Friday, June 17, 2011

Mummies & Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate

Something that crossed my mind today, while contemplating a paper on biopolitics in steampunk (because why WOULDN'T you want to think about biopolitics in steampunk, what with the mechanization of society leading to further exploitation of marginalized bodies and questions of who profits off / pays for the progress of the 19th century?) and which texts I'd tackle the idea with (toss-up between Priest, Lowachee and Carriger, but Gail's series is the only one which looks to have an ending at this point) when I found myself thinking about the mummies in Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate books. 

I fucking love these books to death -- they're a light read, they're engaging, they're funny, and they have some serious issues going on which are quite thoughtfully engaged with. What with the glorification of mad science in steampunk, I love how this is a text in which it is openly acknowledged that science is every bit a tool of power and oppression and harm as religion is, where you know what? mad science isn't all that because sometimes it's wielded by fucking assholes and I don't think this is ever explored enough. Carriger's books manage to have this dark undercurrent even while being a funny comedy of manners  on top. 

But (as there always is in these things) one thing does bother me, and it's the plot device surrounding mummies from Egypt, introduced in Changeless

OK, so the deal with werewolf and vampire mythos is this: at the touch of a preternatural they become mortal. A mummified preternatural still retains this power to render supernatural creatures mortals. If you've read the books, you know that by Blameless, Alexia's figured out that the God-Breaker plague (that rendered supernaturals in Egypt mortal) that happened in ancient Egypt was a result of Egyptians mummifying preternaturals. 

The first instance we see of this is in Changeless, when suddenly supernaturals are mortal, and we discover it's because of a mummified preternatural, the unwrapping of which Alexia is present for (and this is the first inkling we get of the reason why Alexia's father was missing for most of her life; preternaturals can't stand each other. Which seems kinda sad because it sounds like Alexia and Alessandro could have had an awesome father-daughter-fight-crime relationship) (also Alessandro's relationship with the Vatican is so going to be discussed in this hypothetical paper). 

I think this device is really well done in general: there's already a mention on how far back werewolf and vampire lineages go (although I still want to know how vampires and werewolves cut ties and move? I have faith this will be answered in a future book) and Changeless does a fine job of unravelling (pun not intended) (ok fine pun intended) the history surrounding the God-Breaker Plague, and it's continued further in Blameless very compellingly, with Alexia realizing the ramifications of mummifying preternaturals.

My problem lies, of course, with the mummy-unwrapping. Which, yes, were pretty popular entertainment at the time. There was a "mummy-unwrapping" at CNSE, which I didn't attended because I find the concept kind of grotesque. 

Every year during a period I can't remember (about two weeks after the start of the lunar new year, or something) folks usually head out to tend to ancestors' graves and such-like. I imagine such a tradition is present in many cultures (such as the Mexican Day of the Dead, beautifully depicted in this story by Sabrina Vourvoulias). My grandmother had been buried with a piece of jade in her mouth (you know, in case she had to buy her way out of stuff in the afterlife) which was gone when my father and his family exhumed her to cremate her remains. The concept of raiding someone's grave to steal shit has always been disrespectful to me (not repulsive. I have a pretty high threshold of sick that makes me physically ill), but the concept of mummy-unwrapping parties rather takes it further, because the vandal isn't just stealing shit, but also messing with someone else's dead, for entertainment. (I don't suppose anybody would care if I went to Westminster and smashed up the flagstones unearthing dead bodies and going all "haha lookit those old bones!"?)

So it's a bit disheartening that the justification Alexia has to come up with to get British authorities to halt tomb-raiding in Egypt doesn't have anything to do with basic respect for the death rituals of a colonized space, but the preservation of the Empire, since mummified preternaturals affect a wider range than living preternaturals ever can. Not to say that Alexia wouldn't be the kind to eventually realize how disrespectful the whole sordid affair is, but still.

I'm waiting to see how this plays out in the future books, but this particular aspect just reminds me of Monique Poirier's commentary on an Andean mummy:
I understand the intrinsic value of exploring really ancient gravesites and researching them and photographing them, even in taking minute samples for carbon dating and stuff. But PUT THEM BACK. In the event that you have to move them at all, which YOU PROBLY DON’T (situations in which bringing corpses to large imaging devices is relevant aside). But once that’s done, PUT THEM BACK. 
Because, yanno, they were people. Because they ARE people.  
These children DIED to be in the place that you found them, jackasses.
There are many items currently in the hands of colonizing powers which are legacies of colonialism of the past. Don't ask me to "get over it" when there are these continual reminders of a subjugated history, claimed as spoils of war and in the deserving hands of conquerors.


  1. I definitely feel you on the topic of grave robbing. Given the various curses they laid out for tomb robbers, I'm fairly certain the Egyptians, both our own and those of Ms. Carriger's world, feel at least as strongly.

    While I'd be delighted to see Lady Maccon undergo an awakening regarding the issues of respect you rightly raise, I'd look askance at the rest of the British Empire as depicted in Ms. Carriger's books simply having that realization as well. The process by which such an Empire-loving culture can evolve into one more respectful would be a marvelous story arc, to be sure.

    Have you read George Mann's works yet? They have flaws and problems by the bucket, but an overly rosy view of science and scientists is not one of them.

  2. I have been told my Ms. Carriger herself that a transformation is unlikely (which will not stop my enjoyment of these books), but nice pipe dream, eh?

  3. Interesting - I read this post just after reading a co-worker's Facebook status update involving her conversations with a local coroner's office... Our workplace just repatriated some human remains from our collections, and she was looking for a safe, legal, and ethical way to dispose of several containers that we no longer need, but which we'd like to treat with some dignity as they were the (thankfully temporary) resting place of a human being for several years.

    While I understand that Ms. Carriger's character has to operate within the norms of the culture she exists within (and I love the series as well), I also enjoy the occasional anachronistic realization that some characters have in certain situations, such as Edwin Hocker's musing on how pleasant the company of a liberated woman can be in spite of his own Victorian sensibilities...