Retribution Fails

by Dan H

Dan did not like Retribution Falls
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A little personal history: the original title and subtitle for this article were “Still Up In the Air – Dan Hemmens is ambivalent about Retribution Falls.”

Then over the course of writing this article, I came to realise that while I really enjoyed reading the book (I finished it in two sittings over two days), in retrospect I found large parts of it cheap and annoying, and found myself increasingly unable to defend its hideous gender-fail. I also found out that this thing had been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award which made me frankly despair, because if this is the best SF has to offer then the genre really is fucked.

So yes, this started out more balanced than it ended up. Short version: the book is quite fun, extremely faily, and not all that well written. Judged as a low-investment romp, it’s alright. Judged as a nominee for a prestigious award, it needs to be killed with fire.

Oh, and spoilers, for those that care.

Anyway, Chris Wooding's Retribution Falls is generally billed as a “steampunk western” although as recent discussions here at FB show, neither term is really well enough defined for this label to have much meaning. Speaking personally, I didn't get much of a western vibe from it, but that's possibly because Kyra and I have been neck deep in Deadwood and therefore I have trouble getting the real “Western” feel from something where people aren't yelling “cocksucker” every two minutes. Or it could be the fact that since it's primarily set onboard a ship, and concerns itself almost exclusively with pirates, it fits more into “pirate” than “cowboy” in my personal cataloguing system. Although actually this is all so much pettifogging since the whole distinction between “fantasy,” “steampunk,” “western,” and “pirate yarn,” can be neatly avoided by treating the whole thing as part of that (now obsolete) genre the “adventure story”.

So yes, Retribution Falls is an adventure story. It concerns the crew of the airship Ketty Jay as they develop from a ragtag group of ne'er do wells into a properly formed and fully functioning crew.

The crew (who are all neatly introduced by means of in-character introductions to one of the viewpoint characters in chapter two) are as follows: Darien Frey, hot lothario captain; Pin, stupid pilot; Harkins, cowardly pilot; Silo, silent technician and obligatory brown person; Malvery, the drunken doctor; Crake, the tormented daemonist and Jez, the new navigator who is also, for what it's worth, the only woman on board. I'm pretty sure I've remembered everybody, and if I've forgotten anyone they're probably highly forgettable.

I'm going to come back to gender issues in a bit, but I'm going to start by pointing out that having one female character out of seven is the worst possible option. Zero out of seven, and you have a setting in which women don't fly airships, which is absolutely fine. Put in exactly one, and you suddenly have a society where women are apparently perfectly accepted on the setting equivalent of the Spanish Main, but never the less you've only got one in your crew. Zero is a better number than one in this situation is all I'm saying.

But like I say, I'll come back to this later.

Anyway, the crew are hired to board another aircraft and steal a cask of gems, for which they will be paid fifty thousand ducats. This too-good-to-be-true job offer turns out (surprise surprise) to be too good to be true. Which results in the crew blowing up an airliner and having to go on the run from both the legitimate military (the “Coalition”) and a variety of scoundrels and bounty hunters that want to hand them over to various interested parties.

So far, so swashbuckling, and it is indeed about sixty percent rollicking good fun. Unfortunately it's then twenty percent tedious exposition, ten percent sloppy writing, ten percent sexism.

Anyway, where to begin:

You Can't Take the Sky From Me

A lot of comparisons have been made between Firefly and Retribution Falls, and this might be a good time to say that much as I find Whedon annoying, and as much pleasure as I take in questioning the man's uber-feminist image it's worth admitting that he does about a million times better than a lot of other writers out there. Sure, Mal Reynolds may have a rampaging case of nice-guy syndrome, and might treat Inara like dirt, but by comparison to Wooding, Whedon deserves every Equality award he's ever got. Which is good, since he's clearly going to keep on getting them.

But I digress.

Superficially, Retribution Falls is a lot like Firefly. It's even got an on-the-run aristocrat with a girl in a box. Structurally, however, it's a lot more like Lost or Heroes.

I'm going to digress again. One of my favourite things about Heroes is the fact that I once read an interview with Tim Kring, in which he admitted that he neither knew nor cared about the history of the superhero genre, and that his main inspiration for Heroes was the way in which Lost (and here I confess to paraphrasing) cynically manipulated its audience by doling out tiny pieces of information about members of its large ensemble cast over the course of the series. He just thought that this was a fantastic structure for a TV show.

Retribution Falls works very much the same way. The first three or four chapters are taken up with fast-paced introductions to the cast, which more or less go like this:

“Hello, I see that bullet wound you had healed mysteriously fast
“Yes, it is, mysterious isn't it?”
“I know, I noticed it because of something that happened in my past
“Your past? Gosh, might there be something mysterious about it?”
“Why yes, you'll find that most members of the crew have something mysterious about them.”
“Wait, we've just heard news that we're being followed by the dread pirate Trinica Dracken!”
“The dread pirate Trinica Dracken you say! Gosh, mysteriously I think the captain may have some kind of connection to her, in his past. His mysterious past.”
“Gosh how mysterious!”

It's not quite that bad. But it's almost that bad. Although it's not necessarily that bad that it's that bad, because this really does make the whole thing quite readable. Yes it's shoddy and manipulative, but the thing about shoddy, manipulative tricks is that they work. Show me a character with a mysterious past, and I'll be unable to put the book down until I've either found out what that mysterious past is, or convinced myself that I'm never going to. Therefore if you give me seven characters, each with their own mysterious past, and give me the background on one every four chapters then you can pretty much guarantee that I'll be reading until one in the morning.

Of course the downside of this kind of strategy is that in-the-moment readability comes at the cost of after-the-fact satisfaction. Few and far between are the occasions on which I've discovered a character's secret backstory and not found it some combination of trite, predictable, and implausible. It's like popcorn, utterly compelling but at the end all you're left with is a faint cardboardy aftertaste.

Structure and Story Issues

The book is certainly readable, and mostly fun, but there are times when it bogs down in tedious exposition. This would be bad enough if it was just your classic “as you know, your father, the King...” dialogue, although there is an awful lot of it – people in this world seem to spend an inordinate amount of time having conversations in which they explain the basic causes and consequences of wars that happened a couple of years ago, the equivalent of people in the real world saying “of course after the Al-Quaeda bombings in 2001, the American government launched a series of military actions throughout the Middle East, beginning by attacking the Taliban who at that time were in control of Afghanistan...” over their morning coffee. Unfortunately, as other reviewers have pointed out, the same principle is applied to little things like character development.

The key offener here is Darien Frey himself, the vagabond captain of a vagabond crew, guiding his motley band of reprobates to high adventure on the open skies. The emotional thrust of the book, such as it is, involves Frey learning to take responsibility for his role as captain, and to learn respect and affection for his crew (and perhaps for other people in his life as well).

The problem with this is that our only insight into Frey's emotional state is what the book tells us Frey's emotional state is. We are told early on that he does not value his crew, and that he considers himself a bit of a loser. We are told later that he does value his crew, and that he's pretty much okay with himself, and has accepted the responsibilities that come with his position as captain. The problem is that – with the exception of a couple of clearly signposted set-pieces - we see no appreciable change in his behaviour, or even his attitude. The man who leads his crew the a doomed attempt to plunder the Ace of Skulls at the start of the book is not discernibly different from the one who spearheads the attack on Retribution Falls at the end. Both ultimately involve Frey risking his ship and his crew, without their knowledge or consent, in pursuit of a large reward which he has little reason to expect receiving. The fact that the first attack is doomed and the second succeeds has everything to do with narrative structure and nothing to do with Fray's leadership choices.

To put it another way, Frey spends the first half of the book chiding himself for his selfishness, indolence, and pisspoor leadership skills. By the end of the book he has stopped chiding himself for all of these things, but has failed to show any actual change in his behaviour. Which creates the impression that all of his growth and development over the course of the book has served only to make him less self-aware.

A member of the twitterati sums this up all very succinctly as “The Heavy Handed Adventures of Captain Uttercock”.

In many ways, the book reminded me of The Last Five Years. I spent so much of the book going “this guy is a cock, am I supposed to think this guy is a cock, I must be supposed to think this guy is a cock, but nobody else seems to think this guy as a cock except his psycho bitch exes, but this guy is clearly a cock...” that it wound up being remarkably intrusive. I had no problem with the other unsympathetic characters (Grayther Crake the daemonist, for example, is clearly a judgmental asshole, but he's obviously supposed to be a judgmental asshole so I understand how I'm supposed to react to him) but with Frey I always felt like my perception of his flaws was always slightly to one side of the author's perception.

For example, the book opens with Fray and Crake captured by a gang lord (here Wooding gains points for starting with some action, and loses them immediately for having the action be completely unrelated to the rest of the story). The Gang Lord threatens to kill Crake unless Fray gives him the ignition codes to the Ketty Jay. Fray of course refuses, and Crake has a massive chip on his shoulder about this throughout the whole book. Then later in the book, Trinica Dracken (evil pirate bitch-queen – incidentally I'm using the word “bitch” a lot in this review, for reasons that should become clear later) captures them again, and makes the same threat, and this time Fray gives her the codes, thus causing a big sign to appear saying THIS IS CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT.

That particular element would have been more effective but for two things. Firstly, it was so telegraphed it lost all its impact – Crake spent the entire freaking book saying “hey Frey if that EVER HAPPENS AGAIN you'd better give over the damned codes, m'kay.” Secondly, refusing to give up the codes was absolutely the right decision.

Consider. You are being held captive by a psychotic bastard who is only keeping you alive because you have information they want. Your only chance of survival is to not give them the damned information. If you do give them the information, chances are they'll kill all of you anyway. In this situation, giving up the codes is certainly understandable, but it's also completely stupid.

This was broadly the interpretation I was assuming the Doctor was driving at when, after Crake complained that the captain almost let him get killed, the Doctor insisted that no, Frey was a good man who would never let his crew down. I thought, in fact, that they were going for a kind of Mal Reynolds effect – making the captain good but not nice, the kind of man who would always do the right thing, even if that meant letting somebody die for the good of the ship.

Turns out this wasn't what they meant at all. Clearly, giving up the codes to the psychotic maniac was supposed to be the right decision, which is why it's CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT when Frey does it later, so when the Doctor says he's a good man he just kind of means – I'm not sure. That he might be a selfish, whiney, borderline amoral dickhead but at least he wasn't actively malicious?

The only reading I can really support for Frey's character development over the book – as in the only reading which I think the author and the text expect you to take away from it – is that Frey is a good man deep down, but lacks the confidence to act on that goodness. He is, I think, supposed to be afraid of getting too close to people and it is that fear which we are supposed to see as his great weakness, not the fact that he chooses to act on that fear by treating people really unacceptably badly. To draw yet another comparison which will require me to link my own articles, it's rather like Tanis Blacksword in Banewreaker - Tanis as you might recall murdered his wife in a jealous rage, and perhaps I'm being a prude, but to my mind the key problem here is not the fact that he flew into a jealous rage, but the fact that while he was in it he murdered his freaking wife.

Wooding seems to be under the impression that Darien Frey is a good man who sometimes allows his insecurities to get the better of him, and seems to see the book as chronicling his battle to overcome those insecurities. I read Darien Frey as a gigantic asshole, who sometimes uses his perfectly forgivable insecurities as an excuse to treat people like shit.

Women

Probably the most illustrative example of this dissonance in Frey’s personality is in his reaction to his ex-fiancée, Trinica Dracken.

We are first introduced to Trinica as a terrifying pirate, a ruthless, ass-kicking queen of the skies. We learn fairly early on that she has some kind of connection to Frey, and I initially had high expectations for their reunion. To fully explain the reasons behind this, I’m going to have to go into some detail about Frey’s behaviour up to this point, so bear with me.

