Thursday, 27 October 2016

Book Review: The Tiger and the Wolf

The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is a novel set in a tribal, ancient world, creation, drawing more on Native American and Aztec imagery than on the traditional planks of Fantasy.
Image result for the tiger and the wolfIt looks at themes of destiny, intention, and identity.

Our protagonist is Maniye, a girl who is an outcast because of something within her, a stranger among her own people, She is cursed to transform into a wolf and a tiger, and suffers their warring within herself, even as an old war is rekindled by the actions of her father, the bloodthirsty chief Akrit Stone River. This is ability not unusual per se, everyone in this setting can shape change. Maniye's people, the Winter Runner's, are Wolves, all of them can 'Step' into the form of a wolf. In the same way, the Deer people and Boar tribe, who are in the Wolves' 'shadow' - ruled by them in other words - can change into their respective beasts. Essentially, this is a matter of soul,  The people in this world (which is divided into the Crown of the World, the Plains and the Sun River Nation) shape change into their animals because their souls are those animals, and to die in human form is to trap the beast and deny it the chance of reincarnation. In contrast to many fantasy worlds, there's very little magic on top of this, Tchaikovsky keeps his palette limited, which seems sensible. Where he deviates from the idea of simple shape changing it is given a special status, such as one character being able to transform into what is essentially a dinosaur. Each tribe seems to have some trick they can channel that is simply their own, the Wolves can work iron for example, while the Horse can officially adopt people from outside their tribe, giving them Horse souls, and the Serpent can shed lives like they shed skins. Beyond that though, there are no spell slingers, nobody is throwing fireballs or summoning demons (it's suggested that there is more magic, set back in the past but that's not explored; I hope it will be at some point).

The bulk of the novel is set in the north, within and around the Crown of the North and concerns Maniye's flight from her home, and her search for acceptance. Something she never really finds in the structures of the tribes and clans that dot the Crown of the World. Instead she finds sanctuary and acceptance among a group of misfits, essentially, who while they may not fit the ideals of their clans, have learned to make their own space in the world. Their experiences make them more receptive to her situation, and there's a strong sense of Tchaikovsky praising those who make their own path and don't shy away from stepping outside the norm - something which seems like native ground to an author. It concerns Maniye's quest for peace within herself as she tries to deny each part of herself, until she is finally forced to face the beasts within her or perish, towards the end of the book.

This question of identity is carried into the other characters' arcs, as her father tries to become the Chief of Chiefs, in fulfillment of an imagined destiny where he completed his defeat of the Tiger and brought them under the Wolf's hegemony. He sees himself as this mythic figure and pursues it, up to the point where he is willing to slay his own kin in order to achieve it.

Identity as a theme is further explored by Asmander and Venater, two characters from the south, who exemplify the split between being content with your identity and chafing against it. Asmander, the Champion of his people (i.e. he can transform into a dinosaur as well as a crocodile) is content with who he is, shouldering the responsibilities and duties that he bears, even though his father resents his status and has likely sent him north to find warriors as a way to humiliate him. He is the very image of what Maniye should be, according to Akrit. Obedient and patient, he is in many ways perfect, and of course in being perfect he achieves imperfection. His companion, Venater, is a former pirate and belongs to a tribe called the Dragon (I'm not sure why but I do think its pretty cool). He's also Asmander's slave/charge, having been defeated in battle by him and brought to the north to serve him. He chafes at his status and constantly brings it up. Unlike his master, he has failed to accept his fate. Their interplay provides the theme of the book, in a nut shell. I really liked this, as it provided a universality to what Tchaikovsky was talking about, rather than making Maniye more of a special snowflake.

The characters are well realised, the tribes are lovingly put together (I particularly lke the Bear tribe) and the story is interesting, well realised and digs into the themes nicely. I felt the novel was strong, though I must admit I skipped through some of the battle scenes. I'd love to see it as a roleplaying game and see more books set in the world.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Why I Hate Star Wars

Image result for Star Wars sucks
I didn't see much of Star Wars as a child, only Return of the Jedi. It didn't make much of an impression, to be honest, just a film that entertained me for an afternoon at a children's party. It would be over ten years until I saw the rest of the original trilogy. I actually watched Blade Runner and The Crow, and I think The Matrix before I actually sat down to see A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back

This perhaps is where things went wrong, perhaps I was too old for them by that point. Like Marmite, it may be that it's best to see these films young if you want to love them. 

