It's Not Easy Being Green

by Dan H

Dan gets his Minority Warrior freak on, big time
~
So here's the deal.

Once upon a time, a heterosexual, white man from Oregon wrote a book dealing with complex issues of race, sexuality, imperialism, slavery and Otherness. Then a heterosexual, white man from Oxford read that book and decided that the heterosexual, white man from Oregon was Doing It Wrong and proceeded to complain about it on the internet.

This is one of those iffy things where I'm trying to defuse my own hypocrisy by drawing attention to it but I do genuinely feel that it's a problem when white people use racism as an excuse to score points off of other white people, or when men use sexism as an excuse to score points off other men (this last being one of my major issues with a lot of later Joss Whedon). This of course creates a bit of a paradox (paradox (n): convenient excuse for behaving like an inconsistent jackass) because you can't say “this guy is trying to use sexism to score points off other men” without doing the exact same thing yourself.

So umm ... yeah, that's what this article is going to be about. It's going to be me trying to score points off a guy called Jay Lake by complaining about the fact that he's trying to score points off me, while criticising his work as being skeevy on a variety of levels.

For what it's worth, part of the skeeviness in Green involves a certain amount of discussion of rape so: trigger warning.

Also spoiler warning, but you should expect that by now.

Where to begin:

Reverse Racism

One of the many quite positive things to come out of Racefail '09 were some interesting essays/articles/blogposts on the concept of “reverse racism”. Broadly, as far as I can tell, this was a reaction against a lot of discussions along the lines of, well, of the introductory sequence to Everyone's a Little Bit Racist where the white puppet “exposes” how racist the monster puppet is being for not letting him come so their Monster's Support Group. It's the sort of apologist claptrap you get all the time where somebody “insightfully” points out that having – say – an award for Music of Black Origin is racist because you couldn't have an award for Music of White Origin.

On the other hand there's another side to the whole “reverse-*ism” issue which is just as pernicious as the first.

A little while ago I had a trawl through the archives of Girls Read Comics (and They're Pissed) and found a post about a guy who had shown up and complained that they felt that female superheroes didn't make sense. But wait, they weren't being sexist, oh no. Because you see the thing is that they thought that women were too sensible and mature to be superheroes. Because you see superheroes are basically just adolescent power fantasies, and isn't it just us silly, silly men who need to dress up in tights and have fun beating up baddies. Aren't women so much better than that, with their caring natures and their ability to listen. Needless to say the girls at Girls Read Comics... were not amused.

Green reads a lot like that guy. All the bad guys are men. Most of them are white men. This wouldn't be a problem in itself, and I most certainly am not suggesting that it's “racist against whites” to have the bad guys all be white people. Rather the problem is that the whole book is shot through with some slightly creepy, faintly Victorian attitudes to women and to non-white cultures. Bad guys all white men? Fine. Bad guys all white men because they're the only people that appear to have volition and agency, while everybody else just kind of sits there quietly starving, not fine.

So anyway, I'm six hundred and something words in, and I'm still ploughing through disclaimers, I should probably start actually talking about the book. As always this isn't really a review, it's a response. The rest of this article is basically going to be in four parts. I'm going to take a look at the overall plot, then at the way the book deals with sexuality, then at how it deals with gender, then how it deals with race and the trappings of Empire.

The Story

The story of Green is as follows. Green lives until the age of three in somewhere that is vaguely like India. It isn't spelled out at the time, but she basically lives a life of grinding poverty and desperation. She is sold by her father (her mother and grandmother have both died – this is the start of a long sequence of Green suffering misfortunes because of Men) to a man named Federo, who carries her across the sea to Copper Downs. There she is raised at fantastic expense as a courtesan on behalf of somebody called “The Factor”, while Federo and a catgirl “dancing mistress” train her up to be a kickass ninja assassin.

At the age of twelve she escapes from whore school amidst much angst (there's a lot of angst in the book) but is still recruited by Federo and the Dancing Mistress to take out the immortal Duke who has ruled over Copper Downs for four centuries. This she duly does, before fleeing over the see to Selistan, her homeland.

She returns to Selistan, and finds her father's farm, only to realise that it's a horrible poverty-stricken wreck and that being a slave was probably the best thing that could possibly have happened to her (the “being enslaved and oppressed was the best thing that could happen to these people” theme is a recurring one, and one of my biggest sources of trouble with the book). Then she hangs out on the streets of a big quasi-Indian city, gets recruited by a temple of all-female death-worshippers wherein she has sadomasochistic lesbian sex. Then she gets sent back to Copper Downs to fight a God, where she has more lesbian sex. Then she has sex with a man and gets pregnant. Then she kills a god, and makes her father's ox into a new God of Patience. Then she settles down to raise her kid. The end.

It's three hundred pages long. It feels longer. Which is odd because not much actually happens in it.

Anyway, on to the things that I want to score points over.

Sexuality

Green has a whole lot of lesbian sex. Like a whole lot of lesbian sex. It starts at the temple in Kalimpura, where she leses up with the other initiates and the older “Mothers.”

Couple of things about this.

First off, at the time she is in fact somewhere between the ages of twelve and fourteen. Again, I know that gender reversal isn't always the best way to judge these things (again it comes down to the reverse-ism problem) but for a book that is so preoccupied with notions of sex, slavery, sex slavery and rape it's a tiny bit problematic that it completely glosses over the fact that it's not okay for forty year olds to shag fourteen year olds, even if both parties are women.

Now I know that Green is set in a pre-industrial society. I know that most fourteen year old girls in such a society would already have been married off but guess what: the text is very, very clear about the fact that this is bad. But apparently all these issues of consent, power, society and duty of care evaporate like spit on a soldering iron the moment it's time for a bit of girl-on-girl.

