Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 16:33 on 23-06-2013, Arthur B
Caveat for Kit: there is at least one (off-camera) rape in the first Witch World book - specifically, by a gang of pirates and slavers who are trying to exploit the "women lose their powers if they have sex" rule (which I believe later is revealed to be a "losing your sense that you are in charge of your own life in general, and PTSD specifically, tends to wreck your ability to do magic" rule). It's specifically this that inspires the woman who becomes a warrior (against all social expectation) to go do it, because she's like "Well, I'm certainly not about to let this shit fly, even if
my dad is the ruler of this gang and every bit of privilege I have in life can be ascribed to his activities

It was written in 1963, third-wave feminism was a long way off and second-wave feminism was only just getting going, so you might or might not have a problem with it (I'm not going to presume to predict how you'll respond to the rape) and it might or might not sit comfortably with current feminist thinking. I wasn't giving it an all-clear, just pointing it out as an example of a roughly contemporary fantasy world to Earthsea where seeds of doubt about the gender assumptions were sown from the beginning.
at 13:20 on 23-06-2013, Dan H
And I didn't think it came out of nowhere - the character was creeping me out like whoa even before that.

Sorry, "out of nowhere" was probably bad word choice on my part. It certainly fit with the personality traits he was displaying *before* that incident, it didn't fit with the personality traits they sort of reconned into him afterwards. I think I was also primed to expect a conventionally romantic story because the summary on BBC iPlayer was all "the King must choose between love and politics" or something.

Also: "She pulls his dagger on him before he really has much chance to respond. The scene depicts no violence" DID THEY WATCH THE SAME SHOW AS I?!


Oh dear, dear me.

I think a lot of people have this sort of blind spot about "violence" where they think that only *striking* counts - so you can grab somebody and hold them down as much as you like, and they can struggle as much as they like, but unless you actually *hit* them it isn't "violent" just - I don't know - "energetic" or something.

But sweet mother of fuck, she actually *pulls a knife* in order to defend herself. Surely they realise that if a person feels the need to actually use a weapon for their own protection then they are *by definition* in a violent situation.
at 10:06 on 23-06-2013, Kit
Just popping in quickly to thank Robinson for the article - I've just started on it and it looks like it's going to articulate exactly what has bothered me so much, which makes me very happy - and Arthur for the reading suggestion. I'm going to try and check out Witch World and see if it can give me some relief from internalized sexism.
at 01:32 on 23-06-2013, Cheriola
Thanks Dan, for the warning. And Andy for the article. I think I'll give it a pass, then.

It's not that the scene is unnecessary in a historical or character sense - like I said, I can easily believe that a feudal lord will just assume he has the right to ignore his female subject's consent, that kind of privileged upbringing combined with the culture of the time is bound to create some empathy- and entitlement-related personality issues, after all. And I didn't think it came out of nowhere - the character was creeping me out like whoa even before that. (The last time I felt so vindicated in my ability to spot rapist vibes in a fictional character was in the movie adaptation of "For Coloured Girls". Generally in non-feminist media, that kind of behaviour is normalised as just "boys being boys".) I don't even need or expect to like the protagonist in a historical drama. I watch and enjoy "The Borgias", ffs.

What bugs me is the suggestion that the woman would love him anyhow, which I feel is not necessarily supported by the historical facts. Even if the rape attempt was historical, as the Guardian article claims (Which contemporary court chronicler documented that, and in such detail??), their conclusion "He did not rape her, and six weeks later they were married. Given how disastrous a marriage this was for him politically, it must be assumed that he married her for love or lust, and she also entered into it willingly." What on Earth makes them conclude that she agreed to the marriage without duress (economic blackmail, the fact that he's her father's new liege lord)? "By all accounts, they were in love." - You don't have her account (or if you do, it was written with the knowledge that her husband would get to see it), and without that, her making the best of an awful situation and acting covincingly like the doting wife to avoid further harm seems more likely to me. Or if they really had to make it a love story, they should have made clear that it's harmful to fall in love/limerence with someone suffering from narcissist personality disorder and abusive tendencies. By including that rape attempt and then ignoring it in the name of traditional romance, they imply that you should forgive a near-rapist because of twu wuv and because he'll change. That kind of media representation kills, because girls are taught to ignore warning signs and that a rape attempt can be a mistake made by any man, and is not the action of a dangerous predator. (And make no mistake that kids are watching. I have a 15-year-old aquaintance who watched "The Tudors" at age 8.) That's what's pissing me off, not the inclusion of a rape attempt in a historical drama about a time with very different morals. Be all grimdark if you must, show, but don't try to make it an appealing romance at the same time!

