2017 in Review: Women, Atheists, and Other Monsters
by Cynthia Ward
by Cynthia Ward
"Follow Your Arrow Wherever It Points" (Film, Television, and Music)
I was pleasantly surprised to discover The Most Hated Woman in America, a bio-pic about feminist and American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995), who defended the separation of church and state and insulted and infuriated believers (and sometimes nonbelievers) decades before the rise of the New Atheists--a woman who undoubtedly suffered more for her nonbelief than any of New Atheism's oft-lauded male champions, the "Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse" (which is not to suggest her murder was a martyrdom for atheism; it wasn't). As an accurate biography, well, let's just say many details of the movie are in dispute (though the title is a reasonable assessment of her reputation in her lifetime). As a believable depiction of an uncompromising, oft-unsympathetic, fascinating, admirable lifelong atheist, the movie is terrific.
Departing the 20th Century for the near future, Joe and I saw the new movie OtherLife, based on Solitaire (2002), the New York Times Notable Book by the writer Kelley Eskridge, a co-scripter on the film. It's a very loose adaptation of her science fiction novel about virtual reality and a rising young female corporate star cast out of her heaven, and it has rather more of a Philip K. Dick melting-reality feel, but the heart is the same. Complex, tightly scripted, beautifully filmed, and sharply acted, OtherLife is not the movie for someone who needs boom-boom sci-fi action, an all-smiles ending, or a brains-optional plot, but it rewards repeat viewing.
Also set in the near future is the 2016 movie Arrival, based on Ted Chiang's Nebula and Sturgeon Award winning novella, "Story of Your Life" (1998). I sat down knowing this movie (centered on a mother and linguist dragooned into developing communication with mysterious aliens) was considered very good, but I was dubious that any movie could do justice to a Ted Chiang story. When I got up again, I was saying, "Oh my god, that's one of the best movies I've ever seen in my life." Another one to watch again.
Shifting to the 19th Century, Joe and I watched the first season of Penny Dreadful, which we'd barely heard of before some reviews compared my Aqueduct Press novella (The Adventure of the Incognita Countess) to the series. Now I see the reason, though they're not much alike, beyond featuring Victorian/Edwardian literary mash-ups a la Philip Jose Farmer's Wold-Newton sequence and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Grimly and gorily gothic, Penny Dreadful season one melds Dracula, Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, grand guignol theatre, Victorian Egyptology, and soupçons of Allan Quatermain and Jekyll/Hyde and The Phantom of the Opera, as its central supernatural investigator--Vanessa Ives, the most interesting character and one apparently original to the series--undergoes figurative and literal torments of Hell. I hope the two remaining seasons find something better to do with her. I also hope they find something better to do with the African character, Sembene, than keep him the nearly silent faithful sidekick, servant, and bit player.
If treatment of its female and PoC characters puts you off Penny Dreadful season one, you'll certainly want to avoid the new seven-episode Netflix miniseries, Godless. It's not the atheist Western the title had me hoping for, and neither is it the Weird Western suggested as the series rises to the final episode. And, despite the promises of certain articles and promotional materials, this saga of a nearly all-female Old West town is not "feminist" or "the Western women have been waiting for." For one thing, the theme is fathers and sons, as the build-up episodes carefully establish--a fine theme, and handled skillfully for the most part in those six episodes, but not feminist. For another, though some of the women characters do sometimes get to tote rifles, ride horses, drive nails, and kill men, the women have little agency--or, for that matter, sense, which is flatly unbelievable in a large group of frontier women who've survived the deaths of their men in a mining accident, the surrounding wilderness, the journey west, physical attacks sometimes including rape by multiple men, etc. The toughest and most interesting of the bunch, Mary Agnes, states "I’m done with the notion that the bliss of me and my sisters is to be found in childbearing and care-giving," then discusses whether she ever wanted children with her new lady love and spends much of her remaining on-screen time looking after her sheriff brother's two children, a son and a mute and possibly developmentally-disabled daughter (a child-care arrangement which quite firmly shuts out any possibility of an overall father/offspring theme). For these and a host of other reasons, this show is likely to make any feminist's head explode--and, for a vast multitude of still other reasons, it's likely to make the head of any Black, Native American, Nuevo Mexicano, or Mormon viewer explode. The show is less progressive than the fiction of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) and Conan creator Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), who aren't exactly forebears of the SJW spec-fic revolution. What's particularly frustrating is that, until the abysmal concluding episode (which contains the majority of the massive missteps), Godless is good more often than not, with strong acting and fantastic cinematography, and the idea of a mostly-female frontier town in a racially and culturally diverse region is so promising. Ah, what might have been.
