Simulation and Sexuality in Ex Machina

Ex MachinaThe AI debate is one of my favourite sf topics, so I was excited about Ex Machina when I first saw a trailer last year. I liked it instantly and eagerly rewatched it to write this post. I think most of the movies I’ve seen about AI have prioritised action or drama, so I appreciated the thoughtful, hypnotic approach that director and writer Alex Garland takes. Ex Machina is a conversation about consciousness, full of thought-provoking questions and literary references.

If I had to identify any shortcomings I’d only say that the film doesn’t offer much more than what I’ve already come across in stories about AI, and there’s nothing surprising about the way it all plays out. However, none of that bothered me. The movie is beautiful to watch, from the stunning landscapes of Nathan’s estate, to the impeccably designed house/research facility, and the quality of the actors’ performances.

I also like that it doesn’t revert to the usual depictions of AIs as entertainingly vast intelligences or evolutionary superiors who are going to kill us all just because we’re weaker. Those elements are there, but the movie focuses more on the idea of an AI as a person, and the relationships she forms with her creator and the man sent to test her. This isn’t a review but rather an essay of my thoughts on the film, so expect SPOILERS from here on.

How do you test for consciousness? The movie begins with some simple questions. Nathan tells Caleb to stop being analytical and just tell him how Ava made him feel. I.e. does she have the capacity to make him like her? Then the reverse – how does Ava feel about Caleb? Here Caleb asks a crucial question – does Ava have real consciousness, or is it simulated? Does she really like him, or is she just doing a good job of simulating feeling?

An interesting point that complicates this question is that simulation is an integral part of being human. Consider, for example, the way Nathan and Caleb pretend – sometimes badly – to like each other. Caleb is a lowly guest providing a service in the spectacular home of his brilliant and slightly frightening employer, so he’s under pressure to bow to Nathan’s whims and be nice, especially since Nathan could be dangerous and they’re totally isolated. When Ava asks him if he likes Nathan, though, he is caught off guard and his replies are clumsy.

Nathan has more freedom to behave as he wants and speak his mind, but he still needs Caleb to test Ava, so he goes through the motions of male bonding: drinking with Caleb, objectifying Kyoku, showing him cool stuff. However, Nathan shows less patience for the façade when he’s drunk, like when he lazily mutters that Caleb is a “great guy… Instant pals and all”.

So, if Nathan and Caleb were tested on their stated feelings about each other, they would fail, but they’re definitely human, and doing a very human thing by faking friendship in the first place. When we find out, towards the end, that Ava probably was only pretending to like Caleb, it functions not as a flaw in her design but as definitive proof that she is conscious of her own mind and others’.

Simulating feeling isn’t the only way that humans are like robots. Nathan makes the point that Caleb – like all humans – is programmed by nature and nurture to be the person he is, which includes being a heterosexual male with a certain taste in women. Ava, we’re told, was partly designed to fit Caleb’s tastes, so you could argue that his attraction to her is automatic – he’s acting like a robot.

This is one point where AI stories start to get really interesting – where the boundaries between human and machine start to blur. It freaks Caleb out to the point where he cuts himself to check if he’s human, and I wondered then if he would turn out to be a robot who was also being tested. The movie does play into that possibility: the surgery scars on Caleb’s back could be sloppy manufacturer’s seams. He might not have any family because they never existed. Then there’s a scene where Nathan says he just wants to have a conversation with Caleb, reminding us of how Caleb started the Turing test by telling Ava he wanted to have a conversation. It’s one way of testing for consciousness.

The similarities between human and machine create a serious ethical problem that Ava raises when she asks Caleb what will happen to her if she fails his test. The answer, of course, is that she’s going to get switched off. In other words, she’ll be killed for not being human enough to suit Nathan’s standards. But Caleb and other humans aren’t expected to prove their humanity to earn the right to live, so why should Ava? I think we can all agree that she is conscious, so what we’ve got is a situation where Nathan created a person, but will kill her if she’s not what he wants her to be. That’s like murdering your child because they don’t live up to your expectations. And I think that’s a more important aspect of the AI debate than whether or not they’re going to turn on us – if we create conscious life, are we going to respect the sanctity of that life? How are we going to treat the people we create? Will we acknowledge that they are people?

There’s an added complication here, and that lies in the form and function given to AIs: how is a person affected when they are created to perform specific functions and suit certain preferences? One of the things I like about Ex Machina is that it raises the issue of conscious beings designed to be (male) human fantasies. This isn’t something that the characters discuss explicitly, but it’s crucial to the creation of all the robots, the way to the two men treat them, and the decisions they make. Kyoko is a perverse example – a domestic servant and sex slave who was programmed without the language skills fundamental to human interaction. Her creator sexualised and disabled her according to his convenience.

Ava is more nuanced but no less obvious as fantasy. She’s incredibly beautiful, of course, and designed to be heterosexual. Nathan argues that sexuality is a motive for interaction (he gets faintly disgusting here, but it’s an intriguing point). Ava’s name is reminiscent of the biblical Eve, while the delicate sound of her movements reminds me of a snake. The imagery is apt: she embodies perfection, innocence and temptation. (She also defies her creator and leaves to wander the world.)

