The DNF Pile: When Sirens Fail to Lure You to Adventure

Well, we’re only 2 months into the new decade and I’ve already abandoned 3 books from my “to-be-read shelves”. I don’t know about you, but I always kept my Did-Not-Finish piles in the “one day I’ll read this” fantasy dream. But, now that I have a tiny human to take care of alongside the daily realities of work and independent research (i.e with little to no leisure time), I feel the world’s too short to have a to pile of books looming over me, judging and shaming my failure as a reader.

Interestingly, I actually LOVED one of the books that I gave up on. So, being an academic and critic, I couldn’t simply accept the idea that I didn’t like something. I had to dwell deeper. Into the why. and the what. and the how.

The first book, Kage Baker’s The Anvil of the World (2004), has a typical Call to Adventure (Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces) that seems to promise some blood and mayhem at least. Unfortunately, I didn’t even make it that far. The main character is introduced as “Smith,” an anonymous, generic name that matches the make-up of the character. That is, he doesn’t seem to have a character. In the early pages, he serves as a vehicle to carry the story, and reacts to rather than drives the narrative. His personality, former profession, associates, etc, is all tied up in this anonymity so that we know nothing about him. Now for some, this question might be enough to spur them to continue reading (See my discussion of Jess Smith’s Bone for a quick crasher on how micro and macro questions makes for a page turner). However, the summary on the book jacket threw in another complication: the story is described as the tale of Smith, and “the large extended family of Smith”; but it becomes clear very early on that these characters are not related in anyway, and that “Smith” is just a generic title that they have adopted in order to hide in anonymity. It’s unclear whether the copy on the book jacket was just sloppy editing or whether it was deliberately written to hide a double-meaning in the words; either way, the muddled synopsis left a bad taste in my mouth.

Character and narrative voice are key in inviting a reader to continue on with the story. You can have an exciting action-packed opening scene, but if you don’t connect with the voice from the start, then reading becomes a chore. K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter (2017) is another novel I added to my DNF stack due to my lack of engagement with the character/narrator’s voice. The story is conveyed as an embedded frame narrative through a series of letters between the two main characters. As a result, the main narrative is told in second person throughout. Second person voice is a hard sell. It CAN be done effectively (i.e. see N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, 2015-2017; for fear of spoilers, I won’t go into details of why the second person viewpoint served a dramatic purpose in all three novels, but let me just say that utilizing the second person voice to serve a purpose was sheer brilliance on Jemisin’s part). Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case for Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter. The story (at least in the first few chapters that I read) is simply told as character 1 relaying the events of their past to character 2 in a “remember when we did x? I’m going to tell you the story of it anyway in this long letter because I love the story so much.” This style of writing seems forced, as if the author wanted to use the letter-style of writing but couldn’t figure out a way to justify its use. Consequently, the letter-writing simply serves as a vehicle to tell the story, instead of using it as a medium to further explore nuances of theme and voice. It would have made more sense if the letter-writer had revealed some unknown fact or perspective that the letter-reader was previously unaware of; or it would have been more interesting if the letter-reader had reacted to the perspective of the letter-writer in some way, perhaps with their own interpretation of events, or an emotion of guilt, or nostalgia, or something. But this didn’t appear to be the case, and I sadly added it to my DNF pile. It was a shame, because I had such hopes for the story (the narrative concerns the romantic relationship between two strong, competent women, both daughters of equally strong, competent women). But as I kept waiting for the “main story” to start, and only realized (after a quick Goodreads search) that the letters was the main narrative, I couldn’t bring myself to continue.

On the surface, The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (2018) bear some relation to The Anvil of the World and The Tiger’s Daughter. Like The Anvil of the World, The Tangled Lands is novella collection. But, like both Baker’s and Aresnault Rivera’s narratives, this structure is not made clear on the book jacket synopsis. (In fact, The Anvil of the World is advertised as Baker’s first Fantasy novel, which is clearly incorrect.) Now, while I have nothing against novella collections, I would like to be made aware of the structure before I’m a quarter of the way into the book. Knowing the structure and medium of a text is important. It allows the reader to anticipate the peaks and valleys. Hit a peak or valley too soon or too late, and it puts the reader on the wrong footing. What do I mean by this? As I was unaware that the book was a novella collection, as I started reading the first “part,” I immediately felt that the pacing was too fast. It was building too quickly towards a climax, with the stakes being high very early on. Had I been aware that the narrative was a short-story, I would have approached it differently. I would have been prepared for the sprint, rather than settling in for a long, slow journey.

But more frustrating is that I became too emotionally invested in the characters. I had geared myself up to join them on an epic adventure, and befriended them early as a result. I worried for them and feared for them, in a way that I didn’t with my first two DNFs. Bacigalupi (who writes the first story in the collection) does an incredible job of creating characters with depths and high stakes with just a few brush strokes. The main character is presented to us with a history, one who has fallen and suffered great lost. It’s easy to feel worry for him and his young daughter as they dabble in things that are too dangerous for a simple craftsman. And so it was that when I got to the end of the first short story, I felt disappointment, as if I’ve been cheated. I wanted to know what happened to them, and wanted to continue joining my new friends on their dangerous adventure. Unlike the first two books, where I wasn’t invested enough in the characters to continue reading their stories, here I felt like I had lost new friends that I had only begun to discover. And so I may yet return to The Tangled Lands to read again. But only after my grief has time to mellow and heal.

