MEROPE GAUNT, VOLDEMORT’S MOTHER: NARRATIVE AS A HOUSE OF CARDS

The first novel about Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published by Bloomsbury on 26 June 1997, already 25 years ago today. This post looks back to that date, to celebrate it, and forward to next November, when Barcelona’s Witch Market will finally return and all of us, local Potterheads, will have the chance to meet again after a two-year hiatus caused by Covid-19. I have chosen to lecture on Voldemort’s mother, Merope Gaunt, because she is an example of that type of secondary character who seems very minor but whose actions are indispensable for a story to start moving. If poor Merope had not fallen in love with the Muggle Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort would have never been born. The villain, not the hero, sets the events in motion and, so, without He Who Must not Be Named young Harry Potter would have enjoyed just a normal wizard’s adolescence.

Merope (pronounced ‘mɛrəpiː) is named after a star in the Pleiades which borrows its moniker from one of the seven daughters of the Oceanid nymph Pleione and the Titan Atlas. She only appears in the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005), published eight years after the first novel, which suggests that Rowling may have thought of Voldemort’s back story relatively late in the process of writing, not necessarily from the beginning. Merope’s sad story is narrated in Chapter 10, “The House of Gaunt” (184-204, Bloomsbury 2005 hardback edition), and in Chapter 13, “The Secret Riddle” (242-260), though neither of the two chapters focus on her. Her name is mentioned a total of 32 times, very few in the context of the sprawling narrative that the whole series is, and she is never in dialogue with any other character. We know about Merope because Professor Dumbledore proceeds to recall scenes from the past sharing his Pensieve with Harry, having decided, as he tells the boy, “that it is time, now that you know what prompted Lord Voldemort to try and kill you fifteen years ago, for you to be given certain information” (186).

Dumbledore has no direct memories of Merope, so he uses instead the memories of the late Bob Ogden, a Department of Magical Law Enforcement official. Harry witnesses Odgen’s visit to the village of Little Hangleton, where the Gaunts live: the middle-aged father Marvolo, the son Morfin (possible in his mid-twenties), and the daughter Merope, who is eighteen as we eventually learn. The Gaunts are presented as the English equivalent of the American hillbillies, and Morfin, indeed, gives a rather violent welcome to their unwelcome visitor, sent by Slughorn to investigate a breach of magical law committed by the young man.

When Merope first appears, in a corner of their very poor dwelling, Rowling describes her focalizing the narration through Harry as “a girl whose ragged gray dress was the exact color of the dirty stone wall behind her. She was standing beside a steaming pot on a grimy black stove, and was fiddling around with the shelf of squalid-looking pots and pans above it. Her hair was lank and dull and she had a plain, pale, rather heavy face. Her eyes, like her brother’s, stared in opposite directions. She looked a little cleaner than the two men, but Harry thought he had never seen a more defeated-looking person” (194, my italics). When the nervous, mousy Merope drops a pot, her father upbraids her as he has done many times before: “That’s it, grub on the floor like some filthy Muggle, what’s your wand for, you useless sack of muck?” (194). She, however, cannot manage to repair the pot, which Odgen does, wishing to end the scene as quickly as possible.

When the visitor declares that Morfin has been summoned to the Ministry because he has attacked a Muggle, Marvolo reacts by yelling that his family are direct descendants of Salazar Slytherin, one of Hogwarts’ founders, and owed more respect. As proof he pushes Merope violently, so that Odgen can see the locket she’s wearing. This family heirloom, which she later sells to avoid starvation, is the same one that her adult son Tom, then in his early thirties, finds in the hands of rich collector Hepzibah Smith. When he murders her in a fit of rage (his first murder after he wiped out his father and grandparents, aged sixteen), he needs to flee, hence starting his path towards becoming Lord Voldemort.

