Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Cuckoo’s Calling, part five and epilogue

Part five opens with Strike wondering if he’s dislocated his knee or fractured ‘the small amount of tibia left to him’. One, if he’d dislocated his knee he’d fucking know it; he wouldn’t have walked away from the fall, he’d be on the floor screaming. Two, why does he have any tibia left, I’m certain they normally amputate at joints to make it easier, don’t they? I’m not sure but that seems logical to me, especially if he’d only retain a small amount otherwise. (This is an actual question, not just me yelling, lol.) Anyway, he gets back to the office after telling the police what he thinks happened, which the readers obviously can’t find out yet. Getting real tired of your shit, Rowling. Robin’s there and he refuses to tell her anything, then kicks her out so he can look at his leg without telling her he’s an amputee, and considering all the fuss he’s been making it’s described as ‘sore and bruised’. Wimp.

Dramatic finale time! Strike speaks to John. Turns out Lula left all her money to her blood brother Jonah, the son of her now-deceased biological father who Robin tracked down, not her foster brother John. (John and Jonah? Seriously, Rowling? It’s hard enough keeping everyone’s names straight as it is.) There’s no explanation for how Lula found her family when her own mother didn’t know who her father was, just as there was no explanation for how Robin found them. There’s also no explanation for why she elected to leave literally everything to a blood relative she only knew for a few months rather than the non blood relatives she’s known her entire life or the other blood relative (her mother) who is still alive.

Anyway, John is therefore our murderer, he killed her so when Lady Bristow snuffed it he’d get the lot. Jonah was seen the night of the murder, only nobody knew who he was, (a black guy was seen running down a nearby street, if you remember that; that was him) and apparently that’s the motive for John to get it investigated as murder so he had someone to stitch up.

Except… that’s bullshit.

The police ruled it suicide. All John had to do was stay quiet, the will was never going to be found because until Strike started interviewing people nobody knew it existed, Strike had to speak to everyone to get all the puzzle pieces. Instead John is the one who made a fuss and turned it into an investigation, which makes no fucking sense. He had a motive to kill her, but no reason whatsoever to speak up. The plot has just derailed into a crater the size of Australia.

It’s a shame, because Strike’s deconstruction of the crime and how it was done is actually very good, the best scene in the book, and it even ties in the weird side plots I didn’t understand – the movie director living in Lula’s building, the guy sending Strike death threats, Uncle Tony’s weird behaviour, all the little details such as Lula speaking to someone on her phone when she was in the high-end shop Strike and Robin visited before, and lots of tiny hints that were scattered through all the bullshit interviews that I completely missed. If someone else had been the one to insist it was murder and hire Strike, it would have worked really well.

Anyway, John attacks Strike – overweight, out of condition Strike, who’s apparently in excruciating pain from falling down the stairs – who naturally fends him off easily, subdues him, pins him down, and then beats the absolute shit out of him once he’s helpless in perfect Gryffindor fashion. Using his false leg as a club, which is so fucked up on so many levels. (Remember when I mentioned there was one scene which I thought was the only reason for Strike to have a prosthetic leg? This is that scene. It’s had no bearing on the plot or on his characterisation, so I think it was just the image of this scene. Not good.)

This is how Robin finally learns he’s an amputee, by the way. She walks in to see him smashing their client’s face in with his own prosthetic.


And that’s where part five ends. Yes, the entire section of the book was two very short chapters. Yes, it should have been tacked on to the end of part four.

Finally we have an epilogue. (Headed ‘Ten Days Later’ in horribly familiar style. Fuck off, Rowling.) Jonah got the money. John is awaiting trial. Lady Bristow is still dying slowly. Strike still hasn’t called Charlotte. Oh, huge shock, Robin’s not taking that job after all, she wants to stay on, imagine my surprise. Strike goes for a checkup at the amputee centre (at fucking last) and recites a pretentious poem to himself. And that’s the true end.

So, final thoughts. Overall, a disappointment.

There’s no characterisation – I have no idea what the personalities of our leads are like, or their interests, or anything about them beyond the incomplete shreds of Strike’s backstory. Robin didn’t even get that much, and boy did her POVs dry up quickly.

There’s very little plot for most of the book – there’s one plot-relevant scene every few chapters. Rowling seems to have forgotten this is meant to be a detective novel until pretty close to the end, when everything suddenly happens at once after hundreds of pages of timeskips and pointless pseudo-angst.

All the side characters are stereotypes just like they were in The Casual Vacancy and none of them are developed beyond the single scene they feature in. There is a lot of unnecessary racism and classism, and a baffling level of misogyny; the book tries very hard to make you hate every single female character bar Robin and Lula, and there’s no narrative reason to even mildly dislike most of them.

There’s way too much of what passes for romance, all of it clichéd and uninteresting, which all turned out to be a vast Road To Nowhere. There was no payoff for all Strike’s endless angsting about Charlotte, since she never appears onscreen and he never speaks to her. There’s also no payoff for Robin and Strike dancing around one another; Robin is still engaged at the end of the book, though her fiancée doesn’t approve of what happened or that she’s going to continue working for Strike, so I’m expecting them to split up in the next book or two and Strike and Robin to pair up at the end of the series. (Yes, it’s going to be a series, more on that in a moment.)

Rowling’s trick of constantly making Strike think of something or realise something or learn something without revealing what that something was is unbelievably fucking annoying. Once or twice wouldn’t be a problem but she uses it relentlessly throughout the whole book and it just pisses me off, especially when none of these revelations bar the murderer’s identity is remotely worth waiting for.

We have a ridiculous plothole at the end that undermines the entire premise. I really can’t think of any reason why John, having very carefully planned every last detail of his crime and having gotten away with murder, would then hire someone to investigate. There’s no attempt to handwave it as guilt, or psychology, or his worry that the will might be found despite all his precautions so he needs to find a scapegoat. There’s no explanation offered at all. It’s impossible to make sense of it, which means the murder mystery is broken and we’re left with a bad attempt at a PG romance novel.

I think this is all a real shame, because there are three or four truly brilliant scenes in the book that show what it could have been. The way the crime is constructed and the way the answer is very carefully foreshadowed throughout the book with lots of very subtle and well hidden clues is very good indeed. It just doesn’t work in the end because of that one plothole, and all the stupid romance crap got in the way and spoiled the main story.

In conclusion… I probably wouldn’t bother with this. Maybe if you find it in a library or something, but don’t waste your money paying for it.

The sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling is due to be released in hardback next month. It’s called The Silkworm. I will eventually be reviewing it for you, but not until it’s out in paperback, unless I pirate an ebook of it or find a cheap second hand copy or something – I don’t have a library anywhere near me and I refuse to pay much.

Silkworm’s plot is going to revolve around a famous author disappearing:

“The plot thickens when it is found out that the novelist had been working on a new novel, in which he has written a few blatantly honest pen-portraits of some people. As Strike realizes the repercussions the new novel might have had, he also realizes that there are many who would go to any lengths to ensure that the book remain unpublished.”

This sounds like it’s going to involve a lot of poor-misunderstood-genius-author crap and that it could be a vehicle for Rowling whining about people commenting on all the HP characters who were twisted caricatures of people she knows. I hope not but I’m not very optimistic. And if one of the characters in this victimised author’s spitebook turns out to be a nasty teacher I will throw the fucking book out of the window, I swear.

Starting next week, I’ll be beginning some of the Harry Potter material, though we’re not starting the official re-read just yet. See you all then.

The Cuckoo’s Calling:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four


Posted by on May 29, 2014 in loten


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Mitchell Recommends: Steve Reads Christian Apologetics

Here is the link to Steve’s youtube channel, and the specific playlists for the apologetics series can be found here. (No affiliation)

Steve Shives has a series on youtube called “An Atheist Reads”, in which he examines works of Christian apologetics and criticises them (or rants about them). While I don’t always agree with 100% of what he says, the vast majority of his criticisms are spot-on and I really enjoy listening to him do this. It’s certainly much more pleasant than reading the apologetic works would be. I’ve found that Steve does a good job of presenting the arguments the books are making while he criticises them; he definitely doesn’t quotemine or strawman, and while it’s obviously not the same as reading the books yourself it’s still a very good way to get a sense of what they argue. The snark and anger make it bearable, and he is very thorough. He’s also usually very good on sexism and gender issues.

