The Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee

Reviewing the second book in a series is sometimes the most difficult kind of blog post.  The Raven Stratagem, book two in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of War series, is a lot of what one might expect after book one, and yet also plenty more.  The draw is the system of calendrical warfare and control  utilized by the hexarchate in order to maintain the system that has kept its leaders in power for centuries, but what keeps one reading is the intense focus on personal motivation and the overpowering humanity of the characters, even those who veer far outside the scale of normal social behavior and even sanity.

This novel picks up where Ninefox Gambit left off, with Kel Cheris a lifeless husk controlled by the terrifying revenant Shuos Jedao after the hexarchate attempted to take Jedao out following his successful quelling of rebellion at the Fortress of Scattered Needles.  Jedao knows he will always be too dangerous to remain alive, and yet he is determined to follow through with the mission of eliminating all threats to the hexarchate, and not just the original rebellion.  Meanwhile, at Shuos headquarters–at all hexarch headquarters, leaders are scrambling not only to figure out what Jedao is up to, but to maintain their own grasps of power and outmaneuver each other.

The driving motivations for most of the characters profiled in this novel, though we see the action from their points of view, are difficult to parse.  It is a given in the hexarchate that anyone with any bit of power has something to hide, and Lee sketches each character’s life as if it is a straight line leading up to the very moment of challenge or conflict they face in the novel, and yet every person’s life is far from a straight, intelligible progression of cause and effect.  Like the storms of war that plague the hexarchate, every person’s life is bound up with the cause and effect actions of others, and few can see to the roots of the struggle.

Cheris was originally chosen for her task of carrying Jedao because of her ability to think outside the Kel box she chose for herself, Brezan rises to astonishing heights for being a crashhawk–one who can resist Kel formation instinct, essentially military brainwashing–and Khiruev, whose fleet is appropriated by Jedao in Cheris’ body, can only succeed at failure.  Lee has taken all the complicated and frustrating aspects of humanity and painted them across the universe, greed, hatred, love, loyalty all fighting it out among the swarms and formations and exotic weapons and phantom terrain.

It’s a beautiful, fascinating, utterly confusing novel, and I look forward to book three with great anticipation.

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Passive Females, Aggressive Bodies

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about abortion and the constant push by so-called “pro-life” individuals to limit the ability of those with birth-capable bodies to control their reproductive health.  Ok, let’s be honest, I think about this stuff all the time but I read an article not long ago, the second such in the past year or so, that talks about the biology of human reproduction and the ways in which the gestating parent’s body literally fights for control, and survival, with the growing fetus pretty much from the second the thing is implanted.

The article, published on aeon.co, essentially lays out the many ways in which human reproduction is anything but romantic, natural, or, especially, safe for those doing the gestating, and only instilled in me even further the idea that a fetus, until the person carrying it effectively gives it birth and, by so doing life, is nothing more than a parasite that will kill the person carrying it if it can, all in the name of its own survival.  Likely, this is largely–the article goes on to explain–due to evolution, which has caused these conditions to occur over many thousands of years in order to create humans with large brains, brains which require huge amounts of resources during the pregnancy stage in order to properly develop.

Further, the number of pregnancies successfully carried to implantation, and not even to term, is significantly lower than those which end up in the toilet every month, carried away by a menstrual cycle that is guarding the person’s health so rigidly it is literally safer for the person to bleed for 5-7 days than to carry a developing fetus anywhere other than (un)safely attached to the uterine lining where the parent’s body can keep a watchful eye on it.

This isn’t the miracle of life, it’s fucking war.

