Busy times here at Finch Towers, both at home and work. My head was full of stuff and I needed a quick summer read. I was supposed to be reading John Tomb’s Head, a New Zealand novel about postcolonial heritage, but it was too intense. Then I stumbled on The Baba Yaga, by Una McCormack and Eric Brown.
I know Una vaguely from Twitter and I heard her speak once, brilliantly, on Doctor Who so I gave the book a whirl. The Baba Yaga is a great, fast read: a genre-savvy space thriller set in a far-future universe devised by McCormack’s co-writer Eric Brown. It draws inspiration from movies and shows like Alien, Firefly, and even Homeland as it follows a cast of characters drawn together by an apparent terror attack.
The book’s heroes are all women. There’s a formidable intelligence analyst who flees across the galaxy on a wild hunch to avert a terrible war. Caught up in the same crisis is an ordinary mum who must protect her family when her husband deserts his military post and turns them into refugees. These are distinctive, strong characters, not defined by their relationships to men – and when they gather a group of allies to thwart evil, it feels rather different to the usual motley crews of sci-fi action-adventure.
The women are strong, but the novel’s men are well-drawn, too: interesting men, some strong, some weak, some gallant when you least expect it, some painfully flawed. But above all, this is a story of women fighting to deal with an unimaginable threat. The Baba Yaga took two days to finish on my daily commute and I read every page with gusto.
After work on Monday, I went to see Ant-Man, the latest Marvel superhero movie. It wasn’t the worst film in the world – I liked all the giant insects and Corey Stoll did a good job with not very much material as the villain – but especially after reading The Baba Yaga, Ant-Man bugged me.
In Ant-Man, fatherhood is the issue of the day. The movie’s hero is ex-con Scott Lang, estranged from his daughter Cassie. Scott is recruited to avert a catastrophe by reclusive scientist Hank Pym and Pym’s adult daughter Hope.
Over the course of the movie, Scott must learn to be a better father by becoming a hero. Meanwhile Hank Pym’s daughter realises that the coldness he has shown her was only his fear of losing her. By the end of the movie, Hank learns that he must stop being overprotective and let Hope join the ranks of Marvel heroes.
The climax of the film takes place in Ant-Man’s daughter’s bedroom.The villain’s threat to Scott’s daughter gives today’s blog post its title: “Sorry, sweetheart, you have to help Daddy pay for his mistakes.” Scott’s rival, Cassie’s stepfather, takes Scott’s side once they both see her life in jeopardy and must act to save her. Cassie cowers in a closet while her father and stepfather duke it out with the film’s villain. This bad guy also has some daddy issues: he feels rejected by Hank, who he’d seen as a father figure. Cassie’s mum is somewhere outside while all this is going on; she only makes it back into the dadtastic primal scene for a final hug with Cassie. Pym’s supremely competent daughter is similarly sidelined and gets her reward for supporting Ant-Man – a smooch from the hero and superpowers of her own – only once danger has been averted.
So it’s really all very Gender Studies 101.
What McCormack does in The Baba Yaga is much more exciting. She offers unflashy genre adventure which simply takes it for granted that women are powerful, complicated, active characters, that they are heroes and more than capable of driving their own narrative. In place of Ant-Man’s daddy issues, she puts motherhood front and centre, exploring the concerns of the refugee mother Maria and revealing that the hardened intelligence agent Walker is also pregnant.
The wonder of The Baba Yaga is that it feels as if the novel has drifted across from a parallel world which takes it for granted that action-adventure is the business of women.
This isn’t just stuff for geeks like me to worry about. It’s fascinating – and sometimes troubling – to see how children engage with the pop cultural tales they are given and with the roles they see acted out for them on the screen.
I remember a little girl being gleeful during our Big Box Battle in Parkes, Australia because she’d just seen Pacific Rim, in which a female co-pilot knows better than her male partner how to control their giant robot. As the little girl put it to her friend: “The robot had a sword and the boy didn’t even know!”
Before that, back when I was teaching in London, one of the girls in my class came up to me with a very serious message to share: “I’m going to get a laptop like Gwen from Ben 10. If you watch Ben 10, Ben has the alien powers but actually Gwen is cleverer than him and she has a laptop. I’m going to get a laptop just like hers.”
And irrespective of what these things mean to kids, adults deserve better too. As I’ve argued before, action-adventure is a fantasy of high stakes problem solving, and such fantasies should be the business of anyone, not just men.
It was surprisingly to me just how badly Ant-Man failed to recognise this – still harping on about fathers! – so today I wanted to point out an alternative that might otherwise be overlooked. The Baba Yaga, Una McCormack’s little slice of hopeful space adventure, is available now.