Tag Archives: stereotypes

Distortion and Stereotypes in Le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”

[As always—spoilers]

It’s been quite some time since I’ve read past midnight, but I had to see how John Le Carré’s novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” ended. It was published in 1963, but I found it to be surprisingly relevant in 2017. One of things things that I admire about Le Carré’s writing is that he is not wishy-washy, trying to please everyone. There’s a bite to both the words and the plot.

Le Carre says of his own book in the intro called Fifty Years Later:

The novel’s merit, then—or its offense, depending on where you stood—was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old questions that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: how far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?(xiv)

He also points out that the negative parts of the spies’ culture were a reflection of the problems in the larger culture.  The plot of the book explores how easy it becomes to exploit the individual in the service of some “greater good.”  The sense of impending tragedy is palpable and grows throughout the plot. The pacing of the book is excellent. Leamas, the spy, has to give up much of his individuality and acts as a tool for his handlers to gain ground in East Germany. He willingly makes this sacrifice of himself.  Another character isn’t a willing participant in the scheme.

However, the thread that I found the most relevant to our current politics was the section where Liz Gold, a U.K. Citizen and a member of the communist party, is brought to East Germany before the wall came down. When she interacts with the people there, she realizes some of the distorted beliefs that they had about the British. For example, they informed Liz that the working class was treated horribly in the U.K. In one scene, after Liz has been involved in something disturbing and exhausting, she doesn’t feel like eating the food offered to her. The wardress and she exchange:

‘Why don’t you eat?’ the woman asked again. ‘It’s all over now.’ She said this without compassion, as if the girl were a fool not to eat when the food was there.

‘I’m not hungry.’

The wardress shrugged: ‘You may have a long journey,’ she observed, ‘and not much at the other end.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The workers are starving in England,’ she declared complacently. “The capitalists let them starve.’

Liz thought of saying something but there seemed no point (204).

It didn’t occur to them to ask Liz what her experience was as a citizen of the place, albeit of member of the Communist party there, because they already “knew” the answer.  Certainly, there were hungry people in that era as there are now, but most of them were comfortably fed, as demonstrated in an early scene, in which Liz is generous with another character, buying him a variety of food. Yet, Liz was also mistaken in her beliefs about what Communism was like. Le Carré was likely speaking to governmental propaganda.

In many ways, when compared to when this book was written, we have more exposure now to what other people’s lives are like in other places.  On the other hand, there are still distorted and stereotypical views.  Even within a country, people of different categories and political beliefs may not have exposure to how other people actually live or what they believe.

And yet, Le Carré also shows how both governments shared similarities in the prices they were willing to pay for their ideologies, despite having different ideologies. Both were willing to sacrifice the individual to win the “game.”

I’d highly recommend reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It’s an excellent spy novel that is also thought-provoking.

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Millennials and Code-switching in “Tainted Blood” by M. L. Brennan

[Lots of spoilers. Beware.]

Although I’ve started many urban fantasy series, I eventually cooled out on the genre and stopped reading in the middle of several series.  At a friend’s suggestion, I started reading M. L. Brennan’s Generation V series last year. This week, I had some spare time to read between snow days and illness so I tore through the third book, Tainted Blood. While the series covers some of the usual urban fantasy alliances and tensions between supernatural species, it also addresses conflict that arises between different generations of a family. Furthermore, this series is fun to read because the protagonist, Fortitude Scott, is a Millennial who must code switch.

As a sociologist, I have some reluctance towards using the concept of generations. The idea of commonality between a certain category of people that have experienced certain events (e.g., WWII, 9/11, etc.) can led to stereotyping and discrimination. Additionally, as the less powerful tend to get blamed by the more powerful, we wind up in situations where the younger generation get blamed for societal ills that they did not play a part in creating. (Blaming the younger generations always reminds of this somewhat problematic song, “Kids,” from the musical Bye Bye Birdie. Why is it that every generation of people is the laziest generation of trouble makers ever?)

