Review: Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar

Because I am perverse, the first Superman comic I ever read was Superman: Red Son, by famed Scottish comics creator Mark Millar, whose name I thought sounded vaguely familiar when I was scanning the comics shelf at my library. The premise here is that instead of being dropped in the middle of Kansas, Superman ends up in a Ukrainian collective farm. He fights for Stalin, socialism, and the neverending expansion of the Warsaw Pact; while American scientist Lex Luthor plots how to bring him down. Fun, right?

Superman: Red Son

Art is by Dave Johnson, Andrew Robinson, Kilian Plunkett, and Walden Wong; colors by Paul Mounts; letters by Ken Lopez.

If you haven’t read any Superman, Red Son will still make sense, and it’s a good comic to read because it’s contained to the one volume. The introduction to the volume assured me that it was so, and indeed it was so. But I think it was also a little bit like reading Kurt Busiek’s Marvels without knowing, for instance, the classic Spiderman / Gwen Stacy story. It still works; the story explains what’s happening. The punch is just less punchy. As I was reading, there were (many) times when it was clear there was a callback being made, and I was missing it because I don’t know anything about Superman’s history.

That said, Red Son is a very cool story that takes away Superman’s heroism mostly without taking away what’s fundamental to his character. Lex Luthor fights against Superman not because he believes Superman is wrong — he explicitly doesn’t care — but because he doesn’t like to lose, which means that this is a book whose two primary characters are both fundamentally villains. The heroism of other characters, like Batman and Wonder Woman, or the team of fighters trying to oppose the spread of Russian autocracy1, are no less brave for being ancillary to the work that Superman and Luthor are trying to achieve. It also has a hugely satisfying (to me) ending.

Ready for your Angry Feminism Minute? You must have known it was coming! Lois Lane is around basically to mope over Lex Luthor (her husband in this universe) and, now and then, wonder what her life would have been like if she were with Superman.

Lois: Listen. Bring Norma Jean and Jack to dinner if you want. Lex, I’m not sure I even care anymore.
Lex: Oh of course you still care, Lois Luther. Why else would you have chosen to live alone all these years, eh?
Lois [with image of Superman in background]: I guess you’re right, Lex. Maybe I am just a one-man woman.

Framing one of the only women in the comic as fundamentally about her romantic life is tediously regressive. I’d say atavistic were it not for the fact that comics just have not come that far from the days of this shit in the first few issues of Iron Man.

Happy: Are ya brushin’ me off… Me, Happy Hogan, who has finally found the dame of his dreams?
Pepper: My dear Mr. Hogan, your dream would only be my nightmare! In short…you wouldn’t be my type even if you were my type!
Happy: Hm, I get the picture…it’s him…Stark…who makes yer ticker go thump thump. Right?
Pepper: Right! Only he doesn’t know I’m alive, but someday he will…and then he’ll give up all his actresses and debutantes…and I’ll become Mrs. Anthony Stark!

Again, this Iron Man comic is from 1963. Red Son was published four damn decades later, and it’s still coming at me with this same retro gender shit. I googled “Mark Millar gender” to see if I was being oversensitive, and it turns out that this is a thing he told the New Republic in an interview with (omg of course) Abraham Riesman.

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”

Ah.

Comics, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.

  1. Jenny sobs into her tea

Interrupting Women: A Links Round-Up

A man named Ben Blatt analyzed — among other things — the gendering of certain terms and descriptions in fiction. My favorite finding is that male writers were 75% more likely to depict female characters interrupting male characters. TYPICAL.

On diversity in historical romance.

Given the history of Nazi appropriation of medieval studies and folklore, I was particularly interested in this February series at the Public Medievalist about people of color in the medieval world. The introduction to the series is here, and you can click through to the other pieces in it.

Well this story about a doctor who reads a lot but never any women makes me want to punch someone.

Why “we made it for the fans, not the critics” is nonsense.

The US is insisting that Cambodia pay off a huge debt incurred by a dictator the US installed via coup. It’s tremendously garbage.

How to counteract gaslighting.

Linda Holmes is predictably fantastic on the “Missing Richard Simmons” podcast.

I loved this Jezebel review of a book called How Not to Hate Your Husband after Kids, which both gets at a lot of intractable gender dynamics and made me want to read this book whose title initially really really put my back up.

