Bending gender (till it breaks): Left Hand of Darkness vs. Ancillary Justice

lefthand ancillary

There are a lot of books, I think, that are classics in their field, required reading, not because they did their ideas best, but simply because they did them first. Lord of the Flies is my go-to example for this — it didn’t thrill me when I read it, because by that point I’d already read Galax-Arena and Battle Royale (among others) and seen those same ideas explored better elsewhere.

The critical buzz that greeted the release of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice suggested that it was doing just that to Left Hand of Darkness: that this was the gender-bending sci-fi of the new millennium, the long-awaited upgrade to LeGuin’s seminal work on the subject (by now nearly fifty years old). But after reading it, I couldn’t disagree more — Ancillary Justice doesn’t replace Left Hand of Darkness or retread that ground; rather, it complements LeGuin’s story in a way that I have never before seen two novels do, especially not novels written by different authors and separated by decades. In tandem, they explore how gendered pronouns influence the way we perceive and interpret human behavior. They come at the issue from different angles, and in so doing, call into question some of our most basic assumptions about masculine and feminine.

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Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

…is grate!!

So this is his third in the series that began with Lies of Locke Lamora, a book that made quite a splash some years back for being extremely clever and just so damn fun. (Think Robin Hood crossed with Ocean’s 11, with banter and camaraderie that Joss Whedon would envy.)

Unfortunately, when the next book came out, Red Seas Under Red Skies, it was… disappointing. It’s been years since I read it, so I don’t remember it well enough to analyze why it failed, but it didn’t have anywhere near the same verve as the first one. I, and a lot of other readers, concluded that whatever perfect storm had produced LoLL, Lynch didn’t know how to make it strike twice. Repeated delays on the release of Republic of Thieves seemed to confirm those fears, cuz books don’t get delayed when the author is on their game and writing like a house on fire.

…Or maybe they do, because Republic of Thieves is a gem and a joy that lives up to all expectations set by Lies of Locke Lamora. The dregs of RSURS‘s tortured plot get flushed away in short order, and our bold heroes Locke and Jean are back in the game. The game this time is to steal an election — and across the table, their opponent is Sabetha.

Oh yeah, you heard me. She’s finally in it. And because analyzing failure is more instructive than analyzing success, I’m going to spend the rest of this post turning a magnifying glass on the fly in Locke Lamora‘s ointment: Lynch’s weaknesses with women.

That most strange and terrible of beasts, The Female Character

Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat

So the other day I mentioned in passing that I’d given a particular, unnamed John Updike book a try, that I read it for twenty pages and then quit as being about “fucking boring old people.” Well, a friend of mine correctly identified the title in question from that dismissive one-line summary, and linked me to a review that David Foster Wallace wrote for the NY Observer. It is here, and it is amazing, seriously if you haven’t read it yet, do that and then come back. Cuz I want to talk about it.

To rewind, though:

Last Light of the Sun, by Guy Gavriel Kay (40/107)

This book is okay. I started off liking it quite a bit, thought it was going to rank up there with the Sarantine Mosaic, but then my interest lagged in the middle, and I probably would have put it down and let it stay half-unfinished forever except for the 107 books initiative, that says finish it or quit it decisively, and I feel like a loser when I don't finish books. So.

It's another of Kay's historical fantasies, this time set in Britain at the cusp of centralization and Christianization, about the tribal skirmishes they have with each other and with the vikings (called Erlings, in this) that regularly plague their shores. It has the ensemble cast that Kay's books are famous for, giving you a panoramic view of the conflicts and how they affect people at all levels of society, it has the excellent prose and mythic resonance that make lit-crit people sit up and take notice when Kay writes a book, and it has a number of capable and influential female characters. But really, the same could be said for all of his books (except possibly Ysabel, which was mind-numbingly dull), and this one didn't stand out. The characters couldn't compare to The Sarantine Mosaic, and the plot couldn't compare to Tigana.

So let's talk about his women.

Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay (20/107)

Not my favorite of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books (that laurel goes to either Tigana or his Sarantine Mosaic duology), but far from his worst either. I think Kay handles the Chinese elements of the story very well, without making the characters feel like westerners in funny hats, or exoticized into something completely alien. Here, as in all his books, Kay shows that wherever, whenever you go, people are still going to be people. It starts off kind of slow, but once more characters get introduced it picks up, and by the end I was very moved by the story. Kay has a true gift for showing the grand sweep of a lifetime, how every life is destined to have grief and happiness both, and all you can really hope for is that, ultimately, the joys will outweigh the sorrows. That you may not get what you thought you wanted, but sometimes that’s alright.

However, it was my initial impression of Under Heaven that provides the springboard for this discussion:

“Wow, this book is very….. heterosexual.”