Back in Chapter 10, a group of fashionable Muggle passers-by who mock the Gaunts’ derelict home startles Merope. She grows deadly pale when handsome Tom Riddle mocks Morfin and both siblings hear him call her companion Cecilia “darling”. Brutally, Morfin tells Merope (who has not said a word yet), “So he wouldn’t have you anyway” (198) and discloses to their angry father that “She likes looking at that Muggle” (199, original italics). This appals the old man, and even though Merope, still speechless, denies Morfin’s accusation, only Ogden’s providential intervention saves her from being strangled by her father. Then she does utter the first sounds coming from her mouth, though these are screams. Handsome Tom Riddle, as it is easy to guess, is the very same Muggle Morfin has assaulted, mistakenly believing he corresponded her sister’s interest.

Dumbledore tells Harry that both Morfin and Marvolo were apprehended at once and sent to Azkaban, a time of freedom for Merope during which her so far repressed magic flourished. Using, as Harry guesses, a love potion which, Dumbledore speculates, “would have seemed more romantic to her” (202) than an Imperious Curse, Merope seduces Tom Riddle and both elope together, to their village’s great scandal. The father, returned from Azkaban after six months, eventually dies of shock. As Dumbledore further gossips, Merope had lied to Riddle pretending she was pregnant, which she only became three months after their wedding. Riddle, however, returned soon home without his wife, claiming he had been “hoodwinked” (202) and Dumbledore continues his “guesswork” (203) suggesting that Merope “who was deeply in love with her husband, could not bear to continue enslaving him by magical means. I believe that she made the choice to stop giving him the potion. Perhaps, besotted as she was, she had convinced herself that he would by now have fallen in love with her in return. Perhaps she thought he would stay for the baby’s sake. If so, she was wrong on both counts. He left her, never saw her again, and never troubled to discover what became of his son” (203). This marks the ends of Merope’s presence in Chapter 10 and explains why the boy Tom grew to hate his Muggle father so intensely, though he never truly loved his pure-blood mother.

In Chapter 13 Dumbledore returns to the Pensieve to narrate Merope’s troubles once in London. Through the memories of one Caractacus Burke, Harry sees Merope selling the locket; she was “Covered in rags and pretty far along…”, meaning about to give birth (245). If this was not Dickensian enough, Rowling adds a date for the memories: before Christmas (supposedly of 1926). When Harry asks why the desperate Merope did not use magic, Dumbledore speculates that “when her husband abandoned her, Merope stopped using magic. I do not think that she wanted to be a witch any longer. Of course, it is also possible that her unrequited love and the attendant despair sapped her of her powers; that can happen. In any case, as you are about to see, Merope refused to raise her wand even to save her own life” (246).

Mysteriously (and a bit like Star Wars’ Amidala), Merope lets herself die after her baby’s birth. Harry is aghast that Merope would not choose to “live for her son” (246) and Dumbledore replies that, unlike Lily Potter who died to save her son Harry from Voldemort, “Yes, Merope Riddle chose death in spite of a son who needed her, but do not judge her too harshly, Harry. She was greatly weakened by long suffering and she never had your mother’s courage” (246). When Dumbledore recalls his first memory of eleven-year-old Tom Riddle, Rowling writes focalizing through him that “There was no trace of the Gaunts in Tom Riddle’s face. Merope had got her dying wish: He was his handsome father in miniature, tall for eleven years old, dark-haired, and pale” (249). He can only know this from Mrs. Cole, the orphanage’s director, who reports that Merope arrived on New Year’s Eve “staggering up the front steps” on a “nasty night” of cold and snow (249). She “had the baby within the hour. And she was dead in another hour” (249). Mrs. Cole confirms that Merope, who was “no beauty”, had just time to say “I hope he looks like his papa” (249), the only words she is reported to have pronounced, and to ask that the baby be named Tom Marvolo Riddle. Mrs Cole assumes that “she came from a circus” (249) because of the strange name; the surname Riddle, by the way, does exist.