For full disclosure, I’m only about two or four years older than the oldest Millennials depending on whether the cutoff is set at 1980 or 1982. I typically agree more with Millennials than Gen X. Too often, Millennials have been stereotyped and blamed  for having to adjust to the world that’s changed around them. This article by a Millennial discusses some of the problems inherent in this type of analysis. For a good overview of the Millennial cohort from the White House website, I’d suggest reading this document, 15 Economic Facts about Millenials, by The Council of Economic Advisors.  According to the report, the Millennial generation is: the largest generation, the most diverse (including many immigrants), the most educated cohort, etc. (If you don’t have a much time, I recommend just reading through the table of contents for the fifteen facts.) Like it or not, the concept of generations is a part of our cultural dialogue, and I’m pleased to see a heroic Millennial character in Brennan’s series.

Most of the urban fantasy series that I have read deal with the lives of Generation X, and they often remain strangely apolitical—failing to reference current events or tensions in human society. Generation V, on the other hand, is inherently about how the massive changes in the past few decades in the human world are impacting both the human and the supernatural world. Fortitude is still (mostly) human at the start of the series, but his vampiric family controls an enormous territory in the Northeastern part of the United States and part of Canada. The Scott family rules many other types of supernatural species and has many servants. Madeline Scott, his mother, raised Fortitude differently than her other, older children, allowing him to be raised by humans. However, when he finds out the truth about his vampiric family of origin, she has his adopted family killed and forces him to live with them at their mansion. Therefore, Fortitude identifies more with humans and is an American.

In some ways, I feel that Fortitude has to code-switch, meaning he moves back and forth between at least two cultures, although he prefers human culture. (For an entertaining discussion of code-switching, this NPR piece includes code-switching videos of President Obama, as well as Beyonce.)  Madeline Scott immigrated from the “Old World,” specifically England, in 1662. Therefore, while his adoptive parents were likely Baby boomer Americans, his biological mother comes from not only a different country but a different century.  When Fortitude interacts with his siblings, they also come from different eras. These generational differences are explored in the books.

M. L. Brennan does a great job discussing the plight of the Millennial generation. Although Fortitude is college educated he is chronically underemployed, working in the food service industry, as well as a dog walker. Although he could live the lavish lifestyle of the Scotts, he avoids it when he can. Generally, Fortitude rejects the U.S. cultural value of materialism, although earlier in the book, he accepts some expensive clothes from his brother. His family has been trying to get him to update his appearance and wear expensive clothes for some time. I was surprised, and a bit dismayed, that he accepted the clothes, although I understood the motivator in the book of reaching out to his grieving brother. The major tension in this book is that Fortitude will either have to entirely accept his family’s culture, including how to feed from (and eventually murder humans) and give up what made him belong to human society in the U.S., or he’d have to die. In the end, with the support of his friend (and love interest) Suzume, he realizes he can forge his own path. He can decide what works for him from both cultures.

Later in Tainted Blood, his beloved car is destroyed—apparently, a common metaphor in more than one of the urban fantasy series that I’ve read. This forces him to decide which path to take in terms of materialism. He decides to pay for a cheap Volkswagen Scirocco that is older than he is. In an unusual move, he invites his family to come with him to purchase the new car. They show up to purchase it in his mother’s Rolls-Royce. I love the commentary that Brennan drops into her books about current and past events, as well as generational differences:

Chivalry just looked at me mournfully. “Really, Fort. A German car?” Two world wars had left my brother with strong feelings about certain European countries.

Fortitude is from younger generation that wasn’t shaped by living during World War II. In fact, this scene amused me as I had a similar conversation between myself and an older family member about World War II when I was buying my Honda Civic, a Japanese car. When Fortitude buys the car and says good-bye to his family, his mother says, “‘My littlest baby. What a strange delight you are to us.’” Fortitude delights me as a reader because I’d argue that he is a feminist, accepts many types of diversity (like having a gay roommate, who happens to be a ghoul), and believes in collaborating and mediating instead of always using dominance and violence. He differs from his elder family members in this way. If you’re looking for an entertaining read, I’d highly recommend this series. I can’t wait to see how the series continues. It feels good to look forward to an urban fantasy series again.

