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Happily Ever After
A farewell to cyberarms - and the final six books of my romance reading challenge
Cyberpunk was born of the punk ethos. A genre that, in many ways, existed against a mainstream cultural and literary tradition, rather than for anything definable or substantive in its own right. This is, at least, an argument posited by those who believe the genre peaked—and died—with Bruce Sterling’s superb anthology Mirrorshades (1986). Accepted as the definitive presentation of cyberpunk, Sterling had pressed a Heisenbergian self-destruct button. Once it was a defined quality, cyberpunk could no longer continue in that form.
Cyberpunk is a genre that flared and disappeared quickly - at least, so some believe. My personal interpretation of cyberpunk is that has, and will, continue to be both relevant and ubiquitious:
We now live our lives in a perplexing mix of the virtual and the real. At no time in human history have we ever been exposed to more messages, more frequently, from more and varied sources. Civilians using bootstrap technology are guiding drones in open warfare against marauding professional mercenaries. Protesters use umbrellas and spray paint to hide from facial recognition technology. Battles between corporations are fought in the streams of professional video game players. Algorithmically generated videos lead children down the rabbit hole of terrorist recruitment. The top touring musical act is a hologram. Your refrigerator is spying on you.
Cyberpunk, however brief its reign, gave us the tools, the themes, and the vocabulary to understand the madness to come. It understood that the world itself was raving and undressed—irrational, unpredictable, and ill behaved.
The Big Book of Cyberpunk is, amongst other things, meant to be a collection of those tools and themes, and prove useful not just for fans of the genre, but for anyone trying to make sense of the complex, fascinating and deeply-frustrating world in which we live.
On a metaphorically related point: launch week is over. Ending with, of all things, a cyberpunk cake.
I did not get to eat the cake. The cake is a lie.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch.
Over the past year, I’ve been intermittently reading (even more) romance novels and analysing the values (as per Rokeach) displayed in each one. There’s a spreadsheet involved, therefore it is scientifically rigorous. My objective is not only to randomly sample the genre, but also to see what, if anything, I can learn by mapping the themes of the books against ‘fundamental beliefs and attitudes’.
This is the final batch of reviews, and includes:
Selena Montgomery’s The Rules of Engagement
Alisha Rai’s Glutton for Pleasure
Kaki Warner’s Pieces of Sky
Simone St James’ The Haunting of Maddy Clare
Cheryl Etchison’s Once and For All: An American Valor Novel
Alexis Daria’s Take the Lead
I’ll collect my thoughts, crunch the numbers, sketch out some spurious conclusions and then… on to the next challenge.
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Selena Montgomery’s The Rules of Engagement (2001, Option)
Stacey Abrams is a goddamn American hero, and I do not have a bad word to say about her. Except that maybe, a little bit, reluctantly… her debut is… kinda… not… 100%… great. I’M SO SORRY, STACEY. I LOVE YOU.
But The Rules of Engagement is just so very, very debut-y. Every character is introduced with a multi-paragraph infodump, detailing not only their personality, career, and appearance, but also their educational history, favourite hobbies, and attitudes towards every other character. Given they’re all ninja-billionaire-chemist-superspies, this could be interesting, but is about as exciting as reading the wikipedia entry for Alias.
(Also, the MMC is named ‘Adam Grayson’ and given he is a billionaire-turned-crimefighter, I can only assume - and hope - that is ‘Adam West + Dick Grayson’.)
Values: This book is very much about ‘An Exciting Life’: billionaires! spies! sexytimes! If only.
Alisha Rai’s Glutton for Pleasure (2009, Option)
One of the more frustrating misperceptions of the romance genre is that it is lady-porn. The covers don’t help - although the current vibe for ‘greeting cards’ instead of ‘oiled chests’ does make it easier for Waterstones to put romances front of store. Although many romances are spicy, and many don’t mind keeping the proverbial curtain undrawn, the genre offers far, far more than erotica.
Romance being ‘about sex’, for example, is akin to thinking of SF as ‘about aliens’, fantasy as ‘about magic’, or Patrick O’Brien as ‘about ships’. Yes, there are aliens, magic, and ships, but the purpose of the storytelling is to build from that. What does interaction with extraterrestials tell us about what it means to be human? What does an inexorable conflict between literal Good and Evil mean to the people who are forced to play it out? How is a greater narrative of struggle, challenge and triumph aided by taking place within the relative fragility of a tall ship, against the backdrop of overwhelming natural power? Sex is a critical part of the romance novel, but for what it means, not what it is. Sex is parsed and scrutinised and savoured by romance readers in the same way that fantasy readers will spend endless hours wallowing around in the minutae of a magic system. Written well, sex is an asset to the story; something readers expect and enjoy and something the author can use to advance the narrative, define the characters, and provide some entertainment. But romance isn’t ‘porn’…
…except when it is. Like Glutton for Pleasure.
This book, which is definitely and absolutely pornography, features Devi, a chef in the family restaurant. Enter Jace, a restaurant regular, who sees in Devi the missing piece in his life. He and his brother, Marcus, make a proposition to Devi within minutes of meeting her (and mere pages of the book beginning). Devi equivocates for a few paragraphs, accepts, and then we get 🍊🤲👉♊👅🍆🍆⚔🗼😌🥓👗🍆👄😋📿📻🤩🍆🍆🤸♀️🥰🍛🎁🔌🛀💃🍆🍆🍑😍🥂.
I think there’s something interesting in the porn. (I READ IT FOR THE NARRATIVE, HONEST.) Everything, for example, is entirely female-gaze. It is about how they make Devi feel. The two men are the means to her, um, ends. Glutton is absolutely a power fantasy, using sex to, um, drive the point home. Both the lads exist to fulfil Devi in every way, and spend their few limited perspective chapters entirely consumed by thoughts of her. Their one ‘motivation’ per se, is that they’ve already tried everyone and everything, but Devi - based on a fleeting glance - is exactly who they want.
The men themselves have absolutely no depth, existing only to prove Devi’s worth. Jace is madly in love with her before they even speak, while grumpy Marcus is the opposite, a broken man who has never loved before. Let me tell you, few moments in all of human literature can equal the poignant emotional impact of Marcus finally choking out the l-word while in the midst of frantically [thinging] Devi’s [thinger] while his brother [things] [thingily] at the other end of the bed.
The value here is Pleasure, and this book is very much about just that. (Also, this newsletter isn’t getting through anyone’s filters, is it?)
Kaki Warner’s Pieces of Sky (2011, RITA)
Jessica is an English heiress, on the run in the far (and wild) West. When her stagecoach breaks down, she’s saved by a rumpled, sexy, uncouth, sexy cowboy, Brady. Brady’s never met someone like her before: fancy, sexy, clean, sexy, and also extremely, sexily pregnant. Hijinks ensue, including Brady’s extended (sexy) family of (sexy) cowboys, a feud, an vile, unsexy, money-grubbing brother-in-law, and pretty much everything else you can think of.
Despite the stampede of plot points, Pieces of Sky doesn’t feel too over-stuffed. Although this is undeniably more ‘romance’ than ‘Western’, with a key value like Family Security, Pieces of Sky does revolve around a familiar ‘Western’ theme.
The other key value here is Forgiveness, which is tied in with the 80% break-up. It is particularly unnecessary in this book. After hundreds of pages of being pelted by challenges from man, God and nature, it seems ridiculous that Brady and Jessica are torn apart by one cranky miscommunication.
Simone St James’ The Haunting of Maddy Clare (2013, RITA)
England, the 1980s. Sarah Piper is scraping through in London, barely, and her last chance of a job is as… an assistant ghost hunter. She joins the eccentric Alistair and his moody companion Matthew as they track down ‘Maddy Clare’, an angry spirit haunting the barn in a remote village.