Throughout the book it has been clear that Frey has a history of treating his romantic partners like dirt. It is clear also that part of the reason he treats his romantic partners like dirt is that gorgeous women constantly throw themselves at him. Not only throw themselves at him, but throw themselves at him and actually fall in love with him, and then stifle him with their smothering girlness.

For example, when Jez – the new navigator – shows up in chapter two, Frey observes that he’s glad she isn’t too attractive, because if she was he’d “be obliged to sleep with her.”

How exactly is the causality supposed to work on this one? Does he mean that if she was more attractive he would want to sleep with her, in which case it wouldn’t be an obligation really, would it? Or does he mean that if she was more attractive she would want to sleep with him? In which case what, does he think that unattractive women don’t have libidos? (I suspect the answer to that last question is probably “yes” actually). At the time I took the most charitable reading, which is that this is evidence of Frey being a self-deluding cock who isn’t capable of owning his sexuality, and that over the course of the book he would come to realise this.

Then about halfway through the book, he has to infiltrate an Awakener (think Catholicism meets Scientology) stronghold in order to find one of his many former conquests and – if you’ll pardon the phrase – pump her for information. It’s a single sex institution and he spends most of the time while he’s infiltrating the building fantasising about all the nubile, sex-starved young women he’ll find in here. I’ll say here that I actually found his fantasising perfectly reasonable, because again I read it as evidence that Frey is a bit of a prick, and was quite pleased when it became clear that his infiltration wasn’t going to end in spankings and baby-oil.

Then he meets his ex (whose name I shall look up when I get home), who kicks him in the head (because she r strong wimminz!) and has a go at him for leaving her in a nunnery for two years, despite having promised that they’d always be together. Frey then has this long, self-justifying internal monologue about how you had to lie to women because if you didn’t they’d only go and find somebody who did lie to them (because you see women want a man who says he’ll be with them forever, and men just want sex, and there is no overlap whatsoever – no men are interested in commitment, no women are interested in straight-up fucking) and that it therefore wasn’t his fault. Then of course he lies to her again, they have sex and she tells him everything he wants to know, and he promises to come back for her which he of course has no intention of doing. But you have to lie to women, so that’s okay.

So anyway, by the time Trinica Dracken shows up on the screen Frey’s pick-up-artist bullshit is wearing pretty thin. Up to this point, however, I was honestly expecting Trinica Dracken to turn the whole thing on its head. I was expecting this to be the one relationship in his whole sorry past that had actually been a partnership of equals, a woman who instead of clinging to him with doe-eyed devotion had been strong and confident in her own right, whose relationship with Frey had been tempestuous and remarkable. I expected the love of Frey’s life to be a woman who had a ship of her own, a crew of her own and a life of her own. It wouldn’t have justified his acting like a dickhead ever since, but it would at least have explained it. I know that this strays into the realms of counter-factual criticism but my intent here isn't to say “Trinica Dracken should have been different” but rather “I had a number of false impressions about what Trinica Dracken would be like, that led me to read all the sexist bullshit in the book more favourably than I might have otherwise.”

Here, for what it is worth, is a summary of what Frey's relationship with Trinica Dracken is revealed to have been like:

Trinica Dracken was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist for whom Frey worked. When they were both in their late teens, they fell in love. Trinica was a lovely sweet girl with long hair who wore white dresses, Frey was much as he is now. Eventually, the relationship had gone wrong. Here is Frey's description of it:
In the early months he'd believed they'd be together forever. He told himself he'd found a woman for the rest of his life. He couldn't conceive of meeting someone more wonderful than she was, and he wasn't tempted to try.

But it was one thing to daydream such notions, and quite another to be faced with putting them into practice. When she began to talk of engagement, with a straightforwardness he'd previously found charming, he began to idolize her a little less. His patience became less. No longer could he endlessly indulge her flights of fancy. His smile became fixed as she played her girlish games with him. Her jokes all seemed to go on too long. He found himself wishing she'd just be sensible

Okay, leaving aside for the moment that Frey's analysis of what went wrong with his relationship boils down to “the bitch wouldn't keep her mouth shut” note that here his dissatisfaction with Trinica stems simultaneously from (a) the fact that he starts to see that she isn't the perfect fantasy figure he thought she was (he “idolizes her less” which in sane-person world is a good thing in a relationship) and (b) the fact that she still displays many qualities of the fantasy figure he wants her to be (her “girlish games” and her “flights of fancy”). You've got to feel sorry for the girl, because I seriously don't know how she was supposed to please this arrant cocksucker.

It gets worse. Obviously Frey takes the sensible and mature attitude to being in a relationship with somebody for whom you feel manifest contempt, which is to agree to marry her, get her pregnant, and leave her at the altar. He does, of course, admit that this was sub optimal. Here is his magnanimous and painful admission of culpability, which represents a significant moment in his growth and maturation:
His love for her had been the most precious thing in his life, and she'd ruined it with her insecurities, her need to tie him down. She'd made him cowardly. In his heart he knew that, but he could never say it.

This? Seriously Chris Wooding? This is Frey's big moment of self-realization? That he was wrong to let her make him stop loving her? Not, say, wrong to be an emotionally abusive asshole? Or that he was wrong to abandon his pregnant girlfriend on their wedding day? Oh no, his great fault, his great flaw, is that she made him cowardly?

A fairer man might point out at this stage that Trinica does at least call him on this, the fact that he's always blaming his problems on everybody else. The problem is he doesn't stop doing it, but the book treats him like he has.

Anyway, Frey abandons Trinica, leaving her pregnant in a world where, it is strongly implied, a woman who has a child outside wedlock is basically ruined. This results in Trinica attempting suicide, which results in her having a miscarriage. Which results in Frey spending the next ten years hating her for murdering their child.

Of course here again, Frey has a Big Character Development moment, when he realizes that while he is totally justified in hating Trinica, because she totally did murder their child, he has to accept that he is also partly responsible for her murdering their child, because he allowed her to make him cowardly, so that when she attempted suicide (which, let us be clear, was also cowardly) he didn't get back in time to save the day.

To put it another way, Darien Frey's character arc ends with him confronting a woman who he emotionally abused to the point at which she tried to kill herself, and forgiving her for it.

Up until his reunion with Trinica, Frey comes across as a feckless, self-absorbed cock. His interactions with his former love, far from making him more sympathetic, instead reveal him to be a judgemental asshole. He accuses her of murdering their child – an accusation neither Trinica nor the text challenges. He calls her a coward for attempting suicide – an accusation which the text treats as factual. And of course he has a great deal to say about her appearance:
Her skin was powdered ghost-white. Her hair – so blonde it was almost albino – was cut short, sticking up in uneven tufts as if it had been butchered with a knife. Her lips were a red deep enough to be vulgar

Ironically, of course, this actually makes her sound totally awesome (although where the fuck does he get off judging her choice of lipstick – I'm sorry Darien, is your ex not looking virginal enough for you? Well fuck you you misogynistic shit). But just in case we don't get that her new badass look is bad m'kay we get the following exchange during their next meeting:
”How'd you get this way Trinica?” he said. He raised his head and gestured at her across the gloomy study. “The hair, the skin...” he hesitated. “You used to be beautiful.”

“I'm done with beautiful,” she replied

Because of course after she attempted suicide (sorry, I mean “murdered her unborn child” - her life is not, after all, important here) she tried to run away on an airship, but she was captured by pirates who gang raped her. And of course she responded to that by making herself UGLY. Because it is made very clear in the text that She Was Raped Because She Was Beautiful. Incidentally, despite being “through with beautiful” she still wears lipstick, and apparently a particularly vulgar shade of it, if Frey is any judge. I can't be sure, but I'd have thought if you were going down the “I shall make myself ugly so people won't rape me” route you'd avoid lipstick entirely. Then again, maybe Wooding knows something I don't.

And of course Frey's reaction to the whole thing is:

He didn't pity her. He couldn't. He only mourned the loss of the young woman he'd known ten years ago. This mockery of his lover was his own doing. He had fashioned her, and she damned him by her existence.

So ... your ex girlfriend, the former love of your life shows up, and tells you that she's spent the better part of the last ten years getting beaten and raped by a series of pirate crews until she'd eventually clawed her way into a position where she finally had a modicum of security, and all you care about is the fact that she's no longer the innocent little girl you fell in love with? The innocent little girl who you fell in love with but also treated like shit, wanted to get rid of, impregnated and abandoned? You can't spare one second to think about anything except how her present situation reflects on you.

Die in a fire you smug, self-centred little fuckstain.

Umm, there's a fair amount more fail in the book, but I'm really not sure I can go on. Suffice to say that the only other female characters in the book of any significance are Jez the navigator, whose contribution to the climactic confrontation is to whore herself out to a mid-ranking Naval officer (and she doesn't even get to do it on page) and Bess, the golem that Crake created out of his eight year old niece, who he stabbed to death while possessed by a daemon. Crake occasionally angsts about allowing the crew to use Bess (who it is strongly implied can feel pain) as portable cover in firefights. This does not stop him from doing it repeatedly.

Fantasy Rape Watch

Number of Named Female Characters: 4
Of Whom Protagonist's ex Lovers: 2
Of Whom Dead: 2
Of Whom Rape Victims: 1
Of Whom Murdered By Viewpoint Character: 1

Causes of Rape and Sexual Abuse, by Attribution in Text
Nature of Violent Culture: 0%
Nature of Patriarchal Society: 0%
Decisions Made Freely by Rapists: 0%
Beauty of Victim: 100%

Consequences of Rape and Sexual Abuse, by Importance as Judged by Text
Emotional Distress to Victim: 0%
Physical Injury to Victim: 0%
Emotional Distress to Victim's Ex-Boyfriend: 25%
Victim No Longer Physically Desirable to Ex-Boyfriend: 75%

Who Suffers as a Result of a Woman's Suicide Attempt, by Attribution in Text
Her: 0%
Her Unborn Child: 70%
Her Boyfriend: 30%

Who Suffers as the Result of the Murder of an Eight Year Old Girl, as Judged by Text
The Eight Year Old Girl: 20%
The Murderer: 80%

Ways In Which An Intelligent, Talented Woman, Who Has Superhuman Strength And Is Nearly Invulnerable to Physical Damage Could Attempt To Rescue Her Companions At Short Notice
Steal a Ship and Mount a Rescue: 0%
Sneak into Execution and Mount a Rescue: 0%
Prostitute Herself: 100%

My Level of Surprise That This Book Was Nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award:
30%

My Hope For the Genre, Taking This Book As a Standard:
0%
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Comments (go to latest)
Holy shit.

I don't even have anything else to say. Just...holy shit.
http://furare.livejournal.com/ at 20:48 on 2010-06-26
Wow. That just *is* a world of fail, isn't it?

Focusing just on the "you murdered our child" bit for a minute, it's uncomfortably reminiscent of something I read recently about men who want to make abortion all about them, a terrible tragedy foisted on them by the actions of an evil woman. I know a suicide-induced miscarriage isn't exactly abortion, but I think Frey's reaction comes quite close to theirs. Made me wonder if it was possibly intentional - the parallel seems quite obvious to me.
Arthur B at 22:49 on 2010-06-26
Focusing just on the "you murdered our child" bit for a minute, it's uncomfortably reminiscent of something I read recently about men who want to make abortion all about them, a terrible tragedy foisted on them by the actions of an evil woman. I know a suicide-induced miscarriage isn't exactly abortion, but I think Frey's reaction comes quite close to theirs. Made me wonder if it was possibly intentional - the parallel seems quite obvious to me.

It's an analogy that jumped out at me too. At the very least, if performing an act that leads to a miscarriage is regarded by Frey as murder, then abortion has to come under that category for Frey's views (and the text's views, it seems) to be even slightly internally consistent. And "men's rights" morons do seem to like portraying abortion as a crime against fathers, and to blame women for everything that men do wrong in a relationship.

