Thursday, July 3, 2014

I don't know how to read this

Scott Lynch's Republic of Thieves punched me in the gut recently, and made me aware of just how much I've grown accustomed to the tropes of fantasy.

Partway through Republic of Thieves (oh, um, spoilers.  Blanket policy: I'll be spoiling the books I'm talking about. This one is not ruinous to the book), our protagonist Locke is traveling with his companions including Sabetha who he's had a crush on since he was about six.  Locke wants to talk about feelings, and since he's told her he likes her, wants to hear that reciprocated.  Sabetha is interested, but she's also the only woman in this band of thieves, which she's been in charge of until Locke took over. She's also probably the more ambitious of the two, and Locke has had her up on a pedestal all this time.  It's complicated. Sabetha sees this. Locke doesn't. Over the course of a few scenes, Sabetha guides Locke, and the reader through this.  She doesn't use the terms "male gaze" or "male privilege", but the concepts are there.  She doesn't call herself a feminist, but her message is recognizable to a modern reader.

I don't know how to read these scenes.  And that's empowering, rather than a problem.

I can read the words and process the ideas.  I even often agree with them.  But they're outside my reading experience.  I grew up on the generations following Tolkien, and studied Medieval History in college. I can read a pseudo-Medieval European Epic Fantasy with a man at the center that only exposes it's social agenda by reinforcing the status quo like nobody's business.  

And when I do, I yell at anachronisms, and I yell at "message" passages that might illuminate the author's views, but break me out of the story because I don't believe the character would say that, dammit!

MedievalPOC has been busy challenging my belief that I actually understood what "the reality" of medieval and early modern Europe was.  Scott Lynch just challenged my belief that I understand how to create a believable secondary world that the reader is immersed in.  I'm still reeling a bit.  (In other recent readings, Kate Elliot's Spirit Walker series, written intentionally and emphatically in the head of a female protagonist also knocked me out of my comfort zone on a number of occasions).

I've been learning, slowly, and primarily from authors and critics on Twitter, just how many assumptions I've let pass unchallenged as I grew up on Epic fantasy.  And for a while I started to walk away from Fantasy and Science Fiction because all I was seeing was more of those assumptions being fed back to me.  (I'll save the story of being brought back to the fold by Saladin Ahmed and N. K. Jemisin for another time).

I'm also learning, slowly, how powerful "I don't understand" is.  I could read these scenes that aren't what I'm used to and reject them.  Bad writing.  Not for me. Political/Message fiction.  Or I can read them and ask why the author includes them.  I can use these scenes that I don't understand as jumping off points that expand my view of the world.  I can take Kate Elliot's Spirit Walker series as an invitation to the (a?) female gaze.  A gaze I rarely look through.  I often say that one of the reasons to read SFF is to be exposed to new worlds and new ways of thinking, and to see our own world in a new way.  I'm learning, slowly, that every scene that makes me say "I don't understand" is an invitation to do exactly that, and to learn to understand.

A final note: my current reading pile:

(Lightspeed Magazine's "Women Destroy Science Fiction" #wdsf, which is definitely bringing some "I don't understand" moments, and The Annotated Dragonlance Chronicles, which is about as comfortable a genre read as I can think of)

**Unfinished - how I came back to fantasy.

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