Here’s an overview of the books I read in 2019.
I’ve now surpassed my rather modest goal of reading 30 books this year. I used to read a lot more books when I was travelling to work on the bus.
This month I’ve re-read Empire of Bones by Liz Williams, and read Pagan Magic of the Northern Tradition by Nigel Pennick, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, and started The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate.
I started the month with The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams but I just couldn’t get into it. Feeling nostalgic, I reread The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates, and then Quantum Night by Robert Sawyer (for a reading group that I’ve started at work).
Science fiction, magic, books, and landscape – my favourite subjects.
- Redshirts by John Scalzi
- Six Ways, by Aidan Wachter
- 21st century Yokel, by Tom Cox
- Bookworm: A memoir of childhood reading, by Lucy Mangan
Some psychologists have suggested the existence of a “god-shaped hole” in the mind — a set of psychological functions that evolved for some other purpose (like detecting predators sneaking up behind us), but which predispose us to believe in gods, or in God, or the supernatural, or the preternatural, or something out there other than ourselves.Continue reading
What can fictional religions tell us about real religions? Are constructed religions just as valid as ancient ones? What about real-world religions based on fictional ones? One impetus for creating constructed religions is for use in jurisdictions where religious activity is imposed by the authorities – but people often find that their joke religion then takes on a life of its own.
Science fiction, particularly the writings of Ursula le Guin, explores hypothetical alternative societies, cultures, futures, and histories. I am currently watching Babylon 5 again on DVD, and would highly recommend it as an exploration of what happens when a totalitarian and xenophobic government takes over, and how people come together to resist.
Alternative visions of the world
Both fantasy and SF present alternative visions of the world. Some of these visions are helpful, and others are not. Some are dystopian, some are utopian. Some are hierarchical, some are egalitarian. Some have individual heroes, others have resistance movements. Some inspired whole Pagan movements, such as the Church of All Worlds, inspired by Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Can you grok that? There are a surprising number of parallels between Paganism and SF, and a lot of Pagans who read SF, too.
The other day, I saw this tweet, and it set me thinking. Would people who said they’d follow the MockingJay, or fight in Dumbledore’s army, actually resist fascism? Would they be able to relate the fantasy world resistance to the real thing?
If you ever said you’d fight in Dumbledore’s army, you’d follow the MockingJay, you’d fight back against the Empire – now is the time. pic.twitter.com/k6yJGQs5uo
— Sharar Ravitz (@JewfroMacabbi) November 22, 2016
In order to answer that question, which of these genres provides better models for resisting a slide into fascism, we have to take a step back to another question.
What’s the difference between fantasy and SF?
Science fiction usually offers an explanation (however tenuous or inferred) of how the world, and the technology in it, came to be the way it is. Science fiction can include alternative histories, what-if scenarios, extrapolations into the future, utopias, and dystopias. It has many sub-genres. There’s hard science fiction, which mainly deals with the effects of technology on society; soft science fiction, which looks at things from a social science perspective (anthropology or sociology, sometimes linguistics or psychology). There’s steampunk, where the technology is mostly steam-driven, with lots of cogs and brass (this emerged out of the alternative history sub-genre). SF is sometimes called speculative fiction.
In fantasy, the underlying technology is generally magic. Fantasy also has several sub-genres. There’s the sword and sorcery tale. There’s space opera (which is basically fantasy masquerading as SF). A lot of fantasy seems to be set in a very hierarchical medieval or feudal world, and often in a magic kingdom which is reached by a magic door (or wardrobe, or mirror). There are many interesting and classic fantasy novels, but in many ways the genre was put out of joint by the sheer weight of The Lord of the Rings, which has had many imitators, most of them bad (I really like LoTR, but for goodness’ sake, get your own plot, fantasy authors). And quite frankly, the Harry Potter books are basically a school story with magic in it (though I heartily approve of the egalitarian behaviour of “Dumbledore’s Army”, and of the brilliant caricature of OFSTED in the person of Dolores Umbridge). A marvellous exception to all of this is Philip Pullman’s brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy, which is deeply anti-authoritarian, and has quite a lot of crossover with science fiction, with parallel worlds, and even a slight steampunk feel to some of the worlds in it. And of course there’s Terry Pratchett’s brilliantly insightful Discworld novels, which are arguably Pagan theology at its finest.
