Review: Upright Women Wanted

A recurring theme amongst the nominees for last year’s Hugo award for Best Novella was: the creation of spaces in which marginalised people could thrive, despite hostility from the wider world. So we had P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, in which Black joy and Black (specifically Gullah) cultural traditions thrive despite the gathering forces of racism; and Seanan McGuire’s Come Tumbling Down, whose characters attend a school for wayward children – children who, Pevensie-like, have lost the magical worlds whose doors were once open to them, and who commiserate each other’s losses – and whose waywardness often stands in for real-world marginalisation. And then we have Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted.

The novella, which benefits from a sort of Western feel, is set in a future United States which has succumbed entirely to totalitarianism. Women and LGBT+ people have functionally no rights, the supply of literature and other media is strictly controlled, unelected officials enforce state power violently and with little oversight; the whole shebang. Our protagonist is Esther, a young woman who flees her hometown when her lover Beatriz is executed for possessing unauthorised literature and seeks out a group of Librarians, women who travel around the States distributing authorised material. Esther hopes that travelling with these upright, morally correct women will cure her of what she believes to be sinful, destructive urges. But the truth, as she discovers, is quite the opposite: not only are the Librarians as queer as it gets (and, in fact, not all women: one of them, Cyd, is a non-binary person forced to pass as a woman to survive), they’re also a front for a resistance movement that exists to conduct people like Esther to safety in queer-friendly, “insurrectionist” states.

So this is very much a text born of the Trump era: of fears of creeping authoritarianism, of the rise of the far right and the alt-right, of the rapid erosion of the rights of people who aren’t cis straight able-bodied white men. It’s one of a slew of recent texts that extrapolate current trends in US and world politics into a dystopian future: Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade is particularly on my mind since last week’s review of her earlier novel Infidel, but there’s also Analee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline, Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds – hell, even Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. Clearly, these are fictions that chime with people; these are realities that feel like they’re on the verge of coming true, even now, a year and a half into Biden’s administration. In this context, in a world that frequently literally is this hostile to LGBT+ people, in a world where all possible versions of the future are terrifying, Upright Women Wanted functions weirdly like – wish fulfilment?

Despite the best efforts of her society, Esther finds her people. She overcomes her internalised queerphobia and self-hatred, and she takes up the fight for a better world. This is a novella that says: we will endure. Even in the worst possible version of the future (short of, I guess, literal apocalypse), we queer folk will survive and thrive and find each other and fight. We cannot be kept down.

Which is, yes, delightful. More queer validation, please! But in order to make this argument the novella also softens the awfulness of its world. Beatriz’s death takes place off-page, and, yeah, Esther is upset about it, but she’s not exactly traumatised (as I expect a real person would be if their literal best friend/lover was literally executed in front of them) and she’s very quick to move on in order to provide some on-page, positive queer romance. She’s also very quick to come out to the Librarians, who she believes, remember, to be among the moral arbiters of her society, and who are moreover complete strangers to her: the risk of her coming out to them is astronomical, and she does it on like page ten.

I mention this not because it makes the text less enjoyable – as I said, this is queer wish fulfilment, and it works very well as such – but because in my view it lessens its power as a text about queer joy and resistance, and it lessens the value of such resistance. It seems weird to say that I want these characters to experience more trauma, but: I do! I want this novella to feel more urgent, more fierce, and ultimately more meaningful. It’s lovely as it is, and Esther’s self-loathing and journey towards self-acceptance struck a particular chord with me. But it could have been better.

Review: Infidel

“The smog in Mushtallah tasted of tar and ashes; it tasted like the war.”

So begins Kameron Hurley’s Infidel, sequel to God’s War, in which we met Nyx, state-sponsored assassin (or bel dame) in an Islamic-inflected future world that has been at war for longer than anyone can remember, over a cause that is all but forgotten. In this second novel, Nyx is no longer a bel dame, and is instead playing bodyguard to the spoiled child of an ambassador when her city, the aforementioned Mushtallah, is targeted in a devastating terrorist attack. She’s then summoned by her Queen to hunt down the rogue bel dames who featured in the events of God’s War, who the Queen believes were responsible for the attack.

None of which conveys the chief pleasure of this series, which is Hurley’s punchy, laconic prose, conjuring as it does the vast desert landscapes her characters inhabit – which in their turn reflect the violent bleakness of those characters’ lives. The improperly terraformed planet of Umayma is barely hospitable to life, and as such is a brilliant metaphor for a society endlessly at war: what joy is to be found there is contingent and brief.

