The Big Idea: Jim C. Hines
Posted on August 6, 2013 Posted by John Scalzi 63 Comments
Codex Born, the latest book in Jim C. Hines’ “Magic Ex Libris”series, is out today. See the cover? Nice, right? Well, Jim wants to talk to you about it. Or more specifically, about the character on it — and what she means to the book, and to the fantasy genre, and for other things as well.
JIM C. HINES:
Lena Greenwood, the woman seen holding a wooden bokken on the cover of the U. S. edition of Codex Born, is problematic as hell.
In Libriomancer, Lena is introduced as our typical ass-kicking, vampire-slaying urban fantasy-type heroine. While not physically cloned from Buffy Summers stock—Lena is not white, blonde, or thin—she does toss quips and pound bad guys with the best of them. She’s strong, confident, attractive, and quite sexual. In chapter one, she saves geek-librarian-wizard Isaac Vainio’s butt from some sparkling vampires and begins flirting with him shortly thereafter.
For Isaac, it’s like a dream come true. Aside from the part where he got beat up by sparklers. But it’s a dream that requires a closer look.
This series is all about the love of reading and the magic of books, a world where libriomancers literally reach into the pages to create light-sabers and shrinking potions and invisibility cloaks and all manner of awesomeness. But loving something doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to its faults.
Our genre doesn’t have the best record when it comes to our treatment of women as authors, as readers, and as characters. We’re slowly moving past the days of chain mail bikinis and semi-clad damsels draped at the hero’s feet, but we’re not there yet. Books by male authors are reviewed more often. Geek girls are challenged to prove their worthiness, as if geekiness is supposed to be an honor reserved for men alone. And female characters—even “strong” women—continue to be sexualized and fetishized, both on the covers and in the pages.
Lena Greenwood was born via libriomancy, pulled from the pages of a book called Nymphs of Neptune, a fictional title with sensibilities similar to John Norman’s Gor novels. Lena is a dryad, explicitly written as a sexual fantasy. Her personality and preferences are shaped by the desires of her lover.
You can see where this gets problematic?
Codex Born gave me the chance to tell more of Lena’s story, from her emergence into our world to her first “relationship” to her discovery of her true nature. It’s traumatic, to say the least:
“I’m not really a person, am I?” My hair, my skin, my favorite flavor of ice cream, everything about me was a reflection of someone else’s desires.
I sat amidst a circle of Nidhi’s comic books. Ridiculously clothed women stared up at me from the pages, bodies contorted into bone-bending poses that better displayed their exaggerated curves.
“When I was born, I looked for the other dryads of my grove. For my sisters.” I picked up a Red Sonja comic. “I’ve finally found them.”
Forcing women into narrow standards defined primarily by men’s desires is hardly a new idea. I wanted to make it explicit.
I like the badass heroine trope. I like well-written fight scenes spiced with smart banter. But we’ve taken that trope in some narrow and unhealthy directions. For one example, see author Seanan McGuire’s wonderful post Things I Will Not Do To My Characters. Ever.
Last night, I was asked—in so many words—when either Toby or one of the Price girls was finally going to be raped … it is a foregone conclusion, you see, that all women must be raped, especially when they have the gall to run around being protagonists all the damn time.
Because it’s not enough to have strong heroines—they also need to be broken, generally in a sexual way. Part of the fetishized appeal is that these powerful women still aren’t as powerful as a man. That no matter how strong a woman is, I, the man, could still have her.
That’s where Lena Greenwood comes from, and it’s an ugly place. Ugly for her, ugly for Isaac, and hopefully ugly for the reader as well. In Nymphs of Neptune, Lena was created explicitly for the consumption of men. In Codex Born, she has to learn how to adapt, how to exist within the limits of her nature, and to seek out what freedom she can.
I won’t claim to have written her story perfectly. Easy answers would have been unrealistic. I wanted the struggle. I wanted the discomfort. I wanted readers to question not just the portrayal of Lena, but of so many other literary characters.
Of course, being me, I also wanted the book to have elements of fun and humor. Lena takes shameless advantage of her nature. Her physical body is defined by the description in Nymphs of Neptune. Since she can’t gain or lose weight, she routinely enjoys ice cream sundaes for dinner or ridiculously topped waffles. Her connection to her tree and other plants allows her to grow a garden both beautiful and dangerous. (Do not mess with her rosebushes!) Also, she can kill you with a toothpick.
But in the end, Lena is problematic. So are some of the choices I make about her character and her interactions. I’ve had people ask why I would even attempt to write a character like that, and there are times when I’m struggling with the books that I ask myself the same question.
The answer is that my genre is already creating these characters. I’m simply trying, to the best of my ability, to challenge that trend.
Codex Born: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt (pdf). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.
Note that the “asked in so many words” paragraph is a quote from another blog post.
… And a highly disturbing one, at that. (Not that the author is disturbing, but that what it says about our world is disturbing.)
At this moment (8:26 Central time, 8/6/13) I’m not seeing the cover of Hines’ book at all, only a thin vertical black line on the left margin. Couldn’t see it in my email, still can’t see it on your blog page. Just thought you’d like to know.
Nevermind, there it is. Weird…SMH :-)
Having not yet read Codex Born (gah, too many books), I did see how Lena was a challenging character in Libriomancer. And you rose to the challenge, and despite her origins and nature, you’ve managed not only to depict her, but to highlight issues in the genre. It’s good work that you do, in trying to address some of the problems in the field by depicting a character like Lena.
