Category Archives: identity

Books about establishing or discovering identity.

Lost in the Stacks 6: You Keep Jesus, I’ll Take Hal Jordan

You know who else sacrificed himself saving the world? And then rose again?

Everyone needs role models growing up, and in a time of crisis everyone needs to turn to someone who is better than themselves. Some folks turn to religion, others turn to fiction. [1] As much as we use the real people in our lives – our parents, teachers, community leaders, I’ve found that fictional characters have imparted great lessons to me which have shaped the kind of person I’ve become.

How do fictional characters shape us, and why? What makes them so different from real people in terms of being a role model? Listen along with me and find out!

And of course, I’d be interested to hear from you – what fictional characters have made you who you are? What lessons did you learn from books, from TV or movies that have helped you become the person you want to be? Leave your story in the comments and join the conversation.

[1] Assuming, of course, that there’s a difference.

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Filed under comic books, DC Comics, Green Lantern, identity, Lost in the Stacks, personality, role models

Review 128: Soul Music

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

“Music is my life.”

How many times have you heard that? From bona fide rock stars to teenage wannabes, there’s something about music that occupies us, that possesses us and just won’t let go. Even if you’re not a big music lover, there are probably songs which can ease your mind, pull you out of a dark mood, or set your heart to racing. There’s music that’ll lift your heart and make you think the world is a better place than it really is, and songs that will convince you that the dark heart of the world is just as decayed and corrupt as you always thought it was. Music has a kind of magic in it that can reach to the very core of who we are as thinking – and more importantly, feeling – beings.

That magic is dangerous enough on our world, where magic doesn’t actually exist. Imagine how powerful it would be on one where magic really was real. Like, say, to pick one out of thin air, the Discworld.

Sometimes, even more horrible things would emerge....

Of course, the Discworld has had its share of trouble with popular entertainment before. Acting troupes brought about an Elf invasion in Lords and Ladies and the Horrible Betentacled Things of the Dungeon Dimension nearly escaped thanks to the Disc’s proto-cinema in Moving Pictures. There’s just something about the arts in Discworld that leads to trouble – usually the world-ending kind.

In this case, though, the introduction of rock and roll – better known in Ankh-Morpork as “Music with Rocks In” – is only really dangerous to one person, the young Imp y Celyn. Just eighteen years old and already one of the best bards of Llamados, he wants to make something of his life. He wants to be more than just another bard, and in a mysterious shop that has only recently always been where it was, he finds his chance. Or rather, his chance finds him. A guitar-like instrument that does what no guitar should do – it whines, it growls, it sends out noises that run straight down your spine and make your nerves run with fire. It’s clearly not of this world, and it wants nothing more than to live. For that, it needs to change Imp’s fate, and by extension the fate of hundreds in Ankh-Morpork.

Soon, Imp and his band – The Band With Rocks In – are the most famous thing in the city, and the strange magic of this music is being felt everywhere. Even the wizards are helpless against it. Normally this would result in the aforementioned Horrible Betentacled Things, but in this case it’s more of a reversion to teenage years that never were. Still, Archchancellor Ridcully knows that there’s some force acting on people that shouldn’t be there, and nothing good ever comes of that.

Keith Death (art by Soulstripper on DeviantArt)

As if that weren’t enough, Death has decided to get existential and tries to figure out how he can make himself forget for a while. Why he decides to do this is not clearly explored, but it results in him leaving his duty. In his place comes his young Granddaughter, Susan, who would be great for the job if she didn’t think the whole idea of personifying a force of nature was just romantic woolly thinking. And it would be even better if she knew what her connection was to the doomed musician Imp y Celyn.

This book can be seen as a companion to the earlier Moving Pictures as an examination of and homage to popular culture. By transplanting it to the Discworld, Pratchett is able to look at rock music from the point of view of people who’ve never even thought about such a thing before, and who can more easily see the magic of it. And of course, it’s his big chance to make as many music jokes, puns and references as humanly possible, from the translation of Imp’s name (“Imp” meaning “small bud” and “Celyn” meaning ‘of the holly”) to some proto-heavy metal musicians trying to make leopard skin pants from a cat that has some severe hearing difficulties.