I’ll admit this certainly isn’t for everybody – the videos can be rather dry most of the time, and if you don’t have a preexisting interest in the subject I suspect they may bore you. But if it does sound like something you’d be interested in, you should definitely check him out; if you have the time for it, his videos are well worth watching (or at least listening to; while watching will allow you to see some hilarious facial expressions, and he usually displays the text of quotes as he’s discussing them, you can get all of the substantive content auditorally).

(For the record, I was originally made aware of these videos by Daniel Fincke at Camels With Hammers, some time ago)


Posted by on May 27, 2014 in mitchell


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Ideology Kills (Re: the Santa Barbara shooting)

[Content Notes: murder, suicide, misogyny, MRA/PUA rhetoric, guns]

I’m honestly not sure whether I want to write about this, but I’ve been seeing it discussed almost everywhere I look and I think I need to.


It has emerged that Elliot Rodger, the alleged shooter in the Santa Barbara incident last night (to my knowledge counts currently stand at 7 dead and 7 injured, including Rodger himself; there have also been reports that an additional three bodies were found in Rodger’s apartment) was an active participant in the community of internet misogynists known as the “manosphere”. David Futrelle at The Site Formerly Known as Manboobz has made a complete transcript of the youtube video in which Rodger laid out his twisted rationale, and in addition to the comments there there have also been some great discussions at Pharyngula and Skepchick among other places. The posts and comments are well worth reading if you can stomach them.

I’ve only read the transcript – I don’t think I could stand subjecting myself to the video – and he’s hit an alarming number of MRA talking points. Entitlement drips from every word. One thing we must note is that this sense of entitlement is one that our society encourages men, especially affluent white men, to develop, and even specifically with respect to women (see, for example, romantic comedies etc). Elliot Rodger was practically a textbook Nice Guy ™ (if that term is unclear, here is a very good overview of the phenomenon), as far as I can tell. And nowhere are these attitudes more thoroughly reinforced than in the manosphere.

From what I’ve seen, there seem to be two paths a man can take after discovering the Nice Guy ™ phenomenon and his own participation in it . Either he will read feminist criticisms and take them to heart, eventually correcting his behaviour and his thinking, or he will read feminist criticisms and decide that feminists are out to get him and be driven into the arms of the manosphere, where all of his resentments will be further reinforced. Sadly, I think the latter response is probably more common (if nothing else, just because of how much difficulty many people have not considering any criticism a personal attack), though I don’t have any numbers to back this up. Now obviously I am grossly simplifying things here, and some of this is reliant on conjecture (which is based on my personal observations of internet discussions), but I think this model is sufficient to make the point I want to here.

This hinges on both one’s ability to honestly evaluate ideas’ coherence to reality, and on one’s sense of empathy. Without empathy and a willingness to understand women’s perspectives on behaviour like this, these men may never be willing or able to encounter or acknowledge the facts that would change their minds even if they were open to being convinced (this, I think, is one reason so many supposed “skeptics” end up supporting misogyny and/or the MRM).

The “men’s movement”, like many extreme political movements and religious cults, tends to polarise and indoctrinate people. What I think tends to happen is that people who feel hurt or aggrieved go looking for support, find the MRAs, and as they spend more and more time in that movement they are encouraged to generalise a single bad experience into a hatred of all women. It seems that immersing oneself in an ideological echo chamber is a very good way of insulating oneself from reality, and replacing it with a delusional reality constructed by the group; furthermore, this process is self-reinforcing (as people are encouraged to view everything that happens through an ideological lens, they force events to fit their mental model and then take that fitting as confirmation of the model’s accuracy) and tends to only result in further group polarisation in the long run. There is an extent to which all cultural norms behave this way – that’s how the patriarchy/kyriarchy works, after all – but it seems to be much more pronounced, and even more dangerous, in cloistered groups like the MRM.

Rodger is not the first to be driven to violence by misogyny of the sort promoted by the MRA ideology, and I highly doubt he will be the last.

Ideology is dangerous. Ideas can drive people to kill. (I am tempted to compare people like Rodger to the 9/11 hijackers, but that may be overly provocative; oops, I just did. It seems to me a difference in degree, not in kind.) Steven Weinberg famously said “Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” My friend Professor Andy Norman, in a talk promoting secular humanism, suggested that “religion” in that quote would be more accurately replaced by “ideology” (of which religion is a subset), and I agree with him. I do not mean to suggest by this that Elliot Rodger would have been a good person if not for the influence of the MRM – that is a counterfactual we cannot evaluate – only that we must acknowledge those ideas played at least a partially etiological role in the atrocities he committed, and were it not for them, he would have been significantly less likely to commit this particular hate crime.

It may sound like I am advocating against freedom of speech in writing this. That is not my intent, or at least not quite (do note that criticism of an idea, no matter how strong, is not equivalent to silencing). I do think there are ideas that do harm by dint of being believed; we have evidence of that in cases like this recent shooting. The lesson I think we need to take from this is that it is incredibly important to honestly consider evidence and be willing to change one’s mind, and to foster the development of empathy, because failure to do so leads directly into the trap of toxic ideologies such as the MRM. I am not sure how to deal with the immediate problem posed by such hate groups; I think many of them have reached the point where any attempt at education is futile, but they may not all be. And if nothing else, we can make note of the importance of critical thinking education – and teaching empathy, because empathy can be a learned skill – in an attempt to inoculate other young people against ideological viruses (also Andy’s metaphor). Elliot Rodger was 22 years old, literate, and enrolled at a selective university. Whatever else he was, he wasn’t stupid (though he clearly believed some very stupid and vile ideas), and in principle could probably have been educated. This does not make him any less responsible for the crimes he committed, but it does mean that responsibility was not solely limited to him.

Rodger’s victims and their families have all of my sympathies and condolences. What happened last night was a tragedy. But merely being tragic does not mean it happened in a void, nor does it mean we should refrain from discussing things that contributed to it; it is only by doing so that we can begin to work at preventing further atrocities of this kind in future.


Posted by on May 25, 2014 in mitchell


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The Cuckoo’s Calling, part four

[Warning: racism. Lots of racism.]

Part Four opens with Strike visiting Guy Somé, the stereotypical gay fashion designer Lula worked with, and good grief is all I can say. Rowling spends over a page describing this guy in very purple language and I’m going to quote one of the several paragraphs because it’s just that unbelievable; I know I haven’t been quoting anything for these sporks, it’s because I don’t care enough in all honesty, but if I had to read this then so do you.

“His face contrasted strangely with his taut, lean body, for it abounded in exaggerated curves: the eyes exophthalmic so that they appeared fishlike, looking out of the sides of his head. The cheeks were round, shining apples and the full-lipped mouth was a wide oval: his small head was almost perfectly spherical.”

So, based on this description, can anyone tell me what he actually looks like? Answers on a postcard. (I wonder what happened to Rowling when she was writing this scene. She doesn’t do it anywhere else in the book, or in anything else she’s written to my knowledge. I’m guessing it involved alcohol and a thesaurus.)

Somé also has a camp voice and a limp wrist. At least he doesn’t lisp. But he has had far more of a description than any other character so far, including our protagonists, even if said description is word salad, and I have no idea why because he is a very minor character. (In fact, as Mitchell pointed out, he is literally named Some Guy.) He is also stereotypically bitchy and uses stereotypical affected language, and I don’t think Rowling has ever met an actual gay man, honestly. Still, she gets half a point for actually including a gay character, as far as I remember everyone in Casual Vacancy was straight and the Dumbledore retcon long after Harry Potter had ended does not count in the slightest. Anyway, Somé bitches about John and says he doesn’t believe Lula (or Cuckoo, since he’s apparently the source of the stupid nickname; yes, it has taken us most of the book for the title to be remotely relevant) committed suicide either. He believes this because reasons, pretty much. Then there’s an actual interview about where he was at the time, which lasts about four seconds before he’s bitching about Rochelle, and Lula’s boyfriend, and her adoptive mother, and anyone else he can think of.

There’s a bit of actual relevant content in here, but again the rest of it is so fucking annoying it’s hard to either sort it out or care about it. At this point in the story there’s a bit of doubt over whodunit purely because it’s so hard to pan through the shit to find the actual clues, I can’t concentrate on the main story because of all the extra crap scattered through it.

