Who doesn’t like an immense, terrifying, awesome Dragon thrown into a fantasy story? The problem I often find, however, is handling a dragon with… respect? Dignity? The first thing I suppose a writer needs to consider is sentience. Is your dragon a beast or a conscientious entity? Is it somewhere in between? The answer to this has a number of repercussions. It seems almost certain that a dragon will get used in some way. In the few stories where I can think of that the dragon doesn’t get exploited (David Eddings, Terry Goodkind) this is when it only appears in a few scenes and is mostly treated like a beast of nature that you should leave well alone… a bit like if you’ve stumbled across a moose in the Canadian outback.
More often, though, if a dragon pops up in a fantasy book, they’re likely to become a minor or major element in the story. Interestingly, although much of contemporary fantasy is inspired by J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and its precursor, The Hobbit, contemporary authors seem to avoid taking a page from Tolkien’s book with regards to dragons. While Tolkien kept to his medieval inspirations by casting dragons as an obstacle or quest to defeat and overcome, dragons in contemporary fantasy seem to take the form as a resource, an item that must be captured, conquered, tamed, and brought under control. By taming a dragon, the hero conquers not only nature, but also the supernatural, finding an unlimitless supply of power. Consider Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, for example, an alternate history which reimagines the Napoleonic Wars with dragons as an air force in the army. (Although,I confess, I haven’t read the entire series and my memory of them might be faulty.) Novik’s early precursor, Anne McCaffrey, employs dragons in a similar way in her Pern series; here, McCaffrey’s dragons are bioengineered to fight a pestilence that falls from the sky. In each case, the dragons are sentient, taking an active part in the war they’re bred for. But the fact remains that, though sentient, they are still bred for these activities, domesticated much like a hunting dog and given no other purpose except to kill or be killed.
While these examples show sentient dragons that don’t seem to dwell on their own purpose in life – no existentialist crises here – there are, of course, examples where dragons are aware of the way in which they’re being exploited and destroyed. Though I haven’t read the complete series, Robin Hobb’s Liveship and Wild Rain trilogies is one such example. Another that leaps to mind is Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy (which I first talked about here). Although I lamented the slow pace in the first book, the second book moves along at a brisk speed. In the first quarter of the book, we meet the dragon Ancaladar, who has been hiding away as he doesn’t want to risk bonding with a mage. Once a dragon forms a bond with a mage, the mage is able to access unlimited sources of power to fuel their spells. Thus, while Lackey and Mallory’s worldbuilding specifies early that magic has a price, they created a deus ex machina in the form of dragon. Unfortunately for the dragon, the dragon’s immortality is taken away, shortening to match the life of their bondmate. So not only do they get used as a battery pack, but they’ll be discarded soon after. Unlike (most) of the dragons of Pern or Temeraire, Ancaladar does object to being exploited, but as he usually ends up complying with his bondmate’s request, all this shows is that Lackey and Mallory have at least taken some time to consider the feelings of their non-human characters. The drawback, however, is that a dragon with an unlimited supply power risks functioning as a deus ex machina when things go wrong. Their ability to fly also adds to this effect. In a fantasy world where long-distance communication is often a problem, a dragon removes this obstacle fairly effectively. The authors must find other ways, then, to maintain narrative tension.
Finally, we have dragons that are purely beasts. They may form a bond with humans similar to a wild animal that may be raised from infancy, but, at the heart, they are still savage animals. In these scenarios, dragons are even more heavily exploited. Owning a dragon means – almost literally – owning a form of power. Consider George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, where many of the characters try their best to take control of the dragons. Afterall, the Targaryen dynasty was established through dragons, as Aegon the Conqueror was only able to take over Westeros because of these beasts. Other instances of dragons-as-beasts makes the exploitation of dragons even more explicit. In Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon trilogy, for example, dragons are bred for fighting, in a gladiator-style dragon cock-fight. It’s a brutal and savage use of dragon-kind, made even more so as the trilogy slowly conveys that the dragons are much more intelligent that the humans give them credit for. J K Rowling treats them similarly in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (although one wonders what was the thought process that went into deciding to use school children as dragon bait for these gladiator-style games. But I digress.)
