The Knife of Never Letting On

by Wardog

Wardog says no spackles, no Irish.
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The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book of the acclaimed ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy and another entrant in the increasingly over-populated category of young adult Dystopian fiction. (Incidentally I quite like the idea of young adult Dystopias being over-populated, soon the lesser Dystopias will be pulped and fed to other less Dystopias. Or perhaps the lesser Dystopias will have to fight each other to the death for shelf space. Okay, I’ve played this joke now haven’t I?) Given that the key trope of Dystopian fiction is basically a sucker punch, delivered without mercy, there is an extent to which we must also accept that it is the nature of Dystopian fiction to be manipulative. However, The Knife of Never Letting Go is so blatant in its manipulations and so profoundly unsubtle in every conceivable way that I couldn’t, in any honesty, say I actually enjoyed reading it. I was compelled by it, yes, but that isn’t the same thing. When I reviewed the first two books of Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price quartet, I remember being interested by the portrayal of manipulation in those texts. What I found intriguing was the idea that manipulation does not need to go unrecognized to be effective. As applied to The Knife of Letting Go, this basically meant I “fell for” all its tricks, even as I saw right through them, but also that knowing I was being manipulated by the text made no difference to its impact.

It seems to me that the difference between a piece of fiction being emotionally manipulative and emotionally effective is whether or not you think you can see the strings, and how much it matters to you if you can. And this is, of course, a very personal distinction. It is possible to argue that the death of Wash in Serenity, for example, was effective because it was so shockingly cruel and arbitrary; I, however, have always regarded it as rather cheap, firstly because I have little patience for that sort of justification and secondly because it was blatantly obvious that by that stage in the film Whedon didn’t need the character of Wash for anything other than generating pathos. Because of the highly individual nature of such judgment calls, I feel genuinely uncertain about my reaction to The Knife of Letting Go. I am not unable to see its merits – and it is, in many ways, a bold and powerful book – but I personally found it cheap and frustrating.

The hero (or, more accurately, protagonist) of The Knife of Letting Go is Todd Hewitt, the last boy in Prentisstown. Prentisstown is a settlement on New World, a planet colonized by people from Earth seeking a simpler, less corrupted life. However, New World was already inhabited by an alien race known to the colonists as the spackles, and, during the inevitable war, the spackles unleashed the Noise Germ, a biological weapon that killed all the women and made the men and animals broadcast their thoughts to each other. This outpouring of thoughts, images, words, emotions and fantasies is known as The Noise. And Todd tells us:
…the thing to remember, the thing that’s most important of all that I might say in this here telling of things is that Noise ain’t truth, Noise is what men want to be true, and there’s a difference twixt those two things so big that it could ruddy well kill you if you don’t watch out.

One month before he turns 13 – the point at which a boy in Prentisstown becomes a man - Todd encounters a strange area of silence in the swamp. This, of course, turns out be a girl and precipitates his flight from Prentisstown. The rest of the novel is basically one long chase. Todd and the girl, Viola, reel from security to danger and back again, propelled breathlessly from one event to the next. But gradually they come to understand each other, and Todd learns the dark truth of the world he inhabits. And also important lessons about, y’know, identity and manhood and all that jazz.

As I said above, there is good stuff in The Knife of Letting Go. It is most assuredly a stylish and gripping book. Todd, for example, has a very authentic voice. Here he is, at the beginning of the novel, thinking about his annoying dog:
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything…Ben’s sent me to pick him some swamp apples and he’s made me take Manchee with me, even tho we all know Cillian only bought him to stay on Mayor Prentiss’ good side and so suddenly here’s this brand-new dog as a present for my birthday last year when I never said I wanted any dog, that what I said I wanted was for Cillian to finally fix the fissionbike so I wouldn’t have to walk every forsaken place in this stupid town, but oh, no, happy birthday, Todd, here’s a brand new puppy, Todd, and even tho you don’t want him, even tho you never asked for him, guess who has to feed him and train him and wash him and take him for walks and listen to him jabber now he’s got old enough for the talking germ to set his mouth moving? Guess who?

"Poo," Manchee barks quietly to himself. "Poo, poo, poo."

And the characterization – even of the dog – is generally pretty deft. I liked Todd, and I liked Viola, who is just as tough as Todd, and smarter too, and the cute, noble-hearted talking dog was, of course, utterly irresistible. They other thing that is well-handled about the presentation of the characters is that their portrayal, along with the characteristics that receive emphasis, changes over the course of the book, as Todd learns more about himself, more about his world and more about the people who surround him. Equally, Todd’s relationship with Viola develops in a plausible way and the apotheosis of their friendship, when Todd realises that caring for someone is the key to knowing them, even if you can’t hear their Noise, is rather touching:
I can read it.
I can read her.
Cuz she’s thinking about how her own parents also came here with hope like my ma. She’s wondering if the hope at the end of our hope is just as false as the one that was at the end of my ma’s. And she;s taking the words of my ma and putting them into the mouths of her own ma and pa and hearing them say that they love her and they miss her and they wish her the world. And she’s taking the song of my pa and she’s weaving it into everything else till it becomes a sad thing all her own.
And it hurts her, but it’s an okay hurt, but it hurts still, but it’s good, but it hurts.
She hurts.
I know all this.
I know it’s true.
Cuz I can read her.
I can read her Noise even tho she ain’t got none.
I know who she is.
I know Viola Eade.

And, of course, since it is primarily a chase, it is an action-heavy and fast-paced book, through which a detailed world gradually emerges. It’s so fast-paced, in fact, that I felt almost exhausted by the time I got to the end, and there’s so little time to process the information we are given (when, finally, we are given it) that I can’t tell whether it was a deliberate attempt to make the reader feel as numb and drained as the characters or a genuine problem with the telling.

However, the fact remains that although I am capable of seeing what is good about the book I still couldn’t like it. The Knife of Letting Go is basically one of those guys, one of the ones you know is going to mess you around and treat you badly, but you just can’t stop shagging – even though you know better - because he’s so gosh-darned hawt. I’m going to go into some of my problems with the book now, and they are naturally going to be spoiler heavy. If you want to stop reading here, however, you can take away a reluctant and dubious recommendation for The Knife of Letting Go. He's a good lay but don’t come crying to me when it turns out the time he said he was at the launderette he was actually banging your sister.

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To Say Nothing of the Dog

He kills the damn dog.

It’s very affecting. I cried.

But I absolutely hated Ness for doing it, not simply because I liked the dog – as I was bloody well meant to – but because it’s just about the cheapest trick in a box of cheap tricks.

It’s obvious from the beginning of the book the dog is going to die.

He nearly dies a couple of times.

Then he does die.

Of course, I’m aware that is something to which people will respond very personally. And I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong in doing things to cause an emotional reaction in the reader but I found it both manipulative and cowardly. Especially since in a text otherwise replete with violence and cruelty, having the bad guy kill the cute talking animal side-kick is little more than the fastest, easiest way to evoke pathos and grief without hindering the plot. Humans do die as well but in a very off-pagey sort of way.

Tune in next episode

The book ends on an enormous cliff-hanger. Such an overwhelmingly enormous cliff-hanger than it practically invalidates the act of reading the book. It’s the equivalent of buying one third of a season of Lost. Again, I don’t have a general problem with books being the “first in a trilogy” or even with some aspects of a text remaining unresolved at the end but The Knife of Never Letting Go is not the first in a trilogy, it’s the first third one very long book. And yes, relationships develop, dogs are killed, truths are revealed, one bad guy is dealt with but it’s all so obviously part of a more important, bigger arc that there’s no point in reading The Knife of Letting Go without also committing the next two. And I know there’s an extent to which you can argue this is a problem with trilogies in general but usually some attempt has been made to give the act of reading the first book some meaning on its own. For example, although The Hunger Games is clearly the first book in a trilogy, there is just enough arc, development and closure in the text that you could read it and stop. The Knife of Never Letting Go gives you a big fuck all.

Just kill him already

Given that The Knife of Never Letting Go practically makes an art of the unsubtle, it should come as no surprise that the villains are a manipulative politico who is trying to make himself figuratively into a God, and an unkillable, frothing preacher man who pursues Todd relentlessly for the entire book, getting increasingly maimed but yet in a manner that doesn't seem to hinder him the slightest. There's a very horror-movie feel to Aaron the psycho preacherman – the first few you times you think he's dead only to have him pop up unexpectedly, with another piece of his face missing, are genuinely shocking and scary. By the midway point, however, it's all become a bit routine, and the repetition of the device has not only dulled the tension it has rendered the whole process somewhat ludicrous.

For symbolic and personal reasons I'll go into later, the text can't permit Todd to kill Aaron, and therefore he has to be evaded and incapacitated in increasingly awkward ways. He doesn't actually get an anvil dropped on his head from a balcony but it feels like you're getting close to it. And as much as I understand the need for a book to define, and stick to, its own symbolic and ethical framework I also think there's a point at which not killing the murderous nutcase who has been after you for 500 hundred pages becomes an act of gross stupidity. It's the equivalent of the head cheerleader in a slasher movie hitting the bad guy over the head with a vase and running away, thus giving him time to regain consciousness and dismember her later. I know this is required by the slasher-movie narrative but The Knife of Never Letting Go is a roadtrip-sci-fi-western-chase-story, and consistently leaving Aaron alive to continue to fuck everything up not only strains credulity it strains the story.

I’ll tell you everything but first…

There is a lot of artificial deferral in The Knife of Letting Go – the truth, when it finally comes out, is pretty much what you think, but it’s withheld from the reader in ways that are as cheap and frustrating as you might expect from this text. I mean, there are actually scenes in which somebody looks intensely at Todd, says it’s time to tell him the truth and, oh noes, at that precise second they get interrupted by people trying to kill them:
He lets out a breath. “It’s time you knew, Todd,” he says. “Time you knew the truth.”
There’s a snap of branches as Viola comes rushing back to us.
“Horses on the road,” she says, outta breath.

Oh come on! Seriously?! This happens over and over again. Over-using an over-used device is a lot of over-use.

What’s even more frustrating is that Todd learns the truth about halfway through the book and refuses to tell us because he doesn’t want to wreck the tension…I mean… because he doesn’t know how to express it.

Again, perhaps I’m being unfair, but this strikes me a fundamental violation of the ‘rules’ of first person present tense narration. This seems to the de rigeur technique for young adult Dystopias, and I can see it has advantages: it’s dramatic and immediate, allows for an original and potentially very informal voice, and keeps the reader restricted to the knowledge and understanding of the protagonist. It also means we share the journey and feel close to the character, learning things and feeling things alongside the hero or heroine, which makes the inevitable sucker punch of “oh my God, all the time we thought it was like this but actually it was like THAT!” all the more painful. Ness really does milk this to the absolutely maximum, constantly pumping up the tension, and revealing snippets of information here and there, but I think doing this while deliberately denying the reader information already known to the protagonist constitutes a betrayal of trust and an exploitation fo the style.

Cheap, Mr Ness. Cheap. Cheap. Cheap.

Girls and Aliens

The Knife of Letting Go is a basically a book about manhood and masculinity. It is very much Todd's coming-of-age, not Viola's, and there's an extent to which the book just isn't all that interested in her. She's a decent character, in spite of this, but whereas Todd Hewitt grows, learns and changes, Viola Eade just is. Again, this largely a result of the fact the book is entirely told from Todd's perspective, and when he first encounters her, although he can instinctively recognise a girl, she might as well be an alien for all the understanding he has of her. And she is, of course, qualitatively different from him: she has no Noise, which initially leads him to conclude there is nothing inside her at all.

As a metaphor, I think it works. Just as in young adult paranormal romance for girls the seductive and dangerous otherness of boys is captured in making them a werewolf, a vampire or a fairy, here we have the unfathomable nature of the teenage girl to the teenage boy reflected by the presence, and absence, of Noise. However, the thing that troubles me about this is that it is a difference that genuinely exists in the book, and one that moreover defines all men and all women. The thing about the vampire boyfriend is that it's about one girl and one boy, making it a very personal metaphor about the inaccessible otherness of specific guys you fancy. Not all guys in general. I mean these books aren't devoid of awkward gender stuff either but it's a different flavour of awkward gender stuff.

But in the The Knife of Letting Go, all women are very literally Other to all men, and much of the backdrop to the rest of the book only serves to reinforce this as we see communities of men and women finding ways to deal with these differences which, in the context of the text, are absolute and innate. There are examples of healthy relationships (although actually the relationship given the most page time and thought is, I think, between two men, at least it's very strongly implied they're a homosexual couple) but the preoccupation always seems to be with the power differential of women being able to hear the Noise of men, while broadcasting no Noise themselves. This whole setup is grounded in an unquestioned Mars/Venus worldview, with men being essentially straightforward brutes while women are complicated and inscrutable.

It reminds me of something I read on the internet once. During a discussion of female superheroes on, I think, Girls Read Comics (And They're Pissed), one commenter, afflicted with a terminal case of Nice Guy Syndrome, launched into an argument that, all things being equal, women simply wouldn't choose to be superheroes because they're “too sensible.” This is a beautiful example of somebody being profoundly offensive under the cover of deeply respecting women, man. And I got something of a similar vibe from The Knife of Letter Go. Women are solely defined in opposition to men: men are violent, women are not, men have Noise, women don't, men are simple, women are complicated, men have to work hard to understand women, women are instinctively able to understand men, and so on and so forth. Defining women purely through opposition with men is simply not okay, not even if you're saying they're better by comparison. It's equivalent of the Victorian notion that women were spiritually superior to men.

And given what happens to the women of Prentisstown (yeah, the men all kill them), what The Knife of Never Letting Go seems to be saying is that some men simply can't cope with the inherent unknowability and otherness of women. Thus we have a moral baseline in which not giving in to their own innately violent nature and killing a bunch of women is the best that can be hoped for from men. I know there's probably an extent to which I'm over-reacting to this, but it seems to me that the Noise Germ is not a metaphor for the extent to which a teenage boy feels women are an alien species, but a metaphor for the fundamental differences between the sexes. Relationships form when we overcome those differences, not when we learn that those differences are largely invented. The point is Todd learns to communicate with Viola despite the fact she has no Noise. He never comes to the conclusion that she is not from Venus. And this sort of unquestioned gender esentialism was genuinely problematic for me.


Killing In the Name Of

Another unquestioned assumption in The Knife of Never Letting Go concerns the intertwined nature of violence and manhood. A boy becomes a man in Prentisstown when he turns thirteen and kills for the first time. Todd spends the whole book rejecting this notion of masculinity forging for himself an adult identity that does not involve killing. My problems with this are very similar to my problems with the whole Women as Other theme: situating yourself in opposition to something else is predicated on acceptance of the original dichotomy. Thus women are Not-violent, and Not-Noisy (it rather reminds me of the Renassiance conception of female genitalia being characterised by an absence – a NoThing), and manhood becomes defined by killing or Not-killing. There is never any exploration of the idea that killing, or not killing, may simply be irrelevant to either manhood or adulthood.

The other irritating thing about Todd's refusal to kill is that he only gets away with it because Viola steps up to do the deed when things with Psycho Preacherman finally come to their inevitable, if much delayed, climax. It's pretty easy to take a moral stance, or indeed make something into a moral stance, if it doesn't actually interfere with your survival, or day to day life. I could take a moral stance against hoovering tomorrow – the hoover is an agent of the patriarchy, and as a woman I refuse to be oppressed – as long as I knew Dan was going to keep the carpets clean. Also, it's more than a little bit irritating that killing is massively definitive for Todd but Viola can throw someone off a cliff without batting an eye. Again, we come back to the gender essentialism: men are defined by violence, women by their lack of violence, so if a woman kills someone it doesn't matter, and doesn't affect her.