Strike goes home and spends another page wangsting about how he still hasn’t called Charlotte (he describes her as a germ, how charming, and decides that the fact she’s not chasing him repeatedly to contact her is some sort of mind game). For all he knows she was calling about something important; his family don’t know he’s moved out, she might have received bad news to pass on to him, or there might be something to sort out with the house. But he can’t be bothered. Because he’s an asshole.

We timeskip a couple of days when our brilliant detectives do fuck-all, then Strike comes to the office and finds his computer friend flirting with Robin and promptly acts like a jealous idiot because we hadn’t had that particular overdone trope yet. Robin fucks off because God forbid she stay onscreen for more than two minutes, and this random guy with his computer science degree is naturally an expert hacker and techie and has got into the laptop and recovered everything on it – a couple of hundred random social photos and sod-all else.

Robin comes back and tells Strike she’s accepted a job offer, and refreshingly there’s no angst about this at all, albeit because what passes for Strike’s inner monologue has vanished again (this doesn’t crop up in later chapters either, apparently neither of them give a damn despite all the stupid wangsty buildup previously). It’s completely out of character for both of them, but I’m just relieved not to have to read about it.

The reader has to suffer through lots of descriptions of how much money went into the building, because Rowling fucking loves being rich. There’s a pointless interlude of a stereotypical Polish cleaner walking past, Strike staring at her arse (as we’ve said, he’s an asshole; the woman’s here to clean, I doubt she wants to be stared at) and Robin glaring at him for it, facepalm. More descriptions of rich apartments. Strike talks to the cleaner, who naturally has a very poor grasp of English because haha racism ignorant foreign possibly-illegal immigrant. I’m aware this sounds like me projecting, the actual scene doesn’t technically contain these sorts of implications, but I’m not going to quote it for you. It sounds bad and ignorant and is completely unsympathetic to the fact that learning another language is hard.

They look at yet another fancy apartment. There’s a good bit where Strike walks the security guard through the exact way he searched the apartment when Lula died, what order he looked in the rooms, what items he touched or saw etc., which is very well done and honestly one of the best scenes in the book. It’s then spoiled by Strike having a eureka! moment that he doesn’t think about so it won’t spoil it for the readers. You know what would have fixed that issue, Rowling? Letting Robin have a fucking POV chapter, then she could see the revelation moment but wouldn’t know what it was, instead of having your protagonist just sound like a complete moron.

There are more timeskips of a few days of sod-all happening; I hope actual investigators don’t treat murder cases so casually. Strike goes off to interview Lula’s biological mother, Marlene Higson. Naturally, she is fat and common and wearing cheap clothes. What a shocker. Robin and Lula are genuinely the only women in this entire book we’re not being ordered to hate. She can barely speak as well because poor people are stupid, in case you’d forgotten (not quite as bad as Rochelle but still worse than Hagrid) and Strike claims she’s flirting with him so we’ve got slut-shaming too. Neither her actions nor her dialogue suggest this, so why he thinks it I don’t know. Oh, wait, yes I do – because he’s an asshole.

She spends a page or so talking about when Lula got in touch with her and bitching about her adoptive mother, all in the horrible attempt to write a lower-class accent. More slut-shaming, she has another two kids by different men who were taken away by Social Services, stereotypical account of life with various different druggie abusive boyfriends and you can practically feel Rowling judging through the book. I hope your outrage levels are nicely warmed up, because the next few paragraphs are a real doozy.

Lula’s father was apparently some African student who buggered off back home when he found out she was pregnant; Marlene doesn’t know his surname (lol Africans all have such funny surnames lol it was too hard to remember lol. I’m sadly not joking, that is her explanation for why she doesn’t know).

Strike now reveals the reason why there are so many black characters by literally quoting the surnames of every last one of them in case this woman recognises any of them as Lula’s father or one of his relatives.

What the actual fuck.

And then she says this guy is probably dead because he went back to Africa and:

“coulda bin shot, couldn’t ‘e, or starved. Anythin’. Y’know what it’s like there.”

I’m surprised she didn’t claim he had AIDS.

This is the point we reached with the unnecessary and terrible depiction of rape in The Casual Vacancy. The point where I put the book down for several days because I really didn’t want to keep going. It didn’t make me anywhere near as angry as Vacancy did, but it still left me pretty pissed off. This is a terrible book written about terrible people by a terrible person. Still, I’m a brave little soldier and I did eventually struggle on.

Marlene then goes on to whine about all Lula’s gold-digging friends, and the random racist crazy Uncle Tony we met earlier, and accuses him of having destroyed the will Lula totally obviously made because she didn’t get any money, and everyone in this book is a terrible, terrible person.

Egad, Robin gets a POV! …wait, only so she can take a call from Charlotte, who has finally got fed up with Strike refusing to contact her, saying she’s engaged to someone else. As soon as Strike comes back and Robin tells him, her POV vanishes, and we get Strike going for yet another fucking walk before getting drunk. (Add alcohol abuse to the list of things Rowling doesn’t understand. We’ll be revisiting it in Harry Potter.) Again more vague hints about what this woman did to make him leave her, and again he comes across as utterly subnormal for not actually thinking it. I’ll spare you waiting any more, the book’s almost over by the time we finally find out; Charlotte told him she was pregnant. She later had an abortion. There’s no indication whether they discussed this or how Strike feels about it. He doesn’t believe the child was his, hence his leaving her, though he offers no explanation for why he doubts it. None of his wangsting becomes any more sympathetic once you know this and the story was absolutely not worth waiting for.

Robin comes to rescue him like the saintly nurturing woman she is, gag, and there’s a hilarious scene demonstrating that Rowling has either never been drunk in her life and has no idea how to write it, or has the weirdest reaction to alcohol I have ever encountered. Also, despite being a relatively recent amputee whose prosthetic doesn’t fit properly Strike naturally has no problem walking while pissed out of his mind. Incidentally, it’s been about a month now and Robin doesn’t know he has a false leg despite all the people in his life she’s been talking to and despite the fact he’s sleeping in his office where she walks in every morning.

Rowling has also never had a hangover going by her attempt to write about it. There’s an unnecessarily long description of him going to the swimming pool to shower, then he goes back to see Somé so he can talk to the makeup girl, who was apparently friends with Lula even though this hasn’t been mentioned in almost 400 pages. She’s just another interviewee bitching about most of the same people, yawn, including yet another cryptic thought from Strike about how he’s learned something amazing that he can’t actually think about. Rowling, you need to use omniscient narration not POVs if you want to use this trick. Or just stop using it, because it’s really not that clever.

Strike talks to Ciara Porter, one of Lula’s model friends, who is yet another stereotype – party girl, slut, jealous bitchy rival pretending to be a friend. Nothing new. She takes Strike to meet Lula’s boyfriend, Evan Duffield, who since he’s one of the main suspects really ought to have appeared onscreen a bit earlier than this.

Duffield is the same celebrity high-life stereotype as all the others. He leaves this club with Strike and Ciara and for some reason Strike has a PTSD flashback when the car drives away from the paparazzi – it’s done surprisingly well given that Rowling doesn’t know it exists, but as the first explicit mention (the earlier scene with him staring at the toy soldiers was omniscient-narration with none of his thoughts or feelings), it belongs so much earlier in this shitty book than 400 pages in. Plus he recovers from it in about 0.3 seconds as though it never happened, and there is never an explanation of why camera flashes were triggering. Anyway, they get back to Duffield’s apartment, Strike interviews him, it’s just more of the same shit – “I have an alibi so it can’t be me but it could have been absolutely anyone else in her life because everyone is awful except me.” That’s been the content of every single interview. Then for no reason I can fathom Ciara makes a pass at Strike on the way home and he goes along with it and they go back to her place. Mercifully we’re spared a sex scene (I didn’t quote any of the ones from The Casual Vacancy. I wouldn’t do that to you. They’re terrible).

Oh, wait, that’s why they hooked up – so the next chapter can start with Robin getting to the office, realising he spent the night elsewhere, and feeling jealous. For fuck’s sake. Anyway, disregarding that, while Strike was off doing fuck-all, Robin tracked down Lula’s real father somehow even though nobody else has managed it. This seems very implausible given that nobody even knew what his name was, but I’m going to overlook it because at least someone has done something useful. He’s dead, and he has a son in the army somewhere. I don’t know if this is relevant to anything but at least she’s done something. Strike’s now implying he knows who the murderer is, but Robin would rather pitch a fit over seeing a photo of him with Ciara in the newspaper and magically realising through the power of I don’t even know that that’s who he slept with, because that’s more important.