I suppose my question to all of these authors is why? What is the purpose of adding dragons to your worldbuilding? Do they even have a purpose beyond sheer desire? Have they set out to say something meaningful about the way we perceive animals and nature, the way we see any object that is of use to us – whether sentient or not – and set out to find ways to exploit it? Or is this simply a secondary side effect of the world we live in? Is exploitation the underlying force that moves us all?
There are two general versions and they are in oppositions to each other. One is extremely feminist, centering on a parthenogenetic birth (a birth without requiring male interaction) and a matriarchal society spreading the message of peace and enlightenment. The other not only requires male interaction for Wonder Woman to be created but also changes the Amazonian society to make them more aggressive, and more often than not, a group of man-haters. This view is the opposite side of the feminist spectrum, a view presented by male authors who completely misunderstand feminism itself. LGBTQIA+ phobias also get mixed in here (with the idea that a woman would only want to be with another woman because they both hate men). It’s a disturbing and complicated history as each reboot clearly reveals the author’s own views on feminism.
That being said, I still have no idea where to start. Which comic runs should I focus on? The 1940s’ golden age? The 1950s’ silver age? The 1960s’ bronze age? The 1980s’ Crisis on Infinite Earth series which plays with parallel universes? The 1987 reboot which follows it? The 2005/6 reboots? The 2011 one? 2016? The 2017/2020 film adaptations?
I suddenly remember why I’ve avoided looking at Marvel or DC characters for so long. But the longer I put it off, the more “catching up” I’ll have to do. And I thought being an epic fantasy scholar resulted in too heavy a reading list.
It’s Friday, I’m burnt out, and I’m doing the mom thing today (chasing the kid around nearly an hour past his naptime as he hasn’t eaten his lunch yet). So today I’m going to post a preview of my LGBTQIA+ Fantastika symposium paper – in abstract form. You can find full details of the event here:
But Where Do The Babies Come From?: Evaluating the Effect of Mothers as Matriarchs in Monstress, Wonder Woman, and Y: The Last Man
What happens in a world where there are no men or patriarchs?How are political alliances arranged? How are relations formed? And where do the babies come from? These are some of the questions posed in the works of Monstress, WonderWoman, and Y: The Last Man. Although men still exist in the world of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, it is striking that the political alliance between the Dawn Court and the Dusk court are made via the marriage of two females. While patriarchal marriage alliances are generally made in order to combine bloodlines, Monstress blatantly ignores this objective. In contrast, while in the original Wonder Woman comics, Hippolyta creates her daughter Diana from clay, in the 2011 retcon DC changed this parthenogenetic birth so that Diana is created from the union of Zeus and Hippolyta, reaffirming the role of heterosexual parentage. Meanwhile, Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man undermines this heterosexual/binary parentage completely. At the beginning of the series, Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand are the only two living males left on the entire planet, as a mysterious illness kills anyone with a Y chromosome. One of the explanations offered for this illness is, due to viable cloning, males were no longer necessary, and Mother Nature destroyed them. All three graphic narratives offer interesting perspectives of the place and space of men within a queered world. While these texts are still fairly conservative (as they do not engage in sustained conversation about either intersexuality or pansexuality), each narrative still reveals insights into the binary nature of power structures and family dynamics. This paper will begin this dialogue as the first steps of a larger project examining power and gender roles in fantasy fiction.
Continuing my re-read of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman which I started here, as I’m focusing on portraits I’m skipping most of Volume 3 Dream Country and heading straight to the last issue, issue 20: Façade. “Façade” is fascinating from the portrait perspective and I believe the cover art for volume 3 is a representation of this issue.
“Façade” features Urania “Rania” Blackwell, DC Universe’s Elemental Girl and her inability to cope with living in her post-superhuman existence. Following her retirement, Rania is completely isolated, her only point of contact are phone calls to the agency to inquire the status of her disability cheque.
