Adam Roberts’ Swiftly

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels remains an ever-popular work, represented in literature, film, on stage, on radio, and in art. Adapted frequently since its conception, the work presents a kind of satire on issues that remain relevant throughout history: a  skepticism of science and pseudo-science, on the justness of rulers, and on moral standards.

Adam Roberts’ Swiftly takes this satire and investigates it in a far more literal, and long-term way. The Lilliputians have been enslaved and are factory workers, the Brobdingnagians have been recruited by the French to help them invade England. By adapting Gulliver’s Travels in this way, Roberts puts a more realist spin on Swift’s satire. Realism itself as a genre doesn’t inherently disable social commentary or satire. However, Roberts largely takes the sting out of Swift’s satire in his attempts to contextualize the various societies: because Swift largely presented the societies he introduces and placed his focus on their elements that leant themselves to satire, the text’s apt observations and commentary were preserved. Roberts, however, takes these images and attempts to contextualize them, treating them as real subjects, rather than treating them as devices to deliver a particular perspective.

In this transition, Roberts brings a fresh view to Swift’s original work: he introduces a human context and elements into a largely satirical and political text, humanizing it in the process. By explicating Swift’s world as he does, do you think that he strikes a balance between presenting a “real world” kind of perspective and presenting a satirical one?

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Penny Dreadfuls & Early Pulps

My familiarity with penny dreadfuls and pulps extends to cover ones published focussing on crimes, gossip, and novels in installments – I didn’t know they included serial stories that qualify as early science fiction. The earlier tales like “Varney the Vampire” or Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf” surprised me and strengthened the connections that Edgar Allen Poe had previously reminded me of between the Gothic and science fiction.

Later stories, like “Friend Island” and “Via the Hewitt Ray” inspired the thought that these twentieth-century pulps seem to rely very heavily on the “novum” or “new thing,” rather than on plot or character. This of course makes sense, given the restricted length of these stories, as was necessary for them to be published in magazines. In such a short piece, there is little time to expand a plot, or to establish a character and then describe their subsequent growth or development.

“Friend Island” and “Via the Hewitt Ray” both fulfill this recurring choice: “Friend Island” essentially just introduces the concept of a living island with its own personality, demonstrates how and when it manifests that personality and responds to people interacting with it, and then the story ends. “Via the Hewitt Ray” also introduces a (slightly more complex) novum in the form of various levels of civilization coexisting, and a female-dominated society. The characters in the story, like Lucille Hewitt and her father, do not undergo any personal development – Lucille’s entire personality seems to be based around one principle (adventure) and one goal (to rescue her father).

The form of penny dreadfuls and early pulps allowed for a proliferation of science fiction and the development of the genre, introducing numerous tropes (like the alien, or the strange civilization), and making it widely available to the public.

Edgar Allen Poe: Gothic vs. Science Fiction

Up till this point, I’ve only been familiar with Edgar Allen Poe as a writer of Gothic fiction and of detective fiction – I hadn’t come across his more science fiction-oriented works. At first, the two genres didn’t seem very compatible to me: Gothic works tend to focus on the supernatural, and science fiction tends to explain occurrences and  offer scientific or technological reasoning for things. A combination of the two genres seems even more unlikely – how would one reconcile the image of the spectral, of the supernatural, of the mysterious, with a genre that offers explanations, vivid images, and logical machinery?

Despite this seeming contradiction, the two genres are indeed related: “science fiction conspicuously reaches back to the genre of the Gothic novel, with its frequent interest in the speculative and the monstrous” (Mikics 273). The image of the ‘other,’ and imagining alternate possibilities unite the two. This correlation is present in Edgar Allen Poe’s more science-fictional stories: “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” certainly unites the image of the other – a man suspended on the edge of death in a way not considered possible – with an explanation of its possibility (however tenuous). Because science fiction is essentially any work that considers “the influence of scientific advances on human life” (Mikics 273), this short story could be considered science fiction, or at least science-fictional: the story is spent documenting the effects of using mesmerism to suspend someone on the edge of death.