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In-groups, Out-groups, and Socialization in “Belle and Sebastian,” My Favorite 1980s Cartoon

While I enjoyed kindergarten, I longed to return home in the afternoons to watch the anime, Belle and Sebastian. It aired in the U.S. in 1984 on Nickelodeon, although the series originally aired in Japan during 1981. As a six year old, I identified with the problems that Sebastian faced: coping with bullies, longing for friendship, and a thirst for adventure. Sebastian travels over the Pyrenees Mountains from France to Spain to find his biological mother, as well as to help Belle, the maligned Great Pyrenees, survive. As a girl, I wondered if I’d ever get the chance to travel the world, meet new people, and see new places. I even loved the bread and cheese that Sebastian often ate, starting a life long love of cheese. (As a vegan now, I stick to plant based cheeses.) The show inspired my imagination, and I often thought of short plays based on it, even when I was an older child. Mom recorded all of the episodes for me on VHS, and over the years, I watched the show when I was home sick. The show comforted me.

I’ve used the show (and other cartoons) occasionally in my classes as an example of how media is an important agent of socialization. Agents of socialization teach us our culture, including norms and values. Belle and Sebastian taught me about being a good friend, defending those who might have less power than you, and being wary of those in authority.  Authority figures are not always correct, and it’s important to think for yourself.  In fact, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how I remember the show portraying violence.  Often, the adults using violence did not give the benefit of the doubt.  The show emphasized avoiding the abuse of power.

I rewatched the first episode recently, and I realized that the show illustrates concepts like in-groups and out-groups.  In the first episode, Sebastian is being bullied by the other boys.  They were from the village; whereas, he was from a farm.  People make fun of Sebastian because he doesn’t have a mother; he was different, in other words.  Belle, the dog, is in a similar situation.  People are afraid of her so they assume that she is harmful.  In fact, the humans, with their guns, are actually much more dangerous than Belle is. Yet, they perceive themselves as protecting their community from a menace. Sebastian meets Belle and because he isn’t predisposed to be afraid of her, he develops a friendship with her.

This reminds me a bit of the stigma attached to dog breeds in the U.S. today like pit bulls and german shepherds.  From this Salon article, “pit bulls are the most frequently abused, tortured, abandoned, and euthanized bred of dog in the United States…Because of their stigma, they’re often difficult to adopt out; a ride to the shelter is almost always a one-way trip for pities.”  The article mentions how pit bulls were actually used as nannies for children in the past and this discussion gets at the social construction of beliefs surrounding dog breeds and their meaning in society.  “The media seems to feed off the idea of monster dogs—it makes great copy.”  Belle and Sebastian was dealing with the negative view of Belle; she’s thought of as a monster and dangerous.  The show teaches tolerance and appreciation of diversity.

In terms of tolerance and diversity, Sebastian’s mother, is a traveling “gypsy”, and I’m really curious to see during my viewing if she is treated respectfully by the anime.  There is a great deal of stigmatization and vilification of Romani persons in the media.  (I’m having a terrible flashback to the second Sherlock Holmes movie.  I almost walked out of it due to the discriminatory portrayal of Romani individuals.) Sebastian is adopted by Cecil, who is essentially his grandfather.  Cecil’s granddaughter, Anne-Marie, mothers Sebastian, although she is relatively young.  I was shocked to see Anne-Marie’s actions border on abusive.  I didn’t remember this as a part of the show.

I’m planning to watch all 52 episodes again and plan to blog about ones that are particularly relevant in some way.  I’m really curious as to how cartoons and anime for children are functioning as agents of socialization today, but I really don’t know what shows are out there.  My sense is that modern television focuses more on a dominant masculinity and violence, but I haven’t actually watched any or read any academic articles to know for sure.  I’d love to hear of examples, if you know of any, and how it might be socializing children.

  • What television shows impacted you growing up?  What did you learn from them?
  • What shows do you think are helpful or harmful for children today? Why?

  

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The Exploration of Social Class Privilege in “Valour and Vanity” by Mary Robinette Kowal

[Huge spoilers.  Beware.]

Mary Robinette Kowal’s most recent work, “Valour and Vanity” dazzled me with its insightful exploration of privilege, social class, and social stratification through a heist plot. This fourth book in her series of Glamourist Histories follows her protagonists, Jane and Vincent, who can create magical illusions called glamour.  Throughout the series, they push the boundaries of their craft, which is relevant to the plot of this book, as they have developed a technology that criminals want to steal to sell. Jane and Vincent are artists but privileged artists. Sir Vincent is the Prince Regents’s official glamourist and is privileged due to this superior connection. All societies have a socially constructed hierarchy called stratification, in which some people have more power, wealth, or other privileges. Kowal pays meticulous attention to the historical time period in which she writes, the Regency, and her characters visit different European nations throughout the series.