Damn it, now I’m going to be addicted to Jim C. Hines as well! And just when I was starting to make progress on my book addiction.
This book looks awesome. I can’t wait to get my hands on it, even though I know that I will read it far too often.
First off, who the fuck even ASKS something like that? RSHD? One of RSHD’s intellectually challenged lickspittles?
Second, such a “foregone conclusion” is completely alien to me, not to mention creepy. I sincerely hope that I am not alone in these opinions.
Oh boy does this book look like troll-bait! That’s a compliment by the way, this is definitely going on my TBR list. Along with Libriomancer…
And that question to Seanan still makes me shudder and then want to throw things at walls!
I have to admit that what turned me off from the princess series was the rape backstories, for all of the reasons Ms. Mcguire mentions. Perhaps that’s unfair, but rape backstories with strong protagonists do come with all that baggage, and there’s so much other stuff to read.
The other half of our blog loved the first Libromancer book (it’s in my queue), and I really enjoyed the Goblin series, so we’ll both get around to this eventually.
I also have to admit, that sometime in the 90s (after reading too many books with the same trope, I think a Terry Brooks was the last straw), I wanted to write a book in the style of Craig Shaw Gardner or Lionel Fenn that had a green woman that the protagonist caught bathing who turned out to be nothing like the submissive archetype. Robert Asprin did that a little bit for me with Tawanda, and Diana Wynne Jones probably mentioned the trope in her guide to fairyland, but it will be fun to see a different spin.
@NicoleandMaggie – For whatever it’s worth, that seems more than fair to me. Heck, there are books I’ve chosen not to read for very similar reasons.
There is a very short list of male authors I would trust to address this issue so explicitly in their fiction without rubbing salt in my wounds. Jim Hines currently tops that list.
I’ve known for some time now that I needneedneed to read Libriomancer and Codex Born. That need has now gone from “really, please remember it’s out there and go pick up a copy” to “jeez, Niki, what the crap is wrong with you that you haven’t already devoured them both now?”
Well, I loved the hell out of LIBRIOMANCER and just bought CODEX BORN. I think it’s a rare gift to handle these complicated topics and issues without hammering the reader over the head. For me, in LIBRIOMANCER, Lena was an interesting and complex character and Ian and I joked a bit about how great the book would be for kids in middle school and high school, well, yeah, except that part about the three-way relationship. Okay, the kids would love it, but the parents and teachers… but I thought it was remarkably consistent with what we know about her. Can’t wait to read the new one. Hope it sells a few million copies.
I am so longing to get home and start reading ;-).
My copy just shipped! Can’t wait.
Saturn’s Children (Charlie Stross) has a main character who was explicitly created based on human male fantasies, too, though for different reasons.
And yeah, I really have to get these books too, now.
I don’t suppose the world’s prolific and talented authors have considered taking a brief vacation so we can catch up a bit?
This is impressive. I will pass the word.
Incidentally, wouldn’t it be nice if “relationships models other than ‘heterosexual monogamous couple'” weren’t automatically classified as “adult material/inappropriate for younger readers”? Yes, some parents and teachers* might well have a problem with a romantic triad being presented as a viable resolution for a love triangle, but I hope one day it will simply be seen as just another way humans form relationships.
*The group “parents and teachers” is not mutually exclusive to the group “people in poly relationships,” after all.
My only question is: which will it be, you or John, who does the Lena cover pose parody?
Make Mr. Scalzi do it! His parody poses are hotter. http://www.jimchines.com/2012/12/pose-off-with-john-scalzi/
Just be sure to not shave again, Mr. Scalzi. It’s funnier when you show lots of leg hair with your legs.
It sounds like a fine and worthy premise for a plot, but egad that is some cheap-ass graphic-design work. The woman and the tree aren’t even remotely in the same plane of perspective. I suspect your words deserve better.
Honestly, I agree that Lena is a problematic character, and I’m not sure that it’s done in a way where an ‘exploration’ of the issues is what is presented–I felt when i read that it comes off as male-geek fantasy woman. The fact that Libriomancer seemed to be ending in an emotional three-way relationship only seemed to exacerbate this perception. I appreciate that you are attempting to deal with a challenging issue, but as a female, a feminist and an analytical reader, that did not translate to my experience of the book. I do admire your willingness to discuss it as an issue, and I found the project mocking female-focused UF and their overly-sexualized covers hysterical, but. But.
Maybe it’s the juxtaposition–it’s hard to maintain the emotional balance between serious exploration of issues and a funny-punny-in-joke fantasy setting (can you really explore sexual identity while talking about lightsabers and hands in the freezer?). I don’t know if I’ll be picking up the second book, precisely because of Lena. My full review: http://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/libriomancer-magic-ex-libris-1-by-jim-c-hines/
I loved “Libriomancer” and have awaited this follow-up with grrrreat impatience. I appreciate the thoughtful approach to this rather difficult character.
She’s going to go whack the **** out of a pinata.
Loved Libriomancer, which I bought because I read about it here, off to see if amazon.fr has this for the Kindle yet!
Also I’d like to mention that I have already bought several books based on Big Idea posts and I’m a relatively new reader here.
Damn. It’s not out until November.
Adored LIBRIOMANCER and am looking forward to this one when it finally arrives. It used to startle me when a strong female protagonist was raped in a plot; I felt it was gratuitous. I trust Jim to do this right.
