Review: Patternmaster

PatternmasterOctavia Butler’s 1976 novel Patternmaster occupies a slightly odd position in her oeuvre. Although it’s Butler’s first novel, chronologically it’s the last in her Patternist quartet, which also includes Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed and Clay’s Ark (as well as the now out-of-print Survivor, which Butler repudiated). The ideal reading order of the series is hotly contested: I haven’t read any of the other novels, but structurally Patternmaster is very strange for a series finale, and is slightly unsatisfactory even as a standalone.

Butler’s far-future North America is inhabited by a society of Patternists – telepaths connected to one another by a sort of mental energy field known as the Pattern. The most powerful Patternist, and the ruler of their society, is the titular Patternmaster, who at the time the novel takes place is an old man named Rayal.

The Patternists’ mortal enemies are the Clayarks, humans mutated almost beyond recognition by the Clayark disease. The Patternists believe that the Clayarks are essentially animals, and the two groups attack each other at every opportunity. Similarly, the Patternists call un-mutated, non-telepathic humans “mutes” and treat them like cattle, setting them to menial tasks in their households.

Our protagonist is Teray, a young and gifted Patternist just out of school who’s forced into servitude by his older, more powerful brother Coransee. Coransee is the strongest of Rayal’s sons, and hopes that by removing Teray from the equation he can secure his succession to the role of Patternmaster when Rayal dies. Teray, of course, has other ideas, and together with a healer named Amber he embarks upon a dangerous journey across the country to seek sanctuary from Coransee’s scheming and the mental control with which Coransee threatens him.

What makes Patternmaster so odd, considered as an SF dystopia, is that nothing really changes in it: it’s fundamentally a novel about how entrenched power structures perpetuate themselves. As Teray journeys across the Patternist world, he experiences its various injustices both in his own person – as when his sister-wife Iray is taken from him by Coransee, thanks to laws and social mores that give Housemasters absolute power over their households – and through observation of how Patternist society treats various groups (the Clayarks, Patternist women, the mutes). As genre-savvy readers, we might expect that Teray will use his burgeoning powers to resist the society in which these injustices are allowed to thrive – especially given his romance with Amber, whose position as a wandering healer is politically tenuous, leaving her as it does at the mercy of various male Housemasters. (She is also bisexual in a world that doesn’t really understand female bisexuality.) Instead, however, Teray continues to seek power within that society – to take the place of the oppressors rather than overthrow them.

It’s a bleak vision of the future, one in which humanity’s descendants continue to tear each other apart and old prejudices still hold; in which those with the power to change things choose simply to maintain the status quo. I don’t think that this is how Butler thinks the future really will look: all dystopias are, after all, reflections of the concerns of the time they’re written in. But it’s striking how relevant Patternmaster‘s concerns still are today, how inescapable our own power structures increasingly feel. I can’t say I precisely enjoyed Patternmaster: it’s too bleak and too stark for my taste. But it’s certainly doing a lot of heavy lifting for such a slight volume, and I’m interested to read the rest of the series.

Review: Ashes of Honor

Ashes of HonorThe sixth instalment in Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye fae detective series, Ashes of Honor continues to build upon the novels’ interest in family and heredity. It’s at least the third book in the series to deal with disappeared children: this time, a heretofore unknown teenage changeling named Chelsea, the daughter of a knight of Toby’s liege lord Duke Sylvester and a human folklore professor at UC Berkeley, is teleporting uncontrollably, ripping open portals into the deep lands of Faerie and jeopardising the stability of the fae’s homes in the Summerlands. Toby, a changeling herself, is engaged by Chelsea’s father Etienne to find her and bring her home before others try to, more violently.

Something that I feel I’ve sort of been skirting around in my posts about the Toby Daye series is McGuire’s treatment of race and how it maps onto real-world civil rights issues. In one sense, the books are reasonably diverse, and become increasingly so as the series goes on: the fae don’t care about sexual orientation or skin colour, and in Ashes of Honor there’s at least one lesbian couple and two brown characters. (As a side note, though, I haven’t seen any real effort in this series to include global mythological traditions: Raj and Jazz remain embedded in a thoroughly Anglo-Celtic folkloric context, which has the probably unintended effect of subordinating non-Western traditions to the Western paradigm.) Skipping ahead a bit, the ninth book in the series, A Red-Rose Chain, features a transgender character who’s treated fairly well by the narrative.

It’s changelings who face the brunt of discrimination in Faerie: those unlucky enough to be born part-human, part-fae. At a certain age changeling children are offered a choice between their fae and human heritage: those who choose the fae world are taken forever from their human parent to face a lifetime of second-class citizenship in Faerie; those who choose humanity are discreetly murdered in order to preserve Faerie’s secrecy. It’s a rough deal, one that the series explicitly frames as a civil rights issue, talking about changeling rights and equality. And it’s not a huge leap from that to reading McGuire’s changelings as analogues for real-world mixed-race people.

Seen in this light, the solution that Ashes of Honor presents to changeling discrimination is rather unsatisfactory. Just as she did for her daughter Gillian at the end of One Salt Sea, Toby draws on her newfound powers to shift the balance of Chelsea’s blood, making her entirely fae to enable her to control her magic. This gives Chelsea a happy ending, allowing her to evade the oppobrium of changeling-hood while also staying with both her parents (since Sylvester allows Etienne to invite his human wife to live with him in Faerie, something that hasn’t been done for hundreds of years). Later novels in the series indicate that Toby sees this as a permanent structural solution to the loss and ill-treatment that changelings suffer. To me, though, it looks like erasure: instead of actually accepting changelings and treating them as equals, let’s just…make them not changelings any more? I’m reminded of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which touts the internet as the solution to racism and sexism because everyone can just pretend to be white men. These are “solutions” that put the burden on the oppressed, not the oppressor, which is exactly backwards.

I’m not trying to suggest here that the Toby Daye books are particularly objectionable or deliberately racist: they’re no worse than a lot of Western mainstream fiction, and it’s also clear that McGuire is intentionally working to improve representation in a series whose first instalment was written 12 years ago. I do think the series is a good example of a text in which generic conventions – in this case the detective novel’s focus on individual trauma and the need to restore the status quo – are pulling against its overt concerns and themes: here, the attempt to work towards a structural solution to institutional discrimination. Sometimes that tension can be productive; for this series, though, it’s just limiting. Ashes of Honor is fun, but the novel, and the series as a whole, is not really equipped to deal satisfactorily with the anxieties it’s evoking.

Review: The Paying Guests

The Paying GuestsAh, Sarah Waters. One generally knows where one is with one of her novels: she’s a fantastic writer of queer romantic suspense, using the heteronormative mores of her historical settings to keep her star-crossed lesbian lovers apart and creating labyrinthine Gothic plots that draw the reader inexorably in, under the hypnotic spell of her prose.

Her most recent novel, 2014’s The Paying Guests, fits this mould pretty well. Frances Wray and her mother are middle-class 1920s homeowners who have fallen on hard times since the war, and are forced, to their shame, to take in lower-class lodgers – the vivacious Lilian and her clerk husband Leonard. Frances and Lilian grow close, and eventually, inevitably, become lovers; Waters brilliantly evokes the claustrophobia of their affair, the sneaking, secretive assignations snatched in the moments when there’s no-one else in the house. But things turn sour when Lilian accidentally murders someone and the two women conspire to cover it up: can they evade the hangman’s noose and still preserve their love for each other?

What I found compelling about the novel as a queer reader was the sense of embattlement that these women experience: it’s quite literally them against the world, keeping their secret together in a way that’s analogous to the way they need to keep their relationship secret. The murder that Lilian commits is essentially an act of self-defence, carried out in response to a violent, homophobic attack on Frances; so the novel positions Lilian and Frances as wronged queers facing a hostile society and justice system. (Something else that Waters is very good on is class and social pressure: the gossip, the intrusive media interest, Frances’ mother’s disapproval of her friendship with a woman of a lower class are all just as oppressive as the actual court case.) Even in these times, when LGBT+ rights are becoming increasingly enshrined in law around the world (although not everywhere, and progress can be frustratingly slow), that’s very relatable for queer readers: the intense, heady delight of finding queer community; the costs of holding onto it, preserving it in the face of reckless hate and prejudice.

Ultimately, though, The Paying Guests isn’t that dissimilar in mood or content to the rest of Waters’ oeuvre, and it’s less twistily seductive than my favourite of her novels, Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet. I enjoyed it – but for her next outing I’d love to see Waters doing something a little different.

Review: Utopia Avenue

Utopia AvenueDavid Mitchell has built a career on writing virtuosic yet accessible novels characterised by strong storytelling, structural fireworks and light speculative elements that just about toe the line of acceptability to the literary establishment. His most famous novel, Cloud Atlas, features six nesting stories arranged in a Russian doll structure, ranging from the diary of a mid-nineteenth century American lawyer witnessing colonial atrocities in the Pacific to an orally narrated tale of the fall of civilisation in the far future; 2014’s The Bone Clocks similarly presents us with six linked stories covering a span of time from the 1980s to the apocalyptic 2040s, this time centring on a single human character with a connection to a fantastical society of immortals.

His latest novel, then, looks to be a bit of a departure. Utopia Avenue is a mostly realist account of the rise and fall of a fictional 1960s folk-rock band of the same name: it’s character- rather than plot-driven, and so how much you enjoy it will depend very much on how much you relish hanging out with Utopia Avenue’s members – gifted guitarist Jasper de Zoet, a public-school boy disowned by his wealthy family on account of his schizophrenia and autism; Dean Moss, a working-class vocalist from Gravesend with an alcoholic father; Elf Holloway, a folk singer struggling with her lesbianism and the way that the music industry treats women; Griff Griffin, the drummer, the glue that holds the band together; and manager Levon Frankland, a gay man in a profoundly homophobic time.

Elf, Dean and Jasper are all songwriters as well as musicians, and each of the novel’s chapters is named after one of Utopia Avenue’s songs, and narrated by the character who wrote that song. As a structural choice that might feel gimmicky, but in fact it ties into Mitchell’s recurring interest in how we use art to process life’s hardships and to withstand them. We see Utopia Avenue using music to deal with bereavement, mental illness and parenthood, transmuting their particular, personal struggles into art that resonates more generally – and in doing so giving other people the tools to deal with the difficulties they face in their own lives. Mitchell renders this particular power that art has – the power to make us feel that we are not alone – effectively and affectingly, with real heart and charm.

One of the reasons this works so well is that Mitchell’s characters are not just dealing with personal turmoil, but with social upheaval too. His choice to set the novel in 1967, at the tail end of the Summer of Love, places the work of Utopia Avenue against a backdrop of growing protest against the Vietnam War, as well as the burgeoning LGBT civil rights movement. There’s a general sense that the carefree early years of the 60s are over, to be replaced by something more complex and more troubled; more cynical, perhaps. There are here echoes of our own embattled present: decades of apparent democratic and liberal progress are becoming undone by increasingly authoritarian governments; environmental apocalypse looms large in our public consciousness just as nuclear apocalypse loomed in the 60s. Mitchell’s portrayal of popular art as a powerful fosterer of togetherness and solidarity thus takes on deeper resonance and weight: we, like Utopia Avenue’s fictional fans, feel ourselves that we are not alone in our unease and unrest; others, too, have lived through tumultuous times in history. It’s a deeply consolatory feeling; but not, I think, a conservative one. These characters go through tragedy, after all, and their road is not entirely smooth. But there is comradeship and joy along the way.

Utopia Avenue is mostly realist, I said above. But, however traditional it looks, it is still a David Mitchell novel. Remember the immortals I mentioned in my description of The Bone Clocks? Turns out that Jasper’s schizophrenia is actually caused by a malign immortal consciousness known only as “the Mongolian” trapped in his brain for complicated reasons linked to the events of Mitchell’s fifth novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He is helped by another immortal, Marinus, who similarly crops up in many of Mitchell’s other novels, but the drugs Marinus uses to suppress the Mongolian are extremely injurious to Jasper’s health.

If this speculative storyline seems jarring alongside the more literary concerns I’ve been discussing, that’s because, frankly, it is. As fantasy goes it’s pretty schlocky stuff, and it’s very much less than clear what Mitchell’s trying to achieve with it beyond tying Utopia Avenue into his wider mythos – his so-called “ubernovel”. I suppose as an explanation for Jasper’s schizophrenia it could be working as a metaphor for the lack of understanding extended to mental health conditions in the 60s – Jasper might as well have someone else’s mind in his head for all that doctors know about his illness – but if that’s the case it’s very poorly handled: much of Mitchell’s speculative worldbuilding is conveyed baldly, by infodump, leaving little room for metaphoric resonance or ambiguity. The inevitable conclusion to Jasper’s story also has problematic implications for the value Mitchell places on those who are mentally ill: Marinus and his colleagues succeed in banishing the Mongolian, essentially curing Jasper of his disability. (It’s worth mentioning, though, that Jasper’s autism, which is figured throughout the novel as foundational to his musical genius and the psychedelic brilliance of his lyrics, remains uncured.)

Schlocky fantasy aside, though, I have to admit that I fell completely in love with Utopia Avenue. Dean, Elf, Jasper, Griff and Levon felt like family as I read, and their music that I have never heard came alive on the page. I loved their camaraderie in the face of tragedy, the ordinariness of their troubles in contrast with their increasingly stratospheric fame. I loved how the novel reshaped itself in my head once I had finished it. I loved how much I related to Jasper’s “emotional dyslexia” and Elf’s journey to self-acceptance. Utopia Avenue is deeply emotionally satisfying, a complete aesthetic experience; it makes art, purposeful and meaningful, out of the mundane tragedies and joys of the everyday. It’s my favourite novel for a very long time.

Review: Possession

PossessionIn the foreword to her bestselling romantic novel Possession (1990), A.S. Byatt discusses the various meanings of the work’s title: the physical ownership of an item; the state of being taken over, possessed, by a strong emotion or an evil spirit; the sense in which one’s lover belongs to one. The novel addresses all these forms of possession, and a couple of others, in various ways, particularly through the lens of academia and the practice of studying the work and lives of the long dead.

It centres on two British scholars, Roland Michell and Dr Maud Bailey, who specialise in the writings of two fictional Victorian poets – respectively, Randolph Henry Ash, a man with the sort of literary reputation that Tennyson or Wordsworth have in our world; and Christabel LaMotte, a “minor” poet whose work has recently been rediscovered by third-wave feminists. Roland and Maud are brought together when Roland finds and steals a previously unknown letter written by Ash to a woman later discovered to be LaMotte. Together, they investigate the connection, piecing together the story of Ash and LaMotte’s romance, which is complicated in plausibly Victorian ways by the fact that Ash is married and by LaMotte’s proto-feminist, possibly sapphically-underpinned desire for a quiet life of self-reliant sisterhood with her companion Blanche. Meanwhile, in the present day, both Roland and Maud are dealing with their own romantic disappointments (which parallel Ash and LaMotte’s in quite interesting ways), as well as attempting to outrun the investigations of two prominent Ash scholars who they suspect will try and take ownership of the story in their own ways.