Ages ago I wrote an article about Nice Guy Syndrome and pointed out that Nice Guys and a certain variety of feminist-identified-man go to extraordinary lengths to demonise male sexuality. Green only “lies with” one man in the entire book, and he's a priest who normally takes it up the arse:
“You re my first woman.” Something in his voice grew very shy. “My first entry, in truth. I have only been the vessel, not the seed, within the temple rites.”

You later meet his high priest, and he's obviously evil, and gloats about priest-dude's tight arsehole. It's a theme that's repeated throughout the book: penetration is evil, but being penetrated builds virtue through suffering. Green encounters literally no heterosexual men (okay, tell a lie, there's one one-legged cook) who are not either rapists or would-be rapists. The fear of rape is something that dogs Green from the first page of the book to the last and rears its head every time she talks to somebody with a penis (unless that penis has been rendered safe by a good buggering).

Again (you see now why I put that long disclaimer at the start) I'm not claiming that this is “reverse sexism” or “reverse homophobia”. I'm claiming that it is regular sexism and regular homophobia.

Here is Green on the discovery of a gay man aboard a ship:
Love between women I could understand, but men were such careless brutes that I did not see how two of them could love without someone to dampen the blows and soften the curses. This opinion was a legacy of the Factor's house, I now know but some of those habits of thought were years in the erasing.

Two things. Firstly in the Factor's house, Green met literally no men. She was raised and trained entirely by women, many of whom beat her at the slightest provocation, so how she came to those conclusions I have no idea. Secondly that simply isn't a woman's perspective on gay sex. Not even a gay woman's. It's a heterosexual man's opinion, forced uncomfortably into the mouth of a young girl. It's an attitude grounded in the idea that women are the natural objects of sexual desire and men the natural agents of it.

Green has a lot of sex, but she never really has sexual agency. Yes, most of the time when she has sex it's because she chooses to, but what you never get from Green is the sense that she is, for want of a better term, horny. She never actually gives the impression of experiencing sexual desire, of looking at somebody and just plain wanting to fuck them. Much like Inara in Firefly Green has sex as a kind of benediction. She has sex with the women in the Temple as part of an all-girls-together bonding ritual. She has sex with priest-dude because he, in essence, proves himself worthy by talking to her about mythology (and what gets fantasy writers hotter than their own mythology).

Lake's demonisation of male sexuality and valorisation of lesbianism reaches its height in the confrontation against the Big Bad. The villain has captured Green and the catgirl Dancing Mistress, and is getting ready to cut them both into pieces so that he can reclaim the last shards of the power he needs to become a full on god. How do Green and the Dancing Mistress get out of this situation? Why they les up! And the truly stupid thing is that it works. It works so well that the Big Bad actually stops torturing the two of them to death and – I shit you not - sits down and starts masturbating. Here's how it plays out:
I crawled back up to nuzzle her face. “Oh please,” I moaned, “kiss my thighs.” My voice would have had the Lily Blades falling out with laughter, but Federo just echoed the moan.

He was the rankest of boys.

Facing Federo as I sprawled on the floor, I ran my tongue across my lips. Mistress Cherlise had shown me a number of such little bits of playacting that would arrest a man's attention.

The Dancing Mistress gripped my thighs hard and kissed me back and forth along the inner line of each leg, working down towards my knees. When she reset her grip to my calves and eased herself further away I nearly shrieked. Instead I rolled slightly to my left so Federo could see my right breast.

He wasn't looking any more. His eyes were closed, his back arched in his chair as he stroked himself very hard. Outside, thunder rolled almost continuously.
If this was just stupid, I'd let it go. But it's not just stupid, it's stupid and it's sexist. And just to be very clear, to say for the third time something I am sure I will say again, I don't mean that it's “reverse sexist” or “sexist against men” I mean it's sexist. It's an offensive, patriarchal stereotype which harms women far more than it harms men.

The attitude expressed in the passage above, and repeated throughout the whole of the book, is that male sexuality is intrinsically corrupt, fundamentally violent, and ultimately controlled by women. While men (white men at least) are morally responsible for all of the evils in Green the practical responsibility lies always with women. When Green returns to Copper Downs, it is revealed that after she killed the Duke, the Factor's house where she was trained was destroyed, the remaining Mistresses killed, and the girls who were kept there raped to death. And who was responsible for the girls being raped to death? Why they were of course! Once the Duke was dead, there was nobody to restrain the guards, and so they did what all men will naturally do when faced with beautiful women, they raped them until they died. “Because of their beauty” as Green herself puts it.

This is a world of not okay. Yes, the novel is written in the first person, and Green's perceptions are likely to have been shaped by her extremely fucked up upbringing (although if that was the case, you'd expect her to be more comfortable with the notion of being sold into slavery, since it was all she had known) but the text routinely operates from the assumption that men are Slaves to Their Lusts, that when faced with a hot woman, men will completely lose their reason and cease to be responsible for their actions (if you want an example, scroll back up and read the boss-fight-wanking-scene again, is that the description of a man who is in control of himself?). Green's attitudes are not deconstructed or shown to be false or harmful, quite the opposite. By the end of the book, Green is assumed to be in possession of a true and accurate understanding of the truth about men and women, at least as Lake sees it.

This is wrong. Rape is not some kind of natural disaster, something that just happens like a hurricane or an earthquake. It is not an occupational hazard of having a vagina, and it most certainly is not a fucking compliment (“because of their beauty” my arse). By the same token, lesbian sex is real sex, and lesbian sexual abuse is real sexual abuse. An institution in which forty year old women fuck thirteen year old girls is exactly as abusive as one in which the forty-year-olds are men.

Gender

I've touched on this already, but I'll just go over the basics again.

Men = bad people who have nasty things like ambitions and desires and sexual appetites.

Women = good people who have nice things like patience and wisdom and did I mention patience?

Again, I should come clean here and mention that the reason I'm so profoundly sensitive to this kind of thing is that I really do appreciate the temptation of this line of thinking. It's amazingly comforting as a man to bury your sexist, patronising bullshit under layer upon layer of “well really, I think women are superior to men” but sexist, patronising bullshit it remains.

