Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Jaran by Kate Elliott

When I try to think about what I want to write about in this review, I have to keep coming back to Roger Ebert's famous and useful maxim "it's not what it's about, it's how it is about it." He's talking about movies, of course, but it's just as applicable to books. And that's where my troubles lie. I will defend strongly the idea that science fiction and romance should not be mutually exclusive categories, although I have to admit that I haven't loved the couple of entries into that hybrid genre I've read so far. I do not, however, think that good romance science fiction books can't be written.

I just...I'm not sure this is one of them. In many ways, the romance part is fine, with some major quibbles about tropes it embraces wholeheartedly instead of interrogating. But you bill a book as science fiction, it somehow makes it more difficult to turn my brain off and just float along in romancey goodness. (I'm not that good at floating along in romancey goodness anyway, but for a select few authors, I can manage it.)

If it's science fiction, I want to be engaged with the universe being built, with the underlying ideas, and how they're used, and whether the author is exploring the boundaries of their creation, or is content to build science fiction dressing on older tropes based on race, civilization, and what my husband aptly dubbed "simplicity porn," and ignoring anything problematic in favour of a passionate tale of love across cultural lines.

Uh...yeah. I guess that previous paragraph sets out many of my problems with this book. There are a lot of ways in which I feel like I'm being too critical. It's obviously supposed to be fluffy and fun, and I really wish I could treat it that way. But once I started to notice the similarity in narrative to colonial/race-based tropes of finding freedom from the horrible cities in the simpler, purer culture of the natives...I was sunk. You start to see it, you can't unsee it.

And here is my primary problem with it, and why I dragged Roger Ebert into it. I do strongly believe that there might be a story to be told with science fiction, and maybe even with romance, that tackles these kinds of issues in ways that are engrossing and powerful. A book that takes its "how it is about it" in incisive ways to write something really interesting. But that's not the "how it is about it" that happens here. Here, we pretend that it's okay to play around with the tropes being used without ever considering issues of race and/or discourses of what is "civilized" and what is "savage" because science fiction gives you the freedom to just make everyone white.

This is an answer that is not okay.

(To be fair, everyone in the tribes the main character ends up with is very white and if I remember correctly, blonde. Tess, the main character, coming from off-world, is a brunette. I believe she is also white, but I will admit that I am not entirely sure, because I read this digitally, and in that format, it's a hell of a lot harder to flip back through quickly and look for a description. I will concede that she might not be white, but even so, I'm not sure that would make anything better. Using science fiction to make it so that white people are the tribal people without ever really engaging in any thought about the historical and cultural baggage wrapped up in stories of the freedom of the plains and the tribes who ride there is not clever. It's simplistic, and it tries to use cultural tropes without dealing with the history or weight of those tropes.)

So, what's the story about? Humanity has long spread to the stars, but ran smack into a race, the Chapalii, who already control most of it. After hundreds of years, one human led a rebellion against them. He failed, but was rewarded with a dukedom in the highly hierarchical society of the Chapalii, in which deviance from hierarchical norms is perverted and unthinkable. (I'd have to go into a very deep read to parse out why the way in which they are talked about made me think uncomfortably about late nineteenth-century North American ideas about Chinese culture, so I'm not going to pursue it at the moment.)

His sister and heir, Tess, is coming home after a failed relationship at school, and she hates the responsibility she's going to have to assume as his heir, and doesn't seem too fond of intergalactic "urban" culture. On her trip, she becomes aware of some shadiness on the part of Chapalii on a world that is part of her brother's demesne, and follows them down, finding herself adrift in a vast plain, where she is picked up by a horse-riding nomadic clan.

Does she become accepted into the clan with open arms because they're less suspicious of outsiders and frankly a little naive? Of course.

Does she find lots of freedom in their gender norms, more than she would have found out in the stars? It seems so, even though what the intergalactic gender norms are is more than a little sketchily drawn.

Does she break the gender norms in the tribe she's adopted in ways no woman ever has before, becoming more proficient than any woman before her in horse riding, sabre fighting, and travelling, while still being totally accepted? You bet your sweet bippy.

In other words, does she Dances With Wolves the shit out of this?

Oh, and because this is a romance, does she fall in love with the hotheaded leader of the nomadic tribe and he with her, even though they are both too damned stubborn to admit to it for most of the length of the novel?  Do you even need to ask?

The writing is not bad. The romance is not bad, if you could truly divorce this plot from the stories that we have told over and over again in our culture about the decadence of civilization, and the purity of the uncivilized life. Which you can't. You really, really can't. Or rather, you shouldn't. This draws so heavily on familiar stories from Earth that are so steeped in racial and cultural assumptions that to use them while trying to ignore those assumptions made me so frustrated, again and again.

It's not that a book can't be written about these themes. But how this book is about it, or rather, how it tries to have its cake while ignoring it too, is the problem. You want the cake, you've got to deal with the history of the cake, and how it tastes, and what the cake does to people.

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