*So I’m an idiot and set this for the wrong date and just noticed. Sorry Caitlin! Note I only noticed because I wondered why you weren’t getting comments. DERP – SAH*
Signposts on the Way to Oblivion
by Caitlin Woods
From what I can tell, a lot of us here at AtH have had a lot of the same experiences when it’s come to reading Science Fiction and Fantasy.
When we’re young, everything is pretty awesome–we’re reading everything we can get our hands on, and our brains are exploding outward with new ideas and stories and fights. A lot of you cite Heinlein and LeGuin and Simak–I’ll be honest, here’s where I was head-over-heels obsessed with KA Applegate and Margaret Weiss & Tracy Hickman.
But after a time, our passion faded, and we found ourselves wandering to other genres or other media entirely. Of course we wandered back–once we discovered the issue wasn’t with us, and there still were books worth reading, even if our betters didn’t want us to read them. (Much better to push the fake memoirs of a drug addict or whatever, I guess.)
We’ve all heard that part, though. We all know each others’ tales of how we found indie and life was improved and sci-fi/fantasy regained its meaning.
I want to talk about the other side.
The road to oblivion is rarely smooth, a gradual descent into nothingness. No, it’s littered with debris of previous fights, of sudden descents where someone makes a Big Change or small climbs when someone reworks the formula.
And, of course, there are signposts–individual books that tell you, whether or not you realize it at the time, where all of this is going. And that it’s not going well.
Those books are the ones I want to talk about.
My signposts were in middle school. Because middle school was a little bit of a magical time for me.
I mean, it was kind of terrible in some ways–due to Things, Weird-as-hell me (I?) was living with my sister and my mom, mom’s biker boyfriend, his wannabe gangster brother, and their traditional Mormon parents, which resulted in all kinds of multigenerational misunderstandings that would probably make a decent sitcom. School was miserable, I had few friends, no privacy, and no understanding of just how big a sacrifice everyone was making to make sure my sister and I were doing more or less okay.
But, in a very real way, none of that really mattered.
Because I had a bookshelf.
I suspect it was Biker Boyfriend’s sister’s, who by this point was married and on mission in… Czechoslovakia? Unsure. But it seems like she was a giant sci-fi/fantasy geek, and had left behind a treasure trove of books for me to read at my leisure, without even ever taking a book out of the house. (I… lose things.)
It was amazing. I fell in love with so many books at this point–Steven Brust’s Taltos series (I need to catch up with that one, I fell off around Orca), Steven R. Boyett’s Ariel, Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s The Darksword Trilogy and Death Gate Cycle…
But with the good (or, at least, enjoyable to middle-school me) was a lot of… less enjoyable. And stuff that, looking back, I realize was kind of emblemic for what I hear folks complaining about now.
(It all also came out around when I was born. But I figure it doesn’t really matter when you come to a thing, if it still describes the situation.)
Signpost #1: Delan the Mislaid (Laurie J. Marks) (1989) has the honor of being the first book I ever, in my life, consciously decided not to finish.
It was a hard decision, even so. I defined myself, at that point, by being a reader–the sort of person who, if nothing else was available, would read ingredients lists and the backs of movies. (I never quite pressed myself to reading the phonebook–which is sort of a pity; creating interesting names is something I still have trouble with.) If I started a book, I was going to finish it.
But… I just couldn’t.
Delan, you see, is Different. Delan doesn’t look like anybody else in Delan’s poor, oppressive and mean village; Delan has strange, sensitive lumps on Delan’s back, and while it’s presumed that Delan is a girl because Delan doesn’t have a penis, Delan also never grows breasts or any other markers of sex.
But it turns out that Delan is a member of a wonderful, winged, hermaphroditic race that can never be really understood by the poor, awful creatures who walk the ground. We get a quick lesson in proper pronounology from another creature of Delan’s race who comes to have a quick sex scene and talk about how Delan was beautiful and special even if Delan had always thought that Delan was ugly…
…and anyway, what really killed it for me was when I was partway through the book, and Delan was chained up in some evil ground-guy’s basement, being tortured and pissed upon daily for some damn reason, and… I just didn’t give a shit.
And usually, someone being tied up and treated poorly is something that pulls at my strings enough to make me forgive a number of literary sins. But… oh my god, the sheer amount of this poor perfect enlightened darling being tortured beyond any reasonability for no other reason than his being special… just made me want to kill people.
I believe I did launch this book. Which is another habit I’m happy to generally avoid.
So, yeah. Special Post-Gender Snowflake Abused By the Masses. I’ll call that a signpost.
Signpost #2: Refugee: Bio of a Space Tyrant #1 by Piers Anthony (1983).
Reading reviews on this, the reason I don’t care for this one is more or less the opposite of why everyone else hates it.
The basic premise is that you’ve got a refugee Hispanic family from one of Jupiter’s moons taking a boat to Jupiter, having gotten on the shitlist of one of the local ruling families (’cause one of their members tried to rape the main character’s sister, and MC hurt (killed?) the guy.). Along the way, they’re boarded by every space pirate in existence, all of whom beat and rape and poison (or whatever) the refugees before going on their merry way, often either taking folk with them when they go or leaving behind a massive body count.
The reviews I read about this dislike it due to its sexism. Women only exist to be beaten and raped, and it happens often enough that it seems like blatant titilation to the author. For goodness sake, give us women who aren’t solely victims.
My problem, however, was that… everyone in the world appears to want to torture and rape our poor Hispanic refugee barge, because humanity is scum. (Well, Jupiter’s forces don’t want to do any of that. They just want this unauthorized shipment to go somewhere else.) It’s just an entire exploitation film on the fact that people trying to do nothing more than get by will be tromped on and abused by absolutely everybody in the universe.
(There’s also an extensive side-note at the beginning that it’s unfair that Initial Rape Threatened Sister is only desired because she looks really White, and shouldn’t every culture have its own beauty standards? Which makes me think that it’s Trying to be sensitive. Kinda. And hell, one of the rapists IS a woman, so… I suspect that’s one non-victim?)
Which doesn’t sound that different than the other thing, but I think it is. Either way. I didn’t go on to read the other books in the series. Because characters aren’t compelling because they’re abused. And… what do you know. A lot of the Right Literature is marked by characters whose sole (supposedly) compelling feature is… being abused. Signpost.
So, yeah! Those are mine. (Minus Sea of Glass, which I remember hating and… very little else about it.) But this… this is just the tale of a partial reading of a single bookshelf, where the trend was in fact genre-wide. Tell me about yours?