Category Archives: Books

Sailing for adventure on the big blue wet thing

The thing about thinking about tropes as much as I do is that it starts to follow you around. Today, I just wanted to see a funny movie, and I ended up thinking about genre standards and suspension of disbelief.

The movie in question was Muppet Treasure Island, and of all things, I focused in on the sailing. I blame Scott Lynch, because Red Seas Under Red Skies so thoroughly deconstructed the idea of a character taking off to sea without knowing how to sail a ship. This previously came up when I read A Darker Shade of MagicLight spoilers ahead: the ending of that book included a character going off to become a pirate, with no previously indicated nautical experience. After having read Red Seas, this bothered me to the point where it’s part of the reason I haven’t yet read A Gathering of Shadows.

The part where I noticed this in Muppet Treasure Island was when Jim told Squire Trelawney to take the helm of the ship. For context, in the Muppet version Squire Trelawney is played by Fozzie Bear, he refers to the ocean as “the big blue wet thing,” and everything he does is on the advice of an imaginary friend who lives in his finger. So Trelawney’s lack of sailing experience is almost the least of the reasons this seems like a bad idea. But Jim asks him to take the helm and nothing goes wrong. And I’ve been trying to figure out why that didn’t bother me more than it did.

I think the answer comes down to genre and suspension of disbelief. Now, sci-fi and fantasy get some kinds of suspension of disbelief standard in the package. All but the hardest of hard sci-fi is allowed FTL travel, and fantasy novelists don’t have to explain how dragons exist or why they’re physically able to fly, unless the author is really into that sort of thing. But that doesn’t mean those genres get a free pass on everything; accepting the existence of aliens or magic doesn’t preclude applying other kinds of real-world logic. (This is where most of my Harry Potter posts come from.) So I can accept characters in A Darker Shade of Magic traveling between worlds, but that doesn’t stop me wondering how exactly a character with no sailing experience is going to fare at sea, because it’s outside the category of things the author set up as part of the fantasy world.

Comedy, though, is playing on a totally different field. Under Rule of Funny, almost anything goes; as long as we’re laughing, we’re not going to question the logic of it, which is how Mel Brooks, Monty Python, and Douglas Adams get away with all sorts of ridiculousness. But as a corollary, the sillier the surrounding work, the lower the standard for suspension of disbelief overall. Going back to Muppet Treasure Island, the moment where Jim tells Fozzie to steer the ship isn’t really setting up a joke in itself. But… come on, it’s a Muppet movie. It just seems silly to quibble about the realism of anything in it.

Of course, suspension of disbelief also varies from person to person, based on your particular background. I have friends who are much more concerned than I am with the realism of spaceship physics in Star Trek, where I tend to handwave it and get on with the story. But since this one particular issue of realism has popped up for me, I’m trying to think of other examples across genres of when this particular issue did or didn’t bug me. The one that springs to mind is the Redwall series; I’m sure that had a few characters who went off sailing and did it skillfully the first time, but Brian Jacques more or less made it work, and I couldn’t say how much of that was the suspension of disbelief allocated to a talking animal story and how much was Jacques (a former sailor) genuinely knowing his stuff. I might also have grouched about this back when I read Midshipwizard Halcyon Blithe, but it would have been the tip of the iceberg of my complaints about that book.

Maybe the sailing issue is just standing out to me because of Lynch; I should start paying attention to other instances of characters succeeding immediately at something that should really take extensive training. Which, let’s face it, fictional characters do all the time.

Edit: It occurred to me later that it’s not just Rule of Funny that gets exemptions from plausibility. Welcome To Night Vale, for example, runs on Rule of Weird: the weirder something is, the better it fits into the established setting. Everything in the show is so surreal that when something doesn’t quite make sense, it comes off as intentional weirdness rather than a plot hole. (And the authors can patch actual plot holes by invoking the town’s weirdness to invent a bizarre law or local phenomenon that explains the discrepancy.)

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Ace headcanons (and a TV pitch)

Coming in late to Asexual Awareness Week, but I had to jump in on the AAW Fandom Challenge! Since I only just discovered the challenge, I’ll do a few days at once (cherry-picking the ones where I had something to say).

Sun 22nd, Day 1: Post about canon and headcanoned asexual/spectrum characters in books and comics.

Canon: Jughead, obviously! I might do a post later about Riverdale and ace erasure and trying to watch the show with my Wishful Thinking Ace Goggles on. But comics!Jughead is an ace representation treasure.

Headcanon: The Fool, from Robin Hobb’s Farseer/ Tawny Man books. He/ she (the character is canonically genderfluid) clearly has a massive thing for Fitz, but gets really offended when Fitz construes that as being necessarily sexual. I think the Fool is asexual and Fitz-romantic, which kind of sucks because they keep running headlong into Fitz’s wall of heteronormativity, allonormativity, and transphobia, none of which their universe has words for yet. The later books, where the Fool spends more time in their female identity of Amber, have some painful scenes of Fitz Tries and Fails At Allyship.

Mon 23rd, Day 2: Post about canon and headcanoned asexual/spectrum characters in shows and movies.

Canon: Sadly thin on the ground (see my earlier lament about Riverdale), but apparently I need to watch BoJack Horseman.

Headcanon: Adrian Monk. It’s been a while since I watched Monk, but I remember him being very sex-repulsed. He clearly had a loving relationship with his late wife Trudy, but there’s a scene with his therapist where he refuses to discuss their sex life that I choose to interpret as evidence that their relationship was non-sexual. I’ve just learned the term acevague (asexuality influenced by neurodivergence), which I think applies here because it’s likely his sex-repulsion is tied up with his OCD and germophobia.

Sat 28th, Day 7: Post about asexual representation in general. What does it mean to see asexual/spectrum characters in the media you consume? Why is it important to you to see asexual/spectrum characters in the media you consume? What sort of stories/plotlines would you like to see about asexual/spectrum characters? What genre do you really want to see asexual/spectrum characters in? How would you like to see asexual/spectrum people represented?

I’ve written this post already, but it bears repeating: asexual representation is how we normalize asexuality. It’s something for aces to latch on to for validation of our identity, but it’s also for the benefit of people who don’t know much about asexuality–like, say, that it exists. I also think that wider awareness and normalization of asexuality might help challenge some of our toxic cultural narratives about sex, which hurt both aces and allos. (And hoo boy, has this been a month for confronting the consequences of our culture’s fucked-up ideas about sex and consent.)

For example, compulsory sexuality. In the older post, I mentioned the asexual relationship at the heart of Pushing Daisies. Even though neither Ned nor Chuck is asexual, I love that their inability to have sex with each other isn’t really an obstacle to their relationship. In contrast, I had soooooo little patience for Richard and Kahlan’s angst over not being able to have sex in Legend of the Seeker.* Ned and Chuck can’t even hug each other! Stop whining about your lack of orgasms when you’re supposed to be saving the world! I want to see more fictional relationships that aren’t centered around sex, and having ace characters in the mix is a great way to bring that issue to the surface. I would love to see ace/ace couples in fiction, but I’d also love to see long-term ace/allo couples who have figured out something that works for them.

But hey, the aros can come join the party too! Let’s have some plots about aro characters dating and figuring out that it’s not really what they want, or dealing with the social expectation that they’re supposed to date.** Let’s have some gray-A and demisexual characters. The more I think about it, the more I think there needs to be a rom-com anthology series about every shade of the ace spectrum. Love, Asexual Style?

 

* Yes, I watched Legend of the Seeker. I also watched every episode of Heroes Reborn. I hesitate to use the term “pop culture junk food”, because I hate genre snobbery and that kind of judgment gets disproportionately aimed at SF and fantasy, but it really is a bit like eating a whole bag of potato chips when you know you should have a proper meal.

** For example, the story in Jughead where aroace Jughead goes on a date with Sabrina the Teenage Witch, thanks to a misunderstanding and Archie’s misguided attempts to play matchmaker. Sabrina tries casting a love spell that will amplify any tiny bit of attraction someone feels. On the one hand: that’s perilously close to date rape. Not cool, Sabrina! But I appreciate that in this case all that happens is that Jughead feels hungrier.

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The pack survives

(Here be Game of Thrones spoilers! Also wild speculation, but if any of my guesses happen to hit the nail on the head, I take no responsibility for spoiling the future.)

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The trouble with elves

It’s been a while since I read Lord of the Rings, but this post brought back some old memories.

I was never really an elf fan. My favorite characters were the hobbits, because the hobbits seemed like people rather than Heroes of Legend. They’d rather have been at home than off adventuring, and they wanted to know when the next meal was going to be, and they mostly spoke in casual vernacular rather than solemn pronouncements. The elves were graceful and poetic and magical, and that was the problem–they were too perfect. They never seemed quite real the way the hobbits did. One of the great things about Lord of the Rings is that in a landscape lousy with elves and kings and wizards, it’s the humble little people who aren’t anyone special who make all the difference. Frodo isn’t a Chosen One of prophecy; he volunteers for a job that needs doing. And arguably the real hero in the end is Sam, who’s the most ordinary of them all.

I was reminded as well of another series, A.J. Hartley’s Will Hawthorne books. My feelings about those are more mixed, and I frequently outright disliked Will Hawthorne himself. But I usually liked him a lot better than his traveling companions, because they were all upright and noble adventurers on a quest that they took very seriously, whereas Will had a sense of humor, not to mention a healthy sense of self-preservation. (The generic-fantasy-photo covers on the author’s website are kind of unintentionally hilarious with the actual content of the books, which are narrated from Will’s sardonic perspective.)

