Review: Come Tumbling Down

I never seem to have very much to say about Seanan McGuire’s work, despite quite enjoying it when I actually read it. The fifth novella in her Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down, is a case in point. Featuring the students of a school for children who once entered other worlds, Narnia-style, and returned to this world only to find the doorways back shut for good, the novella sees a former student of the school, Jack, who managed in an earlier installment to re-enter her magical country, turn up in its basement again in the body of her villainous sister, Jill. Jack and her lover Alexis solicit the help of some of the school’s current students to help Jack get her true body back, a quest that sees them all plunge into the Gothic fantasyland the Moors, where mad scientists pit their strengths against decadent vampires and strange sects worship ancient sea monsters.

It has to be said that this is one hell of a premise. And its execution is at least appropriately toothsome: by which I mean that it has a faintly addictive quality that keeps one racing nicely through the text. The camaraderie between the students of the Home for Wayward Children is also quite nice: as I said earlier this week in my review of Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, these children are, in the world of the novella, effectively marginalised by their fantastical experiences (which few of the adults in their lives can understand), and that fictional marginalisation manifests in some cases as real-world marginalisation: Jack is gay and has OCD; Kade, one of the current students who embarks on the quest to help her, is trans; Sumi, another student, is Japanese. So, while the Home functions as a place where those who have lost the lands they loved can find solidarity and understanding, it also, by extension, functions as a space where those with real-world marginalisations receive support and acceptance. In that respect, it, like Gailey’s text, has aspects of wish fulfilment: every character in McGuire’s novella, apart from the obvious baddies (who are very obvious indeed) is genuinely trying their best to be a good person and a supportive friend.

That is, I guess, my problem with Come Tumbling Down, one of the key reasons it’s failed to take root in my imagination: it’s all very…straightforward. It is, at all times, obvious who we are supposed to root for. It’s obvious what the right way to be supportive is. (There is no point, for example, at which different needs clash.) In fact, despite its representation of marginalised identities, it feels distinctly under-politicised, like its speculative metaphors could be better deployed to create real-world meanings.

This, I think, is something that afflicts all of McGuire’s work, including her influential Toby Daye series: she knows her mythology, she’s not afraid to hurt her characters, but she never quite gives her work the political resonance or complexity it needs to be truly memorable. Ultimately, Come Tumbling Down is fine. It was a fun enough read at the time. But I would have liked – a little more oomph.

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: Ring Shout

As mainstream SFF continues to reckon with its own colonial legacy, one author who’s receiving particular scrutiny is the early twentieth century horror author and notorious racist H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic dread, which is partially characterised by a fear of monstrous embodiment (think of be-tentacled Cthulhu, or the shoggoths, essentially giant amorphous lumps of flesh the mere sight of which drives multiple characters mad), is inseparable from his bigotry: the horror we encounter in his work is all too often the horror of miscegenation, of being in proximity to an often racialised, monstrous Other.

And yet his influence on the genre is inescapable: not only have his works, which are now probably in the public domain and which Lovecraft himself always saw as fair game for transformative fan interpretation, inspired a plethora of directly imitative novels, short stories and games, his ideas and motifs are visible throughout modern fantasy, in everything from the incomprehensible, brutal physicality on display in many of China Mieville’s novels to the nameless, indifferent menace that lies beyond the Wall in George R.R. Martin’s fictional world of Westeros.

So: where, as SFF readers and writers, do we go from here? P. Djèlí Clark provides a possible answer in his 2020 novella Ring Shout. The book’s protagonist, Maryse Boudreaux, is a 1920s Black woman with a magical sword who hunts Ku Kluxes: alien horrors who look just like human Klansmen, until they don’t. These monsters, and the cosmic forces that control them, have a demonic plan: to use the power of white people’s hate to drag themselves into our world, deploying the racist film The Birth of a Nation as a tool to stoke up that hate.

Opposed to the forces of evil are Black cultural traditions: the magic generated by the titular ring shouts, which the Gullah woman Nana Jean distils into a liquid that Maryse and her comrades-in-arms use as protection against the Ku Kluxes. The ring shouts are also connected to the magic in Maryse’s sword, which houses the spirits of those who sold their fellows to white slavers in Africa, who are atoning for their actions by playing a part in destroying the Ku Kluxes.

