Saturday, May 1, 2010

Themes of Gaslight Dogs

 My review of Karin Lowachee's Gaslight Dogs is up at, and that one's fairly spoiler-free, so now here is the TOTALLY spoiler-y version consisting of my initial thoughts upon reading this fantastic book!

Firstly, that cover. How cool is that cover? After the Fail that was the Bloomsbury covers for Justine Laabalestier's Liar and Jaclyn Dolamore's Magic Under Glass, and the resultant shenanigans on how PoC covers don't sell and other such nonsense, let me tell you, the cover of Gaslight Dogs is fantastic. The character is female! She wears Inuit clothing! She has a spear! And has tattoos! And there's a big dog. Always cool. She stares right out at the potential reader, no fear, with keen, intelligent eyes. Have I mentioned that she actually looks like some Asian people I know? How awesome is that? The lamp-post in the background hints at the setting further, and there's a city in the background. It's very faint and I actually didn't notice it until someone else pointed it out. Anyway, GOT SO EXCITED TO READ THIS BOOK.

I can't really break this down meaningfully the way I usually do, not without quoting the entire book, because there's so much good stuff in there, so I'm going to list off the themes which I found were beautifully illustrated in the story.

Subtle Invasion. The story starts with the arrival of guns into Aniw territory. Father Bari, the Kabliw (Ciracusan) mediator between Aniw and foreigners, is a priest, and in the beginning he means well, and wants to learn more about the Aniw. The thing about these relations, of course, is that it just takes the people in power to turn that sour, and to Father Bari's undoing, he has no choice but to abet the appearance of hostilities in Aniw territory, under the guise of "protecting" the Aniw.

Sjenn notes all ths, and by the time she has been taken into General Fawle's custody, she's wise to the idea that the Kabliw are not friends. When Keebly asks her to tell him about her people, she's reticent.
Keeley: They're only questions, Sjenn.
Sjenn: They lead to guns. (124)

Keeley is himself in General Fawle's employ for his own reasons, and it's to find out what the Boot People (what his people call the Ciracusans) have to do with their disappearing elders, their janna of local tribes, who, like Sjenn, the ankago of her tribe, have been stolen from their homes. From a distance, no one can tell what the Patronael are up to, not even the Ciracusan church. And when Keeley reveals what's been going on, well, shit, because what's happening is permissible only if you view:

People as Objects/Tools. Bane of humanity since the beginning of kyriarchy! General Fawle is pretty guilty of this, obviously, as are the Patronael in general. Keeley and Jarrett are pawns in General Fawle's eugenics experiment to have Ciracusans of aboriginal descent in order to harness the aboriginal's power. Sjenn is stolen from her own, like many others with similar powers from other aboriginal tribes.

In the meantime, the soldiers are sent to kidnap aboriginals. They're put on the frontier, and they know little of what really goes on beyond their duty to protect the citizenry. They bring guns, and Father Bari, used to open trade and communication with the Aniw, his journal used to master Aniw secrets, can't justify it, because it's simply not in his power to. And the soldiers are no help either, because of:

Fuzzy History. There is a lovely conversation between Sjenn and Major Dirrick on why the Ciracusians are fighting the aboriginals. It essentially goes, "Because they fight us, because they don't want us here, but we weren't always fighting and I have no idea why we started."

One thing we know about kyriarchy is that it re-writes history to suit itself. Anybody paying attention to history can probably guess at why the Ciracusians are at war with Sairland and the aboriginals. But these people have no idea what's going on. All they know is that several hundred years, after building cities and all that, of living on this continent, they're fighting wars on two fronts: against the people who ousted them, and against people whose land they're occupying.

The other thing we know about kyriarchy is that given a choice, individuals along the bottom levels don't actually want to fight, except for a combative few, but since the way their lives are structured is driven by those at the top, they don't have a choice, because they don't understand fully what's going on. Which is why education and knowledge is so important - imagine if all the Ciracusians had access to all the facts of what the Patronael and the Church was up to? If they all knew and understood the aboriginals they fought on a continual basis? How long would this war last then? They'd rethink what they were doing. One might, if one was optimistic, even hope that they would try for a pluralistic society, and you know, do away with the

Forced Assimilation. Yeah, remember the residential schools? Karin Lowachee, she has them. Which is a GOOD thing, because they were HORRIBLE, and deserve to be analysed to hell and back for how horrible they were. Keely mentions this only obliquely, calling them "Boot People school" (123) from which he "was saved" by the General, which means he knew they were a bad thing.

Which they are, you know, because culture is transmitted from elders to children. Cutting children off from their elders, from the collected knowledge of their people leads to

Cultural Genocide. Except in this story, it has become even more sinister - not only are aboriginal children put through Boot People school (to civilize them and all), but as Keeley reveals, the General has been stealing away the elders, the janna, who hold the Middle Light power of the aboriginals. Take the elders and the children, and the result is a toothless people who have no place to turn to for the wisdom of experience, and no one to transmit the same to.

These are all themes which affect marginalized communities. What is striking about this book is that these themes are obviously heavily steeped in history, in the reality faced by many aboriginal communities today as they maintain their culture in the face of poverty, violence, discrimination, stereotypes and cultural appropriation. Coming to this book with some small knowledge of the marginalization that goes on today, I found this book to be a rich refresher and condensation of the origins of that marginalization.

I hope that it piques other readers to look up the history of North America's native/aboriginal/First Nations/indigenous communities, particularly in light of how accessible and easily understood this book is. Which is nice and optimistic, but I really do feel that knowing the actual truth behind those events makes the reading of this piece of fiction all the more powerful. 

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