Review: Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks

Penned by showrunner Chris Chibnall, Revolution of the Daleks is 2021’s first – and, so far, only – TV outing for Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor and her fam. What did the Doctor of hope have to offer us after a year which saw multiple religious celebrations cancelled at short notice?

Daleks.

At this point I am actually pretty unconvinced by the Daleks, as a concept and as major antagonists for the Doctor. Their clunky design – those massive pepper-pot machine-bodies, those fragile eyestalks and remarkably un-maneoeuvrable deathrays – makes their origin in a different era of television obvious; in an episode that also contains YouTube and smartphones and sleekly designed modern scientific gadgetry, they stand out like a sore thumb. And attempts to modernise them have only robbed them of their specificity: how many supernatural/alien creatures have we seen that can impersonate humans, even in Doctor Who itself? The Doppelgangers in The Rebel Flesh? The Vashta Nerada? The watery Heather-creature in The Pilot? What do the Daleks stand for any more, apart from “generic Doctor Who villain”?

That said: even though it is clearly a ridiculous proposition, given their shape, the idea of the Daleks being adopted as security drones by power-hungry UK politicians is a great one, both somehow absolutely classic Dalek and absolutely something the Johnson government would do. It turns out that, thanks to the events of 2019’s New Year special Resolution, the UK government has managed to get its hands on a bit of Dalek, which is then intercepted in transit under the aegis of Jack Robertson, the slimy American businessman we first met in Arachnids in the UK. Not only have Robertson’s employees thus been able to recreate the Daleks’ shells, but his too-clever-for-his-own-good pet scientist Leo has also managed to clone an actual Dalek from organic matter found in the original casing. The cloned Dalek overpowers Leo, takes over his body and, as is traditional, embarks on a plot to take over the Earth – a plot which the Doctor and her friends must foil.

Unfortunately, then, Chibnall doesn’t spend a huge amount of time on the Dalek-Tory alliance, moving quickly on to more traditionally Dalek-y machinations involving massive Dalek warehouses, carnage among the civilian population (“EXTERMINATE!”) and different-coloured Daleks shouting at each other about racial purity. It’s all slightly tired – notwithstanding Chris Noth’s star turn as Robertson, who, in another bit of on-point political skewering, attempts to betray the Doctor to the Daleks only to claim credit for her eventual victory over them. Even this feels second-hand, though, recalling Dalek‘s Van Statten, another millionaire unwisely attempting to use the Daleks for his own ends.

None of this would matter as much, perhaps, if this were just a regular, mid-season episode; or even a standard Christmas or New Year episode, something to lift the holiday spirits without actually affecting the course of the show’s overall arc that much. But this is an episode in which we lose two major characters: Ryan and Graham, two-thirds of the Doctor’s much-loved fam, who decide to remain on Earth, to cultivate stable, normal relationships with their friends. The reheated, second-hand nature of much of the episode does their departure a disservice: neither of them have any significant role in defeating the Daleks, and their send-off is muted and unremarkable.

Is it time, then, to retire the Daleks? Perhaps, but they’re iconic enough that I can’t see the BBC ever taking the leap. And perhaps the problem isn’t the Daleks themselves, per se; it’s that showrunners and scriptwriters are leaning on their prestige and the things that everyone knows about them rather than finding new stories to tell and new things to say about them. Revolution of the Daleks isn’t, ultimately, a total write-off, but I don’t think it’s going to be remembered as a Great Episode.

Review: The People in the Trees

TW: child sexual abuse.

The People in the TreesOn the first page of Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel The People in the Trees, we learn that its protagonist, Nobel laureate and scientist Dr. Abraham Norton Perina, has been accused of sexually abusing the 40 or so Micronesian children he’s adopted in the course of his research. It’s a clear warning to readers: here, there be monsters.