Forcing women into narrow standards defined primarily by men’s desires is hardly a new idea. I wanted to make it explicit.
Sometimes I wonder if it is possible for fiction to portray healthy individuals having healthy relationships or if the best it can do is point at unhealthy relationships and say “see how bad that is? Not that!”
The answer is that my genre is already creating these characters. I’m simply trying, to the best of my ability, to challenge that trend.
SF and fantasy is also known for creating Mary Sues. I’m not sure the best way to challenge that would be to write stories that take a Mary Sue character, make him/her flesh, and then show all the issues with the character.
Actually, my middle school son read Libriomancer before me. Said he thought it was great, “but at the end it was a little weird.” :) He’s right in the transitioning between the YA/Rick Riordan-style series and the stuff shelved in fantasy/sci fi. If this one is getting more into Lena’s relationships I might try to read it first in case he has questions, but he definitely seems interested either way. Plus, the way he reads, he’d probably tear through it by the weekend, so it might just be wishful thinking for me to read it before him.
But I am glad for books like this that are both exciting and fun adventures, but also help to educate and explore some of these issues. It’s a great way to raise a new young reader.
OK, Chief — you got me.
This is the first time one of your “Big Idea” pieces sent me off on a “OK, this is a theme I want to see developed” hunt. You win.
dcs, who has spent the past 28 years encouraging a kick-ass, I-don’t-care-what-your-name-is daughter who wears a shirt with “That’s Doctor Bitch to you” on the back. Good luck, John, it’s a Hell of a ride and you can’t repeat it. I wouldn’t have missed it so far for the world.
I loved Libriomancer, and am getting increasingly annoyed as my local UPS driver fails to arrive. Amazon promised today, dammit!
In my opinion, nobody needs to parody the Lena cover because it’s not one of those ridiculous ones. She’s in a realistic pose (melting into trees is realistic for dryads) and dressed like a normal person. It’s awesome that we’ll learn more about her in this book; I liked her before and suspect that fondness will only grow.
I loved “Libriomancer” and a big reason was that Lena is a somewhat uncomfortable character to read. I probably have a bias because I was introduced to Hines through his feminist and rape-awareness writing before reading his fantasy novels, so I already viewed his work through the filter of knowing him to be an ally, Even so, my initial reaction was surprise that he would go this route with a character, but as I read on I found the idea of a being who was created to exist as a male sexual fantasy but still asserting her own control over her situation really intriguing. It’s a gutsy character to write, and although there are times it’s going to be uncomfortable, the exploration of the character is worth the discomfort.
I’m looking forward to reading “Codex Born”. Am just waiting for payday to roll around to snag the Kindle edition. I guess in the meantime I’ll just have to entertain myself with some of these books by this “Scalzi” person I already have lying around.
What’s with all the sudden disdain for polyamory? I mean, I understand the first sentence. But I haven’t read the book, so I’m genuinely confused how polyamory exacerbates the problem. As someone who’s planning at least one bisexual character, this is important to me, and any elaboration on the point would be appreciate, though not demanded. I mean, I’m not going to trash polyamory in my stories no matter how offensive some people might find it, because people who practice it deserve to exist and be themselves no matter how much others dislike the fact, but I do want to understand if someone has a non-bigoted problem with it.
I really enjoyed Libriomancer, and I’m looking forward to reading Codex Born. Given that I’ve enjoyed all of Jim’s other novels, and what I’ve read from him on his blog, I trust him to treat Lena’s character in a way that won’t be off-putting to me. As a woman who gets tired of the ‘female in distress’ trope, I am greatly anticipating this story.
@ Gulliver – it didn’t come off that way to me, and as a Bi woman, it would be nice to see more Bi characters in fiction, poly-amorous or not.
I can only imagine. It irritates me, and I’m not even of the gender the trope reduces to a plot device.
One thing that bugs me about the way many female characters, even protagonists, especially in one of my favorite genres (sex-romance), get portrayed is how sexuality is the central aspect of their thread, as opposed to being merely an integral part of some characters both female and male. Basically, people have sex lives because they’re human (or some mythical variation thereof), but they’re not human because they have sex lives, and realistic characters would reflect that. I realize fantasy is explicitly not always realistic, which is part of why I’m generally more reluctant to read it.
But I do have Libriomancer on my Amazon TBR list (and have since it’s own Big Idea entry) because it sounds like the kind of fantasy novel that subverts fantasy tropes, and I like subverted tropes, turning things on their heads in meta ways that serve to analyze and critique those very same tropes through showing what happens when they stop working the way they normally do. Tropes are made to be broken.
There’s something oddly meta about this, given that *all* fictional characters have their personalities and characteristics defined and designed by someone else. Lena is just the one who walked through her own fourth wall and knows it.
Humans sometimes say of ourselves and each other that “you can do what you want, but you can’t want what you want”. A saying that may have an extra layer of meaning for Lena, but I’m not sure the end result is all that different. Either your personality is shaped by someone else, or it’s shaped by billions of years of mindless evolution, but ISTM that you still have to live with the self you have, because you are unlikely to ever be issued another.
Although having her meet the author of _Nymphs of Neptune_ (if he — I assume — is still alive in-universe) might be interesting.
Basically, people have sex lives because they’re human (or some mythical variation thereof), but they’re not human because they have sex lives, and realistic characters would reflect that.
