Reading and Viewing Pleasures in 2016
by Tansy Rayner Roberts
This is the year that I got back in touch with my academic side, after neglecting it for too long. In particular, I’ve been thinking over my relationship with history, and historical fiction, which has always been a driving force in my life.
Hamilton was a huge part of this for me, not only the cast album and the story it tells, but the story behind the story: the collaboration that led to the production, the deliberate choices of which historical details to leave in or leave out, and so on. I’ve had some wonderful conversations with my daughters about American history (something we were almost equally ignorant about when we started this Hamilton journey, my 7 year old barely knew less about American founding fathers than I did…) but also about race and historiography and narrative.
Now we have the Hamilton mixtape, which brings in so many new levels of collaboration, retelling, and reimagining. I’ve had a year full of Hamilton-related thoughts about writing and creativity! It’s a thoroughly inspiring work.
I’ve also followed my own historical specialty back through the centuries, dipping back into Roman history and Ancient Greek literature. In particular, I fell in love with Anne Carson’s translation of the fragments of Sappho: If Not, Winter. I’m excited next to immerse myself her An Oresteia, which I discovered on Tumblr, of all places, and hunted down with savage glee: a modern and at times highly colloquial translation of a trilogy of plays formed of separate works by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides:
KLYTAIMESTRA: Don’t squawk at me. I’m not some witless
I am fearless and you know it.
Whether you praise or blame me I don’t
Here lies Agamemnon, my husband, a dead
body, work of my righteous right hand.
That’s how things stand.
[An Oresteia, translated by Anne Carson]
I’m also loving historical romance right now, particularly those authors who serve up feminism, cultural critique and racial awareness with their crinolines and heaving bosoms! Courtney Milan’s recent novella Her Every Wish comments on class, race, the patriarchy and the terrifying technological advancement of early bicycling. It’s a splendid short read. I’ve also been enjoying Tessa Dare’s fun Castles Ever After series which bestows random castles on its heroines by a feckless godfather, each of them sparking a completely different kind of drama. After Dare’s last title, I found myself hunting down her earlier Spindle Cove books, a marvelously subversive series about a seaside retreat designed to rescue young ladies who fail to meet the expectations of Society, allowing them to breathe and reinvent themselves in a quiet, mostly female community. (On Thursdays… we shoot.)
I’ve acquired a new fascination with the Georgians thanks to my interest in historical romances (Eloisa James and your chess-playing Duchess, I’m looking at you) and have grown attached to the work of social historial Lucy Worsley. I’m loving her book Courtiers about the professional and specialised lives of residents at Court during this period of English history.
My recent TV indulgence is Netflix’s The Crown, a rich and complex historical drama based on the early years of Elizabeth II’s marriage and reign. The acting, writing, and historical scene-setting is wonderful, and allows me to play my favorite game of ‘spot the British actor I first saw in something 25 years ago.’
While not in itself a period piece, Netflix’s latest superhero offering Luke Cage had a strong sense of history to it, acknowledging the 1970’s origins of the character in all kinds of subtle (and not so subtle) ways, while also staying relevant to the current political climate. I have almost no grounding in any of the cultural or political touchstones of this show — I’m a white Australian woman with a very limited knowledge of American history — but I liked the way that Luke Cage didn’t limit itself to being a hyper-masculine story of heroism and gang war narratives despite how it started out. For all the fight scenes, gunfire and aggression, there’s also also discussions of the role of culture, music, books in the history of Harlem and of African Americans. I also appreciated that the role of women in the story got more complicated and interesting as the series progressed — at one point there was a scene in a police station in which four very different women of colour shared a mostly professional discussion, without a man in sight. How often does this happen on television? Check out this piece by Raven Smith on the women in Luke Cage.
The most important piece of Australian science fiction this year is another superhero TV show: Cleverman, a rare piece of homegrown SF (for grownups!) on Aussie TV screens, based substantially on traditional Aboriginal stories. This gritty political dystopia featuring a predominantly indigenous cast had a great deal to say about racial tensions in this country, including the historical and current treatment of Aboriginal communities and asylum seekers. Promoted as a superhero story and featuring several familiar tropes about super strength, and the ‘othering’ of those with powers (like the X-Men if the racial metaphor wasn’t a metaphor), it turned out to be more of a supernatural thriller which probably helped a lot with making the show more widely accessible to a general (non SF) audience.
I am excited to hear that both Cleverman and Luke Cage have been picked up for second seasons. It’s great to see that both shows have found a solid base of support, not just because they are political and interesting and aware but also because they are REALLY GOOD.
TANSY RAYNER ROBERTS is an award-winning podcaster, feminist critic and novelist. You can find links to her projects at tansyrr.com, follow her on Twitter, or listen to her read original serialised fiction at Sheep Might Fly. Sign up to Tansy's newsletter and collect a free copy of her magical university novelette, Fake Geek Girl.