To make things worse, I watched them as part of the  research for my dissertation on SF and feminism, looking at the subtext and so on in an attempt to see if science fiction films carried hegemony, or if they set out to establish new normative ideas. Inevitably I found they did the former, reinforcing the ideas that were already in play, and in places cutting against new concepts. The whole thrust of the original trilogy seemed to be nothing more than badly dressed up propaganda, Cold War narratives about the USSR being EVIL, and the need for the USA... Rebellion needing to go off and be big damn heroes, while women and people who weren't white men learnt to be grateful for the largesse of the Americans. If I were to compare it to Alien, to throw a contrasting tone into the mix, I'd point to the feminism inherent in Ripley's character, to the fact that the people who survive longest are the 'bolshy' woman (who also seems to be the only true professional on board the Nostromo, the trade unionist, and the black guy. Our expected 'heroes' all die at the hands of the xenomorph, leaving unlikely heroes and a cat whose name 'Jones' identifies him as being a part of the proletariat. Contrast that to the way that white lives are protected in Star Wars, aside from Obi Wan Kenobi (who died because Alec Guinness specifically asked to be released from his contract), the only protagonist who actually dies in the original trilogy is Lando - the black guy. This is something that was repeated in the prequels where Mace Windu bites the big one - something that's arguably necessary for the overall story but which at the same time does prompt the question of why cast a black guy if you're going to kill him off? 

It doesn't help that the aliens, in a fashion that's pretty common to all SF but particularly to American comics, films and TV seem to be parallels to human cultures, dressed up to make them even more 'other'. Yoda is pretty much your stereotype Japanese wise master, sitting out in the middle of nowhere to deliver his wisdom to one more student, while Chewbacca seems to fit into the role of Tonto to Han Solo's Lone Ranger. They lack agency of their own, being reduced to support roles for white males. Perhaps that was forgivable in the 1970s and '80s, even with the 'Ewoks are pygmies' fiasco of Jedi, but when a character in the supposedly more enlightened 1990s is pretty much Yellow Face via CGI, I do feel that you're just underlining the problem with the franchise; it's stuck in 1930s stereotypes and perpetuating them for a modern audience. We just get to feel superior because we're 'oh so much better than the previous generations'. 

Or are we? The fact that there's been a backlash against the rise of diversity in SF would seem to suggest otherwise. The Sad/Rabid Puppies, the whole GamerGate farrago, and so on. I feel sympathetic to some of the feelings that are being stirred up (and do feel that in some areas newcomers to SF, Fantasy, and Horror fandom haven't helped themselves - the obnoxious attitude of Twilight fans at San Diego Comic-Con a few years ago, for example). In addition, you could argue that the fact that the representation of the alien races in SF as blatantly being akin to other Earth cultures, whether in the form of the Arab like Sand People, or the obvious USSR parallels in the Empire, or in Star Trek in the form of the first version of the Klingons, underlines the very Americanness of these franchises and the fact that they feel content to other different cultures to the point of depicting them as alien life forms. Is this part and parcel of being an American? I doubt it, but it does feel like there's a safety in showing 'those people over there' as something exotic rather than dealing with the idea that humans are complex and difficult. Sometimes, as in Trek, there's a definite air of using this sort of depiction for good, but that's not the case with Star Wars, where it feels much more like American Exceptionalism, a way to indulge in propaganda. 

Star Wars has found itself in the centre of one of these internet wars, over the decision to have a black character as a protagonist and to have a female Jedi in Episode Seven. With the promise that there are gay characters to come, much of fandom has thrown its collective teddy out of the pram. Star Wars is supposed to be American and to reflect those values. Apparently, that means white men win, and everyone else knows their place in the grand scheme of things.

Granted these things might have arisen because Lucas was reaching back to the old Pulps, but if that's the case why do similar themes crop up in his THX1138, particularly in the form of the dangers of massivity (through is use of white) and authority figures lacking faces? It feels as if he had a particular theme in mind for his SF work, and as if he hasn't strayed far from it since. 

