Thoughts on Granta 149: Europe: Strangers in the Land

Granta 149For post-Brexit British liberals living in an increasingly authoritarian state, it’s easy to romanticise the idea of Europe as a utopia of tolerance, progress and international cooperation. Published in 2019, in a year when the UK and the EU remained entrenched in seemingly interminable rows about the terms of Britain’s exit from the bloc, Granta 149 shows up the cracks in that utopia.

Much of the anthology – which contains fiction, essays and poetry, as well as a photo essay – covers depressingly familiar ground: the resounding aftereffects of the two world wars, and especially the Holocaust; modern anti-immigrant sentiment and policy across the continent; the effects of European colonialism and economic imperialism.

Highlights for me included an essay on the interaction of the Swedish asylum process with trauma, and the way in which help is thus denied to the most vulnerable; a piece on depictions of Saint Benedict the Moor in Sicily; and the aforesaid photo essay, which consists of images of temporary refugee housing without their inhabitants, drawing out the contingent nature of the concept of home.

I don’t think I’m ever going to be a regular reader of Granta, but I found this a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.

Review: Discontent and its Civilizations

Per Wikipedia, Sigmund Freud’s 1929 work Civilization and its Discontents explores the “clash between the desire for individuality and the expectations of society”. It’s a revealing metatext for Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid’s essay collection Discontent and its Civilizations, one of the overarching themes of which is the way in which the concept of civilization is used to enforce conformity and to exclude those classed as “other”.

The collection’s split into three sections, Life, Art and Politics. The first two sections cover some interesting ground around Hamid’s relationship with the country he was born in and his views on things like the great American novel, the use of the second person in fiction and the advantages of paper books over ebooks; but I’ll admit that what I really remember about the book is the Politics section, with its insight into the realities of everyday life in Pakistan, into the effects of drone warfare on Pakistani communities, into the suppression of religious minorities in the country. It seems to me that we don’t hear a lot about Pakistan in the West aside from news articles about the country’s border disputes with India – although of course that might be my own personal bias talking – and Hamid’s book is a valuable source of context for the country’s recent history and the challenges it’s facing today.

I haven’t read any of Hamid’s fiction, although his most recent novel Exit West is on my radar. For me, Discontent and its Civilizations stands well on its own as a useful perspective on a country I didn’t know much about. It’s only by engaging with such perspectives, surely, that we can resist the nationalising forces that that the book’s title refers to, the temptation to reduce others to their labels; the temptation to simplify and vilify that ultimately makes us all less free.

My Ten Favourite Top Ten Posts

  1. Top Ten Characters Who Struggle. This was a great opportunity for me to write about a whole bunch of characters who have emotional or mental struggles that don’t (necessarily) end when the book does. For whom worry and trauma and stress and depression are ways of being, not monsters that can be magically overcome. And they still get to be heroes. They’re still worthy. They’re still awesome. It would be great to see more characters like these ones.
  2. Top Ten Books for Steampunks. Steampunk is one of my current fascinations. Mostly because I find long swooshy skirts and waistcoats and pocket-watches and dirigibles and the whole aesthetic of Victoriana really cool. And yes! I know steampunk is culturally reactionary and a little bit late capitalist and quite colonialist! I can’t help it. But it does also seem to me that there’s a rebellious undertone to steampunk, that it’s in some way pushing at our notions of Victorian England. And that’s the tension that draws my overthinking overanalysing brain right in.
  3. Top Ten Queer CharactersIt was pretty surprising how hard this list was to write: I feel I’ve read a lot of books with a queer sensibility, if that means anything, but I couldn’t think of that many queer characters. And I kept coming up with characters I’d read as queer who maybe canonically weren’t (Frodo and Sam, Sidra in A Closed and Common Orbit, Stanley’s daughter in Told by an Idiot). I’m pretty happy with the final result, though.
  4. Top Ten Bookish Things I’d Like to Own. I feature this one not so much because of the quality of the finished post, but because of how much fun I had writing it and doing the equivalent of window shopping on the Internet. (I never did buy that Gormenghast print.) Plus, Jay Johnstone.
  5. Top Ten Bookish Characters I’d Like to Cosplay. Googling cosplay pictures is never a bad thing. Also, ooh, I’m now re-considering Steerpike for Nine Worlds (and not only because I could potentially reuse bits of last year’s cosplay…)
  6. Top Ten Favourite Book Quotes. I wrote this, dear gods, four years ago, so I’m not particularly proud of my flippant style, but as for the quotes themselves? Good choices, 19-year-old me.
  7. Top Ten Dystopias; Or, True and Accurate Representations of Post-Trump America. Oh, I remember how angry and depressed I was when I wrote this just after the American elections. FUCKING TRUMP.
  8. Top Ten Bookish Emotional Moments, or, All the Feels. My list would maybe look a little different now, but I do still love all these passages. (Well. Perhaps not the Thomas Covenant one, which strikes me now as a bit, uh, overwritten. And not in a good way.) And these are the moments I read for, after all: moments of visceral, terrible-wonderful empathy.
  9. Top Ten Books for Halloween. I just…like all the books on this list? And I think it’s one of my more successful theme posts, partly because almost nothing on here is straight-up horror (I don’t have the stomach for that shit, thanks very much).
  10. Top Ten Reasons I Love Blogging. Because these are all still true. (Especially the explodey bit. I have however somehow managed to find some more people IRL who will listen politely to my rants though. And really what more could you ask for.)

