16 / 16 / 16 / 71: A room-sized pile of feelings about asexuality, and a few other things

Two ramblings about media today, since I’m still on holiday staycation. No unmarked spoilers.

First: Finished the main quest of No Man’s Sky, at about 90 hours. I did make it to the center of the galaxy the slow way. I’m moderately salty about how I played out the rest of the quest — I had accidentally spoiled myself to be ready for A Thing, got through that, and then A Thing happened again and I wasn’t ready for it the second time. But meh, I got through it again and regrouped and embarked on the Full Freeform Messing Around / Time to Make My Own Fun Until I Get Bored and Wander Off phase of the open-world game.

Second: Finished reading the 71st and final book of the year, At the Feet of the Sun by Victoria Goddard, the sequel to The Hands of the Emperor. And before I launch into my enormous pile of Thoughts and Feelings about that book, I also wanted to remind myself that I read a 72nd that hasn’t been logged yet — I had the honor of beta-reading a book that is as yet untitled. When it is published, I’ll reread the final version and log it then, so it will show up in that year’s count. But still, I don’t want to overlook it in the year-end review.

So: At the Feet of the Sun. I’m going to keep this as spoiler-light as I possibly can while diving into The Pile of Thoughts and Feelings. Remember how I went into the first book knowing only that it was about bureaucracy, and was delighted to find that it was also about character and culture? The second book is pretty much all character and culture.

And IMO, it’s a romance. — Hold on. This requires some elaboration.

—- Spoiler line: I’m going to keep it as light as I can, but I’m going to spoil some things. Especially about the first book. Sorry. —-

I have … so many things in my head right now. I’m in awe of both books generally, so please don’t see any of this as criticism. Far be it for me, a rando amateur, to cast any shade whatsoever on an actual real-live book. But a lot of this second book hit me directly in some personal feelings AND some writing-related feelings, and I feel compelled to dump them out.

I’ll also say up front that I wildly enjoyed both books. Not to say they’re perfect — the pacing sometimes felt repetitive in both — but the fact that I devoured both within a couple of weeks, when I’m usually an extremely slow reader, means something.

This is probably just me and my inability to pick up on actual subtext while wildly making up my own, but I just have to admit: I shipped Kip and Tor/[bigger spoiler] semi-facetiously through a lot of the first book. “Semi-facetiously” meaning that I thought they would make a good pair, but I did not seriously expect that to come about in the story.

I … did not … see the second book coming

And here’s where I’m particularly not sure whether I missed something, whether the foreshadowing was too subtle for me, or whether it was retconned in: I did not get the impression in the first book that Kip’s second life goal, after shaping the course of history, was to find his other half. It seemed like his goal was mostly to improve the world and wrangle respect out of his family, in that order.

Now, I’m sure it was just a matter of my not picking up on the subtext as a reader. Because unlike my retconning ass*, real authors don’t graft in ideas after the fact; they have things meticulously planned out five books in advance. I’m sure it was pure projection that led me to occasionally think “…was this planned, or…?” I’ll assume it was planned, and the story just shifted focus over the course of those two books.

* I wish I’d known a lot more about asexuality before starting Healers. To this day, I am not sure how to categorize Agna. That said, the turning point of book 1 would be very different if I’d decided to characterize her that way from the start. I also wish I’d known more about nonbinary identity and built it into the world more organically. Kei’s “men and women I’m interested in” grates on me a little now. I was trying to flash the “don’t forget, bisexuality exists” neon sign, yes, but — anyway. It is what it is. [PSA: Bisexuality includes nonbinary people. Not all bi people are into nonbinary people, but they/we absolutely can be. That’s it that’s all thank you goodnight]

The footnote/digression brings me to my next pile (basket, ha) of feelings.

I did not expect an asexual romance to be the center of At the Feet of the Sun. Of course I didn’t expect it. I think I can count the asexual romances I’ve read on one hand. I’m not particularly plugged into the asexual community, so I didn’t hear word of it through them; I stumbled across it through cozy fantasy’s recommendation of the first book, and that book only lays the groundwork for the romance. So I just stumbled into a book full of cultural stuff, astronomy, aging, family dynamics, and one of the rarest unicorns in the feelings-books landscape, one that a lot of people don’t even realize can exist, that I clumsily tried to write myself and that I still need to see in the world to convince myself that my own life is enough.

My birthday isn’t for several more months, universe, WTF. I am simply gobsmacked.

Backing up for some 101. I believe extremely strongly in self-identification in real life: I believe that only you can decide what labels to apply to yourself, and that you are not obligated to do so. But with fiction, there’s authorial intent, there’s the impression the readers get, and those views sometimes but don’t always overlap. I don’t believe that an objective reality exists in fiction. I give general credit to authorial intent while also believing that readers have a right to read other meanings into the text and draw what value they want to draw from it. To me, the two do not invalidate one another, even when they’re in opposition. (This is basically a watered-down compromise on Death of the Author, yes.)

All of which is to say: I don’t know how the author would define Kip. But I took some elements of his characterization rather personally (e.g. yelling USE YOUR WORDS DAMMIT in my head rather frequently in the first half) because I saw some elements of myself reflected in them, and I basically never see that.

101 part 2. Deep breath.

I don’t like talking about this kind of stuff in relation to my own feelings and life. I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of, so the “why” of that remains to be unpacked. Maybe in part because it’s widely misunderstood, and I don’t feel equal to the task of educating people. Maybe more so because I’m at the edges of this group, not the center, and I feel like it’s more right for the True Core of the Group to speak out. On the other hand, is it really their responsibility, or is it everyone’s? I don’t know. But I’ll tiptoe into the TMI as little as I can here.

