Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Microreview [book]: Tawny Petticoats by Michael Swanwick (Rogues #5)

Fourth installment in the Rogues anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Well, with Tawny Petticoats, we now have 3 out of 5 stories in Rogues featuring female prostitution. But here, see, our female character isn’t really a prostitute, she just pretends to be one as a scam, something she tells our story’s protagonists while she is stripping down naked because that’s how Surplus and Darger conduct job interviews. But don’t worry, to the chagrin of the other applicants, the interviewers don’t molest the ladies. Getting tired of this? Me too. The theme of female prostitution and women as sex slaves runs rampant throughout the Rogues anthology, and I just don’t get why this pattern is emerging. It’s disconcerting, especially given the apparent respect many of these authors elicit.

Actually, I take that back, I do know why we have this pattern in Rogues. It seems that there is a large proportion of authors out there who don’t know how to make a female character “roguish” without focusing on sex. In the introduction, GRRM defines rogues as “scoundrels, con men, and scalawags. Ne’er-do-wells, thieves, cheats, and rascals. Bad boys and bad girls.” In the stories I’ve read so far, the “bad boys” are all of these things and more, but for the “bad girls,” the “bad” just relates to their sexuality in some way. This is extremely problematic. Not only does it pigeonhole female characters as sexual objects, but it perpetuates the notion rampant among American culture (at the least) that female sexuality is wrong. In fact, among the five stories I’ve read, the only author who doesn’t do this to a female character is Joe Abercrombie, all hail.

As editors, GRRM and Gardner Dozois should have picked up on this unsettling theme and done something about it. Frankly I am really disappointed. My original plan was to read through and review Rogues a story at a time, and then move on to Dangerous Women, but now I’m getting really sick of this pattern and can only imagine what atrocity Dangerous Women could hold. Yes, I finished Tawny Petticoats, even though I really didn't want to, and I will give Rogues one last chance. But with the next story that reduces women to sexual objects I’m done. I have far better things to read.

Anyway, putting this sexist culture of Tawny Petticoats aside, the story itself was fine. It was written well and was engaging. It follows Surplus and Darger, two of Swanwick’s popular characters as they attempt to work the black-money scam, a quite inventive scam if you ask me. The story takes place in alternate New Orleans, a city full of animals with human-like intelligence and zombies who are really just humans with no awareness.

Again, with the aforementioned degradation aside, most of the characters are fun and entertaining, and really pretty well developed considering the limited space, a feat that never fails to amaze me. There is quite a lot of infodumping as a character will take a page or two to explain how the zombies are made and unmade or the back story necessary to frame the black-money scam but it was all very well done and didn’t really bother me at all. Infodumping doesn’t always have to be a negative word.

However, there are just some things I can’t let go, and the reducing women to sexual objects thing is getting so old in this Rouges read through that with every story my tolerance gets shorter and shorter. I did not expect this at all. It really is a shame.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for creative world building

Penalties: -2 for the poor characterization of women

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10 -- [extremely] problematic, but has redeeming qualities

Up Next: Provenance by David W. Ball


Reference: Swanwick, Michael. Tawny Petticoats. From: Rogues, Eds. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois [Bantam Spectra, 2014]