Author Karan Mahajan on being brown in Austin.

Jia Tolentino is such a terrific writer. Here’s her piece on the gig economy and how it celebrates overwork.

Belle should have married Gaston: A historical perspective.

Why do dude journalists think lady celebrities want to sleep with them (spoilers: they don’t)?

Review: Version Control, Dexter Palmer

What a weird, weird book. It reminded me a little of Nick Harkaway with the quills retracted (does that metaphor work? do porcupines retract their quills ever?). Version Control is a time travel novel with very little time travel, a story about humanity and loss from whose human characters I felt distant, a novel of ideas that sometimes made me think brand new thoughts and sometimes made me feel very tired of humanity (although not in the way the author maybe intended).

Version Control

Philip Wright has not built a time machine. It’s a causality violation device, and so far it has always had null results. His wife, Rebecca, works for a dating service called Lovability that is monumentally successful at reducing people down to data points and matching them up with the data-driven correct mates. They are recovering from a tragedy, and Rebecca can’t shake the feeling that the world isn’t quite what it was supposed to be. It’s nothing to do with the time machine. It’s a causality violation device, anyway.

Version Control takes a very, very long time to get to its premise. I was warned about this, so I bore with it to get to the pay-off, and in fact I think the pay-off was worth it: Dexter Palmer has a take on time travel and its paradoxes that I don’t think I’ve ever seen done before. When the characters finally unravel (ish) the central mystery of the book and attain (ish) a resolution, it felt eminently satisfying.

On a character note, eh, not so much. It wasn’t exactly that Rebecca and Philip and Alicia and Carson and Kate were paper dolls in service of a novel of ideas, but they didn’t feel like real people, either. Actually! They felt very similar to how Rebecca felt about the world in general: Similar in most respects to what people would be like, but somehow not quite there. Maybe this was intentional on the author’s part, but it’s not my preference — I like to read stories about people who have conversations, not people who perpetually exchange monologues, and I particularly like to read about people who admire and like each other, the way virtually nobody in this book seemed to. I was always very aware that the book wanted to get across ideas more than it wanted to write about humans.

A mixed bag, then, but a very worthwhile one.

Agree or disagree: Time travel is always more trouble than it’s worth and we should 100% stay when we’re at, even if someone we know has built a time travel machine.

Review: Borderline, Mishell Baker

What’s that you say? Somebody wrote a book about creepy fairies and mental health treatments? YES THANK YOU, I DON’T MIND IF I DO.

Borderline has been garnering all the accolades this past year in SFF circles, most recently a well-deserved Nebula nomination. It’s about a filmmaker called Millie who has borderline personality disorder (BPD hereafter) and is a double amputee following a suicide attempt the year before. A mysterious woman named Caryl shows up at her mental hospital and offers her a job with the equally mysterious Arcadia Project. Work with us for a year, says Caryl, and at the end of it we’ll get you a job in Hollywood. Figuring it’s the only way she’ll get back into the movie biz, Millie agrees and is instantly put on a missing persons case — or to be more specific, a missing fairy case, because it turns out the Arcadia Project manages human/fairy relations. Delicately.

Borderline

I was nervous to read this book (despite the fab cover and raves from all sides), partly because depictions of mental health in SFF can be hit or miss for me (with a lotttttt of miss), and partly because borderline people are bad at boundaries and I am made up of ~95% boundaries so I was worried that if the book accurately portrayed BPD, it would put my back up and I would have a hard time enjoying it.

Borderline pooh-poohed all my concerns: It portrayed BPD in a way that was absolutely familiar to me from borderline people I have known, and gave me a ton of insight about what it’s like from the inside if you are self-aware and trying to deal with it, and got into the nitty-gritty details of cognitive behavioral therapy work1 that BPD-havers can do to lessen the impact of their symptoms, and showed how BPD both helps and hurts Millie in her work with the Arcadia Project. What a great fucking book.

The world of the fey that Mishell Baker explores here is wonderfully weird and specific. If the explanations Millie gets from her colleagues at the Arcadia Project occasionally feel like visits from the Exposition Fairy, those moments are quick and well worth the reader’s time (especially given that this is the first book in a planned series). The mystery Millie is assigned to investigate throws out an exactly correct number of clues, red herrings, and conspiracy, leaving behind a satisfying solution and some loose ends for the second book to explore. The last time I enjoyed urban fantasy this much was War for the Oaks.2

My one single gripe is that the character of Gloria bummed me out. She’s a blonde Southern bitch whose polite words have barbs behind them:

“Don’t mind Teo,” said a cloying, high-pitched Southern voice. “He’s a Grouchy Gus.” . . . . She giggled, in that cute way Southern women do instead of punching you in the teeth.

