24 June 2018


I got a new ipod charger, now catching up on the podcasts I missed.


Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

This is an amazing book. The worldbuilding is so inventive and even though I'm not very big on maps at the start of books (I know, bad fantasy fan) the one here was immediately intriguing. It's primary world/alternate history, which looks and feels like a secondary world and the world itself is more inventive and distinct than many a secondary world fantasy. As far as I can tell it's set in a world where the Carthaginians won the Punic wars, meaning Rome was only a land-based empire and never became a naval power in the Mediterranean.* Also there's (still?) an ice age, so Britain is linked to Europe by land and Scandanavia is largely covered with ice. Also there's magic and a second (at least) sentient race. Besides all that (if that weren't enough) the story itself works really well, with strong charcateristaion and a compelling emotional throughline that is complemented by the pace and action. The story is about a young woman called Catherine, who was orphaned as a child and raised by her aunt and uncle. Her world is thrown into disarray when she is unexpectedly married off to a haughty cold-mage and taken away from everything she has always known. Ripped away from her home and her beloved cousin, Cat tries to find her feet as everything she knew about her life is called into question. Her supernatural senses prove useful, as do unexpected allies from the spirit world. Catherine's relationship with her new husband starts cold and goes through various changes as she learns how he too is trapped by familial ties in the machinations of the powerful. Despite this similarity both have their own needs and conflicting agendas. The relationship between cousins Catherine and Beatrice is wonderful, and the various relevations and tribulations deepen their bond as each looks out for the other. Their kinship extends beyond bloodlines to a true, deep friendship.
The way that society is contructed in this book is wonderful, and such a refreshing change from the standard Medieval-ish European monoculture, which has little basis in any history older than a century or so. At some point in this world's history people from wealthy West African nations (which are rooted in real-world history) were driven north from their homes by a supernatural threat and they settled across Europe and merged with the Celtic peoples. This means that there's a broad variety of people and cultures across the stretch of Western Europe that is featured in the book, with mentions of the wider world and deeper history than that which immediately affects the characters. The rural village characters who are essentially slaves, have a different culture to those from cities. Within the citites there are peoples who have their own histories and beliefs, initially shown by Catherine having been raised in a culture that wroships Phoenician gods and has a strong history of being traders and spies, and rather looked down on by other groups. The novel is set in roughly the nineteenth century and has early industrialisation, showing how mills exploited workers, but there are also airships from America and fluffy trolls who are solicitors and polytheism seemingly as standard. I could go on about this for a while, but possibly not very coherently, but if you are looking for fantasy that does something properly different with history and worldbuilding, this is a great example.

What You're Missing by Allison Mulder (Cast of Wonders 303, narrated by Melissa Bugaj)
This story about a girl who senses something is missing, is intriguing and ends up rather creepy. She lives in a society where everything is observed and recorded, and the feeling of missing something is strongest when she's in a secret spot that's outside community observation. There's also the family pcitures on the stairs, something is missing there too, but what, or who. This stroy has a strong warning about surveillance culture and what could happen when community and healthcare are used to remove individuality.

Midnight Blue by Will Mcintosh (Escape Pod 630, narrated by Paul Haring)
Flashback Friday, not one I'd encountered before. Feels like it could be on Podcastle or Cast of Wonders (though the latter wasn't part of the Escape Artists family then).
Charms used to be everywhere, different colours granted different abilities. Now they're a rare and expensive commodity, and the poorer kids at school can't afford them. Then a preteen lad from the wrong side of the tracks finds the rarest one of all, and has to bargain in a way even adults would find difficult. Along the way he thinks about his place in the world, what he wants from life and the unfairness inherent in the system. It's an amazing coming of age story.

Fire Rode the Cold Wind by Aimee Ogden (Escape Pod 626, narrated by Peter Adrian Behravesh)
A story about a woman from the sky who crashes down into a society of ice people, told from the point of view of one who falls in love with her. This is a very emotional story, and one which shows the difference between these two groups of people who live in very different environments and have such a wide cultural gulf misunderstdandings are easy, but undertsanding can also come. The worldbuilding is very strong, the ice people feel primitive, but their way of life seems sturdier and more settled than that of the spacefolk that we never see. It's also the story of a man and his desire and how he tries to reconcile both wanting and being wary of someone. Wanting to be someone different yet being terrified of change. The feelings here are very strong, and almost overwhelm the very evocative worldbudiling, as the viewpoint character is used to this world.

* While doing my degree I did a literature review on the early Roman navy, as part of a seminar series on ancient North Africa, so although it's now a bit fuzzy in my mind the idea of the Punic Wars going a different way is very intriguing to me.

