Review: Tooth and Claw

Published in 2003, the premise of Jo Walton’s fourth novel Tooth and Claw is, quite literally and without exaggeration, “Anthony Trollope with dragons”. Here’s Walton on its genesis:

It has to be admitted that a number of the core axioms of the Victorian novel are just wrong. People aren’t like that. Women, especially, aren’t like that. This novel is the result of wondering what a world would be like if they were, if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.

The novel begins with the death of Dignified Bon Agornin, an event which precipitates a dispute among his descendants about the distribution of his wealth and body – for dragons gain physical strength, and thus social prestige, by consuming dragonflesh. The landed gentry eat up the ailing dragonets of their tenant farmers, as well as their own children; disputes formal and informal are resolved by fights to the death; male dragons’ lives are a constant fight for dragonflesh and social position. Female dragons, meanwhile, have hands instead of claws, are liable to die if they have too many clutches of eggs too closely together, and, most significantly, blush a permanent red if a male dragon touches them – which is fine if the dragons intend to marry, but if not the female is considered damaged goods.

It’s a clever conceit, literalising the real savagery that lay behind the polite fictions of Victorian society: dragon courtesy dictates, for instance, that dragonflesh should only be consumed in the presence of a parson, allowing the gentry to maintain the fiction that gobbling up sick children is a civilised thing to do. So we have what is on its surface a “light and bright and sparkling”* novel about the fortunes of gentlewomen who need to find husbands (the marriage market is, unsurprisingly, a literal thing in Tooth and Claw, although we never see it up close and personal) and their noble but socially precarious relatives, which is actually interrogating the class and gender assumptions of an era we still venerate.

There are some odd tensions, though, even given this framework, that I’m not sure the novel works out very productively. The substance of the dispute over Bon Agornin’s body is basically that the old dragon intended for his less-established children, Avan, an up-and-coming official in the capital city of Irieth and his two unmarried sisters Haner and Selendra, to take the lion’s share of his body; a provision that his son-in-law Daverak completely ignores, taking the largest share for himself, his wife (Bon Agornin’s eldest daughter) Berend and their dragonets. A furious Avan opens a lawsuit against Daverak, putting his sisters in an awkward position, given that Haner is to live with Daverak and Berend.

The portrayal of Daverak is the source of one of the novel’s odd tensions: he is a bully who abuses his social power, eating the healthy dragonets of his tenant farmers as well as elderly, ailing or disobedient servants, indirectly killing his wife by forcing her to produce too many eggs too soon and eventually making Haner’s safety and dowry contingent on her cooperation with him against Avan. The story of the novel is in an important way the story of how Daverak gets his comeuppance; how this rotten apple is pruned from the tree of dragon society. But the fact that Daverak is a monster distracts from the fact that dragon society is itself monstrously unequal; Daverak’s punishment for abusing his power in dramatic ways doesn’t undo that fact. It’s like – the novel ultimately asks us, at the level of plot, to focus on individual power rather than collective power structures.

What makes this particularly strange is that Walton explicitly points up the inequality in draconic (and by extension Victorian) power structures beyond even the literalisation of savagery inherent in her premise. Haner’s first-hand observation of how Daverak treats his servants radicalises her, and she becomes interested in a movement working towards easing the lot of the serving class. But within the novel her interest is treated as an eccentricity, and the one time she actually does anything meaningful about it – she goes to meet the author of a radical book on the subject – operates only as an inciting moment for the novel’s dramatic denouement (Daverak believes she has actually gone to meet Avan to conspire against him, and locks her up in her bedroom). The novel closes shortly afterwards, in Shakespearean-comedic fashion, with Avan, Selendra and Haner all safely partnered with good matches; no further mention of actual social change. I suppose this is a weakness of the Victorian novels on which Tooth and Claw is modelled, but it’s not lampshaded in a way that would make the repetition of that weakness ironic; it’s just a weakness.

I kind of want to emphasise that this is quite a productive tension, though, in that Tooth and Claw gives the reader a lot to think with when it comes to power relations in Victorian (and modern) texts: how drives toward social justice are defanged and folded into the status quo; how the law works to uphold existing social structures; how monstrous power structures perpetuate themselves. Plus, “Victorian novel with dragons” is just fun, no matter how you slice it. Tooth and Claw isn’t a perfect book but it’s a surprisingly meaty one – I kind of wish more SFF authors would try this sort of thing in a way that isn’t completely superficial.


*Jane Austen on Pride and Prejudice

Review: The Paganism Reader

Like many of the books on paganism and related subjects that I’ve reviewed here recently, The Paganism Reader, edited by Chas S. Clifton and Graham Harvey, was a loan from a friend, now returned. I don’t have it here to refer to, in other words, which is a little sad – I’d have liked to pay tribute to its comprehensiveness by being comprehensive and thorough myself.

In any case, The Paganism Reader brings together a selection of texts that have informed various flavours and philosophies of paganism in the last century or so. The works range over a much larger span of time, though, from Apuleius’ Golden Ass (160-170AD) to a couple of remarkably down-to-earth essays by modern Pagans: “Finding your way in the woods: the art of conversation with the Genius Loci” by Barry Patterson and “Entertaining faeries” by Gordon Maclellan were particular favourites. (It seems, however, that Maclellan is a white man calling himself a “shaman”, gah. It’s worth noting, too, that there’s an essay in the book entitled “What happened to Western shamanism?”, although I don’t remember anything about it.)

The book also contains extracts from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – famously the inspiration behind the Church of All Worlds – the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, the entire Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley (which is a trip, let me tell you) and work by Margaret Murray, Doreen Valiente, Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner, among much else. Another of my favourites was “Initiation by ordeal” by Judy Harrow – a look at military service as a modern-day initiation ceremony, a marking of the border between childhood and adulthood, examining the ways it succeeds and fails in this capacity.

I don’t know enough about the field to say with any accuracy how comprehensive or balanced this book is as a look at paganism and its sources, but its list of contributors is certainly impressive, and there’s a lot of texts here I feel grateful to have had ready access to – things like The Book of the Law which I would never have sought out on its own. It’s not really an introductory text: it won’t give you an accessible overview of what paganism looks like now. As a collection of sources, though, it’s wide-ranging, useful and enlightening. I wrote recently about how I’d like pagan authors and their readers to be much more mindful of where their traditions and beliefs are coming from, to avoid appropriating things that aren’t ours to take; having The Paganism Reader on the shelf strikes me as a great place to start.

Review: League of Dragons

So here it is: the last in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, an alternative history of the Napoleonic wars, with dragons.

League of Dragons opens with Napoleon’s forces fleeing through frozen Russia after a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the allied armies. It’s a major victory for everyone who doesn’t want to see Napoleon ruling over Europe, but it’s not the end of the war – especially when Napoleon’s dragon Lien steals a precious egg belonging to Temeraire (the series’ draconic co-protagonist) and fire-breathing Iskierka. The egg, and the creature that hatches from it, could be key to the war effort, and is in any case personally important to Temeraire and Iskierka – so of course it’s up to Temeraire’s Captain Laurence and his crew to get it back.

It’s actually a pretty episodic novel for a series ender. There’s the bitter trek across Russia at the beginning of the book; a stay in a peasant’s house; the rescue expedition itself; a spell in England while Laurence tries to win the allegiance of dragon captains who think poorly of him; and a lot of battlefield action, which involves plenty of military strategy and planning.

The theme running through much of the novel is that of Laurence’s unbending concept of honour: when is it useful, and when is it dangerous? For him, it’s one of the things that keeps military society together: having strict social codes and hierarchies avoids dangerous dissensions in military units, and that’s something Laurence struggles with when multiple dragon captains are placed under his command despite his historical trial for treason. But it can also lead him outside the very social codes it’s established to protect – as when he becomes involved in a duel with a pampered aristocrat; duels are frowned upon for dragon captains because it potentially robs the army of a valuable weapon (one dragon being much more valuable than one person).

This is a discussion that’s been happening throughout the series, though, and I’m not convinced League of Dragons advances it particularly. The episodic form of the novel is potentially more interesting – although, again, previous novels have done this (notably Throne of Jade, one of my favourites). I see lots of Goodreads commenters complaining that League of Dragons isn’t very climactic, but maybe that’s the point? For me, this isn’t a series whose best points are made by big battles and military strategy – it’s about relationships and the different kinds of allegiances people have to each other and their countries and societies, and how and where those allegiances clash. So it makes sense that this last novel would focus on putting its protagonist in all sorts of uncomfortable situations and seeing how he copes with them.

I do think that this novel has less of a focus on colonialism and other social justice issues than the series as a whole does. We see comparatively little of Laurence’s female crew member Emily Roland, and still less of her mother, Admiral Roland. Having said that, we do get flights of Chinese dragons and Napoleon’s wife, the Incan Empress Anahuarque – if not the detailed engagement with their societies that some of the earlier novels have delivered. It’s still great to see these cultures written into Novik’s universe in such a fundamental way, though.

I don’t know that this series particularly stands out for me. I’m fond of it; I love the gentle, caring interactions we get between Laurence and Temeraire (even if I think Novik infantilises the supposedly sentient dragons a little too much to make their case for independence and self-governance entirely credible). And I like the way it engages with Europe’s colonialist history and rewrites marginalised groups into what is in part a military comedy of manners (Laurence’s crew features at various points in the story a Black boy, a female crew member and a canonically gay man). I enjoy its discussion of honour and Novik’s careful depiction of her characters’ various relationships. I think it’s working hard, and largely succeeds in what it’s trying to do. Which – well, I don’t think there’s that much more you can ask for from a series.

Review: The Compass Rose

Ursula Le Guin’s The Compass Rose, a collection of short, mostly speculative stories written between 1974 and 1981, is organised into six sections: “Nadir”, “North”, “East”, “Zenith”, “West” and “South”.

“As a guide to sailors this book is not to be trusted,” Le Guin writes in her introduction to the book. In other words: I’m not going to pretend I understand what links the three or four stories in each section; what exactly a Calvino-esque memory of Venice (“The First Report of the Shipwrecked Foreigner to the Kadanh of Derb”) and a story about a dedicated democrat set to have his memory wiped (“The Diary of the Rose”) have in common; what is particularly southern about “Some Approaches to the Problem of the Shortage of Time”, a mock essay on exactly what the title says. You could spend all day devising contorted explanations and spotting weak thematic links, if you wanted to; it might even be interesting and revealing. I’m not sure that’s exactly the point, though; or, if it is, it’s the exercise itself that’s the point, not the answers you come to. The compass imagery asks us to rethink what we understand of the world and how it works. It asks that we readjust our worldview so that “South” can become a thesis statement instead of a direction.

And so: these stories, which are often just a few pages long, and often take unconventional forms: a description of a city, a scientific paper, a series of diary entries, a prose poem. These are deliberately not “mimetic”, “realistic” stories, inasmuch as we can apply those adjectives to any SFF text; they don’t necessarily exist to flesh out entire worlds, provide logical chains of cause and effect, satisfy our comfortable readerly notions of everything making some sort of rational, orderly sense. Instead, they ask us to re-evaluate our experience of the world, to imagine new and strange topographies of experience. Perhaps a team of women reached the South Pole before Ernest Shackleton ever did, and simply didn’t feel the need to shout about it (“Sur”). Perhaps one day we’ll study the writings of ants and the poetry of penguins (“’The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ and Other Extracts from the Journal of Therolinguistics”). Perhaps worlds are dreamed into being by spotty adolescents (“The Pathways of Desire”).

A trawl of the book’s Goodreads page (not exactly a high-quality source of literary criticism, but) suggests that a lot of readers find it frustrating: Le Guin’s not in the business of filling in the blanks where she doesn’t need to. I would say that’s its strength. The point of the book is process not product; it’s the readjustments of perspective it forces upon us and its characters. It poses possibilities, opens up new readings and new potentialities rather than closing them down. These stories demand response and engagement, not the easy, passive consumption that more comfortable and conventional genre works offer.

Which is not to say that all these stories are perfect – indeed, quite the opposite. Perfection implies there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to move, nothing to argue with. Still, The Compass Rose is, perhaps, a lesser achievement than The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness. But so are most things. And this little collection’s still worth reading – just maybe don’t make it your first foray into Le Guin’s work.

Review: My Year of Meats

TW: domestic abuse, miscarriage, eating disorder

My Year of Meats confirmed it to me: I just love Ruth Ozeki’s writing. Her novels (by which I mean this and A Tale for the Time Being) have this extraordinary generosity: the world is screwed up, but there is grace too.

So: our heroine is Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese-American filmmaker who’s hired at the beginning of the novel to make a reality TV series called My American Wife! Sponsored by BEEF-EX, an American beef export company which wants to expand its market share in Japan, the series is supposed to feature “wholesome” American wives making their favourite meat dishes. Jane, however, has a bit of a contrary streak, as well as a frustrated impulse towards telling the truth in her documentaries, and inspired by both of these things she starts learning more about the meat industry and seeking out more diverse families to feature in the series.

Interwoven with Jane’s story is that of Akiko, a Japanese woman in an abusive relationship with a husband, Joichi, who she’s never particularly cared for and whose primary interest in his wife is mainly her childbearing capacities. Convinced that meat-eating is the secret to conception, he demands that Akiko cook the recipes featured on My American Wife!

It’s a novel about misogyny and the meat industry and the neoliberal capitalist forces that lie behind both. It’s a novel about commodification: the commodification of female and animal bodies by a system that sees them both as no more than resources to be exploited, means to an end. Women are for making more men, and for sex. Animals are for eating.

I thought I would have a lot more to say about what My Year of Meats is doing, but it turns out I don’t really. That’s not a bad thing, at all. Ozeki draws connections between these seemingly unrelated topics elegantly, delicately – although “delicate” feels like an odd word to use of a novel that features miscarriages, slaughterhouses, hormone poisoning and bulimia. And I love how she posits ways out of the system, however imperfect: ways to escape abusive patriarchy and the webs of big industry. They’re not perfect, because the world is imperfect; but there is grace.

Oh, but. It’s a moderate but. It’s particularly glaring, though, given how well these women’s narratives are handled otherwise. Right at the end of the novel, Jane finds a man named Sloan, with whom she has History, in a bar. The History involves casual sex that gets gradually more serious and then a Crisis and lots of anger but also lots of romantic tension, and basically the novel encourages us to root for this couple despite/because of everything that’s happened to them. They’re technically separated at this point, but as soon as Sloan sees Jane he gives the cold shoulder to another woman he’s clearly romantically involved with and forcibly marches Jane out the bar, and then they shout at each other and have sex and everything’s fine again.

This is a novel that’s in part about escaping domestic abuse. Do we need it to end with a man twisting a woman’s arm up her back only for them to ride happily off into the sunset? We do not. Please and thank you.

Still. With that caveat, My Year of Meats is a lovely thing. And I’ll be reading more of Ozeki’s work.

Doctor Who Review: Arachnids of the UK

This post contains spoilers.

TW: spiders.

Despite a feelgood ending in which the Doctor and her companions pledge to form #TeamTARDIS, Arachnids of the UK, the fourth episode in Doctor Who‘s current series, feels ultimately a bit despondent.

Surely written specially for Halloween weekend, it’s a tale of giant spiders and corporate greed. The spiders of Sheffield are doing odd things, and it all seems to be centred on a luxury hotel that’s due to open any time soon. If you didn’t drift off to sleep thinking vaguely worrying thoughts about eight-legged bugs after you watched this, I don’t believe you.

But the Big Bad of the episode isn’t actually the oversized arachnids, which are big and hairy and CGI enough to be almost cute, and which the Doctor encourages us to view with empathy and respect; it’s the hotel’s owner, Jack Robertson, a global gazillionaire businessman rumoured to be running for the White House. I’ve seen and heard a couple of people compare Jack to Donald Trump, partly because the episode itself names him as a rival to the 45th president, but I don’t think that comparison’s quite right: Jack is oilier and cleverer and savvier than Trump, a man who (I imagine) can charm as well as order. He’s an arch-capitalist, putting his employees’ bodies between him and danger – quite literally on one occasion. Perhaps Elon Musk would be a better comparison than Trump.

In any case, Jack’s all about the profit, and it’s this corner-cutting, blind-eye-turning approach that’s fucked up Sheffield’s spider ecosystem (which we can read, perhaps, as a microcosm of the Earth’s ecosystem, similarly fucked up by late capitalism’s drive for profit). And Jack likes guns. When it’s revealed that the giantest spider of them all is in fact dying because she’s too grown too big to breathe efficiently, it’s Jack who shoots her, ignoring the Doctor’s horrified protests. That’s, more or less, where the episode’s plot ends: with a beautifully composed shot, surely destined for a poster of some sort, of the Doctor looking down at a spider corpse nearly as big as she is. The question Arachnids in the UK poses is the same as the one Theoden asks in Tolkien’s The Two Towers:

“How shall any tower withstand…such reckless hate?”

Except, in Arachnids, it’s not even hate, simply pure and monstrous selfishness. How can the Doctor’s preaching of acceptance and kindness ever penetrate such profound indifference to the lives of others? How can tolerance stand against men with guns and institutional power? As with every single one of Thirteen’s episodes so far, Arachnids feels incredibly pointed and incredibly topical. But where the first three episodes felt like a challenge to the creep of far-right nationalism, Arachnids is a sigh of despair, a confession of exhaustion.

And yet. I think writer Chris Chibnall needlessly muddles the episode’s ethical standpoint of “don’t kill things just because they are in the way”. The very first question I asked when Arachnids finished (I texted it to the Bandersnatch) was “but what happened to the little spiders?” You see, the Doctor and her friends lure the smaller spiders into Jack’s panic room so they can tackle the biggest, van-sized spider on its own. Their plan once they’ve done this is…unclear, to say the least. The resident spider expert they’ve managed to pick up along the way mutters something about “a humane and dignified death”, but that’s it. We hear nothing more.

Jack says that a gun would be cleaner, and he’s probably right: as far as we know, the spiders are left locked in the panic room to eat each other and eventually starve. And if Jack hadn’t shot the huge spider, and if she hadn’t been dying anyway, what then? What would they have done with her that wouldn’t have meant killing her?

There are certainly possible answers to these questions; Chibnall has the whole of time and space to work with, after all. But not answering them leaves the episode feeling hollowed out and insufficient, with no coherent ethical standpoint.

That’s a shame, because I feel it would have taken so little to make it wonderful – encouraging people to love spiders, the most sustainable bug control solution there is, often misunderstood and killed by the needlessly frightened. What an elegant device! And even just a throwaway line about their eventual fate would have made the episode more…substantial.

As it is, Thirteen remains a joy to watch, and the chemistry between her three companions is beginning to warm up a little. (Yas is my fave so far by a country mile.) But it’s not an episode that quite works for me.

Review: The Pig Who Sang to the Moon

Jeffrey Masson’s The Pig Who Sang to the Moon was handed to me by a vegan colleague of mine. I’d promised to read it: I know that the meat industry is a monstrous thing; I believe that most Western people should be trying to eat less, and higher-quality, meat, for the sake of the planet, the animals involved, and our own health; and I’m very ready to believe Masson’s basic argument, that farm animals have emotional lives that are far more complex than we like to admit.

I am very probably the ideal audience for this book.

I was not convinced.

That’s partly because of mismatched expectations. I wanted to read about scientific studies and research by zoologists and similar experts. Or I would have been quite happy with a well-thought-out, well-supported ethical argument.

The Pig Who Sang to the Moon is not that kind of book. Each chapter discusses the emotional life of a different farm animal – pigs, chickens, sheep, cows and ducks. I say “discusses”. What I actually mean is “speculates”.

Because what this book is, mainly, is a collection of anecdotes. Many of them are nice anecdotes, the sort you read about in the kinder parts of Twitter or that get shared endlessly on Facebook. Pigs running for help to save their owners, chickens following their humans around, and so on. These are spliced with information about what goes on in factory farms, and with some brief evolutionary background – the idea being that going back to these animals’ ancestors will tell us something about how they are “meant” to live.

What’s frustrating is that none of this tells us anything new. It’s obvious to anyone who has a pet that animals have fascinating and private emotional lives. Information on the undoubted evils of factory farming is available to anyone with an internet connection. And I’m not even sure why Masson included the evolutionary stuff, since the only solid conclusions he manages to draw from it are common-sense ones.

The real problem with the book, though, is its partiality. Masson’s mind is made up from the beginning. That’s true of any book, of course; but the purpose of an argument, surely, is to walk a reader through the steps the author took in coming to their conclusion. A good non-fiction book or essay replays the decision-making process; a really persuasive one convinces us that the author is discovering things at the same pace as we are. Whereas Masson’s bias is manifest in the way he chooses his sources. Most of his anecdotes come from sanctuary owners and animal rights activists. Where he quotes farmers he does so dismissively (because their opinions that their animals don’t have emotions don’t support his argument). In one case he outright ignores someone whose opinion he’s canvassed – and says so.

But Masson’s conclusions aren’t just obviously biased; they’re also largely completely unfounded. He leaps too easily from “animals suffer in factory farms” (a claim I think few people would dispute) to “animals’ emotional lives are just like ours”. He anthropomorphises constantly, with little evidence that isn’t anecdotal or biased. This isn’t an approach that helps animals. Western cities are full of dogs and cats that are harmfully overweight and dangerously misbehaved because their owners treat them like little furry humans. If the evolutionary history of domesticated animals teaches us anything, it should surely be that these beings are fundamentally different from us; their emotional lives have evolved to deal with social structures, habitats and food sources that are very different from our own, and so we’d expect those emotional lives to look different from ours.

So Masson ends up treading an odd tightrope. On the one hand, he’d like us to think that animals are worthy of the same respect and freedoms as we are. On the other, he is patronising and sentimental about their lives and histories. If it isn’t already clear, I don’t think The Pig Who Sang to the Moon is a good book. It contributes nothing new to conversations about animal rights and capabilities; it has nothing original or well-founded to say.

Review: The Alchemaster’s Apprentice

I found thinking about Walter Moers’ The Alchemaster’s Apprentice hard, and not very rewarding, work.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, exactly: it was fine, and occasionally quite entertaining. It’s more that it did a few quite interesting things which failed to go anywhere.

Take, for instance, the first line of the novel:

Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia.

This is an instruction that’s impossible to follow. First: where is Zamonia? (Readers of Moers’ other books will know the answer to this, but The Alchemaster’s Apprentice plainly doesn’t expect you to be such a reader.) Secondly: what does Moers mean by “sickest”? Cruellest? Best? Most disease-ridden? It’s a sentence that destabilises the author/reader relationship from the start; it unsettles us, it invites us in.

The sickest place in the whole of Zamonia, it turns out, is Malaisea. Everyone is ill in Malaisea, with all manner of exciting diseases ranging from the common cold to tuberculosis. This is the doing of the town’s resident alchemist, the titular Alchemaster, Ghoolion, who creates noxious fumes in his noxious castle above the town to oppress the people of Malaisea.

The story follows Echo, a talking cat. His owner has recently died, and he’s close to death from starvation, until Ghoolion offers him a terrible bargain: he’ll be fed the most luxurious meals for a month, at which point Ghoolion will murder him and use his fat in his alchemy.

Echo takes the bargain, goes to live in the creepy castle, and spends the rest of the novel trying to find a way out.

Now, Moers’ Zamonia is a place at once whimsical and dark. It has talking cats. But it also has Anguish Candles: candles that have been made (by Ghoolion) to experience terrible pain when they’re alight. And what use is a candle if it’s not alight? Ghoolion provides lakes of milk for Echo, but he also renders down rare and innocent creatures for their fats. Zamonia is a world that contains vampire bats called Leathermice and trees that can move and a city made entirely of iron and steel.

The novel’s full of lively pen and ink illustrations by the author which contribute quite a lot to how this world feels: just familiar enough that the whimsy destabilises us, pulls the rug out from under our feet. It’s also full of plot reversals: the characters tell stories within stories in which star-crossed lovers are separated for ever, pointlessly, in which plucky underdogs are crushed by powerful monsters. Moers wants to keep us on our toes. He never gives us quite what we expect.

And yet. For all the work the novel is doing upfront to destabilise us, defamiliarise us, bring us to a place that’s cruel and unsettling, there doesn’t seem to be a coherent project underpinning all of this. There’s no point.

Well. There’s something of a theme about “the miracle of love”, but Moers’ “miracle of love” is…well. Everything that is wrong with Western conceptions of romance, for a start. There’s a grand total of two named female characters in The Alchemaster’s Apprentice, and both of them exist only to have pointless and doomed romances with Ghoolion, of all people. One of them tests his love for her by telling him she’s going to marry someone else, only to be heartbroken when he disappears off forever. The other is a witch who is Ghoolion’s literal opposite (she cultivates nature rather than destroying it) and whose people have been relentlessly persecuted by Ghoolion since the word go – only she finds his cruelty and complete disregard for other people’s feelings alluring rather than disgusting. She abandons her whole moral system because she’s in luuurve. And then she feeds the object of her affection a love potion to make him love her back.

So “the miracle of love” is beginning to look more like “the miracle of manipulative, not to say self-destructive, behaviour”. Which would be fine if I thought that that was Moers’ point, but the novel literally ends with Echo heading off to the mountains to seek out this miracle.

In other words, Moers is deploying all that destabilising potential, the talking cat, the darkly whimsical villain, the first line you cannot obey, the stories that end in unexpected tragedy, just to repeat old stereotypes. Which, I’m sorry, is just lazy storytelling. It makes for a novel that’s much less than the sum of its parts; a fantasy set in a secondary world that’s only superficially different from our own. And what’s the point of that, really?

Ten Books That Would Make Good TV

  1. The Dark Tower series – Stephen King. A Dark Tower TV series is already in the works, but given it’s associated with the decidedly lacklustre film I have basically no confidence it will be any good. The whole series is crying out to be televised, with a prestige TV budget: the battle of Jericho! Blaine the Mono and the waste lands! The desert, and the man in black. Roland of Gilead weeping. It would be fucking fantastic. Someone get it done, please. (I can’t believe there wouldn’t be an audience for it, given King’s readership.)
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. Does Peter Jackson do television? Yes, I know he made an unholy mess of The Hobbit (STILL NOT OVER IT), but The Silmarillion is another kind of beast altogether: properly epic and wonderful in the way the Lord of the Rings films are. It wouldn’t work as a film (please don’t do this, anyone, or I will cry) because there’s like a million characters and no overarching plot except for “everyone dies and everything is shit”, but it could make for beautiful TV.
  3. Lirael – Garth Nix. Only, I’m imagining like a version where Lirael stays in the Library and has magical monster-of-the-week adventures with the Disreputable Dog and gradually learns to make friends and accept herself and it would be wholesome and wonderful and full of books.
  4. Perdido Street StationChina Mieville. I know, I know, I wrote a whole post a couple of weeks ago about how Mieville doesn’t work on TV and it should never happen again, but on a purely superficial level I think New Crobuzon would be amazing on screen, if it was done properly. Plus, the novel has that sprawling Dickensian quality that would give a TV series time to explore the world properly while, y’know, having a plot.
  5. The Discworld series – Terry Pratchett. There was a series called The Watch that was happening a while ago. Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge claims it is still happening. I’m hoping a) that it does happen and b) that it is not shit. (The films are fairly shit, but it is pretty fun seeing Discworld come to life, however underfunded it is.)
  6. A Madness of Angels – Kate Griffin. This is another one that would work really well as a monster-of-the-week show, carried by its wise-cracking protagonist and BBC special effects that are dodgy enough to look a little bit real. (See also Doctor Who.)
  7. Soulless – Gail Carriger. Steampunk and vampires and werewolves, oh my! (Seriously, this book is obsessed by scenery. If anything was written for TV it’s this.)
  8. The Temeraire series – Naomi Novik. Temeraire is adorable, and the books are really fascinated by relationships in a way that I think would work well on TV. You could flesh out the arcs of some of the supporting characters, and it would be like Downton Abbey but with dragons. And naval battles.
  9. Night Film – Marisha Pessl. For obvious reasons, this would work well on screen: I mean, it’s literally about film. And you could translate some of the novel’s narrative tricks pretty well into TV. I can also see how a TV adaptation could be disastrous, though.
  10. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. It would be like The West Wing, except with climate change! And lord knows climate change could do with raising its profile.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Film Review: Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a film that deliberately, designedly invites questions about meaning and intent. It feels like it’s set out to leave its audience puzzled; to make you go, “what the hell was that?” as you leave the cinema.

(I mean: I am a very occasional cinema-goer, so it doesn’t take much to make me go “what the hell was that?” as I leave the cinema. I am, perhaps, not quite the intended audience for Isle of Dogs. But then I’m not sure who is.)

A stop-motion film, Isle of Dogs‘ premise is this: after dog flu sweeps Megasaki City, Japan, the disturbingly Trumpian Mayor Kobayashi orders that every dog in the city be exiled to Trash Island, a vast rubbish dump a short plane-hop from the mainland. Kobayashi’s twelve-year-old ward Atari, bereft of his beloved bodyguard Spots, steals a plane and flies to the island to rescue his companion – during the course of which heartwarming mission he meets a quartet of lovable canines, including the actually-not-very-lovable stray Chief, and hatches a plan to bring the dogs back to the city.

The film’s main gimmick – almost the only thing I knew about it before I saw it – is that the Japanese human characters speak mainly unsubtitled Japanese, while the dogs and a couple of white characters, including an American transfer student dedicated to uncovering corruption in Kobayashi’s government, speak English. This makes the film sound more difficult – in the sense of “inaccessible to Anglophone audiences” – than it actually is: much of the Japanese is “translated” (or so we can only assume) by those white characters, or, much less commonly, by an AI translator.

Obviously, there’s a wealth of identity politics to unpack in all that, but before I dive into those murky, weighty waters, a couple of other ways Isle of Dogs resists audience expectation:

Mainly, this is an animated animal film that’s not aimed even indirectly at children. I can’t put my finger on exactly what makes it Not a Children’s Film: there’s no sex, no gore (well, a bit, but I am a wimp compared to most six-year-olds), no swearing. There is a scene where we’re told that a dog has starved to death in a cage, which is pretty upsetting, I guess. But, mostly, there’s a kind of hard-bitten bleakness to the film that makes it feel distinctively adult. These dogs are not cute dogs – not in the way that children’s animal films like Madagascar and Ice Age (both franchises filled with animals – woolly mammoths, penguins – who have no business being cute but which nevertheless manage to be) have primed us to expect. They are wiry and cynical, like gunslingers (the film makes the comparison explicit). Their muzzles are scarred. They sneeze unpleasantly. They bite. And Trash Island? Trash Island is a place not even the most dedicated salvagepunk could love. Think the polluted Earth of Wall-E, without Pixar’s sentimental, softening touch. Think mountain ranges of rubbish and rusting, polluted factories where nothing grows that isn’t poisoned. Think the real Trash Island, the great floating rubbish patch in the Pacific.

In other words: this is a film that capitalises on all the jerky uglinesses of stop-motion animation to look a the uglinesses of what human cities do to their environments and to the animals who coexist with and depend on humanity.

But it’s also a film problematised by its ending – in which Mayor Kobayashi admits that he’s suppressed evidence of a cure for dog flu in a sentimental re-election speech to his supporters, and passes the mayoralty to Atari on the basis of an obscure and frankly incredible piece of legislation. It’s a fairytale ending that undermines the cynicism of the film. It gives us an easy way out of environmental damage and irresponsibility.

That’s particularly disappointing given that Isle of Dogs is, I think, particularly good on the irrational politics of hate. Demagogues like Kobayashi (*cough* Trump *cough*) build on, or magnify, a specific threat – in this example, dog flu – and, instead of addressing the root causes of the problem (by, for instance, devising a cure), make a solution of exclusion. In other words, they make the problem the fault of an other, a social scapegoat, because it’s easier to blame the scapegoat, to exclude the other, than it is actually to solve the problem. Which means it’s also eventually easier to ignore scientific evidence (the existence of a cure) than it is to deviate from the position of hate – because such deviation would involve admitting that the problem lies within society, not outside it in some circularly-defined other.

And so, it’s a problem that the solution to the politics of hate, the solution delivered by the film’s ending, is un-nuanced and undemocratic – and a fairytale. We have to imagine better ways out.

Speaking of others: the film’s failure of imagination extends, I think, to its Japanese setting. Monstrous demagogues exist in the West already. Isn’t it too easy a get-out for Western audiences to make a film about a Japanese demagogue – a demagogue, that is, in a part of the world much of the West already views with distrust? Isn’t it, precisely, othering?

Doesn’t it exorcise the ghost of Western racism by putting it into the mouth of a cultural other, where we can safely ignore it because it’s half a world away? Where we can exclude it, in fact, from the everyday circles of our own lives?

Relatedly: why do none of the Japanese characters speak English? Why do we need white characters to interpret for us? Why can’t the transfer student be (for example) Japanese-American?

(Because that would make the Japanese characters no longer other, and we’d no longer be able to project our own racism safely onto that other.)

I’m not, of course, saying any of this is deliberate. It is brilliantly ironic that a film can be so spot-on thematically about how the politics of othering and hate work while being apparently oblivious to its own potential othering effects. And: hey, I know nothing about Japan and Japanese culture, I don’t speak Japanese; I might be spectacularly wrong about all this. I’d like to read a review of Isle of Dogs by someone who does speak Japanese. I haven’t made much of an effort – enough of an effort – to find one.

I just feel sure there’s something excessive about Isle of Dogs: something more complex is going on than its feelgood plot about a boy rescuing his dog would suggest. It’s puzzling. I am puzzled. I’m trying to work out what the hell this film was.