Green (the novel) is preoccupied with Women. Green (the character) is preoccupied with Women as well. Unfortunately neither the novel nor the character are actually interested in women. For the benefit of those who don't have the patience for my smug games with capitalisation, the distinction I'm alluding to is between “Women” with a capital “W” - a broad impersonal concept chiefly designed to allow men to score points off of other men – versus women with a small w, actual people with names and personalities. Again this is something I've been guilty of myself, allowing my very real concern for the way that Men treat Women to blind me to the way I personally was treating actual people.

Green is obsessed with women, and in a peculiarly self-conscious way. She habitually uses the word “woman” to mean “people in general” (and even more peculiarly, sometimes uses “girl-child” to mean “children in general”). Now in all seriousness I do get that there are issues with using specifically masculine pronouns to describe people-in-general, but Green was born in one patriarchal society, and raised in another, where did she pick up the habit of using feminine pronouns?

Similarly she spends the entire book talking, talking, talking about how badly she wants to protect Women and children and did I mention Women. The problem is that she never actually does anything about it. Now I know she's only fifteen by the time the book finishes, but we spend the entire book being told how utterly precocious and omnicompetent she is and you can't have it both ways. Either it's a book about a powerful, independent woman who triumphs in the face of the horrors she faces, or it's about a broken woman who is destroyed by the people who enslave her and remade into their image. If she's as awesome as everybody says she is, she should damned well do something about those injustices instead of just talking about them.

It doesn't help that while Green goes on and on and on about Women and Girls, there isn't a single woman or girl she actually displays any compassion for or indeed interest in. Green as a character is relentlessly self-absorbed. One gets the impression that we are supposed to take the mere fact of her being a woman as evidence of virtue.

This is, in itself, mildly irritating, but it's so all pervasive in the text that it goes beyond “irritating” into “faintly skeevy”. Green (the novel) consistently refuses to allow women to be responsible for their own actions. Green herself never actually makes a decision, she gets bought at the age of three, and is then controlled entirely by the Factor, then by Federo and the Dancing Mistress, then by the Lily Goddess. Worse, she makes up for this by beating herself up about things that she has no control over whatsoever (like the aforesaid raping to death of the girls in the Factor's house). It all contributes to a worldview in which women are seen as incapable of acting for themselves, or controlling their own destinies. Even when female characters do things which are genuinely morally repugnant (violently beating a twelve year old girl, engaging in sexual activity with minors in their care) those things are either assumed to be acceptable (see “sex, lesbian”) or blamed on Men (see “beatings, violent”). Even Green's decision to cut up her own face is explicitly taken away from her and given to the nebulous They.

Basically Lake is so fixated on making the book about Women, Women, Women that he completely forgets to include any well-realised, sympathetic female characters.

Green (the book) is full of Goddess imagery. There are constant references to the obligatory maiden, mother and crone, and it is I think deliberate that Green starts the book as a child and ends it as a mother. Similarly virtually all of the female characters fit somewhere into the Triune – often explicitly, such as in the Lily Temple where the initiates specifically progress to being “Mothers”. Of course the problem with this is that it essentially reduces all women everywhere to three archetypes, and worse because it romanticises those archetypes it fails to recognise how limiting and constricting they are. It puts women in a box, then puts the box on a pedestal.

Race and Empire

This is the difficult bit. As ever there's nothing more dangerous than invoking the spectre of (whisper it) racism.

Once more I should say very, very clearly that I'm not actually calling Jay Lake a racist. He did sit down and write a book about a pseudo-south-Asian protagonist (although she is, of course, white on the cover) and much as I like to complain, the pseudo-Indian city of Kalimpura has as much imagination invested in it as Copper Downs. The book deals with some extremely complex, extremely sensitive issues, and if I were feeling like less of an asshole I'd probably give it some major points for trying. But I'm not, so I won't.

Green deals with some extremely complicated issues such as slavery, abuse, imperialism, and human trafficking (much like Dollhouse in fact). One of the most difficult things to deal with when handling the subject of abuse is the extent to which an abuse survivor is shaped by their experiences, the extent to which they – to use a loaded term – owe who they are to the events that shaped them. Post-imperial or post-colonial cultures have a similarly difficult relationship with their past, an occupying force brings stability and infrastructure and the removal of that infrastructure frequently causes as much trouble as the imposition of it. When a great injustice occurs – either to an individual or to a people – it can sometimes be hard to tell how much of what follows is because of that injustice, and how much is in spite of it.

Green beings the book being sold into slavery by her father. She observes, early on, that the food she is given by Federo is better than any meal she has had in her entire life. This itself isn't a problem. It's entirely reasonable that the food available to a rich human trafficker will be higher quality and more abundant than the food available to a subsistence-level rice farmer. To begin with, the issue of contrast between her old life and her new life is handled with sensitivity, Green seems genuinely conflicted about the fact that she is, in many ways, better off in Copper Downs. This feels believable and relatively respectful to Green, her culture, and her circumstances. She obviously feels a lot of guilt about finding some aspects of Copper Downs better than her old life, and the things she prefers are basically issues of material comfort.

It gets worse, considerably worse, when she returns to her home. Suddenly Copper Downs goes from being not merely more affluent than her homeland but objectively better. Green states, quite clearly, that:

My captors had been right. Rather I should have been on my knees thanking the Factor for what he had taken me from.
Now I know that this is partly Green giving in to despair, but nothing in the text challenges this conclusion. It's rather an object lesson in the dangers of taking on too many genre stereotypes at once.

Had this been the story of a white man who was taken away from his pseudo-European farming village and conscripted into the armies of the Dark Lord of Evil then I would have been overjoyed to find him returning home to realise that his long lost homeland was a poverty stricken shithole and his father was a bastard who never cared about him. It would challenge the assumptions of a genre that frequently glamourises poverty, and it wouldn't have any creepy overtones (unless you want to make a big thing about militarism).

