Review: Who Fears Death

CW: rape, FGM.

Nnedi Okorafor’s 2010 novel Who Fears Death is one of those texts that casts a weighty shadow on the genre. Published around the time that work by people of colour and LGBT+ people – and particularly work that actually centred the experience of characters with these identities rather than seeking to educate white straight people about them – was moving into the SF mainstream (Racefail, a conversation about people of colour in SFF, had happened just a year before), it’s often cited as a significant work of specifically African SFF: Tade Thompson here calls it a “milestone” and Okorafor “The most significant writer in African SFF”. John Ottinger III here describes the novel as “perception altering”; Yvonne Zipp called it “wondrously magical and terribly realistic”. Reading it 12 years later, then, it’s interesting how formulaic it ultimately feels.

Set in a far-future Sudan whose inhabitants have for the most part rejected modern technology as sinful and dangerous, it follows the teenage Onyesonwu, the daughter of a woman of Okeke ethnicity who was raped by a man of another ethnic group, the Nuru, in an attempt at systematic genocide. Onye, as she’s nicknamed, overcomes the mistrust and fear of her community, not to mention institutionalised misogyny, to become an immensely powerful sorcerer in order to prevent the wholesale destruction of the Okeke, who she regards as her people thanks to her mother, by the Nuru in a campaign orchestrated by her father.

Clearly, there’s a lot going on here, and before I dive into my criticisms of the novel I want to mention something about it that I do think has stood the test of time: namely, that this is a story about systematic oppression featuring African folks that is not about white people. There’s one character who we might read as white, but whiteness as a construct, as a structural force, is absent. That still feels unusual in today’s literary landscape, although it’s becoming less so with the advent of novels like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf.

For the most part, though, Who Fears Death simply reheats the Hero’s Journey: Onye passes a test to gain access to a reluctant teacher and develops incredible powers, but leaves her training early in order to confront her evil father, who is plotting genocide…I’m finding it very hard not to think of Star Wars, here. That, in itself, is not necessarily a problem. Are we not constantly being told that there are only approximately seven basic plots? But in a novel so lauded, I would have expected to see some sort of subversion of this classic structure, and it’s just not there.

Well; perhaps that’s not quite true. One of the things everyone mentions about Who Fears Death is its violence: there is rape, there is murder, there is FGM. There’s also a lot of explicit sex. I wonder if what Okorafor is attempting here isn’t a bit similar to what Marlon James is doing in Black Leopard, Red Wolf: exposing the violence inherent in traditional Western fantasy, making it explicit rather than cloaking it behind faux-medieval notions of honour and nobility. There’s also, I think, an attempt at greater honesty around teenage attitudes to sex than is typical in fantasy, and particularly the YA fantasy that Okorafor is most clearly responding to.

This explicitness doesn’t work as well as it does in James’ work primarily because we’re not actually supposed to like any of James’ characters, and because James’ commitment to the bleakness of his vision is unwavering; whereas, although Onye frequently behaves in unlikable ways, I think we are ultimately supposed to root for her and identify with her. Supposed to being the operative phrase: to me, she felt simply inconsistent, by turns manipulative, loyal, self-centred and altruistic; Okorafor seems bent on telling us that she’s admirable while showing us a reality that’s quite different. Onye is supposed, I think, to be morally ambiguous; but her characterisation ends up simply being confused. It doesn’t help that explicit depictions of sex and violence aimed at undermining the colonialist and misogynistic bases of Western SFF have become steadily more commonplace in the genre since Who Fears Death was published: Okorafor’s work here simply feels less innovative, less startling, than presumably it once did.

I think my greatest problem with the novel, though, is its affect. Magic as a literary device is, at its core, a way of talking about the numinous: the irrational or invisible forces (luck, faith, the psyche, nature, fear, love, despair, hatred) that shape our lives in often ineffable ways. Its narrative charge and resonance, generally speaking, comes from its obscurity: the most effective portrayals of magic, in my opinion, preserve some element of mystery, of inexplicability. Okorafor’s descriptions of magic and spiritual experience, though, are flat, matter-of-fact, thuddingly literal:

“Then I noticed it. Red and oval-shaped with a white oval in the center, like the giant eye of a jinni. It sizzled and hissed, the white part expanding, moving closer. It horrified me to my very core. Must get out of here! I thought. Now! It sees me! But I didn’t know how to move. Move with what? I had no body. The red was bitter venom. The white was like the sun’s worst heat. I started screaming and crying again. Then I was opening my eyes to a cup of water.”

