Musings at another year’s end

What can one really say about 2016, the year with such a high celebrity body count that some have even suggested (jokingly) that TIME Magazine should name the Grim Reaper its Person of the Year? I won’t dwell on too many of the passings, but two that have occurred in the very last days of the year have struck home to me, as both have done work especially dear to my heart.

Author Richard Adams, the man responsible for Watership Down — my gateway novel into fantasy, which I fell in love with at the age of eleven — passed away peacefully on Christmas Eve at the age of 96. The sequel comprised of short stories, Tales of Watership Down, did not stir my soul to nearly the same degree (though I’ll admit to a measure of sentimental delight at revisiting Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Hyzenthlay, and their world), and I’ve never read any of Adams’ other works. But for this one book I will always honor him. May Lord Frith hold him close.

Yet precious little attention could be spared for Adams’ passing amidst the flood of coverage of another death, that of Carrie Fisher, whose iconic portrayal of Leia Organa in the original Star Wars trilogy holds a substantial place in the hearts and minds of countless sci-fi cinema fans, mine included. My husband and I rewatched this trilogy last year in preparation for the release of The Force Awakens, and it had been years since I’d seen it. What I noticed on my revisit was how much Leia is a part of the action throughout the trilogy, at a time when most science-fantasy sagas would have kept her a beautiful, ethereal, passive figure in the background. Her character arc doesn’t get nearly as much development as Han’s or Luke’s, and that is indeed regrettable, but she’s always doing something. Even when she’s in captivity, she’s making plans. She may need rescuing in the first film (though she immediately takes charge thereafter), but in the third film she famously and awesomely rescues herself. Even though she’s injured at the climax of Return of the Jedi, she doesn’t retreat to the sidelines; she remains in the thick of the action, blasting away with her ray gun and hitting what she aims at. At a time when damsels were prevalent, Fisher gave us a heroine. Rey and heroines like her probably wouldn’t exist if Leia hadn’t come first. Of course we are devastated to hear of her death, especially when we heard of her “stable condition” after her heart attack and took hope that she might actually pull through.

Why has Fisher’s passing received so much more attention than Adams’s? Some might snark that in the world of pop culture, an actress always trumps an author, but I won’t take that cynical view. The difference is that Adams, at 96, got to live out a full life. His death is sad, but not tragic. But Fisher, like David Bowie, Prince, and Alan Rickman, still had years of work left in her. As a person, I mourn the loss of a funny, vibrant woman, a talented author as well as an actress. As a fan, I regret what I will never get to see of General Leia Organa, a figure I so badly wanted to get to know better after I saw The Force Awakens.

At the end of the day, it’s not a competition. Both Adams and Fisher gave me stories and characters that meant a lot to me. I’m happier for what they have left behind.

Now, on to lighter matters: my Star Wars wish list.

“It’s better than The Force Awakens!” came the cry when Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hit theaters. After a little more reading, however, I soon noticed that the cry was coming largely from fans who were less than thrilled with The Force Awakens or even out-and-out hated it. Since I loved TFA, this kept my expectations in check. My ultimate reaction to Rogue One: liked, but didn’t love. The movie has plenty of space-flights and battles to please the fans, along with intriguing locales and an eclectic set of characters, with Alan Tudyk’s re-programmed Imperial droid standing out, along with Forrest Whittaker’s dubious freedom fighter and Donnie Yen’s fearless blind martial artist.

Here’s where I ran into problems. I loved every minute of Yen’s screen time; the man has presence to burn. But what was his character’s name? I had to go to IMdB to look it up. The movie assembles a large cast of characters and lets us get to know them just enough to wish we could know them better. So many characters, so little time for development. I’d kill to see the eight-hour television miniseries this should have been.