Urban fantasy, on the other hand, is set in our reality, into which fantastic elements emerge, and it uses these to comment on things in our world. Examples include most of Neil Gaiman‘s oeuvre, Seanan McGuire’s hilarious InCryptid series, which is about the adventures of a family of cryptozoologists, the Storm trilogy by R A Smith, and The Last Changeling by F R Maher.
Models for resistance and change in SF and fantasy
In fantasy novels, when someone resists the encroachment of evil, the evil is usually fairly obvious, and frequently relies on a supernatural source of power. It’s a Dark Lord (Voldemort, Sauron, etc). Better quality fantasy novels have more subtle tyrants, like Saruman, who started out trying to resist Sauron, but because he tried to use Sauron’s power to do so, ended up becoming like Sauron himself. Another example of a subtly-drawn tyrant is Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials, who works for the Magisterium, and indeed Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, who is something of an ambivalent character. The protagonist of these novels is usually especially gifted with magical powers to resist the evil (the Old Ones in The Dark is Rising; Harry Potter; even Lyra), or has been fated to be the one to resist since the beginning of time, or since their birth. One of the clever things about The Lord of the Rings is that there’s nothing all that special about Frodo Baggins, except perhaps the ordinariness of hobbits. As Tolkien himself pointed out, it is Frodo’s vulnerability and smallness that fitted him for the task.
In science fiction novels and dramas, the evil or oppression to be resisted is often systemic, and identifiable as a human construct, the outcome of a complex web of causality (though sometimes, as in Isaac Asimov’s story The Caves of Steel, it’s the consequence of the environment). Because the evil or oppression is usually systemic, the means of resisting it is usually co-operative and collaborative; not led by one single hero, but requiring the input of many people working together. In Babylon 5, for example, although Sheridan is important as a leader of the resistance, he couldn’t have done it without Delenn, Ivanova, Garibaldi, Franklin, the resistance on Mars, the co-operation of the security people who didn’t collaborate with the regime, and so on. In Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge, the resistance consists of many different individuals coming together to bring about change.
Bertolt Brecht, Darko Suvin, and cognitive estrangement
In his ground-breaking essay, Estrangement and Cognition (1968, 1979, 2014), where he analyses the difference between SF and fantasy, Darko Suvin, a Croatian-Canadian literary critic, wrote that science fiction engages in ‘cognitive estrangement’. Suvin says that fantasy and myth is estranged from everyday reality, but it does not ask us to think about why; we accept the magic door, and other magical effects, as a priori necessities in the fantastical universe. Literary fiction, set in our universe, is not estranged, though it may be cognitive and require us to think about cause and effect. Science fiction, on the other hand, is set in an alternative world, but it is one we are required to think about, and to actively construct in our imaginations by looking for clues in the text about how the world, and its technology, works; how the society of the SF novel came to be the way it is.
Suvin based his interpretation on the Russian theatre technique of ostranenie, a term coined by the playwright Shklovsky, and meaning ‘making the familiar strange’. This is similar to Bertolt Brecht’s use of Verfremdungseffekte (often translated as ‘alienation effects’, but Suvin’s translation, ‘estrangement effects’, gets the idea across much better). It’s possible that Brecht was told about the technique on a visit to Moscow in 1935. Brecht created his plays and poetry to get people thinking, and to do that, he didn’t want them to identify with the characters and achieve a cathartic effect or a discharge of emotion. Instead, he wanted people to think about what they would do in a similar situation, or about the causes of the situation. Why does Mother Courage go round and round in circles, getting poorer and more miserable? Why do the characters of The Threepenny Opera have such terrible lives? Brecht wants us to analyse the underlying causes, as well as having a general solidarity or empathy with the characters.
The beauty of the science fictional setting, of course, is that it is already strange, and so it makes the reader think about what is happening, so that they can piece together how this fictional world works. In his essay on science fiction in Speculations on Speculation, Samuel R Delaney quotes a sentence, “I rubbed depilatory soap over my face and rinsed it with the trickle from the fresh water tap” (from Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants). As Delaney points out, this single sentence lets you know that there is a water shortage in this world, because there is only a trickle from the fresh water tap, and the fact that it is labelled fresh tells you that there’s another tap with non-fresh water. This leads the reader to ask, why is there a water shortage? Has there been an environmental catastrophe, or is it a desert world?
Fantasy, on the other hand, does expect the reader to identify with the characters, and to achieve an emotional catharsis through the dramatic journey that they experience. Readers of fantasy, however, know that the hero will restore the proper order in the end, and defeat the evil tyrant, because that’s how fantasy works. They also know that it’s the job of the pre-destined hero with the special powers to defeat the evil tyrant. And of course they know that in the real world, the odds may be stacked against the hero. Fantasy doesn’t provide much of a road-map for defeating a whole system of tyranny. It’s very good on overthrowing the Dark Lord with a magic sword, but what if the Dark Lord has loads of minions waiting in the wings who are just as obnoxious as he is?
Science fiction, on the other hand, is set in ostensibly the same universe as the one we live in, with the same physical properties, and the same sort of people (barring the occasional telepath). Because it deals with whole systems of oppression or flourishing, it is much better placed to provide us with road-maps for change. Of course there are exceptions to the picture I am painting here, but it’s mostly true.
Change is systemic and collective
Resistance is collective. Yes, there are those who dare to dream bigger and better, and actually do something, and they are extremely important as catalysts – but a catalyst is no good unless it is followed by a reaction. In order to bring about change, we need to create a mass movement of people who are tired of racism, tired of homophobia, tired of misogyny, tired of austerity, tired of exploitation, globalisation, putting profits before people, and the widening wealth gap. We need to inspire them to dream something different. And we need to show them the blueprints for change, not just tell them that it is possible.
As Ursula le Guin said at the National Book Awards in 2014,
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.
And she went on to add,
We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
Most fantasy merely provides an excursion from the normal order of things, in the same way that carnival and Saturnalia were an inversion of the normal order, a letting-off of steam in order to facilitate a return to business-as-usual. It would be good to see more fantasy that challenges the usual tropes of fantasy – which is why urban fantasy is such a refreshing change.
Science fiction, on the other hand, provides a blueprint for other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of feeling. It puts the characters in a hypothetical situation and asks what the human reaction to that situation would be; not the superhero reaction, but the human one. It can posit whole different ways of organising society, or gender, or sexuality, or the economy, and explore in depth how they would work, and how people would flourish or struggle in that environment.
Recommended reading – fiction
- The Fifth Sacred Thing – Starhawk
- City of Refuge – Starhawk
- The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin
- Always Coming Home – Ursula Le Guin
- Empire of Bones – Liz Williams
- The Ghost Sister – Liz Williams
Recommended reading – non-fiction
- Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction, eds James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria
- The Anarres Project for alternative futures
[Please note: spoilers ahead, especially for the prequel, The Fifth Sacred Thing.]
When I bought my copy of City of Refuge, I was trying to have low expectations. I can only imagine that writing a sequel to a well-received, bestselling book like The Fifth Sacred Thing more than twenty years after its initial publication must have been an intimidating task. Would the sequel remain true to the characters we loved the first time around? Would the story still resonate despite changes in our political climate? Would the book simply come off as too idealistic for me—now twenty years older myself—to take it seriously?
Well, I lost a lot of sleep the week I read it. I didn’t stay up all night, because I am the parent of a toddler and I value my sanity; but I stayed up till the wee hours four nights in a row because I was desperate to learn what happened next. Dare I say it? I could barely put it down.