And Onye is massively overpowered: she’s apparently capable of doing pretty much anything she sets her mind to, magically speaking, which further dilutes the significance of her abilities. Her magic, ultimately, comes to feel inconsequential and incoherent; it exerts little force in the narrative.

I think, then, that this is partly a case of a once-innovative novel ageing badly: it’s clearly attempting to coopt, and thus comment on, the structures and assumptions of contemporary fantasy, and its non-Western setting and cultural milieu are important aspects of that attempt. But there are enough newer texts doing the same work better – works with more resonant force, with greater clarity of character and theme – that this one feels out of date.

Review: The Old Drift

“Your desire to conquer, to colonise others, is both too fixed and too free. Nothing escapes your dull dialectic: either it takes a village to live or to each his own to survive. Even your debate on the best way to be falls on either side of this blade. The social contract or individual free will, the walls of a commune must keep us close or capital must run rampant. That’s how you froze your long Cold War, with this endless, mindless divide.”

Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, a work that feels thoroughly litfic in sensibility but which was nevertheless awarded the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2020, troubles boundaries and binaries in more ways than one. Set in what is now Zambia, it charts the fortunes of three families throughout the country’s history, from the colonial period of the early 20th century to a near-authoritarian 2023.

Colonialism, racism and structural oppression in their various forms are thus key interests of the text. The novel begins – more or less – with an act of racist violence: in the European settlement of the Old Drift, on the banks of the Zambezi, Lina, the daughter of an Italian restaurant manager assaults a local boy, N’gulube, who is later shot at by the narrator of this first section, the Englishman Percy C. Clarke. As we follow the descendants of Lina, N’gulube and Percy through the novel, we see how the consequences of this violence reverberate down into Zambia’s present and near future.

One effect of the intertwining of these three families – Italian, Zambian and British – is to challenge the racial categories on which the structures of imperialism are based. As family trees spread and merge, these categories break down: Percy’s granddaughter Agnes defies the wishes of her parents to marry a Zambian man named Ronald; Lina’s grand-niece Isabella marries an Indian man called Balaji; N’gulube’s great-granddaughter Sylvia becomes the lover of Lionel, Agnes’ and Ronald’s son and thus Percy’s great-grandson. Percy’s ultimate descendant is an unnamed boy whose heritage is Italian, Zambian and British: his racist sense of superiority and separateness to the Zambians who live near the Old Drift is proved to be mistaken.

But this is no straightforwardly utopian narrative. Questions of race, colonialism and national identity turn out to be bound up in complex ways with other forms of structural oppression: particularly misogyny and classism. Thus N’gulube’s granddaughter Matha is excluded from an anti-colonial resistance movement when she becomes pregnant. At around the same time, the man for whom Agnes left her parents realises she is not the idealised woman he thought her, and begins to despise her. Later on, their middle-class son Lionel betrays his wife Thandiwe in embarking on an affair with hair stylist and sex worker Sylvia, whom he also uses, often without her consent or real understanding, for his experimental HIV research. Again, here we see definitions and boundaries shifting as our perception of who these characters are changes with time and depending on who is narrating them.

The final section of the novel depicts a future so close it is virtually the present: a future of mass surveillance, extreme wealth inequality and corporate exploitation. The tyranny of colonialism has given way to the tyranny of capital. Three teenagers, the children of Thandiwe, Lionel, Sylvia and Isabella, stage an inchoate rebellion against The Way Things Are, deploying grassroots technology to evade state control of the internet. They are, of course, unsuccessful. But, to me at least, their failure is not a bleak one, because the attempt itself bears out the possibility of change. The Old Drift is a novel about potentiality: even the worst of history’s excesses may be left behind by the sweep of time; and even the most committed idealist can turn out to be flawed. And positive change is only possible because negative change is too.

This is a text with ambition, then, and something to say. It didn’t quite grab me in the way I hoped it would, however: despite its speculative trappings and its generational scope, it still, to me, felt limited by its litfic focus on the individual psyche and on the nuclear family as a social structure. I felt, in other words, like Serpell hadn’t quite taken enough from SF to do justice to the broad sweep of her narrative, and to the dystopian future her youngest characters face. That’s very much a personal nitpick, though: The Old Drift is, ultimately, a well-crafted novel attempting to grapple with the profound uncertainties of our current historical moment, something I’ve seen relatively few works of litfic doing. It’s an intriguing choice for the Clarke, but not entirely a wrongheaded one.

