Notes on “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Just some brief thoughts on Watermill on the Road’s touring production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel of the same name, which I saw in the garden of Stanton Harcourt village hall in Oxfordshire last August.

It was basically fine and I will always be here for gender-bent Sherlock Holmes, but it was nowhere near as witty as it thought it was and the denouement was poorly handled.

A cast of three, including two women, took on all the roles, hence Miss Holmes and Miss Watson. Funnily enough (in a way that’s not really funny at all), while this particular piece of gender-bending was not really played for laughs, the middle-class, middle-aged denizens of rural Oxfordshire who made up the majority of the audience found it simply hilarious when the cast’s single man played a woman and put on a silly voice: proof that we’ve not come anywhere near as far as we think we have when it comes to queer rights.

I can’t remember the specifics of the ending, but I do remember that none of us (“us” being me, the Bandersnatch and the Bandersnatch’s parents) thought that it made complete sense: crucial information seemed to have been cut for pacing. (Possibly it wasn’t clear where the dog had come from?) The Bandersnatch’s parents had seen the production at the Watermill itself, and said it had been altered, and not for the better, for the tour.

It had very little to say about the source text apart from obvious jokes – jokes that aimed for the slapstick end of the spectrum rather than anything else – and all in all felt like a very safe production of a well-known property; something guaranteed to get well-off white people back into theatres and do nothing else. Which is, I guess, fine. But I wouldn’t go and see it again.

Review: Defekt

This review contains spoilers.

DefektBack in 2017, a user called “Mortos” posted a piece to the website of the SCP Foundation, a collaborative storytelling project centred on the activities of a shadowy organisation dedicated to investigating and containing entities of otherworldly origin. “SCP-3008”, as the piece is called, tells of a theoretically infinite alt-universe version of Ikea populated by faceless staff members who become unaccountably murderous at night and endless Billy bookshelves. The story’s among the top-rated pages on the site, and has inspired fan art, memes and even a video game. Its appeal lies chiefly in the way it captures the uncanniness of the Ikea experience: the way its showrooms simulate apparently homelike environments that are nevertheless set within deliberately labyrinthine floorplans designed to bamboozle rather than soothe.

Nino Cipri’s novella Defekt, published four years later than “SCP-300”, attempts a similar effect. When protagonist Derek, an employee of the fast-furniture store LitenVärld, requests his first sick day ever owing to a sore throat, he finds himself reassigned to a special inventory shift alongside what he quickly discovers are four fellow clones – all of them manufactured by LitenVärld to be perfect employees. The inventory team are tasked with finding and killing defekta – items of stock that have become animate and possibly semi-sentient thanks to LitenVärld’s habit of using the resources of other universes to cut costs both financial and environmental.

Cipri deals swiftly with the question of whether it’s ethical to kill living beings because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time (their answer: no), and moves on to a slightly more trenchant examination of capitalism’s encroachment on individual subjectivity. Derek’s encounter with the inventory team, all of whom have been declared “discordant” for various reasons related to their non-conformity with what Dereks are “supposed” to be, allows him to conceptualise a version of himself that is not linked to LitenVärld’s idea of a perfect employee. In doing so he discovers that he is himself a defekta – his particular mutation gives him the ability to communicate telepathically with the other defekta – and the team use this power to overthrow their megalomaniac manager Dirk and stage a sit-in aiming to emancipate defekta in all LitenVärld stores.

The metaphors are transparent but nonetheless pleasing in their application. The novella, however, lacks the teeth of the SCP story despite its greater political charge and narrative ambition because it fails properly to lean into the essential uncanniness that “Mortos” identified. Partly this is a question of length: whereas “SCP-3008” is trying only to establish an atmosphere and explicate a straightforward concept in its 4,000 words, Defekt is attempting a full-blown plot with multiple thematic concerns in its 150-odd pages. The setting doesn’t have the room it needs to breathe. But it’s also partly that Cipri seems reluctant to delve into the psychological implications of their premise. What has been done to Derek and the other members of the inventory team is genuinely horrific; it’s uncanny in the technical sense, it attacks the very notion of subjectivity and the individual self. And yet Derek accepts it with seemingly little more than a shrug.