Stories like “MS Found in a Bottle” and “A Descent into the Maelström” have somewhat more tenuous connections to science fiction, though they maintain a more Gothic aspect: they present a mysterious other (in this case a black galleon, a giant whirlpool near Antarctica, or various whirlpools viewed from a cliff) but do not offer an explanation for their cause.

As a whole, Edgar Allen Poe mars an important transition stage between Gothic fiction and science fiction. He manages at the same time to reconcile two genres that at first seem contradictory, and explore their shared elements of the speculative and the monstrous in various ways.


Mikics, David. “Science fiction.” A New Handbook of Literary Terms, Yale University Press,       2007, pp. 273.

H. Rider Haggard’s She

H. Rider Haggard’s novel She, first published in 1886, tells the story of Horace Holly and Leo Vincey’s journey to Kôr in the heart of Africa, following instructions on the Sherd of Amenartas that eventually, after a shipwreck and being captured by the Amahagger people, lead them to Ayesha, the queen.

Like many books of the period, and particularly science fiction, She promotes an imperialist mindset. The voyage into the heart of Africa embodies the race to colonize Africa that occured throughout the nineteenth century. Holly and Leo’s journey is an image of the British self that projects itself into unfamiliar territory, with the goal of imposing its behaviours and standards onto anyone it encounters.

Haggard’s description of the Amahagger people contributes to the presence of British imperialism: Haggard aims to differentiate the explorers from the Amahagger people at any opportunity, and notably does so when the Amahagger people kill and attempt to eat Mahomed. In this instance, not only do the Amahagger people enact what was considered one of the most ‘uncivilized’ practices of native peoples, but Holly also reasserts his superiority by shooting some of them. In this action, Holly views himself as superior, as the one to decide what qualifies as acceptable behaviour and to dole out punishment accordingly.

Haggard participates in a British imperialist tradition, and not only reinforces the differences between the British and the people they are colonizing, but also asserts British superiority in morality and behaviour. 

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The Terrain of Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s Herland

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland, three male adventurers discover a matriarchal, entirely female civilization hidden in an uncharted jungle. They are discovered and captured by the women when they try to investigate more closely, and spend a period of months living with, learning from, and sharing their culture with the women. Eventually, the men are pushed out of Herland, as one of the adventurers calls it, because he attempts to rape the woman he recently married.

Gilman’s female world is startling and revealing to Van, Terry, and Jeff because its seeming superiority and cultural advancements elucidate many flaws and detriments of their own society. One of the first indicators that the three adventurers have that the civilization they will encounter will be radically different from their own is the landscape: what they must traverse to reach it, how it is isolated from the rest of the surrounding area, and how the women cultivate their land.

Firstly, before they can even reach Herland, Van, Jeff, and Terry must travel miles through “a dark tangle of rivers, lakes, morasses, and dense forests” (Gilman 2). The view the man hold of the land as virginal, undiscovered, and something that must be conquered demonstrates their attitude toward the unknown and frames it in terms of sexual conflict. The land, viewed as quintessentially feminine, is something they feel that they can conquer or civilize.

The general structure of Herland also demonstrates a radical difference from the rest of its surrounding area on a very fundamental level: it is elevated far above the surrounding jungle, both physically (and as they will later discover), and morally. Kathleen Lant writes that the noticeable absence of caverns and mines in Herland is significant because it metaphorically demonstrates that these women “do not exist to be entered, conquered, or taken” (Lant 292). The landscape of Herland implies that the women that inhabit it are superior to the women the adventurers are familiar with because they’re elevated and unconquerable in a very literal, physical way.

The highly cultivated forests of Herland give the adventurers an view into the mindset of the women in Herland – they are entirely functional, deliberately constructed, beautiful, and devoid of any inefficiencies. The way the women treat their forests is the way they treat their society: everything can be controlled, and therefore optimized.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman expands her vision of an ideal, female world beyond the intellectual and moral structure of Herland – she shapes the land to communicate their values as well. In marshy jungles, elevated mountain ranges, and cultivated forests, she creates a world that is essentially feminine and natural.

Kathleen Hant’s article.

