Monday, 30 December 2013

Wish They All Could Be Strong Female Characters

Last week I went and saw the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, with my family. After my previous post here, I found I'd correctly guessed the endpoint of this second movie, but I was impressed (not favorably) with how Peter Jackson has managed to make a movie that's boring even when stuff's happening on screen.

Partly that's a result of really uneven pacing - as an example, the scene in the dwarves' treasure room, where they're being chased around by Smaug, just went on and on, without adding anything to the story. But Jackson also crammed a bunch of stuff in to pad the movie out to three hours: for example, Gandalf rides out to the Necromancer's fortress in Dol Guldur, an event that's mentioned in the book, but doesn't actually appear on-page. And he added a love triangle.

Tolkien's two best-known works were pretty low on romantic subplots and, frankly, women in general, which is why Peter Jackson expanded Arwen's role a bit for his movies. The Hobbit, being a children's book, has even less romance (and ladies), so Jackson added a new Elvish character, Tauriel, to be badass and cute and play the romantic foil for Orlando Bloom's Legolas and Kili, one of the dwarves.

Tauriel is played by Evangeline Lilly, who just looks right as an elf, just as much as Liv Tyler did when she played Arwen a decade ago. As one of the wood elves, Tauriel is also pretty expert with a bow and with a knife, and spends the movie hopping around the trees and looking out for her menfolk.

When she first appeared onscreen, I was excited - she was fighting, and it was awesome! She was a strong female character, clearly. And then I stopped and found myself wondering why she had to be strong on the same terms as the male characters around her.

As this article from the New Statesman puts it, all the princesses know kung fu these days. I guess it's kind of a prerequisite for summer (or Christmas) action movies - if all your main characters are superheroes who are beating up aliens, then I guess you can't have a character who slows down the plot to talk about feelings and crap like that. But it's still kind of a gesture toward equality, without the screen time or plot importance actually being equal.

This is an area where I feel George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is due some recognition. As problematic as some of it is (I remember reading a comment from someone who gave up on the book version of Game of Thrones because of all the rapes), he actually does a good job of showing strong female characters who don't wield swords or kill people. The character I'm thinking of specifically here is Catelyn, who demonstrates agency by effectively kicking off the war between the Lannisters and the Starks. If I recall correctly, she wields a knife as a weapon exactly once; but she's one of the more interesting characters, precisely because she makes mistakes and bad decisions, just the same as the other POV characters.

That's not to say that I don't like female warriors in fantasy fiction. If they make sense within the story, then they should be there - which is just as applicable to male characters. But I agree with Chuck Wendig, as quoted in the Sophia McDougall above, that "strong" shouldn't have to equate with physical strength, but with being strongly written. McDougall notes that many writers and readers are probably not thinking in those terms, and she's right - but I'm sure she'd agree that it's an idea worth disseminating.

After all, what made Buffy the Vampire Slayer a strong female character was that she was a strongly written character who happened to be female. And happened to be surrounded by other strongly written female characters.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Hobbit: English fantasy vs. epic fantasy

In preparation for the second part of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, I'm currently rereading JRR Tolkien's original book. I've been wanting to get back up to speed with it, and as I did with the Lord of the Rings movies ten or so years ago, I'm rereading it to try and get an idea how this new movie will look - after all, Jackson's sent the Nerd World into an uproar by trying to expand a slim book (my edition, which comes with a few illustrations by Tolkien himself, tops out at 280 pages) into three movies running at around three hours each.

But what's struck me on this re-read is how much it reads like a fairytale. This shouldn't be surprising, as legend holds that Tolkien used to read it to his own children, and more reliable history says that Stanley Unwin only published it on receiving a favorable review from his ten-year-old son. Not only that, but the whole narrative reflects folklore from across northern Europe, from England to Scandinavia. This is, I think, what China Mieville had in mind when he listed the things he likes about Tolkien's work, and referred to the "knotty, autumnal, blooded contingency of the Norse tales".

