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30 November 2011 @ 05:21 am
Let's Play Bingo -- Dead Until Dark  
A few years back, on a recommendation from someone online, I bought the first Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead Until Dark. It appears the person who recommended this completely misunderstood the nature of my request (thankfully, someone else did not misunderstand it, and introduced me to How I Live Now).

This book is just so bad, I didn't make it past the first dozen pages.

Ars Marginal recently ran an article on tokenism which features the Sookie Stackhouse books; the full article can be found here. See? Racism and tokenism! Lots of fail. (Part ii can now be found here.)

This post is about the psi-fail. It references the bingo cards (which I know are not up online yet), but I think it should be self-explanatory what I'm doing without actually having the cards. I went through the first dozen pages (all online on Amazon here) and checked off each bad telepath trope as it came up. We're playing "bingo" here because the first dozen pages alone literally have dozens of these tropes. (And because I was using my Psi-Fail Bingo Cards.)

In case it is not immediately obvious why these are bad, and offensive, and stupid, I spell it out.

Before we begin playing bingo, go on and check off "Psi people do not exist, therefore I can make it all up" and "There are no real psi people, so no one could really be offended by my story."

I didn't pick this book because it's worse than any other example I could pick off my shelf (yes, this is the sad truth). I picked this to do back in August because I happened to pick this off my shelf the night before. It's par for the course when it comes to stupid stuff said about telepaths, and done here as an illustration.

This post is not about the show True Blood -- that, if I cover it, will be in a separate post or series of posts. If you are inclined to drop me a comment or an email that the books improve or that the show does something better, please take some time to carefully read this post, e.g. numbers 1 and 29, and think about the content before you do so. Because from what I can tell, it looks like a "psi as a fantasy plot device, among lots of other fantasy plot devices" sort of series.

And take a minute to think about what it means that a non-telepathic author can write this for a non-telepathic audience, the writing can be this bad, and the reviews come in like this:

"An author of rare talents." -- Publishers Weekly

"Harris writes neatly and with assurance." -- The New York Times Book Review

"One of the year's best." -- Science Fiction Chronicle

Yes, think about that.

So kids, with that aside, let's play Psi-Fail BINGO!! (It might be helpful to have the pages of the book open in another window so you can better follow along. I'm going line by line.)

Let's see.

Vampires are the newest minority, and have "come out of the coffin." Har har, not.

"We had all the other minorities in our little town -- why not the newest, the legally recognized undead?"

All the other minorities? Really? All of them? In one little town? What the heck is that supposed to mean? Look it, this book opens with a statement on tokenism right out of the gate! We haven't even left page one! And we're also already playing "fictionalized vampires as metaphor for gay people," and of course the vampires need to be "legally recognized" in order to... to what? To exist? (I'm a lawyer, and I have no idea what this means. There are legal non-discrimination protections?) Minorities do not need to be "legally recognized" in order to exist.

Our protagonist is blonde, blue-eyed, twenty five, and has a "substantial" bosom and a "waspy waistline."

What the heck is a waspy waistline, may I ask? I have no clue. I'm going to guess she means skinny, because as you can see, page one is wasting no time hopping on that fast train to Mary-Sue-ville.

On page one we are told, "But I have a disability. That's how I've come to think of it. The bar patrons just say I'm crazy."

Wait for it.

Page two lets us know that there is a "politically correct" theory about the origin of vampires -- actually, no, about what it means to be a vampire, specifically if they are alive or dead. Um. That seems like a matter of basic biology, and not "political correctness." But then again, our protagonist is clearly not the brightest bulb in the pack. She thinks some form of legal recognition is necessary to make one a "real" minority. And vampires just got it, so they're the "newest" minority.

Page three lets us know that Sookie is telepathic, and the very same sentence that tells us this also establishes how rude her awarenesses make her.

"When they'd first came into Merlotte's, I'd rudely listened in on their thoughts -- I know, pretty low-class of me."

Get out your bingo cards. Check off:

* Psi people disgusted with themselves (see their senses as rude, bad, wrong, etc.)
* Telepathy as voyeurism
* Telepathy as violation
* Psi people to blame for choosing to be aware of something

And wait! She's hot, right? And on page one she told us she's "crazy," right?

