Tag Archives: sff romance

Viscounts and Vorkosigans

Welcome to the inaugural post in my new once-monthly series, For the Love of Lit Crit, where we treat romance novels like the deliberately composed texts they are. Posts will be tagged as such and collected on their very own page. Spoilers generally abound. Suggestions for a better series title (and books to analyze) will be eagerly entertained.

In Jo Walton’s review of A Civil Campaign for Tor.com, she states that aside from the title she finds this book has more in common with The Grand Sophy than with Heyer’s A Civil Contract. As far as plot structure and character are concerned, she’s probably right — I’ve never read The Grand Sophy myself so I’m leaving that one out of this analysis. But thematically, I feel like the Vorkosigan book is a direct response to the themes of Heyer’s text. A Civil Contract is essentially about the social self, how to define it and how it can or cannot be changed; A Civil Campaign takes these fundamental questions and very forthrightly rebuts Heyer’s conservative theses.

In A Civil Contract, hero Adam starts the book by being thrown out of his accustomed orbit. He has inherited his late father’s title, he has become the legal head of his family, he has been injured in battle and has a permanent limp, and now he must cash out his captaincy and abandon his military career. The previous viscount ran in the highest social circles but was financially profligate and reckless; much of Adam’s journey over the course of the book deals with him trying to find a different mode of aristocracy more suited to his personal inclinations. He does so by following the example of the elderly gentlemen-farmers and learning how best to improve his ancestral lands, thus satisfying his class pride while also gaining scope for his energy and individual drive. It is a personal decision, but it also means Adam never really questions his position as an aristocrat. He simply finds a more personally palatable form of aristocracy, without rejecting the class hierarchy’s fundamental assumptions.

This is not the only time Adam inhabits a ready-made social role. His romance with Julia is obviously a classic example of the Wounded Hero romance, a connection between two types rather than two individuals and explicitly described as such:

It was not wonderful that he should have alleviated the pain and the weariness of the months he had spent in and out of the surgeons’ hands with a flirtation with the lovely Miss Oversley; still less wonderful that a romantic girl should have encouraged the gallantry of a hero of Salamanca. (A Civil Contract, Kindle location 150)

Julia is less a character than a symbol in this novel: she exists to embody the most rarefied type of nobility. And while Adam found this charming before, he comes to a different opinion after her marriage to the Marquis of Rockhill: “when he looked at Julia, and listened to her, she seemed to be almost a stranger. Even her appearance had altered. She had always been charmingly dressed, but in a style suited to her maiden status; he had never seen her attired in the silks, the velvets, and the jewels of matronhood” (Kindle location 4975). This is the glittering and useless aristocracy of Adam’s father, against which our hero has been struggling over the course of the whole novel.

I have said before that I often try to root for the Other Woman as a habit of feminist praxis, and Julia is such a quintessential Other Woman that empathizing with her feels like real resistance to patriarchy. The more the text tries to make her unsympathetic — to make her spoiled, or histrionic, or casually adulterous — the more I want to champion her. Yes, she’s impractical and sheltered — not hard, when her attempts to be practical are roundly mocked and everyone goes out of their way to shelter her. I can’t find it in me to blame her for what has obviously been done to her by her family (and the author). Adam’s gradual rejection of Julia and what she represents reads to me less like a character coming into emotional maturity and more like a man who slowly comes to believe himself a superior kind of person. His preference for the maiden over the matron ties in with his protectiveness of Fontley and his resistance to Mr. Chawleigh’s wealth: there’s something about purity in there that I would tease out if I could stand to spend so much time talking about Adam. (Confession: I’m one of those readers who remains unconvinced by this book’s happy ending).

I must also disagree with Jo Walton’s assertion that there’s “none of Heyer’s weirdly vile racism here, because we don’t see anyone to provoke it.” (Also: weirdly vile? As opposed to commonly vile?) Here’s an early passage describing Mr. Chawleigh’s reception by his new in-laws: “With every will in the world to talk pleasantly to him, an over-delicate refinement made [Adam’s sister] Charlotte regard him with much the same nervous surprise as she would have felt at being addressed by an aboriginal” (1376). Racism and colonialism underscore the inherent class bias in the text: Mr. Chawleigh is as far removed from the world of Adam’s titled English family as a brown- or black-skinned native of some far-flung imperial wilderness. It’s a little moment, but a telling one: that’s a lot of power systems to invoke in one throwaway simile.

Despite the narrative’s attempts to make him overbearing, Mr. Chawleigh is an incredibly likeable character, even if I did hear his dialogue in the voice of Mr. Hardwood from this episode of Blackadder (video link: relevant bit starts at 11:04). His rampant generosity and earnest desire to make his new in-laws happy are touching and empathetic. But to Adam’s high-born eyes his greatest virtue is his refusal to mix with those above his social station. Adam is similarly grateful for Jenny’s reticence to make changes at Fontley, even when those changes are necessary maintenance and repair. As the romance progresses, the story asks the question: How permeable are the barriers between Adam and Jenny? How much can they transcend their social selves to make a sincere connection separate from class and status?