The other thing that got me thinking about this was Neil Gaiman and his work. When I read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, I was impressed to see a foreword by Gaiman, and his associated blurb calling it the "best work of English fantasy of the last 70 years". Note the expression "English fantasy", as opposed to the epic fantasy that we usually see dominating the shelves at the back of the bookstore.

I don't have my copy of Strange & Norrell in front of me, so I can't refer back, but I remember Gaiman being at pains to stress what he meant by English fantasy. Given what else I've read of his body of work, my understanding is that it's much wilder than the epic stuff, less formalized, and more influenced by the fairytales and folklore of the past few thousand years. In another essay, written for the  World Fantasy Convention's commemorative book, he talks about the genesis of his own book, Stardust, which he intended as a fairytale for adults, and refers also to Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist.

The secondary world elements in these books are much less pronounced - Strange & Norrell takes place mostly in an England adjacent to the Faerie realm, while Lud-in-the-Mist is set in a fictional world that pretty closely resembles Britain (from my understanding, not having read the book yet).

Thinking about all of this, it seems kind of a shame that what fantasy fiction has taken from Tolkien is the epic trappings of The Lord of the Rings, rather than the folkloric elements of The Hobbit. The latter is joyous and magical and scary, but most of all singular. The former, on the other hand, has given rise to a sort of kabuki, where the work is judged on how slavishly it follows the original template, while trying at the same time to do away with as many of the "tropes" as possible.

In some ways, I think this has caused the book to be unfairly maligned, although I can't really disagree with much of what Mieville said in his review of the first of Peter Jackson's LOTR movies. But we're looking at it through around 60 years of inferior copies, for instance Terry Brooks's Shannara books. So many of these copies missed the point that of course subsequent works have felt the need to distance themselves from LOTR by making the wizard untrustworthy, or having the dark lord win, or something like that. As someone pointed out, trope-avoidance has become a trope in itself.

Just to add a disclaimer, I think a lot of these criticisms could be leveled at my own novel attempts. My reading group constantly pointed out bits of my first attempt that read too slavishly like the final battle in Return of the King. I don't think it means epic fantasy isn't worth writing, though - it's just important to know the full range of what you're taking from, to go to the source, and to try and tease out the original meaning.

And if you do that, you might even turn up something truly original, rather than a fresh spin on old material. That's the work that gets remembered, like Tolkien's, for the greater part of a century.

Friday, 6 December 2013

RIP Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela passed away on the 5th of December, at the grand age of 95. I'm posting the below picture because it's the quote I feel best conveys Mandela's message - not just in helping to unify South Africa after his release from prison, but in the way he helped set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which helped white and black South Africans to discuss the darker moments of their shared history, so that both sides could move forward.

My thoughts are with his family, but also with the people of South Africa, both at home and abroad.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

What I'll Miss About London

If you've seen my Twitter or Facebook accounts, you may have noticed that I complain about London to a fair degree. I make no apology for this - there are so many things about the city, its people and their collective attitude that I find maddening, and if I didn't vent from time to time, I'd probably explode, or set a Tube station on fire or something.

But on this occasion, I feel it's worth mentioning a few of the things that I'll miss about the city, when I leave in three weeks. I've been here so long that I've fallen into a routine that's generally pretty pleasant (otherwise I wouldn't have fallen into it!), and transitioning back to life in Palo Alto, with the added dimension of regular work and trying to be a grownup, is likely to present some challenges. So here are the things I'd like to single out for praise before I go:


I know this pisses off a couple of my British friends when they hear talk like this, but I really like how easy it is to get to the rest of Europe from here. For various reasons (primarily lack of money), I haven't been able to take as much advantage of it as I'd have liked, but at the same time I don't think I've done too badly. My job, in particular, has been great for helping me travel - this year alone I got out to Barcelona, Amsterdam and Portugal for work, and it never took much more than a couple of hours.

I expect there to be some travel for work when I move back to the US, and apart from that I want to explore more of the rest of the country, but it won't be the same as hopping on a plane (or a train, because I love the Eurostar) for a few hours and finding myself someplace where they speak a totally different language.


