Review: The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel The Ministry for the Future opens on an apocalyptic scene: a white European aid worker, Frank May, finds himself caught in a deadly climate-change-caused heatwave in India that kills twenty million people – including everyone in the town Frank is working in apart from Frank himself. Frank is both radicalised and traumatised by the experience, and spends his life coming to terms with it: firstly by kidnapping and threatening an Irish bureaucrat, Mary Murphy, the head of the titular UN ministry, whose mission is to reinforce the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and protect the interests of future generations of humanity; and latterly over the course of many years spent in the penitential system as a result partly of this kidnapping and partly of another act of ecoterrorism. The contingent, often strained and yet heartfelt relationship between Frank and Mary – a relationship that never goes beyond the platonic – provides the affective underpinning for what is otherwise a rather unwieldy, un-novelistic text that’s devoted more to technological and ideological summary than character-grounded narrative.

The novel is dedicated to charting the activities of the Ministry for the Future as its staff work to regenerate society from the ground up, creating a new “structure of feeling” – in Robinson’s phrasing – that prioritises nature, valorises sufficiency over greed and promotes a socialist approach to the sharing of resources. Many of the specific solutions Robinson suggests involve geoengineering on a massive scale – the government of India uses sulphur dioxide in the upper atmosphere to prevent future heatwaves; scientists in Antarctica embark on a bold plan to pump seawater back up onto glaciers in the hope of combating rising sea levels. There are also less convincing tech projects: the creation of an open-source social media platform that allows its users to retain control of their data; a blockchain-backed “carbon coin” currency that can be earned through projects that sequester carbon or that prevent carbon from being emitted in the first place. And there is ecoterrorism: one of the clandestine results of Frank’s kidnapping of Mary is the establishment of a “dark wing” of the Ministry which supports acts of small-scale political violence aimed at the tiny percentage of humans who are responsible for a disproportionate fraction of the planet’s total emissions.

Some of this is described in sections that focus narrowly on Mary and her colleagues, or on Frank’s musings about the climate crisis and what he can do to help, in traditional novelistic fashion. But there are also substantial chunks of the text that are narrated by side characters who we never meet again, or by abstract entities like the financial markets. There are chapters of undigested economic theory, history, psychology. There are pages and pages of text describing in abstract terms what is happening around the world culturally, politically, ecologically, technologically, as widespread commitment to taking action on the climate takes hold. This approach is familiar from Robinson’s recent work – New York 2140 features acerbic analyses from “A Citizen” placing the novel’s events into a global context; Aurora is narrated in part by an interstellar spacecraft – but where it adds to those texts a breathless jouissance, an energy that gestures at the vastness of the innumerable systems in which we as humans operate, it’s taken to such an extreme in The Ministry for the Future that the actual, character-driven narrative is lost. The weight of all this stuff is too much for what is ultimately a fairly thin plotline – government body aims to do something, government body (largely) achieves it – to bear.

It doesn’t help that, despite the formal fireworks, the voice of the text remains the same throughout. Indentured Namibian miners use the same vocabulary, focus on the same things, as an out-of-work actor in LA. Obviously part of Robinson’s project in including this dizzying kaleidoscope of perspectives is arguing the point that we need a collective approach to tackling the climate crisis, and that the solution to the problems we all face will affect everyone. But the text’s homogenous voice undermines this argument; further, it downplays the heterogeneity of humanity, the vast diversity of philosophies, politics, ways of thinking and ways of being that will need to be harnessed and harmonised to make a truly collective effort possible. For all the novel’s scale and ambition – and at 560 pages this is not a small book – it is yet not ambitious enough.

It is not a complete failure, mind. Robinson’s optimism remains striking in a culture that is increasingly turning to cynicism and despair in the face of the multiple crises we face. His prose, as always, is intelligent, dynamic, exciting; it speeds the reader along, caught up in the current of what one assumes is Robinson’s enthusiasm and passion for science, for the utopian potential of technology, for the work of building a better world. One might describe the novel as perhaps too optimistic, given its flattening of dissenting opinion in the international community (Robinson spends remarkably little time on the phenomenon of climate denialism; in general, the rationality of his world feels strikingly at odds with our own increasingly “post-truth” reality). But its belief that humanity has a future on this planet, and its conviction that said future is within our grasp, still feels radical. Here’s hoping for more work in the field that shares that radicalism.