…And now Rochelle’s dead. That’s… odd? It’s not fridging because nobody liked her. I assume she’s been murdered to stop her saying something about who killed Lula, but it really didn’t seem like she knew anything. They fished her out of the river and she had Strike’s business card in her pocket and somehow it was still readable because cardboard is well known for its waterproof qualities, so now he’s totally a suspect! O noes a policeman is shouting at him! Whatever’s going to happen? It’s so dramatic! Only, you know, not, since that lasts half a page. Strike thinks Rochelle was blackmailing Lula’s murderer and because he’s a fictional PI he gets to yell at the incompetent closed-minded police about how crap they are, just in case any readers thought they might escape that trope. Dear fiction writers; this also doesn’t happen. The police are, generally speaking, not incompetent. Certainly the ones who get promoted to Homicide aren’t. They are also better trained and better qualified than the average PI.

Strike goes to see the film director who lives in Lula’s building. Turns out his wife saw/heard Lula fall because this guy threw her out on the balcony half-naked in the middle of a winter night, which is why her statement was so weird. I don’t really see what this has to do with anything.

It’s all getting a bit tangled and hard to follow now. Strike and Robin go to Rochelle’s funeral with John. I don’t know why John would go, I don’t believe he ever met Rochelle, and I’m not sure why a homeless girl with apparently no relatives gets a public funeral anyway, but I don’t really care any more. Strike picks a fight with John’s girlfriend Alison over whether Uncle Tony is sleeping with his business partner’s wife, and I don’t know why this matters or why it’s connected to the case. Then he has a really odd conversation with John about Uncle Tony visiting John’s mother.

Strike goes to see John’s mother and Lula’s adoptive mother, Lady No-first-name Bristow, who’s been called a bitch by just about everyone so far but is also dying of… something unspecified, because extra angst I guess? He hassles the dying old lady for a while, then goes into the walk-in wardrobe and finds a designer handbag with Lula’s will in it. This is another very well done scene, I have to admit, it brings together lots of little subtle hints and comments from the rest of the book that weren’t obviously telegraphed as either foreshadowing or Chekhov’s Gun. Rowling can do it when she tries, it’s a shame she’s failed so hard at the rest.

He makes his excuses and leaves with it (again, the narration from his POV doesn’t work here, since we’re told he’s read the will but not what it shows, making him seem like a moron) and then… he falls down the stairs for some bizarre reason.

I don’t even.

This is every bit as random and out of left field as it sounds, and serves absolutely zero purpose except Rowling wanted some more slapstick to go with the very early scene of Robin and Strike meeting.

He gets up and limps off. End of part four.

Next time, the final post, when we learn whodunit and how they dun it. Has anyone guessed yet?


The Cuckoo’s Calling:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Five


Posted by on May 23, 2014 in loten


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(Homecoming) The Memory of Earth, Chapter 1, part 2

[Content Notes: gender essentialism, toxic masculinity, rape culture, voyeurism, incest]

Where did we leave off last time? Oh right, I we were partway through the shower scene. Oh joy. Well, let’s pick up right there.

While he is showering (did Card somehow forget that these showers are supposed to be very quick?), Elemak starts talking to Nafai, saying more or less that he’s grown since he last saw him, he looks more muscular, he takes after their father but has their mother’s face. The first part of this seems reasonable; if I assume the units of time on Harmony correspond to what they would be on Earth (I don’t believe Card ever addresses this issue, either), then Elemak’s been gone for a bit over four months and Nafai could well have had a growth spurt during that time. I’m not sure why the comparison to his parents is in there; that’s the sort of thing I’d expect them to already know, and it feels a bit forced here (although I suppose it’s better and more subtle than Nafai looking into a mirror and thinking to himself that he takes after his father but has his mother’s face, so +1 to Card for effort). Then Issib joins the conversation:

Issib, of course, only made it worse. “Got Father’s most important feature, fortunately,” he said.

“Well, we all got that,” said Elemak. “All of the old man’s babies have been boys – or at least all of his babies that we know about.” He laughed.

Nafai hated it when Elemak talked about Father that way. Everyone knew that Father was a chaste man who only had sex with his lawful mate. And for the past fifteen years that mate had been Rasa, Nafai’s and Issib’s mother, the contract renewed every year. He was so faithful that women had given up coming to visit and hint around about availability when his contract lapsed. Of course, Mother was just as faithful and there were still plenty of men plying her with gifts and innuendoes – but that’s how some men were, they found faithfulness even more enticing than wantonness, as if Rasa were staying so faithful to Wetchik only to goad them on in pursuit of her. Also, mating with Rasa meant sharing what some thought was the finest house and all agreed was the finest view in Basilica. I’d never mate with a woman just for her house, Nafai thought.” (page 13)

Long excerpt, but I honestly couldn’t think of anything that could be cut. The awfulness is so concentrated that I thought it necessary to show in its entirety.

Before I get into the ranting, we’ve learned a few things in this paragraph:

-The boys’ father Volemak is also known as Wetchik (which is, in fact, a hereditary title of some kind, this will be clarified later on)

-Marriage in Basilica consists of short-term contracts that must be actively renewed on a yearly basis (also, it’s heavily implied that Volemak and Rasa are exceptional in maintaining a long-term relationship for so long and maintaining exclusivity)

-It’s beginning to hint around the fact that property ownership within the city limits is limited to women, and men can only claim residence through marriage to its owner (this seems a bit weird now considering Volemak owns the estate in which this chapter is set, but it will be revealed later that his property is outside the city limits and therefore not subject to the same rules for some reason)

Okay. So. Ugh. So many things disgust me here.

Firstly, we have the casual statement that a penis is a man’s “most important part”. This is an attitude I absolutely hate, though admittedly it pervades quite a lot of our culture; there’s this idea that the penis is central to a man’s identity and that the loss thereof is one of the most catastrophic things that can happen to him. It also manifests in other ways, e.g. that implying a man has a small penis is generally considered a grievous insult. Or consider the references to penis-measuring contests and the use of the term e-peen in Internet jargon to mean ego, though this seems to have fallen out of fashion somewhat nowadays.

This is all bound up with the idea that a man’s worth is somehow tied to his sexual prowess, and for which penis size tends to be treated as a shorthand (despite not actually being a good indicator of such). Yet another dimension of toxic masculinity. One of many ironies here is that using sexual prowess as an indicator of masculinity actually tends to make (hetero) men worse in bed, from what I’ve gathered; among other things, it leads to them focusing on giving orgasms not for the sake of their partner’s enjoyment, but to bolster their own self-esteem (which in turn leads to situations where some women feeling it necessary to fake orgasms in order to bring an unsatisfying sexual encounter to a close).

Society, can we stop doing this thing now, please?

On a related note, there’s this weird idea seemingly implied in the text that Volemak’s masculinity is somehow bolstered by his fathering only male children. Which (1) what does the sex of one’s children have to do with anything here? and (2) does Card seriously mean to imply he doesn’t understand how randomness works, and that any such result must be due to pure chance?

Moving onward from “PENISES ARE THE BEST YOU GUYS!”, Card (and Nafai) decide instead to rhapsodise about monogamy (Card is not one of those pro-polygamy Mormons, from what I can tell). If nothing else, this seems extremely weird here, because if we take the narrative at its word that temporary marriage is normative in this society, “faithfulness” as described here seems unlikely to be viewed by them as a virtue. There’s the double-standard of Rasa being viewed as more desirable because she’s “hard to get”, which plays into so many rape culture narratives, but that’s not what I’m referring to here; if Nafai grew up in this culture, at best he should think that his parents’ situation is unusual, rather than treating it as a given that it should be praiseworthy. This is actually a mistake lots of authors make – the characters the audience are meant to sympathise with mysteriously see the world through the audience’s presumed value system, rather than one that could have naturally developed as they grew up in their society.