Then there’s the more obvious problem, if you’re me: the Smurfette Principle is strong with this one. The Force Awakens had Rey as a primary character, Maz and Leia as secondary characters, and lots and lots of women and girls among the tertiary figures, both Rebels and First Order. Rogue One rolls back this progress, with Mon Mothma showing up only briefly and very few women visible among the throngs on either side of the battle. This wouldn’t matter as much to me if Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso had the same flash of personality as Rey or even original-trilogy Leia. As it was, while I appreciated her heroic actions, I never really got a fix on who she was, and so I could never quite take her to my heart as I did Rey and Leia. If only she’d been a tenth as quirky and charismatic as Donnie Yen — but that’s one of the biggest issues with stories that follow the Smurfette Principle. The female, the token, is very rarely allowed to be funny or to make mistakes. The male characters are nearly always more vivid, more memorable.

My reservations notwithstanding, I take much pleasure in knowing we’ll see a new film in the Star Wars universe every year for the foreseeable future, as long as they stay good to great. (I can’t wait to catch up with Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron next year.) But I have a couple of things I’d dearly love to see in future movies.

  1. A heroine who diverges from the established appearance template. The casting of Emilia Clarke, best known for her work on HBO’s Game of Thrones, as the female lead in the forthcoming Han Solo movie confirms the suspicion that the creative powers behind Star Wars have a fixed idea of what a heroine from their universe should look like: she should be white, she should be brunette, and she should be petite. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I weren’t fond of Rey partly because she’s the only central heroine in the franchise who departs even a little from that description, being on the tall side of average and fit-looking and muscular rather than twig-thin. But what I’d really like to see in some future Star Wars movie is a heroic black woman with a Serena Williams-like physique. Someone a bit like Firefly‘s Gina Torres — or maybe even Torres herself, since it would also be cool to see a central Star Wars heroine who isn’t twentysomething.
  2. A female-buddy pair. The original trilogy gives us Luke and Han. The prequels (which we can’t forget about, as much as we might wish to) give us Anakin and Obi-Wan and, at least in the first film, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon. The Force Awakens gives us Finn and Poe. In Rogue One we also see strong bonds of friendship between the male characters. Yet the women have no one to befriend but menfolk. However awesome they may be in and of themselves, their teachers and their comrades are always men. Need this be? The all too brief time Rey and Maz Katana spend together in The Force Awakens suggests not, if the creative powers would devote a bit of thought to it. Please, powers, give the next female protagonist a female bestie. Let us see not only more women, but more of those women playing vital roles in each other’s lives.

Welcome, 2017. May the Force be with us all.

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Why I like “Moana” more than “Frozen”

The movie year 2016 has been a disappointing one for female characters in every genre but one — the animated feature. The title of Pixar’s Finding Dory might suggest that the blue tang with short-term memory loss we got to know in Finding Nemo would plan an essentially passive role, to be found and rescued by others. Wrong. Dory is an active female lead who overcomes her limitations to find her parents and, along the way, herself, all the while having a positive effect on everyone with whom she comes into contact. Disney’s Zootopia gives us the ambitious, optimistic, and splendidly flawed rabbit cop Judy Hopps, who has the guts not only to change her world but to own up to her own need to change. Even animated movies with male protagonists, Kung Fu Panda 3 and Kubo and the Two Strings, manage to give important female supporting characters, Tigress and Monkey, indisputable Moments of Awesome. Now the year finishes up with Disney’s Moana, the company’s latest entry in its ongoing princess sweepstakes (though Moana herself spurns the title “princess”). And guess what? It’s great, too, although I can’t quite decide whether this one or Zootopia is my favorite female-led animated film of the year.

Almost from the moment Moana was released — even before then, really — comparisons to Disney’s previous princess film, 2013’s massive hit Frozen, started to crop up. Plenty of commentators have praised Frozen as a feminist triumph, with its focus on the problematic but still loving relationship between two sisters, as well as its depiction of a young woman rising to queenship who must find a way to master her powers or else be mastered by them. Along with so many others, I like Frozen. I love musicals, and while I may have heard “Let It Go” one too many times, I still enjoy the other songs, particularly the stirring men’s-chorus opening and snowman Olaf’s “I Want” song, “In Summer.” The character of Elsa is indeed a fascinating heroine, at times more of an anti-heroine, the like of which Disney had not really given us before. Had the movie been more clearly her story, I might call it one of my favorites. But it has one disappointing element that (for me) keeps it from being the feminist triumph it wants to be: Elsa’s sister Anna, the real central character.