One of the things that stands out most to me about Possession is how steeped it is in the culture and practice of academia, and how interested it is in the concerns of career academics. A former academic herself, Byatt understands what a Big Fucking Deal it is when Roland steals an uncatalogued letter instead of reporting it to the librarian, and how much, career-wise, depends for her characters on whether they can get first dibs on the Ash-LaMotte story; and these pressures, these concerns are central to the novel’s narrative engine. This is academia seen not as an ivory tower where intellectuals are empowered to live pure lives of the mind, which is how it tends to be portrayed in mainstream works like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but as a field rife with internecine struggles that largely have nothing to do with the actual research being undertaken.

In particular, it’s fascinating to see Byatt drawing out how apparently administrative concerns like who owns a particular letter, or who has the rights to edit a body of work, can materially affect whole areas of scholarship; in other words, how questions of ownership and possession play out in this supposedly disinterested profession. A pressing issue for Roland and Maud in the novel is who the legal owner of a bundle of previously unknown letters between Ash and LaMotte is, and thus whether they can be sold away to an American collector before anyone gets a chance to study them properly.

These questions appear in guises beyond the material too. Roland, Maud and the Ash scholars on their trail all feel a sense of ownership over the Ash-LaMotte correspondence, and over the lives and work of two once-living people, on the basis that they themselves have dedicated their working lives to analysing those people’s words and material realities. They all feel entitled to claim either Ash’s work or LaMotte’s for their various ideologies – whether feminist, Great Man-patriarchal or psychosexual. Byatt ironises the legitimacy of these feelings of entitlement and ownership by giving the reader a direct, third-person omniscient window into the poets’ romance at several points in the narrative – granting us knowledge that none of the modern-day characters possess, and thereby demonstrating the shakiness of the hold the scholars have on Ash and LaMotte’s lives, which are too messy and fraught for any single ideology to capture.

It’s tempting to see in this a response to the debate over the usefulness of theory in the analysis of literary texts that raged in the 1980s and 90s. Several times Byatt refers to the contemporary vogue for psychosexual readings of historic texts, and draws attention to the ways in which such readings reveal the limitations of the culture in which they’re produced; these readings, for Byatt, close down avenues of interpretation rather than opening them up, acting as ways to classify texts rather than as productive approaches to them. In the same way, no one single ideology is ultimately sufficient to encapsulate the reality of what went on between Ash and LaMotte in Byatt’s novel, and attempting to impose a simple interpretation onto their relationship – to claim ownership of the ability and the right to do so – is to do violence to the complex and contradictory reality of their lives and emotions.

This all might seem rather abstruse for a mainstream novel, but in the social media age it has resonances that Byatt cannot have foreseen. What Roland and Maud do to Ash and LaMotte is not very different to what we do when we follow celebrities and people in the public eye on Twitter and Facebook: we assume that their public personae represent authentically the entirety of who they are as people, we imagine ourselves as their friends, and we assume that we’re entitled to their innermost thoughts and feelings. Possession is a story about the perils of reading, and the impossibility of accessing the fullness of a person through their writing: as Byatt reveals, the reader’s biases are always in play. Formally adventurous (it features over 1000 lines of faux-Victorian poetry), emotionally complex and deeply informed by literary theory, it’s a wonderfully satisfying, layered novel that I can readily see myself returning to.

Review: Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable SunKate Elliott’s most recent novel, 2020’s Unconquerable Sun, has been marketed fairly extensively as “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space”. I have to say that Alexander the Great as a cultural touchstone means little to me: about the only two things I knew about him before looking at his Wikipedia page last night were that he had a horse called Bucephalus and that he was really excellent at conquering other nations. I’ve certainly never come across a tradition of Alexander the Great literature (a tradition like the Matter of Britain, say, or the endless readaptations of Shakespeare or Austen or Grimm fairytales); but given his military reputation, and specifically his reputation for conquest, I have to say that science fiction, a genre whose most characteristic impulses sprang directly from colonialism, seems a natural choice for adapting and examining his story.

