Welcome to our latest book club! After a slight unplanned hiatus, we're back; our next discussion, at the end of this month, will be Red Shift by Alan Garner.
But our current book is Academic Exercises by K. J. Parker. Published last summer, Parker's first short story collection includes 10 fantasy stories, primarily dealing with the exploits of scholars of the Studium ("We don't do magic, there's no such thing as magic," explains the narrator of one of the stories. "Rather, we're students of natural philosophy, specializing in mental energies, telepathy, telekinesis, indirect vision. Not magic; just science where we haven't quite figured out how it works yet"), plus three related non-fiction essays. A number of the stories have been nominated for or won World Fantasy Awards, notably "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong" (2011) and "Let Maps to Others" (2012). You can read Katherine Farmar's review of the collection for us from last year. We hope you'll join us to discuss the stories further in the comments, but to kick off this discussion, the participants are:
Lila Garrott, one of the fiction editors at Strange Horizons, and a staff reviewer at Publishers Weekly. Their own fiction, poetry, and non-fiction has appeared in Not One of Us, Cabinet des Fees, Mythic Delirium, and Tor.com, and they blog at rushthatspeaks.dreamwidth.org.
Foz Meadows, the author of two YA urban fantasy novels, Solace & Grief and The Key to Starveldt, as well as a critic and blogger. She writes about tropes, pop culture, feminism, politics, and SFF at her website, Shattersnipe, writes reviews and essays for a variety of venues, including Strange Horizons, and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer last year.
T. S. Miller, a teacher of medieval literature and science fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, and a reviewer for Strange Horizons.
Secondary world fantasy appears less regularly in the short form than, say, hard science fiction, and its authors notoriously favor the sprawling multivolume saga. How does Parker make use of the medium of the short story as a vehicle for tales of a no less sprawling secondary world? What are the advantages or disadvantages of the short story for the kind of fantastic historical fiction that Parker writes? Do these relate to the role of the non-fiction essays included in the collection?
Foz Meadows: In honesty, I'm finding this a difficult question to answer: partly because I'm not convinced Parker does make good use of the short story medium, partly because I'd dispute the assertion that secondary world fantasy is less common in short form than hard SF, and partly because the secondary world in question is not only common throughout the collection, but is also the setting for some of Parker's novels, which arguably makes this a poor test case for assessing how new secondary worlds are built within the confines of individual short works. Further, I hated Academic Exercises, and am therefore struggling to define "the kind of fantastic historical fiction that Parker writes" in more objective terms than, for instance, "punishment." While I initially enjoyed the first story in the collection, "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong," the qualities which set it apart at the outset—a wry, acerbic, morally suspect narrator; academic treachery; success through malfeasance—soon became repetitious to the point of migraine. Midway through the third story, "Amor Vincit Omnia," I made a prediction: the story would end with the male narrator being feted as the result of some disreputable action, while any female characters would end up dead, dismissed, or brutalised, assuming they weren't absent altogether. I was swiftly proven right on all counts, and so became increasingly bored and frustrated when the same prediction continued to hold accurate throughout the entire collection.
To be clear: Parker is, technically speaking, a skilled writer. There's a witty appeal to the dry, conversational style affected by the narrators, and as is reflected in the accompanying essays (well, two of them, anyway; the less said about the third, the better), there's an underlying appreciation for historical detail that serves the worldbuilding well. But even though Parker is writing within the framework of an established secondary world—that is, one employed as the setting for multiple narratives, such that some readers might find it familiar—there's never a sense that the author is interested in exploring its possibilities beyond a single bland permutation. Perhaps I'd feel differently if I'd read each story in isolation, the better to judge them on their own merits, but taken collectively, their sameness renders them, not as variations on a theme, but as a theme without variation. We never see a full cross-section of Parker's world; indeed, and despite the detailed, often indulgently long asides about shipbuilding, currency, and other fascinating institutions with little to no bearing on the actual plots, I started to doubt one existed to be observed. The problem isn't that Parker has chosen to deal predominantly with academia, but that we only ever encounter the one type of academic, and as he's invariably a selfish, entitled bastard with the exact same narrative voice in every instance, I soon began to wish him ill.
To directly address the question, then: Parker uses the medium of the short story, not to explore different facets of a single world or single facets of multiple worlds, but to show us a single kind of character doing the same thing over and over. It doesn't matter that he's sometimes a musician or a politician instead of a straight academic: he's always academically trained, with the same cynical view of bureaucratic institutions, and—of course—he's always a he. Which is, I think, demonstrative of one of the chief failings of a certain type of SFFnal story: to focus on worldbuilding inanimate things, places, and systems to the exclusion of worldbuilding cultures, customs, and people, as though giving us detailed descriptions of magic systems and swords is a substitute—or even, absurdly, a synonym—for describing differences in the people who use them. In the case of Academic Exercises, this isn't a consequence of the limitations of short fiction, but rather the direct consequence of what Parker deems to be historically interesting. Like weaponry, for instance: given the inclusion of the essay "Cutting Edge Technology" about the history of swords, details of which have clearly influenced the various narratives, we're not wrong to assume that Parker is interested in writing stories with a basis in historical reality. Swords are important to Parker, and as such, the worldbuilding treats them with respect. But when it comes to areas that are apparently of less authorial interest—like women, for instance, or sex—the commitment to accuracy evaporates, leaving us with (for instance) the deeply anachronistic usage of terms like "trophy wife" and "hardcore porn" (to say nothing of "woman" being used as a synonym for "prostitute" in "Amor Vincit Omnia"), both of which date to around the 1950s, in stories whose setting is, for the large part, pre-industrial.
Which isn't to say that I think it's wrong for authors to have pet subjects or preferred areas of interest; far from it. The paradox of worldbuilding is that you can never put everything in: even if you wanted to, the story simply wouldn't have enough room, and so of course different writers will always pick a different point of focus. Rather, I'm complaining about the ease and regularity with which "historical accuracy" in a fantasy context is assumed to mean casual misogyny, the better to justify writing stories where women are absent or disempowered, despite the fact that women's roles throughout history were nowhere near this simple. Given that Parker has created a world where magic is inherently less common in women Because Biology—and where the only two male characters to sympathise with the mistreatment of female academics are both engaged in killing/abusing women for their own ends—it doesn't seem unreasonable to speculate, on the basis of this collection, that Parker is vastly less interested in female characters than in the history of the scimitar. Which, you know. Whatever floats your boat. But speaking as a female reader, you'll understand if this particular set of authorial priorities made me want set myself on fire.
T. S. Miller: I'll confess that I didn't attempt to crunch the numbers when I posed this part of the question, but I still think it's fair to say that the short story as a form has played a much more prominent role in the history of hard(er) science fiction than in the development of that strain of high(er) fantasy that emphasizes fully realized secondary worlds. Although Parker has used the same world for novels and short stories alike, Academic Exercises appears to be marketed as a standalone collection that neither requires prior familiarity with that world, nor indeed even attempts to capitalize on readers' earlier visits to it: e.g., "New Adventures in Middle-earth"; "More Tales from Earthsea"; "Bonus Anecdotes from Westeros." So, I'll say that there is something initially disorienting but also intriguing about short fiction that attempts to evoke if not fully construct a secondary world. A world as large in scope and rich in borrowed and refracted history as Parker's is the type of epic canvas on which many fantasy authors choose to write accordantly epic narratives: in that case, the purpose of the scale of the fictional world is quite obviously to tell a story of the same scale, a story about that world as an entire world. For this reason, I find Parker's efforts to write a series of quieter, more localized stories on this tremendous canvas very interesting, if not always successful; Parker seems to want to create an alternative world, piece by piece, that can replace our own entirely as the backdrop for any sort of fiction imaginable, a "big" story or a small one. On a formal level, this is interesting stuff.
Nevertheless, like Foz—if not quite with the same intensity—I found these stories difficult to like as a group, in no small part because I always sensed a certain uniformity of plot structure and narrative voice despite the centuries, continents, and unique divergences from our own world's mundane, non-magical history that separate their settings from one another and, at least to my mind, should also have imparted a radically different character to each of the stories. I also occasionally wondered whether this or that story really required Parker's fantasy world as a backdrop, or what purpose this shared world served, aesthetically or narratively; for example, we've seen narratives with the same basic plot and tone as "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong" conceived more simply as standard historical fiction (I couldn't help but compare this story to the "Letters from Zedelghem" sequence from David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and the kind of historical fiction that Mitchell pastiches in it). In other words, the question of what the fantasy world adds or doesn't add to these smaller narratives arose frequently for me, and I found myself appalled at Parker's decision to literally write female inferiority into the fabric of the fantasy world. Indeed, I kept suspecting that all of this business about women not being as effective at "natural philosophy" was somehow a joke, or that it would be proven to be a false assumption in some other story—no such luck. In short, the fantastical re-imagining of Europe that Parker's world represents could easily have altered the place of women in our own history; instead, it only reinforces it with a new and ostensibly unimpeachable justification.
A few important exceptions to the above perhaps saved the collection for me: "Let Maps to Others," while featuring a narrator with some distinct similarities to the other male academics/clerics in the collection, stands out as a brilliant riff on the fantasies of colonialism and exploration of the map-territory relation. I also couldn't imagine this story—a complex conflation of the historical "South Sea Bubble" with the history of voyages of discovery to utopias real and imagined—written in any other form or genre; here Parker's world expands in scope to accommodate the special intermingling of fact, fancy, and purely literary history on which the story relies for its effect.