Review: Head On

What happens when the accommodations that have been extended to disabled people as a result of a serious pandemic are slowly but surely rolled back as the political climate changes? It’s a question many are asking right now, as politicians and media outlets continue to insist that Covid is over despite increasing evidence to the contrary; as widespread mask-wearing becomes a distant memory and social distancing a pipe dream. But it’s also something John Scalzi addresses, one might say presciently, in his 2018 novel Head On.

Head On is the sequel to Lock In, which first introduced Scalzi’s near-future premise: a flu-like pandemic has torn through America, leaving 1% of its sufferers “locked in”, unable to move their physical bodies while remaining fully conscious. To meet the needs of this small but significant group of people – whose condition is dubbed “Haden’s syndrome” after one of its most famous sufferers – scientists develop the Agora, a virtual reality which Hadens use to socialise and build community. There are also “threeps”, robot bodies which Hadens can pilot remotely, allowing them to interact with the physical world and gain some measure of independence.

These last are instrumental to the plot of Head On, which focuses on the Haden sport Hilketa, a gleefully violent game in which elite teams compete to decapitate one of the players and score a goal with the thusly detached head. Hilketa is made possible, of course, by the fact that the players are physically represented on the pitch by robots; no actual injury is involved. But! When a Hilketa player dies for real in a major match, FBI agent and Haden Chris Shane is assigned to investigate what is quickly deemed to be a murder.

This is, then, a sports story, a crime procedural and an SF novel all rolled up into one; how much you enjoy it will, I think, depend heavily on your tolerance for the first two types of writing. In particular, the narrative hits some very familiar murder mystery beats: suspects who don’t tell the whole story, signs of a cover-up, the lead detective being placed in mortal peril, the case becoming ever more complex and convoluted until, finally, it’s resolved. It’s all narrated in the sort of generically sarcastic prose that is the province of the Extremely Online (Scalzi is one of the few big names still engaged in the noble project of keeping the blog format alive).

It is, in other words, a reasonably pleasant, competent read. Scalzi makes some well-taken points about structural ableism too: Hilketa is the subject of protests by able-bodied people claiming the sport is discriminatory because only Hadens have the mental reflexes required to enable them to pilot threeps to an elite level; legal protections for Hadens are being rolled back by the government, which, given that many of them rely on 24-hour healthcare to keep their physical bodies in good condition, is pushing lots of people into financial precariousness. Similarly, there’s a suggestion that Scalzi might be doing something interesting with gender: Chris remains ungendered throughout the narrative, which implies that the Hadens’ shifted relationships with their physical bodies, and their ability to choose how they present both in the Agora and in public, might affect how they think about gender.

But neither of these thematic elements is developed very far. The critique of ableism is substantially defanged by the fact that Chris’ parents are extremely wealthy, which in turn means that Chris is insulated from the changes to the laws that affect Hadens’ access to healthcare. And, apart from the fact that the narrative never uses a third-person pronoun for Chris (it’s narrated in the first person, which makes this less obvious than it sounds), the concept of gender in the text remains largely untroubled. Certainly no-one ever mentions it; there’s no exploration of how different types of physical and virtual embodiment might affect Hadens’ experience of gender. Conceivably that’s the point: perhaps gender simply doesn’t mean anything to Chris. But absent any other discussion of gender, the lack of third-person pronouns feels like a gimmick, a faux-profound authorial trick that’s not doing any meaningful work. (Partly that’s because it’s quite possible to write a story about a cis first-person narrator that doesn’t indicate what their gender is and that isn’t about gender at all; it doesn’t strike me as a particularly memorable or interesting thing to do.)

I don’t want to sound too critical. Head On is solidly constructed; its speculative premise is carefully worked out; its plot moves at a decent pace. It is, in other words, a professional effort. As always, though, I wish it had given me a bit more.

Review: The Stars, Like Dust

Around halfway through Isaac Asimov’s second novel, The Stars, Like Dust, his red-blooded male hero Biron Farrill finds himself confined to the close quarters of a spaceship with a high-ranking woman named Artemisia. When the ship stops to take on supplies at a planet, Biron requests that the locals provide clothes in appropriate styles for Artemisia, only to be warned by a local politician that:

“she won’t like that. She wouldn’t be satisfied with any clothes she didn’t pick. Not even if they were the identical items she would have picked if she had been given the chance. This isn’t a guess, now. I’ve had experience with the creatures.”

Yikes.