3 June 2018

The Outcast

Episode: s5, ep 17

This is the queerest episode of TNG I've seen. I think it's trying to do something good, although there are various things that feel awkward and I'm not sure it works.

What Happens
The Enterprise is helping a planet of androgynous people search for their missing shuttle. It doesn't have the capacity to leave the system, but can't be detected. A probe from the Enterprise disappears, and investigation reveals that there's a hidden space pocket in the system. Riker is liaising with the androgynes and offers to use an Enterprise shuttle to map the pocket and attempt a rescue. Everyone is grateful and local pilot, Soren, insists on flying the shuttle.
Riker is impressed Soren's ability to pick up Federation shuttle controls. They* ask a lot of questions about gender, and Riker has questions about genderless society, but is less nosy. The pair hang out in 10 Forward and there is more gender chat, especially about how males experience attraction. Riker expresses his own preferences initially, but doesn't apply his experience to all males. Riker and Soren map the pocket, Soren's questions become a bit NSFW. Something goes wrong and Soren is injured. In sick bay they ask Dr Crusher about being female, and how attraction works between two genders. At the poker game Worf is weirdly macho about playing cards and Crusher gossips that Soren is attracted to Riker.
While working in the shuttle together Soren tells Riker that they're attracted to him, which is very dangerous to admit. The androgyne planet used to have gender but they evolved past it, so gender is seen as primitive. Some pople are throwbacks who do experience gender and gendered attraction. Soren secretly identifies as female and describes being closeted. Those who are known to have gender are "cured" by drugs, and she's terrified of that. Soren and Riker fly into the pocket and resuce the missing people at the expense of their shuttle. At a celebration afterwards they wander the gardens and kiss in secret, but one of Soren's colleagues is suspicious. Riker tells Troi about his strong feelings for Soren, Troi is totally cool about it. When Riker visits Soren he's told by her colleague that she's been taken away. He rushes to the planet, bursts into an official proceeding (trial doesn't seem to be the right word, sentencing maybe?) and tries to take the blame in order to save Soren. Soren is grateful but tired of living a lie. She admits to being a female attracted to males, then makes a very eloquent speech. The planet leader doesn't care, calls Soren a pervert and has her taken away for treatment. Riker tries to argue, but the judge says they aren't close-minded they just want to help their sick citizens.
Riker goes to Picard, but the Captain can't intervene in another culture's legal system. Worf (whose mobility is fine btw) approaches Riker and offers to go on any unofficial rescue mission to the surface. They sneak around on the surface until they find Soren, and Riker says she can claim asylum on the Enterprise. Soren doesn't want to be rescued, they have been "cured" and all feelings for Riker have disappeared. Riker suggests that Dr Crusher could undo the non-consensual treatment, but Soren says they're happy now. Riker is heartbroken and leaves.

Riker: adventurer, lover, middle-management
I've said it before, but it bears repeating, Riker is a sex-positive ladies man. This is something we need more of nowadays. Instead of seeing romance/flirting/sex as a hunt or a battle or [insert overly-macho simile here], he treats them as pleasurable activities between two people. In the past he has actively refused the advances of women when the situation involved a major power imbalance. When asked what kind of women he is attracted to Riker describes personality traits and non-sexual interactions he enjoys. He has to like a woman's company in order to feel attracted to her. Riker respects women and is never shown as being weak for it, in fact he's the most macho human in the main cast. When asked if his preferences apply to all human males he points out that men have varied preferences, and it isn't necessarily about appearance or lust. This is stated so straightforwardly as a fact, and yet we humans of the early 21st century don't seem to have grasped this well enough (or at least much of Western media hasn't).
Soren's questions about gendered society can be awkward, but Riker turns them into discussions with mutual information sharing, and doesn't get defensive or evasive (even at an oddly timed question about sexual organs). It's all respectful on his side (Soren clearly doesn't understand appropriate workplace conversation), and even though he's been trained to encounter different species and their cultures, there's a good-humoured tone that shows Riker is enjoying himself. As well as being attractive to her, Riker creates a non-judgmental environment where she can be herself and talk about the difficulties she's witnessed and experienced. That strikes me as incredibly moving, and probably why I felt more strongly about this clearly-doomed relationship than most of the other one-episode relationships on this show. Plus when Picard warns Riker against risking his career by violating the Prime Directive, Riker cares enough for Soren to ignore this, despite that he's always been a career man. Riker falling in love with someone who doesn't outwardly present as feminine is nice, and plays strongly into Riker's previously-stated preference for personality. Riker even feels strongly enough about Soren to have a talk with Troi (see below). Riker's attempt to save Soren by taking the blame and presenting himself as a culturally insensitive, pushy (perhaps primitive?) male, is very noble. Especially when we've seen that these characteristics aren't who Riker is at all. Also he never tried to put his feelings first, and never dangled their burgeoning relationship a reason she should uproot herself and live among aliens. He's looking out for her welfare as a person, not as his (potential) partner. When he tries to rescue her in a more dangerous (and fairly macho) way, it isn't a grand romance and leads to heartbreak. She refuses his rescue, apparently content without the feelings she'd once had, and though he could have abducted her in order to save her, he respects her wishes and leaves.

