2022 Roundup

It’s been a pretty good reading year for me, by the number of books I pulled out as favourites from my 2022 reading log. My top ten feels notably topical, much more so than last year: environmentalism, colonialism, capitalism, the rise of the far right all stand out to me as common themes. I guess, like many of us, I’ve been drawn to fiction that works to make sense of our current moment, a moment when we seem to be standing vertiginously on the brink of apocalypse. Perhaps paradoxically, I don’t think this is a particularly downbeat list; there are moments of hope as well as more sombre notes, reminders of the great gift that life is, and of what we stand to lose if we carry on down this path.

So, here they are: my top ten reads of 2022.

  1. Ventriloquism – Catherynne M. Valente (2010). Of course, having just discussed how topical this list is, I start with possibly the least topical book on it. Not that the stories collected in Ventriloquism do not often feel urgent and searching: in particular, there is a strong feminist sensibility running through them. But the best and most playful stories – “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time”, which mashes up advanced physics with creation tales from around the world; “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica”, a catalogue of maps which also explores the rivalry between two cartographers; “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew”, the precursor to Valente’s Art Deco space opera novel Radiance – are more personal than political. Valente’s long been a favourite author of mine, thanks to her resonant uses of myth and fairytale and her lush, ornate prose; Ventriloquism collects some of her best work.
  2. Notes from the Burning Age – Claire North (2021). This novel, on the other hand, is thoroughly of the moment: set in a future in which humanity has learned to live more sustainably, it tells the story of the rise of an anti-environmentalist movement whose proponents believe that humanity should have dominion over the earth. I place it so high on this list because it was so utterly unexpected: I went in expecting an SF thriller along the lines of North’s earlier Touch and got instead a novel that expresses near-perfectly my own ideas about what a sustainable society might look like and what our relationship to our planet should be. There is a thriller element, which sometimes drives the book in a pulpier direction than I’d like, but its core ideas have stayed with me and will do for a long time.
  3. Ammonite – Nicola Griffith (1992). Setting aside the problematic nature of the novel’s central premise – it’s set on a planet where only women can survive, which indicates that there’s some rather reductionist thinking about gender going on somewhere – this is another delightfully quiet story about living in harmony with one’s environment, building community through mutual aid and complex chains of allegiance. Again, Ammonite was a book that came as a surprise to me: an ostensibly science-fictional text that reads in some respects more like fantasy.
  4. BabelR.F. Kuang (2022). I will be very surprised if this is not one of this year’s Hugo nominees. I’m not convinced that Kuang’s magic system, which runs off the losses and shifts of meaning involved in translating texts from one language to another, harmonises perfectly with what she has to say about colonialism and appropriation; but she captures so exactly what it feels like to be at Oxford, the heady golden days of intellectual pursuit coupled with the uneasy knowledge of the damage the institution has done and is still doing, that I can forgive her that. Her ending, too, is impeccably pitched; the kind of ending that feels, with hindsight, inevitable. Big, ambitious, exciting.
  5. Downbelow Station – C.J. Cherryh (1981). A classic work of SF, and one I’ve been meaning to read for a while. There are things that…are not great about it (I doubt we’d see anything like the hisa in published SF today, or at least one would hope not), but for the most part it’s a satisfyingly dense and chunky novel, broad in scope and more grittily realist in approach than I was expecting. I’ll be interested to read other books in the series, if I can find them in hard copy.
  6. In Other Lands – Sarah Rees Brennan (2017). Originally published online, this is a heartfelt coming-of-age novel that isn’t trying to be anything more than that. I’ve wept more at the utter teenage despair of its snarky, socially awkward protagonist Elliot than I have at any other work of art for a long time. Like Notes from a Burning Age and Babel, it’s a novel that just seems to get a part of me that I’ve barely been able to explain to myself.
  7. The Past is Red – Catherynne M. Valente (2021). Again, it’s Valente’s prose that wins this one for me; that, and its heroine’s conviction, in the face of all available evidence, that she lives in the best of all possible worlds. Valente’s critique of overconsumption and the heedlessness of the super-rich feels a little too on the nose; but the book’s last page is perfection.
  8. Market Forces – Richard Morgan (2004). I’m not a fan of Morgan’s depictions of characters who are not white men, but I always find his ideas, and the dynamic cyberpunky prose he uses to express them, invigorating. Here, he literalises capitalism’s metaphor of competition, making his City financiers and consultants fight to the death as a matter of course. It’s a compelling study of complicity and guilt that chimed in interesting ways with a lot of my reading this year.
  9. Red Pill – Hari Kunzru (2020). The experience of reading this novel encapsulates in miniature the experience of existing as a liberal in this present moment: the sense of disorientation and confusion as what appeared to be the long arc of progress collapses into reactionary conservatism; as what seemed to be the basic facts of the world are unmoored and overturned. Its protagonist’s inability to find answers to the far-right discourse he sees erupting around him feels deeply and terrifyingly relatable.
  10. Bewilderment – Richard Powers (2021). I’m not terribly satisfied with this novel’s treatment of the protagonist’s autistic child, who is used more as a plot device than as a character with agency of his own. But Powers is very good at describing the miracle of the world we see all about us: the complexity of something so simple as a fallen leaf, for example. And his melding of the science-fictional with the realistic is skillful and resonant.

