Review: Upright Women Wanted

A recurring theme amongst the nominees for last year’s Hugo award for Best Novella was: the creation of spaces in which marginalised people could thrive, despite hostility from the wider world. So we had P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, in which Black joy and Black (specifically Gullah) cultural traditions thrive despite the gathering forces of racism; and Seanan McGuire’s Come Tumbling Down, whose characters attend a school for wayward children – children who, Pevensie-like, have lost the magical worlds whose doors were once open to them, and who commiserate each other’s losses – and whose waywardness often stands in for real-world marginalisation. And then we have Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted.

The novella, which benefits from a sort of Western feel, is set in a future United States which has succumbed entirely to totalitarianism. Women and LGBT+ people have functionally no rights, the supply of literature and other media is strictly controlled, unelected officials enforce state power violently and with little oversight; the whole shebang. Our protagonist is Esther, a young woman who flees her hometown when her lover Beatriz is executed for possessing unauthorised literature and seeks out a group of Librarians, women who travel around the States distributing authorised material. Esther hopes that travelling with these upright, morally correct women will cure her of what she believes to be sinful, destructive urges. But the truth, as she discovers, is quite the opposite: not only are the Librarians as queer as it gets (and, in fact, not all women: one of them, Cyd, is a non-binary person forced to pass as a woman to survive), they’re also a front for a resistance movement that exists to conduct people like Esther to safety in queer-friendly, “insurrectionist” states.

So this is very much a text born of the Trump era: of fears of creeping authoritarianism, of the rise of the far right and the alt-right, of the rapid erosion of the rights of people who aren’t cis straight able-bodied white men. It’s one of a slew of recent texts that extrapolate current trends in US and world politics into a dystopian future: Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade is particularly on my mind since last week’s review of her earlier novel Infidel, but there’s also Analee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline, Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds – hell, even Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. Clearly, these are fictions that chime with people; these are realities that feel like they’re on the verge of coming true, even now, a year and a half into Biden’s administration. In this context, in a world that frequently literally is this hostile to LGBT+ people, in a world where all possible versions of the future are terrifying, Upright Women Wanted functions weirdly like – wish fulfilment?

Despite the best efforts of her society, Esther finds her people. She overcomes her internalised queerphobia and self-hatred, and she takes up the fight for a better world. This is a novella that says: we will endure. Even in the worst possible version of the future (short of, I guess, literal apocalypse), we queer folk will survive and thrive and find each other and fight. We cannot be kept down.

Which is, yes, delightful. More queer validation, please! But in order to make this argument the novella also softens the awfulness of its world. Beatriz’s death takes place off-page, and, yeah, Esther is upset about it, but she’s not exactly traumatised (as I expect a real person would be if their literal best friend/lover was literally executed in front of them) and she’s very quick to move on in order to provide some on-page, positive queer romance. She’s also very quick to come out to the Librarians, who she believes, remember, to be among the moral arbiters of her society, and who are moreover complete strangers to her: the risk of her coming out to them is astronomical, and she does it on like page ten.

I mention this not because it makes the text less enjoyable – as I said, this is queer wish fulfilment, and it works very well as such – but because in my view it lessens its power as a text about queer joy and resistance, and it lessens the value of such resistance. It seems weird to say that I want these characters to experience more trauma, but: I do! I want this novella to feel more urgent, more fierce, and ultimately more meaningful. It’s lovely as it is, and Esther’s self-loathing and journey towards self-acceptance struck a particular chord with me. But it could have been better.

Review: Infidel

“The smog in Mushtallah tasted of tar and ashes; it tasted like the war.”

So begins Kameron Hurley’s Infidel, sequel to God’s War, in which we met Nyx, state-sponsored assassin (or bel dame) in an Islamic-inflected future world that has been at war for longer than anyone can remember, over a cause that is all but forgotten. In this second novel, Nyx is no longer a bel dame, and is instead playing bodyguard to the spoiled child of an ambassador when her city, the aforementioned Mushtallah, is targeted in a devastating terrorist attack. She’s then summoned by her Queen to hunt down the rogue bel dames who featured in the events of God’s War, who the Queen believes were responsible for the attack.

None of which conveys the chief pleasure of this series, which is Hurley’s punchy, laconic prose, conjuring as it does the vast desert landscapes her characters inhabit – which in their turn reflect the violent bleakness of those characters’ lives. The improperly terraformed planet of Umayma is barely hospitable to life, and as such is a brilliant metaphor for a society endlessly at war: what joy is to be found there is contingent and brief.

