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: Mossflower

This review contains spoilers.

MossflowerThe Goodreads page for Brian Jacques’ Mossflower, the second novel in his Redwall series (in publication order, that is; chronologically it’s third) for middle grade readers, is full of delighted reviews from adults who’ve revisited a childhood favourite and discovered that it measures up. Of course there are not many 12-year-olds writing Goodreads reviews of any book (in fact it’s against their terms of service); but compare it to something like The Wind Singer, a similarly iconic children’s novel published around the same time, and it’s obvious that the nostalgia is particularly strong with this one.

So what’s going on? I think it’s partly to do with the way Jacques constructs an idyllic English landscape that’s completely free of humans, and thus of the ennui and moral complexity that characterises modernity. The titular Mossflower is a region of woodland inhabited by hardworking mice, hedgehogs, moles and squirrels who are being tyrannised by the wildcat Lord Verdauga and his paranoid daughter Tsarmina. Our story begins when a wandering mouse named Martin is captured by Tsarmina’s troops and imprisoned in the wildcats’ castle, Kotir; there, in the dungeons, Martin meets Gonff, a merry thief who convinces him to join the woodlanders’ resistance. Together with a mole named Dinny, Martin and Gonff head out on a quest to the seashore, many days’ journey away, to find a legendary badger warrior who can help the people of Mossflower defeat Tsarmina.

One of the most notorious things about the series is the way it assigns morality based on species, despite ostensibly extolling the virtues of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. With a couple of exceptions, all rats, foxes, stoats, weasels, ferrets and wildcats are villains, while (with no exceptions) all mice, moles, squirrels, otters, badgers, shrews and hares are good, law-abiding folk. It makes a kind of emotional sense: we do think of rats, foxes and weasels as vermin, while otters, mice and moles are popularly conceived of as fluffy and benevolent. It’s also a comfortingly straightforward way of seeing the world: being able to tell good from bad just by looking makes a lot of things a lot easier. No need to decide which actions are wrong and which ones right; no need to differentiate morally between intent and impact; no need to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who ends up not deserving it. It is, of course, a falsely simplified model, and one that lies behind significant real-world harms (most notably racism, but also the unattainable beauty standards that disproportionately affect women around the world); but that simplicity is also seductive.

Another frequently-remarked-on feature of the Redwall books is their lavish descriptions of food: the woodlanders of Mossflower love a good banquet. A celebratory meal late in the novel features deeper ‘n ever pie, leek and onion broth, fruit pie, nut pudding, quince and apple crumble, plum pudding, October ale, cider and buttermilk – delicious-sounding, hearty and quintessentially British foods all, epitomising abundance and plenty. Again, it’s the stuff of blissful nostalgia, and again that nostalgia obscures something quite reactionary: all of this food has been prepared by housewife hedgehog Goody Stickle. (It’s worth noting here that while there are several prominent female characters, none of them go on the quest with Martin, and most of them are relegated to caring and domestic roles.)

What else? Well, there’s the consolatory plot structure, which sees Martin returning from his quest changed, with the skills and resources to oust Tsarmina and restore order and peace to Mossflower. There’s the squeaky clean romance between Gonff and a young mousemaid, which involves absolutely no drama or angst or awkward relationship conversations. There’s the slight Church of England vibe we get from the woodlanders, who early on welcome refugees from a place called Loamhedge Abbey, and who will go on to found the Mossflower-based Redwall Abbey (as we know from the novel’s frame narrative): their largely unexamined emphasis on inoffensive values like peace and mutual aid is reminiscent of the sort of gentle religiosity one experiences in Church of England schools.

What all of this adds up to, I think, is an overall textual affect that recalls popular constructions of childhood in the West. The moral and romantic simplicity, the importance and abundance of food, the ousting of evil by the forces of good, the unmarked Christianity: these are all hallmarks either of actual childhood or of what we as adults think it was like to be a child. Any adult re-reading a childhood favourite is in some sense attempting to revisit their childhood; but Mossflower, and the other Redwall books, make it much easier than most classic children’s texts to access the idealised, nostalgic version of childhood that we’re attempting to recapture when we do this. Its obvious ideological problems demonstrate the danger inherent in this sort of reading, and in our conceptions of children and childhood.

