Drilling down to success: Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

As a successful pop culture critic and writer, Charlie Jane Anders is a woman I am much in awe of. The co-founder and long-time editor of popular website io9 (the best place to find ‘geek’ news on the internet), Anders is no stranger to fiction writing either, publishing loads of short stories, and winning a Hugo for her novellete, Six Months, Three Days. The latter is being adapted for TV by NBC. She also organises ‘Writers with Drinks’, a monthly event where writers of different genres come together to read from their work, 

Last year, she released her first novel, All the Birds in the Sky. She’s recently quit her post at io9 in order to focus on writing her second novel. Here, I speak to her about All the Birds, where she sees the genre of fantasy going, and balancing critical and creative writing.

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1) Cliched question first! How did you come up with the main storyline? Was it something you mulled over for a long time?

This was definitely something that took a LONG time to come together. I started out with the idea of “witch and mad scientist,” and it was super vague. I originally thought of it as just an excuse to smush together a bunch of genre tropes and play with lots and lots of story ideas from science fiction and fantasy, from Harry Potter to Star Trek. In the end, though, the book wound up not having a lot of commentary on tropes — instead I got obsessed with the relationship between the two main characters. I stopped thinking of “mad scientist” and “witch” as representatives of different genres, and started thinking of them more as different worldviews that it was interesting to juxtapose.

2) How much of the environmentalist streak in the book (that I personally loved) is a personal philosophy? Is Patricia and the witches’ fears of a teetering world something that you find yourself thinking about?

The environmentalism in the book came from a couple different things. First off, I feel really strongly that if you’re going to write about a near-future world, you have to deal with the effects of climate change and extinctions (or else come up with some explanation for how we solved them somehow.) Because ecological problems are in our future, pretty much for certain, according to scientists, and you can’t speculate about the future without taking them into account. And secondly, I started to think of the “mad scientist and witch” storyline as being about technology and nature — and thinking about the environment seemed to be one good way of talking about the impact of technology on nature, and the ways that the two things go together. But I was also super, super careful to keep it ambiguous as to whether we actually were teetering on the edge of some kind of apocalypse. Various people in the book believe this to be true, but there are also people think we’re just going through a rough adjustment, and we’ll come out the other end. The fears of some kind of apocalypse had to feel plausible enough to drive people to take some extreme action, but I don’t think you ever know for sure how bad things will get, or how quickly, in real life. So it didn’t feel realistic for us to know for sure if the environment (or civilization) was actually going to collapse.

3) The narrative of the book grows up quite dramatically, from the 6-year-old Patricia’s perspective to the 20-somethings who finally exit its pages. How hard was it to put yourself in those differing mindsets? Was it something you had to work on a lot?

I love writing about kids, and I love writing about adults. The hard part was probably making these characters feel like the same people at different ages. I felt like it was really important to show them growing up and still dealing with the same questions they struggled with as kids. But it was a really ambitious thing to take on, and it meant really getting to know these characters, so I could build in lots of little things that made them feel like they were still the same people, without being super blatant or anything. It was super tricky, and took a TON of concentration in rewrites.

4) Patricia gets called down a lot for “Aggrandizement.” Was this a sort of inside joke on the “hero complex” that so many fantasy heroes (and not a few fantasy fans) have, and its lack of relevance in the “real world”? What was the thought behind it?

I hadn’t thought about the idea that the “Aggrandizement” taboo was a rebuke to the “Chosen One” motif in fantasy, but that actually makes a lot of sense! In fact, though, I was thinking more in terms of basic worldbuilding — like, whenever you have a group of magicians who have incredible powers, I always wonder why they don’t take over the world. Or at least wield major power. So when I was trying to come up with a magical world that made sense, and had some real weight and history to it, I needed to come up with something that keeps these magicians from just crushing everyone. So the prohibition on Aggrandizement was a good way to put some checks and balances into place. Plus, it kind of plays into Patricia’s whole thematic and character arc in a lot of different ways.

GeekLove5) What were some of the books that influenced you?

There were so many — lately, I’ve been talking a lot about Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, which was a strange, beautiful, unnerving book that redefined my sense of what is possible in books. So I was incredibly upset to find out that Dunn just died, and we never got to see her next novel. Just for that one book, she will always be one of my writing heroes.

6) I really liked Theodolphus Rose! Any chance we’ll be seeing more of him and his School any time soon?

Oh yay, thanks! I don’t have any plans to revisit Theodolphus. I did post some “deleted scenes” featuring him on my Tumblr, which give a little bit more context to his troubled career as a school guidance counselor. I am working on one short story that ties in with this novel, but Theodolphus isn’t in it, unfortunately.

 7) Is there any particular kind of fantasy/world that you want to see more of in the mainstream?

I have been saying for years that portal fantasies (like Narnia) are due for a comeback. And I’ve definitely seen some cool examples of the portal fantasy come out in book form lately. I just feel like there’s so much goodness to be gotten from the story of someone from NarniaWardrobe“our” world who journeys to a fantasy world and gets swept up in the strangeness and glamor of it all. I love that juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, and the meeting of cultures, etc. etc.

8) You’ve written short stories, novellas, and now a novel—plus your work will soon be a TV series. Has it been hard to shift between different forms?

I really love switching back and forth between short fiction and novels. I think you actually get a lot of benefit from doing both, because it keeps you in good shape. It’s like doing different sorts of exercise. Short fiction gives you a lot more practice writing beginnings and endings, and also making a logical world full of believable people in a hurry. But then novels involve writing a whole lot more middle, and force you to develop your world a lot more. I love doing both. I am terrified of actually writing for television though, because then I would have to discover just how ridiculous my dialogue is when spoken by actors.

9) How much do you think about other media while writing? For instance, did you ever consciously structure your work, keeping in mind TV episode formats?