Asimov’s track record with women both real and fictional is not great, to say the least. He was a well-known serial harasser at conventions, and his treatment of his female characters reflects a harasser’s view of women: as frequently passive, irrational, sentimental romantic objects (“creatures”) with none of the agency that his male characters possess. (The notable exception is Susan Calvin, the hyper-competent robo-psychologist who stars in several of Asimov’s robot stories and novels.) In the absence of the high-concept plotting that characterises his more famous works – the Foundation and Robot series – this is a problem that becomes very noticeable in The Stars, Like Dust.

So: in the far, far future, protagonist Biron is attending the University of Earth when he’s subject to an assassination attempt which he quickly establishes is connected to his father’s involvement with a revolution against the Tyranni space empire. Whisked off-planet by a seeming ally, he embarks on a journey to a politically important planet named Rhodia, where he meets the aforementioned Artemisia and her uncle Gillbret, and learns of the supposed existence of a rebellion planet hidden somewhere in the Horsehead Nebula. Obviously the trio must go off in search of this planet; in the course of this quest Biron and Artemisia fall, predictably and unconvincingly, in love, every single secondary character is revealed to be operating under false pretences, and we discover that the powerful and mysterious weapon that Artemisia’s father has been hunting for throughout the novel – a weapon that, we are told, will radically alter the political landscape in the galaxy – turns out to be, wait for it, THE US CONSTITUTION.

The Stars, Like Dust is, in other words, a gaggle of egregious storytelling cliches wrapped up in Cold War mythologies of American exceptionalism and plucky resistance against tyrannical states, as well as anxieties about nuclear devastation (much of Asimov’s future Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by radiation) and espionage. It’s a weak effort from an author who has significant blind spots even in his best work – and its weakness makes those blind spots impossible to ignore.

Review: The Girl With All the Gifts

This review contains spoilers.

The post-apocalyptic world of M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts feels eerily similar, metaphorically speaking, to our own. Civilisation has been devastated by the emergence of a strain of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis – the parasitic fungus that causes ants to crawl to the tops of trees and spore suicidally – that is capable of taking over human brains and turning them into “hungries”, essentially zombies who, like all zombies, are driven by an insatiable longing for human flesh. The novel centres on Melanie, a child being held in a military facility for reasons that we intuit much earlier than she does (she and her compatriots are restrained at all times, their guards smell strongly of chemicals, every so often a child disappears and does not return). She and the other children at the facility attend lessons about the world as it was – the fact that this world no longer exists is another thing the reader intuits early on – and Melanie, ferociously smart, sensitive, empathetic, quickly comes to love the teacher who seems least afraid of her, Miss Justineau (who is, incidentally, a Black woman).

Much of the early part of the book is powered by the gap between Melanie’s hopes for her future and what we know about her origins and the purpose of her presence in the facility. The scientists there are studying hungry children like Melanie who have retained their intelligence and capacity for reasoning in the hope that they’ll find a cure for the infection; they have no interest in the wellbeing of the children beyond that, and indeed often dissect them to learn more. Halfway through the novel, however, the military facility is attacked by hungries and junkers (uninfected humans who have rejected what remains of civilisation), and a small band of survivors, including Melanie and Miss Justineau, set out on a dangerous journey across southern England to find Beacon, the last human city in Britain.

This is an emptied-out world, then; a world devastated by mindless, irrational consumption, by a bottomless hunger that renders its sufferers hollowed-out husks of themselves. (Some of the novel’s most poignant scenes involve hungries who appear to retain memories of their former lives, performing repetitive actions – singing old songs, pushing an empty pram down the street – that are evacuated of their original meanings; the postmodern condition, anyone?) Seen in that light, the questions the novel asks about monstrousness – is Melanie, with her intelligence, her classical education, her capacity for deep feeling and self-sacrifice, the real monster here? What about Caldwell, the scientist who thinks nothing of vivisecting sentient children in order to save humanity? – and about how we go on in such a world, how we cope as human beings, come to feel uncomfortably pertinent. With what remains of our society as we see it in the novel – the military base, the increasingly authoritarian city of Beacon – becoming less and less hospitable to the things that make life meaningful, love, joy, connection, in favour of simple survival, the novel’s ending suggests that the only way forward is radical change, the wholesale destruction of the old world and a new start for humanity.