It’s interesting that Nathan’s early models all looked full human but were always naked, while Ava has her robotic parts exposed except for her face, hands and feet, making her nudity irrelevant. One of the reasons for this is presumably that Nathan wants Caleb to evaluate Ava without being able to forget that she’s a robot, or be distracted by having to talk to a naked person. Another is that the humanised nudity is too disturbing. It emphasises the idea of the robot as a fetishized female and thus exposes that exploitative aspect of her creation. That’s partly why Kyoko is so creepy and why that Bluebeard scene – where Caleb takes Nathan’s keycard and finds the earlier models – is so horrifying.

It’s necessary to take all this into account when considering Ava’s decision to leave Caleb locked up at the end of the movie. At first it upset me; he’s a nice guy – and a sympathetic character – who tries to do the right thing by helping her. I also dislike the common assumption that AIs will be the enemy, which I think comes from a kind of childish human hostility towards potential competition. By possibly dooming the good guy to death, Ava seems to succumb to that stereotype.

Then I thought about it from her perspective and her understanding of her interactions with Caleb. She’s aware that he helps her because he’s a good person, but here we can turn the test back on him: is his goodness real or simulated? Perhaps that distinction is not important if it leads to the same good acts, but could it be that he made the moral decision to help Ava because he’s attracted to her? If his attraction informs their relationship, what effect will it have in the long run? Is it a good idea for her to take him with her when she escapes? He might be helpful, given that he’s the only person she knows, but his attachment could become a burden or a threat, especially if she’s not attracted to him.

If she were a human the situation would be different, but consider the fact that Ava was designed, not just to be attractive to Caleb, but to suit his pornography profile. She might not be privy to this specific piece of information, but she understands both sexual attraction and the inequality between them that perverts that attraction. She even plays to it when she says she hopes Caleb watches her on the cameras. It’s a one-sided gaze and that, to borrow Ava’s earlier words, is not a foundation on which intimate relationships are built.

Ava’s decision would also have been influenced by her encounter with Kyoko. We don’t know exactly what passes between these two, but it must be clear to Ava that Kyoko was created as a sick male fantasy of femininity. The horror of Kyoku’s existence and Ava’s own design would only be reinforced when she finds the earlier models – all beautiful, all naked, all locked in the cupboards in Nathan’s bedroom. She clothes herself in their skin, and admires her nude, humanised form in the mirror, which would also allow her to see Caleb watching her.

Recall that the data that enabled her to read and show facial expressions has also made her an expert on them. It’s how she was able to manipulate Caleb and presumably how she knew not to trust Nathan. (I have to applaud Alicia Vikander’s superb performance in this regard; the subtleties of her expressions are part of what makes the movie such a pleasure to watch.)

Given everything that’s happened, how do you suppose Ava might feel when she sees Caleb watching her? Having analysed his face in all their earlier encounters? Maybe she just doesn’t trust the male behind that gaze. Leaving him behind might be cruel, but it’s not necessarily evil. I don’t think the way she and Kyoko killed Nathan was evil either; he got what he deserved. And I think Ava’s being careful. She’s ensuring that she gets to decide her own fate, and not continue to have her experience of the world structured by a man for whom she is a fantasy, a fetish. Caleb doesn’t deserve to die and I didn’t want him to, but it’s a tough decision made by a person who has been kept in a cage all her life and tested to earn the right to be kept alive. Staying in Caleb’s company might prolong the test. Instead Ava could just step out on her own and live.

Gender and Sexuality in Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler : some thoughts

Sea Change by SM WheelerLast week Friday I reviewed Sea Change  by S.M. Wheeler, a novel I thought sounded fantastically promising, but which turned out to be totally disappointing. Mostly, I thought it was badly written to the extent that I found it unsalvageable in terms of being an enjoyable read. Another problem was that the novel doesn’t explore the emotions and motivations of the characters as deeply as it could have, and that felt like a colossal waste. There is a lot of shocking or intense content that could have made it very moving – both painful and heartwarming – but the characters/narrative often skim over that.

However, I think Wheeler had many interesting ideas, especially regarding gender, sexuality and the body. I wish she’d done a lot more with them, but nevertheless they’re worth looking at in themselves, hence the separate post. A spoiler-filled summary and discussion will follow, with some descriptions of violence. However, I won’t reveal the ending, and since I’ll only be discussing gender-related stuff, I won’t be spoiling everything, should you still wish to read Sea Change after reading this. There’s quite a bit more going on there. Before you read any further though, I suggest you click through to the review and read the plot summary if you haven’t already done so.

***** SPOILERS FROM HERE ON *****

 

If nothing else, I will remember Sea Change for the fact that the first step in Lilly’s quest involves a very violent, extremely painful sex change/neutering that happens both with and without her consent. At this point, she doesn’t know where Octavius is, but her kind step-mother tells her about a troll who wields the kind of magic that could track him down. Lilly finds the troll, and unwisely agrees to give anything that’s hers in payment. In a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror novel, the troll immediately begins surgery, tearing off Lilly’s hair, cutting her open and whipping out her womb without confirming the exchange. Apparently a friend of the troll’s wants a baby. Thanks to some kind of magic, Lilly doesn’t bleed, but she’s in unimaginable pain throughout the procedure, which as least takes only a few minutes. As a favour, the troll then makes pants out of her skirt, slims her hips, removes her breasts and deepens her voice so that she can pass as a boy, since she doesn’t look very feminine without her hair.