Rania has the ability to transmutate into anything… except transmutating flesh is difficult. She gained these powers through contact with “the orb of Ra”, a process that leaves her looking alien and monstrous. As a result, each time Rania enters the public sphere she must create a version of her face, to cover her disfigurement. Unable to transmutate flesh (the smell of rotting meat lasts for weeks), Rania creates silicon faces instead. These silicon faces harden and fall off in a day, but Rania keeps them. Throughout the issue we see blurred images of masks hung around Rania’s apartment. From this perspective, they look like Greek theatre masks.
While there is one photograph of Rania before she gains super powers, the masks themselves operate as a series of self-portraits. If portraits are meant to convey the essence of a person, presenting them as a mask subverts that objective, as a mask is meant to hide the true identity, transform a person, and allow them to play a role. And yet, as Rania notes herself, the masks are a part of her identity as well, telling the figure Death that: “I couldn’t throw them away. They’re part of me.”
Death response to this assessment of human identity is striking, as she offers her own:
You people always hold onto old identities, old faces and masks, long after they’ve served their purpose.
But you’ve got to learn to throw things away eventually.
Gaiman, The Sandman “Façade”
Is Death right? Do we dwell on the portraits of our past too much? Do we dream of days gone by, or dwell on our past miseries? I can’t help but think of pop psychology. How often do we locate the source and meaning of our current actions from events that happened in our past. How often do we react in a way because of a past identity, a past hurt or trauma? Can we ever move past it to form a new persona, or is it always built off layers of shattered masks, a series of silicon portraits continously created and discarded but never completely thrown away?
Too many deep questions for a Thursday afternoon. I’m off to take a nap. Until next time, take care!
Continuing my Sandman re-read which I started here, as I’m focusing on themes of portraits, I’m skipping right to the end of Volume 2 The Doll’s House. The volume is bracketed at the beginning (following the prologue) and the end with depictions of the same portraits, but rendered with both subtle and obvious differences.
As I described for the start of the volume, we see a portrait of Desire in statue form followed by a depiction of Desire’s Gallery. At the end of the volume, this order is reversed as we see first Dream’s Gallery and then Desire’s statue on the final page.
The Gallery is a space in each of the Endless’s Realm. When one of the Endless wish to communicate with a sibling, they stand in their Gallery in front of the appropriate portrait with their sigil or symbol in hand to evoke and summon the sibling. The Gallery then also operates as a portal space, where Endless can cross into each other’s realms by invitation. Dream’s Gallery is made up of the same framed portraits as Desire’s but the frame has changed; Each symbol is framed with a highly ornamental golden frame. As well, although the colour tones are similar to Desire’s Gallery, small changes make the space slightly less alien, as the pictures are clearly arranged as framed pieces on the wall instead of a disturbing doubling effect where they also appear to be comic panels.
The portrait of Desire is also slightly less alien. There’s no mistaking it for a portrait of a human – the eyes are whited out, with no pupils or irises. But the colour pallet and setting has changed. In the first, the setting is immediately recognizable as a realm of the Endless with a background grid of emptiness stretching into the horizon, an image that would not occur in the natural world. Here, Desire’s portrait is set on a clear sky blue with a rolling tan landscape. Likewise, while the first depiction of the statue is done in cold colours, hinting at a metallic or marble hard and enduring medium, the depiction here hints of yellows and tans, a dusty, sandy substance that seems it will crumble away. It matches the final messages of the volume as Dream tells Desire:
We of the endless are the servants of the living–we are NOT their masters. WE exist because they know, deep in their hearts, that we exist. When the last living thing has left the universe, then our task will be done. We do not manipulate them. If anything, they manipulate us. We are their toys. Their dolls, if you will.
Neil Gaiman, The Doll House
Rather than being supreme and mighty beings, the Endless living at the whimsy and service of of the humans. In this light, the Endless Realms are just another “doll house”; tucked away in a decorative shell until their service is required. Desire demonstrates this with their flippery, pondering their existence in one moment, and in the next moment “smiles and forgets, for Desire is a creature of the moment.” Desire’s whimsy reinforces the idea that they are a doll themselves, a creature unable to maintain sustained thought when not being “played with”. In this light, we can re-examine the sculpture of Desire. While the dimensions of the first suggested an immense and powerful being, the sculpture of Desire here is a blank, empty doll.