Hurley’s work has often been praised for its diversity: her novels feature unapologetically queer women and people who defy gender stereotypes (one of the reasons for the brutality of the Bel Dame series is undoubtedly to counter notions of women as essentially nurturing, caregiving types – Nyx in particular is anything but that), and of course it’s fairly rare – and was rarer still when Infidel was published back in 2011 – to see speculative futures in fiction that aren’t essentially Western. It does have to be said, however, that both God’s War and Infidel play into enduring and harmful stereotypes that cast Islam as a warlike religion, with the pointlessness and endlessness of the war they depict. It’s not, I think, that Hurley is actively suggesting that this world is constantly at war because it is Islamic; but nor do I think it’s wholly a coincidence that she chose an Islamic milieu for her examination of the effects of unceasing war, even if the reasons for that choice were subconscious. (It’s worth noting that Hurley is a white American who is not, as far as I can discover, Muslim.)

Later on in her career, in 2019’s The Light Brigade, Hurley brings her exploration of total war home to the Americas, combining it with a discussion of the corroding effects of late capitalism. The Light Brigade is technically and thematically the better and more interesting book. But God’s War was one of the first queer SFF books I ever read, and the series’ wide desert spaces, and its protagonist’s uncompromising lack of femininity, still retain a hold on my imagination. I’m looking forward to picking up the third and last book in the trilogy, Rapture.

Review: The Angel of the Crows

Is steampunk dead? It’s a question that’s been rattling around in genre circles for a good ten years, ever since the aesthetic began to make its way out of the subculture and into the mainstream, popping up on haute couture catwalks, in blockbuster films and in music videos by major artists. (Typing “steampunk” into Etsy returns more than 250,000 results.) The problem is clearly not one of waning interest, but rather the opposite: smeared across the world’s media, permeating the world’s markets, have the signs and signifiers of steampunk – cogs, gears, steam engines, bustles, corsets and pocket watches – been emptied of their meaning, aestheticised in the purest sense? Has steampunk lost its (probably already very dubious) punk credentials?

For me, the answer is: indubitably yes. In some cases. Including that of Katherine Addison’s Sherlock-wingfic-turned-respectable-SFF-novel The Angel of the Crows, which transplants Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories into a fantastical version of Victorian London in which werewolves, vampires and ghosts stalk the streets alongside Jack the Ripper. Addison’s Sherlock figure – here named Crow – is an angel, in a world where such beings must remain within specific buildings to retain their identities and individualities; Crow has got around this rule by salvaging a piece of banister from his original residence, and as a result has a somewhat seedy reputation among other angels (it surely doesn’t help that he has taken the rather grandiose title “the Angel of London”). Watson – dubbed J.H. Doyle here for what I suspect are copyright reasons – remains a retired army doctor, except that the wounds the war has left them with are metaphysical rather than material: an encounter with a fallen angel has turned them into an (unregistered, illegal). hellhound. Predictably enough, Crow and Doyle move in together, largely because they are the only people who can tolerate each other, and Doyle becomes drawn into Crow’s hobby-slash-occupation of solving intricate and unusual crimes.

The plots here are all pretty familiar, notwithstanding the supernatural elements: Addison takes us on a Greatest Hits tour of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, from A Study in Scarlet to “The Speckled Band”, leaving motivations, clues and occasionally entire narratives intact. This is an episodic novel, with a vague overarching structure binding it all together: those looking for tight, efficient plotting should probably go elsewhere. The major innovation that Addison has made here is in introducing queer representation (as opposed to the blatant queerbaiting that went on in her source text, the BBC TV series Sherlock): Doyle, as I’ve already intimated, is some flavour of genderqueer, and Crow is vaguely transmasculine. It’s difficult to be definitive about their identities, because Addison herself isn’t: the novel is narrated in the first person by Doyle, no pronoun is ever used to refer to them, they live as a man but explicitly refer to themself as “not a man”; similarly, the masc-presenting Crow tells Doyle that angels are “all female…Insofar as it makes sense to apply gender to asexual beings”, but that “human beings give [angels]…gender”. Electra Pritchett suggests here, pretty compellingly, that Addison is confusing concepts of gender, sex and sexuality, which is one reason why it’s so difficult to make out how to read Crow and Doyle.