Spreadsheet stats

  • I read 88 books in 2022; one fewer than last year.
  • The longest book I read was Donna Tartt’s sprawling The Goldfinch, at 864 pages; the shortest was Michael Bockemühl’s study of J.M.W. Turner, at just 96. In all I read 33,641 pages this year, down from last year’s 35,787. (I’ve obviously been reading shorter books.)
  • The oldest book I read in 2022 was Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, first published in 1848. The average age of the books I read in 2022 was 16, down from 19 last year. (I’ve obviously been reading newer books, too.)
  • Genre: genre distinctions are of course fuzzy and contested, but by my rather idiosyncratic rubric 36% of the books I read in 2022 were science fiction (up from 19% last year); 26% were fantasy (down from 43% last year); 22% were litfic, the same as last year. I wonder if the switchover between SF and fantasy as my favoured genre has something to do with my seeking out more topical fiction. (I should note, as well, that my “litfic” category includes several novels with speculative elements that didn’t feel solidly genre.) I’ve also read five novels that I classified as “contemporary” (mostly romances), four non-fiction books, a “classic” (the aforesaid Tenant of Wildfell Hall), a crime novel (Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters), a horror novel (Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians) and a mystery (Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land).
  • Just 7% of the books I read in 2022 were re-reads (down from last year’s 29%; that figure was only so high because the libraries were closed for a good proportion of 2021). Incidentally, all of those re-reads were by J.R.R. Tolkien, except for Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, which I had forgotten I’d already read.
  • 58% of the books I read in 2022 were by people who are not men, slightly down from last year’s 60%.
  • 28% of the books I read in 2022 were by people of colour, up from last year’s 19%.
  • And 22% of the books I read in 2022 were by queer authors – up from last year’s 19%.

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.)

Review: The Light Brigade

Has Kameron Hurley ever written an insignificant novel? Her first, God’s War, was shortlisted for the Clarke Award and the BSFA award, and won a Kitschy; her Worldbreaker Saga trilogy radically retools the tropes and assumptions of epic fantasy; her standalone novel The Stars are Legion does something similar for space opera. And now we have The Light Brigade, shortlisted for the Hugo Best Novel award this year and, again, the Clarke.

A military SF novel set in a dystopian future in which corporations rule most of the population, doling out citizenship – and thus basic rights – to only a privileged few, The Light Brigade takes aim at a range of contemporary issues, from the moral bankruptcy of the military-industrial complex to capitalism’s reduction of human lives to the value of their labour. Our protagonist, Dietz, is a corporation soldier who’s joined up partly for the promise of citizenship in return for ten years of service. The war she’s drafted into is against the Martians, who, she’s told, are responsible for the destruction of Sao Paulo, where her family were living. The corporations use a sort of FTL technology to move their soldiers vast distances instantaneously, a dangerous process that often leaves people mangled or split between two places. In Dietz’s case, though, it does something far stranger, displacing her in time so that, for instance, she might experience the aftermath of an operation before she’s actually gone on it.

Hurley renders the loneliness and disorientation caused by this displacement very well: because the novel’s narrated in first person, we only ever have as much information as Dietz does; we are just as confused and lost as she is, giving the inevitable revelations about the nature and cause of the war real force. That in turn serves to underscore Hurley’s points about how self-serving the corporations are, how little they value Dietz and her compatriots.

It’s a well-crafted novel with lots of important points to make, set in a future that feels all too likely. I didn’t really like it.

