We Were Rebels Once

I came across Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once in a local library early last December. The premise – that feminism has gone from being a political movement to being a brand identity – intrigued me. I found myself thinking about Bridget Christie’s observation of the rise of Tory “feminists”, including then-future UK Prime Minister Theresa May, in contrast to former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who has called feminism “poison”. Christie observes that, while these Tory MPs were calling themselves “feminists”, their actual actions had a disproportionately negative impact on women. By December 2016 I was well aware that antifeminist anger could also generate political capital, but it wasn’t the only place where political movements were being assumed with words that might not be backed up with actions. In the aftermath of the US Presidential election a few weeks before, the writers of the then-forthcoming Star Wars prequel Rogue One positioned themselves, and their film, in direct opposition to the President Elect. Having now read We Were Feminists Once and seen Rogue One, I wanted to reflect on the film and this claim in the light of that book. This blog post will contain spoilers.

“We know how many people flocked to the movies that have been heralded as game-changing feminist statements, but we don’t know whether those numbers will change deeply gendered systems that make game-changing feminist movies a necessity to begin with.”

Andi Zeisler, We Were Feminists Once, p. 255

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Hope and Despair: My Top Ten Books of 2016

I decided a couple of days ago to go back over the books that I read this year to try to establish, largely for myself, a kind of top ten that were books I would recommend to others. It was more difficult than I expected – I read very few novels that really stuck with me this past year, so it became mostly non-fiction, which is unusual for me. Some of the things on this list feel like filler because I could only get about five books I absolutely loved if I cut out books that I’d re-read (perhaps I should have included Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind, though). I originally planned to post this list to Twitter and Facebook, but as I reflected on them and what they meant to me, I found a lot more depth than I had expected. Thus it has become a blog post. The books are presented in roughly the order in which I read them, not in any way intended to be a ranking based on relative enjoyment or quality.

  1. Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit

I think that, if I’d got around to reading Solnit’s Hope In the Dark (it’s primed on my kindle), it would have made this list rather than Men Explain Things to Me. That’s not to say that Men Explain Things to Me didn’t affect me, but the thing that has really been going through my head the past few weeks/months are Solnit’s reflections on despair and optimism (both, in her interpretation, forms of certainty cause for inaction) and hope, which promises the possibility of a good outcome if one works towards it, in the essay “Woolf’s Darkness”. I’ve see a lot of people since November talking about embracing despair, not giving in to hope, but I think they use ‘hope’ the way Solnit uses optimism. Reflecting on this alongside my (joint-)favourite film of the year, I came up with an example:

OPTIMISM: The Empire has built a Death Star, but let’s wait and see if they actually use it, it could be fine.

DESPAIR: The Empire has built a Death Star! We must disband the Rebellion and go back to living in fear!

HOPE: The Empire has built a Death Star. Let’s try to steal the plans and blow that shit up.

The last one is what we need right now. Perhaps not the ‘blowing shit up’ part, but definitely the resistance. We need hope, an aim, a motive, not to give in to the worst possible outcome and let the Empire destroy us.

  1. The Secret History of Wonder Woman – Jill Lepore

I don’t make much of a secret of the fact that I tend to prefer the history of comic books to the actual comic books themselves. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is concerned as much with the creator of Wonder Woman (and the women on whom she was based) than the actual history of the comic book character and her use and abuse over the past 75 years (which could have dovetailed nicely with Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminist Once, discussed below), but it’s still a fascinating history of a comic book icon. At the time of reading I found it paralleled Charlotte Gordon’s dual biography of Marys Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Romantic Outlaws, which I read in 2015, in that it chronicled the ways in which supposedly progressive men can be blind to the experiences of women. I think that this remains a significant barrier in progressive circles; I suspect that, if we looked at the Democratic Party and the support given to Barack Obama and Bernie Sandars but not to Hillary Clinton, we might find that it is one of the sources of the current problems in the world today.