Make the white man a south-Asian woman, however, and you start getting into difficulties, because now you're not saying “being poor sucks” you're saying “being foreign sucks”. Turn conscription into slavery and you're not saying “you might be better off in the army than on a farm” you're saying “you might be better off as a slave in Europe than as a free man in your own country.” Add in the courtesan angle and you're saying “it is a good thing for south-Asian women to be sold as sex slaves to European men.”

I hope I don't need to point out that this really isn't okay.

Green (the book) takes another hop, step and jump closer to a pit of utter fail when Green (the character) notices that her father's Ox – an image she clung to from childhood – has grown old in her absence:
He was a beast too, of course. Though somehow less animal than Papa, now.

That's right folks, the book directly compares poor people from hot countries to animals (compares them unfavourably to animals, in fact). Now to be fair her father has gone mad by this point (mostly it seems in order to conveniently prevent Green from finding out her birth name) but that only makes it ablist as well as racist. Sorry, I mean “possible to interpret as racist” because while comparing brown people to animals is dodgy, suggesting that a white man might be prejudiced is unforgivable.

The fucked up imperialist dogma actually reaches its peak, however, with the treatment of the “pardines” - the race of cat-people of whom Green's Dancing Mistress is one (the pardines do not tell their names to outsiders, much like the jellyfish dudes in Mass Effect). Now an early plot point in Green is that the power which allowed the Duke to maintain his immortality had been stolen from the pardines, much to the detriment of their people.

At the end of the book, Green confronts the ghost of the Duke (who was also the Factor, by the way) and he explains to her that actually stealing the power of the pardines was the right thing to do:

“Your crime,” I growled, “was to strip power from a peaceful people and bind it to yourself.”

“How peaceful were those people?” Now his face flared with passion to match my own. “Do you know of the last war this city did fight? Under me, as a living man? We battled the pardines. In their time they were terrible hunters and raiders. Others followed them, thinking by their appearance that they were wise and powerful. The shared path they have instead of souls lent them a strength in this world that could not be matched. Over a thousand men were lost wrestling them down. I took what they used to wreak the death of farmers and children and traders, stripped it from them, and made peace for Copper Downs. I even made peace for them.”

Now as the subjective self-justification of the ghost of a tyrant, this is all well and good, but the problem is that it isn't. It's a pure statement of fact. Green accepts it as gospel and – and this is the really weird bit – so does the Dancing Mistress, who had up until that point been specifically trying to recapture the power of her people (as well she might).

Indeed the conversation between Green and the Duke's ghost seems – in the eyes of the text – to objectively redeem the Duke from all possible sins. It is even revealed that Green was being educated as a woman of four centuries past because the Duke was lonely and desired companionship of the sort he remembered from his youth. I get the distinct impression that we are actually supposed to sympathise with this (again this calls to mind Dollhouse and its seeming belief that it's okay to rape somebody if you pretend they're your dead wife). It is, in essence, a plot twist in which it is revealed that the Duke who Green thought was evil in fact is not.

Here is Green's summary of the story of the Duke and his theft of the pardines' collective power, as she relates it to an angry mob who have just torn apart a mad godling:
“Let me tell you a story,” I repeated “about a people who gave up their power long ago. A city man took it from them. Some agreed to this, but not all.”

The silence held, I continued: “The man made himself prince of his city. He ruled for generations. There was peace, prosperity, a time of quiet. The gods fell quiet for the power was like a blanket to them. This took the soul of the people, for what are gods if not the sum of everyone who follows them? Choices fell away, as the power cares only for itself. Even so, the bargain was good for most.”

First of all, how the fuck does Green get from “I stripped them of their power and made it my own” to “a people gave up their power, the bargain was good for most”?

Second of all, I'm sorry but that's really fucking offensive.

I have no idea how deliberate this is but what you have here is a relatively modern culture which owes its strength and prosperity to resources that it took by force from the people who had them originally. People who, according to the guys who took those resources in the first place, were basically a bunch of raiders, hunters and savages.

Doesn't that sound rather a lot like the history of America?

Imagine, for a moment, Green standing up and making that speech (substituting, if you wish “land” for “power”) to an audience of Native Americans.

Umm ... pretty fucking offensive, isn't it.

Now I know, I know, I know that this is a fantasy setting, and the pardines are a fantasy race, but in a book which engages so directly and specifically with issues of race and imperialism you cannot avoid drawing parallels with the real world. Green's apologia – substituting “bargains” for conquest and talking about people “giving up” their power - is exactly the sort of historical revisionism that goes on with stories of the American West.

Ironically for a book all about a non-white gay woman, the whole thing is positively dripping with white male privilege. It's fantastically easy to make big speeches about how power is bad and corrupting, and how really people are better off without it, when you're part of the group that already has all the power. It's easy to praise women and non-whites for what you perceive as their superior qualities of patience and endurance, when you haven't had to be patient or endure, because you live in a world where you can get what you want when you want it. It's easy to write about how people should never try to change the way things are when the way things are primarily benefits you and people like you.

And breathe.

Taking a step back, it is possible that Lake is aware of all of these issues, and that the whole book is working on a much more subtle level. It is possible that the extent to which Green internalises the prejudices of her captors is supposed to be her final tragedy. The only way I could ever find this out, however, would be to read the two sequels which Lake is apparently working on and that I most assuredly will not be doing.

In Conclusion

Green engages with a variety of complex themes, but there is a fine line between engagement and apologia.

Earlier I mentioned the Avenue Q song Everyone's a Little Bit Racist. Some people (I know Rami's one of them) are big fans of this song, because it's really important to recognise that racism is pretty much endemic in society, and nobody is entirely free of it. It's also important to break some of the taboos surrounding racism, specifically “accusing” people of racism.

On the other hand, the song puts just slightly too much emphasis on the “racism” of non-whites. The whole thing is started by a white guy as a means to deflect an accusation of racism, and it works.