To return to the things I hate in Star Wars, it does seem that the original trilogy is all about the return to power of a privileged white, male, elite. The fact that Leia also has the potential to be a Jedi is glossed over (and one has to assume that she either chose not to follow her brother into being a mystical knight - cue the spooky sound effects- or stepped away because she was needed elsewhere) and her character arc in the original films seems to take her from 'kick ass princess' to 'soppy girl who's coolness is undermined by falling in love'. Added to that, the writers put her in a position where she's forced to kill Jabba in a 'dishonourable' fashion - undermining the idea that she's as good as the men (who are shown to be honourable warriors rather than assassins*). This wouldn't be so bad, but for the fact that the early 1980s were replete with unflattering depictions of women, many of them underlining the idea that women could not be trusted, and were somehow alien - more 'othering' in other words.

I think Padme's arc speaks for itself, so I won't touch on it here. 

Lastly, because I look at the subtext a lot of the time, it feels like the whole franchise is stuck in a time warp, talking about another time all the time. It doesn't feel relevant in a world where there's no Cold War (or if there is, it's sleeping), and the racism and sexism that seem to be baked into the franchise feels out of step with the place we're in now. 

*And in that light should we be asking similar questions about the fact that the only superheroines in the MCU so far are the spy, the assassin, and the unstable reality warper? Hey Marvel, perhaps you should get a more front and centre female character in focus soon? (Please?) 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

A Question of Scale

One thing I've been wondering recently is whether our perspective of scale is starting to work against us, By that I don't mean that our ability to see in three dimensions is failing or anything, but that we aren't as flexible and able to see the world as we think we are. We are limited by our essential primate nature, and by the complexity of the world. Standing at one point, or being in a particular place means that we lose sight of another part, whether that's the inability or very rich people to realise that there are places, in their own countries, where families are surviving on very little money, or for citizens in the UK (for example) to see empathetically the plight of Syrian refugees or of flood survivors in Bangladesh. There seems to be a point where we cease to be able to see the big picture effectively and fall back on gut instinct and tribalism.

This may be the same impulse that makes us opt for the simplest solution where we can - even if that's not something that will work in the long run. Take the flooding in the Somerset Levels a couple of years ago, there were a lot of online commentators calling for more dredging, simply because it was the simplest solution to the problem. They overlooked the fact that in the long run dredging wasn't going to fix the issue. Staying with flood plains, the fact that the UK is building homes on them seems incredibly short sighted, a quick fix for a problem that exists and which will only spawn further issues in the future as climate change takes hold and sea levels rise. Our natural tendency to seek the quick fix and to operate without all the facts has historically already landed us in hot water (take your pick of circumstances) and in many ways what we call progress is simply the process of setting up the next crisis. I don't mean we should stop doing anything, only that rather than succumb to our monkey urges, we should take the time to consider what will work in the long term, rather than what's easy. The fact that we don't, I believe, is connected to the issue of scale. We see what's immediately available, without considering the bigger pictures, because we literally can't focus on that without nudging our behaviour towards effectively doing nothing. If we start to consider the widening gyre of consequences that might happen because we, for example, don't build on the flood plain, we risk stagnation.

Socially, something I think is slowly being recognised is that social media aside, we aren't endlessly connected and able to make connections. Most of us know somewhere between eighty and one hundred and twenty people, and that includes television characters, Dot Cotton is as likely to be part of your tribe as your next door neighbour. In social media, we collect 'friends' but then prune them out of our feeds to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed, it's pretty much the 'notches on the bed post' version of friendship, and doubtless that's something that Facebook and Twitter et al are relying on, tapping into the competitive nature of humanity to accrue more connections, even if they're ephemeral. It does speak to something else, of course, which is that we are dependent upon other people for touchstones, the reason why Britain's election campaigns have become more focused on the leaders of the various parties, often in the most bizarre ways (I point you in the direction of the bacon sandwich incident),

