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June 25, 2007

Reading Update

I've just finished Earth Logic, Laurie Marks' follow up to Fire Logic, which I read last week or so.

The SeeLight Scale

Crap
Legible
Readable
Not Bad
*Recommended*
Highly Recommended
Do Not Go Another Day Without

What follows is full of SPOILERS.

It had a very strange effect on me. The book suffered from sequelitis: the author's unfortunate desire to maintain the loving embrace of the world she has created overcoming the necessity for allowing devastating conflict. In the first book, the world was cruel, often arbitrarily so, and companionship and love were things that could just as easily not be chosen. Terrible things happen in the book, and the possibility of further terrible things happening always threatens from the wings. The main characters are all strong willed people with different elemental powers (fire, air, and earth--and a little water at one point) who have to fight the contrasting logic of their elements to work together.

In this one, Marks wastes an enormous amount of reader time trying to show us the domestic bliss that results when this conflict of logic is overcome. Unlike in the first book, where she showed us the conflict of the elements in actions and active choices made, in this one she merely tells us, over and over again, that the logic conflicts, while all she shows us is meaningless love and harmony. I had to read way too much four or five-way repartee, way too many scenes of the little girl they're all raising together being extremely irritating. (Why does Marks think that showing us only a five-year-old's annoying, imperious side, ad naseum, will endear her to us?)

There is no specific conflict in this book. The conflict is all general: Shaftal is still at war with the invading Sainnites. The war must be brought to a conclusion. The rest of the conflict doesn't arise out of grounded circumstance and character: instead, it feels invented, artificial. Our favorite character Zanja, the protagonist of the last book, divines that she has to die--for an unknown reason--to save Shaftal. Even if this didn't feel ridiculous and made up, it could only be devastating if she really has to die. But no sooner has she divined this than her loving family decides that Zanja only has to die in spirit, not in body.

There's some stupidity about how, to someone with fire logic, this will be the same as dying in body, and some further stupidity about how having to symbolically kill her will destroy her best friend Emil, who according to the divination, has to perform the deed. Emil does so (symbolically kills her) by stabbing her in the heart (hello? Does somebody need to explain what "symbolically' means?), and then proceeds to emotionally heal himself from the trauma with no trouble whatsoever.

The resulting "killed" Zanja doesn't remember anything and runs around telling stories, to no discernable effect. Well, one of her stories apparently convinces the Sainnite lieutenant general to adopt a child, thereby changing her attitude toward the world and enabling her to save the Sainnites by accepting a peace with Shaftal. But it feels so vague and unnecessary. Why all the agonizing over (not really) having to kill Zanja?

Basically, what I'm saying is that the book was a plotless wonder, unlike the first one, where the plot pulled you irresistably along in the wake of bewildered characters whose seemingly random paths joined those of others until a genuine--messy but meaningful--pattern emerged. It's also a bloodless wonder, held severely back by Marks' inability to give her characters any real pain. Perhaps she thinks they've experienced enough already--which is true--so she just tells us that things pain them, but doesn't put them to the trouble of actually feeling it.

This would be the point where a more psychological writer would realize that these characters, having found a haven from immediate trauma, would be busy acting out their post-trauma: sniping at each other for no reason, falling into random, long fits of depression, having screaming nightmares, behaving like spoiled children, hurting each other deliberately, etc. Instead, they all behave like paragons of empathy, compassion, and honor. Vomit.

Marks wouldn't be the first author to destroy living, fascinating characters by thinking that she can't allow herself to give them genuine faults, but she'd certainly be one of the more talented ones. Even Mabin--the arrogant war hero who nearly destroys the entire country out of a combination of power-thirst and a genuine belief that she was doing the right thing--has her fangs pulled in this book, until she, too, finally engages in that unforgiveable repartee.

The result of all of this is a book with no real conflicts, one of those fictional situations where the characters could have solved their problems immediately--they have the power to do so from the git-go, and no knowledge is lacking, either. But that wouldn't be much of a book, so incident and movement is thrown in to give them something to do before they resolve everything.