Review: Hot Head

Simon Ings’ debut novel Hot Head is a puzzling little number, one that to some extent sits outside the conventions of its genre. The story of cybernetically enhanced Malise, a washed-up spacefighter and former hero who’s called upon once again to defend the planet from a self-replicating, all-devouring, asteroid-sized AI mass heading our way, its roots are clearly cyberpunk in nature. But an overlay of Tarot symbolism, a long prologue set in a near-future Italy impoverished by climate change and significant geopolitical upheaval and a sharply characterised heroine (who happens to be Muslim and queer – in a novel published by a white man in 1992!) take it out of straight-up Neuromancer territory into a place that feels much more literary: there’s a sense that Ings is attempting something quite ambitious and complicated.

What that something might be I am not sure: the Tarot symbolism is sufficiently obscure, and the plot sufficiently snarled (lots of running around, mysterious and menacing strangers, uncertain and altered loyalties – all that cyberpunk cynicism) that my grasp on what actually happens in the novel is pretty hazy. It’s clear, at least, that Ings is using the generic trappings of cyberpunk quite deliberately, to think about how the psyche works, how storytelling is embedded right at the root of us psychologically speaking (and that’s all the Tarot is, really – a tool for telling stories about the psyche): he’s writing a full decade after the beginnings of cyberpunk, after all, and eight years after Neuromancer. This kind of self-awareness really appeals to me as a reader. For all its oddities of pacing and narrative, Hot Head has a weight to it, a sort of considered postmodern quality, that made it a pleasingly chewy read: a vintage diamond in the rough.

Review: The Unreal and the Real Volume 2

“We live in capitalism,” said Ursula le Guin in 2014, accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

I thought of these words often as I read The Unreal and the Real Volume 2, a collection of le Guin’s short speculative stories (the first volume of the set collects her realist shorts, apparently); of the hard and necessary work of imagining alternatives to capitalism, to the way we live now, in order, hopefully, to construct better ways of being. Spanning forty years of le Guin’s career, the stories here are collectively engaged in that work: imagining alternative societies and models of being-in-the-world.

We begin with le Guin’s most famous, and most obviously polemical, story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a parable about complicity, exploitation and moral responsibility. It’s not so much the central dilemma of this piece – is the suffering of a single child too high a price to pay for the happiness of a whole society? – which interests me: although it’s powerfully stated, it’s not a question le Guin explores in much depth; once the point has been made there is not that much more to be said. What makes this story worth rereading is the way le Guin describes the people of Omelas. They are happy without being simple, she says; and then:

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Along with the imagination of alternative ways of existence, we might consider this an organising principle of the collection. Although the stories in this volume are not all happy – not by a long shot – le Guin is nevertheless unafraid to describe joy where her characters encounter it, as they not-infrequently do. Joy in the specific: there are as many types of fulfilment and contentment here as there are of pain and suffering. There is an optimism and a humanity to le Guin’s work in this volume that engenders, even in these terrible times, a hope that feels substantial and weighty and true.

“The Shobies’ Story” is a case in point. Part of the interconnected set of works known as le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, it’s about a group of people who volunteer to be the first higher-order lifeforms to try out an experimental faster-than-light technology. They must first establish a shared bond through story, in order to operate effectively as a crew; when the new technology perturbs their perception of reality so that each of them experiences a different version of events, they have to navigate back to that cohesion in order to return home. Again, it’s not so much this story’s plot that remains with me, as the quiet joy the characters experience through sharing their own stories with each other; they all come from very different cultural backgrounds and societies, and yet, as a crew, they are able to achieve a comfortable equilibrium that sees them through a fundamental upheaval in how they experience the world. It’s a warm story that speaks to the joy of family and togetherness.

We see a similarly peaceful joy among the female residents of the planet Eleven-Soro in another Hainish story, “Solitude”. Eleven-Soro is a matriarchal society where each woman lives alone, interacting with her neighbours only obliquely, cultivating a life of quietness and inner stillness. (The men, meanwhile, are banished to the wilderness in their teenage years, to form violent and lawless gangs; if they survive, they lead hermit-like existences, visited occasionally by horny women.) For the anthropologist who comes to study Eleven-Soro, this extreme introversion is a barrier to her research; for her young daughter, it is a haven. “Solitude” is not really a warm story. It’s about the splintering of a family and the difficulties of cultural assimilation. But at its heart is the joy of the introvert who’s found a place where she can avoid the pressure of other people’s regard.