Dear writers, if you’re going to write a 700+ page novel, please have more than one central point-of-view character – especially if you’re writing a portal quest Fantasy which spends 1/3 of the book inside the POV’s home city and/or the POV is an adolescent. Listen. No matter how interesting your character is, no one wants to live in one teenager’s head for 700 pages. Our teenage years were hard enough. Don’t make us relive that angst.
I suppose I should mention the title of the book I’m ranting about. Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy is actually half decent – once it starts going. Although the first book, The Outstretched Shadow (2003) is a slow crawl, by the second book, To Light a Candle (2004), Lackey and Mallory seem to have learned their lessons and we see the perspectives of a number of protagonists. In the first book we meet Kellen, son of the Arch-Mage (Head of the High Council which rules the city). We are also introduced to the city of Armethalieh, ruled by a totalitarian system of mages (the High Council). Within the first few pages, we are given a description of how magick effects every single facet of the city: “There was virtually no aspect of life that could not be enhanced by magick” (p. 5). This statement is bracketed by detailed examples, establishing just how integral and integrated magic is in the city. Once this is confirmed, we move swiftly into seeing the extent of the High Council’s authoritarian rule: “They, and not the merchants, determined what could be sold in the marketplace” (p. 8), right down to the patterns and colours allowed in ribbons for decorating clothing. As these details are established within the first 10 pages, it seems a bit… overkill to spend the next 150 pages reinforcing this message.
We finally get to our first exciting incident at the quarter mark, as Kellen is expelled from the city. And the sense of urgency and suspense is handled-well, showing us that the authors are equipped to write exciting scenes. But once Kellen finds safety, the pace slows to a crawl again, as Kellen begins to gather information and evaluate his pre-conceived notions. Although there are a number of interesting events to keep the plot moving – as Kellen encounters a number of fantastical creatures that are outlawed from the city – the emphasis is on his reactions to these encounters which, unfortunately, take the form of introspection, a lot of quiet solitude ambles as Kellen ponders the nature of good and evil (seriously).
I should note that throughout the trilogy, we also see the perspectives of a handful of antagonists, a device I deplore except when handled in prologues like in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. If your readers don’t like living in the head of a 17-year-old, they’re also unlikely to like seeing the perspectives of an evil – no nuances, wholly dark – character. It’s boring. And uncomfortable. So your character enjoys torturing people and doing other nasty unspeakable activities. Yuck. Do you really need to hammer out that detail over and over again? We don’t need continued reminders of why we should be rooting for the good guys. And, if you ARE going to keep reminding the reader, then we don’t need to have nearly 2/3rds of the book dedicated to introspection with the hero worrying that he’ll turn evil. I assume the contrast was supposed to establish a sense of horror if the hero gives into “temptation” and turns dark. But if you’re having such an all out black and white binary, it seems extremely unlikely that this good-hearted, conscientious person is going to turn so evil that he’ll sacrifice others for profit or pleasure.
In Story Engineering (2011) Larry Brooks describes the ideal structure of a novel. I’ll highlight the key points here:
Set-Up – first 20-25% – introduces character backstory, backstory, foreshadows antagonist
First Plot Point – everything changes for the hero
The Response – hero’s reaction (analysing, responding to)
The Attack – hero becomes proactive and tries to fix things
The Resolution – wrap things up (I.e. no new information introduced. The hero has everything they need to handle conflict)
Let’s apply this outline to The Outstretched Shadow. As I said above, the first 25% of the book gives us background information. While the first few pages describes the totalitarian government, we then spend the next 150 discovering just how extremely authoritative the government is. At 25%, right on cue (according to Brooks’ structure) Kellen is summoned to appear in front of the High Council and is then banished. So we have our first plot point, where everything changes for the hero. From there for the next 350 pages, the story is in “Response” mode. But, as I said above, this response mostly takes the form of deep introspection each time new information is revealed. 350 pages… in Response mode is… a snoozefest. Luckily Kellen is introduced to a number of interesting things that makes the reader preservere on and push past the tedious introspection bit. But you really don’t want your readers to “push past” any point of a book. At page 510 we get to “Attack” – except, significantly, the plan to attack does not come from Kellen himself. HE is not proactive. Instead, he is made to follow strict instructions, and, to top it off, he is given very little accompanying information about the whys. Kellen is sent out as a champion without being told even the smallest tiny detail about the antagonist. Heck, he’s not even told there even IS an antagonist. The language is all very vague and obscure and it’s only at page 592 that Kellen learns that he’s been sent off to face Demons. Let that sink in. Page 592. It’s at this point that we can really see the narration move into “Attack” mode, where the hero is given enough information to make a decision. But – even here – Kellen is in a position where he’s reacting and responding to the information. He’s already well into his journey that he doesn’t have a chance to make many active choices.