Also: "She pulls his dagger on him before he really has much chance to respond. The scene depicts no violence" DID THEY WATCH THE SAME SHOW AS I?! She says "no" several times, with him showing no signs of stopping. Do men lose their hearing when the blood is needed elsewhere? And sexual assault isn't violence?! This was written by women??

Sorry. That article really just made me more angry, because they're clearly not getting what the problem was, or that TV dramas don't air in a social vacuum.

Maybe I'm just touchy because I've read a few reviews of and commentary on Game of Thrones in the last days and was reminded once again of the fact that many people find the relationship of Danaerys and Drogo romantic and will go to great lengths to explain why it supposedly wasn't rapey in the books. How anyone can interpret either version as anything other than Stockholm syndrome is beyond me. And the lecturer in the literary SF/F series I was trying to listen to the other day while gardening didn't help either. He just had to take time out of the lecture to make a point about how he thinks Poe was not a "pervert", because marrying a 13-year-old was legal at the time, her mother was all for it, and he was devoted to the girl, so it's okay, really.
I guess I just had an overdose of unexpected rape culture this week.
at 23:41 on 22-06-2013, Andy G
Oh also, in case you hadn't seen this, the Guardian have posted a piece by the makers of the White Queen explaining their rationale for including the attempted rape scene (in response to an earlier piece that was critical of the scene). Thought it might be of interest, though I have only skimmed it myself.
at 22:39 on 22-06-2013, Andy G
I've just seen that there is a proper traditional Romeo and Juliet adaptation in period dress by the man behind Downton Abbey coming up soon. The spirit of the Bardathon lives on!
at 12:13 on 22-06-2013, James D
I think that, rather than try to fix old series with new additions, authors would do better to just write new books in new worlds that better reflect their new attitudes. Le Guin could have easily invented some brand new, equally lighthearted fantasy world in which men and women can both use magic equally, and it would have been fine. Instead with Earthsea she had to go back and laboriously renovate all the patriarchal worldbuilding she did in the initial trilogy, giving readers tone whiplash in the process.
at 11:45 on 22-06-2013, Arthur B
Worth comparing to Witch World, Andre Norton's science-fantasy-bleeding-into-high-fantasy series. In the first book of that we learn that on the Witch World women get to do magic (provided they remain virgins) and men get to do warrior stuff; those are the essentials of gender as understood there. Norton then starts directly undermining those premises from the first book onwards, and (caveat: have only read first book so far) it's my understanding that over the course of the series it becomes monumentally clear that all of those assumptions were just the local cultural paradigm rather than having any objective truth to them.
at 11:32 on 22-06-2013, Kit

Of yes, ofcourse, it's absolutely to her credit that she *did* notice it later and tried to fix or at least question it. That in itself is already a big step that many fantasy authors don't take, and indicates her alertness to certain issues I really like. But I guess I was disappointed because it was published in 1990 (I think?), and by that stage there already was enough third-wave and postmodern, poststrucuralist feminism around to make her own take on that look really anachronistic. I don't know, I just wish there had been a bit more awareness or guts there, because I know she could do it and has done so in other books.
at 11:30 on 22-06-2013, Robinson L
Gosh, it's been so long since my Dad read me Tehanu that I can't remember the first thing about it. Still haven't read The Other Wind because ... well, even with my residual fondness for A Wizard of Earthsea (and, to a lesser extent, the first two sequels), I find the series kinda dull.

I get that a lot with Le Guin, actually. I had to force myself through The Left Hand of Darkness because for whatever reason, I just couldn't get into the story - which made it pretty difficult to notice, much less appreciate how she handled themes.