Not that much, as it turns out. They can essentially hold hands through the chain-link fence, but they will never be the same category of person. Jenny is much more attuned to this than Adam, which makes sense as the marginalized are always much more attuned to the workings of privilege than the privileged are. (See: rape culture, institutional racism, accessibility for disabled people, etc.) Upon her first much-postponed arrival at Fontley — her husband’s home! which her father’s money helped save! — Adam tells her she can do as she pleases and Jenny has the following heartbreaking insight: “She did not say: I am only a guest in your house, but it was what she thought, for he uttered the speech just stiltedly enough to betray that it had been rehearsed” (3473). This same assumption of difference underlies Julia’s suggestion to Adam that they enjoy a discreet sexual liaison (it’s couched as ‘friendship,’ but come on): “Cannot something be left to us? … Jenny could not be hurt by anything that passed between you and me, Adam” (3830). Nor will I be the first person to point out that Jenny’s lack of beauty reads as a function of class, even though there’s no statistical reason to suppose a commoner is likely to be less pretty than a lord’s daughter. Moreover, while Jenny gives birth to a son with a great deal of bodily risk and effort, Julia becomes a stepmother to two girls already half-grown. It’s hard not to see this as a class distinction as well: the common folk’s messy struggle, the upper classes’ aloofness and untouchability. I found myself wanting to read more about Julia and her stepdaughters; it felt as though there was a whole book there waiting to be explored, more nuanced than the usual stepmother tropes allow. Again: official Olivia Waite stance is Team Julia.

And Team Jenny — because Jenny broke my heart and she deserves better than what she gets in this book. Here is Adam’s ultimate confession of love: “‘I do love you, Jenny,’ he said gently. ‘Very much indeed — and I couldn’t do without you. You are a part of my life'” (6006). Jenny has one of her quiet, unspoken revelations: “Probably Adam would always carry Julia in some corner of his heart … although he might no longer yearn to possess her she would remain nostalgically dear to him while life endured.”

This is a hell of a thing for a romance heroine to think at the emotional climax of the book.

Look, I get it: the chemistry of lust can be blinding, and a quieter, less dashing partner can nevertheless be wonderfully romantic (e.g. Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon, be still my swooning heart). And we should definitely resist the urge to define love as a thing earned through effort, because that way lie the hellish gates of the Friendzone and favor sharking and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” where unasked-for sacrifices by manipulative partners lead to an obligation for love, for sex, and for attention and power in ways that are clearly misogynistic. (Thanks to Cecilia Grant for reminding me about “Grenade!” That song is the catchiest and the worst.)

But does Jenny not deserve one goddamn moment where it’s all about her? Where her thoughts, needs, feelings, and existence as a human being come first? Just one would be nice. But there’s nothing in Adam’s confession of love that even comes close to Mr. Chawleigh’s quietly heartrending, “She’s all I’ve got, you see” (4848). The problem is not that Adam and Jenny’s relationship is different in kind than Adam and Julia’s: the problem is that Adam and Jenny’s relationship will always come second to Adam’s relationship with Adam. Jenny becomes part of his life, but she never really becomes part of his self, and her own self disappears in consideration of his aristocratic priorities.

This is not merely a romantic failure in our hero, I would argue, but a larger failure of empathy across class boundaries. Contrast Mr. Chawleigh’s open and earnest affection for his daughter with Adam’s feelings upon seeing his newborn son for the first time: “He thought he had never seen anything less beautiful than the red and crumpled countenance of his son” (6006). Father of the Year, that one. He only waxes enthusiastic when he sees that this noble-born future viscount is equally scornful of his lowborn antecedents: “I left [Mr. Chawleigh] making the most peculiar noises to his grandson, who treated them with utter contempt — very understandably, I thought!” (6006). He’s pleased to see his baby son self-ally with the proper class by scorning Mr. Chawleigh. Blood will tell, as so often happens in Heyer. Class is changeless. It’s an essentially conservative thesis.

It’s also rejected in every possible way by Bujold’s A Civil Campaign.

First, a few disclaimers: I’ve been hopping around the Vorkosiverse rather than reading the series straight through, which means there’s a lot I’ve missed so any comments and clarifications from those in the know would be most welcome. Also, if anyone wants to put together a movie version of any of these books and cast Gwendolyn Christie (aka Brienne of Tarth, aka She Who Should Be Queen In Westeros) as Drou, I would be eternally grateful and see said movie seventeen times at non-matinee prices.

It’s a truism that Heyer’s book is about class — but saying this obscures the fact that class, of course, is not one homogenous and indivisible thing. Class is a cake we make out of money, race, manners, education, family, and gender. A Civil Campaign explores each one of these in ways that could really only happen in a space Regency, where futuristic technology and antique social systems can smash productively up against one another.

It’s also not going to be possible for me to talk as much about all this as I would like — especially not when I’ve got edits to be working on! — but I’ll try and hit some of the highlights before my brain dissolves in the heat.

