The Problems of Atwood

Note that this is a reprint of a blog previously available to read on the Fantastika Journal website. The original publication was posted on 4 December 2018. I have not updated it for publication here except to make formatting changes. Re-reading the piece, I’m sad that nothing has changed for the better in global politics – or we’ve forgotten some of the horrific things that occurred in 2018 because the last 3 years have been such a dystopian nightmare. I also didn’t think that Atwood’s prophetic fiction regarding women’s body autonomy would be so poignant in 2021 as when it first published in 1985, but here we are…

Screenshot from the Handmaid’s Tale television adaptation

The Problems of Atwood

Margaret Atwood is overrated. There. I said it. And I say that as a proud Canadian as well, so I’m sure I’ve just committed some sort of blasphemy. But bear with me here. I have three very important reasons on why The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is merely ‘okay.’ And if you disagree with all three of my reasons, only then may you commence the stoning. (Note that many members of the Fantastika Editing team are also Devout Atwood Fans and will likely help you lead the charge.)

With the recent announcement that Atwood is releasing a sequel to the novel, my initial impulse is to think that this is part of the Hollywood rebooting era that we seem to be ‘thriving in.’ Don’t get me wrong, some of these sequels have been good. Incredibles 2 (2018) leaps to mind. This is a sequel 14 years in the making and its makers’ care towards the Incredibles family shows. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is another such film which took loving attention to its source material. Yes, it undermined the beauty of all the possible variations in the multiple released cuts (read more on this in Brian Baker’s editorial in volume 2, issue 1 of Fantastika Journal). But it seemed mindful of its status as an adaptation, demonstrating both continuity with the original and a break away from it, in order to be distinct and stand on its own.

But alongside of this have been plenty of adaptations and sequels that have been huge disappointments; far too many to list and point fingers at. I’m sure the reader can think of maybe just a few that were more money-grabbing nightmares rather than artistic endeavours. And it’s hard not to see Atwood’s sequel going this way as well. The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t need a sequel. Having a sequel to a Dystopia seems to imply that there’s going to be a solution to the problems of society, one that was not planned by the author when they first envisaged their Dystopia. Of course, there have been plenty of Dystopic narratives that are introduced in trilogy structures, where one presumes that the outcome in the final book will be an eventual collapse of the dystopia. But this narrative progression is usually planned by the author, an idea made obvious by the fact that the trilogy publishes within a few years of the initial novel. In contrast here, adding a solution to The Handmaid’s Tale would undermine the very nature of the Dystopia that Atwood creates. Where The Handmaid’s Tale creates a warning of the possible consequences of society’s current actions, a solution to these problems would challenge that message. The other alternative of course is that society crumbles further. To me, this is a pointless exercise. What’s the point of lighting another fire when the world is already burning?

Which brings me to my first point on why Atwood, and The Handmaid’s Tale in particular, is overhyped. First, Atwood’s depiction of society is generally black and white. There are no shades of grey. There’s not even any colour. (More on that later.) We can see quite clearly that x is bad and y is good in the novel. Repression of women is bad. Of course it is. There’s no way that anyone morally decent would ever consider this idea as a good thing. But Atwood hammers these ideas into us, as a warning of the dangers of what could occur in our own society if we allow the repression of women to continue. And, while this extrapolation makes sense, my problem with it is that it doesn’t allow for the reader to think. Atwood leads you to the answer, like an examiner that will only accept one correct answer on a math exam.

Let’s compare for a moment Atwood’s dystopia to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974). With the subtitle “An Ambiguous Utopia,” we see right in the title two drastically different depictions of Dystopia/Utopia. The first page of the novel starts with the following description:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall. Like all walls it was ambiguous, two faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.

Le Guin, The Dispossessed p. 1

This concept sets up the entire narrative. Le Guin doesn’t tell you which ‘side’ is the side the reader to take. The wall represents two societies of Anarres and Urras, or a communist and a capitalist society respectively. As the narrative continues, the reader realizes that the societies governed on both sides of the wall each demonstrate their own idealistic ideas alongside corruption and decay equally. Some aspects of capitalism are bad, just as some parts of communism are. And some parts may be good. And so, Le Guin doesn’t tell the reader which of these societies to favour. She allows them to think, to contemplate, and to ultimately determine that there is no right or wrong answer. There are shades of grey, with no right path.

Now, I must admit that perhaps in today’s society, we need to see the black and the white clearly outlined. Atwood’s announcement of a sequel is based on the premise that she is updating the original’s ideas to reflect today’s global politics. And, it seems apparent that maybe some people need it hammered into their heads that some ideas are bad. Children routinely dying in school shootings is a bad thing. Tear-gassing people is bad. Locking children up in cages and separating them from their families is bad. And, the fact that certain people would argue against these ideas as ‘bad’ demonstrates just how far we’ve fallen. So, yes, Atwood’s work is completely necessary in a world where we can’t allow people to think for themselves for fear that they’ll rape and pillage those around them if we let them loose. But, I would think that these people wouldn’t be reading much of Fantastika anyway. And so, to the liberal-thinking reader (Atwood’s target audience), what ideas are they walking away with after reading The Handmaid’s Tale except an affirmation of those values that they are already hold to be true?

