As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!
I’ve been reading a lot of books that deal with ice, snow, and travelling in the cold – very appropriate for Newcastle in November. I finally finished Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, which I’ve been reading very slowly – the first half, in particular, is dense and difficult, and I needed time to take it in. As is well known, the novel deals with a foreign visitor to the planet Gethen, or ‘Winter’, whose otherwise-human inhabitants have no specific biological sex until they enter a monthly state called kemmer, when they can become either male or female depending on circumstance (Le Guin calls this ‘a bisexual society’, which makes the modern reader trip up a bit, and demonstrates how marginal bisexual sexualities were in the 1970s). This not only makes gender irrelevant but renders everybody asexual most of the time. The phrase that the title comes from – a Gethenian saying that ‘the left hand of darkness is the right hand of light’ indicates the novel’s concern with challenging binaries, not solely those of man/woman but of friend/enemy and sexual partner/platonic companion.
The second half of the novel is where it really picks up pace, having established its theoretical framework, as our original narrator travels with an exiled Gethenian across a frozen sea – a journey reminiscent of the accounts of Antarctic travellers such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. I kept tracing the influence of this novel forward to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which also corrects one of the most significant flaws of The Left Hand of Darkness by using ‘she’ rather than ‘he’ to refer to its genderless beings, a thought experiment that, for me, works much better. I’m certain I’ve missed half of what this novel has to say, so I hope I’ll return to it again.
Other recent reads that deal with the cold, and travelling away from, through it, and towards it: Garth Nix’s follow-up to his brilliant Abhorsen trilogy, Goldenhand, which I enjoyed as much as Abhorsen, if not as much as Sabriel or Lirael; and Sally Magnusson’s The Sealwoman’s Gift, a thoroughly engrossing historical novel set between seventeenth-century Iceland and Algiers, which is both genuinely funny and genuinely sad. I especially admired how Magnusson described the meeting of two oral storytelling traditions, as captured Icelandic slaves come into contact with local Muslim women.
Passengers (2016) attracted fierce criticism for its misogynistic and antiquated story line when it was initially released. Nevertheless, I can’t resist (a) set-pieces/’locked rooms’ (b) films set in space (c) living spaces full of futuristic breakfast-making technology etc. (d) things going wrong with lots of beeping screens and electronic read-outs, so I was pretty sure I was going to hate the gender politics but enjoy the film anyway. Spoilers for Passengers follow.
And yes, as the film stands, it’s as sexist as everybody says. If you didn’t follow the original controversy, the film focuses on a ship making its way towards a new home world for humanity. The passengers and crew on board are in suspended animation over the 120-year journey, but when the ship suffers a meteorite strike, one of the pods is damaged, and its passenger, Jim, wakes up ninety years too early. Realising that he’s doomed to live out his life alone on the ship, he becomes fixated on fellow passenger, Aurora, tampers with her pod and wakes her up as well. Aurora and Jim fall in love, but when she finds out what he did, she’s rightly furious. When the ship starts going even more wrong, Jim’s heroic willingness to risk his own life to save others encourages Aurora to forgive him, and they grow old and die together in space.
As a number of people pointed out at the time, this is fundamentally disturbing. Jim essentially murders Aurora, and deliberately places her in a situation where she will become emotionally and socially dependent on him. His behaviour is abusive, and although Aurora is offered the choice of returning to suspended animation near the end of the film through a plot contrivance, Jim could not have known this would happen when he decided to wake her up. Moreover, the way the film is framed reduces Aurora to a passive object that Jim first takes and then has to win back. A recorded message from one of her friends telling her that she needs to learn to give more of herself and not always be so distant and independent underlines the unpleasant message that her enforced ‘love’ for Jim is natural and right.
Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about Passengers, basically because it’s one of those films that could so easily have been really good and instead is terrible. As this video (‘Passengers, Rearranged’) outlines, if the structure of the film was flipped and we started in Aurora’s head as she wakes up, the reveal that Jim deliberately did this to her would come as a surprise to the viewers as well. Jim would become a dark grey character, rather than a romantic hero, and the film’s tone would shift more towards horror than sci-fi. Even better, the video suggests that Jim could be killed off in the course of the movie, leaving Aurora alone on the ship – and faced with the same dark choice that he originally struggled with. Framed like this, Passengers could have been less Titanic and more Black Mirror, much more thought-provoking, and far less objectionable.
I’m absolutely loving Tim Clare’s Couch to 80k Writing Bootcamp, a free eight-week novel-writing course with a 20-minute podcast including a ten-minute writing exercise every day (with one day off a week). The name, while catchy, is a bit misleading – Clare explicitly advises writers against the kind of NaNoWriMo mentality where you try to get as many words down each day no matter how bad they are, believing it makes you burn out and get put off. Instead, he suggests, you should make writing something you look forward to and stop while you still want to do more – a practice that these podcasts certainly encourage. So you won’t have 80k words by the end, but you’ll hopefully be feeling much more creative and productive.
What’s especially brilliant about it is how flexible it is – it’s really a way of getting you to establish a daily writing habit, so it’s a useful boost whether you’re just starting your very first novel or are bogged down in the third draft of your tenth. For me, it’s helping me do some proper thinking and planning for my new project, which is set in Antarctica (more cold!) and has the working title Old Ice. I love this bootcamp so much that I’m listening to two episodes a day and making it into a four-week writing course, so I’m hoping to be done by Christmas and ready to properly launch into a first draft. Given how many novel-writing courses, offline or online, are prohibitively expensive for those on low incomes (which is not my position at the moment, but used to be for a number of years and may be again in the future) I’m really impressed by Clare’s generosity in providing this gem for free, and I’ll definitely be contributing to his coffee fund.