Ha ha yeah totally, we are cloying assholes down here.

Whereas with other characters at the Arcadia Project, Baker gives you a sense of what lies behind their behavior toward Millie, Gloria pretty much seems like she’s being a bitch to be a bitch. (She Does Good at points in the story, but in general she’s pointlessly shitty, passive-aggressive, and insincere to Millie.) The fake-nice blonde Southern lady is a stereotype I’d like a break from, given how closely the fakeness and the blondeness seem to be linked. While individual writers who write this type of antagonist for their heroes to clash with probably don’t intend it this way (it’s clear Baker doesn’t), the uncritical reproduction of this stereotype nevertheless reinforces a dichotomy of honest vs. deceptive gender performance that I do not love.

On the other hand, I am a blonde polite Southern woman who has spent a lot of time around people that think that list of adjectives tells them everything they need to know about me, so maybe I’m just annoyed on behalf of my people. You decide!

Overall though, I absolutely loved this book. Couldn’t put it down, talked about it to everyone, will read the sequel in a hot second when it comes out. I already know it’s going to be one of my favorites of 2017. Thanks so much for Sarah over at The Illustrated Page for putting me on to it!

  1. I love cognitive behavioral therapy so much, and it has helped so many people, and I almost never see it depicted in fiction, so that was awesome.
  2. Aha, says the perceptive reader, you must not read very much urban fantasy. Correct, I do not; it does not often tempt me.

Review: Jem and the Holograms, Kelly Thompson & Sophie Campbell

Well, Memory and Ana were correct: Jem and the Holograms is a joyous delight. I dragged my feet on reading it because I was not familiar with the original property, which should be no surprise to anyone because I know 0 things about pop culture prior to 2005 or so. But it turns out you don’t need to be familiar with the television show to appreciate the glorious weirdness of this comic.

Jem and the Holograms

The premise: Jerrica, Kimber, Shana, and Aja want to submit a video application to the “Misfits vs” competition, where a bunch of unknown bands get to compete against The Misfits in live performance. But Jerrica (their lead singer) has such terrible stage fright that she can’t get through a single song without choking. So instead they USE A HOLOGRAM OF HER and pretend the hologram lady (Jem) is their real lead singer. Hijinks ensue.

I dunno, if you enjoyed the first act of The Parent Trap or want to read about ladies tearing it up in the music scene with excellent eye makeup, I feel I can recommend Jem and the Holograms to you in good conscience. This volume mainly focuses on Jerrica and Kimber, but it’s clear that the background characters have their own desires and stories to tell, which I hope we’ll see more of as the comic progresses. It’s A+ to see Kimber’s budding romance with a lady and Jerrica’s budding romance with a dude treated with the exact same tone and respect; I am rooting for love all around!

Another wonderful thing about this comic is that when artist Sophie Campbell came out as trans over the course of the comic’s run, publisher IDW reprinted every issue to get rid of her deadname. That is absolutely putting your money where your mouth is, and I think it’s great that the publisher supported Campbell. Also great: Trans ladies being lead artists on comics! Woooooooo!

(Note: Sophie Campbell finished her run on Jem and the Holograms after the 17th issue and moved on to other projects. But that still gives me two (ish?) more trade paperbacks of this marvelous comic to look forward to with her art.)

So if the Trump administration is backing up on you and you need some pure, bright-colored joy in your life, check out Jem and the Holograms.

Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.78: Romance Novels and the Forcening Concludes

Happy Ides of March, friends! After a very tense podcast last week, in which Whiskey Jenny naysayed two of my absolutely favorite books in the whole world, we have again reached an accord this week and legitimately had to stop ourselves from talking forever about romance novels. We also chat about Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer’s book Agnes and the Hit Man, answer some listener mail, and preview some THRILLING NEW PODCAST CONTENT. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Here’s the time signatures for each segment, if you want to skip around!