Many commentators have expressed their surprise that Rowling uses Oliver Twist “not as the model for her hero but for the villain—creating, in essence, an Oliver twisted” in the Dark Lord (see James Washick, “Oliver Twisted: The Origins of Lord Voldemort in the Dickensian Orphan”, Looking Glass 13.3 (2009), https://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/ojs/index.php/tlg/article/view/165/164). In Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-38) baby Oliver is born to young Agnes Fleming, who dies in childbirth, at a workhouse, where he is raised as an orphan. Agnes, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Navy officer is made pregnant by Edwin Leeford, a man possibly twice her age on the run from the older, rich woman his father had forced him to marry. Leeford dies with no time to pass onto Agnes and their yet unborn baby the fortune inherited from his father, a death which is supposed to characterize him as a good guy trapped between his late father’s patriarchal power and sheer bad luck. Yet, I find his liaison with the innocent daughter of the man harbouring him short of criminal. When Agnes dies, she is wearing a wedding band, which has always made me suspect that Leeford tricked her into believing he was free to marry her. Whatever the case, though Merope and Agnes are connected, Dickens ends his novel vindicating Agnes, with Oliver visiting her no longer anonymous grave, whereas psychopathic Tom Riddle never cares for Merope.

Just as Oliver Twist depends on the sexual attraction that Leeford feels for Agnes, all of Harry Potter depends on ugly Merope’s passion for her handsome Muggle neighbour Tom Riddle. I do not discard that this passion may have been awakened by Merope’s sexual abuse by both her father and her brother (Morfin’s assault of Tom hints at some type of unbrotherly jealousy), though only Rowling knows whether there are grounds for this speculation. If Merope had been beautiful, Riddle might have fallen naturally in love with her and perhaps even staid by her side. This would not have necessarily resulted in a different personality for their baby boy, for who knows why some men grow up to be horrendous villains, but the fact is that the whole house of cards that the Harry Potter heptalogy is depends on Merope’s attraction for Riddle. I am not calling it love, because considering how Merope has lived her life so far, she cannot know the meaning of love. In the absence of a mother who could have loved her, she cannot understand, either, the meaning of motherhood, hence her inability to bond with her baby, and her death, which is a sort of suicide.

Rowling could have invented a very different back story for Voldemort, but she came up with the pathetic romance between Merope Gaunt and Tom Riddle, using a curious type of indirect characterization and narrative for the couple, who are never seen (or heard) together. They are in many ways the counterpart of Lily and James Potter, Harry’s loving parents, though, above all, Merope is Lily’s opposite. Both James and Lily die protecting Harry from Voldemort, but Lily’s death gives the boy the extra magical protection that saves his life. In contrast, young Tom’s bitterest moment comes when he is sixteen and learns the truth about his origins from his uncle Morfin. This literally breaks his soul as he proceeds, as I have noted, to kill the father that abandoned him and his grandparents. Tellingly, he commits these crimes not because the Riddles scorned Merope, for whom he never cares, but because their Muggle blood taints his own blood.

Poor Merope, unloved daughter, sister, wife and mother. Let’s not forget, though, that the worst sons may come from the best mothers, and that if little Tom Riddle turns out to be evil this is not her fault. It seems to me that the fault lies, rather, with the callous father, but this is the topic for another post…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY: THE MAIN ACADEMIC KEYWORDS TODAY

In a recent teachers’ meeting the pressing issue of students’ low attendance this last semester came up. I have not been teaching but my colleagues tell me less than 50% of the students have attended classes, which is even lower than what I saw in the first semester, when we were all still wearing facemasks and enduring the discomfort of the windows open in winter for ventilation to protect us against Covid-19.

The causes for the students’ absence from the classrooms, for this is a general problem not limited to a particular degree, are hard to pinpoint since, logically, you cannot speak with persons who are not there and asking their peers about their absence is useless. Those whose job is to speak to students claim that the missing students are generally disinterested in classroom activities; they find lectures and listening to their peers’ oral presentations boring, which, anyway, is not a new phenomenon. What is new is that about 20% of all the students in my university have notified to the corresponding office that they are unable to attend classes because they are suffering from mental health issues connected with depression and anxiety. These two words have become in this way the most important keywords in our academic life.