Given the Ku Kluxes’ clear Lovecraftian antecedents, we can, I think, read this opposition as metatextual – especially given the novella’s explicit recognition of how pieces of media like The Birth of a Nation shape cultural attitudes. In this schema, then, the Ku Kluxes aren’t just inspired by Lovecraft’s works – they stand for them: the way that they use hate to boost their power is analogous to how Lovecraft’s racism provides the impetus for his cosmic horror. And on the opposite side we have a specifically Black mode of speculative fiction, one powered not by hate but by shared heritage and a shared cultural unity.

Doesn’t everyone love a bit of metatextuality? As a textual strategy, this is a small piece of genius: coopting the power of Lovecraft’s writing, including the bigotry that gives it that power, in order to reject it and its legacy utterly. The novella both benefits from Lovecraft’s legacy and repudiates it: charting a path forward, perhaps, for modern fantasy. Clark’s novel A Master of Djinn is up for a Hugo award this year; I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in it.

Review: Glamour in Glass

A few months ago, in my review of Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon, the second entry in her Lady Astronaut series, I characterised her work as: “competent”. It’s a characterisation that holds, I think, for her earlier novel Glamour in Glass, follow-up to her Regency fantasy romance Shades of Milk and Honey.

The novel’s set in an alternate version of the early nineteenth century in which “glamour”, the art of weaving illusions, is one of the “accomplishments” considered core to a marriageable gentlewoman’s repertoire. There are, however, also male glamourists, who, despite being seen as vaguely disreputable for specialising in an art that’s traditionally gendered female, are also the only ones permitted by society to practice it meaningfully, to get paid for doing it, to research new techniques in it, and to become authorities on its use and how it works. Its protagonist, Jane, is a gentlewoman, highly skilled at glamour, who’s married to a prominent male glamourist called Vincent. The pair are sent by the Prince Regent, for whom Vincent has completed work in the past, to Belgium, where tensions are rising as Napoleon pushes further into Europe.

The novel’s interests, then, are essentially feminist ones: the contested social status of glamour, as an activity that’s regarded as the preserve of women but also one that women are not allowed to specialise in, is intended to point up the double standards that have dogged women (and people who are perceived to be women) for most of history. Jane is at least as skilled a glamourist as her husband, but her gender prevents her from being recognised for her talent, or even being able to practice it in any sort of public way. Her plight is exacerbated by the fact that, fairly on in the novel, she becomes pregnant: performing glamour during pregnancy is dangerous for the foetus, meaning that Jane is not only socially but also physically incapable of partaking in the work she’s best at. Again, there’s clearly some commentary going on here about the ways in which women have historically been disadvantaged in their pursuit of meaningful achievement. Jane’s inability to perform glamour while pregnant mirrors the way in which pregnancy and birth have been used as excuses to hold women back in the workplace in more recent periods of history. The danger to Jane’s pregnancy is based in fact, not cultural prejudice, as an event later in the novel makes clear. But Regency cultural attitudes towards pregnancy as a thing that women are expected to undergo multiple times (Pride and Prejudice‘s Mrs Bennet has, remember, five daughters) – as something fundamental to the purpose of marriage itself – multiply that biological disadvantage, restricting women’s options even further.

Which is good analysis, as far as it goes; the problem is that it doesn’t go particularly far. It is, to be honest, fairly obvious that women’s choices were severely limited in the Regency period; I mean, Austen herself was pointing this out at the time. And Kowal isn’t really interested in delving any deeper into the gender politics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, or into what women of the time thought about them: Jane is (apart from some notable exceptions, such as when she is shocked by a French woman’s very mild indiscretion) a thoroughly modern heroine, particularly in her attitudes towards the confinements of pregnancy and childbirth. Too, Kowal restricts her social critique to the plight of middle-class white women: while the servant class is marginally more visible than it is in Austen’s novels, there’s little exploration of how the patriarchy affects them; and there are no characters at all who are not white. What I’m trying to say is that these are all very safe choices Kowal is making; vaguely progressive without being very interesting.

This middle-of-the-road approach to storytelling makes itself known in the way Kowal structures her narrative, too. Much of the plot’s tensions arise from that age-old romcom trope of romantic leads failing, for one reason or another, to communicate effectively: this can be done well, of course, but here it’s just mildly enraging. And many of the plot’s twists are telegraphed quite obviously in advance, making for a read that’s a little…predictable, to say the least. Again, foreshadowing is something that’s very effective in the right hands, and Kowal’s aren’t exactly the wrong hands; it’s just that her construction lines, as it were, are very visible on the page. The choices that she’s making are exactly the ones that you’d expect a competent author who’s familiar with the tropes and structures that work well in her chosen genre to make.