The privilege of Jane and Vincent is established at the beginning of the novel. The types of problems they encounter are certainly important to Jane, but are “of the prosaic sort: which carriage to take, how to arrange their party’s quarters, and, most of all, how to manage her mother’s nerves” (11). Jane begins the novel ready to leave her family and travel alone with Vincent to work on a Glamour project in Murano. They are beset by pirates (or so they think) en route, and they lose all their valuables and are threatened with slavery. A banker onboard offers to help them by paying a ransom for them.

At the port office in Venice, it becomes apparent that their slide down the social classes has begun. They have lost some of their privilege, as no one believes that Vincent is the Prince Regent’s glamourist. For example, they can’t enter the city due to an entry fee, nor do they have a change of clothes, food, or shelter. A rich banker, Signor Sanuto, was aboard the ship when they were boarded by the pirates and offers to help them. On his charity, they are allowed to leave. He helps them establish a line of credit through his bank, loans them clothes, and allows them to stay at his palazzo. For a time, Jane and Vincent seem stable: they replace their clothes and even buy a replacement cane for the one that Sanuto lost during the pirate raid. They begin to work on their glamour project with the glassmakers, and time passes. Eventually, they truly plummet down the social classes when they are victims of a heist. The glasses that they make containing called Verre Obscuri are stolen, and Sanuto disappears.

Jane and Vincent are left destitute, and their friend, Lord Byron is out of town. They are forbidden from leaving Murano with no shelter, clothes, or food. Kowal does an excellent job showing the emotions that Jane and Vincent experience like anger, anxiety, and depression. They are treated in a stigmatizing way in the first church that they visit: the priest assumes that Vincenet lost all their money gambling.  He then proceeds to act as if they are the guilty parties.  The priest offers Jane a place to stay, but Vincent would not have had one.  The priest  states: “‘Venice’s charities are intended to provide means for those who cannot fend for themselves. Women, children, and the lame or ill’” (165). Jane refuses. They decide to pawn Jane’s wedding ring, although Vincent was loathe to do it because he felt he was failing at their marriage vows. They are able to rent a tiny room above a grocer, although they go to sleep with no food. Part of Jane’s privilege is revealed; she has never made more than toast and tea. Nor does she know how to launder clothes.

At this juncture, Kowal explores the intersection of gender and social class in occupation. Although ladies like Jane do not have a profession, lower class women did have professions like dressmakers and cooks.  Furthermore, the point is made that while glamour is considered a woman’s art, the only professionals in the field are men. Vincent comments that it is more “natural” for women to stay in the home to which Jane ponders giving him a copy of a book on “The Rights of Women” by Mary Wollstonecraft, which is an actual book you can read through the Gutenberg press online for free. Vincent plans to demonstrate his glamour abilities door to door, and they happen upon a church that the swindler had mentioned to them earlier. Jane manages to gain employment there.  It turns into a fulfilling experience for her over time.  The nuns teach her many skills including bread making, and eventually, she starts teaching the young pupils glamour in relation to their music lessons. This work, for Jane, is the opposite of alienating work.  She feels pride and gets to work on the whole product. Furthermore, she discovers a passion for teaching.

Contrastingly, Vincent has trouble finding employment. This line by Vincent is the experience of many educated people today in a stagnant United States economy: “‘Today, I attempted to acquire a job hauling bricks for a mason.  I was declined.  Apparently, I have the hands of a gentleman and am unsuited for ‘real work’’” (192).  This relates to the fact that many people in the United States (and elsewhere) are unable to find work relating to their educations or are underemployed.

When Vincent finds a job doing glamour and is reticent to discuss it, Jane fears that he is working as a coldmonger, which is dangerous work, established in a previous book. Often, the most dangerous and dirty work of a society is given to those in the lower social classes because they don’t have many options.  The dangerous work done in coal mines and textile mills are great examples of work that has immediate or long term dangers.