Green has similar problems. She starts the novel abducted and enslaved by a western imperial power, but the book focuses so much on the negative aspects of the life she would have had otherwise that it winds up justifying, if not glorifying, her initial enslavement. It's the same issue of uneven historical accuracy that leads to so many skeevy gender issues in Fantasy. Because the western imperialist culture is, to an extent, romanticised – we see very little of the grinding poverty that existed in nineteenth-century England for example – and the eastern agrarian culture is not, you wind up with a situation where Green's only protection from marital rape and early death is to be taken as a slave by a more “enlightened” culture.

So yeah, Green. Not something I'd suggest reading. It's ponderously written, pretentious, boring and full of fail.

And Finally...

Fantasy Rape Watch:

Number of Women Raped: Innumerable, possibly “every woman born in Selistan” depending on how you read the text.
Number of Women Raped to Death: Twelve
Proximal Causes of Aforesaid Raping To Death, According to Green, by importance:
Green's Failure to Save Them: 60%
Victims' Own Beauty: 20%
The Nature of Men: 20%
Actual Decisions Made by Rapists, Over Which They Had Ultimate Control and For Which They Bore Ultimate Moral Responsibility: 0%
Number of Times Heroine “Raped”: 0
Number of Times Heroine Engages in Sexual Activity to which She Does Not and Can Not Properly Consent for Reasons of Age and Power But it's Okay Because it's With Other Women: Countless, over the course of several years.
Number of Times Heroine Threatened with Rape: 3
Number of Times Heroine Meets Heterosexual Men other Than Federo: 3

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 10:36 on 2009-11-17
I really rather wish I'd had the bollocks to say all this in my SH review but I felt I couldn't accuse a writer of this degree of fail on somebody else's website.

Green was astonishingly terrible book, and I hated and despised it.

Also what's with the cover? Why is she upside down and devoid of trousers?
Arthur B at 14:45 on 2009-11-17
That looks painful. It's funny how the author, coming from a completely different angle, seems to have ended up portraying a situation remarkably like the Gor novels - in which men are violent and brutal and forceful and dominant, and women like it that way because of their intrinsic urge to be enslaved. It's just that John Norman celebrates this idea whereas it seems like Lake is trying to condemn it. In a sort of half-hearted fashion involving porno-style lesbian scenes.

But Dan, surely the inclusion of a catgirl was the warning sign that something was awry? I've never seen fantasy/SF authors use catgirls for anything but suspicious and unsavoury purposes.
Arthur B at 14:46 on 2009-11-17
Wait, I tell a lie, there's a short story by Gene Wolfe about a man who gets really creeped out by his friend buying a genetically engineered anthropomorphic sex pet. The moral of the story being "Jesus Christ guys, what is it with you and the catgirls? I'm almost ashamed to write in the same genre as some of you."
Sister Magpie at 15:55 on 2009-11-17
Wow. This book sounds like it could win some kind of award if they gave awards for things like this.
http://fightsandtights.blogspot.com/ at 16:11 on 2009-11-17
Yikes. Sounds like a very uncomfortable read all round. Is it just me, or does it sound like a deranged and sexist rip off of the Assassins of Tamurin? Green certainly sounds like she couldn't hold a candle to Lale Navari, though...
Rami at 16:55 on 2009-11-17
Earlier I mentioned the Avenue Q song Everyone's a Little Bit Racist. Some people (I know Rami's one of them) are big fans of this song, ... The whole thing is started by a white guy as a means to deflect an accusation of racism, and it works.

Right at the beginning, Princeton does admit "I'm sorry, I guess that was racist". Which isn't entirely a deflection. But the song does derail the conversation entirely, I will admit. Part of the reason I like it, and like to refer to it, is that it provides a convenient lighthearted reference I can make to defuse privilege-born defensiveness.

you're saying “you might be better off as a slave in Europe than as a free man in your own country.”

Unsurprisingly enough that really gets my back up. If we're reading it generously, I could see it as internalising her oppressors' cultural imperialism, which would be extra-tragic (and not uncommon; hell, I'm guilty of it myself) but that's something that readers are really rather unlikely to see in it IMHO.
Melissa G. at 21:03 on 2009-11-17
Yikes. Just yikes.

That whole seduction to win the boss fight thing really irks me. First of all, it just seems utterly ridiculous and probably some of the laziest writing I've ever heard of. I can't even take it seriously; it's just comical.

And although I'm a woman, I find it extremely offensive to men to suggest that no matter how determined, focused, etc a man is, if a woman starts touching herself or each other, he'll just fall apart and forget all his plans as his jaw drops open and he just yelps "BOOBIES!". I mean, come on.

I'm sure that my rage is also compounded because I just had a conversation with my friend about "girls (in comics) in refrigerators" and how women are poorly treated in comics and there are a lot of similarities to how this man seems to want to portray women in his book.

Also, and I can't help but to add this as I just received another rejection yesterday, but HOW is sh*t like this published while I am sitting on my ass waiting for rejection after rejection to roll in on my own novel? It's just damn frustrating!
Melissa G. at 21:18 on 2009-11-17
Excuse the double post, I just thought of something else about the deus ex seduction that bugs me. It also implies that sexuality would be the only possible way for women to win fights against men. Which, yeah, fully pisses me off.
Rude Cyrus at 21:21 on 2009-11-17
A lot of people have some seriously fucked up trains of logic. What's scary is that many don't realize it.
Dan H at 22:24 on 2009-11-17

Unsurprisingly enough that really gets my back up. If we're reading it generously, I could see it as internalising her oppressors' cultural imperialism, which would be extra-tragic (and not uncommon; hell, I'm guilty of it myself) but that's something that readers are really rather unlikely to see in it IMHO.