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Green Earth

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, a revised and consolidated version of what was previously a trilogy (comprising Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting), is a lot of things – spy thriller, romance, novel of ideas, near-future science fiction, West Wing-reminiscent political novel – but fundamentally it’s a novel about change.

An incomplete summary looks like this: in a near-future Washington D.C., climate change is ramping up and the myopic political establishment is refusing to do anything about it. The novel follows a scientist working temporarily for the (real-life) grant-giving body the National Science Foundation, Frank Vanderwal, as he falls in love with a random woman who turns out to be a spy with an abusive husband, also a spy, both of whom are complexly involved with an election-rigging intelligence group; and a political advisor and stay-at-home father, Charlie Quibler, husband to one of the Foundation’s top scientists and aide to environmentally-minded opposition senator Phil Chase, as he simultaneously navigates his changing relationship with his boisterous three-year-old Joe and tries to get environmental legislation through Congress. Along the way it takes in a Buddhist nation, Khembalung, whose island home in the Indian ocean has been lost to sea level rise; the stalling of the Gulf Stream; a group of homeless people living in one of Washington’s parks, dispossessed by a capitalism that cultivates fear of unemployment to keep wages low; freeganism; and feral gibbons.

Green Earth is unusual, perhaps unique, in my experience, in seeing climate change as process. There are plenty of novels set in the aftermath of climate change and ecological collapse, in wasteland dystopias or flooded Earths (Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix, Robinson’s own 2312); there are novels in which climate change, although ongoing, is presented as a fait accompli, as inescapable and inevitable as the heat death of the universe (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower). All of these see climate change and ecological collapse as a rupture, an apocalypse, a lacuna, literally unspeakable, and thus inevitable. (If we can’t talk about it, how can we do anything about it?) It’s as if climate change is an on/off switch: we have pristine Earth, and we have the ruined planet, and both are essentially stable states, with no transition period between them. The problem with this approach is obvious: seeing climate change as inevitable absolves us of responsibility for doing anything about it; for imagining ways out of the mire. And it’s an approach that flattens the complexity of what climate change means: endless feedback loops as homeostatic systems that have been stable for millennia tip out of balance – feedback loops that are already happening. Climate change is not some unimaginable apocalypse waiting for us in the future. It is our present. If it is unimaginable, it’s because we’re not imagining hard enough.