And, finally, of course, for all this hoo-hah over killing the local fundamentalist, nose-less psycho, Todd does actually murder someone in the middle of the book. He comes upon a Spackle, and, having been carefully taught to fear and hate, reacts on instinct and kills the poor guy stone dead. Needless to say, once he realises what he's done, he's pretty freaked about it but everybody else, and the novel as a whole, seems to disregard it. At least three people tell him basically it doesn't matter and it would be fair enough to see this as a reflection of the prejudices of the setting IF we weren't also expected to accept Todd's new definition of himself as a man-who-does-not-kill.

Since killing only counts if you're a woman or the victim doesn't look like you.

Ouch.
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 16:24 on 2011-03-06
I've not read this, but it sounds like the "I ain't gonna kill" thing would bother me too. It's easy to be a pacifist when your good buddy will do all that messy killing on your behalf.

Plus, maybe it's just that I've still got Elric on the brain, but it seems to me that it's just more interesting to take someone who lives by a simple and extremely reductive rule like "I won't kill" and then make them do it in a way which they can't deny or rationalise away than to let them live by that rule and let them actually succeed in not breaking it.
Niall at 20:43 on 2011-03-06
As you say, Knife is the first part of a long book, not a complete work, so having read the other two parts it's tricky to respond to your criticisms here - though I'm happy to if you'd like. What I will say is that the last two points are central issues in the series, and on Noise specifically I'd say that's one reason why it's important this story is science fiction, as opposed to fantasy - because in a science fiction universe all rules are local. In this case, as the presence of Viola points out, the distinction that obtains between men and women on New World is definitionally *not* innate, or natural; it's a consequence of this particular place. So I take it as a general metaphor for difference between men and women, as you do, but I take it very precisely as a metaphor for *constructed* difference.
Wardog at 23:12 on 2011-03-06
Firstly I don't like the idea that I have to read several books in order to "properly understand" one. I think a book should stand on its own - even if later books build on, and refine, what was initially presented. So if these criticisms arise from the fact I just didn't get it, I'm inclined to say it wasn't appropriately presented.

I don't mind spoilers incidentally - and I have no intention of reading the other two - so feel free to weigh right in.

I recognise that the Noise is a consequence of THAT germ and THAT place but I don't think you can divorce the specifics from the general by playing the "ah, it's science fiction" card. I mean he using THAT germ and THAT place to make more general points about the nature of men, and the nature of women, and the way they interact with each other.

The thing is - I can see your point, but to me it seems that it can't be about *constructed* difference because women literally ARE different in this world. They literally ARE unfathomable to men. And what we see through the relationships depicted in the book, as I said in the review, are not men and women recognising the fact that they aren't, in fact, utterly different, but finding ways to deal with the differences that are taken as read.

It's like Todd's relationship with Viola - he learns he doesn't have to hear her Noise to know her. But that's not the same as recognising that she is the same as he is.
Wardog at 23:19 on 2011-03-06
Also, I'm not sure I quite understand what this means: "because in a science fiction universe all rules are local."

I'm not a big sci-fi reader, admittedly, but generally I don't think you can look at ideas in isolation like that? I mean all fiction, whether it's set in an imaginary world or not, relates to the real world.

I mean, The Left Hand of Darkness is partially about what it would be like if you lived in a gender-neutral society but it's ALSO about our gender constructions in this world. If it was only the former it would be a lesser book for it.

And by the same token, I don't think you can look at the Noise Germ and say "oh that's only about what it would be like if women could really hear what men were thinking." Since there are plenty of people here and now, in this world, Ness among them apparently, who already genuinely believe that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

Weirdly it reminds me of all those old 60s Star Trek episodes in which they tried to make valuable points about black people by using aliens as allegorical substitutes. No matter if the message is "we should respect these aliens and not kill them" you still ultimately have some members of the human race presented as green frog people. Which is not okay.

And I think it's a moral copout to turn round and say "oh no, no no, we're not reinforcing the otherness of human beings by associating them literally with a different, and potentially funny looking species, it's specifically about the political situation on Sigma VIII."
Dan H at 23:25 on 2011-03-06
in a science fiction universe all rules are local


Umm, according to whom?

Surely the point of science fiction is that it's in some way grounded in science, and surely one of the major defining features of science is that it's sort of universal.

the distinction that obtains between men and women on New World is definitionally *not* innate, or natural; it's a consequence of this particular place


Umm, unless it comes out in a later book that somebody *deliberately* went around and injected all the women with something so that they would react to the Noise differently, then how does the fact that men and women have a *fundamentally different reaction on a physiological level* count as a "constructed" difference.

To put it another way, I think you're putting the metaphor one level lower down than Kyra is - if I'm understanding you right, you're suggesting that the fact that men and women react to the noise differently is just a fact of the setting, but then the way in which the men in the world react to this is a metaphor for the way society reacts to artificially constructed gender stereotypes. This just doesn't seem like a coherent reading to me (whether "all rules are local" or not is neither here nor there).
Arthur B at 23:53 on 2011-03-06
I think the big thing here is that, yes, whilst it's undeniable that the Noise affects men and women differently, it's also undeniable that it works that way because Ness decided to make it work that way.

You can analyse the way the society he depicts reacts to that one way or another, but that doesn't change the fact Ness created a situation where they had to react to it. He made the rules of the game, and the rules of the game (as explained here) seem stacked to reinforce gender essentialism.
Niall at 00:56 on 2011-03-07
Firstly I don't like the idea that I have to read several books in order to "properly understand" one.

Eh, I'm agnostic. You're right, it's not unfair to criticise book one in isolation for being problematic for reasons X, Y and Z ... I just don't think it's particularly interesting to do that, when it's clear that book one is not a complete artistic statement, it's only a convenience of marketing and publishing.

The first key spoiler is that book two has two narrators, Todd and Viola, and book three has three narrators, Todd, Viola, and a Spackle. So the series continually expands its (and Todd's) worldview; by the end of the series it's quite clear that Todd's murder of the Spackle is a murder, for instance. (Although the idea of Todd as The Boy Who Does Not Kill continues to be pushed, if in a more problematised fashion.) The second key spoiler is that the Mayor has a cure for noise; the third key spoiler is that the other colonists turn up, they don't have Noise when they arrive but the men catch it, and they look into their own kind of cure. And it's also revealed in the third volume that women can be given Noise, although this isn't followed up on as much as I might have liked.

"All rules are local" was hasty and badly phrased. To try to unpack it a bit more, what I mean is something like: a science fictional setting implies a connection to our present, and in turn implies a universe larger than the individual story being told. There is always an implicit "things can be different." Fantasy settings -- or I should say, the disconnected secondary world type of fantasy setting -- are more absolutist. What there is of a fantasy universe is as much as an author wants to show us. There is no necessary connection between this difference and the political content of a story, but there is a connection in this case. Right from the start, the very presence of Viola seemed to me to challenge the apparent essentialism of the setting -- she *proves* that things are different elsewhere -- and that challenge is only made more explicit and thorough as the books unfold.

To address Dan's point:

Umm, unless it comes out in a later book that somebody *deliberately* went around and injected all the women with something so that they would react to the Noise differently, then how does the fact that men and women have a *fundamentally different reaction on a physiological level* count as a "constructed" difference.


It seems to me that there are actual biological/physiological/biochemical differences between men and women, and that a lot of real-world sexism is rooted in exaggeration and distortion of the importance of those differences. Ness is playing with that notion, speculating that there is some biological difference that is inconsequential outside New World but massively consequential on New World, and then progressively revealing that even in the context of New World it's not nearly as absolute as it seems, and that much of its consequentiality comes from human action and choice.

(I'm actually trying to remember whether or not the Spackle deliberately infected humans in an attempt to communicate. I think it's floated as a theory at one point but proves to be wrong? Or it may just have been something I speculated as I was reading the books.)
Arthur B at 01:02 on 2011-03-07
Eh, I'm agnostic. You're right, it's not unfair to criticise book one in isolation for being problematic for reasons X, Y and Z ... I just don't think it's particularly interesting to do that, when it's clear that book one is not a complete artistic statement, it's only a convenience of marketing and publishing.

How is that relevant? All sorts of works have ended up horribly compromised as a result of conveniences of marketing and publishing. Should we not point out that they are, in fact, compromised as a result?

Niall at 01:13 on 2011-03-07
That's why I'm agnostic. It should be pointed out. But I personally find it hard to care that much, if the overall work is coherent.
Niall at 01:15 on 2011-03-07
Also, and entirely unrelated to the current thrust of the discussion, I meant to comment on this:

It seems to me that the difference between a piece of fiction being emotionally manipulative and emotionally effective is whether or not you think you can see the strings, and how much it matters to you if you can. And this is, of course, a very personal distinction.


And say, yes, absolutely, this is very well expressed. I don't mind seeing the strings. I'd even go so far as to say I can admire a good set of strings! But Ness is very transparently a manipulative writer. The other two books in the trilogy aren't chases -- they're more of a war story -- but they're very nearly as obvious in their ploys.
Arthur B at 01:20 on 2011-03-07
But I personally find it hard to care that much, if the overall work is coherent.

Personally, I don't give a toss whether the overall work is coherent: if I have to wade through shit in order to see the coherence, I'd rather not bother.
Dan H at 10:39 on 2011-03-07
"All rules are local" was hasty and badly phrased. To try to unpack it a bit
more, what I mean is something like: a science fictional setting implies a
connection to our present, and in turn implies a universe larger than the
individual story being told. There is always an implicit "things can be
different."


I don't think that's particularly true.

I mean yes it's obviously the case that a lot of science fiction is about exploring possibilities rather than certainties, but it's still rooted in a set of basic assumptions about how the world works. Star Trek for example, is based around Gene Rodenberry's idea of what a perfect future society would look like and because of this there is no room within the text to explore the idea that his society may be far from perfect.

To put it another way, I think you're taking an over-literal interpretation of the interaction between a fictional world and the real world. You seem to be arguing that because a science fiction novel is supposed to be connected to the real world, that we can therefore assume that the text encompasses and is aware of all of the subtleties and complexities of the real world. This seems silly. The vast majority of fiction is set in the real world, does that mean that - for example - we can't complain about 24 having an extremely trigger-happy attitude to torture, on the grounds that it's set in the real world, and some people in the real world *don't* have that attitude to torture?

It seems to me that there are actual biological/physiological/biochemical
differences between men and women, and that a lot of real-world sexism is rooted
in exaggeration and distortion of the importance of those differences.


I see that. Where I think we disagree is that I believe "women and men are so fundamentally different that an alien germ produces radically different physiological and psychological effects on people depending on their sex" *does* constitute an exaggeration and distortion of the importance of those differences.

Ultimately there's some room for legitimate disagreement here, but what Kyra is objecting to is the fact that tKoNLG treats the innate differences between men and women as something which *concretely exist* when she belives they don't (and I would happen to agree with her).

To put it another way: if you were to read a book about a virus which turned black people (and only black people) into mindless savages that went around raping and devouring white women, then I don't think you could really claim that the book was "exploring socially constructed ideas about race".
Wardog at 11:21 on 2011-03-07
I think it's probably quite difficult to discuss Ness's book without, y'know, having read the book...

You're right, it's not unfair to criticise book one in isolation for being problematic for reasons X, Y and Z ... I just don't think it's particularly interesting to do that, when it's clear that book one is not a complete artistic statement, it's only a convenience of marketing and publishing.


Again, I think this is a complicated issue. I think providing a coherent artistic statement within the limitations of the medium in which you have chosen to make that statement is, well, it's what an artist does. And I don't think it's necessarily uninteresting to analyse a text *for what it is* rather than *what it will be* or *what you think the author meant it to be*; sorry to get all Barthes about it but I don't think it's my role to assemble the artistic statement. I think it's my role to evaluate the artistic statement as presented to me.

In terms of the rules being local - I think I get what you're saying but I'm not sure I'm on board with it :) I'd probably just be slightly wary, on principle, on trying to define that science fiction works like this, and fantasy works like that. I just don't think it's possible to divorce the story being told from the context in which it was written.

And perhaps Viola becomes more a challenge in the other two books but I actually read her as largely supporting the essentialism of the setting. As I said in the review, all Todd seems to learn that the fact women are inherently and absolutely difference is not necessarily a problem for getting on with them.

At the end of the first book the "truth" about the Germ was that it was a naturally occurring virus on New World. I don't know if this "truth" gets later modified.

But Ness is very transparently a manipulative writer. The other two books in the trilogy aren't chases -- they're more of a war story -- but they're very nearly as obvious in their ploys.


I'm conscious that my bad-reaction to this text was pretty personal. I mean the thing that bothered me over and above what I suspect was skeevy gender and spackle politics was the blatant manipulation. I guess that shows I have dodgy priorities but knowing Ness was taking me for a ride and didn't give a damn genuinely hindered my pleasure in the story.

Given what you've said here, it's probably for the best I've resolved not to read the next two :)
Niall at 12:07 on 2011-03-07
Dan:

I don't think that's particularly true.


Evidently. But we've been round similar houses before, and I don't think we're going to convert each other to different ways of reading at this point! In any case, the general argument isn't necessary for my specific argument about Chaos Walking.

Where I think we disagree is that I believe "women and men are so fundamentally different that an alien germ produces radically different physiological and psychological effects on people depending on their sex" *does* constitute an exaggeration and distortion of the importance of those differences.


No, we agree on that. Where *I* think we disagree is in what the argument that develops from the fact of that difference is.

There are innate biological differences between male and female human beings. (There are also intersex human beings, different again.) What's up for debate is the extent of these biological differences, and the extent to which they shape behaviour -- how "men" and "women" are created. I agree with you that the evidence strongly suggests that, in our world, the differences are limited, any shaping effect of biology is small, and on an individual level outweighed both by other genetic variation and by social influences.

What Ness has done is create a situation where a new biological factor shifts the balance. What he has not done is change the underlying perception: ultimately, there is a balance between social and biological factors, and ultimately the social outweighs even the enlarged biological difference.

Kyra:

I think it's my role to evaluate the artistic statement as presented to me.


I agree. But I don't see Knife as a complete artistic statement. The artistic statement as presented to you encompasses the other two volumes as well. Neither publisher nor author tries to hide the fact that Knife is not a complete work. (Put another way, it's entirely possible that we're both correct -- that Knife is problematic and that Chaos Walking is coherent.)

In other words, I read Knife as setting up starting positions, not making definitive statements -- I felt there was too much up in the air at the end of book one to say where the text was going to come down on all these issues. Although obviously I felt there were indications in the text about where it was going to go. On that point:

As I said in the review, all Todd seems to learn that the fact women are inherently and absolutely difference is not necessarily a problem for getting on with them.


I take "I can read her Noise even tho she ain’t got none" as a recognition that the difference of Noise is superficial, actually. But I don't think that's the main way Viola undermines the apparent essentialism, because we know Todd's perception and understanding of the situation is limited. What's important to me is simply the fact of her presence. (Which is where I got sidetracked into the general argument above.) Viola is a constant reminder that New World is a limited, distinct space, and that the constructions of "men" and "women" there are not universal constructions. (Which is a larger barrier to Todd understanding Viola? The fact that she doesn't have Noise, or the fact that she's from a different planet?) It's a matter of when the other colonists are going to arrive, not if. From my point of view, ignoring this is to divorce the story from its context. That larger context is part of the story from the start.

(I went to see if the Tiptree judges made any useful comments about why they gave this book an award; they often do, but not really this time.)

I guess that shows I have dodgy priorities


I don't think so; as you say, it's a personal preference. I don't think there's a right or wrong there.
Wardog at 12:48 on 2011-03-07
But I don't see Knife as a complete artistic statement. The artistic statement as presented to you encompasses the other two volumes as well. Neither publisher nor author tries to hide the fact that Knife is not a complete work


Well, no, it's obviously not a complete artistic statement but, nevertheless, in *being a book* it is expected to constitute one. Again, I'm not trying to define arbitrarily what a book should be but only reading the first book of the Chaos Walking Trilogy is *not* equivalent to, I don't know, only choosing to look at half the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is kind of the equivalent to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel being spread across two different chapels, in different countries.

