Friday, February 7, 2014

Throwing the Sacred Cow to the Wolves

I am not watching "Bitten." This is despite the fact that I have had a crush on Laura Vandervoort since Smallville. This is also despite the fact that I read and - at the time - enjoyed the books. I'd like at some point to finish the Otherworld series, which I never got around to doing, but know that as this point I'd have to reread in order to catch up, and I've been putting that off for the same reason I'm not watching the show.

I have a problem with the central relationship of the show (and the first such relationship in the books). A big problem, that I think gets glossed over far too frequently in the genre. It comes in two parts, the first one being the idea that the two people in the relationship, Clay and Elena, are "meant" to be together. I know this is a standard trope, especially in paranormal romance, but I viewed many of the Otherworld books as leaning more towards straight Urban Fantasy than its romantic subset. And to be fair, I don't remember it being as strong a push toward them as a couple as it usually is in what I have heard referred to as the "fated mates" trope.

Instead, to the best of my recollection, it's more of a "the author has decided this couple should go together, so they will, and damn any uncomfortable repercussions." (Not too very different from JK Rowling's recent pronouncement about Harry and Hermione. Which, being in the middle of rereading the Harry Potter series, I take issue with. But that's another post.) But we'll get back to the fated mates thing. And there are some unsettling issues that arise from that push. Oh yes indeed there are.

Clay assaults Elena. And yet they end up The Couple. Because, of course, Clay is hot. And this makes up for the fact that he is a Class 1 Jerk ... and that he assaults her. Now, I know, some of you out there are at this point screaming at the monitor that he does not do any such thing. He "just" bites her.

That's crap.

And not only is it crap, it's recognized as crap in the book. Clay, in biting her, does something he is not supposed to do. Something that is treated - in the book - as a major offense. Something that gets him punished, severely. Only later on is seemingly all is forgiven when Elena falls in love because, hey, Clay's hot so it's okay.

Which is still crap. Even leaving out the arguments laid down in the novel itself about why it is very much NOT OKAY, think of it from this perspective. He bites her. That, by itself, in human context, is an assault. If someone just came up to you and bit you, you'd be pissed. If a dog just came up to you and bit you, they'd put it down. Beyond that, not only does she get bit, but it completely upsets her life, results in her questioning who she is, forces her out of the life she had been living (quite happily, mind you), and all for the sole reason that Clay can have someone like himself. Because let's be clear here, being a werewolf in that universe is not seen as this great thing, especially not from Elena's standpoint.

Clay's action is violent, selfish, self-serving, and puts Elena through real physical and psychological trauma. ... And yet, they end up the couple. Take away the werewolf bit, and would anyone out there argue that this is right?

Nor is this the only example. I started reading another series of books. (I'm leaving this one nameless, because unlike the Otherworld books the central POV does not switch people, so this incident pretty much damns the whole series for me.) I liked them. Up until the main heroine is forced into marrying the Alpha Male - which is a ridiculous and wholly manufactured concept anyway in wolves - immediately after she'd been raped.

Yes, you read that right. The assault in question this time at least comes from the bad guy, at the end of the previous book. And at first, with the next book, the aftereffects of this are taken seriously. The heroine is having issues with simply being touched, where it's setting off anxiety attacks and making her physically ill. Even when she's touched by someone she likes - including, specifically, the aforementioned alpha male who has, until this point, been competing for her affections with someone else. (Remember that point, too.)

And then the big bad of the new book rears its head. And, to "keep her safe," this same alpha - who, remember, she just got sick when he went to just hug her - forces her not only to choose him as the person she loves, but also to immediately be married to him.

And it's treated as being entirely okay. Because, again, he's attractive and charming and hey she had a thing for him anyway. So who cares that she's just been through something where she was forced into something against her will? That was different, because that was the bad guy. This is the good guy, so his taking the decision from her, forcing his relationship on her, because he decides it's in her best interest, that's okay.

Remember, he wasn't even her only romantic interest. She had pointedly still been unsure of which guy she wanted not ten pages earlier, and still reeling from the assault. But, again, it's okay that the alpha forces her, because that's the way it's meant to be.

