Monthly Archives: February 2011

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Women of Ice and Fire

Susan Groppi has been reading A Song of Ice and Fire (contains spoilers through all four books). It’s one of those posts where you read it and sit there nodding, as someone else connects up all the dots you haven’t quite turned into words:

It’s just tiring, is all I’m saying. It takes an emotional toll on me, as a reader, to see these women be threatened in these very gender-specific ways, over and over again, constantly.

I dipped into A Storm of Swords the other day, and reread one of the chapters from Jaime’s point of view. I’m always surprised by just how much I like Jaime’s chapters, and how a character that I loathed through the first two books became so compelling. But I’d forgotten just how wearing it is to spend a chapter watching Brienne through his eyes, a constant stream of comments about her breasts and her hair and how terribly terribly ugly she is. It is absolutely in character and absolutely in keeping with the setting, where beauty and fertility is all that a woman can be judged by, and positioning Brienne as the opposite to Cersei in every way is, I’ll wager, likely to be even more important in whatever Martin does with Jaime’s character arc in the next three books. But sometimes I don’t want to be shown how a character is slightly less of a bastard than he used to be, because he refrains from making the cruelest comment he can.

And I think part of the reason I didn’t enjoy A Feast for Crows as much as the previous three books is an extension of this. Cersei is still treacherous and dangerous, but increasingly desperate and paranoid and making foolish decisions, when previously she was working with what power she had in the society she lives in. I miss the old Catelyn Stark, who may not have made the right decisions but was always trying to do the best for her children. I did find the end of A Storm of Swords to be awesome and dramatic, and I absolutely cannot wait to see Aiden Gillen play that moment on screen, but it leaves Sansa older and wiser than the naive child she was but still trapped in a remote castle with a creepy, creepy guy. I feel sorry for Lollys Stokeworth, a minor character who gets to be ugly and dull, then ugly, dull, raped, pregnant, and a pawn in someone else’s political scheme.

It’s just uncomfortable to read. And it’s not just A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s tiring how hard it is to find a book without “the tired old trope of a female character suffering sexual violence largely to give her menfolk something more to angst about”. I wish it weren’t necessary to make a list of books which don’t do this, but I’ll be consulting it next time I want some epic fantasy to read which isn’t going to be exhausting.

Frankenstein

Trip to London yesterday for some culture, in the form of a preview of the new production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as some combination of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein.

First, some caveats: I don’t go to the theatre that often, the show is still in previews for another week (they have apparently chopped quite a bit out since the first previews and will undoubtedly tweak it further), and I haven’t read the novel. All that aside, it was entertaining enough but not as good as I hoped. By the way I’m going to spoil the hell out of it so I would advise not reading any further if you plan to go and see it.

There’s a creepy organic womb sitting on the stage from the start, with a body visible inside it, writhing around as the audience files in, which bursts open at the start for the Creature to be born. As it was a preview, it was a mystery as to which actor would be taking which role, and after a few seconds I figure out that the actor who is convulsing around the stage is Jonny Lee Miller and also that he is stark bollock naked. The Creture proceeds to jerk and writhe around for a good few minutes, while he works out how arms and legs work and what the hell is going on, and I confess I found it a bit silly.

Then the steampunk train comes on, complete with cheery peasants in goggles, and they do a dance. I think this is supposed to represet the industrial revolution.

After a couple of scenes to establish that the Creature is hideous and scares everyone, he finds some trousers and we get on with things, and it all gets better. The slow burn of the opening and the Creature’s transformation into a speaking, rational being builds up to his first confrontation with Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s joy at seeing what his creation has become is all rather good. It’s a shame that Frankenstein has been almost entirely off-stage for the first third of the production, because I don’t think the role ever really recovers from being overshadowed by the Creature at the start. We progress through Frankenstein making a bride, coming home to be married and widowed, and then the final denouement in the arctic.

It’s all enjoyable enough, but somehow a bit lacking.The production is spectacular, with a grid of thousands of lightbulbs used to good effect, and nice use of the rotating stage parts, but I was expecting it to be technically great. I never got much a sense of time and place, nor does it play up the gothic horror, and the Creature may be hideous up close but from halfway up the theatre all you can see are some stiches on Miller’s head. (Which got me wondering how exactly they do it: has Miller shaved his head and wears a wig to be Frankenstein, while Cumberbatch keeps his natural hair for Frankenstein and puts on a bald cap to be the Creature?)

In the end it is all about Frankenstein and the Creature, who put in good performances but can’t make me excited about the play. And while both actors were excellent, the role-swapping gimmick just leaves wonder if they wouldn’t have been more interesting the other way round – Frankenstein is cold and arrogant and convinced of his own genius, and I’ve already seen Cumberbatch do that on screen. The Guardian asks, “The challenge for the audience, perhaps, is the question of which character we should feel more kindly towards. Maker or murderer? Father or son?” Despite the Creature’s monstrous nature, it’s never really a question in this production – it is the Creature’s show.

