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Arabella of Mars, by David D. Levine - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Arabella of Mars, by David D. Levine [Jul. 13th, 2016|05:49 am]
Marissa Lingen
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Review copy provided by Tor Books


David is one of those lovely people on the border of friend and acquaintance. He is certainly the close friend of several of my close friends. I wanted to make sure to get this book read and reviewed when it was coming out, even though it arrived at an inconvenient time, because I like David personally and want to see him do well, and he’s gone through some incredibly hard stuff the last few years.


Sometimes that kind of personal disclaimer does not fit the review that follows. I fear this is one of those times.


Look, the prose and the adventure plot flow smoothly in Arabella of Mars. It is well-written in that sense. It is a Regency adventure if Mars was part of the Regency-era British empire, if clockworks and odd gases and a crablike Martian race were part of the world in which the British were fighting Boney. The adventure plot is primary–the stuff about automata and Martians sort of is background–but if that’s what you want it does that thing, and there is clearly more, it’s clearly the beginning of a series.


But it is yet another plot where the plucky heroine is being distinguished from other girls because she does not like girl stuff. This doesn’t end up looking like “be yourself, society and its gender norms are stifling” if you never have plots in which plucky boys are distinguished from other boys by not liking boy stuff. If you don’t have any other human females who are interesting people and do happen to like “girl stuff.” (In the entire book. Ever. There is one other female character who does more than scream, faint, or act annoying, and it’s another species–who gets very, very little page time.) If “girl stuff” is always and forever the same. It just ends up looking like girls and our stuff suck. Which is bad enough when it’s a woman writer who may have been smooshed by social expectations, letting her frustrations out on the page. When it’s a male writer? Sorry, but I just feel like I’ve been thrown under the bus. Or maybe I’m plucky and not like other girls because I like science and science fiction? Yeah, thanks, but don’t do me any favors–I count as a girl.


This gets worse with a passage in which Arabella decides not to fight “like a girl” but rather to fight “to win.” Despite having had a female Martian warrior as her main role model–making this kind of internalized sexism pretty odd–she associates women fighting with ineffectual scratching and hair-pulling. Not with, oh, say, fending off your rapist desperately and succeeding. So much fail. And–if this is meant to be Arabella’s internal viewpoint, if this is meant to be a devastating portrait of internalized sexism, then having any women characters at all besides Arabella herself who are effectual and interesting might be nice. Instead, no. So…yet another lesson in “being like a woman is being ineffectual, you need to be like a man to be effective and worthwhile” from Arabella of Mars. Good to know, thanks.


And it gets worse again when one her most dramatic acts of heroism is praised explicitly as being really great for a girl. This would be good for a man, but gosh, it’s really great for a girl. And again, that’s definitely something someone from a sexist culture would think. But it’s not challenged, it’s not undermined, it’s just there: yep. Arabella, really great–for a girl, I guess.


Do I seem angry? I am angry. I am angry, because I expected better. Because I am so tired of books that are fun romps being fun romps on my face in hobnailed boots.


I want David to do well. I want him to sell future books. But I want him to sell future books in which he doesn’t do this stuff over again. In which he can play with swashbuckling and clockworks and atmosphere between the planets and not have the same tired depictions of misogyny to do it. If it had been someone else, I probably would have quit reading at the halfway point, where she didn’t fight like a girl, she fought to win. But because it was David, I thought, oh, surely he’s going to flip all this on its head. Surely Arabella is going to run into some other human women who are not shrieking, sniveling incompetents. One? One other human woman? Surely the nauseating levels of internalized misogyny are not going to be consistent throughout. Surely someone who was raised by Martians will not be surprised when a Martian warrior is a woman–how completely implausible in context was that.


Be less sure than I was, friends. If you’re waiting for that, wait for the sequel. Because I still believe David Levine can do better than he did here. But if you’re going to try it….


Please consider using our link to buy Arabella of Mars from Amazon.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: arkessian
2016-07-13 11:13 am (UTC)
Thank you -- I've been in two minds about trying this. And now I'm not.

I can't remember if you've read any of Chaz Brenchley's Imperial Mars stories. This http://subterraneanpress.com/magazine/spring_2014/the_burial_of_sir_john_mawe_at_cassini_by_chaz_brenchley was one of my favourite stories of 2014.

I'm also a sucker for his Crater Schools stories via Patreon (Chalet School on Mars). I know you don't like serials until they're finished but he's including some self-contained novellas as well.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-07-13 11:33 am (UTC)
I am indeed a Patron of Chaz's Crater School project! I am reading some of the chapters when I can't stand it any more, but mostly I'm letting them pile up until there's a substantial amount to read, because you're right, serials are mostly not for me--reading a chapter at a time will drive me up a tree. So the self-contained bits, and then chunks of several chapters at once. I do put them in the book posts, since I read them on the Kindle.
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[User Picture]From: arkessian
2016-07-13 11:43 am (UTC)
Oh good, I would hate for you to be missing out on the goodness.

And this would be a good point to say as well that I really appreciate your book posts. Perhaps because we have such congruent tastes/hot buttons.

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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-07-13 11:47 am (UTC)
Thank you. That's good to hear.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2016-07-13 01:07 pm (UTC)
I have to think about why the "girl" stuff didn't bother me much in this book, when it usually does. I think it was the Jules Verne tone, and the way Levine was contrasting the constraint of the society Arabella has to join with the freedom of the Mars. Dunno. Interesting to think about, because reading your review, I'm nodding all along--in fact, some of those words in another context I would have written--but in this story, I accepted that. Hmm.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-07-13 01:21 pm (UTC)
The contrast of the constraint of the society Arabella "has" to join with the freedom of Mars doesn't get there for me for me for two reasons.

1) Even in a constrained society, people do interesting things. We see no women being interesting within constraints. We see no women other than Arabella chafing at the constraints. So she remains a Smurfette. Contrast this with, say, AS Byatt's The Children's Book and the wide, wide variety of female reactions to a constrained society therein. Not everyone in that constrained society is trying to be a particular thing--but they're not all drones and weepers.

2) The freedom of Martian society is something we actually see very little of on the page. Is it freer? or are Martian females just constrained to be warriors, put in a different kind of box that might fit them just as badly, where the Martian Arabella equivalent is a quiet, sensitive girl who would really like dancing and making tiny paintings on beverage-holders? We don't know. We don't get to spend the time with the Martians that would allow us to see. And the Martian attitude has not rubbed off on Arabella despite being raised in an incredibly formative time by a Martian. She doesn't think, "I will fight like Khema!" or "I will fight like my itkhalya!", she doesn't think of herself as fighting like a Martian or being more Martian than human or in any other way identifying with Martian culture. She identifies with men and she explicitly identifies effectiveness with men. So the supposed freedom of Martian culture ends up feeling tacked on to me, more hypothetical than the lived experience of the characters.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2016-07-13 01:33 pm (UTC)
These are all true. I think this is why I slotted this into the "in the tradition of Jules Verne" category mentally. I read a steady diet of them as a kid--for years they were the standard, and if I wanted adventuring girls, I had to either reread the Edward Eager types or write 'em myself.

The tone, the language here, threw me right back into those, and so my expectations unconsciously aligned accordingly. It wasn't until I read your review that I thought, huh, she's totally right. And why didn't it bother me? It usually does! But here . . . it didn't.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-07-13 01:57 pm (UTC)
I honestly expected that because it was David, he was doing something clever with undermining this stuff. That any minute now she was going to encounter women who were interesting, that all this internalized sexism was going to be revealed as horrible--that she would meet these women and they would be like, "Those assholes told you that act of heroism was good for a girl? Honey, let's get you AWAY FROM THEM," and they would ride off into the sunset in this mixed crew of Martians and humans of different genders that would be all piratical and awesome and some of them would have disabilities and no one would bat an eye.

Or a secret conclave of Mars-born human women. Or something. Something that would acknowledge that Jules Verne may be the tone and language that you choose but 2016 is not 1886 and there are some lines between portraying a sexist culture and doing so in a sexist way.

I think part of it is that I have been reading both more women of that period and more women writing about that period. So even when my expectations go back...they don't go back.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2016-07-13 04:25 pm (UTC)
No, he pretty much follows the old school plot in this one, however, the second book (I saw his rough draft) has a lot more interesting female characters doing interesting things.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-07-13 04:33 pm (UTC)
That's a relief.
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[User Picture]From: athenais
2016-07-13 08:25 pm (UTC)
Oh no, how disappointing. I ordered it because friend's first novel sale, one orders the novel, naturally. But I am surprised, I would not have thought a book by David would be so sexist. I will still read it and hope it is entertaining more than frustrating. I do not hold high hopes now.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-07-13 08:26 pm (UTC)
I was also surprised.
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[User Picture]From: uneasy_spirit
2016-07-14 01:02 am (UTC)
That's very depressing, but good to learn before I actually bought the book. I just read the post about the book over at Scalzi's Whatever and thought it looked like fun, so I'd wishlisted it. (Too many books in the TBR pile to buy more for a while.) I guess I'll wait until the sequel comes out and find out if that sufficiently redeems this one. I'm just so tired of the whole "girly things are bad" trope.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-07-14 01:42 am (UTC)
Sherwood makes me hopeful about the sequel, above, which is a great relief.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2016-07-14 08:26 am (UTC)

Gutsy review, by Marissa Lingen

Maybe my subject line is too strong, but there's something awfully damned refreshing about someone willing to pan a friend's work, even a friend "on the border".

I know that I once pulled punches due to what was probably even a weaker border case than yours, and I regret that act of cowardice to this day. (Ironically, the author cut all ties with me immediately afterwards despite my having replaced boxing glove with a feather boa.)

(I'm not sure I've commented on your Journal before. If you're wondering, I read one of your pieces in Analog a couple of years back, and that led me here.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-07-14 11:20 am (UTC)

Re: Gutsy review, by Marissa Lingen

I'm sorry that you have regrets. Life is complicated. People are complicated. You do the best you can with what you know at the time, and next time maybe you make a different choice knowing differently, or maybe not.
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