Some Half-Formed Thoughts on Dwarfs and Gender in Discworld

This is a quick post just to get something out of my head that’s been rattling around since I finished Raising Steam a couple of weeks ago. I tweeted most of this at the time; this is just pulling those thoughts together without the character limit.

On a surface level, the dwarfish race in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld has gender equality: all dwarfs look alike, and gender is considered a secret relevant only to the dwarf theirself and their significant others. This has apparently been the case for the whole of dwarfish history. However, the emergence of female dwarfs who want to imitate female humans’ presentation of gender is a repeated subject of the novels. On the one hand, this is presented as an issue of self-expression in the face of restrictive cultural norms, but the sense is generally there in the books that these cultural norms are not just a restriction of what all dwarfs can do, but a specific repression of females from presenting as such.
But, as I’ve said, dwarfs on Discworld don’t appear to have any cultural history of a gender binary in terms of dress and behaviour. This is something that seems as though it can only have come from outside influence, through observation of human culture on the Disc (significantly, it is the more “modern” dwarfs of the human city of Ankh-Morpork who initiate this movement of female gender expression), however dwarfs in the books are depicted in some cases as harbouring pre-existing resentment of the requirement to present as “male”.

The result of it all is the impression that Pratchett is presenting the gender binary of human culture (specifically the 19th-century cultural analogue of the Discworld) as something that is innate and desirable even by those that have no history of such. In Raising Steam specifically, part of the climax of the book is the Low King of the Dwarfs, Rhys Rhysson, declaring herself to be a Low Queen and adopting a feminine name – an act that makes little sense in a culture that has no history of gendered names, but it’s intended as a symbolic gesture. Following this event we are told a significant number of dwarfs rush to “out” themselves following her example.

This is not to object to the idea of individuals choosing their own gender expression, but it is telling that this is something that only applies to female dwarfs, and the depiction leaves the reader with the impression that almost all female dwarfs have just been waiting for the moment to come where they can begin to openly acknowledge their gender by adopting these human practices. I couldn’t help coming out of the ending of Raising Steam with the feeling that Pratchett was, through the dwarfs, promoting the idea of our culture’s gender binary as something that is right and proper.

Now, I’m a little concerned I might just be showing my ass here, as I’m not sure I have found the best way to express my thoughts on the topic, and I’ve got the lingering feeling I might be reading too much into things. But this isn’t the only area where Pratchett has appeared to show an unquestioning acceptance of stereotypical gender roles and behaviours – he’s quite fond of clichéd marriage jokes in many of the later books, for example – and it seems like this is one of the places where his well-intentioned attempts to reflect real-world struggles for equality and freedoms has fallen foul of problematic implications.

All of this is not intended to take away from the fact that Terry Pratchett was a great writer, and one who was as far as I can tell funny, intelligent, and a genuinely good person. But every one of us has our blind spots and unintentional biases, and even the best of us has moments where those show through despite intentions.

Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

In a universe where the worlds of our solar system are close, and every one of them is habitable, humanity left the bounds of Earth in the nineteenth century, establishing itself across all the planets and their moons. This expansion was fuelled by the discovery of callowmilk, a substance extracted from mysterious creatures in the seas of Venus called Callowhales; their milk provides humanity with much of the nutrients it needs to survive beyond Earth. The cities of Luna, the Earth’s moon, became the centre of the nascent cinematic industry; an industry that remained largely silent and monochrome, held back by the exorbitant fees charged by the Edison Corporation for use of their patents on sound recording and colour film.
A filmmaker, Severin Unck, disappears during production of a film about the unexplained destruction of a Venusian colony. Radiance is this universe’s attempt to make sense of what happened, through her films, through recordings of her life and those who knew her, and through the attempts of her father, the legendary director Percival Unck, to tell her story.
It’s a novel that at times feels like a complicated puzzle, presenting pieces of information, telling Severin’s life out of sequence, and circling in on the events that occurred in the village of Adonis – events tinged with weird horror, of which you made gradually aware. There are shifts in tone along the way, through noir and gothic and fairy tale narratives, each taken up and discarded as Percy Unck attempts to find the shape of his film. And it’s this element that makes it the most interesting – the knowledge, repeatedly made clear, that everything in the book is told at one remove; second hand or interpreted by the mind of a filmmaker.
The story of Anchises St John, sole survivor of Adonis, attempting to discover the truth about Severin is not reality, but the plot of Percy’s film. Scenes from Severin’s movies, which are documentary and very personal, we are assured are heavily scripted and rehearsed. Even Percy’s home movies are suspect, as we are told of how he would have his family re-enact events until things were just right. There was a point, around two thirds of the way through the book, where I became very aware of the unreliability of everything I was being told, and I assumed the book would ride this ambiguity all the way to the end, providing no solid answers and leaving the explanations a matter of interpretation.
I was a teensy bit disappointed, then, when the final sections of the book not only offered up an explanation, but seemed to confirm that this explanation was the correct one. It was a very neat and tidy conclusion. This is not to say it wasn’t satisfying, however; the ending takes all of the pieces, all the clues layered throughout the text, and brings them together to show you how they all fit, and the solution to the mysteries is a weird and wonderful bit of worldbuilding in itself.
In all, I found Radiance a fascinating and entertaining read, even if it didn’t quite end up where I would have expected. It’s a fun book, one that rewards close reading, and quite unlike any other I’ve read. If the idea of a book that mixes pulpy planetary sci fi, cinema, mystery, and unconventional storytelling appeals to you, definately check this out.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

(This isn’t exactly a review, as I’m trying to be fairly relaxed and brief in my thoughts here. I always have trouble writing up my thoughts on books, and am trying to make it easier.)

I don’t usually read hard science fiction (I generally don’t read all that much sci fi in general), but Neal Stephenson is an author I’d seen a lot of talk about over the years, and his latest novel Seveneves was getting some positive buzz, so I went ahead and got it.

Seveneves is about what happens after the moon breaks up. How it happens doesn’t really matter to the story – it’s an unexplained phenomenon, a mysterious Agent that strikes the moon and breaks it into several pieces – because this is a story of how civilisation might survive the catastrophe. It’s a near-future setup, not quite our current day; this is a world where we have captured an asteroid and attached it to the ISS (a development that allows it to survive falling debris from the former moon), and where genetics and robotics technology are both a little more advanced. But apart from those few things, it attempts to tackle how humanity might find a way to survive in orbit when they know the earth is about to become uninhabitable.

There’s a lot of technical detail in this novel, going into how every part of this survival scheme works, backing everything in real science. Because of this Seveneves can be a little dry in places, but I was surprised by the way Stephenson was still able to make this a compelling read. It’s an extreme survival story, with a lot of science, a little politics and some action, and though dense it moves along pretty well. The main appeal of the book is not so much characters as it is the presentation of problem and solution, and the worldbuilding that results. (That isn’t to say there’s a lack of compelling characters; that would be untrue, and selling the novel short.)

That worldbuilding takes full control in the final section of the novel, which is set five thousand years after the initial disaster, and shows humanity as it is beginning to return to the earth’s surface. I found this the least enjoyable part of the story, to be honest, as it often felt like its purpose was to show off the fantastic technologies Stephenson had extrapolated from the earlier parts, and the unusual ways he’d come up with for humanity to develop. I found the ending itself a little abrupt, as if he had finished giving us the tour of all the ideas he had come up with, and that was it. I’m being a little unfair to the book there – I can see the intent; it ends on a note of hope, at a point where the reader can see a the potential future of the earth and wonder on how it will work out – but since the actual plot of the final section was slow-moving and somewhat predictable, the thought that it was only there to showcase the author’s worldbuilding was forefront in my mind.

All in all, I did enjoy Seveneves – the ideas were fascinating, and Stephenson knows how to keep the infodumping readable and occasionally compelling. I still feel like I’m selling the book short; it’s the work of a skilled author after all. If you’re at all interested in the ideas of how humanity could survive in space, this is a book worth reading.

