Irritated by Athena

I read The Athena Project for two reasons: one, a patron had recommended it as something I might like, and two, I needed something to read as a painkiller and it was right there. You’d think the premise—an all-female special ops team vs. terrorists trying to reactivate a long-lost pseudo-occult Nazi project—would be right up my alley. But Athena’s gender politics managed to hit me right in the rage centers, and then I happened upon a semiotics textbook the following day, and… well, enraged textual analysis was inevitable.

First, the presentation. I was with them on the initial conceit, at least for a bit—women can get into places men can’t, can figure out how to fit in, of course you’re going to select for athleticism and intelligence—but then physical attractiveness showed up as a requirement. Which set the stage for a story which only worked because every opponent involved except possibly the creepy scientist had a libido the size of Texas. Seriously. Yes, they could do spy things, but with the exception of the investigation of the suspicious site, mainly because there wasn’t supposed to be anyone there to pose for, every single mission apparently depended on wearing as little fabric as possible while still maintaining suspension of disbelief in their targets, posing where possible—an absurd quantity of clear visual titillation for any medium, let alone a purely textual one. (I’ve seen less fanservice in Exalted rulebooks, let’s put it that way.) And somehow, it always worked to a degree where it didn’t take too much backpedaling to try to improvise through the inevitable issues. I rather wondered what it would have done for the book if any of the opponents directly facing them had also been straight women, or if they’d gone up against a gay man at some point. Seriously.

Speaking of which, there was the one single female antagonist—and, bizarrely enough, the only character whose name I actually remember. In this story where sex is the primary weapon, Vicki still manages to embody the idea that sex is for the immoral. Sure, the main characters will seduce and titillate until the cows come home, but they don’t follow through—they don’t have to, and generally they don’t want to. Vicki, on the other hand, sleeps with her mark, and with her handler. Whether the main characters are actually as kinky as they teasingly claim their teammates are is unclear; Vicki’s first meeting onstage with her handler involves her joyfully welcoming him after he (in a ski mask, mind) ambushes and comes several inches short of raping her. It’s difficult to invoke the virgin/whore dichotomy in a book like this, but the author manages anyway.

I found myself looking at this book through the lens of the Bechdel test, and being somewhat irritated by what I found. Yes, it passes, particularly if talking about The Job doesn’t count as “talking about a man”–but only when our ladies are on duty. Off duty, I can’t think of a single conversation they had that wasn’t about guys or things relating to the acquisition thereof. These people do have lives, right? Right?

There was, however, one thing that impressed me. The government apparently decided they wanted to hide a facility under an airport. Some people would, well, hide it—what they did, instead, was make it blatantly suspicious. Mysterious cost increases, a suboptimal location, creepy murals, dubious layouts, buildings not quite up to standard that were just buried empty, name a red flag and there it was, so nobody would take any new suspicions seriously.

In short, I found the book annoying.

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