Monday, May 4, 2009

Scientists Killed My Puppy

Yesterday, as I rode back from my teaching on the Peninsula, I listened to more PodCastle, as I am still blessed with a huge backlog of episodes. Listening ot PodCastle is almost always a good experience. I enjoy more than 90% of what PodCastle puts out, and the rare story I don't like is usually more of a "meh" than a "blech."

The first episode I listened to was Dragon Hunt by Sarah Prineas, which I enjoyed reasonably well. It was a fun, clever little story that hinted at more stories to come (just the way I like it) and the reading was well done; it asn't brilliant, but not every story can or should be. Then, because my commute is an hour and a half in total, I listened to De La Tierra by Emma Bull.


Incidentally, if you plan on reading or listening to De La Tierra and care about spoilers - much as it pains me to say this - now would be a good time to stop reading. Allow me to instead recommend this io9 article about real-life superheroes patrolling Cincinnati.

I'm as surprised as anyone. Normally, I love Emma Bull. War for the Oaks blew my mind and I can't wait to read Territory and Freedom and Necessity (with Stephen Brust, another author I have loved for a very long time). However, I really couldn't stand De La Tierra, and here's why:

The Parable of the Twins: An Absurdity
By Mark Simmons

Once upon a time, a pregnant woman was running through the woods. She was being pursued by something terrible, something huge and scaly and dripping and awful. Perhaps it was the Internal Revenue Service or the Employment Development Department. In any case, it was so awful that she had to keep running, even though she was extremely pregnant.

Finally, she could run no more. She hid in a hollow tree trunk and gave birth to a pair of beautiful twins. She named one of them Fantasy and the other Science Fiction, hid them in the leaves, and ran off. The IRS/EDD probably ate her or something, but at this point she stops being important to the story.

What is important is that her children were not raised together. Science Fiction was found by a couple of hikers and taken to safety and civilization. Fantasy was raised by wolves.

As a result of her rather measured upbringing, Science Fiction grew into a rather reasonable and likable woman. She is primarily a sociologist, though she likes to keep up to date with new developments in science, especially biology, medicine, and engineering. She's also fascinated by the idea of space flight and dreams of the alien races and strange interstellar phenomenon mankind will one day encounter. She has a pretty pragmatic view of science; some scientific developments will turn out for the best and some are probably a bad idea, but science can't be stopped. We'll have to take the good with the bad and hope that humanity can figure things out.

Fantasy probably would have grown up similarly, but when he was fifteen, his wolf parents were killed by scientists. Fantasy doesn't know why - perhaps it was part of a long-standing feud between scientists and wolves, perhaps it was merely an accident - but Fantasy has harbored a grudge ever since. He hates science and everything to do with it.

What can come of this? Only a tragedy of epic proportions. When Fantasy and Science fiction meet...

In case you haven't guessed, I am extremely frustrated with what I see as a bias against science and the modern world in fantasy. It's not that I'm terribly fond of science - I am reasonably fond of the phenomenon, but that isn't it - it's that it's so damned predictable. Whenever a fantasy story involves a clash between the modern and the ancient, the scientific and the magical, I can practically guarantee that science will be painted as villainous and magic as ideal. Sure, faeries kidnap children and replace them with horrible simulacrums, dragons will eat your village, and ancient curses will turn you into a wombat, but science... science will make your life predictable. Science will make it likely that you will live past fifty and be survived by all your children.

How horrible.

It is when this metaphor is extended to "the modern world" that it becomes most aggravating. First of all, again, I'm rather fond of the modern world. It might be fun to pretend various medievalesque motifs from time to time, but I'm glad that in my real life I have antibiotics, running water, and rights.

Secondly, "the modern world" almost invariably means "the white, Western modern world," and that's exactly the trap Emma Bull fell into in De La Tierra (you didn't think I was gonna pull this rant back to the topic, did you?).

De La Tierra tells the story of a young Latino in Los Angeles who has become a killer for a group of Standard European Fae (SEFs) - tall, willowy, impossibly beautiful WASPs - and his targets are Genius Loci fae from South and Central America. At the beginning of the story, our hero has style. It's a bleak cyberpunk (faepunk?) sort of style, a man full of magical implants that give him information, control his mood, and enable him to do battle with beings that are far out of his league. He's a reluctant warrior in a battle to protect Los Angeles from beings that want to suck out its natural magical resources, fighting monsters he doesn't understand, on behalf of beings he can't understand.

The long and the short of it, though is that our hero discovers that his targets are really just fleeing ecological devestation in their homelands and hoping to set up shop in the United States. The problems the SEFs point to as evidence that there are too many invaders is actually the result of their own depredations and the lack of crunchy granola South American faeries. And after all, aren't the SEFs the real invaders? Once he recovers from losing his battle, our hero ditches it all - his style, his snark, his magic - and heads south to wander the wilderness of South and Central America, making offerings to the fae and teaching them how to avoid guys like him so their invasion can succeed.

This isn't even the biggest plot hole, just the most interesting. The biggest is that all it takes is a few insistent words on the part of his target to turn him around, and if that's all it was going to take, how has he been doing this job for years?

What bothers me is that the main character abandons everything he is to become everything he should be. The color of his skin and the language his grandma speaks tells us all we need to know about who he really is, what he really should be doing with his life. The modern world and its conveniences - the jazz bars he dreams of playing saxaphone in - is not his destiny. Being the slave of incomprehensible beings is his destiny. What is supposed to make this story anything but a twisted tragedy is that in the end he's the slave of the right incomprehensible beings.

Here we have it: magic and marginilized ethnicities vs. science and "the mainstream." Magic wins. Predictable, boring, and essentializing.

I know it hurt when those scientists killed your parents, Fantasy, but you've got to get over it.


Anonymous said...

When they meet, they are irresistably attracted to each other and have sex, but Odin's wife makes him kill Fantasy. The Valkyries rebel and try to protect SciFi, but she doesn't last long after she has her baby, who is then raised by a nasty scheming dwarf ...

Scattercat said...

Could be worse. I recently read (the first paragraph of) a story in which an android was flying a ship whose engine was powered by the "reaction between two intense forces, Magic and Science."

When your spaceship literally BURNS science to move...


I do feel you, though. A lot of my thinking and writing has focused on re-examining the idea that nature is always good and modern society always bad. Heck, that's basically the primary theme of "Old Growth," which no one wants to buy because it is too long.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous:

Of course. Why didn't I think of that?

@ Scattercat:


Old Growth sounds interesting. Can I read it?