Of course, Atwood would not describe any of her work as Fantastika. Which brings me to my second point. Atwood believes that Science Fiction is fluff. This is quite clear in many of the statements she has made. She defines her work as Speculative Fiction, a distinct term that implies, to Atwood, a literary quality.  “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen” (The Guardian, 2003). And once again, I can let Le Guin speak here, in her review of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009), the second book of her MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013):

In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can’t be science fiction, which is “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today”. This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.

The Guardian, 2009

Le Guin decides to respect Atwood’s statements of snobbery, as there have been plenty of Science Fiction authors (Le Guin included) who have had to fight for respectability as literary authors. But the capitulation is disquieting. How can we – as academics and readers of Fantastika – fight for the importance and value of Science Fiction and Fantasy if the very authors that produce these genres likewise disparage them? So my second point against Atwood has less to do with The Handmaid’s Tale, and more to do with the disappointment that fans are unable to acknowledge this work as a Fantastika text. Atwood here divorces herself from representing Science Fiction fans. She’s not a Science Fiction author. She writes Speculative Fiction – a term, to her, which has no or little connection to Fantastika genres.

And finally, third, let’s talk about representation itself. It took me awhile to see this one, as I was so indoctrinated in the problem. I am second generation Canadian. I was born in Canada. But my parents hail from India, and thus I am a visible minority citizen. It was in university, in a class dedicated to “Canadian Women Authors” that I first got a sense of something not quite right with the Atwood world. On the very first day, I felt like I stuck out. Now, in a university class of “Canadian Women Authors,” you can expect a fair number of students who were also Canadian women. So there was no reason why I should have felt a barrier. I, too, am a Canadian woman. As were the handful of colleagues around me who were taking the class, and the professor teaching it. But, as we started the class with a discussion of feminism – what problems do we face as women? – it quickly became apparent to me that we were speaking from one particular point of view; A group of (presumably) heterosexual and (with the exception of me) white Canadian woman, taking a senior-level university class about Canadian women – and discussing how hard our life was. This is not to dismiss or belittle the very real problems of equality that women in academia face. But it felt privileged to even have a discussion of our problems while looking down at the beautiful university grounds (we were on a top floor windowed classroom, and the metaphor of the ivory ‘tower’ of university was quite physical for me during this discussion.) I tried to point out some real-world problems that other women may face. As my classmates engaged in a discussion of living with their boyfriends (the problems of balancing domestic equality with studies and work), I contemplated how *lucky* there were to be able to live in an open and public relationship. An example of a young girl in India who was forced to marry a much older man sprang to mind as a contrasting experience. I myself, although born in Canada, struggled for years against the assumption that I will eventually get an arranged marriage. I couldn’t help but envy my classmates for their open and upfront acceptance of being able to live with their boyfriends, and, I must confess, the problems they were discussing in connection to this were absolutely alien to me at the time. But, with my undergraduate-level (in)experience, I was unable to communicate or even formulate for myself the distinction between the problems of inequality that were being discussed by my colleagues, and my own experiences and awareness of problems in other communities.

It wasn’t until I attended a lecture on Atwood and Canadian Literature as a PhD student that the problem crystallized so clearly. The professor was discussing Canadian identity in another of Atwood’s novels (Surfacing, 1972). This identity is English. And French. And – with some afterthought – Indigenous peoples. Although, I should say, that I’m not sure if Indigenous culture was included in the depiction of Canadian identity. Instead, the professor very clearly outlined Canadian identity as English/French colonial guilt. Period. “I guess I’m not Canadian then,” I remember muttering to the colleague sitting next to me.

And it was at that moment that I realized that in the Canadian Women Authors class that I took back in my undergraduate years – twenty novels studied over ten to twelve weeks, with fully three or four of these books by Atwood – none of these were written by non-white Canadian women. Or, there may have been one. Possibly. But the remaining nineteen were distinctly written by white women. Canadian women’s identity, then, is white.

And while Atwood obviously didn’t set the reading texts for this course, she perpetuates the system that allows these problems of representations to occur. The professor could not have read Canadian identity as either European or French (period) if the text itself did not allow for this discussion to occur. Moreover, how many visible minority characters can you think of – off the top of your head – in Atwood’s books? Does she have any? If/when they occur, are they major characters? Or are they in the supporting role? Dismissible. Canadian identity is not a beautifully coloured mosaic. To Atwood, it seems to be shades of pink. This is disastrous! An overly emotional response? But if you think about it, Atwood is often deemed representative of ‘Canadian literature.’ If you ask a non-Canadian if they can name a Canadian author, I’m certain that Atwood would be at the top of the list. How unfortunate then, that Atwood fails to speak for so many Canadians.

Now it’s true that this discussion of the representation of minority characters is fairly new. We only became really vocal about these concerns in last the two or three years, really. But this doesn’t mean that it wasn’t important until now! And I can’t help but think, why. Why did Atwood fail to represent a full spectrum of Canadian identity in her novels? Did she not see or consider them at all? Or perhaps this was this another act to protect herself from literary biases? (And which of these explanations is worse?) It’s true that – at the time of publication in 1985 – it may have been considered more appropriate to publish a text focused on normative characters. But again, I’m going to use Le Guin – my Fantastika-idol – as an author who is able to represent various identities without being shunned. (A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968, and The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969 are two obvious examples.) But perhaps she is able to do so as she was publishing despicable Science Fiction, and not the more ‘literary’ Speculative. How bitterly ironic, that representation is more acceptable in the ‘unreal’ genres, as opposed to those that are based on *real life*.

Moreover, Atwood’s novels are frequently identified as feminist literature. Yet Atwood’s discussion of gender-problems does not even begin to address nuances of identity in gender and sexuality. It is difficult to have a discussion of the ‘problems of minority representation’ without acknowledging the full spectrum of identity that this concept covers! Critical discussions of gender and sexuality are often integrated with issues of race. Problems of systematic repression are common to so many areas, after all. And so I fully hope that Atwood fixes some of this damage in her upcoming sequel, and takes the opportunity to represent the full spectrum of human identity. Problems of representation aside, I must admit that Atwood writes beautifully. Every word is well crafted. She not only paints a picture, but allows you to wallow in all five senses, so that you live in the world. She is a master craftsman in that regard. I simply hope that her world this time includes shades of gray and colour.

Flash Fiction: The Mission

I’m taking a break from the University 411 Posts today before I get “fresher’s fatigue”. (News flash, your lecturers are exhausted by the first week of university too. And I’m not even teaching this year, but already I feel sympathy tiredness from everyone facing another year of covid teaching.)

my artistic representation of “fresher’s fatigue” using my kid as a model

In any case, I want to keep up posting everyday because I’m on a streak! I need my streak badge. So today instead of posting university/student tips, I’ve dug into my folder to pull out an unpublished story. (Constructive criticism welcomed).

It’s unpublished because flash fiction is HARD to write. 1000 words to introduce characters, plot, and a satisfying resolution?? But if you’re an aspiring writer (whether fiction or non-fiction), it’s a good way to practice your craft and hone your skills. Flash fiction makes you focus on each and very word, as you make sure that every letter and punctuation mark is both effective and necessary. Or, in other words, it makes you cut down on the waffle. (This introduction could probably benefit with some hacking and pruning. I’m meandering all over the place.) So, without further ado, here’s my first attempt at flash fiction.


The Mission

A sharp alarm woke Elena. She’d been having an eerie dream. Intensely green hills… and a bright light, pulsing in the corner of her eye.
“ELENA! WAKE UP!” Francesca’s shout shook her fully awake.
“What happened??” She charged into the cockpit. Francesca was crouched over the controls. Elena’s breath caught as she took in the view of the planet zooming in on them. Blues and greens peaked out of the rolling masses of clouds.
“Is that the planet? We’re coming in too fast!”
Francesca didn’t reply as the landscape came hurtling towards them.

Six days. Six days of hiking up and down these god-forsaken hills. Captains Elena Norton and Francesca Bellini have been in worse conditions, of course. They had a mission to complete so for six days they trudged up one hill and down another until they began to see the outlines of a ruin. Over the past few days, a feeling of unease had grown. The green hills reminded Elena of her dream. But, she couldn’t quite remember what happened….
“It’s a shame we won’t be able to tell anyone about this mission,” she said instead. “Our ancestors destroyed so much of this planet. It still needs to heal. We can’t let— Do you see something moving in those ruins?”
“It’s probably just an animal,” Francesca said. “Come on. Let’s get in and out quick.”
They had their orders: land on the island, get in the building and destroy the machine inside.
“Do you know what the big deal is with this machine?” Elena asked as they headed to the run.
“It’s dangerous, of course.”
“On an abandoned planet? Lightyears away from our nearest civilization? Didn’t you think it was weird that they thought it was so dangerous out here in the isolation? And how is it still running? You’ve heard the rumours, right?”
“You mean the Quantum Machine? It’s a myth!”
The Quantum Machine. A device created by theoretical physicists to predict the future. Although, some say that it didn’t simply predict the future; that the act of observing the future made it crystallize into reality.
Elena opened her mouth to answer, but then froze. There was a sound…. “Do you hear a humming?”
“It’s probably the machine running.” Francesca switched on her flashlight while Elena pulled out the map of the building.
“It should be around the next bend.”
They stopped short at the doorway. There was a bright light. It pulsed slowly out of the corner of her eye. The humming crescendoed.
Together they crept toward the opening and peered in.
The room was filled with humanoids. Hundreds of them. Skin stretched tight over twisted grey limbs. They were humming, from the back of the throat, gathered around the device in the middle.
In the centre of the room was… a computer screen. A normal looking, antiquated computer screen. A big, squat, mammoth device. A cursor blinked in the corner. Was this it? The dangerous machine they’ve been sent to destroy? This old hunk of metal?
Behind the computer was a small platform. Overhanging it was a swaying lamp, pulsing white light. The lamp swung back and forth over the platform, in a perfect pendulum.
Looking at the light, Elena felt a sense of dread. The light pulsed as it continued its arc over the platform.
The occupants hadn’t noticed them yet. They were focused on the screen. And the words typing across it.
following the bright light in sky 6 days and 6 nights green hills green hills the captains norton and bellini will come to end
“Come on,” Francesca said. “The mission. If we move fast, we can get in and destroy the machine before these… creatures notice us.”
Elena shook her head, panicked. “This isn’t right. We need to get out of here. We shouldn’t be here.” She turned to run.
“Elena!”
Too late, they both realised the hum had died down. Francesca’s voice cut through the room.
Before they could move, the creatures rushed toward them.
“NO!” Elena struggled in vain. Dozens of strong hands gripped them, pushing them into the centre of the platform.
The light swung toward them.