As I said, I think it's reasonable for future installments of a trilogy to refine on an theme or present new ideas, or a different take on old ideas, but equally if you want to argue that my interpretation of the events presented to me in one book is *factually incorrect* because of later elucidation in a later book ... that strikes me as a problem in the telling, not the reading.

Equally, an argument that you should read the next two in order to be permitted to have a valid opinon during discussions strikes me as simply another layer of meta-textual manipulation.

I take "I can read her Noise even tho she ain’t got none"


Again, I read the same problem into this as I did Todd's unquestioning acceptance of the binary of man-who-kills / man-who-does-not-kill. We're still always operating within the structure: man and not-man, violence and non-violence, noise and not-noise.

Viola is a constant reminder that New World is a limited, distinct space, and that the constructions of "men" and "women" there are not universal constructions.


Yes, but even in the distinct space of New World, Ness's constructions are still informed by the constructions of *this* world. It's all very well to *attempt* to write a story, as I believe he does with Todd and Viola, about a relationship between a man and a woman that is not founded on preconceived notions about gender and the relations between the sexes. I believe he fails in this - not least because I think Knife does reinforce the gender-essentialism of his setting.

And because as much as you argue that it is important not to divorce the story from its context, it is equally important not to divorce the text from the context in which it was written. Trying to do something is not the same as actually doing it. And one of the massive massive problems in trying to present a world without constructions of gender is that we are, of course, at the mercy of our own.
Niall at 13:13 on 2011-03-07
It is kind of the equivalent to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel being spread across two different chapels, in different countries.


I guess I just don't get this. The number of sets of covers is entirely arbitrary, as far as I can see. Plenty of sf books get split into two volumes against the ideal wishes of the authors (The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe, for example; Mary Gentle's Ash, in the US). It's almost routine for large fantasies to be published in one volume in hardback and two in paperback these days; the same happened to Peter F Hamilton's space operas in the US. The Lord of the Rings gets published in one volume, or three, or six. It's clear from the text itself what the complete work is, so that's what I tend to default to. In the case of Chaos Walking, clearly Ness did write to a publishing schedule that chopped the story into three parts. But equally clearly (at least, so it seems to me) that division is arbitrary.

an argument that you should read the next two in order to be permitted to have a valid opinon during discussions


Well, that's why I said we can both be right. An American reader who thinks the first book of Ash raises issues that it doesn't resolve is not wrong; but a British reader who thinks everything raised at the start of Ash is beautifully paid off at the end isn't wrong, either.

I'm not sure I see what you're getting at in the last part either, I'm afraid. I don't think Chaos Walking is a story about a relationship between a man and a woman that is not founded on contemporary preconceived notions about gender; I think it is in part a story that is absolutely founded on those notions -- that appears to embed them in reality -- and then confronts them and starts to break them down. So I'm not sure how my reading is divorced from the context in which the story was written; to the contrary, I think Chaos Walking is more consciously and directly engaged with the contemporary world around us than most sf I've read in the last five years. But I think the existence and origin of Viola, and the larger fictive universe she implies, is vital for that reading.
Arthur B at 13:25 on 2011-03-07
Plenty of sf books get split into two volumes against the ideal wishes of the authors (The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe, for example; Mary Gentle's Ash, in the US). It's almost routine for large fantasies to be published in one volume in hardback and two in paperback these days; the same happened to Peter F Hamilton's space operas in the US. The Lord of the Rings gets published in one volume, or three, or six.

Speaking with regards to The Wizard Knight and Lord of the Rings, though, although the individual parts are clearly components of a whole they're also (as far as I'm concerned) good and enjoyable reads whose flaws aren't sufficient to dissuade me from reading the rest. Sure, the individual books might not completely stand on their own, but they should at least pull their weight in maintaining the reader's interest.

Also, if I learned anything from Text Factor, it's that reading the first third or so of a work is usually a good pointer as to whether you're going to like the last two thirds. The way Chaos Walking's structured just leaves more tangible jumping-off points where the reader can stop and consider whether they want to keep going - reading the rest of the series involves buying or borrowing the next volumes rather than simply turning the page and continuing.
Dan H at 13:25 on 2011-03-07
No, we agree on that. Where *I* think we disagree is in what the argument that
develops from the fact of that difference is.


Not quite, I think that where we disagree is that you view the "fact of that difference" as independent of the argument, whereas I view it as part *of* the argument. Or to put it another way, the book *might well* be arguing that the innate biological differences between men and women are unimportant in the overall scheme of things, but what I'm objecting to is the bald assertion that those differences exist in the first place.

I think we basically agree on what the argument of the book is, roughly it's something like: "to what extent does it matter that women are predisposed to be more caring, intuitive and non-violent than men?" Even if the answer it comes out with is "not at all" that doesn't change the fact that the argument itself is grounded in an assumption I don't actually buy.

You only get to ask "to what extent does it matter that X" once you have established categorically that X is the case. You can't write a book that's based around the question "how much does it matter that black people are less intelligent than white people?" and not have some people annoyed at the terms of the question.
Niall at 13:39 on 2011-03-07
Arthur:

they should at least pull their weight in maintaining the reader's interest.


Well, there's no doubt Ness's books do that, pace the discussion about manipulation above.

Dan:

it's that reading the first third or so of a work is usually a good pointer as to whether you're going to like the last two thirds


Mmm. I find this is true for bad books, much less true for good ones. Which is inconvenient, I know.

the book *might well* be arguing that the innate biological differences between men and women are unimportant in the overall scheme of things, but what I'm objecting to is the bald assertion that those differences exist in the first place.


You can't possibly actually mean this at face value, unless you didn't study any biology in school, or are using "biological differences" to mean something very different to what I understand it to mean.

I'd phrase Chaos Walking's question as something more like, "How do we get past what the world around us constantly tells us are fundamental differences?" I can certainly see feeling like you're already past the point at which that would be a useful question to ask. On the other hand, this is a book written for a young adult audience.

(The idea that the question might be "to what extent..." actually made me laugh out loud. There's no way Chaos Walking thinks women are predisposed to be more caring, or men are predisposed to be more warlike. The war in books two and three falls along gender lines, and characters on both sides display the full range of human behaviour.)
Arthur B at 13:42 on 2011-03-07
Mmm. I find this is true for bad books, much less true for good ones. Which is inconvenient, I know.

Do you want to cite a few good books whose first third or so are actually kind of lousy? Because to be honest, I can't think of any. I can think of plenty that have a fairly slow buildup, but even there quality shows.
Niall at 13:52 on 2011-03-07
I can't think of any books that are technically incompetent in the first third that then improve dramatically. I can think of plenty that didn't click with me in the first third, or which seemed to be going in directions that I didn't care for, and then came around and ended up impressing me: Light by M John Harrison; The Prestige by Christopher Priest; Graceling; Acacia by David Anthony Durham; The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway; Justina Robson's Quantum Gravity series (final volume at the top of the TBR, so opinion may be revised again, of course) ... which is why I very rarely abandon books. But of course we run into the problem that "lousy" is entirely subjective -- I don't think Chaos Walking falls into this category, and I suspect most of you loved Graceling from the first page, whereas it felt awfully thin and cliche to me to start with, and only the number of recommendations I'd received induced me to continue with it. (And they were right, of course.)
Wardog at 13:59 on 2011-03-07
I certainly wouldn't deny Knife is *interesting* - it's just manipulatively interesting :)

I guess I just don't get this. The number of sets of covers is entirely arbitrary, as far as I can see. Plenty of sf books get split into two volumes against the ideal wishes of the authors (The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe, for example; Mary Gentle's Ash, in the US).


No, I know this - but I guess there are two different issues at stake here, one about the literalities of publishing a book, and one about the nature of what a book is. I mean I know one of George RR Martin's books got split into two because it was so big paper couldn't cope but that's not the same as how Knife functions as an artefact in its own right. I mean The Fellowship of the Rings is *entirely* readable in its own right - yes there's obviously a lot more to come, but, y'know, it has beginning and middle and end. I obviously have no insight into the publication of Chaos Walking, or Ness's writing schedule, and actually I have no insight either: as far as I'm concerned if you publish a book it should have some validity as a book, even if it's not a complete plot arc.

It's a bit like TV shows when every episode, and every season, does nothing but contribute to a wider arc - you feel a bit cheated, and the show feels shallow. But generally what happens in arc-based television (BSG, The Sopranos) is that you get a coherently satisfying story AND a contribution to a wider arc, and the way the two inserct is interesting and engaging.

Knife is all arc, and fuck all else.

I'm not sure I see what you're getting at in the last part either, I'm afraid. I don't think Chaos Walking is a story about a relationship between a man and a woman that is not founded on contemporary preconceived notions about gender;


This was a tangential musing - basically when Todd meets Viola he has never met a woman, never seen a man interact with a woman, and therefore has no idea what the relationship between a man and woman might be like. So there is an extent to which their relationship, as it develops, is (or should be, or could be) de-anchored from an established social or cultural setting. I'm not saying that this is what Knife is "about" - I'm just saying it's an aspect of the text.

I think it is in part a story that is absolutely founded on those notions -- that appears to embed them in reality -- and then confronts them and starts to break them down


Again, I don't really see that in action - to me I only see people working about unquestioned difference rather than breaking down the difference.

There's no way Chaos Walking thinks women are predisposed to be more caring, or men are predisposed to be more warlike. The war in books two and three falls along gender lines, and characters on both sides display the full range of human behaviour.


Again, I don't quite see that. I mean, how does that work with the fact Todd cannot kill Aaron because he must be The Man Who Does Kill, whereas Viola can. That seems to me to reinforce the notion that violence is central to the definition of man, but not to a woman. Equally what about the role of Todd's *grotesquely saccharine* mother, being all "I wuv you, darling, I wuv you so much, and teh world is beautiful and the sun is shining and I have a vague sense we're all going to get horribly murdered but no, that's not going to happen because everybody is fundamentally nice and the world is so beautiful and did I say I wuv you so much yet?" in the diary.

I mean Todd's mother's diary is the only authentic, unmediated female voice we hear in the whole book and it's practically a parody of the care-giving woman. I'm not saying she should be all "hey, you in my womb, i hate you" or anything but it is presented as this extreme opposition to all the horrible violent men going around killing each other.
Arthur B at 14:11 on 2011-03-07
I can think of plenty that didn't click with me in the first third, or which seemed to be going in directions that I didn't care for, and then came around and ended up impressing me: Light by M John Harrison; The Prestige by Christopher Priest; Graceling; Acacia by David Anthony Durham; The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway; Justina Robson's Quantum Gravity series (final volume at the top of the TBR, so opinion may be revised again, of course) ... which is why I very rarely abandon books.

But presumably even before they "clicked" with you they had you intrigued and interested enough to keep going, right? You didn't just keep slogging on thinking "I hate this I hate this I hate this I hate this oh! Now I like it!", did you?
Niall at 14:13 on 2011-03-07
therefore has no idea what the relationship between a man and woman might be like


Er, doesn't he have the Noise of the men in his village having blasted him for years with horribly distorted images of what the relationship between a man and a woman might be like? He may be aware intellectually that Noise ain't true, but emotionally and psychologically he's not.

That seems to me to reinforce the notion that violence is central to the definition of man, but not to a woman.


Two thoughts here: first, an expectation of violence *is* something men have to confront growing up; to that extent, violence *is* central to our culture's definition of what makes a man. It shouldn't be, but culturally, it is. Given that Chaos Walking isn't a wipe-the-slate-clean story (in contrast to, say, Graceling), that has to be factored into its initial givens.

Second, the number of characters increases dramatically in books two and three. This helps make it clear that what violence/non-violence is actually central to is the definition of *Todd*, and that Todd is not all men. (Equally, nurturing/women/Todd's mother/Viola becoming a narrator in book two.) I mean, once again I'd argue these things are there embryonically in Knife -- Ben is a man but violence is not a central part of his definition, ditto the guy who gives them a ride on his cart, and you have Hildy (I'm fuzzy on the names, but the woman Todd initially assumes is a man because she has a gun) and Viola to counterpoint Todd's mother for ideas of women -- but having more characters around certainly makes things clearer.
Niall at 14:15 on 2011-03-07
You didn't just keep slogging on thinking "I hate this I hate this I hate this I hate this oh! Now I like it!", did you?


Yes, I did. Several of those were award nominees -- I wanted to see what others had seen in them, or at least have a fully informed opinion of my own. Others were for review.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 14:17 on 2011-03-07
I don't want to interrupt anyone's conversation, but I just thought I'd point out that my reaction to The Knife of Never Letting Go was very similar to Kyra's, and that Niall and I had a very similar conversation in the comments to my post about it.

On the whole, I'm more positive towards Knife than Kyra and, if memory serves, a lot less positive towards The Hunger Games, which I discuss in the same review. As Kyra says, the success or failure of the novel comes down to whether its manipulation works for you, and for me Ness was successfully manipulative while Collins wasn't. I do think it's significant that the two sequels give Viola and the Spackles a voice, but that doesn't negate the fact that Knife buys into the otherness of women - I haven't read the concluding volume, Monsters of Men, yet, but The Ask and the Answer seems to leave the issue of the nature of women by the wayside. It is, as Niall says, a war story, and more concerned with how Todd and Viola deal with being prisoners of war (Viola becomes a terrorist, Todd becomes a collaborator). It's as if Ness thinks that having given Viola a voice completely addresses the otherness with which she's viewed in Knife, which I don't think it does.
Arthur B at 14:23 on 2011-03-07
Yes, I did. Several of those were award nominees -- I wanted to see what others had seen in them, or at least have a fully informed opinion of my own. Others were for review.

OK, I think this just comes down to personal tastes here. For me, if a book has me thinking "I hate this this is dull why don't you fucking shut up stupid author" for a third of it I tend to hold that against it, even if the last two thirds end up being good. No mercy, no second chances, an eye for an eye, blood calls out for blood, etc.

Sometimes multi-part works are structured that you can actually pick and choose what you want to take from them - see my Elric review where I tell people to ditch about three-quarters of the series because it's unworthy of the quarter that remains. Sometimes they just aren't; you can't just watch two out of the six episodes of the original Edge of Darkness and expect that to form a coherent and satisfying experience.

A friend once told me "If you put piss in wine, you get piss; if you put wine in piss, you get piss." I just don't have the time or the energy these days to slog through a book of which a third is made of tedium and dull based solely on the promise of good stuff being just around the corner; no matter how fine the wine is, that doesn't change the fact I'm being asked to drink piss with it.
Niall at 14:24 on 2011-03-07
I'd forgotten that discussion! Interesting, especially since I'd only read Knife at that point.
Niall at 14:26 on 2011-03-07
OK, I think this just comes down to personal tastes here.


Indeed. For me it's more like acquiring a taste -- when I do these sorts of re-evaluations, it's usually not the case that I end up thinking the first third was terrible but the end was great; rather I end up thinking the whole is good, and I just didn't get what the first third was doing.
Wardog at 14:32 on 2011-03-07
Er, doesn't he have the Noise of the men in his village having blasted him for years with horribly distorted images of what the relationship between a man and a woman might be like?


No, fair point. But, again, we have that sort of Noise if you like around us all the time *now* but it we also have specific demonstrations of relationships between men and women going on. I mean people see their parents before they seen pornography. I would hope.

Two thoughts here: first, an expectation of violence *is* something men have to confront growing up; to that extent, violence *is* central to our culture's definition of what makes a man.


