Saturday, March 21, 2009

A detour into the world of science fiction

I took an unexpected detour into the world of science fiction this week.

I hadn't intended to make this a month of Stephenie Meyer-themed posts, but when The Host finally became available at my library last week, it seemed as good a time as any to have a read and see how she tackled a different genre.

While there are some recurring themes from her other books (more on that below), there's also an exploration of some interesting themes relating to what it means to be human.

Do we, as humans, appreciate the value of what it means to experience life on this planet? In The Host, Meyer explores the idea of what it would be like to lose that right to a species with a greater curiosity.

In her story, Earth has been invaded by a species able to take over the minds of its human hosts while their bodies remain intact.

Wanderer, an invading “soul”, has been given the body of one of the few surviving human rebels, Melanie. But Wanderer finds her body’s former tenant has not gone as quietly as she should have.

Melanie fills Wanderer’s mind with visions of the man she loves, who still lives in hiding. Unable to separate herself from Melanie’s memories and the desires of the body now they share, Wanderer sets off in search of him. What follows forces Wanderer and Melanie to learn more about each other (and each other’s species) than they ever intended, forever changing their views of themselves and their existence.

In most sci-fi stories, alien colonisation generally revolves around securing a natural resource critical for survival, even if it’s simply finding room for population expansion.

But the peace-loving "souls" who colonise Earth simply set up camp in human bodies and go about living the lives as their human hosts once did. The majority do not multiply (it seems only a select number have the capacity to do so). They change nothing on the planet (except human behaviour, by making everyone pacifists) and take nothing from it.

It took me a while to work out what these invaders wanted on each planet. And then the penny dropped: the resource they're mining is the human experience. Meyer’s alien species colonises other planets to experience life as the inhabitants do and the souls come to Earth to experience the unparalleled range of human emotions.

Wanderer abhors violence, and she and her species justify their invasion as being the only way to bring peace to Earth – rescuing it from human nature.

But while on the run with Melanie, she experiences the full gamut of human emotion – often at the receiving end – and ultimately finds a context for human violence. She comes to believe it is the ability to experience the extreme negative emotions of hatred and anger that allows humans to also experience the extremities of love and compassion.

The Host
has many of Meyer's themes from the Twilight novels: obsession, self-sacrifice, bigotry, love, and yes, even more than a hint of female masochism. Again we have a female narrative character willing to sacrifice herself (and in this case even be repeatedly physically punished) to save those she loves. Sound familiar?

The Host is definitely a unique take on the body snatchers plot, and the love triangle (cleverly touted as the first one involving only two bodies) is not quite as frustrating as I expected it to be. Actually, it becomes a love quadrangle, just to further complicate the emotional ties...

It does tend to get bogged down a bit through the middle third of the book, and there are some character frustrations, but ultimately the book delivers a very readable and often tense story that's part sci fi thriller and part love story.

If you haven't read Meyer yet, this could be a place start (you don't have to be a sci fan to enjoy it). If you're already a fan, chances are you'll like this (slightly) more adult fare than her other work. If you're not, it's unlikely The Host will change your mind.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Do girls still secretly want to be rescued?

Does the success of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series mean women have reverted to enjoying the notion of having a powerful man to protect them?

And if so, why?

Kirsten Tranter, in the latest Weekend Australian Review, suggests it may be the case, in a column that also explores how the romance between fragile Bella and vampire Edward rekindles the narrative of female masochism (where sexual gratification depends on suffering).

(I know I keep referencing the Twilight series, but honestly, when it keeps getting ink in literary publications like the Weekend Australian Review, you know it’s truly become a cultural phenomenon. If you're still oblivious to what it's all about, you can read my past posts here and here.)

Tranter, a fellow Joss Whedon/Buffy fan like myself, points out that while Whedon’s vampiric tales turned the tables on the stereotypical “girl fleeing from monster” (the girl turns out to have the strength and will to kill the monster instead), Meyer’s Twilight books mark a return to patriarchal values where the girl still needs saving.

Tranter says the success of the four novels proves authors are “still happy to create stories that end with cowering girls being saved by powerful guys, and girls are more than happy to embrace them”.

Does the overwhelming popularityof the Meyer series indicate attitudes may be changing among women (young and old) in the face of a threatening and uncertain world?

Is there a shift in the female psyche, possibly strongest among younger women, for a yearning of a time when they didn’t have to save the world but could rely on men to do it for them?

True, by the end of the fourth book, Bella has gained her own power and sense of purpose, but let’s not forget, the series was a hit long before that plot development was revealed. For most of the other books, she relies on strong males to protect her, whether it’s Edward or smitten werewolf Jacob.

I’ve always been a huge fan of quality fantasy, and, thanks to my obsession with Whedon and my general enjoyment of Meyer's series, I’ve started seeking out quality paranormal fiction (and TV shows: I’ve become a fan of Supernatural and the new kid on the block True Blood, which is darker and more unsettling than your standard paranormal TV fare).

Part of this is the timeless search for great stories. But part of it is about escapism – and there is no greater escapism than a world where the normal rules of reality don’t apply.

But that doesn’t mean I want to a fictional world where only the guys get to finish off the Big Bad (as Whedon would call them).

So why then, have female readers become so hooked on the story between Bella and Edward? Why then are teenage fans so totally in love with the overprotective Edward? Is Meyer undermining the feminist movement, or tapping into a latent female need for protection?

Thoughts anyone?