MacKenzie family come together to reaffirm their oaths to the clan head, and small ones like the moment when the main character overhears her new husband counseling his small nephew on the birds and the bees (and answering the question ‘Is it hard to keep from laughing?’)

And yet.

When I went to Goodreads to get a sense of the general reception for Outlander, I found it seemed to be one of those books people loved or hated. The ones who loved it praised the same things that I liked. The ones who didn’t love it talked about borderline-consensual sex and domestic violence. And I’ll concede that this book has those things, as well as deeply troublesome depictions of gay characters.

In brief, the story of Outlander is the story of Claire Beauchamp Randall, an Englishwoman who’s just been reunited with her historian husband, Frank, after World War II. On a trip to Scotland with him, she stumbles through a ring of standing stones and finds herself transported from 1946 to 1743. There, she quickly runs afoul of a sadistic English captain who also happens to be her husband’s ancestor (and looks so much like him that in the TV show they’re played by the same actor). To stay safe, she’s persuaded to marry Jamie Fraser, a strapping young nephew of the local clan head (thereby making her nationality Scottish rather than English and removing herself from Captain Randall’s jurisdiction). In fairly short order, Claire decides that she loves Jamie more than Frank and that she’s going to stay in the 18th century. Over the next few hundred pages, there’s a whole lot of, er, urgent sex; there’s a scene where Jamie beats Claire with a belt as punishment for disobeying him and inadvertently risking the lives of their traveling companions; and there’s an extended sequence exploring the psychological consequences of male-on-male sexual abuse. The perpetrator is one of only two identifiably queer characters in the book (the other’s played entirely for laughs). Both of them are unable to resist Jamie’s charms.

This development on its own wasn’t enough to make me turn away from the book. I’m willing to make some allowance for changing norms (Outlander was first published in 1991, when there was less widespread cultural awareness about avoiding tropes like these), and hold out hope that there will be less problematic queer characters waiting in the wings in future books. But the fact that the only gay character with substantial screen time in the first one is a monster is still troubling, and I’m not going to try to pretend otherwise.

The concern I see in other reviews around domestic violence and consent is there for me, too, at least upon reflection. While I didn’t find the scenes in question personally troubling as I read, I also acknowledge that my first reaction (which went along the lines of “this scene’s set in a different time and relations between men and women were different; it’s just Gabaldon being historically accurate!”) is a version of the same argument that explains away the whiteness of a lot of European-inspired fantasy stories by saying there were no people of color in medieval Europe. (Which, PS, is also far from true.) I’m aware of the argument that many women fantasize about “the sexy man who won’t take no for an answer,” and that for that reason encounters where consent is questionable-at-best are supposedly pretty common in romance novels (I don’t know the genre well enough to offer evidence one way or the other); I also completely support an individual author’s right to tell any kind of story they want to tell. That doesn’t make the themes this author chose for her book less problematic to a contemporary eye.

I’ve discussed topics like this before on the blog, and linked to the fabulous essay from Social Justice League on “how to be a fan of problematic things.” That author, Rachael, has three suggestions on how to do this in a self-aware way, and I’ll reproduce them here:

  1. Firstly, acknowledge that the thing you like is problematic and do not attempt to make excuses for it.
  2. Secondly, do not gloss over the issues or derail conversations about the problematic elements.
  3. Thirdly, you must acknowledge other, even less favorable, interpretations of the media you like.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to negotiate these issues as a fan. I like Firefly and Angel, despite being uneasy with some of their choices around race. I like A Song of Ice and Fire even though it has its own (“historically accurate”) issues around consent and around gender more broadly. Right now, Husband and I are watching The West Wing, which has some serious problems with both gender and race that don’t seem to get nearly as much press as its witty dialogue. I try to be aware whenever I consume media, and Gabaldon’s series is just the latest instance where this awareness has found something to trip over without having to look very hard.

I liked this book a lot. I’m curious to see where the story goes, and I bought the rest of the series without a moment’s hesitation. I’ve recommended Outlander to friends, and I’ll recommend it here, too — but when I do, I note the problematic things that I mentioned up above, because I know many people might not want to read a book that includes those elements.

As I’ve become more active in fan culture, one of the themes I’ve seen over and over in discussions of competing fandoms is that part of good nerd citizenship is acknowledging others’ rights to like things that you don’t, whether that’s Twilight or Harry Potter or the Transformers movies. I think the less-often-stated duty is to also acknowledge others’ rights not to share your love for something. Discussions about the problematic aspects of things I love make me a more conscientious fan and a more conscientious storyteller, and I’m glad that the tent of genre stories is getting bigger so that more voices can be heard. Because just as having one stereotypical character is less problematic if they’re part of a larger, less stereotyped population (also known as Don’t Make the Only Black Guy the Muscle) this book is less troublesome if it’s on a shelf with other books that have well-adjusted gay protagonists and sex that’s unequivocally consensual regardless of the era. So I’ll keep reading Gabaldon, and I’ll also keep looking for other new authors to add to my library. Go thou and do likewise.