Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 2)

One of the advantages Amtrak has over domestic airlines is that passengers are treated with a lot more dignity. There is no TSA – all you have to do to board an Amtrak train is show a photo I.D. and a ticket (and conductors don’t always check photo I.D.). Baggage policy is more flexible (which, do be fair, is partially due to technological differences). While different conductors are stricter than others, they generally try to help passengers have a good experience.

Furthermore, while Amtrak employees have complaints about their work (like most workers), the general impression I’ve gotten from my conversations with Amtrak crews is that they believe they have decent jobs, and a quick internet search indicates that most Amtrak crew members are paid a living wage (unlike many airline crew members). While I have encountered Amtrak crew members of all races, a disproportionate number of them seem to be African-American. That might be partially because working on trains has historically be culturally coded as a ‘black’ job, but it may also reflect that the federal government, as an employer, tends to discriminate less on the basis of race than private employers.

Amtrak is owned by the government. It is essentially a government-owned utility with the purpose of serving the people, not making money.

The Trump administration’s attempt to cut down Amtrak is not a new trend. Some Republicans in Congress have been trying to attack Amtrak for a long time, saying that it ought to pay for itself through passenger fares. However, this reflects the views of only certain types of Republicans and other right-wingers – there is another set of right-wingers who support Amtrak.

I remember one time, when I was on an Amtrak train (one of the train lines which might be eliminated under Trump’s budget proposal), I was talking to a libertarian who told me that government is too big and ought to shrink down. I pointed out to him that he was riding Amtrak, which receives government subsidies. His response was that Amtrak was useful, unlike some other government activities, and that highways and airports are also subsidized by the government, so he couldn’t avoid using a mode of transit which is subsidized by the government. The thing was, he lived in a rural area. I suspect that, if he were a Silicon Valley libertarian rather than a rural libertarian, he would be in favor of cutting Amtrak’s subsidies.

Generally, I have found that rural people – regardless of their political affiliation – like passenger train service, and are opposed to cutting Amtrak. When riding on Amtrak, I have found that a lot of passengers live in rural areas. This is partially because a) many rural areas are not served by an airport and b) even if there is an airport, travel by train is sometimes significantly cheaper. For example, I learned that travelling between Arizona and Texas – especially if one buys tickets at the last minute – is much cheaper by train than by airplane. Now, maybe if the airline industry were not an oligopoly without sufficient public control, the airfare between Arizona and Texas would be more price competitive with train tickets. But that is how things are now.

Speaking of price, cutting Amtrak subsidies is a class issue, not just a rural issue. Aside from Amtrak crew jobs being better than airline crew jobs, people who ride Amtrak – especially the train lines which Trump’s budget might cut – tend to be poorer than airline passengers. Also, it is a disability issue, since some people, for medical reasons, cannot travel by airplane.

Anyway, back to the rural issue. Yes, it is true that some major metropolitan areas might also lose all passenger train service under the proposed budget. I find it particularly shocking that New Orleans might be completely cut out, since New Orleans is currently one of the major passenger train hubs. On the other hand, New Orleans does have a couple of airports as well as Greyhound and Megabus, so losing Amtrak would not be as devastating to NOLA as would be to a rural town.

Oh, and Greyhound? I’ve heard that their prices went way up after they bought Trailways, their main competitor. They also eliminated a lot of routes. This is another great example of how reducing competition increases prices and reduces service. Usually, travel by Amtrak is cheaper than Greyhound, though Greyhound is sometimes faster and usually has better wifi than Amtrak. If Amtrak gets seriously cut back, I predict Greyhound will become even more expensive, and their service might get crappier. MegaBus pretty much only serves major metropolitan areas because that is the most profitable market for long-distance buses.

As it so happens, last week (assuming everything went according to plan – I scheduled this post to go online about two weeks after I wrote it) I went from San Francisco to San Diego by train. Guess what? Neither of the train lines I used (the San Joaquin and the Pacific Surfliner) are directly threatened by Trump’s budget. In fact, I think the proposed cuts to Amtrak, if they come to pass, would barely affect the San Francisco Bay Area. We would still have the Amtrak lines which are not affected by the cuts, as well as Greyhound, Megabus, Caltrain, the airports, etc. The attitude of most San Franciscans towards Amtrak is that it’s nice, and they do not want to cut its subsidies, but they do not consider it particularly important.

Let’s compare that to Dunsmuir, California.

Dunsmuir is in Siskiyou County, which consistently leans Republican. Amtrak has tried to end passenger service to Dunsmuir before, but the people of Dunsmuir insisted on keeping passenger service, and eventually the City of Dunsmuir made a deal with Amtrak. Dunsmuir does not have an airport with scheduled flights, nor does it have Greyhound (and the nearest airport with scheduled flights is only served by two airlines – one of them is United Express). If Dunsmuir were to lose passenger train service, then the only remaining means of long-distance transit would be the interstate highway (technically, it would also still be accessible by freighthopping, which is illegal, and by foot and horse, but that is not enough to keep a town alive in this day and age). Losing Amtrak would be a much bigger deal to Dunsmuir than to San Francisco.

Yes, you guessed it. The proposed budget cuts to Amtrak might end Amtrak service to Dunsmuir, a town which needs it more, not to San Francisco, a city which needs it less.

Of course, though losing Amtrak would be bad for Dunsmuir economy (and Dunsmuir’s economy isn’t doing so great in the first place), the people of Dunsmuir also have cultural reasons for keeping Amtrak. Dunsmuir was founded as a railroad town, and Southern Pacific is still one of the biggest employers in town. Trains are a key part of their heritage. To them, losing passenger train service would be like San Francisco losing its cable cars. And yes, the city government tried to eliminate San Francisco’s cable cars in the 1940s and 1950s, and it took citizen activism to keep the cable cars running, just as Dunsmuir had to make a fuss in order to keep Amtrak. San Francisco cable cars have much less utility than Amtrak trains, and also require subsidies from local taxpayers to keep running, yet shutting down cable cars would be as unpopular today as it was in the 1940s/1950s because San Franciscans recognize their cultural value (and their tourist-economy value, which is derived from their cultural value).

By the way, one of the conservative/right-wing arguments for subsidizing Amtrak is that Amtrak is preserving a piece of the United States’ cultural heritage.

Though I have not done the research to confirm this, based on what I’ve read, it seems that Republicans from rural areas tend to like Amtrak and favor having Amtrak serve their communities. For example, Doug LaMalfa, the Republican who represents Dunsmuir in Congress, has voted in favor of Amtrak subsidies (he is opposed to California’s high speed rail program, but that might be because HSR, unlike Amtrak, would not serve his district). I recall reading years ago that Republicans in southern Mississippi also tend to be pro-Amtrak, and a quick internet search yielded this article (which is obviously out-of-date, but also supports my hunch than rural Republicans tend to support Amtrak). IIRC, the article I read years back quoted a Mississippi politician as saying something like “the Yankees are trying to take away our trains”.