It's an interpretation I'd considered, and there was always a nagging sense that maybe Lake was making a really subtle point and that I wasn't giving him enough credit. The problem is that I think you consciously have to read it into the text. Part of the problem is that Green is at least in *theory* supposed to be narrating the series from a position of maturity and strength so when she says she "realises" something you don't really have much room to disagree with her.

Which makes it a bit fucked up.
Dan H at 22:28 on 2009-11-17
And although I'm a woman, I find it extremely offensive to men to suggest that no matter how determined, focused, etc a man is, if a woman starts touching herself or each other, he'll just fall apart and forget all his plans as his jaw drops open and he just yelps "BOOBIES!". I mean, come on.


It also implies that sexuality would be the only possible way for women to win fights against men. Which, yeah, fully pisses me off.


Yeah, it's one of those nasty bits of sexism that cuts both ways. Although as ever I rather suspect that it's the ladies who come out worst. It basically gives us guys carte blanche to act like douchebags because we totally can't control ourselves.
Viorica at 00:13 on 2009-11-18
It ties into the "Well, she was wearing a short skirt/walking alone at night/drinking" defence you see in rape cases. It's always something the woman did; the rapist just couldn't help himself.
Guy at 02:40 on 2009-11-18
I think there's something interesting in the question about sexism/"reverse sexism" and racism/"reverse racism". It makes me think that what's happening is a sort of... reversal of terms that are already based on a set of binaries or polarisations and all that happens is a switching around of the moral weightings or moral judgements that go with them. So if we think of "classic sexism" having an ideology along the lines of "Men are vigorous and active (and this makes them good), while women are docile and passive (and this makes them bad)", then the kind of "revised sexism" (revised rather than reversed) seen here just switches the part in brackets; men are vigorous and active, which makes them bad, &c &c. An adherent of this kind of "revised sexism" may believe that they've overcome their patriarchal prejudices, when actually all that's happened is that that prejudice has taken a different form. I would argue that these kinds of diminishing-identity-constructions are an inevitable consequence of identity-based logic, and that no matter how carefully you work to ideologically perfect such a logic then some form of diminishment or deformation creeps back in... but I suspect that's a topic for another post.
Dan H at 11:53 on 2009-11-18
An adherent of this kind of "revised sexism" may believe that they've overcome their patriarchal prejudices, when actually all that's happened is that that prejudice has taken a different form


Pretty much, and the scary thing is it's terrifyingly easy to do.

Although ironically I don't even think there's change in the moral judgments attached. "Classic" sexism doesn't actually say women are *bad* for being docile and passive, quite the reverse - feminine virtues are usually considered extremely important, look at Victorian England - so it's not even "revised" sexism really, it's just sexism repackaged.

The same is true for the race issues. The concept of the noble savage goes back centuries and still exists in one form or another today.

Basically it all falls under the broad heading of "fetishisation of the other" and it's a horrible, horrible minefield.
Robinson L at 22:02 on 2009-11-19
Wow! And I thought I'd set a pretty high standard for Minority Warrior with my first contribution. Should've known you'd top me, sooner or later. Fantastic article; probably one of your best.

I remember Ptolemaues reading one of Lake's books a year or two ago. I think by the time she reached page 30 he'd already overheated her clichédar. Apparently, she never finished it.

I remember that Girls Read Comics post. One of the earliest ones, I believe. Well done on distilling the logic of that argument.

This tactic of putting Women on a pedestal is actually a long-standing mechanism of patriarchy. Howard Zinn discusses (in a chapter about the oppression of women in the United States after the war of independence) the ideological underpinnings of the double standard in treatment of men who sleep around/have premarital and extra-marital sex and women who do the same.

As Zinn explains, while such sexual behaviors were and are looked down on by the mainstream culture, it was taken for granted that men are base and incapable controlling their own sex drives, so they get a pass on sexual "immorality." Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be made of purer stuff - they're not even supposed to enjoy sex anyway. Thus, when a woman does indulge in "immoral sex" it means she obviously is not a proper Woman, and deserves to be persecuted.

I imagine attitudes were similar in Victorian England, which you've alluded to a couple times now, Dan.

a pseudo-south-Asian protagonist (although she is, of course, white on the cove
Of course.

Melissa G.: Also, and I can't help but to add this as I just received another rejection yesterday, but HOW is sh*t like this published while I am sitting on my ass waiting for rejection after rejection to roll in on my own novel? It's just damn frustrating!
Law of inverse quality to publishing. Think Rowling, Meyer, Salvatore, etc. You can do this, just keep working at it!

Basically it all falls under the broad heading of "fetishisation of the other" and it's a horrible, horrible minefield.
That's fetishisation of the Other. And yes, yes it is.
Wardog at 23:32 on 2009-11-19
I would rather prefer you boys could contain yourselves from quite this degree of wanking self-congratulation over your minority warrioring, a title I bestowed upon Dan in recognition of his sense of self-irony.

This tactic of putting Women on a pedestal is actually a long-standing mechanism of patriarchy


Good heavens, is it really? I'm stunned and appalled.
Melissa G. at 23:51 on 2009-11-19
"Law of inverse quality to publishing. Think Rowling, Meyer, Salvatore, etc. You can do this, just keep working at it!" (Can't get the quote thing to work 'cause I'm dumb)

Thanks Robinson!! :-)
Dan H at 23:54 on 2009-11-19
I would rather prefer you boys could contain yourselves from quite this degree of wanking self-congratulation over your minority warrioring, a title I bestowed upon Dan in recognition of his sense of self-irony.


Umm ... yeah, I was about to say. The title "Minority Warrior" is an ironic one which we use quite specifically to say "we are aware that this actually strays quite close to being fucking patronising". It originally started as a private joke between Kyra and I, we'd be watching Buffy or Angel, and there's be one of those awful bits where Joss Whedon says Something Very Serious About Being Black or A Woman and we'd shout "Fear Not Ladies! I Am Joss Whedon! Minority Warrior!"