SFX Weekender Roundup

SFX Weekender 2

SFX Sci-Fi Awards 2010

I managed to score free tickets to the SFX Weekender this year; not a difficult feat as there seemed to be hundreds of them, owing to a business model which involved giving me the tickets for free and hoping I would take the opportunity to book cut-price accomodation. I chose to pass on staying at Stalag Camber Sands, seemingly a wise choice as the nicest thing I heard about the accomodation was that it was clean, and instead I booked a cottage and persuaded Niall and Nic to join me in an expedition to see what the SFX cons are like these days.

The convention is a curious hybrid of literary and media convention (in the sense of convention styles, if not subject matter). I’d never been to a media convention, and I’m not sure I ever will go to a purely media event, as based on a weekend of dipping my toes in, it’s not for me. I went along to the Keeley Hawes Q&A, and it cemented my suspicion that while Keeley Hawes is a lovely person, and I am in awe of anyone who could keep their hairstyle so neat in gale-force winds, none of the questions or answers were that interesting. I learned that she did her Ashes to Ashes audition with a scratched cornea, and that she’s got her DI Drake nameplate on her desk at home, and that she likes Spandau Ballet more than Duran Duran. There were frustrating hints of something a bit deeper – she mentioned not watching Life on Mars, having thought it would be overly blokey, but the question of how Alex Drake really changed that was never asked, and instead they moved on to how sexy Gene Hunt was and how we all like a bit of “unreconstructed rough”.

I didn’t pay my £20 for a signing pass, either, as I was content to look at George Takei from afar rather than queueing up for his autograph, but a lot of attendees obviously did, and as the signings took place at the side of the main hall, the noise from the queues and the bar teamed up to make some of the Q&As nearly inaudible. Probably a limitation of the space, and they’re not going back to the venue next year, but it didn’t entice me to hang around in the main room, especially as it reached furnace-like temperatures on Saturday afternoon.

If the media side was a little disappointing, then there was an impressive roster of literary guests to make up for it. Saturday morning I saw the Q&A session for China Mieville, who was as interesting and thoughtful about his work as you might have though, and also can do a good impression of a TIE fighter. Joe Abercrombie, understandably excited by his presence on the bestseller lists, was entertaining and funny and seemed to be in the author-as-performer mode much more than Mieville. In between the two I caught the “Dual Britannia” panel about writing alternate Britains, which was an excellent 25 minutes before it had to stop to get the schedule back on track, and made me want to search out some of Kate Griffin’s novels. Probably the best panel was the one I caught almost by accident while looking for a quiet spot for lunch – the panel on comics outside the UK, with Tony Lee, Bryan Talbot, Pat Mills, and a couple of others whose names I missed, and while it was a little unfocused it was a fascinating discussion on how UK and US comics are going wrong and where the European scene is going right, and some recommendations for what’s good in the UK scene at the moment. All the participants seemed clued-up and refreshingly aware of just how much the superhero comic scene is failing to appeal to anyone outside their core demographics.

So I had fun, despite the windswept nature of Camber Sands and the general ambient tacky awfulness of Pontins. And it seemed like the hundreds and thousands of excited nerds were having fun too, and they skewed fairly young and female. With my Eastercon hat on, what I can’t quite figure out is whether the appeal is all for the media side of things, and the literary events are a pleasant sideshow that attract reasonable crowds taking a break from the main hall, or whether there is really a large group of fans wanting both. Part of the appeal of the weekender is presumably that it is dirt cheap – cram 5 people into your chalet and it’s under £100 per person for entrance and accomodation, which Eastercons are never going to compete with given the scale and venues they use, but some of the people asking smart questions of China Mieville on a Saturday morning must be potential traditional lit con attendees.

But it didn’t feel quite right, in some ways. The cabaret on Friday night was pretty spectacular and had a cool robot, but also failed to feature women as anything but scantily clad dancing girls and volunteers for the contortionist to sexually harass*. I was going to do the quiz instead, but all the tickets were gone before I even arrived in Camber Sands. The lack of name badges made it hard to know who anyone was, but maybe that was the point – it may have been just me, but I felt far more of a divide between invited pros and the everyday fans, partly because there were no panelists who weren’t industry professionals, and partly because the authors were more carefully herded and looked after by their editors than at other conventions. Probably so they didn’t have to eat the Pontins food, but it was different than I was used to.

I’m not going to race back for next year’s con (it’s twice as far away for a start) but I wouldn’t rule out a future trip.

* I left shortly before the end, so there might have been a surprise female act, but it didn’t look like it was going to happen.