Out of interest, how do books get nominated for the Clarke award?
Dan H at 23:11 on 2010-06-26
I know a suicide-induced miscarriage isn't exactly abortion, but I think Frey's reaction comes quite close to theirs. Made me wonder if it was possibly intentional - the parallel seems quite obvious to me.


I think that's fair, there's a rather skeevy implication that she deliberately attempted suicide *in order* to induce a miscarriage *in order* to get at Frey.

Because Women Are Evil.
http://furare.livejournal.com/ at 12:59 on 2010-06-27
Because she couldn't have wanted to kill herself because she couldn't deal with the disgrace *he* left her with? I'm not trying to undermine her autonomy by saying it's his fault she slept with him; however, it's unquestionably his fault that he abandoned her at the altar. So surely, by his own logic, if she had succeeded in committing suicide, he would have murdered her. (Just kidding, I can see that Frey's "logic" serves no purpose other than to make sure that he is not genuinely to blame for anything.)

One slightly off-topic thing I feel the need to say is that I Have Had Enough of anything - books, magazine articles, people - who claim that women all want romance and/or commitment, while men just want sex. A lot of women actually want sex, and some of them are actually willing to admit that they're not looking for candlelit dinners or long-term commitment in exchange. Actually, "in exchange" is the problem, isn't it? It implies that sex is something you have to compensate a woman for if she "gives" it to you.

And seriously. If a guy I was dating told me that he wanted to "be with me forever", I would probably laugh in his face. And then try to scrape him off my leg. I don't mind commitment in and of itself, but that sort of declaration fucking terrifies me. But then, I've come to the conclusion that when pop culture talks about "women" and "what women want", they are almost never talking about me. It's like I don't exist or something.

To bring this comment back to the book under discussion, I think it's a real shame that the author squandered a potentially awesome character by treading tired old ground. I mean, a woman who's a badass airship pirate captain! That has so much potential - a character fantasy-reading women might enjoy and identify with. If she wasn't defined almost entirely by what men had done to her. Kind of typical for the genre, though, isn't it.
Niall at 14:38 on 2010-06-27
Out of interest, how do books get nominated for the Clarke award?


The Clarke Award is administered by a body called the Serendip Foundation. Each year, they arrange a panel of five judges: traditionally (that is, for pretty much the whole of the Award's thirty-year existence) two of these have been nominated by the British Science Fiction Association, two by the Science Fiction Foundation, and one by A. N. Other invited body, which at present is SF Crowsnest.com, and has been the Science Museum and various other groups. Around this time of year, the Chair of the judging panel writes to UK publishers inviting them to submit books for consideration. Any science fiction novel published in the UK in the relevant calendar year is eligible; the Award does not define "science fiction" or "novel", that's left up to publishers and to the judges to debate. The judges read all the books. They may ask the Chair to contact publishers and request that other titles are submitted for consideration.

The judges then meet in February (ish) to select a shortlist of six. The shortlist is announced in March or April. The judges re-read the books they shortlisted, and meet in April/May (for the last few years, it's been at the start of the Sci-Fi-London film festival) to select a winner.

Basically, it's the Booker Prize process, although I think that in the case of the Booker the Chair is a full member of the panel, and in the Clarke they're a facilitator, appointed by Serendip to run the judges' meetings but not having a vote themselves. Other differences: publishers aren't limited to submitting only two titles, as they are in the Booker; and judges are typically asked to serve for two consecutive years (not all on the same schedule, so there's some refreshment and some carry-over from year to year).

The other titles shortlisted this year were Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts, Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson, Spirit by Gwyneth Jones, Far North by Marcel Theroux, and the eventual winner, The City & The City be China Mieville.
Niall at 14:40 on 2010-06-27
Oh, and the judges for this year were Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Chris Hill for the BSFA, Francis Spufford and Rhiannon Lassiter for the SF Foundation, and Paul Skevington for SF Crowsnest.
To bring this comment back to the book under discussion, I think it's a real shame that the author squandered a potentially awesome character by treading tired old ground. I mean, a woman who's a badass airship pirate captain! That has so much potential - a character fantasy-reading women might enjoy and identify with. If she wasn't defined almost entirely by what men had done to her. Kind of typical for the genre, though, isn't it.

Hell, Trinica sounds like the only interesting character in the book. In fact, the book that would be interesting to read would be titled "Kill Frey" and it would be about Trinica Dracken crossing off names from her Death List.
Dan H at 21:10 on 2010-06-27
Actually, "in exchange" is the problem, isn't it? It implies that sex is something you have to compensate a woman for if she "gives" it to you.


I believe this is an attitude which I've heard succinctly summarized as "women have sex, men want sex." And yeah, it's kind of a problem. It creates this notion that sex is something that men are supposed to get out of women by whatever means society deems acceptable, which leads to all sorts of nasty places.
Melissa G. at 22:31 on 2010-06-27
One slightly off-topic thing I feel the need to say is that I Have Had Enough of anything - books, magazine articles, people - who claim that women all want romance and/or commitment, while men just want sex.


I totally forgive you for off-topicness because I am so sick of that attitude too! It's so annoying and gender box-y.

But I have to say that I'm even more sick and tired of this attitude:

Because it is made very clear in the text that She Was Raped Because She Was Beautiful.


Because that is such utter BS and a total misunderstanding of what rape is and why it happens. Rape is about power, not desire or lust or being unable to control oneself because the other person is so beautiful. It's so disgusting and irritating to see rape twisted into something where the guy just can't control himself because she's so damn hot. Come on, who could blame him? And then, that brings you to the "She should be flattered he raped her; he could have any woman he wants" mentality. Just...no.

Apologies for going slightly off-topic myself, but that mentality about rape is a huge rage button of mine. Especially since I recently seem to be reading scripts (for my job) of movies where violence against women seems to be the most used plot point for the male character to do anything. Women in Refrigerators, anyone?
Dan H at 22:55 on 2010-06-27
And then, that brings you to the "She should be flattered he raped her; he could have any woman he wants" mentality. Just...no.


Which might be an apposite moment to bring up the scene fairly early in the book when the characters are attacking an information-broker's hideout, and the guy's pet whores are holed up with shotguns worried that the band of armed psychos who just burst in might, y'know, rape them.

But fortunately Frey reveals that it is he, the hot man from earlier. So he can't be a rapist, because he is hot!
Melissa G. at 23:20 on 2010-06-27
So he can't be a rapist, because he is hot!


::facepalm:: That's right, hot guys can't be rapists, and ugly girls can't be rape victims. I mean, who'd want to rape them? They're ugly. And rape is just about how hot a girl is. Really, it's the ultimate compliment!

Sigh. The fail just hurts sometimes....
You know, taken 100% and entirely out of context, the interchange of

”How'd you get this way Trinica?” he said. He raised his head and gestured at her across the gloomy study. “The hair, the skin...” he hesitated. “You used to be beautiful.”

“I'm done with beautiful,” she replied.


could actually be a snappy wisecrack on the lines of those typically delivered by pulp heroes or, say, Sam Spade. You know what, I think we should all ignore the context, Trinica is an awesome character without it.
Dan H at 23:28 on 2010-06-27
Sigh. The fail just hurts sometimes....


To be very slightly fair, I should add that I'm only presenting one of several possible readings. It's possible that they decide to trust him because they recognize him from earlier, for example, but mixed in with all the faily stuff about beauty it bugged me.
Melissa G. at 01:55 on 2010-06-28
@Dan

That's true, but there's still a sigh on my part at rape-fail in general because I've heard that kind of mentality and attitude expressed far too many times. Especially in conjunction with celebrities who get accused of rape. >.< So the book may get a pass, but society does not. ::shakes fist angrily at society::
Wardog at 09:26 on 2010-06-28
I was going to read this ... now I am not.

I am depressed.
http://furare.livejournal.com/ at 11:06 on 2010-06-28
Oh hell, don't get me started on the rapefail. I didn't touch it in previous comments because it kinda makes me too angry to write coherently. Let's just say I've read an awful lot about rape in recent weeks and months, and I am sickened by the attitude Melissa mentions with respect to rapist celebrities. I guess the assumption that a celebrity could "have any woman he wants" is pretty damned insulting, too. Sorry, but I don't sleep with guys who act like they're doing me a favour just by noticing me.

And on the general subject of rape and rapefail - it is really aggravating that blog posts on rape are *always* commented on by someone claiming that the real victims of rape are men who are unfairly accused. Because women love "crying rape" and having their sex lives, choice of clothes and conduct at the time in question, and a million and one other things scrutinised. I would not be surprised if an awful lot of retracted accusations were actually due to the fact that investigation of the crime makes the victim feel like they were at fault.

Regardless, "false" reporting occurs in 2-8% of cases, which is about the same as an awful lot of other crimes. (Rape apologists carry round a 41% false report statistic that was taken from a fatally flawed study done in the 70s, rather than the most recent FBI statistics, because it's the one that makes them look right.) But then, issues that largely affect women - like rape and domestic violence - have to be invaded by men telling us that MEN are the victims here, that rape is a stick evil women use to beat MEN and why are we still talking anyway SHUT UP.

So yeah. Novels - and anything else written by anyone ever - that put the blame for rape on anything the victim did or is, rather than the decision made by the rapist to rape her, are things I have no patience with at all. The fact that rape is seen as the victim's fault in real life makes it really far from okay to say that in a novel. Unless you're trying to make the point that your viewpoint character is a misogynistic shit - but I don't think that was the intended reading here.
Melissa G. at 01:14 on 2010-06-29
Oh hell, don't get me started on the rapefail. I didn't touch it in previous comments because it kinda makes me too angry to write coherently.


Ditto for me. It's gotten to the point where every time rape shows up in a book/show/movie/what have you, I tend to roll my eyes and then start to judge harshly. Usually it just seems like the writer thinks "What's the most traumatic thing that could happen to this girl? Oh, I know! She gets raped." Or even worse, "What's the most traumatic thing that could happen to this guy? Oh, I know! His girlfriend/wife/mother/daughter/sister gets raped." It just ends up seeming unoriginal and lazy - not to mention the possibility of epic fail.

I do just want to plug something that I was really impressed with as far as how it handled rape and incorporated it into the story. And surprisingly, it's a comic book! It was Ultimate Elektra - a short mini-series type deal. I actually thought that the rape was handled realistically and was meaningful to the story; it all felt like something that could really happen. I'd love to know if anyone else read it and what you thought of it.
Arthur B at 01:49 on 2010-06-29
It's gotten to the point where every time rape shows up in a book/show/movie/what have you, I tend to roll my eyes and then start to judge harshly.

Same here. I started to read The Heart of Myrial by Maggie Furey a while back, and at first it was silly but basically harmless fun.

Then there was a bit where some peasant woman gets raped by bailiffs to establish two things: that their employer is a rotter, and that the guardsmen who show up and summarily execute the rapist they catch in the act are basically good people who we should cheer for.

I stopped reading at that point.
http://ignisophis.livejournal.com/ at 15:03 on 2010-09-14
A friend of mine recently recommended this book to me. I read it, really enjoyed it and recommended it to my friends, one of whom pointed me to this review. Which is full of things I disagree with, so I thought I should post to explain why.

Judged as a low-investment romp, it’s alright. Judged as a nominee for a prestigious award, it needs to be killed with fire.


Surely a book should be judged on its merits, or lack thereof? Nominations for the Clarke Award have very little to do with quality, and shouldn't your issues with its shortlisting be a matter for a review of the Clarke Award and/or its judges? After all, I doubt Chris Wooding wrote it specifically with the Clarke Award in mind.

I don't agree that zero female crew would have been better than one - it gave me the impression, not of a setting where "women are apparently perfectly accepted", but of a setting where there is very strong social pressure against women entering that line of work. Given the sexism inherent in the rest of the setting, positive discrimination in the crew's gender ratio would have changed the whole focus of the story.

To put it another way, Frey spends the first half of the book chiding himself for his selfishness, indolence, and pisspoor leadership skills. By the end of the book he has stopped chiding himself for all of these things, but has failed to show any actual change in his behaviour. Which creates the impression that all of his growth and development over the course of the book has served only to make him less self-aware.


I had a different reading on all of this. For me, part of the appeal of the book is that almost all of the information we have is told from the point of view of a character who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a horrible self-deluding wreck of a human being, damaged by the consequences of his own actions and continuing to damage both himself and those around him. Considering the timescale of the book, I think any genuine change in his behaviour would be too rushed to be plausible. Instead, we see a change in his internal attitude and intentions which will maybe lead to a future change in his behaviour, and till then he's faking it until he can make it. We've spent the whole book being shown how much he wraps himself in delusional self-justification and I don't think there's ever much of a change in its level, just in its form and motives and likely consequences.


That particular element would have been more effective but for two things. Firstly, it was so telegraphed it lost all its impact – Crake spent the entire freaking book saying “hey Frey if that EVER HAPPENS AGAIN you'd better give over the damned codes, m'kay.” Secondly, refusing to give up the codes was absolutely the right decision.


I did find it extremely effective, and honestly didn't know which way Frey would jummp. Firstly, Crake's earlier harping on about it did telegraph that a similar situation would probably happen again but could have just been to add weight and consequence should Frey have handled it the same way. Secondly, to my mind it was the right decision not to give the codes the first time, but the right decision to give the codes the second time - Macarde just wanted the information, the ship and a bit of revenge, whereas Dracken primarily wanted Frey and the crew and had a good reason to kill Crake; to her the information and the ship were just a bonus. Which is why I didn't think we were meant to think that giving up the codes the first time would've been the right decision.


The only reading I can really support for Frey's character development over the book – as in the only reading which I think the author and the text expect you to take away from it – is that Frey is a good man deep down, but lacks the confidence to act on that goodness.


This is a reading I completely disagree with. If this is the case then why, on the third-to-last page (after Frey has done some heroic things and finally started to bond with his crew), does the author feel the need to remind us of all the horrible things Frey has done? The impression I get from the text is that Frey is a horribly flawed man, but that even horribly flawed people can have some redeeming features, can occasionally do good things despite themselves, and can strive to be better.


Wooding seems to be under the impression that Darien Frey is a good man who sometimes allows his insecurities to get the better of him, and seems to see the book as chronicling his battle to overcome those insecurities.


I'm always reluctant to claim knowledge of an author's mind, but here in particular I think you're doing Wooding a great disservice. Particularly as Wooding never tells us what he thinks, only what Frey thinks.


because you see women want a man who says he’ll be with them forever, and men just want sex, and there is no overlap whatsoever – no men are interested in commitment, no women are interested in straight-up fucking


For me this was one of the cues that Frey's thought processes are not an authorial voice. He may think about it that way, but the one sex scene in the book has the woman taking the initiative and displaying a greater sexual appetite.

Causes of Rape and Sexual Abuse, by Attribution in Text
Beauty of Victim: 100%


According to testimony of said victim, possibly in order to give herself security by thinking that she's safe from rape now that she is attempting to present herself as being far from beautiful. Attributed by a character within the text rather than the text itself.

Consequences of Rape and Sexual Abuse, by Importance as Judged by Text
Emotional Distress to Victim's Ex-Boyfriend: 25%
Victim No Longer Physically Desirable to Ex-Boyfriend: 75%


Who Suffers as a Result of a Woman's Suicide Attempt, by Attribution in Text
Her Unborn Child: 70%, Her Boyfriend: 30%


Both according to the viewpoint of Frey, who as we've already established is a horrible self-centred git. Judged and attributed by a character within the text rather than by the text itself.

Who Suffers as the Result of the Murder of an Eight Year Old Girl, as Judged by Text
The Eight Year Old Girl: 20%, The Murderer: 80%


Again, this is according to the point of view of the murderer, not judged by the text itself.

Ways In Which An Intelligent, Talented Woman, Who Has Superhuman Strength And Is Nearly Invulnerable to Physical Damage Could Attempt To Rescue Her Companions At Short Notice
Steal a Ship and Mount a Rescue: 0%
Sneak into Execution and Mount a Rescue: 0%
Prostitute Herself: 100%


Jez is somewhat stronger than she would be as a human, can heal from a knock to the head and a flesh wound and is a decent shot, but this hardly makes her anything like invulnerable and it certainly doesn't make her some kind of superhero. The prostitution did irk me, but I mostly saw it as a comment on the way in which she was coming to see herself as an inhuman monster, and an acknowledgement that she was intelligent enough to realise she couldn't have pulled off either of the first two options on her own.



Overall, I think the heart of our disagreement over the book comes down to a preference for or against didacticism. It's something I strongly dislike - I want stories which present interesting situations and complex flawed characters then leave me to make up my own mind about them. Which don't try to insert authorial comment into the mindset of a flawed and potentially unreliable viewpoint character. Which present a sexist and corrupt society as what it is, without feeling the need to explicitly lecture the audience about it.

Judging from your review, particularly those percentage breakdowns at the end, you want a story in which the text and the author tell the audience what they should think of the horrible things that happen and the horrible things the characters do?
Arthur B at 15:43 on 2010-09-14
Dan said:
Frey spends the first half of the book chiding himself for his selfishness, indolence, and pisspoor leadership skills. By the end of the book he has stopped chiding himself for all of these things


ignisophis said:
Instead, we see a change in his internal attitude and intentions which will maybe lead to a future change in his behaviour

How does going from "I'm quite bothered by my behaviour" to "I'm OK with my behaviour" make it more likely that he's going to change?
Dan H at 16:07 on 2010-09-14
Overall, I think the heart of our disagreement over the book comes down to a preference for or against didacticism.



I don't think it has anythign to do with that. Didacticism is one of those irregular adjectives. You're being Didactic, I'm just presenting things as they are. He has an agenda, I'm telling a story.

It's something I strongly dislike - I
want stories which present interesting situations and complex flawed characters
then leave me to make up my own mind about them.


So do I. Retribution Falls does neither of those things.

Your interpretation of Frey - as a flawed and complex but ultimately sympathetic character, that despite the horrible things he does he is always striving to be a better man - is exactly the one which I complain that the book was forcing down my throat.

Which don't try to insert authorial comment into the mindset of a flawed and potentially unreliable viewpoint character.


Authorial comment is *absolutely* necessary when you're dealing with a flawed and potentially unreliable viewpoint character. Otherwise how do you know they're flawed and potentially unreliable?

Which present a sexist and corrupt society as what it is,
without feeling the need to explicitly lecture the audience about it.


You're presenting a false dichotomy here. You seem to believe that the options are "present a sexist and corrupt society in an uncritical and shallow manner" or "lecture people".

I'd also point out that /Retribution Falls/ does not, in fact, present a sexist and corrupt society. It doesn't really present a society at all. It's an adventure novel, it pays no attention to the way its setting would or could actually work. What you take as "presenting a sexist society as it actually is" I take as "just being sexist".

Judging from your review, particularly those percentage breakdowns at the end, you want a story in which the text and the author tell the audience what they should think of the horrible things that happen and the horrible things the characters do?


This is what I don't understand. The text *does* tell us what to think about the horrible things that happen, and the horrible things the characters do. It's extraordinarily heavy handed in that regard. Frey's interaction with Trinica is a good example. In the article I quoted the following:

He didn't pity her. He couldn't. He only mourned the loss of the young woman he'd known ten years ago. This mockery of his lover was his own doing. He had fashioned her, and she damned him by her existence.

This is telling you exactly how to feel, and exactly why you should be feeling it. Frey did a Terrible Thing in running out on Trinica, and we are supposed to condemn him for running out on her, but recognize that he has accepted responsibility for it and grown as a result. That's what allows you to interpret Frey as a "complex and flawed character".

Frey is only complex and flawed if you interpret his character in exactly the ways the book (very directly, very heavy-handedly) tells you to interpret his character. Otherwise he really is a dickbag with no redeeming features whatsoever and that's not an interesting character to read about.
http://ignisophis.livejournal.com/ at 16:58 on 2010-09-14
Your interpretation of Frey - as a flawed and complex but ultimately sympathetic character, that despite the horrible things he does he is always striving to be a better man


But that's not my interpretation of Frey. That's how you think the author wants us to interpret Frey. My interpretation of Frey is that he's a flawed and complex and almost entirely unsympathetic character, who doesn't strive to be a better man until we're approaching the end of the book - and even then the motives for his striving are suspect and its eventual outcome uncertain. I don't sympathise with him, but I do pity him, and despite his being a git with virtually no redeeming features I do find him interesting to read about.

Authorial comment is *absolutely* necessary when you're dealing with a flawed and potentially unreliable viewpoint character. Otherwise how do you know they're flawed and potentially unreliable?


From an evaluation of their narrative.

You're presenting a false dichotomy here. You seem to believe that the options are "present a sexist and corrupt society in an uncritical and shallow manner" or "lecture people".


If you're going to rewrite what I say, please don't put quote marks around it! Or at least, use quote marks but put some editorial square brackets around the altered text.

"He didn't pity her. He couldn't. He only mourned the loss of the young woman he'd known ten years ago. This mockery of his lover was his own doing. He had fashioned her, and she damned him by her existence."

This is telling you exactly how to feel, and exactly why you should be feeling it.


This is our disagreement in a nutshell. You think that excerpt is telling the audience what to feel and why they should feel it. I think that excerpt is telling the audience what Frey feels and why he thinks he's feeling it. What you appear to read as an objective narrator uncritically describing Frey's reaction in what we are meant to take as reasonable terms, I read as subjective narration by a selfish and dysfunctional viewpoint character speaking in the third person.

I think it's a deeply unhealthy way to feel, and would agree that the book deserved to be killed by fire if it suggested that the audience was meant to feel that way about Trinica's condition. Fortunately, I don't think it is.

Is not the definition of a didactic reading of a text the belief that the text is telling us what to do and why we should do it?


And in response to Arthur:
How does going from "I'm quite bothered by my behaviour" to "I'm OK with my behaviour" make it more likely that he's going to change?


If he was genuinely bothered by his behaviour beforehand then he'd have made an effort to change it. I see the transition as going from "I shall self-flagellate about my failings while using my awareness of them to convince myself that tryin to change would be pointless" to "I have failings, but I am making an effort to change". How genuine and lasting that effort is has yet to be seen.
Dan H at 17:50 on 2010-09-14
My interpretation of Frey is that he's a flawed and complex and almost entirely unsympathetic character, who doesn't strive to be a better man until we're approaching the end of the book


I think we're using the word "sympathetic" differently. I'm using it to mean "has qualities with which you can sympathize" whereas you seem to use it to mean "has no flaws".

You see Frey as flawed, complex and almost entirely unsympathetic but (presumably) with some redeeming features (you suggest as much in your previous post). Again this is *exactly* the interpretation I believe the text is pushing for.

The problem I have with Frey isn't that he's unsympathetic, it's that he's unsympathetic *in different ways to the ones the text cares about*.


From an evaluation of their narrative.


Which you would do how? I mean seriously how do you know a narrator is unreliable without some clue that comes from outside their narration?


I think it's a deeply unhealthy way to feel, and would agree that the book deserved to be killed by fire if it suggested that the audience was meant to feel that way about Trinica's condition. Fortunately, I don't think it is.


