I am currently a member of the Ministry-funded research project led by Dr. Helena González of the University of Barcelona, Parias y tránsfugas modernas: género y exclusión en la cultura popular del s.XXI (https://www.ub.edu/adhuc/es/proyectos-investigacion/transfugas-y-parias-modernas-genero-y-exclusion-cultura-popular-del-s-xxi). We had a seminar last week, which opened with my presentation of six characters that, in my view, are either outcasts (‘parias’) or dissidents (‘tránsfugas’), or both. They are Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy The Hunger Games, Djan Seriy Anaplian in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novel Matter, Emiko in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Birha in the short story “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh, Breq in Ann Leckie’s trilogy Ancillary Justice and Essun (a.k.a. Syenite and Damaya) in N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy The Broken Earth.
The research group should eventually produce a database with entries for about 100 female characters, and others for theoretical aspects, and I have volunteered to be the Guinea pig (oops!) in charge of writing the first six entries. So, I was trying to explain to the audience in the room that although I am very much interested in expanding my work on Banks and Singh (I have already written about Collins), I will not touch the novels by Leckie and Jemisin because I find their imagination ‘ugly’ (‘fea’). I have nothing against Bacigalupi but others have already written about Emiko, to my entire satisfaction.
I used ‘ugly’ in that informal way one uses intending to amuse the audience but I was the one amused when the presenter, my good friend Isabel Clúa, suggested that I should turn the label ‘ugly imagination’ into a fully theorized concept. This is the task I have given myself this week, not an easy one. Another very good friend in the audience, Felicity Hand, asked me why I was mixing my negative personal impression of the authors with my dislike of their works, and whether I would do the same with Shakespeare: I don’t like what goes on in Macbeth, therefore, I would never have dinner with its author. I replied, quite confusedly, that I knew I was being obnoxious but that what I have against Leckie and Jemisin is how they had forced me to endure not for one but for three novels their extremely unpleasant stories, with no relief whatsoever. In contrast, I said, Banks would treat his readers to some clever Scottish humour whenever he noticed he was going too far with any violence or cruelty. My admired Vandana Singh aims in all her stories not only for literary excellence but for engaging the mind and all senses in plots that are, simply, beautiful though by no means silly or sentimental.
Obviously, all that was improvised and I have been asking myself for the last few days what I mean exactly by accusing some writers of having an ugly imagination. I don’t think I know yet but I’m making an effort here to think hard.
Let me begin with one example. In Jemisin’s trilogy there is a human species whose flesh is of stone. They are called, not too imaginatively, the Stone Eaters (guess what they feed on?). The author herself explains that these living sculptures are “me playing around with the idea of mythological creatures” (https://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/creating-races/), which should be fine except that whereas the people of the Stillness, where her tale is located, “have heard many tales about stone eaters (…) the reader doesn’t have that bank of cultural capital to borrow against”. The Stone Eaters are, however, quite real also in the context of the novels, which means that they are doubly scary: for the characters in the tale, who see the monsters of legend become living persons among them whom they must accept, and for the readers, who do not catch until very late in the trilogy what is going on. “Without the cushioning effect of folklore, the creatures” Jemisin grants, “become too alien and frightening, or pitiful, to embrace as fellow people. I’ve seen other writers manage it, though, so here’s my chance to see if I can do as well”.
My reply is that ‘no, you don’t quite manage it’, for (spoilers ahead) the feeding habits of the Stone Eaters may be fine for monsters but not for characters that carry the weight of the whole story as narrators. Faced with the scene of Essun’s former lover Alabaster becoming stone and a major character/narrator eating his arm, I jumped off the sofa and almost threw the book out of the window. What kind of ugly imagination (well, sick person) would come up with this concept? Same about Leckie and what her girl Breq really is (you find out!). I realise that I still haven’t explained myself, though: Banks is also much capable of offering some truly distressing stuff (think of Zakalwe, if you can without hyperventilating, or of the digital hell which an alien civilization builds) but one knows all the time that we are not supposed to sympathize. Jemisin asks me to accept as a cool character someone who simply horrifies me and the same applies to Leckie. I do not mean that Hoa and Breq are evil or villainous in any way, poor things; what I mean is that the villainy that made them what they are is not sufficiently characterized as ‘Other’ in relation to them, or alternatively that they are too ‘Other’ for me to welcome them as my nexus with the text. There is something awfully cold in the way their tale is told so that the massive destruction from which they both emerge overwhelms any ability I may have to connect with these two and care for them, knowing besides they’re not even human.
Still not there, I know, but I may be getting closer.
By qualifying some writers’ imagination as ugly I don’t mean that I only like pretty tales. Perhaps I can explain myself better if I refer to what horror cinema used to mean to me. Like everyone who enjoys a well-told horror tale, I accepted the pact by which I would agree to put up with some measure of terror caused by the monster until some kind of order was restored by the hero. Progressively, though, horror filmmakers came up with the idea that the pact should be broken, terror maximized, and no final return to order allowed, on the grounds that this is more realistic. There have always been gothic stories with a sting at the end, hinting that the vampire will return once more, or that the creature is not quite dead. However, when I stumbled upon the slasher film Hostel (2005) I just opted out of the pact. That is a most salient example, I think, of the purely ugly imagination that has swallowed whole what many of us used to like in horror cinema –reality is ugly enough for me to enjoy the full panoply of what then emerged as body horror, nor do I need any tales in which there is no relief and no way out. It is fine to avoid ex-machina solutions and be done with villains that spin long justifications rather that kill their foe, but I still loathe the type of storytelling that is relentless in its assumption that the whole world is a monster, and only the silly victims killed one by one have failed to notice this. I no longer watch horror movies for, following my theorizing of the concept, I can no longer put up with their extremely ugly imagination.
I am beginning to sound like one of those snowflake students who demand from lecturers trigger warnings for even the minutest conflict in the stories they must read for class (Glasgow University, it seems, is now giving modern language students trigger warnings… for fairy tales!). This is not where I am going. What worries me is the admiration that the ugly imagination is garnering in our times: the trilogies by Jemisin and Leckie have earned many major awards in the SF field, and so has Chinese SF star writer Liu Cixin, possessor of an even colder ugly imagination (at least in The Three Body Problem). I won’t even mention Game of Thrones –oh, I did! Concepts such as ‘awe’, ‘sense of wonder’, ‘enchantment’ have abandoned fantasy and SF, which means that they are now nowhere to be found. I stand corrected: they are still perceptible in some children’s film and fiction, though not everywhere. I had the same impression of ugliness in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials regarding what villainess Mrs. Coulter does to children, not so much because she is a very cruel person but because she is hero Lyra’s mother. Again: too close for comfort, not Other enough.
So, to sum up, and leaving plenty of room for further speculation: in the tales arising from an ugly imagination there is too little distance between the persons we are supposed to sympathize with, and the Other. Terrible things happen in many of our favourite stories but no matter how close hero and villain get (Harry and Voldemort, Katniss and Alma Coin) there is some margin for hope. Imagine Harry living for decades in the Dark Lord’s regime, or Katniss having to face Coin’s renewal of the Hunger Games, and I think we get closer in this way to what I mean by ugly imagination. If, as happens in Jemisin’s and Leckie’s tales, this hope appears after an overwhelming deluge of terrible events, then it is of no effect. Many readers enjoy this deferral of expectations, just like many readers enjoy watching The Handmaid’s Tale on TV, but not me, I’d rather be told a hopeful, though not a silly, tale.
Now back to reading Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, of which more next week. To be continued…
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