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The Starless Sea

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

The Starless Sea

A few years ago, I burned through The Night Circus in a day.

I adored Erin Morgenstern’s nighttime world, where glass-shard ruthlessness saves a love story from being sticky sweet. I loved the in-world-game-as-antagonist construct, the wonder of the gameplay transformed into love letters, the lush language. It’s the sort of book I’ve never revisited, for fear of shattering that singular, perfect reading experience.

On December 14, 2019, I started The Starless Sea, Morgenstern’s newest. On January 7, 2020, I finished The Starless Sea. I took so long to read The Starless Sea that it had three boarding passes in it before I was through.

I could make many excuses: work, the holidays, exhaustion, not the right time or the right place—though, please, a plane is always the right place. But let’s get real: I read three books a week. If I’d loved The Starless Sea, or even liked The Starless Sea, I would have finished it in December. The middle of December.

Curioser and curioser.

The Starless Sea is Morgenstern’s paean to readers. To those who love stories. To those who take a book everywhere. It’s about the power of stories—but not stories qua stories, rather the power of stories as given to them by readers.

Every ounce of power in this book—every decision, every act, every love—is clasped in the hands of someone who loves to read books.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a master’s student in the field of video games, with a focus on video games as storytelling devices. His mother is a fortune teller; his father is absent. He lives, as far as one can tell, a completely unremarkable, issue-free life. He studies video games, teaches his students, spends a lot of time in the library.

As far as Zachary Ezra Rawlins is concerned, his story starts with a book he stumbles across in the library, a very old book, with a chapter about him—and a painted door he encountered, but did not try to open, as a child. But the story is much, much older than that, as Zachary Ezra Rawlins is about to discover. And thus, begins a portal fantasy to end all portal fantasies—if only because it references Narnia, Wonderland, and all the rest. It’s a very self-aware sort of paean.

So Zachary Ezra Rawlins—so sorry to belabor the point of his cumbersome name, but the book does and so, by God, shall I—starts a DaVinci Code-style adventure, following keys and bees and amorphous clues to a party in New York where he meets a woman dressed as Max, King of the Wild Things, and a man in the dark who makes Zachary Ezra Rawlins’s world turn upside down. And unlike the painted door encountered in his youth, adult Zachary stumbles through a new painted door, into a vestibule with an elevator, and down down down to a foyer with a cup that says, inevitably, “Drink Me.” There are also dice. Zachary rolls the dice. You think this means something, and it probably does, but it’s never quite clear.

And so Zachary enters the Harbor, a labyrinthine, library-filled maze of stories in books and stories on ribbons and stories on shrouds and stories in candies and stories whispered in hallways and also cats. Ancient history is hinted at, clues continue to appear, and as a reader, you’re vaguely annoyed—as is Zachary Ezra Rawlins—at being pulled away from all these things to read.

Where the book lost me is exactly where the book should have snatched me up by the throat and held me captive to its wonder and delight.

Interspersed with chapters about Zachary Ezra Rawlins and his floundering quest to, ultimately, save the Harbor (this is not a spoiler because, in a world populated with supreme knowledge of both Narnia and Wonderland, what else would this book be about?) are smatterings of tales. About Time and his love of Fate. About the Moon and the Sun—and their secret meeting at an inn. About the Owl King, or several Owl Kings, sometimes it’s hard to tell. About bees. So many bees.

And as we journey along with Zachary Ezra Rawlins and Max and the man in the dark, of course this is all a single tale: Zachary meets Fate and Time and the Moon and the Owl King. And the bees. And, of course, there’s a happy ending for Zachary and his man in the dark.

But I cared about so very little of it. I wish on a thousand blown dandelions that Morgenstern had told the entire story of Fate and Time and the rest up front, or in larger pieces between her acts, and not in the tiniest of confusing snippets between every two-page chapter of Zachary Ezra Rawlins stumbling through life not dissimilarly to how I stumbled through this book: confused, overwhelmed, and vaguely annoyed. (SPOILER) And when Zachary Ezra Rawlins dies toward the end of the book, by his love’s own hand, I could only think: Thank God. But of course two pages later he’s hanging out with the bees and by the end, there is a happy ending. (END SPOILER)

Ultimately, The Starless Sea drowned under the weight of its own storytelling. Is the pirate a pirate or a metaphor? Is Max a monster or a woman? Why has the inn moved to God-knows-where in the ancient layers of the Harbor? How do you sail a boat through honey? I just…couldn’t.

