kaigou: first I'm going to have a little drinkie, then I'm going to execute the whole bally lot of you. (2 execute all of you)
[personal profile] kaigou
Yesterday I read Warchild, then Burndive, and quit a chapter or so into Cagebird, and then read reviews to see if I was the only one feeling the lack. (Far as I can tell, I am.)

When I was a teenager, I read Majipoor Chronicles, which was a collection of short stories within a framework (honestly, the only kind of short stories I'll tolerate; entirely unconnected short stories just aren't my thing). Several of the stories in that book dealt with, or implied, things like child prostitution, rape, and/or abuse -- as have other SFF books I've read over the years. While I've rarely read full-on-id all-the-details page-time in mainstream SFF, I've also rarely read truly oblique glossing. A good writer can let you know that two characters had sex (consensual or not) without wallowing in it.

I've learned to ping on when a work is ex-fanfic (or the author is). The id gets page-time (often deep emotional)... and then it's wiped with no warning. It's like the story's voice/flow was suddenly truncated by an embarrassed author, censoring lest the story show its idtastic origins or influences. The narration loses its honesty; it becomes evasive. The author doesn't just require me to read between the lines; I'm being forced to insert lines that aren't there, before I can even read between those deleted lines.

It's possible part of the problem here is also that I'm the kind of reader who believes the point-of-view, and willfully, even cheerfully, limits myself. This unquestioning is why I don't mind template mysteries (like the Cadfael series), because what the character/s know, I know, and I don't poke holes if the characters have me engrossed enough to accept that what they know is enough. Obviously, this makes me easy prey for unreliable narrators. Unless I have warning from the author -- which, again, requires definite skill on the author's part to insinuate that warning -- then I'm willing to believe the POV until the author signals I shouldn't, or unless the story itself breaks some other kind of honor with me and thus forces me to question everything.

Most of the reviews I could find for Warchild talk about how the main character is sexually abused as child. My reaction: where was it that bad? The ability of some children (and this protagonist in particular) to neatly sidestep and/or shut away such experiences can make for a difficult read. Not difficult emotionally; difficult in that I don't know where I'm supposed to start reading between the missing lines. Do I trust the character (and take at face value his complete disinterest in ever even breathing a hint of past abuse), or do I distrust the character (and freely re-interpret the text's silence or obliqueness to see him as a survivor of abuse)?

Apparently, given other readers' responses, I was supposed to assume that "pirate" means "sexual abuse" and that even when the character himself says nothing about it that I should also assume he was violently, and repeatedly, assaulted. When later events seem to trip over this trauma, I had no idea what was triggering the re/actions. In certain places, I lost sympathy for the character because I had missed those unspoken lines to read between. As the character had distanced himself (directly, mentally) from trauma, so I also ended up feeling distanced from the character.

I don't think that's a flaw of characterization -- which was done well. I think it was a flaw of the technique of voice, which was possibly one of the most all over the map voices as anything I've ever read outside of experimental fiction.

Verb-tense and view-tense are such fundamental aspects of a story -- in the sense that these are the very concrete building blocks that form the story's structure -- that it's obtrusive, when these change. The very nature of structure's unobtrusivity is what makes it obtrusive to disrupt it. Some genres give the concept of patterns more attention -- like the mystery novel that asks, why did the character suddenly break his daily routine? For those patterns to stand out (to the reader, for the reader to clue in on), you can't be distracting the readers with breaks in the more fundamental/basic patterns, like tone, voice, or point-of-view.

Think of the style of putting three blank lines between scenes. The convention is widespread in English-language publishing, so much so that we barely notice it, because it also forms a pattern. It would be a very different story, pun intended, if you signaled scene-breaks a different way each time; chances are that many readers would start trying to figure out the purpose or meaning behind these scenes being differentiated by three hash marks, versus when a scene begins with two asterisks, versus where the scene-break is marked with a single horizontal line. If it doesn't mean anything, don't include it. Humans naturally assign meanings to patterns, and a shift in pattern, in a way, reinforces the previous pattern, draws attention to the new, and makes us ask: what does this change mean?