I was pretty surprised by how much I enjoyed The Dispossessed, especially considering that for most of the book, I felt little or no tension about where the story was going. But I found the character of Shevek and most of the little vignettes he gets into engaging enough to pull me all the way through. This in turn, allowed me to appreciate Le Guin's world-building and deft exploration of social issues (the kids' experiment with a makeshift prison was an incident she easily could've overplayed, but mercifully didn't). Her non-romanticized, in-depth discussion of a hypothetical egalitarian, stateless society particularly captured my interest, go figure.

Interesting that about villains, because my favorite Le Guin book before I read The Dispossessed was Gifts, which I recall having a right-by-the-numbers villain. (The fact that he was so by-the-numbers felt like a weakness to me, but he played a necessary role as part of the overall story.)

Er, anyway, getting back to the original point of the discussion, while I don't remember Tehanu at all, the more general point about Le Guin and gender essentialism immediately put me in mind of this piece by Athena Andreadis, which suggests that this is a chronic problem, and not even limited to twenty years ago, unfortunately.
at 11:25 on 22-06-2013, Dan H

Yes, exactly - it's as if she set up this completely unquestioning feudal/patriarchal fantasy world, and realised two decades later that it was incredibly problematic and wanted to tack on a subtle and interesting exploration of those issues without really succeeding.

I'm pretty sure that is, in fact, exactly what happened. I seem to recall Le Guin expressing a certain amount of disappointment at herself for having blindly assumed that the Earthsea books would just *have* to be set in a patriarchal society because, like, that's how fantasy societies have to work.

I wonder if part of it isn't that it's actually quite an old story (I mean it was published twenty years after the original, but that was still twenty years before the present) and a lot of varieties of old-school feminism can be quite gender essentialist.


I've got a similar question. Did anyone watch "The White Queen"? I was interested, because historical drama and all, but I found King Edward irritating and douchy at first... And then he tried to rape the protagonist.

Umm ... yeah. That confused the fuck out of me too.

It never comes up again - for the rest of the episode Edward/Elizabeth is played as a perfectly straight love story. This is a *little* bit more palatable than having him behave in a consistently abusive manner throughout, but massively *less* palatable than ... umm ... not having him try to rape her at all maybe thanks okay bye?

I *did* carry on watching and just sort of put the attempted rape in the what-the-fuck box (the rest of the episode literally plays out as if it never happened) but obviously that's me watching from a position of privilege. It looks like it's going to be played as a straight love story from hereon in (although of course I've only seen episode one and I haven't read the book) and if that's going to piss you the fuck off (and I can totally see why it would) then I'd maybe give it a miss.

It's a shame (I mean, a shame they put it in, not a shame you decided to stop watching because of it) because - as you say - that scene is *completely fucking inexplicable*, comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere so it serves literally no narrative purpose that I can see. I *think* they wanted to misdirect the audience as much as possible about whether Edward was a good guy or not so as to maintain dramatic tension over whether he would choose to acknowledge his marriage to Elizabeth (spoiler, he does) and I think having him ... umm ... try to rape her is part of that misdirection. His whole personality basically changes once they stop trying to keep the audience guessing about his intentions.
at 09:56 on 22-06-2013, Kit
the suggestions that the ancient horrifying powers that were occasionally hinted at in the earlier books were in fact formerly benign entities of Earth-magic who were corrupted and driven mad due to the persecution the witches were subjected to/the fury of the witches at being persecuted

that one was about a girl going to the Roke school and having to be isolated from the other students because she's a girl and auuugh.

Oh, dear. That's just a continuation of the well-meaning but harmful faux-feminism of Tehanu...what I don't understand is how such a good and articulated writer, someone so well-informed in matters of social and political science (like Ibmiller, I have and immense fondness for The Dispossessed, and was really impressed by its good grasp of political theory) can be so incapable of articulating a more interesting and subversive position here. For all its faults, she actually did something interesting in The Left Hand of Darkness, so why not here, since she is clearly capable of that? I guess I felt really let down because I was expecting so much more from her, hence my incredibe bitterness.

