Tag: science fiction

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.

Review: Vallista

What’s the difference between a fun book and a good book?

I’ve been thinking about Steven Brust’s Vallista, the fifteenth (!) novel in his Vlad Taltos cycle, in the context of Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, which I reviewed earlier in the week and which I read around the same time as Brust’s novel. I didn’t enjoy Hurley’s novel that much, for reasons that are largely personal, but I still thought it was a better book than Vallista, a novel that I quite enjoyed while I was reading it but hardly remember now. Why is that?

Vlad Taltos is an assassin in a medievally-flavoured fantasy world ruled by the elf-like, long-lived Dragaerans. Humans like Vlad – “Easterners” in Dragaeran parlance; in a nice worldbuilding touch, both Dragaerans and Easterners lay exclusive claim to the term “human” – are the reviled underclass, grudgingly tolerated but with no real access to political power. Vlad, however, has risen to a precarious kind of prominence through his association with the Jhereg, the Dragaeran mafia, although by the time Vallista takes place he’s somewhat fallen out with them. The novel sees him trapped in a strange mansion whose layout seems to defy spatial logic, and which, as he gradually discovers, apparently occupies several different points in time at once. Who built the mansion, and why? What is the large pale monster that roams its halls? And why is Devera, the enigmatic, not-quite-temporally-stable child of one of Vlad’s Dragaeran friends, trapped within its halls?

The problem, I think, is that it’s a very…mechanics-heavy novel, very interested in the precise details of how its setting works and how its various magical systems interact. As such it stands in sharp contrast to the other novels in the series, at least those I have read, which tend to thrust Vlad into the heart of dangerous political situations, forcing him to confront the oppressive forces at the heart of the Dragaeran empire, or the amoral self-interest that characterises the members of the Jhereg. Put another way, it’s hard to see why we should care about any of the revelations of Vallista. What do they have to say about Vlad, or about how our own world works? Why are they important?

Whereas, if you’ve read my review of The Light Brigade, or indeed anything about the novel at all, you’ll know that it wears its relevance very much on its sleeve; it has an enormous amount to say about late capitalism and illiberalism and the military-industrial complex. Hurley exploits her time-travel conceit in service of her novel’s ideological stance, her military protagonist’s confusion at where she is in her personal timeline enacting the powerlessness of the individual under neoliberalism; Brust, meanwhile, uses time travel as merely another puzzle for Vlad to solve. I may struggle with the bleakness and brutality of Hurley’s artistic vision, but, for my money, she’s simply better at using generic tropes to achieve specific textual effects. That, it turns out, is what I value as a reader; that, for me, is what the difference is between a fun book and a good book.

Review: The Light Brigade

Has Kameron Hurley ever written an insignificant novel? Her first, God’s War, was shortlisted for the Clarke Award and the BSFA award, and won a Kitschy; her Worldbreaker Saga trilogy radically retools the tropes and assumptions of epic fantasy; her standalone novel The Stars are Legion does something similar for space opera. And now we have The Light Brigade, shortlisted for the Hugo Best Novel award this year and, again, the Clarke.

A military SF novel set in a dystopian future in which corporations rule most of the population, doling out citizenship – and thus basic rights – to only a privileged few, The Light Brigade takes aim at a range of contemporary issues, from the moral bankruptcy of the military-industrial complex to capitalism’s reduction of human lives to the value of their labour. Our protagonist, Dietz, is a corporation soldier who’s joined up partly for the promise of citizenship in return for ten years of service. The war she’s drafted into is against the Martians, who, she’s told, are responsible for the destruction of Sao Paulo, where her family were living. The corporations use a sort of FTL technology to move their soldiers vast distances instantaneously, a dangerous process that often leaves people mangled or split between two places. In Dietz’s case, though, it does something far stranger, displacing her in time so that, for instance, she might experience the aftermath of an operation before she’s actually gone on it.

Hurley renders the loneliness and disorientation caused by this displacement very well: because the novel’s narrated in first person, we only ever have as much information as Dietz does; we are just as confused and lost as she is, giving the inevitable revelations about the nature and cause of the war real force. That in turn serves to underscore Hurley’s points about how self-serving the corporations are, how little they value Dietz and her compatriots.

It’s a well-crafted novel with lots of important points to make, set in a future that feels all too likely. I didn’t really like it.

This is a problem I have with much of Hurley’s work: much as I want to enjoy it, the violence and gore that pervades it always throws me out of the text. It’s not that the violence is egregious or titillating (there’s certainly no sexual violence in The Light Brigade): quite the opposite, it’s core to Hurley’s artistic vision. Her novels make visible various sorts of structural violence in order to examine the effects of oppressive regimes on the bodies of their subjects. Through its use of violence The Light Brigade makes clear the brutality of unchecked capitalism. It’s there for a reason, and a necessary one.

No, what I struggle with, I think, is the lack of any counterbalancing weight of joy or hope, a glimpse of what a better world might look like. This, I will freely admit, is on me, not on the novel; bleakness is as key to what Hurley is doing as violence. But, there it is – as a reader I need something vital and excessive to leaven bleakness, and I’m not getting that from The Light Brigade. It’s a significant novel, and a good one; but not one I’m ever going to love.

Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

N. K. Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is named for a 2013 essay of hers in which she discusses the lack of Black representation in SFF media. In that essay, she writes:

I wasn’t any more interested in all-black futures than I was in all-white futures. I just wanted fantasies of exploration and enchantment that didn’t slap me in the face with you don’t belong here messages. I just wanted to be able to relax and dream.

Her novels exemplify this pluralistic, fantastical outlook: the Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy is a story about colonialism and brutal oppression set in a multi-racial world where queerness is a run-of-the-mill reality; her standalone novel The Killing Moon features an Ancient Egypt analogue whose inhabitants practice dream-magic; in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first novel in the Inheritance trilogy, we find an incestuous divine threesome and, again, some fairly complex racial politics. These are novels that imagine new social possibilities, or that, in the case of the Broken Earth trilogy, are about the fight to reimagine how society works, to redefine who gets to be thought human.

The stories collected in How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, then, are impressively diverse in terms of setting, tone and genre. We have steampunk set in a newly-free Haiti (“The Effluent Engine”); a far-future, alien-overlord dystopia (“Walking Awake”); a generation ship story with an all-Muslim cast of characters (“The Brides of Heaven”); a story of the Fair Folk in early-20th-century Alabama (“Red Dirt Witch”). There are even a couple of stories – “The Narcomancer” and “Stone Hunger” – set in worlds familiar from Jemisin’s later novels. What these stories do have in common, with each other and with the novels, is an ecstatic sense of the potential for change, brought about through revolution and protest; through connection with another being or society; or simply through a new understanding of the world and our place in it. Thus the Black heroine of “The Effluent Engine”, Jessaline Dumonde, tells her mixed-race romantic interest Eugenie, stuck in racist New Orleans, of a Haiti in which one’s ambition need not be limited by one’s race, gender or even sexual orientation. And in “On the Banks of the River Lex”, in which gods and anthropomorphic personifications linger apathetically in New York after the extinction of humanity, Death finds hope and the promise of new purpose in the burgeoning intelligence of an octopus.

Such change, though, rarely comes in these stories without a price. The opening story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”, stands as a sort of manifesto for the whole collection in this respect. A response to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, it describes a utopian city, Um-Helat, organised around principles of mutual respect and support. Um-Helat’s prosperity and joy is perpetually threatened by transmissions from our own world, a place where “the notion that some people are less important than others has been allowed to take root”. Those who have been “tainted” by such transmissions – who have begun to believe in that notion – are summarily, humanely executed, lest the rot spread. This is a theme picked up on again and again in the collection: that pacifism is not enough in the face of oppressive structural violence, that tolerance is not a virtue to be extended to the intolerant. The heroines of both “Red Dirt Witch” and “Walking Awake” sacrifice themselves in order to bring about change – in one case killing an innocent bystander in the process. And when, in “The Effluent Engine”, privileged, sheltered Eugenie objects to her scientific prowess being used violently, Jessaline counters with the atrocities the French commander Rochambeau inflicted on the Haitians in the aftermath of their last failed rebellion. Eugenie’s mannered, Christian pacifism is made to seem ridiculous in the face of such atrocities: the oppressors, after all, did not obey such niceties.

This is not to portray How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? as a bleak read. There are stories that are horrible and uncomfortable or that end badly, but as a whole the collection is suffused with optimism, with vitality, with “exploration and enchantment”. Change may be difficult, but it is also wonderful: it exposes us to wonders, it allows us to build a more joyful world, a more joyful future, for everyone. In Jemisin’s own words in her introduction to the collection, “There’s the future over there. Let’s all go.”

2020 Roundup

Happy New Year to everyone using the Gregorian calendar! 2020 was a weird year: I read loads, much more than I have in any year since I started recording my reading in 2014, thanks to a lack of commute and social obligations; and although I read lots of thought-provoking, ambitious books, I’m not sure any of them were truly standout. Here’s my top ten from 2020 (read, not necessarily published, last year); and, afterwards, some stats from my spreadsheet.