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Frankenstein’s Monster in Popular Culture: Dumbed Down & Done Up

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster he creates is eight feet tall, with thin yellow skin, black lips, large teeth, glowing eyes, and long black hair. Terrifying though this image may be, it is far from the cultural image most of us summon up when Frankenstein is mentioned – that is typically one of a lumbering, grey, stitched-together figure who is largely nonverbal. The transformation of Frankenstein’s monster in popular culture is a relatively recent one, and marks the simplification of the Frankenstein narrative: by rendering the monster less humanlike, and removing his most concerning characteristic, his intelligence, cunning, and quick learning skills, he becomes far less complex and becomes monstrous in appearance, not in nature.

The 1831 edition of Frankenstein has an accompanying frontispiece that depicts the monster as largely humanlike: only his size and long black hair distinguish him from Frankenstein himself.

Nino Carbé’s 1931 illustrations for an edition of Frankenstein depicts a monster who is largely still similar to the 1831 version, appearing largely human, with long hair, and of a large size – but he plays up some corpse-like attributes (like a collapsed nose) that points toward Boris Karloff’s definitive performance of the monster later that year.

The 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein by James Whale starring Boris Karloff is definitive in shaping the modern image of the monster: he is tall, as in the original work, he has black hair (though not long), his skin is stitched together, and he is non-verbal and has a distinctive walk due to Karloff’s weighted shoes, which give him a slow, dragging gait. Karloff’s monster maintains a sense of the child-like (he cowers from thunder, and picks flowers) that is prominent in Shelley’s monster, but Whale balances it with random fits of violence (drowning a little girl) to emphasize his monstrosity extends beyond his appearance.

With the popular depiction of Frankenstein’s monster that persists today, we have a diminished image of the monster: he lacks the intelligence and eloquence that makes him such a terrifying character, and maintains only the shock-value elements of his monstrosity that are present in his appearance. By altering the monster in this way, the story of Frankenstein becomes far less complex, and does not urge the reader to question themselves as closely, because Frankenstein vs. his monster becomes a simple question of intelligent good vs. brutish bad.

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The frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, featuring the monster in the foreground.

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Nino Carbé’s 1931 illustration for Frankenstein.

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The lobby poster for James Whale’s 1931 production of Frankenstein – note the iconic, corpse-like image of the monster. 

The War of the Worlds: Fighting Machines for Imperialism

H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds begins when a Martian capsule lands on Horsell Common, nearing Woking. The Martians from the capsules are quite adverse to human contact and begin to build fighting-machines, which are armed with a heat ray and a poisonous black smoke, which they then use to decimate any threat that faces them. The novel switches between the viewpoint of the narrator and the narrator’s brother, as they both seek to evade the Martians, with the brother leaving England by ship, and the narrator travelling 20 miles to evade the Martians, hiding in a destroyed house before returning to London to discover that the Martians have been killed by Earth pathogens, to which they have no immunity. The narrator suffers a nervous breakdown and later returns home, where he finds his home still standing, and his wife, also recently returned and alive.

Colonialism and imperialism are two very closely related terms, but the two often work in tandem, and are both based on ideas of expansion and control. The easiest way to differentiate the two is that colonialism is a practice, comprised of “the acquisition and colonization by a nation of other territories and their peoples” (Dictionary of Geography “colonialism”), and imperialism is a policy “of extending a country’s influence over less powerful states” (Dictionary of World History “imperialism) that supports “unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationships based on domination and subordination” (Dictionary of Geography “imperialism”) – one is an actual practice, the other a policy. Colonialism is often a tool of imperialism, and H. G. Wells employs it in this novel as a way not only to make clear the devastating effects of colonialism on native populations, but also to voice a critique of imperialist attitudes.

