Review: The Stars, Like Dust

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

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

Yikes.

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

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

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

Review: Who Fears Death

CW: rape, FGM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Old Drift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Unreal and the Real Volume 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Shining Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Incendiaries

This review contains spoilers.

Sparse, elegant and oblique, R.O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries is a complex, layered exploration of faith, obsession, performance and the unreliability of perception.

The novel centres on three characters: Will Kendall, a poor white student at an elite university who’s recently lost his faith in the Christian God; Phoebe Lin, the daughter of South Korean parents, a former piano prodigy turned party girl who’s attending the same university as Will; and John Leal, the charismatic half-Korean leader of a faith group called Jejah that turns out, perhaps inevitably, to be a cult.

(There’s maybe a post to be written here about how religion is almost always portrayed in mainstream contemporary literature as marginal and contingent, if not non-existent – how often do we see sympathetic depictions of heartfelt, honest belief in any religious tradition? Anyway: not a post for today.)

Will and Phoebe, also inevitably, are drawn together by their shared losses – of faith and of music, respectively – and then apart again as Phoebe is sucked into John’s orbit. The novel ends as it begins, with the fatal bombing of an abortion clinic, and a question mark over Phoebe’s whereabouts.

The Incendiaries is narrated entirely by Will – even the chapters that are purportedly written from Phoebe and John’s viewpoints are reconstructed from diary entries he’s discovered. As such, one of the novel’s key themes is how character in the artistic sense is constructed, and more broadly how our outward identities are constructed and performed. In her characterisation of John and Phoebe Kwon shows her working, so to speak: her presentation of them both bears the hallmarks of having been filtered through Will’s gaze (for instance, Will refuses to believe that Phoebe was responsible for the bombing that opens and closes the novel), just as our perception of all fictional characters is filtered through the gaze of the author. In Phoebe’s case in particular, this technique satirises and ironises the male gaze, which in much literary fiction (and fiction in other genres too) flattens female characters in service to the stories of male protagonists. Will is not really capable of seeing his girlfriend for who she is, as a real person, in the same way that many male authors appear to be incapable of conceiving of female characters as whole and real people.

If Will is engaged in a process, consciously or not, of constructing an identity for Phoebe that serves his own emotional ends – an identity for his own consumption – then all three characters at the heart of the novel are similarly engaged in a process of (re)constructing their own identities for the consumption of those around them. Will is attempting to pass himself off as more wealthy than he actually is for the benefit of his fellow students; Phoebe is concealing a deep grief over the death of her mother behind her party-girl façade; John claims to have helped people defect from North Korea in order to present himself as a heroic, even messianic, figure, but the details of his story shift with every telling.

With all of this dissembling going on, how can we ever really know another person? Everyone in this story ends up doing something terrible that, in Will and Phoebe’s case, is pretty shockingly inconsistent with how they’ve been characterised throughout the novel, and in John’s case is at least at odds with how he likes to present himself. Will, despite having presented himself as kind and well-meaning, ends up assaulting Phoebe when he finds that John has been beating her (it’s not difficult to read into this an assertion of ownership); Phoebe, who Will has idealised for pages and pages, plans a bombing that kills five schoolgirls; John is, well, a cult leader, contra his activist credentials and religious pronouncements. How do respectable men become violent? How do people become radicalised? How do we know when someone we trust is abusing us?

This isn’t a novel that offers answers, only profoundly destabilising questions. Its main strength lies in how it applies age-old concerns about the gap between performance and reality to hot-button issues of gendered violence and radicalisation – and, indeed, its very lack of answers is profoundly postmodern. Nothing is really knowable; everything we think we know is filtered through layers of text and/or interpretation. The signified – to get theoretical for a moment – is irreparably detached from the signifier. That uncrossable breach, maybe, lies at the heart of many of our problems.

Review: Hamnet

In August 1596, William Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet dies of unknown causes at the age of 11, leaving behind him his twin sister Judith. A few years later, the Bard writes a play bearing his son’s name – a tragedy set in far-away Denmark about a young man who is constitutionally incapable of taking concrete political action. What does Hamlet have to do with Hamnet? What unrecorded domestic dramas might lie behind the work of this most famous of playwrights? These are the questions Maggie O’Farrell asks in her 2020 novel Hamnet.

The novel’s emotional centre is not Shakespeare himself – the playwright is in fact never named – but his wife, known in real life as Anne Hathaway and here called Agnes. Looked at objectively, Agnes’ life as portrayed by O’Farrell is, if not precisely a tragic one, at least not one you’d conventionally call happy: brought up by a resentful, abusive stepmother who fears and hates her gift for healing and love for the forest, she marries essentially the first person who is kind to her, who promptly acquires a lucrative career which takes him to London for much of his married life, leaving her to bring up his children. And yet. This isn’t a story about victimhood or the fashionable ennui of middle-class cishet couples; it’s a novel that explicitly valorises domesticity and the textures of ordinary everyday life.

I use the word “textures” advisedly; one of the ways Hamnet prioritises domesticity is by focusing closely on the sensory experience of living in sixteenth-century Stratford. The smell of raw wool in an attic. The vast silence of a pre-industrial forest. Frost by a graveside. This sensory detail is bolstered by the fine attention O’Farrell pays to her characters’ emotional reality; to take a random example:

“Partings are strange. It seems so simple: one minute ago, four, five, he was here, at her side; now, he is gone. She was with him; she is alone. She feels exposed, chill, peeled like an onion.”

This lyrical interest in the interiority of Agnes and her children is, deliberately, a far cry from the dramatic action of Shakespeare’s plays; we are further distanced from Shakespeare-as-famous-playwright by O’Farrell’s refusal to name him, and her use of the name “Agnes” instead of “Ann”. O’Farrell’s essential point is a feminist one: the prevailing cultural narrative about Shakespeare paints him as a genius, a man “not of an age but for all time!” (as Ben Jonson rather breathlessly put it); estranging him from that cultural narrative by placing him back into his historical and material context draws attention to the web of relationships in which he must have existed, the women and children in his life who are now all but forgotten. O’Farrell’s Agnes, with her uncanny gifts, is granted a presence as great as her husband’s – greater, even, within the novel’s world.

This can, of course, be situated within the feminist literary trend of drawing attention to how women are situated in relation to Western cultural touchstones: think, for instance, of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, or Angela Carter’s feminist fairytales. In that context Hamnet almost feels like a throwback to another age, when such rewritings were truly radical. It’s a lovely novel, and it well deserves the plaudits it’s received (among other things: the Women’s Prize for Fiction). But for genuine innovation, you’ll likely want to look elsewhere.

Review: The Future of Another Timeline

Annalee Newitz’s second novel The Future of Another Timeline is a science fiction story about history: history’s malleability in the hands of those with power, and the way that history’s long arc of justice can be reversed.

In a universe where time travel exists and the past can be “edited” – leaving no trace in the memory of anyone but the time traveller who changed it – a group of feminists calling themselves the Daughters of Harriet (after Harriet Tubman, who in this world was elected a US Senator after American women gained the vote in 1869) attempt to combat the efforts of the incel-like followers of moralist and anti-abortionist Anthony Comstock as they strive to bring about a world in which women are little more than breeding stock.

Newitz is careful to make their definition of feminism an inclusive and intersectional one: the ranks of the Daughters of Harriet include trans women, non-binary folk and women of colour. A key plotline sees our point of view character Tess, a woman who lives in a contemporary America where abortion has never been legal, travel back in time to 1893, to the Chicago World’s Fair, to join working-class, free-thinking Middle Eastern belly dancers in working against Comstock in the time when he was alive. This is very much a text that’s interested in collective, grassroots action, in welcoming allies wherever they are to be found.

But it’s interested in the personal, too, as its other main storyline attests. Alongside her work in 1893, Tess is also, illicitly, making a number of visits to the timeline of a nineties teenager named Beth, whose friend Lizzie has become disconcertingly fond of murdering predatory men and whose father casts an abusive shadow over her life. The conditions that Tess finds herself existing in demonstrate the importance of what the Daughters of Harriet are doing, the difference that they stand to make to countless lives.

The metaphors that Newitz is working with, then, are fairly obvious. The Daughters’ “edit war” for history – and thus for the future – is a reflection partly of current movements across Anglo popular culture to reinscribe people with marginalised identities into history – to recover the erased stories of women, LGBT+ people and people of colour – and partly of the left’s fight against the erosion of the progress we have made in recent history. The Future of Another Timeline is partly about reclaiming the narrative, and partly about protecting the successes we’ve made from the people who’d like to destroy them so completely they might never have existed. (See: the proposed overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, pretty much anything the UK Conservative party has done since 2016, etc., etc.)

It’s a satisfyingly crunchy speculative approach to representing the struggle for women’s rights: one that draws attention to little-remembered (but crucial) movements in US history in a way that’s thematically relevant as well as being a goal in itself; that asks, and leaves open, crucial questions about the role of violence in political action; that’s thoughtful about who gets to be included in stories about feminist uprisings. “Thoughtful” is the operative word here: like Alix E. Harrow’s 2020 historical fantasy The Once and Future Witches, one of the things Newitz is doing in The Future of Another Timeline is creating a new vision of feminism, one that brings everyone along on the journey to emancipation, rather than excluding everyone who isn’t a respectable middle-class white woman.

It’s a refreshingly unusual read: I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before, ranging as it does through a multitude of time periods, from the Cretaceous to the far, far future, and switching its focus from the personal to the political and back again within the space of a few chapters or so. But it failed, interestingly, to move me in the way I was moved by The Once and Future Witches; I think because it is so thoughtful, so careful, so academically inclined (Newitz was a science writer before they were a fiction writer), that there’s little space for human messinesses to slip in. Newitz is no prose stylist, either: their writing is competent but rarely elegant. The Future of Another Timeline offers a vision of our past, our present and our future that is, ultimately, hopeful; its trust is in the power of collective political action and allyship between marginalised groups. It’s a good read. But without that human angle, that deep connection with its characters, it’s hard, in the final analysis, to share fully in that trust, that hope.

Review: Windwitch

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot recently about the current drive in SFF for greater diversity of character, setting and narrative, for texts that acknowledge identities beyond the assumed white cishet norm and cultures outside the Western Anglosphere, and how that drive correlates – or not, as the case may be – with the actual quality of the texts that are being produced. Susan Dennard’s Windwitch, I’d argue, is an example of a text where an attempt at diversity has not made up for its other failures.

Windwitch is the sequel to Truthwitch, a fairly standard YA secondary world fantasy novel that was distinguished primarily by the relationship between its two female leads, Safi and Iseult. Back when the novel was published in 2016 it was still fairly rare to encounter strong platonic female friendships in fiction (it’s not exactly common even now), and so the deep, abiding relationship Safi and Iseult develop in Truthwitch was pretty refreshing to read.

However, the end of the novel sees them split up, and, crucially, they remain apart throughout Windwitch – and with their relationship taking a back seat in this second instalment, the rest of what’s going on in the book begins to look rather tired and familiar. There’s a pirate town and a game of wits; a long trek through the wilderness; a city under threat of magical war, its people starving and mistreated. There’s a magic system that’s so mechanical it feels arbitrary, abstracted from any sort of metaphorical resonance (I am not a fan of structured magic systems for precisely this reason); a prince (Safi’s love interest) presumed dead but actually not; a wicked scheming princess who takes advantage of his absence to seize power. (Actually the princess turns out to be not that wicked after all, and in fact slightly badass, but I admit that by the time this revelation occurred I had sort of stopped caring.) The class dynamics are exactly as you’d expect from this type of story: pretty much every major character is privileged either by their birth or by their possession of magical powers. The one exception is…problematic in other ways. And this is where Dennard’s somewhat misguided attempt at diversity comes in.

The character in question, Cam, is currently the aforementioned Prince Merik’s only supporter/comrade/general helper. He presents as male, but Merik, having accidentally spotted him binding his breasts one (1) time, concludes that he’s actually a woman who chooses to dress as a man for reasons that Merik magnanimously decides not to quiz him about. (That “magnanimously” is sarcasm, by the way.) It becomes clear at the end of the novel, when Merik and Cam have a blazing row, that Cam is a trans man, not a crossdressing woman. Which…great! Trans rep, right? But the upshot of Merik’s obliviousness is that he spends the entire novel misgendering Cam – and, because every scene that Cam is in is told from Merik’s point of view, that means the voice of the novel is misgendering Cam too. This, to put it mildly, is not great. After their row, Merik does resolve to use the correct pronouns for Cam, but the damage is done: the novel has consistently centred a cis character and his personal growth at the expense of a trans character.

This is a pattern that we see over and over in texts about people with marginalised identities. The very existence of this pattern makes it clear that, no, the mere presence of a marginalised character is not and will never be enough to make a book good. Windwitch is ultimately disappointing because it replaces some highly effective representation that defies the gaze of the hegemonic group – the representation of a platonic, abiding female friendship that remains unaffected by Safi’s attraction to Merik – with some very poor representation that prioritises the gaze of the hegemonic group. This isn’t a series that I plan to return to.

Film Review: Addams Family Values

A singularly cursèd text, and that is all I have to say about it.

(For some reason the way the film sexualises the classically grotesque Fester really disturbed me in a way that’s probably very Gothic, if you wanted to psychoanalyse it. I also thought it would have been 100% more interesting as a viewing experience had it been what the first few scenes promised, a film about a hyper-competent nanny who is entirely unfazed by the Addams children’s supernatural shenanigans, instead of following a hoary old “golddigger murderess” plot.

Also, yes, I liked the summer camp set piece, thought the racial politics were pretty on point for the 90s, but wish Wednesday’s speech about the oppression of Native Americans had been given to an actual Native American character.)