Top Ten Books of 2020

  1. This Is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (2019). OK, when I said there were no standout books this year, that was a lie. This Is How You Lose the Time War is intricate, queer and devastatingly triumphant; its tale of mortal enemies attempting to build a space in which they can be together is both timely and timeless. I read it twice – once for pleasure, once for review – and cried both times.
  2. Speak Easy – Catherynne M. Valente (2015). A Prohibition-inspired retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, Speak Easy is everything I hoped it would be: a gem of a book full to bursting of Valente’s baroque, euphonious prose, a whole glittering, glamorous world conjured in its 142 pages.
  3. AuroraKim Stanley Robinson (2015). What surprised me most about Robinson’s take on the generation ship story was how this very science-focused novel gave me a new perspective on my own flavour of neopaganism: it’s all about the complexity of the feedback systems that keep us alive on this rock spinning through space, and the idea that everything affects everything else is a core neopagan tenet. It helped me reframe how science intersects with my own religion; in other words, how I understand the world at a fundamental level. And what more can we ask of our reading than that?
  4. Gideon the NinthTamsyn Muir (2019). This is here because it was so damn fun to read, its Gothic Gormenghast-esque space setting punctured by Gideon’s sarcastic, memeified voice: it’s a very now read, a novel aimed at a very specific subset of SFF-loving internet denizens. Plus: space lesbians!
  5. The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold (2001). I was quite dismissive of The Curse of Chalion while I was reading it, focusing more on the resistance I tend to experience when reading fantasy novels than its formal qualities. I think that’s because it’s best looked at as a whole, when its cathartic structure becomes visible and thus Bujold’s thesis on the intersection of free will and faith emerges fully. It’s a brilliant work of fantastic theology, and it manages to depict the mysteries of faith in a way that very few contemporary novels do.
  6. The People in the Trees – Hanya Yanigahara (2013). This is at times an extremely uncomfortable read: content warnings apply for child sexual abuse and quite graphic scenes of animal experimentation. It’s here for its combination of a Nabokovian unreliable narrator with themes of Western entitlement, colonialism and habitat destruction. Above all, it’s an extremely powerful portrait of a white man who believes himself superior to everyone else and thus beyond reproach, leaving him completely blind to his own selfishness and monstrosity.
  7. LentJo Walton (2019). Another religiously-focused work, Lent is a cleverly structured meditation on sin and redemption. Because it’s so immersed in its 15th century Italian setting, it gave me a lot to think about with regards to medieval Christianity and how it was practiced, and thus some ideas for my own religious practice too.
  8. The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay (1995). I read a bunch of Kay’s work in 2020, mainly because that was what we had in the house, so The Lions of Al-Rassan stands here for a few of his novels. I like this one in particular for the clarity with which his three protagonists stand for three of the main political forces in his fictionalised Europe, making their friendship always already tenuous, verging on the impossible.
  9. Circe – Madeleine Miller (2018). Feminist rereadings of Greek myth and witchcraft are not new at this point, and so the trajectory that Circe’s story takes is perhaps not surprising; but I still enjoyed Miller’s complication of her portrayal as a tempting and dangerous seductress. The novel is both true to the original myths (albeit following one of the less familiar plotlines) and surprisingly satisfying in the end, as Circe manages to find some measure of peace and freedom.
  10. Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (2020). Piranesi‘s slow reveal of the truth about the strange world it’s set in gives it a sick kind of propulsiveness, as we come to realise that its generous-minded protagonist is being manipulated by people who believe themselves above reproach; in that sense it has some striking similarities with The People in the Trees. It’s also very gentle to those who its villains have harmed, rejecting narrative satisfaction to some degree in favour of recognising that such damage cannot necessarily be entirely undone.

Stats from my reading spreadsheet!

  • I read a huge 121 books in 2020; that’s 22 more than in 2019.
  • The longest book I read was Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind at a bloated 662 pages; Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach and Shaenon K. Garrity’s The Astonishing Excursions of Helen Narbon & Co., neither of them very compelling, are tied for shortest at 100 pages each. Overall, I read 41,837 pages in 2020, unsurprisingly considerably up from 2019’s 35,803.
  • The oldest book I read was E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, which was first published in 1820. The average age of the books I read in 2020 was just 12, down again from 14 in 2019.
  • Genre: 45% of the books I read in 2020 were fantasy, up from 31% in 2019; 26% were SF, unchanged from 2019. 12% were non-fiction, down from 2019’s 19%; just 8% were litfic, down from 15% in 2019 (although my personal definition of “litfic” changes from year to year so this figure is a bit finger-in-the-air). The other 9% consists of two comedy novels, two crime, three historical and two horror.
  • Surprisingly, just 9% of the books I read in 2020 were re-reads, down from 2019’s 11%. I would have thought this figure would be higher, given my lack of access to the library and other sources of new books during the pandemic.
  • 60% of the books I read in 2020 were by women and non-binary people, quite a lot up from 48% in 2019 (note: I read no non-binary authors in 2019, as far as I’m aware); I’m happy about this and also surprised – I expected my lack of library access to make my reading less diverse, not more.
  • On the other hand, I shouldn’t congratulate myself too soon: just 18% of the books I read in 2020 were by people of colour, down from 24% last year. I did expect this: I’m careful when borrowing books from the library to choose works by people of colour, but long periods of being forced to choose from the books I actually have on my bookshelves have revealed that those books are still very white. Going forward I’m committing to making sure that I’m buying books by people of colour in the same proportion as borrowing them from the library.
  • 15% of the books I read in 2020 were by queer authors, up from 5% in 2019. This is pretty good too, I think.