  1. The Birthday of the World – Ursula Le Guin

Of course Ursula le Guin makes it onto a list of my favourite books from any year; and this year I read the last of her Hainish/Ekumen stories. This collection contains many stories that reflect on change over time, particularly “The Matter of Seggri”, and the idea that progress is gradual but happens. It is, I would say, optimistic more than hopeful. But that is perhaps doing it, and le Guin, a disservice. This year I also listened to the audiobook of The Dispossessed, which I originally read in 2012, and reflected on its message that progress, equality, and freedom are on-going projects, ones that require work and maintenance. The Dispossessed is subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, and I thought about what undermines the utopianism of Anarres, the anarchist society of the novel. It is, perhaps, that the society was optimistic – “we have created an anarchist society, therefore we are free and equal” – rather than hopeful – “we have created an anarchist society, through which we can strive for freedom and equality”. “The Matter of Seggri” is far behind the utopias of The Dispossessed, but one might look on it as a hopeful tale, where the difficulties and struggles of Seggri past are overcome as it progresses towards a more equal society.

4 & 5. Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire/A Calculated Life – Anne Charnock

I didn’t read many novels this year, as a proportion of the books I read, and few of them really stuck with me in the way that a lot of the non-fiction did. Besides Philip K. Dick’s VALIS, these two novels were the most thought provoking.

Were I being completely honest, I would admit that the novel that most affected me this year was Way Down Dark by James Smythe; it doesn’t make the list because the effect was negative. Perhaps I had already been down because of the referendum bullshit but Way Down Dark is the first thing I can date this year that made me really despair. It was so hopeless and bleak that it put me off reading for a while afterwards, and may explain why I read so few novels after it. As I reflected in my Goodreads review of A Calculated Life, it is possible that I enjoyed it so much because I had not enjoyed the previous, overlong, stodgy book that I read. Looking back, perhaps it was also because I followed it up with Way Down Dark.

  1. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America – Thomas King

The Inconvenient Indian stands apart from many of the other things that I read in 2016. I didn’t – couldn’t – review it on Goodreads, I couldn’t think how to encapsulate what it made me think and feel. I still can’t. What I can say is that it has made me reflect on some of the other histories that I read, both for my research and for pleasure, and how they discuss Indians, and colonialism, and colonization. They do not often come across all that well. Perhaps the most important key theme of the book is that of betrayal – how Native and First Nations people have constantly be betrayed by the promises and treaties that colonial Canada and the United States of America make with them. It has made me notice how far in the background Native rights are in most discussions of progressive politics in both the USA and Canada, and how easily they can be discarded once a ‘progressive’ party wins an election, but also how progressive media consistently ignores or marginalises Native peoples – or depicts them with tropes and clichés, as a people that belong in and to the past (King’s ‘Dead Indians’).

The Inconvenient Indian was published in 2013, towards the end of the Harper era (although obviously that was unclear at the time). One might have thought that with Justin Trudeau’s election things were looking better and that now, when I think about The Inconvenient Indian, I am hopeful that the cycles of mistreatment have come to an end. But 2016 has not been that kind of year. In fact, when I jokingly commented in December 2015 that Trudeau’s flip-flopping regarding his statement that Return of the Jedi was the best Star Wars film was a poor indicator for his time as Prime Minister, I didn’t expect to be proven as right as I have been this past year. It’s difficult, because as a spousal immigrant in Canada the Liberal government has improved things for me, and for those who come after me, in the ways in which they have changed the application procedures and decreased the waiting times. But the government has still betrayed its promises to First Nations people, still allowed more pipelines to be built, still isn’t prioritising missing and murdered First Nations women. The Inconvenient Indian actually provides the best check to my hopeful side in what has happened since it was written and since I read it.

  1. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?/Why Not Me? – Mindy Kaling

I listened to a few audiobooks by comedians this year and Mindy Kaling’s were the best. It’s difficult to fit this into the narrative of hope, optimism, and despair that I’ve established throughout this account. I can reflect on the (optimistic) jokes in the first part of The Mindy Project season 5 that assume Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential election. But I think that, mostly, I like to think that a funny, successful person wrote a couple of books that I really enjoyed.

  1. Death’s End – Cixin Liu

I have some reservations about recommending Death’s End, especially as it is the third part of a trilogy of exceptionally long novels. The first, The Three-Body Problem, was fantastic; the second, The Dark Forest, began terribly but ended well. The trilogy is certainly worth reading if you can cope with the misogyny. But, in a way, it is even bleaker than Way Down Dark. Throughout the trilogy humanity goes through stages of hope and despair, trying to find new ways to survive, sometimes just about holding on. Despair, it seems, is the best course of action. Indeed, it is clear at some points that hope and optimism – or at least, attempting to stifle despair – causes more problems for humanity than it solves.