Le Guin seems to have done something similar to what Moorcock did with the later Elric books, i.e. gone back to a fun adventure series she finished decades earlier and wrote "intellectual" additions that didn't fit the tone or content of the originals at all, and were pretty crappy to boot.

Yes, exactly - it's as if she set up this completely unquestioning feudal/patriarchal fantasy world, and realised two decades later that it was incredibly problematic and wanted to tack on a subtle and interesting exploration of those issues without really succeeding. It just really brings out what was problematic in the first books but could be kind of overlooked (I did that, and enjoyed the stories and the themes and the occasional beautiful bits of prose), without resolving any of that.

So, I guess I'm going to read The Other Wind, if only to get the feeling of the first Earthsea books back, and see if it can reconcile me with the series as a whole. And then maybe The Telling...anyway, thanks for the reactions and the recommendations, everyone!
at 05:46 on 22-06-2013, Ibmiller
I actually really, really love The Dispossessed. It does have a lot of artifacts of its time - male protagonist, assumptions about gender (though I think it's a lot more questioned than Tehanu), and above all, a kind of love for all people, even the frustrating, evil, lazy, sick ones. The Telling has a similar feel, though I felt the plot structure and characterization were more than a bit sketchier than The Dispossessed (they're both in the same series, though The Telling is something like 3000 years later).

Earthsea is an odd duck, though. I do quite like the first three, though in decreasing enthusiasm. Tehanu is such a slap in the face, stylistically, worldbuilding, etc. LeGuin's afterword, published a few years ago, is a very good look at the ideas in its construction. I can't speak very well to how it succeeds ideologically, but I think artistically it fails because LeGuin, in her own words, doesn't do villains (at least in terms of "someone who enjoys being bad") convincingly. Tehanu (and to a lesser extent, Tombs of Atuan) are very angry books, and I think because of that tend towards setting up the kinds of us-vs-them conflicts and villains that I don't see LeGuin really being able to execute successfully.

I actually really love The Other Wind - I thought it did a really great job of recapturing the sparse, lovely nature of The Wizard of Earthsea, bringing things full circle, making further explorations in the worldbuilding, and finding closure. It does seem a bit exposition-happy (I think LeGuin felt the need to summarize all the short stories in Tales from Earthsea - which I haven't read), but on the whole, I highly recommend it to people who have read the first three and loved them.

Jo Walton thought the conclusion was a bit problematic, but though I sort of see her point, I didn't have the same reaction - or even an opposite reaction based on the same events and themes.

So, tl,dr - I love The Other Wind (and also The Dispossessed). However, I do tend to approach things from a different slant than many, so my experience may not be yours?
at 04:59 on 22-06-2013, Cheriola
I've got a similar question. Did anyone watch "The White Queen"? I was interested, because historical drama and all, but I found King Edward irritating and douchy at first... And then he tried to rape the protagonist. Now, normally this wouldn't bother me in a historical drama, because kings rarely were good people. (And I was rather glad that all the more subtle red flag behaviour from him before she clearly said "no" and had to fend him off with a knife wasn't actually meant to be romantic or just 'harmless', horny pushiness, like in a lot of other romance storylines.) But some minutes before that scene I had gone to Wikipedia to figure out who these people are, and apparently they end up marrying and it's a big scandal because she's just a very minor noble and not a politically advantageous marriage.

I stopped watching after the rape attempt, fearing that the writers mean to make her forgive him and fall in love with him in spite of the very clear, remorseless rape attempt. (They had been acting all lovey-dovey and in lust before she refused to become his mistress.) But I guess the story could still be salvaged if they mean to make a point about the powerlessness of women in a feudal society and have her strive for marriage and queen-dom out of pure calculation. (He's the king, he's got an army and he's the only one who can give her back the lands taken from her and her sons. So he's going to have her body one way or another. Might as well 'agree' to it and get goverment positions for her many siblings and a crown for the eventual child out of it.) I mean, why would you ever make up a non-historical near-rape scene between your romantic leads, and one in which the rapist still feels justified afterwards and doesn't understand he did wrong? I know that "slap, slap, kiss" is a common trope, but the "slap" phase normally refers to bickering, not assault fended off with a blade and a suicide threat.