At about the 630 page mark we are introduced to a new character – one that is absolutely fundamental in helping to resolve the first novel (and ultimately the trilogy as a whole). From there, I would like to say that the final 80 pages go quickly. They don’t. The resolution itself is another series of introspection as Kellen faces temptations and internal conflict. It follows a fairly Cambellian and Jungian trajectory where the Shadow / Antagonist that the hero must face is himself. Which is absolutely fine, as a central goal of a journey. But not when you have nearly 710 pages dedicated to the deliberations of a single 17-year-old man-child. If you’re a writer and want to go down that route, then my advice is take a page from Jordan’s Wheel of Time and add enough characters that the introspections and self/shadow themes are varied and interesting. (Despite this rant, though, I’d like to add that I thoroughly enjoyed the next book in the series. So I still recommend it to read, but perhaps not if it’s your first introduction to Fantasy Fiction).
I’ve done so much close reading analysis that never made it into my published pieces. If you are working on publishing something yourself, it’s a hard lesson to let your darlings go. i.e, you might have this terrific piece of analysis, but it might not add much to your overall argument and/or because of word length or copyright requirements, you need to find a way to be concise instead of digging into the full quotation.
The following is material I’ve had to cut from an article published in Fantasy Art and Studies (details here; you can also find discussions of my problems with publishing this piece here). It (the cut material) focuses on BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012). As my final published piece took a survey approach, I couldn’t spend as much time to dedicate to Merlin as I had originally hoped. The first draft of this piece (a conference paper) focused almost exclusively on the television show. It took me years to figure out that I needed to cut back my attention to the show in order to let the argument come through. (University 811 Writing tip: If you’re struggling to get a piece published, you may want to consider the focus of your piece and then apply an outline approach.)
The Knights of the Round Table never fully get together in BBC’s Merlin as Arthur and titular character Merlin takes the places of the knights on their adventures. The show is clichéd in terms of production: dialogues, background music, costume, and even lighting. Not only are there violins playing when Guinevere and Arthur kiss, but there is a ray of sunlight breaking through between them[i]. But by abiding in these clichéd conventions, the writers are able to transform all the major and minor plot lines of the Arthurian legend to a point where they are barely recognizable, and still remain a quintessential Arthurian story. Merlin often ignores much of the canon. The character of Merlin is not depicted as a wizened old man, but as a young adult, the same age as Prince Arthur, and furthermore, he must hide his magical powers and take the role of Arthur’s manservant. In many of the Arthurian stories up to this point only those of noble blood can be a knight. But the British television show Merlin challenges this doctrine. Lancelot does not descend from nobility. And even Guinevere is simply the daughter of a blacksmith and the maid of Lady Morgana. It is interesting that in these feminist Arthurian novels, though the novelists argue for gender and religious equality, they still abide by a class system. While Guinevere’s right to rule usually came from matriarchal power and Morgana descended from a long lineage of priestesses, this still indicates the aristocratic right to power. While in Merlin, Arthur is also still the son of a king, more emphasis is placed on secondary characters, specifically the title character of the show – Merlin.