This is a problem I have with much of Hurley’s work: much as I want to enjoy it, the violence and gore that pervades it always throws me out of the text. It’s not that the violence is egregious or titillating (there’s certainly no sexual violence in The Light Brigade): quite the opposite, it’s core to Hurley’s artistic vision. Her novels make visible various sorts of structural violence in order to examine the effects of oppressive regimes on the bodies of their subjects. Through its use of violence The Light Brigade makes clear the brutality of unchecked capitalism. It’s there for a reason, and a necessary one.

No, what I struggle with, I think, is the lack of any counterbalancing weight of joy or hope, a glimpse of what a better world might look like. This, I will freely admit, is on me, not on the novel; bleakness is as key to what Hurley is doing as violence. But, there it is – as a reader I need something vital and excessive to leaven bleakness, and I’m not getting that from The Light Brigade. It’s a significant novel, and a good one; but not one I’m ever going to love.

Review: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales

Reading the work of celebrated horror writer H.P. Lovecraft today is something of a fraught experience. Much recent discussion in SFF fandom has focused on how his virulent racism is foundational to the affect and worldview of his fiction, even where it is not made explicit. His shoggoths, his tentacular elder gods, his deep-sea monstrosities are all expressions of a profound fear of and hatred for the Other, which is often explicitly racially coded, tangled up too with a queasy disgust for fleshly physicality of all kinds. To read Lovecraft is to peer into a mind in turmoil, a psyche afraid of everything that is not itself. No wonder it’s terrifying.

And yet it’s difficult to deny that his work, his vision of the world of humanity as a tiny ship of sanity sailing on vast unknowable seas, has a visceral and frightening power; and that his shadow lies long on twentieth and twenty-first century fantasy. This, then, was why I found myself picking up this Vintage collection of Lovecraft’s short stories, having read Haunter of the Dark, volume 3 of Wordsworth Classics’ edition of his Collected Short Stories, a few years ago. I was interested to read more of the Cthulhu cycle, which Haunter of the Dark touches on only a little, and which has probably had the greatest impact of all Lovecraft’s work on general pop culture today: where and how did it all begin, I wanted to know.

What I found was, yes, interesting, and perhaps a little disappointing, as maybe all investigations into the source of things are. Essentially: I sort of think that most of Lovecraft’s stories fit maybe three or four basic templates, and once you have read three or four of his stories you have read as much as you need to. The particular formula that most of the stories in this collection follow is: academic/researcher/explorer delves too deep into ancient secrets; academic/researcher/explorer gains the attention of Things from Beyond that are better left alone; academic/researcher/explorer dies, goes mad or attempts to stop others from following in their footsteps and wreaking untold calamity upon the human race.

(The one story that doesn’t follow this formula in some manner is “The Festival”, which is instead an entry in the venerable “man witnesses dread ritual and ends up in hospital” tradition of storytelling. It is a decidedly minor work.)

Pulpy as this formula is (fictional scientists have been awakening powers they do not understand since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came out in 1818), it is not incidental to Lovecraft’s project. The vast majority of Lovecraft’s original output is from the interwar period, 1918-1939, and the stories in this collection are pretty evenly distributed across that span of time (the earliest, “The Picture in the House”, was written in 1920 and published in 1921; the latest, “The Thing on the Doorstep”, was written in 1933 and published 1937). In other words, he is writing in the aftermath of a conflict conducted on a literally industrial scale; the first such conflict in humanity’s history. Death was made mechanised; meaning and rationality fled in the face of such faceless violence. At the same time, scientists were making increasingly abstruse discoveries about the nature of the atom and of various kinds of radiation: we knew for the first time that much of matter is just empty space, and learned of dangerous and invisible energies that could give you cancer, or allow others to peer inside your body. Lovecraft’s tales of scientists pressing too hard against the borders of human knowledge reflects both the new understanding of the world as deterministic and uncaring (Cthulhu and his ilk care not at all about humans; they are consciousnesses utterly alien) and the seeming irrationality of what real-life scientists at the cutting edge of the field were finding.

My two favourite stories in this collection, then, are “The Nameless City” and “At the Mountains of Madness”. Both of them are about explorers venturing into an ancient and titanic city in some far-flung region of the earth; a city that predates humanity by some considerable margin. Both these stories, I think, absolutely nail the explorers’ gathering sense of horror as their understanding of the universe is gradually eroded; and as they come to understand that not only were these cities once inhabited by a vast and inhuman civilisation, members of that civilisation may still be down there in the depths of the earth. The fear these characters feel is not the relatively simple fear of the monstrous; it is the existential fear of that which is utterly beyond our experience, the fear of that which is beyond the human in scale and proportion.

The thing is, though, that existential horror is like most kinds of horror very vulnerable to over-explanation. This, it turns out, is what doesn’t quite work for me about the collection on an artistic level: Lovecraft’s “world”, his underlying mythos, is explicated more or less completely here, and knowing how it all works renders each individual story that less powerful. The atmosphere of “At the Mountains of Madness”, for example, is somewhat punctured when the shoggoths appear from the depths of the nameless Antarctic city. Shoggoths turn up everywhere in Lovecraft’s work as terrifying beings whose very appearance shocks people into gibbering madness – but as it turns out they are no more than formless, mindless lumps of flesh. Grotesque, perhaps, but not, like, mind-destroyingly horrible? One would think? In a similar vein, Lovecraft often has unfortunates who have witnessed cosmic horrors from beyond the boundaries of our dimensions moan unconnected and mysterious phrases, a technique that’s considerably less effective when you know what all those phrases mean. I think the conclusion that I’m groping towards, here, has to do with the regrettable tendencies of so many SFF authors to attempt to tie all their stories together into their own personal mythos. I don’t think “The Nameless City” needs to take place in the same universe as “The Haunter of the Dark”, for instance. I kind of wish I didn’t know that the Elder Things in “At the Mountains of Madness” are the same creatures that Gilman dreams about in “The Dreams in the Witch House”. I don’t gain anything from that knowledge; instead, I lose a potent sense of things half-known, half-coherent and dimly glimpsed; a sense that I think is closer to what Lovecraft actually wanted to achieve than the fully-articulated cosmology that we actually get.

There are other ways in which Lovecraft is technically not a good writer. He has basically no interest in character, for example. His prose, always verging on the purple, veers between Gothically appropriate to the subject matter and hysterically, repetitively overheated. He’s not doing anything particularly interesting with form or structure.

Despite those undoubted flaws, though, and the fact that his writing relentlessly, uncompromisingly shuts everyone who isn’t a straight white man out, I can see myself returning to it in the future, for the atmospheric power he achieves in his best passages, for his vision of a vast and uncaring universe. I am fascinated by these stories as much as I am revolted by them, although I’d hesitate to recommend them to, well, anyone. If you are going to read them, be warned: here there be monsters, of more than one kind.

Review: Subcutanean

This review contains spoilers.

It’s hard to know what to do with Subcutanean, a procedurally generated horror-ish novel from interactive fiction writer and game designer Aaron A. Reed. The novel’s schtick is that every copy is unique, thanks to some clever programming, which makes discussing the text itself in any detail a venture of limited value, given that no two people will have the same experience with it. That leaves the circumstances of its production the most fruitful avenue of investigation – but I’m not sure how much light they actually shed on the novel’s core themes.

Our protagonist is Orion, a somewhat disaffected college student struggling with his sexuality, especially his attraction to his best friend Niko, who does not reciprocate that attraction. Once upon a time, Orion and Niko discover a staircase beneath Orion’s bed in their shared hundred-year-old house, leading to a huge and hitherto unknown basement. Doors lead off this room, doors opening onto long empty corridors in aggressively 70s décor (beige carpets, wall sconces, fake wood panelling). There are stairs, too, delving impossibly deep into the ground, and, further down, stranger oddities of architecture: vertical corridors, mazes of miniature corridors accessible only by crawling, empty swimming pools with ordinary doors at the bottom.

Orion and Niko dub this strange underworld Downstairs. As we find out later in the novel, Downstairs is a place where things are multiplied: architecture, emotions…people. Possibilities. In fact there are countless Nikos and Orions down there, each pair slightly different, connected to each other by tenuous threads of probability and synchronicity.

So the possibility space of Downstairs reflects the possibility space generated by Subcutanean‘s master text; which is to say that seeing only one version of Niko and Orion is analogous to reading only one version of the novel. Or that the vast branching spaces of Downstairs are analogous to the thousands of possible permutations there are of Subcutanean.