Umm ... I'm a bit confused here. What about the way Frey feels about Trinica's condition are we supposed to disagree with? How do *you* feel about Trinica's condition and how do you think it's different, and how do you think the text supports that feeling?

The book clearly explains to us that Frey had a responsibility to Trinica, that by running out on her he shirked that responsibility, which caused her to attempt suicide and lead to the death of their child, and ultimately to her getting raped and becoming the Dread Pirate Dracken. Frey feels guilty for shirking this responsibility. What about this interpretation do you think is incorrect? How do you think Frey is mistaken here?


Is not the definition of a didactic reading of a text the belief that the text is telling us what to do and why we should do it?


Umm ... yes it is. I read the book as extremely didactic, and dislike it because I consider it to be didactic. You seemed to think that my problem was wanting the book to be *more* didactic, when in fact I want it to be *less* didactic. The book as it stands tells us exactly how to feel about everything in it.


If he was genuinely bothered by his behaviour beforehand then he'd have made an effort to change it. I see the transition as going from "I shall self-flagellate about my failings while using my awareness of them to convince myself that tryin to change would be pointless" to "I have failings, but I am making an effort to change". How genuine and lasting that effort is has yet to be seen.


Again, that's exactly my problem and once again, your interpretation of the text lines up exactly with the interpretation I believe the text is telling me to have.

Frey's big flaw, as dictated by the text, is that he runs away from his responsibilities. That is the flaw he spends the book dealing with, and that is the flaw he overcomes at the end when he realizes that he has a duty to his crew.

Frey's real flaw is that he believes everything is about him. The thing is that it *really is*. This isn't a matter of perception, every single person he meets is willing to risk everything to either help or harm him. Even Trinica's suicide attempt was *about Frey* and she freely admits that it was about Frey. This isn't unreliable narration, this isn't the subjective viewpoint of a flawed character, this is how things actually are in the setting.
Arthur B at 20:44 on 2010-09-14
Which you would do how? I mean seriously how do you know a narrator is unreliable without some clue that comes from outside their narration?

To be fair, you can do it without outside clues. Gene Wolfe did it quite well in Peace - if you take the narrator at his word it's about a nice old man reminiscing about his life, but if you pay attention to the bits where he contradicts himself, glosses over something, or is clearly omitting something you realise that he's a horrifyingly evil person. (To pull a fuzzily-remembered example out of thin air, a particular character just plain disappears partway through the story after a fairly tense conversation with the narrator, and it's only later when he casually mentions possessing a piece of property that most definitely belonged to her that you realise he probably killed her - and if you go back and revisit the scene in question you can put together a fairly good idea of how he did it and how he disposed of the evidence.)

Not that that's necessarily what's happening in Retribution Falls. And I do agree that you do need the contradictions and omissions and whatnot in order to give textual support for interpretations that directly contradict the narrator's own assessment of things. The more internally consistent and solid a narrative is the less wiggle room you have for challenging the statements in it, after all.
Dan H at 13:44 on 2010-09-15
But that's still a metatextual clue - Wolfe clearly included the reference *specifically* to allow for that interpretation, which is sort of my point.

I'm not saying the text has to stop and say "just so we're clear, the narrator is lying to you here" but it is actually very clear what *is* just viewpoint and what *isn't*. It's like people who will argue that Star Wars is shot from "Luke Skywalker's Viewpoint" and that the Empire might not be evil at all. It's not a legitimate reading of the text, and it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how viewpoint works in fiction.
Arthur B at 14:01 on 2010-09-15
Well the other difference is that Peace is very much delivered from the narrator's viewpoint - it's all spoken in the first person. It's not Wolfe writing in the third person who tells you that the narrator has the vanished girl's stuff, it's the narrator himself not managing to keep his story straight.

Of course, the other big argument against the "it's OK because he's an unreliable narrator" take on Retribution Falls is that as far as I can tell it's written in the third person, which would mean you can't firmly say that the narration is from Frey's point of view. The argument that the narrative voice isn't "subjective narration by a selfish and dysfunctional viewpoint character speaking in the third person" seems to me - unless there's textual support for it somewhere - to be a bit of a leap, when the default assumption in most books is that the narrative voice is objective, omniscient, and impersonal. I'm sure there's been books written in the third person where the narrative voice is in fact subjective, unreliable, and personal, but you'd expect to be tipped off to the fact if that's what you're meant to take away from it.
Niall at 14:16 on 2010-09-15
the default assumption in most books is that the narrative voice is objective, omniscient, and impersonal


Say what? No it isn't. I wouldn't even say it's the default assumption in most books written in the third person. In fact, I'd say that in contemporary fiction, an objective, omniscient, impersonal narrative voice is rare.

The specific paragraph being debated above is limited third person. Every sentence is grounded in Frey's subjectivity. For me to read it as an objective assessment of the situation, it would have to stand further outside him: "Frey didn't pity Trinica. It wouldn't do any good. The only thing to do was to mourn the loss of the young woman he'd known ten years ago..."
Arthur B at 14:46 on 2010-09-15
Say what? No it isn't. I wouldn't even say it's the default assumption in most books written in the third person.

OK, checking the wikipedia article on narrative modes I see that I've been sloppy about my terms and not used them especially correctly (though I note that over the entire sweep of literature the third-person omniscient has totally been the most commonly used so ya boo sucks :P).

For me the narrative voice came off as impersonal - the very fact that it's the third person seems to point in that direction, for starters. But I'm assessing that on a fairly limited selection of quotes, and I'd need to read a lot more to work out whether the narrative voice is meant to take an over-the-shoulder perspective where it follows Frey but doesn't necessarily condone or identify with him or whether it's meant to be Frey.

This is all, of course, secondary to the question of whether the reader is meant to sympathise or condemn Frey. And the thing is, the various attitudes he expresses, which both Dan and ignisophis agree are problematic, are common enough that I can easily imagine many readers reading the book and thinking "Yeah, that Frey guy's totally got it right - my ex's abortion was all about me too!"
Arthur B at 14:48 on 2010-09-15
(Also I'd argue that the third-person omniscient has maintained a greater foothold in SF/fantasy than it has in other genres thanks to the influence of Tolkien in fantasy, and various brick-sized multiple-viewpoint novels of the Alastair Reynolds/Peter F. Hamilton variety in SF.)
Niall at 15:00 on 2010-09-15
I'd need to read a lot more to work out whether the narrative voice is meant to take an over-the-shoulder perspective where it follows Frey but doesn't necessarily condone or identify with him or whether it's meant to be Frey.


To be pedantic, I'm less interested in whether it's meant to be one or the other, and more interested in what it is, if only because we can't know the former and can meaningfully debate the latter. So: I think Retribution Falls is basically over-the-shoulder with occasional slips which come about because, when it comes down to it, Wooding is not a particularly impressive writer on a sentence-by-sentence level. It doesn't help that, as you say, the prose has a fairly unexciting default voice, neither strongly of the character it's following nor strongly not of the character it's following. Still, I didn't experience the book as didactic in the way that Dan did.
Niall at 15:05 on 2010-09-15
Do you know, it's so long since I've actually read Tolkien that I can't remember what his narrative is like, but I wouldn't characterise Hamilton as third-person omniscient. From what I remember, even if he follows multiple characters, he sticks pretty tightly to a single character within any given scene. So I'd say he's multiple third-person-limited, and reserve third-person omnisicient for books like Middlemarch, where there is a single narrator that wanders between characters whenever it feels like it.
Arthur B at 15:05 on 2010-09-15
To be pedantic, I'm less interested in whether it's meant to be one or the other, and more interested in what it is, if only because we can't know the former and can meaningfully debate the latter.

But there's no objective test which will conclusively prove it's one or the other, if it's a borderline case; all we can do is see what it seems like to us, and consider what prompts the text are giving us (the latter of which is what I meant by "meant").
Arthur B at 15:07 on 2010-09-15
Do you know, it's so long since I've actually read Tolkien that I can't remember what his narrative is like, but I wouldn't characterise Hamilton as third-person omniscient. From what I remember, even if he follows multiple characters, he sticks pretty tightly to a single character within any given scene.

Yeah, but he'll regularly set up situations using the technique where the characters who are going into a particular situation know much less than we do, because the narrative voice has clued us in to stuff that's been going on which the current viewpoint character doesn't know about. The overall point is to give this helicopter overview of what's happening on a stage covering half a galaxy, which no one character can get a clear picture of but which the narrative voice seems to be showing us as we travel around in its company.
Wardog at 15:18 on 2010-09-15
I'm with Niall on this - I think it is rare to find books where the narrative voice objective, omniscient and impersonal. Otherwise everything would sound like it was written by Henry Fielding. Most third books have conscious POV shifts, usually between chapters or between scenes, as you move between characters or else are specifically situated as being the perspective of a specific character - the Harry Potter books, for example.

Where it gets difficult is locating the overlapping subjectivity of character and author - and, by author, I mean the hazy figure present in the text, not the person giving interviews to the media.

Sorry to randomly tangent, but this discussion reminds me the discussion about Sisters Red over at The Book Smugglers. Essentially Ana condemns the book for its victim-blaming and honestly slightly unhealthy attitude to certain types of girls - later the author inadvisable rocks up in the comments to claim s/he has been misrepresented since the unhealthy victim-blaming stuff was all from a unhealthy character's POV.

Unfortunately "it's okay, it's a bad person saying it" becomes difficult it is very often implicitly supported by the structures of the book itself. to use the Sisters Red example, what you have is a damaged character expressing an offensive viewpoint, the same viewpoint echoed by a less damaged character not two pages later AND a world in which the offensive viewpoint is LITERALLY true. In the world of Sisters Red, girls who dress, look and behave a certain way are, in fact, targeted by predators. Whereas the "dress up pretty will get you raped" mindset is actually not only untrue (since the majority of rapes are committed by people who knew the victim, not strangers jumping on beautiful girls who go clubbing in short skirts) but a control strategy to keep women feeling vulnerable and dis empowered.

To return to the book in question, the issue, I think, is not with Frey's viewpoint itself but with the way the narrative as a whole functions to support it, rather than condemn it. I mean Frey views women in a completely obnoxious but the behaviour of every woman in the text actually reinforces the fact he's right to treat them as he does - I mean everyone he sleeps with, apparently falls madly in love with him and wants him to settle down and twu wuv with her. It doesn't matter how much pseudo bad-assery you paint onto a female character if *her entire life* revolves around a dude then Frey is, in fact, exactly right to view women as clingy, fragile and emotionally demanding.

The whole "He had fashioned her" line is grossly offensive - not least because, in the text, it is actually true.
Arthur B at 15:33 on 2010-09-15
Most third books have conscious POV shifts, usually between chapters or between scenes, as you move between characters or else are specifically situated as being the perspective of a specific character - the Harry Potter books, for example.

OK, I've tended to think of multiple viewpoint books as being objective/omniscient/impersonal because the narration isn't exclusively associated with one viewpoint, and gives you an overview of what's going on which no single character actually enjoys - so it averages out as being objective-ish and omniscient-ish and impersonal-ish when you take the book as a whole, but I'm obviously doing great harm to the terminology there so I'll stop.

Though that said, if the main character's ideas are never actually challenged by anything they encounter in the world, it doesn't matter much where the narrator's sitting does it?
Melissa G. at 17:35 on 2010-09-15
Though that said, if the main character's ideas are never actually challenged by anything they encounter in the world, it doesn't matter much where the narrator's sitting does it?


That's pretty much my problem with the "But the narrator is unreliable/a bad person so it doesn't matter if their POV is offensive" argument. If you want us to accept that the POV is in an unreliable person's hands, we needs clues in the text.