1:23 – What we’re reading
4:23 – SEA OR SPACE
07:07 – Romance novels!
33:43 – Agnes and the Hit Man, Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer
47:34 – Listener mail
52:44 – What we’re reading next time
53:44 – What else we’re reading next time

What We’re Reading

Njinga of Angola, Linda Heywood
a top secret book
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Rosa Brooks

Sea or Space

Here’s the New York Times article about the awesome new planets we’re going to have to colonize when Trump blows up our one.

Romance Novels

One Plus One, Jojo Moyes
A Gentleman’s Game, Theresa Romain
Wanted, a Gentleman, KJ Charles
Wicked Becomes You, Meredith Duran
Riveted, Meljean Brook
Ride with Me, Ruthie Knox
Beta Test, Annabeth Albert
Faking It, Jennifer Crusie
A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal, Meredith Duran
The Convenient Marriage, Georgette Heyer
True Pretenses, Rose Lerner
A Lot Like Love, Julie James

Here’s Dahlia Lithwick’s brilliant unified theory of Muppet types.

Unraveled, Courtney Milan
Proof by Seduction, Courtney Milan
A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, Cecilia Grant
Special Werewolf Alpha Team series, Paige Tyler
Stephanie Plum series, Janet Evanovich
Nora Roberts in general
A Gentleman Undone, Cecilia Grant
The Spymaster’s Lady, Joanna Bourne
Acute Reactions and Hard Knocks, Ruby Lang
No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, Sarah MacLean
Sutphin Boulevard, Santino Hassell
A Woman Entangled, Cecilia Grant

The Second Annual Forcening, Part Two

Agnes and the Hit Man, Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

For Next Time

The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso

Programming Note

For next week, we will be reading the first two episodes/chapters of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, and you can follow along with us on Serial Box!

Credits
Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Theme song by: Jessie Barbour

What’s on My To-Lend Shelf?

Happy Tuesday! Today I’m collablogging (hm, that doesn’t really work, does it?) with the fabulous Renay of Lady Business, Chelsea the Reading Outlaw, and Claire Rousseau, and we’re all talking about the ten books we’d like to keep on a “to-lend” shelf (should our lifestyles support such a thing).

First up, I know because I nearly bought two copies at a library book sale recently that I like to be able to lend out Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The un-spoiler-y version of the pitch is that it’s about a girl who used to have two siblings and now has zero. You can have the spoiler-y version that got me to read the book in the first place in the following footnote.1

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanigahara, is my number two. Despite the utter weirdness of this book, and my great dislike of Yanagihara’s entitlement and second novel, The People in the Trees remains one of the best reading experiences of my life. It’s the story of the life of a fictional scientist — now disgraced after several of his foster children accused him of sexual abuse — who discovered the secret of immortality on a faraway Pacific island. Reading it made me feel like I’d never read a book before. I wish I could get everyone in the world to read this damn book.

The greatest triumph of randomly-picking-up-a-book-in-the-library since Diana Wynne Jones’s A Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Joan Wyndham’s Love Lessons remains a tricky sell because the title is blah and people are not exactly lining up to read old-time diaries all over the place. But maybe if I had some spare copies, that would change. It’s the diary of a teenager in London during the Blitz, a description that is completely inadequate to describe how charming, funny, and strange Love Lessons really is.

One of these years, I am going to get Whiskey Jenny to read The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, with me. It’s the story of a young black woman growing up in rural Alabama in the 1930s, and while it is tremendously dark in places, its luminous beauty and hope have kept it one of my favorite books of all time. Plus, it has queer ladies! Queer women of color in the rural South! Don’t you want that? Of course you do.

Again, I may be influenced here by my own recent book sale behavior, as I purchased a spare copy of this book there, but I’d love to share Kage Baker’s book In the Garden of Iden with more people. It’s the first in a science fiction series about time-traveling cyborgs who work for a futuristic Company. In the Garden of Iden follows the cyborg Mendoza through her rescue by the Company, her metamorphosis into a cyborg asset for the Company, and her life in Elizabeth England trying to rescue specific old-time plants from extinction. It’s a fun book on its own and a wonderful first entry in a brilliant and gripping SF series.

Greensleeves, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, is about an eighteen-year-old girl called Shannon who doesn’t exactly know where she belongs or what she wants to do next. She does know that she’s tired of being herself, and so she takes on a job as an investigator for a contested will, which requires her (well, she decides) to become a completely different person. Teenage me needed this book like oxygen, and it remains one of my very most favorite books in the world (that no one else has ever heard of).