Then we have the explicit double standard with respect to Volemak’s and Rasa’s respective sexual desirability, which is clearly meant to evoke the “man as pursuer, woman as pursued” dynamic. Aside from the fact I find that structure disgusting on several levels thanks to how intrinsic it is to rape culture, it is also especially bizarre here because Basilica is supposed to be some kind of pseudo-matriarchal society (see, for instance, the way only women can be landowners). It’s kind of sad how many of these authors who want to play with gender roles (including many I like a great deal better than Card; I’m looking at you, Robert Jordan) and attempt to write female-dominated societies simply cannot see outside the patriarchal ideas they’ve been enculturated with, and replicate them even in societies which should properly lack them.

(As a side note, I do think it’s a bit weird these children spend so much time apparently thinking about their parents’ sex lives; that’s normally not the sort of thing people like to think about their parents doing. I realise Card’s reason for doing this is to infodump about the societal structures, but that doesn’t make it feel any less odd.)

Though strictly speaking the society depicted in these books isn’t particularly matriarchal at all, as we’ll see later. If anything it’s mostly just a sex-segregated society, with men and boys living outside the city in a society that’s structured along patriarchal lines, while inside the city things are a bit more complicated. We’ll get into more details about this as more and more worldbuilding details are dropped into the text, so I’ll leave this here for now. I am often left wondering with this book if the social structure depicted therein makes any sense whatsoever, and also whether it could have plausibly developed through natural processes or would have had to be artificially imposed.

And just to wrap things up, we get a token condemnation of “materialism” as Nafai disapproves of people who choose their partners based on their land holdings. (For the record, I have to admit I mostly agree with Nafai on this one, in that choosing to be with someone as a means to some end, instead of for the person’s own sake, bothers me; perhaps my objection to it is Kantian, I’m not sure. But I have to admit that in this particular society, I have more sympathy with a person who would do so, because it appears to be literally the only way a man can find lodging within the city.)

Though I suppose the remark about the “finest view in the city” could also be meant to refer to Rasa’s body (or a deliberate double-entendre). I sincerely hope not, because if so that’s yet another creepy incestuous thing in this chapter.

I will say that I actually do rather like the concept of time-limited marriages that must be continually renewed (provided, of course, that the legal infrastructure is in place to handle it; for instance, one would have to assume in such a society that marriage would not entail pooling assets under joint ownership), at least in opposition to a scenario where divorce is very difficult and/or impossible (whether due to legal issues or societal/religious disapprobation). The last thing you want is to have people obligated to remain in relationships where they are unhappy, etc, and a system along these lines (again, if properly implemented; there are lots of issues) could be one way of addressing that. That said, as I recall, these books are setting this up to contrast with some kind of permanent marriage system (in order to promote the latter), so this is worth keeping in mind; as I recall, scenarios in a later book are crafted to attempt to show the superiority of the latter, though (to put it mildly) that case is not made well. I make note of this because the marriage structure will definitely be something I’ll address further in future posts.

(I must also admit an error I made in a previous post – in an earlier post I accused Card of finding the idea of children born outside marriage unthinkable. He clearly acknowledges the possibility here, so I must apologise for getting that wrong, though admittedly the narrative still treats the idea with revulsion so the greater point still stands.)

If I keep going at this rate, I’ll never finish analysing these books, and I’ll probably end up generating more text in my criticism than all five books combined before I’m finished with the first one. This isn’t looking good. Nevertheless, given that I’ve somehow written an entire post about a single paragraph, I’m going to stop here for this week. I swear, we’ll finish with chapter one eventually, and sometime this century I might even get to the plot!


Posted by on May 18, 2014 in mitchell


Thinking about “Theology”

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Price’s lectures and podcasts recently, largely for entertainment purposes, but in so doing I’ve been led by him to think about some semantic distinctions that are well worth making. This is going to be a pedantic essay, and probably a very boring one, so consider yourself warned.

Really, the question I want to attempt to answer here is, how can I simultaneously agree with the sentiment expressed by Richard Dawkins and those like him that “theology isn’t even a subject at all”, or with Hector Avalos, whose book The End of Biblical Studies [amazon] quite convincingly argues that academic biblical studies as currently practised are most often not undertaken in good faith (or, to put it another way, involve too much “good faith”), and simultaneously find value in the kind of study that Price does?

The answer I’ve come to is that I think a distinction needs to be drawn between “doing theology” and “studying theology”. (I told you this was going to be a semantic argument!)

By this I mean that a distinction needs to be drawn between theology as a form of religious praxis, or a first-order engagement with the ideas (e.g. theorising about the nature of gods and supernatural entities from the standpoint that such things exist), and the study of theology as a second-order engagement with these ideas (looking at the thinking of various people as they do theology from a first-order level, and trying to parse out the kinds of distinctions they are drawing and what it says about how people think about religious ideas). The latter is what I think Price does (and, for that matter, so does Avalos), and it seems clear to me that that can have value from, e.g., an anthropological or sociological perspective, in understanding the history and development of belief systems, and so on. In a world which is populated in majority by believers, understanding these kinds of thought can be an important tool in attempting to navigate such a world. The former, meanwhile, is the type of thing derided by Dawkins et al, and I can simultaneously agree with this – when there is no evidence such beings exist at all, there can obviously be no value in attempting to make statements about their nature. So in that sense, I agree that theology is not a subject. Or in the terms I’ve proposed, “doing theology” in the first-order sense is futile, but “studying theology” in the second-order sense can be deeply useful.

Of course, there is also a sense in which even “studying theology” is of limited use – in some ways I do think Avalos is right when he argues in The End of Biblical Studies that even this is largely a leisure pursuit for privileged intellectuals. I am not sure I agree with him that it is as equally pointless (outside of personal gratification) as solving sudoku puzzles – as I said earlier, in navigating a world filled with religious people, understanding religious thought is not useless. But that does not necessarily mean, at the same time, that it is important to dig into long-buried minutia which are almost completely irrelevant to modern believers unless you are somebody like me (or, presumably, like Bob Price) who enjoys overanalysing things.

I’m not sure if I have a conclusive point to make after saying all of this, except that I think the “doing/studying” distinction is a useful one to keep in mind. Or to put it another way, the distinction between a “theologian” and a “scholar of theology”.

And if you do happen to be interested in listening to Bob Price analysing the minutia of Biblical history and Christian thought, The Human Bible is a great place to start.


Posted by on May 17, 2014 in mitchell


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The Cuckoo’s Calling, part three

Part Three opens with Strike implausibly and illegally getting the police case file from the policeman he interviewed before, and going through all the statements etc. Seriously, fiction authors of the world, policemen don’t do that. They will not hand crime files over to random people because their friends said so or because they asked really nicely. Disregarding that, Strike gets the file and sorts through everything the police have so far. Honestly this ought to be interesting, it’s fairly well done, but the plot’s received so little attention up until now that it’s almost impossible to be invested in it at almost half way through the book. Especially as, again, Strike has no thoughts about what he’s reading, he just reads it, so we just get a dry list of names and places and facts. I won’t even try to summarise them; it’s things like the autopsy report, CCTV footage of someone running down a nearby street around the time it happened, the visitors’ book from Lula’s apartment block, witness statements from various people, the contents of her laptop. Oh, also Strike’s mother died years ago of a heroin overdose because all protagonists need dead mothers. No, this doesn’t have anything whatsoever to do with the story, but if I had to read it randomly shoehorned in here then so do you.

On to Strike going to his nephew’s birthday party (seriously, Robin’s featured in half a dozen lines in as many chapters and her POV has vanished totally). He’s refusing to tell his sister Lucy that he’s left Charlotte for some reason he doesn’t bother thinking about. He does think that he’s never wanted children, though, which is again very unlike a Rowling protagonist; I approve. He then starts watching the security footage from the police file in an empty room at this party of about fifty people, because that’s a sensible thing to do – the DVD drive on his computer doesn’t work, apparently. He’s interrupted by his nephew, gives the kid his present which he should have done when he first got there, and then proves that brief lone glimpse of PTSD was complete and utter bullshit by happily playing soldiers with the kid and pretending to get gut-shot.

Non-chapter of him asking John for Lula’s laptop because the police file only had her emails in it. This would have taken a couple of paragraphs as a phone call within another scene. Even padded it only just stretches to two pages. That’s not a chapter, book.