The novel’s presented as Norton’s memoir, written from prison, edited by his former research assistant Ronald Kubodera, who peppers the text with hagiographical footnotes extolling Norton’s virtues. In it, Norton recounts the tale of a number of ill-fated expeditions to the Micronesian island nation of U’ivu, where, on the little-trafficked island of Ivu’ivu, he finds an uncontacted tribe living deep in the tropical forest who have discovered that the secret of immortality lies in the flesh of a turtle called the opa’ivu’eke. Those who consume the turtle gain endless physical life, at the cost of a precipitous mental decline. Norton’s discovery gains him the Nobel, but the turtles are driven extinct and the rest of the island pillaged by opportunistic pharmaceutical companies before anyone can do anything about it. There’s an implicit parallel drawn between this metaphorical rape of Ivu’ivu and Norton’s actual rape of his adopted children, which he justifies to himself by comparing it to a sexual initiation ceremony practised by the Ivu’ivuans.

The People in the Trees is, as you may have gathered, not a subtle novel. As many reviewers have observed, it owes a structural debt to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire; but it is obvious from its first page, as it is not in Nabokov’s novel, that neither Norton nor Kubodera are to be trusted.* There is never really the slightest shred of doubt that Norton is guilty of the crimes he’s accused of. The ideological conclusions that we’re to draw from the text about Western capitalism and cultural appropriation are obvious ones too.

But the obviousness is the point, I think. Norton’s basic character trait is an inability to imagine that he might be in the wrong: he doesn’t bother obfuscating his thoughts – not just his predatory nature but his racism, his profound misogyny, his callous disregard for everyone but himself – because he doesn’t recognise them as problematic; because, even, he believes himself to be morally upright and dutiful. After all, hasn’t he taken in 40 children at considerable cost, fed them, clothed them, housed them, given them access to opportunities they wouldn’t have had on U’ivu? And isn’t he a great scientist advancing the cause of human knowledge? What could possibly be more important than that? Kubodera is more queasily aware of Norton’s crimes as crimes, but he believes the charges against Norton should be dropped because of Norton’s scientific stature: what is the wellbeing of a few Micronesian children compared to the reputation of a Scientist?

What’s chilling about Norton and Kubodera is that their obvious self-delusion is also entirely plausible. We see rationalisations like Kubodera every time a sporty young white man is implicated in a rape case (“but he’s so promising! What a shame to ruin such a young life for a small mistake!”) or a clever white girl at an elite university stabs someone while stoned (“she has her whole career ahead of her!”). This is privilege at work, and it’s so obvious, so ubiquitous, that we’ve stopped seeing it. And, in fact, Norton is based on a real person, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who adopted 56 children during his work investigating a rare prion disease in the South Pacific and molested at least seven of them. Gajdusek, too, was defended by the scientific community; he received a prison sentence of just 12 months.

The People in the Trees, then, is the portrait of a man whose self-absorption makes him literally unreachable: nothing, not even a prison sentence, will convince him of his moral culpability. Terrifying in his solipsism, the product of privilege and Western cultural imperialism, he begs the question: how many Nortons are walking the corridors of power, the halls of our universities and learned societies? And in what ways might we be enabling them, like fawning, complicit Kubodera?

*Incidentally, when I reread Pale Fire recently I was delighted to rediscover the annotations that 18-year-old me wrote when I was reading it for the first time, and to be able to chart my younger self’s slow realisation of what’s actually going on with Charles Kinbote.

Review: All Systems Red

This review contains spoilers.

All Systems RedMartha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, which All Systems Red kicks off, have been quite prodigiously popular among science fiction fans: this first instalment won the 2018 Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella; its follow-up Artificial Condition won a Hugo again in 2019; Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy both won enough votes to be nominated in the same year; and a full-length novel, Network Effect, is up for the Hugo this year. It’s a pretty impressive track record.

The titular Murderbot is a SecUnit, a type of cyborg owned by a company that rents out equipment to planetary exploration teams. Unbeknownst to the company or to its clients, Murderbot has hacked its governor module, meaning it no longer has to obey human commands. It uses its newfound freedom to watch soap operas; in general, its primary goal in life is to be left alone. However, when the survey team it’s been rented to starts finding inexplicable discrepancies in the information they’ve been provided about the planet they’re exploring, Murderbot is forced into closer companionship with its human clients than it would like as it attempts to protect them from an unknown threat.