But the point I’m trying to make is that in a situation where the person’s body is actively trying to starve and stymie a fetus’ access to the parent’s resources, for so-called pro-life individuals to portray abortion as an act and allowing an unwanted fetus to gestate as simply allowing “nature” to take its course is not just hypocrisy but actually quite monstrous.  The act of gestating a child has become so dangerous to the human species that the parent’s body will fight tooth and nail to get rid of it because the alternative is being stripped of health and life one heartbeat at a time until the parent’s body is nothing more than an essenceless husk at the end of it.  I’m put in mind of the scene in Mad Max: Fury Road in which the lifeless fetus is cut out of Angharad’s dying body in order to take possession of a potential male offspring.  So-called pro-life individuals see only the poor dead fetus, so ripe with potential and life, while completely ignoring the life of the woman draining out on the dashboard, robbed of autonomy and made into just a vessel for someone else’s ambitions.

The passivity with which so-called pro-life individuals try to paint themselves is so aggressive, so demeaning to people with pregnancy-capable bodies.  It’s wrapped up in the false premise that pregnancy, the state of being pregnant, is a passive state, and any movement to change that state is an aggression, when, as the article referenced earlier ad nauseum shows, pregnancy is anything but a passive thing.  To end a pregnancy is less violent than the violence being enacted daily between parental body and fetus.  The article poses it as a sort of natural selection, that any embryo not strong enough, not fully implanted, must die in order to protect valuable resources, but when it comes to abortion, shouldn’t it be only the natural progression that the final say over the continued existence of a parasitic embryo lie with the one in whose body said embryo came to be?  And to take it further–because a lot of people are afraid of so-called late-stage abortion because suddenly the even-more-voracious parasite is bigger and has a face–shouldn’t the decision of whether to potentially sacrifice one’s own life in order to bring that squalling parasite into the world lie with the one, the only one, who will forced to give up their life for that to happen?

But this all plays into the idea that pregnancy-capable individuals–generally gendered female–be always passive, accepting of whatever comes to them, never taking what they want or in any way making demands on others, especially on cis males.  Besides being just wrong–not all pregnancy capable bodies are female–it feeds into cultural norms that are designed to privilege the cis male individual, which we can all identify as patriarchy.

In thinking about these juxtapositions of passivity/aggressivity, I’m minded of a novel I read recently (on audiobook, to be specific), by Emma Donoghue.  Her most recent novel, The Wonder portrays the experience of an English nurse, a Nightingale Nurse, to be specific, trained by the redoubtable pioneer of the profession herself, hired by a tiny Irish village to investigate the wondrous little girl in their midst who seems to subsist indefinitely without eating.  Now, this post is soon going to cross over both into the realm of Discussion of Actual Scenes in the Book (aka spoilers) and also pregnancy and sexuality specifically dealing with cis women.  I’ve done my best to keep this post as non-transphobic as I am capable till now, but as the subject matter of the novel specifically deals with cis-coded women, I will generally be talking about women and gendered cultural expectations around being women, so please just know that I’m not unaware of what’s happening, but to avoid complications I’ll use the gendered terms from the novel itself.  (I certainly understand that trans women and trans men are even more pressured to conform to cultural gender expectations and receive even more harassment.)  As to the spoilers, well, reader beware, I guess.  Or stop here and go read the book.

The Wonder deals with the parallel storylines of Lib Wright, a widowed nurse, and Anna O’Donnell, and eight-year-old girl who refuses to eat and has become a source of spiritual tourism for her community.  Lib has been hired to watch Anna and ascertain whether she is in fact eating from some hidden source, or to keep her from eating, or to prove she is a saint, depending on whom Lib meets during her two-week stay in the impoverished village.  Already this is ringing cultural bells–a little girl becomes famous for literally doing nothing, the only acceptable way for a female to gain notoriety.  Lib, on the other hand, is part of possibly the only profession remotely acceptable for a woman to have outside the home–taking care of others, mothering–even though to do it for money is a cultural indicator that Lib is used up, not good enough even to care for her own family, which the reader finds out is far too close to home for her.

