Friday, October 17, 2014

Thoughts on THE MIRROR EMPIRE


As you might remember, I was reading Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire. I finished it about two weeks ago. It was incredible. How she’s able to come up with so many interesting ideas, characters, and motivations, and get them all across without heavy infodumping...I mean...holy cow, guys. I broke out in some serious green envy-hives reading it.

Initially, I started this post as simple a spoiler-free review to give out some brief thoughts about some of the book’s juicier bits, but goddamn if this book doesn’t have layers on layers on layers. So, I’ve pretty much given up. Don’t read this if spoilers bother you is all I have to say. Go, buy the book (may have to be on Kindle or Nook since people burned through its first printing like a high-schooler with his first credit card), then come back and read my thoughts if you care, okee dokee?

Okee dokee.

Let me prepare you: this book has a steep learning curve. Now, absolutely do not avoid reading this book because you think it will be tough. It will be. But oh my GOD it’s good. You just have to take it slow and use the glossary when needed. She introduces, subtly, slowly, with the skill of a master surgeon, a fuckton--a metric fuckton if we’re being scientific--of stuff in this novel.

Part of the brilliance of the book is how basically every choice Hurley made seems to have been purposefully made to fuck with your expectations. Narratively, socially, interpersonally. Some things are obvious. Some things are super subtle. It tries to avoid almost any norm that you’ve read in mainstream fantasy. It tries to push you. If this book isn’t taught in a college class of some kind or another, some professors aren’t doing their jobs.

Part of the learning curve in this book comes from being introduced to three different cultures--the Dhai, Saiduan, and Dorinah, plus a slave culture--the dajians, and an alternate universe version of a culture. That’s not a joke by the way. The plot of this book is “Invaders from an alternate universe attempt to take over the world.” Seriously, that’s fucking awesome, right?

The culture you probably spend the most time in is the Dhai culture. The biggest difference between them and us is that they are entirely consent based. That means they expect and require consent for even the most cursory physical interaction. One of the most striking moments for me was early when a disable character tripped and started to fall and another character grabbed her to stop her from getting hurt. He did it reflexively, and it was something good, but he still immediately released her and started profusely apologizing.

The implications of a “no touching” culture is fascinating. What if we had to ask permission, not just to kiss, but for any physical touching at all? There might be some things that some might miss, like when someone places a comforting hand on your shoulder when things are shitty. On the other hand, 1) not everyone is a big fan of the touching thing anyway, and 2) violence would be pretty much nonexistent. How could it? You can’t hit someone without touching them without consent, and who would consent to that? I bet they’ve got insults that would make Shakespeare jealous, though.

As I read, I started to get a sneaking feeling that there was more going on than the obvious metatextual pushback of rape culture. I mean, it’s definitely that, too. But WHY do the Dhai have this culture? I got the feeling, as I read, that the Dhai didn’t used to be the pacifists they are at the start of the novel. I think they used to be pretty violent and brutal, and they developed their consent culture as a rejection of their old ways.

I don’t have the time or the space to go into each culture in depth and their differences and nuances when compared to each other and to us. Suffice it to say, they’re all very fleshed out.

I also want to talk about the use of gender in the novel.

The Dhai’s view of gender is very complex, with FIVE genders: male passive, male aggressive, female passive, female aggressive, and genderless.

I couldn’t quite figure out what the difference was between passive and aggressive. One character, who becomes the leader early in the book, is male passive. He seems...normal? People are a little icked that he’s a dude ruler since the position has only ever been held by women, but he’s not, like, a complete airhead. At first I thought “passive” meant that he was one of those “roll with the changes,” doesn’t want to make decisions, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” kinds of fellows, but he gives out orders, makes tough decisions, and acts all leaderly.

It’s entirely possible that was the point: that even their five gendered system is inadequate because, although identifying as both male and passive, he exhibits active, aggressive tendencies anyway.

As a counterexample, another character is male aggressive, and I can see, if “passive” and “aggressive” refer to their temperaments, how he could be described as aggressive. It’s not in our traditional understanding of masculine aggression, but he definitely works to try to get things to serve his own self interest. The descriptions used for him are kind of similar to the kind used for femme fatales. He uses his looks to get what he wants. He flirts. He lies to get out of doing things he doesn't want to do, or so that he can do things he does want to do. None of this is malicious and hateful, though. He’s a likeable character.

Moving away from the Dhai culture, though still talking about gender, I want to talk about The Scene. This is potentially triggering, so I have an image at the start and end of the section so you can skip past if you want, or you can bail out here. Your choice.

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There’s a couple in the book, Anavha and Zezili. Zezili is an officer in the Dorinah army. Anavha stays home and takes care of the house. Where the earlier depictions of gender are subtle and nuanced, this one is blunt and obvious: Zezili is a woman and Anavha is a man, an obvious role reversal.

Blunt and obvious doesn’t mean bad. It’s clearly intentional. Where the other characters’ complex representations of genders serve to pick apart the reader’s understanding of gender and how our gender binary doesn’t make sense, Zezili and Anavha are there the swing a wrecking ball through the reader’s understanding of gendered roles in relationships and the horrible ways they’re simplified and portrayed in fiction.

There is a scene in which Zezili comes home stressed out, angry, frustrated with affairs in the military. Her husband comes in wearing his skirt and with his make up on. The scene eventually leads to Zezili raping Anavha.

If this is the scene that everyone was upset about, I didn’t quite get what the big deal about the scene was. It’s not really graphic. It leaves out the gory details. I mean, it’s clear what happens, but the narrative pulls back from their perspective so that it happens off the page. I’ve witnessed some horrifying rapes in fiction: The Hills Have Eyes (1 & 2), The Last House on the Left (so bad I had to close my eyes and plug my ears and wait for it to be over because I got so upset I nearly passed out), even Susannah’s rape in The Dark Tower 3 was WAY more graphic and horrifying. King goes into explicit details in that. It’s always a struggle for me to get through.

Not to minimize rape, which is horrible. I’m saying this depiction of rape was relatively tame compared to many others. If this is the scene that upset people, my guess is that it was a WOMAN raping a MAN that upset them. Which is obviously the point of that scene, to show how disempowering and horrifying those situations, yet they're used so cavalierly in fiction.

Actually, the scene that upset me even more came later. A group of women break into Zezili’s house, drunk, and decide since she’s not there, they'll have their way with her husband. That scene was more disturbing to me than the previous, but it wasn't because it was a MAN being molested and assaulted. It was because it was more graphic and from Anavha’s terrified point of view. But even that scene, as unpleasant and disturbing as it was, was not half as graphic as the Susannah scene mentioned previously.

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This post is already much longer than I intended, and I'm still not done. There are still so many things I could talk about: the role biraciality plays in the story, mental health disorders, physical disabilities, the magic system, the SENTIENT, MEAT-EATING TREES, or even the implications of knowing the existence of a multi-verse.

All of the neat worldbuilding would be nothing, though, if the story wasn't good. But it is.

I am jealous of how rich and real her characters feel. Each character is unique, each has different motivations and back stories.

Lilia is a disabled asthmatic with as much grit and strength as a war-hardened general.

Roh is a clever boy only too aware of how fleeting his powers and position are and horrified by the projected path his life will take, and so is desperate to find another way.

Zezili is a mixed race officer in a military tasked to commit not just a genocide of her people, but also to cripple their entire economy by eliminating the backbone of it, all to make room for foreign invaders.

Anavha is a world-wearied self-harmer who has a secret powerful gift that has just been forcibly thrust into a cruel world he’s ill-prepared for.

And there are many more.

If you were on the fence about this, I hope you'll give it a shot. But most of all: don’t give up if you feel like the book is too complex for you. It’s not. It may force you to re-examine what you believe about the world around you, but that’s what the best genre fiction should do.
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Quick pro tip: Use the glossary. There are definitions for all of the place names, satellites, and slang terms they use. There’s also something else that I was too stupid to notice until I was 3/4 of the way through the book: the glossary includes most of the character’s names.

When I was reading, I struggled to keep up with the two A names, the two K names, the two G names, etc. At one point, I thought, “Man, I wish there was a name glossary as well.”

There was. I’m an idiot. Don’t be an idiot like me. This will help you SO MUCH until you get used to things.