Thursday, May 05, 2016

The First Americans: A Dialogue

"Hey, remember the First Americans series of novels by William Sarabande, aka Joan Lesley Hamilton Cline?"

"Um...yes. As you know, we read those books in high school, for better or worse, so yes, I do. It's, what, eleven novels, and there was talk and publicity material of a twelfth one, but then for some reason that never appeared and she stopped writing and it's not quite clear why or if she's even still alive or what? And yes, it IS weird that she pretended to be a man for so long. What is this, the nineteenth century? Anyway, we were interested in prehistoric humans ('early dudes,' as I termed them), and these had cool covers and titles, so we ate them up."

"I sometimes wonder, though: to what extent did we actually like them?"

"I think we really, genuinely liked the first few. They invoked strong emotions in us. After that, I think they became a bit of a slog, but as all those Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms books will demonstrate, that was not something that was likely to stop us. I don't really remember them well enough to say much about Sarabande, stylistically, but most of the characters were incredibly unpleasant. She wanted us to be absolutely clear that most of our prehistoric forebears were horrible people. Life was nothing if not nasty, brutish, and short."

"And the rape..."

"Oh God, so much rape."

"And NO INDICATION anywhere in the copy that you were gonna be hit by this! If any books needed trigger warnings..."

"I don't think I subjected it to much critical thought back then, but in retrospect, it's hard to get a bead on what Sarabande thought she was getting at with her rape obsession. Was it just a generic 'life was hard and horrible' message, of the sort that George RR Martin gives you? Was she trying to make some kind of feminist point? Or was there some sort of masochistic titillation involved?"

"Probably some sort of combination. The rape was always--as far as I can remember--presented as very bad, but there was just so much pornographic detail that the message started to feel uncomfortably mixed.

"I am going to take this opportunity to present the...'euphemism' isn't really the right word, is it?...the expression that Sarabande liked to use in place of 'penis.'"

"Oh God, PLEASE don't."

"I'm going to!"

"I'm begging you..."

"'Man bone.'"


"Sorry, but that's just how it is."

"...well, now it's been said and can't be unsaid. But to return to the topic at hand, I would like to present a couple of data points here: the hero and heroine of the first four-book ark were named Torka and Lonit."


"Well, in fairness, the earlier books probably were more memorable, but yeah, it's weird. The only other character name we remember is "Warakan," and that probably only 'cause it sounds kinda like "Wario." But anyway, the point is, here's how they ended up becoming a couple: Torka, feeling sexual frustration, was all ready to rape Lonit, but then when it came down to it, he became all tender, and they ended up having loving sex. SO THAT'S KIND OF WEIRD. Data point two: in the second (or third? Who can remember?) ark, the heroine (I can't even begin to remember any names here) was captured by some sorta group of bad men, who all raped her, repeatedly (I'm sorry for talking about rape so casually, but it's hard to avoid with these books). And there's the one dude among them who's 'good,' and who's going to be her love interest in the future. And how do we know he's good? Because he only rapes her once, and he's not really that into it. All I'm saying is, even if you accept that all the rape was there FOR JUSTIFIABLE REASONS (which I don't, really), Sarabande's sexual politics were pretty dubious."

"Yeah, I wouldn't really recommend them. Um, the books, that is. Or the sexual politics. Still, to give her her due, I do think she was at least kind of aware that prehistoric people would have a very different mindset than we do and made an effort--however flawed--to get at that, and her characters do--if I recall correctly--often seem kind of alien. In contrast to Jean M Auel, whom I've never read, but who--I get the impression--was wholly unconcerned with such things.

"Yeah, but I'll bet Auel's books are a lot less unpleasant to read."

"Probably, but isn't the whole point of fiction about ancient peoples to transport you into another world? If I recall aright, the First Americans books were categorized with science fiction and fantasy in Otto's, and that makes sense--they're scratching a similar itch, or trying to."

"Well, not to belabor the point, but while I'll agree that that's what people want, the idea that they--I--you--we--us--you'll notice I can't decide what pronouns I want to use in this putative conversation--want historical accuracy seems questionable to me. We want something that looks like historical accuracy, in the same sense that people don't want the real Thousand and One Nights; they want the Hollywood version. In which case, even if Auel's version seems more blatantly anachronistic, that doesn't mean it can't still be what you want. You just have to get over the illusion that any of this is historically accurate."

"...okay, but I'm still not reading Clan of the Cavebear."

"I don't blame you. Hey, you know what's a really good caveman narrative? The prehistoric chapter in Live-A-Live. None of the characters talk, and it's charming as hell.

"Good point. Live-A-Live is great. People should definitely play that instead of reading Sarabande or Auel. Or for a slightly different Pleistocene experience, nothin' wrong with Tail of the Sun, the Playstation game where you basically wander around bonking animals."

"I concur wholeheartedly. A lot of people hate that game, but that's just because they're not on its wavelength. But hell, even a complete cartoon like Joe and Mac or Bonk's Adventure will get you some of what you want. Or the sixty-five-million-BC part of Chrono Trigger!

"So we're agreed: don't read questionable caveman novels; play questionable caveman videogames!"

"I think that's a message we can all get behind."


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