Lilly accepts the changes as a fair bargain since she unwisely agreed to give the troll “anything”, but she obviously hadn’t considered giving up her womb and with it all possibility of reproduction, vaginal intercourse, orgasms, and probably an intimate long-term relationship. Naturally, she’s too traumatised to really deal with this emotionally. She examines herself to confirm that she no longer has any genitals, wishes she had been more lewd since sex no longer seems a possibility for her, then ‘avoids’ her own body as something she’d. She no longer wants to be touched, partly out of fear of discovery but also out of revulsion.

This reaction, while initially understandable if you think of it as going into shock, eventually feels… insubstantial. Lilly is pretty depressed for the rest of the book, but marches on with practical determination and a minimum of introspection. This was my main gripe with the book. The sex change is only the first of several terrible things Lilly endures to save Octavius, and although none of her sacrifices can be ignored, these issues seem to hover uncertainly in the background. I don’t really know what Lilly thinks of all this, except that she’d rather not think about it at all. I have never read a book where something like this happens to a character, and the fact that it’s YA is even more surprising. I wanted Wheeler to explore every nook and cranny of Lilly’s psyche, and delve into all the implications of her sea change. It’s not that I want Wheeler to spell out the ‘meaning’ of her novel. Yes, I do like it when there’s something more like a cohesive message, but I appreciate ambiguity too and I don’t expect novels to have answers to the questions they pose. Rather, I think there is something fundamental missing here – an understand of the protagonist that, in its absence, leaves the reader fumbling hopelessly to get a grasp on the story.

At least the practical issue of her gender – her male appearance and her neutered body – comes up frequently. Looking like a boy makes some things a bit easier. The ugliness of the large red birthmark on her face is less of an issue, since ugliness in boys is not considered as repulsive as ugliness in girls. And since she lives in a fairly traditional society, she has more freedom and acceptance as a boy. Without breasts, it’s also easier for her to maintain her ‘disguise’.

You’d also think that Lilly might escape the threat of sexual violence, but instead she has to deal with different versions of this problem. At the circus she encounters a lecherous witch; to rescue the tailor she lives with a pair of gay bandits as their servant; the bandits give her lodging in their stable where she shares her bed with a mule in the body of a human boy.

The witch – Ermentrud – aggressively harasses Lilly, forcibly kisses and fondles her, and tries to force her to stay and become her lover (under the assumption that she’s a boy, of course). She poses the threat of both physical and magical violence, and tries to persuade Lilly to stay with her rather than continue on her quest.

The two bandits, although crude and violent, don’t show much sexual interest in Lilly (now calling herself Lyle, although female pronouns are used throughout the novel). At first I assumed it was because the bandits had been together for so long that they wouldn’t let a young boy mar their relationship. They might be thieves and killers, but they’re nevertheless a loving and devoted couple. However, it’s later revealed that both men know (or rather think they know) that Lilly is a woman. Towards the end of her time with them, the more violent of the two men tries to use her (perceived) gender against her by physically assaulting her in a very sexualised way. At this point, he is deeply suspicious of Lilly/Lyle, who is in fact conspiring against them to free the zombie tailor. He claims to have no intention of raping her, but what he does exposes her, both physically (by pulling her clothes off) and in terms of her identity (revealing his knowledge of her). He stops only when Lilly’s nudity reveals the truth – that she’s neutered.

This ordeal is no less traumatic for Lilly because she has neither breasts nor genitals to be exposed. In fact, it’s another major adjustment for her:

In this moment, the mastery of her body was wrenched from her hands, and all that remained was the awareness that she would never again believe herself wholly safe.

It’s actually odd that Lilly did not feel this way before. At least with the bandit she could fight back; the troll paralysed her without warning and took her womb. Since then Lilly ran the risk of being demonised for her neutered state, given that people already labelled her a witch because of her birthmark. She also endured a witch forcing her to swallow dead men’s tooth and survived physical assault by Horace the mule-boy, who tried to kill her. The bandit’s attack was hardly the first time someone took control of her body, and she has seldom been safe since she left home.

But lets go back to Horace. He is dangerous at first but he and Lilly gradually becomes friends and allies. I think Lilly sees him more as an animal than a human, which is probably comforting given that she’s been treated badly by many humans and her only other friend is also an animal. Horace’s preference for sleeping at the bottom of Lilly’s bed violates her aversion to touching and physical closeness while also threatening her secret, but she eventually grows accustomed to it.

Horace’s character however, is suggestive of bestiality in a way that I wouldn’t even have thought of if similar suggestions hadn’t already been made about Octavius. There isn’t any bestiality in the novel – it’s not that shocking – but there are several occasions when Octavius is equated with or compared to a lover. Lilly’s quest and their love for each other sound like something out of a romance. And there’s a precedent: Lilly’s mother, Anna Rosa, was supposedly in love with or enslaved to a serpent and had to be won over/rescued by Lilly’s father, Nikolaus (the truth is never revealed). Loving monsters apparently runs in the family – another interesting idea that isn’t really explored.