In comfort food, I would include Hilary McKay’s wonderful Saffy’s Angel, a middle grade novel about a girl called Saffy who discovers when she is eight that she’s adopted. Her siblings are really her cousins, and her parents are really her aunt and uncle. When her grandfather dies and leaves her “the stone angel, the angel in the garden,” she decides to set out to find that angel (if it still exists). It’s a funny, heartfelt dear of a book with a strong female friendship at its center.

If I had thought of it while I was at the book fair, I’d have bought the shiny new copy of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and kept it for just such an occasion. When someone tells me they’re in the mood for a book that’s meaty, plotty, and well-written, Fingersmith is what I give them. It’s about a queer girl running a con in Victorian London, and if that pitch doesn’t get you then I don’t even know what to say.

In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden, is about a businesswoman who decides to become a Catholic nun. A proper one, who stays all the time in the convent. Not long after Philippa arrives, the brilliant, complicated Abbess Hester dies, and the convent is plunged into financial crisis. It’s a bit like a boarding school book with adults, lots of politicking and internal conflict, and it’s among my favorite books by one of my all-time favorite authors.

And finally, my beloved, cherished Sunshine, by Robin McKinley. For reasons not entirely clear to me, this vampire dystopia has become one of my dearest comfort reads. It is about a girl called Sunshine who gets kidnapped by vampires as she’s visiting a lake that should have been relatively safeish. She finds herself sharing a cell with a vampire, whose meal she is supposed to be; but instead they form a kind of alliance. Sunshine does vampires in a brilliantly specific and visceral way, and seeing Sunshine come into her own as a vampire adversary is A+ terrific.

What books would be on your to-lend shelf?

(PS I asked my mum to help me come up with books for this project, and she became very excited about the idea of my having a to-lend shelf. “Mama, no, it’s for a blog post!” I kept saying, and she kept handing me spare copies of her favorite books and saying “Start the shelf! Start the shelf! Now you have three books to put on it!” So now I have an actual, literal to-lend shelf. You’re welcome, guests.)

  1. One of the siblings is an ape, because the protagonist, Rosemary, was raised in a family that was conducting ape language studies.

Review: Batgirl, Gail Simone

My DC project is officially launched! Not only has 19% of my reading been comics so far this year (though it’s early days), but I have also now completed half of my New Year’s Resolution re: DC comics, which was to read two substantial runs on two different DC comics. First up: Gail Simone’s Batgirl.

Batgirl

Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl follows Barbara Gordon as she’s getting back into the game of fighting crime on the streets after several years away. My main takeaway here is that Batgirl cannot cut a break. Every time she arrests one criminal who’s determined to murder her, another one pops up, like the world’s most sinister game of Whack-a-Mole. (Is that the game I’m thinking of? Where you whap the things on the head and they go back down into their hole but then another one pops up somewhere else on the board?)

A recent miracle cure (I know) has given Barbara back the use of her legs after a years-ago attack by the Joker. Though Barbara’s physically able to return to the work of catching criminals on the mean streets of Gotham, she still struggles mentally. Her reflexes aren’t what they used to be, and more significantly, the trauma of her attack by the Joker continues to affect her day to day. Simone’s excellent on Barbara’s ongoing feelings about what happened to her — she’s angry about it, and angry with herself for what she perceives as letting it happen, and memories of the assault flash into her mind at inconvenient times, leaving her frozen and stunned when she most needs to be up and fighting. But Barbara also refuses to be defined by her worst day, and she continues to get back up and keep on fighting evil.

Holy hell, Gotham is the worst. Is this typical of street-level comic books? I have most often read the mid-level ones, where the Avengers or the X-Men are saving the world from things, and I miss out the street-level fighters like Luke Cage and the Punisher. But goddamn, in Gotham it seems like nobody ever has a good day. Not the superheroes, not the villains, and for sure not the civilians. Everyone gets nonstop murdered. I prescribe a rousing course of trauma-focused CBT for the entire citizenry of Gotham.