Hurley’s work has often been praised for its diversity: her novels feature unapologetically queer women and people who defy gender stereotypes (one of the reasons for the brutality of the Bel Dame series is undoubtedly to counter notions of women as essentially nurturing, caregiving types – Nyx in particular is anything but that), and of course it’s fairly rare – and was rarer still when Infidel was published back in 2011 – to see speculative futures in fiction that aren’t essentially Western. It does have to be said, however, that both God’s War and Infidel play into enduring and harmful stereotypes that cast Islam as a warlike religion, with the pointlessness and endlessness of the war they depict. It’s not, I think, that Hurley is actively suggesting that this world is constantly at war because it is Islamic; but nor do I think it’s wholly a coincidence that she chose an Islamic milieu for her examination of the effects of unceasing war, even if the reasons for that choice were subconscious. (It’s worth noting that Hurley is a white American who is not, as far as I can discover, Muslim.)

Later on in her career, in 2019’s The Light Brigade, Hurley brings her exploration of total war home to the Americas, combining it with a discussion of the corroding effects of late capitalism. The Light Brigade is technically and thematically the better and more interesting book. But God’s War was one of the first queer SFF books I ever read, and the series’ wide desert spaces, and its protagonist’s uncompromising lack of femininity, still retain a hold on my imagination. I’m looking forward to picking up the third and last book in the trilogy, Rapture.

Review: Finna

Nino Cipri’s debut novella Finna, published just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit America in earnest in early 2020, evinces similar weaknesses to its sequel, Defekt, which I reviewed here in February. Set in the same branch of multinational retail conglomerate LitenVärld (a parodic analogue of Ikea) as Defekt, the novella follows two lower-level employees, Jules and Ava, who have only recently broken up their romantic relationship when they’re sent by their manager through one of the wormholes that periodically opens up in LitenVärld’s stores to retrieve a customer named Ursula who has unwittingly wandered into another world. They quickly discover that the elderly woman in question has been devoured by a predatory sofa, and in their search for an appropriate “alternative” – as the corporate euphemism goes – they cross multiple universes and begin to renegotiate a new kind of relationship, with each other, with the labour they perform, and with LitenVärld.

Like Defekt, then, Finna is a text ripe with anti-capitalist potential, and indeed other reviewers and critics have found in it rich ground for discussions about dreamwork and the intersection between class and capitalism. While I’m glad these discussions exist, I personally did not find the text nearly so generative. As Electra Pritchett points out in the Strange Horizons review linked above, “Finna feels a little on the short side”; I’ll go one further and contend that it is, in fact, slight.

Again as with Defekt, the novella form feels too constrictive for the story Cipri is trying to tell. With Defekt, the problem was a question of atmosphere; Cipri didn’t have the space to build the sense of the uncanny I felt was needed to give the text’s anti-capitalist critique real force and charge. Here, it’s simply that…there’s a lot going on (multiple universes! devoured grannies! murderous hives of LitenVärld employees!) and we never get the opportunity to stop, take in the scenery, ponder the implications of the metaphors and resonances Cipri’s setting up. Consider, for example, the death of Ursula at the hands (cushions?) of an animated LitenVärld product. While the text’s cursory treatment of this event to some extent reflects corporate priorities around similar “accidents” (or “fatalities” as the euphemistic buzzspeak has it) – the focus is on damage control and mitigation, hence the necessity for Ava and Jules to plunge further into the multiverse to find a different version of Ursula to replace her in this world – it also sits at odds with Cipri’s rather more considered excavation of their protagonists’ relationship. It seems somewhat inappropriate, given Finna’s avowed pro-labour, progressive stance, that we spend more time with the awkwardnesses of a post-romantic relationship than with the reality that an innocent bystander has just…died?

And what about that LitenVärld hive, which Jules and Ava stumble across in their quest for Ursula’s replacement? About halfway through the novella, the pair find themselves in familiar territory, a LitenVärld store that seems more or less ordinary, until they attempt to buy some lunch in the food court and everything goes terribly wrong: the store’s staff, it turns out, are like worker bees, controlled by an overriding hivemind which is not happy about the incursion of two strangers. In the casting of retail employees as de-individualised drones we can see a precursor to the LitenVärld clones that populate Defekt, a comment on how capitalism compromises individual subjectivity and turns it to its own ends. But, again, we are given very little time to sit in this moment and think about those resonances, before we are hurtling on again with our heroes, onto the next adventure.