These issues – the vaguely liberal but ultimately uninspired politics, the transparent plot-construction – are all things that get better in Kowal’s later work but that never entirely go away. For all that she’s currently a critical darling in SFF circles, a frequent presence on Hugo nomination lists at least, her work is very far from the best of what the genre has to offer. Readable, sure; entertaining, usually. But still: never better than competent.

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: 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.

Film Review: Prime

This review contains spoilers.

Partway through the 2005 American romcom Prime, Jewish therapist Lisa (played by Meryl Streep) discovers that the 23-year-old man her 37-year-old non-Jewish client Rafi (Uma Thurman) has been dating for several weeks is her son.

This would, I’m sure, come as something as a shock to many parents, and Lisa deals with it sensibly enough by consulting with her own therapist. Who advises her that, conveniently for the plot, the situation only represents a conflict of interest if the relationship goes beyond a brief fling.

To which the only possible response is: ????

This, coincidentally, is also the response I had to most of the rest of the film, which follows Rafi and 23-year-old David through a turbulent and overwrought relationship whose sole foundation would appear to be sex that neither party much enjoys. The script relies entirely on stereotypes to do its characterisation work for it: Rafi is the high-powered career woman with the nice apartment, David is the feckless unemployed artist who lies around playing video games all day. Also we can tell that David’s family is Jewish because they have large animated family dinners on a Friday night. Also the only non-white characters in this film who are not also Jewish are 1) Lisa’s therapist, a wise Magical Negro type played by Indian-American actor Madhur Jaffrey, and 2) the Black doorman at Rafi’s apartment building whose entire thing is that he never smiles or breaks his professional facade. (Unless it is, in another ???? moment, to let David into the building against Rafi’s will, because he is secretly shipping them!)

I have a lot of feelings about this film.

Anyway, one of the chief effects of this reliance on stereotype is that the script never once makes the case for why David and Rafi are together. Like what is all this “is she too old for me/is he too young for me/can we overcome our cultural-religious differences” angst FOR? when these characters spend the entirety of their romantic lives arguing and/or Having Second Thoughts about each other?

I mean, I actually know the answer to this, and the answer is “default heteronormativity”. There is a hot woman and a hot man, of course they will fall in luurve and want to be together, HAVE YOU NO ROMANCE IN YOUR SOUL??? But most romcoms at least make an effort to show their romantic leads, like, enjoying each other’s company.

Which is handy, because “most romcoms” is what you should watch instead of Prime. Unless your goal is to bond/have a good time with your future parents-in-law by making jokes at the film’s expense (which, actually, this turns out to be surprisingly good for!), pick, I’d say, almost anything else.

Review: Interior Chinatown

Interior ChinatownCharles Yu has form playing with genre. His first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, figures memory as time travel, squeezing a distinctly literary narrative about paternity and the construction of the self into the science fictional container of a time-loop story. It was possibly the first novel I read that made me realise, consciously, what SF could do as a genre.

Interior Chinatown pulls off a similar trick. Told in screenplay format (Yu has written for the show Westworld, among others), its protagonist is Willis Wu, bit-part actor in the cop drama Black and White. Willis, described in the script as Generic Asian Man, aspires to the impossible dream of becoming Kung Fu Guy,

maybe not a real, regular star, let’s not get crazy, we’re talking about Chinatown here, but perhaps a Very Special Guest Star, which for your people is the ceiling

This on page 26: the novel sets out its stall right from the beginning. Refracted through the lens of satire and of the detective show format, this is a story about the racism Asian people face in the US and the ways in which that racism limits what they can achieve and be.

Formally, the novel is a dazzling thing, layers of metatextuality and metaphor reinforcing each other to drive the point home. The screenplay format, which might look like a bit of a gimmick, is actually doing a fair amount of work: it allows Yu to talk about the roles people play or are assigned in a general sense; it summons up the idea of Hollywood and the TV industry as arbiters of how Americans – and Westerners in general – read the world; it illustrates how the stereotypes we see in the media control how people are treated in reality. Yu’s constructed universe has layers of reality to it: the world of Black and White is both fictional and “real” (real, that is, in the terms of the text), just as the world of How to Live Safely is both “real-to-the-text” and explicitly metaphorical. The screenplay format allows Yu to delineate the relationship between the fictional and the real.