Now, I’ll admit that neither City of Refuge nor The Fifth Sacred Thing is going to win prizes as literary fiction. The Fifth Sacred Thing suffers from the didactic, “teachy/preachy” quality that’s typical of utopian/dystopia sci-fi. The book’s setting is drawn in broad strokes: the United States government has collapsed and its remnants are controlled by a corrupt, fundamentalist, militaristic Christian sect. The land once known as California is in severe drought, and water is a scarce resource. But within the border of the former San Francisco, witches and other community-oriented, earth-loving people have formed a lovely but fragile consensus-based society that is harmoniously integrated into the local ecosystem.
Starhawk uses the metaphor of homeopathy to suggest that a tiny, representative fragment of a just society, when inserted into an unhealthy society at the right place and time, can have a healing effect that ripples out from the point of contact. In The Fifth Sacred Thing, this principle describes how the peaceful people of former San Francisco survive an army invasion and, after terrible and bloody loss of life through nonviolence resistance, convert the ill-treated soldiers to their side. In City of Refuge, this metaphor continues as main characters Bird and Madrone travel to the crumbling metropolis of former Los Angeles. There, while the converted army turns and marches on its former masters, they attempt to set up a safe place for refugees from the city who would otherwise be executed or slain.
City of Refuge is still a utopian/dystopian novel. It has parts where characters lecture each other in order to get across important background information about economics, permaculture, pedagogy, and other issues. Yet it does its teaching more smoothly and with more self-awareness than The Fifth Sacred Thing. The Fifth Sacred Thing was written by an activist in her forties whose daily work included regular direct action—no doubt an intense and polarizing place from which to write. City of Refuge was written by that same activist in her sixties, and seemingly from a place of greater reflection and humility.
At an American Academy of Religion conference I attended about five years ago, Starhawk spoke about her work with the Occupy movement. She remarked on the potentially insurmountable challenges that Occupy faced in its attempt to exclusively use a consensus-based decision-making process. As she wrote in her blog around the same time:
Sitting down in the public square to Occupy and protest an unjust system attracted the very people most impacted by the injustice, some of whom are badly wounded in ways that make it very hard to organize and live together. When your own needs are overwhelming, and unfulfilled, it’s hard to see that other people might also have needs. When you’ve had no voice, and somebody offers you a platform to speak and an audience, it can be hard to step back after your allotted two minutes and let others speak. When you’ve dulled your pain for years with drink or drugs, you can’t easily go cold turkey and stop using. […Consensus] requires someone with a linear thinking mind to facilitate, who can keep a kind of outline in their head of topics, subtopics, points A B C and D. When people come to it with the pent-up anger of years of disempowerment, it can simply compound frustration. When the voices in your head compel you to tell the world about the impending arrival of the Space Brothers with the Mysterious Blue Geodes and you theory about how it all relates to the Mayan Calendar, being told you’re off topic just doesn’t cut it.
The idealism of City of Refuge is noticeably tempered with real-world experience. Consensus works pretty well in a well-fed group of people who have been trained their whole lives to use it; but what about on the streets with a group of starving strangers, some of whom are in poor mental and physical health and all of whom are scared and angry? There are moments when Bird and Madrone’s project simply goes off the rails, and there is no magical solution, no deus ex machina to make things right.
People die a lot in City of Refuge: adults and teenagers and children. The book presents problems to which there are no solutions, at least not in this storyline. And although there are moments of hope—perhaps even a “happy” ending—some threads are simply left unraveled.
The book also has moments of black humor that warn the audience against reading it or its prequels as strictly ideological. The Fifth Sacred Thing used nonviolent resistance as a central plot point, and many readers have assumed that Starhawk is rigidly committed to nonviolent protest. In City of Refuge, however, Maya—the character whose life story most resembles Starhawk’s—states firmly that she was never a pacifist. When challenged on her past advocacy for nonviolence as a response to invasion, she snaps, “That was a vision. I never claimed it was dogma for all occasions.”