It’s a sort of love letter to rock and roll and all that it has brought us. From teenyboppers to punk to the horrible misuses of leather and spandex, it holds a mirror up to the way that rock music has influenced our modern culture. But it does not mock, oh no. It shows great attention to and reverence for this young art form that has done so much to change the world. To list all the references made in this book would be nearly impossible, but the amount of work and thought that went into making it is quite clear.

We're not here to judge.

More importantly, though, the book addresses some questions that are a little deeper than the simple rock and roll jokes. Like Death’s question: “WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT? SERIOUSLY? WHEN YOU GET RIGHT DOWN TO IT?” Probably since the beginning of music, people have tried to find meaning in it. People have connected to music and to musicians in ways that they could never connect to other people, even family and friends. People find meaning in music, which then gives meaning to their lives, and the more you give your life to something, the harder the crash when that thing goes away. Imp discovers this in a very literal sense, but out here in the real world that is just as true.

People mourned for Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain and other superstars as if they knew them. And in a way, I’m sure they thought they did. Like so much else in the world, though, music doesn’t have any meaning but what we give to it. The truly great musicians, the ones we always lose too soon, give everything they have. They manage to say to us what we’ve been saying to ourselves, but could never really figure out how to put into words. Music is the voice our emotions could use if our brains didn’t get in the way so often, and the best people lucky enough to be able to create it gain a kind of immortality.

Not the literal kind, unfortunately.

If you love music – especially rock music – then this is a book you should pick up and read. Even if you’re not a Discworld fan, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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This was music that had not only escaped, but had robbed a bank on the way out. It was music with its sleeves rolled up and its top button undone, raising its hat and grinning and stealing the silver…. It made you want to kick down walls and ascend the sky on steps of fire. It made you want to pull all the switches and throw all the levers and stick your fingers in the electric socket of the Universe to see what happened next. It made you want to paint your bedroom wall black and cover it with posters.
– from Soul Music by Terry Pratchett
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Soul Music on Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
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Terry Pratchett’s Homepage
L-Space Annotations on Soul Music

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Filed under death, Discworld, fantasy, humor, identity, music, rock and roll, satire, Terry Pratchett, wizardry

Review 124: The Night Watch

The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

Imagine a world where magic is real. A place where people known as Others are born with powers they don’t understand. Their destinies are unwritten until that fateful day when they first become an Other – when they discover the strange, shadowy and powerful world known as the Twilight – and have to make a choice: will they stand with the Light or with the Dark. Will they dedicate their lives to Good or Evil?

Maybe it ain't what it used to be, but it's still dramatic.... (art by mirerror on DeviantArt)

It’s not an easy decision to make, by any means. Joining either side has its limitations and its rules, for the battle between Good and Evil isn’t what it used to be.

Long ago, it was simple – Good fought Evil, Dark fought Light, and blood was shed on both sides. It was a vicious, unending war that threatened to decimate the world. Finally, the two sides reached an agreement. A Treaty, well deserving of the capital letter. There would be a truce between the two sides, a balance that would be maintained at all costs. Any act of evil would be balanced by an act of goodness, and vice versa. Neither side is to have an advantage.

Part of the Day Watch Auxiliary Brigade

Making sure the peace is kept is the job of the Watches – the Night Watch, staffed by elites of the Light to guard against advances by the Dark, and a Day Watch, staffed by the elites of the Dark to guard against excesses of the Light. We begin our look at the Others of Moscow with a young adept named Anton Sergeeivich Gorodetsky, a wielder of magic and an analyst forced into the more exciting realm of field work. His job is to find out who a pair of vampires are illegally attempting to seduce and stop them. In the process of doing that, and saving the soul of a young Other named Egor, he stumbles upon something that threatens the entire city of Moscow, if not all of Russia. A young woman has a curse upon her head, so horrible and so powerful that the forces of the Light may have no chance to disperse it. If she dies, the city will die with her. If she lives, even worse may befall the world.

There are three stories in this book, somewhat independent but entirely connected. The first details the discovery of Egor and the cursed Svetlana. In the second, an Other of the Light, a maverick who doesn’t know about the rest of the Others, or the Treaty between Light and Dark, is murdering Dark adepts. Somewhat alarmingly, Anton is being framed for the murders. In the third book, Moscow is gripped in a heat wave. In the midst of this, the leaders of the Light are attempting to change the world. Whether it ends up being for the better or the worse, no one can know. But Anton is convinced that it must not come to pass….

Team ANTON!!!!!

It’s a gripping fantasy, in a very complex world. It’s compared to Rowling’s work, and justly so (although I don’t think there’s much of a case to be made for an attempt to ride on Rowling’s coattails – Night Watch was originally published in 1998, only a year after the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). There are substantial differences, of course, making Night Watch a much more adult book than the Potter series. There are very few children, and the few that are there are not in very substantial roles. There’s far more drinking, smoking and sex in this, of course. But the world that Lukyanenko has created is every bit as deep and complex as the one Rowling has made. There are any number of roles that could be played, and an almost infinite number of situations that could be built on the fairly simple rules that are set up by the Light-Dark Treaty.

The biggest difference, of course, is in the complexity of the world. Rowling’s world is fairly definitive in its divisions between good and evil – there is good, there is evil, and there is no question of which is which. The evil characters are definitively evil, and the good characters are definitively good, and the reader doesn’t have to worry too much about who’s on which side, Snape notwithstanding.

The Others of Moscow, however, are not nearly so clear-cut. Yes, the Light is trying to do the work of the Good, to make the world a better place. But their machinations and their plots don’t always go as planned. See the Russian Revolution and World War II for examples why. They ignore the Law of Unintended Consequences and the horrors it can unleash. By trying to do Good, they unleash great evil upon the world.

He's just a big softie, really....

And how about the Dark? Yes, they’re populated by werewolves, witches and vampires, but they are advocates of utter and total freedom. They do not destroy for the sheer joy of destruction, but because they want to increase the personal freedom of the world. They’re not interested in making humanity “better,” or making a better world. They simply want to live in the world as it is, free from restraints – both internal and external.

While it may be pretty clear who is on the Light and Dark side, it’s not entirely clear who is doing Good or Evil at any given time. And, more importantly, it is almost impossible to know who is actually right.

It’s a great read – full of anguish and self-doubt and torture, like any good Russian novel should be. Anton knows that the Light doesn’t live up to the standards that it preaches, but he knows that he needs to be on the right side. He picks apart the intricate, decades-long plot of the Night Watch and very nearly figures out how to foil it. But even in revealing the truth, he does not manage to save the world from the doom of the Light.

Or does he?

We’ll have to read the next book and find out….

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“You accuse us of cruelty, and not entirely without reason, but what’s one child killed in a black mass compared with any fascist children’s concentration camp?”
– Zabulon, of the Day Watch, The Night Watch
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The Night Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Night Watch at Amazon.com

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Filed under ethics, fantasy, good and evil, horror, identity, made into movies, morality, philosophy, politics, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, short stories, society, USSR, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry

Review 122: Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

When I started in on this book, I knew there were certain things I could expect from Neil Gaiman – insight, clever twists on literary assumptions, a good perspective on the nature of our reality. And, I must say, he delivered in full. This story draws from some of the most ancient of human tales and reflects on the most ancient of human needs – the need to have a story of one’s own. It’s a book about purpose and destiny, and other very deep subjects.

Yes - this man is hilarious.

What I didn’t expect was to spend most of the book laughing out loud and disturbing the people around me.

Seriously, there were some times when the other teachers in the staff room would stop whatever conversation they were having because they’d been interrupted by my cackling. Or the staff would come over and ask what was so funny, and I’d try to explain – which doesn’t really work when you’re trying to cross languages and literary traditions. People in Japan don’t really laugh out loud at their books, and can’t quite understand why I do. But I laugh. I snicker, I giggle, I cackle, and I never expected that from Neil Gaiman.

The book was, needless to say, wonderful. While by no means a sequel to Gaiman’s previous bestseller American Gods, it inhabits the same universe. This is a world where the gods exist – they’ve been called into existence by us and, in turn, shape our lives.

The book follows the unfortunately nicknamed Fat Charlie, whose life has been ruined by his father’s death across the Atlantic. This wasn’t the first time his father had ruined his life – it had happened many times before in many terrible ways. For Fat Charlie, however, dying in the middle of a karaoke hall just seems to be a final slap in Fat Charlie’s face.