Elena opened her eyes. She was sprawled on a dusty floor. A bright light swung an arc behind them, casting shadows. Back and forth.
She could see Francesca haul herself up from the floor, could hear her coughing from the dust.
The room was empty. The creatures were gone.
Francesca had already moved toward the computer screen, her face surprised. “It’s broken!”
The computer screen was broken; an empty window with it’s innards hanging out. Dust lay in a thick film across it. The room looked as if it had been untouched for eons. Except for the swaying lamp on the platform, nothing moved.
Francesca looked around the room with a baffled look on her face. After a moment she said, “Well I guess. We can leave… Mission over.”
But the feeling of dread hadn’t left Elena. Instead, it continued to grow. “No…” she shook her head in denial. “We have to go back.” She looked at the light swinging back and forth over the platform. “This isn’t right. We have to go back.”
“Elena, what are you talking about?”
But Elena was already back on the platform. As the lamp swung toward her, she dove into the light.

Francesca stood framed in the open doorway.
They were back at the doorway.
But… how?
The occupants hadn’t noticed them yet. So focused were they on the computer screen. And the words typing across it.
Following the bright light in sky 6 days and 6 nights green hills green hills the captains norton and bellini will come to end
Francesca looked back at Elena as she started to tremble.
“Come on,” she whispered. “The mission.”
Elena shook her head in denial.
Run? Or stay and complete the mission?
The choice was clear.

Bradbury’s Prophecy

Earlier this year I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) with a sense of quiet unease. The book, if you haven’t read it (and you really should!) depicts a life where books are banned. While there are pockets of people who keep a library, their neighbours are quick to report on them and a fireman’s job in this dystopia is to burn the stash.

When reading it, I couldn’t help but see comparisons with our own conservative government and those who reign globally. I’m sure it’s hardly a surprise that I vote left. In Canada, provincial power governs such things as health care and education, and so they have a lot of power when elected. And despite the signed declaration that, if elected, the conservatives would not dismantle health care, it came as no surprise that less than a year after taking power they cut funding to both health care and education. The party and the premiere have openly stated that universities are “outdated” models, and that they want to return the education system back to the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Their education mandate is to remove all “liberal-agenda” from the curriculum. And by “liberal,” they mean the capacity to reason and question; critical analysis, scientific reasoning, sociopolitical consciousness = these are all seen as “liberal agendas.” Or, to state it simply, we have a government that actively refutes climate change and LTBQ+ rights. They have spread a propaganda campaign where public sector workers (health care providers and education workers) are greedily stealing money from the “real” hard-working Albertans. Or, in other words, we have a legally elected fascist government who is acting to further dumb down the population. And I’m sure that statement is true of a lot of states and nations.

So, of course, I couldn’t help seeing specters in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But, it was an image that I scoffed at. It was the start of 2020, and the future seemed bright. I was uneasy with the state of the world, but blindly optimistic that things don’t happen like they do in a book.

And then the pandemic hit.

And we’ve seen governments not only struggle to cope (justifiably so), we’ve also seen leaders who have outright denied there’s a problem, or acknowledge the problem but then staunchly ignore the advice of medical professionals (and science in general). But while it’s easy to blame this incredible mismanagement on incompetent leaders, it’s important to remember that we, the public, put them there.

“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its accord.”

Bradbury, p. 87

Re-reading that phrase now, I feel nauseated.

Could this pandemic have been avoided? Doubtful. Given the ease of international travel, a sickness of some sort was bound to spread sooner or later. Could things have been handled better? To give the benefit of the doubt, no one was prepared for the scale of this event.

But. Do we live in a world where – even today – people are doing all that they can to take the pandemic seriously? We have anti-vaxxers and science-deniers who are insistent that this is a government conspiracy to enforce vaccination – or that the pandemic was caused by science and medicine in the first place. We have news outlets who give equal voice to the opinions of Karen on the street as they do to the expert in the field. There are those who gather(ed) in large groups despite all warnings not to do so. We have governments who toed the line with declaring an emergency for fear of harming the economy. And those who use the pandemic to continue pushing through their own right-wing agendas.

In Alberta: contracts with doctors and other medical professionals were ripped up and then “put on hold until the pandemic is over” (read: made redundant after this emergency is all over); just this weekend the party suspended environmental reporting (reporting of contaminants in air, land, and water) for reasons that I don’t quite understand but are somehow pandemic related; 25,000 education workers were laid off just days before the premiere found $7.5 billion in the budget to fund the oil pipeline; university funding was cut despite the fact that this also includes cuts to a team who are right now working on a cure.

Public health continues to come last, despite all that is occurring. But more aggravating, disheartening, and, indeed, terrifying, is seeing corrupt officials using a global pandemic to continue dismantling public services.

And, I am absolutely confident that, despite everything, the voting public will continue to put these parties in power.

Given the year+ prediction for when a vaccine may be found (if at all; after all, the common cold still doesn’t have a cure), it is likely that societal structures may dramatically shift. But, will we see the end of late capitalism, into a more socialist, utopian reality? Or will we be like Bradbury’s bibliophiles: hiding, on the run, condemned for being different from the rest of society because of our love of questioning; reasoning; critically analyzing?

Cover of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 - 50th Anniversary Edition

There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly thing we’ve done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember every generation.

Bradbury, p. 163

That’s Bradbury’s way of saying “history repeats itself.” But, while Bradbury aims on a (tongue-in-cheek?) optimistic note, right now I’m feeling less confident of the resilience of humanity.

The Problem of Placing the “Original” Draft onto a Pedestal

Every once in awhile I see a tweet or post pop up on my dashboard about how J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was rejected by nearly every major publisher. The message of the post always seems aimed at the foolishness of the industry, and how they missed out on publishing a successful author. To a struggling author, this message might give them hope, a “don’t stop trying” attitude. But, as an editor and author (albeit in the academic world), I can’t help but wonder whether her published work (or proposal letter) bears any relation to her original submission. In a society that values hard work, we also seem keen to hide the number of edits and revisions any art must go through before it reaches publication potential – or before it can even be deemed to be worthy of consideration.

In recent days, I’ve seen discussion of the Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker‘s so-called “original script” floating around on the internet. If this gives people some sense of reassurance that the studio hasn’t killed their childhood, then so be it. (I’ve already discussed in my last 3 posts why I think the movie was awesome, so I won’t get into it here.) But the point I want to draw attention to is the idea that the “original” script is authentic. For people who are extremely unhappy with the final product, they can hold on to this notion of the original script because it’s supposedly what the writers or director “really” wanted. This idea seems to leave out all the hard work of editing, and that, in fact, the final product is what the artist had aimed for all along. True, the artist might not be happy with the result themselves, but the first draft is like a hunk of unrefined clay, waiting to be moulded into something better.

The editing process is long and arduous, and anyone that dismisses it as an afterthought seems to lack a basic understanding of how publication and production works. This last December, 8 years after I formed the initial concept, I finally published my article on the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle that I had sitting in my draft folder. In that time I obtained an MA, a PhD, got married, and had a kid. Nearly every year I sat down to re-draft the article all over again, completely revising the focus and perimeters of the paper. I can’t count the number of different forms its gone through – or the number of times it’s been peer reviewed. (In complete honesty, I used one of the earlier drafts to interview potential editors for Fantastika Journal. So if you’ve interviewed with me for the journal, yup, that was my rough work.)

The major problem with this draft (in my opinion anyway) was that there was two disjointed halves, a part A and a part B. This two part structure developed as a result of trying to expand a conference piece into a publishable item. While very few people picked up on the two disparate structure, many of the reviewers pinpointed that the article didn’t follow the argument I had proposed in my introduction.

I use this example, because it’s one that I see over and over again as a journal editor: conference papers that have been redrafted for article submission rarely fit the argument outlined in the introduction (or indeed, in the conference abstract), as, through the course of writing and research, the central argument will shift from the initial proposal. And really, if your article doesn’t change in the slightest after you’ve done all of your reading and research, then I’d question your research process. If you didn’t learn and adjust your ideas in the course of research, then I’m not sure what you might’ve gained from your reading.

To return to Rowling, based on the original synopsis, as an editor I would’ve rejected the work too! I’m not sure if the synopsis was a part of her elevator pitch (the “would you be interested in this sort of work” email), or part of a book proposal which was invited by a publisher who accepted the elevator pitch. But in any case, the first two paragraphs of the synopsis reads:

Harry Potter lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin because his parents died in a car-crash — or so he has been told. The Dursleys don’t like Harry asking questions; in fact, they don’t seem to like anything about him, especially the very odd things that keep happening around him (which Harry himself can’t explain).

The Dursleys’ greatest fear is that Harry will discover the truth about himself, so when letters start arriving for him near his eleventh birthday, he isn’t allowed to read them. However, the Dursleys aren’t dealing with an ordinary postman, and at midnight on Harry’s birthday the gigantic Rubeus Hagrid breaks down the door to make sure Harry gets to read his post at last. Ignoring the horrified Dursleys, Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard, and the letter he gives Harry explains that he is expected at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in a month’s time.