I *actually* feel really bad about laying into Green as badly as I did, not because I feel bad about Jay Lake (dude wrote a boring book) but because I feel genuinely uncomfortable getting on my high horse about these sorts of issues because as I say in - in fact - the start of this article, they often stray dangerously close to me using issues of race and gender as an excuse to score points off of other white men.

This is *not* a game of "more feminist than thou". I'm *not* in a competition to see who can spot the most racism. I'm *not* trying to set standards. You might have noticed that in a lot of my posts about race and gender issues, what I tend to say is "these attitudes are very common, and I understand why they are so common because there is an extent to which I share them".

This is a *world* of not about keeping score.
Arthur B at 23:58 on 2009-11-19
I'm just glad Robinson clarified the capitalisation of "Other". Clearly an important and relevant aspect of this discussion!
Robinson L at 00:30 on 2009-11-20
Okay, yes, on reflection that was rather unnecessary and patronizing for this site. My apologies.

My comment about other/Other was intended mostly as a joke, but I can see now that doesn't come across at all, and it's still rather smug. Again, sorry.

@Melissa: it took me a while to figure out as well. The standard html tag for quoting is "blockquote," but I usually just use "i" for italics.
Melissa G. at 00:31 on 2009-11-20
it took me a while to figure out as well. The standard html tag for quoting is "blockquote," but I usually just use "i" for italics.

I got it! Thanks!
Wardog at 09:30 on 2009-11-20
Alternatively you could just use the handy 'quote' function. Highlight any text any where on the page and click the 'quote selected text' button in this comment form. Try it today! The handy in-built quote function! 9/10 users recommend it! New from Rami Industries!
http://oiooo.livejournal.com/ at 10:51 on 2009-11-20
Yr cmmnts bt sxsm wld wrk bttr f hdn't jst rd th rtcl whr y cm ff lk th whnst f Slythrfn whl tlkng bt crtn "smg btch".

Editor's Comment: This comment has been disemvowelled. We welcome your comments here at Fb but if you disagree with something please address the article or the comment in question, rather than the style or nature of the writer.
Dan H at 11:16 on 2009-11-20
For what it's worth I do actually realise that referring to J.K. Rowling as a "smug bitch" is, in fact, rather sexist. I'm afraid that I sometimes allow my sense of rhetoric to override my sense of what is appropriate.

However as the editors have pointed out, this comment is not really pertinent to the article or the arguments presented within it.

I would genuinely be more than happy if you were to leave a comment on the original article pointing out that my use of gendered insults to attack a female writer is not okay because it is, well, absolutely not.
Melissa G. at 13:36 on 2009-11-20
Try it today! The handy in-built quote function! 9/10 users recommend it! New from Rami Industries!


mwahaha! Is that how it works? I kept trying to select text that was already in the comment box, haha. Thanks!

And sorry to clutter the comments section with this stuff but I want to say a proper thank you. ^^
Viorica at 23:14 on 2010-08-30
I thought Jay Lake's name seemed familiar when I read this article, but I couldn't remember where I heard it until I was linked to this. Turns out he was involved in RaceFail (on the Elizabeth Bear/Will Shetterley side, natch) and subsequently refused to attend a con because he thought that he would be "unsafe" there as a white, male author. So, yeah.
Arthur B at 01:19 on 2010-08-31
Tempest's blog post is awesome. It's amazing how quick people can go from "Behold, I am Jay Lake, Minority Warrior!" to "It just ain't safe for a white male author at a con these days."
Wardog at 09:17 on 2010-08-31
Gosh, is he terrified of all those angry black people resorting to violence?
Michal at 02:50 on 2011-06-19
Ho boy. I read Lake's Mainspring, and in the first few pages I had this creeping feeling and a voice in my head kept saying "put this down, don't waste time on this, it's not worth it", but then, in my idiocy, I picked it up again. By the time I got to the part where my inner critic was screaming at me to stop, I was already too far and in my stubbornness ended up finishing it. It's only later that I found out he started Racefail, but my impressions from Mainspring were not at all good. For instance, I giant wall separates the northern and southern hemispheres. And when the main character finally crosses that wall into sub-Saharan Africa, instead of interesting cultures allowed to develop without European influence, we get ape men and evil black sorcerers. My jaw dropped.

Then the main character has sex with an ape-woman.

Then he saves the world with the power of love.

Yeah.

Looks like Lake continues on the same path in Green.
You know, on one hand I feel that the entire "women are purer than me" should be a compliment to women. On the other hand, it's the same old tactic of "put 'em on a throne then stab 'em in the back" as with the supposed glorification of women, whilst surreptitiously ridiculting the notion.
Arthur B at 04:02 on 2011-06-19
The thing about defining some other category of people as being purer than you is that it simultaneously lets you off the hook for your own bad behaviour ("I'm just a stupid ol' man, how can I be expected to behave differently?") whilst simultaneously lets you hold that category of folks to a higher standard - and therefore get correspondingly nastier with them when they fail to meet the standard you've imposed. ("I'd have expected that from a man, but you, I thought I could trust you to do better. What sort of woman are you?")

It's basically yet one more flavour of creepery that needs to be pointed out for the creepery it is.
Wardog at 19:31 on 2011-06-19
@Michal
Youch. I remember tying myself into knots of pure anguish trying to review this thing for Strange Horizons - I genuinely felt uncomfortable barging onto someone else's site and yelling that this white woman thought this dude was being a big racist, so I ended up talking about his creepy creepy attitude to sex instead. So this review from Dan, racefail and further commentary on Lake's general skeeviness has been, in some ways, quite cathartic. Sounds like Mainspring is continuing in the general Lake tradition of fail fail fail though.