Review: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr

E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr is in many ways quite a surprising book. In its subject matter, tone and structure it could almost be mistaken for postmodernism – except that it was written in 1819.

A riposte of sorts to Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Tomcat Murr is the autobiography of the titular Murr, an autodidact feline caught between his animalistic impulses and his literary pretensions. In writing this tract, however, he has inadvertently used as blotting-paper the tale of one Johannes Kreisler, a musician with a taste for the melodramatic; and so the two texts have become mixed up at the printers’, with the result that the text switches between narratives at seemingly arbitrary points, and sometimes mid-sentence. To confound the reader’s understanding even further, there are substantial sections of Kreisler’s tale missing; and the whole novel is truncated by the fact of Hoffman’s death in real life before he got the chance to write the third volume.

It is, then, not a novel that is particularly accessible to the modern reader: its structural tricks and the density of the contemporary archaic references it deploys renders it a text probably best enjoyed by an academic specialist. The prose, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, is dense and archaic, characterised by the run-on sentences so beloved of nineteenth century writers and by a deliberately overheated, hyperbolic style that can become quite wearing.

One reason it’s so difficult, I think, is that the concerns and ideas Hoffman’s working with are peculiarly nineteenth-century ones; the aesthetic context is just very different from our own. In particular, I think he’s examining Romantic conceptions of the self from a couple of different angles. Autobiography was an important genre for the Romantics, with their focus on the importance of the individual and of emotion and feeling; look at Wordsworth’s interminable The Prelude, in which the author describes his growth as a poet. Hoffman uses Murr’s narrative to skewer the Romantic autobiography: Murr is clearly a ridiculous figure, a pompous tomcat who believes he has important Thoughts to share with the world even as he caterwauls upon the rooftops with a raucous feline gang. The novel’s structure, too, undercuts Murr’s authority: there’s something irrepressibly catlike in the idea that his blotting paper made it to the printers as well as his memoir, and it’s something that’s impossible to take seriously. So, here we have a comedic dissection of the Romantic subject.

The Kreisler sections are a little subtler in their interrogation of the Romantic subject. At first glance, Kreisler is the archetypal Romantic hero, a sensitive artistic genius to whom extraordinary and possibly supernatural things happen, a man standing apart from the world because conventional society has no place for him. But here too the novel’s structure has a part to play in deconstructing this figure. The fact that there are pieces of the story missing, and particularly that the novel has no formal end, makes Kreisler an incoherent subject: we don’t know his full history, we don’t get answers to a lot of the mysteries the novel poses; he disappears from his own narrative at random (leaving us with the two noblewomen who may or may not be falling in love with him) and we don’t really ever find out why. As a Tortured Genius (TM) he is relentlessly unknowable in a way that works against the purpose of autobiography as it appears in Murr’s narrative, because he is not storyable; we can’t piece together the narrative of his life.

Hoffman is, then, clearly interested in exploring the knowability and coherence of the psyche that Romanticism was so invested in; we can link this to his use of madness and mental illness as thematic elements in Tomcat Murr, which, unusually for the time period, deploys contemporary psychiatric terminology. Madness was another of Romanticism’s preoccupations: think of their interest in William Blake, believed mad by his contemporaries; of Victor Frankenstein’s multiple mental breakdowns; of the madness and death of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Mental illness is figured quite commonly in Romantic texts as a break in continuity, in the storyability of the subject: Frankenstein’s first-person narrative leaves lacunae around his breakdown; Heathcliff’s madness leads to his death. Hoffman takes this trend one step further with Kreisler, who is all lacunae, all discontinuity.

So Hoffman is coming at the Romantic subject from two angles, as it were: the broadly comedic angle provided by Murr’s autobiography, which punctures and undercuts the self-centred pomposity of Romanticism; and the more serious, measured angle embedded in Kreisler’s tale, in which he engages in a sustained fashion with the Romantic figure of the tortured artistic genius. In this way he points up the contradictions inherent in this figure: the coexistence within them of louche debauchery and artistic rigour; the paradox that although their propensity for mental breakdown is one of their most distinguishing features, such breakdowns are never described or examined. It’s thus closely engaged in contemporary artistic debates, which is probably why it’s little known and little read today. An interesting take on Romanticism; better studied than read for pleasure, I think.

Review: The Travelling Cat Chronicles

The Google search page for Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles claims that “93% liked this book”. Notwithstanding the vagueness of this statistic (93% of whom, exactly?), it sounds about right: this is a very likable novel. Likability is, I’d say, its chief characteristic.

Japanese bachelor Satoru befriends a stray cat who he calls Nana; when Nana is hit by a car, Satoru takes Nana in permanently, much to the cat’s surprise. After a period of happy coexistence, Satoru and Nana embark on a mysterious road trip, visiting a number of Satoru’s friends and acquaintances. It quickly becomes apparent that Satoru is looking for a new home for Nana; why he wants to do this remains opaque for some time, although any moderately savvy reader will figure it out fairly early on.

The novel’s partly narrated by Nana, whose voice is world-weary and yet also somehow naïve. It is of course his and Satoru’s devotion to each other that forms the core of the novel: the mismatch between their perspectives generates a sense almost of tragedy, as Nana bumbles happily through life while we intuit from Satoru that something is seriously wrong. It’s an effective tactic, but not a subtle one; and in fact the entire novel feels like that, a text carefully tuned to tug on the reader’s heartstrings. It’s all a little…mechanical.

A big part of what made the novel feel so artificial to me is Nana’s narration and behaviour, which are both fundamentally un-catlike. His frame of reference is too human: he does not experience the world moment to moment as animals do, living in the here and now, but as a series of events moving from past to future, as humans do. The concepts he thinks with are fundamentally human ones:

The least they could do would be to stuff those [cat] toys with white meat. But could I take this complaint to the pet-toymakers? Stop worrying about what the owners think and pay some attention to your real clients. Your real clients are folk like me.

In this passage Nana is demonstrating that he understands how business (a uniquely human concept) works, and also that he thinks of Satoru as specifically his owner; that’s not how real cats relate to the humans they live with. I feel like the novel would be a more honest and more emotionally devastating experience if it had had the courage not to anthropomorphise Nana.

And yet I’m pretty sure I cried at the end of it; which I suppose is a decent indication that Arikawa achieved what she was aiming to achieve with it. It’s a novel perfectly calculated to please: one to like, but not one to love.

Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

How does one review a novel like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Its cultural legacy precedes it: a film adaptation that’s widely recognised as one of the greatest pieces of SF cinema of all time; an influence that’s discernible in the work of nearly every major SF writer of the twentieth century; a regular spot on “best SF novels of all time” lists. As a reader, how do you form your own opinion in the face of such a legacy? And as a reviewer, how do you write honestly about the novel without simply repeating the views of critics gone before?

These are particularly apt questions for Do Androids Dream, a novel whose main concern is precisely authenticity. Protagonist Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter for the San Francisco Police Department, is assigned to find and destroy six escaped androids of an advanced model nearly indistinguishable from a human. The only way to tell the difference is by applying something called the Voigt-Kampf test, which apparently tracks eye movement to test for empathy – something androids seemingly do not have. But does the test work? Could an advanced android pass it – or a neurodivergent human fail? Human emotion is, after all, most often synthesised in the world of the novel, with both Deckard and his wife Iran using “Penfield Mood Organs” to dial up sensations like hope, depression and joy on demand. Both Deckard and Iran are also followers of a religion known as Mercerism, using so-called “empathy boxes” to tune into a simulation of the religion’s central figure Wilbur Mercer climbing an endless hill while being pelted with stones – a simulation that gives every user access to every other user’s emotions. But is Wilbur Mercer himself real, or just an obscure actor in a strange film? What about the talk-show host they all listen to, apparently the only source of entertainment in Dick’s blasted, post-apocalyptic future? How does he broadcast twenty-four hours a day on multiple channels?

Then there’s the electric sheep of the novel’s title. Animals are all but extinct in this particular future, thanks to a ghastly nuclear war that has left vast tracts of land barren and tainted the human genome (causing another blurring of the boundaries between human and inhuman). To own a live animal is a much-prized status symbol; but they’re so expensive that an industry has sprung up to supply good fakes for the purposes of keeping up appearances, and there are several moments in the novel when a live animal is confused for an electric one, and vice versa. (This can be distressing, as when a seriously ill cat dies because nobody realises it’s real. Here I’ll also give a content warning for graphic animal cruelty in a scene late in the novel.)

