Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reading Update and Hugo Outrage

In reading news, I have finished CS Friedman's Feast of Souls, which is the first book in her Magister Trilogy. This post doesn't contain any major spoilers.

I had high hopes for the book, both after reading summaries of it and after starting it. And, indeed it starts out with a plot that promises to deliver some weighty statements on gender. For me, at least after finishing the first book, it does not deliver.

While Friedman creates a world in which male and female witches are divided by gender, with men being much more powerful, I cannot overlook the book's frequent use of masculine pronouns to refer to all human beings. First and foremost, as a reader, for pleasure, I refuse to participate in the fictions that "man," "men," and "mankind" are gender neutral terms and the related implication that men are the default human being.

The language is imprecise and alienating to me as a woman. If one is adept with language, it's a pointless, repeated micro-aggression in the book to make the reader constantly come across dialogue like:
"'As I was about to say.... he also knows more of these matters than any man alive....No man would lie about such creatures.'"
In this particular instance, no logical reason exists for the character to be referring only to male humans. He's clearly referring to all human beings, yet through language, is erasing half of humanity.

Secondly, in a book in which gender is a critical plot point, the use of the so-called "gender neutral masculine" is confusing. One minute we're reading about "man" in reference to all humans, and the next we're reading about "man" in reference only to men and meanwhile it's not always clear from the context what the author's intent was.

For instance, in one passage, a female character contemplates:
"You would make me a whore, she thought, but you do not understand what a whore really is. There is power in having something a man wants and making him pay for it. There is power in knowing you can cast his coin in the dirt if it pleases you, that coin which he thought could buy him anything."
Is this statement literally about men only, or is it a broader statement pertaining to all humans? Who knows! What's clear is that all of the passages could have been very, very easily rectified, made more clear, and have been less alienating by simply using gender inclusive language.

That being said, I wanted to like the book. I really did. And, in some ways, I did like it. It's an interesting plot point to have male witches ("Magisters") be immortal and much more powerful than lowly female witches, and to explore the reason why that is, in this world Friedman has created.  It's not a flattering reason that the men are more powerful, it should be noted.

Kamala, who I thought of as a the main female character, is intriguing and difficult to define as purely good or evil, which to me is the mark of a well-made character. It's too bad she not once, that I can remember, ever interacts with another female character. (In fact, the book is told from several points of view, and I don't think the book passes the Bechdel Test, as a whole).

About a third or so of the way through it, the book started to seem to me like it became "Prince Andovan's Story," which was okay, I guess. But, he's one of those characters that tend to annoy the hell out of me for being practically perfect in every way.

Moving on, I haven't decided yet if I'll finish the Magister Trilogy. I would like to see how Friedman ties it all together, as I'm still somewhat invested in the outcome of her characters.  For now, I'm going to read Jacqueline Carey's Santa Olivia (thanks Aeryl! Lesbian maintext? Yes please) and NK Jemisin's The Kingdom of Gods.

I've been half-heartedly following the controversy surrounding this year's Hugo Award nominations, and was reminded that (a) I love Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy (of which Kingdom is the final installment) and (b) I want to support her work in this small, tangible way.

I'm not going to say much about the vile author at the center of Hugo controversy as he's known to sic his rabidly misogynistic racist fans on anyone who dares to critique him or his writing. Much of the controversy seems ego-driven, attention-seeking, driven by envy, and more about making some sort of point than actually being about his work being deserving of award. Although, if you can believe it, I've actually read some of his fiction writing and it was not.... entertaining or, in my opinion, at all good. (FYI, I did not pay money to read it).

Yet, rightwingers and bigots are in an uproar over any suggestions that they be shunned from the Hugo Awards because of their politics. The implicit argument with the outrage seems to be that, before PC Gone Awry and Leftist Fascism happened, all writing awards and opportunities were 100% merit-based. And, if it was mostly men who have been published and who have won accolades in science fiction, well, it's because they are and always have been, objectively speaking, the best writers of all! Nope, nothing else was at work. No sirree!

Which, reminds me, I've been meaning to finally get around to reading Joanna Russ' How to Suppress Women's Writing. So, that's in my queue now, too.

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