Film Review: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

In 2018, two years into the presidency of Donald Trump, a time of deepening division and despair among liberal Westerners, American speculative fiction author Catherynne M. Valente released a novel called Space Opera in which a washed-up glam rock superstar named Decibel Jones competes in an intergalactic version of Eurovision in order to save humanity from annihilation. The novel was arguably Valente’s biggest success to date, earning her a Hugo nomination, a film deal and much wider recognition in the fandom than she’d previously achieved.

2018 was also the year when American comedian and actor Will Ferrell began work on Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, a straight-to-Netflix feature film starring Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as an Icelandic musical duo who, through a combination of unlikely circumstance and outright political shenanigans, find themselves representing their country at, well, Eurovision. This, too, was something of a surprise success when it finally came out in 2020, in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic: thanks largely to a campaign by author Seanan McGuire, it was actually nominated for a Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, on the strength of a couple of minor speculative elements and, one suspects, its thematic links with Space Opera.

Despite some pretty hokey romance-movie assumptions – like the default heterosexuality that sees someone like Will Ferrell’s Lars ending up with the apparently much younger Sigrit (his bandmate, played by McAdams), without any real explanation as to why they like each other In That Way – the film is actually genuinely quite delightful. Ferrell and McAdams convey a kind of bumbling homespun charm that makes it more or less impossible not to root for their characters: Sigrit’s half-sincere belief in elves is a nice touch, as is the possible-but-never-confirmed existence of those elves – it’s a little oddball/magical-realist in a way I’ve not seen before in a commercial film, lending a sort of gentle earnestness to The Story of Fire Saga that grounds its camper, glitzier moments, like the vertiginous scene where a posse of former Eurovision contestants join Lars and Sigrit in performing a mash-up of pop hits at a decadent private party.

The film’s ending is also nicely done: like Valente’s novel, it avoids the cliched narrative trap of suggesting that passion alone is enough to win Eurovision, instead opting for a quieter resolution that emphasises the communal value of music, its power to bring people together in joy. It’s a choice that gets to the heart of why I think these stories are popular: in times when so much is uncertain, it’s a pleasure to plunge into these glamorous, over-the-top, larger-than-life worlds; to glory in the unashamedly, unironically heartfelt joy of just singing together, celebrating and listening to music together. The Story of Fire Saga is ridiculous, of course. But that’s why it’s good.

Film Review: Prime

This review contains spoilers.

Partway through the 2005 American romcom Prime, Jewish therapist Lisa (played by Meryl Streep) discovers that the 23-year-old man her 37-year-old non-Jewish client Rafi (Uma Thurman) has been dating for several weeks is her son.

This would, I’m sure, come as something as a shock to many parents, and Lisa deals with it sensibly enough by consulting with her own therapist. Who advises her that, conveniently for the plot, the situation only represents a conflict of interest if the relationship goes beyond a brief fling.

To which the only possible response is: ????

This, coincidentally, is also the response I had to most of the rest of the film, which follows Rafi and 23-year-old David through a turbulent and overwrought relationship whose sole foundation would appear to be sex that neither party much enjoys. The script relies entirely on stereotypes to do its characterisation work for it: Rafi is the high-powered career woman with the nice apartment, David is the feckless unemployed artist who lies around playing video games all day. Also we can tell that David’s family is Jewish because they have large animated family dinners on a Friday night. Also the only non-white characters in this film who are not also Jewish are 1) Lisa’s therapist, a wise Magical Negro type played by Indian-American actor Madhur Jaffrey, and 2) the Black doorman at Rafi’s apartment building whose entire thing is that he never smiles or breaks his professional facade. (Unless it is, in another ???? moment, to let David into the building against Rafi’s will, because he is secretly shipping them!)

I have a lot of feelings about this film.

Anyway, one of the chief effects of this reliance on stereotype is that the script never once makes the case for why David and Rafi are together. Like what is all this “is she too old for me/is he too young for me/can we overcome our cultural-religious differences” angst FOR? when these characters spend the entirety of their romantic lives arguing and/or Having Second Thoughts about each other?

I mean, I actually know the answer to this, and the answer is “default heteronormativity”. There is a hot woman and a hot man, of course they will fall in luurve and want to be together, HAVE YOU NO ROMANCE IN YOUR SOUL??? But most romcoms at least make an effort to show their romantic leads, like, enjoying each other’s company.