So the novel’s affect is a kind of epistemological uncertainty. The question “how can we tell the difference between the authentic and the fake?” is not one that has an answer. We can’t. It has become impossible, Dick suggests, in our world of machines and computers and devices. (In this he is startlingly prescient: the novel was published in 1968, before the internet, social media, chatbots, VR…) Just as there is now no way to experience his novel “authentically”, free of the influence of the thousands of critics, novelists and film directors who have responded to it down the years.

For what it’s worth: I, personally, was not a massive fan. I’ve written about this before, but I tend not to enjoy novels characterised by unrelenting bleakness: I need a little hope, a little humanity, to keep me going, and Dick’s barren, denuded world is not one I particularly want to spend time in. Its importance to the genre is undeniable, and for that reason I guess I’m glad I read it. But it’s not a text that particularly spoke to me, or one I’m keen to revisit.

Review: Blackfish City

This review contains spoilers.

Sam J. Miller’s second novel Blackfish City is a tale about the value of connection in the face of oppressive capitalist systems that seek to keep us apart. The titular city is Qaanaaq, a floating metropolis somewhere in the Arctic Circle, in a future ravaged by climate change. Qaanaaq is run not by humans but by an algorithm making supposedly disinterested decisions that nevertheless seem to benefit the city’s landlord class more than its much larger proletariat. To this socially stratified yet vibrant city comes a mysterious woman accompanied by a killer whale and a polar bear: who is she? Why has she come to Qaanaaq? What is the nature and meaning of her connection with these two iconic apex predators?

The novel is peopled by loners: Soq, a messenger living a hand-to-mouth existence in Qaanaq’s poorest district; Kaev, a bareknuckles fighter afflicted by something like PTSD; Fill, Soq’s sometime lover, a rich gay man with a disease called “the breaks” that’s passed through bodily fluids and causes visions of the experiences of other carriers; and Ankit, a campaign manager for one of the city’s few politicians. The woman with the killer whale – Masaaraq – brings these disparate figures unexpectedly together: they are a family, separated by prejudice; their reunion, though fraught and complex, helps make each of them whole.

The novel’s theme of radical connection goes deeper than that, though. Masaaraq, it turns out, is among the last of a legendary community of people who were bonded to wild animals by experimental nanotech: so what looks like dominance over the natural world actually turns out to be something much more mutual. That same nanotech, brought to Qaanaaq, offers a cure for the breaks that preserves the disease’s empathic potential without its lethal consequences.

Then there’s City Without a Map: a sort of podcast within the world of the novel, narrated by people from all walks of life, telling stories of life in Qaanaaq. Its creator(s) are anonymous; but in bringing together this range of experiences to tell a single story about the city it creates a skein of connection that conceptually links each inhabitant together. In other words it does exactly what Blackfish City itself does – reveals the shared humanity that binds us to each other.

All of this builds up to a moment when Soq is able to seize a lot of property from the shadowy landlords who keep that property empty. It’s not made clear what they’ll do with it, but their frequently-articulated love for Qaanaaq seems to suggest that revolution is in the offing – that they’ll use it to build a kinder and a fairer city for all. In this way the newly reconstituted family, connected by bonds of love, stands against the faceless, invisible hand of the market which pretends to a false objectivity.

If the novel has a fault it is that its bringing together of Masaaraq’s family feels a little too pat, their finding each other again too much of a coincidence to credit. But on the whole it’s a good read that covers a lot of ground thematically; one that balances hope for a transformed future with clear-eyed realism about where our current problems might take us.

Review: Zoo City

This review contains spoilers.

Lauren Beukes’ second novel Zoo City has a fair amount in common with Fonda Lee’s Jade City, which I reviewed earlier this week: apart from the similarity of their titles, both centre around more-or-less organised crime in non-Western cities and both feature lead characters who are essentially trapped by oppressive sociocultural factors that they are powerless to change. Why then did I enjoy Zoo City so much more?

Former journalist Zinzi December has Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism: a relatively new, worldwide phenomenon whereby those afflicted with extreme guilt – particularly anyone who has killed, or allowed to be killed, another human being – acquires by apparently inexplicable means an animal from whom they cannot be parted without considerable psychological suffering, as well as low-level magical powers. The animalled are shunned by polite society (the parallel with AIDS is I think never explicitly stated but certainly there), leaving them to cluster in rundown but companionable districts like Zoo City, Johannesburg, where we lay our scene. Having lost her high-flying journalist job to a drug addiction, and gained a Sloth through failing to stop her brother being killed, Zinzi now relies on her supernatural talent for finding lost things to pay back her debt to her former drug dealer, who also has her using her writing skills on 419 scams. Against her better judgement, Zinzi takes on a missing-person case involving a vanished pop singer in the hope of enough money to pay her drug dealer back once and for all.

Whereas Jade City is a novel about forced social conformity, Zoo City rejoices in variety and individuality, the anarchic energies of the city. Zinzi’s former and current professions give her access to most segments of society, from the dispossessed to the moneyed: she talks to teenage pop stars, middle-aged music producers, nightclub bouncers, refugees, street kids; she’s just as likely to end up crawling through a tunnel to escape violence as she is to sit playing video games in a posh house in a gated community. Then there are, of course, the multitude of animals occupying Zoo City, and the wide range of magical powers their humans possess. This diversity is reflected at the level of form too: Zinzi’s first-person narration is punctuated by fictional found documents – newspaper articles, scientific papers, interviews – mostly covering the social effects of AAF and how the animalled are treated around the world.

Particularly interesting, I thought, was the novel’s treatment of magic. This review comments negatively on the lack of a coherent magic system, but to me that lack seems a feature, not a bug. Zinzi visits a sangoma at one point, and despite her scepticism he appears to know a startling amount about her motives for visiting him; the potion he gives her produces vivid visions that reverberate through subsequent events. The sangoma’s traditional magic (which pops up again at the end of the novel) therefore works alongside the scientifically attested magic associated with AAF: the low-level supernatural powers, the link between animal and human, the dark, roiling Undertow that comes for humans whose animals have died. This is an individualistic, capitalist approach to magic: “anything goes so long as it works for you”. That’s ultimately what the riotous diversity of the novel is indexing too – isolating individualism, as against the strong if stifling sense of community we see in Jade City. Zinzi has associates, contacts, acquaintances, people she might loosely call friends, but ultimately she works her case alone; notably, her long-term lover, a refugee called Benoit, is about to leave her after hearing news that his wife is alive.

In fact, we can see the logics of unchecked capitalism operating throughout the novel: Zinzi only takes the case in order to pay her way out of what’s essentially debt slavery; people sell parts of their own animals for use in traditional medicine; high-class (read: expensive) establishments seek to keep the animalled out in order to preserve their tone (and thus the privilege of their customers). And the novel’s villain (spoilers here) is attempting to use his wealth and influence to escape the social stigma of being animalled.

Part of the novel’s curious power lies in the fact that the animals are not, actually, obvious symbols of guilt: they’re not venal or unusually violent or particularly repulsive; they’re just animals, just themselves. Zinzi’s Sloth is quite cute, even. In fact, far from being symbols of guilt, they are, precisely, innocent; free of humanity’s self-interested cruelty and vexed morality. There’s an interesting process of abjection going on here, guilt “thrown off” onto an innocent scapegoat: this is why the Undertow claims those whose animals die, the repressed guilt returning to consume them. This process mirrors the process by which wider society “throws off” its own guilt onto the animalled themselves, forcing them to the edges of acceptability (think of those upper-class establishments that habitually refuse entrance to the animalled).

Of course this is very similar to how capitalist societies treat criminals today, keeping them locked in cycles of imprisonment and reoffending. But in Beukes’ novel criminality is a highly visible trait, cutting across traditional social classes: so Zinzi, a former middle-class journalist who simply failed to prevent a death, is treated the same as a career murderer, or the drug dealer who keeps her in debt slavery. One of the things the novel reveals, then, is the arbitrariness, the injustice, of how we construct and judge criminality.

I’m interested in how the novel’s treatment of guilt responds to discussions of guilt and innocence in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Zoo City’s most significant intertext. In Pullman’s series, animal daemons are seen by the Church as a manifestation of original sin; the first novel Northern Lights revolves around a plot to separate children from their daemons in order to save their souls. Here again we see a process of abjection, with innocent animals being scapegoated by the Church in an attempt to make up for the doctrine of original sin. Of course innocence is a freighted concept in this context: in the eyes of the Church, animals are associated with the fallen, materialistic world and are thus further from God. But in Pullman’s novel the Church is the villain; its simplistic innocence/sin binary is better replaced by a Blakean innocence/experience dialectic; and so from the reader’s point of view the daemons are innocent, and so we see the scapegoating process more clearly. What Beukes is doing is zooming in on that process, making it explicit. What happens if the daemons really are symbols of guilt? What would that reveal about or bring out in a society?

To revisit the question with which I began this review, then: why did I prefer Zoo City to Jade City? Beukes’ novel contains a profound critique of global capitalism: it shows how privilege and wealth in this system rely on the scapegoating and exploitation of a wide swathe of society. And it does so in a way that deeply troubles our conceptions of innocence and guilt. Jade City is in some ways a critique of its own society; but its fantastical element is not working nearly as hard as Beukes’ is, and doesn’t generate the same imaginative charge. Zoo City is perhaps not a perfect novel, but it’s one that lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards: inventive, riotous and fascinating in every sense.

Review: The Hallowed Hunt

TW: animal death.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt, a prequel of sorts to The Curse of Chalion (the two novels share a universe, but are set in different times and places and have no character overlap), is another example of that too-rare beast, a fantasy novel deeply interested in religion. This isn’t a surprise: Chalion, which I read a couple of months before The Hallowed Hunt, is a deeply-argued look at free will and the nature of sainthood, cathartic and revelatory. The Hallowed Hunt, I would say, is less ecstatically structured and less piercing, but it’s still carefully observed and intellectually engaged.

Lord Ingrey of the Weald is sent to investigate the murder of the king’s son Prince Boleso, seemingly at the hands of Ijada, a lady-in-waiting who Boleso intended to rape. But the murder scene is unsettling: for one thing, a leopard has been hanged from the ceiling; for another, the prince’s body is covered in strange painted symbols. It seems the prince has been dabbling in ancient shamanic practices which were virtually wiped out when the Weald was invaded by the civilisation featured in The Curse of Chalion, who imposed their own five-god system on the Weald’s inhabitants. As a result, Ijada has been possessed by the spirit of the sacrificed leopard. Unbeknownst to almost anybody else, Ingrey also carries an animal spirit within his soul, having been the subject of a similarly botched ritual as a child. Ingrey and Ijada’s immediate concern is to prevent Ijada being executed for murdering Boleso, and, in the longer term, to work out how Boleso learned about the ritual in the first place and why. What emerges is a tragedy about the death of a culture and a love story about trying to redress that loss.

In fact looking at The Hallowed Hunt as a romance, although not necessarily the most immediately obvious approach, turns out to be a productive way of framing it: because this is a novel whose chief characters are wrestling with the question of how to reconcile two different theological systems, two different cultures and systems of thought. (It’s relevant to note here that Ijada is not only a spiritual heir to the people of the Old Weald – thanks to the leopard – but also an heir in the more traditional sense, being the owner of the Wounded Woods, where they fought their last battle.) That’s exactly how romances function: they’re texts that seek to bring together warring ideas or principles in order to restore order and harmony.

I think what makes this different from The Curse of Chalion is partly that the focus is not so much on the personal experience of religion as on the restoration of a nation’s identity and culture through the rejuvenation of its religion – a theme that’s very relevant to post-colonial discourse, although this isn’t a text that’s actively participating in the modern version of that discourse (in the way that novels like, say, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire are). I’m a little anxious, though, about Bujold’s choice to render the religion of the Old Weald as a specifically shamanic one (and a violent one at that): it plays into the racist idea that shamanic religions are primitive, and simultaneously into the appropriative line of thought prevalent in overwhelmingly white neopagan communities that there is a “core” version of shamanism that is culturally non-specific and thus up for grabs by anyone who fancies it. (Bujold’s setting is distinctly European; she’s actually said that the Weald is an alternative version of Germany.) It’s a pity that the novel undermines its anticolonial themes in this way.

With that in mind, it did still work for me (and of course your mileage may vary). Bujold’s religious systems are both elegant and vital – unlike many such systems in fantasy, which tend to be over-codified and lacking in that crucial element of mysticism, of ineffableness, that makes religion meaningful in the first place, they feel like evolving traditions, like something real people could believe in. Bujold, I think, properly understands why we are drawn to religion, and it’s refreshing that she makes that understanding the starting point for her novels rather than the be-all and end-all of them. The Hallowed Hunt is a flawed novel, but it’s tackling themes and ideas that not many SFF novels do; and doing so with attention to detail, careful characterisation and satisfying plotting.

Review: The Cockroach

I am not, as I said a couple of weeks ago, really the right reader for literary humour. It’s not something I’m very good at parsing, as someone who reads primarily for plot and symbol rather than tone or character. A work that is entirely humorous – that doesn’t, for instance, take its own comedic premise seriously – will more likely than not read to me as inconsequential and forgettable.

So it is with Ian McEwan’s Brexit satire The Cockroach, a reversal of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a cockroach wakes up in the body of the prime minister, bent on enacting a disastrous economic policy with the help of his similarly cockroach-ified cabinet.

I think my main problem with this sort of work is its self-indulgence. Who benefits from a text like this? What does it add to the cultural conversation? It’s not going to change minds or encourage readers to examine their biases and preconceptions; for all its undoubted eloquence, the jokes and comparisons it makes have already been made by any number of left-leaning social media feeds. Boris Johnson may deserve to be likened to a cockroach, and it may make us feel briefly better to do so; but does it actually get us very far? Is this not, in fact, a collective, consolatory wallowing in our middle-class liberal discomfort?

I’d be responding to this differently, I think, if it wasn’t an Ian McEwan book; a book written, in other words, by supposedly one of our finest literary minds. As it is, I expected it to add more to the literary scene than Five on Brexit Island. Give me the rage that bubbles just under the skin of the comedic novels of Terry Pratchett any day; give me the radical socialism of China Mieville; give me something of substance to help me deal with the left’s crisis over this thin, conventional “satire”.

Film Review: Cats

Tom Hooper’s Cats, which we watched with a friend over Zoom in the early stages of lockdown, when we were young and full of hope, is one of those things that defies all logic, laws of physics and critical analysis. Its protagonist is a young cat called Victoria who’s abandoned by her humans and thrown on the tender mercies of the Big Smoke; she meets a gang of cats preparing for the legendary Jellicle Ball, at which one of them will be chosen to ascend (literally) to a new life. It’s a slender thread on which to hang two hours of musical theatre, as each cat introduces themselves to Victoria and sings the song they intend to perform at the Jellicle Ball – most of them poems from T.S. Eliot’s children’s collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, set to music with varying degrees of success.

Of course this is all based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage show of the same name, but since my experience of that is limited to playing “Memory” very badly on the piano as a teenager, I can’t say whether the film’s hallucinogenic qualities are inherited or startlingly original. I can say that this is, unsurprisingly, a bad film. I don’t necessarily mean in the sense that it is plotless, or that the CGI that turns its big-name actors (Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift…) into giant cats with human faces is both ludicrous and vaguely horrifying; although both are true, they are both kind of…features rather than bugs, the things that make Cats what it is. No, what makes it a film that doesn’t work even on its own terms is the songs.

Look, this is a musical, right? Musicals rely on the emotion and sense of atmosphere that music is so good at providing. Especially a musical like Cats, which is not really about anything; it needs that music to provide emotional meaning where there is no semantic meaning. But vast stretches of the film are not even entertainingly bad but actively boring because: fifty per cent of the cast cannot sing; those songs that are competently sung are arranged so as to drain them of any musical interest whatsoever; and the CGI renders the choreography of ninety per cent of the songs airless and uninspiring, obscuring as it does the human effort of the actors involved. It’s like watching Fortnite characters dance: it might be nifty but you don’t want to spend two hours doing it.

I cannot name a single catchy song from the Cats film. Apart from “Macavity”, and I already knew that one. Even the numbers that should be fun – “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer”, anyone? – are disappointingly affectless. The travesty of Cats is not that it’s campy, contentless and commercialised – it’s that it’s boring, as no musical about singing animals should be.