Read in 2015 – Comics

On the other hand, I did read a lot of comics this year. More than are listed below – I got Marvel Unlimited, and there are several series I dipped into but gave up on after a few issues. I’ve split this list into two parts, first the comics I read in trades and issues from larger series, then the much shorter list of standalone titles.

So many really good titles in this list that I’m going to just highlight them rather than list favourites separately.

Batgirl (New 52) vols 4-5
X-Men vol 1
House of M
All-New X-Men vol 1
Thor: God of Thunder vols 1-4
Black Widow vol 2
Superior Foes of Spider-Man vol 3
Runaways Complete Collection vols 2-3
Trees vol 1
Ten Grand vol 2
Secret Six vols 1-3
Sex Criminals vol 2
Ms. Marvel vol 2-4
She-Hulk vol 2
Lumberjanes vols 1-2

Wonder Woman (New 52) vols 5-6
Lazarus vol 3
Captain Marvel vols 2-3
Captain America: Red Menace
Iron Man: Extremis
Astonishing X-Men
Rat Queens vol 2
Velvet vol 2
Thor: Goddess of Thunder vols 1-2

The Unwritten vol 11
Planet Hulk
ODY-C vol 1
The Wicked + The Divine vol 2

Marvel’s Civil War
Black Panther (Marvel Knights) #1-12
Inhumans (1998) #1-12
Young Avengers (vol 1) #1-12
The Fade Out vol 1
The Death of Captain America
Phonogram: Rue Britannia
Phonogram: The Singles Club
Hawkeye vol 4
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vols 1-2

Ultimate Spider-Man
Catwoman (New 52) vol 6
Saga vol 5

Angela: Asgard’s Assassin
Gotham by Midnight vol 1
Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E
Bitch Planet vol 1
Exiles #1-38
Daredevil (vol 2) #26-119 & 500
Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps
Giant Days vol 1
Lady Killer vol 1
Wytches vol 1

Standalone books:

Friends with Boys – Faith Erin Hicks
The Squidder – Ben Templesmith
Porcelain – Benjamin Read & Chris Wildgoose
The Sculptor – Scott McCloud
Nimona – Noelle Stevenson

Super Mutant Magic Academy – Jillian Tamaki
Rites, Customs and Histories of the Great Empire of Migdal Bavel – Isabel Greenberg
Fairy Tales for Bad Bitches – Comic Book Slumber Party
Porcelain: Bone China – Benjamin Read & Chris Wildgoose

Read in 2015 – Books

Though it won’t look it on the list below, this was a slow reading year for me. I got off to a good start with my Hugo reading at the beginning of the year, but I think I read less than a book a month for the last 6 months or so. Propping up that end of the list is my dive into Discworld audiobooks, which I listened to one my walk to and from work every day – I’ve made it from the 15th to the 39th novel in that series. I only actually sat down and read 19 books in prose form; I only read 2 books that were not newly released in 2014 or 2015.

There is a hell of a lot of good stuff in my short list for 2015, though. My favorite reads of the year were The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, The Goblin Emperor, The Grace of Kings, and Ancillary Mercy.