Which is handy, because “most romcoms” is what you should watch instead of Prime. Unless your goal is to bond/have a good time with your future parents-in-law by making jokes at the film’s expense (which, actually, this turns out to be surprisingly good for!), pick, I’d say, almost anything else.

Review: Sunfall

This review contains spoilers.

Science broadcaster and nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalili’s debut SF novel Sunfall comprehensively puts paid to the notion that “everyone has a novel in them”. A disaster story set in a near future when the Earth’s weakening magnetic field puts everyone on the planet at risk from the radiation emitted in solar flares, it’s little more than a collection of reheated cliches stuck together with technobabble. Scientifically accurate technobabble, sure. But technobabble nevertheless.

Al-Khalili’s chief protagonists are British scientists Sarah and Mark, who are working on a solution to the magnetic field problem, and young Iranian hacker Shireen, who’s committed to bringing the world the truth about the scale of the catastrophe the Earth faces, having discovered evidence of a cover-up. Various governments want to keep the scale of the crisis from the public consciousness in order (inevitably) to prevent panic, and there are fundamentalist millenarian groups in the mix too who want to prevent the scientists saving the Earth in the belief that the crisis represents a Rapture of sorts. The tensions, in other words, are all very familiar: there’s little going on plot-wise that you wouldn’t expect to spot in a reasonably well-constructed disaster movie.

What is quite effective – although again hardly novel – is the way Al-Khalili interleaves his more science-y Saving the World chapters with vignettes about ordinary (and not-so-ordinary) people who are caught up in weather disasters caused by the weakening of the magnetic field. It’s a time-honoured technique that I’ve seen used to best effect in Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls: we get to know these characters a little bit, find out a bit about their hopes and dreams and lives, before, BAM, something terrible happens to them. We think they’re going to be major players in the story, and their abrupt exit from it brings home the tragedy of their deaths. But while in The Shining Girls this strategy underlines Beukes’ anger about the ongoing scourge of gendered violence, its use in Sunfall feels less purposeful. I read the novel at the end of August last year, when Hurricane Ida was sweeping through the Americas and it felt like the whole world was literally burning; the sections about impossible storms causing huge disasters in inhabited areas resonated hard. But the comparison with human-caused climate change does no favours for Sunfall. It feels quaint and naïve to be worrying about a potential future magnetic field collapse, however plausible the science may be, when the threat of a real global warming apocalypse is so imminent.

The core of the novel is a paean to science, to the value of scientific endeavour and collaboration, as opposed to the self-involved machinations of politicians and governments and the paranoid populism of fundamentalist religious groups. (There’s a faint anti-religious sentiment running throughout the text – nothing as overt as the sort of thing Richard Dawkins might come out with, but certainly making future!Iran a wholly secular society is a choice that feels quite bound up with particular ideas of what a modern society looks like.) Which – sure! I’m very on board with this. The work of science – of any academic discipline – is a wonderful thing that gets fictionalised all too rarely. It’s work that can and will change the world. But the novel lacks confidence in – how interesting that work is, I guess. Rarely do we see anyone actually doing science: if Sarah and Mark aren’t infodumping technical detail, they’re rescuing kidnapped loved ones or staving off terrorist attacks or marvelling at the high and exalted circles they’ve found themselves in.

So there’s nothing compelling, really, in the meat of the book to dilute those climate change anxieties that aren’t really climate change anxieties. And divorcing those anxieties from their proper context in the way that Al-Khalili does, removing any sense of human complicity in the deaths of his characters, gives the novel an escapist quality that I’m not fully on board with. It’s easy for Al-Khalili’s scientists to solve their climate problem. Their solution might not be logistically straightforward, and it does have the significant drawback that the Earth might explode if something goes wrong, but once it’s done it’s done. A single monumental task, and the Earth is saved. And there is no collective burden of guilt to carry for all those deaths, because they were literally no-one’s fault. There are enough people in the real world denying the reality of human-caused climate change that I’m not really interested in a text that denies or dilutes that reality, even fictionally. And no single scientific breakthrough is going to save us, either. It comes, once again, down to work: saving our Earth will take decades of sustained, incremental effort. There will be no single, heroic moment of revelation and triumph.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Sunfall would never have been published were it not for Al-Khalili’s established platform. It has nothing particularly new or particularly interesting to say, and its reliance on familiar cliches and plot structures, coupled with its infodumpy dialogue, robs it of any momentum or sense of pace it might otherwise have had. There are lots of good climate-anxiety novels out there (Valente’s The Past is Red, anyone?), and several good ones on the work of science: like, go and read some Kim Stanley Robinson! Not this.

Notes on Jonathan Franzen’s Purity

*sighs deeply*

I was not expecting to enjoy Purity, given Franzen’s general reputation, and my expectations were fulfilled. It is, like a depressing number of so-called Great American Novels by Important (male) Writers, populated by men who cannot look at women without coveting and/or being disgusted by them, and who we are nevertheless supposed to sympathise with. (In this case at least one of them is a raging sex predator.) It’s also casually ableist and subscribes to a view of the world that is fundamentally gender-essentialist: I personally find it hard to engage with novels that are primarily interested in “the battle of the sexes” because inevitably they treat perceived differences between men and women (there are never any non-binary people in these novels, or if there are they are treated as aberrations and novelties) as innate and unsurmountable, which…is very not my experience in my relationships with men, and very not how I think of gender either.

This was not, in other words, my cup of tea. No proper review as per my “I have no fucks to give” policy.

Review: The Dollmaker

This review contains spoilers.

Nina Allan’s unsettling 2019 novel The Dollmaker is one of those books that confounds readerly expectations at nearly every turn. It’s the story of two doll collectors, Andrew and Bramber, who strike up a correspondence when Andrew answers a classified of Bramber’s asking for information about the fictional 20th century dollmaker Ewa Chaplin. After some months of this correspondence – of which we’re given Bramber’s letters, but never Andrew’s – Andrew finds himself infatuated, and sets off on a journey into the rural south of England to visit Bramber, who, as we know from clues in her letters that Andrew doesn’t seem to have picked up on, lives in a group home for people with mental illnesses. Interleaved with Bramber’s letters and Andrew’s first-person narration of his journey are a number of dark little fairytales purportedly by Ewa Chaplin that feature uncanny echoes of events in Andrew’s life. The figure of a dwarf, in particular – Andrew is just four feet nine inches high – crops up again and again, usually in the context of a forbidden love for a queen.

It’s hard to know what to make of these echoes, and Allan seems keen to uphold this uncertainty rather than resolve it: Chaplin’s stories are neither comfortingly hived-off from the main narrative, in which case we could read them as metaphorical only, nor literally connected to it on the level of plot. Similarly, Allan deflates our readerly expectations of Andrew’s story: his journey to meet Bramber against her will feels like it will end in disappointment and possibly murder (as Abigail Nussbaum points out), but instead there is a sense almost of anti-climax, a refusal to resolve the story either way. The future remains open for this pair: maybe something will come of this unlikely meeting of minds, but then again maybe it will not.

I think there is meant to be something redemptive and perhaps humanising about this uncertainty: both Andrew and Bramber are damaged, Andrew by an abusive relationship in his young adulthood and a lifetime of bullying and discrimination based on his stature, and Bramber by what she sees as her childhood betrayal of her mother. Their tentative rapprochement at the end perhaps signals an entry for both of them into a more moderate mode of life, one marked by the small compromises and uncertainties that we see in real, healthy relationships, especially at their beginnings, rather than the grand Gothic dramas of Ewa Chaplin’s stories or the hideousness that characterised both of their childhoods. An entry, in other words, into the world of what we might consider literary realism, out of the world of high romance or crime drama or horror story, all the genres that the novel as a whole flirts with.

Which is certainly an interesting thing to do: a process of de-fictionalisation, almost, of making these characters no longer characters who need to be in a story, and making that a triumph for both of them. But as a reader I personally found it unsatisfying: I wanted the text to cohere, to suggest possible meanings a little more forcefully, rather than leaving absolutely everything open and unresolved. That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to read more of Allan’s work: The Dollmaker may have failed for me on the whole, but it was at least an interesting failure.

Review: Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen

TW: body horror/gore.

In late October 1726, a remarkable piece of news reached London: a peasant woman named Mary Toft from the market town of Godalming claimed to have given birth to a rabbit. The event proved a sensation, drawing the attention of two of King George I’s physicians and enthralling the entire country until it was eventually revealed as a hoax. In Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen, Dexter Palmer spins this strange historical interlude into a fable about the power of popular delusion and the willingness of the human psyche to be deceived that feels peculiarly relevant to our current post-truth fake-news society.

The novel follows provincial surgeon John Howard, the first doctor to attend Mary Toft, as he attempts to make sense of what is happening to her and do the best he can for his patient in the midst of an increasingly sensationalised eighteenth-century media circus. The case takes him and his young apprentice Zachary to London, where they encounter the vanities and cruelties of the idle rich, their performative jostling for social status.

One of the key things Palmer is interested in here, then, is just how an entire posse of medical experts fell for such an obvious hoax. (Toft and her husband pull it off by the alarmingly simple method of sticking rabbit parts up her vagina.) And one of his answers (although not by any means the only one) is plain old misogyny. The voice of Mary Toft herself is notably – and deliberately – missing from the text, apart from a few pages near the end: we never learn why she does what she does and what she thinks about the frenzied attention she garners from some of the most important people in the country. Is she a willing participant in the plot, or the victim of an opportunistic husband looking to make his fortune? We don’t know.

In a lesser author’s hands this might look like a simple oversight. But the presence of John’s straight-talking wife Alice makes it clear that it’s not. Alice tells John right at the start that Mary is clearly faking it, and how, but John rejects the Occam’s Razor explanation and has to return to her at the end of the novel, cap in hand, admitting that she was right all along. We hear as little from Alice, almost, as we do from Mary (although what we do hear from her is wonderful) and the implication is clear: the men of this story simply do not trust women to be the experts on their own bodies. (This is an accusation that can be levelled at the medical profession even to this day.) We don’t get access to Mary’s thoughts on the whole drama because the physicians treating her aren’t interested in them, or really in the thoughts of any woman (as we see in John’s response to Alice’s scorn – although it has to be said that in most other respects John and Alice are a refreshingly healthy couple by the standards of historical fiction). Mary’s doctors don’t see her as a person; she’s a curiosity, a freak, a riddle to be solved. And so, for the most part, she is a cipher at the heart of the narrative; a mystery to the reader, too.

But it’s not just the doctors who are taken in by Mary’s actions. Once installed in a bagnio in London, she gains an almost cult-like following of ordinary people who keep vigil outside her window, awaiting…revelation? A break with the mundanity of everyday life? Or simply keeping the faith? There are other popular delusions depicted in the novel too: one of the first things John and Zachary do is attend a freak show at which John expounds to his apprentice on the topic of fraud and deception, amidst the voyeuristic fascination of their neighbours. Several characters discuss Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders, published anonymously in 1722, speculating on whether it’s a true autobiography (it wasn’t, obviously), whether it was written by a man or a woman. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, it proves popular among the sidelined female characters while men denigrate it as morally corrupt.) Underlying all of this is a profound epistemological uncertainty about the nature of truth. Does an absolute truth, knowable to an objective omniscient observer (such as God) exist? Or is what we call the truth contingent, malleable, dependent on the biases and fallacies of men (a word I use advisedly given the gender politics at work in the novel)?

These questions feel apposite for the time period Mary Toft is set in: in the throes of the Enlightenment, with reason and evidence coming to replace holy writ as the basis of human knowledge, the foundations of felt reality fundamentally shifting. But they also ring uneasy bells today, too, in an era when political aims override scientific reality; when governments can proclaim a pandemic over, and lo, it is done, everyone goes back to work and play regardless of the actual risks reflected in the statistics.

Perhaps this is another reason why Mary Toft remains silent in the novel that bears her name; why we are kept from understanding the reasons behind what she does: perhaps there is precisely no reason, just a profound irrationality at the centre of the text. The silence at the heart of Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen is the gnawing void at the heart of Western democracy; the place where, through processes that have nothing to do with reason or logic, political deception becomes truth, rippling out to ensnare every Westerner in its grasp.

Review: Pretending

TW: sexual assault, gendered violence.

This review contains spoilers.

A year ago last Thursday, a 33-year-old woman named Sarah Everard was murdered in south London by a serving member of the Metropolitan Police who used his position to lure her into his car and rape her. In part because she was young, white, middle-class and photogenic, her murder inspired an upswelling of rage and sympathy and sparked a national conversation about the ubiquity of gendered violence in the UK: there was – and remains – a feeling that any woman or femme-presenting person could have shared Everard’s fate.