At the time of The War of the Worlds’ publication in 1898, Britain was the most powerful empire on Earth. British colonialism was in full swing, which Wells notes in the beginning of the novel when he writes that “the Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years” (Wells 5). The Martians’ invasion of Earth is “an experience of colonization in reverse” (Parrinder 75), which “combines comedy and irony with a ready understanding of the pain and humiliation we inflict on beings lower in the social and natural hierarchy than ourselves” (Parrinder 50). To impart the pain and humiliation of being colonized, when Wells describes the people being colonized, he often does so by comparing them to animals and to water. Wells compares English citizens to many different kinds of animals, including infusoria (a type of single-cell bacteria), monkeys, rats, lemurs, dodos, cows, frogs, bees, wasps, rabbits, rats, oxen, and ants. Wells’ decision to equate the English with animals enacts an automatic lowering of their status, reinforcing their deposition as the dominant beings on Earth once the Martians arrive. The particular types of animals that he chooses to compare the English to are also telling, because they can largely be split into two types: ‘dirty’ or stupid animals, like monkeys, dodos, rats, and frogs, and herd animals or animals that live in large groups, like cows, bees, wasps, and oxen. These comparisons are literally dehumanizing as they subjugate people to an animalistic role, as the narrator admits when he feels “a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that [he] was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel” (Wells 160), but are also metaphorically dehumanizing because the animals Wells compares humans to connote images of dirtiness, stupidity, and lack of individuality.

The image of humans as ants is notable because it reoccurs throughout the text, and is featured in a conversation between the narrator and the artilleryman in Book Two, Chapter Seven. In this comparison, Wells delivers a two-pronged critique that can apply to all imperial states, but specifically Britain in this text. On a textual level in the narrator and artilleryman’s conversation, Wells minimizes the importance of human society in the artilleryman’s description of men and ants, which parallels the relationship of the Martians and humans: “It’s just men and ants. There’s the ants builds their cities, live their lives, have wars, revolutions, until the men want them out of the way” (Wells 169). The movements and activities of humans are largely irrelevant to the Martians, and are often permitted only out of disinterest. Patrick Parrinder suggests a subtextual significance to Wells’ ant imagery, writing, “a colony or empire of ants is a society based on functional inequality. The class division between queens and worker ants would, if transferred to human society, threaten the survival of the communal organization” (Parrinder 75). So a society that is based on inequality and exploitation is not effective, nor is it destined to be long-lived. This is a pointed comment to make as a British citizen, because as previously mentioned, the British imperialist mindset is based on “unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationships based on domination and subordination” (Dictionary of Geography “imperialism”).

Wells also compares the human exodus from the areas the Martians have invaded in various forms of water imagery: the exodus is “a boiling stream of people,” and the “stream of flight [rises] to a torrent,” turning into a “foaming tumult” (Wells 154, 144), and he describes eddys and whorls in the current as people try to stop or change direction on the road out of town. This description has much the same effect as describing people as herd animals: it diminishes their individuality and their humanity in portraying their movement as single-minded, forceful, and unstoppable.

The War of the Worlds does not mark the first or last time that H. G. Wells uses the man-into-animal image – it appears in numerous other works, including The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. In The War of the Worlds, it communicates Wells’ viewpoints on various issues related to imperialism and colonialism: by comparing people to animals, he attempts to express the experience of colonization and control, and by comparing them specifically to ants, he comments on the inequality and precarious nature of an imperialist nation. As he diminishes people and attacks any sense of superiority the British people in the novel may hold, he questions their right to rule over other nations and peoples. The narrator presents this sentiment at the very beginning of the novel when he reminds the reader that “before we judge [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals [ …], but upon its own inferior races” (Wells 7).

The War of the Worlds is uniquely situated as the first piece of science fiction that incorporates a tradition of invasion literature. Invasion literature is exactly what it sounds like: they are texts focused on stories of Britain being invaded, often by France or Germany, their main industrial and economic competition, and expand on the worry that “this competition would become outright war” (Danahay 22). Wells includes many facets of typical invasion literature, including his use of a first-person narrator who is a survivor of the conflict, well-known English locales, and the destruction of London, which is a symbol for the heart of the British Empire and all of its culture, assets, and strength (Danahay 22-23). However, Wells alters the form by heightening the fear of superior technology, making it Martian and otherworldly to achieve a higher level of anxiety. Although he focuses his text specifically on England’s destruction, the threat the Martians pose is global; it is all of humankind that faces potential colonization or destruction, not just England. However, in attacking England, Wells can again focus on the British Empire and its weaknesses, and quickly it could fall, given a foreign threat. By incorporating invasion literature into his writings, Wells shapes an overt political commentary and his “notions of imperialism […] have deeply affected every subsequent writer in the tradition of galactic imperialism” (Parrinder 66).