One poignant scene getting at the differences in social class is when “the more wealthy simply rode through the rain in sedan chairs or upon the water in gondolas, leaving the task of getting wet to their drivers.  In that moment, Jane would have been happy just to be able to afford an umbrella.” (215)  In another scene, a store clerk stereotypes Jane and states “no credit.” Jane buys a bar of lavender soap due to this interaction.When Jane begins to question the clerk about her assumptions, the clerk admits that they often get thieves in the store. The clerk apologizes and asks Jane if she used to be a lady.  Jane feels as if the woman was blaming her for her poverty.  (This reminds me of this short video, “Cracking the Code,” that is on race but relates how to how store clerks stereotype certain categories of people.)

Vincent and Jane fight over the purchase of the lavender soap.  It has been established earlier in the book that the couple had a warm, friendly relationship with calm conflict resolution.  Their change in circumstances (e.g., the stress) leads into more heated conflict.  One problem is that Vincent is upset that Jane is bringing in more money. Jane and Vincent fight about who does the household chores, quite reminiscent of many modern conversations. In fact, Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung, looked at these topics in “The Second Shift” originally published in 1989. This book is an easy read and still relevant to modern issues. The second shift is the idea that when (usually) women get home from their paid work, they have to do the household and care work in the home. Interviews were conducted with dual career couples. While “The Second Shift” is about a later time period and a different place, it is relevant to the conflict faced in the book.

There were three different ideologies: traditional, transitional, and egalitarian. Before their downward social mobility, Jane and Vincent were essentially both working as elite professionals and would likely fit into the egalitarian mode. They shared similar power in their relationship in terms of decision making and did similar work. (Although due to her gender, Jane is not recognized for her contributions by society.) They could afford to employ others to do the second shift. Today, many professionals hire maids to compensate for not having a spouse in the home.  However, Vincent’s comment that women were more naturally suited for the home would fit in with a traditional ideology, in which the man works outside the home and the woman works inside the home.  Usually, women have less power in these relationships over major decisions.  Transitional ideology occurs when it assumed that women will both work outside of the home and fulfill the housework and childcare.

At the end of the book, after Jane and Vincent complete a dazzling heist of their own, they return to their previous station and social class.  They realize how privileged they were and things that had seemed normal to them at the beginning of the book seem like luxuries: eating pastries, enjoying lavender soap, and the return of Jane’s wedding ring.  I love this line of Kowal: “Jane…knew that she would always love him, for richer, for poorer.  With and without soap” (382). In the final chapter, they pay off their debts, restore their clothes, etc.

As they walked along in their new clothes, Jane notes “Today the other passers-bye saw her, but as a fitting part of Murano rather than as a bit of refuse that they would prefer not to acknowledge” (384).  Kowal is spot on in her analysis of how people treat the poor and homeless.  People often look past these groups as if they are invisible. They are stigmatized and often blamed for situations created by the larger political and historical changes happening around them.

Kowal’s book is both highly entertaining and thoughtful. It is my favorite so far. I highly recommend it and the entire series.

 

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“Caliban’s War”: Part 1: Women as Point of View Characters

[Spoiler’s ahoy!!]

One of my first blog posts last year covered “Leviathan Wakes,” the first book in “The Expanse” series by James S.A. Corey.  The book grew on me over time, and I gave it as a gift to several friends this year.  While I enjoyed the book, I had some reservations about the portrayal of gender.  One of the two authors of the series, Daniel Abraham commented on my review and said that I should try the second book, “Caliban’s War” to see how women are treated as point of view characters.  Often in literature and films, women are either treated exactly like men (with women’s names) or as stereotypes of women. The women in “Caliban’s War” were treated as whole persons with a mixture of masculine and feminine traits.