To bring this to more recent events, I believe that one reason that the UK voted (by a small margin - lest we forget, 52% of the population is not the huge landslide that the May government now attempts to paint it as) to leave the EU is that the scale of the world has grown too large. The EU seems too remote to a lot of people, too alien. The popular press chose to paint EU laws as directives handed down from on high as if Brussels was a God, not a deliberative assembly. At times Westminster chose to do the same, shrugging Parliament's shoulders in a 'don't look at us guv, we don't see a problem with the existing light bulbs/bananas/other things that that the EU has supposedly thrown its teddy out over'. This is why 'take back control' seemed so attractive, it created the illusion that the UK would break free of a set of chains and be able to strut its stuff. The fact that, if we want to trade with the EU, we'll still be bound by the bloc's rules, and that if we want to benefit from the Single Market, we'll have to have some sort of freedom of movement for labour (as ever the ability for capital to move isn't in question - money can go where it likes, and damn the consequences) seems to have been overlooked in the rhetoric of independence. In a fashion true to the Daily Mail, and to an extent, Christianity, the urge to Leave pulled issues down to a personal level underlining the ways that a lot of people in the UK felt isolated and alienated and pointing to the EU and migrants as the cause of their malaise. The bigger picture got lost, the scale worked against us.

This missed the fact that, as ever, things are more complicated. A lot of the issues that affect our communities are not down to politics, be that Westminster or Brussels, but economics. The fact is that automation and the lure of the Far East in terms of being able to treat labour like dirt have meant that a lot of businesses have simply pulled out of the UK altogether. Those jobs won't come back post-Brexit unless something changes in the UK to make us attractive again (and do you want to see even more of a sweatshop economy grow up over here - Sports Direct and Amazon are bad enough without encouraging more companies to go down the same route). Worse, it now looks as if automation, the march of the machines if you like, will start to effect administrative posts adversely too. Corporations are starting to pose a threat to democracy, not simply in the way that TTIP and CETA would/will allow them to sue governments if their profits are threatened, but in the fact that there have already been court cases in Germany, where the German government was sued for their decision to stop using nuclear power. Business is getting bigger, it's ruling more of our lives and we are its willing victims, perhaps because a lot of businesses don't have figures that we can identify with - our person to person connection which drives so much of our psychology, fails us and business becomes just more 'stuff', in the same way that the actual messy bits of politics and law do.

In the UK we've seen rules bent, at the very least, to benefit supermarket chains, something that can destroy communities, taking down not only local shops but also their supply chains. We don't seem to mind this, despite the fact that, logically, if we're talking about jobs and so on, that's just as debilitating as migrants entering an area can be. Again, our person to person connection fails and we miss it because it lacks personality.

I'd like to say a few words about why I think this disparity of scale, and the retreat (as I perceive it) to a smaller scale world, is wrong. For me, the big threats of the 21st Century are truly macro - they're big and they're difficult. They include climate change, automation of work, terrorism and so on. I feel they're also best tackled at a bigger level, even a global level, and the smaller nations are, with the power of corporations to work against as well as the power and interests of other nations, going to have less power and influence over negotiations and proceedings. While larger organisations may be unwieldy, the fewer groups at a table, the fewer exceptions will need to be made and the more progress will be made, ultimately.

By isolating ourselves and insisting that we are special, we won't achieve anything because the problems are too big, and too interconnected to everything else for us to make any traction. The choice, for me, is whether or not we 'man up'* and get to work or if we just allow ourselves to splinter into ever smaller groups.

*I hate that phrase but I can't think of a better one at this time.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Pictures of Cats

Because sometimes what you need is to just post pictures of small furry psychopaths.

I was emptying my phone... I seem to have taken quite a lot of pictures of my kitties...


I'm planning to do a metric ton of posts about politics, social media, feminism and the world n general, so you've got that to look forward to in the next few months.

First, though I thought I'd throw some random facts up on here to see if anything takes your interest.

To make it truly random, I thought I'd throw dice to decide how many facts you're getting, and I videoed it.

I don't know if that video is working but I rolled a ten on one dice and a six on another - using a pair of standard d10s.