  1. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era – Michael Kimmel

Like The Inconvenient Indian, Angry White Men was published in 2013 but remains a pretty solid explanation of how what happened in 2016 happened, three years before it actually, uh, happened. This book details the circumstances in which the anguish of white men is turned to anger, and how it is directed against those who are coming up from beneath them rather than against those above them who hold them down. It also provides the handy term ‘aggrieved entitlement’ to explain how men react to no longer being the centre of attention.

While I do not think that Kimmel is guilty of the blindness to women’s suffering that I attribute to William Moulton Marston or the men in the lives of Marys Wollstonecraft and Shelley, I found that my interest in the failings of supposedly feminist men were not met by this book. It’s a topic that I find a lot of interest in because it is something that I feel myself and that I am trying to be self-reflective. It doesn’t really fall within Kimmel’s remit, which is to look at the angry masculinity of a certain kind of man, but I think that the entitlement of progressive men also needs to be considered, even though it is yet to be aggrieved.

As with The Inconvenient Indian, subsequent events have affected how I react to Angry White Men three years after its original publication. Kimmel is a little over-optimistic in his conclusions. His implication is that we don’t actually have to do anything; these men are in decline and will eventually be drowned out. That doesn’t seem to have actually happened; in fact, it seems like the harmful forces that take advantage of these men’s anguish have managed to do so to an extraordinary degree. But the book offers me hope, even if that hope is fragile: that those who have gained rights will not back down; that the lack of progress over the next few years will show these angry white men that their optimism has been misplaced; that left-wing movements can take over where right-wing ones have previously held sway. Ultimately, it shows me that there is a way through this darkness; it’s just that the way through needs to challenge the right, admit how neoliberal economics have failed, and to hold fast to the importance of the rights that have been gained over the past decades. It’s a sliver of hope, but it is there.

  1. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, The Buying and Selling of a Political Movement – Andi Zeisler

The last book that I read this year, and one on which I am still mulling. It will have been written with some awareness of what might happen in 2016, but was published before much of it happened; but there is still a tone of hope in the dark as Zeisler presents a difficulty in a modern progressive movement and reflects on how to make the best out of it. But the part which made me the most hopeful was a section in which Zeisler discusses the attacks on female bodily autonomy under the Bush administration in the early ‘00s, and the way in which 9/11 was used to prevent criticism of the government. Zeisler comments that subsequently, social media has created connections and support networks between women so that it is more difficult to feel as alone as one could in the early ‘00s. Here, again, is a shred of hope. As Kimmel concluded, women and minorities are not suddenly going to back down and forget that they are still treated unequally; under Bush, the spectre of terrorism and the lack of social media made it difficult to challenge attacks to past gains, but in the next few years such a defence might be possible. It’s not much, but it’s there. Again, it is why hope (understood to mean looking for solutions) is better than optimism or despair (assuming an outcome, positive or negative). The fight will get more difficult, but it will not become impossible.

In a way, I found Zeisler’s focus on the co-opting of ‘feminism’ as an identity among right wing and capitalist women such as Sarah Palin rather than on how some men use this identity as an excuse to get at women (to Explain Things to Them, as it were) more disappointing than Kimmel’s lack of discussion on the topic, as it perhaps fits better with the theme of her book. It connects We Were Feminists Once with The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Romantic Outlaws; men continue to use ‘feminist’ as an identity or gold star, especially young men, as a way of showing their ‘wokeness’, or how they are Good For Women. It is outlined well in this BuzzFeed article, which describes these men as ‘thirsty male feminist[s]’. It is worth a read, and a salient reminder that if one is a man who wishes to enact feminism then one must be careful of pitfalls, the most prominent one being dictating feminism to women and girls rather than using their position among men as a way of promoting feminism and respect for women and other genders among those of us who benefit from the patriarchal dividend. For me, next year will partially be about how to put one of Zeisler’s main points – that feminism is something that you do, not something that you are – into action in my own life. I’m still thinking about how I might do that. But I remain hopeful.

Retro Post: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

I really enjoyed The Forever War when I read it in 2010; the version which I read had a fantastic cover which is the collection, Peace and War, which includes the other Haldeman books on the same theme, Forever Peace, a companion novel, and Forever Free, the sequel which I describe (accurately) later in this diary as “batshit fucking loco”. I’ve put together several entries from my diary about the novel, with the dates attached.