For example, I adored both Bobbie Draper, who begins as a sergeant in the Martian Marine Corps, and Chrisjen Avasarala, the assistant to the undersecretary of executive administration.   Bobbie’s story arc is an amazing one.  Her team is destroyed at the beginning of the book by nonhuman creature described as being “covered in chitinous plates” with its head “being a massive horror.”  It rips her counterparts apart, and Bonnie lives merely because the creature exploded.  Bonnie’s character development includes her having to work through this nightmare experience, as well as her breaking her ties with her former life because she realizes that the threat of this “monster” is greater than any Earth-Mars tensions.  Her position as a marine was extremely important to her. Although I won’t give away the ending, Bonnie regains her strength, and her actions amaze.  She is a resourceful, powerful, strong, and large woman who is attractive despite not matching traditional gender roles.  I thought that it was interesting that, due to her size, men often wanted to either have a sexual relationship with her or were intimidated by her.  Bobbie embraces her sexuality in a healthy way; furthermore, she is not viewed negatively for her sexuality.  I never felt when reading this novel that Bobbie was just a woman character who acts exactly like a man. She felt like a fully developed human being with her own talents and goals.

I’ve discussed dramaturgical analysis before, and I believe that Bobbie’s presentation of self roughly matched who she was.  On the other hand, Avasarala, an older woman and diplomat, had to find ways to play her role as the assistant to the undersecretary of administration  successfully in the male dominated field she worked in.  Before addressing the specifics of “Caliban’s War,” I want to discuss some of the findings related to women working in fields dominated by men.

In work sociology, an important topic to address is the tokenizing experience of minorities like women in workplaces. Rosabeth Kanter, faculty in the Harvard business school, for example, found that minorities in a workplace are highly scrutinized by their peers until about 15% of the workplace is comprised of that particular minority.  Therefore, a lone woman working in a field dominated by men would be monitored closely, as well as having her behaviors explained in terms of traditionally feminine stereotypes.  Women in this type of situation would have to learn to negotiate this tokenism. Kanter’s research has also been critiqued as oversimplifying the complexities of gender discrimination in the workplace, as it relates to gender.  If you’re interested in this topic, Kanter’s book from 1977 is called “Men and Women of the Corporation.”  Incidentally, Dr. Kanter (@RosaBethKanter) often tweets helpfully about leadership and innovation.

Returning to “Caliban’s War,” Avasarala’s spouse asks her, “‘The mask is heavy today?’”

Avasarala reflects on this idea. “The mask, he called it.  As if the person she was when she faced the world was a false one, and the one who spoke to him or played painting games with her granddaughters was authentic.  She thought that he was wrong, but the fiction was so comforting she had always played along.”

It seems that Avasarala either sees both versions of herself as authentic or only the version of herself at work as authentic.  This fits in with the dramaturgical analysis: she performs different roles in the different settings that she’s in.  It doesn’t mean that one is necessarily more “real” or “true” than another. Avasarala worked for the United Nations and was a tough character on the surface who learned to appear certain ways to work with the men in her field.  Avasarala finds certain masculine behavior distasteful, while embracing other aspects to fit in, perhaps like cursing. She is the, or one of the, most intelligent characters in the book and is one of the first characters to realize the dangerous potential of the entity on Venus from the previous book. Her behavior throughout the book is impacted by the realization that infighting between Earth and Mars might be harmful in a fight against a new enemy.  One of my favorite aspects of Avasarala is her willingness to get her hands dirty while still holding onto certain norms like protecting children.  Her arc allows for her to fall, briefly, in power, and then to rise higher than she started.

Both Bobbie and Avasarala felt like full human beings with their own histories, hopes, and goals.  I was pleased with their portrayal in this book, and I hope to write another post soon that looks more generally at the politics happening in the book, and I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.

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Ethnocentrism and War in “Consider Phlebas”

[Spoilers…]

“Consider Phlebas” is the opening book in the Culture series by Iain M. Banks.  I began reading this book after he passed away earlier this year, although it was published in 1987. It is sociologically relevant due to the exploration of the major warring cultures: the Idirans and the Culture.  The main character, Horza, is a shapeshifter who decides to align himself against the Culture.  He prefers the Idirans and displays prejudice towards the Culture, who have developed extremely advanced machines and robots.  The book explores cultural values, norms, ethnocentrism, stereotypes, and discrimination.  Is war inevitable when you have vastly different cultural values?  Is it possible for one person to make a difference when such vast social forces are at play?  These questions illustrate the powerful ideas explored in “Consider Phlebas.”

While reading this book, I enjoyed the brief scenes of the Culture.  Their society is post-scarcity due to their close relationship with their advanced technology, and I look forward to reading more about them in the series.  They prefer peace.  The Idrians, on the other hand, have vastly different cultural values and practices  including religious beliefs and warfare.  Similar to Horza, the entire Idiran society views the Culture as a threat due to their incorporation of technology into all aspects of their society and lives.  Therefore, the war is fought over ideological differences.

