This book was praised by several people whose taste I respect as one of the best of the year, and it’s about mutants (and disabled people, mentally ill people, and gender-nonconforming people) living in the sewers in a world that hates and fears them. It sounded right up my alley. It’s certainly ambitious, different, and thoughtful. But (you knew this was coming) nowhere near as much to my taste as I expected.

Matthew, the the community Teller (storyteller/historian) and the first child ever to be born in Safe, the sewer home of mutants (Cursed) and disabled (Sick) people who have fled Above due to persecution by Whitecoats (the medical and psychiatric establishment), has the scales down his back and claws on his feet, but he can hide them to Pass. You may see one of my issues already: an overabundance of Capitalized Words. This seems minor, but it’s distracting when there are several in one sentence, and there often were.

He is in love with and lives with Ariel, the beautiful bee-winged woman whom he took into Safe, but whose mental illness manifests in constantly weeping and running away. One night the spooky, shadow-controlling Corner, the only mutant to ever be exiled from Safe, returns and slaughters everyone in sight. Matthew, Ariel, and two others flee Safe for the terrifying Above, take refuge in the home of a doctor who knows about Safe, and… don’t do all that much for quite some time, other than hang out and contemplate their problems and how they arose, and their personal history and the history of Safe.

Incidentally, this is marketed as a YA novel. I am baffled by this. While many adults will (and do) love it, I think it’s a rare teenager who would. Also, I don’t recall if we’re ever told Matthew’s age, but if he is a teenager, that’s not essential to the story. He could easily be in his early twenties.

The book is told in Matthew’s semi-illiterate steam-of-consciousness narrative. It’s well-done and sometimes quite poetic, but it also had the effect of removing nearly everything I was interested in from the narrative. I wanted to know all about the mutant ensemble at Safe; Matthew already knows them all so well that, with a few exceptions, he doesn’t bother describing their mutations or personalities in much detail. I wanted scenes which revealed character and setting; Matthew, a Teller, was big on tell not show. I wanted to be able to follow what was going on; Matthew was extremely naïve and often confused. I wanted to know more about Ariel; Matthew idealized her as his beautiful, fragile love-object. This was all, or at least mostly, clearly a deliberate choice by Bobet, but it had the effect of making all the characters seem paper-thin (since Matthew didn’t understand them) and much of the action and motivations confusing or glossed over.

The politics came through loud and clear, but since that was the only thing that did, that ended up taking over the story. If you want to read a fantasy which carefully and thoughtfully deals with disability issues, mental illness issues, ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia, domestic violence, gender issues, intersex issues, and the persecution of people outside of the norm by the medical and psychiatric establishment, and the point made that some disabilities and illnesses really do need medical treatment and that separatism is not necessarily the answer and that you can still be unhealthily paranoid even if people really are after you, Above is for you. If you want to read about mutants in the sewers, it’s not really about that.

Above
smw: A woman sits at a typewriter, pages flying, a plug in the back of her awesomely big-curly hair. (Default)

From: [personal profile] smw


Curious. I'm waffling about whether investing time in something of this description. My first reaction was to be excited over mutants in the sewers, but maybe knowing that's not the main focus would prep me to enjoy the read.

From: [identity profile] swan-tower.livejournal.com


I heard her read part of this out loud at . . . World Fantasy? (Were you the one who came with me to the reading? I can't even remember. Wow. Somebody was with me, but I have no memory of who.) I really liked what I heard of it there -- but your comments ring a bell. There was a lot of introspection, which wasn't a problem in that excerpt, but I could see getting tired of it if there isn't enough other stuff to leaven it. (And of course, listening instead of reading, I did not have to see all the Capitalized Words littering the text.)

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


That wasn't me, but I bet I would have liked it better read aloud. I picked it up on the premise (mutants on the sewers) plus the unusual voice in the first chapter I read (via Kindle.) But the voice ended up getting very monotonous.

There were way more capitalized words in the book than the ones I mentioned in the review. As far as I could tell, things either specifically associated with Above or specifically associated with Safe (as opposed to present in both places) were capitalized: Freak, Beast, Normal, Dealer, Doctor, Company, etc.

From: [identity profile] swan-tower.livejournal.com


Ouch. Yeah, that gets distracting really, really fast.

I wonder if there's an audiobook?

From: [identity profile] tavella.livejournal.com


the sewer home of mutants (Cursed) and disabled (Sick) people who have fled Above due to persecution by Whitecoats (the medical and psychiatric establishment)

That line alone would make me flee the other direction, honestly. Especially in regards to mental illness; from my experience dealing with such, most mentally ill people are persecuted by their own bodies and chemistry, and the fact that our methods of dealing with such are still incredibly primitive.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


That gets undermined to some extent by the end of the book (and I knew that going in, or I probably would have gotten too annoyed to finish.) But it's definitely more a polemic about the evils of ableism and unethical medical and psychiatric practices than it is about the modern experience of mental illness.

It's also not set in our world, exactly; this wasn't really clear, but I think what Bobet did was to take some unethical medical/psychiatric practices which used to happen but don't any more, some which do still happen now, and some which happen now but in different contexts than what occurs in the book, and mash it all together.


From: [identity profile] melebeth.livejournal.com


Yes, yes, yes. I read this a few days ago, and I was vastly underwhelmed, largely for the reasons you describe.

From: [identity profile] thecityofdis.livejournal.com


Interesting - thanks for this! Above has been on my TBR list for a while but it doesn't really sound like my thing, so I may give it a pass based on this.

I also tend to not get along with prose that is overstylized, which is sounds like this might be... BLOOD RED ROAD is in my tbr pile and I have reservations about it for that same reason.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


This is more stylized and harder to read than Blood Red Road. Here's a sample:

She looks back over her shoulder, hair whipping to and fro, and for a second the red clears and it’s oh god bee’s-wings, candle flame, everything good and clean and sweet in the world touching gentle on my eyes and nose and lips. Then she looks back at me with red-lined eyes and a tight-lined face and it’s gone, that thing that lights without burning, that thing that makes me want to touch her cheek soft nighttimes. She lowers her chin even more than it’s tilted down. Hiding.

From: [identity profile] thecityofdis.livejournal.com


... yeah, I don't think I could take a whole page of that.

Thanks for the heads-up! :)
nonny: (Default)

From: [personal profile] nonny


I actually was just trying to read this book. It was pretty frustrating. The overuse of capitalized words annoyed me, plus that most of the worldbuilding wasn't explained outright. It was inferred, but I -- argh -- I'm one of those people who can come up with five different interpretations and I like having actual set explanations. -_-

I also really disliked the way that the main character was clearly putting Ariel on a pedestal, but that may just be my issues, growing up with a dad that had a very serious case of madonna/whore syndrome.
ext_2507: Green-jacketed library books (Default)

From: [identity profile] rosefox.livejournal.com


It wasn't just you. I found it very frustrating that Ariel is never permitted personhood--not by doctors, not by Matthew, not by the book.

My notes from my reading log:

"Oh, I wanted to like the plot so much more than I did! The language is superb. The obsessive objectification of the hero's love interest (can't call her a heroine)... less so. A for effort, though."
nonny: (Default)

From: [personal profile] nonny


I only got about fifty pages in. Between the not-explanations and the very clear madonna/whore syndrome... I just, no. It sucks because speaking as somebody with physical disabilities and mental illness, I REALLY want to see more characters with disabilities and stuff, but... this just really put me off. :(
ext_2507: Green-jacketed library books (Default)

From: [identity profile] rosefox.livejournal.com


Matthew is supposed to be 17 or 18, I think. It is in the text somewhere. But I didn't at all believe in him being a teenager, not the way he's written, so it was kind of irrelevant.

I was really annoyed that (spoilers!) the intersex? genderqueer? genderless? character is also the psychotic killer who Just Wants to Be Loved.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com

SPOILERS!