Look, this is my first significant read of a DC comic, and I don’t want to overgeneralize here. But you know that perception that like, Marvel has the jokes, DC has the grimdark? Reading Batgirl did not shift that perception for me. It isn’t just that Barbara constantly has people gunning for her, although she does, and it isn’t just that Gotham is an unbearable violent shithole with no redeeming qualities, although it is. Reading this comic, I got so tired of Barbara facing mastermind villains who were specifically, personally targeting her trauma history, manipulating her into super-triggering situations, and then taunting her at great length about her inability to save her loved ones. Are there no villains in the DC universe who just want a whole bunch of money or to experiment on innocent civilians without involving superheroes? Do all the DC villains devote upwards of half their time to specifically ruining the lives of the heroes of Gotham?

These are not rhetorical questions. Please answer them in the comments. If the answer is yes I may need to rethink this DC reading project and also not buy that one shirt I wanted to buy.

I still really want this shirt.

Spoilsport Big Sisters: A Links Round-Up

Happy Friday, everyone! This week’s been a good one for me, not least because absolutely everybody seems to really hate the new Netflix Iron Fist. The internet tried to warn you, Netflix!

“We try not to get too hung up on the split infinitive”: Here’s some charming stories about copyediting and style guides.

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw at the Daily Dot adored Logan and made me feel pretty sure that I will too.1 Likewise Emily Asher-Perrin at Tor, who does the excellent thing of saying a superhero movie is very good without trashing all other superhero movies.

Emily Yoshida wrote this thing about silent murder girls in Logan (and elsewhere).

Raise a glass to the spoilsport big sisters of literature.

YA author LJ Alonge on how to write black stories without catering to the white gaze.

Do not read this article if you have not yet finished season one of The Good Place and dislike spoilers (also, catch up on The Good Place!). But here is an interview with showrunner Mike Schur about how he crafted the season, and it’s aces.

I feel tingles of pleasure when I read negative reviews of Iron Fist, which sounds like a badly paced, badly directed, badly written mess. Yay. Maureen Ryan calls it “about as exciting as a slice of Velveeta cheese left out in the sun too long.” Kwame Opam describes it as a “boring, confused, and often offensive mess of a series.” Susana Polo says it was so bad she found herself “incredulously texting coworkers who also had screener access to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.”

This piece on The Learned Fangirl draws parallels between the WGN show Underground (which I haven’t seen yet) and Nisi Shawl’s superb work of what she calls AfroRetroFuturism, Everfair.

Buzzfeed ran a round-up of takes on the women’s strike and a round-up of reports from women on why and how they did or did not participate.

This profile of The Ripped Bodice, a romance novels bookstore in Los Angeles, made me happy in every possible way.2

Another links round-up, another Vulture piece by Angelica Jade Bastien making me happy. This one’s about Buffy the Vampire Slayer!

Have a wonderful weekend, friends. Stay brave!

  1. Ugh except I’ve seen like four separate reviews that said Logan made them really realize what metal claws could do to a person’s flesh, which — eurgh.
  2. Except there’s a few spots where it’s condescending cause a non-romance-reader wrote it, like “they have enough perspective to recognize the inherent humor in their trade.” Shut up, sir.

Not a Dumb American: Equatorial Guinea

Let me tell you some of the problems I have encountered in my Africa reading project. Number one is that not a huge amount of books have been published in English about many African countries, particularly smaller ones, particularly non-Anglophone smaller ones. Number two is that my library oftentimes has older African history books but does not have newer African history books, which I assume can be attributed to a shift in purchasing priorities. So the book I read for Equatorial Guinea (a teensy wee Hispanophone country) was Ibrahim Sundiata’s 1990 monograph Equatorial Guinea: Colonialism, State Terror, and the Search for Stability.

Guess what happened in Equatorial Guinea in 1996. They found oil. Black gold. Texas tea. Turns out having huge oil reserves can drastically change the course of a nation’s history.

Let me back up and tell you some of the stuff I learned from the actual book, however. Equatorial Guinea is a teeny wee country on Africa’s west coast and one of three African countries with “Guinea” in the name. (The other two are Guinea-Bissau and just plain old regular Guinea.) There’s a mainland bit of the country, which is called Rio Muni, and then there’s an island bit up by Cameroon called Bioko, and another island bit down below Sao Tome and Principe that’s called Annobon. It’s confusing. Here’s a picture.