Yes, but maybe Lena wasn’t designed as a realistic character (by the in-universe author of _Nymphs of Neptune_, I mean, not by Hines, who must have faced some interesting choices about how to handle an unrealistic character coming into a more realistic, albeit still fantasy, world).
BTW, if there was a Big Idea for the previous book, can someone suggest an efficient way to find it? The list of all Big Idea posts is quite large. I know it’s John’s blog and he can run it how he wants, but I for one would appreciate it if repeat Big Ideas, especially when a series is involved, routinely came with links to previous installments.
Search for “Libriomancer”
The magnifying glass up top lets you search the site
I have read the book already, and it is made of awesome and covered in awesomesauce.
It’s much more seriouser than the first one. And there’s a lot more character development of Lena as she wrestles with being an actual person.
This is off-topic since I haven’t received the new one yet, but a question from the first book: where the heck do the vampires come from? Since only things that can fit out of the physical dimensions of the book they are in can be withdrawn, even if someone was silly enough to want to pull out a vampire – how could they do it?
kylin: The Giant Coffee-Table Book of Vampires? [grin] (I’ve not read Libriomancer yet; it’s on my to-read pile….)
“What’s with all the sudden disdain for polyamory? I mean, I understand the first sentence. But I haven’t read the book, so I’m genuinely confused how polyamory exacerbates the problem. As someone who’s planning at least one bisexual character, this is important to me, and any elaboration on the point would be appreciate, though not demanded.”
Thank you for taking the time to read my review.
I can’t speak to “all the sudden disdain for polyamory.” My problem isn’t with a type of sexual or amorous relationship; it is that the involvement of a love interest who is also bisexual (with another woman) is such a tried-and-true stereotype (and reality!) of many heterosexual male fantasies. If Hines was really being subversive, he might have had the main male character struggle with his own sexual identity and attraction, not set him up for an ideal male fantasy. Subversion is partly achieved when your audience understands you are playing with a stereotype and trying to deconstruct and reconstruct it, not merely presenting the “human/compassionate” side of a person.
I gave Hines the benefit of the doubt because I was aware of the subversive type work with book covers and the involvement in other human-promoting projects, but honestly, Lena’s character did not come off as subversive. It came off as the ideal for the (straight) geek male.
I’m pretty interested in this now. I like it when an author can pull off a complicated character, esp. one who subverts her expected role.
I do have to say that while I like the cover (power pose!), Lena looks white — with a tan – and still pretty slender to me. I’m just amused that this is what the talented artist thought “not blond, not white, and not thin” meant. It’s rare to see a POC on a fantasy book.
“it is that the involvement of a love interest who is also bisexual (with another woman) is such a tried-and-true stereotype (and reality!) of many heterosexual male fantasies.”
Having not read the book (yet), I would like to note that while this may be a trope or fantasy, this is also a reality for some actual poly couples. It’s the way their relationship works for them, and a valid life choice. Also, it’s possible that one of the women is a lesbian and completely uninterested in the man sexually, in which case it’s not even fulfilling the stereotypical fantasy of “I’m a dude and I get TWO chicks!”
Regardless of the genders and numbers involved, I enjoy romance only if it comes about as natural character chemistry rather than “this is fantasy aimed at adults, therefore there must be sexytimes.”
thebookgator, the relationship the hero finds himself with at the end of Libriomancer is one where he begins to date a woman who is also in relationship with another woman; basically, he gets to share his girlfriend with someone he doesn’t even find particularly sympathetic.Is that really the ideal for the straight (geek) male? The hero in any case is not exactly thrilled with the way things worked out; he is willing to try it because he loves Lena and understands that this is the only way for her to gain some kind of freedom.
As for being subversive, I of course cannot speak for Mr.Hines, but I doubt he set out to write a book with the main purpose of being subversive (the authors who do, in my expierience, end up writing preachy, pretentious nonsense). He had a story to tell and in the context of this story the hero struggling with his own sexual identity would have made little sense. And I for one did get that the author was deconstructing a stereotype.
Gulliver: What’s with all the sudden disdain for polyamory?
Sometimes I get the impression that a chunk of authors even today are channelling Heinlein without even knowing it. And a chunk of what Heinlein wrote was polemics (Starship Troopers aggressively polemic, Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and others as well). So, what happens is you’re reading along some recently published novel when suddenly the author starts channeling Heinlein, and blam, you’re getting beaten with a polemic that some authors have been unconsciously beating readers with since Heinlein. The problem though, is that when today’s authors aren’t even conscious of what they’re doing, the result is they’re presenting a problem in existence today, from a point of view of 1950’s.
For example, racism. Back in the day, old school science fiction might do a “racism is bad” polemic, that posits a world of people with green skin who are treated differently because of their skin, and viola, racism is bad.
The problem occurs when an author today tries to write a story with that level of sophistication, which is to say, not much sophistication at all.
If you saw “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” when it came out in 1969, it might be a powerful story. But half a century later, a lot of people expect their fictional entertainment to be a little more original than “Gee, racism is bad”.
I haven’t read Libriomancer, but sometimes I’m reading something and get the feeling that the characters are ending up in a poly relationship because, well, because the author is unconsciously channeling Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land. Here, let me smack you around witih this old polemic about Martian Guilt-Free Sexual Relations ™ compared to the 1950’s notion of stuffy, jealous, pretentious, heterosexual-only, two-partner-only, human sexual relations on Earth.