The Girl with All the Gifts – M R Carey
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club – Genevieve Valentine
Love is the Drug – Alaya Dawn Johnson
The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison
Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
Men At Arms – Terry Pratchett
The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu
Soul Music – Terry Pratchett
Interesting Times – Terry Pratchett
A Darker Shade of Magic – V E Schwab
The Girl in the Road – Monica Byrne
Maskerade – Terry Pratchett
Feet of Clay – Terry Pratchett
Get in Trouble – Kelly Link
The Hogfather – Terry Pratchett
Jingo – Terry Pratchett
The Familiar volume 1 – Mark Z Danielewski
The Last Continent – Terry Pratchett
The Last Colony – John Scalzi
Carpe Jugulum – Terry Pratchett
The Grace of Kings – Ken Liu
The Fifth Elephant – Terry Pratchett
The Truth – Terry Pratchett
Thief of Time – Terry Pratchett
The Last Hero – Terry Pratchett
The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents – Terry Pratchett
Night Watch – Terry Pratchett
The Wee Free Men – Terry Pratchett
Uprooted – Naomi Novik
Monstrous Regiment – Terry Pratchett
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps – Kai Ashante Wilson
A Hat Full of Sky – Terry Pratchett
Going Postal – Terry Pratchett
Empire Ascendant – Kameron Hurley
Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie
Thud! – Terry Pratchett
Wintersmith – Terry Pratchett
Making Money – Terry Pratchett
Unseen Academicals – Terry Pratchett
Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear
Seveneves – Neal Stephenson
I Shall Wear Midnight – Terry Pratchett
Snuff – Terry Pratchett

What I’ve Been Watching (TV)

Along the lines of my last post, I thought I’d share some brief thoughts on the TV shows I’ve watched over the last few months. I tend to watch one show at a time, watching through a full season on Netflix or a DVD box set, mostly by an episode a day. These are the ones I’ve finished lately.

Sense8

This was a really well made show that I enjoyed a lot. A science fiction show about 8 people around the world who have a connection that lets them communicate, share thoughts and emotions, and even control each others’ bodies. Though some of the storylines were clichéd or used stereotypes, and it tends a little toward soap opera-ish drama, it was still a really good show. Looking forward to more.

Person of Interest (s1-3)

I finished the third season (the last one available on Netflix) of this last week. While it starts out as a fairly formulaic crime-of-the-week show with an annoyingly hypercompetent male lead in season one, the quality is high throughout, and the show evolves by season three into a complex SF drama with an ensemble cast and tackling themes of surveillance, security and artificial intelligence. Despite the departure of one of the show’s best characters I’m still looking forward to more.

I can’t say that I support the show’s implied belief that all-seeing surveillance is good so long as it’s in the right hands, however.

American Horror Story: Freak Show

Thanks to DVD release schedules I’m always a year behind on this series. I enjoyed this about as much as the previous seasons, though like Asylum it kind of fizzled out in the final episodes. I also felt like the character of Dandy was a bit inconsistent through the season, changing his behaviour to fit whatever was going on in the plot. Still, it’s always an interestingly weird show and I’ll keep on watching.

Jessica Jones

Lots and lots has been said about this one lately. I watched the whole thing even faster than I did Daredevil, and it was pretty great. It’s very much a show about rape and consent, and the consequences for victims, and those issues are handled well throughout. Killgrave’s power is terrifying, although I found his actions lost impact the more we saw of him. I agree with some of the criticism that the story meanders a little – it takes a couple of episodes too long to reach the final confrontation, though there are other good bits in there – but I still enjoyed it all. I really want to see more of Trish Walker and her becoming Hellcat, and I wouldn’t mind more of Jessica-as-PI (there were only really two episodes of PI cases in a season otherwise focused on the “find and expose Killgrave” plot).

Legend of Korra: Book Four – Balance

Legend of Korra has had its ups and downs, but season 4 was this show at its best. Focusing strongly on Korra’s recovery and PTSD after the end of Book Three, we see a hero who is struggling to find her strength and purpose while dealing with a morally complex political situation in the Earth Kingdom. …At least at first, as my only real criticism of this season is that the antagonist Kuvira, “Great Uniter” of the Earth Kingdom, goes far too rapidly from a complex character trying to do what she feels is best for her people, to an outright evil maniac with a superweapon. I feel like this was an issue of season length: the pieces were there, but in a half-season there isn’t the time to explore and develop them fully.

I compare this with the show’s precursor Avatar: The Last Airbender, where large parts of the show were devoted to following characters like Prince Zuko as he struggled with his purpose through the course of the show, moving from a villain to an ally over three seasons – a fully planned-out series with full length seasons gives creators the luxury to delve into the evolution of a complex character like that. From what I gather, Legend of Korra was never guaranteed to continue beyond each short season of 12-13 episodes, which left the creators having to build their story out of short single-season arcs. They still did very well with what they had.