While in Elsa Disney gives us something fairly new, Anna feels like a throwback to the princesses of an earlier era. That she dreams of finding true love and looks to marriage as a solution to her problems isn’t my main sticking point, since the plot critiques this and has her learn better. No, my issue is that she represents a backward step in a way the movie never bothers to correct. Sometime in the late ’80s, Disney’s artists and writers decided it was a good idea to give the female leads interests. The little mermaid, Ariel, was fascinated by the surface world well before she set eyes on her handsome human prince. Belle of Beauty and the Beast was a voracious reader. More recently we saw the aspiring restauranteur Tiana of The Princess and the Frog, and after her the artist Rapunzel (she of the thousand hobbies) of Tangled. But the creators of Anna in Frozen seem to have forgotten all that. What is Anna interested in? What are her hobbies? Surely in all the time she has spent secluded in the castle with nobody to talk to, she must have found something to do. But we never learn what. Tiana is a chef, Rapunzel is an artist, and Anna is … a princess. To be fair, she shows herself to be brave and resourceful on her quest to save her sister, but she never manages to find a particular skill, talent, or passion that might give her some purpose, some way of being more than just Elsa’s sister and (we may presume) Klaus’s bride. In the end, as at the beginning, she has nothing of her own.

This is where Moana outshines it. As if having picked up on most viewers’ finding Elsa much more interesting than Anna, Disney chooses to make its female protagonist a young woman being groomed for leadership. Moana, however, is no anti-heroine; though she makes mistakes, she is clearly a heroine throughout. There is no figure analogous to the “completely ordinary, but in a good way” Anna; instead, we see Moana bond with her wise, funny grandmother, the community’s lore-keeper, who turns out to be quite the badass in her own right. In the film’s first moments, Moana’s pull toward the ocean and her longing to see the world beyond the reef, and her chieftain father’s disapproval of such, have some strong echoes of Ariel’s situation in The Little Mermaid. But in the end, the movie isn’t about a choice between duty and desire. Moana’s journey begins where desire and duty mesh. She has to go beyond the reef in order to become the leader she is meant to be. This is a heroine with purpose.

So, what else do I appreciate about Moana?

Gender is no object. The oft-repeated conflict of “You can’t/shouldn’t do/be [fill in the blank] because you’re a girl/woman,” which a multitude of writers continue to trot out every time they tell a story with a female protagonist, is missing from this film. Moana will succeed her father as chieftain, and no one questions this. We see her preparing for this responsibility, so that we’re shown, not just told, that she’ll be good at it, but we’re never given the sense that she must prove herself because of her gender. Maui the demigod doesn’t take her seriously at first, but that’s because she’s mortal, not because she’s female. Moana is given other battles to fight than the familiar gender struggle, and by God, that’s refreshing.

Marriage is no object, either. Plenty of reviewers have noted that Moana’s story does not end in marriage, and I agree that this is a good thing. What makes it even better is that unlike other animated heroines, from Pocahontas to Aladdin‘s Jasmine to Brave‘s Merida, Moana never has to put up with one parent or the other pressuring her to marry. Marriage isn’t disparaged or down-rated; it simply never comes up, and so Moana is spared yet another too-familiar conflict.

The male lead is interesting, too. Ever notice how painfully bland most of the princes are in traditional Disney princess movies? Here, too, matters have improved significantly in recent years, with Naveen of The Princess and the Frog and Flynn of Tangled given personalities, flaws, and humor. The demigod Maui of Moana takes this up to eleven. For most of the film, he’s anything but a hero; he’s a trickster who would like nothing better than to ditch the pesky human who keeps insisting he think and act for the good of others besides himself. But he grows, and by the end we’re rooting for him (though thankfully — Spoiler Alert — he doesn’t steal Moana’s thunder by saving the day). The development of his relationship with Moana is all the more intriguing because it carries not the slightest hint of romance. This is a story of a friendship where both characters come to appreciate each other and end up bringing out the best in each other.