I don’t really think about how anybody might try to adapt my work for the screen — that would just drive me nuts. What I do think about, though, is some other random television/movie stuff. Like sometimes when I am working on a story, I try to think about what “sets” I need to build, and which three or four sets most of the action is going to take place in. And then I obsess about what makes those three or four locations memorable and buffyinteresting — like how on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they have the high school library, the Bronze, and a couple other locations where a lot of the action takes place. Thinking about it this way helps me keep from just creating a ton of bland locations, because in fiction there are no budgetary constraints on how many “sets” you can build. Also, I’ve watched TV in the past and thought about the way that a lot of TV episodes structure their scenes, and how they pack a lot of drama and information into a few minutes. That’s interesting to pay attention to.

10) And finally, a question that has a lot of relevance to me—was it difficult to shift from being a critic/editor of books to writing one yourself? Do you ever find the two roles influencing each other?

I was doing a lot of criticism and entertainment writing even before I started working at io9, but definitely the io9 gig made me worry that I was going to be so stuck in the mode of snarking about other people’s creations, I wouldn’t be able to turn that off when it came to creating my own stuff. But in fact, I found that working on io9 just gave me so much more excitement for writing and creating — maybe because getting to geek out about what worked and what didn’t work in other stories made me have to think about storytelling in a new way, and that really had a huge impact on my creative process. I ended up feeling like I got paid to go to grad school and learn about science fiction. I still love to drill down into stories and figure out how they succeed and fail, and I think that’s a super useful exercise for writers to engage in.

Thank you, Charlie Jane, and I look forward to your next book! Everyone else, do pick up All the Birds in the Sky. I promise you it’s more than worth it. 

Uprooted

red forestThe words ‘once upon a time’ have always held a note of unparalleled promise for me. Call it the product of colonial baggage, of new-age Disney imperialism, or what you will, but there is no beginning for a story that sounds as portentous, as magical, as downright compelling as those four words. I’ve even let my fondness for them carry me through five seasons of ABC’s less than stellar show of the same name, though you could dismiss that as the result of said Disney imperialist baggage instead of any sense of fairy tale fidelity.

From this rather rambling paragraph, one might surmise that I love the phrase, and the fairy tales it usually prefaces. I also love fairy tale reworkings, my favourite collection being Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. This sort of stuff is hot right now, as Frozen, Tangled and other such female-power centric tales would testify, and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted falls into its adultified (therefore, slightly more true-to-‘original’) genre.

A book built using elements of Polish folklore and fairytales, Uprooted tells the story of Agnieszka, a seemingly simple village girl, and her drive to protect her friend, Kasia. The vally in which Agnieszka’s village is situated also harbours the corrupt and dangerous Wood, a place where, like the classic forest in many fairytales, something sinister resides, from whence issue monsters and nightmares. Those who venture into the Wood, or are taken into it, seldom return, and when they do, they are changed horrifically by some malignant power deep in its heart.

The valley is watched over by a wizard only known to the villagers as ‘the Dragon’, a distant, forbidding figure who seldom intrudes into their lives, except at the time of the Choosing. Every ten years, the Dragon selects one girl around the age of 17, whom he takes into his tower for ten years. What he does with them, the villagers aren’t sure, but after they emerge, they never stay at home, moving out of the valley and into the wider world. Agnieszka dreads the ‘taking’, not because she thinks she will become the dragon’s new ‘girl’, but she fears sundering from her closest friend, Kasia, who is ‘special’ and therefore, expected to be taken into the mysterious tower. Her world is turned grimly upside down when instead of Kasia, she is chosen and taken to the Dragon’s tower. Agnieszka must put her time in the Dragon’s tower to use when later, Kasia is taken into the Wood, forcing her to venture under its eerie boughs.

uprooted-naomi-novik-book-review-ya-fantasyIn a book that spins the familiar tropes of Beauty and the Beast, placing them amid the grim darkness of a forest, Novik weaves a totally unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable tale. There are proud princes, kidnapped queens, unsettling foes, fantasy monsters and stuffy wizards galore. There are also plucky village girls and surprisingly softhearted abductors—for all his pretensions otherwise, that is exactly what the ‘Dragon’ is regarded as in the villages—and of course, at its heart, a story of friendship. Agnieszka’s motives in the book, at least at the start, are largely driven by concern for Kasia, and there seems to be little she won’t do in order to save her friend.

The language of the book is simple, compelling, so much like a fairytale in one of those large, gilded collections of The Brothers Grimm. Novik’s world is painted with large brushstrokes, but her words manage to evoke detailed pictures in the mind of the reader. She refuses to lose herself in the lacework and flowery descriptions that dog many other fantasy writers, sticking to the simple, steady voice of the narrator. Like Agniezska herself, the girl’s voice (which guides readers through the book) is forthright, blunt more often than not, making no pretence at something she is not. For instance, here, in a few simple sentences, Novik conjures up for us the sheer menace of the Wood:

But there was something watching. I felt it more and more with every step the deeper I went into the Wood, a weight laid heavily across my shoulders like an iron yoke. I had come inside half-expecting corpses hanging from every bough, wolves leaping at me from shadows. Soon I was wishing for wolves. There was something worse here….something alive, and I was trapped in an airless room with it, pressed into a small corner. There was a song in this forest too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage. I crept on, my shoulders hunched, trying to be small.

For people who enjoy fairytales and the sense of wonder they evoke, like fantasy that rips apart expectation and convention, or just want a good story to while away the summer hours, Uprooted is the book for you. There’s something so refreshing about a book that doesn’t follow the epic hero quest formula, and instead, takes you back to the randomness of the fairy story, where literally anything can happen, where atmosphere means everything, and where the good old peasant girl gets turned into a princess in a tower, and instead of languishing for a prince, uses her guts and her guile to do what she thinks is right.

All the Birds in the Sky

The end of the world—such a cliched backdrop for a fantasy novel, wouldn’t you say? Most of them have world ending (or at least civilisation ending) stakes. And speculative fiction, Atwood style, uses the end of the world as a given; it’s what you do afterwards that counts, and forms the meat of the story.

all the birdsCharlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky is a blend of two things: on the one hand, it’s a fantasy, about growing up different, weathering the alienating world of high school and its mainstream cliches, and finding a place when you’re older, a place that happens to have magic and/or incredibly advanced science and, perhaps best of all, people who appreciate those things. On the other, it’s a love story set in a teetering world, like Atwood’s MadAddam trilogy, where ecological disasters are on the horizon, and no one can do anything to stop them. Except maybe they can. Except they really can’t. Except…well, we don’t know.