I’ll take a character who seems like a real person, warts and all, over a paragon any day. The elves are impressive and all, but they’re kind of boring.

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Wizard politics

Yet more rumination on Harry Potter. I’m on shakier ground here than I was with wizard technology or pop culture, as I’m not a lawyer or any other kind of expert on law and government. Furthermore, I am an American; most of what I know about British politics comes from Radio 4 topical comedy, supplemented by Wikipedia. So this post is going to be mostly speculation, with more questions than answers.

Potterverse wizards have a very strange relationship to the British government. Most of the wizard characters in the books (with obvious exceptions like Madame Maxime, Professor Karkaroff, etc.) are British nationals who live and work on British soil, but they don’t seem to concern themselves with the Muggle government. I would be shocked to learn that any of them have ever voted in a parliamentary election. The PM, when his name comes up, is referred to as the “Muggle Prime Minister.” It’s not even clear if they regard themselves as subjects of the Queen. The government body they do acknowledge is the Ministry of Magic–but the title “Minister of Magic” suggests that it’s a Cabinet post, which implies a much closer relationship with the Muggle government than is ever demonstrated in the text.

Most of the knowledge we have of the relationship between wizards and the mundane British government comes from chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “The Other Minister.” In this chapter, the Prime Minister (who’s never named, but the commonly accepted chronology of the series puts it in John Major’s term of office) is visited by now-former Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, and there are flashbacks to the PM’s previous meetings with Fudge over the past few years. On the evidence of this chapter, my instinct is to say that the Minister of Magic isn’t a member of the Cabinet. The Prime Minister certainly did not appoint either Fudge or his successor, Scrimgeour, nor has either of them been attending regular Cabinet meetings. In fact, the Prime Minister is only informed of the Ministry’s doings in the event of an emergency, and regards annual visits from Fudge as alarmingly frequent. Any authority he might have over the Ministry is entirely theoretical. At most, the chapter proves that someone in the Ministry of Magic is paying enough attention to Muggle affairs to notice when a new Prime Minister is elected, but this doesn’t seem to have any particular effect on the running of the Ministry.

It seems, in fact, as though the Ministry of Magic isn’t so much a government department as an independent government in itself. Wizards have their own judiciary (the Wizengamot). They have their own laws and law enforcement bodies. They mint their own money–which suggests that if wizards pay taxes, they’re paying them to the Ministry. Given that each successive Prime Minister has been let in on the secret of the wizarding world, I have to wonder if the title “Minister of Magic” was chosen to appease PMs who might otherwise kick up a fuss about wizards being essentially exempt from their jurisdiction.

But wizards being exempt from British law is still a problem, particularly when wizards cast spells on Muggles. Stunning Spells, which are perfectly legal under the Ministry, would probably qualify as assault under Muggle law. Nor do I think the British legal system would look kindly on Memory Charms, though I don’t know enough about the law to say exactly what kind of crime they would be. And Memory Charms are a particularly notable example, because Ministry-sanctioned operatives perform them on Muggles all the time to preserve the secrecy of the magical world. It’s bad enough when they’re merely invading someone’s mind to make them forget they saw a dragon fly by, but in some cases this actually serves to cover up crimes by wizards. For instance, after Harry accidentally inflates Aunt Marge, the Ministry “modifies her memory” to make her forget the incident. Granted, Harry’s attack was unintentional and severely provoked, but making a person forget that she was attacked at all just compounds the crime. And whenever a British Muggle is attacked by a wizard on British soil, the Ministry immediately steps in to do this sort of cover-up–never mind that the Muggle government has a claim of jurisdiction and would probably take a much more severe view of the crime. If the Muggle authorities did manage to arrest and try a wizard for Obliviating a Muggle, would acting on the orders of the Ministry be an effective defense? (Contrast Rivers of London, where the Folly is within the Met’s chain of command and answers to the Commissioner and the Department of Professional Standards–i.e., to Muggles. Part of their function is to prevent breaches of the peace by the magical community.)

And that’s just criminal law. What about government recordkeeping? Many wizard children are born into Muggle families and have no knowledge of the magical community up to the age of eleven. These children have a paper trail: birth certificates, school enrollment, medical records, etc. Heck, even once they’ve started at Hogwarts, I bet their parents continue to claim them as dependents on their tax forms. But as adults? They enter the wizarding world so completely that they disappear from the records. They never get drivers’ licenses, use credit cards, pay taxes (at least to the Muggle government), own a car, register to vote, buy insurance, pay the television license fee… does no one ever notice that all these people’s paper trails have dead-ended? No wonder Muggleborn wizards all seem to leave the Muggle world behind; even if they change their minds later, they don’t have any ID or a credit history!

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