Burroughs (as a character's favorite author) brings us to the early 20th Century and a rather more successful television series, the BBC's The Crimson Field (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3494220/). A World War I field-hospital drama, the show offers a rare female-centric look at war. Two of the women characters end up weepy and in need of male support, but elsewhere the many volunteer nurses display the self-reliance and other strengths that would have been necessary to serve in and supervise medical corps on the Western Front. The characters, male and female, are complex, and the acting is excellent. The spirits of Vera Brittain and her brother haunt this series as much as they do the Maisie Dobbs mystery novels I've read, but to better effect. I'm sorry the show was cancelled after the first season.
By this point it probably sounds like I'm about to review the Wonder Women movie, but we haven't seen it yet, alas.
In music, I stumbled across an excellent pair of feminist-friendly progressive (or libertarian) videos by a wonderful new(ish) country singer/songwriter/musician, Kacey Musgraves. As a delightful bonus, "Follow Your Arrow" and "Biscuits" revel (to a greater or lesser extent) in 20th-Century country kitsch. More exploration of Ms Musgraves is necessary.
* * *
Batman Wept (Books)
After years of hearing about it, I finally read Batwoman Volume 1: Hydrology, the first of the Batwoman graphic novels drawn from the Batwoman: The New 52 comic book series, which is about the lesbian heiress who replaced Batman during his unsurprisingly temporary death. Hydrology has beautiful sequential art, fashionably laid out in a manner which is frequently almost impossible to follow, even if, like me, you've been reading comics since the 1960s. The first chapter features Batman assessing (unbeknownst to Batwoman) whether she's good enough to be a superhero. Later chapters feature Batwoman breaking down and crying in the arms of her new romantic interest and being--in her accurate assessment--a bitch to her female cousin/sidekick. In 50+ years of reading comics, I don't remember Batman getting graded or being a bitch or breaking down and crying in a ladyfriend's arms. I was reading the wrong issues, I guess.
Far superior is writer/artist Katie O’Neill's recent YA/MG graphic novel, Princess Princess Ever After, in whose opening a princess seeking adventure encounters a princess trapped in a tower. The latter character owes a smidge to Rapunzel, and the former owes rather more to Utena Tenjō of the anime/manga Revolutionary Girl Utena and Lady Oscar of the anime/manga The Rose of Versailles However, this work is very much its own thing as it follows its gentle and unpredictable path, and it's as charming a book as I've ever read. The ending may be interpreted as a best-friends conclusion, but the rose imagery may lead most anime and manga fans to a different interpretation (as the opening of the gay James Bond parody, Patalliro! Stardust Project , may elucidate Princess Princess Ever After is suitable for all ages, and I'm going to give a copy to the grandkids, some of whom identify as queer and genderqueer, and probably aren't overwhelmed by representation in YA/MG fiction.
Turning from the influence of Japanese comics to a Japanese comic, I read the English translation of the first volume of the manga My Hero Academia, which offers its own charms. Schoolboy protagonist Izuku is the ultimate superhero fanboy, and the rare mundane person in a world where nearly everyone has a "quirk" (super power). To no one's surprise, perhaps, Izuku accomplishes his goal of getting into the leading superhero high school, but does so via imaginative twists and turns. I must admit, I was surprised to encounter a costumed superhero manga, because I never saw the titular character in costume or encountering a supervillain in the original Japanese Spider-Man manga, some volumes of which I paged through in the '80s. I suppose decades of Marvel and DC movie releases have made spandex-clad superheroics a staple of modern Japanese comics. Whatever its inspiration, I'll be reading future volumes of My Hero Academia.