It’s not a surprise that the co founder and editor of io9, one of the leading SFF/geek culture sites on the internet, should spin out a novel that deftly blends genres, traditions and continually defies expectations. All the Birds follows two characters: Patricia and Laurence, a witch and a scientist respectively, from their days of stumbling around in childhood, through a beleaguered friendship in middle school, and then the tests and trials of adulthood, where they find themselves on opposing sides in a race to save humanity from its self-created destruction. The binaries in the novel seem fairly simple: the witches, Patricia’s people, are ‘for’ Nature, while the scientists are willing to wreck what’s left of it in order to privilege and thus save human civilization. The witches cannot stand idly by while human ego dooms all other living creatures, and thus begins a face-off between two sets of powerful cabals. Laurence and Patricia will find their feelings and friendship tested, in the grand tradition of many, many love stories.

I’ll admit, it took me a while to really get ‘into’ the book. This is because Anders’s writing in the early chapters seems more redolent of a children’s book than a sweeping SFF saga—but this is a deliberate effect. Like the Potter books, Anders sought to make her narrative tone ‘grow’ with her characters, with the result that the first few chapters use simple language, and sentences are almost painfully blunt in terms of descriptive effect. The first Potter book followed an 11 year old; the first chapter of All the Birds follows a six year old—you can imagine the tonal difference between the two. But don’t let that seeming ‘immaturity’ throw you off, or let you assume that this is a book for ‘kids’. It proves, after a point, that it is very definitely not for younger readers.

My favourite part of the book was the closest it has to a ‘villain’—Theodolphus Rose. A trained assassin from a ‘Nameless’ school, the bits about him were almost Snicket-like, absurd and comic and in that wonderful territory between children’s and adult fiction. I felt like it was here, talking about his exercises, his strange messages from fellow ‘assassins’ that Anders really let herself have fun, and it shows. Honestly, I wish there had been more about him, or more writing that showed this hilarious side. Anders has a talent for it, and I hope she harnesses it more often.

Should you read it? Yes, because it’s just so refreshingly different, and yet familiar. Like I said, it uses some of the typical tropes of speculative fiction, and fantasy, but blends them in a manner I haven’t seen much of before. It is quite beautiful in parts, and also addresses the very millennial angst of growing up believing yourself to be special, and not having anything to do with that belief later in life. In fact, people are constantly pulling Patricia down as a matter of duty, telling her that ‘Aggrandizement,’ the idea that she is personally responsible for saving anyone, let alone the world, is a dangerous one, and can only lead to terrible things. This seems to be a theme in what I call ‘secret world fantasy’, like The Magicians, the problems that come with balancing the ‘real world’ and its adult mundanity with beliefs in ‘specialness’ or ‘Chosenness’ that are inherent to fantasy. Anders doesn’t dwell on it exhaustively the way Grossman does, but deftly pulls it like a running stitch through her embroidery of her characters, and leaves you thinking about it all the same.

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It’s not easy to be me.

Finding Fellowship

LOTRFOTRmovieA couple of weeks ago, I realised it had been nearly 15 years since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out. This had two effects: one, it made me feel incredibly old (didn’t help that one of my friends looked at a picture of Arwen and said ‘Oh, her! That movie came out when we were kids, man’) and two, I just had to go rematch it and marvel at the fact that despite its age, the movie’s effects and such are still top notch. All those Elves and Men toppling off cliffs for no apparent reason at the beginning—good stuff.

I can safely say that watching the first Lord of the Rings movie was one of the hallmark moments of my life thus far. I’d like to believe that it will always be an important point, one that biographers will research painstakingly, hunting down the man (or his descendants) who ran the ‘VCD/DVD’ rental place from which I borrowed it, my school friends who were treated to my first squealing impressions of it, possibly paging through my middle school diaries to find out what exactly I had written after watching it (I should find those before they fall into the wrong hands). It will be a chapter all on its own, titled with the appropriate Unworthy headline: ‘Girl watches a movie. What happened next changed her life.’

Basically, I really liked it.

No, that’s an understatement. I loved it. I watched the Fellowship of the Ring (henceforth referred to as FOTR) on my lonesome on a sunny evening in Hyderabad, a pirated VCD (three of them, to be precise) spooling out its secrets and inviting a 12 year old me to Middle Earth (I actually watched the movie in 2002, you see, missing the hype in December). I was still reading the books, and had just about trudged into The Two Towers, so some of the characters who popped up perplexed me. Plus, I was really sad they’d cut out Tom Bombadil, since I genuinely enjoyed the chapters about him.

Well, I was 12 years old and he was the only vaguely childish character in the book. You can’t blame me.

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What did I love about it? Everything. Sure, some of the characters were not how I had pictured them, and there was no Old Forest or beauteous Glorfindel, and Gollum was way creepier than I had anticipated, but I was awestruck by the fact that someone had taken this world, so lovingly build by Tolkien, and converted it to such beautiful film. The settings, the costumes, the fights—everything screamed labour and detailing, and had evidently been put together by people very much invested in making as great a Middle Earth as they could. I couldn’t believe that someone took this book seriously enough to do that, and it gave me so much hope.

Because The Lord of the Rings was the book that made me fall in love with fantasy, irrevocably. I had read Harry Potter, of course, and was up to speed with the books, but Harry Potter was still, for me, a school story, with the added bonus of magic. It was only in Book 4 or 5 that Rowling dramatically upped the stakes and it became a Hero’s Journey/Epic Quest/Fantasy novel. But LOTR, right from the get go, from that first map and that intro to Hobbits, I knew this was a serious look into another world.