Incidentally I just re-visited the cover of this book - just because she's upside-down doesn't detract from the fact it's basically fantasy crotchshot #27362. Not that I'm blaming Lake for his cover art or anything but just ... sigh.
Cammalot at 21:46 on 2011-06-19
"And when the main character finally crosses that wall into sub-Saharan Africa, instead of interesting cultures allowed to develop without European influence"

Does anybody write this? Seriously, could somebody direct me to a place where this exists and is well written and I can have lots of it, please? Because my beloved Jacqueline Carey kind of falls on her face on this score, Stephen Barnes demonstrates homophobia in his modern-set works that makes me afraid to try his version, and everything else I've encountered has been about subjugation and death of such culture, not flourishing, and I get enough of that on my own planet, this is supposed to be fantasy here. Basically I resort to watching a bunch of historical KBS dramas for a non Western fix.
Cammalot at 22:00 on 2011-06-19
(Speaking of which, I always thought the girl on this cover looked far more like a cross between Choi Jung-Won and Kim Sung-Eun --heavier on the Kim Sung-Eun side -- than any white girl, though that still doesn't really fix its problems--still wrong ethnicity/skin tone and yeah, the crotch thing...)
Michal at 22:08 on 2011-06-19
Imaro is your answer, Cammalot. Imaro, by Charles R. Saunders. 4 books of sub-Saharan sword & sorcery without a white person in sight.
Cammalot at 22:16 on 2011-06-19
Fantastic. :) And again the Ferreters deliver with speed and quickness. Love this site so much...
Arthur B at 22:23 on 2011-06-19
I've wanted to read the Imaro stuff ever since I read a Saunders quote saying that his main inspiration for writing the things was wanting to see a black hero who could kick Conan's ass. And goodness, the sword and sorcery subgenre direly needed one.
Imaro is fantastic stuff; I have a spare copy if anyone wants it, actually. It should be noted that there are two substantially different versions of the Imaro books floating around: the original Imaro book from 1981 had a section ("Slaves of the Giant-Kings") which Saunders removed from the recent reprint because it paralleled too closely the events of the Rwanda genocide and he didn't want to be seen as profiting from that tragedy. So much of the series, and the relationships of some of the characters to one another, changed subtly because of the alternate chapter he used in the reprints.
Michal at 22:58 on 2011-06-19
I've wanted to read the Imaro stuff ever since I read a Saunders quote saying that his main inspiration for writing the things was wanting to see a black hero who could kick Conan's ass.

Actually, Tarzan's ass.

Saunder's hasn't been too skimpy on praising Robert E. Howard, but with obvious reservations. Imaro is a great retort to the charge that fantasy/sword & sorcery is inherently racist, and I wish Saunders had more publishing success than he did (he's still having a bitch of a time with it).
valse de la lune at 18:25 on 2011-06-21
I just learned from a friend that Lake wrote Green for his daughter. His adopted Chinese daughter.

Oh god no.
Michal at 18:40 on 2011-06-21
I just learned from a friend that Lake wrote Green for his daughter. His adopted Chinese daughter.


You're not the first person to be a bit squicked.
valse de la lune at 19:15 on 2011-06-21
Oh, found a whole new reason to hate this book and Lake:

I enjoyed seeing the Southeast Asian-inspired part of Jay Lake’s world in the second arc.


Die in a fire.
Wardog at 19:48 on 2011-06-21
I just learned from a friend that Lake wrote Green for his daughter. His adopted Chinese daughter.


I believe remember reading somewhere that was part of Lake's justification for why everyone's criticisms were wrong.
Arthur B at 19:49 on 2011-06-21
Did this justification go "I'm not racist, I allow a Chinese person to live in my home?"
Tamara at 20:19 on 2011-06-24
My boss had us let off steam a while back by having us make a giant list of all the phrases/words/terms that we thought were sexist and wished would go away, everything from "bitch" to "soccer mom" to "I want to have your baby." I threw out "the world would be a better place if women ran it," and my boss actually vetoed it. Basically, I wonder if it might not be a generation gap to some extent - i'm 24, she's in her 50/60's. To me thats obviously a continuation of a harmful dichotomy, de-individuation of women, patronizing, etc, and she just said, "Women never have run the world, and I do think it will be a better place if more of us did." And honestly i'm not sure what to answer to that. (This is entirely tangetial to the book, I suppose, which seems to be more concerned with the possession of power than with the use of it.)
Dan H at 21:22 on 2011-06-24
To me thats obviously a continuation of a harmful dichotomy, de-individuation of women, patronizing, etc, and she just said, "Women never have run the world, and I do think it will be a better place if more of us did." And honestly i'm not sure what to answer to that.


I think you might have been talking at slightly cross-purposes here, from her response it's possible that she sees "if women ran the world" as being a hyperbolic way of saying "if women were as involved in running the world as men are". It might also be a generational thing, my Mum was also fond of women-are-better-than-men rhetoric.

(This is entirely tangetial to the book, I suppose, which seems to be more concerned with the possession of power than with the use of it.)


I think it ties into the same set of assumptions. Certainly one of the things that squicked me out most about Green was the fact that there was no engagement at all with the fact that the Lily Temple basically sexually abuses Green, because the assumption seemed to be that in was a female-dominated institution serving a female divinity and it was therefore *utterly impossible* for it to be harmful to individual women.
Arthur B at 21:33 on 2011-06-24
But Dan, it's OK, Jay Lake spent several years living in the temple of an all-female child abuse cult.
valse de la lune at 20:48 on 2011-10-25
Amazon has notified me that the sequel to this book will be out on 8 Nov.

Take one for the team, Dan? :D
Dan H at 22:30 on 2011-10-25
Take one for the team, Dan? :D


I think I might actually prefer to mutilate my own face.

... d'you see. Because the heroine in the book mutilates her own face...

I actually found the original so *utterly* boring that I'm not sure I could be arsed. I think my terrible-book-reviewing career is likely to be on hiatus until the conclusion of the Kingkiller chronicles (because having read two thirds of the damned thing, I'm going to *have* to finish that fucker).
Robinson L at 18:30 on 2013-05-11
According to a recent post in a fiction group I'm part of, Jay Lake has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. That's pretty grim.
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