None of this, on the face of it, is especially groundbreaking. Stories that explore the personhood of artificial intelligences and robots are two a penny; the trope is so abundant, in fact, that mainstream authors have begun to examine it. Nor is All Systems Red‘s plot particularly complex or insightful: Murderbot and the humans get into trouble, and then get out of it; during the course of the story, Murderbot unexpectedly finds companionship, sympathy and a measure of self-determination.

The worldbuilding and Murderbot’s characterisation, though, are what give the novella its moreish quality. Wells is particularly good on what it feels like to live under capitalist conditions: the characters’ complete reliance on the equipment they’ve been supplied by the rental company – equipment which, as we know from Murderbot, is cheaply made and frequently faulty – is an affective reminder of the ubiquity of capitalism and the way it shapes every part of our lives. Similarly, in their attempts to deduce who’s responsible for the danger they’re in, Murderbot and the rest of the survey team are constantly thinking through the logics of capitalism, the kinds of crime that would benefit the company most: so, the company will take a bribe to conceal information from its clients, but will probably not actually hurt them, since that would cost it money. Again, the workings of capitalism are constantly foregrounded in the text, which incidentally makes the world of the novella feel very familiar and legible – since it operates along the exact same economic lines our own world does.

But it’s Murderbot itself that I suspect lies at the heart of the series’ popularity. Murderbot is genderless and asexual. It’s also painfully socially awkward, hating to make eye contact with humans and turning to face the wall when too many people are looking at it. And it cares intensely about the media it consumes.

Murderbot is basically a massive queer nerd.

More seriously, this all feels like an extension of the conversation SF has been having in recent years about who gets to see themselves represented. Many of the stories that make a case for the personhood of robots and AIs paradoxically adopt quite a narrow definition of “personhood” – one that’s generally based on normative, allosexual and neurotypical assumptions about what humans are like. For example, a robot might be shown to be deserving of personhood because it falls in love. It’s refreshing, then, to see a sympathetic robot character who falls outside those parameters, who exhibits both neuroatypical and asexual characteristics – especially given how rare explicitly ace characters still are in all kinds of fiction. It’s a corrective to the normativity of this kind of story.

Ultimately I don’t think All Systems Red is really that groundbreaking: Murderbot is too readily sympathetic a character really to challenge our notions of personhood, and I think even the critique of capitalism is mostly defanged by the novella’s consolatory ending, in which Murderbot is bought by the survey team and essentially freed. Having said that, though, the fact that it does hit so many familiar narrative beats makes it a pretty enjoyable, comfortable read: it’s solid science fiction, well-told, with a relatable protagonist and a convincing world. That’s a combination that’s rarer than you might think.

Review: Paper Girls 1

Paper Girls 1It’s always a little difficult to review single volumes of ongoing graphic novel series, as by their very nature they tend to be open-ended and incomplete rather than self-cohesive works in their own right. Paper Girls 1 is no exception: written by Brian K. Vaughan, creator of Saga, and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, it’s set on Hallowe’en night in 1988, when four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls stumble into a series of events that’s literally out of this world. Aliens, dinosaurs, time travellers, weird portals in the sky – it’s all here, and the narrative’s fast pace and the fact that it’s setting up what’s obviously going to become quite a complex SF plot means that it’s not easy to make sense of how all these diverse speculative elements hang together.

