Friday, 22 April 2011

Snake Agent: A Detective Inspector Chen Mystery/Wicca

For a quick overview of my relationship to books and why not finishing reading them might be a failure you should check out this post. Also, just to be clear, I didn't finish the book, so I don't intend this to be a review - it is rather my personal response to not reading it.

I wanted to like Liz Williams, I really did. She comes recommended by a number of other authors who I really rate and respect for a start and seems to offer a distinct female British voice to the field of fantasy fiction and I'd been meaning to get hold of a copy of Snake Agent for a long time before I managed to track one down. She also represents a life that I used to think I wanted, and as such I still held in the warm regard of faintly yearning nostalgia; academia, an intellectual approach to spirituality, a few years slumming it making money in interesting, offbeat jobs (a Tarot reader in Brighton!) and a career as a fantasy novelist. I had already let this vision fuck up a large section of my life before I'd even heard of Williams, but finally reading her allowed me to let go of any latent affection that was still holding me back.

Now, none of that has anything really to do with Williams - she has clearly led her life in a manner that is true to herself and that makes her happy, and fair play to her. The fact that I have often blundered from one misapprehension of my own interests and talents to another is my own problem and I accept that. However, my attempt to read Snake Agent finally brought home to me why I didn't really want that life, and why I often don't really get on with the people who have chosen to have that life.

The fact that I read Snake Agent during the whole RaceFail in sci-fi fandom of 2009 I think gave my response to the book a more political edge than it might have in the past: I don't necessarily think I would have enjoyed it - although I may have finished it  - before then, but I probably would have dismissed it more readily and not really given voice to my discomfort. I would have viewed it as yet another embarrassing westerner getting it wrong and just felt smug that I'd watched A Chinese Ghost Story 1 & 2 and so had a handle on spotting the wrongness.
I don't, and actually never have, believed that having seen A Chinese Ghost Story would have meant that I would have got it right. Thankfully, even as a teenager I was never that stupid. Even when we played games of Demon Hunter X I recognised that we were playing in a narrative space delineated mainly by all of the Asian cinema my gaming group consumed; and that as fun as it was it was ultimately a shallower game than for instance the Mage: The Ascension games we played set in present day Britain, or even the games of D&D which drew on a storytelling and mythological tradition which we had mainly all grown up with. The difference between me and Williams is that I don't think that I have the authority to translate that second-hand narrative space into a work intended for outward consumption.
Because what it boils down to, essentially, is good old-fashioned cultural imperialism; something I've always disliked in art as well as life, but only recently felt confident enough to forsake the accumulation of geek-points (or other any other form of cultural capital) by just walking away from. 

Williams has undoubtedly done a lot of research, she's lived and worked outside of the UK, and I don't doubt her intentions are good. She wants to tell a story, and she wants to tell it right. It's just a shame that it isn't her story, and that in telling it she flattens the experience of those who could tell it. I only got about two or three chapters in, and I gave the book to charity a while back so I can't dredge up any specific details but the whole thing felt like the setting was just that, a setting.  A backdrop.

There was absolutely no reason that the story had to be told in that place, because everyone acted either like they were westerners or like they were Chinese tropes as viewed by a westerner. Sci-fi thrives on the ability to transplant its narratives into different settings: the future or outer-space or an alternate now, and this is great for all sorts of reasons, but it does become problematic - just as those great European voyages of discovery and settlement became problematic - when somebody else already lives there.
So, what does this all have to do with Wicca? Apart from the obvious: Williams is a prominent pagan; I spent some time as a teenager interested in Wicca, which is a form of modern paganism; and I have a general interest in religious stories including those from before monotheism. Well, the link is that, although I essentially gave up on the idea of actually being wiccan very swiftly, I don't, and didn't believe any of it, which is always a hindrance, I still had a soft spot for the idea of a natural spirituality. And although I worked out as a teenager that it was possible to have a sense of wonder and respect for nature and the sublime as an atheist I always had the, pretty patronising view really, that pagans were 'ok' as far as religious types went. I don't think that that is true anymore.

Like all religions, paganism still essentially avoids responsibility for understanding the world and thus interacting with it on its own terms, but instead tells stories and uses incomplete information to make a version of the world that fits a set of preconceptions and interacts with that instead. It is a form of cultural imperialism on reality. Modern paganism is, as well, another invention and not the unbroken practise that some practitioners would have you believe. It is a version of our past repackaged for the modern era, a cultural imperialism, but this time of our own ancestors, and thus fundamentally less interesting and simultaneously more arrogant than the study of what those ancestors actually thought.

And so that's why I didn't become a pagan, and not because I didn't actually fancy the woman who worked at the video shop who was a pagan and who I somehow felt that, as a proto-goth teenager, I really ought to fancy and so made myself half-heartedly read half a book about wicca before admitting that I not only didn't have a chance, I didn't really want to have a chance and went back to studying the Tarot instead.

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