“Nine Lives” takes a different view of solitude and self-reliance. A piece that’s less anthropologically focused and more hard SF adventure story, it’s about a group of ten clones who are sent out to relieve two non-cloned humans on a mining planet. The clones have been carefully trained and conditioned to work seamlessly as a team, no outside input needed, but when nine of them are killed in an accident, the one left standing has to work out how to be a person in the world again; a person able to rely on, and support, people who are not versions of himself. Like “The Shobies’ Story”, “Nine Lives” is about the life-saving grace of community and human connection, the importance of participating fully in the world.

This life-saving grace is what gives “Betrayals”, another Hainish story, its gut-wrenching power. Its protagonist Yoss lives what looks at first like a self-sufficient life alone with her two pets. But when she finds a disgraced political leader ill in the mud near her home, she feels compelled to care for him, and out of a sort of mutual cantankerousness comes a relationship built on respect, on regard for each other’s safety (Yoss’ care is later reciprocated when her home burns down), and on an appreciation of each other as people, as humans. Here, again, we see the joy that can be found in connection and community, and the way that that joy can move us past failed politics.

Similarly, “Sur” imagines a group of women who make the first trek to the South Pole – before Amundsen’s successful mission and Scott’s doomed one – and then don’t tell anyone; it’s a corrective and a rebuke to the patriarchal, imperial impulse that demands glory for glory’s sake. “Achievement is smaller than men think”: it’s enough for this close-knit group of women that they reached the South Pole, taking joy in their determination, their camaraderie, in the adventure itself.

As in any short story collection, there are misfires. “The First Contact with the Gorgonids” (1991) has aged extremely poorly: although satirical in intent, its conflation of Aboriginal Australians and actual aliens centres the white gaze uncomfortably, and the overall tone of the piece is, hmm, dated. Similarly, “The Poacher” makes for slightly enraging reading post #MeToo, with its seemingly incorrigibly horny protagonist.

Other stories are inoffensive but one-note: “Mazes”, a piece about a sentient lab animal or alien who is fatally unable to communicate with the human scientist experimenting on them; “The Ascent of the North Face”, another humorous story about a group of people making an epic climb of what turns out to be an ordinary house; “The Wife’s Story”, a “punchline story” that has little to offer once you’ve read it the first time round. There are several stories – “The Fliers of Gy”, “The Silence of the Asonu” and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” – that describe cultures that are different from our own in fundamental ways, and look at how those differences play out in unexpected ways both within and outside those cultures. These are thought-provoking texts that clearly build on the themes of the collection – particularly in their reimagining of what being a person in the world can look like – but, being essentially descriptions, they lack the dynamism, and thus emotional power, of the more narrative pieces in the collection. (“The Matter of Seggri” is an honourable exception in this category, partly because its imagined society is described through fictional source-texts that are narrative in themselves, and partly because its interrogation of gender roles is so immediately and sharply relevant in our own world.)

“Semley’s Necklace” is more successful at examining competing understandings of what the world is like: its titular heroine initially appears to live in a sort of Old Norse fairytale universe, but the devastating consequences of her quest to retrieve a family heirloom reveals that the underpinnings of her universe are far more Einsteinian. The story has a wonderful doubleness – both fairytale and scientific readings remain viable throughout – which demonstrates the mutability of what we think of as truth, of what we think of as ultimately inescapable. Misfires and minor works notwithstanding, it’s this impression of mutability that the collection leaves us with: the idea that there is more, more to imagine and experience and enjoy than the logics of capitalism or the demands of literary fashion will allow. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” le Guin’s National Book Foundation speech continued. Absorbing, resonant and wise, the pieces collected in The Unreal and the Real Volume 2 together unlock the imaginative space we so desperately need to do just that.

Review: The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes first made her name with 2008’s Moxyland and 2010’s Zoo City, highly political novels set in near-future South African cities that are interested in capitalism, social deprivation, the abuse of state and corporate power. Zoo City – the only one of the pair I’ve read – is also suffused with urban energies, the ragged rhythms of the city, and its speculative element lends a note of Gothic excess to the proceedings. It’s an imperfect but dynamic novel, which, it turns out, is my favourite type. So Beukes’ third novel, her breakout The Shining Girls (2013), is…something of a contrast.