So we can check off:

* "If I was aware of others' thoughts, I'd go crazy"
* Psi makes you crazy
* Sexy psi woman (psi woman is for hot sex)

The sex comes later in the book. No, I didn't get that far, but I read about it. Someone online said those scenes made them want to puke.

I also don't have a bingo square for "telepathy as low class." Maybe I need to add that one.

We will totally make bingo in this one paragraph. Here we go.

"But I get bored like everyone else, and though I spend most of my time blocking out the thoughts of other people that try to pass through my brain, sometimes I just give in."

Check off:

* Bored with humanity because he or she is telepathic
* Ethical self-repression (our awarenesses must be controlled)

There's also the implication here that the thoughts are "trying" to get into her mind, like there's an outside agency that's trying to force itself into her and she has to actively work to keep it "out". Um.

Senses do not work like that. Not sure how to get that into a bingo square.

"So I knew some things about the Rattrays that no one else did. For one thing, I knew they'd been in jail, though I didn't know why."

I think we can safely check off:

* Psi as plot device
* All psi experiences/awarenesses are relevant to advancing the "plot", which is a variation on the broader:
* Psi as a literary device

"For another, I'd read the nasty thoughts of Mark Rattray had entertained about yours truly."

Right, we know telepathy is voyeurism and the telepath girl is for hot sex. We've got that checked off already.

"And then I'd heard in Denise's thoughts that she'd abandoned a baby she'd had two years before, a baby that wasn't Mack's."

Plot device again. Check. Because seriously, she's just sitting there thinking all this at exactly that moment? Thoughts do not work like that.

And let's also check off:

* Telepathy as literally reading, and
* Telepathy as a radio

Because nothing in that description looks like actual thought transference. What it looks like is a clunky plot device designed to get certain information to the reader about stuff coming up in the books.

Skipping down a bit:

"I never listen to Sam's thoughts. He's my boss. I've had to quit jobs before because I found out things I didn't want to know about my boss."

Another check for "ethical self-repression" above, and "telepathy as voyeurism" above. Our Sookie is a good telepath. She completely blocks out anything her boss is thinking, because listening in to thoughts of people you respect is bad, and she only reads the minds of those bad, nasty, immoral people. (We know that, of course, since their name has "rat" in it.)

And of course telepathy works like a mental radio dial.

On page four, despite her mental radio, Sookie is unable to discern that Denise Rattray is hitting on the vampire, though this would be completely obvious to most people, telepathic or not. She has to have it explicitly pointed out to her before she realizes it's happening, and she quickly concludes Denise is a bitch for tempting the vampire, who just might kill her or someone else because of it. (Um.)

On page five, she calls herself "disabled." Remember page one, folks! Check off "framing psi as like having a disability," because telepathy is her "disability." And it "makes her crazy," or seem crazy to others. We already have the "psi makes you crazy" square ticked off.

Page five also continues with that "psi as plot device" thing I told you we had going. "All psi experiences/awarenesses are relevant to advancing the plot," right?

Here we go.

"When I next got a moment to check on [the vampire], he was talking to Denise. Mack was looking at him with an expression so avid that I became worried.

"I went closer to the table, staring at Mack. Finally, I let down my guard and listened.

"Mack and Denise had been in jail for vampire draining."

Oh, my! Let's see what we can check off:

* In keeping with the radio metaphor, telepathy only works if she's close to the person.
* Telepathic characters stare a lot.
* Lets down her "guard"! Another check for that ethical self-repression. Good telepaths "guard" themselves against accidentally knowing things.
* Listened! Another check for the radio.
* Plot device! She knew they had been in jail for "something," but not what, so that on page five she could find out (also via telepathy) that they had been in jail for vampire draining! How convenient! And how totally convenient she wasn't aware of that on page three, even though it's completely obvious to her now!
* And let's toss in a check for "real telepaths don't have to check for understanding, they just know."