Okay, now I'm really confused. Doesn't that go against the all rules are local principle you were stating earlier? I mean, yes, I do there is a perception in our culture that Men Are For Violence, and that this is somehow innate to being a man. But this looks a little bit like you're saying what our culture says about men is relevant to interpreting this text but what our culture says about women is not because of the specifics of the situation.

But, regardless, this continues to niggle at me for being problematic in that accepts the dichotomy as presented by the surrounding culture. I mean even though it is just the definition of Todd it is still a definition entirely reliant on the presence, or absence, of violence. Thus violence is still utterly central in Todd's understanding of himself as a man, and thus to the concept of men as a whole.

It never seems to occur to anyone that violence might be irrelevant. Or equally relevant, or irrelevant, to women.

And about Ben and Cillian - they are, once again, defined by violence or the absence of it, specifically they can't fight in Prentisstown to protect the women because, instead, they have to protect Todd. They're both - Cillian in particular - consequently shown to be quite messed up about this. Obviously Ben and Cillian aren't around very much, although I always kind of liked Cillian, so it's hard to analyse them but I think there's an implication that not fighting is not just against their moral codes, it's against their natures.

With regard to books getting better, this is an entirely frivolous point but I sometimes fear you (as in one, not you personally) get a sort of Stockholm syndrome if you force yourself through a text you're not enjoying. The thing is, if you read 500 pages of rubbish you hated, you either have to accept the fact you, in essence, wasted your time OR convince yourself the book had some value after all. There is something quite liberating in decided not to finish a book - although I'm not nearly as good at it as I would like.
Arthur B at 14:35 on 2011-03-07
See, I take the view that even if I'm not sure what the first third of a book is getting at, it still shouldn't be boring or irritating me whilst it's doing it. And if you enjoy the first third of a book better once you know what's going on, that's an argument for letting the reader in on what's going on at the start so they can get that enjoyment on the first go-around. Life is short and time is precious, too precious to reread 500 page tomes to reappraise them in the light of something revealed on page 499.
Niall at 14:46 on 2011-03-07
Doesn't that go against the all rules are local principle you were stating earlier?


No, it's pretty much a restatement of what I meant -- that in setting Knife on another planet, with an intrusive reminder that it is only one planet, Ness is pointing out that the rules of that planet (and by extension our contemporary rules) are not the only rules there can be. That goes for the female characters as much as the male. I expressed myself even less clearly than I thought!

It never seems to occur to anyone that violence might be irrelevant.


Well, that's because they're not living at a time and a place where that's an option; life on New World is structured by violence, and you have to reject violence before it can become irrelevant. If you want to chalk this up as another example of Ness being manipulative, I'm happy to do that.
Wardog at 14:59 on 2011-03-07
No, it's pretty much a restatement of what I meant


I have a feeling we're simply not going to meet in the middle on this one :/ But trying acknowledging that "things do not have to be this way" does not change the fact that Ness has essentially presented a world in which things are problematically (to me) like this world, and he has done this without any awareness of it. I think maybe it comes down to this: you think Ness is questioning the slightly skeevy gender essentialism of his setting through the Noise device and I think he is reinforcing our own ideas of slightly skeevy gender essentialism by the way he has deployed the Noise device.

Well, that's because they're not living at a time and a place where that's an option; life on New World is structured by violence, and you have to reject violence before it can become irrelevant.


Sorry, irrelevant to personal identity. My turn to suck at articulation.
Niall at 15:08 on 2011-03-07
I think maybe it comes down to this: you think Ness is questioning the slightly skeevy gender essentialism of his setting through the Noise device and I think he is reinforcing our own ideas of slightly skeevy gender essentialism by the way he has deployed the Noise device.


More or less, yes. I'm planning to re-read the whole trilogy soon, though -- I've only read them all once -- and I'll be bearing this discussion in mind when I do.

Sorry, irrelevant to personal identity


I don't think that makes much of a difference? I still don't think Todd the space or the experience to even consider that a possibility. Which may be your point.
Wardog at 15:16 on 2011-03-07
@Wrongquestions

Oh, you expressed that so much better than I did...

Actually looking Knife in the context of The Hunger Games is actually fascinating - for me it was very much the other way round, Ness was unsuccessfully manipulative, and Collins was successfully so. But, yes, that's largely personal.

I also think Collins got away with more because I glutted myself on YA Dystopias after The Hunger Games. I think I read that trilogy, and then Uglies (which I disliked - urgh), and so I came to Ness basically in a bad mood with the genre.
Wardog at 15:23 on 2011-03-07
Which may be your point.


At this stage, I'm even starting to wonder what my point was :D
Dan H at 19:09 on 2011-03-07

You can't possibly actually mean this at face value, unless you didn't study any biology in school, or are using "biological differences" to mean something very different to what I understand it to mean.


I'm using it to mean "specific, biological differences related to specific, identifiable parts of the body or genetic structure *which account for gendered behaviour stereotypes*".

Obviously there are biological differences between men and women in the same way that there are biological differences between tall people and short people and as long as you define "biological differences" as being "differences that are vaguely related to the body".

Specifically, I do *not* believe that there is any evidence *whatsoever* to support the idea that the brains of men and women operate differently, or that men and women have different ways of seeing or interacting with the world (all of which many people believe to be literally true). The idea that men's brains and women's brains are somehow differently wired is as far as I can tell a harmful, essentialist myth.

I'd phrase Chaos Walking's question as something more like, "How do we get past what the world around us constantly tells us are fundamental differences?"


You see, I don't see where you're getting the "what the world around us constantly tell us" bit. There *are* fundamental differences between men and women in the setting, men have Noise and women don't and that's rooted in an absolute biological (and presumably neurological) difference.

Now you can make the argument that the book is interested in the ways such differences can be overcome in the face of a society that declares them to be insurmountable, but if what bothers you about the book is the fact that it presupposes the *existence* of those differences then that problem can't be resolved by declaring that those differences can be overcome.

I can certainly see feeling like you're already past the point at which that would be a useful question to ask. On the other hand, this is a book written for a young adult audience.


I think you're falling for the fallacy of balance here. It's not like there's a spectrum of opinions along which people must be carefully led lest their tiny minds explode. It's not like everybody has to start out believing that women are aliens, then gradually learn that they are aliens with whom we can communicate, before finally coming to the realization that they're people.

What Kyra and Abigail objected to in tKoNLG was the Othering of women - something the book very clearly does by positing real, pseudoscientifically justified differences between the sexes. This isn't something you can compromise on - if you say it's not okay to treat women like an alien species, and I say it *is* okay to treat women like an alien species, then you can't split the difference and agree to treat women like an alien species with whom one can never the less have a fulfilling relationship.

What it reminds me of a lot (and I think Kyra's used this metaphor as well) is the way that fantasy novels try to explore real-world prejudice by substituting some kind of non-human species for the minority in question. Sometimes this works, but nine times out of ten the non-human species is presented as either genuinely dangerous or literally inferior.

Basically I think the problem we have here is that several people are saying "My issue with this book is that it says X, and X isn't true" and your response seems to be "but it's okay, because the book says that X doesn't matter anyway." It's perfectly reasonable for you not to be bothered by X, or to believe that X is in fact true after all, but it doesn't really address the original issue.
Niall at 19:59 on 2011-03-07
Basically I think the problem we have here is that several people are saying "My issue with this book is that it says X, and X isn't true" and your response seems to be "but it's okay, because the book says that X doesn't matter anyway."


No, my response is "I don't think this story says X." But I don't think I can put my case any more clearly than I already have, and what you're rebutting here is a case I didn't make, so we're stuck.
Dan H at 21:01 on 2011-03-07

No, my response is "I don't think this story says X." But I don't think I can put my case any more clearly than I already have, and what you're rebutting here is a case I didn't make, so we're stuck.


I am sorry if I misrepresented you, but I genuinely can't work out the case you're making.

The complaint leveled against the book is that it's extremely Othering of women. Your case seems to be that the book doesn't Other women because Todd eventually gets past Viola's essential Otherness. Or perhaps you're arguing that Viola is not presented as possessing an essential Otherness (except that he's forced to interact with her in a way that is completely different to the way he interacts with everybody else) or that the perceived Otherness of Viola is shown to be a social construction (except it *isn't* it's a concrete, biological phenomenon).

I really don't understand how you can take a book which has, as its premise, the idea that men and women have differences in their neuropsychological makeup which cause them to perceive the world in observably different ways, and argue that it does not support the common misconception that men and women have differences in their neuropsychological makeup which cause them to perceive the world in observably different ways (this being the basis of the "Mars and Venus" mentality which Kyra and Abigail both observed and objected to).
Niall at 22:17 on 2011-03-07
OK, one last try, since:

The complaint leveled against the book is that it's extremely Othering of women.


Aha! There are by my reading several different complaints leveled against the book in Kyra's post, and the one I was interested in defending it from is the one about essentialism, not the one about othering. (My first comment: "... the distinction that obtains between men and women on New World is definitionally *not* innate, or natural; it's a consequence of this particular place.") I don't think these things are equivalent or inherently linked; that is, I think it's possible for a book to be essentialist and othering, or essentialist but not othering, or othering but not essentialist.

Knife is clearly othering, yes. The viewpoint is male and has been raised to believe all sorts of bizarre and horrible things about women; the primary female character is an alien that he has to learn to understand. All given.

Where I start my defense is (a) this is not reflective of the totality of Chaos Walking -- indeed one of the points of the series is to break down such othering, per the introduction of additional narrative viewpoints and other developments; and (b) the othering is not essentialist in nature, though it appears to be.

On (a), I think we've pretty much gone round the houses in this thread about whether or not it's OK for a series to continue to unpack its world to that degree after the first volume; I think it's fine, I think the hints are there (as evidenced by my comments in Abigail's thread), many people here disagree with me, fair enough.

On (b):

a book which has, as its premise, the idea that men and women have differences in their neuropsychological makeup which cause them to perceive the world in observably different ways


This is not the premise of the series. The premise of the series is that there is a place in the universe where an otherwise inconsequential biological difference becomes consequential. In Chaos Walking men and women do not, as a starting point, perceive the world in different ways. A difference in how they perceive the world is created when men are infected by an external agent. That is, men and women on New World have differences in their neuropsychological makeup which cause them to perceive the world in observably different ways when untreated. In Knife, the "on New World" part of this statement is clear; in the later books, it is explored further, and the "when untreated" part also becomes a focus.

This is not essentialist because it is limited and modifiable and not defining; that is, it is not an essential characteristic of all men in Ness's universe that they have Noise, it's not even an essential characteristic of all men on New World that they have Noise, and the presence of Noise does not axiomatically mean that women become incomprehensible to men. What this setup does do, however, is create the circumstances for essentialist ideology to run riot -- as exploited and propagated by the Mayor -- which is how you end up with Todd's othering perspective. And also how I get to the notion that the story is asking us to consider how we resist what our world around us constantly tells us.
Dan H at 23:01 on 2011-03-07
@Niall - Okay, that's somewhat clearer, I still think we disagree (although I should point out that I've not actually read the book, I'm just working on the details that you and others have presented to me).

Knife is clearly othering, yes. The viewpoint is male and has been raised to believe all sorts of bizarre and horrible things about women; the primary female character is an alien that he has to learn to understand. All given.


I think this clears up a lot of the issues here: on the other hand, I think there is a difference between "this book presents women as Other" and "this book is about a character who views women as Other". I don't actually think you *need* to have one to have the other.

This is not the premise of the series. The premise of the series is that there is a place in the universe where an otherwise inconsequential biological difference becomes consequential.


I can see where you're coming from here. The reason that it bugs me is because while it might be an inconsequential biological difference, from my point of view it's this "inconsequential biological difference" which makes the whole thing essentialist.

The very fact that the Noise affects men and women differently implies, to me, that the book assumes that men and women are in fact *innately different* on a neurological level. Otherwise, why didn't the Noise affect everybody the same way?

It doesn't help that the way the noise is set up conforms *directly* to Mars/Venus assumptions about the way men and women are "wired". Men send out these big, obvious, easy to read signals, while women are much more subtle and opaque. The symptoms of the Noise really do seem like they were cribbed directly from MAFMWAFV.

Again, I don't buy the idea that the fact that all of this is restricted to New World makes a difference because, well, the story you choose to write is the story you choose to write. And either way, what bugs me about the whole Noise setup is not the (local) effects of the noise on the population of New World but rather the (universal) principle that the Noise affects men one way and women another, in such a way that it dovetails with conventional stereotypes about masculinity and femininity.

Again, and sorry to keep using race analogies but I really think they highlight the problem, if the Noise had the effect of turning black people and only black people into violent maniacs, I don't think you could legitimately argue that it wasn't racist on the grounds that the Noise was a local phenomenon.
Niall at 23:43 on 2011-03-07
rather the (universal) principle that the Noise affects men one way and women another


From my second comment: "And it's also revealed in the third volume that women can be given Noise, although this isn't followed up on as much as I might have liked." By which I mean that we get the theoretical discussion, but not an actual demonstration. Anyway, the upshot is that it's not impossible in women. Sex differentials in infection and disease rates are reasonably common; Noise is exaggeratedly one-sided, but not unprecedented.
Dan H at 12:13 on 2011-03-08
Sex differentials in infection and disease rates are reasonably common; Noise is
exaggeratedly one-sided, but not unprecedented.


But still exaggerated.

Again I think what bugs a lot of people is that Ness ultimately chose to explore his ideas about masculinity through a metaphor which unnecessarily exaggerates the differences between men and women.

This gets into counter-factual criticism, but there was ultimately no reason for Ness' misogynistic, gender-segregated society to have had its basis in an observable biological difference, there was no reason for Viola to feel so *innately* alien to Todd (as you observe further up - she's already from another planet, the fact that she also has no Noise isn't really here or there). If what Ness was really interested in was exploring *purely socially constructed* gender differences, it seems like a peculiar and ultimately unsuccessful way to do it.

Again I can see that if you come at this from a pure-sf "well that's just how it is in that universe" perspective then, well, that's just how it is in that universe. It's just that I feel authors can still be held responsible for the facts of their fictional realities.
Andy G at 13:10 on 2011-03-08
I'm reminded a bit of what Daniel Abrahams said in the interview Kyra linked to in the Playpen:

"Wherever the story is set, it’s going to be read here, by folks in this era and culture. If you have your made-up magical race have black skin and live in slavery, you’re going to be talking about the history of the American south whether you mean to or not. It doesn’t matter if the perfect thing for the story I’m writing is to have gigantic phoenixes throw themselves into the High Towers of Khathe. It’s going to read like a 9/11 comment. If it isn’t, it’s got to go."
Niall at 13:30 on 2011-03-08
Are we now disagreeing about the definition of "purely"? I don't think the gender stereotypes that obtain in our society are "purely socially constructed". I think, as I said upthread, that they are often rooted in exaggeration and distortion of the significance of biological differences. That means, to me, that biology is a component of their construction. It doesn't mean the biology is significant or explanatory.

To go back to what you said earlier about biological difference:

I'm using it to mean "specific, biological differences related to specific, identifiable parts of the body or genetic structure *which account for gendered behaviour stereotypes*".


I'm not. I'm using it to mean actual biological difference. Difference in reproductive system, hormone balance, all that. "Which account for gendered behaviour stereotypes" is social construction being placed on top of biological difference.

So to my mind, the mechanism at work in the construction of difference in Chaos Walking is the same as the mechanism at work in the construction of difference in our world. It is necessary that it involve exaggeration of our stereotypes [1], and it is necessary that there be a biological difference at the root of it.