Robin reappears briefly next chapter, just so Strike can feel happy she’s lying to the temp agency and not going for any job interviews because she loves working for him so much. I would be happy to see her again, but this isn’t a good chapter, as you’ll see. Strike takes her shopping to some smart boutique Lula visited on the day she died. Robin promptly turns into another annoying female stereotype and starts squeeing about the fun of trying on pretty shit she can’t afford, and starts trying on skintight revealing dresses and modelling them for Strike because it’s not like they’re investigating a murder or anything or that she’s engaged to someone else. This is every bit as random as it sounds. They’re there to interview people, so she picks up some skimpy dresses she can’t hope to afford and starts posing and walking in front of Strike in them. She does actually talk to the assistants about Lula though, which is more than he’s doing since he’s too busy drooling at her, and they learn that she was talking to someone on the phone. What a revelation, that absolutely justifies this scene, thank you.

Robin vanishes again next chapter and Strike goes for yet another long theoretically-painful walk which he mostly spends daydreaming about her modelling the dresses for him. Murder? What murder? He’s meant to be meeting John, but John and Lula’s uncle Tony shows up instead and says John is half-nuts and has invented it all. He rants about how terrible Lula’s adoptive mother (his sister) is as a parent, how crazy John is, and makes a few racist comments. He’s a lovely bloke, can’t you tell? Yet so far he’s the only male character we’re meant to dislike, as opposed to at least half a dozen female characters.

John shows up, Uncle Tony buggers off, there’s another non-interview about nothing really relevant or interesting with no emotional input from Strike, blah blah blah. I’m trying to be interested in the plot, I really am, but when none of the characters give a shit (and one suspects the author doesn’t either) it’s unreasonable to expect the readers to. Oh, turns out there were rumours that Lula was going to leave everything to John – how many millionaire 20-something drug/party/high life models make wills, do you suppose? This isn’t entirely sarcasm, I genuinely don’t know, but it doesn’t seem as though it’s the sort of lifestyle that encourages planning for the future. There’s no reason given for why John when their mother is still alive and so is Lula’s biological mother, and Strike doesn’t ask, or wonder privately, because you could replace him with a cardboard cutout for half his scenes and it wouldn’t make much difference.

Strike goes back to his office, finally remembering for about ten seconds that his leg hurts. This continues to annoy me. He’s not taking painkillers, he’s not treating the probably inflamed stump, he’s certainly not going to his doctor or anything else; you can’t just forget that you’re in chronic pain all the time. He spends several hours ‘lost in thought’ (insert joke about ‘it was unfamiliar territory’ here), though of course we’re not told what he’s actually thinking and he is apparently just staring vacantly into space. He takes Lula’s laptop to a friend with a degree in computer science (because that makes you an expert hacker better than the police techie department, of course) then goes to sleep in his office angsting about Charlotte again. At least it’s not unprovoked this time; Charlotte has just texted him asking him to call her as soon as possible. Naturally, he doesn’t. On his trip down Memory Lane we learn they met 15 years ago at a party, where she slept with him to piss off her boyfriend at the time, and apparently their entire relationship has been like that. Whatever, Rowling, I’m not going to hate a character I haven’t seen just because you want me to, especially when frankly Strike’s coming across as a total asshole regarding her and I’m not willing to believe his take on things.

Another ten-second non-POV appearance from Robin, at this point you might as well just assume the rest of the book will be Strike, then he buggers off to talk to Lula’s homeless friend Rochelle. Who is fat despite being long-term homeless and poor, has greasy skin, acne, badly dyed hair, wears terrible cheap and tacky clothes, and speaks with such an exaggerated ill-educated accent she sounds barely human (yes, worse than Hagrid). Remember everyone, poor people are awful, they smell and they’re stupid and we should look down on them all the time. Did you think that attitude was just for The Casual Vacancy? It’s not. Strike clearly doesn’t like her and thinks she’s hiding something, though since he has no internal monologue we have no idea why and it doesn’t appear to have been triggered by anything. She’s just yet another female character we’re meant to hate.

Back to the office where he finds Robin talking to his sister Lucy; Robin buggers off and his sister asks if he’s split with Charlotte, then rants about what a bitch she is, starts crying with rage and generally acts like a complete lunatic. Strike and his sister aren’t close. He showed up late to her son’s birthday party and didn’t stay long and it appears to be the first time in a long while that they’ve seen one another; he refused to tell her he had left Charlotte. There’s no reason why she would react so strongly to this. Pointless chapter, but Robin gets a POV again afterwards, reliving their conversation before Strike got back. Obviously the main content of it was Lucy implying something between Robin and Strike, eyeroll. Also she’s been offered a job that she’s accepted but she hasn’t told Strike yet, and we’re back to the fanfic. Rowling clearly doesn’t realise that every single reader knows she’ll never take this job, there is no suspense whatsoever.

Lucy then reveals that their mother died of an overdose that was named suicide but that Strike thought was their stepfather murdering her. This would be far more believable if Strike had ever had any thoughts whatsoever about the nature of the current case being too close to home; it’s a textbook example of what I call exam-conditions writing. I’ll be covering that in more detail in the Harry Potter shred that should be starting relatively soon, but it’s basically writing in a great hurry with no time to go back and edit to make sure things make sense; it leads to instances like this, where something is clumsily stuck in with no foreshadowing or natural introduction and is never mentioned again. Rowling is guilty of this quite a lot – in this case it could have been fixed with a sentence or two in a couple of places; generally the problem can be sorted with a couple of minor changes that for one reason or another weren’t done.

It turns out not to matter, because Robin ignores this in favour of obsessing over seeing Strike with one button of his shirt not done up the other day and seeing a square inch of his stomach, which is mentioned five or six times over the previous two scenes from her POV (and always as ‘hairy’ or ‘furry’; Rowling seems obsessed with the fact that her male protagonist is old enough to have substantial body hair, which is slightly weird). I’m going to stop mourning your lack of POV chapters now, Robin, because whenever you do show up you turn into man-obsessed fluff with a few tantalising glimpses that you might have a brain somewhere.

And that’s the end of part three for some reason, even though nothing much has happened and it’s not a natural stopping point. There are five parts in total, so this is the middle chunk of the book; you’d think there would be more to it than this, wouldn’t you. Coming in part four, Our Heroes remember they’re meant to be investigating things and we get a lot more interviews that are actually relevant; for once quite a lot happens, since we get close to the end of the book, but most of it is pretty bad. Also, racism.


The Cuckoo’s Calling:
Part One
Part Two
Part Four
Part Five


Posted by on May 16, 2014 in loten


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Read it and weep.

Not that I mean to imply there’s anything wrong with emotionally-driven objections to harmful things. But those emotions are generally a response to facts; I don’t see any reason logic and emotion should be viewed as inherently antonymous.

This is for the people who like to argue that they are and in so doing dismiss any objection they do not like as emotional, therefore irrational. That objection is simply wrong, so go fuck yourselves.

(h/t to Stephanie Zvan)

1 Comment

Posted by on May 12, 2014 in mitchell


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Public Service Announcement

Let’s discuss a hypothetical scenario. Party A and Party B are college students in a long-term, long-distance relationship (they attend different universities at a significant distance from each other; the distance is sufficient that visiting is inconvenient at best). Let’s also establish that when this relationship began, they knew it would be long-distance for the indeterminate future.

Let’s also establish that both parties are happy at their respective universities and wish to complete their educations where they currently are.

Which is the correct action for party B to take?

1) Accept the situation and learn to deal with being lonely sometimes

2) Accept the situation and leave the relationship

3) Accept the situation and start a conversation about renegotiating exclusivity

4) Constantly pressure party A to transfer universities and sacrifice their education, despite the fact they’ve made perfectly clear they’ve no desire to

Let me suggest that if you choose option 4 in this scenario, you’re a terrible person and shouldn’t have relationships with human beings.

Respect people’s choices, especially those of people you claim to love.

This has been a public service announcement.

In case it was not already blatantly obvious, this post was written in response to some real-life events involving persons known to me. In point of fact I wrote the above more than a week ago and was waiting to post it until I had more information, and the situation has changed since then; they have apparently come to some kind of reconciliation and are back together.

My original intent in writing this was to express support and sympathy for party A while validating her decision. And while I do think my point stands, far be it from me to audit her choices and tell her she made the wrong one now.