Gag me with a spoon.
Thank you for your thoughtful reply.
It is refreshing to see a martial arts pose that isn’t absurdly ineffective. I wonder if Hines, a black belt, had some input, or if he just lucked out. To me, as an athlete, she looks athletic, if not quite buff. I gather many people use the term thin as a synonym for skinny, i.e. not muscular.
Since white is basically a social construct more or less arbitrarily defined, I’m not sure how one can really categorize a fictional character’s race. Not so long ago Irish Americans and Italian Americans weren’t widely considered white. Native Americans are still not widely considered white. My partner is mestizo Latino American and while most Americans seem to consider her Hispanic, most Latin American citizens seem to consider her white. She jokes that she’s Latino in Texas and white in her parent’s birth country. Anyway, all of which is not to palesplain, but only to offer a counterpoint. Your perception of the character is as valid as anyone’s, but it isn’t the only one.
Hopefully I’m not coming off as a sanctimonious bastard :-]
In fairness, thebookgator was using that term in her reply to my inquiry because I used it, and I meant subvert in the sense of taking a trope and doing anything with it that doesn’t support its conventional portrayal, including deconstructing a stereotype.
Oops, crossposted with Greg.
I saw it in the 90’s when I was in college and it had a big impact on me. In fact, for anyone starting to think about race and race relations, regardless of age, I think it’s a very effective piece, especially if you already like stories set in space. It may not be terrifically sophisticated, but it it’s simplicity has it’s own power. There are plenty of stories that are timeless because they offer an entrepôt to complex issues. There will always be a need for people to retell those stories for the sensibilities of new generations and different cultures. They didn’t grow stale after 1950’s Americana.
Fair enough. Let me offer an alternative viewpoint for your consideration. People who are polyamorous may appreciate Stranger in a Strange Land because it’s one of the few stories of its era where their orientation is sympathetically portrayed. So whereas you may feel like an author is beating you over the head with a Heinleinian polemic, some polyamorous readers may be glad to see themsleves represented in a way that still isn’t particularly common in fiction. In other words, they may be glad to see polyamory because it’s part of who they are and exists in real life but rarely makes it to the page, whereas you may be annoyed because you think it’s channeling Heinlein. And polyamorous people might take some exception to the notion that the author is channeling a dead white dude’s half-century old stand-alone novel, as opposed to their real life.
Hines comments on the creation of the cover here. Amazingly, he and the artist did get some creative control over the cover, which used a Native model for reference.
While I like Stranger in a Strange Land, I don’t think it’s Heinlein’s best portrayal of polyamory. In Stranger…, polyamory is seen as a positive primarily by those who are heavily involved with/influenced by the Messiah-expy Mike. It is one component of the Martian philosophy fantasy of the book.
In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, however, polyamory is considered normal and routine by the Lunarian society the main characters are part of. The book shows and or discusses several different forms (polyandry, line marriages, etc) and also mentions the difficulty of divorce in a polyamorous society. Unlike in Stranger…, polyamory is unremarkable to the main characters, only brought up explicitly when describing the society to outsiders (and that’s where the polemic comes in, of course), while still showing the main character living in a multi-person marriage.
As such, I consider The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to be a better portrayal of polyamory than Stranger…
I have not read Libriomancer yet, so I have no idea if I like the relationship portrayal in it.
Libriomancer doesn’t actually portray a polyamorous relationship; it ends when this relationship begins. It does show that the hero has no general prejudice against it (he agrees to try it readily enough), but also that it would not be his first choise and that he has at least one issue with it (jealoucy). I presume Codex born will show how it is working out.
Gulliver: There will always be a need for people to retell those stories for the sensibilities of new generations and different cultures.
yeah, but “retell” isn’t the same as “repeat”. Original Star Trek repeats of the “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” are grossly simplistic today. It would have to be a retelling of the same story, but with newer sophistication, with awareness of the current racial issues, and awareness of current progress towards racial equality.
In 1969, racial segregation was the rule. Overt racism was standard. LTBYLB presents two different races that many viewers won’t even notice the difference, but to the characters its vitally important (white on the right and black on the left, versus white on the left and black on the right). And the moral is simple: These aliens think this surface difference is important, and you didn’t even notice it until pointed out. Maybe its the same between whites and people of color. Nudge. Nudge.
Nowadays, segregation is usually a more subtle outcome of indirect forces which I think mainly boil down to the inertia of historical racism and classism. For people of all skin colors, I think the vast majority of children grow up in the same income bracket as their parents. And since former slaves were often forced into poverty after the civil war, its stayed that way, generation after generation.
Racial segregation isn’t official now. People aren’t usually overtly racist. Some are. But I think a lot of people are NOT actively opposing racial equality. Rather I think the issues around racism today are often more subtle. such as the historical inertia mentioned above, and how programs like affirmative action and help for college for poor families can help alleviate that. Non subtle examples of systemic racism still exist. Racial profiling by police being one example. But none of these issues will be addressed by the simplistic “Racism is silly” moral of “Let that be your last battlefield”.
So whereas you may feel like an author is beating you over the head with a Heinleinian polemic, some polyamorous readers may be glad to see themsleves represented
And if it represents with the same level of sophistication of a 1950’s Heinlein novel, then they’re not doing their job as author as far as I’m concerned. If its presented as “Look how liberated we are and look how silly those one-man-one-woman marriages are”, then its channeling Heinlein without even thinking about what its saying, without updating the story to where we are today.
