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.

Review: Hot Head

Simon Ings’ debut novel Hot Head is a puzzling little number, one that to some extent sits outside the conventions of its genre. The story of cybernetically enhanced Malise, a washed-up spacefighter and former hero who’s called upon once again to defend the planet from a self-replicating, all-devouring, asteroid-sized AI mass heading our way, its roots are clearly cyberpunk in nature. But an overlay of Tarot symbolism, a long prologue set in a near-future Italy impoverished by climate change and significant geopolitical upheaval and a sharply characterised heroine (who happens to be Muslim and queer – in a novel published by a white man in 1992!) take it out of straight-up Neuromancer territory into a place that feels much more literary: there’s a sense that Ings is attempting something quite ambitious and complicated.

What that something might be I am not sure: the Tarot symbolism is sufficiently obscure, and the plot sufficiently snarled (lots of running around, mysterious and menacing strangers, uncertain and altered loyalties – all that cyberpunk cynicism) that my grasp on what actually happens in the novel is pretty hazy. It’s clear, at least, that Ings is using the generic trappings of cyberpunk quite deliberately, to think about how the psyche works, how storytelling is embedded right at the root of us psychologically speaking (and that’s all the Tarot is, really – a tool for telling stories about the psyche): he’s writing a full decade after the beginnings of cyberpunk, after all, and eight years after Neuromancer. This kind of self-awareness really appeals to me as a reader. For all its oddities of pacing and narrative, Hot Head has a weight to it, a sort of considered postmodern quality, that made it a pleasingly chewy read: a vintage diamond in the rough.

Review: The Proverbs of Middle-Earth

I’m a Tolkien fan. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings every year for at least the last ten years, and probably longer than that. I know the books more or less inside out. For better or worse, they have shaped me as a reader, as a thinker and as a person.

It’s precisely for this reason that I very rarely read criticism of Tolkien’s work*, and I never write it. When you know a text that well, it’s impossible to get any sort of critical distance from it. What efforts I have made to say something meaningful and insightful about the books have turned out shallow and insubstantial; I think there’s a tendency as a reader to mistake personal gnosis about a beloved text for objective critical insight.

I mention this because, in my view, this fannish lack of critical rigour is exactly what afflicts David Rowe’s study The Proverbs of Middle-Earth. Rowe’s stated intention is to interrogate the different cultures of Middle-earth, and the individual members of those cultures that we meet in the texts, through the proverbs that they use. This isn’t inherently an unsound proposition, although I can think of more interesting approaches (for instance, considering how proverbial utterances represent assertions of power in the text – I’m thinking of passages like Gimli and Elrond’s proverbial exchange on the subject of whether the Fellowship should be required to take oaths of loyalty in The Fellowship of the Ring). But it’s one that’s very open to the sort of Watsonian textual interpretation that I see a lot in fandom, and that I personally find very frustrating for the way it elides the role of the author: discussing elements of a secondary world as if they were real, without reference to wider cultural factors or artistic goals that might have influenced how they were written. So, in his chapter on Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, Rowe concludes that “Instead of profound counsel to navigate the vagaries of existence, the subjects with which Bombadil and Goldberry’s wisdom concerns itself are the simple things of their simple lives…Courage, war, justice, death, and the wider world are off the radar.” This isn’t an incorrect assertion (although I’d argue that you don’t need to spend seven pages talking about Bombadil and Goldberry’s use of proverbs to get to it). But any sort of critical development is missing. How is the pair’s simple life important to the text? How does it relate to Tolkien’s conception of the relationship between humanity and nature? Could Thorin’s comment in The Hobbit about valuing “food and cheer and song above hoarded gold” shed any light here? Who knows? Not David Rowe, it seems. This is the case in every chapter: Rowe will come to some fairly obvious conclusion about the culture he’s describing and fail utterly to interrogate the significance of that conclusion within the text and within Tolkien’s corpus as a whole.

There are points, too, when Rowe veers from Watsonian exegesis into wholesale fabrication, as when in his chapter on Hobbits he posits that “three intermingling streams can be identified within the wisdom culture of the Shire-folk”. These three streams, he claims, correspond to the three different classes of Shire society: Rustics, Gentlehobbits and Travellers (the latter a class made up exclusively, apparently, of Frodo, Bilbo, Sam, Pippin and Merry). But the text, I’d argue, doesn’t support these neat divisions; certainly not in so clear-cut a way as Rowe’s confident laying-out of these classes might suggest. They’re presented as divisions that exist unambiguously within the world of the novel, rather than as interpretive tools. This may seem like a semantic difference, but to me it’s symptomatic of the lack of rigour Rowe displays throughout the book.

This lack of rigour is also evident in Rowe’s failure to stick to a useful definition of what counts as a proverb within the texts. Early on, he cites eminent paremiologist Professor Wolfgang Mieder in defining a proverb as “a concise statement of an apparent truth that has had, has, or will have currency among the people.” It’s the “currency among the people” part that Rowe struggles with: while there are a number of sayings in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that are clearly marked as proverbs, explicitly or implicitly, there are plenty of other aphoristic pieces of dialogue that might be Middle-Earth proverbs, except that we have no textual evidence either way. Sprawling as Tolkien’s worldbuilding was, in many cases we simply don’t have enough access to each Middle-Earth culture to know whether a phrase has “currency among the people” or not. But instead of restricting himself to aphorisms that are obviously proverbial in-universe – which would, I think, actually have made the book more focused and thus more insightful – he broadens his scope to include practically every phrase that sounds even vaguely profound. Is Aragorn’s “It is perilous to cut bough or twig from a living tree in Fangorn” a proverb? Clearly not. It’s just dialogue. It maybe looks like a bit like a proverb from our perspective because of Tolkien’s archaic diction and sentence structure, but there’s nothing to suggest that lots of people actually say this on a regular basis in-universe. Or what about Gandalf’s “There is nothing Sauron cannot turn to evil uses”? Again, not so much a proverb as a statement of fact, a truism. Thus at times The Proverbs of Middle-Earth begins to feel like an investigation not of Tolkien’s proverbs but of his dialogue; and not a very interesting one either.

In David Rowe’s Introduction to his book, he speaks tellingly of the proverbs of Middle-earth as key components of Tolkien’s worldbuilding:

They…constitute one of the most widely-occurring streams of credibility-building detail in Tolkien’s work, meaning that studying them is one of the best ways in which…Tolkien’s convincing, satisfying world [can be] enjoyed.

That Rowe’s key justification for studying Tolkien’s proverbs is in order to enjoy the novels more – rather than to examine Tolkien’s prose style, or the Old English oral storytelling traditions his work often harks back to, for instance – goes right to the heart of the amateur enthusiasm that powers The Proverbs of Middle-Earth. The book is clearly a labour of love in the truest sense – but I can’t see it granting new insights to anyone who already knows The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings inside out.

*I’m not, here, talking about work that exposes Tolkien’s racism and sexism: as with any author, I think it’s vital to acknowledge and grapple with the more problematic aspects of his writing.

Review: The Unreal and the Real Volume 2

“We live in capitalism,” said Ursula le Guin in 2014, accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

I thought of these words often as I read The Unreal and the Real Volume 2, a collection of le Guin’s short speculative stories (the first volume of the set collects her realist shorts, apparently); of the hard and necessary work of imagining alternatives to capitalism, to the way we live now, in order, hopefully, to construct better ways of being. Spanning forty years of le Guin’s career, the stories here are collectively engaged in that work: imagining alternative societies and models of being-in-the-world.

We begin with le Guin’s most famous, and most obviously polemical, story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a parable about complicity, exploitation and moral responsibility. It’s not so much the central dilemma of this piece – is the suffering of a single child too high a price to pay for the happiness of a whole society? – which interests me: although it’s powerfully stated, it’s not a question le Guin explores in much depth; once the point has been made there is not that much more to be said. What makes this story worth rereading is the way le Guin describes the people of Omelas. They are happy without being simple, she says; and then:

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Along with the imagination of alternative ways of existence, we might consider this an organising principle of the collection. Although the stories in this volume are not all happy – not by a long shot – le Guin is nevertheless unafraid to describe joy where her characters encounter it, as they not-infrequently do. Joy in the specific: there are as many types of fulfilment and contentment here as there are of pain and suffering. There is an optimism and a humanity to le Guin’s work in this volume that engenders, even in these terrible times, a hope that feels substantial and weighty and true.

