Fri
Jul 11 2014 2:30pm

Space Opera and Bad Porn: Vicky Peterwald: Target by Mike Shepherd

Vicky Peterwald Target Mike Shepherd review Content warning: spoilers, cursing, discussion of rape scene.

I spent two days casting around trying to think of a way to write this review that didn’t involve screaming, punching walls, and turning the air bluer than a sailor on a bender. But, ladies and gentlemen and honourable others, I’m not entirely sure I’ve succeeded. Because Vicky Peterwald: Target, Shepherd’s first entry in his spin-off from the long-running Kris Longknife series, is... well.

Let’s get something out of the way first. I like the Kris Longknife books. They’re fun fluff, popcorn reading, they’ve got a rollicking pace and despite their problems, they can be very entertaining. But Target? It’s got the same workmanlike prose and mostly-breakneck approach to pacing, but this? What did you decide to do, Mike Shepherd and the Ace editorial team, marry space opera to bad porn and end up with the worst of both? I haven’t seen as sexist and illogical a mess made of a female viewpoint character and her world in...

...You know what? I don’t even know.

(SWEET GODLESS HEAVENS WHY DID YOU DO THIS THING WHY?)

Vicky Peterwald is the daughter of one of the most powerful men in human space, a businessman who parlayed his fortune into ruthless control over dozens of planets and set himself up as an emperor. The Peterwald family has a long-running feud with the Longknifes, who have ended up on top of another several dozen planets in a slightly more democratic fashion—and Vicky Peterwald has just returned from an expedition with Kris Longknife out into uncharted space. They fought aliens, and came back with very few survivors. Vicky’s been hunted by her pregnant stepmother’s assassins since before she left, and now that she’s back, her peril has redoubled. Somehow she needs to stay alive. Her best bet for support is the Navy—but when powerful factions are willing to bribe Navy admirals to see her dead or disposed of, is there really anyone she can trust?

I wanted to like this book. Its cover copy deluded me into thinking it had all the ingredients for a fun distraction. So did Shepherd’s previous form. I could put up with the terrible dialogue. Terrible dialogue is not an insurmountable problem! I could even put up with the uneven pacing—although stopping nearly all FORWARD MOTION ON THE PLOT (such as it is) from chapters thirty-five through thirty-nine and again in chapter forty-three to describe a lot of prudishly-written sex* and include paragraphs of bad banter is a bridge too far—but what I can’t cope with is how unreal, how male-gaze, male-fantasy playgirl nymphomaniac, completely sodding illogical our main character’s actions are when it comes to interacting with men.

*Seriously, for a book that spends so much time dwelling on getting into bed with people, it’s weirdly coy about nouns and descriptions. The only concrete nouns the text ever uses to refer to sexual characteristics are “nipples,” (type: female) “breasts,” and on one or two memorable occasions, “balls” and “package.” Not a penis or a membrum virile or a verpa or a vagina or labia - or any modern slang equivalent—among them, and certainly no mention of any word so crass as fornication, copulation, or fucking. It’s creepily coy, actually: seems to be aiming for R-rated scenes with a PG-rated vocabulary, and failing to actually manage evoke anything like real human sexuality.

I’m not going to walk through the male-gaze bullshit, bad-porno logic, and the terribly-written sex scenes. It starts in the first chapter. It’s bad, and pervasive, and going through it point by point would take at least three days. Let me just focus on what’s probably the most problematic set-piece of the novel, which takes place in chapter twenty-eight. In this chapter, Vicky Peterwald wakes up after having been abducted, finds herself tied to a bed, and seduces** her abductors in order to get free. Her abductors, by the way, are ugly, fat, and stupid. The smartest one is given to Bond-villain threats.

**For “You’re shitting me? This is cringingly bad and deeply unbelievable,” levels of seduce, I have to say. Let me quote the beginning of Vicky’s attempt at seduction:

She’d let her skirts fall to the floor, hiding much of herself as she sat on the toilet. Now she pulled her hem up slowly, revealing her shapely legs, wiggled one leg out of her panties, and lofted them in Albert’s general direction.

He had to make the catch with his free hand. Immediately he put them to his nose for a sniff.

“You like it,” Vicky tried to purr.