I don’t know that it is wholly a successful novel; or, rather, it is very successful at what it intends to do, which is telling a smart, original zombie tale (not a small achievement in such an overly saturated market) that asks some pressing questions about who we are and what kind of society we want to live in, without overly challenging the conventions of its genre and marketing category. In other words, it’s a conventional SF thriller, and it’s not aiming to go beyond that. Its secondary characters – namely Caldwell and the two soldiers, Private Gallagher and Sergeant Parks, who accompany the little band of survivors on their journey to Beacon – are, as A.S. Moser points out, rather two-dimensional and familiar; the relationship that develops between Miss Justineau and Sergeant Parks is, similarly, exactly the sort of relationship that always develops between male and female leads in this kind of story; the various set pieces that the party stumble into in the latter half of the novel, the house in which they’re surrounded by hordes of hungries, the scene where one person wanders off alone and Bad Things Happen, the descriptions of desolate London and wilderness-claimed Home County farmland – all this feels reheated and predictable.

These aren’t criticisms, really: Carey isn’t aiming for stunning originality, but instead for that lurching twist in perspective that thrillers are good at doing, deranging the audience’s view of events and keeping them just off- balance enough to continue reading. But it does mean that the novel is more thoroughly of its genre than I prefer; I’m not a huge fan of zombie tales in the first place, and so the more derivative elements of this text were inherently less interesting to me (I imagine another reader might enjoy them in much the same way as I enjoy the stereotypical trappings of steampunk). The Girl With All the Gifts does what it’s trying to do well; but its world is not one I feel compelled to return to.

Review: The Past is Red

This review contains spoilers.

Catherynne M. Valente’s star has been rising slowly but surely over the last few years. Even after the nomination of 2009’s Palimpsest for the Hugo Best Novel and the breakout success of middle-grade fairytale The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making in 2011, she remained somewhat of a niche author. In 2019, though, she crashed squarely into the genre limelight with her Eurovision/Douglas Adams homage Space Opera, also nominated for a Hugo as well as apparently being read by literally everyone with a passing interest in SF, and there she’s stayed. This year, she’s up for Hugo awards in three categories: Best Short Story (for “The Sin of America”, published in Uncanny); Best Novelette (for “L’Esprit de L’Escalier” in tor.com); and Best Novella, for The Past is Red, subject of today’s post.

The Past is Red contains, and expands upon, Valente’s 2015 short story “The Future is Blue”, which follows a girl named Tetley Abednego, “the most hated girl in Garbagetown”. Tetley lives on a floating patch of rubbish in what used to be the Pacific Ocean, on an Earth whose landmasses have been swallowed by rising sea levels. The story examines something of what it is like for Tetley and the other Garbagetowners to live in the aftermath of capitalism; to live off the refuse of a society short-sighted enough to squander the greatest gift humanity has ever been given, this great blue Earth. Its climax, which earns Tetley the epithet with which she introduces herself, sees her destroying a great engine the Garbagetowners have built in order to turn the rubbish patch into a boat and go motoring off in search of green dry land: her reasoning being that it’s better for the Garbagetowners to use their remaining supply of power frugally, giving them all access to small comforts for decades to come, rather than burn it all up on a wild goose chase.

The unedited text of “The Future is Blue” thus makes up the first 30-odd pages of The Past is Red. The subsequent narrative picks up 12 years later: Tetley is 29 and living in exile, vilified by her peers, thanks to the events of “The Future is Blue”. She’s tireder and more experienced than she was then, but her optimism, her conviction that Garbagetown is the best place left on the Earth and that its people are the luckiest people alive, remains intact. Alone on her boat, with the occasional company of a person called Big Red whose identity will become important later, she reminisces about an episode seven years before, when she was rescued/kidnapped by a representative of a person calling himself the King of Garbagetown. This person turns out to be her childhood sweetheart, who has spent four years struggling with Tetley’s actions in the earlier story and now wants to marry her and convert her to his point of view. The pair embark on a sea voyage, during the course of which they make the world-changing discovery that, shortly before the flooding of Earth, a community of the planet’s wealthiest people escaped to Mars, and live there still, not having much fun by the sounds of it. Faced with the classist insularity of the people of Mars, Tetley is forced to make a similar decision to the one she made at the end of “The Future is Blue” on behalf of the Garbagetowners who hate her so deeply: a future of relative comfort and ignorance in the garbage patch, or one of knowledge and possibly destructive dissatisfaction.