So this is what I’ll say: If he’s what you want and he makes you happy, so be it. That does not, however, mean I must refrain from calling out his bad behaviour; I mean it when I say this is not OK, and he had better have learnt his lesson from this and treat you better in future. You deserve to be treated with respect; everyone deserves to be treated with respect.

If you ever need somebody to talk to, you can call on me anytime; I’ll always be here.


Posted by on May 11, 2014 in mitchell


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(Homecoming) The Memory of Earth: Chapter 1, part 1

[Content Notes: gender essentialism, toxic masculinity, rape culture, sexual abuse of minors, ableist language, voyeurism]

Chapter 1 is entitled “Father’s House”.

Or, as I would title it: In which we meet our protagonist and his brothers, and are beaten about the head with essentialist gender norms.

Let’s start by quoting the first paragraph, because if I had to read it so do you.

“Nafai woke before dawn on his mat in his father’s house. He wasn’t allowed to sleep in his mother’s house anymore, being fourteen years old. No self-respecting woman of Basilica would put her daughter in Rasa’s household if a fourteen-year-old boy were in residence – especially since Nafai had started a growth spurt at the age of twelve that showed no signs of stopping even though he was already near two meters in height.” (page 9)

Yes, that’s where we begin – Meet Nafai! Meet Rape Culture! How do you do? I’m seriously at a loss for anything to say about this; apparently rape culture is so deeply embedded in this society that having boys and girls living under the same roof is utterly unthinkable. (Truthfully, this idea is alive and well in modern times also; you can see the most extreme manifestation of it in purity culture, e.g. Christian Patriarchy and radical Islam, but even outside those extremes the general idea that teenage boys cannot control their sexuality and girls must be kept away from them is a mainstay of popular culture. But you would think that FORTY MILLION YEARS IN THE FUCKING FUTURE we would know better.)

Let’s take a look at what Card has done here. The very first things we learn are our protagonist’s name – Nafai (and do note the similarity to Nephi, a significant character in the Book of Mormon, though I don’t know enough about the BOM to fully evaluate how close this parallel is; nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out) – and that the culture in which our characters live is deeply gendered and deeply essentialist. We may also note that, seeing how this is literally what he opens the book with, Card intends to be addressing gender in a significant way in this book.

Now, because this chapter is from Nafai’s perspective I could be charitable and assume this is only meant to represent Nafai’s understanding of Basilican cultural attitudes rather than being a statement by Card about the real world. Let’s keep reading and see how long that holds up.

Immediately after this paragraph, Nafai flashes back to a conversation he overheard between his mother Rasa and her friend Dhelembuvex, about the subject of getting him an “auntie”. Rasa thinks he’s too young and there’s no reason to do it until Nafai himself expresses any interest; her friend thinks that ‘people are beginning to wonder’ why he hasn’t got one already and that he wouldn’t mention that interest to his mother. Seriously:

” ‘There’s time enough for aunties and mates and all that business when he starts thinking about it himself.’ [said Rasa]

‘Oh, he’s thinking about it already,’ said Dhel. ‘He’s just not talking to you about it.’ ” (page 9)

In case you haven’t picked up on this yet (OMG IT’S SO SUBTLE), an “auntie” is an older woman to whom a young man is assigned for purposes of sexual edification, which is apparently a formalised and standardised practice in this society (which is strange even before you consider they use a familial term to refer to these sex tutors; ick). And apparently fourteen is old enough that people are wondering why he hasn’t got one already? I really think there’s only one thing to say to Card here; Officer Pear, do the honours:

Nafai’s reaction to this is to blush in embarrassment, but he thinks to himself that she’s totally right and all boys think about sex constantly (he wonders for a moment how he managed to give this away to Dhelembuvex, before realising he didn’t, she just “knows men”). Gender-essentialism ho! (also this is a myth) Once again, this is kind of reasonable given Nafai grew up in this heavily essentialist society, but I don’t necessarily get the impression Card himself makes that distinction. On the other hand, I do think we’re supposed to read Nafai as being a bit naive here, as we’ll see in the next few paragraphs, so it’s not necessarily true that the character’s views are Card’s own.

This excerpt, though, you have to see to believe:

“But I’m not like all the others, thought Nafai. I hear Mebbekew and his friends talking, and it makes me sick. I don’t like thinking of women that crudely, sizing them up like mares to see what they’re likely to be useful for. A pack animal or can I ride her? Is she a walker or can we gallop? Do I keep her in the stable or bring her out to show my friends?

“That wasn’t the way Nafai thought about women at all. Maybe because he was still in school, still talking to women every day about intellectual subjects. I’m not in love with Eiadh because she’s the most beautiful young woman in Basilica and therefore quite probably in the entire world. I’m in love with her because we can talk together, because of the way she thinks, the sound of her voice, the way she cocks her head to listen to an idea she doesn’t agree with, the way she rests her hand on mine when she’s trying to persuade me.”

Where to begin with this? Oy vey. Again I’m not sure how seriously we’re supposed to take this, because this is filtered through Nafai’s perspective and the second paragraph is clearly hyperbole and meant to read like an overdramatic teenage crush. What I would like to note is that I think Nafai’s protesting a bit too much here; as far as I know all the metaphors in the first paragraph comparing women to horses were Nafai’s own, never mind the fact he thinks that isn’t the way he thinks about women. Of course these could have been inspired by quotes from Mebbekew (one of Nafai’s older half-brothers; this is the first we learn of him), but I don’t think it reads that way. I think it reads like Nafai coming up with the horse comparison and, feeling a bit proud of the idea, seeing how far he can take it (while putting the blame on Mebbekew so as not to feel badly about it). This actually might be a decent portrayal of cognitive dissonance, though again I don’t think it’s meant that way, as we’ll see once we meet Mebbekew later.

Let us also note that Nafai is slut-shaming his brother. Card, when we say we want equality, that doesn’t mean to take all of the ways society mistreats women and do them to men too! What is this, the gender version of ‘Harrison Bergeron’?

And for the second paragraph – as I said before, I think it’s supposed to read like a teenage crush, or like limerence (they’re very closely related), and I don’t think it’s too unrealistic a portrayal of that kind of melodramatic thinking. It’s also a very good example of Nice Guy thought processes, putting the woman on a pedestal without really understanding or even thinking of her as a human being. Once again I think Nafai is protesting too much here, and objectifying Eiadh for her intelligence at the same time as he’s using his appreciation of her intelligence to reassure himself that he isn’t one of those Horrible Objectifying Sexual Horndog Guys like his brother (“I’m so special because I don’t want sex with her but I totally want sex with her and think about it all the time!”). For better or worse, this is a thought process I recognise and I actually think Card’s represented it pretty well here.

That said, I really don’t think I’m going to like Nafai very much.

Nafai actually shows a bit of sense here; he realises that it doesn’t make sense to lie abed daydreaming about Eiadh when he could be going to see her instead, and gets out of bed to begin his morning ablutions. Then we get this:

“He sat up, knelt beside his mat, slapped his bare thighs and chest and offered the pain to the Oversoul, then rolled up his bed and put it in his box in the corner. I don’t really need a bed, thought Nafai. If I were a real man I could sleep on the floor and not mind it. That’s how I’ll become as hard and lean as Father. As Elemak. I won’t use the bed tonight.” (page 10)

There are a few things to comment on here. We are clearly in major toxic masculinity territory here – men in this society worship by self-flagellation, and Nafai is berating himself for daring to sleep on a mat instead of the bare ground because it makes him seem less tough. Just wait; it’s going to get worse – we’re going to meet Elemak shortly. And speaking of Elemak, he’s Nafai’s eldest half-brother and Volemak’s (their father’s) eldest son. Do note also the similarities between the names Elemak and Laman (another Book of Mormon reference). The reason I point that out is because the series isn’t remotely subtle about this (a few books down the line we will have these two brothers leading feuding factions named after them, so keep in mind the parallel to Nephites and Lamanites in the BOM). I’m not sure about other parallels but those two are absolutely impossible to miss.

As an aside, I will admit I do like how Card’s introduced the reader to Nafai’s brothers by having him think about them offhand before we meet them; it’s a very good way of establishing that he has brothers, and that they loom large in his life. It’s natural for people to think about their family members, and while this might be a bit heavy-handed (Nafai looks down on Mebbekew for his womanising, and admires Elemak for his toughness, and the first time he thinks about either subject he immediately name-drops a brother mentally) I think it works. See, if I drop in the occasional compliment like this it shows I’m not just looking for things to hate!