Look, folks, I'm sorry, but it does not get to be okay when a guy forces a woman to do anything along these lines, no matter what argument you make about him being the "right" guy. Because under any other circumstances, the very fact that he forces this on her would most definitely not make him the "right" guy and would, in fact, make him the opposite of the right guy. But because it's a romantic trope, because the guy is hot and charming or suave and dangerous, that somehow makes it right.

No, no it does not.

Fantasy or not, there is no circumstance under which something like that is all right. As a trope, it needs to go, and there needs to be a harder look at this idea that force is an acceptable way to ensure a relationship when it's the "right" guy. This isn't about fantasy, anyway. These characters weren't playacting a role (which is different). These were two men forcing two women into a way of life without giving them the option to choose.

Find me any other setting where that is something that should be condoned, and maybe then I'll start watching "Bitten."

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Saturday Review: Windup Girl

I am a big fan of William Gibson. The novels of The Sprawl were my first introduction to "modern" science fiction (for as valid a term as that is), and over the intervening decades since I first stumbled across them, I have eagerly awaited each of Gibson's new novels. Which, as anyone who is a fan of Gibson knows, is a usually a pretty long wait. And while they are always worth the wait, I am not very patient. Fortunately, there is The Windup Girl.

If I called this book Gibsonian, that would probably sum up it's basic premise better than anything else. TWG is not cyberpunk in any traditional sense (a quick look at blurbs describes it as "biopunk," but that seems too easy a label), but the nature of the world the characters lives in has that same streetwise neo-noir future. Only where Gibson and others delved into the realm of the computer and the technological, Bacigalupi's future is more organic, and one that seems a much more impending future. The set-up is simple: this is a post carbon-crash world, one where fossil fuels have either run out or run sufficiently short to amount to the same thing. Bioengineering is a way of life and has been for a while, with the consequence that there are genetically modified foods in the market, strange new artificially created life forms, and frightening new viruses and plagues.

At one part steampunk in it's approach to getting around the problems created by a lack of combustion engines (there are airships, of course), unlike stories in that genre this is no alternate future or reworked past. This is a serious look at what such a new world would mean not only for the world economy and the great nations, but smaller nations as well. And if it is one part steampunk, it is also one part dystopian disaster fiction. Climate change is a harsh reality in this world, all the more so for nations that live close to sea level, including Thailand, where the story is set. The sea is kept just barely at bay, and at great expense. Just as real are the results of bioengineered crops and animals more keenly felt in smaller, less powerful nations. Eating the wrong food from the market can expose yourself to all sorts of unpleasant consequences, and people are always on the lookout for past food stores and genetics that offer purer alternatives.

We meet several characters, each of them compelling in their own way if not all equally likeable. One is a company man, a "Calorie Man" working for what seem to be the big movers and shakers in this new world: biotech companies. Here, too, the author draws on a familiar theme, that of the mega company of the future that is the ultimate mover and shaker in a world where old political and economic boundaries have fallen. But, again, TWG does something a little different with it, and gives us the perspective of the smaller nation having to compete and defend itself against companies that would have felt right at home in a William Gibson novel. 

Another character is the titular Windup Girl, a creation straight out of Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (though perhaps owing more to Bladerunner than the novel itself), an artificial woman struggling with the nature of who and what she is. Then there are government rebels, and self-serving refugees, and a host of smaller characters, all at once both familiar and new. All as equally plausible, as equally believable as the setting itself.

This is a novel that draws heavily on past materials, then interweaves them with new ideas and points them in new directions, all masterfully written with a style that was as compelling as it was innovative. Once started it was hard to put down, as I kept wanting to spend more time in this world the author has created, even if parts of that world aren't very pleasant.

In fact, if I had one complaint about this novel, it is that it is so far the only novel set in this world. Bacigalupi has written two short stories set in this universe, but The Windup Girl is the first full-length novel. (Which was a bit surprising. I expected "Calorie Man" to be another novel, given how fully formed this world he's created is, and it took me a bit of searching to discover it was in a book and not a book itself.) Just so long as it's not the last, I'll be a very, very happy reader.