The four girls, though, sassy, independent, loyal heroines that they are, ground the story in a compelling emotional reality that keeps us reading despite the, well, trippiness of the sci-fi. The book isn’t ultimately about aliens and dinosaurs and time travellers; it’s about the girls’ friendship and their determination to be as good as the boys who traditionally do their job. It’s building on the trend for nostalgic speculative tales like Stranger Things and Ready Player One, only in a way that directly addresses the social inequalities and forms of oppression that characterised the eras audiences are nostalgic for. One of the girls, for instance, uses homophobic slurs early in the volume and is immediately called out on it; obviously your response to this sort of thing will depend heavily on how much you trust the author, but to me it felt like a creative team honouring the things they felt nostalgic for while also resisting the rose-tinted glasses that nostalgia can give us. It’s the kind of choice that made me confident about continuing the series, knowing that wherever the plot was going it would be somewhere thoughtful, original and emotionally satisfying.

Review: Warm Bodies

Warm BodiesThe figure of the zombie as we know it today is a relatively recent invention, despite its roots in Haitian folklore: Wikipedia locates its genesis in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which inspired Oscar Romero’s seminal Dawn of the Dead. Unlike its Gothic-romantic counterpart the vampire, the zombie tends to turn up in science-fictional stories governed by the principles of rationality; its horror springs from its revolting materiality, its mechanistic mindlessness. It represents humanity reduced to the grossly physical, to mindless consumption; and, as a result, has often been read as a metaphor for the human condition under capitalism, or for capitalism itself.

It’s fitting, therefore, that the zombies who people Isaac Marion’s novel Warm Bodies occupy an abandoned airport. Very little says “unchecked Western capitalism” better than the home of a planet-destroying industry stuffed with glitzy shops selling overpriced sandwiches to a captive clientele. Our hero-narrator, R, is a zombie who, according to Niall Harrison,

finds himself locked into a grey reenactment of the values conventionally ascribed to suburban America, complete with a zombie wife, two zombie kids in zombie school, trips to zombie church, and occasional visits to see his zombie slacker friend, M, to goof off and get high.

On a trip to the nearest human city with said friend, however, everything changes. R consumes the brain of a teenager named Perry, giving him insights into Perry’s life and feelings, which in turn move him to save the life of Perry’s girlfriend Juliet by leading her back to the airport and concealing her from his fellow zombies in the grounded plane that he calls home. The story develops fairly conventionally from there: R and Juliet fall in love, face persecution and disgust from their respective societies, and work to create a new and more tolerant status quo built on something beyond fear and necessity.

The novel received quite favourable reviews, and was adapted for film in 2013, three years after it was published. I can see why: it’s an unexpectedly thoughtful, layered read given its marketing as a zombie rom-com, with lucid, image-laden prose that extrapolates R and Juliet’s romance into something universal and deeply human:

Deep under our feet the Earth holds its molten breath, while the bones of countless generations watch us and wait.

It’s also interested in questions of how and how best to remake the broken world its characters find themselves in that resonate with our own political moment, and with the capitalist connotations of the zombie figure. There’s a suggestion that the zombie “curse”, and the authoritarian human society that has risen up in response to it, are in some way extensions of the divisions that existed in the pre-apocalyptic world, our own world – and that fixing the situation long-term will require a healing of those divisions and a return to a more emotionally authentic way of being. There’s also an interesting moment early in the novel when R, reflecting on the murder and terror he inflicts as a zombie, tells us:

I don’t like pain, I don’t like hurting people, but it’s the world now.

It’s a rationalisation that feels very familiar in a global economy that relies on the pain and exploitation of the many in order to secure the wealth of the few. It’s just the way the world is. But, instead of accepting the status quo, Warm Bodies encourages us to try and change it.

Nevertheless, I didn’t, ultimately, get on very well with the novel. Structurally and thematically, I don’t think it’s as radical as it would like to be: it’s basically a conventional YA dystopia mashed up with a conventional cishet love story in a way that sort of shrieks “marketability”. Its questions about whether survival should be bought at the cost of freedom and its reevaluation of the monstrous are neither original nor elaborated on in any particularly unusual way. In short it feels like too much of a carefully manufactured corporate product to be convincing as an anti-capitalist rallying call. (See also: film adaptation!)