It seems to me that Republicans who most aggressively Amtrak are from affluent-to-rich suburban or urban areas, or are just plain wealthy (Trump obviously belongs to this group).

Likewise, the politicians – both Republican and Democrat – who most favor ‘deregulation’ of the airline industry and allowing high market concentration by ignoring anti-trust laws are so wealthy that they can afford to travel by private jet, or rely on campaign contributions from people who are wealthy enough to travel by private jet.

I hope that the Democrats and rural Republicans can work together to prevent these cuts to Amtrak’s budget. Even though some Amtrak lines are not directly threatened by the budget cut, the way it works is that because Amtrak currently serves so many rural areas, there are a lot of representatives in Congress who have a stake in sustaining Amtrak service in their district. If a bunch of congressional districts lose Amtrak, then there will a bunch of members of Congress who will have much incentive to, say, vote to increase funding to the Northeast Corridor.

Yes, the national network train lines operate at a net loss, but they increase revenue on other lines thorugh connecting passengers. For example, a national network train (the Coast Starlight) might bring a passenger from Portland to Sacramento, and then they will take the San Joaquin to Fresno. Without the Coast Starlight, they probably would not choose to use the train, and thus the San Joaquin misses a potential passenger.

And we get back to national cohesion. You either have the principle that one tries to serve as much of the nation as feasible because this nation is for everybody, or you’re only going to serve the people it’s ‘profitable’ to serve, which in the case of Amtrak would mean that people in the Northeastern United States would have Amtrak service and nobody else (not even California).

And transportation supports national cohesion in another way. You probably think that there is some region of the United States where a lot of people have very messed-up ideas. If so, and you want people in that region to have less messed-up ideas, you want the United States to have a good transportation network. The better (by ‘better’ I mean affordable and convenient) the transportation network, the more people in that region will travel, the more they travel, the more ideas they will be exposed to, and the more ideas they are exposed to, the more likely they will replace some of their very messed up ideas with less messed-up ideas. Though all forms of transportation support the flow of ideas, I think that trains, because they foster more social interaction between strangers than other forms of long-distance transit (except certain types of boats), serve this purpose particularly well.

So to wrap this all up – transportation, like water and electricity, needs to be treated as a utility. This is necessary to ensure fair treatment of passengers – both in terms of price and dignity. When transportation is offered by private companies, it needs to be regulated by the public. It’s also sometimes a good idea for transportation to be delivered by a government-owned utility, like Amtrak. Sometimes, offering transportation to some places requires operating subsidies, but the benefits to society as a whole can justify the cost of those subsidies.

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Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 1)

Note: This post is scheduled to go online a little less than a week after I wrote this, while I do not have access to the internet. It might already be out of date by the time it is posted, and due to lack of internet access, I may be slow to moderate/respond to comments.

***

I’m guessing that just about everyone who is reading this post knows that, on April 9, 2017, United Airlines (or more specifically, United Express) called in Chicago Aviation security officers to forcibly remove a passenger who was already boarded and seated and posed no threat to anybody, and those officers broke the passenger’s nose, gave him a concussion, and caused him to lose two teeth. This has sparked a lot of discussion, including (but not only) the fact that the airline industry in the United States is an oligopoly, and that this situation (the broader situation, not just oligopoly) exists partially because the government chose to hand over airline regulation away from democratic systems and towards airline managers.

Though it was published before April 9, this article explains how enforcing anti-monopoly/oligopoly laws is necessary to preserve/expand civil liberties. That article focuses on African-Americans, but I think its points can be applied more broadly, and I think the United Airlines incident is an example of the link between concentrated market power and violation of civil liberties.

Meanwhile, another piece of news which has gotten far less attention (for obvious reasons) is the Trump administration’s proposal to cut all funding of Amtrak’s national network trains. You know those trains which I rode last year? Those routes might be eliminated if the budget passes in its current form.

The common thread in these two news stories is that they are about how transportation policy in the United States has been moving towards giving the private sector, as opposed to public sector, more control over transportation, and that this is bad for societal cohesion. In other words, the United States is moving away from treating transportation as a utility.

Let’s go back to airlines. It has been more than ten years since I was ever on a domestic flight in the United States, and most of my experience with U.S. domestic flights was with an airline which no longer exists (TWA). Thus, I do not have personal experience with current conditions on domestic U.S. flights. However, I do have recent experience (within the last five years) with domestic flights in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, and I can tell you that they have much better customer service than what people describe with domestic airlines in the United States at much lower prices. Now, some of that is because people are going to talk more about their horrible experiences with airlines than their boring experiences with airlines. However, it does seem to me that Americans are dissatisfied with airline service in the U.S. in a way that most East Asians are not dissatisfied with their domestic airlines. Furthermore, the domestic airlines in those countries either have government price controls (Taiwan) or are much more competitive than the regional air markets of equivalent size in the United States (Japan and South Korea).

Some of you are probably thinking ‘Domestic flights in Taiwan / Japan / South Korea? That’s ridiculous! Those countries are so small!’ Well, it’s not ridiculous because Taiwan and Japan are island countries, and South Korea has an entire province (Jeju) which is not on the Korean peninsula, just as the United States has an entire state (Hawaii) which is not part of the North American landmass.

Since I know most about Taiwan, I will focus on the airline industry there. Most domestic flights in Taiwan connect the main island to the outer islands. There is also ferry service to the outer islands (except Kinmen), but since air travel has some advantages over sea travel, having both air and sea connections means better transportation than having only sea connections. Since some islands are only served by a single airline and can only sustain a limited number of flights (for example, Qimei, an island with about 3,700 inhabitants, has only two flights per day), market competition clearly cannot keep airfares reasonable. Thus, the government imposes price controls. And when the airfares go up, the islanders make a big stink about it, and it is reported in the news.

Obviously, Taiwan’s regulation of domestic air travel has big problems because this happened (note: I once took a TransAsia flight from Taipei to Kinmen – if the timing had been different, I could have been on that flight). However, Taiwan’s approach – treating airlines as a utility – is the approach which best serves its interests. When I interacted with airlines in Asia, I generally felt I received good customer service. For example, I once got a refund for my ticket with very little fuss for a flight where I was a no show (I did not cancel – I was a no show). That airline had a monopoly for that particular route, so the most plausible reason why they gave me a refund so easily is that they were legally required to do so.

Now, one may ask ‘who cares if the outer islands, which have a total population of less than 300,000 people, have good, affordable transportation?’ First of all, good transportation is critical to maintaining the economies of the outer islands, but that is arguably not important to the 23 million people who live on the main island (the total population of all of the outer island is less than 300,000). The most obvious benefit to the people on the main island is military security – in every single instance in history when there was warfare between China and Taiwan, it started in the outer islands because they are the buffer zone. It is in Taiwan’s interests to keep the loyalty of the people in the outer islands, and for the outer islands to have sufficient resources to support Taiwan’s military (which is heavily concentrated in the outer islands).

But beyond the question of how helping the outer islanders benefits the main islanders, there is the basic principle that they are all part of same society, and that it is the duty of a society to take care of its own people.

Here one might say ‘yeah, that’s Taiwan’s situation, how is that relevant to anywhere else.’ True, people in New York City do not depend on upstate New York to serve as a buffer against military invasion (though I suppose that, if there were any serious threat of Canada invading the United States, that could change). However, the point about broader social and national cohesion applies just as much to the United States as to Taiwan. That is the case made by this blog.

One of the issues I’ve seen come up again and again in discussion about United Airlines is that some people cannot avoid using United Airlines if they want to travel to/from certain places by air because United Airlines is the only feasible option. Though I do not know the details, apparently Louisville (the destination of the flight) is one of those places where flight options are limited. Thus, one cannot rely on the power of the market to ensure good service – if the government does not step in, then the managers of the airlines will just do whatever the heck they want, which is probably to make themselves richer at the cost of both passengers and employees (it turns out the employees who were working on that flight are grossly underpaid, which might be related to why they performed so badly – employees who can’t take care of themselves can’t take care of passengers).

I have zero sympathy for United Airlines, and I would not feel sorry at all for them if they go out of business because of this scandal. However, because the airline industry in the United States is an oligopoly which does not have sufficient public control, I do not expect eliminating United Airlines will improve conditions for passengers. On the contrary, I think increasing market concentration might make the surviving companies even less inclined to treat passengers fairly.

Now let’s get back to trains…

(To be continued in Part 2)

Being Terrified by the Unfamiliar

I have never felt classic culture shock – the type which goes in stages such as ‘honeymoon period’ ‘frustration’ ‘acceptance’ etc. (some models of culture shock have four stages, some have five, but they tend to be similar). The closest I came was when I lived in Mountain View, and I’ve even told a lot of people that that is when I felt classic culture shock, but now I think … if so, it was a really mild case of culture shock. I think at this point, I had been trying to fit my experiences in Mountain View into the culture shock model just to find any way to relate to the idea of multi-stage culture shock.

I recall, about six months after I moved to Taiwan, I was talking with another American, and she said ‘oh, you haven’t felt culture shock yet, but you will, it will hit you.’

In the three years I was in Taiwan, I never experienced anything like the four-stage or five-stage models of culture shock.

I recently read Pacific Crest Trials by Zach Davis and Carly Moree, which talks about how to psychologically prepare for long distance thru hikes (i.e. hiking over 3000 km on foot). Though it does not explicitly link the mindset of thru hikers to the culture shock models, it seems to be describing something pretty similar. They even use the term ‘honeymoon period’. And it makes sense that adjusting to life on a thru-hike would be like adjusting to life in a completely different culture. That is, first of all, it is a different culture (hiker culture is very distinct), but also, even though most people who do thru-hikes in the United States grew up in the United States, and some people do them in their states of residence/origin, life on the trail is really different from life at home, even if one’s home just happens to be a trail town (a trail town is a town near one of the trails frequented by thru-hikers – for example, Big Bear City in California is a ‘trail town’).

An example of how life is different is, even though most hikers carry watches, people generally do not live by the clock when they are on trail (unless they have to go into town and be there when a post office is open or something). Water is generally only available once every few miles (or less – one might sometimes travel 20+ miles between water sources, depending on which trail and under what circumstances). Food – well, a little foraging is sometimes possible, but generally food is only available in towns. I could keep going, but I think you get it by now that life in trail!United-States is different from life in most of the United States.

Anyway, so if I don’t go through classic culture shock, what do I experience?

I remember, when I was a girl, I dropped something on a sidewalk near my home. I wanted to go back and fetch it. My parents told me to go by myself to fetch it. I had never walked outside without adult supervision before. I was astonished that my parents thought it was okay for me to go outside by myself. Yes, it was my neighborhood, so the odds of me becoming lost were practically zero, and though people occasionally get murdered when they are outside in my neighborhood (in fact, IIRC, there had been a murder on the very street where I went to retrieve whatever I had dropped), the odds of myself becoming the victim of a violent crime were really low. But since I had never done it before – I had it ingrained in my habits (at that age) that I do not go outside without an adult – I was really nervous and terrified.

Nowadays, if you suggested that it would be a bad idea for me to go outside on my own without the supervision of my elders, I would be baffled. I’m a freaking adult right now, I don’t need to be escorted just to walk around my own neighborhood.

That is the pattern I experience. When I am thrust into an environment that is too unfamiliar – especially if I am alone – I experience terror.

I experienced the terror in Taiwan – twice, once when I first arrived in Taiwan, and the second time, when I moved to Taoyuan City. I liked the idea of moving to Taiwan when it was far in the future, but when it became imminent – and then it happened – I was frightened. It was the first time I had ever been outside of the United States by myself, and I had no return ticket. What made me stick with it – both staying in Taiwan and staying in Taoyuan – was that those decisions were difficult to reverse. That made me tough it out until the terror passed and I had adapted.

By contrast, when I hiked up Ishizuchi in Japan years later, I had read about how scary the ascent to the highest peak is (in fact, most hikers do not go to the highest point because it is so scary). When I got there I found … much of the path is a slanted uneven rocky scramble, with a sharp drop of hundreds of feet on one side – and it did not look that scary to me. I had done so many hikes with similar (or more extreme conditions) in Taiwan, that the final scramble of Ishizuchi felt familiar – it even gave me a sense of nostalgia. In short, I was not scared of that slope because it felt familiar to me.

This is me in Taiwan (yes, I am the person in this photo). Specifically, this is me at Wuliaojian.

Last year, I went on three section hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail. On none of those trips did I complete my planned itinerary.

One time, my choice to quit was very sensible – there was a heat wave (temperatures over 90℉ / 33℃), and the next section of the trail was steep, uphill, exposed to the south (i.e. very little shade), and all of the water sources for the next 14 miles were dry. I have ZERO regret about quitting at that point. I still want to hike that section, but I want to do it when it’s cooler and the water sources are actually sources of water. Besides, I had already hiked over fifty miles during that trip.

But the other two times? It wasn’t due to trail conditions, it was because I was not prepared for the psychological shock. I’ve read a lot of hikers can get through the beginning of the hikes on the ‘honeymoon’ euphoira and the psychological shock hits them later, whereas for me, it seems the shock is front-loaded.

