Review: The Overstory

The OverstoryOne of the main criticisms that I’ve seen levelled against Richard Powers’ Booker-shortlisted eco-novel The Overstory is its lack of complex characterisation. In a judgement for the Tournament of Books, for example, Tomi Obaro writes that “Characters increasingly felt more like archetypes than real, lived-in people…[Powers] loses the people for the trees.” Others have pointed out its use of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and its stereotyping of its Chinese-American and Indian-American characters. These flaws all undoubtedly exist; but they’re interesting to me because I think they’re by-products of an attempt to write a literary novel that is not anthropocentric. That is: if Powers misses the people for the trees, it’s because he means to.

It’s a messy novel, hard to summarise, that weaves together multiple strands and plotlines; but at its heart it brings together nine-ish characters whose lives have been changed or shaped, for better or for worse, by trees. Neelay Mehta falls from a tree as a child and is permanently paralysed; Olivia Vandergriff, having undergone a near-death experience, hears the voices of the USA’s last redwood trees calling on her to protect them; Nicholas Hoel is the inheritor of a remarkable family heirloom, a collection of old-style analogue photographs of a chestnut tree, taken every day from the same angle for close on a century. And so on. Many of these stories eventually become woven around tree-focused activism of some sort: a camp of hippies defending virgin forest against loggers; weeks spent in the branches of a towering redwood slated for felling; amateur arson in the dark.

What makes the novel different from the countless such sprawling social narratives Western literary culture has produced since Dickens (see also: Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru; Jonathan Franzen’s Purity; David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks; and so on) is Powers’ ascribing of intent to the trees: they narrate key passages as a sort of Greek chorus, and may or may not influence events in the narrative. This is well and subtly done: the trees’ narration is used sparingly enough that it never becomes cheap or trite or easy, and similarly their agency in the story is always sufficiently doubtful (is the compulsion Olivia feels just a side-effect of her accident? Did that tree really tip Neelay to the ground, or is that an impression born of a child’s overactive imagination?) that their true purposes remain unknowable, just out of sight. The trees of The Overstory are not wise, kindly Treebeards on the side of all good people; the effect is rather that of a vast, unknowable, alien presence lurking just off-page.

Powers writes with wonder and awe of the things that trees can do: of forests connected to a single underground organism spreading across acres; of the organic chemicals they emit to communicate with each other, chemicals that can even affect humans; of the incredible feats of biology that allow giant redwoods to draw water and nutrients up fifty metres into the air. In the face of their age, majesty and size, and the vast tragedy that is the deforestation of the USA, the actions of individual humans, however well-intentioned, begin to look increasingly irrelevant and futile. The trees, in other words, are the true protagonist of The Understory; individual trees (Mimas the giant redwood, the Hoel chestnut, the evergreen grove that engineer Mimi Ma fails to save) as well as trees in the abstract; and if the human characters are thinly sketched and their motivations questionable, it’s because they are, for Powers, not the focus of the story. Their individual subjectivities are relatively insignificant in the grand scale of the narrative.

It’s a bold approach for a genre like litfic that is generally focused on the individual bourgeois psyche, and not one that’s entirely successful. That the human characters are not ultimately important does not mean that they need to be lazy stereotypes; indeed, using such stereotypes in this way to gesture at humanity in the abstract suggests problematically that Powers thinks such stereotypes are true, or at the very least accurately representative. There are also odd threads of story that Powers fails to weave wholly successfully into his narrative tapestry: Neelay’s plotline, which sees him developing a massively profitable MMORPG based on exploring and developing a virgin world, seems poorly thematically integrated into the rest of the novel; similarly, it’s hard to see where stroke-paralysed Ray and his unfaithful but caring wife Dottie fit in. Ray and Dottie’s imaginary daughter is called Olivia, a detail which, together with the fact that another character’s story has an alternative ending that depends on whether she meets Neelay or not, suggests an underdeveloped mystical/many-worlds angle. It’s as if Powers has gone for a Cloud Atlas-ish “everything is connected” vibe without quite knowing what he intends to do with it.

And yet, for all its flaws, I find myself thinking of The Overstory when I’m out among trees, thinking of that vast and unknowable consciousness and all the things we’re still learning about these remarkable organisms that we share our planet with. The Overstory may be a flawed attempt to grapple with a non-human perspective, but it’s attempt I’ve seen relatively few writers make, especially outside the walled garden of SFF. So many of our narratives about the climate crisis and biodiversity loss centre humanity, even those that cast us as the villains; perhaps, if we are to reverse the damage we are doing to the natural world, radical change and radical approaches are needed. Powers’ is one such approach; I hope others will follow.

Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

Goodbye VitaminIt’s remarkable that I can have all but forgotten the details of a novel that deals with so heart-rending a subject as dementia, and yet, six months after reading Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, here we are. Khong’s protagonist is Ruth, a 30-something who returns home for a year when her father develops Alzheimer’s in order to help her mother care for him and adjust to her new reality.

The story of that year is narrated by Ruth in short, diary-like snippets: she relates her mother’s newfound obsession with preparing and serving unprocessed food; her own efforts to help her father keep teaching after he’s fired from the university he once lectured at for his increasingly erratic conduct; and the realisations she comes to about her parents’ marriage, including her father’s alcoholism and infidelity. Ruth’s voice is wry, lightly humorous and frankly not terribly original; you’ll be familiar with the general tone if you’ve ever watched an episode of Call the Midwife.

That sounds perhaps more damning than I mean it to be. I actually quite like Call the Midwife: I wish more television shared its gentleness and its hopefulness in the face of poverty, discrimination and political upheaval. Similarly, the grace and tenderness with which Khong’s characters face the dissolution of memory and the slow disappearance of a loved one is quietly touching and intensely humane; these are ordinary people making ordinary mistakes, and ultimately trying to do their best for each other in their own ways.

But, as with Call the Midwife, I think the humour and the gentleness flattens the intensity of what these characters are facing: it’s a consolatory move, a reassurance that actually everything is all right, when in reality it is not. The thing about dementia is that the person you knew is both gone forever and still there, in front of you, changed; and Khong’s wry tone here smooths over that disconnect, papers over that grief, in a way that is ultimately unsatisfying. I enjoyed the novel – while I was reading it. But nothing about it has stayed with me.

Review: All Systems Red

This review contains spoilers.

All Systems RedMartha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, which All Systems Red kicks off, have been quite prodigiously popular among science fiction fans: this first instalment won the 2018 Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella; its follow-up Artificial Condition won a Hugo again in 2019; Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy both won enough votes to be nominated in the same year; and a full-length novel, Network Effect, is up for the Hugo this year. It’s a pretty impressive track record.

The titular Murderbot is a SecUnit, a type of cyborg owned by a company that rents out equipment to planetary exploration teams. Unbeknownst to the company or to its clients, Murderbot has hacked its governor module, meaning it no longer has to obey human commands. It uses its newfound freedom to watch soap operas; in general, its primary goal in life is to be left alone. However, when the survey team it’s been rented to starts finding inexplicable discrepancies in the information they’ve been provided about the planet they’re exploring, Murderbot is forced into closer companionship with its human clients than it would like as it attempts to protect them from an unknown threat.

None of this, on the face of it, is especially groundbreaking. Stories that explore the personhood of artificial intelligences and robots are two a penny; the trope is so abundant, in fact, that mainstream authors have begun to examine it. Nor is All Systems Red‘s plot particularly complex or insightful: Murderbot and the humans get into trouble, and then get out of it; during the course of the story, Murderbot unexpectedly finds companionship, sympathy and a measure of self-determination.

The worldbuilding and Murderbot’s characterisation, though, are what give the novella its moreish quality. Wells is particularly good on what it feels like to live under capitalist conditions: the characters’ complete reliance on the equipment they’ve been supplied by the rental company – equipment which, as we know from Murderbot, is cheaply made and frequently faulty – is an affective reminder of the ubiquity of capitalism and the way it shapes every part of our lives. Similarly, in their attempts to deduce who’s responsible for the danger they’re in, Murderbot and the rest of the survey team are constantly thinking through the logics of capitalism, the kinds of crime that would benefit the company most: so, the company will take a bribe to conceal information from its clients, but will probably not actually hurt them, since that would cost it money. Again, the workings of capitalism are constantly foregrounded in the text, which incidentally makes the world of the novella feel very familiar and legible – since it operates along the exact same economic lines our own world does.

But it’s Murderbot itself that I suspect lies at the heart of the series’ popularity. Murderbot is genderless and asexual. It’s also painfully socially awkward, hating to make eye contact with humans and turning to face the wall when too many people are looking at it. And it cares intensely about the media it consumes.

Murderbot is basically a massive queer nerd.

More seriously, this all feels like an extension of the conversation SF has been having in recent years about who gets to see themselves represented. Many of the stories that make a case for the personhood of robots and AIs paradoxically adopt quite a narrow definition of “personhood” – one that’s generally based on normative, allosexual and neurotypical assumptions about what humans are like. For example, a robot might be shown to be deserving of personhood because it falls in love. It’s refreshing, then, to see a sympathetic robot character who falls outside those parameters, who exhibits both neuroatypical and asexual characteristics – especially given how rare explicitly ace characters still are in all kinds of fiction. It’s a corrective to the normativity of this kind of story.

Ultimately I don’t think All Systems Red is really that groundbreaking: Murderbot is too readily sympathetic a character really to challenge our notions of personhood, and I think even the critique of capitalism is mostly defanged by the novella’s consolatory ending, in which Murderbot is bought by the survey team and essentially freed. Having said that, though, the fact that it does hit so many familiar narrative beats makes it a pretty enjoyable, comfortable read: it’s solid science fiction, well-told, with a relatable protagonist and a convincing world. That’s a combination that’s rarer than you might think.

Review: Costume Since 1945: Historical Dress from Street Style to Couture

Deirdre Clancy’s Costume Since 1945 is pretty much what it says on the tin: an illustrated history of the key fashions and modes of dress that were prominent throughout the second half of the 20th century. Clancy is a costume designer, and the book’s illustrated not with photographs but with Clancy’s own drawings, miniature people modelling the looks she’s talking about in the text.

It’s an interesting idea – interesting enough to enough people, apparently, that the book is now in its second edition – but I think I wanted clearer images pointing out key silhouettes (silhouettes, as I’ve recently learned, being more important to recreating the feel of historical dress than the actual garments).

I also seem to remember that the text is very iffy when it comes to identities that aren’t white, cishet and abled. There is some treatment of non-Western fashions but it’s not in any way systematic, and Clancy in many cases doesn’t provide the context to make their inclusion meaningful or helpful. There aren’t I think any disabled people represented, and the book also features outdated terminology for trans people (the second edition came out in 2015). I guess it might be useful as a general reference text, but it wasn’t quite as comprehensive or informative as I expected and it wouldn’t be my first choice.

Review: The Thieves of Ostia

Caroline Lawrence’s The Thieves of Ostia is the first in her 17-book Roman Mysteries series for MG readers, which follows the various crime-solving exploits of its young heroine Flavia Gemina and her friends in various locations across the Roman Empire. This first novel sees Flavia assemble her squad (her Jewish neighbour Jonathan, the African slave Nubia, and mute orphan Lupus) and solve the murder of Jonathan’s dog Boba.

The novel’s primary purpose is didactic, as its back cover copy announces: it “tells you just what it was like to live in Ancient Rome.” (Interestingly, the same is true of the BBC TV series later adapted from it: Wikipedia cites a Times review calling it “a tremendous way for younger viewers to learn about ancient history.”) So, the gang careers around a historically accurate map of Ostia in AD 79; the text is sprinkled liberally with Latin and Latin-derived words like “pater”, “impluvium”, “sestercii” (all defined in a glossary at the back of the book); characters discuss, rather infodumpily, concepts like at what age it’s appropriate for one to recline to eat.

Does it really “tell you just what it was like to live in Ancient Rome”? Well: it certainly contains a lot of facts about Roman life and customs, woven quite palatably into a light crime narrative which is less upsetting than you’d expect given the number of dogs that die in it. Unfortunately, that factual density doesn’t really translate into a coherent emotional sense of what Ancient Rome was like: these are very much psychologically modern protagonists living in a Roman theme park. On the very first page, for example:

Flavia had just settled herself in the garden by the fountain, with a cup of peach juice and her favourite scroll.

I think it’s the facetiousness of “her favourite scroll” that makes this so wince-inducing; the implication that young Romans related to scrolls – cumbersome, handwritten things – exactly as we relate to books in an age of mass print media. Would it even have been practical to read a scroll on a bench in the garden, given the rather cumbersome format? What, for that matter, is Flavia’s “favourite scroll”?

Lawrence’s handling of slavery demonstrates a similar conceptual mismatch. Flavia buys Nubia early in the novel because Nubia is pretty and about Flavia’s age, and Flavia feels sorry for her – as are we supposed to. She treats Nubia as a friend and equal, and at one point has a discussion with her father about freeing her. Meanwhile, the slaver Venalicious, who sold Nubia to Flavia in the first place, is one of the text’s villains, a bogeyman who threatens to enslave Flavia and her friends at every opportunity. We’re not, however, encouraged to feel sorry for Flavia’s father’s house slaves, Caudex and Alma, who are both generally depicted as happy members of the family who just happen to do all of the menial work. Funny, too, how the perp turns out to be a greedy freedman (called, with thudding literalism, Libertus). Lawrence wants to establish Flavia as a sympathetic protagonist who does good whenever she can, but her cultural background doesn’t support that reading.

(It’s worth noting that there were other choices Lawrence could have made that wouldn’t have had Flavia endorsing slavery: Jonathan’s family don’t keep slaves for moral/religious reasons.)

Does this matter? The Thieves of Ostia is, after all, a children’s book; and one that’s pretty diverse for its age (how many other children’s novels from 2001 can you name that feature a black girl, a disabled person, multiple non-middle-class perspectives and a Jewish boy among their main characters? that aren’t Issues novels?). Is it really a failing that it does not portray Roman exceptionalism in all its gory detail?

Well, yes, in that it contributes to the general nostalgic rose-tinting of history in the West which falsely constructs the past as “a simpler time”, as basically just like today except without computers and gay people. (You can see this going on very clearly in that passage about the peach juice and Flavia’s favourite scroll: that’s so blatantly a cup of tea and a good book given a Roman spin.) Roman cities were crammed with shoddily built multi-storey tenements that would fall down at a moment’s notice. Roman women – even high-born ones like Flavia – had vanishingly few rights. Fire and disease were constant threats. Like, some of this stuff is alluded to in the text, and especially in later novels, but it’s all in this highly sanitised “oh isn’t this quaint” fashion which, to return to the claim on the book’s back cover, does not in any way convey what it would really have been like to live under those conditions. Or, more interestingly, how the Romans thought about those conditions – which would undoubtedly have been different to how we think about those conditions. Children are a lot more astute as readers than we give them credit for; children’s fiction should challenge preconceived notions and attitudes, not reinforce them.

Review: The Tropic of Serpents

Marie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents is the second in her Lady Trent series, which follows the eponymous naturalist around her steampunk-inflected alternate world in search of dragons of various types and sizes. In this case, Isabella (not yet a Lady, and not yet a Trent – these novels being positioned as her memoirs) is headed for Bayembe, an analogue of an African country where colonial interests and the ambitions of neighbouring countries are contributing to a tense political situation – which Isabella and her companions of course get caught up in. As a result, they find themselves descending into the Green Hell, a tropical jungle/swamp that’s impossible to navigate or even survive without the aid of its indigenous people, the Moulish.

A key theme of this series, it seems to me, is exploration. Of course Isabella is a heroine made in the mould of colonial explorers like Indiana Jones or Jules Verne’s intrepid adventurers in novels like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Journey to the Centre of the Earth; but whereas those protagonists ultimately seek to export imperial European values around the world, Brennan, aware of the pitfalls and false assumptions implicit in such an approach, is much more interested in exploring social alternatives to life in Scirling, her Britain analogue. Far from seeking to impose Scirling values on the people they meet in the course of their researches, Isabella and her companions choose to assimilate instead. Often this is more about convenience than anything else; gaining the favour of local people means they have greater freedom to study dragons. But it’s notable that Isabella is staunchly opposed to the use of violence, unlike her colonial literary forebears.

So, for instance, Isabella and her companions live for a time among the Moulish, who have little use for a concept of individual property, given their nomadic lives and how easy it is to replace the objects they do use from the materials in the forest. Later on in the novel there’s also a good example of how spiritual beliefs shape worldview and, in a way, reality: believing Isabella to be cursed because of a series of mishaps she’s suffered in the forest, the Moulish press her to take part in a purification ceremony in which she clears the air with anyone she’s wronged. Among other things, she admits her true motives to the Moulish and hashes out a longstanding conflict with one of her companions, the working-class Thomas Wilker. Although Isabella sees the ceremony as superstitious nonsense, participating only in order to keep peace with her hosts, it works: the party encounter fewer setbacks and everyone trusts and respects each other more. The point being that living among the Moulish and participating in their customs opens up social possibilities that don’t exist in Scirling society.

There are other points of difference from Scirling culture whose social implications are explored in varying detail: for instance, while staying in the palace of Bayembe’s king Ankumata, Isabella and her female companion Natalie are required to seclude themselves away from the rest of the court during menstruation. While Isabella chafes at this restriction, she discovers that the other women of the court see it as a kind of holiday, as they don’t have to do any work during this period. And we learn that the people of Bayembe and its surrounding countries trace inheritance down the female line, not the male – as a single woman Isabella presents an interesting opportunity to Ankumata’s son, given that if he married her Scirling custom would allow him to pass property down to his children, which he couldn’t do under Bayembe tradition. That last struck me as an interesting look back at empire, a reversal of the imperial gaze: if Isabella, a member of an imperial nation even if her outlook isn’t especially colonial, benefits from exploring social possibilities beyond Scirling, then the nations subject to her gaze can explore back, as it were, turning Scirling’s patriarchal social norms to their advantage.

But the most important work of exploration here is not external but internal. Isabella and her companions Natalie and Tom are all three of them working out modes of being that run counter to what’s expected in Scirling society. Isabella is a woman in a patriarchal society trying to figure out how she can be taken seriously as a scientist in her own right; Tom is a working-class man trying to break into a scientific field dominated by the middle and upper classes who look down on him for his origins; Natalie is exploring her sexuality, specifically her lack of it, and navigating conflict with her family around her resistance to marriage. In pushing against what’s expected of women and working-class people in Scirling society, each of them is trying to reimagine it as a place in which they can achieve their full potential – so their exploration of different societies around the world is an outward reflection of this personal, internal struggle.

Which brings us to the inescapable fact that, despite its respectful treatment of the Moulish and Bayembe societies, despite the presence of developed, interesting characters like Ankumata (whose leg braces are a rare example of positively presented disability aids in this sort of fiction) and the half-Moulish Faj Rawango, The Tropic of Serpents is still an Anglocentric novel; it’s still told from the perspective of empire. As Electra Pritchett points out here, a character like Ankumata or Faj Rawango could never be the protagonist without making it a different sort of story; the memoirs of a Victorian naturalist are always going to centre an imperial perspective. Isabella, Natalie and Tom may be exploring different social possibilities but they are not doing so from a neutral position; they are benefiting from the social insights they gain ultimately to enrich empire and empire’s goal of knowing the world through science.

This is a limitation of the subgenre Brennan’s working in rather than a limitation of this specific novel; but it is a limitation all the same. Identity politics aside, the novel itself is not particularly nuanced or complex – it follows a single narrative thread linearly through to its end in serviceable but not brilliant prose; rereading offers no overlooked delights. It’s a reasonably entertaining tale with a diversity of characters to recommend it, and I think in the end that’s all it strives to be – it’s not something that’s seeking to overturn the genre at a stroke. That’s fine! Not everything can be truly revolutionary. But this isn’t a book I’ll be returning to, I think.