Underlying all of this is a sort of snarky world-weary cynicism that’s very…queer Twitter. “Ugh, capitalism” is a running joke between Ava and Jules, and it’s the flattening lens through which they – and therefore we – read everything about their world. Of course, in our reality, capitalism really is all-consuming, it taints everything we do and say and write, but there’s also a sense in which to respond to the death of a person with “Ugh, capitalism” (as Jules and Ava effectively do) is…insufficient. Snark as fake activism; snark as apathy. Where is the rage, the grief, the despair, the horror?

At root, then, my problem with Cipri’s work is its lack of nuance, its sophomoric one-note analysis of labour conditions under capitalism. In Finna, Cipri is both too ambitious and not ambitious enough: seeking to cram a critique of our current economic system into the slim form of the novella, they restrict themself to a mode of thought characteristic to a particular online niche – a mode developed for a medium that gives little space for depth or complexity. Finna is not unreadable, but it’s not memorable, either.

Review: Sunfall

This review contains spoilers.

Science broadcaster and nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalili’s debut SF novel Sunfall comprehensively puts paid to the notion that “everyone has a novel in them”. A disaster story set in a near future when the Earth’s weakening magnetic field puts everyone on the planet at risk from the radiation emitted in solar flares, it’s little more than a collection of reheated cliches stuck together with technobabble. Scientifically accurate technobabble, sure. But technobabble nevertheless.

Al-Khalili’s chief protagonists are British scientists Sarah and Mark, who are working on a solution to the magnetic field problem, and young Iranian hacker Shireen, who’s committed to bringing the world the truth about the scale of the catastrophe the Earth faces, having discovered evidence of a cover-up. Various governments want to keep the scale of the crisis from the public consciousness in order (inevitably) to prevent panic, and there are fundamentalist millenarian groups in the mix too who want to prevent the scientists saving the Earth in the belief that the crisis represents a Rapture of sorts. The tensions, in other words, are all very familiar: there’s little going on plot-wise that you wouldn’t expect to spot in a reasonably well-constructed disaster movie.

What is quite effective – although again hardly novel – is the way Al-Khalili interleaves his more science-y Saving the World chapters with vignettes about ordinary (and not-so-ordinary) people who are caught up in weather disasters caused by the weakening of the magnetic field. It’s a time-honoured technique that I’ve seen used to best effect in Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls: we get to know these characters a little bit, find out a bit about their hopes and dreams and lives, before, BAM, something terrible happens to them. We think they’re going to be major players in the story, and their abrupt exit from it brings home the tragedy of their deaths. But while in The Shining Girls this strategy underlines Beukes’ anger about the ongoing scourge of gendered violence, its use in Sunfall feels less purposeful. I read the novel at the end of August last year, when Hurricane Ida was sweeping through the Americas and it felt like the whole world was literally burning; the sections about impossible storms causing huge disasters in inhabited areas resonated hard. But the comparison with human-caused climate change does no favours for Sunfall. It feels quaint and naïve to be worrying about a potential future magnetic field collapse, however plausible the science may be, when the threat of a real global warming apocalypse is so imminent.

The core of the novel is a paean to science, to the value of scientific endeavour and collaboration, as opposed to the self-involved machinations of politicians and governments and the paranoid populism of fundamentalist religious groups. (There’s a faint anti-religious sentiment running throughout the text – nothing as overt as the sort of thing Richard Dawkins might come out with, but certainly making future!Iran a wholly secular society is a choice that feels quite bound up with particular ideas of what a modern society looks like.) Which – sure! I’m very on board with this. The work of science – of any academic discipline – is a wonderful thing that gets fictionalised all too rarely. It’s work that can and will change the world. But the novel lacks confidence in – how interesting that work is, I guess. Rarely do we see anyone actually doing science: if Sarah and Mark aren’t infodumping technical detail, they’re rescuing kidnapped loved ones or staving off terrorist attacks or marvelling at the high and exalted circles they’ve found themselves in.

So there’s nothing compelling, really, in the meat of the book to dilute those climate change anxieties that aren’t really climate change anxieties. And divorcing those anxieties from their proper context in the way that Al-Khalili does, removing any sense of human complicity in the deaths of his characters, gives the novel an escapist quality that I’m not fully on board with. It’s easy for Al-Khalili’s scientists to solve their climate problem. Their solution might not be logistically straightforward, and it does have the significant drawback that the Earth might explode if something goes wrong, but once it’s done it’s done. A single monumental task, and the Earth is saved. And there is no collective burden of guilt to carry for all those deaths, because they were literally no-one’s fault. There are enough people in the real world denying the reality of human-caused climate change that I’m not really interested in a text that denies or dilutes that reality, even fictionally. And no single scientific breakthrough is going to save us, either. It comes, once again, down to work: saving our Earth will take decades of sustained, incremental effort. There will be no single, heroic moment of revelation and triumph.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Sunfall would never have been published were it not for Al-Khalili’s established platform. It has nothing particularly new or particularly interesting to say, and its reliance on familiar cliches and plot structures, coupled with its infodumpy dialogue, robs it of any momentum or sense of pace it might otherwise have had. There are lots of good climate-anxiety novels out there (Valente’s The Past is Red, anyone?), and several good ones on the work of science: like, go and read some Kim Stanley Robinson! Not this.

Review: Defekt

This review contains spoilers.

DefektBack in 2017, a user called “Mortos” posted a piece to the website of the SCP Foundation, a collaborative storytelling project centred on the activities of a shadowy organisation dedicated to investigating and containing entities of otherworldly origin. “SCP-3008”, as the piece is called, tells of a theoretically infinite alt-universe version of Ikea populated by faceless staff members who become unaccountably murderous at night and endless Billy bookshelves. The story’s among the top-rated pages on the site, and has inspired fan art, memes and even a video game. Its appeal lies chiefly in the way it captures the uncanniness of the Ikea experience: the way its showrooms simulate apparently homelike environments that are nevertheless set within deliberately labyrinthine floorplans designed to bamboozle rather than soothe.

Nino Cipri’s novella Defekt, published four years later than “SCP-300”, attempts a similar effect. When protagonist Derek, an employee of the fast-furniture store LitenVärld, requests his first sick day ever owing to a sore throat, he finds himself reassigned to a special inventory shift alongside what he quickly discovers are four fellow clones – all of them manufactured by LitenVärld to be perfect employees. The inventory team are tasked with finding and killing defekta – items of stock that have become animate and possibly semi-sentient thanks to LitenVärld’s habit of using the resources of other universes to cut costs both financial and environmental.

Cipri deals swiftly with the question of whether it’s ethical to kill living beings because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time (their answer: no), and moves on to a slightly more trenchant examination of capitalism’s encroachment on individual subjectivity. Derek’s encounter with the inventory team, all of whom have been declared “discordant” for various reasons related to their non-conformity with what Dereks are “supposed” to be, allows him to conceptualise a version of himself that is not linked to LitenVärld’s idea of a perfect employee. In doing so he discovers that he is himself a defekta – his particular mutation gives him the ability to communicate telepathically with the other defekta – and the team use this power to overthrow their megalomaniac manager Dirk and stage a sit-in aiming to emancipate defekta in all LitenVärld stores.

The metaphors are transparent but nonetheless pleasing in their application. The novella, however, lacks the teeth of the SCP story despite its greater political charge and narrative ambition because it fails properly to lean into the essential uncanniness that “Mortos” identified. Partly this is a question of length: whereas “SCP-3008” is trying only to establish an atmosphere and explicate a straightforward concept in its 4,000 words, Defekt is attempting a full-blown plot with multiple thematic concerns in its 150-odd pages. The setting doesn’t have the room it needs to breathe. But it’s also partly that Cipri seems reluctant to delve into the psychological implications of their premise. What has been done to Derek and the other members of the inventory team is genuinely horrific; it’s uncanny in the technical sense, it attacks the very notion of subjectivity and the individual self. And yet Derek accepts it with seemingly little more than a shrug.

This points to a wider problem with characterisation in the novella: it’s not very good; or, rather, not very specific. Derek’s personality is generic literally by design, sure, he’s been built to be a sort of everyperson, non-threatening and neutral, but that very blankness makes him less than compelling as a protagonist. His whole story arc is about self-discovery and self-actualisation, but even after his initiation into the inventory team his self hardly seems to exist: the novella focuses on his journey to accepting the mutation that allows him to communicate telepathically, but a physical mutation is hardly a stand-in for personality. Similarly, his fellow members of the inventory team are either broad stereotypes or entirely unmemorable: the flamboyantly non-conformist enby, the sulky teenager, the megalomaniac manager, the other one.

If Cipri is unwilling to dig into the complexities of their characters’ psyches, they also seem unwilling to reckon with the near-omnipotence of the capitalist forces they’re ultimately writing about. Put simply, Derek and the inventory team win out too easily. With the help of thousands of defekta, sure; but this is a multinational corporation that’s deliberately exploiting the resources of infinite other universes! It’s hard to believe they don’t have some kind of plan for a similar eventuality. Hard to believe, also, that they would concede to all of the inventory team’s demands: although the novella doesn’t explicitly tell us that they do, it does gesture strongly towards a happy ending of some kind (rather than, say, a contingent and unstable victory of the kind that so often constitute real-life progress).