Teachers are also depressed and suffering from anxiety, though arguably age and experience give us a resilience the younger generation might lack, at least among the ranks of the more privileged tenured teachers. The younger staff, employed mostly as part-time, temporary adjuncts even when they are doctors embarked in serious academic careers, are also suffering from depression and anxiety caused by the same factor that overwhelms the students: lack of prospects. As things are now, students are being asked to make an effort to train for their professional future by staff who are themselves trapped in a career limbo which is not being dissolved fast enough. My university is boasting these days that they are offering between 50 and 70 new full-time positions every year (most with a five-year contract) but even though my Department has been allocated three for 2022-23, two have come to give adjuncts with an academic career spanning about twenty years the chance to be tenured (of course, somebody else might win the positions after the public examination). As for the colleague who has retired, her full time position has been transformed into a set of three associates, thus saving the institution about half her salary. Depression and anxiety indeed.

Among the older staff, those of us who have been around for thirty years or more, I see mostly disappointment and tiredness. We, lucky tenured, full-time teachers can retire after the age of 60 provided we have been active for 30 years and taking into account that our pension will be reduced in relation to the full-pension which is only earned at 67. The colleague who has retired in my Department is precisely in that situation. I’ve heard of many others who have taken early retirement at a notable economic loss because they could cope no longer with teaching the depressed, anxious students now in our classes and with the pressures put on us by the bureaucratization of the university. I was under the impression that only the teachers less interested in research were retiring or thinking of doing so, but this week a dear friend who has published a marvellous stream of excellent research told me that he is considering retirement, too. He is tired, a word I hear among the older staff with monotonous regularity. I myself feel very tired, and if I am coping this is because I have a low teaching workload and can finally write books. I still have a decade to go, at least, and there are days when that feels a very tall order. At the same time, I look forward to continue publishing once retired, in, hopefully, peace and quiet.

The causes for the general depression and anxiety are transparent: neoliberalism has created a low-pay service economy which only offers bad jobs to the young; climate change threatens to wipe off life on Earth in about fifteen years at the most, and fascism is rising everywhere, undoing human rights which have taken more than 200 years to secure. As if Covid-19 was not enough, Ukraine has been suffering a horrifying invasion for almost four months which, besides, might result in the death by famine of millions in Africa and Asia who depend on Ukrainian grain to survive. Vladimir Putin declared last week that the reign of the West is over, to be replaced by a new era, which I would not mind at all if this was an era of true international democracy and cooperation. I don’t think he meant that. These days I have found myself encouraging my eldest niece along the three days which her university entrance examination has lasted, and while I did that I was feeling horribly anxious about the kind of future she and her generation will find. I know that many of us in our fifties and sixties are thinking that we’ve had a relatively good life (I won’t mention the constant fear of illness or that we’ll never get a pension) but we tremble for what the future might bring to the young, at least I do. So, yes, I understand that they are feeling depressed and anxious, and that they see no point in education, even though they know that without attending university their prospects will be even lower.

The situation is objectively bad but I am also wondering whether it feels subjectively bad because our ability to cope (our resilience) has been undermined by a philosophy of happiness that requires being constantly satisfied. I myself have no personal or professional reasons to feel dejected, but this is how I would describe my state of mind since at least 2008 when the financial crisis erupted. I am not clinically depressed but, like many other of my fellow citizens, I find it increasingly difficult to watch the news (not because I don’t care for the others but because I do care) and even to cope with minor personal crises that are not really that important. I am, besides, as a Gender Studies scholar, sick and tired of the pressures from the left and from the right, to the point that I am considering giving up altogether and writing about other matters, once I’m done with my next book. I am, therefore, trying to understand whether beyond the actual problems the widespread depression and anxiety have to do with the disappointment of a promise of personal and collective happiness, made perhaps in the 1960s, that has failed to materialize.