The songs are great! “How Far I’ll Go” may become the over-played second coming of Frozen‘s “Let It Go,” but in the contest of the movie it’s stirring. Even better is Maui’s signature song, “You’re Welcome,” which is so catchy that poor Moana gets caught up in it and lets herself be tricked. The songs do what all the best songs in musicals do: they move the plot along and reveal vital aspects of character. The more I hear of songsmith Lin-Manuel Miranda and his work, the more I’m a fan. I have a “Things I Love about Hamilton” post coming soon. Wait for it.

Diversity is a good thing. I can only hope the success of this film leads to our seeing more stories about nonwhite (preferably female) animated protagonists and the worlds they inhabit.

And finally I must mention the one clear thing Moana has in common with Frozen. It stands as proof that animated features with female leads can be huge hits at the box office.

 

 

The Cure for “YA Cooties,” Part 2

In my previous post I proposed that good writing is always worth reading, whatever the age of the intended target audience, and suggested that one way that a reader might overcome a prejudice against YA speculative fiction would be to read some of the best the genre has to offer in terms of prose, world-building, characterization, or a combination thereof. Unfortunately, a single post didn’t give me quite enough room to touch on all the titles I think worth mentioning, so here are a few more that might pleasantly surprise the hide-bound critics of YA.

Anne McCaffrey, author of the Pern series of science fiction novels, is lauded as a pioneer, one of the first really successful female authors in the genre, along with LeGuin, Norton, and Cherryh. Yet many current readers find the gender politics of her earliest adult-targeted Pern novels a bit dated, as when a romantic hero frequently feels the urge to “shake” his stubborn and uppity love interest, and when a heretofore likable girl transforms into a repulsive shrew almost the minute she Impresses a green (“fighting”) dragon and thereby transcends her society’s gender roles. Yet the one subset of Pern novels designated as YA, the Harper Hall of Pern trilogy (Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums), has hardly dated at all, and remains a straightforward and satisfying endorsement of female creative ambitions. Its heroine, Menolly, escapes a nightmarishly abusive family situation in order to pursue her dream of becoming a harper — like Maerad in The Books of Pellinor, she’s one of those artistic girls for whom I have a soft spot — and McCaffrey peppers the text with lyrics of the songs her heroine crafts so that we know, not merely believe, this girl has talent. For a long time, her troupe of charming fire lizards remain her only friends, but eventually she finds a strong support system, including raffish young Piemur (one of those male-female friendships it’s always a joy to see) and Masterharper Robinton, one of the most wholly admirable of McCaffrey’s heroes. Eventually she falls in love, but romance never derails her ambitions or distracts her from them. In that regard, this book series, published as an omnibus in 1976, can serve as an antidote to the hordes of Twilight imitators in which the female leads are empty vessels waiting to be filled by a love interest. Anyone curious about the Pern series, however old, should start here.

Much of the work of Robin McKinley would merit a mention on my list, but I must single out my favorite, Spindle’s End. “Sleeping Beauty” is my least favorite among famous fairy tales, since its heroine is quite obviously and notoriously passive, but I read this retelling because I was curious to see what McKinley, a writer well-known for creating brave and resourceful female heroes, would do with it. She didn’t let me down. The vivid, lyrical prose is a strong selling point, but what I love most are the characterizations of the “sleeping beauty,” a tomboyish veterinarian (or “horse-leech” in the parlance of that world) named Rosie, and the fairy woman, Katriona, who serves as her guardian. The introduction of the beautiful Peony, who apparently conforms to the feminine ideal but who proves to be more than she seems, adds a welcome twist I will not Spoil here. McKinley’s Damar novels, The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, are also worth a look. I find the prose a tad flat compared with that of Spindle’s End, but these novels offer welcome portrayals of day-saving young women.