Now what do you think's going to happen? She's going to step in and rescue the vampire, the good Mary Sue she is. I bet he's going to fall for her, too, because she's so hot, with her "substantial" bosom and "waspy waistline."

What's up next, aha! A black market for vampire blood! We still don't even know if they're alive or dead, supernatural or not, but there's a black market for their blood which is supposed to be like "prednisone and Viagra rolled into one." Our Sookie sure knows a lot about vampires for someone who a moment ago didn't even know what makes someone a vampire. And who's never met one before. And... how did this belief about vampire blood come to exist, if vampires are so "new" as a minority? Does the author just assume that when a "new minority" comes onto the social scene, it's just totally natural that people will want to kill them and sell their bodily fluids on the black market to increase sexual potency? Is she trying to make a comparison to Tanzanian albinos?

Or is this "drinking vampire blood makes you horny" idea just a really tired vampire trope, like these really tired psi tropes, and we're just supposed to recognize it?


(And isn't it being fed from which can cause sexual obsession, as opposed to drinking the vampire's blood? Isn't this backwards?)

Anyway, on page six, she's going to Save Her Vampire. Of course.

But not without some more hating on herself for being psi, like any good telepath should.

"What should I do? While I struggled with myself, they were out the door. Would the vampire believe me if I ran after them, told him? No one else did."

Check off:

* Free space -- NON-EXISTENCE (only alternatives are fiction, fraud or lunacy)
* "You can't expect to be believed, with claims like that"
* Possibly several other squares about belief. Like "disbelief is reasonable."

I mean, everyone believes in vampires -- who might be undead, and drinking whose blood gives a huge boost in sexual potency -- so who could possibly imagine someone believing her about being psi? /sarcasm/

"Or by chance if they did, they hated and feared me for reading the thoughts concealed in people's brains."

BINGO! Check off:

* Free space -- MY PRIVACY, OH NOES!
* Free space -- WE'RE SO SCARY!
* "I resent your awarenesses."
* "I can't be comfortable around you, knowing you're psi"
* "I hate you for being in my head" (which was actually personally once said to me by someone very close to me)
* Telepathy as violation
* Telepathy as "rude"
* Telepathy as voyeurism
* Telepathy as radio (or as literally reading)
* Psi people to blame for choosing to be aware of something (which is of course why she will never let herself be aware of her boss' thoughts, and will only let herself be aware of the thoughts of "bad people" who don't deserve respect or privacy -- since they're up to no good, and she has to know what they're up to to Advance The Plot).

Also: Thoughts as "concealed?" No person who actually experiences thought transference on a regular basis would ever think that. It's just a lot of nonsense.

And while we're at it, it's another check box for ethical self-repression, because Sookie's wondering if using what she knows to save this guy is bad. Why would she think this? We can check off:

* Using/accepting psi awarenesses (or in the case of PK, taking actions) to achieve one's goals = BAD

She knows this, see, because every spec fic psi person, and real life psi person who reads spec fic, knows this, and so even though she's the Mary Sue Plot Device Character, she still has to acknowledge that this is true before she goes and does it.

"Arlene had begged me to read her fourth husband's mind when he'd come in to pick her up one night because she was pretty certain he was thinking of leaving her and the kids, but I wouldn't because I wanted to keep the one friend I had."

So apparently one person believes her, and one person is still her friend. Wait.

Arlene is her only friend.

Another point for "WE'RE SCARY." We're Just That Scary, kids.

Also check off:

* (Variation on) Obligation to serve non-psi people, no matter what the cost.

Apparently her friend feels she has the right and privilege to ask Sookie to do this, to help her in this way, whatever the consequences could be for her (Sookie). "You are my plot device! Be that for me now!"

And recall, it's only ethical to read the minds of people who are about to do bad things. No, scratch that -- it's only ethical to read the minds of bad people. Good people who are about to do bad things, like Arlene's fourth husband, don't count. They still don't "deserve to be violated" to achieve some higher moral purpose.

Check off:

* Telepathy as violation

So Sookie, a very good and "ethically self-repressed" telepath, won't do it. But wait, there's more. She won't do it because Arlene is her friend, and if she read her husband's mind, even at Arlene's request, she could lose Arlene as a friend.