24th May 2010

In reading The Forever War I have become much, much more interested in proper sci-fi. The book, thus far, is brilliant, conveying a proper sense of isolation, of distance, and of the difficulty involved in long distance space travel, and especially war. There’s a lack of distinct otherness to the alien life-forms and world – although the cold, empty planet on which the Privates train is certainly well feeling. It’s mostly that the Taurons, as bi-pedal two-armed upright-walking creatures are just a bit too close to human for me. Insofar as interstellar travel is concerned this is certainly the best sci-fi I have ever read.

But I suspect that my interest grows for other reasons, too. A Scanner Darkly is probably the best Philip K. Dick book I’ve read [this remains true], and I have been reading a lot of Interzone too. But I am starting to believe that while fantasy can and perhaps should [be able to] get away with principally being a romp (as Retribution Falls and The Lies of Locke Lamora are) sci-fi needs to be more than that. The Forever War is a commentary on the Vietnam war (and by extension all wars) by a veteran; A Scanner Darkly by a veteran of the war on drugs, showing that the side on which he fought was the wrong one.

26th May 2010

Some initial thoughts upon finishing The Forever War: it is good, very good. One of the best books that I have read so far this year, and certainly the best that isn’t by Ursula Le Guin [which were The Earthsea Cycle, in its entirety by this point I think]. I’m not too certain about its attitude to homosexuality, but given the contexts of a) the time it was written and b) its use in the book [as an alienating factor for the veterans] I think that I can understand it. I’m not certain that it’s meant to be condemnatory, rather than just alienating.

I like the ending, even [obviously, edited for spoilers]. I think that works, as does most of the rest of it, especially the [spoilers deleted]. It was a satisfying conclusion.

The warfare, the technology, the extraterrestrial setting – I liked all of that. The sense of distance, isolation, and loneliness I thought were fantastic. My internal imagery was usually better [in my opinion] than, say, the comic book, and though Alien is probably the closest film adaptation and despite my love of Blade Runner, I’m not certain that even Ridley Scott should bring this to the screen. [As he was rumoured to be doing at the time; this was before Prometheus, so I didn’t complain about this film, despite the opportunity to do so. It’s rubbish!]

My criticism, ironically, is mostly to do with (so far as I can tell) the novella “You Can Never Go Back”, which wasn’t in the original publication of the book because it was too dark and negative. If it is the earthly part of Lieutenant Mandella the it’s mostly because of the treatment of homosexuality, but I wasn’t so keen. It did, however, provide the right sort of sense of isolation that I thought was necessary for the story. [The soldiers go home to a world that has moved beyond them and changed, which is now unrecognisable – they can’t stay, and re-enlist in the army, as I recall.]

Other than that, there were some minor inconsistencies which, frankly, I’m willing to ignore. Generally, I really liked it, and I’m looking forward to reading some more classic sci-fi this year.

Retro Post: Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

I’ve been meaning for years to use entries from my old diary (23rd May 2010-2nd July 2012) as the inspiration for blog entries. Now that I have some distance between then and now, and as many of my more recent entries are based more firmly on notes from my current diary, I feel more able to do this. The plan is to copy out slightly edited versions of the entries themselves, perhaps with annotations [in square brackets]. In some cases (such as the entry on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino) I may re-read the books in question and add new comments; in others (such as the entries on The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin) I will have to check that there isn’t already information on this blog which matches them. I guess I will try to make these updates regular, once or twice a week, rather than just whenever I can be bothered with them. It might help the blog keep going, and prevent further four-month gaps in updates.

The entry with which I am going to begin is from 23rd May 2010.

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding was alright. As good as I really expected it to be, not at the level of the best fantasy like the Earthsea cycle but it was a readable, Firefly-esq jaunt in a fantasy world. The problems which I have with it [are typical:] towards the end, especially when dealing with the character’s feelings, he over-indulges in telling rather than showing. I also wasn’t particularly impressed by his female characters – they were minimal, and exclusively introduced with sex in mind: Frey thinking about how useful it was that Jez was plain, the beauty of the female Century Knight, and the others being primarily Frey’s conquests in one form or another.

The other part is setting. Much of the geography of the world in Retribution Falls, besides some of the NSEW locations, is indistinct. I couldn’t figure out my way around the Ketty Jay, nor even precisely what it looked like. [I think my gist here is that the type of ship the Ketty Jay was – airship? Aeroplane? – was unclear, so there were no clues about how it should look apart from the cover.] Greater descriptions would have been nice, but there was also the chance to imagine it for yourself, which was quite good.