Is all art produced under capitalist conditions compromised? Yes, probably, when gatekeepers are concerned primarily with the saleability of a particular work rather than, necessarily, its radical potential. The commercial success of anti-establishment narratives like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games goes to show, I think, that such narratives actually prop up the status quo by selling audiences the fantasy of rebellion, an illusion of resistance that merely keeps us all complacent. That’s exactly the problem with Warm Bodies, for me: despite its strong, intelligent writing, it’s not interested in actually scrutinising any of the assumptions upon which our cultural narratives are based. For a text that’s ostensibly about the struggle to reimagine how the world works, that’s a major flaw.

Review: Harrow the Ninth

Harrow the NinthAbigail Nussbaum rather damningly describes Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth – sequel to Muir’s massively popular lesbian-necromancer debut Gideon the Ninth – as “a glib work that never entirely convinces you of its characters’ humanity”. It’s easy to see why: despite Harrow‘s much-remarked-upon structural fireworks, there’s a kind of glittering superficiality to it that’s somehow reinforced by the batshit complexity of its plot.

Following the events of Gideon the Ninth, in which Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the last scion of a crumbling House of necromancers, and her acerbic cavalier (basically: swordsperson) Gideon Nav, underwent a series of trials designed by the godlike Emperor of Muir’s world for the purpose of selecting a new Lyctor (a sort of superpowered bodyguard-cum-companion-cum-general), Harrow finds herself in the company of the Emperor and his older Lyctors. She’s supposed to be in training to fight against the enormous Resurrection Beasts, impossibly destructive beings that are essentially byproducts of necromancy; but she’s dangerously hampered by the fact that, unlike the other Lyctors, she’s unable to access the skills and power of her cavalier. Her memory of the events of Gideon the Ninth is also drastically different to what we know to have happened in that book, and, most devastatingly of all, she appears to have forgotten Gideon entirely. The bulk of the novel is dedicated to unfolding these mysteries – or, rather, to Harrow’s attempts to survive long enough to do so.

Let’s be honest: this is very clearly a novel – a series – whose origins lie in a very particular Internet culture. Before embarking on her professional career, Muir wrote Homestuck fanfiction; her Tumblr blog from that period is still accessible. As a result, the Locked Tomb series feels pretty much tailored to the SFF zeitgeist. Its central conceit – star-crossed lesbian necromancers IN SPACE! – springs recognisably from the recent focus on the representation of marginalised identities in genre; a focus that, according to YouTuber Sarah Z, was particularly important in Tumblr culture. In short, queer readers want to see queer characters perform the same sort of heroics that cishet characters get to; Muir’s books let them do that.

The intensity of Gideon and Harrow’s relationship also comes, I’d say, from fanfiction and from shipping culture; as does the byzantine lengths Muir goes to in order to demonstrate the strength of their bond (Harrow, it turns out, has deliberately forgotten Gideon in an attempt to keep her alive). The way Muir handles the complexity of her plot here, doling out answers bit by bit, reminds me more of a sprawling, lore-heavy media property like Doctor Who than of any traditional novel; it feels practically designed to fuel fan speculation (incidentally, or perhaps not, the third novel in the series, Alecto the Ninth, is due out in 2022).

This might all seem painfully obvious. But my point is not that these influences exist – Muir puts honest-to-goodness Internet memes in her novel, for gods’ sake – it’s that queer representation is the entirety of what the books are doing. The main reason for their existence is so that queer readers can see themselves and their necessarily-dramatic relationships in a speculative-fictional setting. That’s where the superficiality comes from: these are novels that are just completely unapologetic about their queerness, their campiness. They’re all aesthetic.

Mind, I’m not saying this is a bad thing – not entirely. There’s still I think relatively little work in the mainstream SFF sphere that ‘s revelling quite so obviously in its queer aesthetic, and even less that focuses to this extent on a queer couple. I’m not convinced that Harrow the Ninth should be on the Best Novel Hugo ballot this year: as a work in itself it stands alone poorly, and I definitely think it’s a stretch to call a novel that’s all surface the best of the year. But I would be lying if I claimed to be immune to the allure of Lesbian Necromancers In Space!! and the tortured intensity of Gideon and Harrow’s relationship. I’ll be reading Alecto the Ninth for sure.