Vicky kills one of her abductors when he’s screwing her, in what has to be one of the least believable, least sensibly-described, kind of awfully wrong depictions of sexual assault/rape I’ve ever had the displeasure to read. Seriously, if you’re going to write about rape and you’re going to make a point of stating that your main character is “dry as sandpaper,” for the love of god and all the bloody prophets don’t tell me “[o]n the third effort he slipped in.” If you’re dry there’s pain and possibly tearing and maybe chafing and seriously slipping? That’s the verb you’re going to use?

NOPETOPUS SAYS NOPE.

It’s a weirdly sanitised and distanced way of describing rape from the point of view of the victim, and not the kind of distanced that you get when people are in shock or running on adrenaline. It’s creepy, but voyeur-creepy. It’s bloody powerless for a scene that should disturb, that should provoke our empathy and understanding. If you’re going to write sexual assault and rape into your novel, then you’d damn well better make it mean something more than gratuitous filler. Here, just like depictions of consensual sexual intercourse, it’s narratively meaningless—but what’s annoying with one is bloody offensive with the other. Sexuality as wallpaper: but in Target, the text judges women other than its main character for the appearance of sexual availability, while (badly) portraying Vicky using sex as a bargaining chip or means to bind men’s loyalty or just for fun at every opportunity.

And you know what? I’m sick to death of bloody unnecessary sexist creepy bullshit. I can put up with it around the edges of a novel, but in Target it seems like it’s the entire point.

Bad dialogue, uneven pacing, workmanlike prose. There are moments where Target looks like it could have been an entertaining novel—assassination attempts, a shoot-out or two—but I can’t get the sour taste of WHAT THE HELL, BOOK? out of my mouth. If you’ve got a higher tolerance for creepy sexist bullshit than I do these days, I wish you joy of this novel.

Me, I’ll be over here with my mouthwash.

Vicky Peterwald: Target is available now from Ace.


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

15 comments
Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
Heroes may want redheads, as the trope says, but I think I will pass. Um, yeah.
RobinM
3. RobinM
Yikes! I guess I'm skipping this one and I like the longknife books.
RobinM
4. puck
Funny, I stopped on this review because I thought, "That is a tragically AWFUL cover. It looks like a rip of Johansen's Black Widow, but with B-movie props and a terrible, terrible sexist and stereotypical cat-suit." Good to know it fits the contents!
RobinM
5. Narkor
I'm wondering what the review author's idea of "good porn" is. Isn't all porn exploitative?
RobinM
6. Yet Another Geek
Is it really worse than 'Friday'?
http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/06/the-worst-book-i-love-robert-heinleins-friday
RobinM
7. Wes S.
Well, the last Kris Longknife book proved Shepherd couldn't write a sex scene if his life depended on it. (One such scene had Jack worshiping Kris' "sunny side ups" during foreplay, a turn of phrase so absurd that I was wondering if they were supposed to be making out on the beach or in a Waffle House.)

So why is it a surprise that his portrayal of rape is so apparently similarly awkward?

On the other hand, I'd think that any author who isn't a total sociopath or psychotic would want to depict a rape scene in a "sanitised and distanced way," even - especially! - if it were completely necessary to the plot. Call me a prude if you will, but I've always found scenes of horror and/or violence more effective if they leave certain things to the reader's imagination, rather than wallowing in the graphic details.

The reviewer seems to be castigating Shepherd for both being too gratuitous and not gratuitous enough when it comes to Vicky's rape...which, as I understand the series, takes place in a totalitarian society that seems to be based on the most brutal of personal power relationships, where such behavior seems to be par for the course.

Come to think of it, the same thing was at work in Heinlein's aforementioned "Friday," which pretty much started out with the protagonist being raped and tortured...which Friday herself considered to be basically SOP for anybody in her line of work who was unlucky enough to be captured. I think it's that attitude on Friday's part that shocks readers of the book - especially in these hopelessly PC times - more than the actual brutality as it was depicted. (Also in a "sanitized and distanced" fashion, IIRC.)
Liz Bourke
8. hawkwing-lb
Narkor @5:

I'm not about to get in to a debate on the ethics of pornography here - but I'm reasonably certain that one can produce sexually explicit material for the purposes of turning other human beings on without being exploitative, if one exerts oneself.

Yet Another Geek @6:

I've made it my mission in life to avoid anything else written by Robert Heinlein since encountering his books in the library when I was twelve. I don't pretend that books can be weighed on a scale of absolutes. Is it worse? I don't know. But Heinlein died more than a quarter-century ago: the terribleness Target contains is garden-fresh this year.
Jenny Kristine
9. jennygadget
@Wes S.