Later, when a group of enslaved farmers is being liberated, we have what initially looks like a stereotypical utopian/dystopian teaching moment: a farmer asks how they will run the farm without hierarchy, and a member of the liberating army launches into an explanation of collective ownership. Rather than listening avidly, however—as one would expect if this were a typical scene in the genre—the starving, exhausted farmers talk amongst themselves, cry, or stare off into space in total shock. The lecture falls on deaf ears—a lesson, perhaps, in the need to give ideology second place behind compassionate response to human need.
This is what I mean when I say that City of Refuge is humble. It is not a book that present itself as knowing the answers to climate change, racism, classism, sexism, religious intolerance, or economic exploitation. Its beautiful witch heroes are compelling, but they are also sometimes naïve, wrong, or just plain foolish. Its villains, in turn, are not wholly evil, though some are quite bad; in fact, some apparent villains turn out to be needed allies for the liberating army. City of Refuge does not present situations or people in black and white terms. It acknowledges brokenness and does not always insist that that brokenness be fixed. Instead, it allows for love, and for uncertainty.
City of Refuge portrays earth-based spirituality, permaculture, sacred sexuality, nonhierarchical decision-making, collective ownership, and other politically-charged concepts. As an engaging novel, it is an enjoyable way to introduce yourself or a loved one to these ideas—and in that way, it serves an ideological purpose. However—and this is what makes City of Refuge so much better than many utopian/dystopian novels—it refuses to present these ideas rigidly or dogmatically. City of Refuge is deeper than a simple dramatization of Starhawk’s politics. For that reason, this book belongs not just in the hands of Pagans or activists, but in the hands of any reader who is struggling with the realities of this frightening historical moment. Humbly, City of Refuge offers us not simple answers, but instead a variety of ways forward to explore and perhaps make our own.
The Patheos Public Square question for this month is:
Has Hollywood Become Our National Conscience? Many 21st-century movies—both animated children’s films and big production feature films—have tackled moral and cultural questions in ways that have shaped the public conversation. Is this good and helpful or dangerous? In what ways has Hollywood asked the right questions and shaped the discourse? Can the art of movie-making be an act of social justice?
My answer is, I suppose, “it depends”. If the agenda of the film is generally progressive and inclusive, that’s great — but there are also some harmful tropes in Hollywood movies, and some disappointing things.
Honestly – if I never see another uncritical superhero movie, that’ll be just fine. I am fed up of lone vigilantes and their superpowers. Give me the complex and multifaceted heroes of the Marvel universe, like the X-Men (and women), and that’s much more interesting and diverse. The notion that we will all be saved by Superman or Batman is deeply flawed and annoying. My favourite superhero movie is of course The Incredibles. I also really liked Megamind, because it was ultra-critical of the squeaky-clean superhero. The problem with the whole notion of superheroes like Superman is that they promote the notion that problems can only be solved by a single individual with superpowers, and that there is some evolutionary arc that points towards the appearance of superheroes.
One of the worst things about Hollywood movies is the idea that a man who has been wronged can and should go out like a lone vigilante and take revenge. This is found in film after film and seems to be regarded as mostly unproblematic. Vengeful people end up hurting innocent bystanders and they don’t actually benefit the person they are trying to take vengeance for. It is also part of the rugged individualism that is often claimed to be part of the American psyche. Really, you should all be slightly grumpy and moany like the English. It’s much more fun.
White saviour complex
Another really bad trope is “white people solve racism”, because according to this trope, obviously Black people couldn’t have been resisting and organising on their own, they clearly need a “white saviour” to come and rescue them. Hence we have films about white anti-slavery and anti-racism activists, but not so many about Black activists. The situation is improving here – but the dire example of the film The Help tells you everything you need to know about this phenomenon.
Everyone in the movies is white, male, and straight
A related phenomenon is the notion that everyone in the future is white. Obviously Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) did his very best to kick this notion into the long grass, with the wonderful Ahura (played by Nichelle Nichols), and other great characters. Firefly and Babylon 5 also get honourable mentions here for having more than one excellent black character (the doctor in Babylon 5, and Zoe and Shepherd Book in Firefly). But other films and TV shows quite frequently have an overwhelming number of white characters. But where are the LGBT characters?