This points to a wider problem with characterisation in the novella: it’s not very good; or, rather, not very specific. Derek’s personality is generic literally by design, sure, he’s been built to be a sort of everyperson, non-threatening and neutral, but that very blankness makes him less than compelling as a protagonist. His whole story arc is about self-discovery and self-actualisation, but even after his initiation into the inventory team his self hardly seems to exist: the novella focuses on his journey to accepting the mutation that allows him to communicate telepathically, but a physical mutation is hardly a stand-in for personality. Similarly, his fellow members of the inventory team are either broad stereotypes or entirely unmemorable: the flamboyantly non-conformist enby, the sulky teenager, the megalomaniac manager, the other one.

If Cipri is unwilling to dig into the complexities of their characters’ psyches, they also seem unwilling to reckon with the near-omnipotence of the capitalist forces they’re ultimately writing about. Put simply, Derek and the inventory team win out too easily. With the help of thousands of defekta, sure; but this is a multinational corporation that’s deliberately exploiting the resources of infinite other universes! It’s hard to believe they don’t have some kind of plan for a similar eventuality. Hard to believe, also, that they would concede to all of the inventory team’s demands: although the novella doesn’t explicitly tell us that they do, it does gesture strongly towards a happy ending of some kind (rather than, say, a contingent and unstable victory of the kind that so often constitute real-life progress).

This might all sound like quibbling. Hopepunk is a thing, after all; hope and joy can be forms of resistance. But to me Defekt isn’t a story about hope in the face of all-encompassing capitalism, because it fails to reckon fully with the reasons why capitalism is all-encompassing: the insidious power it has over all aspects of our lives. I see this as a fundamental flaw in a text that purports to critique capitalism; and, by extension, I see the failure to give the protagonist a compelling subjectivity a fundamental flaw in a text that’s interrogating the compromised nature of the self under capitalism.

As I write this today, there are two days of tube strikes planned this week in London. Ten thousand Underground workers will down tools to protest changes to their pensions; ten times that number of Londoners will be affected, with potentially no Underground trains running on any lines. And that’s just to preserve the status quo – to stop working conditions getting any worse. Four people and some sentient furniture forcing a retail giant to create a collectivist utopia in one night? It’s laughable by comparison.

Review: Cat’s Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

This review contains spoilers.

The Lost Future of PepperharrowIt’s 1888. Russian ships are squaring up to the Japanese navy, and Great Britain is contemplating whether to intervene. Against this alt-historical backdrop, clairvoyant and Japanese nobleman Mori, his lover Thaniel (a translator for the British Foreign Office) and their adopted daughter Six travel to Tokyo to investigate reports of ghosts appearing in the British consulate there.

Natasha Pulley’s The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to her well-received The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which, in the interests of full transparency, I should mention I have not read (although it exists in my house and I expect I will get round to reading it at some point). As I was gathering my thoughts on what I wanted to say about it, I stumbled upon this essay about the novel’s titular character, Takika Pepperharrow – technically Mori’s wife (theirs being a marriage of convenience) and something of an antagonist throughout the novel. The writer argues that the novel fails Pepperharrow by having her long and complex history with Mori conclude in an act of self-sacrifice that benefits both him and Thaniel; that, in other words, Pulley kills off a nuanced female character in service to the narrative arcs of two male ones.

It’s hard to argue with this conclusion. Well, in fact it’s impossible: that is precisely what happens in The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. And, look, gender is something I’m very interested in as a reader: I’ve deliberately stopped engaging with litfic novels that treat female characters with contempt; I track the number of books I read by female and non-binary authors. And yet, this wasn’t an aspect of the narrative that particularly stuck out to me, and I’m interested in why that is.