The primary theme is here is female agency, particularly as contrasted against a society and system that actively discourages that sort of thing. Sarah presents herself as weak and retiring, in fact, she believes she is weak and retiring. But with some encouragement, she finds herself and her inner strength. Which is good, as there are some nasty characters around - living and dead. The core value here is Freedom, both for the titular ghost and Sarah herself.
Although very much more a mystery than a romance (I mean, look at the cover), Haunting still has a good couple at its center. They are mutually respectful without being overly anachronistic. All in all, one of the more impressive entries in this reading challenge. #RITAsgotoneright
Cheryl Etchison’s Once and For All: An American Valor Novel (2017, RITA)
Bree is putting her life back together after her recovery from cancer. She’s jobless and living with her parents, but, hey, it all gets better from here, right? Until she runs into her ex-boyfriend, Danny, while he’s back on leave. An awkward reunion, made more so when Danny proposes. Not as a love match, but because he can provide a home, insurance, and stability for Bree - and he feels he owes her at least that after their abrupt breakup a decade before.
I’m a sucker for the ‘marriage of convenience’ trope Two responsible, consenting adults learning to live together, make their lives compatible, and (eventually) do sexytime things. Very romantic.
The military romance subgenre is, however, unavoidably weird to me, and, to be honest, strikes me as a little fetishistic. The author is quick to tell us, and remind us, that Danny is entirely, selflessly devoted to doing things For Us And America. The fact that Danny is simply Better Than You because of Sacrifice and America is unquestioned and unchallenged, even when he’s being kind of a knob. Bree gets her own ‘battle’, with cancer no less, but it is oddly secondary to Danny’s military service.
But Once and For All definitely takes place in a ‘men fight men and women fight cancer’ sort of world. There are, for example, zero women in the military mentioned in this book. The core value here, of course, National Security. There’s nothing as important as what Danny does For Us. NOTHING. We’re all lucky he could take the time out for love.
Alexis Daria’s Take the Lead (2019, Option)
Gina is one of the dancers on Dance-Off. Stone is her celebrity partner - swapping his Alaskan survivalist reality show for a sound stage in LA. Gina wants to win. Stone wants to keep his (gasp!) family secrets. Both really, really don’t want to fall in love. Guess what happens?
The ‘behind the scenes’ of the reality show was a silly but enjoyable setting, as it set the stage (ack) for lots of tiny, amusing conflicts. The romance itself was… fine. Both Gina and Stone are lovely people that deserve the best. The problem is, they are too lovely. Stone’s sole ‘flaw’ is his family secret, which isn’t a big deal and doesn’t, in any way, reflect on him. Gina’s sole ‘flaw’ is her ambition, which is also entirely reasonable and is in no way a bad thing. They’re both smart, sensitive, kind, impossibly-built-and-very-limber people. There’s no tension. Will two perfect people wind up together, despite having entirely compatible lives and no serious barriers to their happiness?!
By the end, even the dancing is ignored in favour of their contrived breakup - which still doesn’t make sense, and winds up with everyone sort of tearfully apologising for CARING TOO MUCH.
Not a phrase I utter much, but: I wish this book had more reality TV in it.
I’ve tagged ‘Sense of Accomplishment’ as the primary Value here. That is also mildly appropriate as this was (drumroll) the last book in the challenge.
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Interview with the brilliant M John Harrison:
This vast need to rewrite the world according to your own recipe. I think the danger for the writer lies there. Many of the Victorian and Edwardian writers ended up, as I say in the book, locked inside their dream estate somewhere in the south of England, a space in which they were very clearly trying to bring their fantasies into the real world… I also think it’s dangerous for the reader, because readers not only buy into the fantasy but also the ideology that lies behind it.
What are the barriers to having better interactions in your local area? (As of writing this, the top voted answer is, ‘GET RID OF FACEBOOK’.)
The art of imperfection in animation. How over-managing the process leads to a loss of soul:
looseness is really more about an attitude toward tools than it is about tools themselves
The concept of ‘looseness’ as an instrumental value is worth exploring futher.
Meanwhile, the world is becoming more gray.