This is interesting largely because I have a pet thesis on the subject of novels with creepy houses in (House of Leaves, Gormenghast, Rebecca). Architecture and text are both things that we generally experience as rational: we live in architecture, we don’t really expect it to intrude upon our notice suddenly, to threaten us; equally, we in the West live increasingly in text – email, Whatsapp, Twitter, newspapers, road signs, training manuals, ingredient lists, menus. Further, in the Protestant ideology from which Anglo-American culture as it is today has largely sprung, the Word is sacred, it is the medium through which the individual experiences God. So it’s interesting that a disturbance in the rationality of architecture is often accompanied by a disturbance to the rationality of the Word, whether it’s House of Leaves‘ non-standard textual formatting or the heightened, overwritten prose of Gormenghast. Or the phantoms of possible texts that haunt each single copy of Subcutanean, undermining the singular authority of the Word. This is all, I think, part of the postmodernist project of deconstructing what we understand of narrative and textual authority, with a side helping of destabilising our conception of space which I need to think more about.

Thing is, though, Subcutanean is less interesting as an actual novel than it is as a concept. It explicitly asks us to read Downstairs as a literalised extension of Orion’s psyche, which…okay, but I don’t see a lot of resonance here? Like, what is the point this metaphor is making? That Orion is a lost soul wandering down the distorted corridors his mind makes of his relationship with Niko? Fine, but it’s not very original. Actually I think a major problem I have with this reading is that Orion never struck me as a complex enough person to justify all this weirdness. The house is much more disturbing a presence than either of the human characters, so it’s hard to read its sprawling vastness as the subjectivity of one poorly-characterised college student. As an explanation for what’s going on here, it diminishes the immense power of Downstairs and thus of the novel itself.

There are a couple of other things I thought my copy of the novel, at least, fluffed, especially towards the end, but since I’m not sure whether they’re repeated in other copies there doesn’t seem to be much point describing them. They are specifically character beats, though, reactions to events that don’t have the resonance Reed tries to ascribe to them.

In some ways I think Subcutanean would have been a better novel if it had not made the building-as-psyche connection quite so explicitly; if we’d been left to draw our own conclusions about what’s going on Downstairs. (As it were.) As a metaphor it speaks for itself; I don’t think we needed the explicit psychodrama on top of it? Had Orion’s struggle with his feelings for Niko remained subtext instead of text we might have read it subliminally within the irrationality of Downstairs. Instead, the whole thing is somewhat…overexplained.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a bad novel. Actually Downstairs is pretty disturbing (I dreamt about it last night, after re-reading the book for this review) and there are a few moments in the novel that are deliciously chilling – when Orion and Niko become aware that there’s something other than them moving about in the labyrinth. But there’s a disconnect between its unusual method of production and its thematic core, which is a shame, because it makes the former feel more gimmick than innovative experiment.

Film Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol is, I contend, the definitive cinematic version of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It is, certainly, the one I’m most familiar with. (I’ve only actually read the Carol once, and I may have seen a non-Muppet version once, but I can’t be sure.) If you haven’t seen it (and if not, why not?), the Muppets’ retelling features the Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself, narrating the tale, Rizzo as his comedic assistant, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit (with Miss Piggy as his wife, natch) and a surprisingly committed Michael Caine as Scrooge.

It’s delightful to me mostly because it’s so much better than it needed to be. Let us remember that this is essentially a sentimental children’s puppet show from 1992. With an array of catchy tunes. And yet. We have the Great Gonzo reciting large chunks of actual Dickens prose, and explaining the concept of omniscient narration to boot. We have Michael Caine playing Scrooge as if he’s on the stage at the RSC. (The moments before the ghosts of Marley and Marley appear are utterly convincing, Caine’s face registering the frozen terror we’ve all experienced on hearing an unexplained bump in the night – all the more horrifying because it’s real this time.) We have Scrooge declaring that all the poor people should die and “decrease the surplus population!” which is a hell of a line to include in a kids’ film, and also, terrifyingly, something that a Brexiter on the Internet might plausibly say.

I also think it captures the positive aspects of Dickens’ humanity wonderfully. Like his characters, the Muppets are larger than life, and as such they embody and perform the exuberance and vitality of city life; the unexpected moments of community we in the West often find at Christmas (the strangers who wish you a merry Christmas on a country walk; Christmas tableaux in windows in a rural village). Dickens and the Muppets is an inspired combination – and adding musical numbers only makes it better: Dickens was a performer as well as a writer, and fascinated by all things theatrical; I like to think he would have enjoyed the vivaciousness of this retelling, which brings everything in London to life, even the vegetables.

What the film misses, though, is Dickens’ reformist anger, his glimpses into the grimy underbelly of Victorian society. That would be a bit of a drag on an upbeat Christmas film, to be sure, but it doesn’t help that most of its references to Scrooge’s general misanthropy are either in song (“He charges folks a fortune for his dark and draughty houses/Us poor folk live in misery/(It’s even worse for mouses!)”) or undermined by broad and slapstick humour (“Do you remember when we evicted an entire orphanage? I remember those little tykes standing in the snowbank, clutching their little frostbitten teddy bears!”). It certainly isn’t anarchic or anti-establishment, words that keep cropping up in reference to the Muppets; it may have some dark moments, but they’re there to cast the film’s joyous, consolatory ending into greater contrast. Ultimately this is a film about reintegrating a rich man who refuses to act like one into his proper place in society, rather than actually upending the power imbalance between Scrooge and, say, Bob Cratchit.

Complete social reform is probably out of scope for a film like this; to be fair, it’s also out of scope for the original Carol, which nevertheless at least acknowledges the systematic existence of a struggling underclass (there’s a short scene which the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge in which a couple fear bankruptcy because they cannot pay him a debt they owe him). It’s still a lovely, warm-hearted thing to watch at Christmas, and a brilliant, accessible way to introduce young people to the original text.

Review: Ghostly

Ghostly is pretty much what it says on the tin: a collection of Audrey Niffenegger’s favourite ghost stories.

Like any multi-author short story collection, it is a bit of a mixed bag, ranging from the mildly interesting (Niffenegger’s own “Secret Life, with Cats”) to the nasty (Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat” – content note for animal cruelty) and the outright racist (Saki’s “Laura” – I’m at a loss how anyone thought this was appropriate to reprint). There’s a not-terrible Neil Gaiman story, “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”, and the only truly haunting story in the collection, Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains”, in which an automated house slowly collapses in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse.

Apart from a couple of outliers, it’s mostly…fine. I guess I’m not sure what the point of it is, though. About half of the stories date from the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, and are consequently a bit tame for a modern reader looking for horror thrills. Most of them are quite frequently anthologised: Poe, Bradbury, Gaiman, A.S. Byatt and M.R. James are hardly forgotten gems or lacking in name recognition. Niffenegger has little in the way of insightful commentary to add to these stories, and the collection doesn’t have a whole lot of coherency. Nor is she interested in interrogating the problematic elements of these stories, as the Saki example proves, as does the inclusion of a story by the always-irritatingly-misogynist P.G. Wodehouse. Like, I think if you are going to reprint stories that reflect problematic views from the last century, you should at least provide some context for them instead of just saying, “well, it was another time”?

The inevitable conclusion is that Ghostly is more or less a branding exercise: Niffenegger carving out a small niche as an Expert on Spookiness. I suppose if you’re interested in Niffenegger especially, and in thinking about what she has to say with her fiction, it could be worth reading; if not, though, it feels a little inessential.

Doctor Who Review: The Shakespeare Code

So…there are good episodes of Doctor Who, and there are not-so-good episodes.

The Shakespeare Code is a less-good one. But for Davies-era Who, “less-good” tends to translate into “campy fun” as opposed to “poorly-plotted mess”, which is what Moffat-era “less-good” looks like.

Got all that?

Unsurprisingly, The Shakespeare Code sees Martha and the Doctor meeting Shakespeare. In particular, they’re about to solve the mystery of Love’s Labours Won, a real-world lost Shakespeare play which may or may not ever have existed. The episode’s Big Bad is a trio of alien witches called the Carrionites, whose magic (it’s hand-waved as Science, but for all intents and purposes it’s magic) is based on the power of words. They’re intent on using the Bard to write a spell (in the form of a play) to free the rest of their people from the vortex where they’re trapped, so they can then take over the world.

It’s extremely campy indeed. The actors playing the witches are clearly having a lot of fun hamming them up in classic Macbeth-y prosthetic masks, shrieking rhyming doggerel at the rest of the cast. There’s lots of jokes where the Doctor quotes Shakespeare at Shakespeare. Ooh, and Shakespeare is bi! Which may even be historically accurate!

