Monday, 27 February 2017

The January Dancer by Michael Flynn

*Spoilers Below*

I feel like there are very few moments when it is not a mistake to have a character or the narrator declaim about the intrinsic difference between men and women, particularly when it's used lazily to limit women's emotional range. When it's off the cuff, that's annoying. When it then goes on to shape the women characters in the book because apparently that's really what the author thinks about women, then the irritation grows.

It is particularly fucking dumb when you're saying something demonstrably untrue, something you might realize was untrue if you'd ever met or talked to a woman. Also, just...why? Trying to alienate your female readers right off the bat? For no good reason? Would this book have suffered at all by leaving that passage out? No. Did it add any damn thing? No. Did the few times it came back in practice drive me crazy all out of proportion to how much of the novel this little idea actually takes up? Yes.

Here it is, that thing that once I'd noticed it, I couldn't unnotice it. It's really a fairly minor sin next to, say Kim Stanley Robinson's inability to write a seduction scene, but nonetheless frustrating. It's the idea that while men can love more than once - more than one person, or a person and a job, or a cause or a friend, women can only have one love in their lives and that is all they are capable of.

Seriously? Have you never met a woman who had a husband and children? Or a job she loved? Or friends? As a woman, I feel fairly confident in saying fuck you, Michael Flynn. I can love as many different things as pretty much any dude I've ever met, and reducing your female character to such uni-dimensionality is dumb as hell.

Now, that would have been a dumb thing that I could have just left as a dumb thing the narrator said, but then it gets used, as it turns out the main character in the present sections of the book is the daughter of the female character in the past sections, and she's trying to find out which man her mother truly loved, because women can only, yadda, yadda, yadda.

It's just annoying.

But what about the vast swathes of the book that have nothing to do with a personal pet peeve of mine? This is the story about, well, it's one of those books where the author could have put in a couple of paragraphs of exposition in the first few chapters quickly outlining the important points of the political and economic makeup of their particular galaxies-spanning civilizations, but chose not to, for no particular reason. Look, excessive exposition is a bad thing. Quick sketches to orient your readers are not.

So, we have a society where there are two or three major powers (I was never quite sure), mostly modelled on Irish culture, except when they're not. Earth seems to have been occupied by an outside force, but I'm not clear by who. I'm not really clear who controls what. I'm not really clear where the power clashes are, but I could tell there were some. It was, all in all, one of those books where the author very clearly knows everything about his world, but hoards that knowledge like a jealous dragon.

In this, the captain of a ship discovers an ancient non-human artifact that seems to, as is slowly revealed, bestow the power of commanding obedience through the voice to those who hold it. It seems to move as people hold it, although no one can see it, so it becomes known as the Dancer. The first guy who finds it has the last name January, hence the overall title of the book.

From there, we follow some agents of a couple of different powers, or maybe just one power with different arms? (This was never clear enough, and I wasn't drawn in enough that I bothered to track it down.) who are all trying to find the January Dancer. Well, actually most of them have different missions, some about tracking down a double agent within one of the power structures that we're never told about, some about finding ships that are going missing on FTL shipping lines.

So I would guess the question would be who they would each give it to and for what purpose if they found it, but for most of them, I don't really know. Some I think would give it to their High King, but since I don't know anything about him or whether or not that would be a good or a bad or a dangerously slippery thing to do is pretty damn opaque.

So, what's good? The Irish culture stuff is at least interesting, but not used enough. I mean, dammit, there's lots of little sprinkling of good ideas here, and I'm sure it all fits together nicely in Flynn's mind, but for those of us merely left with his words on a page, I don't know what to do with it.

Oh, and in Eifelheim, I had issues with what Flynn though historians do, since, you know, I'm almost done my doctorate in the discipline. This time, I had the same problem with how he depicts (very briefly), archivists. In his world, they're trying to make sure no one ever reads anything they keep, but all the archivists I know are extraordinarily concerned about access, even when documents are fragile. This tends to lead to things being copied so people can examine the copies, but not one of them wants to hoard things away like Gollum.

So, in other words, whenever my expertise interacts with Flynn's, I get annoyed.

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