I do not like admitting this publicly on my blog, because it runs counter to how I see myself – or rather, how I wish I were. I like thinking of myself as intrepid. These experiences do not give me the self-image I want.

Well, when something is hard to do, and you want to get better at it, it’s sometimes a good idea to TRY AGAIN. And that’s what I’m doing this week. I’m going to attempt another section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Specifically, I plan to hike from Barrel Spring (it’s literally just a spring near a road – it’s four miles away from the nearest town) to the border with Mexico.

It will be a backpacking trip unlike anything I’ve tried before. I’ve never hiked through a desert before, so yes, I will carry a lot of water, but at least the slopes are fairly gentle in this section, and because I will go south, I will hike uphill on the northern (cooler) slopes. Also, I’ve never had to deal with temperature swings of 25-90℉ (-4-33℃) within 24 hours while sleeping outdoors, so that will be interesting. I look forward to the novelty and challenge, while I am also aware that I might not like it at all.

For some reason, I am fixated on the danger of rattlesnakes. This is bizarre because Taiwan has snakes which are deadlier than rattlesnakes (most rattlesnake bites will not kill an adult human, even without treatment – Taiwan has snakes whose bite kills any human who does not get timely treatment), and the Taiwanese venomous snakes do not even warn you of their presence with a rattle, and yet I was never scared of them. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised in a culture which fears ‘hundred-pacers’, whereas I was raised in a culture which fears rattlesnakes. Rattlesnake bite is far from the most common reason why hikers need medical evacuation in this section (the most common reason is dehydration – which, thankfully, is preventable with good planning), but it’s still what has grabbed my imagination. Oh well, hopefully my paranoia will at least make my odds of being bit by a rattlesnake even lower (and yes, I have a plan for what to do if I do get bitten by a rattlesnake). What I’ve read is that many hikers freak out when they first see a rattlesnake, but after the third or fourth time they encounter a rattlesnake, it’s much less terrifying.

So, why am I doing this hike if I expect it to be uncomfortable, and suspect I may hate it? First of all, there are my ego issues (described above), but if that was all there was to it, I would stop myself because there are easier ways to address ego issue. I am also really curious what it is like to hike in a desert, and even if I never do it again, I want to know what it feels like. Furthermore, I am fascinated by hiker psychology, and while one can learn about hiker psychology just by reading books, it’s not the same as first-hand experience (in particular, a book cannot tell me how *I* will react in certain conditions). I also hope that, maybe, just maybe, I’ll gain a little mental resilience which I may need later in life. Finally, I enjoy hanging out with the type of people who hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and the best place to find them is, obviously, the Pacific Crest Trail.

Why am I posting all of this on my blog. Remember how I mentioned the book Pacific Crest Trials, about how to psychologically cope with the trail? One of their recommended techniques is to tell everyone, and to announce your hike on your website, so that peer pressure will help you get through the tough parts. I’m trying this technique right now. I’ll see if implicit peer pressure will help me deal with the psychological shock better than before. But I’m not sure it will work, since most people I know think that hiking a hundred miles through desert mountains is so far out there that they aren’t going to think less of me if I do not complete the hundred miles – even my parents, who are calmer about this and find it less impressive than anyone else I know, wouldn’t hold it against me.

Comments on the “Love Minus Sex or Romance” Section of Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator

I just got a copy of Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life by Amy Gahran. Amy Gahran is also known as ‘Aggie Sez’, and used to blog at Solo Poly, most well known for the blog post “Riding the relationship escalator (or not).” I have not had time to read the whole book, but I did skip ahead and read all of Part 5, “Love Minus Sex or Romance.”

The first chapter in Part 5 is “Asexual and Aromantic: Part of the Rainbow.” A lot of this chapter is Asexuality and Aromanticism 101.

My biggest complaint is that it seems to imply that asexuals never want to have sex, and the only reason asexuals would consent to sex is procreation. It is true that most aces prefer not to have sex. Furthermore, most of the book’s research came from responses to an in-depth online survey, and I suppose it is possible that all of the aces who responded to the survey said that they do not want sex. However, I think it would have been better if it had noted that, while the majority of aces do not want sex in their personal relationships, a few do (including non-procreational sex).

What I found most interesting in the “Asexual and Aromantic: Part of the Rainbow” chapter was this part:

Being asexual or aromantic means that one’s intimate relationships will probably diverge from Relationship Escalator hallmark #4: sexual and romantic connection.

The writer goes on to explain that ‘mutual attraction’ is one of the features of the relationship escalator, and though asexual and/or aromantic people can perform every other hallmark of the relationship escalator, this is one part they cannot do. This is why the writer chose to single out asexuality and aromanticism, and not specifically address any other orientations – she claims that no other orientation precludes riding the relationship escalator all of the way.

To be clear, the introductory section (which I also read), the writer says that, while getting legally married and having children are highly encouraged on the relationship escalator, they are not hallmarks in contemporary American culture, and thus not ‘hallmarks’ of the relationship escalator. “Sexual and romantic connection” is one of the five hallmarks, therefore any relationship which lacks that is by definition not on the relationship escalator. Again, I wish the writer were clearer about the distinction between attraction and behavior – if someone does not experience sexual attraction, but they choose to have sex anyway, does that count as a sexual connection?

The next chapter is “More Nonsexual Relationship Options” which discusses nonsexual intimate relationships in general, not specifically relationships ace people have. The beginning of this chapter says that 40% of the people who responded to the survey said that they have had an important nonsexual and/or nonromantic intimate relationship, and 20% said they were open to such relationships (I do not know what percentage of the people who took the survey are ace and/or aro – I’d be interested in seeing the percentages for people who do NOT identify with asexuality or aromanticism). There are also a few pages about kink, and how kink relationships can be nonsexual and/or nonromantic.

It included various personal stories taken from the survey. The story which caught my eye the most is from ‘Theresa’. Theresa formed a clear agreement with her partner to stop having sex, though she does not know why they stopped wanting sex with each other. She has felt internal shame at having a sexless relationship with her significant other, even though it’s something they both wanted. She is afraid of her friends finding out that she does not have sex with her partner.

The last chapter in this part of the book is “Choosing Celibacy” which does not have any significant new information or insights for me, though I think it’s a good thing that this chapter is in the book for readers who know less about it.

One of the things which struck me while I was skimming through the book is that stories from asexuals who responded to the survey are throughout the book, not just in the asexuality & aromanticism chapter. The writer herself says:

One of the most unexpected and enlightening parts of my survey was hearing from dozens of people in the ace (slang for asexual) community, as well as many more who have been intimately involved with asexual partners.

These were some of the most eloquent and thoughtful responses I received. But in retrospect, that is isn’t very surprising: if you want to think really, really hard hard about intimacy and relationships, try taking sex and/or romance out of the picture.