Enter Green Earth, which posits change as itself the default state of human existence. Which is in itself not that unusual a literary point to make; it’s in the yoking of the vast and terrible truth of ongoing climate change, an apocalypse we’re all living through right now, to human-scale changes like a three-year-old’s development, moving to a different city, taking a new job, the Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation, that Robinson’s novel feels radical. It’s a literary strategy that brings climate change into the realm of the human, making it speakable and thus no longer inevitable. The human changes that happen during the course of the novel – the National Science Foundation gaining considerably greater political power, for example, or the change of administration halfway through the book – mean that the characters can actually make a difference to their environment. The effort is still huge – an effort to restart the stalled Gulf Stream involves thousands of tankers spraying billions of tons of salt into the Atlantic over the course of several weeks – but it’s huge in human terms. It can be measured. It can be talked about.

(Underlying all of this, of course, is the spectre of capitalism, and how its refusal to take the costs of climate change into its accountings of profitability is a central cause of our collective refusal to look at climate change properly.)

In other words: Green Earth‘s characters get shit done. That very fact gives the novel some blind spots: necessarily, it centres power. Its point-of-view characters are white, male and middle-class; more pertinently, they’re all American. We experience climate change as it affects the US: the novel elides the fact that the apocalyptic floods, deep freezes and blackouts that hit Washington in this imagined future are already realities in some developing countries. And the US is portrayed as the solution – the countries disproportionately feeling the effects of climate change nevertheless don’t do anything about it, and, in fact, at one point the US army effectively stages an intervention to prevent ecological collapse in China, sending nuclear warships in to run the country’s essential functions while an intensive programme of environmental rehabilitation is started.

(The very fact that only passing mention is made of this development, and that such overtly colonial behaviour is framed as better than the alternative, is potentially troubling. Potentially: there’s an argument to be made that such action is justified. But it’s worth noting as an indication of where the novel’s priorities perhaps lie.)

That’s not to say the novel’s cast is hopelessly homogenous; in fact, I think Robinson does much better in this respect than a lot of SF. The novel’s large cast list of secondary characters features women, people of colour and queer people, most of them scientists. Frank is friends with a number of homeless veterans, who are themselves disproportionately affected by climate change in Washington. And, of course, there are the Khembalis, exiled first from Tibet by China and then from their island nation by climate change: their Buddhist philosophy underlies the novel’s thinking about change in general, and their ongoing presence makes sure we as readers don’t forget that climate change isn’t just a phenomenon that affects America.

Green Earth runs to over 1000 pages. It would be surprising if it didn’t have blind spots and weak links. (On a purely personal level, I wasn’t convinced by Frank’s feelings for his on-off spy girlfriend Caroline. But I’m rarely convinced by fictional romances, so.) And I think that what it does manage to do – that willingness to speak about climate change, to make it a thing we can try to affect, even if we fail, even if the results are inconclusive – is important and radical and unusual enough that it’s worth reading despite those blind spots. We need writers like Robinson to shake us out of our complacency and apathy, to help us find better solutions.

Review: What Are We Doing Here?

So…US novelist Marilynne Robinson’s What Are We Doing Here? is not exactly my usual fare, but it is stimulating, fascinating and difficult, and I’m glad I picked it up (in the English-language section of a bookshop in Bologna, if you must know).

It’s a series of essays – most of them lecture transcripts – discussing the current direction of academic discourse and thought in the US. As the title implies, it’s in part an attempt to grapple with how America especially, and the West more generally, have got where we are today: increasingly polarised societies divided by received ideology. In doing so, it meanders through history, theology, aesthetics and philosophy.

It is nowhere near as diffuse as that makes it sound. Each essay is tightly argued – and densely argued too; this isn’t a book you can read with your attention elsewhere. Material is, necessarily, repeated and re-stated across the different essays, and so two main themes emerge as if organically. The first I don’t know enough to speak to: Robinson argues that the New England Puritans are consistently misrepresented in American thought, imagined as intolerant and joyless where, in fact, the historical record shows them to be much more tolerant than their contemporaries in England and other parts of nascent America. “These stigmas,” Robinson writes in “Old Thought, New World”, “have created dead zones in British and American historical thought” – which amount to gaps in how America perceives itself (the Puritans being important founders of America).