It’s a genuinely clever conceit, one that makes Yu’s point – an important and necessary one – essentially on its own. That’s the book’s triumph and, for me, also its downfall. With the novel’s position laid out in its first fifty pages, there’s nowhere really for it to go. One of the great pleasures of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is its narrative shape, the time loop giving it a cohesiveness, a sense of completion. Interior Chinatown has no such shape: things happen in Willis’ life, but they don’t – to my mind – advance or elaborate on the thematic arc. The novel’s brilliant form eclipses its narrative movement entirely.

This second novel of Yu’s would have made a fantastic short story. Even a novella! At novel length it’s merely interesting. Willis’ genericness, which of course is part of Yu’s point, nevertheless left me too little to grab onto to power the whole book. I wanted more character specificity, a tighter plot, a stronger story engine to chew on.

Review: The Relentless Moon

This review contains spoilers.

The Relentless MoonIf I had to sum up Mary Robinette Kowal’s work in one word, it would be: competent. With eleven novels, five novellas/novelettes and countless short stories under her belt, she’s clearly an experienced professional with some idea of how to put a compelling narrative together; and, indeed, those novels of hers that I’ve read tend to be tightly plotted, thematically coherent, solidly characterised and attentive to issues of structural oppression. In other words, they’re novels that are easy to read and easy to like.

The Relentless Moon is a case in point. The third novel in Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, it was nominated for the Hugo awards last year – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Kowal’s substantial presence in fandom as well as the professional field (she was president of the SFWA for two years ending mid-2021, as well as Chair of DisCon III, the 2021 Worldcon, from July 2021). Set in an alternate timeline in which an asteroid hit the US in 1952, destroying much of the continent, triggering catastrophic climate change which threatens to render the Earth uninhabitable in half a century, and thereby sparking an intensive space programme aimed at getting as many people off the planet in time, it follows Nicole Wargin, wife of an important politician on Earth and one of the first female astronauts in space. Eleven years after the asteroid strike, and some time after Nicole’s first rise to fame as a “Lady Astronaut”, she’s asked to travel to the colony that Kowal’s fictional International Aerospace Coalition has established on the Moon to help investigate possible sabotage by “Earth Firsters” – a group of people who want to see the resources the US government is putting into the space programme diverted to disaster relief efforts on Earth.

With Nicole on the Moon, Kowal ratchets up the tension, as various of the colony’s systems are tampered with by the saboteur, putting everyone in danger. Meanwhile, Nicole’s dealing with the pressures of managing her image as a senator’s wife and, not unrelatedly, with her chronic anorexia.

As well as looking at these very gendered pressures on Nicole – always against a backdrop of structural misogyny which leaves female characters knowing they need to perform to exceptional standards to have a hope of being treated equally with their male counterparts – Kowal pays attention to racialised dynamics within the lunar colony. For instance: the colony’s mayor Eugene is Black, and the white South Africans there, coming from a context of apartheid, find it difficult to accept his authority.

These careful sociological details combine with Kowal’s impressive (to a layperson) grasp of the hard science of living in space to give the novel a satisfying verisimilitude. This is fun, eminently readable SF that has competent people solving crunchy science problems and acknowledges realities of structural oppression that are erased in SF novels of the period that The Relentless Moon is set in. That’s valuable, that’s validating: a kind of correction of the genre’s record of this period.

There’s a but here, as I’m sure you’ve realised. The Relentless Moon is enjoyable, but it also feels a little schematic. The plot structure is consolatory, conservative: problems are set up, then solved; crises happen, but everything turns out all right in the end. (Nicole ends up as the first female president of the USA in an epilogue that’s hard not to read as a feminist, democratic happily-ever-after.) The novel’s ideological conflicts are frustratingly binary: people hold views that are obviously repugnant (the sexists and the racists) or obviously commendable; and there’s very little sympathetic exploration of the Earth Firsters’ viewpoints (which seem from the evidence we’re given not to be entirely without merit), despite the fact that their hostility to the space programme is what drives the novel’s key conflict. It’s all a little too neat, too controlled – too competent.

Of course too competent is better than not competent enough – better a Relentless Moon than a Jack Four! But – let’s put it this way. I can’t see myself rushing out to buy the fourth novel in the series.