Warchild starts out in second-person, and drags on with that for far too long for just a simple prologue. I hate second-person with a passion; it's too gimmicky. If the second-person were limited to good things -- what the child tells himself, to create his personal history -- then I could've run with it, because the second-person gimmick would've existed for a reason: it's what the child is telling himself (you). Second-person IME works best when it's presented as a kind of retelling, or a kind of instructional set: "this is how you grow up".

But the second-person continues up into the death of the protagonist's family, his abduction by pirates, and his indoctrination as the head pirate's latest toy or pet. Then, without warning or obvious reason, the voice switches into first-person. It's a new chapter, but nothing else seems to warrant such a dramatic change (at least not yet). There's not even a major time-skip -- no longer, that is, than one that occurred in the first section (and for which the voice didn't change). That inconsistency makes the change even more jarring.

I think the author intended (maybe) to offset each major section of the character's life -- childhood, adolescence, and then moving into adulthood -- with a different POV-voice. Second-person past, first-person past, first-person present. What do you gain by using a different voice? What do you gain, further, by changing that voice three times, that you can't gain by more conventional storytelling means? If the story could be told just as well -- if not better -- in a consistent POV, what did the story gain by throwing me out of it with the sudden break in the pattern? Why force me to stop and think about the actual, physical, words on the page? The story's structure just became as obtrusive as an acrostic poem, or a broken lightswitch. Annoying, and in the way.

TBH, I wish the story'd been in third-person-deep. The POV is a major flaw for this story, because it never allows the narration to imply or hint at anything other than what the POV character is willing to state. Which is, honestly, as little as possible. A major reason for third-person with emotionally withdrawn or recalcitrant characters is to show the reader the outside, to see clues that indicate conflict -- without conflicting with the character's own need to ignore or deny those emotional conflicts.

Example: the character refuses to cry, refuses to feel the crying, and in first-person, you're going to get unreliable narrator. if you believe the character, you don't know he's crying. Only in third-person can you show the character's tells to contradict the character's internal narration. If I'm writing in first-person, mentioning my own green eyes is ridiculous, because I never see them; if I don't want to acknowledge my own pain, I won't mention it. It takes an external view to see eye-color, or the physical twitch that indicates a dislike for a certain topic.

More bluntly: it takes a boatload of skill to write an emotionally distant, abused, recalcitrant first-person POV. Unfortunately, the author doesn't (yet) have that skill, and the story suffers for it.

What we're supposed to be reading in the first section -- or, at least, based on various reviews* -- is a pretty brutal backstory. If the rest of the story hinges on understanding the character's backstory (even when the character himself refuses to acknowledge or see it), then don't mess with the voice for the purposes of gimmick. An author doesn't have to wallow around in idtastic glory -- take some tips from established SFF authors who handled some pretty intensive and explosive character-experiences -- to make it clear to the readers what a character's experienced. At the very least, include the lines I'm supposed to be reading between.

* I remain dubious, because several of the reviews I found that go on and on about the character's backstory of sexual abuse... are also reviews with extensive comments from someone who appears to be the author (or at least, is speaking as if sie's the author). Sounds a bit too much like some Word of God going on there.

Come to think of it, the best word for the anti-idtastic (or self-censored) style is coy. It's all over the story, in the interpersonal -- and especially as regards any hints at sexuality. Violence? Not coy. Sexuality? Oh, so very coy. Reminds me of an essay I read last week, about sexual content in USian movies/TV compared to other countries. Nothing will up a movie's or show's rating in the US faster than sexual content, but it takes some major -- major -- violence (and probably lots of gore) to get an R-rating on violence alone. We USians are, it seems, awfully coy about sex and sex-related things... and I'm sick of it. I just get annoyed when my free time is spent wasted on yet another object o' coy.

