Monday, September 1, 2014

Thoughts on Equoid by Charles Stross

I came away from Equoid feeling that something was just not sitting. On first impressions, it was what it said on the tin, a Lovecraftian horror story. Literally. The protagonist Bob works for a British agency that deals with all the things that go bump in the night. This time, he's sent to investigate a possible outbreak of nightmarish creatures in the countryside, armed with letters in which H.P. Lovecraft, Hisownself, described them as true unicorns, not the friendly sparkly version in popular culture.

Sure, I'm not a big consumer of horror, and I had quibbles with the protagonist and some instances of verbosity, but that's common, not enough to make me look sidelong at a story--and I was looking sideways at the piece for a good long while afterwards. The one thing that I couldn't stop squinting at was that the special victims, the ones not killed or eaten or merged but penetrated and possessed and enslaved, were exclusively young girls.

It seemed like an artifact, a relic of another time, and I don't mean just within the story's world. I mean the virgin sacrifice trope, which, for the record, I think is stupid and tired. Like I said, I had my quibbles, but with so much creativity and the subtle subversions of the Lovecraftian framework on which the story was built, the employment of this trope cheapened the rest of it, for me. It is used in a way that seemed uninspired, unexamined, and reinforced.

The trope is introduced in Equoid through the letters of H.P. Lovecraft, wherein he details his boyhood encounter with the equoid and its lure, a girl named Hetty. There are implications that H.P. is an unreliable narrator, "leaving stuff out, putting stuff in" and Bob had been sniping holes in Lovecraftian lore all along, but this one account remained unscathed. Lovecraft is never proven to have embellished a single gruesome detail of this ritual, as we are never given even a glimpse of an alternate version, like, say, the girls choosing to help their very own unicorn, or adults as vessels, or non-invasive mind-control, or the queen equoid evolving beyond the need for humans altogether.

So, if everything turns out as H.P. recounted, then Lovecraft couldn't have been just a "gynophobic" storyteller, himself just using questionable constructs. He was simply reporting the facts of nature, something that ever was and will be. Sucks to be you, little girls.

That's reinforcement. Happens all the time, but it's disappointing to find it at the core of a story so imaginative in every other way. Is it any author's job to fully subvert and dismantle tropes? No, but Charles Stross was doing a pretty decent job of it until we got to this. It's too bad, because the rest of the story, near as I can tell, is pretty successful horror and dark fantasy humor, well-crafted mythology and psuedo-science, and an intriguing bureaucracy caught up in the middle of it--action, suspense, thrills and chills. There's plenty to recommend, but I can't, not this particular story.

Have you read Equoid? What were your thoughts?


  1. I've read the story after reading your thought in this brief but brave post. Brave because after I'd read the story my next thought was, "Surely other people were bothered by these points?"

    Apparently not so much.

    My thoughts are much the same as your own. Stross if a very good writer. The story is chocked full of merits. There were moments when I was genuinely amused, or otherwise held in suspense. Greg, Georgina and Bob were highlights of the cast.

    I wasn't thrilled with what amounted to info-dumps that helped to tidy up the plot' (H.P.'s letters, sections of back story, back story form Bob,. lectures on biology from Greg, as well as orders over the years for the equoids that were denied.) All this on top of the purple prose made the piece seem bloated and overly indulgent. It's a style choice.

    Once the plot kicked in and Bob was actively investigating--and combating--the horrors, my interest was renewed. The weaving of bureaucracy, IT work and paranormal thriller was very good.

    The British sensibilities and humor were also a highlight, peppered throughout Bob's voice.

    For the most part, the story entertained and educated.

    Except when it didn't.

    What I don't understand and cannot overlook are how the more disturbing parts of the plot found their way into the story, and why they remained there, unchecked.

    Tor's content warning was deceiving.

    "The one thing I couldn't stop squinting at was the special victims, the ones not killed or eaten or merged but penetrated and possessed and enslaved, were exclusively young girls."



    The use of underage girls as victims of rape and possession was a disappointment, to say the least.

    If it wasn't bad enough that Hetty--age 13--was the subject of a graphic grotesque rape scene, or later an entire girls' school was at the center of the queen's horrific plan, there was the age of the youngest victim--Ada. She was four. Yes. 4. FOUR. (Her sisters Octavia and Lucinda were also enslaved, Lucy being 12. No idea how old Octavia was, unless I missed it.)

    I’m particularly disturbed by the last scene; it’s well written, as the queen collapses the roof in the woodshed, Bob is scuttling out of the barn as fast as he can, yet he still sees—no matter how blurry—what appears to be a broken and impaled doll. Poor Ada.

    Wait. What. The. Hell. Impaled how? How, Charles Stross?

    After making concrete connections between H.P. Lovecraft’s letters and the queen’s account—confirming that things did indeed happen as Stross' H.P. laid out—the author makes the implicit connection to how the queen used the four-year old’s body to speak to/with Bob.

    As I said, the scene was well-written; how the poor child was impaled is left up to the reader’s imagination, except once the connection was made from queen to H.P.’s letters, it’s not too far a stretch, is it?

    As far as I’m concerned, the scene explicitly and implicitly reinforced the graphic scene in H.P.’s letters.

    It’s incredibly disturbing, and a cheap, lazy thrill.

    1. As Kameron Hurley said, "As storytellers, there are more interesting choices we can make." (The irony of Hurley's piece winning a Hugo the same year as Stross' didn't escape me.)

      I don’t understand the choices Stross made with regard to the scenes involving the girls, or their ages—yes choices—and why another option wasn’t considered.

      Further clicking doesn’t provide much in the way of how Stross came to write the story, but it can be found here.

      I’ll note that as an author, he must be well aware that any given word has multiple meanings and interpretations, yet when he links to urban dictionary, he chose not to explain which of the word’s many meanings John Scalzi was referring to.

      Something that hadn't occurred to me until now (several hours after reading it) was the notion (supported by fact in the story) that to the queen her female children and all female hosts were just husks, shells. Bodies to serve the queen, with no mind, feelings, or pursuits of their own.

      But the queen's view both H.P. and Bob was that of a mind--not a body--to be merged, united with, and live on into eternity. Interesting. And yes, I've considered the queen could very well have been lying to H.P. and Bob, and could've wanted them as food. But the queen's rant--and how it made value judgments on gender--still speaks for itself.

      I don’t much care for or agree with the awards that are given to the fiction I enjoy, but what further puzzles me is why—in a year lauded as a win for women in SF and F—the story’s poor choices were overlooked and it won a Hugo.

      I wish Stross’ link to how the story came about was filled with as much back story as Equoid was, because there are far too many questions left unanswered for me.

      All too often in it's easier to say nothing about what bothers us simply because it is so well-liked, well-loved.

      The silence from the SF and F community about the laziness of the use of the virgin sacrifice and rape and possession of young girls in this piece is somewhat baffling given the current climate of the community (and the other Hugo winning pieces).

      At a time when we're becoming more and more aware of the failings of SF and F to be its best and find ourselves striving as authors to write the best fiction we can, to not reinforce harmful and lazy stereotypes, it seems things like this can still squeak by without incident, garner heaps of praise and awards.

      Why that can happen in this climate is a good question, I think.

      I'm aware of Stross' success, and popularity, so he doesn't need my readership, but for the record, I will not read this author's other works.

    2. Thanks for your thoughts Henry. I also thought of the difference in how the girls versus males were valued by the Queen, but I wanted to allow for the reality-based male/female reproductive process. The queen is female so of course she'd value males (for their sperm), but when you add in the stuff about immortality and mindmelding it isn't so clear-cut anymore.


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