Reading minds is just that bad and dangerous, kids. Even if you intend it "for good," it can cost you your close relationships because you are just that scary and dangerous.

Why? Because of what we established before: "Using psi awarenesses to achieve one's goals = BAD."

So it's only OK to use it on (yes, "on") clearly bad people whose names have "rat" in them, who have been to jail before, and who are plotting murder and the trafficking of body parts for profit.

Yeah, that's bad enough, no one will care if you hurt them.

(And you can also be 100% certain of their evil intentions without any other evidence because telepathy is always magically perfect and specific like that.)

"And even Arlene hadn't been able to ask me directly because that would mean admitting I had this gift, this curse."

Check off:

* Psi as curse

Also, "I wish I could believe you but it's too scary to think of," which isn't currently a square. Arlene can't even admit that Sookie is really telepathic, because it's just ZOMG THAT SCARY. And this is her "best friend."

"People couldn't admit it. They had to think I was crazy. Which sometimes I almost was!"

Some of this is already covered above under "If I was aware of others' thoughts, I'd go crazy," "Psi as curse," "You can't expect to be believed, with claims like that," "Psi makes you crazy," "Disbelief is reasonable," and all that, including "I can't believe you because it's too scary to even consider," which is a new one.

But now that we are looking at Arlene, we must also consider why she would have so much trouble believing Sookie. What might she believe that keeps her from believing her "best friend"?

We can now also check off:

* All people who "believe in" psi are crazy, irrational or inferior
* "You believe in ESP? You need mental help now (for your delusion/disorder)"

(Just imagine how crazy you "must be" if you believe you are psi, or even ARE PSI, like Sookie, when this is the message that's out there in the master-narrative towards people who simply believe it exists in an abstract sense!)

Big picture: fictional book by (presumably) non-psi author opens showing fictional telepath beating herself up with psi-phobic shit (and she has these awarenesses merely as a plot device). The only impact that being telepathic has had on her identity (emotional life, social life, sense of self-worth, etc.) is negative. Entirely and extremely negative. These negative messages are presented as entirely self-evident and not in need of any explanation whatsoever. Of course any telepath, if telepaths were to exist, would feel like this, and would have been treated this way by others.

"So I dithered, confused and frightened and angry, and then I knew I just had to act. I was goaded by the look Mack had given me, as if I was negligible."

Good psi people are scared of themselves and their options. Sookie is "good," and "ethically self-repressed." She knows that "using/accepting psi awarenesses (or taking actions) to achieve one's goals = BAD," so OH NOES, what is she to DO?

Well, clearly the Bad Guys are Bad Guys here, and she has to save the vampire because she's the Mary Sue character and he has to fall in love with her and the telepath chick has to be for Teh Hot Sex later on (because non-psi authors love fetishizing us). Her telepathy is a plot device, and the plot requires saving him, so we know what she's going to do.

Of course she goes and saves him.

But wait! There are more tropes! On page 11-12, she realizes she can't hear him! (Conveniently for the "they fall in love" plot, she only notices this after she's rescued him, when of course this would be obvious right away.) She can hear his voice, but she cannot hear his thoughts!

And she says, "It was heaven."

Check off:

* The one person I cannot sense is so sexy because of that!

Really, this is already a square on the bingo board because it's Just That Predictable. Isn't this just what every telepath dreams of, a romantic partner he or she cannot sense?

Oh, and today must be opposite day and I missed the memo. /sarcasm/

What makes non-telepathic people think this makes any sense from a telepathic point of view? WHHHYYY? That's just what we need to turn us on, to "lose our abilities" with a lover! We don't want someone to share our experiences in life, someone we can relate to -- we really want someone to make us feel like "normal people"! Someone around whom we don't have this "curse"! We all secretly have a sexual desire to be non-psi, even if we don't know it yet. (This is a cousin of the bingo square, "Psi person loses psi, is now able to form healthy relationships.")