Fat Charlie isn’t his real name, of course – his real name is Charlie Nancy, which isn’t much better. Fat Charlie is only a nickname given to him by his father. He tried to shake it in his life, asking people to call him Charlie or Charles or Chaz, and he wasn’t even fat – just a little soft around the edges. But his father gave names that stuck like gum to the underside of a school desk, and no matter where he went, Charlie Nancy inevitably became Fat Charlie.

You would think this would raise eyebrows in the delivery room....

The reason for this phenomenon, of course, is that Fat Charlie’s father is a god. He is Anansi, the Spider, a trickster god who managed to steal all the stories from Tiger back when humanity was young, and who managed to trick, deceive, swindle and humiliate nearly every other god and spirit there ever was. He was good at it, and there was nothing he wanted that he couldn’t get.

Fat Charlie was, in very many ways, a disappointment. Where his father was debonair, Fat Charlie was a klutz. Where his father could command the respect of men and women, Fat Charlie was a doormat. Where his father was the embodiment of confidence, Fat Charlie was a crumbly mess. I suppose it’s normal, really, being the child of a god, and not really his fault, even if he didn’t know it until his father was dead.

He didn’t know about his brother, either. His brother is Spider, a young man who is so cool that he can convince an entire L.A. party that they can walk on water. He can do real magic, step in and out of the world with ease, and carries his own bedroom with him. When Spider comes into the picture, everything goes horribly, horribly wrong. Think The Odd Couple, except that Oscar Madison has divine powers and absolutely no sense of consequence.

The story is a lot more than two brothers who don’t know how to get along. It’s a story – about stories. In the stories of Anansi and Tiger that are laced throughout the book, we learn that once, long ago, all stories were Tiger’s stories, and they were stories of fear and blood and hunger. When Anansi took them, the stories became about cleverness and trickery and resourcefulness. So in a way, the victory of Anansi over Tiger is the story of humankind’s emergence from barbarism.

Speaking of someone whose story has been re-written over and over. Anansi would like Spidey, though....

It’s about personal stories as well, and that’s a theme that’s far more important to us as individuals. We are the stories we tell about ourselves. Fat Charlie didn’t need to be the tightly-wrapped ball of embarrassment that he was. But that’s who he told himself he was, and, so, that’s who he became. Once he starts to accept his heritage and his responsibility to his family, once he starts to re-tell his own story, he changes himself. The same is true for Spider – he’s written his own story as a rake and a charmer, but he finds that that story is lacking. It’s a story that needs some editing, and he’s better off for it.

This is a funny, funny book that reminds me in places of Dave Barry, though that might be a side effect of the Florida settings. There’s also a few footnote jokes, so I suspect that Neil has been hanging out with Terry Pratchett recently. Despite the laugh-out-loud general tone of the book, there’s a lot of Meaning to be found as well – the meaning of story and song, of family, and why you should always be nice to spiders. And birds. Definitely be nice to birds.

The ultimate message of the book, though, is that you can always re-write your story. The weak little spider can become a conquering hero, and the fearsome tiger can be a timid coward. No story is set forever. So if you don’t like the way your story is turning out, get out your red pen and start editing. Anansi would approve.

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“People respond to the stories. They tell them themselves. The stories spread, and as people tell them, the stories change the tellers.”
Anansi, Anansi Boys

Neil Gaiman on Wikipedia
Anansi Boys on Wikipedia
Anansi Boys on Amazon.com
Neil Gaiman’s homepage

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Filed under brothers, childhood, coming of age, death, family, fantasy, fathers, gods, humor, identity, Neil Gaiman, quest, sons, spiders, story

Review 121: Shatnerquake

Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk

In the introduction to this book, the author states that he truly admires William Shatner – he states that Shatner is a man who has made a career out of caricaturing himself, remaking himself over and over again with no looking back, no shame and – as far as we know – no regrets. He finishes by kindly asking William Shatner not to sue him.

I don’t think he has too much to worry about, really. This book is a quick, fun read that, while not necessarily painting William Shatner in the best of lights, certainly pays homage to his long and varied career.