So, has anyone watched beyond that scene or read the book it's based on, and can tell me whether it's worth sticking around or just the utter fail it looks like to me right now?
at 03:36 on 22-06-2013, Melanie
Yeah, Tehanu was painful for me, too. I read The Other Wind, but I don't remember it well so I can't really comment on it. Same with Dragonfly (which is in the Legends III novella collection), although I believe that one was about a girl going to the Roke school and having to be isolated from the other students because she's a girl and auuugh.
at 02:44 on 22-06-2013, Cheriola
I've only read 2 and a half book by Le Guin:

My first contact with the author was "The Telling", which I really liked - so much that I still find it odd that it's one of her lesser known ones. I especially liked that the protagonist is a queer woman of colour and that it's not presented like the more 'advanced' Earth society she comes from (a future Canada) to play observer on the alien 'developing world' is actually ethically superior or that it has evolved beyond violent internal conflict or cultural oppression of minority groups, like some sort of Rhodenberry utopia. Aparently the cultural conflict on the alien world in this story was inspired by Maoist China - I don't know how closely it resembles the real thing and if it's offensive, but at least it's different than your usual fantasy/sci-fi standard settings.
I've only read a German translation, so I can't comment on the style.

"The Left Hand of Darkness" left me quite a bit disappointed after that. I mean, I liked the worldbuilding of the alien cultures and I can see that the story was progressive for its time. But it bugs me that the main character seems so incompetent and unqualified for his diplomatic job. It's probably just a science zeerust effect, but I couldn't stop thinking that a trained anthropologist, especially one from our future, shouldn't be this surprised about different cultural norms or hold such deeply entrenched ideas of gender essentialism and misogyny. (He kept comparing the mostly male-presenting aliens to human women like it was an inherently bad thing to express some of what are considered feminine traits in modern western society.)
And while I intellectually know that male anthropologists probably really were like that in the 1960s, it still makes me sad that even Le Guin couldn't imagine that ever changing - even in what is here presented as an utopian, supposedly egalitarian future society.

I tried to read the Earthsea books over a decade ago, but I didn't get far into the first. I think it was the writing style that put me off. Or perhaps things just seemed too clichéed, because of the age of the story. This is not a problem I have with only Le Guin. I had to force myself to get through "The Lord of the Rings", too. (Only got through those books on the third try, and with a very talented audiobook reader. I still think they are dull, excessively wordy, populated by one-dimensional cardboard cutouts and socially problematic on multiple levels. Maybe it's one of those things you have to read as a child.)
at 02:12 on 22-06-2013, James D
Holy shit, I'd read the first three Earthsea books and enjoyed them quite a bit, but had no idea it got that bad later. I think it's important to note that the first three books were all written in quick succession in the late 60s and early 70s, while all later additions were written over 20 years later, so what you basically have is a stand-alone trilogy with some codas.

Having not read Tehanu myself I can't really comment on it specifically, but Le Guin seems to have done something similar to what Moorcock did with the later Elric books, i.e. gone back to a fun adventure series she finished decades earlier and wrote "intellectual" additions that didn't fit the tone or content of the originals at all, and were pretty crappy to boot.
at 23:30 on 21-06-2013, Arthur B
I vaguely remember one of the short stories in Tales From Earthsea being about how
actually, the magic school was originally established by a group of men and women and women doing Roke-style magic was a-OK until a few decades later when there was a patriarchal coup
. But that story annoyed me for other reasons, not least the suggestions that
the ancient horrifying powers that were occasionally hinted at in the earlier books were in fact formerly benign entities of Earth-magic who were corrupted and driven mad due to the persecution the witches were subjected to/the fury of the witches at being persecuted
at 23:05 on 21-06-2013, Kit
Did I just get rickrolled by Ursula Le Guin...? Having only just started reading her books, I devoured The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness and then moved on to the Earthsea quartet. The first three books were, to me, quite nice and well-done, broadly standart high fantasy fare with interesting twists, making a couple of subtler points than other works (I liked the fact they were not obsessed with otherness and pollution and boundaries and heroic struggle against exterior enemies like, say, Tolkien - even though the whole "Aaaaah but the darkness is in ourselves and we must reconcile it aaaah" shtick got kind of predictable very fast, I still enjoyed it).