[1] Although to be honest I think mapping it straight on to "Men send out these big, obvious, easy to read signals, while women are much more subtle and opaque" is an oversimplification. There are times early on when that's how the relationship plays, certainly; there are also times, more and more once Todd has learned that Viola is not after all inscrutable, when it plays as an inversion of another relationship trope, that of the taciturn man and the garrulous woman. And then there are times when Todd is the taciturn one, because his Noise is switched off; and times when Todd finds Viola utterly transparent and ... you get the point. They both occupy a lot of positions in relation to each other, and while those positions are shaped by Noise, they are not defined by it in a straightforward way.
Niall at 13:31 on 2011-03-08
Andy: oh, hell yes. Per this review, on the racial point, "just because Ness is confronting civil war doesn't mean he is afraid to address genocide and slavery as well. He is facing the whole of American history head on."
Arthur B at 13:50 on 2011-03-08
I don't think the gender stereotypes that obtain in our society are "purely socially constructed". I think, as I said upthread, that they are often rooted in exaggeration and distortion of the significance of biological differences.

Really? If you think it is true of some but not others (which is the implication I'm taking from the use of the term "often"), which do you think it is true of?

Also, do you think this is specifically true of gender stereotypes, or is it also the case with (for example) racial stereotypes, or stereotypes about sexuality?

I ask because, as Dan's pointed out in an article which I can't find right now, it's easy to get lulled into believing the old "no smoke without fire" line and convincing yourself that stereotypes tend to be based on real trends and tendencies which they just exaggerate and distort, when in fact a lot of the time they're just demonstrably false.
Niall at 14:00 on 2011-03-08
Really? If you think it is true of some but not others (which is the implication I'm taking from the use of the term "often"), which do you think it is true of?


Women are weak because they menstruate. Women are nurturing because they bear children.

Also, do you think this is specifically true of gender stereotypes, or is it also the case with (for example) racial stereotypes, or stereotypes about sexuality?


Of course. Black people are monstrous because their skin is a different colour. Homosexual people are deviant because they are less common than heterosexual people.

convincing yourself that stereotypes tend to be based on real trends and tendencies which they just exaggerate and distort, when in fact a lot of the time they're just demonstrably false.


If it would help to make things clearer, feel free to substitute "lying about" for "exaggerating and distorting"; less nuance, but same basic meaning. All of the statements above are lies; they have inserted a socially constructed judgement into a biologically descriptive sentence.

As I already said, the fact that there is a biological difference at the root of a stereotype does not mean the biological difference is significant or explanatory; in your terms, it does not mean there is a real trend or tendency, just that there is a difference that by malice and ignorance can be mythologised into prejudice.
Arthur B at 14:05 on 2011-03-08
Women are weak because they menstruate. Women are nurturing because they bear children.

...

Black people are monstrous because their skin is a different colour. Homosexual people are deviant because they are less common than heterosexual people.

Yeah, I think these are all examples of "blatant lying" as opposed to "exaggerating and distorting". The latter implies a connection to reality which just ain't there.

So, what's the biological difference between heterosexuals and homosexuals?
Arthur B at 14:12 on 2011-03-08
Sorry to double post but I wanted to make clear why I meant by asking that:

Declaring that all of these stereotypes are somehow caused by the empirical facts cited to support them is dangerous. Again, it suggests the whole "no smoke without fire" thing. Sometimes - often, I'd say - stereotypes have no root cause aside from people's natural tendency to be abhorrent to each other. It was convenient to white people to believe that black people were monstrous brutes because that meant that there was no reason to feel guilty about enslaving them. It is convenient for homophobes to believe that gay people are fuck-crazed moral deviants because that makes it OK to object to them on the basis of who they choose to have sex with. It is convenient for men to believe that women are soft and nurturing and best off staying at home looking after kids because then it's OK to keep them at home and shut them out of important stuff like war and business and politics.

Stereotypes didn't come about because men, or white people, or straight people were stupid and had to come up with simplistic little rules to get their heads around the idea of "ladies" or "foreigners" or "homosexuals". They came about because people are awfully clever at coming up with ways to feel better about the terrible shit they do.
Niall at 14:15 on 2011-03-08
The latter implies a connection to reality which just ain't there.


I disagree. A lie still has a connection to reality. But now we really are into semantics!

So, what's the biological difference between heterosexuals and homosexuals?


God knows, given the mess that is current research on the topic, but I'd be amazed if there isn't one. Probably not a straightforward one, though -- my bet would be on a complex of genetic factors that, given certain environmental conditions, predispose to homosexuality. But you're right, my example there is actually a lie based on differing phenotype, not on differing biology.
Niall at 14:18 on 2011-03-08
Declaring that all of these stereotypes are somehow caused by the empirical facts cited to support them is dangerous.


That would be why I didn't do that. (To go back to Chaos Walking, Noise isn't caused by whatever the permissive biological difference between men and women is; it's caused by a germ native to New World.) But in their pursuit of ways to feel better about the terrible shit they do, I do believe people have a tendency to latch on to visible difference, which is often biological difference.
Wardog at 14:20 on 2011-03-08
Andy: oh, hell yes. Per this review, on the racial point, "just because Ness is confronting civil war doesn't mean he is afraid to address genocide and slavery as well. He is facing the whole of American history head on."


Um... Daniel Abraham being TOTALLY COOL AND AWESOME BECAUSE HE JUST IS AND I WUV HIM does not somehow miraculously apply to Ness. Unless by "facing the whole of American history head on" the reviewer meant "embraces the idea that killing only counts if you kill someone the same colour as you."

Also quoting a reviewer who happens to agree with you does not actually address the criticisms raised here.

You've said that it is later emphasised that Todd killing the Spackle is *murder* - but this cannot be the case if the text simultaneously reinforces, and approves, Todd's self-definition as a man-who-does-not-kill.
Niall at 14:26 on 2011-03-08
You've said that it is later emphasised that Todd killing the Spackle is *murder* - but this cannot be the case if the text simultaneously reinforces, and approves, Todd's self-definition as a man-who-does-not-kill.


Sure it can. Acknowledging you are a man-who-has-killed doesn't mean you can't aspire to be a man-who-does-not-kill.
Arthur B at 14:29 on 2011-03-08
I disagree. A lie still has a connection to reality.

Only in the sense that it's contrary to reality though. The point is that so many stereotypes have no basis in fact at all, they're pure fictions. It's when people are challenged at them that they start crawling towards the facts to try to cobble together a justification (and even then they usually have to mangle the facts extra hard to do so).

But in their pursuit of ways to feel better about the terrible shit they do, I do believe people have a tendency to latch on to visible difference, which is often biological difference.

I think you have the sequence of events almost entirely wrong. I think it goes like this (to use the "Women are weak because they menstruate" argument as an example):

- Men suppress women.
- Men declare that this is the right thing to do because women are the weaker sex.
- People ask men what basis they have for declaring women the weaker sex.
- Men um and ah a bit and then say "Well, they menstruate!"

Either way, I think the stereotype comes first, and then the perceived explanation for the stereotype comes in later. You seem to be suggesting that the perceived explanation for the stereotype precedes the stereotype, which would imply that people were actively looking for a question ("Why do we believe this stereotype in the first place?") which couldn't have been asked yet because the stereotype hadn't arisen yet.
Wardog at 14:40 on 2011-03-08
Sure it can. Acknowledging you are a man-who-has-killed doesn't mean you can't aspire to be a man-who-does-not-kill.


But it's not a question of aspiration is it? He doesn't go around self-defining as "a man who will try very hard not to kill again."

Also can you two stop bickering about definitions of lies or whatever - I'd actually like to talk about the text.
Niall at 14:42 on 2011-03-08
You seem to be suggesting that the perceived explanation for the stereotype precedes the stereotype


On evolutionary timescales, of course it does. Menstruation precedes patriarchy. As to how the two became intertwined, I doubt it was a linear process, but I really have no idea, and I don't know what research exists on the topic -- would be interested in pointers, though.
Niall at 14:51 on 2011-03-08
He doesn't go around self-defining as "a man who will try very hard not to kill again."


He goes back and forth and up and down and side to side on his position in relationship to killing, over the course of Chaos Walking. At various points he is a man who has not killed, a man who has killed, a man who cannot choose to kill, a man who wants to kill, and a man who does not want to kill. And probably other things as well.
Wardog at 14:55 on 2011-03-08
Fair enough, but the presentation of the event during the first book is still relevant for discussion I think. Also I think the fact it is portrayed as being *open to question* is mildly problematic anyway - but then I can't comment on the relationship between Todd's position and the text's position without reading the books. Nor is that something someone else can tell me.

Regardless we're going round in circles.
Dan H at 17:29 on 2011-03-08
@Kyra

Also I think the fact it is portrayed as being *open to question* is mildly
problematic


Just pitching in to say that this is often a problem I have with this sort of text. It's sort of like the "teach the controversy" thing that you get from Creationists: a lot of time merely implying that there exists room for doubt about something is too great a compromise.

It's a problem I often have when a book seems to be asking "to what extent X?" when my personal answer is "no X, at all" or "all X, always."

@Niall

Are we now disagreeing about the definition of "purely"? I don't think the
gender stereotypes that obtain in our society are "purely socially constructed".
I think, as I said upthread, that they are often rooted in exaggeration and
distortion of the significance of biological differences.


This is pretty much where we hit the "teach the controversy" problem. I do, in fact, believe that gender stereotypes are purely socially constructed. I do not believe that stereotypes about men and women (or black people and white people, or straight people and gay people) have any grounding in biology *whatsoever*.

I also think that part of the problem here is that you aren't doing well at distinguishing between *exaggeration* and *fabrication* when there's actually a very big difference.

One of the examples you give of an "exaggeration based on a real biological difference" is "black people are monstrous because they have dark skin". I sincerely hope that *exaggeration* is not the word you mean to use here. If it is, then that implies to me that you believe that the dark skin of black people makes them *a little bit* monstrous (or at least less attractive than white people) and that racisim consists of *exaggerating* the monstrousness of that dark skin.

Assuming that isn't what you mean (and I certainly hope it isn't) then you *aren't* looking at steretypes being based on real biological differences. You're looking at stereotypes being based on *nothing at all* and then justified by *post hoc reference* to biological differences. There is a really important difference between these two things.

Again, sorry to bring this back to race analogies, but I think it helps get our point across.

Suppose the narrative of the book had been as follows:

- The Noise makes all the black people devolve into bulging-eyed bloodthirsty savages.
- The white people respond by rounding up all the black people and enslaving them.
- Our hero makes friends with a black person, and finds that although they have bulging eyes and are quite bloodthirsty, they can never the less have a real human relationship.
- We discover that some Bad White People have a cure for the noise, but are deliberately keeping the Black People in their degenerate state in order to continue using them as slave labour.

Now the thing is, I can absolutely see how this would look to some people like a heartwarming pean against racism, an analysis, in fact, of the way in which society exaggerates the importance of superficial differences between the races. On the other hand, a lot of people would read it as being grounded in some creepy, racist assumptions about the innate savagery of black people and I don't think "but it's specifially only caused by the virus" really helps matters.
Niall at 17:33 on 2011-03-08
I think it helps get our point across.


I think it just makes it clearer that you haven't read the books, and that I'm apparently incapable of expressing myself. Kyra's right, we're going round in circles. Sorry. :-(
Dan H at 22:22 on 2011-03-08
I think it just makes it clearer that you haven't read the books


Perhaps, but since what we're arguing here is a general point I'm not convinced it matters.

Several people (including *you*) observe that the Noise exaggerates commonly perceived differences between men and women. You argue that this is okay, on the grounds that these differences are shown to be unimportant and, ultimately, to be created artificially by a virus which can be cured anyway (and possibly also by society).

I simply attempted to construct an analogy which would apply the same principle to one of the other "exaggerated biological differences" which, again, you yourself identified (the perceived monstrousness of black people). My hypothetical plot summary includes pretty much all of the elements which you insist make Chaos Walking into an interesting deconstruction of socially enforced difference, yet somehow it still comes across as *really quite racist*.

The thing is I can genuinely see how Planet of the Zombie Slaves could be defended as a condemnation of racism, or an exploration of the ways in which people justify slavery. It might even *be* that to a lot of people, but a lot of people are still going to react badly to the central metaphor because no matter how externally enforced, locally contained, or artificial your exaggerated difference is, there is a point at the beginning of your story in which an offensive stereotype is the literal truth.

What I find most bizarre about this whole thing is that you admit yourself that The Knife of Never Letting Go is grounded in an intense Othering of women, which is sort of the central complaint anyway. The question of whether its Othering can technically be called "essentialist" is irrelevant, the question of whether it gets better later is irrelevant, the fact that it later includes a female viewpoint character is irrelevant. The fact that people think the books are good or that it won an award is irrelevant.

Nobody is saying this makes them bad books, just that it's a thing which bothers some people (most of them, funnily enough, women). It's perfectly okay for you to say that it didn't bother you, but you seem to have spent a long time arguing that people who *are* bothered by it are just wrong.
Niall at 09:01 on 2011-03-09
"exaggerated biological differences"


Please stop putting things in quotes that I didn't say. I didn't say this; I didn't say "exaggeration based on a real biological difference", as you put in your previous comment. I wrote "exaggeration and distortion of the importance [later I said significance] of [biological] differences." The and distortion is important to my meaning. The the importance of is important to my meaning. That is, I am talking about biological differences that are unimportant, but get distorted to seem important; and I am talking about exaggeration of those distortions. That is, as I have already said to Arthur but which you seem intent on ignoring, I am talking about lies.

The question of whether its Othering can technically be called "essentialist" is irrelevant


I don't think it is. Kyra's original argument was that the Othering led directly to "unquestioned gender essentialism". I think there are grounds for disagreeing with that reading -- of Knife on its own, but more strongly through the rest of the trilogy -- i.e. that there are broad hints that women are neither Other nor essentially different than men which become the actuality of the text later on -- and I've been saying so. I'd like to think this means I've convinced you that it's not an essentialist text, though.

the question of whether it gets better later is irrelevant


I don't think it is. Knife is not a complete work, and not intended to be treated as such. You say "there is a point at the beginning of your story in which an offensive stereotype is the literal truth": no, there is never a point at which it is the literal truth, only a point at which it looks like the literal truth. To steal a phrase, there’s a difference twixt those two things so big that it could ruddy well kill you if you don’t watch out.

The fact that people think the books are good or that it won an award is irrelevant.


I don't think the fact that it was awarded the James Tiptree Jr Award, "for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender", by a panel of judges who have track records of being very smart readers (Grant, Bradford, Kaveney and Valente; I don't know the fifth judge for that year, Leslie Howle) is irrelevant, unless you're so arrogant as to think that you can never be mistaken about a book that you haven't read. I don't think it definitively proves my case, either, mind. I think it is another datapoint it is useful to take on board.

You may have the last word!
Wardog at 11:18 on 2011-03-09
Kyra's original argument was that the Othering led directly to "unquestioned gender essentialism".


Did it? I don't *think* was saying that. I was raising them both as things I found problematic in the text. I think there's an extent they're connected, yes, as being part of the wider issue Dan has attempted to address here.

I don't think the fact that it was awarded the James Tiptree Jr Award, "for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender", by a panel of judges who have track records of being very smart readers (Grant, Bradford, Kaveney and Valente; I don't know the fifth judge for that year, Leslie Howle) is irrelevant, unless you're so arrogant as to think that you can never be mistaken about a book that you haven't read


Oh come on, you're just wilfully bitching at each other now.

For fucks's sake, I will read the other two since it seems any point I attempt to raise on this matter will be met by "ah but in the context of the whole artistic statement..." which is honestly starting to bring me out in hives. It is not, I say again, unreasonable to judge something based on what is presented to you - and if reading two whole other books is *essential* to proving Ness's worldview is not based on an intense othering of women, he shouldn't be charging me an extra £20 for the priviledge of enlightening me. And don't play the "publication / marketing" card at me either - an author has to take some responsibility for the implication of what he writes.

