2016 Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Round-up

1. Books I Loved

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

Twenty years after a devastating flu epidemic wipes out most of Earth’s population, a band of actors and musicians, known as ‘The Symphony’, travel the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic North America, performing Shakespeare and classical music for the surviving communities they encounter. The novel’s title refers to a mysterious graphic novel treasured by Kerstin, one of the young actors in The Symphony.  As the story moves back and forth between ‘Year 20’ and the time before the plague, and the characters’ stories slowly unfold, Station Eleven becomes the lynch pin holding it all together.  I loved this evocative, powerful story about the ways in which our lives are shaped by history and circumstances. Station Eleven is a speculative novel about science fiction in which a line taken from an episode of Star Trek, Voyager (“Survival is insufficient”) becomes profoundly meaningful.

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014) `

A young woman called Rosemary takes a job as a clerk aboard The Wayfarer just as Captain Ashby and his dedicated crew of wormhole builders receive the offer of a lifetime. A lucrative but risky job. There is an adventure and peril ahead, but really this is all about the characters and their relationships with each other. If you’re sick of grim dark, look no further. The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet is a lovely space opera with good people doing their best in difficult circumstances.   Plus it has bisexual aliens and that queer family of choice dynamic that so many of us find irresistible.  The aliens in particular are wonderful. I think my favourite is the Grum, Dr Chef. It does have a first novel feel and there were places where I thought things could be more developed, but overall I loved it and have already bought the next in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit.

Emma Newman, Planetfall (2015)

Renata Ghali is an engineer in charge of maintaining the 3D printers that supply her colony with all its material goods. She has a severe anxiety disorder and still grieves the loss of her beloved Lee Suh-Mi, the woman who led them to this distant world over twenty years previously. The community believes that Suh Mi has disappeared into the strange alien structure that looms over their town and that one day she will return. But then a stranger appears at the borders of their world, a young man who claims to be Suh Mi’s grandson and the sole survivor of a group of colonists who were lost in a terrible accident during Planetfall.  This young man comes with the power to destroy everything and reveal the lie upon which the life of the colony has been built. Planetfall is a compelling and desperately sad book about secrets, grief, loss and the inability to change and let go. It is also a book about materialism and the way that things can come to own us and prevent us from seeing the truth of our situation.

Nnedi Okerforar, The Book of Pheonix (2015)

Pheonix Okore is a ‘Speciman’ created in the laboratories of a corporation known as the “Big Eye”. Pheonix is intended to be a terrible weapon, a creature with the power to burn up and consume everything in her path, only to regenerate and return to life again within a few days. With the help of her fellow specimen, Pheonix escapes from her creators, and sets out for Africa where she finds community and love. But Pheonix is not left in peace for long. Like Mary Shelley’s monster years before, what Pheonix learns about the world soon sets her on a destructive course.  The Book of Pheonix is an allegory for our times. It is a highly literate and richly intertextual, post-colonial SF fantasy full of references to history (slavery, medical experimentation on women of colour), pop culture, religious texts, science fiction (Frankenstein, The Island of Dr Moreau), mythology, and theory (Roland Barthes makes an appearance at the end).  It left me wanting to read all of Nnedi Okerforar’s books. This novel is a prequel to Who Fears Death?, so I’m looking forward to that.

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Sensitive but Flawed, Reflections on the film, ‘Albert Nobbs’ (2011)

Albert Nobbs is a film which I found both impressive and disappointing.  It’s unusually intelligent about gender but it also contains some of the weaknesses that often undermine the representation of LGBTQ characters in film and, ultimately, it left me feeling ambivalent.

Set in nineteenth-century Ireland, the film centres on the figure of Albert (Glenn Close), a person who has been assigned female at birth, but who from adolescence onwards has lived as a man. Despite developing a successful career as a waiter in hotels, Albert’s shyness and fear of discovery has resulted in him becoming lonely and socially isolated.  Albert’s life changes when he meets Hubert (Janet McTeer), another female-assigned person who is living as a man.  Hubert has a more positive outlook on their predicament and opens Albert’s eyes to the possibility of an independent life, of owing his own business and perhaps even marrying.  Albert sets about courting a young woman called Helen (Mia Wasikowska) who works in the hotel, not realising that she is already involved in a romance with a young man called Joe who wants to emigrate to America.  Seeing an opportunity here, Joe persuades Helen to lead Albert on in the hope that she will gain access to his money.

