Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The enduring appeal of childhood classics

If I had to name one book I really loved as a child – and since this is my blog, I will – it would be Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. Recommended to me by my mother when I was about seven, it was one of the first big girl books I read. I gobbled it up and proceeded to devour the rest of the series too. And then I read them again. I read the series, or at least parts of it, regularly almost once a year for quite a number of years as I was growing up; I’ve even read it once or twice as an adult. It’s the only series that I’ve returned to so often. So what’s the appeal?

Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery

The story of Anne Shirley is familiar to everyone: an orphan with a temper in need of a loving family, adopted by two unmarried siblings. She loves to read, which made it easy for me to identify with her. Despite her humble beginnings, she makes something of herself and grows up to become a well-loved member of the society. And best of all, she wins the heart of the most dashing hero a little girl like me could imagine, Gilbert Blythe. Their story, with its ups and downs, kept me in its grip no matter how many times I read the series and to this day, I think it’s one of the finest love stories ever written.

But there is more to the books too. They depict vividly the rural culture of the late 19th century Canada, which I only learned to appreciate when I was older. There are colourful, well-crafted characters, all described with understanding and love. No one is one-dimensional; even the most hated character finds understanding at some point. What morals the books contain – poor Anne has to endure quite a bit of growing up – never preach. Everything is sprinkled with good humour, and friendships – they are for life.

So is it a wonder I loved the books so much? And I’m not the only one. First published in 1908, Anne of Green Gables is little over a hundred years old, yet it keeps winning new readers.

There are plenty of other childhood classics, quite a few of which are at least as old as Montgomery’s book. After all, only a time can make a classic. Louisa M. Alcott comes to mind as a similar author to Montgomery. I loved her Eight Cousins better than Little Women, though, and read it almost as often as I did Anne of Green Gables. But are there new ones in the pipeline, biding their time to be declared a classic?

Harry Potter was hailed as a saviour when it first came out, as it got not only girls but boys, too, to read. I haven’t read the books more than once, but many children read them over again. As it's only sixteen years since the first book was published, it’s early to say if it’ll hold the interest of future generations. But I think it will.

Harry Potter is a story similar to Anne of Green Gables. Harry, too, is an orphan given a chance for a new life, who refuses to break in a world hostile to him and who grows up to be a respected adult. Friendships are very much the core of the series. You root for Anne and Harry from the beginning, sympathise with them and like them. You also dislike those who are against them; another strong emotion.

The similarities may seem superficial, but there is more: both series appeal to adults as well as children. Montgomery wrote her book for all ages and while Rowling’s book was probably aimed for a younger audience, it can be easily read by adults. They’re not undemanding, easy-to-read stories. They tell the story of what it is to be human in full, life and death, forcing you to think. They make you laugh and cry. You can return to them and discover new things every time. They are well-written and they are not easily forgotten. What more do you need for a classic?

Do you agree: will Harry Potter last, or do you have another suggestion? And what is your childhood classic, the one book you read over again?

Here's a wonderfully romantic montage of Anne's and Gilbert's love story from the 1980s TV series. It contains scenes from the sequel that didn't follow Montgomery's books, but who cares when it so heart-melting.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Unknown future - unseen sci-fi?

I’ve read sci-fi in bursts, never in any cohesive manner and not much in recent years. In my teens, whatever sci-fi book happened to catch my fancy when I visited the library was picked up and read. I don’t think half of it made an impact; I most certainly can’t remember most of it. If I recall correctly, the theme was interstellar travel and faraway planets, inspired by Star Wars, no doubt. Of those, Dune is the only one that has remained with me and that one mainly because my husband likes it so much.

The Tripods, on the other hand, made a lasting impression. Only a few books that I read depicted the earth in some distant future date, the idea so novel for me that I read the series a couple of times. I found it very scary and for a long time I feared alien invasion – though the TV series V may have had something to do with that too. I didn’t want to end up as a slave to some machine or a lizard. However, as I grew up, I lost the certainty that the earth would be invaded by extra-terrestrial beings and so that kind of sci-fi lost its power too.

As an adult, though, the sci-fi that has stayed with me the longest is the kind that depicts a dystopian future for our planet. William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Philip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? both picture an overcrowded planet destroyed by a war or pollution, where natural resources are almost gone, the flora and fauna are extinct and most of the population live in slums. Big corporations dominate the world and democracy is non-existent. Dystopias did – and still do – seem like a plausible end for our present way of life.

