Review: A Conspiracy of Truths

Alexandra Rowland’s first novel A Conspiracy of Truths, published in 2018, features a fleshed-out fantasy world with an unusual political system and a halfway convincing economy, a multitude of queer characters and characters of colour whose queerness and nonwhiteness go unremarked-upon, an unreliable narrator and a moderately interesting narrative structure featuring a number of interpolated stories. Nevertheless, it doesn’t quite work.

Our protagonist is Chant, an itinerant storyteller who’s arrested for witchcraft while journeying with his apprentice in the rather dismal land of Nuryevet. When he inadvertently admits his friendship with a renowned pirate and spy executed in Nuryevet twenty years previously, espionage is added to the list of his charges, instantly making him an object of interest to the country’s rulers. Here’s where that unusual political system comes in, by the way: Nuryevet is ruled by five democratically elected Primes who head up the departments of Law, Justice, Order (who enforce the laws), Pattern (who oversee foreign affairs and spycraft) and Coin. So: Chant finds himself of interest to both Pattern and Justice, and, with the help of his ambitious advocate Consanza, his trusting apprentice Ylfing and Ylfing’s revolutionary boyfriend Ivo, he sets out to play them off against each other, hoping to make himself useful enough to stave off an impending death sentence.

Chant is, as I’ve said, an unreliable narrator. Posing as a crotchety old man who doesn’t need anyone else, he tells himself and the reader small, obvious lies throughout the text: his eyesight isn’t failing, his hearing is just as good as it ever was, he’s not at all fond of Ylfing. While on a paragraph level these remarks contribute to the wry, humorous tone of the novel, their larger effect is to cast doubt on Chant’s motivations; or, rather, since his motivations are crystal-clear throughout, on whether he has the right to do what he’s doing. It becomes clear as the story progresses that Chant’s actions are about to destabilise the country’s political order altogether, and in fact he begins explicitly trying to make that happen – all in an attempt to save his own skin and escape Nuryevet. His excuse, which he repeats often to Ylfing and to himself, is that Nuryevet is doomed anyway, with corruption rife among the Primes and the courts, a decadent middle class more interested in getting ahead than in bettering their society, and astronomical taxes impoverishing the rural working class. Through her ironisation of Chant’s narration, Rowland asks us to consider whether any of that excuses Chant’s cynical destruction of a country – which eventually leads to misery and death for many of those in Nuryevet’s capital Vsila – for his own apolitical ends. My personal view of what the answer to that question is meant to be is admittedly heavily influenced by the novel’s sequel, A Choir of Lies, in which we get some ofYlfing’s perspective on events – but I would argue that we see the culmination of Chant’s realpolitik at the end of the novel, when Chant inflicts a massive personal betrayal on his loyal apprentice.

This is all interesting stuff, especially given current concerns around foreign influence in elections and the general political landscape in the West. And yet I found the novel resisting me as I read it; I kept feeling the urge to put it down and do something more interesting, or at least more immediately gratifying. A big part of this is the novel’s voice, which is strongly contemporary despite the late medieval setting (Nuryevet has a middle class but no heavy industry, plus the culture is heavily superstitious):

They’re like boots, stories. Some fit you just right, some keep your toes warm in the winter, and some of ’em rub at you until you’re sore and blistered.

This voice has a twofold effect: it in theory helps increase our understanding of and empathy for characters in historic settings by conveying to the reader that these characters are just like us (which they aren’t); and in this novel in particular it establishes Chant as an outsider observing and commenting on Nuryeven politics (although it has to be said that the Nuryevet characters talk like this too). I find, though, that it tends to distance me from the characters rather than increase my empathy for them: the text isn’t allowing me access to how a medieval-type person understands a cultural milieu that is very different from our own. I also found that the interpolated stories – some told by Chant, some by other characters – tend to interrupt the flow of the narrative more than they enrich the novel’s world: again, they distanced me from the characters and the story, working as a distraction from what the novel’s trying to say rather than an amplification of it.

It is possible to conceive of a novel that successfully puts a contemporary voice into historical fantasy: Steven Brust is quite good at this, partly because his novels don’t take themselves very seriously, and partly because the dissonance between the fantastical setting and his protagonist’s irreverence is part of a larger point he’s making about social class. Rowland is arguably doing more – or at least attempting more – with their novel, but the fact that they’re not leveraging their protagonist’s contemporary voice as much as they could means that A Conspiracy of Truths is less successful, for this reader at least. It’s an interesting novel. But I don’t feel tempted to read it again.

Review: Waste Tide

Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide is an odd book that doesn’t quite seem to have found its marketing niche. It’s an involved, almost thriller-y novel that’s set in the fictional Silicon Isle, an island off the coast of southeast China that’s become almost apocalyptically polluted as a result of being used as a dump for the world’s electronic waste. I’d class it with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth (which also has an explicitly environmental focus) as an ostensibly SFnal text that is actually very light on SF elements – both works are more interested in how people with power respond to unprecedented environmental devastation.

In Waste Tide, then, a number of Silicon Isle families have grown rich off recycling the rest of the world’s e-waste, relying on the low-paid and dangerous labour of blow-ins from other parts of China hoping for a share of the wealth. Meanwhile, other islanders mourn their island’s lost beauty; and a representative of American recycling company TerraGreen tries to strike a deal with the heads of the wealthiest families to clean up Silicon Isle’s operations (and in doing so earn TerraGreen an obscene amount of money).

In the midst of all this is Mimi, a “waste girl”: in the highly stratified hierarchy of Silicon Isle, she’s among the lowest of the low, sorting waste for a pittance (having, I think, been trafficked from her village on the mainland). It’s an apt epithet: Mimi is the embodiment of the way the global recycling industry – global industries of all kinds, really – treat its lowest-paid workers, as literally disposable resources.

That’s true, anyway, until she puts on a discarded helmet containing a sharp object that scratches her head, infecting her with something that makes her incredibly valuable to the American authorities. But even now she is disposable, a victim of Cold War experiments, valuable as an object of study and not as a person.

It’s significant, then, that the novel’s denouement sees the waste people banding together to protect Mimi, for no other reason than because she’s one of them. If humanity is to reverse environmental degradation and fight the effects of climate change, Chen seems to be saying, then it has to start with corporations and businesspeople seeing people and the environments they live in not as resources to be used but as having immense value in their own right.

Why “odd”, though? Well, the novel takes a hard left about halfway through, veering from realist near-future SF into something that feels much more…fantastical than earlier chapters have warranted. Later on, there’s another detour into Cold War conspiracy theory/spy story. I don’t feel like either of these changes of tone are handled particularly well, with the result that the novel isn’t quite…coherent? There’s a lot going on, and no one interpretive schema to fit it all into.

Still, it’s an entry in an important subgenre that’s still in its infancy: the literature of climate change, work that strives to comprehend the enormity of what we’ve done and are doing to our planet, our only home. If only for that, it’s worth a read if you’re at all interested in SF.

Review: Troublemaker: Suriving Hollywood and Scientology

Welp, one of those things is very different from the other.

That kind of sums up how I feel about this book. It’s a memoir by actor Leah Remini, who is apparently quite big in the US (I had never heard of her before stumbling across this in the religion section at the library). She was raised into Scientology by her mother, who converted when Remini was nine and moved to a church facility in Los Angeles, where she stayed until breaking into Hollywood (although she didn’t leave the church until 2013, at the age of 25). The book focuses both on Remini’s life as a Scientologist and on her acting career.

It’s…fine? As an account of the various horrors that the church perpetuates, it feels pretty superficial – which is strange, because there’s plenty of fuckery going on, whether that’s an auditor demanding $40,000 in payment for three months’ worth of stolen burgers in the eighties or the church grooming a woman to be Tom Cruise’s girlfriend. It’s ghostwritten, so I imagine that has something to do with it. And there’s also the fact that Remini spends a good portion of her Scientology career in their celebrity programme, being buttered up for vast amounts of cash (like, millions of dollars, by all accounts); I got the sense that she was sheltered from the church’s worst abuses because of how valuable she was to them. I’d have preferred to read the story of an ordinary Scientologist who didn’t have that kind of money or name recognition to offer the organisation.

The last chapters of the book are the closest it comes to properly chilling. Remini was reasonably close friends with Shelly Miscavige, the wife of the church’s leader David Miscavige. Around 2006, Shelly abruptly disappeared from public life. Remini suspects she’s being imprisoned in a high-security Scientology compound in California; despite two missing persons reports and some pretty suspicious circumstances, Shelly is still missing.

Troublemaker isn’t very interesting as a Scientology memoir, and the writing’s not engaging enough to read it otherwise. Unless you’re interested in Remini herself, or are a massive Scientology completist, maybe…read something else?

Review: VALIS

VALIS is a 1981 novel by Philip K. Dick in which an author-insert named Horselover Fat cooks up an elaborate theory about the true nature of the universe involving a shade of pink that doesn’t exist, the idea that all time between 5th century Rome and 1974 was a fictional interpolation by an evil entity, and an alien satellite called VALIS.

For Dick, this was all literally true; hence the self-insert. There is, however, some metafictional play here: the novel is narrated by Phil, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Man in the High Castle, who exists alongside Horselover Fat. Later in the novel, Fat dies, and Phil realises that he unconsciously split Fat away from his own personality in a sort of Freudian rejection…and so on. The novel’s chronological flow is similarly confused, jumping around timelines in a way that’s vaguely free-associative, fracturing experience into personal gnosis. I found myself jumping back and forth trying to work out what had happened before what and what, therefore, was important when.

Adam Roberts describes VALIS as “a novel of prodigious, almost heroic tedium” and goes on to relate that to the work the novel is doing:

It’s difficult to think of another writer, or theologian, who gives us this insight into precisely the ordinariness of religious revelation—a thrilling banality perhaps, but a banality nonetheless

I like this reading, and find it convincing. But I also feel the novel is more…purposeful – more aware of its own ridiculousness – than Roberts suggests. Complicated and made self-aware by its metafictional shenanigans around the identity of its author, it’s more than the fervent conspiracy-ramblings of the Scientologist or the UFOlogist. It’s not even confident in its own divine revelation, as the prophet of Fat’s newfound cosmology, a two-year-old child named Sophia, dies just a few days after we meet her: was she truly Wisdom embodied? Or just a precocious child with a brain tumour, coached by her parents? With its fractured narrative and its lack of faith in anything, VALIS embodies not only the tedium of religious revelation but also the impossibility of following its logic. If everything means nothing, then everything can also mean everything; so the believer can pick and choose signs to their heart’s content. It’s this arbitrariness that Dick and his characters fear most, I think: the arbitrariness that says that one person’s religious revelation is another’s hallucination. Nothing is true for everyone.

Review: City on Fire

I don’t really know what to say about Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire except that it’s massive and ridiculous and I loved it.

It’s the book that achieved the highest advance ever for a debut novel: Alfred A. Knopf paid $2m for it in what must have been a publicity stunt (clearly one that worked, at least on me!).

Because there’s nothing unusual or innovative about City on Fire. I got into the habit of describing it as “Dickens except in the 1970s”: it’s almost a thousand pages long and features a sprawling cast of characters intersect meet in unlikely ways. And everything turns out basically OK in the end. For most people. If you don’t look too closely.

Set in 1970s New York, it’s centred on the fabulously rich Hamilton-Sweeney family and two of its scions – disaffected prodigal son William, living in an artist’s garret, and not-yet-divorced Regan. Along the way it takes in William’s actually-impoverished Black lover Mercer, a group of punk kids that’s slowly but surely becoming a cult, a disabled detective, a firework-maker slowly going out of business and a Carker-esque banker.

“Generous” is the word that comes to mind: City on Fire is a generous novel. It has space for everyone and everything in its expansive heart: from the mundane (hangovers, teenage angst) to the dramatic (looting, missing explosives); from the very richest to those who have nothing; it takes everyone’s concerns seriously and it recognises everyone’s humanity.

It’s several hundred pages too long, its climax alone takes about 100 exhausting pages, I don’t have a clue what it’s about, but I loved inhabiting it. I love long books, and City on Fire is no exception.

Review: Narbonic: The Perfect Collection Volume 1

Narbonic was a webcomic that ran daily between 2000 and 2006. I only know this because the Bandersnatch supported a Kickstarter to publish the entire run in two physical volumes, which thus currently reside on our bookshelves. (You can also find Narbonics here, for free, with notes by author Shaenon K. Garrity. This will prove to be a source of distraction and procrastination for me for at least the next week or so. Although I am told it is also a source of spoilers for the second volume, so.)

The strip revolves around the exploits of Helen B. Narbon, mad scientist, and her henchfolk: Dave the computer guy, Mell the evil intern and Artie the genetically engineered superintelligent gerbil.

Actually analysing something like this feels a bit like missing the point. It’s not really…for that? Most of what it’s doing is mashing up our cultural expectations of what mad scientists are and do with Western cultural codes around the workplace. For Humorous Effect, obviously. And it’s a webcomic: I’m not sure how far Garrity planned in advance, but certainly the early strips are an explosive mish-mash of cultural references and themes and general light-hearted internetty fooling around. It’s fun, and it’s possible to enjoy things that are fun, but I’m not sure there’s that much more to say about it.

Review: Watchmen

Here’s another classic: Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen was published in 1986, and it’s probably my favourite piece of superhero media. (I’m not usually a fan of superhero stories. They bore me.) It’s about a group of masked vigilantes, the Minutemen, almost all of whom are perfectly ordinary human beings with gadgets and/or extreme psychological quirks – more Batman than Superman, apart from Doctor Manhattan, a former nuclear physicist who gained power over time and space when he was caught in a nuclear accident.

So, yeah. Its key question is: what would late Cold War-era America really look like if a bunch of randomers started doling out vigilante justice? Especially if each of those randomers has a different idea of what justice is and what the world should look like? And if those randomers are granted the support and blessing of the government?

As I’ve said, my understanding of the superhero genre is limited at best – and my reasons for disliking it generally might have more to do with my own greater tolerance for books than films than any actual deficiency in the subject matter. The only superhero film I’ve seen that addresses the same kind of questions as Watchmen does (apart from the film adaptation of Watchmen itself, which I mostly found interminable, running as it does to about two and a half hours) is The Dark Knight, whose focus on just two characters, Batman and the Joker, makes its engagement with those themes more limited than what Watchmen’s wider scope allows it to do. Moore’s expanded cast of vigilantes allows him to explore conflicts within the group around what “good” and “evil” look like, and what they should be fighting for. Is simple superheroing enough? Or should the Minutemen be doing more sustained work towards achieving the greater good?

I did like how the ending dramatises these conflicts to produce something very bleak indeed – it asks us as readers to examine our moral priorities and our expectations for how superhero narratives are “meant” to turn out. It’s a complex novel that gives these vigilantes psychological reality against the backdrop of a world that is itself complex – it allows us none of the black and white moralities of traditional, patriotic American superhero stories.

Something for readers to be aware of is the relationship between vigilante Dan (known as Nite Owl) and his compatriot Sally – a relationship that begins when Sally is sixteen and Dan is definitely Older. Generally, the novel is not kind to its women – there’s only really two of them, for one thing, and one of them exists primarily in order to be sexually assaulted by one of the Minutemen. The other, Laurie, is similarly defined by her relationship dramas, which few of the male Minutemen seem to share.

If that’s something you can overlook, though, it’s certainly worth doing so. Watchmen is a genre-defining novel, one that’s satisfyingly complex even for readers like me who have only a passing knowledge of Marvel, DC and their ilk. Superhero narratives are so prevalent now that their core assumptions and tropes are easily accessible to everyone – and, given their dominance in our mass media today, it’s important to be aware of their history, and of works like this one that have informed their development and their reception.

Review: Gods Without Men

Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men is one of those books that it’s always hard to start writing about: I haven’t figured out a way into the text, I’m not sure what Kunzru’s trying to achieve. I have no impetus to write.

I think it’s an interesting novel, but one that’s not quite successful. Its multiple storylines, each a bead on a necklace strung through time, all have at their heart a single rock formation in the Californian Mojave desert: three spires of sandstone called the Pinnacles. The Pinnacles feature as a sacred site for Native Americans in the area, who believe that Yucca Woman lives there, weaving the worlds of the living and the dead together; as the base for a UFO cult that springs up in the 60s, thriving for a few years before turning toxic as waves of outsiders descend upon it; and, in the novel’s most contemporary timeline, as the place where a severely autistic three-year-old named Raj disappears from under the noses of his struggling parents, and reappears a few weeks later miraculously changed for the better…

…which is one of the places where I think the novel seriously fails. Kunzru isn’t interested in Raj as a neurodivergent human being; he’s interested in him as a plot driver. The narrative centres his parents, Lisa and Jaz, and asks us to sympathise primarily with how hard their lives have become as they strive to manage Raj’s unpredictable behaviour and his inability to communicate verbally: Lisa, who’s given up her publishing job to become Raj’s full-time carer, desperately researches hokey New Age “cures”, while Jaz fends off the suggestions of his Sikh family. Nowhere in all of this is an appreciation of Raj as a person with his own experience of the world. By the end of the novel, he’s started to communicate verbally and show physical affection; but, again, these developments, which come about after his exposure to the Pinnacles, are presented in terms of his parents’ reactions, their relief and hope, rather than his own reality.

And then there’s the Pinnacles themselves, the motif that ties the whole novel together. For me, they’re simultaneously the book’s biggest failing and the source of its power. They’re neither obviously SFnal nor obviously metaphorical, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what exactly Kunzru is doing with them. Maureen Kincaid Speller suggests that it is something to do with human connection (Raj returns from the Pinnacles better able to connect with other people; the UFO cult is a close-knit, if dysfunctional, community living out in the desert) and though I think that’s a good way to approach the novel as a whole it doesn’t quite work as a reading of how the Pinnacles themselves function. For instance, I like her example of the white anthropologist failing to connect meaningfully with the Native Americans whose myths he is trying to study, but as an example of how the Pinnacles promote or reward connection it’s thin. And even if the Pinnacles are about connection…what then? What do we do with that reading, why is it there, how does the metaphor function?

(It’s interesting that Speller’s review is largely an attempt to come to terms with what the Pinnacles are doing – much like mine.)

For my part, I wonder if there’s something about cultural appropriation/co-option going on. There’s a cycle in the novel going on in which the Pinnacles are seen as a religious site or one of particular cultural/supernatural significance, which significance is then misunderstood by those who come after. The white anthropologist (whose name currently escapes me) studies Yucca Woman and the myths around it in order to preserve what he sees as a rapidly declining culture, but his failure fully to enter into that culture causes the death of a man, and he ends up dying out in the rocks. The UFO cult starts as a tight-knit community but is destroyed by an influx of strangers committing mundane, sordid evils like drug dealing and pimping. Jaz’s concern about the transformation Raj experiences is treated as a potentially dangerous mental illness by his psychologist. Is this a novel concerned with faith – more specifically, with how one person’s faith is another’s mundanity? In this reading, the deeply personal nature of faith and belief and our experience of the numinous clashes with the ever-increasing interconnectedness of the world in which we live. In his highly-paid day job as a stockbroker, Jaz works with a new programme called Walter, which looks for, and finds, patterns in things that seem utterly unconnected: say, ice-cream sales in Ohio and ocean currents in the Pacific. Walter turns out to be incredibly powerful and incredibly good at making money – but as well as just taking advantage of the data it processes, it actually seems to be affecting world affairs. By the time Jaz raises his concerns with his manager, he suspects that Walter has crashed the economy of a small South American country. The impersonal power of big data couldn’t be further from the transformative personal experiences people have at the Pinnacles.

It’s a bit of a mess of a novel, really, and I can’t say that it’s particularly stuck in my mind. I do like its ambiguity and its refusal to give easy answers; it’s a thinky kind of novel, with plenty of readings to offer. Kunzru’s White Tears is markedly more effective, though – read that instead.

50-Word Review: The Lives of Tao

Wesley Chu’s debut is a pedestrian SF thriller about centuries-old aliens fighting a war through human bodies. Not only is it utterly uninterested in engaging with the philosophical ramifications of its premise, it’s got weird gender politics, a creepy romance and aliens claiming all of humanity’s greatest achievements. Avoid.

(Content warning for loss of personal autonomy.)

Review: Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel, which (astonishingly, when you think about it) puts it relatively early in the series. It’s the third novel about Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, a police force which is slowly regaining relevance under Commander Samuel Vimes.

As with all of the Discworld novels, the plot is so encrusted with wordplay and humour and rich vital detail that it’s pretty much vestigial, but it is, more or less, a murder mystery. Someone has been killing old men. Somehow, the golems of the city are involved: giant clay people without voices, who are feared at worst and ignored at best, although they’re highly prized as workers because they don’t need to rest or eat or sleep. There’s also a plot to depose Ankh-Morpork’s supreme ruler Havelock Vetinari, because there’s always a plot to depose Vetinari. And there’s a dwarf who defies convention by openly identifying as female, in what is possibly Discworld’s closest approach to a queer storyline.

There is, in other words, a lot going on. That’s one of the great joys of the Ankh-Morpork novels, though: how full they are of life and incident, of the anarchic and wonderful energies of the archetypal city. (Ankh-Morpork is pretty obviously a mirror of London, with its great curving polluted river, its Isle of Gods, its defunct city gates.)

Much of that energy is generated by the social tensions the novel lays out, conflicts between old and new: the centuries-old vampire who manipulates short-lived humans like pawns on a chessboard comes up against the newly-relevant Watch and its stubbornly working-class Commander Vimes, fast rising to prominence; the brand-new concept of dwarf femininity attracts the opprobrium of much of dwarf-kind; the idea of golems suddenly having rights and thoughts and plans of their own is abhorrent, even terrifying, to Ankh-Morpork’s citizenry. But there’s nothing schematic or straightforward about this broad pattern of tension. Cherry Littlebottom, the lipstick-wearing, skirt-clad dwarf, harbours a commonly-held prejudice against werewolves, which she expresses repeatedly to her friend Constable Angua, who is herself a closeted werewolf. Vetinari, despite being the best ruler the city has ever had, despite being despised by aristocrats and generally on the side of justice, is an unelected tyrant with the capacity for occasional cruelty. The golems aren’t really new, they’re old, much like the Watch: so old they’ve become invisible. It’s this seething complexity, this web of allegiances and relationships, that makes Feet of Clay one of the very best of the Discworld novels: its view on the world is not simple.

But there is an arc, of course, and it is the long arc of justice. Discworld, and especially Ankh-Morpork, is founded on a vaguely Victorian idea of progress: the idea that things are getting better, slowly, by degrees, but inexorably. Things tend to be slightly better for people at the end of a Discworld novel than they do at the beginning.

Which is what makes these novels so comforting to return to, over and over again, in a time when things seem to be going backwards, when civil rights campaigns are appropriated by the interests of capital. That reassurance that things will get better, coupled with that acknowledgement that the world is messy and complex. The energies of a city slowly climbing to the light.