A good example of it being done right, imo, is Lolita. I don't particularly *like* Lolita, but Nobokov actually did a pretty stellar job of writing from the POV of a pedophile while still providing us with enough textual clues to be able to interpret Humbert Humbert's behavior and mindset as destructive and wrong. It's very subtle and not concrete evidence - hence all the controversy surrounding that book - but I truly believe we're not meant to view Humbert Humbert as *right* in what he does. Lolita displays characteristics of a sexually abused child, for example. Humbert Humbert doesn't pick up on this, but the reader can.

Anyway, back to the original point, I think if a writer is going to have an unreliable narrator or a morality effed up narrator, the text outside the character needs to display at least *signs* that they are effed up and unreliable. If the world bends to their viewpoint, I don't think there's any way that defense works. They are just being proven right, in that case, which is basically what people have stated above, and I agree with.
Dan H at 18:40 on 2010-09-15

The specific paragraph being debated above is limited third person. Every sentence is grounded in Frey's subjectivity. For me to read it as an objective assessment of the situation, it would have to stand further outside him: "Frey didn't pity Trinica. It wouldn't do any good. The only thing to do was to mourn the loss of the young woman he'd known ten years ago..."


I think you're right that the specific paragraph is a bad example, but I think part of the confusion here is that people seem to be misunderstanding precisely what I find offensive about Frey's reaction to Trinica and the way it is grounded in the text.

People are focusing a lot on the "didn't pity her" line which is actually the line in the whole thing I find *least* offensive. Pity is a patronizing emotion, and what offended me most about Trinica wasn't the lack of sympathy in the text, it was the lack of *respect*.

As Kyra points out, what's really offensive about the whole thing is the second line: "This mockery of his lover was his own doing. He had fashioned her, and she damned him by her existence." What is offensive about this line is not that Frey thinks that way but that the text really does provide strong evidence that he is *right* to think this way.

Frey's *entire* arc (as ignisophis observes) is about going from making excuses for his flaws, to facing up to them and taking responsibility for them. In this context, his taking responsibility for Trinica's condition is presented as both right and correct, and a step on his emotional development towards a better and more complete person. Similarly he *takes responsibility* for his part in the loss of their child, accepting that his cowardice in running away from Trinica was comparable to her cowardice in attempting to take her own life. These are all *personal revelations* which are presented as *unambiguously positive and correct*.

To lay it out clearly, this is a list of things which I consider to be facts about Trinica Dracken which (a) are what Frey believes, (b) are the canonical truth of the setting and (c) are deeply offensive.

1. Trinica attempted to kill herself because Frey left her. Unambiguously true, he admits it, she admits it.

2. Trinica's attempted suicide was motivated partly out of a desire to hurt Frey. She says specifically tells Frey that "I wanted you to know what I had done".

3. Trinica's decision to kill herself was cowardly. Frey believes this, the text does not challenge it, and Frey is presented as developing emotionally when he compares his own cowardice to Trinica's.

4. Trinica's attempted suicide was worse because she was pregnant. Again Frey believes this and the text supports it. Again, Frey's emotional growth comes from his recognition that he *shares* in Trinica's moral culpability for the death of their child.

5. Trinica is a tragic figure. A lot of the argument about what is and is not Frey's PoV seems to come down to the question of whether it is right that he "does not pity" Trinica. What is most certainly *not* subjective, or simply a result of Frey's distorted viewpoint, is that Trinica is *worse off* as a capable, independent Pirate Captain than she was as a nineteen year old china doll.

These are all genuinely, deeply offensive to me - particularly point 3: "suicide is cowardly" is one of the most repugnant ideas to go unchallenged in popular opinion, and a text that repeats it without condemning it reinforces it.
http://ignisophis.livejournal.com/ at 20:42 on 2010-09-16
I think we're using the word "sympathetic" differently. I'm using it to mean "has qualities with which you can sympathize" whereas you seem to use it to mean "has no flaws".


"I'm [tautology] whereas you [are ridiculous]"? Heh.
In this context I'm using 'sympathetic character' to mean 'a character in whose circumstances I could potentially see myself having similar reactions and making similar choices'. To make it clearer with some examples, in this particular book I find Crake, Harkins, Jez, Malvery and Silo sympathetic. I find Frey and Pinn unsympathetic. Trinica Dracken I find to be about half-and-half.

I mean seriously how do you know a narrator is unreliable without some clue that comes from outside their narration?


I think Arthur and others have already addressed this point. To be clear, I don't consider Frey unreliable in his recounting of facts but I do consider him unreliable in the way he judges and presents those facts. Not due to explicit cues in the text, but by evaluating his judgements and presentations in relation to my own experiences of the real world, in the same way as Melissa suggests the audience is meant to pick up on aspects of "Lolita".

I'm a bit confused here. What about the way Frey feels about Trinica's condition are we supposed to disagree with? How do *you* feel about Trinica's condition and how do you think it's different, and how do you think the text supports that feeling?

The book clearly explains to us that Frey had a responsibility to Trinica, that by running out on her he shirked that responsibility, which caused her to attempt suicide and lead to the death of their child, and ultimately to her getting raped and becoming the Dread Pirate Dracken. Frey feels guilty for shirking this responsibility. What about this interpretation do you think is incorrect? How do you think Frey is mistaken here?


As others have said, it's probably not the best idea to get overly hung up on this one paragraph. But to answer your questions...

As you say, one of Frey's big flaws is thinking that everything revolves around him. This is a perfect example. Yes, Frey shirked that initial responsibility, and he is right to feel guilty for doing so - but not so much for the fact that he did so as the manner in which he did so, which is never something he questions because as is stated elsewhere in the text he believes women need to be lied to. The crucial error is his assumption that each step led inexorably to the next, as if his initial flight toppled the first in a line of dominoes. The causal links are there but it's not a simple case of "If A Then B", at each step Trinica had a choice in how she reacted and there were multiple other influences on that choice besides the previous steps - such as the culture, her family and the pirates who captured her.

I read the book as extremely didactic, and dislike it because I consider it to be didactic. You seemed to think that my problem was wanting the book to be *more* didactic, when in fact I want it to be *less* didactic. The book as it stands tells us exactly how to feel about everything in it.


My point is that the didacticism doesn't lie in the book itself but in your reading of it. I don't consider it particularly didactic, and Niall appears to agree with me. Furthermore, your review rarely gave me the impression of wanting it to be less didactic - instead you are constantly railing against the book for telling you the wrong things, and rather than not telling you anything you seem to want it to tell you different things: that suicide is not cowardice, that rape is not motivated by beauty, that the person who suffers most in a murder is the victim.

Frey's real flaw is that he believes everything is about him. The thing is that it *really is*. This isn't a matter of perception, every single person he meets is willing to risk everything to either help or harm him. Even Trinica's suicide attempt was *about Frey* and she freely admits that it was about Frey. This isn't unreliable narration, this isn't the subjective viewpoint of a flawed character, this is how things actually are in the setting.


Again, I think you're seeing things in the text that aren't there. For a start, I disagree that that is the way things are in the setting. The first two NPCs we meet, Macarde and Quail, most definitely aren't willing to risk everything to help or harm him. After that, most of the focus Frey draws isn't because of who he is but because of what he represents; to the Century Knights and society at large the killer of the prince who was the nation's sole heir, to Duke Grephen and his allies a threat to their conspiracy. The only people willing to risk anything for his sake (besides his crew) are Trinica Drecken and the Thades, all three of whom have solid motives for doing so.

what offended me most about Trinica wasn't the lack of sympathy in the text, it was the lack of *respect*.

As Kyra points out, what's really offensive about the whole thing is the second line: "This mockery of his lover was his own doing. He had fashioned her, and she damned him by her existence." What is offensive about this line is not that Frey thinks that way but that the text really does provide strong evidence that he is *right* to think this way.


As I explained above, I don't think the text does provide strong evidence that he is right to think that way. Frey believes it, because he thinks everything is about him, but the reader hopefully has enough awareness of the real world to know that life doesn't work like that. I think part of the problem here is that Trinica is also a dysfunctional and psychologically damaged person, about which I shall go into more detail below.

To lay it out clearly, this is a list of things which I consider to be facts about Trinica Dracken which (a) are what Frey believes, (b) are the canonical truth of the setting and (c) are deeply offensive.


1 & 2: (a) and (b) hold. But I'm not sure why you're taking offence? People find many reasons to attempt suicide, and it seems odd to take offence at somebody being psychologically vulnerable. (Tangent: The physiological changes brought on by pregnancy are well known to have an effect on mood, a brief google suggests that some people claim natal depression can cause an increased suicide risk while others claim there is a reduced suicide risk during pregnancy; I don't have the knowledge or inclination to properly search and evaluate the medical literature on the subject, but it's entirely possible Wooding didn't do his research properly either and happened across a study claiming an increased risk?). It's not as if the text suggests she was morally or intellectually justified in attempting to kill herself in that situation or for those motives, which is something I could support taking offence at. These are the interactions of two deeply dysfunctional people, and I see them presented as such.

3: (a) and (c) hold, but I think it's a considerable leap to go from "not challenged by the text" to "the canonical truth of the setting". To my mind, your wanting the text to explicitly challenge and condemn this belief of Frey's also counters your claim that you want the text to be less didactic as opposed to just differently didactic.

4: (a) and (c) hold, and it's possible that Trinica believes it as well. But it's only a canonical truth in the sense that certain characters in canon believe it, as with (3) I think there's a difference (at least in fiction) between not explicitly challenging or condemning a viewpoint and presenting it as a valid and objective ethical judgement.

5: Aristotle defined a tragic figure as someone whose misfortune is brought about by some error of judgement. So yes, I agree that Trinica is a tragic figure and that (a) and (b) hold. But I'm not sure what it is about Trinica being a tragic figure that you find offensive?

Whereas I do find it offensive that you characterise her nineteen year old self as a "china doll". We aren't given that much detail about her life at the time but we do know that she was a wealthy heiress and trained pilot capable of romancing Frey against her family's wishes, convincing Frey to say he'd marry despite his reluctance, and even after her suicide attempt and miscarriage able to steal some money and fly off alone in a small aircraft. Yes she was emotionally vulnerable enough to fall obsessively in love with Frey and attempt suicide when he left her standing pregnant at the altar, but to me the rest of that sounds fairly awesome, not particularly badly off and not particularly "china doll" like either.

Whereas she then spent years being raped and abused, stuck in a situation where she had to use her sexuality as a tool for survival and advancement and a culture where violence and murder are commonplace, then remaining in that culture while denying her sexuality and attempting to present herself as something undesirable. Laying aside the fact that despite the way it's glamorised by fiction and cultural mythology piracy is actually rather horrible, her position as a pirate captain may be capable but whether it's more independent than her early life is a position open to much debate. It's also a position in which I'd say that she possesses a lot more 'public agency' but a lot less 'personal agency', and one which I see as reinforcing and perpetuating the psychological damage she's suffered. So yes, I do think she is a great deal worse off.

A lot of the argument about what is and is not Frey's PoV seems to come down to the question of whether it is right that he "does not pity" Trinica.


I think that's in large part due to the choice of example paragraph!

"suicide is cowardly" is one of the most repugnant ideas to go unchallenged in popular opinion, and a text that repeats it without condemning it reinforces it.


I'd find it really intrusive to have an explicit condemnation, and I think the text does challenge it by showing that Trinica is most definitely not a coward.

To close, I just reread the last chapter of the book and noticed something I didn't before this discussion. When Trinica has Frey (and his crew) at her mercy she lets him go with the following dialogue, which I think stands by itself:
Frey: "You're letting us go?"
Trinica: "Of course I am. [brief exposition]. Why would I want you?"
http://ignisophis.livejournal.com/ at 20:44 on 2010-09-16
Oops, missed a blockquote closure in my comment, hope the site admins can edit to make it a bit more readable?
Arthur B at 22:05 on 2010-09-16
To be clear, I don't consider Frey unreliable in his recounting of facts but I do consider him unreliable in the way he judges and presents those facts. Not due to explicit cues in the text, but by evaluating his judgements and presentations in relation to my own experiences of the real world, in the same way as Melissa suggests the audience is meant to pick up on aspects of "Lolita".