It takes two paragraphs to get to the fact that Harry is a wizard; an idea that is absolutely crucial to the plot of the first novel and the series itself. Yes, while Harry being a wizard isn’t revealed to Harry in the first part of the book, the audience knows it from the start, and once Harry discovers his identity, the rest of the plot doesn’t focus too much on this identity crisis. But, from the way this synopsis reads, it would appear that the book focuses on this hidden identity. His identity as wizard is discussed in a mysterious way (“odd things”; “truth about himself”). The reveal itself is delivered in a bland, boring way, “Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard.” And, to be honest, the whole language reads, kinda… dull. You can read the full synopsis here and judge for yourself. In fairness to Rowling, the synopsis is much longer than the brief introduction I’ve presented here, and she does go into the actual plot in more detail as she continues. BUT, publishers receives thousands of book proposals. You NEED to be able to sell them on the idea in the first few sentences. If you can’t entice the publisher to read past the first statement, then it’s a clear demonstration that you’re abilities as a writer aren’t at publishing quality. And, ask yourself honestly, if you had picked up this synopsis (on the back of a book at a bookstore etc), would you be enticed to read the whole story?

So go thank your editor today. Or, if you’re a reader and not a writer, give a big shout-out to the editors of your favourite books. They put a lot of hard work in helping the author finesse their writing and ideas into the amazing product you hold as gospel today.

Who Owns Star Wars?

I sincerely hope this is my last post on Star Wars for a long time, but I felt the need to speak after seeing so much “fan”-bashing over the latest film.

I’m putting fan in quotes here because I’m not entirely sure if the *real* fans are the haters or the lovers. Both sides seem to equally claim and deny to be a fan. It’s a confusing mess.

There are a lot of flaws in the last film. I’m not going to deny it. BUT, I think a lot of these issues were a result of trying to cram in too large of a story into too small a space. There are rumours floating around of a potential director’s cut as J. J. Abrams had said he wished he could have done a Part I + Part II of Episode IX – but it would’ve broken the 3 trilogy structure.

So yes, there are problems with pacing and character development, and not much time to just breathe and enjoy the film.

That being said, I’m not sure I understand the venemous backlash against the film. “Dumpsterfire” and other less tasteful words have been used to describe the film. But probing into these emotions doesn’t seem to get me any real answers. Vague statements that cover general concepts (like issues of pacing) may be aired, but these concepts don’t seem to correlate to the sheer level of hatred. (If you have more concrete ideas, please do comment below. I would love to get to the heart of it). A similar outcry occurred with Episode VIII. (Go read the blog at BitterGertrude for an absolute fantastic breakdown of the response to the last film; you’ll see a number of similar complaints being made for Episode IX).

Part of the reason, of course, is because popular culture is personal. It’s owned by the fans. Any deviation from what they would like to see is a betrayal to the *real* fans. But, then we’re still left with the lingering question of “how do we define “real” fans?”. And, more importantly, “why are we gatekeeping?”

There have been cries that the studio gave into “fan service”; a criticism that confuses me to no end. (Tangent: if Disney really gave into fan service, they would have backed the Poe/Fin-ship instead of raining down hard with hints of heternormative relationships. Really, my biggest problem with the film is the lack of aliens in character roles that are played by humans purely, it seems, for hints of romantic interest. But I guess interspecies relations would be even more of a transgression than LGTBQ+ ones). So who are the “fans” that Disney is supposedly giving into? For instance, while Kelly Marie Tran (who plays Rose Tico) was cyberbullied after the release of Episode VIII, there was also a strong fan movement supporting her. Her character was downplayed in the final film, but is this due to the “backlash” of people rejecting her character, or due simply to intricacies of the plot and lack of time? Interestingly, it seems to me that the same people who complained that Episode VIII focused too much on character development and not on plot, are now decrying the lack of character development. So did the studio give into the cries from (mostly) hetero normative, white, middle-class males?

Yet, we not only still have a strong female cast (more females than male supporting characters as in the first 6 films), but we also have a complete revision of the hero’s narrative so that Episode IX re-frames Leia as the Skywalker hero. While it’s almost impossible to break the epic narrative cycle, it IS possible to shift it into something new. And Star Wars does that. As I said in my last post, Episode IX confirms and reveals Leia as the hero of the story. She passes on her torch to Rey; a matriarchal lineage, rather than the patriarchal heritage from Anakin to Luke to Ben. It’s this shift, I suspect, that the “fans” are reacting against, rather than anything else.

Which brings me to my final thought. The criticism that “George Lucas didn’t want it done that way.”

Okay. Well. 1. Then he shouldn’t have sold the rights to the movies. But he did. For a lot of money. And he did knowing they can do what they want to the story. Why are you giving your loyalty and allegiance to a man who didn’t return that favour to his fans?

2. George Lucas also gave us Jar-Jar Binks. So, use a more valid objection, please.

Which leads me to 3. George Lucas is not infallible. His original trilogy was based on the heroic pattern found in Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was published in 1949 – 70+ years ago! Campbell’s theories, while at times useful, are also restricted and limited. The new series revises the heroic pattern by shifting the story onto Leia and Rey.