Lila Garrott: I don't have an opinion about whether secondary-world fantasy appears less regularly in the short form than hard SF does, though I'd love to see somebody do some number-crunching on that, but Parker does do two things with the interlinked short stories here that I find very interesting, neither of which I have seen before.
The first is that these stories are not, necessarily, told by unreliable narrators (though the narrator of "Blue and Gold," for instance, is pretty clearly unreliable, as are some others), but none of the stories can be counted on for information that will help with parsing the world itself, because the characters in each story have a limited amount of knowledge about the world and its history. None of the faithful in the extremely established and respectable religion of the Invincible Sun we see in most of the stories would believe the narrative of "The Sun And I," wherein the church is founded by a group of con artists, but we, the readers, believe the con artists, who, after all, were there. The magical technique which must be hidden because it is such a superweapon, Lorica, in "Amor Vincit Omnia," is to the protagonist of "One Little Room An Everywhere" just a commonplace charm that everyone learns early in training, and no one in the world of the book has the capacity to notice this sort of discrepancy. Therefore the readers, if they want to put together an overarching picture, are always in the position that a lot of the book's protagonists are in, the position of piecing together huge chunks of conjecture and rationalization from faulty evidence. This also casts into doubt all of the historical anecdotes, magical lore, and general background we are told by characters in-story, because it has become clear that they are drawing on the same melange of communal folk memory, propaganda, patchy primary sources, mythologization of prominent personalities, and things which randomly turn out to be accurate that any vaguely knowledgeable person in our world would be. It's all too common in secondary-world fantasy to have a singular set of ancient prophecies, and a singular set of backstories of the ancient world, all of which turn out to have been passed down without breaks in the transmission, in a readable language, and so on, and which then proceed to be totally relevant. In the real world, if you're trying to study any given point in history, you're much more likely to have as sources one stanza of bad epic poem, two monographs on the artistic composition of an urn painting, a grammatical deconstruction of something unimportant by a writer six centuries later which just happens to contain the only surviving excerpt we have of something important in quotation, and a pile of sheep-traders' ledgers.
Consequently, I find Parker's world more believable than usual because of the specific way it is inconsistent. No single story reads as massively off when compared to the others; you can see how things changed over time. But from the inconsistencies we gain complexity. (For instance, the protagonist of “Amor Vincit Omnia” vows never to write down Lorica, and clearly does later, and then of course somebody works out a countermeasure, and then hundreds of years later it's a beginner's exercise, because that is how these things work in real life; but it is never spelled out in the text.) And I would think this was too much weight to put on the reader, in making the reader do the work of the worldbuilding, except that it is so subtle, and except that one of Parker's other themes, beyond just forcing the reader into the academic mindset of the settings and many of the protagonists, is that whatever people make up to be sufficiently plausible has a way of being close enough to true. The entire plots of both "Let Maps to Others" and "The Sun and I" are about people who think they are making things up who turn out to be correct in every single detail, and elements of this happen over and over in other stories, too. Parker is invested in the idea that a good-enough fake might as well be the real thing. (And also in the idea that an insufficiently convincing real thing might as well be fake.) Therefore, I feel we are encouraged not to worry about whatever we come up with to fill in the inconsistencies. Our speculations are better-informed than those of the characters are, certainly.
So that's one interesting thing that comes out of this format of secondary-world short stories piled on each other, and a thing you can only do by having a lot of short stories in the same world spread out over a significant chunk of historical time in-universe.
The other main thing, for me, is similar but has a different emphasis, which is that there are ways in which this world seems like an alternate history of our world and ways in which it does not. It has magic, for example, and some of the geography may or may not be different. (I haven't read anything set in this world other than this collection, so I don't know if this is clarified elsewhere.) If it is an alternate history, however, it is one with a very definite branch point, which is almost placeable from this collection, but not quite. The thing is, a chunk of the authors Parker refers to, when the characters refer to authors, are entirely real, and none of them are later than Hellenistic. I caught mentions of the Greek poet Alciphron, Psammeticus (an Egyptian king mentioned in Herodotus), and the historian Diodorus Siculus, among others. Alciphron is quoted, and attributed, correctly. The magical language is Latin, which is used correctly. In a novel, I would expect this to be explained; I would expect this to be elaborated on. The fact that half the academic background is real books and spells are cast in a real language is something a lot of people would notice, and if it did not play into the plot somehow, it could become very confusing: why do this peculiar thing if there is no clear reason to do it? But, since there is no overarching plot, and there is no reason for any of these characters to focus on this aspect (and how could there be), it's just what it is. It becomes an interesting riddle, but one which there is no pressure to solve. Which is just as well, because there isn't quite enough information to solve it, and, as I mentioned, all that we do get is somewhat unreliable. . . .
Foz Meadows: The only thing I'd add to this is that if, as Lila says, many of the scholarly notes concern real historical works and figures, then I find it telling that, even though The Art of War is referenced more than once, Parker hasn't attributed it to Sun Tzu, but has given the author a different, Latinate name ("Carnufex the Irrigator", mentioned at the end of "Illuminated")—presumably on the basis that while this invented world borrows heavily from Europe, it doesn't have an Asia. To me, this seems like a very clear and purposeful decision to erase Sun Tzu and replace him with someone from a faux-European background. And given the fact that, as you rightly point out, Parker seems to make an explicit point of not borrowing from any non-white cultures, even those which had significant contact with Europe, it's not an act that stands in isolation. Given that multiple stories in the collection reference The Art of War, and given how famous a text it is, I can't think of any other reason to include it using the original title, but not the original author, unless you were explicitly trying to sever the connection with its culture of origin.
Many of the stories in Academic Exercises explore political or moral quandries. Yet they are invariably centred on men: the position of women is relatively unexamined. When women do appear in any meaningful capacity, they are invariably pawns, victims, or villains, and almost all of them end up dead, violated, or both. Moreover, the narrative claims that women are inherently, biologically disadvantaged at magic, excluding them from the political/moral world explored. The unfairness of this is noted, but do we believe the stories merely feature a sexist world, or is the collection itself sexist? And either way, what are the consequences of framing political and moral questions almost entirely around men?
Foz Meadows: It's important to draw a distinction between stories which merely feature sexism, and those which perpetuate it. Though I obviously have a preference for narratives which actively subvert or confront sexism, a failure to do either of these things isn't automatically commensurate with being sexist, though your mileage may vary as to where this line is drawn. For instance: a story might feature a rigidly sexist society whose precepts are never questioned by the characters, yet still depict women as integral, non-stereotyped individuals within that framework. By the same token, a story might have an all-male cast, but actively challenge our concepts of masculinity. There are plenty of ways to depict a "classically" sexist society in fiction without actually being sexist, and while every attempt won't always succeed, the fact that the author has made an effort, however poor their execution, is usually evident in the text.
K. J. Parker has made no such effort.
We are told, in multiple stories, that women are biologically inferior when it comes to using magic. To quote from "A Room With A View":
Well, it’s not unheard of. Every now and then, you get a female with the talent. In my time, I may have come across half a dozen—and very competent practitioners they were too, though limited in the range of their abilities, as most of us are. Five of them were exclusively healers, and the sixth was the best water-diviner I’ve ever worked with. Women can do the job, no question about that, if they happen to have the gift. It’s just that very few of them do; the same way that not many women have genuine moustaches. Also, in women it tends to surface much later, usually around puberty. Compared to men, that’s very late, which means that by the time a woman’s finished her training, even assuming she hasn’t had to repeat a year or do retakes, she’s likely to be in her late twenties or early thirties, by which time her male contemporaries should (unless they’re no-hopers like me) be three or even four grades up the ladder. By and large, the few women we do have in the profession have a pretty rough time of it, though I can’t say I’ve lost too much sleep because of it over the years.
Ignoring the sexism of the narrator—his admission of female competence is rather undermined by the fact that he isn't bothered by the discrimination women face; this attitude is emphasised a few pages later, when he says that the reason magicians are meant to be celibate is because "when we're around women, we can't help showing off", a statement which both implicitly defines magicians as being male (and straight, of course) and blames women for male misbehaviour—there's a lot else that's wrong with this. By evoking the comparison with moustaches, Parker is suggesting the issue is not just biological, but chromosomal, presumably on the basis that this will strike the reader as realistic: male bodies do some things that female ones don't. But biological sex, as science is increasingly aware, is a spectrum rather than a binary, for humans and animals both—and even if it weren't, the world of Academic Exercises is a fictional, magical place, however strongly Parker attempts to ground it in historical details. There is no reason to make women into rare, disadvantaged practitioners of magic Because Biology unless you're looking for a quick, easy way to exclude them from the narrative—and as Parker seldom includes female characters otherwise, it doesn't seem unreasonable to conclude that this is the case. Parker wants to write about men, not women, and so has created a setting, not only where women are overwhelmingly absent, but where nobody is saddened by this fact.
Or, wait—sorry. I stand corrected. There are, in fact, two male characters who express regret and anger at the treatment of female academics and magicians, but as they both brutalise women within the text to further their own agendas—one cold-bloodedly kills his wife, while the other, somewhat bizarrely, is prepared to enslave and violate his beloved female student in order to prove female competence, which, what?—it's difficult, if not impossible, to take their claims seriously. And the rest of the time, we have women being used for sex and discarded, or killed, or otherwise abused, or possessed, or overwritten with magic—and if not, then it's only because they're absent altogether. Academic Exercises is callous in its total disregard for women, and some of the observations about gender, especially within "Illuminated," are downright unsettling—something I could easily handle, if I felt that the underlying point was to address sexism as a concept, but within that story in particular and the anthology in general, the effect was rather to make my skin crawl. Women are objectified and diminished in the text, it feels, for the sheer perverse, presumably titillating pleasure of doing so, not to make a point about dehumanisation, and as the narrative—or narratives, rather—offers nothing with which to counter the relentless asides about female inferiority, the overall effect is to build a world where women are reduced to the status of things, and where the very best they're offered is to be spoken of in patronising, benevolently sexist tones.
That being so, I'm prepared to say that Academic Exercises isn't just a collection that features sexism, but one which is, itself, sexist. Even were this not the case, the problem with—as the topic suggests—framing political and moral questions almost entirely around men is that, in doing so, we assume a universality to these issues which isn't so much human as an elision of complex humanity; as though male concerns are the only ones that matter, because they're either held in common with women or more important than those which matter to women (or anyone else, for that matter) alone. And even if Parker were attempting to construct a dialogue about, specifically, men and masculinity, the sameness of the male characters—and the sameness of their cynicisms—would render it a pretty poor affair; as, indeed, would the fact that there's nothing in the text that's deconstructive or critical of traditional masculinity. Put bluntly, the problem with centring such conversations entirely around men is the assumption, whether overt or subconscious, that men are necessarily more important or interesting, historically speaking, than women. That being so, the consequence of doing so is in the creation of collections like Academic Exercises, where, given the freedom to create an entirely new world with an entirely new history, we still end up perpetuating the same shoddy doctrines of female inferiority, not out of malice, but reflex.
T. S. Miller: I share the reservations above about Parker's very deliberate decision, first, to replicate in this fantasy world the structures of inequality that have excluded women from the political—and, I would add, intellectual/philosophical/academic—sphere throughout the history of our own world. To see Parker take the further step of insisting that those structures of inequality result strictly from biological differences between the sexes in fact shocked me very much, in no small part because in the history of the Western world the very same argument has been made again and again that women are inherently intellectually inferior to men, from the ancient Greek gymnasia to medieval scholasticism to Larry Summers. At first, I tried to understand this detail—that some (all?) male wizards/natural philosophers believe that women make for inferior wizards—as Parker's clever attempt, by importing and even literalizing this anti-feminist perspective in his world, to critique its history and endurance in our own in some fashion. But, if any of the other fictions set in this same world might offer some critique of historical misogyny and the structural oppression of women, Academic Exercises certainly does not.
The passage from "A Room with a View" to which Foz directs us is, I think, the most important one to consider here, particularly the narrator's remark that "the few women we do have in the profession have a pretty rough time of it, though I can’t say I’ve lost too much sleep because of it over the years." (Of course, five of the six female natural philosophers known to the narrator of "A Room with a View" also inclined to the traditionally "feminine" caregiver/nurturer role as "healers"!) I would suspect that Parker wants us to read this passage as an indication that the author is of course more upset than the character that female wizards have had "a pretty rough time of it," and that the narrator's misogyny is simply another bit of naughtiness in his character, one of those little peccadilloes intended to make him seem—as I expect Parker wants us to view most of his males—likably roguish. I am unfortunately unable to read the passage in that way, especially because Parker gives us no evidence to suggest that the author does not also hold comparable anti-feminist views: treating structural misogyny as a minor personal failing should itself seem sufficiently anti-feminist to make us a little uncomfortable. We see this attempt to include a tendency towards misogyny as a minor fault in a man much more obviously in the casual essentializing of the male character in "Illuminated": "You can't argue with women about temperature, I've noticed. They're always cold, all of them."
I also do think that, in this group of narratives framed collectively and individually as Academic Exercises, Parker's specific invocation of female inferiority in the role of this world's equivalent of scholars also merits closer scrutiny. Let me say, first, that I appreciated much of the commentary in Academic Exercises bearing on the scholarly life from the Middle Ages to the present moment: for example, stories such as "A Rich, Full Week" and others show a sensitivity to the frequent and increasing contingency of modern academic labor. As an academic on a fixed-term employment contract still awaiting the grail of a tenure-track position, I can confirm that many of Parker's depictions of struggling, itinerant scholar-magicians resonate with the labor conditions endured by post-2008 seekers on the academic job market—and indeed by some highly educated clerks at certain times of upheaval in late medieval England! Parker fractures the history of Western academia into an often interesting fantastical tradition in this counter-world, so why must it be so contaminated by its mirroring rather than overturning, critiquing, or at least sidestepping the notorious exclusion of women from intellectual pursuits? Just as it is in the world of Parker's imagination, women were often denied access to higher education based on a belief that they simply had no aptitude for it, and some were permitted to work towards the same advanced degrees as men only as rare exceptions able to transcend their gender, as it were. For instance, two of the great scholars in my field of Middle English literature in the formative days of the early 20th century were female, Caroline Spurgeon and Eleanor Prescott Hammond, but they were treated as anomalies and exceptions (and, even to readers not particularly interested in the history of medieval studies itself, I would recommend Jane Chance's wonderful book on the history of Women Medievalists and the Academy). Today, women continue to face unique challenges in every corner of academia and at every stage of their teaching and research careers: they can have a pretty rough time of it, simply by virtue of being female, but—unlike Parker has it in the fantasy world—obviously not because they are biologically female and un- or less able to "perform," but due to the social structures and barriers that continue to embattle them. In short, if Parker is able to show such a sensitivity to issues confronting modern academia in this collection, why does that sensitivity not extend to women in academia? And should it be more worrisome still that at times Parker seems perfectly well aware of the struggles women have faced throughout Western history up to the present, but is nevertheless simply uninterested in them, or even happy to make light of them?