And equally I guess what 'datapoints' we consider relevant is an entirely personal matter. I have to admit, I don't factor awards and accolades into my interpretation of a text either. And this has nothing to do with my respect, or lack thereof, for the panel of judges - I might be more inclined to read a book because Daniel Abraham said it was worth reading, but that alone is not going to make me think well of it.

Also I don't know by what standard you judge a "smart" reader. I fear it might be a meaningless compliment because we attribute intelligence to those we agree with, and the opposite to those we don't. And I'm not saying a well-turned argument can't change a mind but ultimately we are more likely to accept well-turned arguments from those we have already "decided" are smart readers. Sorry if this sounds cynical. It's not meant to be. But I guess the question one must always ask when it comes to issues of authority is: "who says?" And I don't *automatically* consider prominance in a community to be a sign of value, although, of course, it can be an indicator.

The thing is, perhaps it is arrogance, but I think I have a reasonably coherently expressed and textually supported argument as to why The Knife of Letting Go didn't work for me, and why I found some aspects of the text problematic, specifically the textual manipulations and the gender politics. This is not a case of "IT'S MY OPINION AND OPINIONS CAN'T BE WRONG" - it's me presenting my case and backing it up with reference to the text.

I am, in no way, disputing the relevance or the value or the existence of other readings. I'm not making a judgement on people who like the book, or who don't agree with my criticisms - although as a general rule one of the problems with trying to challenge implied or inherent sexism is that there are always a lot of people who want to brush it under the carpet. Nor have I had any point claimed Knife was a bad book, or made unsupported criticisms. Nobody, for example, has tried to convince me killing the dog was deeply subtle and mature. And when you have challenged my reading, with direct reference to the text, I have, at the very least, taken onboard your points. And had the judges of the Wossname Award actually bothered to articulate *why* Knife whatevers our understanding of gender (rather than reinforcing, as I believe, an unhelpful Mars/Venus paradigm rooted in a literal biological difference) then there might have been some relevance to mentioning the award at all.

But "the text says this because this reviewer says so" or "the text has a good attitude to gender politics because it won an award for it" doesn't work for me as a counter-argument to, well, anything. I know you say you're presenting these things as, err, datapoints but, to me at least, it always comes across as argument-from-authority, which I think, as a general rule, makes people get twitchy. And, again, I know you think this is arrogance (if x thinks y, who the hell am I to insist on thinking z) but we have to treat secondary criticism at the same as we treat primary texts: by asking questions about what it's saying, and why.

Actually, it's like the review you cite in response to Andy's comment above. I'm not disputing the quality of the review or anything like that, and I certainly mean no disrespect to the reviewer, but here's the full quote:

"However, I have heard criticisms of the depiction of these indigenous people so I will say that just because Ness is confronting civil war doesn't mean he is afraid to address genocide and slavery as well. He is facing the whole of American history head on."

I find this quite frustrating, to be honest, because to me that does not constitute a response to criticisms of the spackle. He says he doesn't want to give away spoilers - which I understand - but ultimately you can't mention a criticism and attempt to rebut it with an unfounded, blanket statement. This basically amounts to "However, I have heard criticisms of the depiction of these indigenous people but they're wrong." And you quoting it again just reinforces the problem - there's still no *actual* (by which I mean a textually supported) answer to the criticism there.

I know we've had this slightly tense and awkward discussion before - and I can only think it comes down to a fundamentally different approach to texts, or perhaps a way of talking about them. And I know you probably think you only have to put your head round the door here and you get dogpiled by people yelling at you - I hope you don't feel like that, I would hate to think that, but I do feel we seem to have some kind of ... I don't know ... profound communicative barrier. Omg, I othered Niall.

Perhaps it's because you are so conscious of an established community of discussion and criticism whereas I have no pretensions to be anything other than someone who reads things and writes about them sometimes - but I think it often feels as though you're basically coming at the discussion from two streets ahead of me. I mean I do read reviews, and contrary to what you might think, I don't just read them just to think they're wrong. But it's almost as if while I'm still looking at the text, figuring out what it means and what I thought about it, you want to present to me with an already established canon reading. As you did with the quote I just mentioned.

Again, I apologise if I have misread your intentions, or your approach. I am simply trying to figure out why any time we try to talk about anything it goes horribly wrong :P And if I come across as arrogant, I can, again, only apologise.
Wardog at 11:18 on 2011-03-09
Also this is not an attempt to have the last word.

*kills a dog*.
Dan H at 11:29 on 2011-03-09
That is, I am talking about biological differences that are unimportant, but get distorted to seem important


No, I get that, I still think the language you're using misrepresents your position (or at least, I hope it does).

I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to stick with the race examples because, as you persist in pointing out, I haven't actually read The Knife of Never Letting Go and I repeat I am trying to make a *general point* here. I don't think this is a problem because I'm trying to make the *same* point which at least two people who *have* read the book have tried to make.

To my mind: "Black people have darker skin than white people" is a biological difference. "Black people have really really dark skin and massive thick lips and bulging eyes" is an exaggeration and of a biological difference. "Black people are less intelligent than white people" is not a biological difference at all, it's just a myth. It is in no way related to any biological difference, and to describe it as an exaggeration of a biological difference is, arguably, offensive because it admits to the existence of a biological differece *which affects intelligence*, which almost certainly does not exist.

Similarly, in terms of gender, "women are on average slightly shorter than men" is a real biological difference. "Women are small and fragile and men are big and strong" is an exaggeration of a biological difference. "Women are better at communicating than men" is nothing to do with biological difference at all.

Again, I think what we actually have here is a fundamental disagreement about how the real world works. You read the Noise as a metaphor for superficial biological differences which really exist, and of which society exaggerates and distorts the importance. Kyra reads it as a metaphor for specific innate (and possibly biological) differences which *do not* exist, and which should not be presumed to exist.

This is one of those subtle differences of opinion which is never the less profoundly important. "Society exaggerates and distorts real differences" is a different message to "society creates differences out of whole cloth when really none exist." Everything I have heard about The Knife of Never Letting Go (including, I should add, from you) implies to me that it supports the first reading but not the second. Now the difference between those two readings is very *small* but it matters to some people - it matters to Kyra, I suspect it mattered to Abigail, and it matters to me.

I don't think it is. Kyra's original argument was that the Othering led directly
to "unquestioned gender essentialism" ... I'd like to think this means I've convinced you that
it's not an essentialist text, though.


I think you've convinced me that there's room for argument, and that your definition of "essentialism" is sufficiently different from my own that I don't think any further discussion is going to be fruitful.

Basically I read the fact that the Noise has a different effect on men and women as de facto essentialist. You don't. This comes down to the fact that we define "essentialism" slightly differently. Broadly speaking, I would define gender essentialism as the notion that social stereotypes about the sexes are grounded in innate (possibly biological although it's a very old concept) differences and that (crucially) this definition is broad enough to include "sex-differentiated reactions to foreign substances" as an innate difference.

I'd also add that my definition of "grounded in" is broad enough to include "are exaggerations of the importance of".

I don't think it is. Knife is not a complete work, and not intended to be
treated as such. You say "there is a point at the beginning of your story in
which an offensive stereotype is the literal truth": no, there is never a point
at which it is the literal truth, only a point at which it looks
like
the literal truth.


Once again, I think we might be might be getting tripped up over definitions, in this case the definition of "literal".

In the text as it has been described to me, it is *literally true* that Viola is not only the first person, but the first *entity* which Todd has met that does not have Noise.

This *on its own* gives you a situation in which an offensive stereotype (girls are fundamentally different to boys) is literal truth. The fact that Noise is a local phenomenon, or that it is curable, or that it can be given to women *does not matter*. The Noise functions, in the first book, to highlight how alien Viola feels to Todd, and this is not a result of cultural or social pressures, it is a direct result of her being *literally* and *observably* different from him.

Again, all of this tallies *exactly* not only with other people's criticisms of the book, but *also* with your defence of it. You think the book's analysis of gender issues is *good* because it highlights the way in which society exaggerates and distorts the importance of superficial differences. Kyra believes (and on the basis of what she has told me I agree) that it is bad, because it posits the existence of differences which do not read to her as superficial.

Again to use an analogy which I, Kyra and Abigal have all independently used in this situation: it feels a hell of a lot like those fantasy novels that use Orcs or the equivalent as an analogy for black people. It doesn't matter how wrong you're saying racism is, some people will insist that it isn't okay for you to use non-human species to represent non-white races.

I don't think the fact that it was awarded the James Tiptree Jr Award, "for
science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of
gender", by a panel of judges who have track records of being very smart readers
(Grant, Bradford, Kaveney and Valente; I don't know the fifth judge for that
year, Leslie Howle) is irrelevant, unless you're so arrogant as to think that
you can never be mistaken about a book that you haven't read.


I'm really not sure how to respond to this because this is so utterly alien to my whole way of engaging with fiction.

I do, in fact believe I can never be mistaken about a book I haven't read. I don't believe this is arrogance, I believe it's the way fiction *works*. Barring actual issues of fact (of which there are actually very few in fiction), I don't believe it is possible for *anybody* to be mistaken about a book *at all*.

Those guys who thought that Dumbledore was Ron from the future? They weren't "mistaken" about Harry Potter - they had a perfectly legitimate interpretation of the text that actually explained a lot of things better than Rowling's actual backstory.

Allecto's insistence that Joss Whedon's shows are full of rapists? Again, not mistaken. An extreme reading of the text but a valid one.

People who said that The Thirteenth Child whitewashed American history through its removal of the Native Americans? Not mistaken. And for what it's worth, most of those people hadn't read the book *either* because if your objections to a book are based on *factual statements about its contents* you don't need to read it to object to it.

Could I be mistaken about The Knife of Never Letting Go. Yes I could. It could, for example, be the case that Kyra, Abigail and in fact *you* have all deliberately lied to me about its contents. It's possible, for example, that the book contains no concept called "Noise", or that it doesn't affect men and women differently, or that Viola actually has Noise just like everybody else. Unless I am mistaken on one of those three points, the treatment of gender in the book bothers me - and it bothers me purely on the basis of those elements which have been described to me.

I don't think it definitively proves my case, either, mind. I think it is another datapoint it is useful to take on board.


Data point?

Sorry, are you actually saying that you believe the act of responding to a work of fiction is some kind of *data analysis* exercise? That if you somehow line up enough Very Clever People to say that a book is good that this somehow "proves" it?

Not only does literary criticism not work that way, nothing works that way. The fact that a lot of clever people believe something *is not and never has been* any kind of evidence that it is true. Lots of clever people believe in God, that doesn't prove He exists. Lots of clever people believe in evolution, that doesn't prove that evolution is real either (there's quite a lot of *actual evidence* that proves evolution is real, but weight of scholarly opinion is *not* evidence and never has been).

You cannot address specific criticisms of a text by citing the fact that other people felt broadly positive about it. You cannot even address specific criticisms of a text by citing the fact that other people felt those criticisms were invalid. You have to present an *actual argument* which addresses those criticisms. You have in fact done that ("The Noise is Local" and "The Noise is shown to be curable" both address the issue of essentialism to some extent) but a lot of people still have an essential problem with the *whole premise* of the Noise and still feel it to be grounded in essentialist assumptions *even given* its local nature.

Again you seem to be coming at this from the position that there is some kind of objectively correct interpretation of the book, which can be reached by sufficient analysis of the available data - that if you can cite enough people who agree with you that this will somehow "prove" that your interpretation of the book is correct, or at least more valid than Kyra's and Abigail's. Again that just isn't how reading works.

You have in fact provided some perfectly good arguments from the text that the Noise is less gender essentialist than it might originally seem. For me personally, that's still more essentialist than I'm comfortable with. You seem to be intent on trying to prove that the text cannot be described as essentialist *at all* and that's not something we're going to be able to do, because things really do just get subjective here.
Niall at 13:22 on 2011-03-09
profound communicative barrier


The irony of this had not escaped me, either. I agree with you: we have different styles of reading, different preferences in reading, and (especially me and Dan) different ways of arguing our case. I'm interested in those, which I think is why I keep getting sucked into these discussions here; it's almost enough to make me volunteer to write an FB article about those issues, entirely divorced from any text. But not quite, not least because I'm not at all confident that I could find a way to express my perceptions of those differences that wouldn't sound (against my wishes) pejorative.

But on one point: I don't mean, by citing Martin's review or the Tiptree win, to try to establish that there is an inviolable Truth about the book out there that can be proved. As you say, I am very conscious of an established community of discussion, I always want to test my response against other responses that are out there. I take something like winning an award I respect as a challenge: what did those other readers see in this book? (By no means do I agree with all of that year's Tiptree judges about everything, but I certainly respect them enough to ask that question. As I respect you enough to bear all this in mind when I reread Chaos Walking. Smart readers are ones that provoke me, not just ones I agree with.) Martin's quote I cited because his phrasing had stuck in my mind and I didn't want to plagiarise; it wasn't meant to comment on the success or failure of Ness's handling of the Spackle so much as to say that it seems absolutely clear to me that the resonances with our world and history are deliberate. On the other hand, up until Dan's last comment there, I would have said that he was convinced that there is an objectively correct interpretation of The Knife of Never Letting Go.

I sort of hate the idea that you're now going to go and read the other two books, because as was said way up above, they're just as manipulative as the first one and you're going to be frustrated with them on that level, even if you agree with every bit of my interpretation of them -- which, let's face it, is unlikely. No, I think it would be much better for Dan to read the whole lot and get his rant on properly. I won't comment on his article, though. Probably.
Wardog at 11:16 on 2011-03-10
Don't worry, I'm going to read a bunch of books I actually want to read first. And I may just not be arsed. Life is too short to read books you don't like for the priviledge of discussing them.

There's quite a lot to address in your comment, and I'd like to talk about community and criticism but as much as I think it's bad form to be a selective respondent I kind of want to focus on what seems to me the most important thing.

On the other hand, up until Dan's last comment there, I would have said that he was convinced that there is an objectively correct interpretation of The Knife of Never Letting Go.


This strikes me as a little bit strange, since we are all actually in agreement about the interpretation of the Noise. Where we differ is the extent to which it's a problem.

The Noise is, as we have largely agreed over the course of this discussion, a metaphor for the way social stereotypes are constructed by the distortion and exaggeration of biological difference.

What Dan, and to a lesser extent I (lesser in the sense that I can't be arsed, not that I feel less strongly, if anything I feel more strongly), have been painfully arguing over the past three days is this is problematic because it taps into, and reinforces, the idea that biological difference is a base cause of sexist and racist stereotypes, rather than it being something cited *after the fact* as justification for them.

And this is where you move from a subjective and interpretative space of the text, into a more objective one - because, for many people, issues of race and gender politics are *not* subjective. There is a right and a wrong at stake here.

As far as I can tell there are maybe four reasons why you might argue the Noise is not problematic as a device:

1. The *very real* biological difference it posits is actually superfical (I would dispute this with reference to the text - the fact Viola is so very other to Todd, but that is a matter for interpretation, however, I think my interpretation is more arguable than the alternative)

2. It's not a problem because that's how stereotyping in the real world works (problem! it isn't! and it is utterly offensive to suggest that it is, as it buys into the justification rather than the reality and *only emphasises* why the Noise-metaphor makes me uncomfortable to the degree it does)

3. A whiff of lowkey sexism doesn't personally bother you (again, I have no issues with this, there's entirely the reader's call)

4. It's a specific planet with a specific germ on it so it doesn't matter(irrelevant - as you yourself have stated texts resonant with our world, we cannot close them off like this).