I'm not entirely certain how pointing out that the anatomy doesn't work, and that this particular "not working" ends up denying the lived experiences of rape victims (as the point of view character has just become), translates to either a request for more gratuitiousness or political correctness.

Applying those terms to the complaints Liz has about the book implies that the only reason one would argue against the superfluous dehumanization of rape victims (or good writing for that matter) is for petty political reasons. It also puts you squarely with the people who think books like Speak must contain porn, because all remotely acurrate depictions of rape must be gratuitious, yes?
RobinM
10. Wes S.
@jennygadget: No, actually.

Kindly put down the strawmen, gasoline and matches, and back away slowly.
Steven Halter
11. stevenhalter
Thanks Liz--sounds like a book well worth not reading.
RobinM
12. Mike12
and here is a quote from goodreads "Also, there is A LOT of sex. The sex scenes are surprisingly good but if that's not what you like to read then turn back now."

hmm it seems its all a matter of taste ;)
Derek Broughton
13. auspex
I've rather avoided the Longknife books because of the covers. But this just screams: RUN!
Jenny Kristine
14. jennygadget
"'hmm it seems its all a matter of taste ;)"

Yeah, no.

See, whether you like a scene that has a penis "slipping" into a dry vulva may be a matter of taste. Maybe.

But recognizing that such scenes are illogical has nothing to do with taste - that's just reality.

And quite frankly the number of men in this thread that don't get that distinction is freaking me the hell out. The reality of my anatomy is not a matter of opinion or taste, people.
RobinM
15. Cathy/greytfriend
Thanks for the helpful review, Liz, I can tell that I'd be cursing up a storm and freaking the hell out of my dog if I read this one. Just the fact that it's being compared to Friday decades later says something about it. I liked Friday 30 years ago. But most people have moved forward in their portrayals of all people, not just women. It sounds like some men reading this book might be pretty upset about how the men are portrayed too, that they're either so dumb as to fall for her shallow seduction tricks or so violent as to rape her, or the constant leering at her body. It sounds like this book doesn't make anyone look good.

And I have to say that the use of rape as a casual plot device is, I don't have the right words, but some that come to mind are stupid, hurtful, ignorant, at this point in time perhaps willfully ignorant. It isn't about being PC. It's about writing characters with integrity and about giving a shit about your readers and what they think about your work and about its value. Rape destroys something in a woman. Every time. It's a horrible, transformative experience. It isn't a little thing an author can throw in to make a quick scene work and have the character bounce back from it a page later and never to mention it again without the readers calling bullshit. Or maybe she wants revenge on the guy, but that's all the grief you ever see from her. We see it all too often and we're tired of it.

Rape used to be a dirty word, we couldn't say it, it was hinted at but never spoken out loud. But now people are talking about it. And one consequence of that is fans demanding that authors think about the value of what they're writing. There are too many casual rape scene in speculative lit, it's got to change. It has nothing to do with being PC. It has to do with a change in society over the last few decades where people have learned to talk about something that used to be hidden away at all costs. We didn't use to talk about depression too, it was totally taboo, now we do and we talk about suicide in different ways than we did thirty or fifty years ago, is that too PC? I get it, some PC pressure can go too far, there are thing that make me roll my eyes too. But our society has brought rape out in the open, is trying to teach women not to the be ashamed when they are victims of attacks, to know how to seek help. And women wanting rape scenes in books not to be sexy, not to be a casual tool authors use but only used thoughtfully and when a story really dictates that kind of confrontation, and for it to have serious physical and emotional consequences, that's not an eye-roller, that's based on their experiences. One out of five women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape. Just think about that number. Yet men, and women, are still putting the act in books and using it like its sexy-time, or just tossing it in the mix like it isn't any more significant than any other negotiation or battle or confrontation or whatever is going on. And you don't get why we want to throw the book across the room.

The guy wrote a thoughtless book, he hasn't absorbed any new information or grown as an author at all in decades. He obviously thinks that people will just keep buying anything that he writes, no matter how little effort he puts into it. And it works for a lot of authors so it may well work for him too. Look at the newest Janet Evanovich/Stephanie Plum book, it's been on the best seller lists for weeks. But I am definitely not interested.

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