Lila Garrott: I don't argue with anything that has been said about Academic Exercises being full of sexism—it is. However, there is a reason which seems very clear to me that the world of the book does as poorly or worse by its women as our world does.
To put it bluntly, this is a book about terrible people. The various protagonists in it are mostly fairly representative of the systems from which they come, and they are, without exception, basically sociopathic. Their family ties may influence their behavior, but none of them have close, loving, or particularly interested families; the ones who have friends betray them and are betrayed (where there is trust it is a mistake); sex ranges from not on their radar to a pleasant diversion, but healthy romantic relationships do not exist. All of them are consumed with desire for power, or for academic standing, or for money, or for other goals which do not center around other human beings. Whenever any one of them has a sliver of empathy, it is viewed as a weakness, because it usually happens to go against their own interests, or against the policy of the institutions for which they work. When they happen to help other people, it's because it plays into their own self-interest, and that selfishness is generally rewarded by how things turn out for them. Timothy mentions that one character's misogynistic remark can be read as an example of a sort of "oh, you" roguishness; I tend to read it as a reminder that, despite a superficially charming exterior, this person does not view other people as being human beings who might have purposes apart from being useful to him.
And, when academia and church and state are turning out and abetting sociopaths who behave terribly to everybody, those aren't systems that are going to take into account the humanity of women. Those aren't systems which take into account the humanity of anybody. In-world, therefore, I am not surprised that it is an extremely sexist society.
So what Parker therefore would need to do, to make this a non-sexist book, would be to demonstrate that the perspectives of all of his protagonists and the cultures they come from are wrong. Parker . . . I think tries to do this and fails. I almost wish it hadn't been tried. We have a couple of female characters who demonstrate intelligence, agency, and more empathy than any of the men. Terrible things happen to them, and their stories, as well as the stories of the female characters in minor roles, tend more to emphasize the worldview of the protagonists than otherwise. If the major female characters didn't exist, the sexism of the text would be more like the racism: virulently visible by the gaps in the text, by who is not present. Since they do, though, the book reads to me like the work of an author who knows that there is an issue here, and who is trying to throw a bone towards those upset by it, but who does not genuinely understand the issue and who has not gone far enough into exploration of it. For this text to be non-sexist, there would need to be enough women present that the fact of ninety percent of them having terrible things happen to them would clearly be because terrible things happen to ninety percent of everyone in that world. There aren't enough women. It would be difficult for there to be, because the limited perspective of the protagonists makes it difficult for them to notice things they aren't acculturated to notice, but Parker is so good at unreliable narrative in other ways that I do not think this is an insoluble problem.
It fascinates me, by the way, that Parker is a writer whose pseudonym is such a tight secret that their gender is not publicly known. Many pseudonyms have gendered names. I am fairly certain this lack of gender presentation is a considered choice, based on the following quote from an interview of Parker by Tom Holt: "Parker is, well, a pen name. I’d like to be able to say KJ stands for Kathleen Joanne, in honour of a writer I respect, admire and steal from. Unfortunately, I was KJP while JKR was still nursing a lukewarm latte in the coffee bars of Edinburgh. . . . my regular name, which I hate, doesn’t have that ring, you know? It’s like Norma Jean Mortensen and Marilyn Monroe." In our culture, using only female examples when talking about your pseudonym does read to me as wishing to leave the question of your gender open, because the default assumption is still male, and the use of women's names serves to remind the reader that there is a question at all. I have noticed in myself an aggravating tendency to think of Parker as male when the text does something egregiously sexist, and, honestly, the most interesting gender-related examination I've had of this text was in reminding myself that I do not, no matter what the text does, have any actual evidence relating to that train of thought.
Although there is an underlying grimness to the world of the Studium, many of Parker’s stories also feature an element of the absurd. Did you find the stories in Academic Exercises funny? How and why does Parker make use of humour? Does the kind of humour Parker uses add anything to our understanding of the moral universe within which the stories are taking place?
Lila Garrott: I realize this is probably unusual of me, but I found most of this collection actively hilarious.
