Notes on The Mere Wife

Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife is an energetic, muscular update of the Beowulf story, one which articulates the original poem’s guiding tension between Beowulf and monster, civilisation and wilderness, as an issue of class. Thus our protagonist is not Beowulf but Grendel’s mother, here named Dana, the abandoned veteran of a bloody modern war in a desert country that has left her traumatised and pregnant. Her son, Gren, is raised in the wild countryside overlooking Herot Hall, a gated community built on land Dana’s family once owned whose inhabitants strictly police each other’s compliance with 21st century middle-class American social norms. Dana naturally admonishes Gren to stay away from Herot; Gren, equally naturally, sparks up a secret friendship with one of Herot’s scions, Dylan, the son of the development’s architect, and thus a particular focus of Dana’s ire. The results are tragic, bloody and messy: misunderstandings breed violence, which begets more violence, as the people of Herot viciously seek to defend a way of life which the novel explicitly shows us to be parasitic, capitalistic and evacuated of meaning.

I don’t often enjoy fiction that’s as committed to unrelieved bleakness as The Mere Wife is – Dana, and thus by extension Gren, spends her life in the thrall of a mental illness she acquired in service to a military that later repudiated her – but here it works to evoke the brutality of the world in which Beowulf takes place, a world in which constant war, constant violence, is necessary to maintain one’s position and protect one’s people. By transplanting Beowulf into 21st century America, in other words, Headley reveals the violence both actual and metaphorical at work in modern life, and particularly in the maintenance of contemporary class structures. It’s a savage, messy, angry novel, one to save for periods of mental fortitude; but worth a read, for anyone interested in the original poem.

Film Review: Zootopia

This review contains spoilers.

How do you talk to children about racism? It’s a question that appears to have been on the minds of the creators of the 2016 animated Disney film Zootopia, and their answer to it is, perhaps not surprisingly, faintly unsatisfactory.

The film follows Judy Hopps, a rabbit from a town way out in the sticks who moves to the eponymous big city to become Zootopia’s first bunny police officer. Despite scoring top marks at police academy, she’s assigned to traffic warden duty owing to her colleagues’ discriminatory misconceptions about the kinds of work rabbits are capable of doing. But when she overhears a distraught lady otter begging her superior for help finding her missing husband, Judy sees an opportunity to prove her quality. The chief of police presents her with an ultimatum: solve the case in 48 hours, or resign.

First, the good things. The city of Zootopia is beautifully rendered: the intricate detail of its street scenes is charming in the same way a doll’s house is charming, the things of real life depicted in aestheticised miniature. An early montage depicts an urban environment that has been consciously designed to accommodate animals of all sizes and shapes, allowing everyone to participate fully in its life: a utopia of accessible design. I like, too, how these beatific first scenes are undercut by the depiction of the racism at work in the city – not only in the police force’s failure to recognise Judy’s abilities, but also in the way deuteragonist Nick is denied service in an ice-cream shop because he is a fox, and therefore obviously a criminal. (The fact that Nick is actually a con artist – on the principle that he might as well do all the crimes people assume he does anyway – is a nice touch, an acknowledgement of the trap racist stereotypes set for oppressed people.) Utopia is, in most cases, untrustworthy: what darknesses is that aestheticised surface hiding?

It’s when the main plot gets going that things start to fall apart a bit. In the course of her investigations, Judy discovers that predators who have previously lived quiet and civilised lives in the city have been “going savage” and attacking prey animals. Eventually, it comes out that the city’s assistant mayor, an apparently harmless white sheep named Dawn Bellwether, has developed a psychotropic drug that causes predators to act in this way in order to provoke fear and anger among the prey population and turn them against the predators. After a dramatic showdown in the city’s natural history museum, Judy and Nick lure Bellwether into a confession, have her arrested, and cure the drugged predators, and thus the film’s version of white supremacy is more or less solved.

It’s not that this is an entirely mendacious view of how racism works, and there are some nice, thoughtful touches. Making the villain an apparently harmless white sheep, and the racist characters prey animals who are typically associated with gentleness and companionship, plays on the respectability politics that’s often at work in racist discourse. It’s just that the film falls down in its understanding of racism as a structural force whose effects go beyond the efforts of a few bad actors. In Zootopia, racism is something that can be combatted by a few plucky individuals – Judy and Nick, mostly – working outside social institutions (in this case, the police force). And, although Judy clearly faces discrimination from within the police force, the film also fails to reckon fully with the looming spectre of racist police violence.

Additionally, there’s a glaring problem with the film’s central metaphor: the prey animals’ fear of the predators is not irrational, as racism is, because predators are actually dangerous to prey. (One question that Zootopia doesn’t seem to want us to ask is: what do all these anthropomorphised obligate carnivores eat?) The film is at pains to establish a parallel between the damaging rhetoric that Bellwether promulgates about “predatory biology” and the essentialist stereotypes that real-world white supremacists repeat and disseminate, but these things aren’t actually analogous, because predatory biology is real. So the film ends up inadvertently reinforcing essentialist stereotypes that cast the racialised Other as intrinsically violent/threatening, rather than rebutting them as it intends to do.

This is a trap that a fair amount of speculative fiction that attempts to tackle themes of institutional oppression falls into, particularly in the field of paranormal romance: all those novels about vampire liberation tend conveniently to ignore the fact that vampires do actually pose a physical threat to human populations. So it’s not especially surprising that an animated Disney film directed by two white guys fell for it too. Zootopia has its heart in the right place, and some of the points it has to make are, for a mainstream would-be blockbuster, genuinely insightful. But as a film about real-world racism it fails, finally, to hang together.

Review: Free Food for Millionaires

There’s something gleefully indulgent about Min Jin Lee’s debut novel Free Food for Millionaires, a bildungsroman of sorts focusing on a young Korean-American woman named Casey as she attempts to navigate landscapes of ambition, greed and cultural alienation in 1990s New York. The book’s Goodreads reviewers describe it as, variously, a “reverse-engineered telenovela”; “lit fic with a soapy edge”; a “soap opera of a novel”: like the 19th-century social novels it’s seeking to emulate, it sprawls across plotlines, interrogating American consumerism, institutional misogyny and the pressure exerted by both Korean and American cultures to succeed financially and, more importantly, to be seen to exceed financially.

Wealth and luxury – the outrageousness of the millionaire’s lifestyle – are of course perenially fascinating topics, and Lee handles them with insight and pathos: Casey’s ever-mounting credit card debt as she tries to keep up with the impossible standards set by her well-to-do peers at business school, and later at the prestigious professional firm where she manages to land a job, is a tangible source of tension within the narrative, illustrating the dangers of Casey’s desire for luxury goods and thus counterpointing the aspirational consumerist desire that portrayals of wealth can evoke in their audiences.

It’s true that nothing the novel does is particularly revolutionary: that’s part, I think, of what folks are getting at when they liken it to a soap opera, and familiarity is an effect that the book itself generates in its references to 19th-century literature. It’s also a reflection of its subject matter: despite the fact that it does create some tension around Casey’s unsustainable spending habits, it’s also a story set in a world in which wealth works to sustain itself; it makes sense that a narrative about capital, which seeks always to maintain the neoliberal status quo, would possess a conservative, consolatory form. That, perhaps, is part of Lee’s point: that wealth exists as a structuring force in our society regardless of how we each individually relate to it (by, for example, aspiring to it or eschewing it). But its familiarity is also a limiting factor: it never goes beyond the strictures of 19th-century realism to imagine how we as a society might change our relationship to material wealth, restricting its discussion to how Casey as an individual navigates the various pressures that capital imposes upon her. Within the constraints it’s imposed upon itself, it is, nevertheless, an engaging and well-crafted read; having read Lee’s wonderful second novel, Pachinko, back in 2018, I’ll be interested to see what she does next.

Doctor Who Review: Flux

Over the last half-decade or so of Doctor Who-watching I’ve been slowly and reluctantly coming to the conclusion that the kinds of stories the show wants to tell are not the kinds of stories I’m necessarily interested in watching. (A case in point: I am apparently the only person in the world to have genuinely adored spin-off series Class, which was cancelled after one season.) Ever since Steven Moffat took up the reins as showrunner in 2010, the show’s tone has shifted from the monster-of-the-week, metaphor-driven storytelling of the Russell T. Davies era to something much more frenetic and self-referential: to me it often felt like each episode was stuffed with enough ideas to power a series, with none of them getting the breathing space they deserved. Some of Chris Chibnall’s early episodes for Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker seemed to indicate that a reversal of that trend might be on the cards: with their focus on characterisation, sparing use of speculative concepts and unity of place, “The Tsuranga Condundrum” and “Demons of the Punjab” were some of my favourite Doctor Who stories of recent years. But Chibnall’s second series returned, unfortunately, to form: its opening story Spyfall was packed with competing ideas and poorly paced, and later episodes turned increasingly inward to focus on Whovian lore – at the expense of atmosphere and coherent narrative.

So, when the BBC announced that, for the first time since 1986, we’d be getting an entire Doctor Who series dedicated to a single story, I was optimistic. Perhaps now all those ideas would be given space to breathe, to generate atmosphere and resonance; perhaps, with the survival of the universe at stake, we’d get some real poetic grandeur going.

Alas, no.

The series’ premise is appropriately dramatic: a sort of cosmic storm called the Flux is sweeping across the universe, destroying everything in its path. Meanwhile, a pair of powerful beings named Swarm and Azure are attacking the Temple of Atropos on the planet Time, presumably not for philanthropic reasons; a Victorian industrialist frantically digs a network of tunnels beneath Liverpool, muttering dire prophecies; and a pair of lovers travel the universe in an attempt to find each other.

There’s some brilliant material here. Add the Doctor and her companions, wind the story’s mechanism up, and let it run: that’s all Chibnall and the writing team needed to do. But they seemingly can’t resist the urge to add extra bells and whistles in: more navel-gazing about the Doctor’s parentage and history; a Sontaran invasion; some timey-wimey shenanigans courtesy of the Weeping Angels. Once again, it’s all too overstuffed; and inevitably, with so much going on, some of the payoffs are fluffed. What happens to Peggy, the child who lies at the centre of the plot of the fourth episode, Village of the Angels, and then is never seen again? Why do the Weeping Angels need to transform the Doctor into one of them to take her to her mother? What’s the deal with the Temple of Atropos?

There are high points, of course, in which it’s possible to detect what Chibnall’s Who might feel like if it was paced a little more sedately: Vinder and Bel, the star-crossed lovers; the make-up and costuming on Swarm and Azure; the appearance of Mary Seacole in the Crimea (one of a series of marginalised people from history who have made their way into the Thirteenth Doctor’s story). But overall, it’s hard to detect much thematic coherence beyond “many apocalyptic things are happening and it is Very Bad”.

Have I learned my lesson vis-a-vis placing my faith in the hands of Doctor Who writers? Of course not. Hope springs eternal, and Russell T. Davies is taking back the reins. Perhaps we’ll see monsters of the week again yet.

Review: A Desolation Called Peace

Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace picks up soon after the events of its predecessor, the critically acclaimed A Memory Called Empire. Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the small mining colony Lsel Station to the spacefaring empire, Teixcalaan, that is threatening to assimilate it, returns home from the empire’s capital only to find herself an object of suspicion in the eyes of the station authorities – both for her Teixcalaanli sympathies and for the fact that her imago-machine, a uniquely Lsel technology that carries the memories of the previous ambassador to Teixcalaan, is malfunctioning; in fact sabotaged. Meanwhile, Mahit’s former cultural liaison in Teixcalaan, Three Seagrass, dispatches herself to a sector of space that’s uncomfortably near Lsel Station where the Teixcalaanli imperial fleet, led by commander Nine Hibiscus, is facing down an incomprehensible alien threat; and the eleven-year-old imperial heir apparent Eight Antidote attempts to navigate the byzantine corridors of power and prevent nuclear warfare.

So, whereas A Memory Called Empire spent a lot of its time, narratively speaking, in Teixcalaan itself, A Desolation Called Peace is more interested in what lies outside of it. If the subject of Memory was the culturally seductive power of empire, the subject of Desolation is the working-out of imperial violence. As such, it leans much more heavily on the tropes of military SF – particularly that of the beleaguered captain (Nine Hibiscus) and their trusty second-in-command (here the detail-oriented Twenty Cicada) – than its predecessor. It also repeats the earlier novel’s interest in subtle political manoeuvring, the delicate art of manipulation, but the way it shifts the context of that manoeuvring from a dangerous but outwardly “civilised” imperial court to the explicitly violent military sphere blunts, to my mind, the force of Martine’s critique of empire. The civilisation/barbarism dialectic is key to Memory: it’s a novel that’s literally about the way in which the politeness and gentility cultivated at the heart of empire is a veneer disguising its brutality, and Mahit’s highly-charged conversations with imperial representatives – outwardly proper yet also always encoding the threat of violence – are how she navigates that duality. But in Desolation, that coded threat is made explicit, no longer cloaked in the conventions of politesse and diplomacy: here, we see the military force that maintains and perpetuates imperial hegemony. In this context,the political dance many of the characters engage in – particularly Nine Hibiscus, as she attempts to get her troops on board with her approach to warfare with the aliens, which is rather more cautious than her subordinate officers would like – loses its thematic force. This no longer feels quite like a story about the cultural seductions of empire. In fact, because narrative convention encourages us to sympathise with Nine Hibiscus as a point-of-view character (and with Eight Antidote, who is also a point-of-view character and a child), it can feel uncomfortably like an apologia for Teixcalaan.

That effect is only amplified by the fact that A Desolation Called Peace is, on a narrative level, extremely well-crafted. Its settings – Teixcalaan, the Teixcalaanli fleet and Lsel Station – are vividly and plausibly imagined; they’re places that feel like they go on existing even when they’re not being depicted on the page. The mutual incomprehensibility of Mahit and the Teixcalaanli characters to each other and to the aliens rings very true to the minor communication hitches and difficulties that we experience every day as humans, and is dramatically satisfying as well. The prose, although it adopts an idiom that is recognisably, unchallengingly modern American, nevertheless has an elegance that rhymes with Martine’s depiction of Teixcalaanli culture as obsessed with rhetoric and literary reference. It seems odd to criticise a novel for being too well-made; but I think Martine’s technical successes make her portrayal of Teixcalaan and those who maintain its power over-favourable. In writing about empire’s seductions, Martine seems indeed to have fallen prey to them.

Review: The Echo Wife

This review contains spoilers.

What if human beings could create life – reliably, wholesale, from scratch, none of this messy and uncontrollable futzing about with genitals and wombs and meiosis? It’s a question we’ve been asking since at least 1818, when Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, that archetypal mad-scientist narrative in which a pieced-together human is brought to life through the seemingly promising new technology of galvanism. Published more than 200 years later, Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife treads similar grounds, asking us, like Shelley, to consider the nature of monstrosity and of scientific and social power. It’s a smart and urgent read which nevertheless fails to achieve the timelessness of its literary forebear.

Our protagonist is Evelyn, a genetic scientist at the height of her career who has developed a method for creating full human clones and conditioning their personalities (and their bodies) to create exact doubles of the people from whom they were cloned. Despite her professional success – as the novel opens she is in fact collecting an award for her work – her personal life is in ruins: her husband Nathan has left her for another woman. It takes a few chapters for us to discover that this other woman, Martine, is in fact Evelyn’s clone, her personality tweaked and altered to suit Nathan’s desires. Of course, the trope of the artificial woman made for the male gaze is not a new one (indeed, it has an antecedent in Frankenstein itself: that novel’s lonely creature asks his creator for a mate made in the same way as himself); but having Evelyn and Martine actually meet breathes new life into it, as Evelyn is forced to confront in the differences between herself and Martine all the ways in which Nathan clearly found her deficient.

This is not, however, a tale of female solidarity. The two women do become uneasy co-conspirators: Martine has murdered Nathan, and in order to stop her work becoming discredited (Nathan having secretly created Martine from Evelyn’s notes, and even worse given her the ability to become pregnant, which is supposed to be impossible), Evelyn helps her cover the murder up through yet more cloning. But even as Evelyn introduces Martine to freedoms she’s never known – reading about the workings of her own body, making small choices about how to spend her time, nurturing the beginnings of an intellectual life – Evelyn continues to think of her as a test subject, something that will, in the nearish future, become no more than biomedical waste when it use is finished. She is, in this respect, no better than Nathan, as the novel demonstrates.

But Nathan isn’t the only man whose violence overshadows the narrative. In fits and starts we discover that Evelyn’s father abused both her and her mother for years, until he too was murdered by his seemingly pliable wife. Evelyn’s father is thus an obvious double of Nathan’s, of course – but his legacy of abuse is continued too in Evelyn’s own objectification of those around her, and especially of Martine. This is underscored by the novel’s ending, which sees Evelyn manipulating Martine into moving into her old family home – where her father lies buried under the rose bushes – there to remain a virtual prisoner, in exchange for Martine being able to keep her baby daughter Violet with her. As the novel closes, Evelyn, Martine and Violet occupy the same positions as Evelyn’s parents and Evelyn herself once did, the cycle of misogynistic abuse repeating itself in a way that Evelyn is too damaged to recognise. Thus Evelyn becomes, like Victor Frankenstein, the very thing she fears and hates.

It’s decidedly chilling, which is exactly its intended effect. And its limited sphere of action – as Kevin Guilfoile points out here, “there are basically only four characters in this novel, two of whom are genetically identical” – lends it an intense claustrophobia that evokes the way in which abuse and misogyny restrict the agency of their victims. By the same token, though, I think it’s this very narrowness of focus that makes the novel less than wholly memorable. Shelley’s Frankenstein encompasses multitudes in its tale of rivalry, revenge and wrongdoing: it asks searching questions about the ethics of experimentation, about social ostracism, about attitudes to the body, about the reliability of our own perceptions; its capaciousness and ability to sustain multiple different readings have given it an unshakable position in the Western literary canon. The Echo Wife, on the other hand, is really only about one thing: the cyclical nature of gendered abuse. On that topic, it is evocative, insightful, propulsive; it’s a strongly-constructed, appropriately dark thriller. But – as with many thrillers – its work is done in a single read. Once its point is made, there is very little else to say. In other words (and honestly I think this is what many of my reviews here boil down to): The Echo Wife is a good book. But not a great book.

Review: The Player of Games

The second of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, The Player of Games dramatizes the clash between a post-scarcity, spacefaring anarchist utopia and an imperial power bent on domination and subjugation. Its protagonist, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, is a renowned game-player in the Culture, the aforementioned anarchist utopia; since all labour in the Culture is performed by advanced AIs, he’s had literally a lifetime to develop strategic prowess in every game known to his society. (Think an elite board gamer, perhaps, or an e-sports celebrity.) Bored by his expertise, which leaves him feeling unchallenged and unfulfilled, he risks his reputation and standing in the gaming community to cheat in order to win a game that has never been won by anyone in the Culture – and is offered the chance to redeem himself by travelling to the space empire of Azad in order to play them, literally, at their own game. The game of Azad – which shares its name with the empire itself – is said to be so complex as to approximate the complexity of life in the empire; it’s used to determine who will occupy positions within its government, and, in theory, the winner of Azad gets to become, or stay, emperor.

The story unfolds as you might expect from this starting premise: delivered to Azad, Gurgeh is aghast at the vast wealth inequality and structural oppression he finds there, and also proves, inevitably, an adept even at this unknown game, beating out the empire’s strongest players. What complicates the novel is the ambiguity – slight, but nonetheless present – about the relative moral value of Azad and the Culture. Azad is undoubtedly a shitty place, but the novel is clear that in many ways it’s extremely similar to our own: the parallel is made explicit when the novel’s AI narrator declares that its translation of the pronouns used by members of Azad’s dominant third gender is based on “whether [the reader’s] own civilisation is male or female dominated.” Their pronouns are thus represented as he/him/his, in a rhetorical move that’s undoubtedly designed to point up the parallels between the gender-based oppression cultivated in the Azadian empire and the gender-based oppression at work in our own society. We can, the novel intimates, look down upon the Azadians as unreconstructed and unenlightened; but then we have to realise that we are those things too.

But the Culture is not uncomplicatedly angelic itself, despite the total equality of its citizens and its functionally infinite resources. It becomes clear, for instance, that Special Circumstances, the organisation in the Culture’s government that has sent Gurgeh to Azad in the first place, most likely engineered the cheating incident, and have also, maybe, been manipulating what Gurgeh sees in the empire in order to have it appear to him in the worst possible light. A broader question, which the narrative only really touches on, is whether the Culture’s attempts to reform Azad from within, through having Gurgeh play its foundational game, are justified: are they simply an extension of the “benign” forms of liberal colonialism practised by Western governments today? What, in other words, are the obligations of a post-scarcity society to its neighbours?

For me these questions are the core pleasure of the novel: as a reader interested in non-capitalist ways of organising society, I’m fascinated by the Culture , and especially by its imperfections. Much Western liberal media takes as its foundational assumption the idea that capitalism is bad (which, to be clear, it absolutely is!) and that, by extension, almost any other socioeconomic system must be straightforwardly good; it’s rare and refreshing to read an SF novel that’s truly interested in interrogating our alternatives and working through the ethical and practical problems they present. I’m excited to dive further into the Culture series (having stalled out with the first, bleak novel Consider Phlebas), and hope, too, to see more work like it.

Review: Peaces

Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel Peaces begins when lovers Otto and Xavier Shin embark on a not-quite-honeymoon (they’ve decided against marriage but have agreed to share a surname) on board the Lucky Day, a steam train owned by Xavier’s eccentric millionaire aunt. Expecting a relaxing and luxurious holiday, they instead enter a zone where nothing is quite as it seems. Their fellow passenger, the reclusive Ava Kapoor, must prove her own sanity by the age of thirty or lose a vast inheritance. A man named Přem who is apparently invisible to Ava, and may or may not have figured in Otto’s past too, hovers obtrusively over the narrative. One of the train’s carriages plays host to an apparently little-visited bazaar. A preternaturally incisive mongoose finds love. At one point, I’m pretty sure, Otto finds himself fleeing from someone dressed in a diver’s suit.

The train journey turning strange is a familiar motif in speculative fiction. Think of the Gothic protagonist disembarking a forebodingly empty train at a forebodingly empty station (a trope recently updated in T.J. Klune’s rather unGothic The House in the Cerulean Sea); the divine steam trains that run across the city of Palimpsest in Catherynne M. Valente’s novel of that name; the mummy rampaging through a space-bound Orient Express in the prosaically-titled Doctor Who episode Mummy on the Orient Express (a text which also plays with selective invisibility, albeit with considerably less subtlety and attention to metaphoric resonance). Crucially, despite the modern or science-fictional settings of the texts in which they appear, these trains are distinctly old-fashioned, even opulent; even Klune’s, the most prosaic of the ones I’ve listed here, has manually-operated sliding carriage doors and a chatty attendant. No overcrowded, utilitarian Network Rail trains here.

This opulence, this nostalgia for the Age of Steam (which in fact its contemporaries experienced as noisy, dirty and dangerous) is, I think, inextricably bound up with the imaginative work these texts are doing. One steps aboard a vehicle that has appeared, as if by magic, out of a past that never existed, and is whisked away into a transitional realm where one’s needs are privileged to a greater extent than they are in the real world. So, Klune’s protagonist Linus finds love and found family, and gains importance through his self-assigned status as bureaucratic protector of that family; Valente’s train-obsessed Sei becomes inextricably bound to Palimpsest’s engines; the Doctor and Clara enter a facsimile of 30s privilege underpinned by the labour of servants and AI; and Oyeyemi’s lovers essentially spend the length of the novel in a world containing only four or five people, including them. The fantasy of the steam train is, then, essentially a fantasy of wealth; no-one, after all, dreams of travelling in the uncomfortable, roofless third-class carriages of the early Victorian era. It’s no coincidence that Xavier comes from a dynasty of millionaires.

This is why, I think, my response to Peaces boils down to: “pleasant read, not so memorable”. Otto, Xavier, Ava and Přem exist in an airless bubble of privilege and steampunk retro-nostalgia; in this context, their crises of identity and ontological speculation feel just a little…academic. To put it another way: the novel is a puzzle box of sorts, one that perhaps has no solution. Is Ava lying when she claims not to see Přem, and if so, why? When Otto ran into the burning house that haunts his memory, was the man he spotted in the flames real or a product of his imagination? These are the questions the narrative teases us with, and although they are intriguing ones – keeping the reader pleasingly off-kilter – there’s no sense that their answers are ultimately very important. The circumstances of the novel are too removed from the circumstances and concerns of everyday reality for the text to be truly destabilising of our expectations of narrative in the way that I think Oyeyemi is going for.

That’s a shame, because that work of destabilisation, making familiar stories and tropes mean different things to what they mean in their original contexts – tying those familiar stories to political currents in the real world – is something Oyeyemi is very good at, and it’s what continues to draw me to her work. Whimsical though it is, Peaces lacks the incisive playfulness of Mr Fox, the menacing ontological uncertainty of The Icarus Girl; lyrical though it is, it misses the fairytale resonance of Boy, Snow, Bird (acknowledging the transphobia of that novel). I enjoyed spending time with it; I liked its strangeness, its slipstream sensibilities, the intellectual challenge it poses the reader. But it feels, ultimately, inessential, and that’s not something I’m used to getting from an Oyeyemi novel.

Review: The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel The Ministry for the Future opens on an apocalyptic scene: a white European aid worker, Frank May, finds himself caught in a deadly climate-change-caused heatwave in India that kills twenty million people – including everyone in the town Frank is working in apart from Frank himself. Frank is both radicalised and traumatised by the experience, and spends his life coming to terms with it: firstly by kidnapping and threatening an Irish bureaucrat, Mary Murphy, the head of the titular UN ministry, whose mission is to reinforce the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and protect the interests of future generations of humanity; and latterly over the course of many years spent in the penitential system as a result partly of this kidnapping and partly of another act of ecoterrorism. The contingent, often strained and yet heartfelt relationship between Frank and Mary – a relationship that never goes beyond the platonic – provides the affective underpinning for what is otherwise a rather unwieldy, un-novelistic text that’s devoted more to technological and ideological summary than character-grounded narrative.

The novel is dedicated to charting the activities of the Ministry for the Future as its staff work to regenerate society from the ground up, creating a new “structure of feeling” – in Robinson’s phrasing – that prioritises nature, valorises sufficiency over greed and promotes a socialist approach to the sharing of resources. Many of the specific solutions Robinson suggests involve geoengineering on a massive scale – the government of India uses sulphur dioxide in the upper atmosphere to prevent future heatwaves; scientists in Antarctica embark on a bold plan to pump seawater back up onto glaciers in the hope of combating rising sea levels. There are also less convincing tech projects: the creation of an open-source social media platform that allows its users to retain control of their data; a blockchain-backed “carbon coin” currency that can be earned through projects that sequester carbon or that prevent carbon from being emitted in the first place. And there is ecoterrorism: one of the clandestine results of Frank’s kidnapping of Mary is the establishment of a “dark wing” of the Ministry which supports acts of small-scale political violence aimed at the tiny percentage of humans who are responsible for a disproportionate fraction of the planet’s total emissions.

Some of this is described in sections that focus narrowly on Mary and her colleagues, or on Frank’s musings about the climate crisis and what he can do to help, in traditional novelistic fashion. But there are also substantial chunks of the text that are narrated by side characters who we never meet again, or by abstract entities like the financial markets. There are chapters of undigested economic theory, history, psychology. There are pages and pages of text describing in abstract terms what is happening around the world culturally, politically, ecologically, technologically, as widespread commitment to taking action on the climate takes hold. This approach is familiar from Robinson’s recent work – New York 2140 features acerbic analyses from “A Citizen” placing the novel’s events into a global context; Aurora is narrated in part by an interstellar spacecraft – but where it adds to those texts a breathless jouissance, an energy that gestures at the vastness of the innumerable systems in which we as humans operate, it’s taken to such an extreme in The Ministry for the Future that the actual, character-driven narrative is lost. The weight of all this stuff is too much for what is ultimately a fairly thin plotline – government body aims to do something, government body (largely) achieves it – to bear.

It doesn’t help that, despite the formal fireworks, the voice of the text remains the same throughout. Indentured Namibian miners use the same vocabulary, focus on the same things, as an out-of-work actor in LA. Obviously part of Robinson’s project in including this dizzying kaleidoscope of perspectives is arguing the point that we need a collective approach to tackling the climate crisis, and that the solution to the problems we all face will affect everyone. But the text’s homogenous voice undermines this argument; further, it downplays the heterogeneity of humanity, the vast diversity of philosophies, politics, ways of thinking and ways of being that will need to be harnessed and harmonised to make a truly collective effort possible. For all the novel’s scale and ambition – and at 560 pages this is not a small book – it is yet not ambitious enough.

It is not a complete failure, mind. Robinson’s optimism remains striking in a culture that is increasingly turning to cynicism and despair in the face of the multiple crises we face. His prose, as always, is intelligent, dynamic, exciting; it speeds the reader along, caught up in the current of what one assumes is Robinson’s enthusiasm and passion for science, for the utopian potential of technology, for the work of building a better world. One might describe the novel as perhaps too optimistic, given its flattening of dissenting opinion in the international community (Robinson spends remarkably little time on the phenomenon of climate denialism; in general, the rationality of his world feels strikingly at odds with our own increasingly “post-truth” reality). But its belief that humanity has a future on this planet, and its conviction that said future is within our grasp, still feels radical. Here’s hoping for more work in the field that shares that radicalism.

Review: Head On

What happens when the accommodations that have been extended to disabled people as a result of a serious pandemic are slowly but surely rolled back as the political climate changes? It’s a question many are asking right now, as politicians and media outlets continue to insist that Covid is over despite increasing evidence to the contrary; as widespread mask-wearing becomes a distant memory and social distancing a pipe dream. But it’s also something John Scalzi addresses, one might say presciently, in his 2018 novel Head On.

Head On is the sequel to Lock In, which first introduced Scalzi’s near-future premise: a flu-like pandemic has torn through America, leaving 1% of its sufferers “locked in”, unable to move their physical bodies while remaining fully conscious. To meet the needs of this small but significant group of people – whose condition is dubbed “Haden’s syndrome” after one of its most famous sufferers – scientists develop the Agora, a virtual reality which Hadens use to socialise and build community. There are also “threeps”, robot bodies which Hadens can pilot remotely, allowing them to interact with the physical world and gain some measure of independence.

These last are instrumental to the plot of Head On, which focuses on the Haden sport Hilketa, a gleefully violent game in which elite teams compete to decapitate one of the players and score a goal with the thusly detached head. Hilketa is made possible, of course, by the fact that the players are physically represented on the pitch by robots; no actual injury is involved. But! When a Hilketa player dies for real in a major match, FBI agent and Haden Chris Shane is assigned to investigate what is quickly deemed to be a murder.

This is, then, a sports story, a crime procedural and an SF novel all rolled up into one; how much you enjoy it will, I think, depend heavily on your tolerance for the first two types of writing. In particular, the narrative hits some very familiar murder mystery beats: suspects who don’t tell the whole story, signs of a cover-up, the lead detective being placed in mortal peril, the case becoming ever more complex and convoluted until, finally, it’s resolved. It’s all narrated in the sort of generically sarcastic prose that is the province of the Extremely Online (Scalzi is one of the few big names still engaged in the noble project of keeping the blog format alive).

It is, in other words, a reasonably pleasant, competent read. Scalzi makes some well-taken points about structural ableism too: Hilketa is the subject of protests by able-bodied people claiming the sport is discriminatory because only Hadens have the mental reflexes required to enable them to pilot threeps to an elite level; legal protections for Hadens are being rolled back by the government, which, given that many of them rely on 24-hour healthcare to keep their physical bodies in good condition, is pushing lots of people into financial precariousness. Similarly, there’s a suggestion that Scalzi might be doing something interesting with gender: Chris remains ungendered throughout the narrative, which implies that the Hadens’ shifted relationships with their physical bodies, and their ability to choose how they present both in the Agora and in public, might affect how they think about gender.

But neither of these thematic elements is developed very far. The critique of ableism is substantially defanged by the fact that Chris’ parents are extremely wealthy, which in turn means that Chris is insulated from the changes to the laws that affect Hadens’ access to healthcare. And, apart from the fact that the narrative never uses a third-person pronoun for Chris (it’s narrated in the first person, which makes this less obvious than it sounds), the concept of gender in the text remains largely untroubled. Certainly no-one ever mentions it; there’s no exploration of how different types of physical and virtual embodiment might affect Hadens’ experience of gender. Conceivably that’s the point: perhaps gender simply doesn’t mean anything to Chris. But absent any other discussion of gender, the lack of third-person pronouns feels like a gimmick, a faux-profound authorial trick that’s not doing any meaningful work. (Partly that’s because it’s quite possible to write a story about a cis first-person narrator that doesn’t indicate what their gender is and that isn’t about gender at all; it doesn’t strike me as a particularly memorable or interesting thing to do.)

I don’t want to sound too critical. Head On is solidly constructed; its speculative premise is carefully worked out; its plot moves at a decent pace. It is, in other words, a professional effort. As always, though, I wish it had given me a bit more.