Trying to understand if that is the case, I’ve read back-to-back, quite by chance, two books that are in deep dialogue with each other. For reasons I cannot explain, I had not read yet Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), originally titled Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager. Possibly, I was under the wrong impression that this would be a dry philosophical book, when it is a memoir of Frankl’s harrowing experience of being a prisoner of the Nazis in diverse camps. The other book is Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control our Lives (2018) by Eva Illouz and Eric Cabanas, originally published in French in the same year as Happycratie: comment l’industrie du bonheur a pris le contrôle de nos vies. I was reading this book and thinking of how it connected with the other when I came across a quotation from Frankl, which proved there is indeed a connection.

Frankl (1905-1997) was a prestigious neuropsychiatrist in Vienna, when in 1942 he and his family were imprisoned and eventually separated. During the three years of his imprisonment, he managed to make notes about his mental condition and that of his fellow prisoners, finding solace in the hope of meeting his young wife again without knowing she had already died. Frankl’s memoirs are different from those of other Holocaust survivors precisely because he has an extremely lucid understanding of resilience, a word that is now trending as much as depression and anxiety. It would be obscene to speak of happiness in the context of the camps and what Frankl describes is a situation in which the Jewish prisoners adapted as well as they could to the erosion of their humanity because they placed resilience before any other value. Their thoughts, so to speak, whether neither positive (that would be foolish) nor negative (that would be suicidal) but focused on surviving one step at a time. Frankl claims that the most resilient prisoners were motivated by the idea of something left behind which needed to be continued, whether this was a career and a marriage as in his own case, or other questions. This is why he explains that for many the darkest period came after their release when they found that the life whose memories had been sustaining them in the camp no longer existed. Many also suffered, I will add, because their accounts of extreme suffering were not believed. Frankl’s volume was translated into English in 1959, which suggests that for about fifteen years survivors’ accounts were of little interest at least in the Anglophone area of the world.

Illouz and Cabanas cite Frankl as part of their efforts to demolish positive psychology, the American school of thought claiming that psychology should not be limited to treating the mentally ill but should provide everyone with tools to feel mentally stable, and, ideally, happy. They complain, very rightly, that neoliberalism has turned positive psychology with the acquiescence of their inventors into a tool to make individuals responsible for their welfare, thus avoiding the structural issues which are at the root of much human suffering. Within the parameters established by the neoliberal ‘happicracy’, the students are not depressed and anxious because the present and the future are bleak, but because they are mismanaging their mental health. Many of the ‘happicratic’ gurus base their careers on teaching persons who are not mentally ill to feel bad because they are not working adequately towards happiness. This would be the equivalent of telling the Jewish prisoners that the problem is not the camp but their negative approach to the situation. Resilience is in many ways part of positive thinking, but the difference is that whereas true resilience refers to the ability to cope with negative situations, of which life has many, resilience is now being sold as a tool to secure personal happiness against all odds, which is not. At the same time, if the absurd promise that you can lead a life free of care (for this is what happiness is about) had never been made, depression and anxiety would not be so widespread.

For me the main conundrum is why so many whose lives are quite good in comparison to the lives of the many disenfranchised persons in the world, in the West and everywhere else, suffer from depression and anxiety. I am a confirmed atheist but I tend to agree with the Christian view that life is to be endured, not enjoyed (or only enjoyed in special moments). Life needs not be a valley of tears and, certainly, what angers me most is that it could be much more satisfactory if we respected human rights and did away with the patriarchal hunger for power. Yet, I find the declaration in the American constitution that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” not only hypocritical but also a poor foundation for a communal life of peace and justice. Perhaps if all the negative energy consumed by depression and anxiety could be channelled towards a demand for social and personal justice we would feel better, but as Illouz and Cabanas suggest, that’s the whole point of neoliberalism: making us focus on our personal happiness (or lack of it) as the world remains in the hands of the few that are destroying it for their own personal gain. And, presumably, happiness.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

A PHANTOM GENRE: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE TECHNOTHRILLER

The one who should be writing this post today is my PhD student Pascal Lemaire since he has chosen to deal with the technothriller as his topic of research. However, I am myself curious about some of the points he is raising about this genre, so here I am.