The second theme is the idea – the argument – that current academic and popular discourse, which favours orderly, rational accounts of the world, accounts based on Darwinistic theories of human behaviour and on what we can sense in the “physical strata” of reality, does not admit discussion of insensible concepts like justice, beauty, conscience; and so that this too creates “dead zones” in twenty-first-century Western thought, missing out as it does vast swathes of human experience. From “Old Souls, New World” again:

“…for some time now science has been fetching back strange reports about the radical apparent discontinuity between volatile reality at the subatomic level and the stolid lawfulness of reality at the scale of our experience…Reality as we know it now does not yield or legitimize a narrow or prejudicial vocabulary…We should instead be finding language that is capable, capacious and responsive.”

“Ideology has been a terrible mistake, theory another one,” she goes on to claim. Which is a strong claim, for a prominent novelist, thinker and teacher of writing. I’ve been going back and forth on whether I agree with it.

The first question we can ask, surely, is whether this is a fair representation of popular discourse – that is has a “narrow or prejudicial vocabulary”. It seems likely that one of the authors Robinson has squarely in her sights when she’s talking about a discourse that rationalises all the better human impulses as Darwinistic self-interest is biologist and New Atheist Richard Dawkins. And there is indeed something vaguely unsatisfactory about his anti-religion screed The God Delusion, in that it relies entirely on evidence and logic (alongside a nasty dollop of condescension and plain intolerance) to disprove something as intensely personal, emotional and subjective as religion. Religion and belief, I instinctively feel, is precisely not rational, so rationalism alone can rarely touch it. And so a logic-based discourse is not capacious enough to encompass the experience of religion, however much we think we’ve explained it in Darwinian terms.

In this failure of Western academic discourse to encompass personal, subjective human experience Robinson places the key to the failure of ideology and party politics. If we see each other only rationally, if we think of each other only as intelligent apes and lucky animals, we lose our sense of each other as, precisely, subjects; as Robinson puts it, we lose sight of the “sacredness” of every human being. (Ah, and doesn’t it prove something of Robinson’s point that I can’t not put those scare quotes there?) We start thinking of our own opinions as fully evidence-based, because that’s how we’ve articulated them to ourselves. We forget that others have different opinions that feel, to them, just as evidence-based, just as objectively true.

And so. Trump and Brexit.

But Dawkins is surely too obvious and too easy a target. What about Robinson’s claim about theory being a “terrible mistake” – a claim that I instinctively push back on? It seems clear from context that she’s partly thinking about theory in the context of literary study: “There is no writer, and so on.” Death of the author – trust the tale, not the teller – is a theory that’s been in vogue since the 70s; biographical criticism, nowadays, is old-fashioned and, in my (undergraduate and amateur) experience, usually a sign of lack of rigour.

My instinctive feeling about Robinson’s pushback against theory, in this specific and limited context which is all I have experience of, is that theory only becomes stultifying if you apply it inflexibly; if, precisely, you don’t allow your own subjectivity to colour it, to add to the vast conversation that is academia. Certainly I’ve read bad theory, and works that apply theory badly; works that thus can’t encompass the author’s full emotional experience of reading a text, because their theoretical frameworks explicitly exclude aspects of that experience. But I’ve also read works that apply theory constructively, creatively, and that read texts instinctually and satisfyingly as a result – even if we disagree with them, we can see that the author’s engaged emotionally as well as intellectually with what they’re interpreting.*

Actually, I think that last bit is key: engaging emotionally and intellectually with what you’re writing about. It’s something Dawkins doesn’t do: he considers the rational reasons why people believe, but doesn’t engage with the question emotionally. In other words, he’s trapped by his theoretical framework (in this case, Darwinism and narrow sense-based rationalism), not energised by it. It’s something that it’s all too easy not to do when we’re ranting about something – or, let’s be honest, someone – we don’t like; if we fail to engage emotionally and intellectually, we’re creating “dead zones” in our own self-accounting, the story we tell about ourselves. We are failing to see the complexity of the real, of human experience; we’re failing to see each other’s sacredness and exceptionalism.