Partly, I suspect, it’s because its representation of other groups traditionally marginalised by Western literary culture is interesting and thoughtful. Thaniel and Mori are a gay couple in a historical period that is generally depicted as being hostile to queer relationships (Pulley portrays homosexuality as being marginally more acceptable in Meiji-era Japan than in Victorian England; I have no idea whether that’s an accurate portrayal); Six is clearly autistic, again in a context where the concept of neurodiversity does not really exist. As Pulley explains in an afterword, the speech of her Japanese characters is rendered in informal English in a bid to represent the formality registers they’re using in their own language. (Whether or not this is a successful or a desirable approach is debatable – I’ve talked before about the importance of not representing the past as simply a reskinned version of the present – but it’s clearly been thought about, and that’s something I can respect.) And it’s also good to see a steampunk story set in a non-Western country that it doesn’t attempt to exoticise.

There’s something lulling, as well, about Pulley’s prose, which is plangent, straightforward and clear; the sort of prose that tells you, in a wistful “what are we going to do about humanity” sort of way, exactly what to think about the events of the story:

… it was just as dangerous to teach a little girl that one foot wrong would mean a lunatic and a dungeon. It made it sound inevitable, whereas if you were brought up safe in the knowledge that people were supposed to be good, you approached the bad ones with a healthy fury that might just see you out of the dungeon.

Finally, the quality of Mori and Thaniel’s relationship makes the novel faintly addictive: although they’re both adults, their inability to communicate their feelings for each other for fear of rejection feels much more YA. Thus Thaniel spends much of the novel convinced that Mori doesn’t love him and just keeps him around because he’s entertaining (?); by the end, we discover that Mori is similarly convinced that Thaniel has been staying with him because he gets a free room out of the arrangement. It’s a little eyeroll-y written down like that, but the romantic tension generated by this set-up acts as an effective hook: certainly I was convinced that Thaniel was mistaken and desperate for him to realise it.

My point here is that the many sweet and charming things I found in The Lost Future of Pepperharrow for me outweighed the undoubtedly problematic way in which it treats its titular character. That’s partly for reasons of textual technique – the accessible prose, the rom-com love story – but it’s also partly because of my own preferences and interests as a reader (I’m marginally more interested in LGBT+ rep than in female rep at this point in time). I mean; this is quite obvious; we are all postmodernists now. But it’s interesting nonetheless, to interrogate what makes my reading of a particular text different to someone else’s, and to think about why that might be.

I don’t, however, want to over-egg how much I enjoyed The Lost Future of Pepperharrow: ultimately, for me, its sweetness made it too easy and unchallenging a read. I liked it while I was reading it; I appreciated its setting and its treatment of marginalised identities; but it’s not a novel I think about very much. It was fine. Your reading may vary.

Review: Thin Air

Thin AirBritish speculative fiction author Richard Morgan’s latest novel Thin Air demonstrates science fiction’s colonialist roots as well as anything I’ve read recently. Set on an imperfectly-terraformed Mars, it follows one Hakan Veil, a former overrider (a genetically enhanced human created to act as security on corporate-owned spaceships) who’s blackmailed into bodyguarding a high-status visitor from Earth. The visitor is Madison Madekwe, an auditor for the Colonial Oversight Initiative who’s investigating the mysterious death of the winner of a lottery offering Martians a once-in-a-lifetime ticket to Earth. Inevitably, Hakan finds himself collaborating in the investigation, diving into the murky, corrupt underbelly of corporate scheming that passes for Martian politics.

So the key dynamic powering the novel is the uneasy relationship between Mars and Earth: the Martian colonists both despise Earth’s bureaucrats and see Earth as an unreachable, far-off vision of home. Morgan’s Mars is a bit Wild West and a lot Victorian colony: originally a penal settlement, its inhabitants are still, 200 years later, barely subsisting on the barren red planet, ruled over by a corrupt local governor, with Earth hopelessly distant in terms both of travel time and of what it would cost financially to get there. The corporation stuff tracks too, European colonialism historically being based on trade (think of the East India Company, which essentially ruled the subcontinent until the mid-nineteenth century).