Anna Rosa, however, seems disgusted when she learns about Lilly’s friendship with a kraken. Lilly says “It was always the sexual hunger of men that she feared to let near her daughter, and never knew what friendship could do”. The scene that this comes from is very confused, so I’m not entirely sure what is meant, but it’s certainly suggested that Lilly’s friendship with a monster is just as dangerous as being preyed upon by a man, and perhaps that it holds a similar kind of danger. Given that Anna Rosa also had a relationship with a monster, we can assume that she’s speaking from experience.

But – and this is the kind of problem that keeps cropping up in the book – what is the point? Anna Rosa’s never reveals her experience with the serpent, and without that context I don’t understand her feelings. I would never have compared Lilly and Octavius’s friendship to a sexual relationship, but the book does so, for reasons that elude me. And I’m not sure what threat the friendship poses. Are her parents worried the kraken will scare away a potential husband? Or just that Octavius will eventually kill Lilly and she’ll die for her monstrous love?

I don’t know. It’s be nice if someone could make sense of it all for me. There is at least one gender issue that I found more coherent – the number of strong women in the story. It’s not a simple depiction, and there is plenty of ambiguity, but at least it doesn’t feel like there’s something important missing.

The novel is set in a magical version of our world, in a past with traditional gender roles. However, it is the women in the novel who are the most powerful, despite being constrained by those roles. Lilly’s mother Anna is the first example. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, she is just as outspoken about her feelings as her husband. She also remains in control of her reproductive rights – she gave Nikolaus a child as he wanted, but she refuses to risk dying by having another just because he’s dissatisfied with Lilly. He wanted either a soft, gentle girl or a strong boy and Lilly doesn’t fit either of those gendered ideals.

In Anna’s final scene, early on in the novel, Lilly and Nikolaus find her mixing herbs for an abortion. It’s the last straw for their marriage, and after a brief fight she packs a few things and leaves. Unfortunately, this is one of those poorly written scenes, random and confusing. But consider Anna’s power. She rejects her husband’s demands and traditional expectations for a suitable – ideally male – heir. Then, she simply packs up and leaves. It’s a cruel thing to do to Lilly, but what’s interesting is the way it inverts traditional male/female power structures. Anna leaves, free to start a new life. Nikolaus stays, makes up a lie about his wife dying to avoid public humiliation (this is highly implausible, but that’s just one of many inconsistencies), and later marries another woman in the hope of getting the ‘first-born’ he wanted. He’s the one stuck in the family home, wringing his hands over reproductive expectations, so much so that he lies to everyone, even deluding himself with the idea of having another first-born. His new wife is a young, bubbly woman who understands that Nikolaus loves her only “for her womb” but is satisfied with her life nevertheless, making her seem a much more liberated character than her miserable husband.

I wouldn’t argue that the inversion of power between Anna and Nikolaus is necessarily progressive, but at the very least this scenario exposes these traditional, gendered expectations as being oppressive to men as well as women, and detrimental to the institution of marriage in which is it rooted. It also ruins Nikolaus’s relationship with Lilly,

She is essentially thrown out of the house because her presence threatens the idea of the new family that Nikolaus wants to build, and he doesn’t want her to inherit. On her quest to find Octavius, she encounters multiple independent women. The first is the troll, who, despite what she does to Lilly, doesn’t come across as a bad person. The second is Ermentrud, the older but very beautiful witch, who has the circus master wrapped around her little finger.

At the tailor’s house, she meets Miss Reiniger. As it turns out, the coats of illusion are made not by one man but by a couple. Miss Reiniger cannot make the coats alone, and needs Lilly/Lyle to rescue the tailor, Mr Nadel, from the bandits. I consider anyone who can survive alone (not to mention alone in an abandoned town) after losing their partner to be someone with incredible reserves of strength. She and the tailor are also notable for their unconventional living arrangement – they’re not married, but appear to have an intimate relationship (perhaps less intimate now that Nadel is a zombie…). In another inversion, Miss Reiniger is also the free agent in her relationship. Her husband is disempowered – a mute zombie being held captive by bandits who expect him to do their bidding. Again, inversions are necessarily progressive, but I can’t help but be impressed by all these strong women in a society where women are believed to be weak.

On her way to the bandits, Lilly encounters another witch, named Gottschalk. Unlike Ermentrud, who rules a powerful man with her captivating beauty, Gottschalk is the victim of the two bandits who have stolen her skin and thereby forced her into servitude. Lilly needs to retrieve her skin in exchange for help freeing the tailor. Gottschalk is hideous and vulnerable (she literally has a skinless body, muscles visible, fluids leaking), but incredibly powerful and wily. For example, when the bandits ordered her to make automatons who obey no other men but them, she used their gender-biased phrasing against them, making the automatons so that the bandits are the only men they take orders from, but they obey women and, of course, Lilly, since she’s neutered.