Klingon Warrior
Should he be moving with ease after what the last episode put us through? I know the magic spine surgery meant he could recover full mobility, but I got the sense that there would still be some work and recuperation involved. I know this isn't a Worf episode, but it does feel cheap not to have some reference to his recent medical issues.
Worf weirdly genders a variety of poker, during a game that has always had both men and women in it. I know Worf's the easiest person to use when you need a regressive opinion, but claiming wild cards are feminine doesn't even make sense. I know some poker players are snobbish about them as a variation of the game, but that doesn't appear to have anything to do gender. Was it because Troi chose? Would he have said that if O'Brien or Data had chosen wild cards? Also if Worf wants to accuse colleagues of weakness he can blame it on them being humans. When Worf claims a relationship between an androgyne and a human would be impossible Data asks why and Troi pointedly agrees. Worf reads the room, shuts down his critical opinion and goes back to moaning about his cards.
It is nice that Worf, who had scoffed at the very idea of a human and androgyne, offers to go with Riker on a rescue mission. Of course after last episode Worf kind of owes Riker his life, and Worf has long had a strong attachment to Riker.

It's Not Easy Being Troi
Troi demonstrates why she's the best ex ever. There are scattered episodes over the last couple of series that show Troi and Riker being close and possibly something more than platonic. I assume it's a friends-with-benefits thing, but it's all off screen so maybe it's just flirting. It's enough of a thing that Will feels the need to tell Deanna that he's met someone important to him. He's awkward about telling her, unsure what that means for them. Of course Troi already knows it's Soren, and she's absolutely fine and happy for him, because she's the best ex ever. Riker is concerned that their relationship will change, she points out that all relationships change, but they'll always be in each other's lives. I suspect Will's wary because he has a history of being a bit snippy when Deanna is in a relationship, but she's more emotionally intelligent than him. It's also cool that Troi has her own fun stuff going on, looking through a box of old Earth junk that belonged to an ancestor.

Planet of... Homogenous Androgynes
The idea that androgyny removes individuality strikes me as a bad stereotype. Everyone here has the same sort of haircut and the same kind of outfit, it's as though the removal of gender removed people's ability/desire to visually express themselves in varied ways. This is patently nonsense as there's loads of individuality in how people visually express themselves within same-gender groups, even for men who sometimes have less options when it comes to aesthetics. Is it because this society is very restrictive and fears/forbids anything gendered? Or is it the idea that without gender and sexual attraction people wouldn't care about how they look? The show often has one-episode species/cultures all looking the same, so this could just be the standard way they deal with extras, but it feels more weighted here due to the gender and sexuality issues being explored. Also the worldbuilding feels a little sloppy (again, not unusual for a Planet of the Week) because it's not clear how the genderless society impacts on sexuality or reproduction. All of these things are conflated in a mishmash. Soren mentions people sleeping together, but not sexually just for warmth. She also mentions that reproduction involves both parents inseminating fibrous husks, which is safer and less painful than human reproduction. Riker observes that it sounds less fun, but of course he would say that because he doesn't have to bear live young to reproduce (bearing live young is super inconvenient, I'm here to tell you). Riker is talking about sex-as-pleasure and Soren is talking reproduction, but she clarifies that prior to the inseminating there's a whole variety of pleasurable activity. What's never clear is whether the pleasurable stuff that happens prior to insemination is just for reproduction, or whether it's fine for recreation too? Is it even a sexual thing as we would understand it? I wonder if it's telling that removing Soren's gender also makes her lose/forget her feel for Riker? At the end she seems unemotional, confused about her previous actions, apparently devoid of her previous attraction and politely apologetic about the outcome.