And finally 4. This shift, in my mind, undoes a lot of the damage that George Lucas did with Episodes I-III. And no, I’m not talking about Jar Jar Binks (although :/ ) , I’m talking about Padme. Here we have this kick-ass female leader; queen, solider. And she’s relegated to the place of abused wife who dies because “her heart is breaking.” I mean. COME ON. Leia would never had said that line. Neither would Rey. Can you picture it? (I’m now visualizing Leia saying anything remotely like that to Han Solo, and I’m sure Carrie Fisher is looking down and giving me the finger at the very idea.)

So. Who Owns Star Wars? Well, I’m sorry to tell you fanboys that the torch has been passed. And that, I believe, is the heart of much (although not all) of the vehement, emotional, disgust aimed at the last film. Turns out, women can be the hero of the Epic journey too.

(Yay! It’s 2020! We finally made it! … :/ )

The Skywalker Saga and Why the Latest Trilogy Kicks Ass

*Major Spoiler Alerts*

2 days later and I’m still thinking about The Rise of Skywalker (2019) screening. (Yes, I’m late to the game. It’s hard to get out to the cinema when you have a small infant.) I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there AREN’T any flaws. Every work has areas where it can improve. Yes, there are pacing issues, and character development isn’t as nuanced as it could be. But really, I think *some* of these complaints are a bit out of place for a movie that is trying to encapsulate an epic narrative within 2-2.5 hours. (More on my thoughts of the Epic and Star Wars here.)

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think The Rise of Skywalker is brilliant in its subtly. All along, the story that the last three movies have been trying to tell us is that of Leia’s. Leia is the most important Skywalker. She is the Last of the Jedi.

Let’s go back to episode VII (The Force Awakens, 2015), where Luke doesn’t appear on screen until the very final moments of the movie; and, when he does appear, he has no lines. Yes, the story is all about anticipating his arrival. But, at the climatic moment, his entrance on to the screen achieves nothing.

This continues in episode VIII (The Last Jedi, 2018) as Luke is reluctant to return to the story. And even when he does, he manages to do it without leaving his hermitage, through astral projection only. Meanwhile, we have Leia throughout the three movies as the head of the rebellion. She’s The General, leader of the Resistance. While Luke is passive and inert, Leia acts.

And remember the moment in The Last Jedi where Leia survives by using the Force. (Who didn’t hold their breath and breathe with her?). It was there all along, The Last Jedi isn’t Luke. Even after he’s gone, there’s another trained Jedi in the rebellion.

While Leia’s training isn’t mentioned until the final installment, this story, Leia’s story, is hinted at all the way back in episode V (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980) when Luke abandons his training (launching him toward a path to the Dark Side) and Obi-Wan states that “all hope is lost”. Yoda replies that “no, there is another.” The word “hope” of course evokes the title of the episode IV (A New Hope, 1977), which, I would argue, is also about Leia’s journey more than Luke. She brought hope to the Resistance, more than Luke does. This idea is enhanced by the final words of Rogue One (2016), when Leia responds to the question “what is it?” (i.e the data package just handed to her) with “hope”.

The Rise of Skywalker fulfills the potential of Yoda’s cryptic words. It’s not only that Leia is another Skywalker, Luke’s twin, and has the potential to bring back the balance. It’s that she does, on her own merits (i.e not through her relationship to a patriarchal figure). She organizes a resistance with a movement and message so powerful that no single man can hope to take her place. (The exchange between Poe and Finn on Kef Bir and then again at the rebel base really drives this home.)

So while there have been a number of criticisms launched at the new trilogy complaining that we’re still stuck on “the Skywalker story” with all the events of the universe boiling down to a family feud, I’d argue that there is so much more depth to this simplified narrative. The Skywalker Saga (which is what I will be henceforth referring to it as for the rest of my days) is not just about balance, the Force, and a decades long war against the tyrannies of government. It’s also about one woman’s strength; a woman who had the mind and heart to keep a resistance together for decades, even after her entire family (brother, son, and partner) walks out on her.

What a brilliant message to end the series on.

A New Year. The Same Cycle. (Reflecting on the Epic and the Star Wars Franchise)

The year was 2015. Obama was President. Same sex marriage was – finally – legalized in U.S. And Star Wars: A Force Awakens released in theaters.

Although the film was generally positively received, there was a thread of criticism that underscored the new production; the repeated mantra that A Force Awakens was basically a rip-off of A New Hope. It was repetitive. Derivative. The same story told again and again.

Despite it’s long history (going all the way back to the great sagas of the Illiad/Odyssey, The New and Old Testaments, Ramayana/Mahabharata, etc, etc, etc), the Epic today is often derided for being unimaginative. It’s too repetitive; derivative; or – gasp – formulaic! However, as I argue in The Shape of Fantasy being repetitive isn’t a bad thing. As Patricia Waugh discusses for metafiction:

There has be some level of familiarity. In metafiction it is precisely the fulfilment as well as the non-fulfilment of generic expectations that provides both familiarity and the starting point for innovation.

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction, 64, original emphasis

Roland Barthes likewise stipulates that the pleasures of the text come from expectations, which, for the Epic tradition, means a familiar narrative:

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. […] the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing. (Barthes 10, original emphasis).