If I read a book today that has multi-dimensional male characters and all the women are cardboard, I’d call it a rubbish book. But the solution to that isn’t to write books with multi-dimensional women characters and all the men are cardboard. It “represents” women, but its just as much a rubbish book as the other ones were.
She does look muscular! And I like her expression, too (it’s not vacant, you can tell she’s cunning). Basically, as a cover, it fulfills its purpose — I would pick it up in the store, thinking — ooh, magic, a badass woman, why she is coming out of a tree?
Regarding white as a social construct, I can buy that, considering the “one drop of blood” (black heritage) that used to rule the South in deciding who was “white” (worthy). Although I would disagree that the Irish Americans were ever treated as harshly as say, people with Native heritage (weren’t US citizens until 1920) or Asian Americans (the first federal act to exclude a certain race from gaining citizenship was the 1885 Chinese Exclusion Act and of course the Japanese internments denied them their citizenship status) or the SCOTUS decision that a Indian (subcontinent India) man was not “white” and could not become a citizen. Basically, there was a sliding scale of cruelty, and while the Irish were heavily exploited in employment, it was never on the same level as those with “darker” skin. The Irish were white enough to gain citizenship without a fight; those of darker pigmentation were not so fortunate.
Perhaps what is most significant is how you are treated — privilege or lack thereof — based on what society “perceives” your race to be. In terms of story-telling, I like two types when it comes to racial portrayals: one in which there are POCs and no one acts any differently (refreshing, a world more advanced than our own), and one in which racial issues do affect the characters, and the author handles it with some degree of care. My least favorite is erasure: when all the characters are white by default because OF COURSE that’s how the world really is, or at least those are the only people who matter (see all the movie adaptations that re-cast book characters as being all white). I do notice when my favorite book series perform “white-washing” on the covers when it’s explicitly stated in the text that Character X is not white.
Thanks for the tip! An interesting insight into the world of book covers. Props to Jim Hines for his efforts.
I think you’re missing my point. I’m a bit younger than you. I didn’t see Star Trek until I was a freshman in college, and that was in the 90’s. Until college – due to a combination of privilege, HFA, serious separation between who I was and who I was to the world, being absorbed with some trauma carried since mid-childhood that I wouldn’t wish on the Devil himself, and blinkered disbelief that species so irrational was worth thinking about – I was basically oblivious to racism, and bigotry in general. If someone had handed me a copy of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, I would’ve totally lost. Even Citizen of the Galaxy would’ve been just a story about civic responsibility with all the commentary on race and class and slavery going right over my head. But Let That Be Your Last Battlefield was the perfect red pill. It’s still relevant because it still teaches a necessary lesson, however incomplete or unsophisticated. Like ancient myths, it’s a morality tale made accessible to the uninitiated.
I see what you’re saying. I suspect we mostly read different books. Although I’ve read the classics from Jules Verne to Joanna Russ, Heinlein to Le Guin, my modern SF reading, which only makes up about a third of my fiction reading, is mostly concerned with space opera and post-cyberpunk. Those tend, with a few glowing exceptions, to be less about relationships and, where they are, they tend to some really bizarre kind we don’t really have (at least not yet). So I don’t doubt you that these books are out there, but it’s not my thing. I get most of my relationship fiction from romance, a genre with its own raft of problems.
Libriomancer will probably be the only fantasy novel I read in 2015 or 2016 (depending on how many books cut in front of it).
I wasn’t trying to preside over the Oppression Olympics, and I’m slightly mortified that I apparently gave that impression. All I meant to say is that race is about perception, not intrinsic reality, and people’s perceptions differ for a vast matrix of reasons internal and external and interplay between.
Exactly. But perception is mutable, from era to era, from place to place, even from person to person. Not that I doubt you already know that. I just meant to point out that it applies to fictional characters on book covers as surely as actual people. When I look at the character above on Jim’s cover, I don’t just see a distillation of my own biases, I see an ocean of other possible biases deep as the Mariana Trench, and even that’s a bare fraction of the full variety of actual perceptual possibilities.
Also, yes, race is a social construct. In no way do I mean to imply, however, that it isn’t real. Language, laws, borders, money…all are real human constructs made of nothing more than the relationships between us.
Gulliver: It’s still relevant because it still teaches a necessary lesson, however incomplete or unsophisticated. Like ancient myths, it’s a morality tale made accessible to the uninitiated.
In my 9:45 post, when I said “yeah, but “retell” isn’t the same as “repeat”.” I started typing up someting about how it becomes part of our cultural mythos. For the vast majority of myths our culture knows of today, most people haven’t ever heard them explicitly told. What they usually get is the moral of the story at the end, with just enough context to explain it and make it a “story”.
I am trying to remember but I’m pretty sure I have never, ever read or seen a complete, start-to-finish, telling of the original “Boy Who Cried Wolf” story. Because it isn’t necessary for most people. Most people just need the “gist” of the story: cry wolf too many times and it’ll eat you for supper.
And I think most people today would be extremely bored with a complete, start-to-finish, telling of the original “Boy Who Cried Wolf” story because the point of the story is already known, and like many polemics, the characters are cardboard existing merely to give context to the polemic at the end.
I think that newer myths like “racism is bad” have already turned into “boy who cried wolf” myths. ie. they’ve already become part of the cultural conversation. ANd I think that while you felt it was informative in the 90’s, my guess is that a lot of kids going to college today would likely find it so patently obvious that racism is bad that they would find “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” to be completely redundant.