It was was unfortunately similar to the "Psycho [some kind of oppressed gender identity] Killer trope." (Intersex, in this case. I think.)

(I think Bobet intended that character to end up seeming sympathetic and somewhat justified. But I don't think being oppressed, dumped, and even framed for murder and exiled gives one the right to randomly slaughter hapless bystanders.)

On the one hand, everyone in Safe was some kind of oppressed minority, so the villain had to be as well. On the other hand, the villain could have simply been a mutant whose particular oppression doesn't exist in the real world.
ext_2507: Green-jacketed library books (Default)

From: [identity profile] rosefox.livejournal.com

Re: SPOILERS!


There were lesbians who were allowed to be just regular people! Hooray! Maybe in thirty years there will be YA where the intersex/genderqueer characters are also allowed to be just regular people!

From: [identity profile] daedala.livejournal.com


Reaaaaaaally?

Bobet has had that problem before, IIRC. She promised to do better. :(

From: [identity profile] ceitidh.livejournal.com


She wrote a December 2011 episode of the Shadow Unit serial with another killer who was (explicitly) transsexual and killing other trans people out of jealousy about not being allowed to transition:

http://wiki.shadowunit.org/index.php/Five_Autopsies
http://www.shadowunit.org/autopsies.html (plenty of triggers for violence, transphobia, etc.)
http://www.shadowunit.org/smf/index.php?topic=1340.20;wap2 (people criticizing its problems and others defending it)

She apologized later and seemed to get it, but her good intentions of doing an after school special about trans people kind of went horribly wrong. For bonus Unfortunate Implications she gave the mutant a power that inflicts telekinetic violence akin to beating someone from the inside (horrible symbolism) and had main characters misgendering victims at autopsy time. I wrote a few comments at the time debunking the Psycho Trans Killer meme Hollywood & slasher book authors are so fond of since people brought up the Ed Gein murders with the thoroughly wrong claims that he was a frustrated transsexual. Would it be appropriate to post a cut down version of that here?

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Unscreened. Sorry about that - LJ auto-screened it due to too many links.

From: [identity profile] inaurolillium.livejournal.com


"Five Autopsies" (http://www.shadowunit.org/autopsies.html) from Shadow Unit is the other place she had the problem, and is, if anything, worse, because [SPOILERS] the killer and victims actually are trans women, explicitly so, and there's some fucked-up pronoun stuff and more. I assume there's stuff on the SU boards about it, though I couldn't point you to it. I did have a private conversation with Leah about it, and tried to educate her. She seemed to get it, and that was one of the places she said she'd do better next time.

Above, however, is actually the previous time, as it was written first. It looks like it's after because of publishing lag, which SU has almost none of.

ETA: Forgot the link.
Edited Date: 2012-05-14 02:49 am (UTC)

From: [identity profile] ceitidh.livejournal.com


[Triggers: violence and transphobia]

I replied with more info and links, but it's caught in moderation due to the spam filter triggering on links to the Shadow Unit web-serial site. If you want to google it the story was an episode entitled "Five Autopsies" that she completed after "Above" featuring a trans serial killer who'd been denied transition and killed other trans women out of jealousy with a mutant power that basically beat them to death from the inside (a metaphor with more than a few Unfortunate Implications). The intent was clearly to dramatize the suffering of trans women denied transition, but it ended up perpetuating both the "psycho trans serial killer" trope Hollywood is so enamoured of (viz. "Silence of the Lambs", various interpretations of the crossdressing in "Psycho", etc.) and the trans women as murder victims trope that's even more common. For added fun viewpoint characters who knew the difference misgendered throughout. The whole thing was a classic example of a cis person who's got some idea of the issues and a degree of sympathy not thinking things through far enough and operating within a societal framework of transphobia with the added bonus of reinforcing the thoroughly debunked idea of trans women as serial killers (Ed Gein & co. having been rather a lot _not_ what the public perception has become). For the discussion googling "4x02 "Five Autopsies"" should get you it as the first hit, if not "Shadow Unit" and possibly "smf" will narrow it down.