Throughout her two-week stay in Ireland, Lib fights the opposing urges to nurture Anna and convince her to eat, and to conduct her watches as a strict experiment, reveling in the moment she foresees herself finding Anna out and proving that there is no such thing as manna from heaven upon which a little girl can sustain herself.  Lib wants science, not superstition, to be proven the authority–something all people who believe in reproductive autonomy can support–and yet for that to happen Lib must completely relegate Anna to the guardianship of people who have something to gain from her continued starvation, which runs completely counter to what Lib’s professional calling.  This internal conflict isn’t helped by the apparent inaction of Anna’s parents, who seem to revel in Anna’s wondrous behavior and treat her as though she were some sort of saint come to earth.  The aggressive passivity of Anna’s mother, in particular, is almost violent in its insistence that Lib, a representative of science and reason, is an enemy to be defeated through Mrs. O’Donnell’s faith alone.  Adding to all this is Lib’s own ignorance of Catholicism and treatment of the Irish she encounters; she looks at all of them as superstitious savages who continue in their poverty and malnutrition out of some perverse desire to follow their backwards religion, when in reality the post-Blight state of Ireland is anything but simple.

Lib’s ability to solve the mystery of Anna’s wonder is primarily the result, though, of her character arc as she meets various members of the community as well as an outsider–a newspaper reporter from Dublin who is both educated and intelligent–and comes to understand their position and why they act the way they do.  Lib grows as a character, is brought to see her own errors, and is then in a position to investigate the true mystery behind Anna’s situation.  Lib is that horror, the intelligent woman capable of thinking for herself and coming to logical conclusions, whom many of the so-called pro-life agenda seek to hobble, or in whom they don’t believe; they harbor such fear of those capable of pregnancy making their own choices about their bodies, and take the–un-asked-for–role of “my sister’s keeper,” seeking to take away choice before a choice can even be made, in case that choice runs counter to the aggressive and broken morality of those who value the unborn over the living.  Of course, as Lib learns, so does the reader.  The reader is exposed, through Lib’s interactions with Anna’s family, and eventually with Anna herself, that Anna’s wonder is a result of sexual abuse and the inaction of those who are supposed to care for her physical and emotional well-being–namely, her parents and her priest.  Anna is starving herself to get her brother into heaven, on the belief that reciting a particular prayer while fasting will release him from purgatory sooner.  The problem is that her dead brother is only in purgatory–or better, hell–because of the sins he committed against her.

Like Lib, Anna’s situation is a direct result of the actions of a male member of her family, but she has been blamed for it.  Nothing Anna could have done could have prevented her brother’s desire to rape her, just as nothing Lib could have done would have saved her newborn child and made it live, and thus her husband’s leaving her because, in his words, there was no reason to stay any longer.  Even when women are passive, they are forced to carry the blame for men’s actions.  Lib went to the Crimea and became a nurse, attempting to care for men injured in imperialist violence; Anna tried to starve herself.  Both were trying to atone for something they didn’t do, and for which they could never be redeemed in the eyes of their respective societies.

The events of The Wonder may not be identical to what happens today, in a modern society that still actively keeps women from exercising autonomy over their own bodies, but it is a stark illustration of the fact that women–and girls–will always be held responsible, will always be culpable for the actions of men, will always be expected to adhere to an enforced–and false–passivity, as long as women are considered second-class or not-the-default.  Being pregnant is not passive; to be and remain pregnant is the violent path, the way of force, the dangerous way to travel.  To end what can turn out to be the most perilous thing a person can do–is the path of least resistance.