And the movie basically told me it was cool to like something like this. I lived in Hyderabad, India, where I didn’t know anyone else who was seriously into the kind of 1716995-mulanbooks or movies I liked. I’d grown up watching Disney princesses, and hadn’t been able to make the switch to Shah Rukh-led Bollywood blockbusters that so many of my peers had. I just couldn’t be absorbed by mundane romance the way I had been by 2 dimensional
heroes and heroines, battling witches and viziers and wrapping things up with true love’s kiss. I was still figuring myself out, and in strutted FOTR in all its Weta-workshopped glory, showing me that there were movies for my kind out there, and they were being made with loving attention to detail.

It’s a little uncool now to say that a movie based on a book brought you into a world and made you a lifelong denizen, but that’s what FOTR did for me. It was after watching this movie that I dived headlong into finishing my book, determined to beat my uncle’s record of seven readings, determined to live and breathe Middle Earth, just like those who had made it come to life. After LOTR, I moved on to more ‘adult’ fantasy, Wheel of Time, American Gods, A Song of Ice and Fire, asking friends to mail them to me from the US when I couldn’t find the books anywhere (yeah, I’m super hipster. I read Game of Thrones before you could find the books in India. Deal with it.). I joined discussion forums and websites, and found a community, people with whom I could discuss these books and others and go crazy dissecting theories and fan art and everything else that makes a fandom amazing. It happened at just the right time, 13 going on the rest of teenager-dom, and it’s never stopped.

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There are those books and movies that change your life, and I can safely say that LOTR and the FOTR movie feature in that short but strong list for me. They jumped in and told me it was okay to want magic and wonder even when you’re supposed to be a cynical teenager, that it was possible to build a life around those things. And I can only be glad that this community of fantasy lovers, always so supportive and wonderful when I was younger, has continued to be around, and has indeed grown. Who woulda thunk you’d find Martin on every other bookshelf in certain circles? The world can change in good ways.

Throne of the Crescent Moon

Everyone knows about the Arabian Nights, right? Those stories spun by a captive Princess, who postponed death by entertaining her sociopathic husband with tales of genies and rogues, magic and pioneering sailors? They’re right up there among the literary treasures of the world, and plenty of people have plundered them and created compelling entertainment. My favourite example is Disney’s Aladdin, which offered a highly sanitised version of the original, and while indulging in (now) problematic exoticisation of the ‘East’,  brought about many people’s sexual awakening.

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Given the status of these stories, and the ‘mystical’ flavour of the Middle East in general, it is a little odd that not much fantasy set in this realm has made it into the mainstream. Sure, there’s been plenty of movies that exploit these settings, but full-length fantasy novels (in English and published by American/British houses)? Not so much.

throneSaladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon rights that. Set in Dhamsawaat, the capital of the Caliphate of Abassen (one of the three Crescent Moon kingdoms), the book follows the struggle of Adoulla Makhslood, ageing ghul-hunter, and his friends to (you guessed it) save the world from doom and destruction at the hands of a bloodthirsty, power hungry megalomaniac. This is complicated by the fact that none of those in power believe him, and in fact, seem to do everything they can to hinder the team’s efforts.

The appeal of the book, for me, lay chiefly in the portrayal of Dhamsawaat. Ahmed captures both the complexity of a large city—its varying cultures, the worlds within worlds, the sheer diversity of people and classes that make it up—as well as the differing relationships people have to it. This is where most of the action takes place, and each of the characters in Adoulla’s group has a specific view of the city. For Zamia, the Badawi tribeswoman from the desert, it is an unknown land, a site of strange smells and peoples. For Raseed bas Raseed, Dervish and holy warrior, it is a site of temptation from his chosen path. And importantly, for Adoulla, it is home: a place at once loved and detested, filled with people he has dedicated his life to protecting, often receiving little to no recognition for his sacrifices. But as Adoulla keeps reminding himself ‘He who tires of Dhamsawaat tires of life,’ and that has not happened to him quite yet.

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I don’t recall reading a fantasy book—a high fantasy book, I should specifiy—that placed the city front and centre in quite the way that Ahmed’s does. Not all the characters are ‘natives’ of this place: in fact, only Adoulla can claim to have grown up in Dhamsawaat. Circumstances have brought the others here, and though they may not relate to the place in the same manner that the ghul hunter does, not see it as ‘home’ (with all the layers of meaning and emotion that word evokes), they feel some form of obligation, if not connection, to its winding streets and put-upon residents. Indeed, one of the main conflicts that Litaz, an alkhemist from the Soo Republic (one of the other Crescent Moon kingdoms) seems to face is when to leave the ‘damned city’, and go home. Being a woman with her heart and priorities in the right place, she chooses to postpone it till the saving-the-world has been attended to.

Ahmed has built an engaging, multihued world, filled with characters who face down inner demons as threatening as the ones they meet in real life. The dialogue can, at times, become stilted and rather strangely Tolkien (excessive formality in fantasy will do that to you), but the narrative as a whole is fast paced and pelts the reader on from encounter to encounter, introducing characters with a sort of breathless energy and hurtling towards a bloodsoaked, sword and sorcery conclusion. This is the first of a trilogy according to the blurb, and Ahmed does leave tantalising openings for the next book. So come on down, stop on by, there are no carpets that fly, but step into the Dhamsawaati night.

Watching the Watchmen: Part I

(Part II of this post will happen post-Captain America: Civil War. Spoilers for both Daredevil Season 2 and Batman vs Superman going ahead.)

There’s a virtual flood of superhero-related things coming to the visual medium, both in the form of TV shows and movies. I’d barely finished digesting Season 2 of Daredevil before dragging people to a showing of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (or Just Us, if you’d believe this incredibly well edited trailer), and it seems like I’m only going to be waiting  a few more weeks before Captain America comes back with all his blonde-haired, blue-eyed prettiness in Captain America: Civil War.

To me, the glut of superhero sagas can only be a good thing. More epic battles, more eye-Tom-Hiddleston-Loki-Costume-Chest-Shouldercandy prancing about doing noble (and in Loki’s case, not so noble) things on screen, increasingly more women kicking ass (my favourite things about Daredevil and B vs. S were Elektra and Wonder Woman respectively), and energising music. Also, more fodder to compare to others in its category. It’s evident that the three major superhero releases of the first half of the year—the ones I’ve outlined in the para above—share similar themes: not what the individual does with ‘great power’, but how the world around them can (and maybe should?) put a check on it.