There was a time when Star Trek’s first interracial kiss on television was a big deal in and of itself. But we as a culture have moved beyond that. Having an interracial kiss today would be like, what? What’s the big deal? ANd if the point of your story today was to create the scenario where you have an interracial kiss, because thats the payload of the story, then that story would fall flat today.
I think a lot of stuff in old, “classic” sci-fi, is like that interracial kiss. At the time, really powerful, but the culture as a whole has generally advanced beyond needing to be bopped on the head with stuff that simple. When it first came out, it was thought provoking because peopel didn’t think that way. Now, a lot of that “classic” stuff isn’t though provoking because its part of the default cultural conversation for many people.
Anyways, this all started because you’d said As someone who’s planning at least one bisexual character, this is important to me, and any elaboration on the point would be appreciate, and I’m trying to explain what I’m looking for as a reader, personally, more than anything.
The payload of your story can’t simply be “bisexual good”. Have bisexual characters, great. But don’t make the existence of the bisexual characters be the point or the payload of the book. The book needs a bigger payoff than that for me to love it.
I get most of my relationship fiction from romance,
I haven’t found anything good for that for me.
I think one thing that is extremely important for me is for the word-to-word narrative to be good. When I read Hemingway for the first time, I fell in love with the prose. Granted his women characters were flat as pancakes, but jeebus, his prose just worked for me. I ended up reading, I think, every book he wrote once I discovered the first one.
The only other time I had that experience with falling in love with the prose was Hundred Years of Solitude. The problem with that one was by two-thirds of the way in, I was completely lost in the story, had no idea what was going on, and actually put the book down. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before or since. If I start a book, I’ve always finished it. But Hundred Years was so long, and I had so much more to read, and I was completely lost, that I just gave up.
So, the number of books I read has really dropped off because I just havne’t found anything like that.
Point taken. And it isn’t. I do think characters’ sexuality can be the main theme of a story, and I’ve read good ones where it is, but those just aren’t the type of stories I tend to come up with.
I recommend Love in the Time of Cholera. The plot meanders less. Or The General in His Labyrinth which is a very succinct novel. However, and I don’t say this to be a smart-ass, it’s even better in the original Spanish if you do or ever plan to learn that language (it’s a very easy language for an English speaker to learn, easier still if you know any French).
I do sincerely appreciate your feedback on my question.
Some of the commenters talk about the problems of rape backstory for strong women characters. But saying the background is a problem is ALSO a problem, akin to sweeping the dust under the rug but bigger, minimizing real world problems.
Firstly, while not all of my real-life martial arts women friends have rape backstories, many do. I do. Others were bullied or diminished in other ways. Too short, too fat, too tall, too poor, too smart, too ‘ugly,’ disabled, battered, born on the wrong side of the tracks, mental health issues, ‘wrong’ gender preference, you name it. Real people have issues, and sometimes those issues drive them to make more of themselves. Jim has addressed that type of issue in most of his books, if not all. (I think it’s all, just being cautious.) I don’t want to see it become a problem to have a strong character who has a reason to have become strong.
One of my martial arts senseis, Saotome Sensei, after a seminar gave a lecture to the folk there that made them rather uncomfortable. Saotome Sensei is himself a small man. He started talking to all these hot young macho dudes about what it means to be successful in martial arts. Who is it that becomes successful, what sort of person. What it says about you if you become successful at martial arts. It means that you’ve been beat up one too many times. That you won’t put up with it any more. That you are intimately acquainted with what it means to be a victim, and that you won’t allow that to happen to you anymore, or anyone else around you. The folk who are already strong, who’ve had a comfortable life, who are already the top of the food chain? They have no reason, no motivation to drive them to become really excellent at martial arts.
Rape isn’t a problem in a backstory. Problems aren’t a problem in a backstory. The problem is the assumption of rape as a motivator, the intentional creation of rape culture by making those stories not a way out of violence but a way in. It’s a tricky dynamic. It is hard to do well. The author runs the risk of tipping the story just over the edge into making it look like the rape backstory (or poverty or disability or whatever) is necessary. You know what, though? We all have our own backstory. We all have our own problems. What if this conversation was happening around whatever skeleton lives in your closet? How would you feel then?
pfanderson, I think you’re kind of undermining your own point by assuming in your last couple of sentences that “whatever skeleton lives in your closet” isn’t rape.
So I was all set to chime in with But I’ve been doing martial arts for 25 years and I started because two people I look up to, my dad and my older sister, already practiced it, all of which is true. But I started putting my all into it after a traumatic episode in my childhood. I think it’s wrong for a teacher to tell students that they can only achieve excellence if they have a particular kind of motivation.
pfanderson and her sensie are correct insofar as excelling in anything requires finding an inner motivation, not just external status. It doesn’t have to be something traumatic, but trauma is often the catalyst. It’s always dodgy saying motivation must follow a certain mold, yet it’s true that some molds are more common. There’s a reason Bruce Wayne’s origin story continues to resonate with each generation. We all have tribulations which help to shape our character, and they’re all significant at least to us.