I have run into a small number of people I cannot sense (for example, CIA recruiters at school). And my reaction was really anything other than lust -- IT FREAKED ME THE F*CK OUT. Very different. Yes, there are psi people who have successful romantic and sexual relationships with non-psi people, but I have never heard of someone who experiences thought transference as part of their normal sensory make up having a successful relationship with someone they could not sense. That seems 100% counter-intuitive -- a non-psi fantasy, basically, that they can be the one person who can have sex with a telepath and still maintain their "privacy." (Puke.)

The other implication in this trope is that telepathy takes away all sense of intimacy (again, this must be opposite day), so we can really only be turned on by someone who we can't sense, like the sexiness of someone wearing clothes as opposed to being naked.

There's quite a bit of unchallenged ableism here in the assertion that losing cognitive function, and the ability to perceive the people around you, is a "heavenly" experience. But it logically follows from the presentation of telepathy as "curse" or as "insanity", from the presentation of others' thoughts as "trying to force their way" into your mind, as things one needs to "guard" oneself from, and from all the other problematic imaging of psi in this passage.

In many works of spec fic, written by non-psi people who are using us as a plot device for their own wish-fulfillment, we all have non-telepath envy (maybe kinda like all cis-girls have penis envy). We dislike ourselves, we think of our senses as a "curse," and of ourselves as disabled (because we are telepathic, not because of any actual disability), and we envy non-psi privilege so much, a mere taste of it turns us on. There's no greater turn-on than suddenly losing our sense of other people. It's like heaven to be like you guys for a moment!


No, really... seriously?

Didn't we already go through all this crap with Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside? Yes, yes, I think he invented most of these awful tropes and this book just ran with it, except that that book is a male wish-fulfillment fantasy and this one is female (with vampires).


Anyway, I've read and watched a lot of psi-fail in my time, but this has to be the worst opening I have ever seen.
Current Mood: accomplished
Erica: piratechanaleh on November 30th, 2011 12:22 pm (UTC)

... Also, not to derail, but: vampire blood?? I thought the whole point of vampires was that they don't have blood of their own? Maybe I am misinformed. ;-)

* The one person I cannot sense is so sexy because of that!

Wahahaha! I can't believe that is already a square. I... yeah. I see where it derives from all the self-hating tropes above, but... lord.
Dash: Prezzeyspacehawk on November 30th, 2011 09:22 pm (UTC)
I am not an expert, but I don't think the idea that vampires don't have blood of their own has been around recently. That may be a very old idea.

What is backwards, however, is the idea of the human drinking vampire blood and becoming bound to the vampire, as opposed to the vampire feeding from the human and the human becoming bound to the vampire. I think this reversal started with Charlaine Harris, these books, and the TV show. Which is all full of tropes. Perhaps the author did it because she wanted to play "new persecuted minority!", with all the fail that comes from doing that (see fantastic racism).

Wahahaha! I can't believe that is already a square. I... yeah. I see where it derives from all the self-hating tropes above, but... lord.

I think that one dates back to Robert Silverberg. When I got that book out of the library around 2001, I saw that someone had penciled in, "Total drek." Someone else had penciled in, "I agree." I read it anyway, despite the warnings. And they were right.

Nonetheless, it was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1972, and both the Hugo and the Locus Awards in 1973. Why, for the greatest contribution of the year to the self-hating of psi people and the expectation of self-hating by non-psi people??? (Plus some telepathy as rape tossed in for rape fantasy aficionados?)

Anyway, you can see why I have not bothered to read the actual sex scene in Dead Until Dark.
My thighs are hot for goat felonsemily_goddess on December 1st, 2011 03:35 am (UTC)
Denise is a bitch for tempting the vampire, who just might kill her or someone else because of it.

This part is also echoing a problematic rape narrative: "oh, she turned him on and he just couldn't help himself".

As for the rest: gross. I can see why you didn't bother to read further.
Dash: Prezzeyspacehawk on December 1st, 2011 04:00 am (UTC)
Yes, there are all sorts of problems in this. Lots and lots of problems. Some have been called out, some have not. I focused on the psi ones because these are not being called out, anywhere.