When these books are read back-to-back, Miles reads as an utter rejection of all things Adam: he’s a successful soldier, his family members are strong and independent and happy (for the most part), he’s got a sense of humor about his own failings, his disability is not made conveniently invisible in the way Adam’s is (oh noes, I has a limp that’s noticeable enough to get me sympathy laid but doesn’t stop me from tramping around making pretend I am a farmer God I just hate Adam more and more). But the greatest difference is that Miles is adept at passing through the membranes of class and station that Heyer’s book would have us treat as permanent barriers. His undercover identity as Admiral Naismith is a ghost that haunts the narrative, showing even to readers like me unfamiliar with prior books that Miles’ identity is fluid and variable, Odyssean rather than Achillean. In fact, this becomes the very problem between him and Ekaterina: Miles chooses the wrong self to show her at first, hiding his true intentions in ways that remind her traumatically of her first husband’s manipulations. The idea of being one solid knowable self frightens Miles a little, in fact: “Someday, if things went well, he must stand before her in his skin, in this very room and place, with no disguise at all” (Kindle location 7964). Imagine Adam feeling this self-conscious in front of, well, anyone. Miles is well aware that there is a secret kernel of self not defined by terms like Vor or ImpSec or even mutie: he hesitates to show it to Ekaterin because his shifting selves have successfully kept him alive for so many years.

And oh, Ekaterin — I must really go back and read Komarr because I definitely want more time with Ekaterin. I also feel like she’s a mirror version of Jenny, with Tien as another mirror-Adam — a cold husband who’s convinced his wife she’s a mere accessory, who has a truncated military career, who’s made a great financial gamble (Adam’s is successful, but I still think it was a pretty self-serving move). It’s an unsettlingly short leap of imagination from Adam’s benevolent neglect to Tien’s emotional manipulation and abuse. Ekaterin lost sight of who she was as a person during those terrible years, and on Barrayar she’s trying to assert a self long-suppressed:

Every night now, lying down alone without Tien, was like a taste of some solitary heaven. She could stretch her arms and legs out all the way to the sides of the bed, reveling in the smooth space, free of compromise, confusion, oppression, negotiation, deference, placation. Free of Tien. Through the long years of their marriage she had become almost numb to the ties that had bound her to him, the promises and the fear, his desperate needs, his secrets and lies. When the straps of her vows had been released at last by his death, it was as if her whole soul had come awake, tingling painfully, like a limb when circulation was restored. (1183)

There’s a whole spectrum of understood social roles for Ekaterin (mother, Vor, grieving widow considering remarriage) but no sense of her true individual self; this is what she is seeking over the course of the plot. The true self is here separate from class, rather than nourished by it as in Heyer’s text — yes, designing gardens is a pretty upper-class thing to do, but designing a prettier butterbug is a much more democratic, business-oriented move. It’s also something that is uniquely her — and she needs that, so desperately. It’s only when she has her self again that she really begins to think about having someone else as well: the romance arc follows the swell of Ekaterin’s growing strength and confidence — even when the person she’s at odds with is Miles himself. This is one of those romances that definitely keeps the characters apart to better effect — something refreshing in a sea of fuck-til-we’re-in-love erotic romances.

If you’ll allow me a brief metatextual tangent, it seems that social class is a little like genre, in that both operate on a set of shared but mostly unspoken assumptions. Both are accumulations of similarities rather than hard-and-fast categories. (And genres, like classes, come with various levels of social prestige.) In her review of the Bujold text, Jo Walton states that the narrative moves of the romance genre are “as stylized as a Noh play.” Romance does have codes and conventions but many of these are very opaque to outsiders or readers new to the genre. For instance, the Hardass Police Captain (video at the link) is an oft-cited cultural touchstone even among people who don’t watch a lot of buddy cop movies, but things like TSTL and Secret Babies and the No Other Woman Bed are far less frequently referenced outside of romance blogs and reviews. In regard to Ekaterin, little moments like suddenly noticing how Miles’ scent turns her on or keeping his apology letter tucked in the bodice of her gown for rereading are as good as an I love you to romance fans, but might not stand out to readers who lack the awareness of those tropes’ repetition. Similarly, class markers are often codes, and often inherited, and rarely talked about openly: for instance, when you bring food to a potluck, what kind of food do you bring? (And all my super-upper-class readers just looked at each other in horror at the word ‘potluck.’) Or when an invitation specifies BYOB, do you bring a mid-range white Burgundy or a case of Natty Ice? (Everyone with working tastebuds just looked at each other in horror at the words ‘Natty Ice.’)

And now we’re at 3k words — is your attention span as strained as mine? And I’m writing all this! It’s summer — we all deserve a break. Let’s hit the rest in bullet-point form.