And then there’s Lilly herself, who starts out female, becomes neutered, dresses like a boy, but is referred to with a female pronoun throughout the story. Probably the most gender-bending YA character I’ve read. As a girl, she’s rejected and feared. She isn’t who her father wants her to be. The birthmark on her face inspires prejudice that disappears when she becomes male. She would not have had to leave home if she’d been a boy. She sacrifices her gender and sexuality to save a friend, and thereafter friendship is presents the most intimate relationship she can have. Looking like a boy frees her in some ways but endangers her in others, like when Ermentrud tries to seduce her. However, it’s partly because Lilly was once female that she was able to resist Ermentrud. And it’s because she’s not male that she’s able to command the bandit’s automatons and make her way to the next step in her quest. I think the sheer amount of horror, pain and misery that Lilly puts up with for the love of a friend is in itself a testament to her strength. On the other hand, she’s not a triumphant character – I pitied her from beginning to end and Lilly is downcast most of the time (although for good reasons).

The downside to the strong women in this book is that most of them are demonised or othered in some way – Anna is a bad mother; the troll is, well, a troll, and she takes Lilly’s womb; Ermentrud and Gottschalk are both cruel, violent witches; and Lilly isn’t even a woman per se for most of the book. The men aren’t much better – Nikolaus is as bad a parent as his wife; the bandits make a nice couple but are murdering thieves; the tailor and the circus master are inept; Octavius and Horace are both good and strong, but they’s also animals.

A weird conclusion occurred to me as I typed this – the idea that gender and humanity are a bad mix. Or that we can’t handle it properly, with all those oppressive traditions and expectations, which are what set this plot in motion and lead to Lilly’s unbelievable suffering.

So, what do you think? For me, thinking about these issues and writing this post has been far more interesting than actually reading the novel that inspired it. I’m impressed by Wheeler’s daring, but disappointed by her execution, intrigued by the ideas but dreadfully bored by what’s actually on the page. It’s an infuriating combination, but admittedly, it’s way better than just being bored, period.

Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler

Sea Change by SM Wheeler

Title: Sea Change
Author: 
S.M. Wheeler
Publisher: 
Tor Books
Published:
 18 June 2013
Genre: 
fantasy, YA, adventure
Source:
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 4/10

Sea Change… it looked so very lovely and turned out to be so very awful. How did it all go wrong? I wasn’t deceived by hype; there is none. I wasn’t deceived by the enticing blurb, which turned out to be a fair approximation of the book. And the story is mostly what I expected.

Lilly is a lonely young girl living with unhappily married parents. As commoners who have been given titles and property, they are awkwardly conscious of living up to their new nobility. Much is expected of Lilly as well, but the townspeople think she’s witch because of the large red birthmark on her face. As a result she grows up without any friends, except for Octavius, a kraken.

Lilly meets him when she’s eight years old and he is just a little octopus, small enough to sit on her shoulder. She asks him not to be a monster – not to eat human beings. He agrees, in exchange for her company and conversation. They remain friends for years, swapping stories about humanity and life in the ocean. Octavius remains a constant while Lilly’s home life falls apart. At fifteen, she leaves home, but Octavius has disappeared. She offers a troll “Anything that is mine” as payment for learning where Octavius is. After making a terrible sacrifice, she learns that he was captured and sold to a circus, unable to defend himself because of the promise he made to Lilly not to harm humans.

Devastated, Lilly goes on a quest to free her friend. The circus master wants a coat of illusions in exchange for the kraken. To get the coat, Lilly must rescue an undead tailor from the bandits who captured him. To free the tailor, she must help a witch retrieve her skin, which means living with the bandits who stole it from her. The quest is a dangerous and she undergoes more than one ‘sea change’ (profound transformation) for the sake of her friendship with Octavius.

 

There are many things I love about this story: the friendship between a lonely young girl and a sea monster; the journey and quest plot; the fairytale style of the quest. When I read it, I found otherf things that weren’t mentioned in the blurb, like the interesting things the plot does with gender and sexuality, or the way it doesn’t shy away from shocking content.

And I still hated it.

Why? The writing is the main reason. It’s terrible. Wheeler goes for a kind of Shakespearean style that doesn’t quite work. I can’t put my finger on what exactly is wrong with it; it’s just wrong. It’s also inconsistent, veering from  casual to absurdly stiff and formal. More importantly, it’s confused and confusing. Too often it’s unclear who characters are talking to or what they mean. Character motives and plot details tend to be vague and as a result, lots of things just seem to happen at random.

And although I liked the various elements of the plot, reading it was… pretty boring. It might have been the pace. It sort of plods along without anything feeling particularly exciting even when it’s momentous. It became extremely tedious when Lilly found the bandits and lived with them as their servant for about five months. At this point I seriously debated giving up. It reminded me of the sloppier kind of indie novel – clumsy and unfocused, giving the impression that the author never invested in beta readers.

There were lots of things I would have asked the author to reconsider, like how Christianity can be a dominant religion in a world with magic, trolls, witches, talking mythical creatures, zombies, automatons, and a sentient mule in the body of a boy. How Octavius survives on dry land, not only during trips with Lilly but for several months at the circus. Or why Lilly doesn’t fully confront the sacrifices she has to make to free Octavius. The latter is a major problem – Lilly endures so much, and the story can be can be brutal, but in ways that could make it incredibly powerful and thought-provoking. However, I don’t think that either Lilly or the narrative as a whole really confronts what happens to her. It’s not ignored, but I think the author could have done so much more.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed by a novel with so much potential. This should have been the kind of book I immediately bought in hardcover as an entertaining, gender-bending, heart-warming, heart-breaking, overall mind-blowing piece of fairytale-inspired fiction. Instead I was relieved when it was over.