Is this book worth reading? If one is primarily interested in asexuality and/or aromanticism and NOT the rest of the book, I would say no. The Invisible Orientation by Julia Sondria Decker goes into much more depth about asexuality, and while I am not aware of any good nonfiction book about aromanticism, one would still be better off researching aromanticism on the internet, or even reading about aromanticism in The Invisible Orientation, than tracking down Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator. However, I have not read most of the book yet. I am guessing other parts of the book will be more informative for me because they are about topics that I know less about. Based on my skimming, this does seem like a very good book about close personal relationships, particularly unconventional close personal relationships.

My Response to luvtheheaven’s Comment & Her Links

On my last post, luvtheheaven left this comment. It would take so many words for me to respond to everything luvtheheaven says and to respond to the links she posted that I decided to go ahead and make this a post. I think this is a good way to continue the discussion on ace/aro representation in fiction.

This post will discuss ace/aro representation fiction more generally than the previous post (i.e. it will not be so focused on the Old Kingdom books). However, at the end, I do have a spoilery section, which is marked.

First of all, I really appreciate that luvtheheaven linked these comments where Garth Nix talks a little about ace/aro representation in Clariel. I don’t have much to say about it, except that I was wondering how much research Garth Nix did and whether he was aware of asexuality / aromanticism and reader responses, and now I know.

One of the tweets which most resonated with me (even though it was not directly about the Old Kingdom series) was this one from Claudie Arseneault:

I have reached the points where while I do want more ace rep, I want people to Actually Support Ace Voices even more.

Yes, I also want more ace rep, but I also want more support for the [good] ace rep which already exists (that is not quite the same as what Claudie Arseneault is saying – she is asking support for ace writers specifically – however I also happen to be in favor of supporting ace writers telling ace stories). In the past six or so months, I’ve learned a LOT about the ace rep which currently is available in prose fiction. Since I’ve been on my ace-fiction binge, I’ve kept on seeing comments like ‘I want to see X in ace fiction’ and my response is ‘yes, you can find X in ace fiction, here is a list of stories which have X’. Sometimes, the response is ‘thanks, I’ll look into that’. And sometimes, the response is ‘well, I want to find it in the fiction I would read anyway, not have to go to some obscure source which might not fit my tastes in fiction’.

The latter response is valid. I wish I could find all of the ace rep I want without having to specifically look for it because it would just happen to be in the fiction I was reading anyway for other reasons. However, as things stand now, I would not have been able to find dozens of works of fiction featuring ace rep if I were not specifically seeking it.

However, while recognizing that it is a valid response, I also find it frustrating. I find it frustrating when people claim (or imply) that there is no ace fiction with X when I can think of at least three examples of ace fiction with X. I also find it frustrating that people who say they want X in ace fiction … are not supporting ace fiction which already has X.

You want more ace fiction with X? Then show it. If you have sufficient financial means, then buy it. If you do not have sufficient financial means, then tell your local public library to buy it. If you buy a work of ace fiction, and like it, then tell your local library to buy it so that people in your area who do not have financial means can read it too (my local library does not follow up on all of my recommendations of ace fiction, but it has followed up on some of them). If you do not have financial means, and you also do not have access to a public library, well, that sucks. Hopefully, you can at least find X in fanfiction online, and you will support it by leaving nice comments for the fic writer.

Anyway, here are another two tweets from Claudie Arseneault:

EVergreen thoughts on ace rep and where to find it: if all you know about is Clariel, Every Heart and We Awaken, you’re not paying attention

Oooooor you’re just paying attention to trad pubs. (Also Clariel is harmful stop putting on lists)

I completely agree with the first part – if all you know about is Clariel and Every Heart a Doorway, and We Awaken, then you’re not paying attention. I trust that anybody who has been following by blog at all in the past six months knows about more than those three works, since I’ve been posting a ton of reviews of ace fiction.

As for the second comment, errr, We Awaken is published by Harmony Ink Press, and how, exactly, does Harmony Ink Press count as a traditional publisher? They publish LGBTQ+ YA fiction – and nothing else. Does the mere fact that they print books and work through the large distributors make them a traditional publisher? Because if that is enough to make someone count as a ‘traditional publisher’, then the meaning of ‘traditional publisher’ is so broad that it’s not a useful term for me.

However, I would say that people pay a lot more attention to mainstream publishers than to independent publishers. This is partially justified, but if one is paying attention to mainstream publishing TO THE EXCLUSION of independent publishing, especially if one wants more ace rep, then yes, there is a problem (I plan at some point to write a whole post/rant about this topic, but I don’t want to go there right now).

As for the last point – “Clariel is harmful stop putting on lists” – I disagree completely. While there are many ace and/or aro readers who have found it hurtful, there are also many ace and/or aro readers who have found it validating. For example, I really appreciate this comment by LW, even though I do not agree with it 100%. LW loves grey-morality characters, is demiromantic, ace, and disabled, and particularly likes Clariel because Clariel is demiromantic (according to LW’s interpretation, and I agree that demiromantic!Clariel is a valid interpretation), ace, and disabled. LW also says in her comment that it bothers her when people claim that Clariel is bad ace / aro representation. It is for the sake of readers such as LW – and to be honest, myself, since Clariel actually is one of my favorites out of the 40+ works of ace fiction I’ve read – that I am opposed to telling people to stop putting Clariel on lists.

(and one could have a worthwhile discussion about the implications of Clariel being visibly disfigured, but I will not go there right now).

I am in favor of putting asterisks by Clariel when one puts it on lists (such as * ‘many ace/aro readers do not like the ace representation in this novel’), but I am against not putting it on lists at all.

Anyway, that lets me segway into a more Clariel focused discussion which luvtheheaven also linked…

[Clariel] goes for the stereotype that aro aces aren’t capable of making friends/understanding the point of friends.

I disagree. Clariel (the ace/aro character) actually does have at least one friend in the story (Belatiel), she values that friendship, and it’s strongly implied that she was friends with some of the borderers. She is also friends with her aunt, if one considers it to be possible to be friends with members of one’s own family. I did not get the sense that the story was supporting that stereotype at all.

A lot of why Clariel is socially isolated is a) her mother Jaciel b) being forced to be in a social environment where she does not want to be c) people refusing to understand Clariel’s concerns (and the few characters who are interested in her concerns do not spend much time with her due to circumstances). One of the parts of Clariel which most moved me was when Clariel finally figured out why her mother Jaciel is the way she is, that she is also like her mother in some ways and might be socially isolated for some of the same reasons (note: Jaciel is not an aro/ace character), and while Clariel does not excuse the emotional pain her mother caused, she understands that her mother did it because of her own personal struggles, not because she does not care about Clariel. (And also, the fact that Clariel eventually feels empathy for her mother, in spite of the fact that her mother hardly ever tried to connect to Clariel in a personal way, is solid evidence that Clariel does have feelings and can emotionally connect to people). (Also, it was refreshing to have a protagonist in this series who actually interacts with her living mother, as opposed to Sabriel and Lirael, whose mothers are dead).