Elliott’s Alexander analogue is Sun, Princess of the Republic of Chaonia, a nation that has recently driven out the occupying Phene Empire and which is now in the process of expanding into Phene territory. Sun is desperate to prove her military acumen to her mother, an ambition that’s complicated by the fact that her father isn’t Chaonian, exposing Sun to suspicion and leaving her vulnerable should her mother choose to marry again. Her father, meanwhile, a prince of the space-nomadic Gatoi, is working on a top-secret project researching the Phene Empire’s use of Gatoi soldiers, and whether the Gatoi’s famous loyalty to their employers has a more sinister origin than the Phene would have their neighbours believe.

Unconquerable Sun, then, is a space opera/military SF novel that’s centrally concerned with power, conquest and the machinery of war. What’s particularly interesting about it is that, despite Sun’s place at the centre of the text (along with her hand-picked, high-status Companions) and the narrative status she’s given by analogy with Alexander the Great, the novel isn’t necessarily wholly on her side. In fact we have three point of view characters here: Sun herself; a woman named Persephone Lee who has attempted to disown her powerful Chaonian family in order to attend military academy; and Apama, a newly-fledged Phene pilot who’s assigned to a major campaign against Chaonia. Apama and Sun are obviously on opposite sides, and yet both are sympathetic; Persephone’s story draws attention to the unprincipled self-interest at work among Chaonia’s ruling families, effectively the social order that Sun is fighting for.

The idea that Chaonia is perhaps not fully a force for good is further reinforced by the glimpses we get of everyday life there. Although full citizens seem to have a relatively high standard of living –public transport is free, for example, albeit as part of the war effort – the celebration of royal occasions such as the queen-marshal’s wedding is mandatory. And one of Sun’s bodyguards, Ti, is the daughter of refugees; her willingness to put herself in extreme danger, even to die, in order to collect her paycheck for her family, is an indication of how desperate their situation is; an indication that’s confirmed when we see the off-world refugee camp where they live later on in the novel, where even fresh air is rationed for non-citizens.

There is, in other words, a nice sense of roundedness to Unconquerable Sun: it’s interested in complicating simple notions of good and bad, heroism and villainy, the conqueror and the conquered. That roundedness extends to the queer representation we get in the novel: same-gender relationships are unremarkable, and Sun’s mother the queen-marshal has at least two spouses that we know of (one male, one female). It’s there, too, in the attempt Elliott has made to depict a version of the future that is non-Western: Chaonian culture in particular has a vaguely Asian flavour, although it is just that, flavour, rather than anything more substantial.

That, and other flaws, make this a solid novel rather than an exceptional one: on a sentence level the writing is a little clumsy – not terrible, just insufficiently harmonious – and Elliott is unfortunately prone to infodump. I also think Elliott could have perhaps done more with her historical premise: as it is the Alexander the Great parallels feel more like an Easter egg for history buffs than anything that actually informs the novel thematically or metatextually. But I enjoyed the crunchiness of it, its willingness to complicate its readers’ preconceptions; to show us a full picture of a universe at war, and who loses and who gains from that. Its awareness of axes of power, social and political, and how they operate on ordinary people both civilian and military. I’m moderately surprised this wasn’t on the Hugo ballot this year; Elliott’s a recognised name in SFF at the moment, and Unconquerable Sun is precisely the kind of novel that Hugo voters are rewarding right now. In any case, I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

Review: The Once and Future Witches

The Once and Future WitchesIn 1921, an anthropologist named Margaret Murray published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, in which she hypothesised that the women who were tried and sentenced as witches between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries were all followers of a suppressed pagan cult built around the Satanic figure of a Horned God. Although Murray’s work on this so-called witch cult has been thoroughly discredited, it had a massive influence on the development of Wicca, whose practitioners often claimed to be the inheritors of those long-dead witches’ secret knowledge. “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn” is still a sentiment you see floating around witchy Tumblr – although I think most Wiccans are a little less literal about it nowadays.