Wells’ description of the Martians in The War of the Worlds is also quite telling about his views of imperialism: the Martians do not have digestive systems, so in order to survive they “[take] the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins” (Wells 200). In invasion literature, the nations who force imperialism upon the invaded are vampiric in the sense that they consume the economic and cultural capital of the invaded nation; Wells makes this cultural vampirism literal as the Martians suck the blood out of English citizens in order to fuel themselves. The notion of vampiric colonizers is also a critique of imperialism, because it demonstrates the same draining of resources and wealth – the introduction from my copy of The War of the Worlds includes the statement that the Martians “were vampires, but their very vampirism was a sign of their greater ‘civilization’” (Gunn xvii). By describing the Martians as vampiric in nature, Wells makes his negative views of colonization and the imperialist mindset that motivates it very clear.

As a work of speculative fiction, The War of the Worlds literally images what would happen if Earth were to be invaded by Martians. Allegorically, it speculates on the rise and collapse of a modern imperialist state. H. G. Wells’ perspective on imperialism and colonialism is presented to the reader via three main avenues: his repeated human-animal comparisons, his incorporation of invasion literature structures, and how he describes the Martians as vampires. With these methods, Wells forces the reader to experience a hostile colonization through the narrator, including the dehumanization and loss of self that it imparts, and suggests that imperialism is a precarious and vampiric system. Written in a period of intense colonialism, Wells’ criticism is well founded, and he ensures it is present in the mind of the reader as they begin and end the novel – he asks them to remember the extermination of the Tasmanian people, and the cost of colonialism, writing that “by the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth” (Wells 273). The War of the Worlds exists in a tradition of politically critical speculative fiction, like Gulliver’s Travels, and it encourages its readers to take on a critical perspective when it transposes their circumstances to a Martian-human conflict, allowing them a critical distance. This novel continues to be a pertinent source of critique, as concerns about invasion, belief in national superiority, and the destructive influence of imperialism all remain relevant today.


Questions

If the Martians’ death at the end of the novel is an allegory for the death of colonialism, what then do we make of the fact that they were killed by bacteria? What do they represent?

If The War of the Worlds took place today, would imperialism and colonialism still be the issues that Wells would be critiquing? Would it still be set in England?

Could this novel also be read as a Darwinian text? Will the cycle of colonization and exploitation will continue ad infinitum because of the survival of the fittest and continual evolution toward superiority?


Sources & Resources

The Broadview Edition of the text, with an excellent introduction.

Patrick Parrinder’s “Shadows of the Future: H.G. Wells, Science Fiction, and Prophecy” – Chapter 5 is most relevant.

Historical context of the novel’s inspiration and reception.

An article linking sci-fi and colonialism, offering reasons the two are often paired.


Associated Materials

Orson Welles’ (In)Famous Radio Performance of ‘The War of the Worlds’

 

 

The trailer for ‘Independence Day,’ a film adaptation of ‘The War of the Worlds’

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A 1898 illustration for a magazine publication of The War of the Worlds

 

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A poster for the 1953 film adaptation of The War of the Worlds

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A sculpture of the Martian tripod, erected in Woking, where part of the novel takes place, and where Wells lived for a time. 

Gulliver’s Travels, Book III

Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels seems to be, as a whole, a satirical attack on how we gather knowledge: history and historical studies are criticized at Luggnagg, logic and philosophy at Laputa, scientific research at Balnibarbi.

This book of Gulliver’s Travels is my favourite by far, partly just for the ridiculous imagery and variety of ways Swift finds to ridicule excessive reason (inflating a dog with air? People have to be smacked in the face with a bladder to remember to listen and speak?). The image of the Struldbruggs is particularly striking, as Swift attacks experience as a route to knowledge. The Struldbruggs, although they live forever, lose most of their faculties and memory after the age of forty, and lose their personhood after the age of eighty. Gulliver imagines immortality as a gift and an opportunity for many academic and artistic endeavours, but the Struldbruggs are nonverbal, non-mobile, and devoid of memory before they reach the age of one hundred years.