At the time the books were written, Dick’s in 1968 and Gibson’s in 1984, the height of Cold War, a devastating war between two superpowers seemed likely. Cold War is long over and with it the threat of nuclear destruction, but the themes of over-population and overusing the earth’s resources haven’t gone away. And while 1992 didn’t see our planet populated by lifelike androids and the cyber space like Gibson imagined hasn’t truly actualised yet either, both books retain the sense of plausible in their predictions for the future.

The world has changed more since Neuromancer was published than it did between the publications of Dick’s and Gibson’s books. I read an article recently by John Gray titled What’s going to happen in the next hundred years? In it, he takes a look at the past century and concludes that after all the turmoil of the past hundred years, the world has returned to the state it was in at the end of the 19th century. With that he means that there isn’t a leading power that would control the planet, which makes things unpredictable. According to him, it makes a war inescapable. 

Gray’s notion would make the kind of future Dick and Gibson describe even more likely. However, I’d like to think it opens up the future, makes it unknown. The next hundred years don’t have to follow the lines of the past century; it could be different. And that offers possibilities for imagining a new kind of future in sci-fi too. The best sci-fi authors have always been able to depict unknown futures that seem possible, but they tend to be narrow in their scope. For all their brilliance in predicting the course of humanity, Dick and Gibson failed to take into account quite a lot of human issues.

Science fiction set in near future earth could tackle different themes than destruction or technological advance: women and sexual minorities, for example. Both groups are better off than they were a century ago – or at the time Dick and Gibson wrote their books. Surely we could imagine a future where things would be even better or worse, in case of dystopias. Asia won’t necessarily be the leader of the world like Gibson depicts, but what would be the alternative? “The shift to unconventional energy may still be a game-changer, as the effect is to make the position of oil-producing countries increasingly untenable,” as Gray notes. Would that speak for a future where the planet hasn’t been destroyed?

The idea that we have returned to the beginning, cleaned our slate, is intriguing. It isn’t entirely true, of course, but for utopian writing, or dystopian, it offers endless possibilities. I, for one, would like to read those books. How about you?

Here’s the original trailer for Blade Runner, the movie based on Dick’s book.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Gender and genre, part two: the strong women of urban fantasy

No woman writer wants to be overlooked and undervalued for being a woman; but few, it seems, wish to be defined solely by gender, or constrained by loyalties to it alone.

There is one genre that seems to be mostly written by women, for women and about women. That is urban fantasy with its ‘tough chick’ heroines. The genre emerged in the early 1990s to fill a void in literature: heroines who are strong, capable operators in their own right. Women who face monsters – real or imaginary – head on and win simply didn’t exist before. The genre soon became popular and remains so today, an indication that it answered a genuine need among readers.

There have always been strong women in literature, those who keep up the home front and the life going when the men are at war. Everyday heroines with inner strength or women who have no choice but to be strong. My favourite has always been Scarlett O’Hara from the Gone with the Wind. She did what she had to in order to survive, no matter what it cost her.

Another type of a strong woman is that in crime fiction, the detectives and PIs who have to battle not only the criminals but gender prejudice from their male colleagues too. They come in different types, angry loners and professionals so good they have to be noticed. 

What all these women have in common, regardless of the time they live in or the country of their origin, is that they are operating in the men’s world, dealing with the conventions of a society ruled and defined by men. They are not free to define themselves. It’s this issue that the ‘tough chick’ heroines try to address.

The heroines of urban fantasy aren’t free from the expectations of the society either. What makes them so great is that they don’t conform to them. In a way, their resistance to society’s expectations is more remarkable than the existence of monsters in their parallel universe. Working as detectives or PIs like their regular universe counterparts, they don’t wait for the men to tell them how the world is saved from the monsters. They go out there and save it themselves. They create their own rules. It’s never easy for them, however, and so – more often than not – they find the people who understand them best are the monsters they hunt.

The greatest feminist tough chick urban fantasy heroine is, of course, Anita Blake who pretty much defines the genre. She first appeared in Guilty Pleasures in 1993 as a response to the gender inequality in crime novels, as her creator Laurell K. Hamilton has told. Somewhat supernatural herself, Anita has the ability to raise the dead, but her greatest skill is killing vampires and other monsters better than anyone else. Her supernatural abilities have multiplied over the course of the books, changing the balance between her and the monsters she hunts. But one thing has remained constant and that’s her feminism, her absolute refusal to bow to the expectations of the male led society. More often than not, her greatest adversary in any book is a human man instead of a vampire or a were.