I also decided to roll dice for categories of what to admit to, and the categories are as follows:

1 History
2 Culture
3 Personal
4 Nature
5 Politics
6 Travel
7 Favourite Things
8 A Thing I Dislike or Hate
9 Oddness (something weird about me)
10 Um... I ran out  of things to choose from - so I'll leave you to ask me things for those three...

So.... Anyway. Let's get started, shall we?  I have sixteen things to tell you (the 0 is a 10 on those dice).

1) Politics - I've consistently voted Liberal Democrat, Green, and Labour in elections. In future I'm likely to vote Green, as I think they're the only party with the vision needed to guide the UK through this century.

2) A Thing I Dislike or Hate - Online comment facilities on news sites, as most of the people who comment there are full of bile and unpleasantness and I find them depressing. I'd like to give a nod to the commentators on Charles Stross' site (I know that's not a news site) for always having lively but interesting and balanced debates).

3) Nature - My favourite dinosaur is the Triceratops, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of. I just think they're cool. (Related, my favourite Transformer as a child was the unfortunately named Slag, whose not a robot form was a triceratops).

Image result for triceratops

4) Personal - I really, really don't like the way I look and haven't done since I was a teenager. I think I look ugly - which is why I use the chibi Galactus as my picture on Google Plus rather than putting my ugly mug up here.

5) Travel - I really want to go to San Francisco. I want to see Alcatraz, go to Haight Ashbury and the Folsom Fair, as well as go Goth clubbing.

6) A Thing I Dislike or Hate - People interrupting, especially if it's in the 'oh I have to tell you this' category of things. It always just feels like they blurt out something which could have waited.

7) History - One of the people I admire most in history is Chevalier D'Eon the transvestite spy, statesman, and fencer, who Britain recognised as a woman during zir stay in the country and was reputed to be the best French fencer alive (and who is meant to have retired to live with zir male lovers). More information about hir/zir can be found here.

The Beaumont Society, which supports transgender people, cross dressers, and transvestites, takes its name from D'Eon.

8) History - I find the fact that Byzantium ran on the labour and skills of eunuchs fascinating, and that the culture they had sought to promote the mystique of the Imperial Family by using secret passages throughout the palace, fascinating. It feels so alien to the things we have been told are right and true in the West, and yet Byzantium was the last vestige of Rome. It makes me wonder if we actually understand the Romans at all.

9) Politics - I'd favour the adoption of a unicameral system - abolishing the second chamber entirely if safeguards to control the power of government were put into place (making the decisions of select committees binding enough to be voted on, abolishing the Whip system entirely, etc). I'd like to replace the Lords* with a group of Law Lords/Top Judges whose job was to make sure that the laws Parliament passed actually fitted into our constitution and didn't throw the baby out with the bathwater (so to speak).

* I don't see the point of having an elected second chamber because I think it would just repeat the problems we have with the House of Commons, creating a two-tier system that pretty much did the same thing.

10) Personal - I have eight piercings, four of which are below the neck and one tattoo which is on my right arm, which is the caduceus like symbol from Full Metal Alchemist. I would post a picture, but I can't find one.

I would like to have more tattoos, in particular, I'd like to have an Egyptian gods themed half sleeve.

11) Culture - I love the art of Roger Dean, and have done for ages. His website is here.

12) I rolled a 10 - please feel free to ask me something.

13) Personal - I have a fear of medical stuff and of biology in general (despite loving nature and finding genetics fascinating - especially stuff to do with eye colour, since I'm basically a mutant because I should have brown eyes (they're actually blue)). I can only think about how my body works by envisaging it as a city and had a panic attack in the brain bit of the Natural History Museum's Human Biology section.

14) Another 10 - chuck us a question, Squire? *shakes tin cup*

15) Another one -ten that is. Please Sir, a question for the guy?

16) Last one, and it's 'Oddness' (which I like to think is said in a deep booming movie trailer style voice). - I had three Septembers in a row where I had to have big, proper, surgical procedures. First, I had to have some teeth extracted, then I had to be circumcised as I had phimosis, and lastly I had to have a hernia operation (back in 2012).

That's your lot!

Please, do feel free to ask me for the three missing things - there are a few things I won't answer (if its too personal, for example) but otherwise, shoot.