Also I wouldn't have categorised someone giving a damn about the presentation of socially constructed difference as 'getting his rant on.'
Niall at 15:50 on 2011-03-10
As far as I can tell there are maybe four reasons why you might argue the Noise is not problematic as a device:


I think (2) is the real sticking point here -- (1) is where we get into Knife vs Chaos Walking, in which I say that your reading is supportable (but also arguable) for the former, and not really supportable (though probably arguable) for the latter, and you say Knife must be judged on its own; (3) is certainly true, although I do try to become more bothered; (4) is irrelevant, as you say -- but I'm having a horrendous time trying to find something to address it that doesn't just involve repeating myself. (e.g. pointing out that you too have dropped "the importance of" from your restatement of my position, which I continue to insist matters to the sense!) So perhaps we should just go direct to each others' sources, instead, and see if that gets us anywhere. I recommend Daniel Lord Smail's On Deep History and the Brain, in particular the third and fourth chapters, as something that has informed my views on the relationship between biology and culture. I've only checked a few of the references, but they seem pretty sound. What would you recommend as a good summary of research informing your views, in particular the model for the evolution of prejudice you're arguing for?

Also I wouldn't have categorised someone giving a damn about the presentation of socially constructed difference as 'getting his rant on.'


I wasn't, I was categorising Dan on a tear as getting his rant on. Subject matter seems to have very little to do with it, so far as I can tell.
Arthur B at 16:00 on 2011-03-10
I'm not sure either side of this writing a recommended books list is necessarily going to help the debate.

However, reading summaries of On Deep History I note that its essential premise is that a lot of cultural developments appear to Smail to be influenced by neurochemistry. If that's true, though, then that surely bolsters the argument that many cultural features, like prejudices and stereotypes, do not arise from cold, rational analysis but from essentially irrational instincts prompted by neurochemistry, and that any "explanation" a person from said culture may offer for why they happen to be prejudiced is a post-hoc explanation of the sort that you're trying to argue doesn't happen?
Niall at 16:18 on 2011-03-10
do not arise from cold, rational analysis


I'm not arguing that they do.

a post-hoc explanation of the sort that you're trying to argue doesn't happen?


I'm also not arguing that post-hoc rationalisations play no role in the construction of prejudice.
Arthur B at 17:24 on 2011-03-10
Ok, so when you're saying that the people in Knife are exaggerating the "importance of" biological differences, you're saying they are citing the biological differences as a post hoc rationalisation of prejudice?

Because if that is true we've been arguing at cross-purposes a bit. But only a bit. It still seems that - in Knife, at least - Ness has constructed a scenario in which treating men and women differently as a consequence of their varying reaction to Noise is actually a rational response to the facts of the setting. It's almost unthinkable that a world in which men are telepaths and women aren't wouldn't give rise to a culture which treated men and women inherently differently, because on a fundamental level - again, just from the scenario we see in Knife - there is a seriously major difference there. And maybe Todd is a good guy who looks beyond that culture in order to try and treat Viola as an equal, but that doesn't change the fact that he's got Noise and she doesn't and as far as can be told that's something they're always going to have to deal with.

Ness might be saying that these inherent differences should not be cause for stereotyping. But he's still saying that, in that scenario, those inherent differences exist in the first place. And if the Noise is a metaphor for the stereotype of women as being these inscrutable creatures which inherently think differently from men, then he's effectively saying "Yeah, OK, women do think differently from men and are inherently hard for us guys to understand. But that's no reason we shouldn't try extra hard to understand them, and it's certainly no excuse for being mean!"

Whereas many people (including myself) would say "Rubbish, women don't come from a different planet, if a guy finds it difficult to understand women that's a problem with him, not a problem inherent in all women."
Dan H at 18:49 on 2011-03-10
So perhaps we should just go direct to each others' sources, instead, and see if that gets us anywhere. I recommend Daniel Lord Smail's On Deep History and the Brain, in particular the third and fourth chapters, as something that has informed my views on the relationship between biology and culture. I've only checked a few of the references, but they seem pretty sound. What would you recommend as a good summary of research informing your views, in particular the model for the evolution of prejudice you're arguing for?


Niall. Do you realize how *utterly* condescending you are being right now.

You are now actually insisting that we have to do *research* just to be able to have a conversation with you. Because apparently your beliefs are subtle, so complex, and so deeply grounded in serious scholarly research that we cannot hope to engage with them unless we do actual *homework*.

Sorry. No. Not going to happen. Not only do I not have the time but you are, once again, resorting to argument from authority. Your beliefs about the relationship between biology and culture should stand on their *own merits* and you should be able to argue them from *your own* understanding of the evidence. Telling me that there is this book (a book, I should note, written by a historian, not a neuroscientist) which apparently informed the beliefs which you have so far *failed to articulate* does not help.

Basically, when it comes to the evolution of prejudice, you keep making two arguments that seem contradictory. The phrase we keep coming back to is "exaggeration and distortion of the importance" (which yes, I have occasionally trimmed down to "exaggeration" - I don't think this changes the meaning as much as you do). As far as I can tell, by this you can mean one of two things:

One. You can mean that biological variation creates difference markers. Black people have dark skin, gay people are sexually attracted to members of their own sex, men and women have different secondary sexual characteristics. Society "exaggerates and distorts the importance" of those markers, leading to prejudice and, crucially, to other stereotypes which have no basis in biology whatsoever (black people have huge penises, gay people are all paedophiles, women's brains overheat if they read too many books).

Two. You mean that biological variation creates real, but small differences between people which to some extent tally with stereotypes. Black people are slightly less intelligent than white people, women are slightly less rational than men, gay people are slightly more sexually promiscuous than straight people. Society then "exaggerates and distorts the importance" of these differences (black people are all stupid and dangerous, women are all hysterical bitches, gay people are all paedophiles).

Now if what you mean is option one (which I think is what you generally claim you mean) that's pretty uncontroversial, but in that case I don't think the Noise is a good way of exploring this phenomenon because, as Kyra observes above, Noise is a big freaking deal (at least in Knife) and I think drawing parallels between genuinely superficial differences like skin colour and sexual orientation, and major differences like the presence or absence of telepathy does *in and of itself* constitute and "exaggeration and distortion of the importance" of those superficial differences. There is a world of difference between "women are on average slightly shorter than men" and "women tend not to have Noise and men do."

If what you mean is something more like two, then you're on rather thinner ice, because then you basically are arguing that "stereotypes are based on fact" and that causes some really quite serious issues. You generally don't seem to be saying that this is the kind of biological difference you're talking about, but at the same time, this seems to me to be more the kind of biological difference that the Noise *is*. So when you say that the Noise is a metaphor for real biological differences between men and women, the importance of which is "exaggerated and distorted" by society it sounds to me like you're arguing something more like two than one.

If you're arguing one, then we have a basic disagreement about the interpretation of the text. If you're arguing two, then we have a basic disagreement about the real world.
Niall at 20:12 on 2011-03-10
Do you realize how *utterly* condescending you are being right now.


I apologise. That was not my intent.

you should be able to argue them from *your own* understanding of the evidence.


I should, and I've been trying to do that all week. Self-evidently, it has not been working. At the same time, however, you haven't been convincing me from your own understanding, either. And since I agree with you that this is an important area, one where I do work to improve my knowledge, I'd like to know where your understanding came from. I want you to set me homework. I mentioned one example that I've read because I thought it would seem arrogant to ask for references without showing my own. Oh, irony.

I don't think your option one is complex enough, but I don't think your option two is true at all.

There is a world of difference between "women are on average slightly shorter than men" and "women tend not to have Noise and men do."


And yeah, this is where we fundamentally disagree. What are the consequences of women being on average slightly shorter than men? Our culture associates height with authority (hence the well-known correlations between the height of a presidential candidate and their chance of victory); our culture associates height with athleticism (which contributes to the dominance of mens' sport over womens') and with health (which contributes to the perception of women as "the weaker sex"). Are those insignificant consequences? I don't think so. Are they comparably consequential to Noise? I think it's at least arguable.
Arthur B at 20:34 on 2011-03-10
Are those insignificant consequences? I don't think so. Are they comparably consequential to Noise? I think it's at least arguable.

But the thing is, the objective, universal, not culturally-constructed consequences of possessing or not possessing Noise are absolutely massive, whereas there's no reason aside from the cultural ones you've mentioned that a person who happened to be short couldn't exert authority. You can imagine a culture where shortness is associated with authority, for example, whereas the effects of Noise are not culturally specific at all - regardless of your background, if you've got the Noise you're broadcasting your thoughts, if you're not infected you're not going to be able to broadcast anything no matter how hard you try, that's kind of a really fucking huge deal.

The Noise is a bad way to say that these differences between men and women shouldn't matter because the consequences of having Noise are actually vastly and objectively more important than the consequences of having an extra millimetre or two of height, regardless of culture. It's not a minor, trivial, easy to ignore difference that is tied in with major, important differences, it's a major and important difference in and of itself.

(Note that I said "tied in" there as opposed to "leading to"; I don't think a small statistical variation in height led to women being sidelined and portrayed as weak, I think the cultural bias came first and then the height thing crept in as a means of rationalising and reinforcing it.)
Niall at 20:41 on 2011-03-10
that's kind of a really fucking huge deal.


But it's not. That -- to me -- is the point of Todd's conceptual breakthrough re: Viola that's quoted in Kyra's post. And of the next two books. And the effects are hugely culturally specific. It's the combination of Noise plus evangelical Christian morality that's toxic, not the Noise in itself -- one of the other movements going on over the final volume is towards imagining a world where Noise is a good and productive thing, not a stigma and an inhibition.

I think the cultural bias came first


Out of interest, what do you think the origin of the cultural bias was?
Dan H at 20:46 on 2011-03-10
And yeah, this is where we fundamentally disagree. What are the consequences of women being on average slightly shorter than men?


The consequences are that they have a slightly harder time getting things off of high shelves, on average.

Our culture associates height with authority (hence the well-known correlations between the height of a presidential candidate and their chance of victory); our culture associates height with athleticism (which contributes to the dominance of mens' sport over womens') and with health (which contributes to the perception of women as "the weaker sex").


Okay, I see where you're coming from but I think you're getting into circular territory here. Yes, our culture associates height with a bunch of different things, but that does not make those cultural associations a *consequence* of height. In particular, height tends to correlated strongly with income (because height is strongly influenced by diet) which in turn makes it correlate strongly with pretty much every desirable quality you might care to name (tall people do, on average, have a higher IQ than short people).

I also do not believe for one *femtosecond* that the popularity of men's sports over women's has anything to do with the men being taller on average. I'm also not really sure you can say that there's a cultural association between height and health. Thinness and health, possibly, but not height and health.

And regardless I think there's still quite a big difference between "the fact that women are, on average, very slightly shorter than men may be a minor contributing factor to some gender stereotypes" and "men can read the minds of other men but not of women and this leads to the men freaking out and murdering them".
Arthur B at 20:56 on 2011-03-10
I'm finding the idea that telepathy - even the sort of involuntary telepathy the Noise produces - isn't in and of itself a really big deal kind of baffling.

I mean, I know I haven't read the book and all. The thing is, you have, and you've just told me that the Noise (coupled with the cultural reaction to the noise) is presented as being a key component in making the world either a hellhole or a paradise. That would suggest to me that Ness considers it a majorly huge deal as well.

Yes, the reaction to the Noise might be very culturally specific, but the Noise is such a huge deal that no culture presented with the issue could possibly fail to react to it in one way or another. It simply isn't something you can ignore or brush over like, oh, I don't know, whether your bellybutton is an "innie" or "outie".
Niall at 23:48 on 2011-03-10
I suddenly feel like we're getting somewhere! Dan, thank you for "difference markers", that's a good phrase. Arthur, thank you for "You can imagine a culture where shortness is associated with authority" -- yes, that's crucial. It's much harder, I submit, to imagine a culture where height is truly irrelevant. It's possible to imagine all sorts of meaning being attached to difference markers; possible to imagine different sets of difference markers being paramount; harder to imagine difference markers being meaningless.

Similarly, Noise is a honking great difference marker, you're right. But it's possible to imagine a situation where men get infected by Noise, and women start to see them as monsters, and the women from one village kill all of their men; and then you have a story about a girl encountering a boy with Noise, that she's been taught all her life to fear and hate ... or it's possible to imagine a culture where Silence is what is talked about, is the default, and the men kill their women for being Noisy (tell me that wouldn't play into stereotypes...) ... yes, I agree with you that Noise is something that will have an effect on a culture. When I say that it's not a big deal, I mean that its effect is not absolutely deterministic. It is not a given that a man with Noise will find women to be baffling and strange -- it does not make them alien -- Todd finds Viola alien because of the way he's raised, but plenty of other men and women are living together in other places on New World and communicating just fine.

Dan:

I'm also not really sure you can say that there's a cultural association between height and health.


Aw, I missed the "cultural" there and was all ready to throw a couple of studies at you that find an inverse association between height and mortality. But my argument would be this: certainly, height is strongly correlated with quality of diet, which is correlated with a bunch of other factors. But height is the visible difference marker, much more so than diet; so cultural associations accrue to height, and not diet; so it's meaningful to talk of cultural associations being a consequence of height.

(Still interested in where the cultural bias came from. And still interested in the homework.)
Arthur B at 23:59 on 2011-03-10
It's much harder, I submit, to imagine a culture where height is truly irrelevant.

Harder, but possible. Definitely possible.

I would submit it is nigh-impossible to imagine a culture where Noise is not relevant. Because dude: telepathy. Te. Le. Pa. Thy. Kind of a big deal.
Kyra: This basically amounts to "However, I have heard criticisms of the depiction of these indigenous people but they're wrong."

That is what I believe but that is not what I was trying to say. The criticisms I vaguely refer to are ones I have seen indirectly or heard anecdotally and for that reason have not engaged with them directly. I do think I could respond to such criticism but since I had no specific argument to rebut I did not think that review was the right venue for going into detail. So you are right that this is not a meaningful or successful attempt to respond directly to such criticism. Rather my intent was to signpost to those who found the treatment of the Spackle in Never Letting Go problematic that they may find some evidence to change their minds. In this I was motivated by the fact I think The Ask And The Asnwer is an impressive work of fiction and I think it would be of interest to those who have read the first novel, even if they didn't like it. (I am entirely alive to the idea that any work published as an individual volume should stand in its own right regardless of it relation to other words the author has written.)
Wardog at 23:08 on 2011-03-11
I, err, didn't meant to lay into your review - hope it didn't come across that way. And what you say here is entirely fair, I'm certainly not trying to tell you how to write a review! And, yes, of course there is a place for rebuttals of specific analyses of a text, and reviews are probably not one of them. The only reason I referenced it at all was because I perceived Niall as quoting that review in support of his interpretation, which struck me as somewhat unfair since, as you have said above, you weren't trying to present an argument at all.

I am coming round to the idea that I might read the second book, just out of curiosity now. Although weirdly you were much more critical of the second book but you seemed to like it more - I wonder if that's because it seems like a more ambitious text.
Dan H at 23:52 on 2011-03-11
yes, I agree with you that Noise is something that will have an effect on a culture. When I say that it's not a big deal, I mean that its effect is not absolutely deterministic.


Okay, I get where you're coming from, I think the problem with that is that while it's possible to imagine ways in which a phenomenon like the Noise could have affected society *differently* the way in which it *actually* affected society in Knife followed patterns which read to some people like they're based on common pseudoscientific beliefs about biologically-based gender roles.

Basically I think that (from what I've seen expressed by other people) the presentation of gender roles in Knife falls down a bit of an uncanny valley, because it presents a situation in which a large (albeit circumstantial) biological difference appears between men and women which closely parallels real-world gender stereotypes.

To put it another way, it feels like the book is using too many metaphors at once. Todd is clearly supposed to find Viola alien, and to an extent "the opposite sex can seem alien" is a perfectly reasonable idea to explore in a children's book. The problem is that it double-dips, Viola seems alien to Todd because of his upbringing, but she *also* seems alien to him because of her lack of Noise. This makes it seem like instead of saying "girls might seem alien, but they aren't" the book is saying, "girls might seem alien, and to some extent they are". Essentially because the Noise isn't needed to make Viola *seem* alien to Todd, it creates the impression that she is supposed to be *genuinely* alien to Todd.