Betsy Cornwell’s Mechanica defied my expectations more than almost any book I’ve read in the past five years. Do we really need another Cinderella retelling? Maybe not, but that folk tale has such staying power and malleability that we’ll continue to see retellings in the future, and if we’re lucky, they’ll be, well, as inventive as Cornwell’s tale, in which the Cinderella figure, Nicolette, is a budding genius inventor, and she’s less interested in attending the royal ball than in entering the competition for inventors despite all her stepfamily’s efforts to obstruct her. We know the Cinderella pattern so well that we think we know exactly where the novel is headed — and then Cornwell gleefully changes direction. The first-person prose invites readers to partake in the heroine’s loneliness, but also in her creative energy and defiant optimism.

The collision of disparate worlds with vastly different levels of technology is the thrust of two more worthwhile YA reads, Patricia McKillip’s Moon-Flash duology and Sylvia Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars. McKillip’s work showcases two brave, clever young people, boy and girl, whose venture away from familiar territory forces them to confront possibilities formerly beyond their imaginations. This, like all of McKillip’s writing, features gorgeous, luminous, almost poetic prose. Engdahl, in telling the story of a young woman from an advanced technological society tasked with guiding a young man from a primitive world on the first careful steps toward advancement, manages the masterful trick of shifting neatly from science fiction (the heroine’s chapters) to fantasy (the hero’s chapters), shaping the prose to fit the world.

I can’t leave unheralded the late, great Terry Pratchett’s ventures into YA, specifically The Wee Free Men, featuring the fearless, hard-nosed young witch Tiffany Aching and the troop of tiny warriors the Nac Mac Feegle, and The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, a fabulously fractured take on “The Pied Piper,” featuring a naive young lad and a super-intelligent cat and team of rats playing a long con. Critics who castigate YA fantasy for “sentimentality” will find none of that here,  for Pratchett sees no reason to abandon his customary no-nonsense style and incisive humor just because he’s writing about youthful protagonists. I can think of no earthly reason why anyone who enjoys reading about Pratchett’s kick-butt witch Granny Weatherwax should not also enjoy reading about his Tiffany Aching.

To refer yet again to the words of a guest of the YA Track at DragonCon (whose name tragically escapes me), the feature that distinguishes YA science fiction and fantasy from speculative fiction written for adults is not the quality of writing or characterization, but the presence of hope. And hope is something I think we could all use right now, at least a little.

Happy Reading.

The Cure for “YA Cooties”

One of my favorite reads of the past month was a fantasy generally shelved as YA. And according to some, I should be embarrassed.

The first name that comes to mind when I think of people who believe themselves qualified to judge my reading list is Ruth Graham, author of the now-infamous Slate.com article “Against YA.” The word “embarrassed” comes from her. Adults who read YA, she asserts, are stunting their intellectual and even emotional growth because they’re embracing a genre that supposedly relies on easy answers, happy endings, and likable protagonists, when they ought to be challenging themselves with the moral ambiguity that characterizes the best of adult literature.

I will agree with her this far: adults who read only YA should consider expanding their literary horizons, for a love of and familiarity with a variety of genres can only do a reader good. But I can’t accept her assertion that optimism and admirable/heroic protagonists are juvenile and simplistic, or that pessimistic to nihilistic storytelling is inherently worthier and more insightful. Graham mentions Charles Dickens as an example of an author of compelling adult-oriented literature. I fell in love with Dickens in college and read him voraciously, and the last time I looked into him, his work wasn’t exactly brimming with moral ambiguity. Tragedy, yes. Violence, yes. But in his work, the good guys, while flawed, are clearly good, and the endings are happy — just as in a lot of YA literature.

