…gang aft agley, as the poet says. And so have most of my plans for this column this autumn and winter. Back in spring I talked most hopefully of spending a month each reading the works of Sherwood Smith and Tanya Huff, and maybe taking some time to talk about writers from the Antipodes. I’m sorry if anyone was looking forward to that, since circumstances have conspired against that happening this year.
This week I had in mind to discuss a novel by C.S. Friedman (AKA Celia Friedman), called In Conquest Born. Originally published in 1986, it’s been reprinted since, and in 2012 received an audio version. It’s science fiction, the science fiction of space empires and psychics, battles and cultures in conflict.
It’s also one of the most disconcerting books I’ve read in a while. I’m not talking about its structural oddities and point of view choices: those are unusual, but they lend the novel the impression of being only part of a much wider, stranger world. Rather I mean the decisions Friedman made in terms of worldbuilding and characterisation.
It turns out—and this really should not have been the surprise to me that it proved—that Crapsack World Antihero stories* are not all that recent a phenomenon. (Maybe their relative popularity, particularly in fantasy, is: right now I don’t feel qualified to judge.) Neither of Friedman’s main characters, Anzha lyu Mitethe and Zatar, are particularly pleasant people. Both are driven by arrogance, the need to triumph over their enemies, hatred: at least one is explicitly driven by cultural mores which prioritise individual dominance and racial superiority. The cultures from which they come, despite their difference, are fairly rigid, imperially expansionist. Zatar’s culture normalises male dominance and female submission: it’s pretty rapetastic, actually, even though nothing explicit is described. Anzha’s doesn’t disgust me quite as viscerally, but it’s no beacon of light and justice and compassion.
*A trend recently prominent in epic fantasy, often referred to under the heading of “grimdark.” But no one ever properly defines “grimdark.” Crapsack World Antihero Story, on the other hand, is its own definition.
On the whole, I’m left with the impression that Friedman is most interested, thematically, in the nastiest things human beings can, could, would, and will do to each other… and that’s not a theme I prefer to dwell on, so once again my plans are gang agley.
But don’t let my delicate (ahem) sensibilities stop anyone else from discussing In Conquest Born in comments.
Those delicate sensibilities of mine were put out of whack in an entirely different way by another choice of entertainment recently. I put on the live-action Halo film Halo: Forward Unto Dawn. Not because I’m a Halo fan, but because I was looking for a bit of brainless fun skiffy action that included female people, and H:FUD’s IMDB pagebilled three interesting female people directly after the (inescapable) Lead Guy.
It was indeed brainless fun skiffy action, and I derived an immense amount of satisfaction from watching Anna Popplewell’s character tell Tom Green’s Lead Guy he was being an idiot…
…right up until the point Popplewell’s character and Green’s shared an awkward kiss. (A kiss whose only foreshadowing had been that here was a female person and a male person who were friends, mind you.)
I knew then that the character of Kylar Silva was doomed: that somehow, somewhere, before the film finished, her death would be the final straw that motivated Tom Green’s Thomas Lasky out of being Cadet Screwup and into being Badass Soldier Guy.
And lo, my foretelling came to pass. And lo, it was stupid. You’d think surviving the death and destruction of an entire military training facility and most of his cadet squad would be motivation enough without adding Dead Girlfriend to the mix…*
*Although nice job on avoiding Black Character Death, at least.
As an isolated example of this trope, H:FUD doesn’t have much significance. (Except that there’s probably my only chance to see Anna Popplewell kick ass and take names, action-movie-style, ruined by the pointless girlfriend-death-trope. Hey, I’m allowed to be selfish.)
But it’s not isolated. The trope is so common, and so predictable, that the thing that most surprised me about how it played out here? Was that H:FUD saved its fridging for the final fifteen minutes.
It matters how and why women die in narratives. It matters when, or if, or whether the narrative subordinates their stories to the Lead Guy’s (or to some other guy’s); it matters when or if they have no narrative arc or character growth distinct from the Lead Guy’s.
And the reason that H:FUD’s final fifteen minutes leaves a really bad taste in my mouth? Was that up until then, within the constraints of the confused, flawed (but fun) film that it is, it had done a relatively good job of treating its female characters with respect. You were so close, H:FUD. So very close to making me reasonably happy.
But the fridge is always lurking.