Reading: Charles Stross — The Annihilation Score

I look forward every year to Charles Stross. It’s a mid-year, summer treat. I want to like The Annihilation Score much more than I did, especially because so many people like it so much, and here am I feeling dead iffy about the thing

Start with what I like then: I like The Laundry Files series. I love the black humour, the horrible conjunction of bureaucracy, office politics, IT, and Lovecraft. I generally love whatever Stross writes, some of it I think is among the best skiffy of the past decade (Saturn’s Children, Neptune’s Brood). He’s also demonstrably one of the cis, hetero, white male authors in sci-fi/fantasy who gets gender, representation, equality, not being an asshole, and has got it since the beginning (go back to Singularity Sky or Iron Sunrise), which is the minimum I require to read any fiction author (non-fiction comes with obligations).

The Annihilation Score is the sixth in the series, and the first to move from the perspective of Bob to his partner, Doctor Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, she of the demonic violin. Stross has written many, if not most of his fiction from the perspective of a woman or girl, all of Merchant Princes, the Eschaton, Saturn’s Children, and parts of Halting State series, also Glasshouse, so he’s not jumping on any bandwagons here. Writing from Mo’s perspective, something goes wrong. Several things went wrong.

It started when I was guiltily reading the first chapter online, Mo is on an oil rig, a diplomatic soirée with the Deep Ones, when she meets Ramona, who first appeared in The Jennifer Morgue several years ago and with whom Bob was destiny-entangled. The line I got stuck on was, “…her unfortunate medical condition. To find yourself trapped in a body with the wrong gender must be hard to bear: How much harsher to discover, at age thirty, that you’re the wrong species?”

And I thought, “Yeah, right, That’s how you see trans women. Trapped, hard to bear. That’s your fucking simile.” I do this thing when I’m trying to establish why something might be bothering me, if I’m being simply oversensitive, if I can’t articulate why I’ve decided something is rotten, where I swap out one term for another, like so: “To find yourself trapped in a body with the wrong skin colour…” Hard to bear. Indeed.

To be clear, what I’m not doing here is accusing Stross or his writing of Mo’s internal dialogue of transphobia. What I am concerned with is understanding tropes around the representation of trans people—particularly trans women—in Anglo-Euro-American culture. The trope of ‘trapped in the wrong body’ goes back as far as transsexual (I’m expressly using this term here and not the equally troublesome transgender or trans) women have been the object of scrutiny, as has the trope of ‘hard to bear’ which is part a euphemism for the horror cisgender people experience at the thought of (having) a transgender body—particularly a trans female body, with all the transmisogyny that involved (go read Julia Serano if your eyes just crossed at all that), and part misplaced chauvinistic ‘empathy’ towards those trans bodies of the “Oh you poor thing” variety, neither of which trans people need.

I’m concerned with the implications of choosing to use such a trope, the explicit logic of which is that all trans people feel unbearably trapped, that this is the primary state and experience of being trans, that all other possible experiences are precluded, and that it’s used by cis people as a simile to signify the most complete, abject state of corporeal suffering. It says: “There’s nothing worse than this.” It’s a fucking horrible narrative, one which Stross uses without the analytic thought he’s more than capable of, and one which no one in the editing process flagged (or if they did, the criticism needed here is of a very different tone). All this when Mo (who has serious issues with women herself) is thinking about Ramona, while she is standing right in front of her.

I do think Stross is one of the few cisgender authors who could write a trans woman character that I’d totally be down with (he pretty much did in Glasshouse). I also think that the current presence in the media of really amazing trans women like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Jamie Clayton, the ongoing discussions in speculative fiction, STEM, elsewhere over representation (trans, women, people of colour) means that thinking of trans people is very much present in the minds of writers. And generally (since the late-00’s) thinking around trans (lives, politics, theory), and trans women leading the articulation of this is evolving so rapidly (thanks tumblr & Twitter!)

(An aside, it’s also become very clear in mainstream perception that ’70s and ’80s anti-trans radical feminist theory—which had a far greater and wider influence than credited—is on the ‘wrong side of history’, and plenty of people (feminists, queers, many under the GLBT banner) are busy engaging in historical revisionism to minimise or pass over their own complicity—even some authors I read—now that trans is cool.)

Perhaps if I hadn’t already been pissed off at the shitty representation of trans women characters in novels by cisgender authors this year, William Gibson (The Peripheral), Tricia Sullivan (Shadowboxer), Rachel Hartman (Shadow Scale), all of which sit firmly in those tropes of ‘trapped’ and ‘unbearable’ I’d be more forgiving of Stross. I’m not. I wanted to spit when I read that. There’s been exactly one work of skiffy this year (or recently) I’ve had the joy of experiencing which I think is exemplary: Sense8, by the Wachowskis, a web-TV series where one of the writer/directors is a trans woman, with a trans woman (Jamie Clayton) in one of the lead roles. So, cis writers who are on the trans women trip: watch that, read Serano, get your shit together, stop writing transbollocks.

Besides that one line which I’ve now spent several hundred words on, my other iffy feeling came from Mo herself. Mo’s relationship with other women is fucking shoddy. The women who become closest to her, Ramona, Mhari (Bob’s previous partner who now also works for the Laundry), who should be valuable allies, and even before that valuable friends, she’s ceaselessly suspicious of, judgemental, jealous, competitive, as if she’s never had a close female friend—or she’s been written by a guy who imagines that’s how women behave. Her relationship with Bob is similarly lousy, compounded by her jealousy and distrust of his current relationship with Mhari (professional only), while she herself embarks on an affair with minimal self-reflection and quite a bit of self-justification.

It may be Stross intended this, that it’s not indicative of Mo as she really is, rather it’s a representation of her at the point of breakdown, brought on by years of PTSD, demon slaying, the demonic violin itself breeching her psyche and launching an all-out possession offensive; her distrust is well-placed, working for an agency that so frequently uses its operatives as unwitting bait. But, seeing as she now has “a lengthy stretch of sick leave” while she gets her “head back together,” Stross would do well to push her to examine her own internalised misogyny.

I read Stross because ever since I picked up Accelerando in Zürich ten years ago, and then gorged myself (repeatedly) on Iron Sunrise, Singularity Sky, whatever else I could find, he’s been a delight, sometimes profoundly so. It’s just with The Annihilation Score at times it wandered into a place where I’m the tiniest bit mistrustful of why he writes things.