What’s missing, of course, are the main victims of historical colonialism: Morgan’s Mars has no indigenous inhabitants to be slaughtered and oppressed by exploitative Earthlings. In fact racism appears to be largely absent from this imagined future: the well-off Earth auditor Madison is Black, whereas Martian Hakan has Arabic ancestry. Morgan’s point seems to be that the forces of capital depend on the existence of an underclass, and that therefore the social conditions that enabled imperialism will continue to operate in colonialist-like ways even when the problem of racism has been solved. (Although the extent to which it has in fact been solved in the universe of Thin Air is dubious: as in Martha Wells’ Network Effect, which I reviewed last week, the novel’s worldbuilding is thoroughly Western despite the characters’ different cultural backgrounds.)

This argument would, I feel, be more convincing if there was actually anything on Mars for Morgan’s fictional corporations to be interested in, but there isn’t, particularly: no significant resource extraction, no desirable markets; the only commercial activity that is uniquely Martian is, for some reason that I don’t think is ever adequately explained, skincare development. Furthermore, Morgan’s Martians are analogous not to the relentlessly exploited indigenous populations of lands colonised by Europeans but to the colonisers themselves: the convicts shipped out to places like Australia and North America to establish a Western presence there. Of course it’s difficult to describe a transported Victorian peasant as privileged, but the comparison I think Morgan is reaching for here doesn’t quite work, and moreover obscures the actual harms capitalist colonialism did, and is still doing, to real communities across the globe.

This is a shame, because the attempted critique of capitalism is what elevates the novel above others in its genre; without it, it’s merely violent, male gaze-y and, on one jarring occasion close to the beginning, randomly transphobic. Like, I don’t want to imply that I hated reading it: I quite enjoyed what it was attempting to do, as well as Morgan’s prose, which is stylish in a sort of sub-Rajaniemi way, noirish and efficient. But it wasn’t an entirely pleasant reading experience, let’s just say, or an entirely successful one.

Review: Network Effect

Network EffectMartha Wells’ moment in SFF continues in Network Effect, a Murderbot story that was named Best Novel at the Hugos in December, beating out two genre heavyweights in N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. In this fifth entry in the series (and the first at novel length), Murderbot, a security cyborg that has hacked the governor module supposedly keeping it in line and uses its freedom to watch endless soap opera episodes, accompanies its human friend Dr Mensah on a surveying mission that quickly and predictably goes very wrong. Murderbot, along with Dr Mensah’s daughter Amena, is captured and finds itself aboard a familiar spaceship (ART, or Asshole Research Transport, who we met in Artificial Condition) – but while it’s physically unharmed, ART’s personality is gone, and it’s being piloted by mysterious, possibly alien, figures who are apparently up to no good. Can Murderbot restore Amena to her mother and bring back ART? And can it do so without having any awkward conversations about feelings?

I’ve talked before about why I think the Murderbot series has seen such remarkable success recently: its protagonist is, as I wrote in my review of the first Murderbot novella, All Systems Red, a “massive queer nerd”, asexual, agender and obsessed with its favourite media in a way that reads as fannish. Having read Network Effect: yeah, I still think that’s basically correct. There are a lot of queer nerds voting for the Hugos at the moment, and this is a book pretty much designed to appeal to that demographic. Additionally, throughout the series Wells is taking on other themes that are highly relevant to the field right now: many of her human characters are Black or brown, queerness and polyamory are common and expected, capitalism is shitty and corrupt and exploitative. As well as being ace and agender, Murderbot also has compelling neurodivergent resonances: its dislike of conversations about feelings and its discomfort in social situations reads as specifically autistic. With the push for better representation of marginalised identities in speculative fiction, and general discontent with capitalism and the lingering harms of imperialism, becoming mainstream, it’s not difficult to see how well the Murderbot series is tapping into the zeitgeist.

Combine that with a relatively straightforward plot (Murderbot and its human companions get into trouble, then get out again) and character arc (Murderbot, like many many of its fictional robotic predecessors, learns the meaning of friendship and experiences Emotional Growth), plus a sarky, readable narrative voice and Wells’ carefully textured worldbuilding (she’s particularly good on work, something I don’t see represented enough in SFF) and you get something very moreish indeed. It may not be groundbreaking – though it features Black and brown characters, its worldbuilding is thoroughly Western – but it’s deeply enjoyable, and I’d be happy to read more.

Review: The Golden House

TW: transphobia.

Transphobic, ableist and a little bit sexist, Salman Rushdie’s fable of familial dysfunction The Golden House is the perfect encapsulation of everything I find wearisome about the Great Male Novelist. When Nero Golden flees from India to New York with his three children – autistic Petra, artistic Apu and genderqueer D – their new neighbour, an ambitious filmmaker named Rene, begins planning a mockumentary based on the family’s dramas and their mysterious past.

Rushdie’s treatment of autism and of transness is deeply problematic: agoraphobic Petya is presented as abject and pitiable, while D, having found their way into New York’s queer scene, becomes confused about their gender identity by their well-meaning girlfriend and ends up dead. Both autism and transness are presented as curses of sorts, their presence in the Golden family an indication of decadence, of corruption, of the family’s ultimate downfall. Rushdie’s discussion of gender in particular seems borne out of a desire to Comment on this Important Topic rather than a genuine interest in understanding the subject: his grumblings about identity politics have the tone and sentiment of something your Sun-reading granddad might come out with. If Rushdie ever consulted – hell, even met – an actual trans person I would be very surprised.

There’s also a sexy Russian lady who marries Nero in order to get her hands on his fortune which – I mean, it’s such a cliché at this point that it’s hardly worth commenting on.

That so many people seem entranced by this novel – writing for the Guardian, Aminatta Forna tells us of Rushdie’s “considerable courage” in tackling gender identity – is surely an indictment of our Great Man-obsessed cultural landscape: of course nothing that a leading novelist like Rushdie says can be wrong, or underthought, or unoriginal, amirite? Meanwhile, new writers, trans writers, women writers, writers who can actually speak to the spirit of the age are shut out by an increasingly conservative publishing industry motivated primarily by profit. The Golden House is my first Rushdie, and it’ll be my last too: I’m off to read something more relevant.

Thoughts on Tomahawk Theatre’s “Twelfth Night”

A few scattered notes on Tomahawk Theatre’s Twelfth Night, which ran in the courtyard of Oxford Castle for two weeks in July 2021. On the whole it was a competent but unremarkable production, softened and made romantic by the glow of sunset on old stone.

  • Costume choices were generally steampunk/Victorian-lite, which, while aesthetically rather fun, is probably the least interesting choice available: it removes what can be a fanciful play even further from relevance and into the realm of escapist fantasy. Also: I think every version of Twelfth Night I have seen has struggled to handle Malvolio’s “yellow stockings cross-gartered”, a period-specific fashion that rarely meshes well with modern costume styles. How do you update that to something a modern audience understands?

  • The music direction was…not great. This was firstly a question of singing ability – the actor playing Feste was somewhat lacking in this area – and secondly a question of pacing: the songs were too long and I don’t feel like the director had a clear vision of what they were there for.

  • On a personal level I wish the production had made more of the queer possibilities of the text. While Tomahawk’s Orsino definitely had gay vibes they were played very much as accidental and eventually legitimised by the revelation that “Cesario” is a woman. I mean: that is what the text does: confuses gender categories and then resolves them again to restore the social order; but I wish the production had questioned the neatness of that ending a little more.

  • Generally I feel like the production didn’t have much to say about the original text: all the choices it made were fairly obvious ones. The actors’ performances were on the whole good, but there wasn’t much to get hold of thematically. Don’t get me wrong: it was a pleasant evening; just not a memorable one.

2021 Roundup

Another weird year in reading, this one: with the libraries closed again until April, a good third of the books I read this year were re-reads. Re-reading is a pleasure of its own, of course, but what it doesn’t bring is the shock of the new, the brilliant surprise of discovering something you didn’t know existed. As a result, I found it difficult this year even to identify ten new-to-me books that I thought were top-tier favourites; normally I’m whittling down a list of about fifteen.

Here they are, anyway: my top ten reads of 2021; and, afterwards, some spreadsheet stats.

Top Ten Books of 2021

  1. Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell (2020). This mostly-realist tale of a fictional 60s band has some misfires – most notably its somewhat schlocky speculative element – but its characters are so vivid, so humanly flawed, that you can’t help but love it. Dean, Griff, Elf, Jasper and Levon all – still! – feel like friends of my heart; this is a truly warm and wonderful novel.
  2. Hild – Nicola Griffith (2014). It took me twelve days to read this 550-page novel, and I’m a fast reader. Part of what makes it a slow read is its almost speculative treatment of its seventh-century setting: it plunges the modern reader into a very alien cultural and social milieu, asking us to keep up with political divisions and developments that we know almost nothing about, using unfamiliar terms that it doesn’t stop to explain. And part of it is that Hild herself gains power in a hostile society by observing, quietly, the movements and currents of the world around her. It made me want to do the same: to pay attention; to read slowly and carefully and thoughtfully. One of those rare books that changes your worldview as you read.
  3. The Water DancerTa-Nehisi Coates (2019). Another novel that applies speculative techniques to the stuff of realism; in this case, Virginian slavery. I loved Coates’ lyrical, supple prose, and his use of fantasy to point up the ways in which his enslaved characters are estranged from their own history. For me, it’s a novel that achieved what Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad did not.
  4. Possession – A.S. Byatt (1990). I was never not going to like this layered, brilliant tale of academic discovery and forbidden romance. It just works on so many levels: the tone-perfect pastiche of Victorian poetry; the exploration of intellectual and romantic possession; the complex, fraught relationships it charts between its various pairs of lovers. A novel to curl up into and to savour.
  5. Unconquerable Sun – Kate Elliott (2020). This take on “Alexander the Great in space” is just really solid, enjoyable SF. The worldbuilding has texture and substance; the text resists easy moralities; queerness is an expected and unremarkable aspect of its fictional society. Deeply satisfying.
  6. Shriek: An Afterword Jeff Vandermeer (2006). I didn’t know much about Shriek before I started reading it, and I found it absolutely fascinating. The fictional city of Ambergris is underlain by a fungoid society that is terrifying in its absolute illegibility. There are shades of China Mieville here, but Vandermeer’s work is more personal, more focused on its twin protagonists, and so that sense of the abcanny, and the threat of it, is magnified. I’m excited to read more about Ambergris.
  7. The Unreal and the Real Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands – Ursula K. le Guin (2012). I read this collection of short stories in a day, travelling, an immersion that never became wearing. So many of these stories are linked, drawn from le Guin’s Hainish Cycle (although a few stand on their own, and one of them is set in the Earthsea universe), but they all explore very different ways of being and living. I don’t think I’d ever quite realised how transformative le Guin’s work is before: the collection made me think of le Guin’s quote about how capitalism feels as inescapable as the divine right of kings once did, and it really bears out that optimism, that idea that it might be possible to imagine a new kind of society into existence.
  8. Hot HeadSimon Ings (1992). My last read of 2021, this was another one that came as a pleasant surprise. Set in a cyberpunk future in which the Singularity is about to be invented, it’s deeply engaged with questions of identity, of storymaking and of cultural cohesion. Despite its early 90s publication date, it also features a Muslim protagonist and multiple queer characters. Like many debut novels, it’s a little uneven, but there are some interesting ideas here.
  9. Infidel – Kameron Hurley (2011). I’ve been looking for this novel in libraries and bookshops for literal years; what a pleasure finally to find it! Hurley’s later work doesn’t appeal to me, but the terse, punchy prose and apocalyptic desertscapes of her Bel Dame trilogy really do. Another SF novel that’s just – fun.
  10. Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (2020). A novel about the family that Shakespeare left at home in Stratford as he achieved fame and fortune in London, Hamnet is another litfic work that’s also a little bit speculative. In this case, the speculative elements are there to immerse us in a worldview very different from the modern one; a worldview that contained the supernatural, the otherworldly, as accepted fact. It’s a technique I’ve always enjoyed; and I also like O’Farrell’s close attention to domestic life in this time period, the textures and smells of 16th-century England.