Actually, looking back on both Clariel and Lirael, it is Lirael, not Clariel, who has more of a social isolation/friendship issue. But I understand that many readers do not perceive it that way, probably because Lirael’s one and only friendship is given plenty of pagespace while she avoids people as much as possible (so her interactions with people do not get much pagespace), whereas, *because* Clariel actually does interact with people more than Lirael, and her friendships do not get nearly as much pagespace, the fact that Clariel does not get along with many of the people she interacts with is more obvious. Come to think of it, the fact that the writer puts so much more emphasis on Lirael’s positive social interactions vs. her negative social interactions, and puts so much emphasis on Clariel’s negative social interactions vs. her positive interactions, is worth critiquing.

As far as “Clariel literally just wants to run away and live by herself in a forest” … Clariel’s first choice is to join the borderers who patrol the forest. It is only when she is convinced very early in the novel that that is impossible that she makes Plan B, running away to live by herself in a forest, her goal. I think that, if she were given a choice between joining the borderers, and living alone in the forest, she would not hesitate to join the borderers.

One last point before I get to the spoilery section – a point I made in my previous post – is that one reason I am not so bothered by some of the things in Clariel is that I have read so much ace fiction. One of the arguments people who are claiming that Clariel is bad ace/aro representation make is ‘imagine that this was the only time you ever saw an ace/aro character in fiction’ … but in my case it is NOT. Far from it. If Clariel were the only instance that I ever saw of an ace/aro character in fiction, I may feel differently, but that’s not my situation. I admit that I tend to get more irritated with certain tropes (such as Allo Savior Complex) the more frequent they are, but the negative aspects of Clariel’s aro/ace representation are not frequent enough in the ace/aro fiction I’ve read to irritate me that way.

[THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE SPOILERY SECTION, IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO EXPOSE YOURSELF TO SPOILERS STOP READING]

Then the “Her isolation directly contributes to her fall. She becomes evil and is then an antagonist for the rest of the series” tweet. Yes, mostly. But it’s not her fault that she was isolated in a way which contributed to her fall. For example, Kagrin himself admits that he had not realized how much danger Clariel was in, and failed to give Clariel the information she needed to make a non-evil choice. Clariel herself did not like being isolated in Abhorsen House, and the Abhorsen justifies it as “well, I thought you liked being alone” and this leads Clariel to listening to the one sentient being who is around and willing to give Clariel advice – Mogget. Nobody warns Clariel that Mogget is kind of evil and that it is better to ignore his advice (to be fair, none of the other characters really understood that Mogget was kind of evil until it was too late).

One of the things I like about Clariel is that it counters one of the things I do not like about Sabriel. In Sabriel, Sabriel is clueless, and is really lucky that all of the entities who give her advice (because she did not know enough to make informed decisions on her own) was trustworthy, and that she has magically good instinct. I do not like that. In Clariel, Clariel is not as lucky as Sabriel, so some of the entities who give her advice are untrustworthy, and because Clariel is clueless (just as Sabriel was clueless at that age, though Clariel and Sabriel are clueless about different things), Clariel lacks magically good instinct, and she cannot tell that the advice is bad. This feels more realistic to me.

For that matter, Clariel counters something even bigger about the original Old Kingdom trilogy which bothers me. In the original Old Kingdom books, morality is very black and white (with the exception of Mogget) – the good are purely good, and the evil are purely evil, and have almost no character development to boot. Clariel has a more grey morality, in which the ‘good’ characters often do the wrong thing because they are uninformed / refuse to communicate well, and the ‘evil’ characters (with the exception of Kilp and Aron) mostly just want to be free, and the only thing which makes them ‘evil’ is that they are willing to wreck havoc in order to break free. Morality has many more shades of grey in Clariel than in other books in the series.

I want to say a few things about Goldenhand.

Like many readers, I was annoyed by the ‘all the protagonists get as Happily Ever After by romantically pairing up’ ending. It might have been less annoying if the romance part was well-written, but it was not.

Also, it turns out that Clariel’s fate was much more tragic than I thought at the end of Clariel (I guess I was too optimistic). However, we learn that Clariel has a dual personality – her evil persona is Chlorr of the Mask, but there is also ‘Clariel’ who, in spite of everything, refuses to do evil, so Chlorr of the Mask made her sleep. At the climax of Goldenhand, Lirael has to wake up good!Clariel, and good!Clariel is the one who delivers the final blow to Chlorr of the Mask (i.e. evil!Clariel), not Lirael herself. So when I was looking through the tweets which say ‘Clariel becomes the super villain which the allo characters spend the entire book trying to kill’ errr … yes, that’s true, but did you miss the part where good!Clariel turns out to be the one who eliminates evil!Clariel for good. (Yes, good!Clariel also dies, and having the aro/ace die while the allos survive deserves critique. In my opinion, Lirael also should have died because she RANG ASTARAEL TWICE IN A ROW, and the fact that she survived *in spite of having rung Astarael twice* was cheap).

More Thoughts on Ace and Aro Representation in Clariel

I don’t like this book cover as much as the Australian book cover for Clariel.

One of the things I like about the ace and aro representation in Clariel by Garth Nix is that it’s complicated. It’s actually one of the more complex representations of asexuality and aromanticism I’ve found in prose fiction so far, even though Clariel does not have the highest asexuality content rating. In this post, I’m going to go into some of those issues in more depth.

Have you read Goldenhand?

No, not yet. I know that the character Clariel also appears in Goldenhand, and I’ve read that it throws Clariel’s asexuality/aromanticism in a different light than Clariel, but I have not read about it in detail because I’m trying to avoid spoilers right now. I do plan to read Goldenhand. In the mean time, I think it’s worthwhile to record my thoughts about ace/aro representation in Clariel before I read Goldenhand.

I am aware that Goldenhand may completely upset my interpretation of Clariel’s ace/aro qualities. However, even if Goldenhand says “Clariel is really a repressed heteroromantic heterosexual who needed to be fixed by a (male) One True Love after all, ha ha you suckers who thought she was aro ace!” I am mentally capable of removing canon from my personal headcanon (I will be unhappy if Goldenhand pulls off that terrible bait-and-switch, but the comments I’ve seen from one ace reviewer indicate that Goldenhand is not that blatantly awful).

So basically, this post is going to be you saying all of the things you didn’t say in the original review because you were trying to keep the spoilers out?

Mostly, I did think of one more thing to address which does not require going into spoiler territory – namely, Clariel’s Aunt Lemmin. So, this part of the post is still spoiler-free.