I was very excited by the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, from the perspective of equality. There’s a film that passes the Bechdel Test.
For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Bechdel Test
asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.
Another measure of representation is the DuVernay Test:
… named after critically-acclaimed director Ava DuVernay behind 2014’s Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic Selma.
Newly coined by the New York Times writer Manohla Dargis, the DuVernay test passes if a film portrays “fully realized” African Americans and other minorities who have their own plotlines, motivations, desires, and actions that are not informed by white characters.
However, the fact that we needed a Bechdel Test and a DuVernay Test in the first place, because there are so few films that have well-rounded female characters or people of colour in them, is sad.
A Tumblr blog, Every Single Word, has highlighted the lack of representation of people of colour in Hollywood films. Buzzfeed’s Fiona Rutherford explains:
The project’s founder, Dylan Marron, cuts and edits movies to remove all lines spoken by Caucasians – and the resulting clips are pretty depressing.
In the Biblical epic Noah, for example, there are no speaking roles at all for people of colour.
But then we get absolute face-palm moments like the fact that the film Suffragette completely failed to include any women of colour in it, despite the fact that there have been Black and Asian people in Britain for centuries (though not as many as there are now), and ignoring the fact that Sophia Duleep Singh was the next President of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship after Mrs Pankhurst’s death, and was active as a suffragette around the time depicted by the film.
There is an equivalent test for LGBT inclusion in films, called the Russo Test:
- The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender.
- That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. the character is made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters).
- The LGBT character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.
The obvious film that would pass this test would be the recent film Pride, which was totally awesome and most of the characters were gay and lesbian (though there were no bisexuals or transgender people). It wasn’t a Hollywood film though, it was a British film.
Apparently the film Stonewall (about the Stonewall Riots) was really disappointing, in that it made all the trans people (who were most of the main instigators of the riot) into gay characters instead. And reviews of Dallas Buyers’ Club (in which the main character was trans) were mixed, but it was widely agreed that the trans character should have been played by a trans person.
However, things are looking up: back in the day, LGBT, Black, and women’s films were considered niche and special interest. Now they are making big bucks at the box office, that notion is being gradually overturned. But the fact that Suffragette, Stonewall, and similar films were made at all – even with the massive flaws that they had – is encouraging. They could still have been a lot better, though. On balance, I would say that Hollywood these days is generally progressive, but could try harder.
The under-represented, the misrepresented, and the invisible
What about making a decent film about Native Americans (and no, Dances with Wolves does not qualify). Films about trans characters seem woefully thin on the ground, and I can’t remember ever seeing a film about a bisexual character. And some films about Pagans that represent us as something other than teen witches whose spells go horribly wrong (like in The Craft) or witches who never actually do any rituals (like Practical Magic) or witches who summon a demon Jack Nicholson (is there any other kind?) or sex-mad Pagans desperate for a sacrifice (The Wicker Man).
What about the environment?
I would also like to see more films that deal seriously with climate change and the environment. Avatar was alright, but we need more films that inspire people to care for the Earth and the environment. I can’t even think of any recent films about our relationship with Nature right now. Though I really liked The Emerald Forest (1985), and the screenplay was by Rob Holdstock.
I don’t like zombie films, horror films, war films, films about the inner workings of capitalism and the law. The kind of films I like are the ones that are quirky and funny and show unexpected solidarity and community between people. Most of the films that I have loved over the last decade or so were made by the excellent Working Title, not Hollywood. I like films where the underdog wins the day, and the powerful are brought low. I like science fiction where interesting characters struggle against dystopias. I like films that question the notion of superheroes, and show solidarity being the key to overcoming oppression.
The great thing about science fiction is that it can show us alternative worlds, both good and bad. Science fiction holds up a mirror to our contemporary dilemmas and mores, and asks “but why does it have to be this way?” Science fiction isn’t about the future, it is about the present. It says, “Don’t dream it – be it.”