Another result of having no real conflicts is that the relationships established in the first book develop not at all in the second. Not one tiny little bit. Even sitting around eating grapes in a countryside idyll for a year will change your relationship with someone. But in this book, after a year of war, and killing off your best friend, and writing and printing a book (where the seer becomes a Mary Sue, or even more of one than he was before), and saving the world, everyone goes back to their default emotional positions. *Yawn*.

I'm tempted to dismiss the book, but that would be unfair, because by having no plot to distract me, this sequel allowed me more time to experience the world that Marks has subtly and masterfully furthered in this sequel. Boy is it a strong one. Its secondary-world divergence from our reality is one that has been thoroughly explored in the genre, but I've never seen it done so flawlessly, or effectively.

This is a world where men and women are *absolutely* equal.

Think about that for a second. Think you've seen it in fiction before? You probably haven't. Because a world of absolute gender equality means that gender is not discussed at all. Not because it's forbidden to discuss it, but because its not important enought to discuss. The only gender differences of any importance--naturally, reproductive ones--emerge without discussion as well, not because they aren't important, but because they are so obvious.

In this world, the Sainnites don't reproduce well, because they are all soldiers, and aren't backed by an impoverished Sainnite civilian population desperate to sell their extra children to the army. In Sainnite-occumpied Shaftal, therefore, when soldier-serving prostitutes get pregnant, they'll hold an auction among their male soldier regulars to determine which one they will name the child's father. The female soldiers who visit prostitutes, Marks doesn't mention, tend get cut out of this process.

In another scene, the Sainnite lieutenant general (female), to make a point with the general (male), suggests Swiftianly that she and the other female soldiers start breeding immediately to bring their numbers back up. This suggestion is of course, ignored.

Characters are introduced by their positions or work (a soldier, a farmer, the commander) and until the nouns have been repeated enough to necessitate the use of pronouns, you have no idea if the person mentioned is male or female. Names don't help. A male baby is named after his grandmother.

Most importantly, though, incidental characters and scene-fillers are evenly distributed among men and women. This is no Trekian scenario, where you have a carefully calculated diversity on the bridge, and then every other character is a white male. The suspicious inn-keeper is just as likely to be a woman as a man. Ditto the farming pat/matriarch who puts up the traveling protags for the night, and the anxious parent who clutches a child to keep soldiers from taking it. Mendacity, power, cowardice, intelligence, courage, skill, kindness, impatience, and stupidity are equally divided between male and female characters. There is not a single gender-based taunt or punishment between male and female. There's child sexual abuse in this world, but even that doesn't have anything to do with gender.

Which leads to sex itself. In a gender-equal society, sex isn't shameful, and sexual preference just doesn't matter. The protagonists of Fire Logic, the first book, were a female same sex couple. The real protagonist of Earth Logic is a Sainnite soldier who prefers women. Other white hats include both a male same sex couple and a het couple.

The funny thing about my response to all of this is that, while I was reading this, I started complaining to myself that there were too many women characters in interesting roles. Until I realized I was thinking that, and set off on a course of serious head-smacking. I also actually said to myself in my head, nearly in words, that I found so much homo sex boring and how could the author expect to engage me with so much unerotic sex? Realization. More head smacking.

This is why this book is radical and revolutionary. It's very quiet. It's very subtle. But if you give yourself over to it, it'll change your way of looking at the world--even if you think you're already a feminist and queer ally.

Plus, as crappy as the plot was this time, I missed the world terribly, terribly, when I was done, and couldn't wait to get back into it. I'm reading the third book now.

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Comments

HA! Wait till you read the 3rd one where she totally doesn't die again about 12 more times still without needing to for symbolic metaphoric nation-healing reasons.

i hate it when authors realize they're doing something silly but, instead of correcting it, they have the characters joke around about it.

Zanja: how many more times must I die?

Seriously.

Yeah, I had similar problems with the logic of Zanja's "death." Though I think I ended up enjoying the book more than you did, largely because I like scenes of domestic bliss and fooding.

But very yes to Marks' quietly revolutionary way of dealing with sexuality and gender; I always forget to comment on that in my write ups because it is so much in the background. I really appreciated the thought she had put into that.

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