I think it's an impression -- rightly or wrongly -- that fanfiction is, well, idtastic. The wallowing and the glorying and the messiness and the purple that's so loved in fanfiction isn't very, y'know, professional. So instead of the forthright descriptions (if sometimes subtle) that I find in non-id-originating SFF (and other genres), sometimes I feel like I can hear the author thinking in the background:

If this were fanfic, then here I'd add plenty of detail to illustrate what the kid's gone through, and then we'd all feel his pain of such a horrible backstory. But this isn't fanfic! I can't just, y'know, get all messy like that, I need to be professional. But if I mention it at all, maybe just implying it is enough to give away my idtastic origins. I'm already so risque having this in a book at all, amirite, because only idtastic fiction would have stuff this messy, so... okay, professional. Hmm. Maybe if I just kinda wink at the readers, they'll get what I mean. A few nudges, here and there, and they'll know that there used to be a gloriously idtastic scene that went here, and they can fill in the blanks. Yeah, that works!

No, it does not.

Sometimes I wonder if those writers (and I include myself in this, having had this discussion multiple times with others of idtastic origin) were all raised on (or at least over-exposed to) those horrendous watered-down romances. The ones with the photo on the back of the woman in pink with the stupid rat on her arm. And lots of diamonds, usually. Uhm. Barbara Cartland! An entire production line of faux-regency: the guy's a jerk, the girl's a twit, and -- most importantly -- there's no sex. Like, ever. Maybe a kiss at the very end, but more likely, the curtain's coming down before the kiss even happens.

It's like fiction is only two opposing points: either you write it all (idtastic) or you just barely glide past the edges of it and hope the reader fills in the (lots and lots of) blanks.

Another example: Warchild has its own TVtropes page (to which, out of kindness to all of you, I WILL NOT LINK, you're welcome!). It's marked as Ho Yay, but the description lists only those relationships not canonically confirmed. Excuse me, those are pretty much all the relationships you see on the page. Side-note: another relationship is canonical -- via Word of God only, and you may already have figured out how much weight I give that -- yet this so-called relationship consists of only one scene where the two characters are on-page at the same time, and no hint that it's sexual. At all. Hell, it's their first introduction, so how should the reader know what conclusions to be leaping?

[Note that I'm reading with my slash goggles off, meaning what is on the page. If I want to reinterpret what might be only friendship as total fuckbunnies, that's slash goggles. Nothing on the page, or from the other characters, indicates a relationship beyond platonic.]

I've read my share of GLBT -- as well as mainstream -- fiction in which there are relationships shown, and confirmed by other characters (and I don't mean as gossip), where the relationship isn't skirted, or only subtly implied. The stories bluntly state, and treat, the on-page same-sex couple as just another relationship. No big deal. I mean, even Nora Roberts (as JD Robb) has canonical gay relationships in her mainstream crime/romance series. I'd need night goggles and a magnifying glass to find such in Warchild. The story's a cocktease, and an eighth-grade one, at that. It does its best to flirt, if rather amateurishly, and never follows through -- on anything of an emotional, let alone physical, connection. (The second, Burndive, flirts even more outrageously but again fails on any follow-through confirmation.)

My dearest author: what are you afraid of?

The ultimate dodge is a supposed rape scene. I don't say "supposed" because the (non-)consensuality is never in doubt; I say "supposed" because there's so little concrete description that I honestly wasn't even sure what I was reading -- yet this is clearly intended as an emotional high watermark. How can I ground the emotional -- or even intuit it, in the character's place -- when I have no idea of what's happening in the physical?

I've read Victorian romance and rated-PG YA stories that had more concrete details. I couldn't even tell where the characters were, physically; it's that vague. I'd have to go all the way back to reading Kate Chopin's The Awakening to find a story that requires as much work from me to figure out the implications -- and that story was only that much work because "a man and a woman, not married to each other, sitting on a sofa in the dark" does not immediately scream "sex scene!" to me. Just as something like "he reached for me" does not automatically mean, to me, "he grabbed my cock" or some other sexual act; it could just as easily mean "he wrenched my arm" or "he choked me". That's what I mean by vague.

Also: I have major issues with aliens being patterned on a generic "Far East Asian" sociology and/or philosophy. I don't consider any of my friends from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, or PRC to be alien, let alone to see them as just generic aspects of some massive blend. "Far East" is something on a map; it doesn't exist in reality, and the only reaction I have to the alien-meets-Zen mix is to feel disgusted. Do some work, author! Don't turn friends of mine into faceless generic philosophical pap.