Anita Blake was my first introduction to urban fantasy in any form. The experience was mind-blowing and caused me to order all the books in the series back to back. Luckily, I was over a decade late to the party so there were fifteen books out already; even a wait of a couple of weeks for the books to arrive felt too long sometimes. I was taken with her character, her resilience and even her skills with weapons, even though I’m against firearms; what counts is that she’s better than any man with them. The monsters seemed frightening and it was never certain that she would come out alive from her encounters with them. All this enthusiasm despite the fact that I’ve never really liked Anita as a person. She’s inflexible and rather selfish, and over the course of twenty-two books hasn’t grown at all as a human being.

After the first introduction to the genre, I read it voraciously. There are some wonderful heroines out there. They’re wittier, more flexible when dealing with the society – often without giving in to it – and generally happier people than Anita. And each in their turn carries the torch for strong women in literature. In addition, Anita Blake series have grown steadily worse over the years. Still, none of those other heroines have made the same impact than she did. The feeling remains with me, all these years later.

It can be said that urban fantasy is a marginalised genre and at any rate, 'tough chicks’ isn’t the only thing the genre is about. What’s remarkable, however, is that similar strong women haven’t emerged in other genres. Perhaps it truly takes a parallel universe before women can be as strong and independent as they are in urban fantasy.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Gender and genre, part one

There has been a lot of talk about gender recently in the social media that I follow. On Twitter, it’s mostly been about sci-fi and its lack of women writers, and those few that there are being ignored for awards and by critics. On G+ urban fantasy community, it was about the lack of male heroes in UF. This has landed me with a list of women writers in sci-fi and caused me to write a feminist rant about women in UF.

Gender is a longstanding issue in literature and not something I can cover in one short post. The conversation surrounding the Clarke list shows also that it isn’t easily solved issue either. Should women writers be commended simply because of their gender? One of the judges, Liz Williams, thought that they shouldn’t. Quality must come first. Others disagreed.

One argument for women being ignored is that there aren’t as many women who write sci-fi as there are men. But that isn’t true either. As Liz Williams points out in her article, “genre workshops are full of women writing all forms of the genre.” She lays the blame on publishing industry that, according to her, only gives room for one woman sci-fi writer at the time. So should there be quotas for women? It has been tried in other areas of life. In business and politics, the (best) man for the job attitude is being balanced out with quotas for women. Women have been lured in to studying engineering by giving them extra points for their gender in entrance applications. None of that has had a notable effect, however. But if there actually are more women out there who write sci-fi than it appears, a systematic showcasing of their work would go a long way to helping them.

What doesn’t help, however, is that the definition of sci-fi tends to be very narrow. As it puts emphasis on science, it often overlooks the kind of sci-fi that women like to write. So it’s not that there aren’t as many women sci-fi writers as there are men; their work just isn’t recognised as science fiction. Liz Williams found most of the books submitted for Clarke Awards to be more fantasy than sci-fi, and one comment I read on Twitter today said that they weren’t science enough. The definition of sci-fi is rather arbitrary, but it’s decisive enough when it’s time to give writers credit for their work. Women aren’t being overlooked for their gender; they simply don’t meet the requirements of the genre. Or so the argument goes.

But that isn’t always the case.

After a rant like this, the only book I can bring up, really, is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. Published in 1969, it’s definitely feminist in its stance. Gender is very much at its core and it has no science to speak of. Yet it is considered a very important book in the sci-fi canon.

The book is set on a remote planet that is always cold, called Winter, in a distant future. The inhabitants of the planet are genderless for most of the time, but they assume a gender in monthly cycles; the gender may be the same every time or change, depending on their partner. The main character, Genly Ai, is a human man who is on a diplomatic mission on the planet. At first, the inhabitants’ lack of gender is repugnant to him, but as he stays longer on the planet, it’s the gender based system he hails from that he begins to question. In the end, people who show off their gender all the time – humans – start to look indecent to him.

Le Guin draws many conclusions from a society that doesn’t have genders. One of them is that the planet has never had any wars because of it. While modern sci-fi is more diverse than it was when the book came out, non-conflict as the driving force of a sci-fi book is still a rather unique idea. It definitely impressed me when I first read it and the impact it made remains with me twenty years later.

The Left Hand of Darkness had a good reception when it first came out; on the heyday of feminism, it was bound to make an impact. What’s more, I’m sure it would make an impact if it were published for the first time now. Gender is very much an issue in sci-fi today, as witnessed by the conversation surrounding the Clarke awards, but it’s not exclusive of that genre. It’s an issue in all literature. And as long as we label some authors as women writers, the issue remains.