Shatner

The story goes as follows: William Shatner is on his way to the very first ShatnerCon, a convention celebrating his life and works. It is a convention mobbed with fans, devotees who are there to see their idol, whether he caught their hearts as T.J. Hooker, Captain Kirk, or the host of Rescue 911. In the new Cathode-La convention center, tribute can be paid in full to William Shatner, a man who has changed so many lives.

But there are those who do not adore Shatner. They don’t like him or even tolerate him. They are the Campbellians, known by the bloody stumps where their right hands used to be and each known only as Bruce. They hate William Shatner with a passion that borders on madness, and seeing him dead is not nearly enough for them – they want his entire body of work to never have existed. Their weapon is a Fiction Bomb, a metaphysical WMD that can erase stories from existence. No one remembers them, no one knows they ever existed. Should the Fiction Bomb succeed, William Shatner’s entire body of work would cease to be. And so, in short order, would he.

Shatner!

But what if a Fiction Bomb should go wrong? What if that interface between fiction and reality should be breached, spilling its contents into what we commonly call the Real World? In that case, dozens of William Shatners – every character the man had played – would emerge in our world, with only one thought on their minds: Destroy the real William Shatner!

This book is a very quick read – only eighty-three pages – but it certainly packs in a lot of action, and as works of fan-fiction go, it isn’t too bad. Because that is most assuredly what this book is – fanfic. Burk has a very basic concept here – get all of Shatner’s characters out to kill him. Simple. Add lots of blood and gore and guts, because that’s always fun, and you have some entertaining reading. This is the very best kind of fanfic, really – you know it’s just a send-up, never intended to be a serious work of literature. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

It suffers from some serious editing problems, though, and Mr. Burk would have done well to have hired a good proofreader. There are some very basic grammatical mistakes, dropped plurals and a few sentences that just don’t make sense. To a regular reader, it might not be important, but to someone whose bread and butter is the proper use of English, it’s kind of glaring. But then my expectations weren’t all that high – I went into this expecting a rollicking adventure and that’s what I got. Complaining about the grammar in a book like this is like complaining about the quality of the vegetables in your Big Mac.

SHATNEERRRRR!!!!

Still, there are some redeeming points to it, above and beyond the weirdness of the whole thing. The beginning of the book does a very good job at setting up a real dreamlike atmosphere – a building that covers a hundred city blocks and has a parking lot that stretches out as far as the eye can see. Upon reaching the convention center, Shatner finds out that he is already late, and is led through a maze of hallways that result in almost instant disorientation. He has to sign hundreds of photographs for hours on end, and ultimately faces off with his own doppelgangers. Burk has reached into the bag of common nightmares and put together a scenario that is both familiar and disarming, which propels you through the rest of the book. After all, if you’re struggling to keep up with events, think about how Shatner must be feeling?

And of course, one can’t help but wonder if this is a commentary on the very nature of the actor/fan dynamic. Who is William Shatner, after all? Depending on who’s looking at him, he could be Kirk or T.J. Hooker, Denny Crane or Buck Murdock, the guy who saw gremlins on his plane or the guy trying to sell you cheap airplane tickets. On top of that, Shatner has another character to maintain – Shatner as a public figure, the guy who goes to conventions and book signings and does guest spots on TV shows.

Shatners?

Who is the real William Shatner? Who are any of us, really? In this age of online presences, there could be electronic doppelgangers of ourselves all over the internet. The person that your Twitter followers believe is you is not necessarily the same person that the people on your Mad Men slash fic forum know. You present a different face to your Facebook friends than the people you know in your World of Warcraft game, and like Shatner in this story, you ultimately have no control over the different renditions of you that other people see.

The good news, of course, is that those different Yous are unlikely to rise up and try to kill you.

Ultimately, this book has no over-arching message about the nature of identity in a world where different versions walk around without our knowledge or consent. I don’t think that it was ever Burk’s purpose to write a treatise on the modern concept of identity, but rather to write a quick, bloody thriller about William Shatner. So, it has no real lessons to teach us other than that if you see a deranged Captain Kirk approaching with a lightsaber (and how that got in there, I’ll never know – a little artistic license for the sake of awesomeness) you run away. Very fast.