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

This review contains spoilers.

Like that of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I reviewed here a few weeks ago, the legacy of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey precedes it. Like Androids, it’s associated with a classic SF film that’s gone down in the annals of cinematographic history. From it we have cultural touchstones you’re probably aware of even if you’ve never seen the film or read the book: cavemen clustering around a monolith; the homicidal computer Hal, possibly the best-known AI in genre history. It’s always a weird experience encountering such cultural touchstones in their native habitat, as it were: they’re never quite what you expect. If you’re lucky, their context amplifies their resonance, confirms why they’re as enduring as they are. But the much likelier outcome, at least when we’re talking vintage SF, is a vague sense of disappointment. The genre’s developed so far in the last 50 years that these classic texts appear quaint, underdeveloped and often wildly demographically problematic.

Clarke’s novel – which actually post-dates Stanley Kubrick’s film; the two works were developed in parallel and their plots are very similar – is a novel of ideas; there are no real characters, just puppets being moved around in service to the story. I suppose you could say that humanity is the real central character: the novel is fundamentally interested in evolution, proceeding episodically through various stages of human progress. The aforementioned cavemen are tipped into sentience by the aforementioned monolith, a mysterious alien artefact sending out mysterious alien signals. Thousands of years later, a scientist visits the Moon to investigate a similar monolith that’s been excavated there, an object that gives off an enormous burst of radio waves the moment that sunlight falls upon it for the first time. Next, a spaceship carrying the aforementioned Hal plus a five-strong human crew follows that signal to Saturn’s moon Japetus (Hal attempting to slaughter the crew along the way thanks to an irreconcilable conflict in his programming); and, finally, Bowman, the last member of that ship’s crew, becomes a Star Child like the monolith-makers, a transcendent and immortal being.

Caveman, human, AI, Star Child: for Clarke, evolution is a process that is not yet finished, and moreover it is an inherently progressive process, a process that inevitably leads humanity to higher things. (Even Hal, who’s been left psychologically unbalanced by competing mission objectives, is, with his complete control over the spaceship, a step on the way to the near-omniscience of the Star Children.) On display here is the novel’s fundamental optimism about the possibilities of space, which we can see further in its sensawunda approach to the monoliths, especially the one on the moon. There is something almost sublime, in the Romantic sense, about these monoliths: their unbelievable age and yet apparent sophistication renders them both terrifying (what is waiting out there for us, in the deep dark of space?) and thrilling, and gives us a dizzying, yawning sense of deep time.

Bowman’s ascension, as the closing event of the novel, amounts to a promise that we, even we, can become the inheritors of those vast stretches of time and space, masters of the universe, if you will. It’s a promise that harks back to the colonialist origins of science fiction, those fantasies of exploration and subjugation exemplified by the novels of Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard. (Is it a surprise that every character who appears on-page in 2001: A Space Odyssey is a straight white man? It is not.) These unacknowledged colonialist predilections are one reason why the novel feels out-of-date today (in a way that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a novel published in the same year as 2001, does not); another is its untempered optimism about the state of humanity as a whole, which, in an age grappling with climate change and the rise of the far right, feels naïve at best. I would, I think, still quite like to see the film, which, from what I’ve read, sounds like it could be more suggestive, more subtle than Clarke’s novel, with its rather utilitarian prose and largely non-existent approach to character development. As it is, I don’t know that I’ve really gained anything from my encounter with the text which I could not have gained from reading the relevant Wikipedia article.

Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

How does one review a novel like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Its cultural legacy precedes it: a film adaptation that’s widely recognised as one of the greatest pieces of SF cinema of all time; an influence that’s discernible in the work of nearly every major SF writer of the twentieth century; a regular spot on “best SF novels of all time” lists. As a reader, how do you form your own opinion in the face of such a legacy? And as a reviewer, how do you write honestly about the novel without simply repeating the views of critics gone before?