Does this queering of these two canonical characters, then, put the punk into Addison’s steampunk setting? Well…not for me: partly because of Addison’s somewhat clumsy handling of their queerness (probably we could argue that the confusion around their transness has to do with the limited vocabulary a Victorian person would have had available to express these concepts, but frankly…this is a novel with hellhounds and angels in it, it’s not THAT committed to historical accuracy), and partly because she doesn’t do a whole lot with it. There is, for example, no real examination of traditional gender roles in Victorian society. And pretty much everything else about this novel is fairly, hmm, unremarkable given the setting and its genre. Crow and Doyle are comfortably middle-class, if occasionally strapped for cash. They do run across the spectre of Victorian colonial imperialism at least once, but not in a way that significantly disturbs the structure or mood of the text. Addison attempts nothing particularly notable with her prose or her plots; generally, the novel isn’t creating any form of productive tension for the reader to rub up against.

The result is, to be fair, a thoroughly enjoyable one: I am not immune to the aesthetic pleasures of steampunk, that warm immersion in a romanticised past, in the comfortingly familiar promises of fog-shrouded London streets where all manner of creatures may lurk. I would happily read a sequel, or two, or five; and seeing queerness represented in this sort of story is always a small joy, even if it is awkwardly done. But throughout my reading of The Angel of the Crows, and beyond, I found myself wondering what the purpose of it all was; what Addison was trying to say. This is steampunk without its bite, steampunk as consolatory, familiar, a sanitised bourgeois fantasy of what was in reality a profoundly oppressive age. This is steampunk-as-zombie: not dead, but not truly alive either.

Review: Finna

Nino Cipri’s debut novella Finna, published just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit America in earnest in early 2020, evinces similar weaknesses to its sequel, Defekt, which I reviewed here in February. Set in the same branch of multinational retail conglomerate LitenVärld (a parodic analogue of Ikea) as Defekt, the novella follows two lower-level employees, Jules and Ava, who have only recently broken up their romantic relationship when they’re sent by their manager through one of the wormholes that periodically opens up in LitenVärld’s stores to retrieve a customer named Ursula who has unwittingly wandered into another world. They quickly discover that the elderly woman in question has been devoured by a predatory sofa, and in their search for an appropriate “alternative” – as the corporate euphemism goes – they cross multiple universes and begin to renegotiate a new kind of relationship, with each other, with the labour they perform, and with LitenVärld.

Like Defekt, then, Finna is a text ripe with anti-capitalist potential, and indeed other reviewers and critics have found in it rich ground for discussions about dreamwork and the intersection between class and capitalism. While I’m glad these discussions exist, I personally did not find the text nearly so generative. As Electra Pritchett points out in the Strange Horizons review linked above, “Finna feels a little on the short side”; I’ll go one further and contend that it is, in fact, slight.

Again as with Defekt, the novella form feels too constrictive for the story Cipri is trying to tell. With Defekt, the problem was a question of atmosphere; Cipri didn’t have the space to build the sense of the uncanny I felt was needed to give the text’s anti-capitalist critique real force and charge. Here, it’s simply that…there’s a lot going on (multiple universes! devoured grannies! murderous hives of LitenVärld employees!) and we never get the opportunity to stop, take in the scenery, ponder the implications of the metaphors and resonances Cipri’s setting up. Consider, for example, the death of Ursula at the hands (cushions?) of an animated LitenVärld product. While the text’s cursory treatment of this event to some extent reflects corporate priorities around similar “accidents” (or “fatalities” as the euphemistic buzzspeak has it) – the focus is on damage control and mitigation, hence the necessity for Ava and Jules to plunge further into the multiverse to find a different version of Ursula to replace her in this world – it also sits at odds with Cipri’s rather more considered excavation of their protagonists’ relationship. It seems somewhat inappropriate, given Finna’s avowed pro-labour, progressive stance, that we spend more time with the awkwardnesses of a post-romantic relationship than with the reality that an innocent bystander has just…died?

And what about that LitenVärld hive, which Jules and Ava stumble across in their quest for Ursula’s replacement? About halfway through the novella, the pair find themselves in familiar territory, a LitenVärld store that seems more or less ordinary, until they attempt to buy some lunch in the food court and everything goes terribly wrong: the store’s staff, it turns out, are like worker bees, controlled by an overriding hivemind which is not happy about the incursion of two strangers. In the casting of retail employees as de-individualised drones we can see a precursor to the LitenVärld clones that populate Defekt, a comment on how capitalism compromises individual subjectivity and turns it to its own ends. But, again, we are given very little time to sit in this moment and think about those resonances, before we are hurtling on again with our heroes, onto the next adventure.