Unless, that is, those who would prevent an abortion consider it a personal attack on themselves and their petty, interfering morality, just as Mrs. O’Donnell considered Lib’s attempts to find the cause of Anna’s starvation a personal attack on the righteousness of the entire family, on the Catholic church itself.  Lib only wanted Anna to do what was natural–to eat, to take care of herself, to find a way to live a good and normal life–just as every person capable of bearing a pregnancy should have the ability to make the natural choice about what is right for themselves and their bodies, independent of the self-righteous and holier-than-though guilt being heaped upon them by those who violently persist in confusing intrusiveness with saintliness.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

Lauren’s
life is constrained to the total square footage of the cul-de-sac in which her
family has lived her whole life. 
Lauren’s community is lucky, though.  They have a wall. 
They have guns.  They have
each other.  In a narrative that is
eerily familiar to our modern world, Lauren tries to navigate a world that
would kill her as soon as look at her, a world in which dogs have gone from
family pets to merciless predators, a world in which the government doesn’t
even make a pretense of caring for its citizens.

Parable of the Sower is a classic work
of science fiction that will probably always have resonance with the world in
which we live, precisely because it embraces the themes of change and human
compassion.  Though it depicts a
world in which humans seem to have lost all sense of their humanity—hoarding
food, murdering for the merest scrap, abusing drugs that turn them into violent
animals—there are those tiny sparks of kindness and joy that make every
dystopia compelling.

The
novel is written as a compilation of journal entries that Lauren keeps over a
short period of her life.  Butler
displays a stunning mastery of narrative, creating a personal dialog that
embraces all the naïveté of an eighteen-year-old woman, but written in the
matter-of-fact tones of one who has seen far too much in her short life.  Though the reader meets many of the
other residents of Lauren’s community only briefly, Butler imbues them with
that individual spark of humanity that turns each into a living, breathing
person.  Butler doesn’t shy away
from harsh realities, and neither does Lauren, but the precision and deft
touches with which the author distinguishes her intent from the narrative of
her character is not often matched in fiction.

Anyone
looking for a master dystopia that exemplifies the metaphor of modern life
needs to read Parable of the Sower.  Those interested in novels that
speculate on the philosophical, as well as physical ramifications of societal
collapse will be intrigued by Lauren’s interpretation of religion and what it
means to a people under duress. 
This novel is a modern classic that treats with issues of poverty, race,
and community, and should be required reading for every U.S. citizen.

A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

Growing
up the younger son of a rich family, made rich from the pepper trade on the
mainland, Jevick has learned that there is a price for everything.   Living in the Tea Islands to the
south of the great empire of Olondria, Jevick’s life is simple, fed on stories
of such wonder that when he has the opportunity to go, he can’t help but take
it.  He believes he is
prepared.  He has read the great
books, been tutored in the language. 
But there are some things you can’t learn simply from books.

A
coincidental meeting with a young woman, ill of a wasting sickness, going to
Olondria with her mother to seek a cure, reminds Jevick of his home, of and all
he is leaving behind, but it is not enough to stop him from fully immersing
himself in Olondrian culture, buying books wherever he can, and succumbing to
the magic of a place he has dreamed about nearly all his life.  The magic of Olondria has always been
in the books, in their ability to call up stories and people long dead, but in
giving himself over to Olondria, Jevick finds himself drawn into a struggle not
of his making. 

A Stranger in Olondria is, structurally,
a descendant of Tolkien’s works. 
Samatar plants the seeds for her world’s cultures through the stories
they tell, the stories Jevick hears and reads during his travels.  But where Tolkien was hampered by his
pastoralism, Samatar’s novel is a triumph of both storytelling and wonder.  The novel’s use of Jevick as
first-person narrator allows it to position its atmosphere of awe and nostalgia
against the regret and injustice elicited by its plot structure without
becoming too grandiose to be affective. 
The story that Jevick tells is relatively short, but juxtaposed against
the huge history of the world he traverses, the novel has a grand scope that
will make readers feel they are reading a much longer tale.

Those
who enjoy the storytelling devices used by writers like Tolkien will enjoy
Samatar’s mythologizing and the epic scale of A Stranger in Olondria. 
Those who are captivated by “stranger in a strange land” stories will
enjoy following Jevick as he is immersed in a culture he has grown up loving second-hand.  Readers looking for a novel they can
slow down and savour need look now further than A Stranger in Olondria.