Monday, December 03, 2007

From The Whoreses' Mouth

[addendum: Helen Keeble has written some wonderful notes on the Weird Symposium, and I've collected the links here - my own, much inferior, notes are linked at the end of this post.]

This would be further to '1958'. Because, as I mentioned on t'other blog, I went to The Weird symposium, and then the Weird symposium went to a bar, and China MiƩville bought me a drink and talked with me about whores.

I shall now leave a few lines blank to give you time to get over how wonderful my life is.

By then I was suffering from brain-mush induced by lack of sleep and passive inhalation of Immanuel Kant, so there are two important things about the whores in The Perpetual Train that I didn't manage to bring up, but on the whole, I forgive him. The first thing he said when I mentioned the topic was that he'd thought through the gender politics of it and was prepared to stand by that part of the story, both its stance and its way of getting there; I think he'd had this conversation before, and that he'd had it with himself before that.

It's a bit of a duckrabbit: looked at through the lens of an SF-reading feminist, it's part of one distinct pattern; read from the point of view of a revolutionary socialist (I can pretend to have that POV for a moment, right?) it's a different picture. He said he was reflecting the history of railway-making, in which women do appear only as prostitutes or as slaves; given that, presenting the prostitute as a wage-labourer who can, like male wage-labourers, be radicalised by their experiences under capitalism, is (he thinks) a positive. He's well aware of the general SF reading, though, and says 'they do not have hearts of gold.'

The big thing I did manage to get out was that it seemed like his male characters had jobs - surveyors, gendarmes, railwaymen - while his prostitutes were their jobs. He said he felt he'd written them as people who were in control of their labour - they had rules, enforced them, went on strike. He pointed out that the prostitutes are at the forefront of the workers' radicalisation, and reminded me of one charming aspect of the story that I didn't mention last time; the Iron Councillors all, irrespective of gender, call each other 'sister' because the prostitutes refused to use 'brother'. (The other radical group in Iron Council, the Caucus, all, irrespective of gender, call each other Jack, which was really funny before Ori and Madeleina got to know each other). That explicitly identifies the rest of the wage-labourers with the prostitutes, which I think you've got to love.

I pointed out how invisible sex work is to women; how my young brother is far more exposed to the sex industry than I am, how very few women will encounter stripping and hooking (and those who do will mostly be those whose partners are consumers of such), while the industry is marketed at most men and part of the culture of many. How this makes writing about the sex industry excluding for women and entitling for men. (I don't think I said that part particularly clearly). He told me that that was a pretty recent thing - that 15 years ago it was a far more obscure part of male life than it is now. (That is the kind of information that women do not have access to, see?) It's weird that that's happened at the same time as women are becoming more economically powerful.

I didn't, and I wish I had remembered to, mention the problem Ide Cyan so eloquently described here:
"This is the kind of bullshit coming from leftist men that feminist women have been debunking since the invention of socialism. It presupposes that women's oppression is the result of industrial capitalism, rather a specific form of oppression with its own relations of production, and conveniently obscures proletarian men's role in the oppression of women. Obviously, leftist men still haven't paid attention, or do not care to integrate that particular analysis into their revolutionary approaches."

I don't think MiƩville has completely failed to integrate that analysis, but he's certainly putting it way second to capitalist oppression, because that's what the whole sodding book is about. (That his stance is ultimately abolitionist is related to this; yeah, he's imagining a post-sex work utopia, but that's because he's imagining the end of all capitalist wage labour).

The second thing I missed, closely tied to the above, is the point V raised here about the use of sex work as part of the 'story' of individual characters (Ann-Hari and Carianne, but also dozens of other SF characters - Molly Millions, Niki Sanders, several continuities of Catwoman, et cetera ad infinitum). It's extremely irritating when read as part of that group of male-authored SF about sex work; I'd imagine he'd again be writing it as a being about wage-labour rather than being about sex, but I would've liked to argue the toss about it, because I refuse to believe it's a coincidence that it happens with so very many strong female characters. It's also, I feel, touching on appropriation; using a real-world group (sex workers) to explain your politics, your stories, your world.

He told me to come say hello if we're ever at the same convention again, so you never know. My notes from The Weird, if you'd like to read them, are here.


Helen said...

Great stuff!

I've just realised that there's at least one female Remade slave working on the railroad before the Revolution takes off. There's a section describing the everyday work of laying down the tracks, and how many blows it takes to drive home a spike; it's noted that one of the biggest cactus-men (Shankill? I think he's a named charcter later, but my mind's gone blank) and a couple of the Remade can drive a spike home in one blow, which accords them respect from the other workers... but also that there's a single Remade woman who can do it to, and " her the ability was regarded as grotesque."

It's the only time female convicts working on the line are mentioned (though I think there may also be a side-comment about Remade women being thrown to the Remade males along with food and water). I wish we found out more of that woman's story, and what she (and the other Remade women) do after the Revolution; I find it difficult to imagine that they'd want to join the coalition of happy empowered sex workers.

So yeah. It's one of those little blind spots that makes it clear that the book's about socialism/capitalism, and gender-issues are secondary and therefore sometimes problematic (as it's being used as coding for socialist issues, rather than addressed as a separate problem in its own right).

The book still wins my heart forever for the "sisters" line, though. *grin*

belledame222 said...

really interesting, thanks.

the idea of prostitutes -being- their jobs in a way that others are not is of course deeply ingrained into our collective consciousness. and is reinforced even in much of feminist and other progressive/leftist discourse.

btw, thene, I was trying to get in touch with you and the address I had from your profile doesn't seem to work, at least not with what I was trying to send from, I guess; can you drop me an email when you get a chance? bel4 AT earthlink DOT net.

Daisy said...

Hey Thene, just linked your blog, if that's okay. :)

Johnny Pez said...

Speaking of your 1958 post, I've taken up your challenge and applied the Frank Miller Test to a prominent male SF author on my own blog, Johnny Pez. Have a look -- if you dare!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Speaking of the idea that prostitutes "are" their jobs to a greater degree than others...

There's actually an argument among social historians that this is a relatively recent thing, something that starts in the early 1800's, and that before this period prostitution was more often a temporary state rather than something that would permanently "mark" you in the eyes of society. (and that it was the Industrial State that started treating prostitution as a Social Problem rather than a Sin that changed this.

I'm not certain how convincing I find the argument, but I felt like it ought to be thrown out there.

Anonymous said...

about sex workers "being" their jobs while other workers just "do" their jobs... I think this can cut two ways, depending on the author.

Because sex workers' jobs involve sex, and for a lot of people sex is a very special, unique thing, this means they just naturally respond to sex work as a profession which takes over the person. Very few people who don't do it actually understand sex work, even consumers of the industry; this is why there is so much imagining of sex workers' worlds (in rock 'n roll, movies and literature) and so many stereotypes; and this is why people naively represent sex workers in terms of their jobs, rather than simply as women who do sex work.

But there are also a smaller group who represent women as sex workers because they hate women, or hate sex work, or hate women who control their own sexuality (which, on a fundamental level, is what a sex worker is, most of the time).

I think Mieville is the former, not the latter. The former is the majority and seems to transcend gender, class, culture and time; it's a common reaction to someone who works with their sexuality. Because he's awesome, Mieville manages to bring some nuance to this; but ultimately, like most of the world, he can't see sex work separately to the sex. It's an intellectual limitation as old as the profession, I guess.