  • Mark: Miles’ clone, so the two men are genetically identical. But physically and intellectually vastly different — Mark was raised in an abusive, horrifying situation, trained as a living weapon of assassination for his clone-brother. He’s been accepted into the Vorkosigan family (!) and is trying to figure out what his role is there, including getting treatment for mental health issues that manifest as a set of alternate selves known as the Black Gang. This was super-interesting to me, so again, going to dive heavily into the earlier books. Again: class is not destiny, family is not destiny, upbringing is not destiny.
  • Kareen Koudelka: Barrayar-born but coming back from a year’s education on Beta. Her sexual activities with Mark are gratifying to both her and him, and immensely helpful in his therapy — which would be creepier if Kareen weren’t so obviously into Mark and vice versa — but open pre-marital sex doesn’t jive with Barrayar standards of behavior, particularly the narrow standards for young unmarried women of high status. Kareen and Mark fight against the objections of her parents to their relationship, since she’s grown to enjoy the greater freedom and lack of disapproving supervision she found off-world. The pair also find satisfaction in borrowing economic terms with which to define the terms of their affair. This works because both Mark and Kareen place personal value (rather than class-specific value) on business and entrepreneurship.
  • Lord Dono: Betan medical technology allows a female character, Donna, to switch gender entirely for the purposes of inheriting a countship and thwarting her asshole cousin. There’s an unfortunate equivalence here between biology and gender — Dono has a penis, therefore Dono is a man — which prevents me from labeling this as a depiction of a trans character. Let us say instead that it is trans-adjacent. For instance, after the biological change, plot protagonists express varying levels of surprise and approval, but plot antagonists react with revulsion, misgendering, and even attempted mutilation. Dono himself is a wonderful character, charismatic and compelling with an edge of wit and cunning. The Donna/Dono plotline also exposes the way Betan habits and technology are starting to be used as loopholes for the narrow constraints of Barrayaran tradition, and not just by progressives — see also the rather horrifying plotline of the old Vor count and his hundreds of artificially created daughters, which I can’t even begin to take apart without a few more read-throughs and several stiff drinks.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that the Beta-versus-Barrayar framework established in Shards of Honor and Barrayar (god, those books, so good!) exists to topple one by one many of the foundational pillars of Regency society as established in fiction like Heyer’s. (Hence this book’s dedication, obvs.) Primogeniture, ableism, women’s role as primarily one of motherhood and childrearing, etc. It’s not perfect — it’s very white and there’s a distinct preponderance of happy heterosexual couples, though let’s talk sometime about Aral Vorkosigan’s youthful flirtation with bisexuality — but it’s an interesting and vastly explorable series. One which I hope to explore more fully once the temperature goes down and stops boiling my brain. (Seriously, my recent forebears were from Finland: I’m like Pratchett’s Detritus in anything over 85 degrees.)

Thanks for listening, everyone, and happy summer!

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Speaking of Tor.com, their series on Post Binary Gender in SF is well worth the reading; start here with the introduction.

Merrian Oliver-Weymouth curates the wonderful Pinterest board Barrayar Dreaming, using real-world images and artifacts to visualize the imaginary world of Barrayar. There’s also The Vor, curated by Pinterest user fajrdrako. Both are utterly enchanting.

Someone somewhere has to be writing a thesis or dissertation on the Vorkosiverse and reproductive health choices, right? Abortion, surrogacy, pre-birth disability diagnoses, cloning — it’s all in there. Hard SF doesn’t often get to be this messy about the body, nor so inclined to consider a woman’s perspective on such technologies. I’m going to keep an eye on this as I keep reading. 

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Bujold, Lois McMaster. A Civil Campaign. Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Kindle edition.

Heyer, Georgette. A Civil Contract. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2011. Kindle edition.

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P is for Cathy Pegau

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Cathy Pegau’s sci-fi heist romance Rulebreaker has one of the most on-point titles I’ve seen in some time. From the con-artist heroine to her executive lesbian love interest to the giant mining company determined to cover up a sinister corporate secret, it feels as though rules and the law are created only to be broken, bent, flouted, or twisted. What’s more, the way the book unfolds treats the usual turns and tropes of romance the same way, playing with reader expectations in a way not unlike a good con.

Cover image for Cathy Pegau's Rulebreaker. Vaguely futuristic metallic background. One woman with pale skin and short dark hair stands facing the reader. One hand is on her hip and the other rests casually on her head, holding a sci-fi looking pistol. She wears a dark blue strapless garment and her expression is cool and challenging. Behind her is a second dark-haired woman with pale skin, looking down demurely as though hiding something.Bisexual con artist and occasional thief  Liv has a whole set of rules for appropriate criminal behavior: “Felon’s Rule Number One: Don’t get emotionally involved” (87). Of course she’s going to break this rule: she’s going to get involved, and hard. It’s one of the strongest types of what TV Tropes calls Tempting Fate — similar examples include the cop who mentions he’s two days away from retirement (and you instantly know he’s going to be killed), or the computer geek who declares himself invincible (only to be immediately drenched in liquid nitrogen). They’re practically prophecies in fiction and film. So when Liv’s hot ex-husband Tonio reappears to ask for her help with an absurdly lucrative new heist, the reader is primed to expect a classic reunion story about a couple of exes rediscovering how to be together.

And it looks for a while as though that’s what we’re getting. Liv and Tonio have chemistry that is off the charts. Liv is intensely, frankly sexual and Tonio pushes all her buttons — but they both keep pulling back, trying to keep things simple and uncomplicated because they knew that as a couple they were something of a disaster. And this would all seem very cliché and expected except that the astute reader (read: me) has read the blurb and noticed that we are to have a lady love interest at some point.

I’ll confess: I was intrigued. Zia — short for Jadzia — first shows up at the halfway point in the text. Remarkably late for a main character. In authorly circles I have seen people dinged in critiques or pitches for not introducing both protagonists in the first ten or so pages. But bending this particular rule really serves the story, because in the first half of the book we get plenty of time to learn about the sci-fi world of Nevarro, and thanks to Tonio we get to see how Liv behaves both when she trusts someone and when she does not. Tonio might be her ex and they might have some unresolved issues about their past, but he’s miles safer for Liz than Willem Grey or his son Christian, the two arch-criminals who have set up our blackmail heist.

[Author’s note: I only just realized that one of the cold-blooded killer characters in Rulebreaker is actually named Christian Grey. There’s a little one-off about his sexual preferences at the end of the novel that is suddenly a whole lot more hilarious.]

Liv’s job is to cozy up to hard-nosed executive Zia Talbot, who has hidden files about a piece of safety tech that would earn the company heavy fines if the Central Mining Authority learns about it. Seduction is implied, if not explicitly required, and Liv is slightly anxious about this: she has had crushes on women before, but she’s never slept with or dated one. I was worried we were in for a coming-out arc — which is fine, just not that exciting to me — but instead it turns out Liv is worried that she won’t be as successful in seducing a woman as she would be with a man. She’s anxious because of her inexperience, not because she’s questioning her same-sex attraction. And when she does meet Zia, the intensity of the blaze between them is not presented as qualitatively different from her attraction to Tonio. When they do eventually sleep together, she notices the different textures and responses of a woman’s body, but it’s not presented as somehow validating or confirming anything we didn’t already know about Liv. It’s emotionally transformative — but that’s because Liv and Zia have a much more sustainable romantic connection than Liv and Tonio ever did. It’s to the narrative’s credit that this isn’t presented as a competition, as though Zia is Liv’s Tru Lurrv while Tonio was a mistake — Liv and Tonio cared about each other but also hurt each other, while Liv and Zia bring out the best in each other. It’s sweet and realistic and doesn’t make anyone into the villain — this being one of my pet peeves about love triangles and why I generally avoid them. (I haven’t read much YA recently, as you can imagine.) A bisexual heroine is a rare enough thing in romance: a bisexual heroine who gets to actually display her attraction to both sexes on-page for reasons other than titillation is like some sort of romance unicorn.

Ah, Zia … She is intelligent, demanding, controlled, and lovely — a Harlequin Presents-type fantasy CEO who just happens to be female. No wonder Liv so quickly breaks that first felon’s rule by falling in love with the mark. This part of the text plays out another traditional romance narrative: Pining Secretary In Love With Sexy Boss. Zia responds to Liv’s flirtations the way any alpha would: knowing smiles, innuendo, seductive compliments, expensive gifts. She notices Liv’s hesitation and chalks it up to inexperience (Liv has told her this would be her first time with another woman), so she offers to go slow and do things right — again, all very classic protective alpha.

Only the reader knows that Liv is anxious not just because of romantic timidity or the newness of lesbian action, but because she’s dreading the moment when Zia learns Liv’s been conning her the whole time to break into her computer system. Moral twinges are read as virginal shyness — it’s a clever twist on an old trope and it makes for some nicely angsty reading. It also preserves the fantasy of the boss-secretary dynamic without undermining Liv’s agency as a character: one of my biggest problems with the alpha CEO hero is how often the heroine is made passive as a counterbalance or contrast (Christian Grey and Ana Steele being a fairly obvious example). Liv is an excellent assistant, due in no small part to the skills she’s honed on the shady side of the law, and it really is a pleasure to watch her blossom in the cutthroat corporate world. There are hints that she could easily transition into a permanent position in the company — a feint toward the well-trod redemption arc, where the thief goes straight because of love. A cop from the CMA appears to try and get Liv to turn on her fellow criminals: she has an opportunity here to get in good with the law, for possibly the first time in her life.

But Willem and Christian are growing impatient: the pressure is on for Liv to find the right files so the blackmail can begin. When she does, the discovery of what’s in them twists the usual tropes again: Zia is not innocent. She’s covered up deaths and allowed more deaths to happen just to preserve her career; the fact that the actual death rate is higher than she realized is not treated as a mitigating factor to absolve her of blame, but as a demonstration that she should have been asking better questions and made more ethical choices. It’s a bold move by the text — especially since the secret really is a plausibly dirty one, involving the forced labor of conscripted prisoners and faulty safety equipment — but it mens that Zia’s high-status position as a wealthy and successful woman is compromised. The fantasy is tempered by the truth. In many ways this revelation also makes Zia a better match for Liv — they both know how to hide their tracks from the inquisitive eyes of the law. Liv’s own past is far from pristine, so now they can move forward together on a more equal footing — or they could, if Liv still weren’t on the con. And if she didn’t know that turning evidence for the CMA would get Zia not only fired but imprisoned in the same prison mines Liv’s spent her whole life avoiding, and from which Zia picked people to die in the mines.

At this point, I had no idea where the text would go. My sense of the narrative direction had been twisted too many times — I was being conned, and I was delighted. Everything depended on the characters’ choices at this point: there was no one story shape (reunion story, Presents romance, redemption arc) that was controlling the narrative’s direction: “None of these choices ended with a happily ever after. In my world, what did I expect, roses and rainbows?” (2699). Things go merrily to hell in the manner of all the best heist stories (Sneakers being my perennial favorite). Liv confesses her hidden agenda to Zia. The Greys take Liv’s mom hostage. In the resulting shootout Tonio is killed and Zia is critically injured. It’s the rock-bottom black moment for our heroine:

Zia and Tonio were both gone because of things I’d done. Did I think I could get away with breaking all those rules? Who the hell was I that they didn’t apply? And now look what had happened. (3683)

I knew as a reader that Zia wasn’t going to die, but I couldn’t help worrying about it anyways. Tonio had died, after all, and up until that moment I’d thought we might also be in for a last-minute menage romance (I do like a good menage). It didn’t help that I was reading this book in the lead-up to the Purple Wedding on Game of Thrones and was having a week where every character felt vulnerable. Ms. Pegau’s text had shown itself so willing to play with genre tropes that my usual rock-hard certainty about the protagonist’s survival was ever so slightly shaken. I was impressed.

