What can I say about The Book of Phoenix?
It opens in a post-apocalyptic desert. An old man stumbles into a cave full of ancient technology. One of the computers hijacks his hand-held communicator, and it tells him a story: the story of Phoenix, in her own words.
Phoenix grew up in Tower 7, New York, in our own world, not very far in the future. She’s three years old when the story begins, but she has the body and mind of a forty-year-old: she’s an accelerated human, one of various nefarious genetic experiments going on in the Tower. There are plenty of other humans like her incarcerated in Tower 7 – a man who can’t eat normal food, only glass and rust and concrete; a man who can pass through walls and floors; a woman who can twist her head around like an owl – practically their only similarity being that they are almost all African.
Phoenix passes the time mostly contentedly, reading voraciously, until one day she’s told that her love, Saeed, has killed himself after seeing something terrible in the Tower. Her ensuing rage destroys Tower 7, and reveals the true meaning of her name: like the mythical phoenix, she periodically burns to ash, only to regenerate and live again a week or so later. She escapes the Big Eye, the government who still hunts her, to Ghana, and makes a life there; only to be hunted down again, and again lose everything she has built, and again burst into flames.
And so on, ad infinitem.
It’s an angry book; but that’s so true, so self-evident, it almost feels trite as an observation. Besides, “angry” doesn’t really cover it. The Book of Phoenix is a book about race and exploitation; it is keenly, painfully aware of the ongoing horror of colonialism, the way that Western capitalist power structures go on taking, and taking, and taking everything desirable in the world, as if it were entitled to them, destroying the lives of those who are in the way.
Phoenix is explicitly likened to a terrorist throughout the book – at first by the American news media; and later on, she exploits the authorities’ racial profiling, deliberately drawing attention to herself as potential terrorist, to create a diversion allowing herself to access the Library of Congress. The comparison becomes ever more apt as her behaviour becomes increasingly violent: as she attacks another tower, destroys more and more of the Big Eye’s soldiers, and finally embarks on a cataclysmic rampage of despair and grief and fucking rage.
A couple of weeks ago, someone drove a car into crowds of tourists on Westminster Bridge, and went on to stab a policeman in front of the Houses of Parliament. An unusually lucid caller on Lembit Opik’s Radio Kent Sunday talkshow pointed out that the West’s narrative of defiance in the face of such acts – while in many ways an important and necessary narrative – falls somewhat short of recognising that we are, in fact, part of the problem. The West’s war for oil in Iraq – the hand of colonialist capitalism taking, and taking again – helped to create the conditions for Da’esh to thrive. And home-grown terrorists are almost always the dispossessed and disenfranchised of our society: usually ex-prisoners or petty criminals, usually recent converts who turn to hate and terror when we as a society have failed them.
I don’t think we are supposed to approve of Phoenix’s actions, any more than we approve of the actions of real-life terrorists like the Westminster Bridge killer. (And he was a murderer, and what he did was inexcusable.) I think we are supposed to recognise, though, that rage and hate does not spring from nothing; that the West is at least in part responsible for what Phoenix becomes. Individuals are shaped by systems; this is something we’re only just starting to wake up to properly as a society.
In some ways, whether or not I actually liked The Book of Phoenix seems kind of irrelevant. Phoenix certainly wouldn’t give a damn. It’s an important book for SF, certainly. It walks lines that are difficult to tread. That’s what matters, I think.