In terms of the plot, there is a sense of bleak inevitability, especially near the end of the book.  Horza is trying to get to Schar’s world to retrieve the Culture’s Mind for the Idirans.  (Schar’s world is essentially just a memorial now for a past civilization that died.)   Horza goes through a series of adventures and misadventures.  Along the way, he finds a partner and she gets pregnant, he gains a crew, and he takes them to the planet of the Dead.  However, a party of Idirans is already on the planet.  One of the Idirans perpetually refuses to call Horza by name, instead referring to him by his species.  At the same time, Horza, who has met a Culture drone named Unaha-Closp refuses to acknowledge this name or the fact that the drone is its own person.  This demonstrates a bit of the ethnocentrism by both the Idirans and the Changers.

In the end, it isn’t his nemesis, the Culture agent, Balveda, that kills him.  It is his own Idiran “ally”.  This speaks to the differences in the two societies.  There is a lovely train metaphor in the book, which one of the Idirans uses to kill Horza’s team.  In the end, only Balveda and the Mind survive.  It’s tragic.  War is tragic.

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Class conflict in “Without a Summer”

[Spoilers!]

This summer, I plan to continue analyzing novels nominated for science fiction and fantasy awards.  The Nebula nominations intrigue me more than the Hugos this year; I plan to start with them.  Two of my favorite fantasy authors gained nominations: Mary Robinette Kowal and N. K. Jemisin.   Furthermore, I want to read “2312”, which is on both lists and won the Nebula award.

Ever since a friend gave me a copy of Mary Robinette Kowal’s book, “Shades of Milk and Honey,” I’ve been hooked on her “Glamourist History” series.   The third book, “Without a Summer” pulls loosely from the historical time period of the Luddites’ revolt and includes a volcanic eruption that led to an unseasonably cold winter in 1816.   The main character, Jane, and her spouse, Vincent, are the main characters in the series, and they are both Glamourists who can create magical illusions.

“Without a Summer” is inspired by the Jane Austen book, “Emma”, and Jane attempts to matchmake for her younger sister.  Unfortunately, Jane is biased against the young man due to his Irish family and his Catholicism.  Furthermore, she cannot see her own sister’s strengths due to her own faulty beliefs.  Kowal excels at exploring these biases in Jane, and I found her character growth in the novel to be both believable and enjoyable.  Kowal successfully negotiated the delicate balance between alienating the reader due to revealing the main character’s flaws and creating a character that seemed believable due to the common beliefs held in her time period.  The book definitely explores prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination relating to ethnicity, social class, gender, and religion.

As I hoped, the book entertained while also speaking to larger societal problems in the time period, as well as today.  Many of the societal problems in the book, like technology replacing artisan and craft work, have been contested problems since the Industrial Revolution began.  In fact, this idea related to the Luddites in this time period.  Karl Marx and many other later scholars wrote about the alienating work of the Industrial Revolution, and one of my favorite sociologists, Max Weber, wrote later about bureaucracy and rationalization, as noted by this blogpost by The Cranky Sociologist.  I think that everyone in our society should watch the first twenty minutes of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” as it illustrates control and surveillance in the workplace.  I often make my students watch it when we discuss work, technology, and bureaucracy.  It’s both important to film history and sociology.  (Incidentally, if friends or family wanted to get me a present, I’d love this Weber mug.  I’d love to have seen what Weber would make of both the Internet itself, Internet surveillance, and the fact that he is emblazoned on a mass produced mug.  I’ll have to do another post on one of my all time favorite Weberian concepts, the iron cage, at some point.)

As far as Kowal’s fantasy novel, it shows class conflict and the social movement surrounding the Luddites through a group of magical workers called coldmongers.  The coldmongers were villified and stereotyped by the more powerful, and their dangerous jobs fail to be rewarded well. Also, the book demonstrates how their can be factions within protest, as well as betrayals by infiltrators.  The book is a fun read, but it has layers of depth earning its well-deserved Nebula nomination.  I will read the next book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s series as soon as it is published.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology, Teaching