Liv ends up in a CMA holding facility, a place where nothing exists except rules. A mostly recovered Zia comes to find her, and the book ends with a new rule: “Find someone you love who loves you back, the job be damned” (3988). It’s a sweet yet plausible ending, not unmixed with difficulty — really very satisfying.

You may be wondering, in all this, where the feminist angle comes in. Partly it’s that this is a story about women with agency that isn’t based on violence or magical powers, but on intelligence, persuasion, perception, and guts. Much as I love a good fantasy premise, it’s refreshing to have people — especially women in fiction — who are strong because of purely human traits.

But also, I believe that stories can be either a way to keep the walls up or to tear them down, both in our individual lives and in our collective culture. We saw with Zen Cho‘s book how the (re)interpretation of the colonizers’ literary traditions helped people with colonized identities manage the oppressions and obstacles they faced. If the nature of oppression is restriction — through the law, through custom, through reductive stereotypes — then a plot about breaking rules and confounding expectations must be somewhat liberating. Liv and Zia go through a process of discovering which rules are solid and which rules deserve to be broken: they are more sensitive at the end of the book to each other and to the consequences of their own actions. The text’s meta-narrative at the same time shows us how flexible stories really are — it suggests that we can decide to some extent which story we’re living in, which set of rules we want to follow. Like Jade Temptress, this ending feels almost like a beginning, with two people who have a wider understanding of their own powers and a greater resistance to forces that would try to keep them from reaching their full potential of happiness and self-assertion.

Sounds pretty feminist to me.

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Sexism in SFF and geek culture is really having a moment lately — this post by Foz Meadows lays out some of the ways that women’s participation in the history and culture of geekdom has been consistently overlooked, tested, or erased entirely.

This older post from Tor.com is a recap of a WorldCon panel from 2010, and opens up some interesting questions about bisexuality in sff more specifically (especially: why is there not more of it?).

Romance Novels for Feminists has a great post on the interaction between heist plots and romance.

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Pegau, Cathy. Rulebreaker. Carina Press: August 8, 2011. Ebook.

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K is for Jacqueline Koyanagi

{Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance. And be warned that there are enormous spoilers in the post below!}

It’s easy to say that Jacqueline Koyanagi’s luscious debut Ascension ticks just about every box on the anti-kyriarchy bingo card: our heroine is a queer disabled woman of color (in space!). She falls in love with a disabled starship captain who’s in a polyamorous relationship with another queer woman: a medic who plans on having children with a man-slash-engineer-slash-sometime-wolf. But like we saw with Her Love, Her Land, this book was written from deeply within the perspective of the identities it represents. The characters’ disability is a plot point, but it’s not The Plot Point — the same goes for queerness and race: they’re baked in, functions of character rather than Moving Moments. Polyamory gets a bit more of the Very Special Episode treatment, but this aspect is presented as bridging a gap between two different planetary cultures, one more sexually conservative than the other.

Cover image for Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi. A green space-ish, tech-ish background. A dark-skinned woman with dreadlocks stands in profile with one hand on her hip, looking skeptically at the viewer. Her suit is close-fitting and very jointed, with futuristic seams. Her left hand holds a large futuristic gun, pointed down.And all the characters are compelling, and several scenes made me gasp out loud (Adul!), but what I can’t wait to talk about is how this book treats the problem of humans having bodies.

I say problem because human bodies are a source of profound tension, both in Ascension and in fiction and philosophy and human existence more generally. Our bodies are ourselves — but they are not entirely ourselves. They connect us to the world — except when they prevent us from connecting to the world. When we looked at the meaning of bodies in Vicki Essex’s In Her Corner, they were always one or the other: male or female, healthy or injured. Bodies in Ascension are better described with the conjunction and: they are weak and strong, burdensome flesh and transcendent gifts all at the same time. Characters are not restricted to one single and never-changing attitude to their own physicality: instead, there is a web of constantly shifting priorities, needs, limitations, and abilities.

We begin with Alana Quick, whose genetic disability, Mel’s Disease, is a daily obstacle:

I dropped the scrap and looked at my empty hands to determine how bad the tremors were today — hands that should have ben learning the curves of a ship instead of reaching for prescriptions. Hands that would become unreliable without medication, weak and gnarled. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I knew I could accomplish amazing feats with these hands, given the right tools and a ship to love. It’s just that, well, I got frustrated that my ability to function — to do the one thing I’d loved since childhood — was entirely dependent on synthesized chemicals. (Kindle location 87)

At the same time, the self-awareness her disease requires of her enhances Alana’s natural flair for mechanics and ship-fixing:

Every ship I worked on, I got to know by learning her song. I imagined each one stringing wires through me like new arteries, connecting us until I could feel what ailed her reflected in the pain patterns of my own flesh … Each job made me feel alive. (319)

Her body’s particularity, her disability, becomes a source of helpful experience. It’s not an idealization — disability here is not a superpower —  but it has given her practice with a mode of thought that comes in handy in her work.