[I think the comparison of this novel to Firefly was over privleging, but I know what I mean. The idea was that there was a group of misfits, on the run, on a ship. You’d like them because they were roguish, although I don’t remember them being funny. I have a lot more to say about this book in later entries concerning the rape of all the female characters; a theme of this diary was how many of the novels I read approached rape, as a vast number of fantasy novels seem to do. Perhaps also worthy of note is that this book has two sequels now, neither of which I have read or really intend to.]

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Nothing ages like the future.

2001, as I’m sure everyone has noticed, is long past. The future imagined by Clarke and Kubrick has not come to pass – there are no bases on the moon, humankind has not gone as far as Mars, let alone Jupiter or Saturn – but things which they can’t have imagined have occurred, such as mobile phones and tablets and female characters in SF novels. When you read slightly older SF, especially slightly older SF which insists on having a date in the title which a fair portion of its original audience will live to see, you have to accept that much of the narrative will seem dated. Can you imagine Siri doing any of the things Hal does? Of course not. Siri is nowhere near that competent. But then again . . .

Were it not for that date in the title, 2001 would not seem like an impossible future today. True, it would require a revival in the space programme which doesn’t seem to be particularly pending (when is the first manned flight to Mars planned?) but that is a minor point. Also, discoveries and knowledge of the solar system has grown exponentially since the publication of 2001 in 1968 and the Moon landings which followed. I expected this book to feel a lot more dated than it did. As it stands, there is very little in it which (to someone uneducated in astronomy and physics) couldn’t feature in a novel today. The book even features an e-reader, albeit only for newspapers, and not wireless; and is somewhat prescient about the response to such devices:

Despite all the electronic read-outs, there were times when good, old-fashioned printed material was the most convenient form of record.

And so, having established that the story is not hopelessly dated, on with its actual contents. 2001: A Space Odyssey claims to be about the human race’s place in the universe. As such, it begins with the origins of the human race as a tribe of ape-men on the verge of becoming sentient, definably human. From the beginning, it suggests, the human race was guided along the path which it takes, with evolutionary bounds encouraged by those who have passed them before us. Having seen one of these mysterious monoliths guide the apes towards humanity, we leap a few million years in time to twelve years ago, when (mild spoiler alert) another one of these monoliths is discovered on the Moon. Archaeology happens, and it is discovered that this object hasn’t seen light in millions of years – but it has just broadcast a signal deep into the solar system.

After this, much of that story is forgotten for the bulk of the book. We are treated to poetic exposition about the solar system as Bowman and Poole travel past Jupiter towards Saturn; the time, beauty, and also boredom involved in this is conveyed throughout the middle section. Eventually, of course, things start to go wrong. The next events are pretty famous, but still – spoilers. And it is far from the end. The adventure continues as the true meaning of the mission becomes clear – even if the true meaning of the novel never really does.

As far as I can tell, having not seen the film, the novel is a little less ambiguous and seemingly insane than the film. That doesn’t mean it is in any way obvious. Humanity is shown to be remote, insignificant – but potentially of enormous importance. The ambiguity of this ending is similar to that which Ridley Scott achieved in Blade Runner (although it is less obvious what is supposed to be ambiguous) and seems to be exactly what he was hoping to achieve in Prometheus, and failed miserably. There is a short essay at the beginning of this edition of 2001 titled “Back to 2001”, written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1989, in which he comments:

He [Kubrick] wanted to make a movie about Man’s place in the universe – a project likely to give a heart-attack to any studio head of the old school, or, for that matter, of the new one. It’s certainly difficult to imagine it being welcomed in Hollywood today.

This may have been true of the late 80s, but it is no longer true. Hollywood produced Prometheus, and showed that it may be willing, it was no longer able. I feel as if I have come across these two narratives the wrong way around, although Prometheus’ apparent lack of knowledge that these topics have been covered before does somewhat suggest that Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott haven’t seen or read 2001. I don’t wish to elevate 2001 too far by comparing it to something so completely inferior; it is an interesting meditation about how humanity’s exploration of the universe may change its very meaning. But because of the ambiguity, the answers really come from the reader, from their disposition. It is an aid to thought, not a place where the answers will be found.

I look forward to watching the film at some point. Perhaps I will have more to say then.

[EDIT] I forgot to say… it is IMPOSSIBLE to read this book without having this as your earworm for days afterwards: