Review: Upright Women Wanted

A recurring theme amongst the nominees for last year’s Hugo award for Best Novella was: the creation of spaces in which marginalised people could thrive, despite hostility from the wider world. So we had P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, in which Black joy and Black (specifically Gullah) cultural traditions thrive despite the gathering forces of racism; and Seanan McGuire’s Come Tumbling Down, whose characters attend a school for wayward children – children who, Pevensie-like, have lost the magical worlds whose doors were once open to them, and who commiserate each other’s losses – and whose waywardness often stands in for real-world marginalisation. And then we have Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted.

The novella, which benefits from a sort of Western feel, is set in a future United States which has succumbed entirely to totalitarianism. Women and LGBT+ people have functionally no rights, the supply of literature and other media is strictly controlled, unelected officials enforce state power violently and with little oversight; the whole shebang. Our protagonist is Esther, a young woman who flees her hometown when her lover Beatriz is executed for possessing unauthorised literature and seeks out a group of Librarians, women who travel around the States distributing authorised material. Esther hopes that travelling with these upright, morally correct women will cure her of what she believes to be sinful, destructive urges. But the truth, as she discovers, is quite the opposite: not only are the Librarians as queer as it gets (and, in fact, not all women: one of them, Cyd, is a non-binary person forced to pass as a woman to survive), they’re also a front for a resistance movement that exists to conduct people like Esther to safety in queer-friendly, “insurrectionist” states.

So this is very much a text born of the Trump era: of fears of creeping authoritarianism, of the rise of the far right and the alt-right, of the rapid erosion of the rights of people who aren’t cis straight able-bodied white men. It’s one of a slew of recent texts that extrapolate current trends in US and world politics into a dystopian future: Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade is particularly on my mind since last week’s review of her earlier novel Infidel, but there’s also Analee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline, Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds – hell, even Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. Clearly, these are fictions that chime with people; these are realities that feel like they’re on the verge of coming true, even now, a year and a half into Biden’s administration. In this context, in a world that frequently literally is this hostile to LGBT+ people, in a world where all possible versions of the future are terrifying, Upright Women Wanted functions weirdly like – wish fulfilment?

Despite the best efforts of her society, Esther finds her people. She overcomes her internalised queerphobia and self-hatred, and she takes up the fight for a better world. This is a novella that says: we will endure. Even in the worst possible version of the future (short of, I guess, literal apocalypse), we queer folk will survive and thrive and find each other and fight. We cannot be kept down.

Which is, yes, delightful. More queer validation, please! But in order to make this argument the novella also softens the awfulness of its world. Beatriz’s death takes place off-page, and, yeah, Esther is upset about it, but she’s not exactly traumatised (as I expect a real person would be if their literal best friend/lover was literally executed in front of them) and she’s very quick to move on in order to provide some on-page, positive queer romance. She’s also very quick to come out to the Librarians, who she believes, remember, to be among the moral arbiters of her society, and who are moreover complete strangers to her: the risk of her coming out to them is astronomical, and she does it on like page ten.

I mention this not because it makes the text less enjoyable – as I said, this is queer wish fulfilment, and it works very well as such – but because in my view it lessens its power as a text about queer joy and resistance, and it lessens the value of such resistance. It seems weird to say that I want these characters to experience more trauma, but: I do! I want this novella to feel more urgent, more fierce, and ultimately more meaningful. It’s lovely as it is, and Esther’s self-loathing and journey towards self-acceptance struck a particular chord with me. But it could have been better.

Review: Infidel

“The smog in Mushtallah tasted of tar and ashes; it tasted like the war.”

So begins Kameron Hurley’s Infidel, sequel to God’s War, in which we met Nyx, state-sponsored assassin (or bel dame) in an Islamic-inflected future world that has been at war for longer than anyone can remember, over a cause that is all but forgotten. In this second novel, Nyx is no longer a bel dame, and is instead playing bodyguard to the spoiled child of an ambassador when her city, the aforementioned Mushtallah, is targeted in a devastating terrorist attack. She’s then summoned by her Queen to hunt down the rogue bel dames who featured in the events of God’s War, who the Queen believes were responsible for the attack.

None of which conveys the chief pleasure of this series, which is Hurley’s punchy, laconic prose, conjuring as it does the vast desert landscapes her characters inhabit – which in their turn reflect the violent bleakness of those characters’ lives. The improperly terraformed planet of Umayma is barely hospitable to life, and as such is a brilliant metaphor for a society endlessly at war: what joy is to be found there is contingent and brief.

Hurley’s work has often been praised for its diversity: her novels feature unapologetically queer women and people who defy gender stereotypes (one of the reasons for the brutality of the Bel Dame series is undoubtedly to counter notions of women as essentially nurturing, caregiving types – Nyx in particular is anything but that), and of course it’s fairly rare – and was rarer still when Infidel was published back in 2011 – to see speculative futures in fiction that aren’t essentially Western. It does have to be said, however, that both God’s War and Infidel play into enduring and harmful stereotypes that cast Islam as a warlike religion, with the pointlessness and endlessness of the war they depict. It’s not, I think, that Hurley is actively suggesting that this world is constantly at war because it is Islamic; but nor do I think it’s wholly a coincidence that she chose an Islamic milieu for her examination of the effects of unceasing war, even if the reasons for that choice were subconscious. (It’s worth noting that Hurley is a white American who is not, as far as I can discover, Muslim.)

Later on in her career, in 2019’s The Light Brigade, Hurley brings her exploration of total war home to the Americas, combining it with a discussion of the corroding effects of late capitalism. The Light Brigade is technically and thematically the better and more interesting book. But God’s War was one of the first queer SFF books I ever read, and the series’ wide desert spaces, and its protagonist’s uncompromising lack of femininity, still retain a hold on my imagination. I’m looking forward to picking up the third and last book in the trilogy, Rapture.

Review: Glamour in Glass

A few months ago, in my review of Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon, the second entry in her Lady Astronaut series, I characterised her work as: “competent”. It’s a characterisation that holds, I think, for her earlier novel Glamour in Glass, follow-up to her Regency fantasy romance Shades of Milk and Honey.

The novel’s set in an alternate version of the early nineteenth century in which “glamour”, the art of weaving illusions, is one of the “accomplishments” considered core to a marriageable gentlewoman’s repertoire. There are, however, also male glamourists, who, despite being seen as vaguely disreputable for specialising in an art that’s traditionally gendered female, are also the only ones permitted by society to practice it meaningfully, to get paid for doing it, to research new techniques in it, and to become authorities on its use and how it works. Its protagonist, Jane, is a gentlewoman, highly skilled at glamour, who’s married to a prominent male glamourist called Vincent. The pair are sent by the Prince Regent, for whom Vincent has completed work in the past, to Belgium, where tensions are rising as Napoleon pushes further into Europe.

The novel’s interests, then, are essentially feminist ones: the contested social status of glamour, as an activity that’s regarded as the preserve of women but also one that women are not allowed to specialise in, is intended to point up the double standards that have dogged women (and people who are perceived to be women) for most of history. Jane is at least as skilled a glamourist as her husband, but her gender prevents her from being recognised for her talent, or even being able to practice it in any sort of public way. Her plight is exacerbated by the fact that, fairly on in the novel, she becomes pregnant: performing glamour during pregnancy is dangerous for the foetus, meaning that Jane is not only socially but also physically incapable of partaking in the work she’s best at. Again, there’s clearly some commentary going on here about the ways in which women have historically been disadvantaged in their pursuit of meaningful achievement. Jane’s inability to perform glamour while pregnant mirrors the way in which pregnancy and birth have been used as excuses to hold women back in the workplace in more recent periods of history. The danger to Jane’s pregnancy is based in fact, not cultural prejudice, as an event later in the novel makes clear. But Regency cultural attitudes towards pregnancy as a thing that women are expected to undergo multiple times (Pride and Prejudice‘s Mrs Bennet has, remember, five daughters) – as something fundamental to the purpose of marriage itself – multiply that biological disadvantage, restricting women’s options even further.

Which is good analysis, as far as it goes; the problem is that it doesn’t go particularly far. It is, to be honest, fairly obvious that women’s choices were severely limited in the Regency period; I mean, Austen herself was pointing this out at the time. And Kowal isn’t really interested in delving any deeper into the gender politics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, or into what women of the time thought about them: Jane is (apart from some notable exceptions, such as when she is shocked by a French woman’s very mild indiscretion) a thoroughly modern heroine, particularly in her attitudes towards the confinements of pregnancy and childbirth. Too, Kowal restricts her social critique to the plight of middle-class white women: while the servant class is marginally more visible than it is in Austen’s novels, there’s little exploration of how the patriarchy affects them; and there are no characters at all who are not white. What I’m trying to say is that these are all very safe choices Kowal is making; vaguely progressive without being very interesting.

This middle-of-the-road approach to storytelling makes itself known in the way Kowal structures her narrative, too. Much of the plot’s tensions arise from that age-old romcom trope of romantic leads failing, for one reason or another, to communicate effectively: this can be done well, of course, but here it’s just mildly enraging. And many of the plot’s twists are telegraphed quite obviously in advance, making for a read that’s a little…predictable, to say the least. Again, foreshadowing is something that’s very effective in the right hands, and Kowal’s aren’t exactly the wrong hands; it’s just that her construction lines, as it were, are very visible on the page. The choices that she’s making are exactly the ones that you’d expect a competent author who’s familiar with the tropes and structures that work well in her chosen genre to make.

These issues – the vaguely liberal but ultimately uninspired politics, the transparent plot-construction – are all things that get better in Kowal’s later work but that never entirely go away. For all that she’s currently a critical darling in SFF circles, a frequent presence on Hugo nomination lists at least, her work is very far from the best of what the genre has to offer. Readable, sure; entertaining, usually. But still: never better than competent.

Review: The Angel of the Crows

Is steampunk dead? It’s a question that’s been rattling around in genre circles for a good ten years, ever since the aesthetic began to make its way out of the subculture and into the mainstream, popping up on haute couture catwalks, in blockbuster films and in music videos by major artists. (Typing “steampunk” into Etsy returns more than 250,000 results.) The problem is clearly not one of waning interest, but rather the opposite: smeared across the world’s media, permeating the world’s markets, have the signs and signifiers of steampunk – cogs, gears, steam engines, bustles, corsets and pocket watches – been emptied of their meaning, aestheticised in the purest sense? Has steampunk lost its (probably already very dubious) punk credentials?

For me, the answer is: indubitably yes. In some cases. Including that of Katherine Addison’s Sherlock-wingfic-turned-respectable-SFF-novel The Angel of the Crows, which transplants Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories into a fantastical version of Victorian London in which werewolves, vampires and ghosts stalk the streets alongside Jack the Ripper. Addison’s Sherlock figure – here named Crow – is an angel, in a world where such beings must remain within specific buildings to retain their identities and individualities; Crow has got around this rule by salvaging a piece of banister from his original residence, and as a result has a somewhat seedy reputation among other angels (it surely doesn’t help that he has taken the rather grandiose title “the Angel of London”). Watson – dubbed J.H. Doyle here for what I suspect are copyright reasons – remains a retired army doctor, except that the wounds the war has left them with are metaphysical rather than material: an encounter with a fallen angel has turned them into an (unregistered, illegal). hellhound. Predictably enough, Crow and Doyle move in together, largely because they are the only people who can tolerate each other, and Doyle becomes drawn into Crow’s hobby-slash-occupation of solving intricate and unusual crimes.

The plots here are all pretty familiar, notwithstanding the supernatural elements: Addison takes us on a Greatest Hits tour of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, from A Study in Scarlet to “The Speckled Band”, leaving motivations, clues and occasionally entire narratives intact. This is an episodic novel, with a vague overarching structure binding it all together: those looking for tight, efficient plotting should probably go elsewhere. The major innovation that Addison has made here is in introducing queer representation (as opposed to the blatant queerbaiting that went on in her source text, the BBC TV series Sherlock): Doyle, as I’ve already intimated, is some flavour of genderqueer, and Crow is vaguely transmasculine. It’s difficult to be definitive about their identities, because Addison herself isn’t: the novel is narrated in the first person by Doyle, no pronoun is ever used to refer to them, they live as a man but explicitly refer to themself as “not a man”; similarly, the masc-presenting Crow tells Doyle that angels are “all female…Insofar as it makes sense to apply gender to asexual beings”, but that “human beings give [angels]…gender”. Electra Pritchett suggests here, pretty compellingly, that Addison is confusing concepts of gender, sex and sexuality, which is one reason why it’s so difficult to make out how to read Crow and Doyle.

Does this queering of these two canonical characters, then, put the punk into Addison’s steampunk setting? Well…not for me: partly because of Addison’s somewhat clumsy handling of their queerness (probably we could argue that the confusion around their transness has to do with the limited vocabulary a Victorian person would have had available to express these concepts, but frankly…this is a novel with hellhounds and angels in it, it’s not THAT committed to historical accuracy), and partly because she doesn’t do a whole lot with it. There is, for example, no real examination of traditional gender roles in Victorian society. And pretty much everything else about this novel is fairly, hmm, unremarkable given the setting and its genre. Crow and Doyle are comfortably middle-class, if occasionally strapped for cash. They do run across the spectre of Victorian colonial imperialism at least once, but not in a way that significantly disturbs the structure or mood of the text. Addison attempts nothing particularly notable with her prose or her plots; generally, the novel isn’t creating any form of productive tension for the reader to rub up against.

The result is, to be fair, a thoroughly enjoyable one: I am not immune to the aesthetic pleasures of steampunk, that warm immersion in a romanticised past, in the comfortingly familiar promises of fog-shrouded London streets where all manner of creatures may lurk. I would happily read a sequel, or two, or five; and seeing queerness represented in this sort of story is always a small joy, even if it is awkwardly done. But throughout my reading of The Angel of the Crows, and beyond, I found myself wondering what the purpose of it all was; what Addison was trying to say. This is steampunk without its bite, steampunk as consolatory, familiar, a sanitised bourgeois fantasy of what was in reality a profoundly oppressive age. This is steampunk-as-zombie: not dead, but not truly alive either.

Review: Hild

How did the prominent seventh century abbess Saint Hilda of Whitby, advisor of kings, rise to prominence from a relatively obscure position in the court of her great-uncle Edwin, the ruler of what is now Yorkshire? That’s the question Nicola Griffith seeks (partially) to answer in her 2013 novel Hild, which follows the title character from her very early childhood in her father’s home to her eventual, inevitable political marriage. In between, she learns to use her considerable powers of observation and deduction to gain status in Edwin’s court, pushing against the boundaries and restrictions placed on women in her society to obtain a reputation as a seer and witch.

Although it’s pretty resolutely not fantastical – Hild is read as magical by her contemporaries only because she’s surrounded by men who cannot or will not contemplate the patterns at work in the world around them – it certainly seems to have been received as fantasy-adjacent by a number of audiences: as well as featuring in the Strange Horizons book club in 2015, it was nominated for the Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, and is a Tiptree Honor book. One of the reasons for this, I’d suggest, is that it plunges readers into the unfamiliar world that is seventh century England in a way that’s very similar to how some high fantasy writers plunge their readers into their secondary worlds. Griffith doesn’t spend any time holding our hands or, really, explaining the convoluted sociopolitical landscape her characters find themselves in; instead, she expects us to pick up concepts and language as we go. The reading protocols that are useful in interpreting Hild are the ones that are useful in interpreting high fantasy texts.

What’s this fantastic sensibility in service of? Hild is a slow, patient text, very interested in the texture of early medieval life, in accordance with its heroine’s penchant for quiet, intense observation. Griffith has invented or extrapolated much of this detail, owing to a lack of evidence, textual or material, about this period, which is, I suppose, another way that Hild is like a fantasy epic: the world here has been deliberately built to reflect the author’s aesthetic preoccupations, rather than accurately representing a historical reality, and yet at the same time it’s invested in concealing its constructedness. It wants you to inhabit its world fully, along with its protagonist, taking in all that vital sensory detail that allows her to predict what’s going to happen next. A good example of Griffith’s construction of her novel’s world is what she calls the gemaecce: taken from the Old English term gemaecca, meaning “one of a pair, companion, mate”, the term in Griffith’s novel denotes a close, almost familial pairing between two women. This invention allows Griffith to explore how Hild benefits from relationships with people of different genders, and to dig into the helplessness and isolation that her society inflicts upon women. Because I, like most readers, know very little about social structures in seventh century Britain, I didn’t realise this was made up until I read Griffith’s author’s note at the back of the book: I think the text relies on this knowledge gap in quite a lot of cases for its verisimilitude.

The overall effect, anyway, of this fantastic approach to historical fiction is, for me at least, a sense of estrangement: the text has none of the coziness I associate with traditional historical fiction. Rather, in treating the past like a fantasy world, it conveys the alienness of that past. We know so little about seventh century Britain that it might as well be a fantasy world. And also: seventh century Britain is so distant from us in every way – chronologically, culturally – as to be virtually unrecognisable anyway. The past, as L.P. Hartley said, is a different country. Except, not just a different country: a different world.

Which is not to say that the themes Hild is working with are wholly unfamiliar: like all texts, it is responding primarily to the occupations of the moment. I’ve talked a little already about its examination of female power and its limits; it’s also interested in sexuality, casting Hild as bisexual and her society as one that cares not so much about who people sleep with as who they are married to. This reading of early medieval sexual politics is as much a fantasy as the concept of gemaecce, as Griffith again admits at the end of the book:

“there’s no evidence for anything, sexually, in early seventh-century northern Britain. Nothing. No material culture and no text.”

The motivation for this invention is similarly obvious: Griffith is engaged, as many authors of historical fiction and historical SFF are at the moment, in rewriting the marginalised into history, challenging established hegemonic narratives that seek to erase the existence of (in this case) women and queer folk. And, again, we can see how the gap in common knowledge about the seventh century both plays into the seeming verisimilitude of Griffith’s setting and obscures its constructedness. That sense of alienation, of distance from the past, is a manufactured thing; by which I mean it’s manufactured to bring prominence to concerns that seventh century people may not have thought about at all. (I mean: if there is no textual or material evidence about sexuality in this period, perhaps that’s an indication that it just wasn’t a point of contention or interest?)

So: does Hild provide a convincing origin story for Hilda of Whitby? I’m not sure. Certainly it is a compelling portrait of an extraordinary woman seizing what power she can in a rigidly patriarchal society against a rapidly shifting sociocultural background riven by internecine political conflicts. It’s a novel that, to me, rewards and demands patient attention, rather than something to race through and admire the shape of. But its sensibilities – its prizing of rational deduction, its interest in matters of sex – are a little too modern to ring quite true. It’ll be interesting to see what the long-awaited sequel, Menewood, brings.

Notes on Jonathan Franzen’s Purity

*sighs deeply*

I was not expecting to enjoy Purity, given Franzen’s general reputation, and my expectations were fulfilled. It is, like a depressing number of so-called Great American Novels by Important (male) Writers, populated by men who cannot look at women without coveting and/or being disgusted by them, and who we are nevertheless supposed to sympathise with. (In this case at least one of them is a raging sex predator.) It’s also casually ableist and subscribes to a view of the world that is fundamentally gender-essentialist: I personally find it hard to engage with novels that are primarily interested in “the battle of the sexes” because inevitably they treat perceived differences between men and women (there are never any non-binary people in these novels, or if there are they are treated as aberrations and novelties) as innate and unsurmountable, which…is very not my experience in my relationships with men, and very not how I think of gender either.

This was not, in other words, my cup of tea. No proper review as per my “I have no fucks to give” policy.

Review: Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen

TW: body horror/gore.

In late October 1726, a remarkable piece of news reached London: a peasant woman named Mary Toft from the market town of Godalming claimed to have given birth to a rabbit. The event proved a sensation, drawing the attention of two of King George I’s physicians and enthralling the entire country until it was eventually revealed as a hoax. In Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen, Dexter Palmer spins this strange historical interlude into a fable about the power of popular delusion and the willingness of the human psyche to be deceived that feels peculiarly relevant to our current post-truth fake-news society.

The novel follows provincial surgeon John Howard, the first doctor to attend Mary Toft, as he attempts to make sense of what is happening to her and do the best he can for his patient in the midst of an increasingly sensationalised eighteenth-century media circus. The case takes him and his young apprentice Zachary to London, where they encounter the vanities and cruelties of the idle rich, their performative jostling for social status.

One of the key things Palmer is interested in here, then, is just how an entire posse of medical experts fell for such an obvious hoax. (Toft and her husband pull it off by the alarmingly simple method of sticking rabbit parts up her vagina.) And one of his answers (although not by any means the only one) is plain old misogyny. The voice of Mary Toft herself is notably – and deliberately – missing from the text, apart from a few pages near the end: we never learn why she does what she does and what she thinks about the frenzied attention she garners from some of the most important people in the country. Is she a willing participant in the plot, or the victim of an opportunistic husband looking to make his fortune? We don’t know.