I will admit that YA has acquired a bad reputation over the last few years, thanks in part to the immense popularity of Stephenie Meyer’s emotionally overwrought Twilight series and the proliferation of its imitators. These works get so much attention that some readers may get the impression that “Ordinary, colorless high school girl pines for hunky supernatural boyfriend who stalks her and treats her badly” is a template for contemporary YA literature in general. If it were, if these were the only books in the genre, then YA might really be the embarrassment Graham and others think it is. But they’re not. One may have to creep through a minefield of Meyer imitators to find them, but YA speculative fiction contains some vivid world-building, engaging characterization, absorbing plots, and even gorgeous prose. We may “come of age” only once, but we never stop evolving, aspiring, and confronting confusing and even frightening dilemmas — so no matter how old we grow, we may find well-written young adult fiction worth relating to.

Here are some YA books that speculative-fiction fans of any age may find worth reading.

Leigh Barduro’s Six of Crows is the aforementioned favorite read of the past month, and interestingly, it has a dash of that moral ambiguity that Graham cites as worthwhile feature of adult fiction. This is a heist novel set in a vividly detailed second-world fantasy setting, and its protagonists are a band of thieves and would-be kidnappers from an urban underbelly. They’re given a mission that will save their world, as they must wrest a scientist from the clutches of their enemies before he can create and distribute a drug that will turn this world’s mages into soulless and unstoppable supervillains. A worthy goal, but our gang of rogues must stoop to some questionable methods in order to achieve it. The adventure proves a test of what lines they are willing to cross, and often we’re not sure just what they’ll do. Moreover, no simple happy ending awaits; I will say no more than that. There is a sequel, Crooked Kingdom, which I’m hungry to read.

So why did I like it so much? For one thing, the world — much like Django Wexler in his Shadow Campaigns, Barduro creates nations analogous to the Netherlands, Russia, and Norway, and sets them in political, cultural, and spiritual opposition — is a fascinating place. But clever world-building means little if I’m not invested in the characters, and the titular “six of crows” are a group of scoundrels I can get behind as they demonstrate friendship, love, and loyalty. I have a favorite: Nina Zenik, the female mage whose power can both mend and break. She’s capable, resourceful, and fearless, but it’s her wicked sense of humor, something “tough girls” are too rarely allowed to have, that makes her a heroine after my own heart.

Allison Croggon wrote The Books of Pellinor series (The Naming, The Riddle, The Crow, and The Singing) partly from a desire to see a female protagonist in a Tolkienesque epic/high fantasy adventure. Since I share this desire, I was primed to like these books. The world is complex, the stakes are high, the adventure is frightening and often painfully violent, and more than once the heroine, the gifted apprentice bard Maerad, is force to confront the darkness within herself. The series is not perfect. I lost interest in the third book, The Crow, in which the narrative leaves Maerad to follow her similarly gifted brother Hem and no heroine emerges to fill the Maerad-shaped hole; also, in The Singing,  Croggon introduces a secondary female character and gives me enough detail to persuade me to like her, then proceeds to under-utilize her. The friendship between girls/women I’m always keen to see is regrettably absent here. All the same, this is a gripping tale, with plenty of excitement in which a reader can immerse herself. Maerad emerges as a powerful day-saving heroine, her integrity all the stronger for having been challenged.

Fran Wilde’s Updraft is likewise not perfect. A friend of mine noted that while it’s very well-written and the society is developed in intriguing detail, it follows the familiar story beats of dystopian fiction in the Hunger Games mold. I can see her point, especially since Suzanne Collins’ wildly successful The Hunger Games, which I enjoyed, has almost as many imitators as Twilight. But I’ll go out on a limb and assert that Updraft is a better book. The prose itself is fresher to me, a sense of wonder mingling with the wrongness and oppression. The world is more complex and, for me, all the more interesting for being further removed from our own. And the purposeful heroine, Kirit, isn’t hampered with a love triangle to distract her from her heroic exploits. Like all my favorite YA in recent days, it’s a girl-power book, but with plenty of excitement and narrow escapes to please both male and female readers.

Coming soon: Part 2.