February 11th, 2012

Recent Rereads

Several things have been going on lately. First, I complained extensively about the problems with the eforms of Gail Collins' otherwise excellent _Scorpion Tongues). Second, I've been more than usually sensitive to active screens (thus curtailing some of the time I spend on the laptop and iPad, in favor of the kindle). I'm not entirely certain why, altho I am worried about it. Finally, I realized how long it has been since I reread anything and didn't feel like rereading romance novels so I went back, to some sf.

I bought the James H. Schmitz reprints in pform as they came out and then more recently got them from Baen Books website (some free) in eform.

_Telzey Amberdon_
_T 'n' T: Telzey Amberdon and Trigger Argee Together_
_Trigger and Friends_

I've been a Schmitz fan for decades and was really excited when these reprints came out, because the previous reprint had been the NESFA volume and it had very limited availability. I was particularly happy when Baen put them up for free. Schmitz is someone I want everyone to know about and enjoy.

However, it had been a while since my most recent reread (probably when the paperbacks came out about a decade ago). I got to wondering how they would hold up. First, there are some of the same problems in these books that backlist titles in eform all seem to suffer from -- but they are rare and not particularly intrusive. They are about what I'm used to seeing in paperbacks anyway. Second, there are occasional clunkers that remind the reader forcibly of when the books were written (size of secretarial staff and that they are overwhelmingly women; smoking in offices; computers or communications devices which produce printouts which should have screens you can read on but do not -- these are examples only). But beyond that, the stories are every bit as engaging and entertaining as I remember them being, and I continue to find the author appealing in the moral universe he creates along with the science fictional universe.

When my book group was reading _To Kill a Mockingbird_ last year, I noticed the word morphodite. I could tell what it meant, because of the context, but looked it up to be sure. I had not given the word a lot of thought when I read M.A. Foster's Morphodite trilogy (_Morphodite_, _Transformer_, _Preserver_) some years before my most recent reread of James Schmitz' stories. I was reading Foster for a variety of reasons (and I remember liking this trilogy better than his other work, altho the person who originally pointed me at Foster only liked _Gameplayers of Zan_, which I also read but apparently was so uninterested in I never kept a copy around and never reread) which had very little to do with literary qualities or even science fictional qualities and had a lot to do with some of the political ideas embedded in the novels.

I do not recommend spending time reading Foster, particularly in eform; while not as bad as the Collins book, there are a lot of jarring wrong-words that could have been caught with a spellchecker that had been appropriately set for these novels. For example, spell checkers will typically kick about a word like Tiegenhagen (which is a place name it doesn't recognize). If you were to write something about Tiegenhagen, you'd be smart to put that in the dictionary, at least for that piece, so you didn't skip over Teigenhagen, figuring it was just the spell checker bitching at you. And that's _exactly_ what didn't happen with the Transformer trilogy, resulting in equal parts Lisaks (correct) and Liasks (incorrect), referring to natives of Lisagor. Annoying. It's possible it's wrong in the pbooks as well; I haven't checked.

More importantly, despite writing later than Schmitz, Foster's writing contains far more jarring assumptions based on Foster's time-and-place than Schmitz (Gysa I might have let slide -- it's kind of a funny joke, but sort of stupid, too, but the pocket tape-player music machine, no. Just, No.). Then again, it's dangerous writing something that engages in gender bending (in the story, the central character can Change, losing about 20 years of biological age, changing in height, weight, build, appearance blah blah blah including changing sex so, yes, right down to the DNA) and then building into that a lot of uninspected heterocentricity (three-some with Dorje and Faren while being Nazarine notwithstanding, an interaction rendered retroactively weird by Nazarine becoming Demsing, a premature infant who Dorje and Faren then raise). It does not age well.

The Morphodite trilogy is unremittingly paranoid, and set in a pseudo-soviet context. While the sex scenes do not suffer from obnoxious language problems (involving waves -- I hate sex scenes with a lot of wave imagery. Foster doesn't do that. He gets points for avoiding that trap; also, no throbbing anything, which is always a plus), they do very little to credibly advance character or relationship and felt like a plot device on more than one occasion. Further, they expose all the problems inherent in a completely humorless storytelling approach. As a package, these three characteristics (paranoia/pseudo-soviet context, sex that feels like machination and a total lack of humor) work together _really really well_. Technically. But it's just no fun at all.

If it were in the service of something I could become entranced by, it would have been okay. However, the gimmick is planet Oerlikon, and Pompitous Hall's Watch of Oerlikon, based on another planet, Heliarcos. A bunch of academics work for centuries to create the Morphodite (coopting Oerlikon in the process) and then freak out when they lose (control of) it. Devastation in detail ensues as two more-or-less matched antagonists (the bumbling, secretive and poorly coordinated creators on one side and the bumbling, secretive and poorly coordinated creation on the other side) bash at each other across two plus books. That's sort of an okay story, but Foster imposed the structure in ways that make the components unbelievable. Also, those Atropine quotes at the beginning of chapters? Super lame in a very 1980s way.

Take Oerlikon, a planet between galactic arms, supposedly colonized by people who want to Stop Change. In the service of this desire to Stop Change, they come from all over the colonized galaxy, move to a new planet, create a new language, a new social structure (which involves women typically having a different father for each of her children) ... Really? Really? These are _anti-change_ people? No they are not. That makes less than no sense.

Don't even get me started on who let Luto Pternam run The Mask Factory, much less the magic credit card.