I’ve seen some people say that Aunt Lemmin is also an aromantic asexual. I do not rule out that possibility, but I am also not convinced. It seems that the evidence for Aunt Lemmin being an aro ace is that she is a happy spinster, and I think she may also be referred to as a ‘natural singleton’ (which seems to be the Old Kingdom term for someone who is not interested in forming long-term sexual or romantic relationships). On the other hand, it is well established in the Old Kingdom series that the Old Kingdom accepts casual sex to some degree (it’s shown in Clariel itself, as Clariel observes and tries to avoid her peers’ hookup culture). And when the term ‘natural singleton’ first shows up in Clariel, it is in reference to pine martens who still come together briefly to mate. Thus, it seems to me that the social category ‘natural singleton’ does not exclude the possibility of casual sex, and nothing in the story indicates that Aunt Lemmin avoids sex.

In fact, it is Aunt Lemmin who tells Clariel that she may just be suppressing her sexual feelings, and that she ought to be really, really sure that she does not feel any inclinations towards sex, because it would be so terrible if she were sexually repressed. While it is possible for aces to have such sentiments, to me, it is slight evidence that Aunt Lemmin is not ace.

In short, it actually makes more sense to me that Aunt Lemmin is not ace (the idea of her being aro is more plausible to me).

So is the spoilers galore section of this post going to start now?

No. Because I recently re-read Sabriel and Lirael, and I must comment on them.

*GROAN*

Oh come on, if you don’t want to know about what I think about Sabriel and Lirael after the re-reads, you can skip this section.

Anyway, in the beginning of my re-read of Sabriel, I thought ‘this was better than I remembered’. Then, when I got to the second half, I remembered why I did not like it when I read it nearly twenty years ago. To the extent that I like it now, it is to a large extent because of it’s connection to the other Old Kingdom stories – if it were still a standalone novel (as it was when I first read it) I probably would still dislike it today.

Lirael, of course, is more interesting – and I actually have acey comments to make about it.

In my review of Clariel, I claimed that Lirael was not an ace character. After I wrote the review, I learned that there are a few fans who headcanon Lirael as being grey-ace, and having re-read Lirael, I can see where that headcanon is coming from. Whenever Lirael is in a potentially sexual situation, she recoils and tries to get out it. Furthermore, she shows no positive interest in sex, or ever exhibits sexual attraction. In fact, the description of Lirael is a lot like the description of Clariel!

However, there are some key differences, which is why Clariel is generally considered to be a canon ace character and Lirael is not.

The explanation for why Lirael acts the way she does in potentially sexual situations is that she is shy and does not believe that men could really want her. Except … that does not match how she acts on-page. Yes, she is shy, but in one scene where a ‘handsome’ man shows clear sexual interest in her a) she considers good looks to be a minus, because good-looking men are more likely to expect her to say yes to sex (hmmm) and b) she is not shy at all about turning him down, though she does it in a roundabout way. To me, it seems that Lirael isn’t avoiding sex because of shyness/self-confidence issues – she genuinely does not want sex at that point in her life, and is willing to put in some effort to avoid it. Does that mean she is ace? Not necessarily. But the fact that she does not experience sexual attraction even to ‘handsome’ men implies that, at the very least, she may not be heterosexual. Of course, I know that in the next book, Abhorsen, she does get romantically matched with a male character (I do not remember the book well enough to offer any nuanced commentary).

Are you going to re-read Abhorsen too?

No. I do not recall liking it because I felt the story was not that interesting. A lot of it is about Orannis, and Orannis is pretty boring.

You think an ancient supervillain who is threatening to destroy the entire world is BORING???!!!!

Yes. The story of Abhorsen, IIRC, is about the protagonists struggling to stop a supervillain devoid of personality, and the characters do not grow nearly as much as they do in Lirael.

Anyway, what make Clariel different from Lirael is that she a) is no more shy about sex than her non-ace peers b) she has done soul-searching to figure out whether she is interested at all in people in a sexual way, and her conclusion is that she just does not want people in a sexual way. By contrast, at least in Lirael, Lirael does not demonstrate any such reflection on her sexuality.

Are we FINALLY getting to the SPOILERTASTIC part of this post?

Yep. If you do not want to expose yourself to SPOILERS GALORE for Clariel, this is where you stop reading this post.

So, some readers claim that Clariel isn’t really ace/aro, or that she is demisexual/demiromantic, or something. What is up with that?

In the novel, Clariel states repeatedly that she is not interested in sex or romance. She also has clearly done a lot of introspection, trying to figure out if she does have some kind of sexual or romantic feelings, and came up with nothing.

Thus, when I first came across the claims that a) Clariel is not really ace/aro after all or b) Clariel is demiromantic/demisexual, I was nonplussed.

It turns out that THERE IS A SINGLE SENTENCE on the penultimate page of the novel in which Clariel says that she had suppressed some feeling towards Belatiel. THAT’S IT, A SINGLE BLOODY SENTENCE. A sentence so insignificant that I did not even notice it when I was reading the novel through the first time, and had to go hunting for to find it after reading the critiques. And in contrast to the specificity which Clariel describes her lack of inclinations towards sex, romance, and marriage, this ‘feeling’ is not specifically described. The context also fails to make it clear whether this ‘feeling’ is romantic, or sexual, or something entirely different. It seems just as plausible to me that this feeling could be sisterly affection towards Bel as anything else.

That said, IF this ‘suppressed feeling’ is sexual and/or romantic in nature, then I would conclude that Clariel is demisexual and/or demiromantic, and thus still under the ace/aro umbrella. I have read comments from demiromantic readers that they felt really validated by Clariel, since they felt like Clariel’s inner journey of figuring out this romance thing was just like their own. I also do think that one of the passages which I quoted in my review has a sentence which hints at possible demiromanticism/demisexuality, specifically – “She had always presumed [giddy desire] just came upon them, but she did wonder now if it might grow from a small spark of friendship.”

I think saying that Clariel is demiromantic and/or demisexual is a valid interpretation of the novel. I also still think it’s possible to interpret Clariel as being an aromantic asexual. The interpretation which I do not consider valid is the one which says that Clariel is not under the aro/ace umbrella at all, because given what Clariel says about herself, that does not make sense.

Now, if it turns out in Goldenhand that Clariel had eventually fallen in love with Belatiel in some sense, I will accept that as canon evidence that Clariel is demiromantic, and I would be cool with that choice for her character. What I would not be cool with is if Goldenhand does the “ha ha suckers, Clariel isn’t ace at all!” gambit which I describe above.

Of course, I am strictly basing this on Clariel. Who knows what I will find when I read Goldenhand? (technically, the people who have already read Goldenhand know.)

So what about the TRAGIC ENDING?

