Friday, May 1, 2015

Two Million and Counting

I'm about two-thirds of the way through The Long War, the second novel in a series by Stephen Baxter and the late Terry Pratchett, which I'm reading out of sequence.  I read the first one, The Long Earth, and then the third, The Long Mars; as I commented in a previous post, it was only after I was well into the latter book that I realized I had skipped one, so I'm now remedying that.  It appears that Pratchett and Baxter planned and contracted to write a series of five books, of which the fourth will be published later this year.  How Pratchett's recent death will affect the completion of the project I don't know yet.

There are a few aspects of The Long War that I feel deserve comment, including its scientific triumphalism and what seems to me a misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution.  Maybe I'll write about those later on.  But today I want to focus on some smaller issues.

One is that in the previous post I noticed a lack of gay / lesbian / bisexual / trans characters in the series, and in Pratchett's books generally.  I noticed something in The Long War that made me reconsider.  Sally Linsay and Monica Jansson are traveling together through the Earths on a mission driven by Sally.  They stop on one Earth where they encounter a community of stereotypical computer / tech nerds, engaged in building a spaceship.  After they talk to one of the main guys, Sally tells Monica (page 190 of the NOOK e-book),
"Distract this guy.  Let him show you his toy spaceships, or whatnot.  I think he has his eye on you, by the way."

[Jansson replies:] "Garbage.  Also, let me remind you, my personal rocket ship takes off from a different launch pad."
Whoa!  I read that as a hint that Jansson's preferred "launch pad" is female.  I don't believe there was any such indication in the third book, but of course I might just have missed it.  So before beginning this post I did some looking around on the web for some background.  I found a Wiki page with a bare mention of Jansson, but no details about her.  Then I found a discussion at The Straight Dope's website on LGBT characters in Pratchett's work, and in one entry a moderator wrote that in "The Long Earth, the police officer who befriended the protagonist when he was a young boy is explicitly described as a lesbian."  I'll have to check that out (what exactly does "explicitly described as a lesbian" mean?), but for now I'll accept provisionally the accuracy of that statement.

The rest of the discussion was interesting (in the sense of living in interesting times).  Numerous characters in Pratchett's Discworld books have been taken to be queer, though with one or two exceptions this had to be inferred from stereotypical signs like costume or occupation.  The apologetic explanations offered in the TSD forum were significant, though, familiar evasions that I'm familiar with from similar discussions in various places over the years.

For example, the obvious: "Jeez, if we can have people discussing the homosexual subtext of LoTR, which doesn't exist at all, we can certainly discuss the Lesbian subtext or M[onstrous]R[egiment], which at least does exist albeit incidentally."  From the context, I suspect that the commenter doesn't know what "subtext" means.  There is a pair of female lovers in Pratchett's Discworld novel Monstrous Regiment, but since they are explicitly said to be so, it's not a subtext but part of the text.  As for Lord of the Rings, I've addressed that elsewhere.

This one is also typical, alas:
He probably hasn't felt the need to address that issue, what with every other dynamic the Disc has ... Besides, the Disc is just now getting up to the Industrial Revolution. Exactly how much of an issue was Gay Rights at that time? 
The original question was not about "Gay Rights" but gay (or queer) characters.  Sodomites and buggers and Sapphists were very much a matter of concern in late 18th-century England.  Neither I nor the poster who raised this question at TSD was asking Pratchett to include queer characters as addressing an issue.   If anything, the minor and usually transitory characters who can be identified as queer in Discworld felt to me like obligatory and self-conscious nods to the goddess Diversity.

This move reminds me of earlier science-fiction and fantasy debates on sex/gender and race, which held that a black protagonist would necessarily make a story about race, and that female characters could only be present as Love Interests.  Or the person Vito Russo overheard complaining about the protagonists of My Beautiful Laundrette: "I don't get it -- why were they gay?" This person couldn't understand why race and class were the core problems driving the story, not the protagonists' homosexuality.  (Similarly, Neil Jordan told an interviewer that the movie companies didn't mind that The Crying Game dealt with race, sexuality/gender, and Irish rebellion, but they didn't want all those issues in the same film.  That's a glimpse into the mindset that makes mainstream commercial cinema so boring.)  This discussion indicates that some elements of SF fandom are still stuck in the 1930s.

Another commenter, addressing the suggestion that homosexuality was "underground" in Discworld, countered that it was not "'underground' as much as 'none of your business.'"  Of course, heterosexuality is rampant, constantly talked about, and everybody's business in Discworld and the Long Earth.  It's not an issue, just part of the environment, as homosexuality could be.  So, again:
I continue to respect Pratchett's polite sensibilities when it comes to discussing sexual matters in his novels -- e.g., for the most part it's something that happens "off-scene", since it's a private matter. The only time I can recall an explicit sexual encounter in any of the DW novels was from Men-At-Arms, where Angua and Carrot made the Disc move without even bothering to cancel the bread and newspapers.
This is also a distractive move.  Despite the lack of "explicit" material in the Discworld novels, there are frequent comments and references to the characters' sex lives and interests.  Even the icy Granny Weatherwax turns out to have a Past with Chancellor Ridcully of Unseen University in Lords and Ladies.  But homophobes have a tendency to pretend that the only alternative to equal treatment is porn.  It's hard to say whether this move is conscious or just an involuntary expression of their anxieties, but it turns up frequently.  I, at least, am not calling for hot man2man action in Discworld or the Long Earth. I'm not even calling for more queer characters or situations, since Pratchett seems not to be all that comfortable with them; when Robert A. Heinlein tried self-consciously to be inclusive of non-heterosexual characters, the results were awkward and embarrassing.  At least Pratchett's imagination isn't overtly homophobic, with homosexuality used as a symbol of evil, degeneration, disorder, etc.  I'm not furious over the paucity of queers in his work, I'm just a bit puzzled.