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“I’m a… professional. I can deal… with anything.”
– William Shatner, Shatnerquake

Jeff Burk on Wikipedia
Jeff Burk’s website
Shatnerquake on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, doppelgangers, fans, horror, humor, identity, Jeff Burk, science fiction, William Shatner

Review 117: I Will Fear No Evil

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein

One of the things I enjoy about Heinlein is that he likes to play with Big Ideas. While he did dip into the well of action and adventure, especially for his juvenile stories, he treated his readers like they were only slightly intellectually inferior to him, and so explored concepts that required a lot of heavy thinking. The need for war, the inevitability of messiahs, revolution, life, death, immortality – he’s not afraid to look at some of the greatest philosophical topics that reside in the human heart, and this book is no exception.

Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is a very old, very sick, very rich man. He built himself up from nothing and rose to financial prominence in what is a little more than a regular human lifetime. Smith had it all – a rich and exciting life, complete financial security, good friends and good memories in a world that had, frankly, gone to hell. He had very nearly everything a person would want to have.

Photo by openDemocracy

What he didn’t have was time. He lived in daily pain, kept alive by only two things: an ever-increasing number of machines and a plan to release himself from the geriatric horror his life had become. He knew that this plan would probably fail. He knew that he was facing death no matter what happened. He knew that it was crazy, and not necessarily crazy enough to work. But it was all that stood between him and suicide.

That plan was, in theory, very simple: transplant his healthy brain into the body of a healthy young person. By doing so, he would gain a whole extra lifetime to enjoy the fruits of his first lifetime’s labor. Not being a monster, he was prepared to do this in a legal and ethical fashion. With his legal, medical, and judicial contacts, he made arrangements with a medical advocacy group to get the body of a healthy young person who died due to some massive brain trauma. And – and this is important – who consented to having their body used for medical experimentation. Everything would be above-board, legally sound and ethically certain. All Smith had to do was stay alive until a body became available.

Now just put the two of them together... IF YOU DARE!

When it did, however, he was in for a double surprise. Not only was the healthy, youthful body that of a female, it was that of his healthy, youthful, beautiful secretary, Eunice Branca. Eunice had been murdered, but her body was in excellent condition. She had the right blood type, and had consented to have her body used for Smith’s experiment. The one doctor in the world who could perform the surgery was brought in to perform it, and against all odds, it worked. Johann Sebastian Bach Smith was reborn as Joan Eunice Smith, and her new life began.

But she was not alone.

By some means, Eunice’s mind survived to live with Joan, and tutor her in all the ways of being a woman. Joan dove happily into her new life, exploring her new femininity and sexuality as best she could.

In that sense, this whole book is an exploration of sexual identity. Here we have a man who is now a woman, even though that was never his intention. He soon finds himself thinking like a woman, though, bringing up the question of whether gender is determined by a person’s mind, or by the body it inhabits. If you put a male mind into a female body, with the vastly different hormones and sensory inputs, will that male mind start to act like a female? And even if it does, should it?

Smith makes a decision to, with Eunice’s help, be the best woman he can be, mostly because he feels that is what is expected of him. After a lifetime of conforming to male societal roles, Smith wholeheartedly embraces the female ones, up to and including seducing his best friend of many decades. Gender identity in this book is a tangled mess of biology and intention, and it looks at being female from a distinctly male point of view.

It was a different time....

Which brings me to my first problem with this book: the casual misogyny. I know it’s a pretty loaded word to throw around, and it’s not entirely accurate, but it was the one that kept coming to my mind. While Heinlein is certainly capable of creating strong and independent female characters, and emphasizes over and over again that both Eunice and Joan are actively choosing the lives they lead, those lives are almost entirely dependent on and revolve around men. One of Smith’s first actions when he goes from Johann to Joan is to latch on to a man – her old friend Jake Saloman. She views her identity as a woman as incomplete without a man to base it on, and spends most of the book trying to figure out who she is in relation to men – Jake, her security guards, Eunice’s widower, and more. She repeatedly mentions how helpless she is without a Big Strong Man in her life, and all of this culminates in what is possibly one of the most misogynist moments I have ever read in sci-fi: a spanking scene.

And not a sexy one, either. In a moment of adolescent pique that Jake won’t sleep with her when she wants him to, Joan throws a fit, disrupting their dinner plans. Jake proceeds to throw her over his knee and give her a spanking because, and I’m quoting here, “You were being difficult… and it is the only thing I know of which will do a woman any good when a man can’t do for her what she needs.” Joan accepts the spanking meekly, not only thanking Jake for his spanking, but also claiming that she had her first orgasm while he did it.