These are particularly apt questions for Do Androids Dream, a novel whose main concern is precisely authenticity. Protagonist Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter for the San Francisco Police Department, is assigned to find and destroy six escaped androids of an advanced model nearly indistinguishable from a human. The only way to tell the difference is by applying something called the Voigt-Kampf test, which apparently tracks eye movement to test for empathy – something androids seemingly do not have. But does the test work? Could an advanced android pass it – or a neurodivergent human fail? Human emotion is, after all, most often synthesised in the world of the novel, with both Deckard and his wife Iran using “Penfield Mood Organs” to dial up sensations like hope, depression and joy on demand. Both Deckard and Iran are also followers of a religion known as Mercerism, using so-called “empathy boxes” to tune into a simulation of the religion’s central figure Wilbur Mercer climbing an endless hill while being pelted with stones – a simulation that gives every user access to every other user’s emotions. But is Wilbur Mercer himself real, or just an obscure actor in a strange film? What about the talk-show host they all listen to, apparently the only source of entertainment in Dick’s blasted, post-apocalyptic future? How does he broadcast twenty-four hours a day on multiple channels?

Then there’s the electric sheep of the novel’s title. Animals are all but extinct in this particular future, thanks to a ghastly nuclear war that has left vast tracts of land barren and tainted the human genome (causing another blurring of the boundaries between human and inhuman). To own a live animal is a much-prized status symbol; but they’re so expensive that an industry has sprung up to supply good fakes for the purposes of keeping up appearances, and there are several moments in the novel when a live animal is confused for an electric one, and vice versa. (This can be distressing, as when a seriously ill cat dies because nobody realises it’s real. Here I’ll also give a content warning for graphic animal cruelty in a scene late in the novel.)

So the novel’s affect is a kind of epistemological uncertainty. The question “how can we tell the difference between the authentic and the fake?” is not one that has an answer. We can’t. It has become impossible, Dick suggests, in our world of machines and computers and devices. (In this he is startlingly prescient: the novel was published in 1968, before the internet, social media, chatbots, VR…) Just as there is now no way to experience his novel “authentically”, free of the influence of the thousands of critics, novelists and film directors who have responded to it down the years.

For what it’s worth: I, personally, was not a massive fan. I’ve written about this before, but I tend not to enjoy novels characterised by unrelenting bleakness: I need a little hope, a little humanity, to keep me going, and Dick’s barren, denuded world is not one I particularly want to spend time in. Its importance to the genre is undeniable, and for that reason I guess I’m glad I read it. But it’s not a text that particularly spoke to me, or one I’m keen to revisit.

Review: Saga Volume 6

Since I’ve been thinking about worldbuilding this week: what is it that makes the world of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ comic series Saga so enjoyable? For those not in the know, the series follows Marko and Alana, a star-crossed couple from opposite sides of an intractable, generations-long galactic war, and their attempts to protect their unprecedented mixed-race daughter Hazel. In Volume 6, they stage a daring rescue of Hazel from a Landfallian prison – the people of Landfall being Alana’s people, who believe that Hazel is a Wreather like her father.

The world of Saga is, obviously, plagued with social problems: intolerance, chauvinism, homophobia; there’s a thriving market for assassins and for child sex slaves; there are drug problems and censorship. Put like that, it seems a bleak dystopia. But then there are wonderful things too: rocket-powered trees; eggs the size of planets; cats who can tell when you’re lying. Most of all – and this is going to sound cheesy, but – there are surprising acts of love and kindness. The trans woman who protects Hazel in prison; the assassin who rescues a five-year-old from sex slavery; the friendship and solidarity Marko’s mother finds while incarcerated. That’s what Saga is about, really: the universality of love, the way it can be found in the most unexpected of places; the importance of community and found family.

And the diversity to be found in its pages is an assertion that everybody is worthy of such love. There are multiple brown characters, including Alana herself; there are the gay reporters hiding from bigotry; there’s the aforesaid trans character, Petrichor; and probably others who I’ve forgotten. This commitment to representation is part of what gives the series its riotously inclusive feel. (I will note, though, that this volume’s reveal of Petrichor’s transgender status is a little icky, presenting it as a striptease-like surprise rather than treating it matter-of-factly. It’s a case of bad judgement rather than bad intentions, I think, but the dodgier responses to the book on Goodreads illustrate the harm this kind of thing can cause.)

The other thing about Saga‘s world is that, despite its galactic scope and its wackier science fictional elements, it looks so very much like ours. People hold recognisably corporate jobs and live in recognisably suburban homes; they read trashy news and nurse grudges against their exes. The world of Saga, then, is our world, its wonders and terrors exaggerated by the heightened visual language of the graphic novel. In its representation of identities marginalised by Western culture and its depiction of strange monsters and beautiful creatures, it’s a celebration of the variety of experience our world contains; Vaughan and Staples use it to tell a story about the folly of seeking to eliminate that variety. Life on this planet of ours can be terrifying, and there are monsters aplenty; but there is also love and friendship in unexpected places, standing between us and oblivion.

Review: Blackfish City

This review contains spoilers.

Sam J. Miller’s second novel Blackfish City is a tale about the value of connection in the face of oppressive capitalist systems that seek to keep us apart. The titular city is Qaanaaq, a floating metropolis somewhere in the Arctic Circle, in a future ravaged by climate change. Qaanaaq is run not by humans but by an algorithm making supposedly disinterested decisions that nevertheless seem to benefit the city’s landlord class more than its much larger proletariat. To this socially stratified yet vibrant city comes a mysterious woman accompanied by a killer whale and a polar bear: who is she? Why has she come to Qaanaaq? What is the nature and meaning of her connection with these two iconic apex predators?

The novel is peopled by loners: Soq, a messenger living a hand-to-mouth existence in Qaanaq’s poorest district; Kaev, a bareknuckles fighter afflicted by something like PTSD; Fill, Soq’s sometime lover, a rich gay man with a disease called “the breaks” that’s passed through bodily fluids and causes visions of the experiences of other carriers; and Ankit, a campaign manager for one of the city’s few politicians. The woman with the killer whale – Masaaraq – brings these disparate figures unexpectedly together: they are a family, separated by prejudice; their reunion, though fraught and complex, helps make each of them whole.

The novel’s theme of radical connection goes deeper than that, though. Masaaraq, it turns out, is among the last of a legendary community of people who were bonded to wild animals by experimental nanotech: so what looks like dominance over the natural world actually turns out to be something much more mutual. That same nanotech, brought to Qaanaaq, offers a cure for the breaks that preserves the disease’s empathic potential without its lethal consequences.

Then there’s City Without a Map: a sort of podcast within the world of the novel, narrated by people from all walks of life, telling stories of life in Qaanaaq. Its creator(s) are anonymous; but in bringing together this range of experiences to tell a single story about the city it creates a skein of connection that conceptually links each inhabitant together. In other words it does exactly what Blackfish City itself does – reveals the shared humanity that binds us to each other.

All of this builds up to a moment when Soq is able to seize a lot of property from the shadowy landlords who keep that property empty. It’s not made clear what they’ll do with it, but their frequently-articulated love for Qaanaaq seems to suggest that revolution is in the offing – that they’ll use it to build a kinder and a fairer city for all. In this way the newly reconstituted family, connected by bonds of love, stands against the faceless, invisible hand of the market which pretends to a false objectivity.

If the novel has a fault it is that its bringing together of Masaaraq’s family feels a little too pat, their finding each other again too much of a coincidence to credit. But on the whole it’s a good read that covers a lot of ground thematically; one that balances hope for a transformed future with clear-eyed realism about where our current problems might take us.