Bobet's handling of the whole thing was actually rather better than you might expect - she listened to the criticism, acknowledged their truth, and apologized apparently sincerely. There was more than a little fail on the part of the usual Emma Bull/Elizabeth Bear-associated crew including He Who Shall No Be Named, but Leah herself wasn't really part of that and a decent number of people put time and effort into education and pushing back.
ext_2507: Green-jacketed library books (Default)

From: [identity profile] rosefox.livejournal.com


Thanks! I got an emailed copy of the original comment and followed the links. Very informative.

From: [identity profile] ceitidh.livejournal.com


Yay! I kind of hate not linking to primary sources, so it was mildly frustrating. The rest of the discussion was sadly on locked journal posts, so I can't provide anything more there.

If you're interested in evidence for debunking the trope next time it surfaces, the most relevant paper is K.E. Sullivan's "Ed Gein and the figure of the transgendered serial killer". It's a horrifying read even at that somewhat academic remove, but it's pretty thorough on both research & citations as well as entirely damning. The whole association of his murderous behavior with anything transgender appears to have been largely made up out of whole cloth by people who were not directly involved in the case and contradicts the actual psychological assessments and the available evidence.
(deleted comment)

From: [identity profile] ceitidh.livejournal.com


It actually goes into more detail on the handling of such things in "The Silence of the Lambs" and is mostly non-graphic, but yeah, even so it was a hard read. I was still surprised since though I know Hollywood loves to work the different == evil and trans == sexually disturbed angles I hadn't realized just how thoroughly it was a fabrication. With that debunked I'm pretty sure that there's never been a serial killer who could plausibly be identified as trans, but then again given the small percentage odds are we wouldn't have had one yet. Meanwhile there have been multiple serial killers who targetted (and currently in South America _are_ targetting) trans women, mostly of color. *sigh*
Edited Date: 2012-05-15 03:04 am (UTC)
(deleted comment)

From: [identity profile] vom-marlowe.livejournal.com


That's as bad as ROCKS FALL EVERYONE DIES.

What is it with the lesbian sad endings, dammit. ARRRGH.
(deleted comment)

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


It reminds me of the ending to a certain anime in which the characters escape an apocalypse in a Jeep, and then most of them get out to stretch their legs and celebrate their good fortune... and then there's an earthquake and the character still in the jeep is dropped off a cliff to her death. (And then the villain catches up and kills everyone else.)

From: [identity profile] inaurolillium.livejournal.com


Hey! Bisexual! Don't invisible the nice bisexual woman just because she's with another woman!

Yeah, I had a lot of emotional investment wrapped up in Daphne. When she went, I lost most of the investment I had in the series -- and I had a lot. I still read it, but not very closely, and I care a lot less.
(deleted comment)

From: [identity profile] inaurolillium.livejournal.com


Nah, she was already dating Tricia when the series started. But as a bi woman in a same-sex relationship, I get a little personally twitchy about it. I'm still peeved that Whedon insisted that Willow was a lesbian -- excuse me, "gay" -- rather than acknowledging her bisexuality.

But yeah. They drove their black woman crazy, gave severe physical trauma to their black and multiracial men, and killed their queer woman. It gets to be a bit much after a while. But Daphs was the big one for me. :(

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com

Shadow Unit SPOILERS


Does the series have any straight white male characters who could be driven mad, killed, or otherwise tormented? That is, are the minority characters treated more harshly by the storyline, or, like Above, is everyone some kind of oppressed minority?

From: [identity profile] inaurolillium.livejournal.com

Re: Shadow Unit SPOILERS


They have exactly one straight white guy, Solomon Todd. To whom lots and lots of weird stuff has happened, but so far nothing hugely traumatic during the course of the series. Chaz sometimes passes as white, and Brady usually passes as straight. Of everybody, Chaz has had the most massive trauma short of actually dying.

From: [identity profile] inaurolillium.livejournal.com


Above was written before "Five Autopsies", so it's not a case of her going back on that, it's a case of publishing lag. Sad to see her use it twice, though.
.

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