Set in Chicago, it revolves around two characters: Kirby Mizrachi, a young woman from the 1990s who survives a horrific murder attempt and dedicates herself to identifying the culprit; and Harper Curtis, her would-be murderer. In the Depression era, Harper finds a seemingly unremarkable House that compels him to travel through the twentieth century, finding and murdering promising women – the titular “shining girls” – and collecting grisly trophies at each of his crime scenes. Can Kirby, working with a world-weary sports journalist, connect seemingly impossible dots to work out what Harper is doing, and stop him?

This is, then, a very different novel to Zoo City: instead of a riotous urban fantasy set in a richly depicted Johannesburg, a meditation of sorts on the nature of guilt and complicity, we have something much more solidly commercial; an SF thriller of the likes of Claire North’s Touch or M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts. Which is not to say that there isn’t thematic depth here. Beukes’ key rhetorical move in The Shining Girls is to give each of the women Harper murders a chapter of her own, documenting in tight first-person perspective her hopes, her dreams, her family life (or lack of it), the texture of her existence. Beukes imbues each of these women with life, which of course sharpens our sense of tragedy when each of those lives is snuffed out. But the rude curtailment of each of their stories also makes a wider social point: these women are remarkable, and they could have achieved remarkable things if not for the spectre of male violence. How many other women across the world, across history, have been prevented from leading fulfilling family lives, becoming more fully who they are, making scientific and other breakthroughs, shaping their societies, by men?

It’s striking that, by contrast to the detailed histories of Harper’s victims, Harper himself is relatively underdeveloped. He broke his brother’s legs as a child, sort of but not really by accident; he commits violence casually, to serve his own ends, even before the House draws him into its orbit; he feels entitled to the bodies of women, even when he’s not murdering them. But what drives him, what motivates him, what has turned him into this person? We don’t really know. And that’s the point. Is there not a vast swathe of Western literature – not to mention popular culture – dedicated to examining the psyches of violent men, while their female victims remain unregarded, pitied but never taken seriously as people who once had lives and hopes? And does it ultimately matter why men are violent, when the simple fact of their violence limits the existences of everyone around them? In this novel, it’s the women that matter, that we care about; Harper, by contrast, is a pathetic, petty figure, entirely inglorious.

Beukes’ classic, closed-loop time travel plot underscores this, as the novel’s denouement returns us to scenes we’ve seen before with a satisfying sense of inevitability. Harper murders because he does. There is no real cause, just an endless loop of violence in which he is seemingly trapped – unable to move beyond his compulsion, which fails at every turn to satisfy him. Meanwhile, it’s Kirby who’s able to move on beyond that trap, her implied dynamic future a contrast to Harper’s magically incurred stasis.

If Beukes avoids the temptation to psychoanalyse her serial killer, she also avoids the trap of middle-class white feminism: her shining girls include a Black welder and a transgender showgirl. This is thoughtful work: a well-made, carefully controlled novel that combines a taut thriller plot with thematic and emotional heft. On a personal level, I preferred the messiness of Zoo City; here, it feels like all that resonant messiness has been filed away in favour of technical excellence. Nevertheless, it’s a good book, and a highly readable one.

Review: The Icarus Girl

CW: stillbirth.

Written when the author was just 18, Helen Oyeyemi’s striking debut novel The Icarus Girl draws on Yoruba folklore and Western Gothic imagery to spruce up its treading of what’s ultimately fairly familiar thematic grounds. Its young protagonist, Jessamy, is the eight-year-old daughter of a Nigerian mother and a white British father, who, on a visit to her family in Nigeria, befriends a girl named Titiola, or TillyTilly. No-one else can see TillyTilly, and she can do apparently impossible things – early in the book, she opens a locked fairground gate and entices Jess inside. Is TillyTilly real – perhaps the vengeful spirit of Jess’ stillborn twin – or is she the product of Jess’ imagination, a double she’s hallucinating to deal with the vicissitudes of childhood and her own doubled cultural identity?

This isn’t a question the novel is interested in providing a definitive answer to; indeed, it depends for much of its menace and power on TillyTilly’s uncertain ontological status. Instead, Gothically, it uses TillyTilly as a device for exploring liminal states of being – between childhood and adulthood, between one culture and another, between life and death (as epitomised by stillborn Fern), between imagination and reality. The unknowability of minds that are separate to one’s own is a key theme: like many a YA heroine, Jess is profoundly isolated by her experience of TillyTilly, which her parents cannot access and do not understand. Thus one of the things that’s going on in The Icarus Girl is a look at that point in childhood when the child becomes unknowable to their parents; when, in other words, they start growing up. Jess is stranded between multiple identities, multiple constructions of her self – many of them imposed upon her by others – and those identities manifest in TillyTilly, an engaging and yet ultimately threatening doppelganger who represents Jess’ alienation from these aspects of her selfhood. To put it another way, Jess’ perspective, into which we are locked for the majority of the novel, diverges significantly from what her parents imagine it to be, and TillyTilly with her ambivalent status embodies the gap between expectation and reality.