(well…sort of. Elizabethan conceptions of sexuality and same-gender relationships were unsurprisingly rather different from ours, so the label “bisexual” is probably not completely accurate. Still: it’s a concept that’s immediately understandable to modern audiences in the context of a 45-minute space drama, which is probably the most important thing in terms of queer representation. Also: I always forget, and always re-relish, how accessible Davies-era Who is to queer audiences. It just kind of…takes our existence as read? In a way that even Chris Chibnall’s work doesn’t really? And there is SO little mainstream media that does that, let alone mainstream media from 2007.)

There’s also some surprisingly good (or at least convincing) Shakespeare pastiche going on – although, at the same time, for a story about the power of words, the witches’ doggerel is cringe-inducing. As a result, The Shakespeare Code is an episode heavy on the spectacle but light on meaning and theme; the plot’s rudimentary at best and draws some rather hackneyed lines between grief and genius.

Oh, and the concept of genius itself feels rather old-fashioned, too: Shakespeare was brilliant, but he was also a hack – much like that other beloved British writer, Charles Dickens. Roberts is revealing his motivations here: the only work this episode is supposed to be doing is Having Shakespeare In It, because bringing Shakespeare and the Doctor together sounds like fun.

It is fun. It’s just not very good.

Review: White Tears

At last! A Tournament of Books contender that I don’t hate!

Well now, that’s a little unfair. I like Ruth Ozeki’s work, and Station Eleven is lovely, and I really enjoyed thinking about Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. Bu-ut, generally, the people who follow and read along with the ToB are looking for different things in their reading than I am. As a case in point, Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, which I think is doing unusual and important work, didn’t make it out of the first round of this year’s Tournament, despite a relatively high seeding, which means my memory has apparently fabricated a rich vein of discussion about it. (The ToB is possibly the only place on the internet where it’s not only safe but actually productive to read the comments.)

Anyway. The very fact that White Tears made it into the ToB in the first place means that, although it draws on genre elements, it falls squarely into the Literary camp: it relies more on affect than plot to generate meaning. But a bare-bones plot summary might go something like this.

The novel follows two young white men, astronomically wealthy Carter and un-wealthy, unworldly Seth. Carter draws impressionable, eager-to-please Seth down with him into the depths of an appropriative obsession with Black music, a search for a spurious “authenticity” which they think the Black people they actually meet in college lack. Together, they form a production company specialising in creating this “authentic” sound for (mostly white) musicians, using the substantial library of original 1920s records Carter has put together. Things take a sinister turn, however, when Carter releases online a blues track put together by Seth out of a couple of enigmatic recordings he’s made while walking the city; Carter passes the song off as genuine, claiming that it’s by an artist named Charlie Shaw. An ex-collector reveals that Charlie Shaw was in fact a real Black artist – and decades of systematic racism, oppression and appropriation literally come back to haunt Carter and Seth.

Literally: a couple of commenters on the one ToB judgement White Tears did manage wanted to know what “really happens” towards the end of the book, when Seth apparently experiences flashes from the life of Charlie Shaw and possibly other Black victims of institutional racism. Kunzru also sets up a couple of murder mysteries that never get solved comprehensively, at least not in the way we’d expect from the detective-story traditions he draws on. I think that asking what literally happens misses Kunzru’s point here, or is, rather, the exact opposite of Kunzru’s point: these flashbacks, these lacunae, deliberately disturb the “logical”, “rational” surface of the text, the level on which we can rationalise out motives and psychologies and chains of cause and effect. They, precisely, haunt the text, as the spectre of racism haunts America. The novel isn’t interested in logical, rational explanations because it’s not interested in allowing us to construct racism and appropriation as logical, rational responses.

There is something here, too, that’s to do with artistic and narrative erasure. On the most obvious level, Carter and Seth are erasing Black artists, and the cultural tragedy their work is rooted in, by appropriating their “authenticity” for their own profit. (It’s worth noting here that Carter’s family has made their fortune off Black labour and Black lives.) So the novel eschews conventional narrative solutions as a way of performing this erasure: Charlie Shaw, the brilliant young artist, is denied the narrative arc that would (and, under the terms of the novel, should) bring him to fame, fortune and recognition by a system that exploits his labour and life: his career is derailed before it’s even begun by white capitalists who refuse to acknowledge his humanity.

I wonder if my not minding the novel’s refusal to provide logical explanations has to do with genre reading protocols? While it refers to our murder mystery expectations only to subvert them, it’s also clearly drawing on horror tropes to frame its discussion of racism and appropriation – and I suspect that not fully understanding a text on a rational level bothers readers of speculative literature (including horror) less than it does readers who primarily favour mimetic litfic. Or maybe that’s a gross simplification of people’s actual reading habits; I don’t know. In any case, I think this ghost story/murder mystery/Literary novel is a really effective way of laying bare the connections between the slave trade, institutional racism and oppression and cultural appropriation, and the utter savagery of those systems.

Doctor Who Review: Arachnids of the UK

This post contains spoilers.

TW: spiders.

Despite a feelgood ending in which the Doctor and her companions pledge to form #TeamTARDIS, Arachnids of the UK, the fourth episode in Doctor Who‘s current series, feels ultimately a bit despondent.

Surely written specially for Halloween weekend, it’s a tale of giant spiders and corporate greed. The spiders of Sheffield are doing odd things, and it all seems to be centred on a luxury hotel that’s due to open any time soon. If you didn’t drift off to sleep thinking vaguely worrying thoughts about eight-legged bugs after you watched this, I don’t believe you.

But the Big Bad of the episode isn’t actually the oversized arachnids, which are big and hairy and CGI enough to be almost cute, and which the Doctor encourages us to view with empathy and respect; it’s the hotel’s owner, Jack Robertson, a global gazillionaire businessman rumoured to be running for the White House. I’ve seen and heard a couple of people compare Jack to Donald Trump, partly because the episode itself names him as a rival to the 45th president, but I don’t think that comparison’s quite right: Jack is oilier and cleverer and savvier than Trump, a man who (I imagine) can charm as well as order. He’s an arch-capitalist, putting his employees’ bodies between him and danger – quite literally on one occasion. Perhaps Elon Musk would be a better comparison than Trump.

In any case, Jack’s all about the profit, and it’s this corner-cutting, blind-eye-turning approach that’s fucked up Sheffield’s spider ecosystem (which we can read, perhaps, as a microcosm of the Earth’s ecosystem, similarly fucked up by late capitalism’s drive for profit). And Jack likes guns. When it’s revealed that the giantest spider of them all is in fact dying because she’s too grown too big to breathe efficiently, it’s Jack who shoots her, ignoring the Doctor’s horrified protests. That’s, more or less, where the episode’s plot ends: with a beautifully composed shot, surely destined for a poster of some sort, of the Doctor looking down at a spider corpse nearly as big as she is. The question Arachnids in the UK poses is the same as the one Theoden asks in Tolkien’s The Two Towers:

“How shall any tower withstand…such reckless hate?”

Except, in Arachnids, it’s not even hate, simply pure and monstrous selfishness. How can the Doctor’s preaching of acceptance and kindness ever penetrate such profound indifference to the lives of others? How can tolerance stand against men with guns and institutional power? As with every single one of Thirteen’s episodes so far, Arachnids feels incredibly pointed and incredibly topical. But where the first three episodes felt like a challenge to the creep of far-right nationalism, Arachnids is a sigh of despair, a confession of exhaustion.

And yet. I think writer Chris Chibnall needlessly muddles the episode’s ethical standpoint of “don’t kill things just because they are in the way”. The very first question I asked when Arachnids finished (I texted it to the Bandersnatch) was “but what happened to the little spiders?” You see, the Doctor and her friends lure the smaller spiders into Jack’s panic room so they can tackle the biggest, van-sized spider on its own. Their plan once they’ve done this is…unclear, to say the least. The resident spider expert they’ve managed to pick up along the way mutters something about “a humane and dignified death”, but that’s it. We hear nothing more.

Jack says that a gun would be cleaner, and he’s probably right: as far as we know, the spiders are left locked in the panic room to eat each other and eventually starve. And if Jack hadn’t shot the huge spider, and if she hadn’t been dying anyway, what then? What would they have done with her that wouldn’t have meant killing her?

There are certainly possible answers to these questions; Chibnall has the whole of time and space to work with, after all. But not answering them leaves the episode feeling hollowed out and insufficient, with no coherent ethical standpoint.

That’s a shame, because I feel it would have taken so little to make it wonderful – encouraging people to love spiders, the most sustainable bug control solution there is, often misunderstood and killed by the needlessly frightened. What an elegant device! And even just a throwaway line about their eventual fate would have made the episode more…substantial.

As it is, Thirteen remains a joy to watch, and the chemistry between her three companions is beginning to warm up a little. (Yas is my fave so far by a country mile.) But it’s not an episode that quite works for me.