I’ve got a feeling What Are We Doing Here? will probably reward many more readings. I might not agree with it in its entirety, but I do feel that it’s “capable, capacious and responsive”; that it calls us to engage with it emotionally and intellectually; that it invites us to revisit our habits of thought much more persuasively than The God Delusion does.

Which, thank all the gods whether real or imagined, I can finally take back to the library.


*I’m thinking of things like (to name just a few) Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, which radically re-reads nineteenth-century fiction by women as a feminist tradition and corpus; Adam Roberts’ SFF reviews, which wear their theory lightly and often humorously but always revealingly; Erin Horakova’s essay “Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift”, which tracks fandom responses to Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk against what’s actually present in the text; even David Rudd’s Reading the Child in Children’s Literature, which aims to, if only partly succeeds at, put back some of the delight of children’s literature in our study of it. I’m well aware that some of these examples are not, in fact, American.

Review: The Stars are Legion

There’s definitely something to be said for reading Kameron Hurley’s latest novel, The Stars are Legion, alongside her essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. The Stars are Legion is trying both to enact and to urge political change; it’s a demonstration of, or a metaphor for, the political worldview Hurley sets out in Revolution.

There are very many excellent things The Stars are Legion does which are easy to take for granted because the novel itself does so; so let’s start with those. Its backdrop is the Legion, a fleet of world-ships, journeying to an end no-one can remember any longer, whose inhabitants are at war with each other, fighting for control of the Legion.

Which is all very traditional science-fiction space-opera stuff, except for two things: those ships are organic; and their inhabitants are all women. Hurley doesn’t feel obliged to explain where all the men went, or how reproduction works in the Legion; she’s not particularly interested in pushing the boundaries of how we understand gender: it’s just that everyone is a woman, in the same way that everyone in a Asimov story is a man. This also has the very un-Asimovian corollary that everyone in the Legion is a lesbian – which is, again, not something that Hurley ever marks as unusual: it just is.

I said just now that Hurley’s not particularly interested in gender. That’s not entirely true, though: I think The Stars are Legion is about femininity in a wider sense. I find the organicity of the Legion suggestive in this context, given the age-old association of women with bodies and blood and birth, as opposed to “male” associations with science and reason and thought. And the novel is full of bodies, blood and births: the Legion is dying, and so it’s full of mutants, of women giving birth to monstrosities and eating them, of people hacking their way through flesh walls to get to other parts of the ship, travelling by umbilicuses, eating mushrooms. If flesh is feminine, then The Stars are Legion is defiantly, bloodily, viscerally so. It is feminine science fiction, standing in opposition to more traditional SF novels and stories in which (usually) men explore the chilly depths of space in artificial iron shells, solving problems with The Power of Reason.

And so onto specifics. The heroine of The Stars are Legion is Zan, a member of the Katazyrna, ruling class aboard one of the world-ships. She begins the novel with amnesia: Jayd, a general and leader of the Katazyrna, tells her that she, Zan, has just returned from a failed attack on the Mokshi, a ship with the seemingly unique ability to leave the Legion. Jayd tells Zan that she must go back to reclaim the Mokshi, which will allow the Katazyrna to win the war for control of the Legion once and for all.

(Zan and Jayd are also love interests. This is nice, but not as plot-important as general Internet hype has made it out to be. It just is.)

But before Zan can try attacking the Mokshi again, the Katazyrna ship is invaded by a rival clan, and Zan is recycled – thrown into the bowels of the ship to be taken apart for organic parts. Of course, she manages to avoid the terrible recycling monsters who do this work, and from there she has to make the long slog up to the surface of the world again. During the course of this trek, she meets women from lower levels she never could have guessed existed – women who live entirely different lives to hers, women who have never heard of the Katazyrna or their wars, or even of the Legion.

Firstly, then, this is a novel about a woman who’s severely damaged: by amnesia, by what she thinks is the loss of her world, and generally by the oppressive system she lives in. Hers is always an uphill struggle against all of those factors, and she still gets to be a heroine, she’s still worthy of being an SF protagonist. It’s important to have stories like this one, which tell us that it’s OK not to be OK.

