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inaction, but mostly Oz

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Sep. 18th, 2008 | 09:38 pm
location: the emerald city

No, it wasn't a terribly productive day. I slumped around looking at the screen for a bit and shuffling files around, dragged myself out to a café; and did maybe half an hour's work trying to get over a particular issue with plot motivation (which didn't work, but I am a few more pages towards the end of that project book), came back to look at the screen a bit more then just decided to go to the pub and sit outside with a pint reading the one paperback that I could find on my shelves that I'd not read and also felt like reading - The Scar, China Mieville, probably one of those Amazon purchases that I never got around to. And now I'm back.

However, this post has turned out to be mostly about Oz.

I also read some more L. Frank Baum. He starts each book off with letters from his fans demanding a new book, which I find quite endearing, but the whole series so far demands a Marxist critique. Oz is an absolute feudal monarchy with strictly-defined and accepted social hierarchies of servant and master or mistress; it is regularly described by the narrator as a money-free utopia where nobody dies or goes hungry and all citizens (subjects) co-operate and are friendly and kind, but this is contradicted on almost every other page.

There are mentions of execution, for a start - Dorothy's kitten faces the death penalty for eating one of the Wizard's piglets even in the Emerald City - but even outside of the legal system, various folk encounter all sorts of potentially lethal dangers, even within Oz, and not in Ev or the underground area, whatever that was called. They also squabble and fight and eat each other; the residents of Bunbury, sapient bakery products, are keenly aware that outsiders may wish to eat them, and in fact while Dorothy eats only parts of their town, Toto murders several and the aggressive and parthenogenically-reproducing hen Billina pecks out raisin eyes. (Neither are strictly "of Oz", but the townsfolk's behaviour does indicate that this is not unexpected from natives.) Dorothy comes up with some unconvincing justification for this:
"See here," said Dorothy, determined to defend her pets, "I think we've treated you all pretty well, seeing you're eatables an' reg'lar food for us. I've been kind to you and eaten your old wheelbarrows and pianos and rubbish, an' not said a word. But Toto and Billina can't be 'spected to go hungry when the town's full of good things they like to eat, 'cause they can't understand your stingy ways as I do."
but really, it is the violence inherent in the system.

In fact there is quite a strict division between "people" and "things" regardless of whether the "things" possess obvious intelligence. "Things", whether animated by magic like the Sawhorse, or manufactured like TikTok, and "things" are expected to be servants or even food by the ruling class of "people", unless they are especially favoured like the Scarecrow (the Tin Man apparently being a "person" as he is the result of a lengthy series of prosthetic replacements). Mostly they accept their status without question, and if they do not they are branded rebellious.

I am currently reading book 7, The Patchwork Girl Of Oz, where one of the main characters is Scraps Patchwork, a full-size cloth doll brought to alchemical life to act as a servant. During the process, her commissioner Margolotte explicitly states that she does not want to make her too clever, as that would be unsuitable.
With this she went to another cupboard which was filled with shelves. All the shelves were lined with blue glass bottles, neatly labeled by the Magician to show what they contained. One whole shelf was marked: "Brain Furniture," and the bottles on this shelf were labeled as follows: "Obedience," "Cleverness," "Judgment," "Courage," "Ingenuity," "Amiability," "Learning," "Truth," "Poesy," "Self Reliance."

"Let me see," said Margolotte; "of those qualities she must have 'Obedience' first of all," and she took down the bottle bearing that label and poured from it upon a dish several grains of the contents. "'Amiability' is also good and 'Truth.'" She poured into the dish a quantity from each of these bottles. "I think that will do," she continued, "for the other qualities are not needed in a servant."
The protagonist Ojo "[thinks] it both unfair and unkind to deprive her of any good qualities that were handy" and adds healthy quantities of all of the compounds, but the result so far seems to be to drive the resultant Patchwork Girl insane. She is an attractive character though and I have hopes that she will take a broader role regardless.

No spoilers please.

Given that L. Frank Baum's books were written over a period from 1900 to 1920, it is interesting to see his incorporation of technological changes and current affairs. He mentions the wireless telegraph, for instance, and apparently finds recorded music, particularly if popular, appalling. In Patchwork Girl, the Magician has a phonograph which is accidentally animated but then is treated terribly, even by its fellow "things", due to the unbearable nature of the music it plays. (The generous character of the natives of Oz coming through again.)

Socially, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are forced to emigrate to Oz after their farm faces foreclosure, and other characters from the United States are wandering and rootless - the Wizard and the Shaggy Man, a carnie and a bum. In contrast to the treatment of folk diverging from the rigid social structure of Oz, there is praise for those outside of or poorly treated by society in the States, whose inherent value is only appreciated when they come to the fairy land. General Jinjur of Oz, a milkmaid who raises an army of girls with knitting needles to overthrow the decadent monarchy of the Emerald City and reverse gender roles, is defeated and seen in later books as a peasant, though one apparently disposed to domestic violence. Had she grown up in North America she would doubtless have turned out to be some sort of secret Princess.

On that note, an analysis of gender in the books could fill, well, another book, and I'm sure has filled a lot of theses. Oz may be a feudal monarchy but it is a matriarchal one. Despite the traditional social roles espoused, every wise and powerful and good and flawless character is a woman. Male rulers take power occasionally but are weak and/or foolish in some way, and do not last. In book 2, The Marvelous Land Of Oz, the hero Tip, male all through until the end, turns out to be the transformed Ozma, rightful ruler of Oz, and once magically transformed into - or, rather, restored as -  a girl, suddenly changes without an intervening period from an unsure youth into a beneficent and powerful ruler, second only in wisdom to Glinda the Good. Ozma is immediately completely comfortable in her new, proper, sex, and the change turns her from fallible to infallible.

It is this sort of thing that keeps me reading through the tedious descriptions of banquets and the trappings of fairy royalty, and some awful sub-Blyton diversions into whimsy. Another seven books to go.

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