And then came Tehanu. Dear god. It was an absolutely excrutiating read for me, not only because I find fairly realistic descriptions of women's oppression and powerlessness genuinely difficult to read, but because, on top of that, it was handled incredibly badly. It's like she suddenly noticed that she had set up the most gender-conservative, patriarchal feudal society and now kind of wanted to question it, but did so by happily endorsing the worst kind of unquestioning, undeconstructed essentialist celebration of women's magic and women's strengththe specificity of women's strength and women's magic and their connectedness to nature. There's a lot of talk about how men are defined by the power they crave and wield and that women have much deeper roots than that and a different kind of endurance and that their being are much vaster and deeper than men's.

I had expected so much better than this blind and stupid essentialism, which doesn't lead to any resolution at all, and is exactly as harmful as the stereotypes it thinks it undermines. Would it have been so much to ask to give your female protagonists some kind of agency? Tenar does spend so much time talking about how harmful this society is for women and how powerless she feels, and nothing, nothing ever come out of that. No resolution, no attempt to regain a bit of power, nothing. You could argue that it is a realist account of what women can and cannot do in this situation, but we're talking about the former high priestess of the Nameless Ones, and pupil of a very powerful mage, so she has been exposed to other ways of life and it's not like she cannot fathom what power means, and yet she can't even get her son to clear his dishes from the table. And Therru doesn't really count - making her, and only her, have the opportunity to actually do something and rise above her perceived status of victim feels like a cop-out, because she's not really human, but a dragon-hybrid thing (although that could also fall into the "aaah, see, women harness the elemental power of nature and deep ancient magic, aaah" - there also is a lot of emphasis on how Tenar understands the true language without really knowing how to do magic and craft spells, see, because instinct is a female thing and rationality and craft are male things). What makes it even more infuriating is that there are interesting bits and issues in it (like Tenar asking why men are so afraid of women, or the conversation about the real power of queens and if a woman could become an archmage), but they are - to me - not explored in a satisfying way at all.

I'm sorry about the long rant - I didn't know here else to post it and needed to vent, and to see if anyone else had such a visceral reaction to it or if I'm just being overly bitter. And, also, could someone please tell me if things get better in her subsequent books/short stories? I really want to read The Other Wind for closure, but I'm afraid of sitting through something as failtastic as this again. Should I go on or just give up?
at 22:36 on 21-06-2013, Robinson L
I really enjoyed For the Win as well (as can be seen here). Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom less so, not so much because of all the Singularity stuff, it just took me forever to get into the story. Haven't tried Little Brother, and at this point, not particularly keen to. If I see a review of one of his other books that piques my interest (which is how I was convinced to give For the Win a try) I may read it - otherwise, probably not.

I do tend to be in agreement with Doctorow's politics in regards internet freedom and civil liberties, from what little I've seen of them.
at 21:54 on 21-06-2013, Sonia Mitchell
I enjoyed For The Win. I was a bit wary, it being the first of Doctorow's books I'd read, but I'd pick up another. It was nowhere near as self-indulgent as I'd been expecting.
at 18:32 on 21-06-2013, Ibmiller
Also Abigail Nussbaum's review of "Little Brother" help explain why I was furious for three days after I read that pile of garbage:
at 19:26 on 20-06-2013, Michal
On the other hand, he did edit the only installment of the Tesseracts anthologies worth buying (i.e. #11).

I looked at the guest list and my first reaction was "Holy shit Marion Gibson will be there!" which actually doesn't make any sense at all considering the convention's theme. But I would definitely go if there wasn't an ocean between me and London so that we could talk about early modern witchcraft pamphlets. And, well, I wouldn't mind "blowing off some steam" on Stephen Hunt as well.
at 18:46 on 20-06-2013, Arthur B
All sorts of stuff Cory Doctorow does drives me the wrong way but the whole "geek utopian whose political agenda seems to be driven by a desire to get to play with as many cool toys as possible in his lifetime" and "talking about the Singularity as if it is anything other than a statistical mirage" are good starting points to understand my irritation.