Perhaps it took me a while to appreciate this, but now that I'm getting ready to leave I'm really seeing the function that pubs serve in this country. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that it's winter now, and sunset is at around 4.30pm (and getting earlier!), but there's something congenial about stepping into a quiet, warm pub, grabbing a beer, and sitting down to chat for an hour or so. It may seem weird to apply the term to British pubs, but the best word I can think of to describe the atmosphere is the German word Gem├╝tlichkeit, which is generally translated as "comfortable", but also has overtones (to me) of homeliness and warmth.

Possibly the most "gem├╝tlich" pub I've encountered in a while was the Red Lion in Mayfair, which was paradoxically also where my sister and I had our accents mocked by a couple whom we'd just expressly notified could have our seats (cf above: people, maddening). But that aside, it was a really nice place - when we stepped in on a Saturday night it was full but not a madhouse, and didn't have music or fruit machines or sports blaring. There are no similar places in Palo Alto - or, I suspect, in all of the US, where you can just stop in for a quiet drink on your way to somewhere else.

I also suspect people in the US will be mocking my accent for a few years to come anyway. One of the curses of being so cosmopolitan, eh?


Now, don't get the wrong idea - the Bay Area has a lot of great culture, and I'm looking forward to going to concerts and museums and what-have-you when I'm there. But the difference is, when I'm in Palo Alto I'll have to drive for an hour to either San Francisco or San Jose to get it, whereas here I can just hop on the Tube and be standing in front of the British Museum or the Natural History Museum or the National Gallery in about half an hour.

The other important point here is that each of these museums is preeminent in its own field, so if I happen to be reading about Chinese or Indian history, it's nice to be able to drop by the British Museum on a whim after lunch, and browse its Chinese and Indian collections. There's a good museum in Golden Gate Park that showcases African, Pacific and Asian cultures (among others), the de Young, but it won't be the same (because of that drive, and because parking in Golden Gate Park is a bitch and a half).

Oh, and did I mention that all the big museums in London are free? Another big plus.


Kind of related to the point about culture is the fact that there are so many people in London (maddening as they are), that you can find just about every interest catered for. This has been my experience particularly in the last year, as I've started to get more involved in the SFF writing/fandom community. There are a lot of writers living here, as befits one of the two centers of the Anglophone publishing industry, and - at least in the SFF community - it feels really easy to meet them.

Just today, in fact, I was poking around Blackwell's, on Charing Cross Road, in anticipation of the Sarah Pinborough book launch taking place later this week, and noticed that the recommendations in the SF section were still signed by the former SF/F buyer, Den Patrick - who's now a full-time writer and whom I met in Brighton last month.

I'm reliably informed that the Bay Area is crawling with speculative fiction writers, so there may not be too much cause for alarm. But since the closure of Borders on University Avenue, we don't have any big bookstores left in Palo Alto, and even if we did, how likely would I be to randomly run into the likes of Paul Cornell there, if not for a signing? There may be a well-established community in San Francisco, but I'm gonna have to find it - here it's all around me.


I was going to end with community, but once I got to the part about the bookstores, I knew I had to add a final section about them. There's nothing I love more than hitting the Forbidden Planet and poking around the comics and novels, or getting lost among the shelves at Foyle's, or spending an afternoon reading something from each floor at Big Waterstones on Piccadilly.

As I said above, there are no big bookstores like my beloved Borders left in Palo Alto. There's Kepler's, in Menlo Park, which is nice and indie, but I'm deeply skeptical about their staff, given that they have no idea Thomas Pynchon's books are still in print. If I want another place similar to Borders, I have to drive all the way out to Redwood City to the Barnes and Noble there. At least there are some good options for used books, but even Know Knew Books is nothing compared to the gigantic collections at Big Waterstones or Foyle's.

Now, I don't want this to sound like I'm not looking forward to the big move. I've been working toward it for a good long while now, and I'm excited that it's finally coming to fruition. But I'd be lying if I said I won't miss anything from here. Fortunately for me, I'll have plenty of reasons to come back and experience these things again over the coming years.

And who knows? Maybe I'll end up moving back. Never say never.