Spreadsheet stats

  • I read 89 books in 2021; much less than last year’s anomalous 121.
  • The longest book I read was my mammoth collected edition of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, at 953 pages; the shortest was Thomas Pynchon’s snappy The Crying of Lot 49, at just 125. Both were re-reads. In all I read 35,787 pages in 2021, significantly down from last year’s whopping 41,837.
  • The oldest book I read in 2021 was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, another re-read and first published in 1813. The average age of the books I read in 2021 was 19, up from last year’s 12.
  • Genre: 43% of the books I read in 2021 were fantasy, down from 45% last year. Just 19% were science fiction, down from 26% last year. In fact, for the first time since I started recording my reading in 2014, I read more litfic than SF this year: 22% (last year only 8% of the books I read were litfic). The remaining 16% consists of four historical novels, four classics, three non-fiction books, two contemporaries, a Granta anthology and a book of poetry (Catherynne M. Valente’s A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects).
  • As I mentioned earlier, almost a third of the books I read in 2021 were re-reads: 29%, considerably up from last year’s 9%.
  • 60% of the books I read in 2021 were by women and non-binary people – the same as in 2020.
  • 19% of the books I read in 2021 were by people of colour – slightly up from last year’s 18%.
  • And 19% of the books I read in 2021 were by queer authors – up from last year’s 15%.

Review: The Traitor

The TraitorSeth Dickinson’s debut novel The Traitor (published in the US under the much more recognisable title The Traitor Baru Cormorant) received rapturous praise on its release in 2015 for its portrayal of the corrosive effects of empire on the colonised, and continues to be discussed in genre circles as something of a revelation in post-colonial fantasy.

The titular Baru is a child living with her mother and two fathers on the tropical island of Taranoke when the Masquerade, a colonial power that already controls vast swathes of the world, moves in. Over the next few years, Baru, now moved into a Masquerade residential school where she and her fellow Taranoki pupils are taught homophobic doctrines about “hygiene” (read: straight monogamy), sees the economy and culture of her home eroded by Masquerade trading practices and ideological indoctrination; the last straw is when one of her fathers, Salm, disappears after a traditional battle, presumably murdered by Masquerade agents for his polyamory. Swearing revenge against the Masquerade, Baru takes a position as a high-up civil servant for the empire in the wintry land of Aurdwynn, a patchwork of duchies only recently unified under imperial rule, and still rebellious. The novel broadly charts her attempts to wrangle local politics and play the Masquerade at their own game, concealing her true intentions behind layers of misdirection and seduction.

Although The Traitor is written in the third person, it hews very closely to Baru’s perspective, keeping us at a distance from Aurdwynn and its inhabitants in the same way that Baru holds herself aloof from them, figuring out how best she can use them to consolidate her position or advance her aims. This in itself is, as Phoebe Salzman-Cohen points out here, a reflection of how the Masquerade sees the nations and cultures it overruns: as resources to be used in whatever way seems politically expedient.

While it’s an effective textual strategy, it’s not a particularly groundbreaking one. No, what really drive Dickinson’s critique of colonialism home is how unflinching his novel is. In Aurdwynn, there is nowhere for Baru to turn: no kind ally, no canny manipulator with a heart of gold, no disinterested actor. Even her secretary is a possible threat. And Baru herself is very far from straightforwardly sympathetic. She is, as the novel’s title suggests, a traitor many times over. She is utterly ruthless; everything, with her, is about the long game, and about revenge. In her single-minded determination to burn down the world she actually reminds me of Essun, the protagonist of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which was published the same year as The Traitor. Jemisin and Dickinson have similar artistic goals, I think: both are writing about systems and structures that are so rotten, so sick, that it is impossible for them to produce anything good. And they’re both interested specifically in the effects of those structures on those that are oppressed by them – the ways in which they leave the oppressed with no good choices. These novels are grim not because grimdarkery is trendy, but because there is no other way to talk honestly about colonialism, imperialism and racism.

The Traitor‘s ending, twistily devastating as it is, is both a fitting conclusion to Baru’s adventure in Aurdwynn and a terrible promise of greater revenge to come. The titles of the two sequels to this novel, The Monster and The Tyrant, gesture at the heights to which Baru’s rage will take her. I for one can’t wait to read about them.