If you _adore_ _Wave Without a Shore_ by C.J. Cherryh (this is very different from being a Cherryh fan in general), you might find M.A. Foster rewarding. _Might_. But just as soon as you recover from enjoying _Wave Without a Shore_ and start going, wait, that doesn't actually make sense .... you'll probably start having issues with Morphodite, too.

Sentences That Make Me Go Hmmmm

I've got two of them right in a row, individually a little startling and together, the sort of thing that makes me wonder if the author and all readers prior to publication were just asleep at the wheel.

"These promiscuous women -- whether prostitutes, adulteresses, or merely sexually active females operating outside male control -- occasioned fear because they did not submit to men and could disrupt legitimate marriages."

Right, so, pause. Why women and then females? Those are not accidental word choices. That's a little creepy. I'd have been happy if it had been women throughout or females throughout -- but only females if that men was males. Parallelism isn't just about style, people, although that matters, too. Next sentence.

"They were of interest in the construction of Mesopotamian legal documents because of their impact on private and economic issues, such as inheritance devolution, rather than out of desire to regulate morality."

What The Fuck? How can private and economic issues -- especially inheritance -- ever be considered as separate from regulating morality? This kind of wild misunderstanding of categories has already appeared in the text.

"She participated in and embodied an economy of gift exchange that maintained, rather than severed, the connection between individuals."

Um, that's what economies of gift exchange do. Always. How is that a "rather"?

All sentences from _Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World_, Faraone and McClure and I'm _really_ starting to regret this purchase. The positive review on the detail page at Amazon from Judith Hallett is starting to look like logrolling.

Also, I've got a word-o "often" that should have been "open". And there are all these references to "ancient testimonia" being unreliable that I think you could replace with "Herodotus made shit up. Again." and it would be much less opaque.

This is not making me happy.

This is Just Silly

"Whereas in the United States, brothels tend to be isolated (as in the ranch brothels of the Nevada desert), illustrating our modern assumption that sex work should be segregated and unmentioned, Roman brothels were broadly dispersed throughout the city, clustering around combined residential and commercial districts with nearby lower-class housing."

How about with, most _places_ where you could go to pay for sex indoors in the United States (as opposed to numbers or online contacts you might use to arrange for the sex to be delivered) are probably small service businesses clustered in mixed use areas with nearby lower-class housing. Not that I would invoke a cliche or anything. Given that brothels are illegal most places in the US, it's kinda hard to draw a clear comparison. Also, automobiles. Telephones. Small urban weeklies. Craigslist. How could an illegal operation confined in one bustable place possibly compete with the fleeter options available?

(They would have been better off drawing a comparison to brothels in, say, Germany or the Netherlands. Altho not as much better off as you might think.)

ETA: I'm finally out of the introduction (was that painful!) and into the first essay and I am still not impressed.

"Neither the female nor male cultic personnel ... can be identified as female or male prostitutes or catamites."

Really? You just _threw that in there_ because you like the word. Female or male prostitutes would include catamites, by definition, and by including catamites, you created a style _and_ substance issue (where's the underage female hooker term to match catamite?).

I wouldn't necessarily have minded (found it jarring, whatever) except a very short number of sentences later, the same author produces these phrases:

"women who exchanged sexual favors for pecuniary consideration"


"sex in exchange for wealth"

Given that this is all lead-up to a bit about Inanna pricing her services (one shekel against the wall, one and a half to bend over), what's the problem with "sex for money"? Short, sweet and unconfusing.

Unlike this book.

ETAYA: Oh, look at this misleading pile of stink:

"although birthcontrol [sic] measures are not well documented in Mesopotamian sources, 29 such measures would have been generally relegated, cross-culturally, to the domain of women's folk medicine and thus do not occupy a place in formal medical treatises that survive."

(1) I don't think there are _any_ medical treatises that survive in Mesopotamia, the way we have Egyptian ones. Prescriptions, sure. Diagnoses/signs/symptoms and similar to go with? Nope.

(2) And there isn't much medical _at all_ that survived from Mesopotamia.

(3) "Cross-culturally" the author is just plain wrong. Egyptian medical treatises cover what we would consider gynecology. As do other cultures that really get into the whole make-medicine-a-career thing. When pros start doing part of medicine, they start doing _all_ of medicine.

*sigh* The footnote is not active.

Oooh, but it's to a really cool book by Marten Stol. Very expensive.

Anyway. The article is attempting to show that the laws weren't about "morals" but about inheritance and private economic considerations, and the woman was held responsible in some situations where both parties had to swear an oath to stop having sex with each other. One of the situations described could easily be the plot to a Regency romance (right down to a guy trying to quickly marry one woman with the assistance of her brother who works at the palace, while dad is negotiating a separate alliance, and dad manages to scotch the deal the boy put together on his own).

In any event, the author is so busy showing this isn't about "some community consensus about a duty to keep gullible and impressionable young men out of the clutches of unsuitable women" and another argument about "sexual free agent" women that she seems to be missing a much simpler explanation for a lot of these cases: a powerful father who wants to control who his son marries, because his son is going to inherit a lot (power, resources, slaves) and make grandchildren and generally behave as a dynast. Dad isn't going to want sonny to hook up with a golddigger whose loyalties are open to negotiation (demonstrably) because dad is busy creating an alliance with another dynasty to pool the wealth.

It is ever thus, right?

The linguistic arguments about which words might or might not mean prostitute under various circumstances strike me as sort of missing the point. Gail Collins told a story in her most recent column about a priest calling her mother-in-law "no better than a whore in the street" for using birth control. We all know what whore means. We all know Gail's mother-in-law isn't one. But that is definitely the word the priest used and meant.