First of all, I have no objection to tragic endings. In fact I wrote this post almost five years ago. Agent Aletha felt that the ending of Clariel was a bit like the “Bury Your Gays” trope, and I can see where she’s coming from, but I do not feel the same way.

“Bury Your Gays” is so widely condemned by LGBTQ+ critics because it is so damn common, especially in mainstream depictions of queer characters. Most queer critics say that, if the survival rate of queer characters were roughly the same as the survival rate of straight characters in mainstream media, “Bury Your Gays” would not be such a big deal.

By contrast … I have read a lot of ace fiction by this point. Most of what I’ve read came by the way of indie publishing, but even among the mainstream ace fiction I’ve read, tragic endings are uncommon. I thought it was ironic that an LGBTQ+ publisher which has an explicit policy of not permitting queer characters to have tragic deaths went ahead and published a novel in which the ace character has a tragic death, but that was ONE instance, not a pattern.

Also … how tragic was the ending of Clariel anyway? She wanted to be free and live on her own in the forest, and she got what she wanted. True, she is exiled from the Old Kingdom, and we all know that she is going to be corrupted further by Free Magic and turn into a necromancer and all that, but … seriously, it could have been worse. I found one reviewer who said that she felt cheated because we did not really see the transformation of Clariel into Chlorr of the Mask, that the novel ends while Clariel still has a sense of mercy and kindness towards other people. Though I did not feel cheated, I understand her point. The ending of Clariel in itself, is not Clariel’s tragedy. Clariel’s tragedy is what happens after the end of Clariel (though the ending of Clariel makes Clariel descent into evil almost inevitable).

Speaking of Clariel’s (eventual) descent into evil…

So what about Clariel turning into an EVIL EVIL EVIL villain? Doesn’t this reinforce the stereotype of aces being psychopathic villains?

There is a stereotype of ace characters being villains because of their lack of feelings. And this is even more true of aro characters, to the point that not wanting romance is code for villain, and characters who successfully engage in romance are almost never villains (see this post). This stereotype is much more prevalent in mainstream fiction than fiction targeted at ace audiences, for obvious reasons. However, Clariel is aimed at a mainstream audience, not a specifically ace audience.

However, Clariel subverts the premise of the stereotype.

The logic of the stereotype is that because the idea is, if a character does not experience sexual and/or romantic feelings, it means they don’t experience feelings in general, which means they don’t experience empathy, or care about other people, and this leads them to being indifferent or spiteful towards others, thus the villainy.

By contrast, some reviewers have summarized Clariel as “the path to hell is paved with good intentions.” The irony is that, if Clariel really were a psychopath/sociopath, she probably would not have turned into a villain at all, or at least would have just been a petty villain. If she did not care about other people or give a shit about other people’s feelings, she probably would have just stolen money from her parents and gone back to Estwael to live in the forest. It would not have been nice thing to do, but it would have let her avoid becoming villain. Or later in the book, if she had abandoned Belatiel in the forest – which is exactly what she wanted to do – yeah, Belatiel probably would have died, but she would have just been a petty villain, not a grand villain. She only stayed with Belatiel *because she did not want him to die*. And in the end, what pushes her into bargaining with the Free Magic creatures was her belief that her aunt was in imminent danger, and that if she did not rescue her, nobody would help her, and that her aunt would suffer and quite possibly die. If her aunt’s wellbeing were not at stake, or if Clariel believed that someone else would rescue her in time, she probably would not have accepted the bargain. Accepting the Free Magic creatures’ bargain, of course, is what sealed Clariel’s fate. It is because Clariel cares about other people, and wants to help them even if she must risk or even harm herself, that she becomes so exposed to Free Magic that she becomes irredeemably corrupted.

That said, this series still follows the generally pattern of the major good characters (with the exception of the nonhuman characters) getting paired up in satisfying romantic relationships, while the major evil characters (not just Clariel – also Rogir and Hedge) are uninterested in romance. This does sting me a little, not so much because of Clariel individually, but because of the pattern. If there had been an unambiguously good major character who was not inclined towards romantic bonds, or a major villain (such as Rogir or Hedge) who demonstrated an interest in romance, I would probably not mind this point.

So what about that quote from Agent Aletha’s review, “We complain over and over that in fiction asexuality is often used to distance the audience from a character, to mark them as other and undermine their very humanity. Is that the case here, making it more palatable for [Clariel] to go to the dark side?”

I am less interested in Garth Nix’s intentions when he was writing the story than how readers react. Prior to working on this post, I only read reviews of Clariel, which mentioned asexuality, but to ponder this question, I went out and read a bunch of reviews from mainstream readers to see how they react, specifically, whether Clariel’s ace/aro qualities make it more palatable to readers that she goes to the dark side.

First of all, on a general note, it seems that the readers who were most likely to enjoy Clariel were readers, such as myself, who thought that Lirael was the best book of the original trilogy. Readers who thought that Sabriel and Abhorsen were better than Lirael, on the other hand, were more likely to dislike Clariel. This make sense to me. Both Lirael and Clariel are more introspective and focused on character and worldbuilding, whereas Sabriel and Abhorsen are more action-packed and ZOMYGOSH-WE-MUST-STOP-HORRIBLE-THING-TRYING-TO-DESTORY-THE-WORLD!!!!!!!!!! (for what it’s worth, my favorite action sequence in the series is still Lirael vs. the stilken, even though the stilken was just threatening to kills librarians and destory of a library, not destroy the whole world). I did not find any reviews by people who had never read an Old Kingdom novel before, and I am mildly curious what somebody who was otherwise unfamiliar with the series would think (I suppose if I waded through enough Goodreads or Amazon reviews I would find such reviews).

Anyway, reactions to the novel are very mixed. Many of the people who disliked the novel cite Clariel as being an unlikable protagonist because she is whiny, self-absorbed, wants to go back to the forest, etc. Would these readers still feel this way about Clariel if she were presented as a heteroromantic heterosexual character? I don’t know. However, some of the same reviewers who dislike Clariel say that they also dislike Prince Sameth for similar reasons, and Sameth definitely is not an ace character, which implies that it is not Clariel’s aceness which puts them off.

For what it’s worth, Clariel did not seem particularly self-absorbed or whiny to me, not more so than a lot of other teenagers (in particular, she did not seem any more self-absorbed or whiny than Lirael). Yes, she has some unlikeable attributes (c’mon, she turns into a villain) but overall I was sympathetic to her as a protagonist.

Anyway, in conclusion, having re-read Sabriel and Lirael, I am … finding it hard to decide whether I like Lirael or Clariel more. Probably Clariel, if only because a lot of Lirael is about Prince Sameth, who I find less compelling as a character than either Lirael or Clariel. I also find the ace/aro representation in Clariel to be overall positive, but with potentially negative complications.

Now I’m bracing myself for Goldenhand.