In prose, I read Arthur Machen's classic horror novella, The Great God Pan, first published in 1890, and a revisionist feminist sequel published in the U.S. in 2017 by Aqueduct Press, Helen's Story by Rosanne Rabinowicz. Machen's strange, wondrous, and influential work explores the numinous but ultimately rejects it--and also, one might well argue, female sexuality--as monstrous. Rabinowicz assumes Machen's mysterious central figure, Helen Vaughan, has survived to the present day, in a strange, wondrous, and thought-provoking exploration of the numinous and female sexuality which takes quite other tacks. Both are worth reading, ideally in sequence, where they illuminate one another beautifully.
I also read Swedish author Karin Tidbeck's translated debut novel, Amatka, which can be understood as any--or all--of a variety of genres and subgenres: science fiction, fantasy, dystopia, lesbian fiction, magic realism, romance, slipstream, literary, interstitial, allegory (this may not be the ideal holiday gift for a reader who demands rigid adherence to one category). If you must pick a genre, the most germane is science fiction, for the bleak, wintry setting is an extraterrestrial human colony. On this world, language is no mere arrangement of symbols in sound or print. Words literally hold the world together--if you fail to chant the name of an object regularly enough, it might, like the viewpoint character's neglected suitcase, turn to goo. This description probably brings to mind such reality-melting Philip K. Dick works as Ubik, or may even suggest surrealism à la Dali's melting clocks, but neither applies. Tidbeck's low-key work is disquieting all in its own way.
In addition, I read Ellen Kushner et alia's Tremontaine: The Complete Season Two, the second serial novel (https://www.serialbox.com/serials) in Kushner's Regency-inspired Riverside fantasy sequence. Alas, I'm not as keen on this season as the last, since it felt rather frequently like I'd wandered into an erotica novel, which is a startling sensation--and perhaps not the one you're seeking--when you read a fantasy of manners. As its labels suggest, the mannerpunk subgenre derives much of its narrative tension from the intersections of individual behaviors and social mores in a stratified society, which means mannerpunk characters analyze the behaviors of self and others pretty constantly. The characters in Season Two, however, give their sexual behavior little or no thought afterward, and the zipless fucks sometimes threatened to snap the suspenders of my belief. On the plus side, Season Two maintains the solid writing and multivalent queerness of Season One, and I'll be tuning in to Season Three.
Fans of queer speculative fiction may find much to enjoy at publishing house Lethe Press, and this year I enjoyed several of their titles. One of these is Danya Ingram's dark novella, Eat Your Heart Out, in which a tough lesbian Hollywood star falls for a furniture store worker as the zombiepocalypse breaks out (but be warned an intensely gross thing happens, which has nothing to do with zombie grossness and everything to do with vomit. I nearly checked out at that point, and I don't gross out easily).
Another title, Steve Berman's YA collection Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers, demostrates the Lethe Press publisher and editor is also a writer of considerable breadth, depth, and subtlety. The stories portray queerness and queer relationships positively, which I suspect is not the norm in YA literature. An excellent book for readers young and old. A copy has been gifted to the grandkids.
The Lethe anthologies Suffered From the Night: Queering Stoker's Dracula and Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe, both edited by Steve Berman, and A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes, edited by Joseph R.G. DeMarco, fulfill the mandates of their subtitles, mostly to fine effect. The strongest of the anthologies is Where Thy Dark Eye Glances, but the most memorable story is Elka Cloke's contribution to Suffered From the Night, "Bloofer Ladies," a wistful examination of the friendship between Mina Murray Harker and the doomed Lucy Westenra. It portrays their relationship about how you (if not Stoker) would expect, given the theme, but does so in unpredictable and affecting ways.