Future Is Better?
I'm a straight, cisgendered woman, and I try to be an ally, but I am an outsider to the issues that are being raised here. Plus this is over 25 years old, so it's going to feel awkward (a lot of TNG does). Still, I felt like the episode was trying to do a good thing, but not in a good way. My thoughts are below, but I realise there are many others better qualified to discuss or dissect how the episode handles this content.
Soren's recounting of her experience -not understanding herself, having no words for her feelings- sounds like most accounts of being closeted I've read/heard, be it for sexuality or gender identity. Her experience as someone afraid to be themself, of subtly finding others who understand, of a secret community within a restrictive society feel authentic. Her relief at being able to tell someone plainly is massive, but so is her apprehension. The way that scene is shot, with her down low and partially in shadow visually demonstrated oppression. This definitely feels like it's trying to highlight the struggles of those who are mistreated due to having non-mainstream gender/sexuality. The judge calls it a perversion and the treatments people are forced to have are obviously a reference to the gay or trans "cures" that religious/close-minded folk still peddle today. Soren's speech is good; she declares who she is, that she isn't ill or unnatural, and points out the many ways that gendered people aren't different from everyone else.

There's so much conflating of gender identity and sexuality, and while those both come under the LGBTQIA umbrella they aren't necessarily the same thing. The episode is doing that thing of reversing a prejudice, so in this society gender itself is taboo and Soren as a woman attracted to men is repressed and punished. That can be a tricky trope to pull off; it doesn't address the actual prejudice that already exists, plus as the reversal can make those who are oppressed look like villains (in this case androgynous -and possibly asexual- people). While it's cool that our ladies man character is attracted to an androgynous-presenting character, she is still played by an actress.** Plus it feels like the show is being a little squeamish, unwilling to show the same level of physical intimacy here as it does when Riker gets involved with femme women.When Soren is having her 'what even is gender' conversations with Riker and Crusher it's all very binary and heterosexual. I can see why Soren focuses on attraction between genders, and how genders present, but there's no suggestion of same-sex attraction among humans. Also Crusher talking about makeup as an entirely female thing ignores the various times/places/cultures where human males did/do wear makeup (Ancient Egypt and 18th century France for example). Picard's refusal to intervene due to the rules that bind them make sense, but he never expresses the anger you would think he'd feel when reacting to prejudice and ill-treatment. The ending is poignant and worked emotionally, but a closeted character coming out and then bad things happening because of it is an overused trope. Plus the fact that the "cure" works on Soren isn't great. It's not an act since she prevents her own rescue, points out she's happy and has apparently forgotten her feelings towards Riker. Does this mean that -for her species- her identity is a curable aberration? Or is it meant to suggest powerful brainwashing? I think it's the latter, but that could have been clearer. Plus there's the old TNG problem of one-episode issues that don't really impact the main cast and are never spoken of again. If this is the LGBTQIA rights episode then it has no impact, and doesn't show the people it's supposedly representing.

Staff Meetings
1. Riker and Soren give a joint presentation to civil leader on the planet about the space pocket the shuttle is trapped in, and how they might rescue it. As people are leaving Soren tells Riker they wish to pilot the shuttle, Riker is reluctant at first. Both stubborn are about their piloting skills and keeping others out of danger. Riker suggests they team up.
Not totally sure if this counts as it's outside the Enterprise and Riker is the only staff member present, but this meeting does have a presentation.
2. Riker goes to Picard after Soren is taken away. Picard offers to talk to the leader, but Riker says they won't consider alternatives. Picard points out that Starfleet aren't allowed to interfere in another culture's legal system, and he can't give Riker sanction to take matters into his own hands. Riker knows this, but says that Soren is important to him. Picard warns Riker against losing all he's worked fore, but Riker doesn't want to hear it.

The End
At the end of the penultimate scene Riker says he loves Soren, but Soren can only apologise and turn away. She's polite and distant while Riker's heart is breaking. In the final scene Riker comes on the Bridge, Picard asks if they've finished their buisness in that system and Riker says they have. Both are being super businesslike. There's plenty of subtext, but no conclusion and little indication of how the audience is meant to feel.

* I'm going to use singular 'they' to refer to androgynous/non-gendered characters (and those who present as such). In this scene Riker explains he's been trying to carefully construct sentences to avoid personal pronouns, and he refuses to use 'it' because that sounds rude to him (which is fair enough). Soren doesn't offer an alternative pronoun -apparently the usual one is untranslateable, but surely Riker just needs a polite word to use, not an understanding of the meaning. I forgot that 'it' was used so much back in the 90s because 'it' does sond rude and maybe it's just what I'm use to, but 'they' works a lot better to my mind.

** I've discovered that Jonathan Frakes criticised the casting of a woman in the role, good on him. It's also kind of cool that Memory Alpha describes the character as TransFemale, obviously the specifics are likely to be different when you've got aliens, but that's definitely what Soren feels like since she's in a society that refuses to acknowledge her gender or call her 'she'.