Daredevil Season 2

What’s arguably the most oft-quoted line from superhero movies is Spiderman’s Uncle Ben’s homely adage: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ It interests me that instead of focusing so much on individual ‘responsibility’, Daredevil and B vs. S (and the Civil War comics) looks at the broader question of what forms the ‘responsibility’ of the community in which these powers are being used. Daredevil brings this question to gory punisherlife in the figure of the Punisher, a rogue self-designated vigilante who assuages his personal grief and loss by killing off what he sees as ‘scum’ who ‘deserve to die’. Frank Castle, an ex-Marine with a celebrated war record, uses his training and expertise to gun down gang bosses, rapists, murderers, drug pins, child pornography distributors—in short, anyone who threatens the safety and sanctity of Hell’s Kitchen (though Castle’s own house is far off in some suburban outskirt, and he is from Queens). Unlike Daredevil, who uses much less lethal methods, Punisher does not look to reform or rehabilitate his prey. He seems to believe that the system is broken, and given how events play out in the show, he may have a point.

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Daredevil takes it upon himself to stop the Punisher, but in an ironic spin, he finds himself defending him as Matt Murdock, understanding that putting away one vigilante (who, no matter how violent and misguided, was only trying to do the same thing he is) might have serious repercussions on his own actions as the devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Murdock’s willingness to use the law, the very system he skirts around as a vigilante, in order to exonerate Castle, is striking. Throughout the series, Murdock’s actions as a costumed superhero plague him with doubt and guilt, which he looks to the Father at his chosen church to assuage. His stint as a lawyer, and his upbringing as a Catholic combine to give him a load of questions and a need for forgiveness, that forms a complete contrast to the amoral Punisher. Indeed, towards the middle of the series, when things seem to really be spiralling out of control and Murdock sees his hard work unraveling around him, he says, ‘I thought it could work, the law, but it feels so useless. Everything I’ve done just gets undone.’

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Even then, Murdock/Daredevil refuses to go all the way and take up the sheer butchery espoused by the Punisher. ‘You cross over to my side of the line, you can’t come back from that, ever,’ Castle tells him during one of their longer nightly conversations, and Daredevil seems to keep that in mind. Daredevil leaves open-ended the question of supervision of vigilante figures, with the Punisher’s excess almost excused and justified (horrifying as his methods are, there seems to be a general consensus, whether among the ‘heroes’ or the jury members at Castle’s trial, that they are effective), the show moving on quickly to its second storyline with Elektra, but it leaves those questions in viewers’ heads: how much vigilante-ism/power is too much, and who can you trust with it?

B Vs. S

Though it’s opened to largely negative reviews, I quite enjoyed Batman vs Superman. Sure, there were some stupid moments, but it was entertaining, and like I’ve said before, Wonder Woman’s entry was well worth the build-up. I also liked Affleck’s turn as a dour Batman, despite his rather flip-flopping morals when it came to killing people.

batfleckI thought Affleck’s Batman provided a nice parallel to the Punisher. He seems to have no qualms with mowing down people he believes ‘deserve’ it, literally doing so while chasing a shipment of Kryptonite. What’s interesting is that here, the Punisher figure is the one suspicious of the man lauded as a hero, a ‘god’. While it’s a suspicion partly fuelled by what he knows Superman is capable of (destroying an entire city centre is a fair demonstration of his ‘gifts’), it’s also more than a little obvious that Batman’s dislike of Superman is also a product of envy. Though the movie never outright says it, Batman seems to have little going for him personally—shutting himself away from emotional entanglements outside of his taciturn manner with Alfred. Luthor is able to play on his guilt in order to drum up his hatred of Superman—there’s a strong implication that Bruce feels himself responsible not only for his parents’ death, but Robin’s as well. To see someone else being hailed as a hero, when he sees the cost of the man’s powers probably doesn’t do wonders for Batman’s self esteem (hey, no judgement here), and he ends up taking it upon himself to bring him down.

Batman-V-Superman-Armored-Batsuit-Costume-Comic-Con

In both Daredevil and B vs S then, there’s a sense that people who seek to protect others, when not appointed to do so by the law, must be answerable to it, and their methods ‘approved’ by some sort of governing body. Daredevil is largely able to get away with his hijinks because he does not veer into the territory of taking life— a decision that only ‘God’ can make (he seems to imply as much in one of his tete a tetes with Castle). Superman, who has God-like powers on Earth, must be made accountable to some kind of committee, that seeks to discipline him for his irresponsible use of them, a theme that will be taken up, presumably, in Captain America. Though the Marvel movie (if it stays true to the central conflict of the comics) will take this question one step further: should a community curtail the freedoms of its superheroes/individuals in an effort to protect the many? What does a superhero do when the law says that his actions, even if they be saving a bus full of children from a grisly end, are illegal if he does not submit himself to government-sanctioned registration? It’s interesting that Daredevil, who stands ‘for the law’ (as much as any vigilante can be said to) in the Netflix series takes the side of the rogue heroes led by Captain America in the Civil War comics, becoming, in the process, a criminal.

These are all questions that have a sort of relevance in a world of increasing surveillance, questions of identity and protecting individual rights over those of the community. It’s quite fascinating that superhero movies and shows are doing their bit to answer them, some more and some less satisfyingly.

Rowling, the Navajo, and cultural appropriation

JK-Rowling-interview

A few days ago, J K Rowling began releasing a series of short writings called The History of Magic in North America. These pieces (of which there will be five; four are out, as of the writing of this post) provide snapshots of the development of the wizarding world in what is now the United States, setting the tone for the Fantastic Beasts movies, the first of which will be in theatres by the end of the year. The movies, which chronicle the adventures of Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), are largely set in 1920s New York, seventy years before the events of the Harry Potter series. The writings are posted on the new Pottermore website, and are available for anyone, member or not, to read.

Rowling’s first post, ‘Fourteenth Century—Seventeenth Century’, mentions the Navajo legend of the ‘skinwalkers’. According to myth, a skinwalker was ‘a medicine man or witch who has attained the highest level of priesthood in the tribe, but chose to use his or her power for evil by taking the form of an animal to inflict pain and suffering on others.’ In her post, Rowling states that the skin walker legends had their ‘basis in fact’, the skinwalkers being Animagi who were unfairly prosecuted, often by fraudulent ‘No-Maj’ (the North American term for Muggle) medicine men who were afraid of the exposure of their own lack of magical skill.

It seems, on the surface, an innocent enough tie-in to Rowling’s extended Potterverse. The backlash however, has been angry, with a number of Native American activists accusing Rowling of stereotyping of First Nations peoples, generalising specific tribes’ legends and beliefs to encompass all their differing, specific cultures, and affronting their cultural sensibilities (for a well written piece on this, go here). Criticism was only stepped up with the publication of the second in the series (‘Seventeenth Century and Beyond’), where aside from a description of ‘Scourers’, unscrupulous magic users who ‘even went so far as trafficking their fellow wizards’, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is washed out of the narrative altogether.

Now, as a general reader, I don’t think Rowling is under any obligation to write a detailed history of the United States, taking into consideration all its major historical landmarks and moments and tying them into her magical narrative. However, I do see the complicated nature of this particular sally. I’m not sure whose ‘side’ I’m on, in this affair, mostly because I find the accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’, most of the time, to be a not entirely unmixed affair. But let me lay out my view on this, and you can decide where I come down, if I come down anywhere at all.

  1. It’s true that the Native American genocide and the Slave Trade are both cornerstones of the modern United States, and their repercussions continue to ring through the country today. While Rowling does not dedicate much space to these tragedies, she does not, to be fair, talk of the Revolutionary War either, or the Civil War. The only ‘historical event’ she pays more than passing heed to are the Salem Witch Trials, which leads me to the second point.
  2. Rowling seems to be consciously offering no more than quick, picture postcard-like sketches of a vast history, and to do this, she latches onto the markers that already have some currency in popular imagination. The Salem Witch Trials are, arguably, the most famous mainstream evocation of ‘magic’ in US history. They have been immortalised on screen, in plays (you can’t argue with The Crucible) and are now cemented in the mainstream as a time when ‘witchcraft’ was believed to be real and punishable by death. Though far from the only instance of such widespread witch hunting (which continues to happen in countries across the world), they are arguably the most well-remembered, documented happening. Rowling’s decision, then, to focus on these Trials makes sense, given the context of the world she is building.
  3. To turn to that thorny term, ‘cultural appropriation’. As a reader and writer, I find the term…unnerving. I understand the history and hurt that is loaded onto it, when certain groups that have always been relatively more privileged make use, sometimes an insensitive manner, of the cultural products of those they have actively or unconsciously oppressed. But I think it is far too easy, now, to level this charge at people even when there is no malice intended in their use of such markers. It smacks, to my rather naive thinking, of policing, of wanting to draw lines about who is allowed to ‘use’ what to tell a story or make a song or video. Intention, such a difficult thing to assess and prove, seems to me the basic criterion that should help people decide whether something was ‘borrowed’ or ‘appropriated’. Again, this may just be my own privilege talking.
  4. To be fair, fantasy authors have always ‘culturally appropriated’ things. Martin’s World of Ice and Fire, for instance, talks about Eastern countries—in Essos or Sothyros—that sound remarkably similar to Mongolia, China, certain parts of the Middle East. Jordan’s Wheel of Time has an empire whose rulers behave a lot like the rulers of ancient China, lacquering their fingernails and wearing silken robes. When you’re building an entirely new world, you want lots of different cultures and peoples to feature in it, in order to make it realistic, well-rounded. Authors aren’t gods. They have to build something that, while new, also presents a familiar enough aspect that a reader wont be entirely put off (this is why I find fantasy a much more appealing genre than science fiction, but more on that some other time). To this, authors borrow from cultures and histories around the world, knowing that just sticking to their singular perspective does not a universe make. Hell, even Tolkien, who’s been raked across the coals for his racism, fused elements of different cultures together to build Middle Earth.
  5. The reason Rowling has gotten into ‘trouble’ on this front, despite being a fantasy author is because: 
    • The Potterverse, unlike Middle Earth or Westeros, is quite recognisably part of ‘our’ world. It is a secret part of the ‘real’ world we inhabit, and as such, any historical events and beliefs that play a part in our world, there is an understanding that the same should have repercussions on the Potterverse.
    • For this reason, skinwalkers in the Potterverse are held to be the same, in readers’ minds, as skinwalkers in real-world Navajo belief. Rowling is not even pretending to create them anew in an entirely different universe (as Basu reinvented rakshasas in the Gameworld Trilogy, or Stroud djinn and afrits in the Bartimaeus Trilogy), and is borrowing them while making alterations that change their moral position in the original mythology, turning negative beings into misunderstood characters. She is changing not her ‘own’ version of the skinchangers, but those that belong to the Navajo belief system.
    • She is J.K. Rowling, arguably one of the most famous and successful writers working today, and anything she does is bound to attract notice of a lot more people than the writing of most authors. If she writes ‘wrongly’ about a particular group of beings, a lot more people are going to read it and gain what might be, to some people, a ‘warped’ understanding of a folklore that is, sadly, far from the mainstream experience of most readers.

I’ve blathered on. In sum, I’ll say this: i dislike the term cultural appropriation. I don’t like putting down lines about who should be allowed to use what from other cultures. In an age where a lot of us have so much information at our disposal, so many different pantheons and treasure chests of stories to work with, I see no reason to stick to only those marked out as ‘yours’ because of an accident of birth. The longer we police other people, the longer we are policed in turn, I think. As stated, it’s all about the intent. I don’t think Rowling meant to harm anyone, simply to have fun building on a world that’s delighted so many people for years. That being said, I see why activists have gotten upset, and can only be sorry about the history that’s led to this state.