At first I was bored, bored, bored, because the action-plot hadn’t really gotten started and the protagonist was spending most of his time thinking about the ladies he’d like to shag, which is pretty much every woman he meets. (To be fair, he had been living in the mountains like a hermit for two years, but it’s still incredibly tiresome.) He is also preoccupied with a courtesan he used to know, but since we haven’t met her yet, I don’t give a fuck.

Kay also pulls something that’s a particular pet peeve — which is that all the women in the book are beautiful and desirable, and all the men are… okay? I guess? Come on, what does it matter, they have other attributes to make them interesting!

…Indeed.

My least favorite of the lot was the emperor’s concubine, who was like Alixana from the Sarantine Mosaic, only annoying as fuck, absolutely bludgeoning the protagonist with her sex appeal, which left me disgusted with both of them, her for doing it and him for falling for it.

I am not heterosexual. In fact, I am staggeringly immune to feminine wiles, and so the use of them as character motivation is something that I find extremely alienating. It throws me right the hell out of a story when some vamp is flashing her cleavage and crossing-and-uncrossing her legs at the protagonist, and instead of being like, “Get your foot the fuck off my lap,” he turns into a steaming pile of idiot. It’s so fucking stupid, and not even the kind of stupid that I can empathize with.

And yeah, I’ll totally own my bias — I like guys. I like hot guys, so I’m more willing to read depth and nuance into underdeveloped characters who happen to be male and hot, more willing to like them for being assholes instead of hating them for it. But sexy and smug about it, or sexy and shallow, are such goddamn turn-offs, in either gender, in fiction and in IRL both. I am completely ballsy enough to be the one to go up and talk to hot strangers in bars, because they’re hot and I’m drawn to their flame like a very shallow moth. I am willing to give them the initial benefit of the doubt, that I might not give someone else, because they’re good-looking and we can’t control the hormone rush that says “tapthattapthattapthat!!!!” However, I guarantee you that I won’t stay interested if they’ve got nothing else going on, or they’re obviously expecting everyone to fawn over them because they’re hot, I will excuse myself and go back to hanging out with my friends. (The hilarious part is when I can’t lose them after that.)

So not only is going durrrrr, stupid for manipulative hot women a trope that I have absolutely no common feeling with, it also plays into that patriarchal idea that women’s only route to power is through their sexuality (because everyone’s lives revolve around straight dudes, amirite), which is not only wrong but also frustrating to find in this book of all books, because Kay has proven he can do so much better than that. (Although, hm, now that I stop to think about it, I think all of the women in the Sarantine Mosaic and Tigana also use their sexuality as leverage at some point. It was just less overt and most of them also had other tools at their disposal and more depth to their character.)

I don’t know. There are a lot of other half-connected thoughts floating around in my head — such as how the characters we tend to like are those we want to be and those we want to do, which has always made it more difficult for me to connect to female characters, particularly ones whose salient feature is being hot. The female characters I like tend to be older — Julie Taymor’s Shakespearean movies are excellent for that, with Jessica Lange as Tamora in Titus and Helen Mirren as Prospero — because they have a very strong sense of self, of who they are, what they want, and how to go about getting it. And not every writer is Shakespeare, but even in something like Supernatural, it’s telling that the only female character who isn’t an obnoxious walking WB cliche is Ellen, because she’s old enough that the writers can’t use “sexy” as a substitute for character development. (Although Bella redeemed herself in my eyes, right before she died, for declining to justify herself to Dean about why she’d killed her step-parents.)

I’m also thinking about the perceived need for rivalry between women, the expectation that of course every woman will hate and resent someone she thinks is more beautiful than her. And thinking that maybe men are missing the point, and that what gets other women’s backs up about a beautiful woman isn’t that she’s beautiful, but because she’s being manipulative with it. People immune to feminine wiles can see that, and it annoys the hell out of them, but straight men are oblivious to that distinction and assume that the resentment is born of simple jealousy.

Lots of stuff to unpack; I don’t understand it all and I don’t pretend to. (Although that doesn’t stop me from inflicting my opinions on the internet. :P) In any event, I was reminded several times of something that Joanna Russ had written: “The beautiful woman who knows beyond a doubt that she is beautiful exists aplenty in male novelists’ imaginations; I have yet to find her in women’s books or women’s memoirs or in life.”

Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano (3/107)

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity is a collection of essays by writer (and activist and biologist) Julia Serano, confronting and dismantling a number of societal preconceptions about not only transgenderism, but gender relations and gender identity in general. Serano is sharp, funny, insightful, and justifiably angry, and Whipping Girl is A+ reading.

More quoting than reviewing going on here