As a text about climate change, human greed and the selfishness of the uber-rich, it is, shall we say, a little on the nose. The picaresque and somewhat psychedelic nature of Tetley’s journey through Garbagetown and beyond makes the appearance of various plot elements related to these themes – particularly the discovery of the Mars society – feel more random than they otherwise might in a work that was more tightly and conventionally plotted. But this undoubted didacticism is, for me, outweighed by the lyricism and passion of Valente’s rhetoric. This is a deeply angry work, a cynical one that, despite Tetley’s optimism, sees little hope of lasting structural change. In fact, what hope it does hold out is located precisely in that inability to change: humanity will go on being humanity, building worlds and telling stories, even as we live through the apocalypse. Valente’s lush and descriptive prose, laden with the timeless rhythms of fairytale, makes even that sliver of comfort feel almost sufficient.

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: A Song for a New Day

Sarah Pinsker’s Nebula-award-winning debut novel A Song for a New Day is a perfectly fine book. It’s a fresh, sprightly take on the trope of the triumph of art against authoritarianism, with a dose of anti-capitalist sentiment thrown in. Its ending explicitly resists the easiest answers, while holding out hope of gradual change for Pinsker’s constructed world. And yet – for reasons that aren’t entirely Pinsker’s fault, my primary emotion on thinking back on the novel is tiredness.

Published in 2019, A Song for a New Day imagines a near-future American state that, in response to a deadly pandemic and numerous terrorist attacks, has imposed draconian anti-assembly laws on its citizens. As a result, our protagonist Rosemary has hardly ever left her family’s house, let alone the small town where they live. She spends her days working for the novel’s equivalent of Amazon, troubleshooting drone deliveries from home, until a chance encounter sees her landing a job as a talent scout for a prestigious entertainment company – a job that requires her to infiltrate illegal music scenes to find promising acts. Entwined with the story of her efforts to overcome her fear of crowded spaces, and her gradual realisation that the corporation she works for is in the business of destroying the scenes from which it draws its talent in a bid to reduce competition, is the tale of Luce Cannon, a successful former musician struggling to adjust to a world in which most live music is now banned.

So: this is a pandemic novel written well before Covid-19 came over the horizon. I read it, however, last December, when Omicron was surging in the UK and people were busy cancelling Christmas parties, and my experience of the text is inextricable from those circumstances – and from the circumstances we find ourselves in now, in which weighing up risks has become nigh-on impossible thanks to a precipitous decline in masking and social distancing and a complete lack of reliable data. A Song for a New Day argues, essentially, for the importance of live music, of human connection unmediated by technology, of triumphing over fear and what it portrays as paranoid authoritarian restriction:

“We all felt our world slipping away, in cascades and cataracts, the promises of temporary change becoming less and less temporary. Didn’t we feel so much safer? Weren’t safe and healthy worth more to us than large weddings and overcrowded schools? Hadn’t the pox been spread by people working and attending school when they should have stayed home?”

This slide into ever-greater restriction is positioned explicitly as stagnation, as a surrender to corporate and political control. And, of course, this stance is pretty much entirely unproblematic considered in the context of the novel’s original publication: the tropes Pinsker is drawing on are those of the YA dystopia, in which the triumph of art, of individuality, of communal human action over the restrictive forces of the state and/or predatory capitalism is to be celebrated and valued. But, two years into a real-life pandemic, this rhetoric looks uncomfortably anti-vaccine and Covid-denialist. That is, of course, precisely because such groups have co-opted the language and symbols of dystopian literature to defend their right to be selfish. But, even armed with that knowledge, it’s difficult to engage and empathise fully with Pinsker’s heroines when they’re aligned with that rhetoric.

Over and above that, though…for all that Pinsker’s take on opposing the state is a little more nuanced than what you might find in your typical YA dystopia – it’s more realistic about the scale of what two people can achieve against the machinery of capitalism and government, for one thing – its plot structure is still, in essence, a familiar one. Its protagonist starts as a willing arm of the state, becomes gradually more disaffected, and eventually instigates an act of rebellion that represents the triumph of the human spirit over conformism: we’ve all seen this formula countless times before.

Ultimately, my weariness with A Song for a New Day stems from the fact that Pinsker doesn’t really have anything new to say – coupled with my own impatience for the overriding cultural narrative that prioritises business as usual over the safety of vulnerable people. Again, it’s absolutely not Pinsker’s fault that current events have overtaken her novel, that its meanings have changed so drastically in the face of recent history; but perhaps a more ambitious text might have stood up to that history better.