Review: The Ministry for the Future

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Head On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Sorcerer’s Legacy

CW: infertility, child death.

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Red Pill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Stars, Like Dust

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

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

Yikes.

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

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

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

Review: The Girl With All the Gifts

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Who Fears Death

CW: rape, FGM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Past is Red

This review contains spoilers.

Catherynne M. Valente’s star has been rising slowly but surely over the last few years. Even after the nomination of 2009’s Palimpsest for the Hugo Best Novel and the breakout success of middle-grade fairytale The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making in 2011, she remained somewhat of a niche author. In 2019, though, she crashed squarely into the genre limelight with her Eurovision/Douglas Adams homage Space Opera, also nominated for a Hugo as well as apparently being read by literally everyone with a passing interest in SF, and there she’s stayed. This year, she’s up for Hugo awards in three categories: Best Short Story (for “The Sin of America”, published in Uncanny); Best Novelette (for “L’Esprit de L’Escalier” in tor.com); and Best Novella, for The Past is Red, subject of today’s post.

The Past is Red contains, and expands upon, Valente’s 2015 short story “The Future is Blue”, which follows a girl named Tetley Abednego, “the most hated girl in Garbagetown”. Tetley lives on a floating patch of rubbish in what used to be the Pacific Ocean, on an Earth whose landmasses have been swallowed by rising sea levels. The story examines something of what it is like for Tetley and the other Garbagetowners to live in the aftermath of capitalism; to live off the refuse of a society short-sighted enough to squander the greatest gift humanity has ever been given, this great blue Earth. Its climax, which earns Tetley the epithet with which she introduces herself, sees her destroying a great engine the Garbagetowners have built in order to turn the rubbish patch into a boat and go motoring off in search of green dry land: her reasoning being that it’s better for the Garbagetowners to use their remaining supply of power frugally, giving them all access to small comforts for decades to come, rather than burn it all up on a wild goose chase.

The unedited text of “The Future is Blue” thus makes up the first 30-odd pages of The Past is Red. The subsequent narrative picks up 12 years later: Tetley is 29 and living in exile, vilified by her peers, thanks to the events of “The Future is Blue”. She’s tireder and more experienced than she was then, but her optimism, her conviction that Garbagetown is the best place left on the Earth and that its people are the luckiest people alive, remains intact. Alone on her boat, with the occasional company of a person called Big Red whose identity will become important later, she reminisces about an episode seven years before, when she was rescued/kidnapped by a representative of a person calling himself the King of Garbagetown. This person turns out to be her childhood sweetheart, who has spent four years struggling with Tetley’s actions in the earlier story and now wants to marry her and convert her to his point of view. The pair embark on a sea voyage, during the course of which they make the world-changing discovery that, shortly before the flooding of Earth, a community of the planet’s wealthiest people escaped to Mars, and live there still, not having much fun by the sounds of it. Faced with the classist insularity of the people of Mars, Tetley is forced to make a similar decision to the one she made at the end of “The Future is Blue” on behalf of the Garbagetowners who hate her so deeply: a future of relative comfort and ignorance in the garbage patch, or one of knowledge and possibly destructive dissatisfaction.

As a text about climate change, human greed and the selfishness of the uber-rich, it is, shall we say, a little on the nose. The picaresque and somewhat psychedelic nature of Tetley’s journey through Garbagetown and beyond makes the appearance of various plot elements related to these themes – particularly the discovery of the Mars society – feel more random than they otherwise might in a work that was more tightly and conventionally plotted. But this undoubted didacticism is, for me, outweighed by the lyricism and passion of Valente’s rhetoric. This is a deeply angry work, a cynical one that, despite Tetley’s optimism, sees little hope of lasting structural change. In fact, what hope it does hold out is located precisely in that inability to change: humanity will go on being humanity, building worlds and telling stories, even as we live through the apocalypse. Valente’s lush and descriptive prose, laden with the timeless rhythms of fairytale, makes even that sliver of comfort feel almost sufficient.

Review: The Old Drift

“Your desire to conquer, to colonise others, is both too fixed and too free. Nothing escapes your dull dialectic: either it takes a village to live or to each his own to survive. Even your debate on the best way to be falls on either side of this blade. The social contract or individual free will, the walls of a commune must keep us close or capital must run rampant. That’s how you froze your long Cold War, with this endless, mindless divide.”

Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, a work that feels thoroughly litfic in sensibility but which was nevertheless awarded the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2020, troubles boundaries and binaries in more ways than one. Set in what is now Zambia, it charts the fortunes of three families throughout the country’s history, from the colonial period of the early 20th century to a near-authoritarian 2023.

Colonialism, racism and structural oppression in their various forms are thus key interests of the text. The novel begins – more or less – with an act of racist violence: in the European settlement of the Old Drift, on the banks of the Zambezi, Lina, the daughter of an Italian restaurant manager assaults a local boy, N’gulube, who is later shot at by the narrator of this first section, the Englishman Percy C. Clarke. As we follow the descendants of Lina, N’gulube and Percy through the novel, we see how the consequences of this violence reverberate down into Zambia’s present and near future.

One effect of the intertwining of these three families – Italian, Zambian and British – is to challenge the racial categories on which the structures of imperialism are based. As family trees spread and merge, these categories break down: Percy’s granddaughter Agnes defies the wishes of her parents to marry a Zambian man named Ronald; Lina’s grand-niece Isabella marries an Indian man called Balaji; N’gulube’s great-granddaughter Sylvia becomes the lover of Lionel, Agnes’ and Ronald’s son and thus Percy’s great-grandson. Percy’s ultimate descendant is an unnamed boy whose heritage is Italian, Zambian and British: his racist sense of superiority and separateness to the Zambians who live near the Old Drift is proved to be mistaken.

But this is no straightforwardly utopian narrative. Questions of race, colonialism and national identity turn out to be bound up in complex ways with other forms of structural oppression: particularly misogyny and classism. Thus N’gulube’s granddaughter Matha is excluded from an anti-colonial resistance movement when she becomes pregnant. At around the same time, the man for whom Agnes left her parents realises she is not the idealised woman he thought her, and begins to despise her. Later on, their middle-class son Lionel betrays his wife Thandiwe in embarking on an affair with hair stylist and sex worker Sylvia, whom he also uses, often without her consent or real understanding, for his experimental HIV research. Again, here we see definitions and boundaries shifting as our perception of who these characters are changes with time and depending on who is narrating them.

The final section of the novel depicts a future so close it is virtually the present: a future of mass surveillance, extreme wealth inequality and corporate exploitation. The tyranny of colonialism has given way to the tyranny of capital. Three teenagers, the children of Thandiwe, Lionel, Sylvia and Isabella, stage an inchoate rebellion against The Way Things Are, deploying grassroots technology to evade state control of the internet. They are, of course, unsuccessful. But, to me at least, their failure is not a bleak one, because the attempt itself bears out the possibility of change. The Old Drift is a novel about potentiality: even the worst of history’s excesses may be left behind by the sweep of time; and even the most committed idealist can turn out to be flawed. And positive change is only possible because negative change is too.

This is a text with ambition, then, and something to say. It didn’t quite grab me in the way I hoped it would, however: despite its speculative trappings and its generational scope, it still, to me, felt limited by its litfic focus on the individual psyche and on the nuclear family as a social structure. I felt, in other words, like Serpell hadn’t quite taken enough from SF to do justice to the broad sweep of her narrative, and to the dystopian future her youngest characters face. That’s very much a personal nitpick, though: The Old Drift is, ultimately, a well-crafted novel attempting to grapple with the profound uncertainties of our current historical moment, something I’ve seen relatively few works of litfic doing. It’s an intriguing choice for the Clarke, but not entirely a wrongheaded one.

Review: In Other Lands

Originally published online, Sarah Rees Brennan’s 2017 novel In Other Lands makes an interesting comparison with Simon Ings’ Hot Head, which I reviewed here last week. Both novels are imperfect, baggy, even flawed; both, though, are extremely genre-savvy, deploying the conventions and tropes of, respectively, portal fantasy and cyberpunk strategically to help us see these textual traditions in a new light. For my money, In Other Lands is more straightforwardly of its genre, rather than transcending it as Hot Head does; nevertheless, it’s still an entertaining and intelligent novel that hit me right in the heartstrings.

Our Protagonist is Elliot, a schoolboy who discovers on a dodgy field trip at the age of 13 that he can see the wall between our world and the titular other lands, a generic medieval fantasyland where dwell elves, dwarves and other creatures. Offered a choice between staying with an indifferent parent in England and joining a school on the other side of the wall that’s dedicated to training up young Border Guards – folk who notionally keep the peace along the border between our world and fantasyland – he chooses the option that all portal fantasy protagonists do, indeed must: he chooses the unknown.

Brennan’s key narrative tactic in the novel is one that will be familiar to readers of Terry Pratchett and his imitators: she interrogates the conventions of portal fantasy through the eyes of a psychologically modern protagonist, asking common-sense questions like “isn’t this magical school essentially training child soldiers?” and “why does everyone need to fight when they could have treaties?” Diverting though Elliot’s sardonicism and precocity are, they’re hardly original; it’s Brennan’s play with the nature of his subjectivity as a fantasy protagonist that makes the novel truly stand out. Because one of her masterstrokes is to transfer real-life high-school dynamics into her fantasy setting: she’s interested in how real teens (and adults) would respond to the kind of child who ends up in YA fantasy novels. With his wide vocabulary, his passion for learning everything he can about the Borderlands and the fantastical world beyond them, and his obvious conviction that he knows everything better than any of the actual adults around him, there is a little Eustace Scrubb about him, as Electra Pritchett points out; but also a little Lyra Silvertongue too, a little September Morning Bell. It’s something of a surprise, then, generically speaking, when his classmates and teachers fail to hang on his every word. (Even Harry Potter had his fans at Hogwarts: “Our new – celebrity.”)

This is because Elliot is an asshole, and he’s an asshole kind of without realising it. We sympathise deeply with him because the fact that he is the protagonist gives us privileged access to his history and his subjectivity: we know that neglectful parenting has left him craving love and attention, but his classmates and teachers don’t. All they see is an annoying, manipulative know-it-all. And if they did know: well: pity is generally not a good foundation on which to build a friendship. Elliot, crucially, does not get a pass for being the protagonist. We all experience ourselves as protagonists of our own lives; that doesn’t mean we can treat those around us as sidekicks and secondary characters. One of the ends Elliot’s manipulation is often targeted at is the brokering of peace treaties with the non-human races in the lands patrolled by the Border Guards – although Brennan clearly thinks he is right to oppose what amounts to institutional chauvinism, she’s also clear that this doesn’t give him the right to disregard the agency of his peers and teachers.

So, first and foremost, In Other Lands is the story of Elliot growing up; of becoming a person who is worthy of respect, kindness and love both romantic and platonic. It’s a hard road, and Brennan is unflinching in depicting that emotional reality: as someone who went through a similar journey of learning-to-be-a-person later in life than usual, I felt Elliot’s profound loneliness, his despair and rage, and also his passion for the world, his belief that things can be better than they are. I was in tears more than once.

It’s not a perfect novel. (Frankly, my favourite works rarely are.) In what is presumably a relic of its original publication circumstances, In Other Lands is divided into four chunky sections, each corresponding to a year of schooling in the Borderlands; there are no smaller subdivisions of content (i.e., chapters), which, given the fact that the narrative shape of the novel is somewhat digressionary and episodic, makes the pacing feel a little wacky. The prose, too, is nothing to write home about: here, too, the text’s internet origins are on show in the ironic juxtaposition of fantasy setting and modern idiom demonstrated in passages like:

“Elliot was trying to teach himself trollish via a two-hundred-year-old book by a man who’d had a traumatic break-up with a troll. This meant a lot of commentary along the lines of “This is how trolls say I love you. FOOTNOTE: BUT THEY DON’T MEAN IT!””

Fun, but it’s been done before. All over Tumblr.

Nineteen years ago, gamer Michael Suileabhain-Wilson defined five Geek Social Fallacies: a set of beliefs about the overriding importance of friendship and unconditional inclusion that, ironically, often lead to geeky social groups being hotbeds of interpersonal drama that are hostile to outsiders and overly tolerant of missing stairs. As awareness of the ways that geek spaces work to exclude marginalised people has become mainstream, Suileabhain-Wilson’s post has gained significant currency in internet discourse, aided perhaps most notably by the inimitable Captain Awkward. With its irreverent, easy humour and its deconstruction of the hero complex that many YA fantasy protagonists operate under – in texts that have often influenced the values of the kind of geek groups Suileabhain-Wilson talks about – In Other Lands feels like a continuation of the conversation. I’d put it with Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series and Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books as an example of progressive, modern YA that’s realistic about relationships and the travails of growing up – YA I would have been glad to have on my shelf as a teenager.