But doesn't this mean that you end up disagreeing with Frey's assessment of his world because you don't buy into his preconceptions and biases, whereas someone who did share his preconceptions would just find them reinforced?
Niall at 09:02 on 2010-09-17
Arthur: possibly, but (a) I'd be willing to bet that there's no way to write about a character like Frey that a person like Frey wouldn't find a way to sympathise with, (b) Even if you could find a way to make this hypothetical person-Frey find character-Frey unsympathetic, I would imagine they'd just dislike the book rather than be challenged or changed by it, and (c) I don't think it's literature's job to be concerned with the reactions of a hypothetical person-Frey.

I expect to get some disagreement here on (c), and to an extent I'm going to immediately walk it back, because I think that what is missing from ignisophis' analysis -- while I am broadly more in agreement with his reading than Dan's -- is a sense of a structural argument. Trinica's psychological vulnerability isn't offensive just because it's there, it's offensive because there isn't a broad enough range of female characters in the novel for it to seem exceptional, and because there isn't a broad enough range of characters in the sf and fantasy genres for it to seem exceptional; that is, it plays into prevalent and damaging stereotypes.

I would prefer that stories not do that, he said, with heavy understatement. But that's because of how I react to it, not because of how I worry other people might react to it. I don't think it's sustainable, and I do fear that it's arrogant, to pronounce on the latter.

As I say, I agree with much of the rest of ignisophis' response to Dan's five points, particularly I think it's a considerable leap to go from "not challenged by the text" to "the canonical truth of the setting". Absence of endorsement is not endorsement of absence, and as I've already said, I didn't feel shepherded towards one interpretation as Dan did. (In fact, where the female characters are concerned, I was more bothered by Jez than by Trinica (or Amalicia), pretty much because I didn't believe what I was told about Frey's exes -- to build on ignisophis' point, I think the "straightforwardness he'd previously found charming" is a clear hint that young Trinica was not precisely the delicate flower Frey imagines her to be -- whereas we get Jez's point of view.) At the same time, Retribution Falls is not a good enough book that I want to die in a ditch over it. Also, I'm now late for work. Oops.
Arthur B at 09:52 on 2010-09-17
Arthur: possibly, but (a) I'd be willing to bet that there's no way to write about a character like Frey that a person like Frey wouldn't find a way to sympathise with, (b) Even if you could find a way to make this hypothetical person-Frey find character-Frey unsympathetic, I would imagine they'd just dislike the book rather than be challenged or changed by it, and (c) I don't think it's literature's job to be concerned with the reactions of a hypothetical person-Frey.

Ah, but my problem with ignisophis's analysis isn't just it lets people who already agree with Frey off the hook, it also isn't especially helpful for people who already agree with Frey.

If this really is a book the reader has to resort to things that they already know and believe to cobble together an interpretation, which is what ignisophis appears to be saying, then the book isn't really bringing anything new to the table. It's not opening their eyes to another way of looking at the world because it's just asking them to resort to theirs, it's not putting forward any new ideas so much as throwing out facts for people to whip into shape using their own ideas, it's not communicating anything meaningful because the reader finds no meaning or message which they didn't already completely believe in when they picked the book up.

This is something which is, to borrow Dan's terms from the start of an article, alright if you're just talking about a low-investment romp but is troubling if it's something that gets shortlisted for an award. Major landmarks of the SF genre - or any genre, or fiction in general - need to do something more than just saying "Meh, I dunno guys, what do you think?"
Niall at 10:18 on 2010-09-17
Philosophy-of-awards as well as philosophy-of-reading, eh? It's like you're deliberately trying to distract me from work... :-)

I was surprised to see Retribution Falls on the Clarke shortlist, I think a lot of people were surprised, there were plenty of books I would rather have seen shortlisted, and had it won, I would have been upset for pretty much the reasons you outline. That said, part of the reason I was surprised was that books like Retribution Falls -- by which I mean adventure novels -- just don't get shortlisted for the Clarke very often. And in principle, I would like a definition of "the best science fiction novel of the year" to be able to include really good adventure novels, which do after all make up the bulk of what gets published as sf. So there was an extent to which I was happy to see it on the shortlist, even though I think it's pretty disposable, because it represents an assertion that this sort of thing can be the best sf has to offer, and because when reading the six shortlisted books in quick succession, it was a change of pace.

I would be interested to know what people make of The Fade, Wooding's previous novel, which I read several years ago and much less attentively than I read Retribution Falls, but which I remember as significantly more interesting (and better) on some of the issues we've been discussing here. I'm also quite tempted, now, to pick up the RF sequel Black Lung Captain, just to see how things pan out...

Also:

Absence of endorsement is not endorsement of absence

That doesn't actually make any sense at all, does it? Just forget I typed it, stick with what ignisophis wrote.
Niall at 10:19 on 2010-09-17
really good adventure novels, which do after all make up the bulk of what gets published as sf.

That is, adventure novels make up the bulk of what's published as sf. Really good adventure novels, sadly, seem to be thin on the ground.
Arthur B at 11:14 on 2010-09-17
And in principle, I would like a definition of "the best science fiction novel of the year" to be able to include really good adventure novels, which do after all make up the bulk of what gets published as sf.

Oh, I think there are books that qualify as classics of the genre that basically boil down to being adventure novels - like anything Jack Vance ever wrote. But ideally your pure adventure novel should say "Hey, I'm a pure adventure novel, I'm not trying to say anything profound", which is at least a positive statement, rather than being an abstention from making any kind of statement at all.

(Of course Dan would argue that Redemption Falls doesn't abstain from making any kind of statement at all, but I'm not tackling that so much as I'm taking issue with ignisophis's stance that you can work out how the book is intended to come across by resorting to your own personal knowledge and preconceptions rather than anything in the text.)
Melissa G. at 17:53 on 2010-09-17
I'm taking issue with ignisophis's stance that you can work out how the book is intended to come across by resorting to your own personal knowledge and preconceptions rather than anything in the text.)


I see what you're saying here (I think). To bring it back to my original example of Lolita, the only people who will find Humbert Humbert offensive and creepy and wrong are the people who already think "pedophilia is bad". Any pedophile reading the book is likely to walk away thinking, "Yes, exactly, he totally gets it!" The smart, non-pedophile reader will vilify Humbert Humbert, whereas a creepy child-molesting reader is likely to vilify Lolita, that damn little cocktease.

The book does require people to come to it with the preconception of "pedophiles are creepy and wrong", and honestly most people do. Unfortunately for "Retribution Falls" (and I've not read it so I'm just going on what the article/comments have said), most people do not come to a sci-fi novel with a preconceived notion of feminism and an expectation of strong females characters because, as Niall said, it plays into "dangerous stereotypes". These tropes exist so strongly in SF/Fantasy that it's more difficult to assume that the reader will know not to take Frey's attitude as how we are meant to view the world. Granted, this gets into "assuming your reader is an idiot" which can be even more infuriating, but I think this might be what some people are taking issue with. Correct me if I'm wrong. :-)
Sister Magpie at 18:25 on 2010-09-17
I don't want to weigh in on Retribution Falls since I haven't read it, but I remember Lolita as having a few moments where Nabakov seemed to make it clear that Humbert was wrong too. For instance, doesn't he get sick when he catches sight of Quilty watching Lolita innocently playing with a dog and obviously perving on her, as if he's looking at himself from the outside? And one thing I do remember is one passage where Humbert is describing their happy life together and almost accidentally talks about Lolita crying herself to sleep at night.

The book is mostly in his pov but iirc Nabakov had a real history of writing unreliable narrators so that became a central idea of the book. Pale Fire has a seemingly insane person writing notes on a poem, Despair (I think it was?) is a novel about a guy who finds his exact double...except only the narrator actually thinks they look alike. I'm not sure if this author has the same interest?
Dan H at 22:03 on 2010-09-17
I don't want to weigh in on Retribution Falls since I haven't read it, but I remember Lolita as having a few moments where Nabakov seemed to make it clear that Humbert was wrong too


Humbert Humbert is fairly unambiguously wrong in Lolita. This is what I really don't get about "viewpoint" arguments - it's entirely possible for a book to be written from the point of view of a character and still be critical of that point of view.

Heck, Retribution Falls does this with its other viewpoint characters. Crake's chapters are full of his comments about how awful and common everybody else is, but it is extraordinarily clear from the way the book is written that we are supposed to disagree with him.
Dan H at 23:28 on 2010-09-17
In this context I'm using 'sympathetic character' to mean 'a character in whose circumstances I could potentially see myself having similar reactions and making similar choices'.


Umm, then you're using a very weird definition of "sympathetic".

I *sympathized* with Humbert Humbert. I wouldn't marry a woman just so I could fuck her daughter.

To be clear, I don't consider Frey unreliable in his recounting of facts but I do consider him unreliable in the way he judges and presents those facts.


But his judgment of those facts is reinforced by the way other people behave and what other people say about him.

. The crucial error is his assumption that each step led inexorably to the next, as if his initial flight toppled the first in a line of dominoes.


Except that there is no evidence in the text that he is incorrect, and quite a lot of evidence in the text that he *is* correct.

My point is that the didacticism doesn't lie in the book itself but in your reading of it.


I think "didacticism" is actually the wrong word to use here. The book is *heavy handed*. It tells you very clearly and explicitly what to think about things. It's not a subtle text.

Again, I think you're seeing things in the text that aren't there ... The only people willing to risk anything for his sake (besides his crew) are Trinica Drecken and the Thades, all three of whom have solid motives for doing so.


But don't the crew, Trinica, and the Thades together represent all of the viewpoint characters and most of the incidental cast. Who's left to not give a damn about him, other than the Century Knights?


As I explained above, I don't think the text does provide strong evidence that he is right to think that way. Frey believes it, because he thinks everything is about him, but the reader hopefully has enough awareness of the real world to know that life doesn't work like that.


I really, really don't understand what you're saying here. You seem to be saying that because something is not true in real life, it should not matter if it is presented as being true in a book, because people will know it is not true in real life? That's *fairly clearly nonsense*.

Fiction, whatever fandom may believe, operates off a set of conventions which are not the conventions of reality. When a character reaches a conclusion as part of an arc which is *all about* their growing sense of personal responsibility and self-awareness, it is *ludicrous* to suggest that the conclusion is meant to be wrong.

Real life doesn't figure into it. I know that black people aren't subhuman monsters, does that mean that On the Creation of Niggers should not be interpreted as saying they are?

1 & 2: (a) and (b) hold. But I'm not sure why you're taking offence? People find many reasons to attempt suicide, and it seems odd to take offence at somebody being psychologically vulnerable.


It's offensive because it reduces Trinica to a commentary on Frey. It's offensive because it reinforces Frey's claim to have created Trinica which you've just insisted that the text doesn't reinforce. It's offensive because it contributes to the massive amounts textual evidence that Frey is actually basically right about both Trinica specifically, and about women in general.

If Frey wasn't a misogynist dickbag who believed women were fundamentally weak and needy, it wouldn't have been so much of a problem that the love of his life was fundamentally weak and needy. I might add that while people attempt suicide for a variety of reasons "in order to induce a miscarriage, in order to upset their ex boyfriend" is seldom one of them. Again it makes Trinica sound like a horrible, vicious, hysterical shrew and that's *not* Frey's viewpoint, that's what she's *actually like*.


3: (a) and (c) hold, but I think it's a considerable leap to go from "not challenged by the text" to "the canonical truth of the setting". To my mind, your wanting the text to explicitly challenge and condemn this belief of Frey's also counters your claim that you want the text to be less didactic as opposed to just differently didactic.