One thing I will say, though, is that I got the impression from Jim’s original post that the discussion from which he quoted was one where it was simply assumed rape (or sexual humiliation in general) must be in the closet of every great heroine, and that’s some rape culture bullshit right there. It’s one thing to say it happens and address it, and another to say being a rape survivor is indelible to the heroine’s journey.
pfanderson: . But saying the background is a problem is ALSO a problem, akin to sweeping the dust under the rug but bigger, minimizing real world problems.
if every strong woman character has “I was raped” as a backstory, then it implies that strong women are broken women. It implies that if you remove rape, women would NOT naturally show up as strong.
If a woman can’t be strong without being raped, then that has rather large implications about women, none of them good.
my martial arts senseis, Saotome Sensei…. The folk who are already strong, who’ve had a comfortable life, who are already the top of the food chain? They have no reason, no motivation to drive them to become really excellent at martial arts.
It may be that your sensei was good at teaching martial arts, but he is no authority on the human condition. If he was a small man, he might know why HE pursued martial arts, and he might mistakenly assume its true for everyone else.
Why does anyone become a cop? Or a firefighter? Or join the miltary? Anyone who thinks there is a single, pat answer for all who sign up, is seriously deluding themselves.
Hmm. Is the opposite of “For a female protagonist it is a requirement [of proper character construction] that she have been raped” that “it is required that a female protagonist not have been raped” or that “individual female protagonists may or may not have been raped, neither is required?” (And now I feel bad for characters in general and the things they go through for interesting stories.)
For my own part, I value [well-written] characters who have suffered the same trials I have because it’s cathartic to empathize with them and because through them I can see ways to transcend those trials, but I also value characters who have not suffered those trials because I don’t want to envision any of these trials as universal or, well, required. (I think I owe the word ‘required’ overtime pay.)
pfanderson @ August 8 2:42–I’m not responding to your comment to disagree, per se–I’m not really responding directly at all–but I do think it’s important to note that the passage Jim Hines quotes and Seanan McGuire’s own blog piece do not refer to rape as a backstory. McGuire has strong female protagonists and supporting characters who already have motivating backstories (some of them pretty horrific, as I recall); her questioner was asking when one of these characters was “finally going to be raped” in the future. The implication is that any female protagonist who goes out and does things–any action heroine–will inevitably be raped, presumably as a result of future acts, and that for an author to say, “No, I’m not planning on writing that for one of my already-existing and backstory-motivated characters” is somehow dishonest, a copout. Rape as a backstory is one thing–personally, I think it’s overused as a motivation for female protagonists, but that’s just my opinion. (Lots of other kinds of traumas are available for backstory, after all; see Bruce Wayne.) However, the idea that powerful female characters who have already been motivated to act will face rape sooner or later . . . is the really disturbing assumption, to my my mind.
Thanks for all the very insightful & interesting commentary, sorry I haven’t had time to get back to this. Just a couple brief replies to some of the observations. @Robin, I thought I had tried to illustrate a variety of skeletons, and was referencing that point. @Gulliver I love how you put the conversation back in the context of what Jim was saying. I confess, I was disturbed by some of the earlier comments, and was focusing on those issues rather than what Jim said (which I didn’t feel really needed much in the way of commentary). @Greg You are absolutely right. Whatever points Sensei was emphasizing tended to shift depending on the audience and the issues that came out of that particular workshop. I suspect that the particular lecture I cited had a very specific audience, someone he was trying to reach. I never heard him say anything like this before or after, and I don’t know what triggered it. I suspect there is an interesting story there. Despite that, the lecture really hit home for me, and from the faces of the rest of the audience, many of them would have been storming out if anyone else had said this. They did NOT like hearing this or thinking about it. That told me there was something there to think about. @MaryFrances You are quite right, and thank you for clarifying the temporal context of the comments. I think I just wanted to shift the conversation a bit. I sensed it leaning towards some of the issues I tried to address, and perhaps I simply misread other people’s comments.
I’d only heard of Libromancer, to which I was slightly tuned off by due to the plot looking like it was based around shooting metaphorical fish of the literary barrel (Twilight and it’s YA paranormal romance copy-cats). This post here has made me reevaluate that opinion and I shall look into finding copies of both books in the series. Well done Mr. Hines.
However, the idea that powerful female characters who have already been motivated to act will face rape sooner or later . . . is the really disturbing assumption, to my my mind.
If taken in a slightly different way, I think it’s both quite disturbing and quite inevitable. That this is a patriarchal society, with a lot of our values and vices grounded and steeped in sexism….that when a female protagonist arises to challenge the status quo, there will be forces that arise to challenge and tear her down…and that will seize on any and all ways to tear her down…and that inevitably leads down to rape or threats of rape as a weapon.
I think we see this in the fear and out of whack reactions when women upset the status quo(fake geek girls and threats to women exploring sexism in gaming)…and so it seems to me that this is the same impulse writ larger.
(And to clarify….no, I do not approve….but I observe that this seems to be an inevitable occurence generated by our current society).
The last chapter of LIBRIOMANCER brought me from “I’m really enjoying this book” to “I absolutely LOVE this book and am impatiently waiting for the next one”. And hurrah! It’s out, and I’ve got it on order.
Incidentally, wouldn’t it be nice if “relationships models other than ‘heterosexual monogamous couple’” weren’t automatically classified as “adult material/inappropriate for younger readers”?
I just bought Codex Born as a fifteenth birthday present for my son (who got Libriomancer last year) precisely BECAUSE I thought a lot of the sexual dynamics were handled sensibly. (Well, and many other reasons, like its being a fun story.)