Although Arthur is initially depicted as an arrogant, spoiled, rich boy, through his friendship with Merlin and his love for Guinevere he slowly begins to appreciate the value of the people of the other classes. His transformation is in keeping with a conception of courtly love. As Larry D. Benson suggests in Malory’s Morte Darthur (1976), what distinguishes courtly love from other love is the concept that: “love is not only virtuous in itself but is the very source and cause of all the other virtues, that indeed one cannot be virtuous unless he is a lover”[ii]. Merlin and Guinevere’s influence inspires Arthur to show kindness to the lower class, which in turns inspires incredible loyalty in his knights (as they often emerge from among this class):
GWEN. You claim titles don’t matter to you, but you behave like a prince and expect me to wait on you like a servant. Saying it means nothing if your actions betray you. […]
ARTHUR. You’re right. You have me invited me into your home and I have behaved appallingly. […]
GWEN. Because I thought you’d shown some humility. You had done something kind for me even though I’m just a servant. A good king should respect his people no matter who they are. [iii]
The resulting code of Arthur’s knighthood is established around these perimeters. When King Uther refuses to let Arthur rescue Guinevere when she is kidnapped as she is only a mere servant, Arthur’s determination to rescue Guinevere further marks a redefinition of the knight’s code. The knight must “always put the service of ladies foremost”[iv]. However, “a lady,” in Malory’s time, would only indicate a woman of noble birth. Merlin challenges the class structure, and expands this perimeter to include service all women, children, and people in need of aid. A knight, then, is not one of noble blood, but one who demonstrates this characteristic of nobleness.
In Merlin, Arthur replaces the other knights in undertaking quests, as well as taking on other motifs associated with Lancelot. He is briefly betrothed to Princess Elena[v], a figure who is paired with Lancelot (and was made by famous by Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, circa 1842). Arthur also rescues Guinevere several times (and at least thrice from kidnapping) when it is usually Lancelot that plays Guinevere’s rescuer. It should be noted though that, like its feminist predecessors, Guinevere in Merlin unfortunately still needs to be rescued. Arthur additionally takes on the “knight of the cart” motif and the “fair unknown” motif – motifs traditionally associated with Lancelot. In “The Sword in the Stone”, “the knight of the cart” motif serves as a mechanics that forces Arthur to consider the state of his kingdom and wonder if Tristan’s hatred of his kingship is warranted: “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I don’t deserve to be king”[vi]. Arthur’s arrogance is transformed into a temporarily humility, as he considers his own qualities as a king. Similarly, when Arthur adopts the “fair unknown” motif in an earlier episode, it serves to confirm that he is a good knight (and therefore, worthy enough to be the King of Camelot one day): “I fear that people respect me because of my title. […] When I’m competing as William, my title doesn’t matter, nobody gives me any special treatment. So when I win this tournament, if I win this tournament, it will be because I deserve it. Not because I am Prince Arthur”[vii]. Arthur demonstrates a belief in a meritocratic conception of kingship, where his right to lead is not determined from noble blood or divine right.
In contrast, Lancelot’s decisions in Merlin are still fueled by a desire to serve Guinevere, returning to the outdated model of courtly love which is found in Chrétien and Malory. While he is identified as the “bravest and most noble of them all”[viii], and though he demonstrates all the aspects of chivalry, Lancelot is too submissive and humble to be accepted as a strong hero. Lancelot willingly embraces his death (smiling with his arms spread in acceptance and welcome as he walks towards his death) solely because Guinevere asks him to “look after [Arthur]. Bring him home”[ix] and thus he dies in Arthur’s place. Lancelot’s action and speech mocks the notion of equality. “Ever since I was a child,” Lancelot says when we are introduced to him, “I’ve dreamed of coming here. It’s my life’s ambition to join the knights of Camelot. I know what you’re thinking. I expect too much. After all, who am I? They have their pick of the best and bravest in the land”[x]. His deference is disturbing because, through the character of Merlin, the audience is well aware of how the nobility, and especially King Uther, treat the servant class. Though in other Arthurian stories the adultery brought about the destruction of the court, we see in Merlin that Arthur is able to persevere past their betrayal. The Lancelot-Guinevere storyline serves only to mark Arthur’s fortitude and compassion, and further distinguish the qualities of nobleness that should be found in a knight.