Burndive goes a slight step better, giving the main character a part-Chinese cultural background -- though I have to wonder at the fact that the only times the first-person narration mentions any visuals for the supposed #1 heart-throb, his hair's bleached white-blond. It set off a few too many warning bells for me, right up there with the first book and second book both having half-white protagonists. Why not just go all the way and make one of them fully PoC? A half-white protagonist who spends the book looking like a white boy just... does this count as PoC? Or was this solely so the book designer could put a blond (very not looking Asian, even remotely) man on the cover?

My sensitivity there might be due to the first book's flaws, that the bestest fighter the other side has... is someone from our side. Or, in the blunter version: the natives can't fight half so well as their adopted white man who just happens to learn the native fighting-styles in half the time, with twice the natural talent! So good he gets his own title! Insert eyeroll here. Thing is, I wouldn't mind a sympathizing human-turned-translator, as first lieutenant to an alien general -- then he's acting as a cultural adviser, but he's not the power source. I do mind another "white man is saving natives" kind of thing. Or in this case, "human is saving noble savage aliens".

On the gender-level, Burndive is worse than the first, though I have to say I almost threw Warchild when the one named female character in the protagonist's squad is... a medic. A freaking medic. Give that girl a goddamn gun, and stop making the chick the healer in the group! So I just retconned like crazy, while reading, and made her a soldier. Cripes.

Where Burndive really made me roll my eyes is that the book's title -- a slang term for hacking, in very general terms -- is something the main character doesn't even know how to do. He doesn't even think of doing it until more than halfway through, and has learned just past the basics when... there's a foul-up and he's rendered unable to ever burndive/hack again. Uhm. Great title, but if the first book in the series is about a child of war, shouldn't the second book keep up this pattern of "describing the main character"? I felt misled.

Admittedly, I read these pretty fast (but then, I read pretty damn fast anyway), and if it sounds odd to know I read the first two and still have these complaints -- well, it was Friday, and our library's closed on Fridays. Yes, I know, that's bizarre, but there it is, so I read what I had available. I'd already finished reading the books I got from the library on Thursday, and once I got back to the library yesterday, I had four more books and no reason to waste my time on unappealing books. But, still, I was willing to give Cagebird at least a half-hearted try, until one detail made me decide I'd had enough.

The main character is a murderer (no problem, I've read those before), a whore (again, read those as well), and a pretty all-around reprehensible guy (again, read plenty of those and some I even rooted for). But his supposed job-title -- and it's not just once, but several times that other characters, and then he himself, use this title to refer to himself: geisha.

I did a search, just to see if I'd get slapped with this repeatedly. Oh, look. Between numbers of pages and numbers of search results (101), I can expect to see 'geisha' used as a synonym for whore, assassin, spy, and all-around nasty character at least every third page.

It's science fiction. Really, you can make up a title. You don't have to re-use another culture's title, let alone bastardize it like that. I'm sure there were some geisha in history who were up to no good, or had political intrigues, but there were also plenty who didn't, and were simply entertainers, and the entire concept has enough tar on it from Orientalizing in western fiction, already. I just don't see how I can give an author credit for sensitively representing one culture, who then turns around and disrespects another major cultural artifact. Instead, I think of the first as an aberration or someone else's influence, and the second as revealing the author's free-wheeling western privilege. About a hundred-and-one times.

Really, though. It's science-fiction. Make up a word for it.

If you're curious about what others have said, here are the most articulate ones I could find. Most of their comments, I agree with; where I differ, I've noted (in too much detail, probably) above.

warchild review: http://marina.dreamwidth.org/875112.html
burndive review: http://marina.dreamwidth.org/880767.html
cagebird review: http://marina.dreamwidth.org/882652.html
all three: http://coffeeandink.dreamwidth.org/1061363.html

Now I'm reading Eleanor Taylor Bland's Done Wrong. It's not the first book in the series, but I already have five books reserved on interlibrary loan and I really wanted to read Bland's series, so I picked the earliest in the series that was actually on the shelf. It's another genre-jump, as Bland writes present-day Chicago homicide investigator mysteries, but already I'm sucked in. Will report back, next time I come up for air.

(After this, it's onto Anita Rau Badami's The Hero's Walk.)


kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

October 2016

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