What follows this bit is a rather strange scene; it’s not particularly badly written, but strange is about the only way I can describe it.

We learn that the “shower” (which bears little resemblance to what most modern people would take that word to mean) is apparently in a courtyard, onto which multiple of the brothers’ bedrooms open directly. There is no mention of Nafai removing his clothes, so I have to presume he sleeps naked (I often wonder whether Card has a fetish; he spent a lot of time in Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow lovingly describing how the boys at Battle School slept naked and often ran through the hallways naked, etc etc); there is then a description of how this shower works. He goes to a “water tank”, where he soaps his entire body, then has to pull a cord at which point a deluge of “ice-cold” water will be dumped on him for about thirty seconds. Nafai hesitates pulling the cord, and his brother Issib “floats” out of his room and mocks Nafai over it.

This serves as our introduction to the last brother, Issib (who is Nafai’s full brother and Rasa’s oldest child; he’s the closest brother in age to Nafai). Issib has a physical disability (the narration, and Nafai, both call him “a cripple”; ugh), which is left ambiguous at this point (I can’t remember if it’s elaborated on later). He requires the aid of devices called “floats” to move, which apparently allow him to hover.

Anyway, witty banter ensues (or at least I assume it’s meant to be read as such; I honestly think it comes off as a bit mean-spirited). Issib mocks Nafai over his hesitation, Nafai responds by bringing up Issib’s disability (apparently, the floats cannot get wet, so Issib is given sponge baths instead of using this system), and it goes on from there.

Nafai eventually pulls the cord, and proceeds to scramble to make sure the water gets all the soap off him before time runs out (if he fails, apparently he will either have to wait some time for the tank to refill so he can repeat this process, or let the remaining soap dry on him and become itchy). WHO DESIGNED THIS SHOWER SYSTEM? Anyway, he apparently has a routine way of doing this, which Issib mocks (“I love watching that dance you do” – THIS IS CREEPY, CARD) and then describes in graphic detail, to Nafai’s embarrassment. Then he suggests recording it for wider consumption, and when Nafai protests that theatres wouldn’t want to show that kind of material, says “You’d still be a hit in Dolltown!” (presumably the Basilican equivalent of a red-light district, though that’s only implied). Is it just me, or is this all disturbingly incestuous? What kind of brothers talk to each other like this? What kind of brothers routinely watch each other shower?


We go from this shower-related creepiness into more shower-related creepiness! You see, Nafai thinks that the way a person returns to their room after showering is an essential part of performing masculinity. Don’t believe me? Here you go:

“By now Nafai had toweled himself dry – except his hair, which was still freezing cold. He wanted to run for his room the way he used to do when he was little, jabbering nonsense words – ‘ooga-booga looga-booga’ had been a favorite – while he pulled on his clothes and rubbed himself to get warm. But he was a man now, and it was only autumn, not winter yet, so he forced himself to walk casually toward his room. Which is why he was still in the courtyard, stark naked and cold as ice, when Elemak strode through the gate.” (pages 11-12)

This kid is obsessed with performing masculinity; he basically thinks about nothing else. Then again, I think Card is too; quite a lot of this series has to do with an idea that there is a right and wrong way to perform masculinity, and that this is tied up with a man’s inherent moral worth. I’ll be talking about that more in a bit, but in the meantime, it’s time to meet Elemak.

Elemak walks in, proclaims that he’s been gone for 128 days, and immediately begins stripping and walking toward the shower. While doing so, he talks nonchalantly about how he thinks he killed a man on the expedition he’s just returned from – he was escorting a caravan to purchase rare plants from some exotic locale or other (we’ll soon learn this is the family business, selling rare plants) and they were ambushed by robbers, so Elemak fired a hunting weapon called a ‘pulse’ and saw one of them go down. Nafai is appalled that Elemak would use a hunting weapon against a person while Elemak thinks nothing of it.

In an obviously deliberate parallel to the bit I just quoted, we now get this (if I have to read this, so do you):

“Elemak pulled the shower cord before he soaped. The moment the water hit him he yowled, and then did his own little splash dance, shaking his head and flipping water all over the courtyard while jabbering ‘ooga-booga looga-booga’ just like a little kid.

“It was all right for Elemak to act that way. He was twenty-four now, he had just got his caravan safely back […] and he might actually have killed a robber on the way. No one could think of Elemak as anything other than a man. Nafai knew the rules. When a man acts like a child, he’s boyish, and everyone’s delighted; when a boy acts the same way, he’s childish, and everyone tells him to be a man.” (page 12)


Let’s keep in mind, here, that the context of this statement is two or three boys standing around naked (it isn’t mentioned whether or not Issib is clothed) judging each other for how they shower. I can sort of see what Card’s trying to do, in using an everyday situation to establish character, but this really doesn’t work; it comes across as pretty forced to me, not to mention that once again I’m boggling at Card’s weird propensity to write about naked boys.

There’s this weird tone of simultaneous awe and revulsion from Nafai toward Elemak, and this will continue throughout the story. I think this mirrors how the book wants us to look at masculinity – a virtue to aspire to, except when it’s taken too far (though at this point I don’t think it’s saying Elemak has done so, and the line of ‘too far’ is deliberately hazy). It’s a pretty good expression of how toxic masculinity works, actually, except these books hold that up as an aspirational ideal rather than being sensible and saying to hell with the whole rotten system.

So let’s have a brief digression and talk about Aristotle. No, I’m not joking; let’s talk about Aristotle. The Aristotle who believed men and women had different numbers of teeth because he couldn’t be bothered to talk to a woman and check? Yes, that Aristotle. Bear with me here, I swear it will be relevant.

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle defines virtue in a very interesting way. To Aristotle, virtues exist on a spectrum, and what we call a virtue is in actuality the balance between two competing and opposite vices. The characteristic example he gives is ‘courage’, which he defines as the ideal point between the extremes of cowardice and rashness. There are a few other examples in the text also, but I think that’s the best one to illustrate the idea. (For the record, I don’t necessarily agree with the Aristotelian definition of virtue, I just think it’s an interesting framework, and that it could be useful here to understand how people like Card think about gender expression.)

I think Card and his fellow gender-essentialists view gender expression in an Aristotelian way. What I’m not yet sure about – and one of the things I hope to uncover as we go through this book – is what sort of spectrum Card advocates. It’s clear from the text that this ideal of masculinity exists on a spectrum from insufficiently masculine on the one hand and hypermasculine on the other, with the ideal somewhere in between; we have yet to see where femininity would fit on this spectrum (e.g. whether femininity would be part of the same spectrum as an extreme beyond insufficient masculinity, or whether it’s a different spectrum entirely; that said, I don’t think everyone who advocates this kind of view of gender agrees on that, either).

Anyway, it’s already clear to me that in this paradigm the ‘proper’ or ‘virtuous’ type of masculinity is a tightrope balance between insufficiency and extreme (so far we’ve seen this with respect to both stoicism and brutality, I’m sure we’ll see more also).

In any case, let’s keep Aristotle in mind as we read Card; I think this will prove useful later also. End of digression, back to the story.

Let’s do a brief thought-experiment here. Let’s take Nafai at his word that people admire childish behaviour in men who have previously established their manhood sufficiently to get away with it. Is THIS really a good example to use to establish the principle? (Maybe shouting and making a spectacle and throwing water all over the place to create a mess someone else might have to clean up is a good example of the kind of inconsiderate behaviour toxic masculinity leads to, but I don’t think that’s the interpretation Card intended at all.)

(Aside: if the gender essentialists were right, performing gender wouldn’t be so much fucking work; that’s what it means for something to be an inherent characteristic. The fact that Card writes Nafai as so preoccupied by this and constantly working at it actually works against the point he’s trying to make.)

Also, this scene won’t bloody end, and we’re just about halfway through the chapter. Fuck me. Why did I decide to do this again?

I can’t take this any more. This has covered about half the chapter and I’ll do the rest in the next post; there’s only so much of this shit I can handle. See you next time in part two.

(Images of sentient fruits are copyright 1999-2014 Neopets, Inc. Used for non-commercial purposes with permission.)


Posted by on May 10, 2014 in mitchell