I think either element on its own - highly gender segregated society / extreme biological difference between the sexes - would provide room for effective exploration of how apparent differences are really artificial. Both together makes it seem (to me at least, and to several others as well) more like an exploration of differences that are presumed to really exist.

But height is the visible difference marker, much more so than diet; so cultural associations accrue to height, and not diet; so it's meaningful to talk of cultural associations being a consequence of height.


I know I keep doing the "focus on specific words" thing but I think it depends on what you mean by "consequence". I know it's an over-specific meaning of the word, but because I do read a fair number of social justice blogs I tend to steer away from words like "consequence" because they can seem to carry connotations of blame or responsibility (as in "the consequences of your actions").

Height is a good example here actually. Most positive qualities are associated directly with height, both in terms of cultural stereotypes and also in terms of real statistical correlation. A lot of this simply comes down to the correlation between height and diet, diet and income. So it's not really that the cultural associations are a consequence of height, rather they're a consequence of a third factor which correlates with both height, and the thing with which it is associated.

A good example here is lice: several hundred years ago, lice were culturally associated with good health. The reason for this was that lice generally prefer to live on healthy people and will naturally leave the (uncomfortably hot or cold) bodies of the sick or dying. It would not really be true to say that the cultural association between lice and health was a consequence of lice, rather it was a consequence of a hidden third factor.

The same is true of, for example, racism. Racism isn't caused by the fact that some people have dark skin, it's caused by the fact that people instinctively band together against those they perceive as different (there are a great many sociological and psychological reasons for this). Again, there's a hidden third factor which is very important. Racism is very much *not* caused by skin colour.

The problem with the Noise is that (to a lot of people) it feels like the hidden third factor is missing (particularly since the manifestations of the Noise seem to parallel real-world gender stereotypes). The reaction of the men of Prentisstown to the Noise feels rather different to - say - the reaction of white people to black people or men to women. Here you have a large and *unambiguously significant* difference between the sexes. Although the reaction of the men of Prentisstown is extreme to the point of psychotic, it still comes across as a *direct consequence* of the Noise, which makes it feel, to me, qualitatively different from real world sexism or racism.
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2011-03-16
Oh wow, talk about your freaky coincidences. I also reviewed this book a couple days before you posted this. At the time I put it up, I told myself 'nobody's going to care by this point, what with the final book having come out last year and everything.' Weird.

But anyway, thank you, Kyra, for devoting the time and brainpower to articulating so many of my issues with this book—and so much better than I could've, too. Also, it's nice to know another reader had such an ambivalent, even negative reaction to this book.

One thing I'll never understand is why neither you, Niall, Abigail, nor any other reviewer I've read so far has brought up the novel's most damning trait: the effing awful writing. Oh sure, the narrative voice is good (if a bit too repetitive and ungrammatical at times), but where the blue burning bison's bollocks does Ness get off with that godsawful phonetic dialect in the effing first person narration?

For those of you who haven't read the book, that passage quoted in the review is mild stuff. Sure, it can get irritating reading “tho” and “thru” when it should be “though” and “through,” but just wait until you get to “direkshun,” “explozhun,” “payshunce,” etc.. It's unrelenting, at least in the first book. “Cuz e's a hick, d'ya see?” Rinse and repeat for almost five HUNDRED PAGES!

Ness did an excellent job of keeping me turning pages, but I seriously considered giving up on the book about a hundred pages in to spare my brain and my eyeballs this torment. Ultimately, I let my desire to know what happens next get the better of me, a decision I now sorely regret.

What’s even more frustrating is that Todd learns the truth about halfway through the book and refuses to tell us because he doesn’t want to wreck the tension…I mean… because he doesn’t know how to express it.

It's worse than that. If Todd knew the truth and were just trying to come to terms with it, that'd be one thing. But it's more like as soon as his mind took the information in and then suppressed it on the spot. For the rest of the book up to the reveal, (as in his encounter with Ben) Todd acts as if he not only doesn't know the truth, but he doesn't even have the faintest suggestion of a suspicion of a clue as to what the truth might be.

That's an interesting point you make, about the ending, Kyra—I hadn't even considered it beforehand. Now I do think about it, it strikes me as more the sort of ending I associate with the middle book in a YA trilogy. It seems to me when it comes to YA trilogies, the first book tends to be incredibly self-contained, whereas the second ties off some plot threads while still leading directly into the final book. While you can read The Hunger Games and stop there, I don't think you can really say the same for Catching Fire.

I've just read The Ask and the Answer, and it, ironically, has more of a proper ending than The Knife of Never Letting Go, though it still ends on a major cliffhanger.

While it delves deeper into the point that Spackles Are People Too, I've yet to see Ness satisfactorily address Todd's murder of the Spackle in book 1. It comes up, sure, but it still doesn't count, kind of like Mad Dog Tannen in Back to the Future III boasting of having killed something like 12 people, “not counting Indians and Chinamen.” Towards the end, even the effing Mayor affirms that “For all my efforts, I have been unable to turn this boy to the Dark Side,” and acknowledges Todd as “the man who doesn't kill.” Apparently, murdering a Spackle doesn't push one toward turning to the Dark Side the way murdering a human does.

The Ask and the Answer tones down the horrible spelling—partly by making Viola a co-narrator, and partly, I'm convinced, by Ness cutting back to bearable (though still irritating) levels. And it turns out that Todd apparently can say “explosion” properly, but he usually says it wrong anyway to preserve “that wonderful, dialect-heavy voice” (seriously, Martin Lewis, what the flaming hell?). It gets surreal when the highly emotional (and manipulative) climax is constantly undermined by the ridiculously misspellings.

Niall: The other two books in the trilogy aren't chases -- they're more of a war story -- but they're very nearly as obvious in their ploys.

Really? If you asked me, I'd identify The Ask and the Answer as the point where Ness ditched all the subtlety of the previous book (/sarcasm) and started laying in with the Themehammer. The themes he's tackling—the slow process by which good people are co-opted into and perpetuate tyrannical regimes, and the way the two opposing sides in an armed conflict grow increasingly alike in terms of brutality—are good and all, and he illustrates them brilliantly.

The problem is that 1) I don't for a minute believe Ness has the understanding to suggest a realistic alternative to the second point, and 2) more importantly, this involves putting the main characters in a situation where they are either totally at the mercy of tyrannical forces or actively working for them – both of which repel me as a reader. I read through the whole thing because Ness is so goddamn good at his manipulations and making me need to know what happens next, but I didn't enjoy the actual reading process one little bit. By the time I'd reached the end, Ness had taken third place in my list of Most Cussed-At Authors.

(In this book, some humans do die on-page, and at least twice, it's almost as blatant as Manchee.)

Book Three, Monsters of Men, is 603 pages long. Gods help me.

Dan: It's a problem I often have when a book seems to be asking "to what extent X?" when my personal answer is "no X, at all" or "all X, always."

I think you'll be pleased to hear you're right in line with our old friend Arundhati Roy on this one. In an interview several years ago, she mentioned turning down an offer to participate in a debate on the merits of Empire, because the point isn't even debatable. She asked “would you debate the merits of child abuse?”/tangent

I think it's perfectly legitimate to weigh the faults and merits of a series in total - I think it's equally legitimate to weigh the faults and merits of an individual instalment in the series.

I'm on the fence about whether "Chaos Walking" or any of the individual books preach an innate relationship between violence and manhood. I think I could be persuaded to Niall's "that's just the setting" argument on that score, or the other way.

As for gender essentialism: I find the idea that all male humans and only male humans have Noise, and no female humans at all have Noise pretty damning.

I can't find it now, but somewhere Niall pointed out some diseases progress faster depending on their victim's gender. Right, but 1) that's just a tendency, not absolute statement ("disease X takes 1 day longer to develop symptoms in every single man exposed than it does for every single woman exposed). 2) I find 13 years difference strains my Willing Suspension of Disbelief well past breaking point. 3) Especially if the discussion of women's Noise in Monsters of Men doesn't come out at one point and say "by the way, women's and men's brains absolutely are not wired radically differently, despite the peculiar behavior of the Noise," because a lot of real-world readers probably do believe that already.
Wardog at 23:19 on 2011-03-16
Thanks for the comment :)

Oh sure, the narrative voice is good (if a bit too repetitive and ungrammatical at times), but where the blue burning bison's bollocks does Ness get off with that godsawful phonetic dialect in the effing first person narration?

Heh, actually I didn't mind that at all - I mean I guess it doesn't make *literal* sense in that it's first person present tense narration, not a written account, and we're left asking ourselves why Todd's stream of consciousness can't spell. But I felt it made a sort of literary sense - in that it creates a fitting picture of Todd. I actually quite liked Todd's voice - I mean, yes, it's overdone like everything else in the book. But y'know... Also I don't think it was meant to reflect on Todd's intelligence, or constantly reinforce the idea he's a hick - merely to demonstrate that he's passionate, smart and reasonably eloquent but not formally educated.

For the rest of the book up to the reveal, (as in his encounter with Ben) Todd acts as if he not only doesn't know the truth, but he doesn't even have the faintest suggestion of a suspicion of a clue as to what the truth might be.

Yes, you're right. As I said in the review I really hated this particular device, not only because it was manipulative but because it seemed to me it was *cheating*.

That's an interesting point you make, about the ending, Kyra

I'd just read Uglies so I was feeling INCREDIBLY PISSED OFF with self-conscious cliff-hanger endings.

It gets surreal when the highly emotional (and manipulative) climax is constantly undermined by the ridiculously misspellings.

Again, I'm with Martin - the voice was one of the few aspects of Knife that didn't bother me. And I never found it got in the way of drama or emotion - the scene I quoted between Todd and Viola is a good example, I think, of it being really quite effective. Also, although I think it's fair enough to say "this narrative voice didn't work for me" - I don't necessarily think it means all the people for whom it did work have been lobotomised :)

I'll have a think about the other stuff when I've read the next book (eek).
Heh, actually I didn't mind that at all - I mean I guess it doesn't make *literal* sense in that it's first person present tense narration, not a written account

It had never occured to me that this would be an issue since it is a pretty noble tradition in literature. You particularly see it amongst writers who are not operating in English in a non-majority culture. Black American writers, for example. Or Scots: say, Iain M Banks in Feersum Endjinn or more trad realists like James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. Is Scots just mispelled English? A lot of people would probably say it is but the boundary between dialect and language is pretty blurred and when it comes to first person narration the boundary between written and spoken is equally unclear. What form do thoughts take? There is a lot to unpick here but I don't think there is anything unusual or problematic about such narration.
Sonia Mitchell at 22:30 on 2011-03-17
A general point not a response to the book (haven't read it)...

It had never occured to me that this would be an issue since it is a pretty noble tradition in literature.


I wouldn't say literary precedent excludes the possibility of a technique raising issues. There's phonetic dialogue in Wuthering Heights, but that doesn't stop it being problematic that despite being set in Yorkshire and filtered through anything between one and three narrators, Joseph the servant is the only one to have his dialect rendered.

I'd suggest that in general (again, not read the book) when an author uses phonetics they're *inviting* you to question why, given that it's one of the more obvious stylistic choices.

I quite liked the extracts Kyra chose though. Great article.
Oh, I agree entirely. There is always a why? for every artistic decision and as readers we should be thinking about these. But that is a question of considering the execution/intent/etc of the specific deployment of a technique. Robinson, on the other hand, is suggesting that there is something a priori wrong with using dialect in the first person. This is what I'm refering to when I say I don't see it as an issue.

On your point, there is probably lots of stuff to get into. What is Ness trying to signal in terms of class and intelligence? How much is Ness explicitly trying to evoke something like Huckleberry Finn? Is Todd's voice purely American or a Transatlantic amalgam that reflects Ness's own journey?
Wardog at 13:03 on 2011-03-18
With the whole "literal sense" angle, I was trying to see both sides of it but, honestly, it had never crossed my mind as being a problem either. I could see it could be *personally* annoying, but I can't actually think of a sensible argument as to why artful-stream-of-consciousness-first-person-present-tense narration would be actively a mistake. I mean I know there are some people who just can't get their head around present tense first person anyway but, again, that's down to reading preferences.
Arthur B at 14:15 on 2011-03-18
When I was a lot younger, first person tended to throw me and first person present tense threw me a lot. I kept trying to work out when the protagonist had the opportunity to write all of this down, and in the case of present stuff why they didn't write it down in the past tense.

I eventually realised that a first person narrative doesn't imply the existence of an actual text written by said person in their world, but it was kind of an intuitive leap.
Robinson L at 15:02 on 2011-03-18
@ Kyra: Yeah, sometimes the narrative voice works very well, though I'll note that the passage you quote doesn't include any of Ness' most egregious spelling, such as “stayshun.” I was referring specifically to the end of The Ask and the Answer when I talked about the spelling undermining the (melo)drama. Hmm, maybe it was more glaring in that book because those kinds of misspellings were less ubiquitous.

@ Martin: Huh, I hadn't even considered any of that. Which I guess goes to show that in some respects, I'm a very sheltered reader.

I never said that phonetic dialect should be rejected in all cases a priori in first-person narration or anywhere else—I only indicated that Ness' particular method really, really didn't work for me. (I think you could make the argument that it also doesn't make literal sense in that it's not consistent—if Todd and also Davy can't spell “-tion” words right, how come they don't have trouble with “thought” or “enough,” or any of the myriad other weird spelling conventions we have in English?)

I do think there's a difference between faithfully recording an existing dialect phonetically and making up your own, but not having read from the examples you cite, I can't comment on how they'd affect me. (I suspect that if Feersum Endjinn is consistent in its spelling throughout, I'll wait for the audiobook.)

I can only figure my obsessive-compulsive streak runs deeper than I thought, because unlike everyone else I found the spelling in The Knife of Never Letting Go actively painful to read through.

Kyra: I'll have a think about the other stuff when I've read the next book (eek).


Personally, I'd recommend against reading it, but mostly because I can't stand narratives where the main characters are at the mercy of the villains for a significant amount of pagespace, or where the main characters spend a lot of time doing something which the text makes perfectly clear to the reader is Evil (and not fun evil either, but evil evil). Those two together pretty much describe The Ask and the Answer in a nutshell.

If you're not as bothered by that sort of thing you may find it enjoyable, though it's at least as manipulative and heavy-handed as the first book.

I'd just read Uglies so I was feeling INCREDIBLY PISSED OFF with self-conscious cliff-hanger endings.

Huh, it actually didn't bother me. Then again, I listened to the whole Uglies series on audio—I tend to be more indulgent towards books which remove most of the effort of reading, and I'm chronically low on audiobooks. (Which isn't to say that I didn't get royally pissed with some other aspects of the books …)

Again, though, this has got me pondering. I'll agree the ending of Uglies was a bit much of a cliffhanger (he did better with Leviathan), but would you characterize the ending to Pretties as similarly excessive? I admit I don't recall Pretties as strongly, but from what I do remember, it doesn't strike me as a more egregious cliffhanger than most second-volume-in-the-trilogy books have.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 08:33 on 2012-04-12
I've just stumbled upon Nicola Griffith's novel Ammonite, which I haven't yet read, although I'm planning on purchasing it post haste. It seems to have a striking similarity to this Ness story or at least to the setting, as it seems it is a book focusing more on the contemplative, more thoughtful scifi rather than the action packed, suspenseful stuff. But basically it tells of a colonized planet where a local disease kills off all the men (and some women) and the women who are left have developed a shared Jungian consciousness as the disease's result. It also won the Tiptree award, but I haven't found much thoughts on connecting these two, perhaps because the similarities are kind of superficial. But still, it does seem rather striking that the settings are so similar. Does anyone have any knowledge regarding this?
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