Asexuality! It’s a thing that exists. It really fucking is. The full FAQ is laid out at asexuality.org, a years-long, crowdsourced project to try to get people to believe that we exist. — I’m not associated with AVEN. I feel a little weird saying “we” and claiming membership in the wider siblinghood. But I’m speaking for it now, so I’m going to say “we” there.

In short, some people don’t have an intrinsic interest in having sex with anyone. Some, and here’s where I fall in a convoluted way, have some interest but not what most people would deem a “normal” level. And this doesn’t count medical or hormonal causes. This is just how we are.

I say “intrinsic interest” intentionally, instead of just “interest” or “willingness” — some people are repulsed by the idea, some are indifferent, some are enthusiastic participants but don’t have an inherent need for it unless someone else suggests it (think “social drinkers”, only…not).

Intersecting with that, some people don’t have an intrinsic interest in romantic partnerships, and some do. This is, and this part is really hard to explain to some people, unrelated to whether a person is interested in sex. You can map out one of those quadrant graphs and all: yes to one, no to the other; yes to both; no to both; maybe to one and no to the other; etc. etc. etc. Most people are interested in both sex and romance, and so the culture I live under has welded the two together as though they are the same thing. They aren’t, not for everyone.

All of which is to say that some people are uninterested in sex but deeply want a romantic connection.

Which is what this book is about, in my interpretation.

Now, this is a reader’s interpretation. I am not saying that it’s categorized as A Romance or that the author sees it as a romance. This also dumps us directly into the morass of “how do you even define romance when sex isn’t on the table, how does that even differ from a really good friendship?”

Fuckin’ indeed. Allow me to gesture wildly at my imaginary red-string board, which is full of angry imaginary essays about culture and pressures and compulsory heterosexuality. Healers 3 contains the beginning of my attempts to scratch the surface of this Entire Thing. So you can see why ATFOTS ate my brain for breakfast.

I saw this book as intensely romantic while also making clear, especially in a very human scene of misunderstanding and communication midway through, that it isn’t a sexual relationship. The fact that our culture (real-world, Western / American for me, I think the author is Canadian)

(oh of course, thanks, Canada, AGAIN)

— the fact that our culture casts a dismissive light on phrases like “platonic life partners” and ranks friendship as inherently lesser than romantic or sexual partnership speaks to the problem here. My red-string board ties this back into a disregard for / erasing of asexuality, for one thing. Sure, we’re outnumbered by all y’all, but there are certain lessons that the majority can learn. Such as, there is real value to be found in all kinds of connections and relationships. Not just one kind. Realizing and valuing that can add richness to anyone’s life.

…which is, in my reader’s interpretation, also what this book is about.

So. I would have been perfectly happy had the ship come in after all (pardon the truly terrible pun under the circumstances), and the two characters had found their way to a more conventional partnership. That would have been fine by me; that’s what I semi-facetiously not-expected at the end of book 1. But the story finding its way to a kind of relationship so infrequently depicted that a lot of people don’t think it’s even possible? Beautiful. Just beautiful.

Now, there’s also a small trace of my reader’s brain, maybe a remnant of building up that ship in my mind through book 1, that wonders why it’s so impossible. Kip describes having, pardon the modern parlance, friends with benefits. But in the case of the person he loves most in this or any universe, it’s like no, never in a million years, absolutely unthinkable. — That’s probably my bi side talking, I think. Ha. [For those of us in the “sometimes/maybe” part of the landscape, our inclinations still line up with the other kinds of sexuality labels. In other words, if you are into some people sometimes, you can still describe that with words like gay, straight, bi, etc. And still be on the asexual spectrum. People! They’re complex! It’s great!]

(Allow me to also point out the excellent grace note that out of the three partnerships described with the conlang word elaborated upon in the story, one of them is between a married gay god and his female platonic life partner. And this never threatens his romantic partnership, and they are both important. Chef’s kiss.)

At the same time, though, I really respect the hold-the-line factor of insisting that the two leads’ relationship does not have to be sexual in order to be “a story for the ages” level of intensity. A “well, sure, if it would make you happy” course of action is something that happens in real life, and that’s totally fine if that’s what the people involved want. But as a dramatic beat, it would kind of feel like a pulled punch. “It doesn’t have to be, we swear, but it still is” feels like trying to have it both ways.

Finally, this book made me reflect on the pacing/emotional rhythm of how romance stories usually work, and how a story with the partial shape of one without sex involved sets up more of a challenge. Here’s why: Whether or not you put it on the page, the point where the characters express their feelings physically usually represents a resolution of dramatic tension. Will-they-won’t-they, ahh, they will. Okay. Tension resolved. Complications can follow, but we’ve reached a resolution for that thread.

If you take that off the table, the story still needs to resolve that tension, but you have to craft another way to resolve it. This story accomplishes it in a few ways, I think, which I won’t get into because of spoilers. But I recognize the challenge in the situation.

All of which is to say:

  • I’m emotionally exhausted in a good way
  • I’m not used to feeling seen, it’s… weird
  • We need more stories about the other parts of the asexual/aromantic quadrant map
  • Stock up on wiring looms, like, a lot, and don’t use all of them until you’re absolutely sure the main quest is completely done

It’s December 29 now, so I will end up 2022 at 71/technically 72 books. I don’t think I’ll start anything new for a bit, since I started a re-read of Healers book 3 in order to get the wheels turning for more outlining on book 4. That’s where we’ll land.

Happy (most of) Earth New Year, everybody.