Alix E. Harrow channels a very similar sentiment in her latest novel The Once and Future Witches. Her three protagonists are the Eastwood sisters, James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth and Beatrice Belladonna, in an alternative 1893 in which witchcraft, once a real and vital force, has been all but destroyed by the Church and the patriarchy, surviving only as petty household cantrips and nursery rhymes passed down mother to daughter. James, Agnes and Beatrice, survivors of an abusive childhood that has driven a series of wedges between them, are nevertheless reunited when a magical tower appears in the sky above the town of New Salem, promising the return of real power for women in a world where universal suffrage is still a distant dream. The sisters unite to restore witchcraft to the world, but face resistance from the men of New Salem – in particular a slimy, fundamentalist Christian politician named Gideon Hill – as well as the middle- and upper-class suffragettes who see witchcraft as backward and vulgar.

Witchcraft is an immensely potent metaphor for women’s work, female power and the ways that both have been historically devalued and suppressed; that’s undoubtedly why Murray’s theories have lasted in the popular consciousness to this day. It’s not a new metaphor even in fiction: you can see it at work in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which feature witches who are both feared and respected for their prowess at traditionally female, domestic activities like attending to the sick and caring for animals.

What Harrow adds, conceptually – what makes The Once and Future Witches really sing – is intersectionality. The Eastwood sisters are poor working-class women: Agnes works in a factory; Beatrice is a librarian’s assistant; James is unemployed thanks to her youth. Their allies include a Black gay woman (and the Black women’s association she’s a part of), a trans woman, Eastern European women and even a couple of men who learn magic for the Eastwoods’ sake. It’s a specifically pluralistic definition of what women’s power looks like and who it benefits (everyone), and Harrow has some good points to make about how different communities are differently affected by misogyny, and how different forms of oppression (racism, sexism, classism, transphobia) interact.

What this intersectional approach to the witchcraft metaphor does, against the alt-historical backdrop of the fight for women’s suffrage, is provide a sort of alternative origin story for feminism – a story in which feminism is inclusive and welcoming right off the bat, in which it brings everyone along at once, without losing any of its anger or incisive power. The Once and Future Witches contains much that is bleak: there is torture, abuse, incarceration, death. But its message, ultimately, is a hopeful, joyful one. It’s a lovely book, one of the best of 2020, and I hope there’s plenty more coming from Harrow.

Review: All Systems Red

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

Murderbot is basically a massive queer nerd.

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

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

Review: Paper Girls 1

Paper Girls 1It’s always a little difficult to review single volumes of ongoing graphic novel series, as by their very nature they tend to be open-ended and incomplete rather than self-cohesive works in their own right. Paper Girls 1 is no exception: written by Brian K. Vaughan, creator of Saga, and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, it’s set on Hallowe’en night in 1988, when four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls stumble into a series of events that’s literally out of this world. Aliens, dinosaurs, time travellers, weird portals in the sky – it’s all here, and the narrative’s fast pace and the fact that it’s setting up what’s obviously going to become quite a complex SF plot means that it’s not easy to make sense of how all these diverse speculative elements hang together.

The four girls, though, sassy, independent, loyal heroines that they are, ground the story in a compelling emotional reality that keeps us reading despite the, well, trippiness of the sci-fi. The book isn’t ultimately about aliens and dinosaurs and time travellers; it’s about the girls’ friendship and their determination to be as good as the boys who traditionally do their job. It’s building on the trend for nostalgic speculative tales like Stranger Things and Ready Player One, only in a way that directly addresses the social inequalities and forms of oppression that characterised the eras audiences are nostalgic for. One of the girls, for instance, uses homophobic slurs early in the volume and is immediately called out on it; obviously your response to this sort of thing will depend heavily on how much you trust the author, but to me it felt like a creative team honouring the things they felt nostalgic for while also resisting the rose-tinted glasses that nostalgia can give us. It’s the kind of choice that made me confident about continuing the series, knowing that wherever the plot was going it would be somewhere thoughtful, original and emotionally satisfying.