Wow. That’s nearly as bad as the other major female character, Winnie, who talks about a gang rape experience with what can almost be imagined as fondness.

Oddly enough, this is not my biggest problem with the book. I mean, it was written in the late ’60s, and it reflects the thinking of that era. For all his progressive beliefs, Heinlein was still a man of his time, and it really shows here. Legend [1] has it that he was really sick when he wrote this book, and that may have had something to do with the fact that no matter how many complex hot-button issues he touches (gender roles, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, overpopulation, government overreach), the fact remains that there is no story in this book.

This picture contains more conflict than this book

Let me explain. A story needs conflict. It needs not only a protagonist that is trying to achieve something, but obstacles that impede that achievement. There were so many potential goals and obstacles to be explored in this story – a man’s brain in a woman’s body – but Heinlein manages to artfully dodge all of them. The story of Smith’s inner struggle to resolve the gender he grew up with with the gender he now possesses would have been fascinating. But it didn’t happen. Smith pretty much accepts the change right away, with few if any reservations. Even so, he could have struggled with how to live as a woman – should he adopt the identity that a patriarchal society would confer upon him as a woman, or forge his own as a uniquely gendered person who has gone from the privileged to the unprivileged sex? Unfortunately, the conflict doesn’t even occur to Joan. She decided to be the best woman she can be, constantly asking others what that entails, rather than asking herself.

Or how about the concept of Identity itself? Smith is an old brain in a new body, so is he legally the same person he was before the surgery? That would be an amazing story as he tries to prove that Johann has become Joan, and that even though Eunice’s body is still walking around, she’s actually dead. But no – Smith has some powerful legal friends with ironclad arguments, and the legal proceedings are pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Or how about rejection by society? Regular transgendered people have a hard enough time getting society to accept the modification of the body they were born with – what about when someone takes on an entirely new body? Joan could have struggled to get her friends and family to accept who she has become, to stand before the world with her head held high. But no…. She has enough money that she doesn’t really need society’s approval, none of her friends have any trouble with what she’s become, and even Eunice’s widower has only a moment of uncontrollable emotion before accepting that his wife is dead, but still walking around. And he might get to sleep with her again.

Imagine this in your head ALL the TIME.

One last one – the soul. Joan hears Eunice’s voice in her head, but it’s unclear whether it is really Eunice or if it’s just Joan’s imagination. What’s more, they never fight. They never have a serious disagreement and have to resolve their differences so that they can continue to occupy the same skull. Eunice and Joan live together like wisecracking sisters and never have to deal with the problem of living with someone you can’t get rid of, even if you’re not sure if they’re real.

In other words, there’s no there there. It’s a long, talky, philosophical exploration of some fascinating topics, but as a novel, it’s incredibly dull. You keep waiting for the blow-up, for the accident, for the Big Problem that Joan and Jake have to struggle to overcome, and it never arrives. Everything works out either through money or force of will or Heinlein’s trademark Sheer Damn Reasonableness. Between that and the constant thought of, “He did not just say that,” I found this book rather stressful to plow through. It offers up a lot of big ideas to think on, raises some very important questions, and Heinlein’s gift for dialogue makes some fun conversations, but I think I would have liked it more if it had been completely different.

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“Sir, if you want to give me a fat lip, I’ll hold still, smile happily, and take it. Oh, Jake darling, it’s going to be such fun to be married to you!”
“I think so too, you dizzy bitch.”
– Joan and Jake, I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein
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[1] Wikipedia

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Review 114: The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The book that preceded this one was Old Man’s War. It was Scalzi’s first novel and I loved it. It had everything – high-end science fiction, philosophy, cool battle scenes and a protagonist whose sense of humor reminded me a lot of many of my friends. The book’s premise was very simple – why do we use young people to fight in wars? Because they have the bodies that work best for the task – strong, fast and generally resilient. But young people can also be rash, impulsive and generally ignorant of a whole lot of life’s complexity. If their physical capabilities were not an issue, then who would we want? Why, old people, of course. They have the life experience, the patience and the perspective to be better soldiers.

No.

