Liz reads: Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World by Michelle Scott Tucker

History is full of women who, among their other unheralded achievements, don’t get nearly enough credit for not murdering their husbands.

Such is Elizabeth Macarthur, the firs9781925603422.jpgt “gentlewoman” in the newly-formed colony of New South Wales. She grew up in a middle class English family, married a man who was only just barely a gentleman, gave birth to a son five months later, and was loyal to him as he spent the following decades trying to make his fortune and, along the way, alienating just about everyone he met.

Not that John Macarthur was a terrible person! In Michelle Scott Tucker’s account, he initially comes across as a lesser Austen villain, but his real sins are perfectly unremarkable. He’s proud, ambitious, has a thin skin when it comes to slights on his honour, and accordingly gets into duels which, had he been killed, would have left his wife and young children destitute and with little to no support network.

“Hey,” you say, having a peripheral awareness of American history via musical theatre, “that makes John Macarthur sound like Australia’s Alexander Hamilton.”

Oh dear. If only.

My real beef with this book is not with the subject, or the author, or anything that’s actually reasonable to complain about. It’s with the nature of Australian history, especially in the early days of colonisation. It’s all so small and petty and —

Put it this way: a few decades after the American War of Independence, certain Australians also sought to rise up against tyranny, which in this case took the form of Governor Bligh giving handouts of land to the wrong type of people.

(“The wrong type of people” included a Scottish farmer named John Turnbull, who was so grateful for Bligh’s support that he named his son after the governor. This became a family tradition, and that’s how the current prime minister came to be named Malcolm Bligh Turnbull. This is Peak Lolstralia, and would no doubt be a gift to satirists if the PM ever did anything decisive enough to evoke Bligh.)

Setting aside my cultural cringe around early white Australian history, Scott Tucker has done a wonderful job of finding Elizabeth Macarthur. Which is harder than it sounds — although she was a prolific correspondent, she tended towards the most optimistic interpretation of events, if not actual self-censorship.

This means there’s a lot of “she must have felt…” and “surely she thought…”, which I always find frustrating in a biography, even when the conclusions drawn are perfectly reasonable. (Which, here, they are.)

Nevertheless, Macarthur’s life is interesting, even if you’re not into agricultural or ovine history. (Ovine history is a thing, right?) Macarthur was in the right time and place to unconsciously participate in the devolving relations between Aboriginal Australians and the white invaders, from mutual curiosity to the frontier wars. Scott Tucker doesn’t shy away from exploring that, or the fact that part of Elizabeth’s social isolation came from her unwillingness to associate with former convicts.

Though her husband has traditionally been credited with the introduction of wool exports to Australia’s economy, Scott Tucker points out that it was Elizabeth who did a lot of the work, John Macarthur himself having spent extended periods in England having a sulk making connections and giving Elizabeth useless advice which she politely ignored. Because empires may rise and fall, but mansplaining is eternal.

Liz reads: The Star Trek: Discovery Annual 2018

In an attempt to pivot the blog away from being just Star Trek stuff, I’m aiming for a minimum of one post a week on what I’ve been reading. But to ease us into the change … what I read yesterday was the Star Trek: Discovery Annual 2018.

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Star Trek catch-up: The Next Generation (part 1)

Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons from 1987 to 1994. It was by far the most successful Star Trek series, and it’s difficult to overstate its impact on pop culture, both at the time and now. For most of its run, it was the one of only ongoing science fiction series on television, and its competitors tended to be either short-lived knock-offs (seaQuest DSV) or cheap and decidedly niche (…Doctor Who).

These days TNG is often dismissed as “too utopian”, with too-perfect characters and an artificial lack of conflict. I have mixed feelings about these criticisms. By this point in his life, Roddenberry definitely had strange ideas about what Starfleet and the Federation would and wouldn’t do, and some of his notions about what a utopia looked like were … troubling. I strongly feel that Star Trek is at its best when those ideas are subverted, deconstructed, or just politely ignored.

On the other hand, I don’t think the characters or setting were excessively perfect, or even conflict-free. But TNG is like The West Wing: it’s a series about intelligent people who are making wholehearted, good faith attempts to do the right thing.

The other reason I think that some people dismiss TNG is that it hasn’t always aged well, and it’s harder to be forgiving of the ’80s and ’90s than the ’60s. Television has moved on to serialised storytelling with more complicated — if not antiheroic or outright villainous — characters, and TNG’s good-hearted, episodic nature is no longer fashionable.

But it’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of the darker, serialised SF TV we have now is still inspired by TNG, if only in terms of the creators striving to be different. Babylon 5, for example, was very much in dialogue with TNG, and strove to set itself apart from that whole style of television.

Personally, I think there’s room for both forms. Even in the same franchise. So I can’t get into arguments about whether or not DS9 is better than TNG, because they set out to do completely different things, and each excelled. And it’s too soon to say whether Disco is or will excel, but it’s as much a product of its time as TNG was.

Because TNG ran for so long, and had so many watchable episodes, I’ve split this post into two parts.

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The Norah Satie Discourse

“The Drumhead”. Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 4, episode 21: the discovery of a spy aboard the Enterprise, along with possible sabotage of the ship’s engines, triggers an investigation led by retired Rear Admiral Norah Satie (played by veteran British actress Jean Simmons) which quickly turns into a witch hunt.

“The Drumhead” is one of those iconic TNG episodes. There’s an ethical dilemma which serves as a metaphor for real world issues, external forces trigger polite disagreement between members of the main cast, Patrick Stewart gives an inspirational speech, and then it’s never spoken of again.

I don’t say this as faint praise. TNG was a great series, which suffers now because its episodic storytelling style is no longer fashionable. And this is one of the best episodes, representing the series at its peak. Though it was conceived as an allegory for McCarthyism, “The Drumhead”‘s exploration of justice, paranoia and the value of civil liberties is particularly relevant in the hellscape of the first two decades of the twenty-first century.

Nevertheless. I have a lot of feelings about Norah Satie, the way she was written, and her treatment in-universe.

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Star Trek: Discovery 1.13 – “What’s Past Is Prologue”

I am broken. You’re all just lucky I regained the ability to form words, or else … well:

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