Published in 2020 – a year before Everard’s death – Holly Bourne’s Pretending taps into that same rage and fear, the emotional legacy of being female or perceived as female under patriarchy. Bourne’s protagonist, April, works for a rape crisis helpline and is herself struggling with the trauma of having been sexually assaulted multiple times in a previous relationship – a trauma that in her mind renders her unattractive and undesirable to cis men in general. After yet another failed date with a man who just straight-up does not want to deal with the after-effects of her trauma, April devises for herself a perfect alter-ego, “Gretel”, a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl who’ll be everything she thinks cis men want – needy only when they want her to need them; adventurous and independent, but not too independent; undamaged, untraumatised, her history a cipher. As Gretel, she starts dating a nice man called Joshua, with predictable consequences: she finds herself wanting to pursue a serious relationship with him, but knows he’ll likely leave her if she reveals the extent of her deception.

Bourne is obviously working with some weighty themes here, and has some important points to make. In particular, the low-grade awfulness with which almost all of Pretending‘s male characters are afflicted speaks to the pervasiveness of patriarchy’s harms and the gender roles it enforces: many cis straight men are genuinely terrible because society enables them in their terribleness.

But that weightiness sits uneasily beside some of the other choices Bourne – and to some extent her marketing team – have made. There is a lot about this novel that is signalling “light-hearted romcom”, from the pale pink hardcover with its cutesily feminised handwriting to its near-total obsession with specifically romantic relationships: April’s self-avowed “hatred” for men is framed as a problem primarily because it makes dating fraught and unsatisfactory. We rarely see male characters in roles other than “potential or actual romantic partner”, with the not-so-honourable exception of April’s gay best friend coworker, who exists solely for emotional support purposes. And while there are scenes featuring female friendships where romance is not a topic of conversation (on the recommendation of her therapist, April joins a boxing club for rape survivors), they feel somewhat tangential to the main narrative, and somewhat undermined anyway by the fact that April does end up with Joshua, a choice that has a distinctly #notallmen vibe to it.

The central problem with all of this is that the novel seems fundamentally torn about whether April’s creation of Gretel is an ill-advised but quirky rom-com meet-cute type situation, or a symptom of a serious, trauma-induced mental breakdown. If it’s the latter, then April is not in a condition to be dating anyone and her heterosexual happy ending is both psychologically unlikely and something of a betrayal of the novel’s message about the oppressiveness of the patriarchy and its centring of women’s experiences of it. But the former doesn’t work either: the novel wants us to read April as a psychologically realistic character whose attempt at catfishing is motivated by genuine trauma; to take her hatred and fear of men, in other words, seriously. It’s like – an essential critique of Western heterosexual culture has been shoved into a narrative structure (the romance) that has served in part to create and perpetuate Western heterosexual culture, and is fatally undermined thereby. Bourne wants to have her cake and eat it: to point out glaring problems caused by gender roles in het romance and have her heroine settle into an uncomplicatedly happy het romance.

This lack of narrative discipline is matched by a lack of grammatical discipline at the sentence level. Frankly, the novel could have done with a thorough copyedit. What is a sentence like this doing in the ninth book from a high-profile author with all the might of Hodder & Stoughton behind her?

“Don’t fall into that trap of being the untogether one whom people care about deeply, but whom they also use to feel more in control of their own lives.”

Those “whoms” are horrible; they feel grammatically wrong even if they technically aren’t. “Untogether” is a clumsy kludge of a word. The whole sentence is – well, it conveys meaning adequately, but it’s inelegant in the extreme. I’m not trying to argue that every page of every novel must be a perfectly engineered work of art, but I genuinely think this is some of the worst prose I’ve ever read in a published book. The Shopaholic novels are better-written than this.

Pretending, then, is a failure. It fails to argue for, or represent, any real, radical change in the patriarchal order, reaching instead for consolatory structures that suggest only a little light tinkering is required around the edges of Western society. It’s a failure of ambition, to imagine more and better things for everyone affected by patriarchy. It’s a failure of craft. We who are angry all deserve more.

Notes on “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Just some brief thoughts on Watermill on the Road’s touring production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel of the same name, which I saw in the garden of Stanton Harcourt village hall in Oxfordshire last August.

It was basically fine and I will always be here for gender-bent Sherlock Holmes, but it was nowhere near as witty as it thought it was and the denouement was poorly handled.

A cast of three, including two women, took on all the roles, hence Miss Holmes and Miss Watson. Funnily enough (in a way that’s not really funny at all), while this particular piece of gender-bending was not really played for laughs, the middle-class, middle-aged denizens of rural Oxfordshire who made up the majority of the audience found it simply hilarious when the cast’s single man played a woman and put on a silly voice: proof that we’ve not come anywhere near as far as we think we have when it comes to queer rights.

I can’t remember the specifics of the ending, but I do remember that none of us (“us” being me, the Bandersnatch and the Bandersnatch’s parents) thought that it made complete sense: crucial information seemed to have been cut for pacing. (Possibly it wasn’t clear where the dog had come from?) The Bandersnatch’s parents had seen the production at the Watermill itself, and said it had been altered, and not for the better, for the tour.

It had very little to say about the source text apart from obvious jokes – jokes that aimed for the slapstick end of the spectrum rather than anything else – and all in all felt like a very safe production of a well-known property; something guaranteed to get well-off white people back into theatres and do nothing else. Which is, I guess, fine. But I wouldn’t go and see it again.

Review: Defekt

This review contains spoilers.

DefektBack in 2017, a user called “Mortos” posted a piece to the website of the SCP Foundation, a collaborative storytelling project centred on the activities of a shadowy organisation dedicated to investigating and containing entities of otherworldly origin. “SCP-3008”, as the piece is called, tells of a theoretically infinite alt-universe version of Ikea populated by faceless staff members who become unaccountably murderous at night and endless Billy bookshelves. The story’s among the top-rated pages on the site, and has inspired fan art, memes and even a video game. Its appeal lies chiefly in the way it captures the uncanniness of the Ikea experience: the way its showrooms simulate apparently homelike environments that are nevertheless set within deliberately labyrinthine floorplans designed to bamboozle rather than soothe.

Nino Cipri’s novella Defekt, published four years later than “SCP-300”, attempts a similar effect. When protagonist Derek, an employee of the fast-furniture store LitenVärld, requests his first sick day ever owing to a sore throat, he finds himself reassigned to a special inventory shift alongside what he quickly discovers are four fellow clones – all of them manufactured by LitenVärld to be perfect employees. The inventory team are tasked with finding and killing defekta – items of stock that have become animate and possibly semi-sentient thanks to LitenVärld’s habit of using the resources of other universes to cut costs both financial and environmental.

Cipri deals swiftly with the question of whether it’s ethical to kill living beings because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time (their answer: no), and moves on to a slightly more trenchant examination of capitalism’s encroachment on individual subjectivity. Derek’s encounter with the inventory team, all of whom have been declared “discordant” for various reasons related to their non-conformity with what Dereks are “supposed” to be, allows him to conceptualise a version of himself that is not linked to LitenVärld’s idea of a perfect employee. In doing so he discovers that he is himself a defekta – his particular mutation gives him the ability to communicate telepathically with the other defekta – and the team use this power to overthrow their megalomaniac manager Dirk and stage a sit-in aiming to emancipate defekta in all LitenVärld stores.

The metaphors are transparent but nonetheless pleasing in their application. The novella, however, lacks the teeth of the SCP story despite its greater political charge and narrative ambition because it fails properly to lean into the essential uncanniness that “Mortos” identified. Partly this is a question of length: whereas “SCP-3008” is trying only to establish an atmosphere and explicate a straightforward concept in its 4,000 words, Defekt is attempting a full-blown plot with multiple thematic concerns in its 150-odd pages. The setting doesn’t have the room it needs to breathe. But it’s also partly that Cipri seems reluctant to delve into the psychological implications of their premise. What has been done to Derek and the other members of the inventory team is genuinely horrific; it’s uncanny in the technical sense, it attacks the very notion of subjectivity and the individual self. And yet Derek accepts it with seemingly little more than a shrug.

This points to a wider problem with characterisation in the novella: it’s not very good; or, rather, not very specific. Derek’s personality is generic literally by design, sure, he’s been built to be a sort of everyperson, non-threatening and neutral, but that very blankness makes him less than compelling as a protagonist. His whole story arc is about self-discovery and self-actualisation, but even after his initiation into the inventory team his self hardly seems to exist: the novella focuses on his journey to accepting the mutation that allows him to communicate telepathically, but a physical mutation is hardly a stand-in for personality. Similarly, his fellow members of the inventory team are either broad stereotypes or entirely unmemorable: the flamboyantly non-conformist enby, the sulky teenager, the megalomaniac manager, the other one.

If Cipri is unwilling to dig into the complexities of their characters’ psyches, they also seem unwilling to reckon with the near-omnipotence of the capitalist forces they’re ultimately writing about. Put simply, Derek and the inventory team win out too easily. With the help of thousands of defekta, sure; but this is a multinational corporation that’s deliberately exploiting the resources of infinite other universes! It’s hard to believe they don’t have some kind of plan for a similar eventuality. Hard to believe, also, that they would concede to all of the inventory team’s demands: although the novella doesn’t explicitly tell us that they do, it does gesture strongly towards a happy ending of some kind (rather than, say, a contingent and unstable victory of the kind that so often constitute real-life progress).

This might all sound like quibbling. Hopepunk is a thing, after all; hope and joy can be forms of resistance. But to me Defekt isn’t a story about hope in the face of all-encompassing capitalism, because it fails to reckon fully with the reasons why capitalism is all-encompassing: the insidious power it has over all aspects of our lives. I see this as a fundamental flaw in a text that purports to critique capitalism; and, by extension, I see the failure to give the protagonist a compelling subjectivity a fundamental flaw in a text that’s interrogating the compromised nature of the self under capitalism.

As I write this today, there are two days of tube strikes planned this week in London. Ten thousand Underground workers will down tools to protest changes to their pensions; ten times that number of Londoners will be affected, with potentially no Underground trains running on any lines. And that’s just to preserve the status quo – to stop working conditions getting any worse. Four people and some sentient furniture forcing a retail giant to create a collectivist utopia in one night? It’s laughable by comparison.

Review: Interior Chinatown

Interior ChinatownCharles Yu has form playing with genre. His first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, figures memory as time travel, squeezing a distinctly literary narrative about paternity and the construction of the self into the science fictional container of a time-loop story. It was possibly the first novel I read that made me realise, consciously, what SF could do as a genre.

Interior Chinatown pulls off a similar trick. Told in screenplay format (Yu has written for the show Westworld, among others), its protagonist is Willis Wu, bit-part actor in the cop drama Black and White. Willis, described in the script as Generic Asian Man, aspires to the impossible dream of becoming Kung Fu Guy,

maybe not a real, regular star, let’s not get crazy, we’re talking about Chinatown here, but perhaps a Very Special Guest Star, which for your people is the ceiling

This on page 26: the novel sets out its stall right from the beginning. Refracted through the lens of satire and of the detective show format, this is a story about the racism Asian people face in the US and the ways in which that racism limits what they can achieve and be.

Formally, the novel is a dazzling thing, layers of metatextuality and metaphor reinforcing each other to drive the point home. The screenplay format, which might look like a bit of a gimmick, is actually doing a fair amount of work: it allows Yu to talk about the roles people play or are assigned in a general sense; it summons up the idea of Hollywood and the TV industry as arbiters of how Americans – and Westerners in general – read the world; it illustrates how the stereotypes we see in the media control how people are treated in reality. Yu’s constructed universe has layers of reality to it: the world of Black and White is both fictional and “real” (real, that is, in the terms of the text), just as the world of How to Live Safely is both “real-to-the-text” and explicitly metaphorical. The screenplay format allows Yu to delineate the relationship between the fictional and the real.

It’s a genuinely clever conceit, one that makes Yu’s point – an important and necessary one – essentially on its own. That’s the book’s triumph and, for me, also its downfall. With the novel’s position laid out in its first fifty pages, there’s nowhere really for it to go. One of the great pleasures of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is its narrative shape, the time loop giving it a cohesiveness, a sense of completion. Interior Chinatown has no such shape: things happen in Willis’ life, but they don’t – to my mind – advance or elaborate on the thematic arc. The novel’s brilliant form eclipses its narrative movement entirely.

This second novel of Yu’s would have made a fantastic short story. Even a novella! At novel length it’s merely interesting. Willis’ genericness, which of course is part of Yu’s point, nevertheless left me too little to grab onto to power the whole book. I wanted more character specificity, a tighter plot, a stronger story engine to chew on.