If you are wondering why the country is so weirdly laid out, I can report that it’s basically down to the Spanish being rather disorganized colonizers and the Portuguese knowing what they were about. Sao Tome and Principe were uninhabited at the point of Portuguese colonization and had a lot of cultivable land, whereas Bioko was fiercely defended by its inhabitants, the Bubi, and neither it nor the other Equatorian islands had much available land for large-scale farming. Annobon and Corisco (Corisco is the yellow dot just slightly southwest of Rio Muni) were usefulish as entrepots, but not so longterm useful that Portugal wasn’t willing to sell them to Spain in 1777. Spain kind of didn’t realize this before buying them.

real footage of Spain after making this purchase

I was going to say “Get your act together, Spain!” But then I was like, wait, do I want the colonizing powers to get their act together? And then I was like, wait, but is it better if the colonizing powers don’t have their act together, or does that just fuck up the ultimate outcomes for the colonized countries? And then I remembered that it doesn’t matter because colonized nations are nearly always fucked. And also I can’t do a very good comparison yet because I don’t know anything about outcomes in Sao Tome and Principe.1

For a large chunk of the twentieth century, the Equatorial Guinean chief export was cacao, which was farmed on a small scale by the indigenous Bubi people, and on a large scale by a huge range of immigrants and migrant workers from nearby African countries (because there weren’t enough local workers to do it on a large scale). Cacao plantations had really horrible working conditions, and various other countries kept annoying Spain deeply by summoning their migrant workers back home or by investigating labor conditions and penalizing anyone who acquired migrant workers illegally; and then Spain would be on the hook for compensation payments.

In 1968, the country became independent, probably because Spain couldn’t be bothered providing financially for the country they’d spent the last two hundred years not being bothered about governing, and a guy called Macias Nguema came to power. He centralized power in his own office, outlawed competing political parties, and decreed himself President for Life.

I HAVE BEEN SAVING THIS GIF FOR JUST SUCH AN OCCASION

The great majority of educated Equatoguineans fled the country, with some estimates suggesting that the population declined by more than half during Nguema’s presidency/dictatorship. He targeted people who wore glasses and the minority Bubi population (remember them from a paragraph ago? They refused to work for shitty cacao plantations and did their own damn farming instead?), as he perceived those groups as being too intellectual. Also (I did not learn this from the book, I learned it from further online researches) he apparently committed mass murder in a football stadium while blasting a jaunty song I used to like but now find extremely creepy. It was his favorite song, but that doesn’t really explain much.

I am really sorry that these posts aren’t cheerier. Just, it turns out that when colonizing powers draw arbitrary national lines and skimp on education budgets for many decades, things become quite difficult for the resulting country. Also, it is difficult to shake off dictators once you have them, particularly if the dictators in question murder and exile the entire educated class of the country.

THIS POINTED STARE I AM DOING IS AIMED AT YOU, AMERICA. DO NOT PERMIT DICTATORING. DO NOT PERMIT ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM. IT WILL NOT BENEFIT ANYBODY IN THE END.

Anyway. Eventually there was a coup, and if you have been following along at home, you probably know it was even odds that the result of the coup against the dictator would just be a brand new dictator. The former dictator’s nephew, Teodoro Obiang, now the longest-running ruler in all of Africa. When Sundiata was writing his book, it seemed like Obiang would be less awful, and I guess once he dies and things change, we will have a better picture of how much and if he is indeed less awful. But corruption is still hella rampant, with the bulk of the country’s oil money going into Obiang’s pockets rather than improvements to the country, and dissent is really not tolerated at all.

Oh, I forgot to say also that when Macias (football stadium guy) was sentenced to execution, the cult of personality around him and the belief in his magic was so strong that no Equatoguineans would carry out the execution. Obiang’s Moroccan guard had to do it.

There you go. Now you know more about Equatorial Guinea than you knew before. It is all pretty sad but better to have more information than less information, right?

Next up: Old-time Zimbabwe! (By which I mean I am reading another oldish book, because even though it’s old it’s still supposed to be quite authoritative.) If you want to follow my progress on this mighty African reading project, here’s the main page. I am determined to read four histories of African countries this year, and hopefully five.

  1. I know that things went horribly awry in Angola and Mozambique, which are the other two Portuguese colonies I can think of right now, but my vague recollection is that those were Cold War proxy conflicts and not bumpy road to independence situations.