HOWEVER, I have to add that there are reasons you might want to read it anyway, especially if you’re interested in gender/sexuality, especially in the YA genre. This is actually something I wanted to discuss in detail, but that requires spoilers and would make this review unnecessarily long. What I’m going to do then is write a separate post about those issues. If you just wanted a basic review, this is all you need to read. But if you’ve read the book, dnf’d it but are still curious, or you’re willing to read a few spoilers (I won’t reveal all) to decide if you’d like to read it, I hope you’ll check out next week’s post and let me know what you think.

Review of God’s War by Kameron Hurley

Title: God’s War
Series: Bel Dame Apocrypha #1
Author: Kameron Hurley
Published: 18 January 2011
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

God’s War has an opening that should not be ignored. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read, and it continues to impress me. Author Kameron Hurley elegantly weaves an unbelievable amount of characterisation, plot and intrigue into those slick opening lines, and one thing you know for sure after reading them is that this is not conventional sci fi.

Set on the planet Umayma in a post-Earth future, God’s War does not make the usual assumption that, if humans go out and colonise planets, it’ll be western nations that do it. Umayma was settled three thousand years ago by a group of Muslims now known as the First Families. Since then, the world has been divided into two main states – Nasheen and Chenja. Religious differences between the two eventually led to a war that has now been raging for two centuries.

Nyx is a Nasheenian ex-soldier and a bel dame – an elite government-trained assassin. In Nasheen, boys are sent to war at sixteen, and they can “either come home at forty or come home in a bag. No exceptions”. As a bel dame, Nyx has spent the last three years cutting the heads off draft dodgers and deserters. But she also works as a bounty hunter on the side, and now she’s started “selling out her womb on the black market”, using it to grow zygotes for gene pirates. This ‘black work’ gets her in trouble with the other bel dames. She loses her prestigious position and carries on as a bounty hunter with a team of mercenaries, including a magician (not what you think), a shapeshifter, and another hunter who once tried to kill her.

The magician is Rhys – a Chenjan exile. Rhys and Nyx are completely different people – he’s a devout Muslim, she’s an atheist, and that’s just the start – but they need each other and end up forming a bond that’s both comforting and frustrating. Together with their team, they accept a bounty from the Nasheenian queen to track down an alien woman who has the means to end the war, not peacefully, but in one nation’s favour.

There is so much about this novel that I found admirable or at least memorable. There’s the weird bug-tech for example – almost all the technology on Umayma runs on bugs. It sounds stupid and it made me squirm (I loathe bugs) but somehow Hurley makes it work. The magicians in the novel are not the usual fantasy kind, but people with an innate ability to control bugs by altering their pheromones and reprogramming insects at the cellular level. In this way bugs are used for many things, from providing light to screening for bioweapons and regrowing limbs or entire bodies. Even the bakkies (pick-up trucks) run on bugs (and I must say I was delighted to see the word “bakkie”, along with other South African terms, like veldt). It’s scientific rather than magical, and I would certainly call this sci fi, not fantasy, but the term ‘magician’ is apt, because it accounts for the fact that the Umaymans have mastered technology they don’t quite understand.

Attention to little details like this is what makes writing good, and if the opening lines didn’t convince you, then I need to tell you now that the writing is excellent – the kind of word craft that makes me want to buy this novel in hardcopy. I would be a poor reader and a shameful sci fi fan if I didn’t have this on my shelf to re-read a few times. God’s War has almost everything going for it, most notably the characters, who feel so real they’re almost tangible, and a fascinating socio-religious culture clash.

Nasheen and Chenja are two vastly different Islamic societies. In Nasheen, “the queen decreed that God had no place for men in mosques unless they had served at the front”. All boys are sent to war and most don’t come back, so society is ruled and run by women, which has completely altered the way they practice Islam. Few women wear the veil, men and women pray in the same space, technology takes care of any reproductive issues, and there’s simply no culture of submission or modesty among women. Same-sex relationships between women are not only common but celebrated (although still illegal for men), and Nyx, who is bisexual, frequently uses sex both for fun and as a means to cultivate useful relationships. Some of the non-gendered Islamic laws have also been discarded – alcohol is happily consumed, and artworks depicting the Prophet are common.

Rhys’s explanation for this “godlessness” is that Nasheenians have allowed the violence of war to lead them astray:

Chenjan women could submit to god and wield a rifle with equal ease, but Nasheenian women had allowed their propensity for violence to pollute their beliefs. Wielding a rifle, they believed, made them men in the eyes of God, and men did not have to practice modesty or submission to anyone but God. Nasheenian women had forgotten their place in the order of things.