“The Shobies’ Story” is a case in point. Part of the interconnected set of works known as le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, it’s about a group of people who volunteer to be the first higher-order lifeforms to try out an experimental faster-than-light technology. They must first establish a shared bond through story, in order to operate effectively as a crew; when the new technology perturbs their perception of reality so that each of them experiences a different version of events, they have to navigate back to that cohesion in order to return home. Again, it’s not so much this story’s plot that remains with me, as the quiet joy the characters experience through sharing their own stories with each other; they all come from very different cultural backgrounds and societies, and yet, as a crew, they are able to achieve a comfortable equilibrium that sees them through a fundamental upheaval in how they experience the world. It’s a warm story that speaks to the joy of family and togetherness.

We see a similarly peaceful joy among the female residents of the planet Eleven-Soro in another Hainish story, “Solitude”. Eleven-Soro is a matriarchal society where each woman lives alone, interacting with her neighbours only obliquely, cultivating a life of quietness and inner stillness. (The men, meanwhile, are banished to the wilderness in their teenage years, to form violent and lawless gangs; if they survive, they lead hermit-like existences, visited occasionally by horny women.) For the anthropologist who comes to study Eleven-Soro, this extreme introversion is a barrier to her research; for her young daughter, it is a haven. “Solitude” is not really a warm story. It’s about the splintering of a family and the difficulties of cultural assimilation. But at its heart is the joy of the introvert who’s found a place where she can avoid the pressure of other people’s regard.

“Nine Lives” takes a different view of solitude and self-reliance. A piece that’s less anthropologically focused and more hard SF adventure story, it’s about a group of ten clones who are sent out to relieve two non-cloned humans on a mining planet. The clones have been carefully trained and conditioned to work seamlessly as a team, no outside input needed, but when nine of them are killed in an accident, the one left standing has to work out how to be a person in the world again; a person able to rely on, and support, people who are not versions of himself. Like “The Shobies’ Story”, “Nine Lives” is about the life-saving grace of community and human connection, the importance of participating fully in the world.

This life-saving grace is what gives “Betrayals”, another Hainish story, its gut-wrenching power. Its protagonist Yoss lives what looks at first like a self-sufficient life alone with her two pets. But when she finds a disgraced political leader ill in the mud near her home, she feels compelled to care for him, and out of a sort of mutual cantankerousness comes a relationship built on respect, on regard for each other’s safety (Yoss’ care is later reciprocated when her home burns down), and on an appreciation of each other as people, as humans. Here, again, we see the joy that can be found in connection and community, and the way that that joy can move us past failed politics.

Similarly, “Sur” imagines a group of women who make the first trek to the South Pole – before Amundsen’s successful mission and Scott’s doomed one – and then don’t tell anyone; it’s a corrective and a rebuke to the patriarchal, imperial impulse that demands glory for glory’s sake. “Achievement is smaller than men think”: it’s enough for this close-knit group of women that they reached the South Pole, taking joy in their determination, their camaraderie, in the adventure itself.

As in any short story collection, there are misfires. “The First Contact with the Gorgonids” (1991) has aged extremely poorly: although satirical in intent, its conflation of Aboriginal Australians and actual aliens centres the white gaze uncomfortably, and the overall tone of the piece is, hmm, dated. Similarly, “The Poacher” makes for slightly enraging reading post #MeToo, with its seemingly incorrigibly horny protagonist.

Other stories are inoffensive but one-note: “Mazes”, a piece about a sentient lab animal or alien who is fatally unable to communicate with the human scientist experimenting on them; “The Ascent of the North Face”, another humorous story about a group of people making an epic climb of what turns out to be an ordinary house; “The Wife’s Story”, a “punchline story” that has little to offer once you’ve read it the first time round. There are several stories – “The Fliers of Gy”, “The Silence of the Asonu” and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” – that describe cultures that are different from our own in fundamental ways, and look at how those differences play out in unexpected ways both within and outside those cultures. These are thought-provoking texts that clearly build on the themes of the collection – particularly in their reimagining of what being a person in the world can look like – but, being essentially descriptions, they lack the dynamism, and thus emotional power, of the more narrative pieces in the collection. (“The Matter of Seggri” is an honourable exception in this category, partly because its imagined society is described through fictional source-texts that are narrative in themselves, and partly because its interrogation of gender roles is so immediately and sharply relevant in our own world.)

“Semley’s Necklace” is more successful at examining competing understandings of what the world is like: its titular heroine initially appears to live in a sort of Old Norse fairytale universe, but the devastating consequences of her quest to retrieve a family heirloom reveals that the underpinnings of her universe are far more Einsteinian. The story has a wonderful doubleness – both fairytale and scientific readings remain viable throughout – which demonstrates the mutability of what we think of as truth, of what we think of as ultimately inescapable. Misfires and minor works notwithstanding, it’s this impression of mutability that the collection leaves us with: the idea that there is more, more to imagine and experience and enjoy than the logics of capitalism or the demands of literary fashion will allow. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” le Guin’s National Book Foundation speech continued. Absorbing, resonant and wise, the pieces collected in The Unreal and the Real Volume 2 together unlock the imaginative space we so desperately need to do just that.

Review: The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes first made her name with 2008’s Moxyland and 2010’s Zoo City, highly political novels set in near-future South African cities that are interested in capitalism, social deprivation, the abuse of state and corporate power. Zoo City – the only one of the pair I’ve read – is also suffused with urban energies, the ragged rhythms of the city, and its speculative element lends a note of Gothic excess to the proceedings. It’s an imperfect but dynamic novel, which, it turns out, is my favourite type. So Beukes’ third novel, her breakout The Shining Girls (2013), is…something of a contrast.

Set in Chicago, it revolves around two characters: Kirby Mizrachi, a young woman from the 1990s who survives a horrific murder attempt and dedicates herself to identifying the culprit; and Harper Curtis, her would-be murderer. In the Depression era, Harper finds a seemingly unremarkable House that compels him to travel through the twentieth century, finding and murdering promising women – the titular “shining girls” – and collecting grisly trophies at each of his crime scenes. Can Kirby, working with a world-weary sports journalist, connect seemingly impossible dots to work out what Harper is doing, and stop him?

This is, then, a very different novel to Zoo City: instead of a riotous urban fantasy set in a richly depicted Johannesburg, a meditation of sorts on the nature of guilt and complicity, we have something much more solidly commercial; an SF thriller of the likes of Claire North’s Touch or M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts. Which is not to say that there isn’t thematic depth here. Beukes’ key rhetorical move in The Shining Girls is to give each of the women Harper murders a chapter of her own, documenting in tight first-person perspective her hopes, her dreams, her family life (or lack of it), the texture of her existence. Beukes imbues each of these women with life, which of course sharpens our sense of tragedy when each of those lives is snuffed out. But the rude curtailment of each of their stories also makes a wider social point: these women are remarkable, and they could have achieved remarkable things if not for the spectre of male violence. How many other women across the world, across history, have been prevented from leading fulfilling family lives, becoming more fully who they are, making scientific and other breakthroughs, shaping their societies, by men?

It’s striking that, by contrast to the detailed histories of Harper’s victims, Harper himself is relatively underdeveloped. He broke his brother’s legs as a child, sort of but not really by accident; he commits violence casually, to serve his own ends, even before the House draws him into its orbit; he feels entitled to the bodies of women, even when he’s not murdering them. But what drives him, what motivates him, what has turned him into this person? We don’t really know. And that’s the point. Is there not a vast swathe of Western literature – not to mention popular culture – dedicated to examining the psyches of violent men, while their female victims remain unregarded, pitied but never taken seriously as people who once had lives and hopes? And does it ultimately matter why men are violent, when the simple fact of their violence limits the existences of everyone around them? In this novel, it’s the women that matter, that we care about; Harper, by contrast, is a pathetic, petty figure, entirely inglorious.

Beukes’ classic, closed-loop time travel plot underscores this, as the novel’s denouement returns us to scenes we’ve seen before with a satisfying sense of inevitability. Harper murders because he does. There is no real cause, just an endless loop of violence in which he is seemingly trapped – unable to move beyond his compulsion, which fails at every turn to satisfy him. Meanwhile, it’s Kirby who’s able to move on beyond that trap, her implied dynamic future a contrast to Harper’s magically incurred stasis.

If Beukes avoids the temptation to psychoanalyse her serial killer, she also avoids the trap of middle-class white feminism: her shining girls include a Black welder and a transgender showgirl. This is thoughtful work: a well-made, carefully controlled novel that combines a taut thriller plot with thematic and emotional heft. On a personal level, I preferred the messiness of Zoo City; here, it feels like all that resonant messiness has been filed away in favour of technical excellence. Nevertheless, it’s a good book, and a highly readable one.