At the same time, Alana’s disease is more than simply a personal affliction: it’s a financial burden as well. Alana (and her aunt Lai, who has the same disease) are dependent upon a medication known as Dexitek, which means they have an extra expense they can ill afford with the lack of ship-repair jobs: “People like [therapist] Shrike had no idea what it meant to have to choose between paying bills and paying for food” (107). This is a classic and very real meeting point between disability and poverty: the one reinforces the other, compounding Alana’s suffering just as it compounds the suffering of disabled persons in our own present society. “Life was a privilege, not a right,” Alana says. “Something you had to struggle for when you were unlucky enough to be born at the intersection of poverty and bad genes” (1841). Yes, precisely.

As with Tessa Dare’s Three Nights with a Scoundrel, in Ascension we have a plethora of disabled characters, each of whose experiences is unique and personal. Captain Tev Helix (oh, the hotness!) wears a prosthesis since she lost a leg in a mining accident: her disability has a before and an after with a moment of trauma as punctuation, leading to a different experience of embodiment than Alana’s chronic pain issues or pilot Marre’s terminal slide toward invisibility. “At some point I knew I couldn’t pretend to be whole anymore,” Tev says. “It didn’t even occur to me at first that I’d still be able to have a leg, just not the one I was born with” (2267). The prosthetic is still her leg, still a part of her body: but years later, she’s still paying off the debt for the new leg and her post-injury medical care.

Tev’s leg and Alana’s Dexitek highlight the common SF trope of technology as a means of compensating for physical disability. Where Ascension goes a step further is treating implanted non-compensatory tech as a part of a person’s embodiment. To elude the authorities, who are pursuing them for a crime they didn’t commit, the entire crew of the Tangled Axon remove their communication implants. Alana finds this loss profoundly disconcerting:

I still slept on one side to avoid hitting the transmit switch even though it wasn’t there anymore. I still reached for my neck when I wanted to talk to someone. I still had to remind myself that I now had to seek them out face-to-face. I’d lost a sense almost as integrated as my vision or hearing, and I didn’t know if I’d ever not feel a little incomplete. My body missed the metal I’d lost just as badly as if it had been blood or bone. (1899)

The great anxiety surrounding cyborgs, of course, is that adding robot parts decreases a person’s humanity (Robocop, replicants, the Terminator, the Borg, the current preview for that Johnny Depp thing I’m too lazy to look up right now). Here, the tech incorporated in the body is all but transmuted into human flesh. This is a flexible, inclusive definition of humanity that I admit I can’t stop thinking about: of course we’re going to think of implanted tech as part of ourselves, just as we already personify and anthropomorphize our cars and our phones and our gadgets. Add to this Ascension‘s overlap between a ship’s body and its captain’s, and the metaphysical connection between the pilot and the ship and the crew … There is a receptive physical inclusivity in this world, a fluid resilience and incorporation (pun intended) that I want more of.

Though the Dexitek works well enough most days, Alana and her aunt are saving for a more permanent cure, which the sinister corporation Transliminal Solutions offers for a hefty price tag. At the book’s beginning Alana is offered a temporary taste of this cure, but once she takes it she will need to keep taking it and each treatment is shockingly expensive. Her therapist assures her there are payment plans: “I knew all about their ‘payment plans.’ More like indentured servitude. They’d own not just my city, but my body. My suffering and its relief. My life” (126). Alana carries this miracle drug with her for over half the book but never ingests it — her disability, though often frustrating and limiting, is not the worst-case scenario for her as an individual. Her struggle with Mel’s is at least a familiar struggle — she would like a cure, but not at the expense of her personhood. Life with a disability is preferred to (and importantly not equivalent to) dehumanization.

That able-bodied-ness is not itself an idealized state in Ms. Koyanagi’s text is shown by the attitude of Alana’s sister Nova, a spirit guide (read: New Age-y type thing) who feels that her own healthy able body is still not good enough, still not the sum total of her true self:

The first time I saw Nova injured as a child — a paper cut, nothing more — she screamed and wept for hours, unable to reconcile the visceral, heartbreaking reality of blood and split skin. It was too much, too far removed from her expectations of what little girls should be made of. Surely a tear in her flesh should have leaked purity and rapture into the world. Surely her soul should have escaped in vaporous arabesques, dissipating into the ether. (1115)

The language here is strongly reminiscent of our own culture’s trope that girls’ bodies are innately delicate and ethereal — witness this stunning Yahoo Answers thread from the antiquity of the internet about women farting, only some of which appears to be trolling — but despite that, from all I can tell the hierarchy in Ascension is gender-neutral at minimum and matriarchal at maximum. Most of the characters we meet are women, including all those in positions of power. It’s a straight gender reversal of the usual fictional ratio and as such is welcome and soothing as sinking into a warm bath.

And yet it’s unsettling that in this book we have a sci-fi religion that elevates asceticism and self-starvation as practices that purify the soul, in ways that echo both the modern dietary compulsions of high fashion and the spiritual guidelines from, say, medieval Catholicism or Jainism. I admit to a personal lapsed-Catholic distrust of any doctrine of self-abnegation. Alana, so connected to her body even when that connection causes pain, is horrified by what she sees as her sister’s casual disdain for a functional body: “Her words came from a kind of healthy privilege I couldn’t begin to process” (2168). To Alana, Nova feels ungrateful, squandering a pain-free existence for no practical gain, unnecessarily scornful of an able body that does nothing to impede her connection with the wider world.