Review: Harrow the Ninth

Harrow the NinthAbigail Nussbaum rather damningly describes Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth – sequel to Muir’s massively popular lesbian-necromancer debut Gideon the Ninth – as “a glib work that never entirely convinces you of its characters’ humanity”. It’s easy to see why: despite Harrow‘s much-remarked-upon structural fireworks, there’s a kind of glittering superficiality to it that’s somehow reinforced by the batshit complexity of its plot.

Following the events of Gideon the Ninth, in which Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the last scion of a crumbling House of necromancers, and her acerbic cavalier (basically: swordsperson) Gideon Nav, underwent a series of trials designed by the godlike Emperor of Muir’s world for the purpose of selecting a new Lyctor (a sort of superpowered bodyguard-cum-companion-cum-general), Harrow finds herself in the company of the Emperor and his older Lyctors. She’s supposed to be in training to fight against the enormous Resurrection Beasts, impossibly destructive beings that are essentially byproducts of necromancy; but she’s dangerously hampered by the fact that, unlike the other Lyctors, she’s unable to access the skills and power of her cavalier. Her memory of the events of Gideon the Ninth is also drastically different to what we know to have happened in that book, and, most devastatingly of all, she appears to have forgotten Gideon entirely. The bulk of the novel is dedicated to unfolding these mysteries – or, rather, to Harrow’s attempts to survive long enough to do so.

Let’s be honest: this is very clearly a novel – a series – whose origins lie in a very particular Internet culture. Before embarking on her professional career, Muir wrote Homestuck fanfiction; her Tumblr blog from that period is still accessible. As a result, the Locked Tomb series feels pretty much tailored to the SFF zeitgeist. Its central conceit – star-crossed lesbian necromancers IN SPACE! – springs recognisably from the recent focus on the representation of marginalised identities in genre; a focus that, according to YouTuber Sarah Z, was particularly important in Tumblr culture. In short, queer readers want to see queer characters perform the same sort of heroics that cishet characters get to; Muir’s books let them do that.

The intensity of Gideon and Harrow’s relationship also comes, I’d say, from fanfiction and from shipping culture; as does the byzantine lengths Muir goes to in order to demonstrate the strength of their bond (Harrow, it turns out, has deliberately forgotten Gideon in an attempt to keep her alive). The way Muir handles the complexity of her plot here, doling out answers bit by bit, reminds me more of a sprawling, lore-heavy media property like Doctor Who than of any traditional novel; it feels practically designed to fuel fan speculation (incidentally, or perhaps not, the third novel in the series, Alecto the Ninth, is due out in 2022).

This might all seem painfully obvious. But my point is not that these influences exist – Muir puts honest-to-goodness Internet memes in her novel, for gods’ sake – it’s that queer representation is the entirety of what the books are doing. The main reason for their existence is so that queer readers can see themselves and their necessarily-dramatic relationships in a speculative-fictional setting. That’s where the superficiality comes from: these are novels that are just completely unapologetic about their queerness, their campiness. They’re all aesthetic.

Mind, I’m not saying this is a bad thing – not entirely. There’s still I think relatively little work in the mainstream SFF sphere that ‘s revelling quite so obviously in its queer aesthetic, and even less that focuses to this extent on a queer couple. I’m not convinced that Harrow the Ninth should be on the Best Novel Hugo ballot this year: as a work in itself it stands alone poorly, and I definitely think it’s a stretch to call a novel that’s all surface the best of the year. But I would be lying if I claimed to be immune to the allure of Lesbian Necromancers In Space!! and the tortured intensity of Gideon and Harrow’s relationship. I’ll be reading Alecto the Ninth for sure.