The Sartorial Nightmare of Kick-Ass Female Characters

A couple years ago I finally got around to picking up a collection of Robert Lynn Asprin short stories as a taster (long overdue for a fantasy scholar, I know). Unfortunately, by page 2 I was wondering what the hype was about. Or, more accurately, whether the hype wasn’t fueled by the nostalgia factor. You know, a time where we didn’t (overly) concern ourselves with sexist racism (or sexism and racism).

“Myth-Adventurers” (2007), the first story in Myth-Interpretations (2010), starts off normally enough: two female characters chatting; one human (“a Klahd, actually”, p. 7; whatever that means), the other reptilian (something called “a Pervert… or Pervect if they knew what was good for them”, p. 7). A nod to interspecies racism, but still within the realms of the standard Fantastika set-up.

The first descriptive paragraph alludes to the idea that the two are killers with the “lithe, athletic, graceful look that put one in mind of a pair of lionesses discussing a kill” (7). Lovely metaphor. Paints a pretty picture of two kick-ass ladies and I’m settling in to enjoy their adventure. (Although I’m wondering whether lions are treated as animals or people in this narrative, but that’s just a stray thought.)

Then we flow into the next paragraph: “If their builds and manner weren’t enough of a giveaway, their outfits completed the picture. The Pervect, Pookie, was wearing one of her favourite” (7) -> here is where I turned the page and immediately regretted it:

action leather jumpsuits with multiple zippers which both issued a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade. The Klahd, Spyder, was still working on her look, but today had settled for calf-high boots with fishnet stockings, a dark plaid mini-skirt, and a sleeve-less black leather halter top which left considerable portions of her midriff bare.

Asprin, p. 8

Here, I paused. Now I’m all for female empowerment and a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear. If you want to wear calf-high boots with fishnets and a miniskirt, by all means, go ahead. I have nothing against a “sleeveless black leather halter top” except for the redundancy of the description (halter tops are, by definition, sleeveless). But I’m questioning how any real “killer” is going to be fighting in these outfits. Have you ever tried moving in a skintight leather outfit? Let alone one that “both insured a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade”? How? How does it do both? Does her skin have any circulation?? But maybe as a reptilian species, she moves differently….

The description continues:

All in all, she looked like a parochial schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut.

Asprin, p. 8

Yeah. No.

No woman looks in a mirror and describes herself like that. Maybe a school-girl gone bad. maybe a goth girl. Maybe a biker-chick. But not a combination of the three, and definitely no woman aims for a “slut” look. The idea just seems to scream the whole “she was asking for it” mentality. You know. “What was she wearing when she got raped?” “Maybe she wanted to get raped.”

And then the description continues with this bit of ridiculousness:

Throwing stars and knife hilts jutted from their sleeves and belts, along with various mysterious instrument….

Asprin, p. 8

At this point, I was completely unable to continue reading. As Eddie Robson pointed out when I posted the excerpt on twitter, it’s nearly impossible to tuck knives into the sleeves of a sleeveless halter top.

Here’s my own artistic rendition of this outfit:

But now that I’ve made the sketch, I’ve realized it’s not tooooo far out from other kick-ass Fantastika females. I’m sure one of the first kick-ass female killers that pops into people’s minds is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2001), who regularly fights in leather and heels. And when I think kick-ass females, I will always think of Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). I mean, it’s in the title. If you haven’t seen Xena’s iconic, um.. armouring, then please do google it now.

Of course, it’s not just females that are made to be ridiculously overly-sexualized in books or in film/tv. Who can forget the show that launched the Xena spin-off, Hercules (1995-1999) with Kevin Sorbo’s deep-v sleeveless tunic? And really, any action adventure sword and sorcery-type film from the ’80s have plenty of bare-chested muscly men (I’m looking at you Schwarzenegger/Conan the Barbarian, 1982).

Given the context and history, Asprin’s description of his characters isn’t surprising. But I suppose my disgruntlement with Asprin’s work is two-fold. One, the posthumous collection published in 2010 would benefit from an introduction that glorifies the works a bit less. (I’d like to say that about ALL of the “classic SF” writers, actually. I’d like to see an introduction in classical-reprints that gives a small nod to the racism and sexism that many of these writers actively peddled). Perhaps I shouldn’t except the 2007 Myth-Adventures to be “woke” or sensitive, but, there is always a part of me that argues that, regardless of “the times”, writers and artists should do better.

But the second reason the passage aroused my pique only became obvious when I attempted to re-read the collection again, this time alongside Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens (2013-2019). Rat Queens, if you haven’t read it, is…. how to describe it…? like a car-accident that you can’t look away from, but one involving a clown car crashing into a trailer full of dragons. At times violent, humorous, incredibly gory, and extremely touching. Now, I can easily see one of the characters (Betty, in particular) describe themselves as a “schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut”. BUT, and here’s the distinction for me, there is one thing to have a character describe themselves as such, and another thing entirely for an omniscient narrator to make the comment. And, right from the first two pages, it’s clear that the narrator has a voice, has thoughts and ideas about the look and carriage of these characters. It may be due to the difference in medium (narrative voice versus graphic art), but Wiebe’s graphic medium doesn’t have the same level of authorial commentary as Asprin’s narrative descriptions.

So I end this post with a plea. If you’re a writer, please, PLEASE think about how your narrative voice might unintentionally be peddling the male (or female) gaze. And if you can’t do that, at the very least think about if the outfit you described would be functional in an actual fight. Thank you.

The Voice in My Head Sounds like Martin Freeman

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

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.

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?