Underlying all of this is a sort of snarky world-weary cynicism that’s very…queer Twitter. “Ugh, capitalism” is a running joke between Ava and Jules, and it’s the flattening lens through which they – and therefore we – read everything about their world. Of course, in our reality, capitalism really is all-consuming, it taints everything we do and say and write, but there’s also a sense in which to respond to the death of a person with “Ugh, capitalism” (as Jules and Ava effectively do) is…insufficient. Snark as fake activism; snark as apathy. Where is the rage, the grief, the despair, the horror?

At root, then, my problem with Cipri’s work is its lack of nuance, its sophomoric one-note analysis of labour conditions under capitalism. In Finna, Cipri is both too ambitious and not ambitious enough: seeking to cram a critique of our current economic system into the slim form of the novella, they restrict themself to a mode of thought characteristic to a particular online niche – a mode developed for a medium that gives little space for depth or complexity. Finna is not unreadable, but it’s not memorable, either.

Review: Black Sun

Is representation enough? It’s a question I’ve been turning over more and more lately, as mainstream SFF continues to wrestle with its patriarchal, colonial legacy, and as my own personal honeymoon period with SFF that looks beyond the straight white hegemony passes and (hopefully) matures into something more thoughtful. And it’s a question I find myself asking when it comes to thinking about Rebecca Roanhorse’s third novel (and first in a new series) Black Sun, a text which draws on the mythologies of the pre-colonial Americas to create a thriving multicultural fantasy world where queerness of multiple flavours is normalised – a world, in fact, that looks nothing like the medieval European paradigms so much of fantasy is based on. As someone who very much enjoys the work of Becky Chambers – which is pretty much all representation, like, queer representation is pretty much the Thing those books are doing – I’d have expected it to be right up my street. But, in fact, I have basically…nothing to say about it.

That’s partly because, while the worldbuilding eschews the conventions of Western fantasy, the plot structure is thoroughly familiar. Basically: the blind priest Serapio returns from exile to his parents’ country, Tova, in order to restore the Crow God to his rightful place in society, aided by Xiala, a larger-than-life bisexual sailor with mysterious marine powers. Meanwhile, the Sun Priest of Tova faces resistance from her fellow priests and the people of Tova in her attempts to reform the priesthood. This is a quest story, with a bit of tragico-political scheming thrown in; the characters are stock types who are, yes, queer where once they might not have been (although I think we can all agree that the promiscuous bisexual is as old as, like, the concept of bisexuality, and as for bisexual sailors – ), but not in a way that interestingly queers the story Roanhorse is telling. I’m not saying that queerness always has to have a plot purpose, just that – I’m struggling to find anything to grab onto in Black Sun, thematically.

The conclusion I’m reaching for, here, is that there’s not a lot going for Black Sun except for its inclusion of non-Western mythologies and characters, and the queerness of those characters. These are, to be clear, valuable things. And there are a couple of stand-out details that show how Roanhorse’s world is altered by default queerness: Xiala’s people, the Teek, are a deeply misandrist society who see Xiala’s attraction to men as shameful and sordid. That’s genuinely quite interesting. But we don’t spend any time among the Teek, and so the novel’s structure and plot are not markedly affected by their presence. Roanhorse doesn’t seem to have anything to say about how default queerness might alter how society works, or how a culture constructed around non-Western mythologies might tell stories differently.

Black Sun is not a badly written novel. It’s strongly plotted, well-paced; the prose is competent and readable. But it’s not memorable. It has nothing really original to say to match the originality of bringing these pre-colonial American mythologies into a work of commercial fantasy. Simple representation is, for me, no longer enough to make a text exciting and invigorating and challenging. Diverse characters deserve diverse storytelling, narratives that question and trouble literary conventions. For me, Black Sun doesn’t achieve that.

Review: Hild

How did the prominent seventh century abbess Saint Hilda of Whitby, advisor of kings, rise to prominence from a relatively obscure position in the court of her great-uncle Edwin, the ruler of what is now Yorkshire? That’s the question Nicola Griffith seeks (partially) to answer in her 2013 novel Hild, which follows the title character from her very early childhood in her father’s home to her eventual, inevitable political marriage. In between, she learns to use her considerable powers of observation and deduction to gain status in Edwin’s court, pushing against the boundaries and restrictions placed on women in her society to obtain a reputation as a seer and witch.