The Paper Menagerie

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will know that I loved Ken Liu’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings. I found it a highly enjoyable read, by turns comic, sweeping, epic, tragic, but always with that element of wonder that makes fantasy the incredible genre that it is, taking you outside reality but also giving you a new, sometimes literally more magical vantage point from which to view the world and your place within it. I greatly admired Liu’s light, deft way with words, that spun this complex, engaging world into existence, and am looking forward to coming back to Dara and its denizens, later this year.

Paper-Menagerie-his-rezWith his new book, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Liu shows that he is capable of vast range. Sure, in some of the stories you see the comic master who orchestrated coups and wondrous escapes in Dara, in others you see a thoughtful, poignant writer, who asks tough questions and leaves you with no certain answers. Many of these stories, such the one that gives the collection its title, ‘The Paper Menagerie’, have been published, read and loved before, and this book brings them together, to give it what Liu calls ‘the flavour of a retrospective’, a brief look at his career as a short story writer. Indeed, the idea of memory, and memory as a source of conflict and confluence in communication, seems a running theme in many of these narratives, most powerfully in the last story of the collection, ‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’.

Though many stories are indeed stitched around the common theme of memory, recording, and how we retell stories, what I can say about Liu’s work is this: it is remarkably wide ranging. From the space-opera-like ‘The Waves’ to  ‘All the Flavors’, the magical-realist novella set in early twentieth century Idaho, Liu presents a vast range of readerly experiences. The stories slip between science fiction and fantasy, and indeed, Liu confesses at the start that he doesn’t ‘pay much attention’ to the distinction between the two genres. He builds worlds that contain elements of both: for instance, in ‘Good Hunting’ (a story that reminded me inexplicably of Gaiman’s work) a young demon hunter meets a hulijing, a spirit who tests his ideas of good and bad. As the world changes around them, he adapts to it with the help of science, learning new principles of engineering and physics, while others, most notably his father, struggle to find a new place in this world without mystery, seemingly without magic. What results is a beautiful blend of the best elements of myth, fantasy and science fiction, the author moving us seamlessly between all three.

What I really like about Liu’s work is the seeming effortlessness of his writing, of being able to introduce a whole new section of readers to worlds and mythologies that have remained ‘outside’ the Western canon for a long time. ‘I’ve never consciously put myself forth as a minority in my work,’ Liu told me in an interview, and that filters through. Rather than explaining painstakingly any references to a non-Western/non-white culture, or consciously building himself up to a ‘representative’ of anything, Liu works these elements into his stories and allows readers to either learn more about them from the context, or look them up online in they’re really interested. For me personally, this is an extremely welcome and emulation-worthy style. Coming from a culture (or cultures, I should say) that is not as well-known to readers of epic fantasy as say, medieval England, it’s sometimes hard to know when to draw the line between fantasising and exoticising. Liu never makes that mistake. When he narrates martial exploits of soldiers from the many now-Chinese kingdoms, or even talks of the encounters between East and West, whether in the gold-springs of the Midwest or the paddy fields of US-held Taiwan, Liu never seems to consciously present one side as more or less ‘real’ or ‘normal’ than the other. ‘…the individual is the intersection of multiple spheres of identity,’ he had said in the same interview, and he bears that out in his writing. His characters, whether they hail to pasts far distant, or futures beyond our imagining, are all composites of multiple cultures, influences, tastes.

The stories in this volume moved me, none more so than the last, ‘The Man Who Ended History’. I feel it is an especially important story for the time we live in, the sort of conflicts over ‘ownership’, nation and culture that rage around us. Again, perhaps because of where I come from, where these questions have gained even more immediacy, I felt drawn to this story more than any other in his collection. Liu uses the structure of a transcribed documentary to tell the story of a man who, with the help of his physicist wife, builds a time machine, that takes people back to the past, literally, and allows them to observe it for themselves. The period he selects is a controversial, horrifying one in Manchu, China during the Second World War. The conflicts the testimonials give rise to, and the old wounds they dredge up, bring the two countries, China and Japan, and belatedly the US, to the brink of another battle, and I can honestly say that the story definitely kept me on the edge of my seat, and made me think a lot about how we deal with the past, who it can be said to belong to, if anyone at all.

To sum up, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a brilliant read. Savour it, sink into Liu’s words, and allow yourself to be carried away by a master storyteller. He is definitely one of my favourite fantasy authors working today, and inspires me as few others do.

The Tearling series: Book 1 and 2

A couple of years ago, I remember sitting in the lobby of my then-workplace, paging through a copy of The Bookseller. An article caught my eye; it was about a just-released book, part of a series, that had already been tapped for a major movie. It had even snared the attention of Emma Watson, who was already in talks to play the lead character. As far as I remember, the article called this new series (fantasy of course), a ‘female’ Game of Thrones, which basically meant that the main character was a woman (though there are plenty of female ‘main’ characters in Game of Thrones and thousands of women love it, so I have no idea what the writer meant by this rather reductionist statement). The article also mentioned that it was a sureshot bestseller, as things tend to become when Emma Watson is associated with them.

emma watson

And why not, because she’s classy as hell.

So finally, three years after reading that article, I picked up the series. They are the Tearling books: The Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearling by author Erika Johansen. What were they like? A mixed bag, to be honest, but I can’t deny that I see the cinematic potential and I did enjoy them, more often than not.

The-Queen-of-the-Tearling-Queen-of-the-Tearling-1-Erika-Johansen-681x1024The first book, The Queen of the Tearling, starts off quite dramatically. Kelsea, a lonely foster child, is retrieved from her home with the elderly Barty and Carlin by a posse of Queen’s Guards and taken to the Keep in New London, the capital of the Tear. Now that she is 19, Kelsea  has come of age and must assume her rightful place on the throne left vacant by her mother, that is, if she can live long enough to reach it. Assassination attempts by hawks, mercenaries and sundry others turn out, however, to be the least of Kelsea’s problems. The kingdom she’s inherited is riddled with corruption and violence, and as an idealistic young woman, Kelsea sets out to right its wrongs, but she ends up ruffling more than a few feathers along the way, most notably those of the mysterious and terrible Red Queen of neighbouring Mortmesne.