Note that this is a reprint of a blog previously available to read on the Fantastika Journalwebsite. 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…
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.
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.
I love issue 13 of The Sandman. In “Men of Good Fortune” we take a break from the main narrative of volume 2 Doll’s House; a much needed reprieve before the rollercoaster of horror we’ll face in issue 14. Instead we see snippets of a White Horse tavern in England where every hundred years Dream meets with Robert Gadling, a man who simply refuses to die. Each time we are treated to a change in scenery as, even though it’s the same tavern, over the course of some 600 years, the tavern changes with the time, along with its customers, their fashions and aesthetics. The background dialogue from the tavern customers also tell of us the continued political strifes and struggles that the everyman has to face – the latest being “Thatcher’s bloody poll tax”. So while my re-reading of Sandman has focused on portraits, the issue operates as a series of portraits in itself.
That being said, there IS one illustrated portrait within the issue: a miniature painting of Robert Gadling’s wife and new born son, which Robert shows to Dream with evident pride stating, “this is what I always dreamed heaven would be like, way back. It’s safe to walk the streets, enough food, and good wine. Life is so rich.”
When next we see Robert a 100 years later, nearly thrown out of the tavern for looking like a homeless drunkard, it’s clear life hasn’t treated him so well. His wife died in childbirth, his son in a tavern brawl, and Robert was set upon by angry villagers suspicious of his immortality and charging him of witchcraft. Robert pawned the portraiture of his family 40 years ago for food, and tells Dream, “I hated every second of the last eighty years. Every bloody second.” But when Dream asks if he wishes to die, Robert responds, “Are you crazy? […] I got so much to live for.” It’s an odd but striking sentiment. Homeless, with a dead wife and son. What can he possibly have to live for? Although the fact that he pawned their portrait might indicate that he didn’t value their lives too highly. But I wonder… I wonder if he pawned their portraits so he WOULDN’T dwell on their memories. So that he could move on and keep living, instead of being haunted by their pictures. How else would a man keep living 600+ years through sheer will alone?
And it also makes me wonder, who would have that drive, to keep living, keep surviving, despite all else? Robert’s been through so many ups and downs and he doesn’t seem to resent a second of living. I doubt I would have the same stamina.
Continuing the Sandman re-read that I started here, since I’m focusing only on portraits there’s only a small one to talk about issue 11, so we’ll keep it short today. (And, to be honest, I am having a tough day. So apologies in advance if this piece doesn’t have my usual energy.)
In issue 11 we see Rose (who we met in the last issue) who has newly arrived in Florida looking for her younger brother who she hasn’t seen in 7 years, since he was 5 years old. Her investigation – or rather, her private eye’s investigation – has come back with a news clippings of her father’s death and am image of her grandfather and Jed from 4 years ago. Rose has never met her grandfather but adds (in a letter to her mum): “wish I’d met him: he sounds like a nice old guy. Looked like Santa Claus in oilskins”. The accompanying picture is of grandfather and grandson standing together in front of a lighthouse. Grandfather has his hand on Jed’s shoulder and they’re both grinning, clearly happy. A small but loving family. I suspect the happy picture is what leads to Rose to later make an incredibly naive deduction. The P.I. finally find Jed, living with the father’s cousin on a farm: “These farmers are claiming $800 a month for him, from the state. So at least they’ll be taking good care of him.” Oh Rose. The readers, having seen several pages from Jed’s point-of-view, knows exactly the standard of care that the $800/month is getting him: a cold floor in a dank and dark basement with a single blanket and a corner of the wall to pee in.
Meanwhile, Dream has his spy Matthew steal a picture of Jed as he needs to “see him to find him.” Once he does, he realizes that Jed has been severed from the Dreaming, unable to enter the Dream World as a human. This act is against Dream’s laws and he is ANGRY. Stay tuned to find out if Jed’s caretakers get meted out the justice they so rightly deserve when Dream deals with his own law breakers.
Click here if you want to see my next post in the Sandman read-along.