Spoiler Alert – this post discusses the plot in detail 

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Gender Calamity/Gender Possibility: Calamity Jane (1953)

The 1953 musical western Calamity Jane follows an ostensibly heteronormative narrative trajectory in which we see two rebellious young women being tamed and made ready for heterosexual marriage. Wild tomboy and stagecoach guard, “Calam” (Doris Day), gets a makeover and learns how to be a woman, while aspiring burlesque performer, Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), gives up on her dreams of being on stage for the love of a man. But this surface narrative is in constant tension and conflict with the film’s high camp celebration of queer rebellion and non-normative desire which conveys an alternative story that, as Eric Savoy argues, questions “the possibility, or even the desirability of a coherent gender role” (151) or, for that matter, the very existence of “true”, or fixed identities.

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Politics round-up

From The Hathor Legacy, On Rejecting Men and Rape Culture and also Beware False Allies

From Madhushala, Perfect Women in Chilly Climates

Too Young to Wed, a multimedia presentation on the predicatment of child brides around the world

This is so sad,  What the young victims of Utoya believed in

From Beyond Clicktivism, on the unfairness of “austerity”, Who Pays the Bill?

This handy chart will tell you which people can define your gender and sexuality (hat tip the Queer Scholar)

Gender in the film Salt (2010)

I like to spend Friday evenings watching silly films.  A couple of weeks ago we watched Salt, a totally preposterous thriller starring Angelina Jolie as a CIA agent who is accused being a Russian double-agent.

It’s not a film I would bother to mention here if it wasn’t for the gender issues it raises.  When it was released there was some talk about how the role of Evelyn Salt was originally intended for a male actor, someone like Tom Cruise.

I would say that casting Jolie as the lead does have the effect of lifting the film out of the level of totally run-of-the-mill because it turns it into a (no doubt unintentional) reflection on the gendered conventions of the thriller.

Salt presents femininity as a performance.  At the beginning of the film, Evelyn is represented as highly feminine (heels, tightly-fitted suit, full face of makeup, beautifully coiffured blonde hair etc), but as the story progresses she is gradually divested of her femininity, ending the film as an androgynous figure who is able to pass for male.  This is all good fun, but there’s an anxious question underlying the film’s representation of Salt’s gender, a question concerned with what femininity means in a world in which women have access to power.

Having a woman in the role also allows the film to play around with the apparatus of femininity – for example, the scene in which Salt uses her lacy panties to block a security camera and the one in which she goes into a ladies toilet and gets a menstrual pad, only to apply it to a bullet wound to stop the bleeding.

Also, it was apparent that Salt’s husband, who would have been his wife in the original script, was written as your classic ‘girl in the refrigerator’ – a woman who has something horrible happen to her just to advance the man’s story.  This movie treats us to a ‘boy in the refrigerator’ and the convention is not much less irritating for being gender-flipped.  It still feels like lazy storytelling.

For me, the gender-flipping does fall down a bit because Jolie is so fragile-looking in this film that I found it hard not to laugh when she took out two or three burly CIA agents with a couple of kicks. Mind you, this kind of action scene really isn’t much less ridiculous when it’s a man doing the fighting, it’s just that gendered narrative conventions have accustomed us to accepting the idea that Tom Cruise or Matt Dillon would be able to take out several CIA agents in one kick, when it reality, it isn’t any less preposterous.

So Salt is a film that manages to be both extremely silly and quite thought provoking.

Judith Butler Post

A very good and interesting post about Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from Pink Scare: Butler, Structure and Subject

Butler‘s project takes its point of departure from politics: the aim of the book is, at least in one concerted sense (i.e. this isn’t an exhaustive aim), to critically evaluate the assumption among some feminists that a unified conception of ‘woman’ is a necessary condition of political action for feminists. The point of doing this, for Butler, is to locate ways in which the feminist project is in some ways complicit with oppression, thus enabling her to gesture at ways we might more effectively (and fully) resist or subvert the oppressive regime of sex/gender.