Although it’s pretty resolutely not fantastical – Hild is read as magical by her contemporaries only because she’s surrounded by men who cannot or will not contemplate the patterns at work in the world around them – it certainly seems to have been received as fantasy-adjacent by a number of audiences: as well as featuring in the Strange Horizons book club in 2015, it was nominated for the Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, and is a Tiptree Honor book. One of the reasons for this, I’d suggest, is that it plunges readers into the unfamiliar world that is seventh century England in a way that’s very similar to how some high fantasy writers plunge their readers into their secondary worlds. Griffith doesn’t spend any time holding our hands or, really, explaining the convoluted sociopolitical landscape her characters find themselves in; instead, she expects us to pick up concepts and language as we go. The reading protocols that are useful in interpreting Hild are the ones that are useful in interpreting high fantasy texts.

What’s this fantastic sensibility in service of? Hild is a slow, patient text, very interested in the texture of early medieval life, in accordance with its heroine’s penchant for quiet, intense observation. Griffith has invented or extrapolated much of this detail, owing to a lack of evidence, textual or material, about this period, which is, I suppose, another way that Hild is like a fantasy epic: the world here has been deliberately built to reflect the author’s aesthetic preoccupations, rather than accurately representing a historical reality, and yet at the same time it’s invested in concealing its constructedness. It wants you to inhabit its world fully, along with its protagonist, taking in all that vital sensory detail that allows her to predict what’s going to happen next. A good example of Griffith’s construction of her novel’s world is what she calls the gemaecce: taken from the Old English term gemaecca, meaning “one of a pair, companion, mate”, the term in Griffith’s novel denotes a close, almost familial pairing between two women. This invention allows Griffith to explore how Hild benefits from relationships with people of different genders, and to dig into the helplessness and isolation that her society inflicts upon women. Because I, like most readers, know very little about social structures in seventh century Britain, I didn’t realise this was made up until I read Griffith’s author’s note at the back of the book: I think the text relies on this knowledge gap in quite a lot of cases for its verisimilitude.

The overall effect, anyway, of this fantastic approach to historical fiction is, for me at least, a sense of estrangement: the text has none of the coziness I associate with traditional historical fiction. Rather, in treating the past like a fantasy world, it conveys the alienness of that past. We know so little about seventh century Britain that it might as well be a fantasy world. And also: seventh century Britain is so distant from us in every way – chronologically, culturally – as to be virtually unrecognisable anyway. The past, as L.P. Hartley said, is a different country. Except, not just a different country: a different world.

Which is not to say that the themes Hild is working with are wholly unfamiliar: like all texts, it is responding primarily to the occupations of the moment. I’ve talked a little already about its examination of female power and its limits; it’s also interested in sexuality, casting Hild as bisexual and her society as one that cares not so much about who people sleep with as who they are married to. This reading of early medieval sexual politics is as much a fantasy as the concept of gemaecce, as Griffith again admits at the end of the book:

“there’s no evidence for anything, sexually, in early seventh-century northern Britain. Nothing. No material culture and no text.”

The motivation for this invention is similarly obvious: Griffith is engaged, as many authors of historical fiction and historical SFF are at the moment, in rewriting the marginalised into history, challenging established hegemonic narratives that seek to erase the existence of (in this case) women and queer folk. And, again, we can see how the gap in common knowledge about the seventh century both plays into the seeming verisimilitude of Griffith’s setting and obscures its constructedness. That sense of alienation, of distance from the past, is a manufactured thing; by which I mean it’s manufactured to bring prominence to concerns that seventh century people may not have thought about at all. (I mean: if there is no textual or material evidence about sexuality in this period, perhaps that’s an indication that it just wasn’t a point of contention or interest?)

So: does Hild provide a convincing origin story for Hilda of Whitby? I’m not sure. Certainly it is a compelling portrait of an extraordinary woman seizing what power she can in a rigidly patriarchal society against a rapidly shifting sociocultural background riven by internecine political conflicts. It’s a novel that, to me, rewards and demands patient attention, rather than something to race through and admire the shape of. But its sensibilities – its prizing of rational deduction, its interest in matters of sex – are a little too modern to ring quite true. It’ll be interesting to see what the long-awaited sequel, Menewood, brings.

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.