And yet …

And yet Nova’s words in this passage are impossible to refute:

“One day, you’ll feel it too … Only you’ll feel it when it’s too late. Your eyes will weaken. Your legs will start to hurt when you climb stairs. The space behind your knees will ache, like growing pains all over again, but this time you’ll know the feeling is your body stretching and reshaping, pulling itself apart to make room for death. You’ll fight it with medication like you always do, but she’ll still come for you. Memories will lose definition around the edges, smoothing over in places that were once sharp and precise. Your skin will seem to expand and deflate, wrinkling in places that were once like silk. You’ll feel as if you’re shrinking inside your skin, disappearing. You’ll get implants and upgrades, you’ll fill your body with scaffolding to hold it together, to buy time, but the truth will remain: you’re dying. You’ve always been dying. Life is a thin film, a veil between deaths.” (2169)

Nova is right: Alana is going to die. Even the cure from Transliminal that she hopes for proves to be an illusion, a fraud. Alana’s focus on her body blinds her to the long-term destiny of every human life. I was strongly, gut-wrenchingly reminded of the passage in Catch-22 where Yossarian spends entire pages wondering which organ could be the first one to fail, the first soldier to fall, the first sign of his own impending demise. And barring catastrophe, there has to be a first step into the descent, doesn’t there? Nova is entirely, horribly right: by virtue of the fact that we are alive, our bodies are destined to fail and to die. This is the way of all flesh.

There is a quote late in the book from another character who resists the inevitability of death: “Birke’s voice echoed in my thoughts. I will never lose her again. I will build a new universe where bodies aren’t fragile, where the soul is limitless, where medicine is pure magic” (4093). And this is our villain. Who — spoilers! — happens to be a double of our heroine, from another universe, one where Nova had Mel’s and died of it instead of Alana. So the Alana-double is searching through various realities, trying to find a Nova-double she can use to resurrect her sister. She is Alana’s resistance to the gospel of death, taken to its logical conclusion.

And yet …

And yet Birke is clearly, unambiguously a villain. She kills remorselessly, wiping an entire planet and its population in one stunning surprise of a scene. (I told you there were spoilers!) It’s doubtful this is the first time she’s done this in one reality or another; if death is inevitable, why bother waiting for it? Why allow other people to wait for it, when you have a personal stake in eliminating them? Nova’s self-abnegation is a questionable virtue, but Birke’s willingness to abnegate others is clearly much more terrible.

While Birke-as-Alana’s-doppelganger does show up somewhat out of nowhere at the climax of the plot — can this really be the very first double we’ve met from the othersiders? — the way her appearance complicates the text’s structure of embodiment is symbolically satisfying to a profound degree. As Alana wonders: “How could someone who shared my body be so alien? Was it the difference of a single synapse? One twist in the timeline, and this is what I would have been?” (3904).

The answer to this question is yes, as Alana realizes while Nova chooses to give her life in sacrifice to save Marre’s (despite what she’s said earlier about death’s inevitability):

Her [Birke’s] grief resonated with mine. I knew its bitter taste, its color. I knew how it felt to see the empty space they once occupied. To resent even happy memories for the flaying pain they brought to the surface. I understood then that it was true: given the right set of circumstances, I could have become Birke. Any version of me from any reality could have become her. (4093)

Body and self, self and other, the individual and the universe — it always comes back to that first conjuction, the all-important andAlana is right about the body, and Nova is too. Nova is also right about the soul: her last gift to her sister is this memory from their childhood:

“I said there’s two reasons to have a soul … One … is to feel the all world inside you, from now to then and back again. To breathe the breath of every ancestor, to know where you’ve been and anchor you to the physical world — to your body and everything it touches.”

I grabbed Nova’s finger and pretended to bite it. She laughed and shook it out, but didn’t break her stride. “The other … is so that one day, you can look into the eye of the universe and burn away that which separates us from God.” (4112)

Reader, I admit I teared up at this part. So often genre fiction will set one ideology against one another until one of them wins — the brooding isolated hero is brought back out into the world, the cold uptight heroine learns to relax and enjoy life. Ascension manages to draw a great deal of tension out of opposing worldviews, yet it doesn’t feel the need to resolve the tension in favor of one or the other. Engineer Ovie is a wolf and a man, simultaneously. Alana and her sister are both right, and both wrong. The body is a gift and a burden. It depends on who you ask — and how they’re feeling when you ask them.

Side note: Stay tuned for my upcoming essay Oh My God, I Just Realized How Many Parallels This Book Has To Star Wars Let’s Talk About Them Forever Especially The Things About Tech And Disability And Family And Choices.

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Last year Tor.com posted an excerpt from Kathryn Allan’s Disability in Science Fiction, and later a review of the book. I haven’t had a chance to read this yet myself, but Interlibrary Loan has a chance to change all that!

Dr. Laura Vivanco let me know that for a limited time, the archives of the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies are free to access. There’s a lot of great things in there! I’m going to learn so much!

I owe a great intellectual (and therefore personal) debt to the incisive Ana Mardoll, whose writing on the now-defunct-but-still-visible FWD/Forward was a light in the darkness of my privilege, and who continues to be awesome by writing the viscerally readable Annotated Index of Ross Geller.

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Koyanagi, Jacqueline. Ascension. Masque Books, 2013. Ebook.

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