Secondly, Zan’s progress through the lower levels of the world is a process of unfolding and opening her horizons, of exploding the things she thought she knew to be true. There’s a parallel, I think, with Hurley’s essay “What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Being White in America”, in which she describes coming to the realisation that America looks whiter than South Africa only as a result of social policy, of deliberate construction and segregation:

After living in Durban for eight months or so…I had a layover in Minneapolis airport…I realized I felt deeply uncomfortable. Something felt very off…I looked up…and realized what the source of my discomfort was.

Everyone was white.

…Well, of course, I told myself – it’s Minnesota. Of course everyone is white here…

It wasn’t until I went to the food court to get something to eat that I was reminded of the lie.

Because the people working in the food court? Were overwhelmingly non-white.

Hurley goes on to describe

how our government’s programs and policies – even those from just ten or twenty or forty years before – had totally skewed the way we all experience the world

Zan, and the people in the levels below, are unaware of each other because of a system designed to keep them stratified. This ignorance makes Katazyrna rule deeply unjust: because their engaging in war with their neighbours jeopardises a whole ecosystem with no interest in, or even knowledge of, the fight. (There’s a point to be made here, surely, about politicians’ power squabbles in the wake of, say, the Brexit referendum.) And it’s partly this knowledge of injustice that keeps Zan going despite the temptations of despair: the novel is adamant about the importance of fighting a broken system however hopeless it looks, because not to fight is to be complicit. Again, this is a theme of The Geek Feminist Revolution: from “Where Have All the Women Gone: Reclaiming the Future of Fiction”:

I’m a grim optimist. I understand that the road to a better future is long and bitter and often feels hopeless. Yes, there is a warm gooey core of hope I carry with me at the very center of myself, and it is the hope of someone who knows that change is difficult, and feels impossible, but that even a history which has suppressed and erased so much cannot cover up the fact that change is possible.

I think, though, we have a potential problem here in the fact that the novel centres power. That is, our viewpoint character is Zan (and, partially, Jayd), who’s a member of the ruling class of her world, who has the privilege that the women on the lower levels lack. Her trek back to the surface of the world may be long and difficult, but at the end of it she genuinely does have the political power to make unilateral decisions, changing the entire Legion single-handedly.

What does resistance to oppression look like if you are not in Zan’s position? What if you are one of the women from the lower levels, and you find out that not only are you being oppressed from above, you’re oppressing and exploiting those below you, because of the very nature of the system you’re living in? That, after all, is where most of us tend to find ourselves in reality: without the power to effect major change single-handedly, without the possibility of neat narrative closure in our lifetimes; possibly struggling in a way that’s genuinely futile. Hurley doesn’t seem aware of her character’s privilege, ultimately; or of the fact that using the women of the lower levels (well-drawn as they are) to push Zan to realisations about the world she’s living in is itself exploitative. The plot structure of The Stars are Legion is actually far more conservative than its content, which is a shame.

Still, let me emphasise again: there are many, many things about the novel which are interesting, important, innovative, defiant. I’m glad it exists; and if there’s still some way to go, it doesn’t mean that the journey’s been wasted.

Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution

Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays – some from Hurley’s blog, some written specifically for this volume – about oppression of all shapes and sizes, in geek culture specifically and the Western world more generally. There’s a lot about feminism, including her Hugo-award winning essay “We Have Always Fought”. But there are also essays about racism (“What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Race in America”) and classism (“The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live”)  and the abuse of creators’ power (“Let It Go”). In short, it’s a collection covering anything and everything in geek culture and beyond that challenges the white male status quo.

Like all of Hurley’s work, and despite the insinuations of the cheerfully irreverent cover, it is not a book that offers easy answers. Which is to say, it does not peddle the brand of upbeat geeky feminist positivity channelled by books like Sam Maggs’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy (though, don’t get me wrong, that kind of work has a place too); it’s a book whose focus is squarely in revolution, and all the blood and sweat and tears that real revolutions entail.