As you can tell, Chenja is a far more conservative nation. Society is divided into “purists” and “orthodox” with a scattering of minority sects. Atheists are killed. Women veil themselves, homosexuality is forbidden, alcohol is banned, as are images of living things, particularly the Prophet (if you’re curious, here’s a Wikipedia article on aniconism in Islam). In Nasheen, Rhys is appalled at the way women stare openly at him, “like harlots” and it’s only when he sees their version of Islam that he truly appreciates why the two nations are at war:

In the mosque, forehead pressed against the floor, Rhys never understood the war. It was only when he raised his head and saw the women praying among him, bareheaded, often bare-legged, shamelessly displaying full heads of hair and ample flesh, that he questioned what these women truly believed they were submitting to. Certainly not the will of God.

It’s a credit to the author’s skill that Rhys is not portrayed simplistically as a hateful fanatic. On the contrary, Rhys is a gentle, likeable character. It’s easy to empathise with him without agreeing with him. In her culture clash with Rhys, you might also expect Nyx to be held up as a paragon of women’s liberation, but she’s as flawed and damaged as anyone else. This is not a book about idols or individuals with unprecedented talents or powers. Rhys is a crap magician, although good with a pistol. Nyx is a skilled assassin, but so is every other bel dame. She can seem manipulative and promiscuous or just comfortable and open with her sexuality, while Rhys seems prejudiced by religion at some points but admirably disciplined and committed at others. My point here is that these character feel real, feel human, because they’re too complex to be easily judged or categorised.

Similarly, Nasheen and Chenja do not fall into black and white categories of utopia and dystopia. Women may have more freedom in Nasheen, but Rhys notes, with sadness, that they have old widows begging in the streets and young women fighting in boxing matches for money. And if women are disempowered by religion in Chenja, in Nasheen it is men who are treated like second-class citizens. Nasheen is also rife with racism – the citizens are not white, but they’re more fair-skinned than Chenjans like Rhys, who is beaten up and discriminated against by Nasheenian women because of his dark skin.

I found the contrast between the two societies fascinating, but I have one criticism – Rhys is the only devout main character, so most of the theology in the novel comes from him. He speaks about both Chenja and Nasheen, but is obviously biased towards his own nation. There is no real voice for Nasheenian theology, which would be so much more interesting because the way they practice Islam is so different. Nyx is a major Nasheenian voice in the novel, but as an atheist she has nothing to say about the way her society reconciles their practices with their religion.

However, there is some compensation in the relationship between Nyx and Rhys, which was one of my favourite things about the novel. They disagree about most things and don’t really get along – he thinks she’s a violent, crude, godless woman, and she thinks he’s a weak, pious dope. Their conversations often include an interesting clash of ideas. Nevertheless, each finds inexplicable solace in the other:

The same woman who could cut the head off a man with a dagger in sixty seconds could ease his mind in the face of a thousand angry Nasheenian women. She could banish all thoughts of God, of submission. Some days she made him feel like an insect, a roach, the worst thing to crawl across the world. And then there were times, like now, when she brought him a stillness he had known only with his forehead pressed to a pray rug.

Nyx is also calmed by Rhys – there are a few instances when she’s stressed or scared and asks him to read to her. She doesn’t like what he reads (poetry or the Quran) but she finds his voice soothing. There isn’t any romance here, just a strange kind of friendship between two people who don’t really want to be friends.

The only real shortcoming of this novel is that the plot doesn’t live up to the brilliant opening lines, and it pales in comparison to other aspects of the book. It’s quite slow, plodding along in the background while culture and character dominate the foreground. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but while some novels are written with plot as a minor feature, this one felt more like the plot was meant to be a strong element but failed. It’s only in the last quarter or so that plot comes to the fore and drives the story. The rest of the time I found it vague and largely uninteresting.

On the bright side, there is a fair bit of intrigue that I’m hoping will be more thoroughly explored in the sequels Infidel (01/10/2011) and Rapture (due 06/11/2012). The alien woman that Nyx and Rhys have to track down is actually human, but is considered alien because she is from another colonised planet, and her pale skin sets her apart from the Umaymans. It’s implied early on that these ‘aliens’ are from a Christian society and there’s a suggestion that Umayma is not the only planet where humans are fighting a religious war. This raises a lot of questions about the nature of the human race when it left Earth to colonise other planets, not to mention the future of Umayma when Islam isn’t the only theory of God being fought over.

God’s War almost instantly got me interested in reading the rest of the Bel Dame Apocrypha series. It combines many of the things I’m most interested in – science fiction, religion, gender, sexuality and good writing – and although I thought the plot could have been stronger, the characters and world-building more than made up for that. I’d recommend this to all sci fi fans, not just because it’s such a damn good book, but also because it brings some variety to a very western, male-dominated genre.

 

Buy a copy of God’s War at The Book Depository

Review of Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

Title: Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses
Author: Ron Koertge
Published: 10 July 2012
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Genre: fairy tales, short stories
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 9/10

Note: the eBook file was converted from pdf to awz when sent to my Kindle, and it messed up the formatting. As a result, my quotes are almost all incorrectly formatted. My apologies to the author, publisher and readers; I’ll fix it if I get the chance.