The series is rather slow to start with. The Queen of the Tearling, indeed, is really just one long journey towards the Throne, and dealing with one specific problem of the kingdom (I won’t spoiler it by telling you what it is), but things really begin to look up in the second book. This might also have to do with Kelsea growing on me as a character. In Book 1, she seemed far too much like the breed of heroine who’s come in vogue since Katniss Everdeen: surly, lonely and with a healthy disrespect for authority. I found it hard to warm to her, especially since it seemed like every second thought of hers was regret for how ‘not pretty’ she was. But she really sinks into your blood in Book 2, and I ended up embracing her. In fact, I disliked the increasing jaunts away from her, into the head of a new character who seems set up as an originating figure, an explanation for the mysterious ‘Crossing’ that brought all these people to this world in the first place.

I won’t deny that the mythology and origin of this world is a little muddled. It’s obvious that the Tearling books are set in our world, or one very much like it. Characters refer to 02 The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansenmedical supplies and equipment being ‘lost’ during this Crossing, they read Rowling and Tolkien and other ‘real world’ books, and the new character quite obviously lives in a dystopic USA. Book 2 seeks to explain the connections and the reason for all these ‘real world’ objects, but it left me feeling more than  a little confused. Apart from that, there is another question: if all these people came from the US, why are most, if not all, the characters white? There is one black man in the Tear, and he is a rarity, as he himself knows. The neighbouring kingdoms of Mortmesne and Cadar are obvious parallels to France and some sort of Orientalist Arab fantasy, which can be explained away as fantasy staples, but again, if you have a bunch of people emigrated from America, a land notorious for its melting-pot-status, why, precisely, are they overwhelmingly white?

That being said, the lack of ‘diversity’ in the manner in which I understand it does not make the books any less enjoyable (as I’ve tried to explain, the fact that I’m mentioning it is only because the origin story for the land left me feeling a little confused). Johansen’s strength is in writing the fantasy segments; when she moves into Atwoodish dystopic territory, my attention began to flag. I hope Book 3 brings a lot more of Tear as it is in the present, and more of the kickass Kelsea that I’ve grown to like. Oh, and I’ll definitely watch Emma Watson play her. She would absolutely slay in this role.

Immortal love

LOTR The Two Towers 024Valentine’s Day is coming. For some reason, it’s become cool to hate on it, and diss it as a ‘commercial holiday’, because you know, every holiday is so pure and untouched by the reigning force of capitalism (Christmas and Diwali being prime examples). I’ve even seen people calling out the ‘fallacy’ of celebrating it as a day of ‘love’, pointing out that the eponymous St. Valentine was martyred on this day, and hence, we should probably mark it with sadness rather than bursts of hearts and chocolate. I disagree with such folk; as Taylor Swift said, and as St. Valentine would probably agree, the best way to show the ‘haters’ who ‘gonna hate’ is to just shake it off and shove your happiness in their face, proving that nothing’s going to keep your happiness down.

I’ve realised that it’s become cool to hate on the concept of romantic love in general. Or to be cynical about it at least. The pop culture aimed at people over the age of 18 seems full of mixed messages: on the one hand, you’ve got romantic comedies, that promise that no matter how klutzy and socially awkward you might be, you will find true love; on the other, there are the Girls style shows that indicate that from rooms, people will come and go, but you should concentrate on being Michelangelo. ‘True love’, many things tell us, does not really exist; there are people who help you grow or achieve things, but you cannot rely on them to be around forever, nor do they magically solve all your problems, the way a Disney prince once did.

I’m of the latter school of thought. I don’t think there is ‘one’ single soul mate for anyone, and that romantic love is largely a matter of timing. It’s about being in the right place, at the right time, and in the right frame of mind to recognise what you feel, what the other person feels, not to mention a host of other factors that ultimately dictate whether or not a relationship unfolds. In fact, the idea of having just ‘one’ person terrifies me because it automatically lessens your chances of happiness; what if you mess it up, or miss that person altogether? Would you never be happy?

snape and lily

Despite my  reservations about such a thing playing out in real life (happiness= one ‘true’ soul mate), I can see why it holds such appeal in fiction. ‘I like the idea,’ a friend told me, when I expressed some dislike for Snape’s unstinting love for Lily. ‘Doesn’t it seem so special to be loved in that way, like no one else can ever compare?’ Sure, it’s all right if the person is fictional, but as I noted in this post, unrequited love is very poetic, but it is extremely painful in reality.

I think, in some ways, the fascination for the immortals, for vampires and Elves and other such beings, is tied up in this desire to feel ‘special’. Okay, let me try and explain this: people diss Twilight for a number of reasons, and yes, I’m one of those who does not consider it spectacular literature, but I can see why so many people love it. I can see why men and women think it would be amazing to be loved like Edward loves Bella, stalking and vampirish urges and all. The idea that someone who has literally lived for hundreds of years, seen thousands of people, picks you, of all humanity, to love—now THAT would make anyone feel special. The same idea applies to Arwen and Aragorn. Here’s an Elf who has lived thousands of years. She has seen many, many specimens pass through her life, more than a few of whom must have been drop dead gorgeous, accomplished, wise Elves, maybe even a few men. And yet, it was Aragorn, at that point a not-so-well-washed, uncrowned Ranger from the north, for whom she gave up her immortality, and made the ultimate sacrifice.

aragorn_arwen_love_story

In every romantic relationship, I would think, there’s that need to feel special, to feel like though there may have been people before you, and may be others after you in your significant others’ life,  you are somehow different. To be chosen by someone like Edward, or Arwen, or a billion other vampires who go after their mortal prey for reasons other than culinary denotes that you have something more than all those others they have met before. Something does separate you from the herd of humanity, and someone special, who knows what they’re on about (having seen a hell of a lot of the world) has noticed that in you and decided to love or desire you for it.

Okay Twilight fans, now I sort of get what you’re on about. Doesn’t mean I think your ship is a better one than Cersei/Jaime, and that’s saying something.