Returning to queered Holmes, L.A. Fields' Lethe book, My Dear Watson, presents the world's first consulting detective and his loyal chronicler as ex-lovers, viewed through the eyes of the latter's second wife. Her protectiveness of her beloved husband is understandable, but her bitter first-person narration becomes so caustic towards Holmes as to render the novel potentially unfinishable. Hang in there. Narrator and author pull it off in the end with empathy and generosity.
I enjoyed the iconoclastic feminist novel I, Vampire (1984) by Jody Scott (1923-2007) within a few years of its release, but never encountered the prequel, Passing for Human (1977), until its recent eBook release. This SF novel has a different lead and a different feel than its sequel--and its satire is so wild and wooly and sometimes disjointed, I suspect the author wasn't exercising any great control at some points. Very hippie/Boomer/'60s-'70s, very politically incorrect, sometimes dated, and almost constantly offensive, it's probably like nothing you've read before. I look forward to re-reading I, Vampire and reading Devil-May-Care, the recently released third book of the Benaroya Chronicles trilogy.
Inasmuch as I'm mostly writing pulp fiction these days, I'm reading more of it--and there is more new pulp fiction in print than I've seen in years, if not decades. I enjoyed a number of the new spec-fic titles this year, including the fast-paced and imaginative Pellucidarian time-travel novel Jur: A Story of Predawn Earth by Tom Johnson and James Reasoner, and issues of Cirsova, StoryHack, and Weirdbook. If you suppose politically correct language is not a significantly higher priority in new pulp than in old, you would be correct. If you thereby deduce pulp has no good prose or diversity or non-distressed damsels, you would be in error. As evidence, might I bring to your attention Jessica Amanda Salmonson's decadent literary tales in Weirdbook and Skelos and J. Comer's thoughtful sword-and-planet tales of a gay couple and a sworn virgin/trans man in Cirsova and the online revival of Planetary Stories (http://www.planetarystories.com/planetary.html?) Up next on my pulp spec-fic reading list: the magazines Broadswords and Blasters and Occult Detective Quarterly and the sequels to Jur.
A couple of nonfiction titles I read for research are worth noting. One is Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill. In its revelations of the horrors of the Victorian woman's role, clothing, toilette, medical care, experiences in bed, etc, the book seems to be aimed at straight white cisgender romance readers (and probably these horrors wouldn't be news to many readers of color, LGBTQIAP readers, viewers of Penny Dreadful or Godless, fans of Sarah Waters' historical novels, or fans of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic novel From Hell). Whoever Unmentionable's intended audience, Joe and I frequently roared with laughter--and we're profoundly grateful the author is so funny, because otherwise her book would be unbearably tragic and enraging. This is true even though Oneill didn't plumb all the depths of female Victorian existence (for example, she seems to think women of the higher social classes might have taken a week of insanity treatment as a sort of respite from their lives, when it's more likely a woman judged insane or "hysterical" would have been trapped for months, years, possibly a lifetime, in a nightmare of fiendish torment and brutality).
When I started reading Tim Whitmarsh's Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, I exclaimed, "This is going to be good," because I'd never before encountered a book-length portrayal of atheism which extends much further back than Bertrand Russell's 20th Century teapot or Robert G. Ingersoll's 19th Century lectures. Or, to put it another way, this is the first time I've encountered a significant history of my people, though we've been around for millennia. Whitmarsh's work mostly discusses ancient Greece and Rome (they being the source of the lion's share of ancient documents), and it has some speculative elements, but he's candid about those. By the way, I was wrong. The book isn't good. It's superb.
If you'd prefer a short, insightful take on atheism in the (mostly modern) U.S., there is The Atlantic's "Women Atheists Are Genuinely Considered Monsters."