Some of it is clearly intended to be, such as the first two-thirds of "Purple and Black," which captures the sort of easy us-against-the-world everyone-else-is-crazy banter that groups of close friends in stressful circumstances do develop, as well as the sort of weirdness that politics can be strangely prone to. (I love that the characters in question realize that it is completely absurd that they are managing to control the actions of a key figure via his tastes in esoteric first-edition erotica. Because that is very difficult to take seriously.) And there, the humor works for me as a humanizing force. As I mentioned in the answer to another question, most of Parker's protagonists here are terrible people, and not just terrible people, but ones I would consider sociopaths: that is, they do not see other people as humans in their own right, but as extensions of themselves or as objects, and have no empathy for anyone. The humor between the friends in "Purple and Black" makes it obvious that they do have empathy, that they do care about one another, because they are trying to use the humor to cheer one another up in a bad situation. Of course, they are also using it to mask other agendas, and that, to me, is what elevates "Purple and Black" to the level of tragic, as opposed to ironic—even those who truly care about one another feel that they have to betray one another anyway. I find those characters plausible portraits of people who make terrible decisions far more than I do some of Parker's other protagonists, because in "Purple and Black" they have the capacity to be good people, whereas not being a terrible person is something that would just never occur to the alchemist in "Blue and Gold," or the scholar in "Let Maps to Others."
I think it's important, too, that the banter in "Purple and Black" is self-deprecating humor, is people joking about their own real inexperience and incompetence. Parker's other protagonists, consumed with questions of power and academic standing and monetary privilege, don't have the self-confidence and surety to make light of their own abilities. Or, in the case of the alchemist from "Blue and Gold," he thinks so much of his own abilities that he would not consider joking about them; he has a sense of humor, but it's based on irony and slapstick and other people being idiots.
That's far more like the humor in the rest of the book. I think that, even though the texts may not be overtly humorous, a lot of the other stories are structured for maximum irony, which I do find very funny. The way that everything the false priest in "The Sun and I" makes up comes true at him, the way that everything the scholar in "Let Maps to Others" makes up comes true at him, in both cases in the most embarrassing, confusing, and vicious way possible—it's no more and no less than precisely and exactly what they deserve. There's almost a karmic value to irony in this particular world; the people who ride events out best are those who have learned to expect the ironic and just go with it. I started laughing first in this book during "A Rich, Full Week," when the protagonist is hearing thumping noises over him on the turf roof, and thinks about how as a child he was told it was dead men dancing up there, but now, grown up, he is certain it is only sheep, and then of course he goes outside to look and there is a walking dead man thumping the roof. Of course it's the thing he ruled out because it's silly and implausible! And what an image, the dead man keeping everyone underneath awake all night, wishing they could maybe just chuck something at him and tell him to quiet down. It's a creepy image, a gorgeous image, but it's also deeply funny, and I don't think that can be entirely unintentional. I never really stopped laughing for the rest of the book, because there kept on being ironic incongruities of that sort; except, as I mentioned, that "Purple and Black" is a tragedy, and I found the ending of that one genuinely upsetting. With the rest of the stories, I think the structural ironies serve as a distancing device—how emotionally involved can you get with a character who is setting himself up for the universe to use as a plaything, when you can see it coming, and when he's being a total bastard? It's true that a lot of the endings don't look, at first glance, like dramatic comeuppances, but they are: the characters in question have to keep on being, and living with, themselves, which is, again, exactly and precisely what they deserve and what they painstakingly worked for.
It's very dark humor, I suppose, but it's as carefully wrought as any Rube Goldberg sequence of slapstick pie fights, and it is without question the thing I like most about this book. I haven't read anything this funny in this particular set of directions since M. John Harrison's In Viriconium, which also made me laugh until I hurt myself. I have a soft spot for stories which are structurally designed as complicated balances of irony.
T. S. Miller: I also found the collection quite funny at times, but I think less funny than it was meant to be; I also appreciated its irony, but, again, probably to a lesser degree than I sense I was meant to do. First of all, the humor that Parker uses to color many of these stories, often absurdist in nature, strikes me as discordant not so much with the general grimness of the world, but rather with its intended verisimilitude, that richness of "historical" detail and texture that Parker so clearly wishes to maintain across this secondary world (even if, as has already been suggested, Parker succeeds much better at rendering inanimate objects than "cultures, customs, and people"). Parker's desire to place these narratives in a credible, self-consistent alternate reality in some complex and tangled relationship with Western history—by, for example, flavoring the stories with genuine Latin incantations and Byzantine onomastics—actually becomes most apparent in the non-fiction essays not set in that world, which I understand as chiefly an outlet for an author who has done—and delighted in—far more world-building research than s/he was able to fit into fiction. Yet, despite the attention to realistic detail in all of the stories, the magic and the supernatural in this world often flirt with the absurd and the arbitrary. But can a secondary world retain a foundational element of the absurd or surreal and still be taken seriously as a kind of (mildly fantastical) historical fiction, according to an author's different needs and objectives across a collection of disparate short stories?