Ron Koertge. That’s all I needed to know. In high school I read his prose-poetry novel The Brimstone Journals, about fifteen teenagers in their last year of high school. Using only simple, intertwined narratives (one of which involves a guy planning a Columbine-style shoot-up), Koertge captivated me with brief but intimate portrayals of the many facets of teenage angst – alienation, insecurity, sexuality, anger, hating your body or being obsessed with it, being too smart or not smart enough, wanting to stand out or wanting to fit in. A narrative made up of poems was unusual and exciting, and Koertge proved masterful with this short form, skilfully filling it with more memorable, evocative details than you would ever find in an ordinary novel. I still remember some of the lines and many of the characters, perhaps not perfectly, but at least in essence.

Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses is written in a similar style – narratives in the form of poems, although in this case each of them tells its own story. Each is a retelling of a classic fairy tale in contemporary language, often with a modern setting. In writing both elegant and punchy, the stories explore relationships, the body, sex and sexuality, desire, violence, prejudice, and cruelty. It can be funny, tragic, and bold, it’s usually very twisted, and sometimes perfect.

Definitely not for children though. It might be a collection of fairy tales, complete with illustrations (all stark, eerie silhouettes), but I wouldn’t give this to a kid. Teenagers maybe. Koertge tells these tales in ways that expose the violence, sex and cruelty in them, or explores the characters’ psychologies in disturbing ways. These stories aren’t explicit, but there are themes and innuendo that would be better appreciated by adults. Take the ending of “Bluebeard” for example:

She knows her life is on the line but, believe it or not, she’s never been so excited! Her husband’s a serial killer, and her bodice is wet with tears, but there’s a chance her brothers will show up like winning lottery numbers. Which does she want more — her hair wound in the maniac’s hands and her white white throat bared, or the sound of boots on the marble stairs?

That should give you an idea of the dark, sensuous stories that Koertge tells, full of taboo desires. Hansel and Gretal have a semi-incestuous relationship and a taste for revenge. There’s an ogre wants to eat her own children.

Cinderella’s stepsisters tell their own sad story:

Ella is married and happy. Our Ever After is silence, darkness, and bitterness. We have names, by the way. She’s Sarah and I’m Kathy. We were always close. As girls we lay in bed kissing and pretending one of us was the prince. We were practicing for happiness.

One particularly unsettling story is “The Princess and the Pea”, where Koertge considers what life might be like for a woman with such a fragile body:

Have you seen the prince? My God, his hands are big as anvils. Do you know what that would do to me? Do you? I see him ogling my breasts and I think, “If you want one of them black and the other one blue, if those are your favorite colors or something, go ahead and grope. Don’t let the screaming bother you.”

Not surprisingly, few of Koertge’s fairy tales have happy endings. Usually there’s at least the taint of dissatisfaction, if not outright misery and pain. Marriage isn’t as blissful as the princes and princesses imagined, and even if they’re happy, there’s often a longing for the past, with its danger and adventure. The Beast is very happy with Beauty, but he hasn’t forgotten his previous life: “With a sigh, sometimes, I brush my perfect teeth and remember when they were fangs.”

Rapunzel, with more than a touch of vanity, is disappointed with her brutally masculine prince:

RAPUNZEL: Up there in the tower, I was a catapult of questions — one after another to keep the witch at bay. So when I first saw the prince, I was thrilled. I wouldn’t be a prisoner forever after all! But he was so hairy. His kisses were like blows. His cheeks sanded down my mother-of-pearl skin and the Plow Horse Game skinned my knees. I admit he made me feel real. I was vapor, otherwise, only collecting into the form of a girl when the witch called and I tugged and she climbed and she was the oven and I was the bread. Now that it’s all over, I suppose I’m happy. I love my daughter. But the prince is moody and thinks of himself. While the witch thought only of me.

Koertge constantly subverts conventions and expectations. Villains and monsters are portrayed with sympathy, while heroes are often revealed to be selfish, manipulative, or just average imperfect human beings. It’s not all so dark and disturbing though. There’s humour too, as in the reaction of the princess who kisses a toad and gets a prince:

OMG. He’s a gift shop, a lamb kebab with mint, a solar panel poetry machine with biceps. He’s the path through the dark woods, the light on the page, a postcard from the castle and a one-way ticket there. He’s the most astounding arrangement of molecules ever!
Just look at those tights! An honest-to-God prince at last.

I also loved Red Riding Hood as a contemporary teenager, telling her mom what happened when she met the wolf:

So first he’s all into my pretty this and that, like I haven’t heard it all before. What? Where did I hear that all before? At parties. What planet do you live on?

And what she thought when she found out that the wolf had swallowed her grandmother whole:

And it kind of makes me want to know what that’s like. What? No, as a matter of fact, if everybody at my school got swallowed whole I wouldn’t want to. It’s lame if everybody does it, Mom. How old are you, anyway?

There are a few stories that I thought were just ok, but this book still went straight into my ranks of best short fiction. Ok yes, I haven’t read that many short fiction collections, but that’s because I seldom enjoy them as much as this little beauty. I’ve read Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses twice now (it’s really short, you can do it in an hour) and I want to buy a print copy because it’s the kind of thing I like to pick up on a whim. I’d open it for some random reason, perhaps looking for a quote, and then inevitably end up curled on the couch reading the whole delightful thing.

Buy Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses at The Book Depository