But I kept reading all the way to the end, lured on by love of The Night Circus and my certainty that surely, surely a woman who loves reading so much as to write a book about the power of readers would have an earth-shattering, starlight-beautiful denouement. But there…wasn’t. The point was the journey, not the mystery or the resolution. The point was the description-laden prose. The pirate-as-metaphors. The exquisite world in the dark by the honeyed, starless sea. The stories on ribbons and shrouds and candies.

In hindsight, what I really wanted was the story of Fate and Time, in this lush world of wonder. In a novella.


By day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and practices transactional and intellectual property law as an executive vice president for a media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape and plans Sirens and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

Autism in Seven of Nine – Mette Ivie Harrison

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Mette Ivie Harrison!

Autism in Seven of Nine

When I throw my autism diagnosis into a social situation like a bomb, which is apparently the only way I know how to offer it, the most common response is “You can’t be autistic.” I’m too empathetic. I’m too successful. I’m too smart. I’m too, well, normal. But all of that is “masking.” If you were told for so many years that it’s mostly boys who are diagnosed with autism, it turns out this was only because girls weren’t being given attention. Just like women with heart attacks, the symptoms present differently, and that means that a lot of so-called “high-functioning” autistic women are now being diagnosed in our forties and fifties, after we figured out for ourselves why social interaction is so difficult, why we’re accused of being “cold” or “unemotional” or “masculine,” what meltdowns look like for us, and why we’re always apologizing for everything as we’ve been trained to do both as women and as autists.

Traits of autism include:

  • Lack of social reciprocity
  • Repetitious behavior
  • Intense focus on unusual subjects
  • Difficulty with change/rigidity
  • Unusual use of language
  • Blunt honesty
  • Lack of eye contact/facial expression/body language
  • A sense of apartness from the rest of society
  • Sensory issues
  • Difficulty with touch and other intimacy

When I first went in for an official diagnosis, the assessment from the clinician was incredibly painful to read over. Here is what she said of me:

[Mrs. Harrison] described a need for solitude as she can become overstimulated with sounds and smells. She takes earplugs with her everywhere and has always hated perfumes and common cleaning products. She also described a sensitivity to medication, for example, she has tried antidepressants, but experienced vomiting after taking them. She also cannot tolerate Novocain and becomes overly ill with any use of prescription pain medications. Additionally, Mrs. Harrison described a dislike for touch and noted that this can make relationships difficult as she feels she needs a concrete rule for the frequency of things like holding hands or hugging her husband.

Mrs. Harrison demonstrated the following concerns in her social affect:

  • Rapid speech with limited variation in pitch
  • Formal use of words and phrases
  • No response to examiner’s social leads
  • Limited or uncomfortable response to examiner’s comments
  • One-sided conversation
  • Inconsistent eye contact with difficulty modulating with other means of communication
  • Limited range of facial expressions
  • Reduced integration of gesture, gaze and facial expression
  • Reduced demonstration of shared enjoyment
  • Somewhat awkward social response
  • Reduced amount of reciprocal social communication

As I’ve tried to deal with what I now realize is society’s disgust with autism, I’ve recognized a lot of self-hatred in my autistic traits, despite the fact that they are, in fact, what has led to being as successful as I am.

If I didn’t have an intense focus and a lack of interest in social interaction, I wouldn’t have graduated with an MA at age 19 nor would I have gotten a perfect score on the GRE and gone to Princeton for a PhD, where I graduated at age 24. I wouldn’t have been able to manage a writing career with five children in which I’ve published fifteen books since 2002. I wouldn’t be an All-American triathlete.

Part of my self-healing has been going back to my childhood heroes, among them Spock from the original Star Trek series, who is, in my opinion, a hidden depiction of autism. Later in life, I found Seven of Nine, who, whatever the intention was, interacts in the world in a particularly autistic way. I love her characterization, even if I struggle with people who say that she is “learning to be human again.” No.

Seven is already human. Autistic people are human. I am human, and I’m on a quest to make the world accept autism in all its variety as fully and authentically human.

Go back and rewatch any episode with Seven of Nine from Voyager and this time think of someone you know who is autistic. Notice the similarities? Like Spock, Seven seems uncomfortable in her own body. She has an uprightness to her posture, a lack of facial expression other than a minimal curiosity. She doesn’t do Spock’s raised eyebrow, but something more like a tilt of her head. Look at the way she walks, as well. It isn’t very feminine, with much hip sway. She walks in a rather masculine way, which reminds me of the many times I’ve been told to act more feminine in one way or another. I do not understand gender and it seems Seven of Nine does not either.

Notice also how Jeri Ryan holds herself apart from the other actors on screen. When she’s in a scene, she tends to take it over. The camera focuses on her. But it’s rarely a warm, emotional moment. Occasionally, she has something like that with Captain Janeway, but even then it tends to be understated. There’s no hugging, weeping, or other obvious displays of emotion.

Watching her, I feel very much like I’m seeing myself on the screen. I have emotions, but they don’t appear in ways that other people recognize as emotional. I might shake slightly or start to sweat when I’m sad or angry. Other people would shout, and their faces would show emotion. It’s also true that Seven, like me, tends to misread or misunderstand people’s expressions or body language. It could be argued that this is because she’s never had a reason to learn to read that, because she’s connected to the Collective and gets direct information that way. But it’s also a kind of unconscious depiction of autism.

I was surprised at what I thought was an autistic response when Seven tasted food for the first time. I don’t like trying new food (I don’t like surprises in general), but when I do try new food, my first reaction is often a visceral one like Seven’s disgust. Then, perhaps, it moves to an analytical one, where I try to explain to myself how the food tastes. It’s also clear that Seven is struggling to be inside her own body, as I often feel inside of my body. Of course, there’s no way to be outside of her body, but Seven has long seen her body as a tool, a machine, and not as herself. It’s hard for her to stop thinking that way.

Whereas McCoy plays the part of the denigrating human who doubts the autist’s humanity in the original series, B’Elanna Torres, the half-human, half-Klingon engineer, plays that role in Voyager. She presses Seven to express remorse or guilt about her experiences killing others or assimilating them while she was part of the Borg. Seven says “no,” and B’Elanna says, “That’s it? Just no?” Seven asks, “What further answer do you require?” And then she says, “Guilt is irrelevant,” which incenses B’Elanna but from my perspective is just the reality. Guilt will not change what happened when she was a Borg.

Seven says of humans, “You are erratic. Conflicted. Disorganized. Every decision is debated, every action questioned, every individual entitled to their own small opinion. You lack harmony, cohesion, greatness.” I’m reminded of this every time I’ve tried to work with a committee. What Seven says is exactly how I feel about “talking” things over. It’s inefficient, a waste of time. Snap! Can we move to the part where we have a list I can focus on?

As for Seven’s sense of humor, it is also very autistic by my reading. Seven says, “I understand the concept of humor. It may not be apparent, but I am often amused by human behavior.” Seven is outside of normal society, which enables her to see things in some ways more clearly. She also sometimes makes us laugh at ourselves at her acute but quirky realizations, such as when she says, “Love bears a striking similarity to disease. A series of biochemical responses that trigger an emotional cascade impairing normal functioning.”

Seven struggles also with how to be “human.” It seems she wants a rulebook, something that I have often wished for. If you could just explain all the rules to me, then I could follow them. But the rules are always changing, and no one wants to admit they are what they really are, because they make no sense and they’re different for everyone. I love that in one of her first episodes, Seven says to Janeway, “I don’t understand the rules and procedure for this type of social occasion.” The audience laughs because there’s no book on this. Of course there isn’t! But in fact, most of my life has been taken up with trying to create just such a book. That’s what a lot of my writing is, my analysis of how humans interact.

I love the scene where Seven is trying to be social with the other crew members by simply asking them a list of questions, letting them have a very brief response, and then moving on to the next question. If the point of asking questions is to get answers, then she is doing it exactly right. But the point of asking questions in social situations is something else, something far more difficult to explain. There is also a fine irony in the Doctor, who is a holographic computer program and no more human than Seven is, being the one to try to explain humanity to her, because he is apart from it, as well. Being removed actually does make us acute observers. We’re the only ones who can explain the rules because they don’t make sense to us, either.

Being autistic is a wonderful variation in humanness, not something that makes us different or in need of teaching to be human.

Seven learns things, but is she ever less herself? I would argue not. And in the same way, I have no need for a “cure” for autism. I have always lived in the world in this way and I think it’s a good way. I think I have things to teach the rest of you about yourselves, and about me. I think all autists do.

 


Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison (she/her) has published numerous YA fantasies, including the award-winning and acclaimed Mira, Mirror, and The Princess and the Hound. In 2014, Harrison began to publish mysteries for adults with Mormon amateur sleuth Linda Wallheim in The Bishop’s Wife. She continues to publish the Linda Wallheim series while also publishing essays on Mormonism and the post-Mormon life on Huffington Post, Religious News Service and Medium. She currently works as fiction editor for The Exponent II. She was diagnosed with autism in January of 2017 and writes about autism.

 

Unsex Me Here: Gender, Power, and Villainy

In Act I, Scene v of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth learns three things in quick succession: that a trio of witches has prophesied her husband’s rise to Thane of Cawdor and later king; that her husband has, as prophesied, already been made Thane of Cawdor; and that the king will visit her house that night. Seeing an opportunity to bring the rest of the prophecy to pass, she—one of literature’s most infamous villains—gives her first great, bloody, fanged speech.

And in that speech, she laments her gender.

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect, and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief.
– Act I, Scene v of Macbeth

Gender and villainy—and relatedly, redemption—is a fraught topic, one full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes.

In the wake of Lady Macbeth’s yearning to be free of her gender so that she might take the action—killing the king—necessary to feed her ambition, Macbeth progresses, and we come to a tired realization: One of literature’s greatest villains isn’t so villainous at all. She shames her husband into killing the king, but never wields the knife. Her bloody hands are born of framing the guards, not murder. She’s not, frankly, guilty of much more than a bit of nagging and bloodying up some already dead men.

In the absence of her hand in regicide or other dastardly deeds, we can conclude only that Lady Macbeth’s villainy, as it were, is her female ambition, a shocking defiance of societal stereotypes. Women are meant to be silent, not assertive; passive, not dominant; happy as a wife, not yearning to be queen. Lady Macbeth’s villainy is nothing more—or less—than the intersection of her gender and her thus-forbidden aspirations.

For that defiance, Lady Macbeth is punished. And as with so many female villains, her punishment comes in the forcible relinquishment of any power she may have: in Lady Macbeth’s case, her descent into madness, her frantic scrubbing of her outsized guilt from her hands. By the time we reach Act V, her husband, too, is well and truly mad, but his power grows alongside his madness. Note, too, the difference in their deaths: her presumed suicide off-stage contrasts with Macduff’s parading her husband’s severed head around for all to see. His ending is suitable for a great villain; hers is an afterthought, a mere footnote highlighting her apparent irrelevance now that she’s properly lamented her unwomanly ambition. Ah, Shakespeare…


To deconstruct female and nonbinary villainy you must, in many ways, start with male heroism—and the inexorable notion that male heroism is fundamentally based on performative hypermasculinity: physical prowess, superpowers, and future tech that enable physical dominance. In 2019, Sirens examined heroism and what it means for women and nonbinary folks to be heroes in a world where the very definition of “hero” is “illustrious warrior.” The societal construct of heroism was designed for cisgender men, and all too often, the notion of heroism as applied to anyone else is absurdly limiting, frequently available only to white cisgender women with swords—and even then generally requiring passive, sacrificial, or even charitable underpinnings.

Given this gendered dichotomy in heroism, you would be right to expect a similar dichotomy in villainy. As the tests for male heroism tend to be forgiving, rewarding hypermasculinity rather than treating aggression and violence as disqualifying, the tests for male villainy are certainly not as simple as “Have you killed anyone?” or “Do you want to be king?” Male heroes, indeed, have killed someone and they of course want to be king. Instead, the test of male villainy seems to be one of either intent or unfairness/mass harm. Do you intend to be villainous? Or are you just misunderstood? Do you perpetuate harm? The right sort of harm? Certainly, perpetuating the white heteropatriarchy is not the right sort of harm. You begin to see how difficult it is to qualify as male villain….

By contrast, it’s all too easy to for everyone else qualify as a villain. Given that everyone else’s heroism is so limited, and often requires a sacrifice, creating female and nonbinary villainy is often as simple as removing that sacrifice. The test is then not of intent or perpetuating unfairness or mass harm, but rather of defiance or power. Lady Macbeth’s villainy was never truly about nagging or planting knives on the guards—or if you want to get technical, co-conspiracy—but about both her refusal to operate within the boundaries prescribed for women and her active seeking of power.

All of this is, of course, by heteropatriarchal design: the overwhelmingly demanding test for female and nonbinary heroism, the seemingly accidentally but meticulously planned casting of all other women and nonbinary folks as villains, the notion that even women who are too effective at reinforcing gender roles are villainous.

Defiance. Ambition. Power. The three things most dangerous to the heteropatriarchy are conveniently the three things that will inevitably cast a female or nonbinary character as a villain.


Villainy, of course, prompts the question of redemption. Because we live in a world of good versus evil, and because we see ourselves as good, we always want to give evil a choice and a chance: redeem yourself or be vanquished.

But redeem yourself from what?

Presumably from that which made them villains in the first place. So male villains must be redeemed from their malicious intent and perpetuation of mass harm, while female and nonbinary villains must be redeemed from… their defiance, ambition, and power.

When you consider villain stories, redemption is a cisgender male story. In fact, women are raised to believe that they should aspire to be the sort of good woman who convinces an evil man to give up his villainous ways and settle down and, one supposes, just stop with the torture and killings. He gets to choose, this male villain, and as long as he chooses correctly, he is free to go on his merry way, terrible no more.

Female and nonbinary villains do not get to choose. Rather, as with so many things, they are forced: forced to relinquish their power, forced into death or madness, forced to be subjugated by magic or marriage or children. They must be fragile, destructible, shattered. They must be relieved of their defiance, their ambition, and their power. They must be forced back into the constraints of the heteropatriarchy.

Is it any wonder that so many of our villain stories are feminist revenge fantasies?


In 2019, Sirens examined heroes—and found societal constructs of female and nonbinary heroism unrelentingly limiting. We demanded heroism far greater than what we were permitted.

In 2020, Sirens will examine villains—and we will also demand villainy far greater than what we are permitted.

We very much hope you will join us this October.

New Fantasy Books: February 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of February 2020 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Sixteen Sirens Scholarships Funded for 2020

Sirens has a mission: to provide a welcoming space for our attendees to discuss gender and fantasy literature. As part of that mission, we specifically craft Sirens to include and amplify the many brilliant voices of our attendees. Our greatest hope is that these voices will represent a broad range of perspectives, experiences, and identities: readers, scholars, librarians, educators, publishing professionals, and authors, of course, but also individuals of different genders, sexualities, races, religions, and abilities.

This year, because of the generosity of the Sirens community, we raised the funds necessary to provide sixteen scholarships—a record number! To everyone who donated, thank you. Thank you for your financial commitment to our community and for helping make Sirens possible for certain individuals who are both critical to our conversations and who sometimes find it difficult to attend without additional support.

Each scholarship includes both a Sirens registration and a round-trip Sirens Shuttle ticket. The sixteen scholarships will be allocated as follows: four to people of color, four for exemplary programming proposals, four to those with financial hardships, and four to librarians, educators, and publishing professionals (which may be anyone from an editor to an agent to a publicist to a cover designer to a bookseller).

Sabrina Chin, January 17, 1981–October 25, 2019
Sabrina Chin, January 17, 1981–October 25, 2019

This year, we are also offering the 2020 Sabrina Chin “Braver Than You Think” Memorial Scholarships. Sabrina Chin co-chaired Sirens for a number of years before her passing in 2019, and her family has funded these scholarships to help us continue her work with Sirens. All first-time Sirens attendees and first-time presenters who receive one of our 2020 Sirens scholarships are eligible for these scholarships as well. Each of these scholarships will provide $500 for the recipient to use for expenses directly related to attending or presenting at Sirens, from travel to Sirens presentation research materials.

If you need assistance, we hope you’ll consider applying for a scholarship. We designed this program specifically to help additional voices join our conference and our community—and your voice makes Sirens more thoughtful, more vibrant, and just plain better. To apply, please visit our scholarships page.

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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