Roland Barthes, The Pleasures of the Text, 10, original emphasis

Thus, I argue that the latest Star Wars trilogy does an incredible job of delivering a familiar story in a new way. Is the plot line similar to the original? Of course it is. But it is also recognizably different, with a distinct ending, perhaps one that may alter the course of the universe enough that evil won’t rise up again (or at least, not too soon).

More importantly, these criticisms that Star Wars is repetitive misses the point. Brian Merchant (Motherboard) argues that “science fiction is supposed to be about exploring the unexplored, not rehasing the well-trod.” I disagree wholeheartedly. Science Fiction, like any literature, is about exploring the human condition.

There was another important event in 2015 in America that eventually had global significance. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, trademarked his “Make American Great Again” slogan.

And, whether coincidental or not, A Force Awakens reinforces the idea that even when you overthrow a tyrannical fascist government, another one will rise up to take its place. We are doomed to repeat the cycle – and have narratives that repeat themselves – until we are able to break away from this cycle of oppression.

As the latest Star Wars trilogy draws to a close, the same criticism has been launched at the final installment: it’s repetitive. Redundant. Flat.

To which I would like to loudly reply, “Don’t you all understand the point of the Epic?? That’s how it works!”

Any attempt to break the formula is only going to result in audience dissatisfaction. As we’ve seen with the end of A Game of Thrones, the televised adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s unfinished novels, it is impossible to solve a good versus evil story-line without some hint of a messianic figure. A sacrifice is necessary to restore the balance. That’s the Epic. That’s how it works. You can play around with the formula, and toss red herrings to distract the audience from identifying the final messianic Hero, but, at the end of the day, the restoration of balance requires a Messianic character. And, more importantly, the bigger the unbalance, the more special the hero has to be. Not just any sacrifice will do (as evidenced by the number of soldiers that meet an unhappy fate at the front lines of the final battle). No, balance to the universe can only be restored by someone special. Maybe someone who has special powers or abilities, or perhaps are special due to bloodline (parentage is especially important in this patriarchal narrative structure).

So while I agree with the criticism that franchise did a great disservice to any hint of non-heteronormative or miscegenetic relationships, I disagree that the plot is a disappointment. The plot follows exactly the pattern of the Heroic Epic that I outline in The Shape of Fantasy, a pattern that includes repetitions and cycles.

Why? Why is the epic repetitive, but incredibly necessary? Because – as historical and current events have shown us – this story will continue to resonant in our society so long as evil exists in the world. Melodramatic? Maybe. But I feel entirely suitable for the state of the world today. So long as there are groups of people that oppress another, there will be stories about rising up and defeating it.

The Voice in My Head Sounds like Martin Freeman

Thoughts While Re-reading Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide

Cover of Douglas Adam's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Although I remember Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (book adaptation 1985) as a favourite read, I approached the prospect of re-reading the novel with a mixed sense of pleasure and hesitation. Although I couldn’t remember the specifics of plots and scenes, I recalled moments of amusement and contemplation from when I read the book the first few times.

Given all that, it took me awhile to figure out why I was reluctant to read the book again. It took me about 20 pages to put my finger on it: The Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of those texts where the film adaptation (2005) has completely rewritten the imaginary world I had created in my head! Within the first page of chapter one, in fact, with Adams’ description of his main character, Arthur Dent, the image that leaps into my mind is that of Martin Freeman. From that moment, my inner narratorial voice itself speaks with Freeman’s voice. Now, this may be because Freeman has a distinctive voice that is easily recognisable, or because Freeman is a phenomenal actor, but the effect it leaves on me is one of resentment and discouragement. Despite watching the film only 1-2 times, as the first 20 pages unfolds, the story that runs through my head is the movie itself. Freeman getting irate in his bathrobe. Enter Mos Def stage right. And, given that Mos Def’s character, Ford Prefect, is described completely differently in the book (“His hair was wiry and gingerish and brushed backwards from the temples”), I think it’s understandable that I’m put out that his image replaces the character I had originally imagined in my own head.

movie poster of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Mos Def as an actor. He brings a charm to any role. And, I suppose in this day of inclusion, the thought to change the character stemmed from a requirement to make sure that all the characters didn’t look homogeneously the same (especially as half of them are aliens); although, of course, this moves risks casting Mos Def as a token character. (We won’t dive into my thoughts on the lack of representation for the ginger community, and the implications of re-casting the “alien” character with another visible minority.)

So I don’t necessarily object to casting Mos Def in the role of Ford Prefect. But I am dejected that my original picture of him has been lost.

Interestingly, Roger Egbert’s review of the 2005 film states that: ” You will find the movie tiresomely twee, and notice that it obviously thinks it is being funny at times when you do not have the slightest clue why that should be. […] I do not get the joke.” His review relays that the film was inaccessible for those who were unfamiliar with the book; indicating that those who remember the narrative and scenes were likely those who were already familiar with the book.

Did the movie (or other adaptations) replace the book adaptation version in your head? Or is there any book/film adaptation that was ruined for you as a result?