Back in 2014 Pascal published in Hélice an excellent article which is the basis of his dissertation, started this academic year. In “Ain’t no Technothriller in Here, Sir!” (II.3, March 2014, 50-71) he dealt with the fact that both authors and critics deny that the technothriller really exists as a genre, despite the fact that this is a label most readers of popular fiction are familiar with. Pascal tests the hypothesis in his article that “The Techno-Thriller (sic) is narrative fiction set in the near past or the near future about violence in a political context exerted with advanced technologies”, and though, as it happens with any genre definition, soon the exceptions crop up, he manages to name a substantial list of authors and novels connected with the genre and establish some key sub-genres (submarine warfare, WWW III fiction, the Commander’s story and the Commando’s novel). His conclusion is that the technothriller exists at the same level as, for instance, chick-lit exists, that is to say both as a commercial label and a set of features coalescing into a genre most readers can identify. He also claims that “the whole package” survives and should be studied as “a testimony for some of the cultural aspects of the last quarter of the twentieth century up to the present day”. As he explained to his examining board last week, despite being a keen reader of the genre he is approaching it critically; he does not wish to vindicate all its values but to make sure that current scholarship no longer overlooks the existence of the technothriller.

As we discussed these matters in our last tutorial, I was reminded of the revolutionary work that Janice Radway did in the early 1980s, when her reader-response approach to the romance resulted in her indispensable study Reading the Romance (1984). Until then romance fiction was the dirty secret in women’s writing and reading, since feminist criticism regarded the genre as a scion of patriarchal ideology (which it is). Radway, however, proved that romance readers understand quite well how the texts they enjoy are positioned in relation to patriarchy, knowing how the romantic fantasy and sexist submission connect. Their preferences have gradually reshaped the genre towards a more open discussion of the contexts in which feminism offers women hope and comfort as romance seems to offer. Today, in short, no feminist critic treats romance readers in the patronizing way they used to be treated in the past and, the other way around, many authors have incorporated narratives of empowerment in their work which can certainly be called feminist.

The contradiction Pascal will be exploring, then, is why the technothriller, a genre that has been climbing to the top of the best-selling lists for decades, is being ignored by all scholars whereas romance, a genre that used to be marginalized, has received so much attention. The answer, as you can see, in my own sentence: because genres regarded as marginal and that address non-mainstream audiences are seen now as proper objects of academic study but we still don’t know what to do with best-selling authors addressing mainstream audiences (in any genre). Now you may find books such as Deborah Philips’s Women’s Fiction, 1945-2005: Writing Romance (2014), but as far as I know nobody has written a dissertation on Danielle Steel, possibly the genre’s most popular author together with Barbara Cartland. There is plenty of bibliography on romance and plenty of resources for scholars but we still understand very poorly the phenomenon of the best-selling author and do not know how to argue that authors can be key contributors to a genre or to all of fiction despite lacking literary merit. It will be easier for Pascal to write about the whole genre of the technothriller, in short, than to justify writing a dissertation only on Tom Clancy, the genre’s best-known author after its founding father, Michael Crichton.

Other matters complicate the approach to the technothriller. Supposing Pascal chose to follow on Janice Randway’s footsteps and carry out field work among readers of technothrillers, his work would not be equally welcome for the simple reason that most readers of this genre are cisgender heterosexual white men. This is not a very popular demographic these days among scholars. Just a few days ago I had to explain for the umpteenth time to a feminist colleague that I write about that type of male author because I want to know what they are up to. I find women’s progression in all areas of literature marvellous, and I am happy to see how the more inclusive approach is resulting in the celebration of many trans and non-binary authors, but I still want to know about traditionally binary men because they are producing massive quantities of fiction read mainly by men, and thus generating gendered ideology I want to be aware of. You may ignore all that only at your own risk. Likewise, the technothriller needs to be explored because its plot-driven narratives celebrating technology appeal mostly to cisgender, heterosexual, white men and, guess what?, this is the category of person holding power today in the genre’s home, the United States, and in many other key nations of the world. When former President Ronald Reagan claimed that a novel by Tom Clancy had given him better information than the CIA reports someone in academia should have listened and start paying attention to the genre. This was no joke.