Reading the Tiptree Award-winning, cis-girl-meets-trans-boy YA novel, Anna-Marie McLemore's remarkable When the Moon Was Ours (2016), lead me to the nonfiction book that surely helped to inspire its existence: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan (2014) by Jenny Nordberg. The centuries-old tradition of the bacha posh (and sworn virgins, etc) came into existence because Afghanistan (and Albania, etc) is (are) so intensely patriarchal, every family needs a son, so many a family without one raises a daughter as their son. The book is fascinating and insightful, and it really needs to be read by anyone seeking to do feminist or women's aid work effectively and non-damagingly outside the West. Also of note, the biologically female sons in the book are just as loud, aggressive, energetic, successful in sports, and prone to fighting as the biologically male sons. For those interested in reading (or providing) more information on the general topic, Ms Nordberg maintains a website at http://bachaposh.com/.
In current nonfiction reading, I'm alternating between two books: the new review/essay collection Sleeping with Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy by the historian and queer feminist critic Liz Bourke, and the recent collection of poems/meditations, Your Daily Shot of Hope: Meditations for an Age of Despair: Volume 1, by atheist spiritualist Diane Silver. The latter's short, tight entries are fine food for thought and contemplation by insightful readers of every moderate or left-leaning religious or secular persuasion (and I've learned the second volume has just been released; it's discussed here, with purchase links). The former collection has longer entries, but Liz Bourke's bracingly direct reviews and essays are quick reads, for all they're packed with observation and insight; this isn't an experience I've often had with criticism, but I'm finding these pieces as gripping and entertaining as a great novel.
I've just finished fantasy writer Molly Tanzen's new novel, Creatures of Will and Temper, which posits the existence of demons in alt.Victorian (though not steampunk) England. While there is more of a lesbian current than a gay undercurrent, the book is avowedly influenced by, and somewhat of a pastiche of, Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. Well written and suited to both adult and young adult readers, Creatures of Will and Temper is engaging, though the entirely realistic and believable bickering between the sisters/protagonists goes on a bit long for this reader. However, the novel kicks into high gear as one of its sister-leads pursues art criticism and a possessed older woman, and the other joins a fencing school and adds rapier dueling and possibly romance to her épéeist's repertoire.
To conclude my post, I could tell you how excellent, prescient, and frightening Chris Hedges' 2007 nonfiction book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America is, but I'll just include a few quotes, instead. Here's one:
"An absolute leader, called in Freudian terms the collective superego, is morally permissive. This is part of the leader’s attraction. Murder may be wrong, but the murder of infidel Iraqis or Islamic terrorists—or the genocidal slaughter of nonbelievers by an angry Christ at the end of time—is celebrated. This moral permissiveness is exciting and seductive and empowers followers to carry out acts of violence, often with a clean conscience. Those nonbelievers who are hurt or killed are at fault for turning their backs on God. Blind adherence to an absolute leader, especially one who permits violence, hands followers a license to unleash hidden, prohibited lusts and passions usually kept locked within the human heart. It permits followers to kill in the name of God."
"If facts can’t be made to fit, they are discarded or treated as misguided opinions. When facts are treated as if they were opinions, when there is no universal standard by which to determine truth in law, in science, in scholarship, or in the reporting of the events of the day, the world becomes a place where lies become true, where people can believe what they want to believe, where there is no possibility of reaching any conclusion not predetermined by those who interpret the official, divinely inspired text."
And a final entry:
"I do not deny the right of Christian radicals to be, to believe and worship as they choose. But I will not engage in a dialogue with those who deny my right to be, who delegitimize my faith and denounce my struggle before God as worthless. All dialogue must include respect and tolerance for the beliefs, worth and dignity of others, including those outside the nation and the faith. When this respect is denied, this clash of ideologies ceases to be merely a difference of opinion and becomes a fight for survival."
Cynthia Ward has published stories in Asimov's SF, Shattered Prism, Weird Tales, and other magazines and anthologies. For WolfSinger Publications she edited the diversity-themed anthologies Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West V.1-2. With fellow Aqueductista Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored Writing the Other: A Practical Approach . Aqueduct Press released her short novel, The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, in January 2017.