My struggle, at the end of Book Three, is to see what Swift expects people to depend on for knowledge and advancement. Not experience, not science, not the humanities . . . where are we meant to look? But I think, if he is attacking modern thinking, then he intends for us to look backward. Ancient philosophy and knowledge has endured till the time of his writing, so it must hold some merit.

Swift’s distaste for scientific progress and experimentation makes sense, given the explosion of scientific advancements taking place during the Enlightenment. However, I wonder if it stems from a distaste at the church of science that was developing, or because it placed too much emphasis on the scientific, logical aspects of humanity and overlooked the . . . humanity within us, the irrational, emotional, or illogical.

 

The Big Friendly Giant(s)

In Gulliver’s Travels, the Brobdingnagians are massive beings well over sixty feet tall, who tower over Gulliver and stand in stark contrast (literally) to the Lilliputians he encountered previously. Among the Lilliputians, Gulliver was a giant physically, but also in a more practical sense: he displayed a level of clarity and expediency that the Lilliputians lacked, and often got caught up in impractical methods and approaches.

Among the Brobdingnagians, Gulliver is dwarfed by them not only physically, but morally. Brobdingnagian society functions with a level of clarity, straightforwardness, and morality that casts English society in an unflattering light in comparison. The King of Brobdingnag comments that the English, based on Gulliver’s descriptions, seem to be “the most pernicious race of odious little vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” It is here that the reader begins to see that Gulliver is quite proud, and the King points to issues in English society that Gulliver accepts as normal, posing them to the reader and leaving them to mull over these issues.

It is in Gulliver and the King’s discussion of gunpowder that their differing moral standards are made clear: Gulliver (and by extension, the English) promotes gunpowder on the belief that it represents progress, and power, and offers its recipe to the King. The Brobdingnagian King, after hearing what gunpowder is for, rejects this offer completely: he is not tempted by the power it offers, nor does he think it should be shared. The Brobdingnags, though they are physical and moral giants to Gulliver, are not therefore perfect: they treat Gulliver as a plaything and a non-human (which is not to say that they are unkind to him), children and the deformed can still be evil, and they do not trust Gulliver.

Swift’s presentation of the Brobdingnagians exposes the readers to a more critical reading of Gulliver, and to general issues and inconsistencies within English society, politics, and philosophy.

Margaret Cavendish’s ‘The Blazing World’

Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World describes another world inhabited by bird-men, bear-men, fish-men, and many other sorts of anthropomorphized people. This world is seemingly utopian in nature, and establishes a precedent as the first utopia outlined by a female writer. As a utopia, the Blazing World presents a feminine view of an ideal world, and Cavendish puts forth a world notable for its scientific endeavours.

My first instinct when reading this work and noting that it has previously been qualified as a utopia was to disagree with this classification, for a few reasons. In terms of minor disagreements, it struck me as unlikely that Cavendish’s ideal world was one inhabited by walking, talking insects and animals who argue over philosophy and science. In terms of larger disagreements, it seemed even more unlikely to me that Cavendish, who was very vocal and assertive about her rights as a woman, would advocate for a utopia where women are excluded from religious life and sequestered away in closets for their prayers.

My initial disagreements can be easily addressed, however: the animal-men exist as a way of distancing the Blazing World from Cavendish’s world, allowing her more space from reality with which she can alter and create a world to her liking; the sequestering of women in closets while they pray is part of a larger satirical commentary on the nature of religion.

The primary ways Cavendish’s tale shines as a utopia are in its political and scientific aspects. Politically, Cavendish can safely advocate for monarchical government as an ideal system of rule, using body politic to support her views, and the popularity of monotheistic religion to prove that it’s a system that works. Scientifically, Cavendish can portray her ideal dynamic: a gender-neutral discussion of scientific approaches, equipment, and ideas. As a whole, Cavendish creates a world that is her utopia – it provides freedom where she lacks it, and advocates for her preferences in rule and discussion.

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