In a lesser author’s hands this might look like a simple oversight. But the presence of John’s straight-talking wife Alice makes it clear that it’s not. Alice tells John right at the start that Mary is clearly faking it, and how, but John rejects the Occam’s Razor explanation and has to return to her at the end of the novel, cap in hand, admitting that she was right all along. We hear as little from Alice, almost, as we do from Mary (although what we do hear from her is wonderful) and the implication is clear: the men of this story simply do not trust women to be the experts on their own bodies. (This is an accusation that can be levelled at the medical profession even to this day.) We don’t get access to Mary’s thoughts on the whole drama because the physicians treating her aren’t interested in them, or really in the thoughts of any woman (as we see in John’s response to Alice’s scorn – although it has to be said that in most other respects John and Alice are a refreshingly healthy couple by the standards of historical fiction). Mary’s doctors don’t see her as a person; she’s a curiosity, a freak, a riddle to be solved. And so, for the most part, she is a cipher at the heart of the narrative; a mystery to the reader, too.

But it’s not just the doctors who are taken in by Mary’s actions. Once installed in a bagnio in London, she gains an almost cult-like following of ordinary people who keep vigil outside her window, awaiting…revelation? A break with the mundanity of everyday life? Or simply keeping the faith? There are other popular delusions depicted in the novel too: one of the first things John and Zachary do is attend a freak show at which John expounds to his apprentice on the topic of fraud and deception, amidst the voyeuristic fascination of their neighbours. Several characters discuss Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders, published anonymously in 1722, speculating on whether it’s a true autobiography (it wasn’t, obviously), whether it was written by a man or a woman. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, it proves popular among the sidelined female characters while men denigrate it as morally corrupt.) Underlying all of this is a profound epistemological uncertainty about the nature of truth. Does an absolute truth, knowable to an objective omniscient observer (such as God) exist? Or is what we call the truth contingent, malleable, dependent on the biases and fallacies of men (a word I use advisedly given the gender politics at work in the novel)?

These questions feel apposite for the time period Mary Toft is set in: in the throes of the Enlightenment, with reason and evidence coming to replace holy writ as the basis of human knowledge, the foundations of felt reality fundamentally shifting. But they also ring uneasy bells today, too, in an era when political aims override scientific reality; when governments can proclaim a pandemic over, and lo, it is done, everyone goes back to work and play regardless of the actual risks reflected in the statistics.

Perhaps this is another reason why Mary Toft remains silent in the novel that bears her name; why we are kept from understanding the reasons behind what she does: perhaps there is precisely no reason, just a profound irrationality at the centre of the text. The silence at the heart of Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen is the gnawing void at the heart of Western democracy; the place where, through processes that have nothing to do with reason or logic, political deception becomes truth, rippling out to ensnare every Westerner in its grasp.

Review: Pretending

TW: sexual assault, gendered violence.

This review contains spoilers.

A year ago last Thursday, a 33-year-old woman named Sarah Everard was murdered in south London by a serving member of the Metropolitan Police who used his position to lure her into his car and rape her. In part because she was young, white, middle-class and photogenic, her murder inspired an upswelling of rage and sympathy and sparked a national conversation about the ubiquity of gendered violence in the UK: there was – and remains – a feeling that any woman or femme-presenting person could have shared Everard’s fate.

Published in 2020 – a year before Everard’s death – Holly Bourne’s Pretending taps into that same rage and fear, the emotional legacy of being female or perceived as female under patriarchy. Bourne’s protagonist, April, works for a rape crisis helpline and is herself struggling with the trauma of having been sexually assaulted multiple times in a previous relationship – a trauma that in her mind renders her unattractive and undesirable to cis men in general. After yet another failed date with a man who just straight-up does not want to deal with the after-effects of her trauma, April devises for herself a perfect alter-ego, “Gretel”, a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl who’ll be everything she thinks cis men want – needy only when they want her to need them; adventurous and independent, but not too independent; undamaged, untraumatised, her history a cipher. As Gretel, she starts dating a nice man called Joshua, with predictable consequences: she finds herself wanting to pursue a serious relationship with him, but knows he’ll likely leave her if she reveals the extent of her deception.

Bourne is obviously working with some weighty themes here, and has some important points to make. In particular, the low-grade awfulness with which almost all of Pretending‘s male characters are afflicted speaks to the pervasiveness of patriarchy’s harms and the gender roles it enforces: many cis straight men are genuinely terrible because society enables them in their terribleness.

But that weightiness sits uneasily beside some of the other choices Bourne – and to some extent her marketing team – have made. There is a lot about this novel that is signalling “light-hearted romcom”, from the pale pink hardcover with its cutesily feminised handwriting to its near-total obsession with specifically romantic relationships: April’s self-avowed “hatred” for men is framed as a problem primarily because it makes dating fraught and unsatisfactory. We rarely see male characters in roles other than “potential or actual romantic partner”, with the not-so-honourable exception of April’s gay best friend coworker, who exists solely for emotional support purposes. And while there are scenes featuring female friendships where romance is not a topic of conversation (on the recommendation of her therapist, April joins a boxing club for rape survivors), they feel somewhat tangential to the main narrative, and somewhat undermined anyway by the fact that April does end up with Joshua, a choice that has a distinctly #notallmen vibe to it.

The central problem with all of this is that the novel seems fundamentally torn about whether April’s creation of Gretel is an ill-advised but quirky rom-com meet-cute type situation, or a symptom of a serious, trauma-induced mental breakdown. If it’s the latter, then April is not in a condition to be dating anyone and her heterosexual happy ending is both psychologically unlikely and something of a betrayal of the novel’s message about the oppressiveness of the patriarchy and its centring of women’s experiences of it. But the former doesn’t work either: the novel wants us to read April as a psychologically realistic character whose attempt at catfishing is motivated by genuine trauma; to take her hatred and fear of men, in other words, seriously. It’s like – an essential critique of Western heterosexual culture has been shoved into a narrative structure (the romance) that has served in part to create and perpetuate Western heterosexual culture, and is fatally undermined thereby. Bourne wants to have her cake and eat it: to point out glaring problems caused by gender roles in het romance and have her heroine settle into an uncomplicatedly happy het romance.

This lack of narrative discipline is matched by a lack of grammatical discipline at the sentence level. Frankly, the novel could have done with a thorough copyedit. What is a sentence like this doing in the ninth book from a high-profile author with all the might of Hodder & Stoughton behind her?

“Don’t fall into that trap of being the untogether one whom people care about deeply, but whom they also use to feel more in control of their own lives.”

Those “whoms” are horrible; they feel grammatically wrong even if they technically aren’t. “Untogether” is a clumsy kludge of a word. The whole sentence is – well, it conveys meaning adequately, but it’s inelegant in the extreme. I’m not trying to argue that every page of every novel must be a perfectly engineered work of art, but I genuinely think this is some of the worst prose I’ve ever read in a published book. The Shopaholic novels are better-written than this.

Pretending, then, is a failure. It fails to argue for, or represent, any real, radical change in the patriarchal order, reaching instead for consolatory structures that suggest only a little light tinkering is required around the edges of Western society. It’s a failure of ambition, to imagine more and better things for everyone affected by patriarchy. It’s a failure of craft. We who are angry all deserve more.

Review: The Relentless Moon

This review contains spoilers.

The Relentless MoonIf I had to sum up Mary Robinette Kowal’s work in one word, it would be: competent. With eleven novels, five novellas/novelettes and countless short stories under her belt, she’s clearly an experienced professional with some idea of how to put a compelling narrative together; and, indeed, those novels of hers that I’ve read tend to be tightly plotted, thematically coherent, solidly characterised and attentive to issues of structural oppression. In other words, they’re novels that are easy to read and easy to like.

The Relentless Moon is a case in point. The third novel in Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, it was nominated for the Hugo awards last year – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Kowal’s substantial presence in fandom as well as the professional field (she was president of the SFWA for two years ending mid-2021, as well as Chair of DisCon III, the 2021 Worldcon, from July 2021). Set in an alternate timeline in which an asteroid hit the US in 1952, destroying much of the continent, triggering catastrophic climate change which threatens to render the Earth uninhabitable in half a century, and thereby sparking an intensive space programme aimed at getting as many people off the planet in time, it follows Nicole Wargin, wife of an important politician on Earth and one of the first female astronauts in space. Eleven years after the asteroid strike, and some time after Nicole’s first rise to fame as a “Lady Astronaut”, she’s asked to travel to the colony that Kowal’s fictional International Aerospace Coalition has established on the Moon to help investigate possible sabotage by “Earth Firsters” – a group of people who want to see the resources the US government is putting into the space programme diverted to disaster relief efforts on Earth.

With Nicole on the Moon, Kowal ratchets up the tension, as various of the colony’s systems are tampered with by the saboteur, putting everyone in danger. Meanwhile, Nicole’s dealing with the pressures of managing her image as a senator’s wife and, not unrelatedly, with her chronic anorexia.

As well as looking at these very gendered pressures on Nicole – always against a backdrop of structural misogyny which leaves female characters knowing they need to perform to exceptional standards to have a hope of being treated equally with their male counterparts – Kowal pays attention to racialised dynamics within the lunar colony. For instance: the colony’s mayor Eugene is Black, and the white South Africans there, coming from a context of apartheid, find it difficult to accept his authority.

These careful sociological details combine with Kowal’s impressive (to a layperson) grasp of the hard science of living in space to give the novel a satisfying verisimilitude. This is fun, eminently readable SF that has competent people solving crunchy science problems and acknowledges realities of structural oppression that are erased in SF novels of the period that The Relentless Moon is set in. That’s valuable, that’s validating: a kind of correction of the genre’s record of this period.

There’s a but here, as I’m sure you’ve realised. The Relentless Moon is enjoyable, but it also feels a little schematic. The plot structure is consolatory, conservative: problems are set up, then solved; crises happen, but everything turns out all right in the end. (Nicole ends up as the first female president of the USA in an epilogue that’s hard not to read as a feminist, democratic happily-ever-after.) The novel’s ideological conflicts are frustratingly binary: people hold views that are obviously repugnant (the sexists and the racists) or obviously commendable; and there’s very little sympathetic exploration of the Earth Firsters’ viewpoints (which seem from the evidence we’re given not to be entirely without merit), despite the fact that their hostility to the space programme is what drives the novel’s key conflict. It’s all a little too neat, too controlled – too competent.

Of course too competent is better than not competent enough – better a Relentless Moon than a Jack Four! But – let’s put it this way. I can’t see myself rushing out to buy the fourth novel in the series.

Review: Cat’s Eye

Cat's EyeCan we as adults ever escape the influence of our most formative childhood experiences? That’s the question Margaret Atwood asks in her 1988 novel Cat’s Eye. Her protagonist is a middle-aged artist named Elaine Risley who returns to what was once her home town, Toronto, for a retrospective exhibition. Here, she confronts the spectre of her abusive, uneasy relationship with her childhood friend Cordelia, a bully who is nevertheless deeply vulnerable. During the course of the novel, we discover just how much Elaine’s relationship with Cordelia has affected her, making its way into her art and profoundly altering her self-conception.

Along the way, Atwood touches on questions of gender (or, actually, cis femininity as experienced in the global West), memory and artistic creation. The novel was a critical darling when it came out, shortlisted as it was for the Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Awards, and remains a favourite. It’s easy to see why, with prose like this:

“Love blurs your vision; but after it recedes, you can see more clearly than ever. It’s like the tide going out, revealing whatever’s been thrown away and sunk: broken bottles, old gloves, rusting pop cans, nibbled fishbodies, bones. This is the kind of thing you see if you sit in the darkness with open eyes, not knowing the future.”

Too, its concerns and approach are pretty typical of mainstream litfic, the kind of thing the Literary Establishment tends to reward: it’s a closely-observed psychological portrait of a middle-aged middle-class white Western woman that draws on established ideals about the primacy of childhood in human development, and presents the self as singular and coherent. All very bourgeois-realist, in fact.

That sounds dismissive; but it’s not particularly meant to be. Cat’s Eye is a great example of its genre: atmospheric, thoughtful, intelligent. Cordelia in particular is a really interesting character, and the push-and-pull between her and Elaine feels queasily immediate; Atwood captures the ambiguity, the contingency, of a certain type of childhood friendship in a way that’s rare to see in a literary landscape that generally likes to present children as innocent and contextless, naïve to the intricacies of power.

But I personally did not connect to the novel on any deeper level. For a couple of reasons, probably: Atwood’s treatment of gender is, as I’ve intimated, frustratingly binary and essentialist, in the manner of so much white feminist literary writing; and, for all that I am solidly middle-class, Elaine’s bourgeois anomie is not an affect I particularly relate to. Her outlook has very little to do with how I personally experience the world. Possibly at 28 I am still too young to appreciate the insights that come with middle age.

This is of course very much a your-mileage-may-vary situation: the novel’s Goodreads page attests to the existence of many people who have found reading Cat’s Eye to be a memorable, even revelatory experience. I’m just…not one of them.