Apart from the low popularity of the technothriller’s target readership among scholars today, the genre is also treated as a bastard outshoot by the SF community, which is somehow harder to explain. I’ll take it for granted that technothrillers begin with Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969) and leave to Pascal a more nuanced explanation of the genre’s origins. This novel narrates the frantic efforts of a group of American scientists to halt the spread of a deadly extraterrestrial virus which reaches Earth together with the debris of a military satellite. The Wikipedia page claims that “Reviews for The Andromeda Strain were overwhelmingly positive, and the novel was an American bestseller, establishing Michael Crichton as a respected novelist and science-fiction writer”. This is not true as regards his being a respected SF writer. Crichton was never nominated for a Hugo, and his only nomination for a Nebula was for the film Westworld (1973), which he wrote and directed.

Possibly, Crichton’s bestsellerdom alienated him from most SF fans and from fellow authors struggling to make an impact and also contributed to the alienation of other technothriller writers from SF’s fandom and awards circuit, even though it seems clear enough that the technothriller is a sub-genre of SF, particularly close to military SF. Beyond this matter (bestselling authors need no fandom or genre awards), there is another problem. I once considered writing a book on Crichton and found it an impossible task after noting that his ideological values are now obsolete in many ways, especially as regards gender; the project collapsed after my reading Prey (2002). Joking a bit with his other best-known title, Jurassic Park (1990), I would say that Crichton is now a dinosaur; if you notice, nobody mentions him any more in relation to the film franchise started by Spielberg’s 1993 film, a sure sign that he is no longer respected. Elizabeth Trembley published back in 1996 Michael Crichton: A Critical Companion but I just don’t see anyone updating this volume.

Now, if Crichton is too hot to handle, imagine what it is like to deal with a list of authors mainly interested in technology connected with the military and turning that interest into the stuff of, well, thrilling tales for grown-up white boys. I must say that I am not a reader of technothrillers (though I have seen tons of films based on them, or that are technothrillers in their own right) and perhaps I am wrongly assuming like most of my academic peers that their stance is technophiliac and right-wing, hence not worth discussing and much less defending. Yet, supposing this is the case (even though Crichton himself was very critical about the misuse of science and the impact of techno-corporations), and the brothers and sons of Tom Clancy are indeed in the worst case scenario white supremacists and staunch militarists, shouldn’t we all be aware of what they are writing? There is something else. As I am learning from Pascal, technothriller writers have a very good awareness of geopolitical issues whereas realist mainstream writers insist on depicting the personal lives of middle-class people as if conflict never happened. I am guessing that many readers find technothrillers didactic and, like Ronald Reagan, are learning from them lessons no other writers are providing. Perhaps, and this is for Pascal to say, some of these lessons might be worth learning and not just bilge, as we are now assuming.

If a genre manages to survive in the absence of fandom, specialized awards and scholarly attention, and even still appear on the best-sellers’ list after decades, this means that it is worth considering. Speaking as a scholar who writes about science fiction by men whose values I do not always share, I find it absolutely necessary to explore what interests most male readers. It is simply not true that most are reading now as much fiction by men as by women, or that gender ideology has impacted the writing by men (and their reading) as much as it has impacted women’s. We might have the impression that the world of fiction is now accommodating with no hitch the deep changes in gender ideology that we have seen in the last decades, but I believe this is not the case at all and that just as some women passionately love romance fiction of the more traditional kind, some men must certainly be still addicted to technothrillers, but being very quiet about their addiction simply because nobody is asking them about their preferences. I am glad, then, that Pascal Lemaire cares out of a truly academic interest in fiction by men who are in their shared ideology very different indeed from him. I am very much interested in what he is finding out and I hope many others will be, too.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/