Review: Starborn by Lucy Hounsom
13 hours ago
The afternoon played across my mind as I got out of the car in front of the flat. I had smiled, ran, laughed. My chest was filled with something like bath foam. Light. The lightness was so sweet i tasted it on my tongue, the sweetness of an overripe bright yellow cashew fruit. Pg. 180
Myth 1: “Lie back and think of England”. There is absolutely no evidence that Queen Victoria (or any other woman of the 1800s) ever advised anyone to “lie back and think of England” during sex. In fact, Queen Victoria thought her husband, Prince Albert, was gorgeous and confided to a friend that “Greek statues are nothing compared to Albert in his bath”.
In a different district, work might involve crawling through a coal mine, because skinny bodies and tiny fingers were good at collecting little bits of coal. Urban children went to work in factories, where their small fingers were useful once again – until they lost them in industrial accidents, and were thus unemployable.
So when I started to imagine my novel, The Agency: A Spy in the House, I included a population I’d stumbled across in my PhD research: Lascars, aka sailors from the Asian subcontinent. Some were simply passing through London between ocean voyages; others chose to settle down, marrying English women and having families; others still were stuck in England, unable to find passage back to their home countries. For this last group, there were actually specific charities that aimed to help them (and convert them to Christianity at the same time). The “Imperial Baptist East London Refuge for Destitute Asiatic Sailors” mentioned in Spy is parody of their usual tone.
The family toothbrush. According to John Sutherland, whom I never doubt, dental hygiene is a relative latecomer to Western culture. In his terrific essay, “Heathcliff’s toothbrush”, Sutherland contemplates the state of our favourite Brontë psychopath’s teeth. Apparently, Heathcliff is unlikely to be able to gnash his gleaming white teeth in fury, because it would be rare for men of his age to have gnashable teeth. Indeed, while Victorians bathed regularly and believed in fresh air, they generally had only one toothbrush per household; the family toothbrush, if you will, in much the same way that families now have one nailbrush, or one shoe-polishing kit. A fortnight’s stay in 1840, anyone? I thought not.
Semmelweis noticed that at the doctor-staffed clinic, about 10% of the women died of something called childbed fever. In contrast, at the midwife-staffed clinic, about 4% of the women died of childbed fever (also called puerperal fever).
This didn’t make sense to Semmelweis. The higher death rate at the doctors’ clinic troubled him for years – until he realized that the doctors moved freely between the autopsy room and the delivery ward. (Yes, you read that correctly: they sliced open corpses, then went straight on to deliver babies without washing their hands in between!)
All through the history of the River Thames, Londoners dumped their garbage into it: food scraps, human waste, anything they didn’t want to deal with… it all went into the river. It’s a big river, though, and this was basically okay. They also used it as a source of water for cooking and bathing. Again, it was mostly tolerable. And then came the 1840s, and the invention of the flush toilet. Guess where they all flushed into? That’s right. Straight. Into. The Thames.
Laudanum, however, was a liquid tincture of opium widely prescribed by doctors for pains, for anxiety, as a sleeping aid, and other general ailments for which a little light sedative might be helpful. It was unregulated in Victorian England. It was a major ingredient in lots of over-the-counter medicines, and few households were without their little bottle of laudanum.
Little-known truth: men sometimes wore corsets, too. It’s true, it’s true! Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, was admired for his great posture and splendid tailoring. Turns out that he had help with his posture. And he certainly wasn’t alone.
The problem is that Spinrad is just making an appeal to ignorance. He’s not familiar with the many writers of world SF, so he assumes they do not exist. For whatever reason, though he could be familiar with Japanese SF as some of it has been translated into English, he decided to ignore actually existing Japanese SF. He also utterly ignores Chinese SF, which has been a going concern since 1904 at least. China is also the home of Science Fiction World, the most widely read SF magazine on the planet.
Due to the power invested in Westerners today, borne from the history of colonization, there is no way to safely recreate the Orient, without yet creating more assumptions of stereotypes, without imposition of these stereotypes on actual people. This practice has precedent in the term “The Orient” alone: once a simple term to describe “the East”, it has over time become loaded with immediate association to the exotic, the opposite, the Other.
Today, Westerners continue to consume cultural artifacts from other cultures, many of whom unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge, that cultures are not meant for decoration, nor do they exist for the entertainment of the current hegemony, much like Europeans from the 19th century buying porcelain and silk.
“Alaya,” my Dad said, later that day, over dinner, “you have to understand that you live in the world. You can’t mess around with the way you wish things would be. You have to deal with the way that they are. A black woman writing a book with a cover like that is going to get shoved in a category you might not want to be in.”
I love it when cover artists take the time to really fancify the titles rather than just slap them on half-assed in the default Times New Roman font (though that works for some designs).
But what will the next big advance go to?
I'm betting on mermen. Their
skinscales sparkle in the water! What danger their hunger for bloodfish poses! They could carry Bellathe main character on their backs and raceswim off into the deep greenblue meadowswaters of the forestsea! And play baseballwater polo in truly EPIC proportions!
That's a longish title I'll admit, and while I generally don't go in for such larded vessels, in this case I'm willing to make an exception. Monstrous though it may seem (and most assuredly is), the above title sums up pretty much everything I have to say on the subjects of writing and publishing. The first line ought to be read as a word of warning to struggling writers. The second explains - in as much as an explanation of the unintelligible is even possible - why the publishing industry behaves as it does. And the third highlights our common enemy, which turns out to be ourselves.
Really - if I must say so myself - that title is a wonder of economy, precision and restraint. But maybe you'd like me to elaborate? Normally I'd refuse - principally on the grounds that my arguments tend to be weakened by exploration - but as I have been contracted to provide a minimum of fifteen minutes of reading diversion, I will betray myself and attempt to explain...
I mentioned these responses to my editor. She was shocked; it never occurred to her that the figure would be perceived as non-Asian, nor did it to me. As I looked more closely, brightening my screen settings, I saw that the woman’s hair had brownish highlights, accentuated by the light emanating from the horizon; it also had a slight wave to it. I thought, this must be what my friends are reacting to.
(Quotes taken from the ARC, and thus may not be exactly matched the final, published edition. I've removed character names to avoid spoilers.)
[My brother's] dark skin makes his teeth look whiter when he smiles. pg. 30
I shake my head. "...Gramps says that his father--her grandfather--was a maharaja of India. He sold tonics from Calcutta to the Midwest. Makes some sense that he could be Indian. His last name, Singer, could be derived from Singh."
"Your grandfather told me that your family was descended from runaway slaves," she says. [...]
"Yeah," I say. "I like the maharaja story better. And don't even get me started on the one where we're Iroquois." pg. 43
______'s hands go to her hips. "She's your [Cassel's] cousin?"
______ scrunches her eyes for a moment, then a wide grin splits her face. "Oh! Because I'm so pale, right?" pg. 226