There will be a British Museum theme to most of the next few posts.
Tantra by Dr Imma Ramos is the book of the British Museum exhibition on Tantra. It had just opened in early 2020 when the pandemic hit and so I didn’t get to see the exhibition itself.
The book and exhibition tell the history of the development of Tantra as a reaction to and subversion of conservative and hierarchical Hinduism. It took the taboo or forbidden elements and turned them into ways to connect with the gods and absorb their power. There was a path that took the teachings and rituals literally and one which took them symbolically, using visualization rather than practice. Given that Tantra had a focus on power in the mundane world, it was enthusiastically adopted by rulers in the Indian sub-continent. Tantra spread east and was also absorbed by Buddhism, creating new Tantric paths with a Buddhist flavour. Using art and sculpture from the time, Dr Ramos shows how themes of conquering ego and ignorance are represented and unlocks the symbolism in the representation of Tantric gods and goddesses.
The book explores how Tantra was misunderstood and misrepresented by the British during the colonial period. Tantric sex means uniting the masculine and feminine energies in order to connect with divinity and is not about purely sexual pleasure, but the representation of this element of Tantra in sculpture and painting was interpreted salaciously by western minds. It was also considered pagan and demonic. The way Tantra was viewed and talked about in the West then evolved into the way it was adopted by the counter-cultural movements of the late 20th century, with an emphasis on sex rather than spirituality.
In India, Tantra became associated with the resistance to colonialism and became closely connected to Indian nationalism. Dr Ramos shows how Tantric deities were used to promote Indian-made goods and how the symbolism came to include the fight for independence.
This is an eye-opening book and it’s a real shame I missed the exhibition. I both learned and unlearned a lot.
Welcome to my annual flurry of posts about books, where I realise I haven’t posted anything in months, have a few weeks of activity, and then get distracted by work and life again.
Anyway, recently I went to the World of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum and, as I do, I bought a book. Stonehenge by Rosemary Hill is about how Stonehenge has been interpreted, treated and used throughout the centuries. From the romantic fiction dressed up as fact of Geoffrey of Monmouth to roughly about ten years ago, Hill traces the history of our efforts to understand the ancient monument.
Particularly interesting is how the druid theory has taken on a life of it’s own. Starting as an idea based on nothing much more than a mention of druids by Tacitus, supposedly an eye witness account, and an idea that Stonehenge dated from the Roman era, it has morphed into a movement that sees druids celebrating the summer solstice amongst the stones. We know nothing about the druids as they left no written records. Everything that is said about them is a modern invention. It might be right, but we don’t know.
Hill covers the ownership of Stonehenge, mostly private and the campaigns to acquire it for the nation. Some of those owners chose not to allow any archeaological digs, which given the damage some of the early ones did is probably a good thing. More recent digs have discovered burial mounds, human remains, and evidence of the age of Stonehenge and that it was built in at least three stages.
Stonehenge has inspired art, literature and poetry for centuries. Hill’s explores how it has been used as a canvas for the spiritual and philosophical ideas of the age. She shows how the more bloody, sacrificial interpretations are comnected to times of civil unrest.
This is a thoughtful and engaging book, well researched and constructed. Definitely worth reading.
I’m doing a writing course for the next nine months and the reading list is quite intimidating. There are nearly 100 books on it. It’s been less than two weeks and I’ve bought ten of them already. Obviously, I’ll buy more than I read and many will sit on the bookcase unread for years. But some will get read, and thus reviewed. Or what passes for a review on this blog.
The first of those is The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer. I read a three-page extract as part of my homework this week. It was well-written with a rich, evocative style and a real sense of menace in those few pages. Enough to make me want to find out what was going on.
It was not the story I thought it was going to be. From the extract I expected that sense of menace throughout and for the story to be how the protagonist, Ruby, escapes her predicament. It’s not quite that. Ruby learns on her thirteenth birthday that her parents are not her birth parents. For Ruby, this is good news. Her father is violent and hateful towards her and her mother weak and ineffectual. The terror of this situation is effectively conveyed in the first third of the book.
Then the tone shifts. Ruby stands up to her father and, thinking she’s done something irreversible, flees into the forest. After a few days she returns to find that her adoptive parents have decided to ship her off to an aunt. Ruby runs again. This time she finds other lost children and attempts to survive a winter with them. Interleaved with Ruby’s story is her real mother’s tale. Then there’s the thread where Ruby sees the spirits of the dead. In the end Ruby finds out about her real parents and they’re not much better than her adoptive ones. It’s kind of a happy ending, but one that feels out of kilter with the menace of the beginning.
Overall, I didn’t enjoy this much. I liked the first third. The writing is evocative and creates a claustrophobic and frightening opening, but it made promises the rest of the book didn’t keep. In the rest of the book I was more interested in the mother’s story. I liked the way there was always the suggestion that Ruby seeing spirits might have been caused by getting hit on the head so many times, whilst still conveying how utterly real it is to Ruby. I quite like books that resist classification. Despite all that, I found the ending unsatisfying and was disappointed not to read the story I thought I was going to read.
I have always thought of gravitas as a quality; something a person has or doesn’t, that either comes naturally or develops through life experience. On examination my reasoning for that belief is flimsy. I’ve no clue how I thought some people acquire gravitas or are simply born with it and others don’t, irregardless of their experience.
Caroline Goyder argues in Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority that gravitas is a skill that anyone can develop. She talks about the way that the tone and pitch of your voice, your body language, the congruity between what you do and say, and, perhaps most of all, your self-awareness, contribute to how people receive you.
There are lots of useful exercises aimed at understanding how you come across and the thinking patterns that might be holding you back. There are lots of small things that are easy to implement and build up into a big impact.
I was convinced that gravitas is a skill and that anyone can learn to have more of it. I read a lot of this kind of book and don’t often feel the need to review them, but this one actually changed how I think about something.
Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck is an examination of the media treatment of female celebrities (mostly celebrities, always women) when they go off the rails. Starting from the contemporary examples of Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan (the book was published in 2016 but draws extensively from Doyle’s journalism over the preceding ten years) Doyle examines what might really be happening. The stories created by the media take the same narrative: somehow these women have broken the rules and deserve the judgemental, voyeuristic treatment meted out to them.
First Doyle puts the contemporary examples in a historical context by comparing them to treatment of similarly transgressive women such as Mary Wollenstonecraft, Charlotte Bronte and Billie Holliday. Women who have expressed their humanity by refusing to be nothing more than objects for men to project themselves on to are labelled as crazy and hysterical. All their genius and work is erased by a focus on their sexuality and emotionality. It is, of course, a double standard. Men who have behaved in exactly the same ways are rarely punished for it and Trainwreck provides a number of examples of men whose careers have flourished despite addiction, or mental illness, or even merely expressing grief and anger.
What is it that we are supposed to learn from these examples? They perform the same function as girls in folklore such as Red Riding Hood, showing the dangers that will befall us if we stray from the path. The impossible, conflicting standards women are supposed to maintain are policed by the fear of what will happen when we stop trying to comply. When we speak up instead of remaining silenced.
This is a powerful, erudite and informed critical analysis of a pervasive part of our culture written in an entertaining and accessible way. It will make you re-think how you feel about the women dragged through the press and maybe have more compassion for them. Read it and allow it to make you angry.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is about a crew of space tunnellers who are offered the biggest job they’ve ever had: to travel to the edge of civilized space to a small, uninhabited planet that is pretty much entirely made up of the fuel used to power spacecraft and tunnel their way back. The trip to the planet takes about a year and creating the tunnel will reduce that trip to a day.
This is very much a character driven novel and the bulk of it is spent on the year travelling to the small angry planet and using that as a vehicle to explore ideas about relationships. Those relationships are personal, cultural and societal. The crew is multi-species and the relationships are multi-dimensional; interspecies, same-sex, human-AI, friendship, sexual and romantic. There are a lot of ideas in the book about gender, sexuality, sentience and love. Mostly they are handled well, creatively and vividly realised, and it is refreshing to read sci-fi that is actually addressing the possibilities of connection rather than just treating contemporary norms around relationships as though they are biologically determined (and therefore unchangeable) rather than cultural.
On the larger scale, there are ideas about how people fit into societies and the tension between collectivism and individualism. This is in the background and provides context for the personal relationships. There are themes about conflicts between and within cultural groups and when the crew reach the small angry plant, we see big politics at play that reflect colonial histories and current world dynamics. Some of this is less well handled than the personal relationships.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was a little slow for my tastes. There’s a bit of action at the end when the crew are attacked when they start to tunnel but most of the book is about people relating to each other. It’s worth a read for the ideas explored in it and those who prefer more character-driven fiction may well enjoy it more than I did.
I picked up The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison after EasterCon 2019. I attended a session called Build your Utopia looking for a discussion about creating worlds where humanity’s best traits are foregrounded. I’m kind of sick of the narrative that people are awful and there’s no way to change that. The Goblin Emperor was given as an example of hopepunk, a genre recently emergent as a reaction to grimdark fantasy.
It’s not as if nobody behaves badly in The Goblin Emperor. Maia, the half-goblin fourth son of the Emperor of the Elf kingdom expects only to live out his life in isolated exile. Then his father and three elder brothers are assassinated and his world is turned upside down. Not everyone is thrilled about his ascension to the throne and he faces treachery and an assassination attempt on his own life as well as courtiers seeking to take advantage of his naivety. Maia has to adapt to a complex society that nothing in his life has prepared him for and learn who he can trust. Eventually, he finds his way to identify and remove most of his enemies, to decide what kind of ruler he wants to be (a good one, obvs), and set himself on a hopeful path. Some of the characters are venal, violent and prejudiced. Others are generous, progressive and trustworthy.
Part of the discussion in the session at EasterCon was whether the idea that conflict is story is in itself a form of cultural hegemony. That there are other story traditions that are devalued and ignored because they don’t follow the structure we’re most familiar with. It’s an interesting debate. The hero’s journey structure that so much storytelling in books, tv and film is based on makes it hard to explore some kinds of ideas and concepts.
I enjoyed The Goblin Emperor overall but I found it a bit slow. Also, I never really believed Maia was in peril. There was no point in the book where I doubted that Maia would succeed. I enjoy those moments in a book where you suddenly think it’s not all going to work out okay for your favourite characters. I’m not sure The Goblin Emperor has given me a taste for hopepunk. I love grimdark and, more broadly, I am a sucker for tragedy, but perhaps I should stretch myself and get out of my reading comfort zone.
Redemption’s Blade by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Salvation’s Fire by Justina Robson is a duology written by two different authors. It works way better than you might think.
Redemption’s Blade is about what people do in the aftermath of war. Particularly, it’s about what heroes do when the world no longer needs them. The main character is Celestaine the Slayer, who killed the evil demigod trying to destroy the world, but feels guilty about how far he got before she stopped him. I especially enjoyed the treatment of her magic sword which has a blade that can cut through anything and that’s actually really inconvenient. Scabbards don’t last, she had to learn how to fight completely differently, if she accidentally grazes someone they lose a limb. A sword that can carve through basalt makes mincemeat of people.
Celestaine believes if she can find a magical object of sufficient power she can restore one of the peoples who were broken by the evil demigod. Mostly it feels like she won’t, and Celestaine grapples with whether she’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do, or because she thinks it will make her feel better. Complicating things, the evil demigod was one of several demigods who were supposed to protect the world until he went rogue, and the rest of them are acting strangely now. In the end, though, she finds the magical macguffin, kills another demigod to get it, and her magic sword gets broken. Then there’s nothing for it but to go home and face the boredom.
Salvation’s Fire picks up a few weeks later just as Celestaine is finding home life constricting. One of the demigods pitches up to ask her and her companions to come on another quest. The evil demigod severed the world’s connection with the gods and one of the others has an idea about how to restore it. Meanwhile, loose in the world is a magical creature who was made by necromancers to be the bride of the evil demigod, and the person she’s bonded with is small girl whose entire people were slaughtered in the war. When Celestaine finds these two, it somehow seems that they have a role in what is to come, but what that role will be remains unclear. This journey takes them to the far north and then into other dimensions to find the gods, by way of some soul searching and some facing up to what was done in the war.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is quite prolific so there was a lot to choose from when I wanted something to follow the amazing Shadows of the Apt series. Redemption’s Blade is the first I picked up and it doesn’t disappoint. I loved it, couldn’t put it down, and was left wanting more. I was a bit apprehensive about how Salvation’s Fire would match up. Justina Robson’s Living Next Door to the God of Love was incredible and is one of my favourite books. Then I read a couple of her Quantum Gravity series, which are sci-fi/fantasy/spy/cyberpunk mash-ups. They’re good, but not my cup of tea. But there was nothing to worry about. Salvation’s Fire was just as good as Redemption’s Blade. It took the story and made it deeper and more complex. I highly recommend them. I wish there were more.