[P.S.  I finished reading The Long War last night, and I now can report that the lesbian character identifies herself as "gay" to another character, the straight man who's interested in her and who hovers protectively over her for the rest of the book.  It couldn't be a woman, could it?  For that matter, the Anglican priest Nelson Azikiwe, who lives more in his mind than in the rest of his body, turns out to be barely heterosexual in one episode of the book; I think he'd have made a good gay or bisexual character myself.  Why?  Well, why not?  Monica Jansson turns out to be that staple of heterosexual mythology, the sympathetic gay character who serves and protects the straight characters but has no life or love of her own -- indeed, such characters are sympathetic because they're sexless.  This speaks very badly for Baxter and Pratchett.]

Something that bothers me more in The Long Earth books is their account of the rugged individualist pioneers who've spread through the parallel worlds.  For those who are unfamiliar with the series, the concept is that a way exists for people to move from "Datum Earth," the Earth we know, to a vast series of parallel Earths, resembling Datum Earth but different in varying degrees.  In none of the two million parallel Earths have human beings evolved, though there are humanoid species such as the "elves," "kobolds," and "trolls."  So those other Earths are rich in resources and free of inconvenient natives who might make claims of their own to the places.  Attempts have been made to exploit the helpfulness of the trolls, and when problems arise the trolls are usually able to escape from their would-be exploiters by "stepping" to another Earth.  This makes for an important difference between the colonists of the Long Earth and European colonists in the Americas: the Long Earth is largely the realization of the fantasy that Europeans had of the New World (or that Zionists had of Palestine): a world without people for people who've already kinda used up the world they had. 

The Long Earth colonists see themselves as some of the Euro-American colonists did: as bold individualists eager to escape from Gummint and from gol-danged Sheeple.  A large and significant percentage of the population of Datum Earth drained off into the Long Earth within a few years after they became able to.  The governments of Datum Earth were ambivalent about this, and in The Long War the US government is still trying to assert its dominion over colonists in the Long North America, while the colonists insist that they're independent and aren't going to pay no stinkin' taxes -- except when they get into trouble, of course, and want the government to help or even rescue them.  Pratchett and Baxter are not unaware of the irony there, but seem to come down finally on the side of the self-styled individualists.  (In a review of The Long Earth that I partly agree with, Tasha Robinson wrote that "The politics and mindset are pure Heinlein, from the near-worship of practical intellectuals to the implied belief that all politicians are sleazy charlatans to the expressed belief that women run society and most men haven’t figured it out yet.")

So, this passage, later in the book.  Nelson Azikiwe is a black South African who moved to England and became a paleontologist and later an Anglican priest.  Now he's looking for answers elsewhere, and is driving across the US in a rented Winnebago.  He stops in Wyoming:
Alas there was a shortage of cowboys nowadays, Wyoming folk having been particularly quick to head for the new stepwise worlds where land was free and government interference infrequent.  It was almost reassuring for Nelson to read on a truck bumper sticker, "In This Neighborhood We Don't Just Watch" [page 268 of the NOOK ebook].
First, Wyoming and the rest of "the West" was settled by bold individualists who didn't want Big Gummint breathing down their necks, and thought they should be able to claim the land out that way since the Indians didn't deserve it.  When the Indians had other ideas and reacted negatively to being driven off their territory and killed by the settlers, the settlers expected Big Gummint "interference" to send in the cavalry and rescue them.  It occurred to me to wonder how successful the settling of the West would have been if the settlers had been left to their own devices; maybe not very successful at all.  But Washington was perfectly happy to treat the settlers as shock troops in clearing the aborigines out of the territory the US already claimed.

Second, Nelson might not have been reassured at all in pioneer days or even later, when a lone Negro coming into a white town could have faced unpleasantness from the bold individualists of the sundown towns, which were not only in the southern states.  (In this neighborhood we don't just watch, we lynch.)  Despite Pratchett and Baxter's frequent cynicism about human frailty, they still seem to buy into the Myth of the Frontier.  In their Long Earth, where there aren't any aborigines to displace and slaughter, this problem doesn't arise -- but even there, human beings can't keep from abusing the humanoids they meet.  The authors' sympathies lie mainly with the humanoids (Sally Linsay and Monica Jansson, for example, are on a mission to rescue a troll from human mistreatment), especially the trolls, but they seem to think that the exploiters and abusers are the Bad Apples in the Barrel rather than an inevitable consequence of the expansion.