A central theme of Hurley’s is perseverance, endurance, persistence: the work that’s involved in Being a Writer, in being a responsible creator, in fighting the system’s biases – sometimes just in surviving. The collection weaves personal material in with its politics: so we have, for example, the harrowing “The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance”, which should be required reading for everyone with an influence on health policy on both sides of the pond, sitting alongside “Becoming What You Hate”, a short piece about the controversial blogger Requires Hate and the ethics of assumed identities on the internet. This is generally symptomatic of the book’s eclectic approach: while notionally it’s divided into four sections – “Level Up”, “Geek”, “Let’s Get Personal” and “Revolution” – to be honest I’m not sure how meaningful these distinctions are. The message of all of them – if there is a single message – is simply that the fight for equality is not over, and perhaps never will be; that after every victory there are countless battles yet to fight.

On a personal note, and weirdly, I found this idea comforting rather than dispiriting. I think there’s a cultural narrative in the West – it’s quite a capitalist narrative really – which casts life as a quest for something specific, whether that’s a dream job or a perfect partner or a social life that makes Kim Kardashian seem like a stay-at-home, a quest at which you either succeed and become immediately happy and graceful and self-confident, or fail and remain a miserable loser for the rest of your life. Hurley’s collection, with its stories of personal and political endurance, is a counter-cry to that narrative, reminds us that the great story of the world is not, in fact, about us as individuals at all. We’re more like those extras at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields who maybe get to stab an orc or two, if we’re lucky. After every victory, there’s always another battle to fight: so it’s OK, actually, not to be OK all the time. It’s OK to cut ourselves some slack, so long as we pick up that sword again after a while and keep fighting.

After all: we have always fought. And we always will.

Review: The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader isn’t really a novel; it’s more of a long short story – a novella, perhaps – which first appeared in The London Review of Books in 2007. The titular uncommon reader is Queen Elizabeth II, who finds herself by accident (thanks to her unruly corgis) in a mobile library in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. It seems rude to leave without borrowing a book – so she does so; and thus begins an obsession with the written word that plunges her advisors into despair. Soon, the Queen is neglecting her ceremonial duties in favour of her books, and nonplussing her adoring subjects by asking them what they’re reading instead of where they’ve travelled from. And when she actually starts talking about writing a book…

The nice thing about The Uncommon Reader is that it takes a joke and weaves it into something a bit more layered, a reflection on the nature of reading and on the nature of the British monarchy. The Queen’s reading embarks her on a process of becoming specific, transforming from a symbol of authority to a person who can use that authority – though, fortunately, what she mainly uses it for is to obtain more books. In other words, the Queen’s encounter with other minds, other selves through her reading forces her to define her own self, to differentiate her self from theirs: she transforms from object to subject, and begins to have her own opinions.

Hence the consternation of her staff, because that process of selfhood proves incompatible with effective queening. The political neutrality we’ve come to see as emblematic of the modern monarchy is gone: instead of finding common conversational ground – or seeming to, at any rate – with everyone she meets, whether that’s the ambassador of France or the person handing her a bunch of flowers at a hospital opening, she’s looking to have proper, in-depth conversations about reading, which her advisors see as elitist and out of touch. (And they are not, in fact, entirely wrong: Bennett’s Queen Elizabeth shares the sneering contempt for genre fiction that much of the British literary establishment still displays.) What they mean, of course, is that a reading Queen, a Queen with her own opinions and her own established selfhood, is no longer a mouthpiece for the government: she’s a separate entity, with a constitutional power that is suddenly threatening. Like an eighty-year-old Katniss Everdeen, she’s pushing back against an oppressive structure that allows her only one role to play.

Lest we start, through the empathy of reading, feeling sorry for the real Queen, though, it’s probably a good idea to remember that the monarchy’s image of neutrality and universal accessibility – is there anyone in England who really, virulently hates the Queen? I honestly don’t think so – is largely one of her own creation. Her father, George V, defied constitutional law to show support for Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler; her uncle, Edward VIII, chose marriage to a divorcee over remaining king. And Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, still effectively had some political power. No: although the concept of a politically neutral monarchy existed before Elizabeth came to the throne, she has played a key part, over her extraordinarily long reign, in constructing the image of the monarchy that we all now take for granted.