So, it’s The Future. Mankind has spread out among the stars, and the Colonial Union is the political organization that keeps them together. Any government needs a military, so the Colonial forces make sure they have the best recruits, all brought from Earth. With some pretty high-tech jiggery-pokery, the senior citizens from Earth’s richer nations are made into lean, green fighting machines, capable of performing in ways that make the Marines of our day look like palsey victims. Their minds are transferred from their old, decrepit bodies and put into new ones, grown from their own DNA, but altered to make them better soldiers. It’s all very exciting and cool, but at some point, I suppose Scalzi asked himself a question: what happens when someone signs up at age 65, but doesn’t make it to age 75 when they’re supposed to start their service?

NO!

Well, we have all this DNA just sitting there, right? We can’t let it go to waste, can we?

That brings us to the Ghost Brigades, the rather morbid nickname for the Colonial Union’s Special Forces. Their bodies are grown from DNA whose previous owners have expired, and are modded in more extreme ways than the regular defense force soldiers. Then, when the body is ready, they’re woken up. An amazing piece of biotechnology called, rather whimsically, a BrainPal prepares their brains for consciousness, acting as a kind of bootstrap for the emergent personality. It tells them what they’re supposed to know, so they don’t have to go through the tedious process of learning it all. And, of course, much more. The Special Forces do what the regular Defense Forces can’t, and act in ways that their more “ordinary” soldiers couldn’t understand. In Old Man’s War the Special Forces only came in at the end. In this book, as you might have guessed, they play a much more central role.

I'll show them! I'LL SHOW THEM ALL!!!

Charles Boutin is a traitor to humanity. For reasons known only to him, he has sold out the Colonial Union to its enemies, a troika of alien species that would be more than willing to wipe us off the map. The Defense Forces would love to find him, of course, but he’s hidden himself among the enemy. So they got the next best thing: a copy of his own mind that Boutin had made while researching the BrainPal.

In theory, it should work: put this mental backup copy into a “clean slate,” a body that has no mind of its own. A Special Forces body.

And so, Jared Dirac was born. Decanted. Whatever. It was hoped that when he opened his eyes, he would be Charles Boutin in a new body, and could promptly be interrogated. But it isn’t that easy. Jared Dirac is a normal Special Forces soldier, a blank slate who is ready to do the job he was, literally, born to do: keep humanity safe.

Art by Vincent Chong

He’s sent off to training, with the expectation that he would be just another Special Forces soldier. But he is, of course, much more than that. As his brain matures, the memories and personality of Charles Boutin come with them, and Dirac starts to understand more of what made the man turn traitor to his own species. This information could lead the Defense Forces to their ultimate goal, or to their destruction….

It’s a great book. Tons of fun, although the exposition is a bit heavy-handed in the beginning. There’s a whole lot of reminding about what you learned in Old Man’s War, and I didn’t really need it. That’s the thing about recap, though: if you avoid it altogether, you can confuse people who haven’t picked up the previous book in a while. Slather it on and you bore the people who have good enough memories.

Once you get past that, though, it’s straight on fun, with some pretty serious questions folded into it. One of the major questions raised in this book is that of identity – who is Jared Dirac? How can a being who is brought to full consciousness by an implanted computer be properly called “human?” It’s clear that he is, but a fuller look at the Special Forces – especially the squad known as the Gamerans – really does push the definition of “human” to its limits.

The Japanese cover to Ghost Brigades

It’s a very thoughtful book in many places, exploring the grey areas of not only humanity and “human-ness,” but also of the role of humanity among the stars. Explaining his reason for turning traitor, Boutin asks us to consider the entire purpose of government itself – how it operates, how much power it has and how much it should trust its citizenry. He fundamentally disagrees with how the Colonial Union goes about its business, and will do whatever he has to in order to set it on what he believes is the right path. And in the middle of all this is Jared Dirac, who has to actually start making choices in his life – something that Special Forces soldiers were never bred to do.

As with Old Man’s War, this is a great book to read, and I look forward to the other books set in that universe. You should too.

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“We don’t mind when the other guy brings a gun to a knife fight. It just makes it easier for us to cut out his heart. Or whatever it is that he uses to pump blood.”
Lieutenant Jane Sagan, The Ghost Brigades

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