I genuinely don't understand how your mind works here.

So Frey makes a statement: Trinica's suicide attempt was an act of cowardice. This statement is presented as part of his emotional development, and is reinforced time and again in the narration.

What you seem to be doing is letting your preconceptions from outside the text colour your ability to see what is *actually there*. Frey's beliefs are never challenged, therefore they are facts within the context of the text. That is how fiction works.

4: (a) and (c) hold, and it's possible that Trinica believes it as well. But it's only a canonical truth in the sense that certain characters in canon believe it, as with (3) I think there's a difference (at least in fiction) between not explicitly challenging or condemning a viewpoint and presenting it as a valid and objective ethical judgement.


No. There isn't.

What the characters in a text believe is what is true in that text, unless there is some other evidence *within* the text that the characters are mistaken.

The Chronicles of Narnia are not about a world where superstitious people mistakenly worship a lion. Star Wars is not about a group of terrorists attacking the legitimate government of the galaxy. Twenty-Four is not a scathing attack on the War on Terror. Harry Potter is not about a manipulative headmaster tricking a selfish idiot-boy into killing himself.

That is not how fiction *works*.


5: Aristotle defined a tragic figure as someone whose misfortune is brought about by some error of judgement. So yes, I agree that Trinica is a tragic figure and that (a) and (b) hold. But I'm not sure what it is about Trinica being a tragic figure that you find offensive?


Broadly speaking, what I find offensive is the fact that she's a woman in a refrigerator.

Whereas I do find it offensive that you characterise her nineteen year old self as a "china doll".


Since every single piece of imagery we get of her nineteen year old self is one of fragility and vulnerability, I stand by my phrase.

Whereas she then spent years being raped and abused, stuck in a situation where she had to use her sexuality as a tool for survival and advancement and a culture where violence and murder are commonplace, then remaining in that culture while denying her sexuality and attempting to present herself as something undesirable.


All of which are infuriating, offensive stereotypes.

The notion that women can only get on in the world by "using their sexuality" (whatever the hell that means) is a myth which fits in *exactly* with Frey's brand of misogynist bullshit. Notice we're never actually told how Trinica got to be captain, only that she "used her sexuality" and of course because she's a WOMAN and therefore has MAGIC WOMAN POWERS that's enough. Because apparently a group of people who will happily rape the shit out of you will also be totally awed by the mystery of your womanhood.

Trinica's entire backstory is founded on rape myths and misogynist bullshit. It is *impossible for her to exist* in a world in which a bunch of offensive, apologist bullshit about rape, sexuality and sexual power are not canonically true.

I'd find it really intrusive to have an explicit condemnation, and I think the text does challenge it by showing that Trinica is most definitely not a coward.


When?

Trinica is totally a coward. She's weak, pathetic and trapped. Hell you say as much yourself when you talk about how much worse off she is now than when she was an heiress. She's totally broken by everything that happens to her and transparently has nothing left to live for. She does dangerous shit, but that's because she's effectively dead already.


To close, I just reread the last chapter of the book and noticed something I didn't before this discussion. When Trinica has Frey (and his crew) at her mercy she lets him go with the following dialogue, which I think stands by itself:


You don't think maybe that was just a cheap cop-out to avoid having yet *another* improbable escape?

Whatever she says (after all, aren't you the one who insists that what characters say can't be taken at face value) her *entire life* still revolves around Frey. Her *entire purpose* in the book is to provide Frey with something to angst about.

She's an awful, stereotypical, insulting character.
Niall at 09:50 on 2010-09-18
Crake's chapters are full of his comments about how awful and common everybody else is, but it is extraordinarily clear from the way the book is written that we are supposed to disagree with him.


Can you pin down what the difference is? Ideally, I guess, with examples, which specific sentences you think make clear we're meant to disagree with Crake, the ones that are missing from Frey's chapters. I feel like we're getting a bit lost in the generalities, at this point.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:04 on 2011-06-18
Well, I've started on Dan's old copy of this book (Thanks again for shipping it to me!), and right now I'm in broad agreement with his assessment of Capt. Cockspank. I've read stuff that's worse than this (I'm looking at you, Stephen Hunt and George Mann), and I give Wooding credit for avoiding the creepy ultraviolence those guys like to delve into, but RF is really a shallow book. I've haven't run into Trinica yet, but I've got past Frey's encounter with Amalicia at the convent, and that whole sequence was pretty sophomoric.

Actually, this whole thing has started me wondering about how George Macdonald Fraser managed to make Flashman as much of a pig as Frey and still be a fun character to read about. Right now I'm juggling between Flashman's self-awareness, the fact that his transgressions always come back to bite him in the ass, and the simple fact that he's actually funny and has a brain or two in his head.

(On a side note, the story has me wondering yet again how vulnerable the "air pirate" pseudosubsubgenre is to technological progress. Most of the stuff I've seen never seems to stray much beyond the 1920s and 1930s tech-wise, so I'm wondering if this is a fantasy realm that can't survive in an era of radar, missiles, and jet engines.
Hey, I'm a child of alternate history. This is how we think, dammit!
)
On a side note, the story has me wondering yet again how vulnerable the "air pirate" pseudosubsubgenre is to technological progress. Most of the stuff I've seen never seems to stray much beyond the 1920s and 1930s tech-wise, so I'm wondering if this is a fantasy realm that can't survive in an era of radar, missiles, and jet engines.


It's probably possible, but you'd run the risk of jumping straight from "air pirates" to "space pirates" toting lasers that can vaporise half a mile of woodland countryside in the blink of an eye.
It's probably possible


I meant to put in "to write a novel featuring air pirates in a modernistic setting" right after that. Sorry, bit of an oversight on my behalf.
https://profiles.google.com/Iaculoid at 12:38 on 2011-06-18
You could probably take some cues from modern pirates, like the ones operating off the coast of Somalia. Our hypothetical air pirates would probably fly fast, stealthy, and heavily-customised craft up-gunned from civilian marques and 'liberated' from their country's collapsed military, forcing down every cargo plane and airliner that enters their airspace and ransoming off their crew and payloads to the parent countries.

All you'd need is a slight advance in aircraft technology and its general commercial availability, as a matter of fact.
Arthur B at 13:57 on 2011-06-18
All you'd need is a slight advance in aircraft technology and its general commercial availability, as a matter of fact.

Perhaps not even that. Posit a Cold War era proxy war in which the US or Soviets armed one side with an air force... let the proxy war (and the superpower funding) die off with the end of the Cold War, and have all of these planes sat there with nobody especially keen on asking for them back (because that'd mean admitting the superpower's level of involvement in the war) and no effectual government to take charge of them. Throw in a bunch of fighter pilots owed a heap of back pay and with families to clothe and feed and protect in the anarchy that the war has left behind.
https://profiles.google.com/Iaculoid at 16:46 on 2011-06-18
Indeed so. You'd even see several piratical conventions return with the aid of modern technology, like flying under false colours. Instead of, say, baiting in pirates with a lumbering freighter hiding a company of heavily-armed marines on board, you'd see stuff like military fighters using radar-reflectors to disguise themselves as juicy, tempting commercial aircraft.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:11 on 2011-06-21
Wow, you guys are all way more creative about modern air piracy that I am. I've toyed with the idea once or twice, but I just ended up decided that the precision machinery/know-how needed to keep modern planes going would be too much for a pirate outfit to afford. (Then again, I've rarely wondered about where airship pirates get their hydrogen/hydrogen knockoff, so maybe I'm being too close-minded here.)

Anyway, I've finished the book, and I've got to agree with the general consensus. I personally found that Frey's arc essentially read as a transition from a self-centered asshole to a self-promoting asshole (a.k.a. The Kirk09 Character Arc). I personally found Jez the most interesting character, though I felt she needed a meatier role (perhaps in a better book than the one she got stuck in).

One thing really irked me though, and it's something I haven't seen any other reviewers pick up on: the pilot Harkins. In the one chapter where he gets to be a viewpoint character, his interior monologue makes it clear that he's suffering from a pretty severe form of PTSD. And yet, his main purpose in the book is to be mocked for his "cowardice."

Not cool at all.
https://profiles.google.com/Iaculoid at 22:25 on 2011-06-21
Yeah, I think that if you're disputing modern air-pirate concepts on grounds of realism (particularly Arthur's very down-to-earth redundant-pilots scenario), then you probably need to ask yourself some serious questions about why there weren't vast fleets of corsair zeppelins floating above London in the '20s.

In fact, I'd say that some old Cold War-surplus jets in a camouflaged airbase actually seem easier to operate than some fancy pirate airship. Could be wrong, though - my experience with airships is... less than exhaustive.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 09:03 on 2011-06-22
I would think it is a question of familiarity. Airships have that air of classy obsoleteness about them, everybody knows they're not very practical as weapons of war and perhaps that whole slow ballooniousness makes them seem easier to supply and operate. Jet fighters on the other hand are well known as deadly and hugely expensive machines which require the financial capabilities of a nation state or a huge corporation to keep in the air. You also get the feeling that even if an airship has its problems, if it is filled and operational, it's quite autonomous; for example zeppelins flew to South America and back on a pleasure cruise. So a rogue airship, if it was armoured or whatever, could supply itself from the country side or land for a stop in different places, whereas a fighter needs a separate ground crew and all those facilities to remain operational from one day to the next.

So, airships could be more mobile basewise and thus it adds to the romance?
Vermisvere at 09:45 on 2011-06-22
Perhaps the airship could serve as a mobile base and lift-off point for the jet fighters - sort of like a modern-day aircraft carrier, only airborne. Throw in some anti-aicraft turrets to be manned by the crew against hostile jets and airships and you've more or less got your pirate airship of the future.

In short, a militarised version of this.
https://profiles.google.com/Iaculoid at 14:18 on 2011-06-22
Well, that'd certainly deal with the problem of having fixed, vulnerable airstrips on the ground for the military to demolish (though they'd best hope it's capable of landing planes of any size, or they'll still need somewhere to force their captives down onto). Plus it would serve as a convenient shorthand for 'hey, aircraft technology is really cheap and easy to use now!'.

Depends on how high-tech you want your air-pirates to be, I guess. Either daring, desperate wash-outs on a shoestring budget, or organised, brutally efficient criminals who are practically running a major corporate enterprise.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 14:21 on 2011-06-22
Or an upgrade on this.
Steve Stirling at 05:18 on 2011-07-13
I'm going to start by pointing out that having one female character out of seven is the worst possible option. Zero out of seven, and you have a setting in which women don't fly airships, which is absolutely fine. Put in exactly one, and you suddenly have a society where women are apparently perfectly accepted on the setting equivalent of the Spanish Main, but never the less you've only got one in your crew. Zero is a better number than one in this situation is all I'm saying.


-- not saying the book is good on male-female relations, but this bit is pretty accurate with respect to much of history. In other words, there -were- women pirates on the Spanish Main. Not many, but they existed, both in male disguise or 'disguise' and, still more rarely, as women.

And there was a well-known woman who became a captain in the Russian cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars, and was allowed to stay on by special order of the Czar after she was 'found out'.

The usual attitude was, inconsistently:

a) "everyone knows" that women are too weak, fragile and vulnerable to do this (for various values of 'this'), but;

b) Cynthia/Alice/Whoever is a good troop and we don't tell the Captain about her because she's hauling her weight and we need her, and besides she'd kill anyone who blabbed, like she did Frank.

In other words, women were present, but rarely; they weren't accepted, but could occasionally push their way in, with guile, luck, great ability and incredible determination.
Michal at 06:10 on 2011-07-13
There's only one thing I thought when I saw that cover:

Airship Pirate!
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