So there’s plenty of Gothic resonance going on here, and I enjoy very much how Oyeyemi hybridises the Gothic’s historic interest in doubleness and duality with Yoruba folklore about twins: this merging of Western and Nigerian influences is a sort of distorted echo of the difficulty Jess has in reconciling her two cultural heritages. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that the novel lacks ambition somewhere along the line: it’s hardly uncommon for writers, especially of fiction for children, to turn to models of duality in dealing with questions of biracial cultural identity; and once Oyeyemi has established the concept of TillyTilly as this ambiguously threatening figure she doesn’t develop it much. Jess and TillyTilly’s behaviour escalates, their relationship becomes increasingly contentious and dangerous, but it’s a difference in kind, not in degree. Just an additional extra wrinkle, an extra layer of complexity, might have brought greater specificity and force to a text whose concerns, as it is, remain somewhat generic. The Icarus Girl is undoubtedly an atmospheric and compelling novel; but it’s very much a first effort, paling as it does in comparison with Oyeyemi’s formally and thematically experimental later work.

Review: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

The last novel in Becky Chambers’ series of loosely-connected novels set in her Wayfarers universe, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is also, unfortunately, the least accomplished. Structurally, it is what’s known in TV as a bottle episode: six aliens, one of them a minor character from the first Wayfarer novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, find themselves trapped by an infrastructure accident at a rest stop on the planet of Gora, a major transport hub. The delay causes tensions within the group for various reasons, but it also gives them a chance to connect and to form unlikely friendships; when the emergency is over, each leaves Gora enriched by their experience.

There’s nothing, I think, intrinsically wrong with the format of the bottle episode: in the context of a TV show it can be a truly excellent thing, giving writers a chance to delve deeply into the psychology of a group and the motivations of each of its characters, as well as slowly ratcheting up tension (the Doctor Who episode Midnight is a masterful example). But it’s a pretty thin plot to hang an entire novel on, and it does require some excellent character work to make up for the relative lack of Things Happening. My main problem with The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is that Chambers seems to mistake cultural exchange for characterisation.

All of the Wayfarers novels have been centrally concerned with issues of representation and inclusion: the galaxy where they’re set is largely a welcoming and diverse place, with many of its public spaces designed to accommodate the very differing access needs of the species that live there. Queerness of all kinds is unremarkable; most characters (with notable exceptions) work comfortably alongside people who are different from them in various respects; the second novel in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit, features some pretty obvious trans themes. How successful the series actually is in tackling issues of social justice is up for debate, but they are undoubtedly there. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within follows up on this conversation by, essentially, having its characters sit around and explain the nuances of their differing cultures to each other.

The chief focus in this exercise is Speaker, a member of a species called the Akaraks whose history is one of colonisation and displacement. None of the other characters know anything substantial about the Akaraks – and what they do know is mostly false and discriminatory – because of that history, which has left them homeless, powerless and without representation in the galactic government. Speaker’s presence on Gora gives her an opportunity to correct the record, at least in a small way, by sharing facts about Akarak culture with the other travellers and pointing out commonplace inaccuracies.

There are two problems with this approach, one of which is a problem of execution and one of which is more foundational. Firstly, and least seriously: this is all very Structural Oppression 101. This is what unconscious bias looks like, this is what casual racism looks like, this is what institutional disenfranchisement looks like…And it’s not done subtly, through character action, through metanarrative, through dialogue; it’s just infodumped into the text, and it…sits there, doing nothing except making the other characters feel good about themselves for having acquired this knowledge.

Secondly, it is…not great to put the marginalised character in the position of having to explain her own marginalisation; to educate those more privileged than she is about her culture. The text does lampshade this, but, again, it doesn’t particularly do anything with the fact that Speaker’s forced to do it at all. We’ve been told over and over again in this series that this is an enlightened and tolerant galaxy: where are the allies in the group on Gora? Why couldn’t Chambers have a more privileged character step in to correct assumptions, to prevent everyone else quizzing Speaker? At one point, Roveg, a wealthy sim designer who’s been exiled from his home planet, does contemplate rescuing her, but instead begins asking his own questions because he is: curious. Oh, great. (I will note here that the Wayfarers universe has a fully-functioning interplanetary Internet analogue which we have seen characters using in previous instalments.)