Where does that leave The Uncommon Reader? It’s an interesting look at what reading can do, its bourgeois interpretation of what “good” reading looks like leavened a little by the Queen’s footman Norman, whose reading choice is dictated by whether or not the author is gay. Bennett’s portrait of the Queen is sprinkled, as all good comedy is, by a note of the tragic: her sadness at realising that she has missed a lifetime of reading, and will never catch up no matter how hard she tries. And its analysis of what the monarchy is is sound. But to cast the Queen as a trapped woman bound to passive compliance with her ceremonial role, like some Earl of Gormenghast, when in fact she is a dedicated and canny leader, is disingenuousness itself.

Review: The Book of Phoenix


What can I say about The Book of Phoenix?

It opens in a post-apocalyptic desert. An old man stumbles into a cave full of ancient technology. One of the computers hijacks his hand-held communicator, and it tells him a story: the story of Phoenix, in her own words.

Phoenix grew up in Tower 7, New York, in our own world, not very far in the future. She’s three years old when the story begins, but she has the body and mind of a forty-year-old: she’s an accelerated human, one of various nefarious genetic experiments going on in the Tower. There are plenty of other humans like her incarcerated in Tower 7 – a man who can’t eat normal food, only glass and rust and concrete; a man who can pass through walls and floors; a woman who can twist her head around like an owl – practically their only similarity being that they are almost all African.

Phoenix passes the time mostly contentedly, reading voraciously, until one day she’s told that her love, Saeed, has killed himself after seeing something terrible in the Tower. Her ensuing rage destroys Tower 7, and reveals the true meaning of her name: like the mythical phoenix, she periodically burns to ash, only to regenerate and live again a week or so later. She escapes the Big Eye, the government who still hunts her, to Ghana, and makes a life there; only to be hunted down again, and again lose everything she has built, and again burst into flames.

And so on, ad infinitem.

It’s an angry book; but that’s so true, so self-evident, it almost feels trite as an observation. Besides, “angry” doesn’t really cover it. The Book of Phoenix is a book about race and exploitation; it is keenly, painfully aware of the ongoing horror of colonialism, the way that Western capitalist power structures go on taking, and taking, and taking everything desirable in the world, as if it were entitled to them, destroying the lives of those who are in the way.

Phoenix is explicitly likened to a terrorist throughout the book – at first by the American news media; and later on, she exploits the authorities’ racial profiling, deliberately drawing attention to herself as potential terrorist, to create a diversion allowing herself to access the Library of Congress.  The comparison becomes ever more apt as her behaviour becomes increasingly violent: as she attacks another tower, destroys more and more of the Big Eye’s soldiers, and finally embarks on a cataclysmic rampage of despair and grief and fucking rage.

A couple of weeks ago, someone drove a car into crowds of tourists on Westminster Bridge, and went on to stab a policeman in front of the Houses of Parliament. An unusually lucid caller on Lembit Opik’s Radio Kent Sunday talkshow pointed out that the West’s narrative of defiance in the face of such acts – while in many ways an important and necessary narrative – falls somewhat short of recognising that we are, in fact, part of the problem. The West’s war for oil in Iraq – the hand of colonialist capitalism taking, and taking again – helped to create the conditions for Da’esh to thrive. And home-grown terrorists are almost always the dispossessed and disenfranchised of our society: usually ex-prisoners or petty criminals, usually recent converts who turn to hate and terror when we as a society have failed them.

I don’t think we are supposed to approve of Phoenix’s actions, any more than we approve of the actions of real-life terrorists like the Westminster Bridge killer. (And he was a murderer, and what he did was inexcusable.) I think we are supposed to recognise, though, that rage and hate does not spring from nothing; that the West is at least in part responsible for what Phoenix becomes. Individuals are shaped by systems; this is something we’re only just starting to wake up to properly as a society.

In some ways, whether or not I actually liked The Book of Phoenix seems kind of irrelevant. Phoenix certainly wouldn’t give a damn. It’s an important book for SF, certainly. It walks lines that are difficult to tread. That’s what matters, I think.