What to do, for instance, with a story such as "A Rich, Full Week," which—despite its narrator's world-weary detachment—first makes a movement in the direction of horror, but then takes a major detour through comedy? During the first major episode in this story, the narrator experiences a revelation that the darkest nightmares of his childhood, easily dispelled by the rationalizations of a more worldly adolescence, had in fact been true, and moreover one of those nightmares confronts him in the (undead) flesh. There is certainly an ironic humor in the matter-of-fact narration that Our "Hero" provides: "It wasn't sheep. It was a dead man." The subsequent "riddle game" between academic and corpse is, from one perspective, a twisted comedy sketch, even though the narrator seems to appreciate neither the humor or the horror of the situation. I found this story very appealing, but also very different from many of the other stories in the collection: did it really need to be set in the same world?
And, to address the question of whether the humor has much or anything to do with the nature of morality in this world or in its relationship with our own, I have to say that I remain somewhat wary of Parker's occasional instances of self-deprecating humor, which can of course still serve as a mask for pride and arrogance rather than a refreshing and admirable acknowledgment of one's limitations, and so on. The typical Parker character, such as the scholar in "Let Maps to Others," of course has no problem admitting his immorality in a self-deprecating way that simply affirms his self-worth, according to his own value system: "Just because I'm a bad human being, it doesn't necessarily follow that my scholarship is proportionately deficient." I do see Lila's point that perhaps in some cases Parker wishes us to see a misogynist or narcissistic misanthrope not as a likable rogue, but instead as someone who "does not view other people as being human beings who might have purposes apart from being useful to him." But I have a difficult time understanding too many of the characters from this angle: Parker just doesn't seem so critical of their behavior most of the time, in part because the narratives tend to reward it while punishing others, and the nearly consistent narrative voice seems so self-satisfied. In sum, then, I suppose that my problem with some of the humor and irony in the collection—even bracketing for now the possibly inseparable problem of its recurrent misogyny—is that Parker seems to like these characters more than I find myself able to like them (and, after all, Foz has suggested that most of them are more or less the same single character). Parker has an undeniable gift for irony, but sometimes uses it to take these narratives to places I'm not entirely comfortable following.
Foz Meadows: Although there were a few moments when I chuckled at a clever turn of phrase or a particularly dry remark, overall, I didn't find the collection funny. Partly, I think, this was down to the uniformity of the style itself: though all the stories were written in the first person, I never felt that I was listening to a succession of different voices, but rather to Parker's voice alone—a feeling that was emphasised by the stylistic similarities between the essays and the stories. Which, of course, makes sense: Parker has a distinctive style, and if the fiction had been written in the third person, I would have accepted it and moved on. But in a situation where I'm reading multiple first person narratives by the same writer—and I'll admit this may well be personal preference—I want there to be some difference between them: I want the first person to showcase the characters, not the author's own voice, and I never feel like Parker did that for me.
Mostly, however, I found it hard to laugh at a succession of laconic, sexist narrators whose thoughts were invariably interspersed with pat remarks about the inferiority of women and the stupidity of the uneducated. It was rather like listening to some self-professed raconteur drone on at a party: there was a sense in which laughing at their occasional jokes would've been a tacit endorsement of the bigotry they were spouting the rest of the time, and especially as the same underlying attitude had seemingly informed both modes of speech. As such, I couldn't shake the feeling that the humour was being deployed as a means of making the sexism feel more palatable, or at the very least, to lull the reader into letting it go unquestioned—a sort of Seth MacFarlane approach. So thanks, but no thanks: there's enough hipster-ironic sexism operating under the guise of comedy on TV without it infiltrating my fantasy novels, too. If I want to laugh at the foibles of complex characters in a realistic yet magical world, I'll reread Terry Pratchett. I won't be bothering with Parker again.
For further discussion:
- What makes Parker’s depictions of poverty and of class unease different from those of other fantasists?
- To what extent is the "realism" portrayed by Academic Exercises a contextual one? Given the limits of fiction, can any SFFnal story ever be entirely "realistic"? And if so, then which type, or types, of realism are the most important to a story’s success?
- In "The Sun and I," a central debate is whether there are such things as good or bad means, or only good or bad actions. Does this or any other position emerge as a consistent morality across the stories?
- High fantasy typically builds its worlds on a default skeleton of an imagined Middle Ages; Parker instead refracts many centuries of human history into a single capacious setting, for example drawing on and combining elements of the crumbling imperial legacies of Late Antiquity, medieval clerical hierarchies, Baroque music patronage, and even early colonial exploration and joint-stock bubbles. What does this sort of canvas allow Parker to do and say about history as a discourse?
- How does the substantial quality of "creative nonfiction" fit into this story collection? Do Parker’s conversational historical essays seem to have the same goal or effect as the fictions surrounding them?
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