Monday, August 22, 2011

Santa Olivia, by Jacqueline Carey

I have enjoyed Jacqueline Carey's books for many years now.  One of the things I admire most about her writing is that she doesn't write the same thing over and over.  She hit the big time with Kushiel's Dart, and she could have dined out on that genre for the rest of her life, but in each of her subsequent series she has tried new things.  Many otherwise-good writers don't bother to do that.

Now with Santa Olivia she has made an even bigger leap:  from faux-medieval fantasy to near-future science fiction.  And she pulls it off pretty well.  For some reason it's difficult for people who got started in a different genre to switch to SF.  I can't really think of anyone who's done it successfully.  Walter Mosley is an example of a great writer whose SF writing sucks.  (I have only read his first SF book, and I am not going to read any more.)  Some people have started out doing SF and later produced good work in another field, such as Nicola Griffith (mystery) and Lois M. Bujold (fantasy.)  But apparently SF is tricky to get right.

The mistake most people make is to show off how much they know about science by inserting too many details.  I once read the first two pages of an SF novel by Felice Picano. He devotes a long paragraph to explaining how the automatic door works.  Hello?  Doors that open automatically have not been unusual since 1966, when they appeared on Star Trek.

Carey avoids that mistake.  In fact I would say that she errs in the opposite direction and doesn't put in enough detail.  Her Terre d'Ange books are all loaded with intricate descriptions of food, fabrics, buildings, landscapes, and people.  She doesn't do that here.  For example, she barely describes the town of Santa Olivia at all, and therefore it doesn't exactly come off like a real place.  I kind of wish she had chosen a real Texas town and described that.  As it is, I had to rely on whatever generic Southwestern images I have in my head, which is not sufficient.

The other big change in Santa Olivia is that there's a lot more swearing.  Faux-medieval worlds have very little swearing in them for some reason, and when people do swear they never use the words to which we have become accustomed.  (I seem to remember that Mary Gentle's Ash series is an exception to this rule.)  Carey appears to have decided to drop the F-bomb as often as possible.  And I guess that's okay.  But I'm afraid that her language still sounds a little stilted.

So what do I like about the book?  It was interesting to see Carey grappling with real-world problems, instead of mythic quests with the required happy endings.  I was totally pulled into the book, and at the climatic moment I was all excited, even though as you can tell from this review I had been having some reservations.  I also like the way Carey takes her usual themes - sex, religion, angels, war - and turns them upside down.

For example, Carey switched from writing about a sex-positive culture to a culture that more closely resembles our own.  She does it with subtlety - anyone who has read her earlier books knows how she feels, and yet she manages to avoid getting up on a soapbox.  Here's an example:  the town of Santa Olivia has been turned into a military base.  Lots of soldiers live there; that means prostitution is a major industry.  In Carey's near-future world, the US military has become an all-male institution once again.  (She mentions that without dwelling on it; that's one.)  So the military will only provide one form of contraception: condoms.  Santa Olivia has been cut off from the rest of the world, and it appears that no other forms of contraception are allowed in.  Think about that for a bit.  She mentions it and then she moves on.

There was one other thing that seemed odd to me:  in addition to being sex-positive, Carey has always been queer-positive.  Loup, the protagonist of Santa Olivia, gets involved in a same-sex romance.  But I never realized while reading Carey's other books that she writes queer romance from a heterosexual point of view.  Loup becomes a female boxer; her lover is an ultra-feminine woman.  In a lesbian novel someone would have pointed out that they're a butch-femme couple, even if it were only mentioned as a joke.  Nothing like that happens here.  In fact Loup and Pilar don't even identify as lesbians.  Loup is more or less asexual outside of this one relationship; Pilar thought of herself as straight and is very nervous about getting into a lesbian relationship.  That's realistic but it's also, I have to say, kind of a cheat.  It comes across as pandering to a straight audience that enjoys girl-on-girl.  I still admire Carey's work but that bothers me.

Nonetheless, if you want to see a talented writer branch out into a new genre, read Santa Olivia.  The sequel, Saints Astray, came out just recently and I am looking forward to reading it.  (Incidentally, a fan on Carey's Facebook page came up with the sequel's title.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Infighting, Part 2: Internalized Transphobia

These are things that trans people say about each other.  I believe they are all examples of internalized transphobia:
  1. I hate cross-dressers. 
  2. We need to conform to society's gender rules. 
  3. My closet is better than your closet. 
  4. In order to prove that you're trans, you have to suffer. 
  5. I'm not trans anymore (but I have to keep coming back to the trans community in order to announce how much I don't belong to the trans community.) 
  6. Everyone should do what I did. 
  7. Take the T out of LGBT. 
To go into detail: