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.

Review: Exit West

Seven months ago, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Western news organisations were flooded with thinkpieces about how shocking it was that white middle-class Europeans could suddenly find their lives turned around by war. The subtext – and sometimes the text – of much of this commentary went something like: we’re used to hearing about brown people in non-Western clothing endure displacement and violence, walk through the bombed-out shells of their homes, spend nights sheltering in lightless basements. But only now that it’s happening to (mainly) white Westerners on our continent can we perform the imaginative work necessary to care about it.

Published in 2017, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West demonstrates the paucity of this response to war and displacement – to the trauma suffered by Ukrainians but also Palestinians, Afghans, Syrians and countless others forced from their countries – by insisting on the humanity of all refugees, wherever they come from. Our protagonists are Saeed and Nadia, inhabitants of an unspecified but probably Middle Eastern city; they meet at a business class and start dating in the early days of a war whose full effects have not yet been felt. A few months later, the supermarkets are empty, their office jobs are gone and they’re boarding up the windows of their apartments to protect themselves from flying glass. With nothing left for them at home, they make the agonising decision to leave.

But this is a world not quite like our own. Doors have begun appearing across the globe: seemingly ordinary doors that open on places thousands of miles away. Saeed and Nadia pay a great deal of money to someone who knows about one such door, and pass through it to find themselves in Mykonos, Greece, an island filling up with refugees to a continent that doesn’t want them. Eventually, they’re able to slip through another door, into a billionaire’s mansion in Kensington that becomes a migrants’ commune of sorts; and then, finally, on again, to a Californian hillside where people from all over the world are working to build a community for everyone.

The device of the doors is a potent one. It allows Hamid to skip over the kind of arduous journey we hear so much about in refugee narratives in the West – the perilous sea-crossing in an overloaded dinghy, the long trek over land borders – so that he can focus on the more invisible and long-lasting effects of displacement: the loss of one’s family and cultural context, the need to adjust to a new way of living and a new society, the xenophobia many refugees face in the countries they’ve fled to. Saeed and Nadia’s story is not an extraordinary one. They have simply passed through a door. The very mundanity of that action gestures at how readily chaos can overtake a life; at how easy it would be for us to find ourselves in their position.

But the doors also allow Hamid to ask a more wide-ranging and speculative question: what would the world look like if borders were unenforceable? What would happen? What would change? His answer is near-utopian. In Britain, a deadly police raid on migrant-occupied Kensington is called off at the last minute (as an aside, I love Hamid’s class consciousness here, the way that the very heart of hereditary and oligarchical wealth in Britain comes under occupation by the dispossessed); the authorities and locals, realising that it is now all but impossible to stop people migrating to the island, instead put them to work building a city where they will one day be given a house. It’s clear that Saeed and Nadia take pride in this work and the promise of a new life at the end of it; though there is a whiff of the authoritarian about the programme, the general tone of this part of the novel is hopeful and forward-looking.

The next section, the California section, builds on this optimism: here, Saeed and Nadia are welcome right from the start, and while it’s not exactly true happiness they find there – their long journey from their home has driven them too far apart for that – there is at least the chance of fulfilment, of growing into new identities to suit their changed cultural conditions. There’s a chance, in other words, of building a new world.

All of this is rendered in lyrical, fabulist prose which further serves to universalise the protagonists’ experience:

“When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our beingness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope.”

This is a novel, in other words, that fiercely argues the equality of all humans and the wrongheadedness of believing that some of us are more worthy of sympathy and solace than others. It plunges its characters into the very direst of circumstances and yet retains hope for them and for us all. Elegant, timely and compassionate, it’s exactly the kind of fiction we need more of.

Review: Sorcerer’s Legacy

CW: infertility, child death.

This review contains spoilers.

In one of those slightly uncanny moments when life seems to rhyme with art, I’m writing this on the day of the Queen’s funeral, an event whose public pomp and spectacle clashed in odd and revealing ways with the private grief of the Mountbatten-Windsor family. Sorcerer’s Legacy, the first novel by fantasy veteran Janny Wurts, addresses similar tensions: it’s a book whose characters are hemmed in by the very monarchical institutions that give them power.

Our protagonist is Elienne, the pregnant wife of a king who’s deposed at the beginning of the novel. She’s unexpectedly rescued from sexual slavery by the titular sorcerer, Ielond. Ielond belongs to the court of another kingdom whose prince, Darion, has been cursed with infertility. This is a problem for Darion, since the laws of his kingdom demand that he must conceive a child by his 25th birthday or be executed (he also cannot become king until he’s proved that he’s fertile). Ielond, seeking to prevent Darion’s devious regent taking the throne, proposes to Elienne that she pass off the child she’s carrying as Darion’s; not having many other options, she accepts, and Ielond dies in order to perform the magic that will make it possible to bring her to Darion’s court. Shenanigans ensue, as Darion’s regent attempts to thwart him and Elienne tries to navigate an unfamiliar court. There’s a prophecy at play, too: one of the court’s seers tells Elienne that she will “die truthful”. And Ielond’s impossibly detailed scheming lies behind everything, as the events he set in motion before his death play themselves out.

Both Darion and Elienne are constrained, then, by the patriarchal laws of heredity that underlie the monarchical system; Darion’s very life is secondary to the monarchy’s ability to sustain itself, and Elienne’s position in the court is dependent on her ability to conceive. The inevitability of the prophecy and of the working-out of Ielond’s plans represents a further constraint on Darion and Elienne’s lives that’s tied specifically to their roles in the monarchy: Elienne hears the prophecy specifically in her capacity as queen-to-be, and Ielond’s plots are aimed at making sure the kingdom has a decent ruler. In other words, the very public roles that Darion and Elienne are thrust into – through birth and through extremity of need – restrict their agency and fields of action significantly; the irony is, of course, that they are nominally some of the most privileged people in the kingdom.

But this isn’t really a full-throated critique of the monarchy; it is, instead, a novel about how Darion and Elienne can begin to construct a private life for themselves while performing their public roles. (This tension is heightened, of course, by the fact that Elienne’s lie about the parentage of her child could get her killed: she’s forced to be on her guard, playing her role, almost all the time.) The novel eventually becomes a romance; Elienne’s child is killed by the regent, and Darion’s fertility magically restored so that he is eligible to become king in his own right, and not as the result of a lie. Thus the status quo is protected and the integrity of the monarchical line preserved.

Consolatory fantasy like this can have its pleasures, but even taking it as such I found Sorcerer’s Legacy unsatisfying. Restricted almost entirely to the milieu of a faux-medieval court, its sphere of action feels airless and contextless: what are conditions like for the ordinary people of this kingdom? What is its economy like, its landscapes? Not a clue. For all its concern for the effects of monarchical power on the people that hold it, it shows remarkably little interest in how the machinations of the court relate to those who are ruled by it. The stakes, in other words, feel laughably low for a story that is ostensibly about who gets to hold sovereign power.

But perhaps monarchical power has always operated without regard to the needs of the people who are ruled: certainly many of the businesses that closed in the UK today did so without considering those for whom the absence of a day’s pay would affect their ability to pay their rent on time. In any case, I didn’t ultimately think Sorcerer’s Legacy was very interesting, and I probably won’t be reading any more of Wurts’ work.

Review: Red Pill

Three years ago, I wrote of Hari Kunzru’s 2017 novel White Tears that “it relies more on affect than plot to generate meaning.” His subsequent novel, Red Pill, a text that sends its liberal protagonist spiralling into existential despair in response to the rise of fascism in the US, fits that bill even more closely, as its disorienting effects spill over beyond the page to destabilise the worldview of the presumed liberal reader.

Our unnamed narrator is a writer from New York who, struggling to find the mental space to begin his next project (a book on the construction of the self in lyric poetry), accepts a fellowship from the Deuter Center, an artists’ colony of a sort in Wannsee, that notorious suburb of Berlin. When he arrives at the Center, anticipating several months of productive solitude, he’s horrified to discover (having apparently not read the Center’s literature thoroughly) that he’ll be required to work in an open-plan office, have his IT activity surveilled by Center staff, and attend communal meals with other residents, including an insufferable neuropsychologist who insists that the self does not exist except as an epiphenomenon generated by deterministic neurochemical interactions in the body. As he plunges deeper into an emotional crisis whose seeds were sown long before his arrival at the Center, he retreats to his room, becoming fascinated by the super-violent cop drama Blue Lives and its nihilistic creator Anton. It’s an obsession that takes him across Europe: to Paris, to the extreme north of Scotland; and, finally, back to New York, on election night, the night of 9th November 2016.

The key dynamic in the novel, then, is instability: the gradual erosion of the narrator’s – and, by extension, our – ideas about the self, the importance of human rights, the very primacy of the human, in the face of ideologies like Edgar’s, which reduces human experience to biology, and like Anton’s, which posit power as the only reality. In the face of the recognition Anton gains for his blood-soaked and often racist dramas, the narrator’s profound writer’s block is significant: although he’s instinctively repelled by these ideas, he feels completely unequipped to counter them in any meaningful way, and they thus come to seem inescapable.

As a writer and liberal myself, watching country after country (Sweden, Chile, the UK) drift further and further to the right: yes. Kunzru’s nailed that sense of things slipping out of control, and of feeling powerless to do anything about it. And because his narrator is unnamed, because his precise politics remain unarticulated, because he has achieved very little career-wise and lives a largely unremarkable middle-class life, the reader is able to generalise the existential instability he’s feeling into their own life; in other words, the non-specificity of the narrator is one of the ways in which the text breaches the “fourth wall”, as it were, engendering in the reader the same sensations of dislocation and disorientation as the narrator experiences.

Another way it does this is, similarly to White Tears, by sustaining uncertainty about basic facts of the narrative. In the novel’s first half, the narrator becomes convinced on the basis of partial evidence that the Deuter Center is filming residents covertly, in their rooms, as well as conducting more overt forms of surveillance. The question of whether there is actually a hidden camera in the narrator’s room is never resolved. Would an apparently respectable and above-board research establishment really engage in such activities? Surely not, right? But then the narrator has seen footage of a naked Edgar walking across his room, clearly oblivious to the fact he’s being filmed. So…? This uncertainty disturbs our ideas of what we can expect from a narrative, just as Anton’s open avowal of his own racism disturbs the narrator’s ideas of what opinions are socially acceptable to express. Is this really happening? Is this person really saying what he’s saying? Surely not? And yet.

This sensation of dislocation seems at first glance to be highly specific to this particular historical moment, a response to unique sociopolitical conditions that include the popularisation of incoherent conspiracy theories like QAnon, the cottage-industrialisation of disinformation on social media platforms, and the deprecation of religion as a social force and moral arbiter. But a long section in the centre of the novel set in Cold War-era East Germany demonstrates that such dislocation has been experienced in other times and other places. Narrated by Monika, a cleaner at the Deuter Center, this section tells the story of her life as a young person in the underground music scene in the Communist country, as she’s forced by the Stasi into informing on her friends and acquaintances. The paranoia that this situation engenders in her is described in terms that make it feel very similar to our narrator’s sense that the basic facts of his life are shifting around him:

“all sorts of personal things went missing or were moved around in the apartment. Someone took 100 marks from the pocket of Elli’s [her housemate’s] leather jacket. Katja’s [another housemate’s] photos were left out on her bed…Who would leave a used sanitary towel by her bed? Or tear pages out of Elli’s books?”

Who would go to the logistical trouble of moving stuff around Monika’s shared apartment just to mess with her and her housemates? And yet…The section ends with another dislocation: after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Monika learns that everything that she assumed about her life in East Germany was incorrect.

The salient point about Monika’s narrative, I think, is that the destabilisation she experiences is caused directly by the machinations of an authoritarian regime; what does it say about our narrator’s present that he is experiencing those same effects? Kunzru suggests that it’s nothing good. The Deuter Center’s location near the venue of the Wannsee Conference, at which the Nazis set out their final solution, gestures at the nightmare towards which people like Anton may be steering us.

Red Pill, then, masterfully evokes the despair and dislocation, the profound sense of irrationality, that the left has been experiencing over the last six years; the feeling that we are no longer capable of understanding the world we live in or responding to it coherently. What it’s missing is any suggestion of how we move forward from here. That’s part of the point, of course; the protagonist’s powerlessness, his profound isolation, is a feature, not a bug. But his very inability to respond gestures at the shape of what our response should be. In the face of the certainty of the far right we too must be certain. We must articulate our politics, declare our truth in everything we create; we must organise, hold each other up, make the world make sense again. Only by coming together can we save ourselves.

Review: The Stars, Like Dust

Around halfway through Isaac Asimov’s second novel, The Stars, Like Dust, his red-blooded male hero Biron Farrill finds himself confined to the close quarters of a spaceship with a high-ranking woman named Artemisia. When the ship stops to take on supplies at a planet, Biron requests that the locals provide clothes in appropriate styles for Artemisia, only to be warned by a local politician that:

“she won’t like that. She wouldn’t be satisfied with any clothes she didn’t pick. Not even if they were the identical items she would have picked if she had been given the chance. This isn’t a guess, now. I’ve had experience with the creatures.”


Asimov’s track record with women both real and fictional is not great, to say the least. He was a well-known serial harasser at conventions, and his treatment of his female characters reflects a harasser’s view of women: as frequently passive, irrational, sentimental romantic objects (“creatures”) with none of the agency that his male characters possess. (The notable exception is Susan Calvin, the hyper-competent robo-psychologist who stars in several of Asimov’s robot stories and novels.) In the absence of the high-concept plotting that characterises his more famous works – the Foundation and Robot series – this is a problem that becomes very noticeable in The Stars, Like Dust.

So: in the far, far future, protagonist Biron is attending the University of Earth when he’s subject to an assassination attempt which he quickly establishes is connected to his father’s involvement with a revolution against the Tyranni space empire. Whisked off-planet by a seeming ally, he embarks on a journey to a politically important planet named Rhodia, where he meets the aforementioned Artemisia and her uncle Gillbret, and learns of the supposed existence of a rebellion planet hidden somewhere in the Horsehead Nebula. Obviously the trio must go off in search of this planet; in the course of this quest Biron and Artemisia fall, predictably and unconvincingly, in love, every single secondary character is revealed to be operating under false pretences, and we discover that the powerful and mysterious weapon that Artemisia’s father has been hunting for throughout the novel – a weapon that, we are told, will radically alter the political landscape in the galaxy – turns out to be, wait for it, THE US CONSTITUTION.

The Stars, Like Dust is, in other words, a gaggle of egregious storytelling cliches wrapped up in Cold War mythologies of American exceptionalism and plucky resistance against tyrannical states, as well as anxieties about nuclear devastation (much of Asimov’s future Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by radiation) and espionage. It’s a weak effort from an author who has significant blind spots even in his best work – and its weakness makes those blind spots impossible to ignore.

Review: The Girl With All the Gifts

This review contains spoilers.

The post-apocalyptic world of M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts feels eerily similar, metaphorically speaking, to our own. Civilisation has been devastated by the emergence of a strain of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis – the parasitic fungus that causes ants to crawl to the tops of trees and spore suicidally – that is capable of taking over human brains and turning them into “hungries”, essentially zombies who, like all zombies, are driven by an insatiable longing for human flesh. The novel centres on Melanie, a child being held in a military facility for reasons that we intuit much earlier than she does (she and her compatriots are restrained at all times, their guards smell strongly of chemicals, every so often a child disappears and does not return). She and the other children at the facility attend lessons about the world as it was – the fact that this world no longer exists is another thing the reader intuits early on – and Melanie, ferociously smart, sensitive, empathetic, quickly comes to love the teacher who seems least afraid of her, Miss Justineau (who is, incidentally, a Black woman).

Much of the early part of the book is powered by the gap between Melanie’s hopes for her future and what we know about her origins and the purpose of her presence in the facility. The scientists there are studying hungry children like Melanie who have retained their intelligence and capacity for reasoning in the hope that they’ll find a cure for the infection; they have no interest in the wellbeing of the children beyond that, and indeed often dissect them to learn more. Halfway through the novel, however, the military facility is attacked by hungries and junkers (uninfected humans who have rejected what remains of civilisation), and a small band of survivors, including Melanie and Miss Justineau, set out on a dangerous journey across southern England to find Beacon, the last human city in Britain.

This is an emptied-out world, then; a world devastated by mindless, irrational consumption, by a bottomless hunger that renders its sufferers hollowed-out husks of themselves. (Some of the novel’s most poignant scenes involve hungries who appear to retain memories of their former lives, performing repetitive actions – singing old songs, pushing an empty pram down the street – that are evacuated of their original meanings; the postmodern condition, anyone?) Seen in that light, the questions the novel asks about monstrousness – is Melanie, with her intelligence, her classical education, her capacity for deep feeling and self-sacrifice, the real monster here? What about Caldwell, the scientist who thinks nothing of vivisecting sentient children in order to save humanity? – and about how we go on in such a world, how we cope as human beings, come to feel uncomfortably pertinent. With what remains of our society as we see it in the novel – the military base, the increasingly authoritarian city of Beacon – becoming less and less hospitable to the things that make life meaningful, love, joy, connection, in favour of simple survival, the novel’s ending suggests that the only way forward is radical change, the wholesale destruction of the old world and a new start for humanity.

I don’t know that it is wholly a successful novel; or, rather, it is very successful at what it intends to do, which is telling a smart, original zombie tale (not a small achievement in such an overly saturated market) that asks some pressing questions about who we are and what kind of society we want to live in, without overly challenging the conventions of its genre and marketing category. In other words, it’s a conventional SF thriller, and it’s not aiming to go beyond that. Its secondary characters – namely Caldwell and the two soldiers, Private Gallagher and Sergeant Parks, who accompany the little band of survivors on their journey to Beacon – are, as A.S. Moser points out, rather two-dimensional and familiar; the relationship that develops between Miss Justineau and Sergeant Parks is, similarly, exactly the sort of relationship that always develops between male and female leads in this kind of story; the various set pieces that the party stumble into in the latter half of the novel, the house in which they’re surrounded by hordes of hungries, the scene where one person wanders off alone and Bad Things Happen, the descriptions of desolate London and wilderness-claimed Home County farmland – all this feels reheated and predictable.

These aren’t criticisms, really: Carey isn’t aiming for stunning originality, but instead for that lurching twist in perspective that thrillers are good at doing, deranging the audience’s view of events and keeping them just off- balance enough to continue reading. But it does mean that the novel is more thoroughly of its genre than I prefer; I’m not a huge fan of zombie tales in the first place, and so the more derivative elements of this text were inherently less interesting to me (I imagine another reader might enjoy them in much the same way as I enjoy the stereotypical trappings of steampunk). The Girl With All the Gifts does what it’s trying to do well; but its world is not one I feel compelled to return to.

Review: Who Fears Death

CW: rape, FGM.

Nnedi Okorafor’s 2010 novel Who Fears Death is one of those texts that casts a weighty shadow on the genre. Published around the time that work by people of colour and LGBT+ people – and particularly work that actually centred the experience of characters with these identities rather than seeking to educate white straight people about them – was moving into the SF mainstream (Racefail, a conversation about people of colour in SFF, had happened just a year before), it’s often cited as a significant work of specifically African SFF: Tade Thompson here calls it a “milestone” and Okorafor “The most significant writer in African SFF”. John Ottinger III here describes the novel as “perception altering”; Yvonne Zipp called it “wondrously magical and terribly realistic”. Reading it 12 years later, then, it’s interesting how formulaic it ultimately feels.

Set in a far-future Sudan whose inhabitants have for the most part rejected modern technology as sinful and dangerous, it follows the teenage Onyesonwu, the daughter of a woman of Okeke ethnicity who was raped by a man of another ethnic group, the Nuru, in an attempt at systematic genocide. Onye, as she’s nicknamed, overcomes the mistrust and fear of her community, not to mention institutionalised misogyny, to become an immensely powerful sorcerer in order to prevent the wholesale destruction of the Okeke, who she regards as her people thanks to her mother, by the Nuru in a campaign orchestrated by her father.

Clearly, there’s a lot going on here, and before I dive into my criticisms of the novel I want to mention something about it that I do think has stood the test of time: namely, that this is a story about systematic oppression featuring African folks that is not about white people. There’s one character who we might read as white, but whiteness as a construct, as a structural force, is absent. That still feels unusual in today’s literary landscape, although it’s becoming less so with the advent of novels like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf.

For the most part, though, Who Fears Death simply reheats the Hero’s Journey: Onye passes a test to gain access to a reluctant teacher and develops incredible powers, but leaves her training early in order to confront her evil father, who is plotting genocide…I’m finding it very hard not to think of Star Wars, here. That, in itself, is not necessarily a problem. Are we not constantly being told that there are only approximately seven basic plots? But in a novel so lauded, I would have expected to see some sort of subversion of this classic structure, and it’s just not there.

Well; perhaps that’s not quite true. One of the things everyone mentions about Who Fears Death is its violence: there is rape, there is murder, there is FGM. There’s also a lot of explicit sex. I wonder if what Okorafor is attempting here isn’t a bit similar to what Marlon James is doing in Black Leopard, Red Wolf: exposing the violence inherent in traditional Western fantasy, making it explicit rather than cloaking it behind faux-medieval notions of honour and nobility. There’s also, I think, an attempt at greater honesty around teenage attitudes to sex than is typical in fantasy, and particularly the YA fantasy that Okorafor is most clearly responding to.

This explicitness doesn’t work as well as it does in James’ work primarily because we’re not actually supposed to like any of James’ characters, and because James’ commitment to the bleakness of his vision is unwavering; whereas, although Onye frequently behaves in unlikable ways, I think we are ultimately supposed to root for her and identify with her. Supposed to being the operative phrase: to me, she felt simply inconsistent, by turns manipulative, loyal, self-centred and altruistic; Okorafor seems bent on telling us that she’s admirable while showing us a reality that’s quite different. Onye is supposed, I think, to be morally ambiguous; but her characterisation ends up simply being confused. It doesn’t help that explicit depictions of sex and violence aimed at undermining the colonialist and misogynistic bases of Western SFF have become steadily more commonplace in the genre since Who Fears Death was published: Okorafor’s work here simply feels less innovative, less startling, than presumably it once did.

I think my greatest problem with the novel, though, is its affect. Magic as a literary device is, at its core, a way of talking about the numinous: the irrational or invisible forces (luck, faith, the psyche, nature, fear, love, despair, hatred) that shape our lives in often ineffable ways. Its narrative charge and resonance, generally speaking, comes from its obscurity: the most effective portrayals of magic, in my opinion, preserve some element of mystery, of inexplicability. Okorafor’s descriptions of magic and spiritual experience, though, are flat, matter-of-fact, thuddingly literal:

“Then I noticed it. Red and oval-shaped with a white oval in the center, like the giant eye of a jinni. It sizzled and hissed, the white part expanding, moving closer. It horrified me to my very core. Must get out of here! I thought. Now! It sees me! But I didn’t know how to move. Move with what? I had no body. The red was bitter venom. The white was like the sun’s worst heat. I started screaming and crying again. Then I was opening my eyes to a cup of water.”

And Onye is massively overpowered: she’s apparently capable of doing pretty much anything she sets her mind to, magically speaking, which further dilutes the significance of her abilities. Her magic, ultimately, comes to feel inconsequential and incoherent; it exerts little force in the narrative.

I think, then, that this is partly a case of a once-innovative novel ageing badly: it’s clearly attempting to coopt, and thus comment on, the structures and assumptions of contemporary fantasy, and its non-Western setting and cultural milieu are important aspects of that attempt. But there are enough newer texts doing the same work better – works with more resonant force, with greater clarity of character and theme – that this one feels out of date.