Also watching…

Aside from these listed series, I’ve also been keeping up with Agents of SHIELD, which is doing much better than when it started out. I was until recently watching Doctor Who, but I’ve let that one slide. Right now my new daily watch is Aziz Ansari’s Master of None – I’m three episodes in, and the third episode was pretty great, so I have high hopes for the rest.

What I’ve Been Reading

It’s been faaaaaaaar too long since posted here. I’ve been having trouble coming up with things to post about, as usual. This included trying to write a couple of book reviews that never worked out, so, in lieu of that, here’s some brief thoughts on the books I’ve read since the last review I posted, so many months ago. These are listed in the order they were read.

The Grace of Kings – Ken Liu
I wish I’d been able to write a real post about this one. This is a great epic fantasy, about two men from very different backgrounds who become friends, and then become leaders of a revolt with very different ideas of how to rule an empire. The voice of the novel is the kind if omniscient narrator you don’t often see in modern fiction. It moves easily between the intimate and the sweeping, reading in parts like a historical epic and including elements of classical myth. The world, too, is just different enough from standard fantasy settings to be interesting. Highly recommended; the best epic fantasy I’ve read in years.

The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu
This was a quick read for my trip up to Edinburgh in August. A race of aliens that lives inside of human bodies and has been directing history for millenia is fighting a secret civil war – and now, by accident, Roen Tan has been drafted into it. Entertaining for a light read, but I honestly found it a bit too clichéd. The alien premise was interesting, and the history of Tao’s long life was the best part, but the plot was nothing special.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik
A young woman, Agnieszka, is chosen by a wizard called the Dragon to come and live in his tower for ten years – a prospect that terrifies her. Meanwhile, the Wood, an ancient and corrupted forest which the Dragon holds at bay, has been advancing. Taking from classic fairy tales and spinning them into something new, this is a really excellent book.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps – Kai Ashante Wilson
A novella, this story follows a sorceror travelling with a caravan south through the treacherous Wildeeps, stalked by a dangerous beast. Reminiscent of the Dying Earth genre, this is a primitive-seeming fantasy setting where the weird and impossible is peppered with hints at a distant past of wildly advanced technempire  It is beautifully written, and in a distinctly African-American vernacular that makes it stand out among the plain English and faux-Medieval language of most fantasy. If it has a major flaw it is its length – the ending is abrupt.

Empire Ascendant – Kameron Hurley
The second book in the Worldbreaker Saga, this has much of what was in The Mirror Empire – carnivorous plants, alternate reality doppelgangers, scheming politics, and a bloodthirsty conquering empire on the ascent. But this is the middle book of the trilogy, the Empire Strikes Back, and it is brutal. Everyone suffers, often in horrific ways; nothing is easy. If you think George R R Martin likes to hurt his characters, try this one and see the difference.

Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie
You shouldn’t need me to tell you this was good: this is the final book of the trilogy that started with Ancillary Justice, which took home every major SFF award in 2014. A direct continuation of the story told in Ancillary Sword, this sees Breq defending the Athoek system from the effects of Anaander Mianaai’s internal war. Like Breq, Leckie seems to like defying expectations, and this conclusion to the trilogy takes things in some unexpected directions. Like Ancillary Sword, this is a quieter book with a focus on the interpersonal relationships of the people around Breq – if you liked the previous volume, you’ll like this one.

Many Discworld Audiobooks – Terry Pratchett (read by Stephen Briggs)
While reading these other few books I’ve continued my big listen through the Discworld series – I am currently on Wintersmith – and they are just brilliant. Terry Pratchett was a master, and he’ll never be replaced. I’m convinced, for example, that it would be impossible to improve the funeral chapter in Wintersmith.

Now that I’m caught up, I’ll try to find more things to post about – soon!