You must read this book. This is the best book I’ve read in a very long time.
The Power by Naomi Alderman explores the nature and dynamics of power. Women have evolved the power to deliver excruciating and fatal pain through their hands, and men have not. Using four different characters whose lives eventually intersect, Alderman explores what it means when the tables turn. When I started reading the book, I thought I knew what Alderman was saying with her story. Women start waking up to their power and the women whose stories Alderman tells are all victims of the ones who previously had the power: trafficked women; women in relationships with violent men; girls growing up with fathers that rape them; successful career women undermined by sexist bosses and co-workers. Examples of things that happen to women everyday.
It’s a relatively short book and it is impressive in the number of ways it explores its theme. It contrasts how different political systems react to the emergence of the power and the way men try to fight it – repressive regimes using violence and democratic regimes using manipulation and psychological control. The book looks at religious power and how it is used, and also personal power and what it means.
It was not long before I realised that the point being made is actually much more complex than it appears on the surface, and I realised I didn’t know what the message was. The women in power do unspeakable things to men without power; again, things done by the powerful to the powerless on a daily basis. The point is not that the status quo is fine, because if you just gender-flipped it then everything would essentially be the same. It is that we need to think much more carefully about power and who has it, and what they can do with it. Because most of us do things, even awful things, just because we can. I finished the book thinking that while Alderman had made me think very deeply about power she has done so without taking a didactic position herself. The story always remains paramount.
I enjoyed the gender-flipping of historical objects scattered throughout. I especially loved the epilogue. I won’t spoil it, but I have had that conversation so many frustrating times and I loved what she did with it. I would have liked a bit more exploration of queerness in the book. Alderman touches on girls born without the power and what that means for them, and on boys who have it, and there are illusions to same-sex relationships, and I would have liked to see that more fully developed. On the whole, this is an awesome and important book and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
This book was given to me by the author. This summer I went on an Arvon course on Science Fiction and Fantasy writing led by Emma Newman and Peter Newman. The week is mornings of workshops, afternoons of working on your project, and evenings of readings. On the first evening the tutors read from their own work and then generously gave us each a copy of one of their novels.
After Atlas by Emma Newman is set in an frighteningly plausible future dominated by corporations where advertising is omnipresent and indentured servitude has made a return. Carlos Moreno is a detective, but he is indentured. He has a contract which he has to work off before he can be free. In this story, Carlos is asked to investigate the murder of the leader of a cult called the Circle, from which Carlos escaped when he was 18. It was this escape that led to his capture and slavery. Returning to the Circle to solve the case stirs up a lot of memories, and the cult is not what he thought it was.
The future imagined in this book is an extrapolation of neo-liberal economics and its impact on democracy and any parts of life that are not economic. It is extremely unequal and highly surveilled. Almost nothing a person does goes unnoticed and privacy is reserved for the very rich. I liked the way it was handled and found it believable. I think the question of the balance of convenience and privacy is interesting. The concept of privacy is really a quite modern one. Centuries ago when people lived and worked in the same place all their lives everyone in the village knew everyone else’s business. Living in cities has given us a sense of anonymity that we’ve grown used to and are reluctant to give up.
The other thing I liked about this book is that it is a diverse cast of characters at all levels. A lot of this was done in a quite subtle way and I was a good way through the book before I realised it.
After Atlas is a science-fiction crime thriller, a genre of which I’m fond. It’s fun, and while it touches on some quite serious and weighty topics, it does so with a very light hand. Emma Newman is a good writer and this is an easy and engaging read. I liked it a lot.