This all bespeaks a kind of shallowness that characterises the novel as a whole, for me. This is a text about cultural difference and structural oppression that doesn’t have anything coherent to say about those things except “structural oppression is bad and tolerance is good”. It’s a character-focused novel whose characters are largely unremarkable and flat. It’s a novel that means well, but which ultimately fails to grapple with questions about what meaningful allyship looks like. It is, like all of Chambers’ books, a perfectly readable novel: gentle, sweet, unchallenging to Western liberal sensitivities. But it’s a clunky note on which to end a series.

Review: The Water Dancer

This review contains spoilers.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2019 novel The Water Dancer is speculative fiction doing what speculative fiction does best: defamiliarising the world and our place in it, calling us to see it with fresh eyes. Our protagonist is Hiram Walker, a slave on a declining plantation in antebellum Virginia who discovers that he has the power to move himself and other people over large distances through a process dubbed “conduction” – a process that seems to have a mystical connection to water. He uses this power to escape the plantation, joining up with an underground group of abolitionists working to move slaves north to freedom – and is forced to confront the question of what freedom truly means when your history has been taken from you.

Comparisons, usually negative ones, have inevitably been drawn between The Water Dancer and Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, in which a fleeing slave escapes to a series of alternative futures using a literal hidden railway. Both novels, then, deploy magical realism to elide the actual journeys of their escaping characters in order to place their thematic focus elsewhere; both are interested in part in the motivations of white abolitionists and the way they were often just as racist as actual slaveowners. For my money, though – and perhaps this is because I am first and foremost an SFF reader, not a litfic reader – Coates’ novel is the more lyrical, the more compelling, and the more unusual.

Its key defamiliarisation tactic is not, in fact, its use of conduction, but the way that it almost never uses the word “slave” or “slavery”. Coates’ fictional Virginia features three different classes of people: the Tasked, the African-American slaves; the Quality, the white landowners; and the Low, working-class white people (usually men). To me this classification system registers as a little YA-dystopian, which I don’t mean as a negative comment: I think this is Coates’ comics background bleeding through, reminding us primarily that slavery was first and foremost a system of dehumanisation, a system based – like many YA dystopias – on an arbitrary construct (in this case, the construct of race).

One way in which The Water Dancer differs from Whitehead’s novel – and many other narratives of slavery – is that there is comparatively little on-page violence. Whitehead’s enslaved characters operate constantly under the threat of torture and rape. His protagonist Cora knows that the fate she will meet if she is recaptured will most likely be worse than death; and Whitehead does not shy away from depicting that possible fate as it is suffered by other would-be escapees. Lurking behind these depictions of violence is the reader’s knowledge that they are not solely fictional, that these punishments were inflicted upon fleeing slaves in real life. Coates’ novel is different: while we do hear about floggings, rape and straight-up medical neglect, it’s comparatively rare that they’re actually described on-page, and when we do see it it’s never as extreme as it is in The Underground Railroad. This is, I want to suggest, because Coates is interested in the institution of slavery itself as inherently dehumanising, rather than the atrocities that were inflicted upon Black bodies under the auspices of that institution.

Witness, for example, the role that memory plays in the novel. Conduction relies upon memory, and particularly upon cultural memory, on the history that links all the novel’s enslaved African-Americans together. In order to harness conduction so he can save more Tasked from the south, Hiram must reconnect with a long-lost memory of his dead mother. Lost families are everywhere in The Water Dancer: the plantation Tasked are terrified of being sent west to more prosperous states, as they’ll be separated from their families and communities; Hiram himself leaves behind a mother-figure, Thena, when he escapes. What slavery takes from its victims, then, is a sense of shared history, community and memory; working with the abolitionists, Hiram comes to understand, as his white colleagues cannot, that there is no true freedom without these things. That’s why conduction depends upon memory: Hiram is only able to bring freedom to the Tasked when he can restore a little of the shared culture that has been taken from them.

The Water Dancer is a novel, then, that uses the techniques of speculative fiction to defamiliarise the institution of slavery in order to re-emphasise its brutality; to draw attention away from the physical cruelty of slaveowners and their white staff and towards the way that slavery in and of itself had dehumanising effects that reverberate to this day. It’s a novel about family, about shared memory, about Black community, narrated in dreamy, elegant prose that emphasises the beauty and importance of the intangibles that Hiram is trying to return to his fellow Tasked. It’s the kind of novel that reminds me why I read SFF, and why SFF is a valuable pursuit.

Review: The Future of Another Timeline

Annalee Newitz’s second novel The Future of Another Timeline is a science fiction story about history: history’s malleability in the hands of those with power, and the way that history’s long arc of justice can be reversed.

In a universe where time travel exists and the past can be “edited” – leaving no trace in the memory of anyone but the time traveller who changed it – a group of feminists calling themselves the Daughters of Harriet (after Harriet Tubman, who in this world was elected a US Senator after American women gained the vote in 1869) attempt to combat the efforts of the incel-like followers of moralist and anti-abortionist Anthony Comstock as they strive to bring about a world in which women are little more than breeding stock.

Newitz is careful to make their definition of feminism an inclusive and intersectional one: the ranks of the Daughters of Harriet include trans women, non-binary folk and women of colour. A key plotline sees our point of view character Tess, a woman who lives in a contemporary America where abortion has never been legal, travel back in time to 1893, to the Chicago World’s Fair, to join working-class, free-thinking Middle Eastern belly dancers in working against Comstock in the time when he was alive. This is very much a text that’s interested in collective, grassroots action, in welcoming allies wherever they are to be found.

But it’s interested in the personal, too, as its other main storyline attests. Alongside her work in 1893, Tess is also, illicitly, making a number of visits to the timeline of a nineties teenager named Beth, whose friend Lizzie has become disconcertingly fond of murdering predatory men and whose father casts an abusive shadow over her life. The conditions that Tess finds herself existing in demonstrate the importance of what the Daughters of Harriet are doing, the difference that they stand to make to countless lives.

The metaphors that Newitz is working with, then, are fairly obvious. The Daughters’ “edit war” for history – and thus for the future – is a reflection partly of current movements across Anglo popular culture to reinscribe people with marginalised identities into history – to recover the erased stories of women, LGBT+ people and people of colour – and partly of the left’s fight against the erosion of the progress we have made in recent history. The Future of Another Timeline is partly about reclaiming the narrative, and partly about protecting the successes we’ve made from the people who’d like to destroy them so completely they might never have existed. (See: the proposed overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, pretty much anything the UK Conservative party has done since 2016, etc., etc.)

It’s a satisfyingly crunchy speculative approach to representing the struggle for women’s rights: one that draws attention to little-remembered (but crucial) movements in US history in a way that’s thematically relevant as well as being a goal in itself; that asks, and leaves open, crucial questions about the role of violence in political action; that’s thoughtful about who gets to be included in stories about feminist uprisings. “Thoughtful” is the operative word here: like Alix E. Harrow’s 2020 historical fantasy The Once and Future Witches, one of the things Newitz is doing in The Future of Another Timeline is creating a new vision of feminism, one that brings everyone along on the journey to emancipation, rather than excluding everyone who isn’t a respectable middle-class white woman.

It’s a refreshingly unusual read: I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before, ranging as it does through a multitude of time periods, from the Cretaceous to the far, far future, and switching its focus from the personal to the political and back again within the space of a few chapters or so. But it failed, interestingly, to move me in the way I was moved by The Once and Future Witches; I think because it is so thoughtful, so careful, so academically inclined (Newitz was a science writer before they were a fiction writer), that there’s little space for human messinesses to slip in. Newitz is no prose stylist, either: their writing is competent but rarely elegant. The Future of Another Timeline offers a vision of our past, our present and our future that is, ultimately, hopeful; its trust is in the power of collective political action and allyship between marginalised groups. It’s a good read. But without that human angle, that deep connection with its characters, it’s hard, in the final analysis, to share fully in that trust, that hope.

Film Review: Addams Family Values

A singularly cursèd text, and that is all I have to say about it.

(For some reason the way the film sexualises the classically grotesque Fester really disturbed me in a way that’s probably very Gothic, if you wanted to psychoanalyse it. I also thought it would have been 100% more interesting as a viewing experience had it been what the first few scenes promised, a film about a hyper-competent nanny who is entirely unfazed by the Addams children’s supernatural shenanigans, instead of following a hoary old “golddigger murderess” plot.

Also, yes, I liked the summer camp set piece, thought the racial politics were pretty on point for the 90s, but wish Wednesday’s speech about the oppression of Native Americans had been given to an actual Native American character.)