This might all sound like quibbling. Hopepunk is a thing, after all; hope and joy can be forms of resistance. But to me Defekt isn’t a story about hope in the face of all-encompassing capitalism, because it fails to reckon fully with the reasons why capitalism is all-encompassing: the insidious power it has over all aspects of our lives. I see this as a fundamental flaw in a text that purports to critique capitalism; and, by extension, I see the failure to give the protagonist a compelling subjectivity a fundamental flaw in a text that’s interrogating the compromised nature of the self under capitalism.

As I write this today, there are two days of tube strikes planned this week in London. Ten thousand Underground workers will down tools to protest changes to their pensions; ten times that number of Londoners will be affected, with potentially no Underground trains running on any lines. And that’s just to preserve the status quo – to stop working conditions getting any worse. Four people and some sentient furniture forcing a retail giant to create a collectivist utopia in one night? It’s laughable by comparison.

Review: The Relentless Moon

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Jack Four

Jack FourPart of his long-running Polity series, Neal Asher’s most recent novel Jack Four evinces fairly typical science fictional concerns about personhood and bodily integrity through the use of tropes including cloning, genetic mutation and the violent alien other. Its protagonist, the titular Jack Four, is an illegal clone who finds himself equipped with unexpected self-awareness and the knowledge and memories of a person who he presumes is his genetic original. Narrowly escaping being sold to the imperialist, crustacean-like prador, he embarks on an adventure that will eventually lead him to the man whose memories and physical attributes he shares.

This set-up naturally raises questions about the integrity of the self. Who is the “real” Jack? Whose memories and experiences should be privileged? What does selfhood even mean if there are two (or, actually, more) Jacks walking around the universe? It is threatening to bodily integrity too: the clone-Jack is commodified, sold to the prador for his impressive physical potential; the act of cloning, of doubling, has reduced a human being to an item to be traded away.

This commodification, this troubling of the concept of the self, is part of a larger pattern in the novel of bodies being treated as disposable and malleable. Jack Four’s progress through Asher’s universe is marked at every turn by violence, sometimes extremely graphic. He is regularly patched up by an apparently miraculous machine called an autodoc: a device that, it seems, can be used essentially to dissect a person and reassemble them while they remain alive and in some cases conscious. Similarly, another important character in the novel is infected by something called the Spatterjay virus which makes the bodies of its carriers virtually indestructible. The upshot is that it’s possible for people in Asher’s world to take massive amounts of damage without any real consequences. This is something of a tension-killer; but the lack of tension is also the point. In a universe where there is no limit to the amount of damage that can be done to a body, violence becomes meaningless, routine; the body simply an object to be treated as carelessly as that status suggests.

What, then, of Asher’s monsters, his sadistic prador, his fearsome, once-sentient gabbleducks? They, too, speak to the terrifying malleability of the body in Asher’s futuristic universe: how can sentience take such forms! The gabbleducks in particular, remnants of a civilisation that deliberately chose to lose its intelligence, feel like some ghastly intimation of humanity’s future. And the cruel, authoritarian prador, armoured and many-legged, are textbook Others; fear of the monstrous body projected onto easily-villainised aliens.

All of which would be much more interesting if Jack Four were not so immensely tedious. Violence in a novel, even ultraviolence, is one thing; violence in place of meaningful character interaction is quite another. At times the book feels like one long fight scene, and Jack doesn’t even have a proper conversation with someone else until at least halfway through the book (the front half being dedicated to his escape from the prador ship he’s delivered to at the start). It’s not as though he has a rich inner life either, beginning the novel as essentially a blank slate and gaining very little in the way of personality as the pages wear on. It’s hard to care about the ideas here when the protagonist is so very dull.

This is a shame, because there are the glimmerings of a fascinating world in the background of this novel: a world in which the boundaries of the human are troubled and contested in the best traditions of cyberpunk. I haven’t read any of Asher’s other work, and to be honest, on the strength of this novel, I probably will not. A missed opportunity? Perhaps. But there’s much better science fiction out there.

Review: Thin Air

Thin AirBritish speculative fiction author Richard Morgan’s latest novel Thin Air demonstrates science fiction’s colonialist roots as well as anything I’ve read recently. Set on an imperfectly-terraformed Mars, it follows one Hakan Veil, a former overrider (a genetically enhanced human created to act as security on corporate-owned spaceships) who’s blackmailed into bodyguarding a high-status visitor from Earth. The visitor is Madison Madekwe, an auditor for the Colonial Oversight Initiative who’s investigating the mysterious death of the winner of a lottery offering Martians a once-in-a-lifetime ticket to Earth. Inevitably, Hakan finds himself collaborating in the investigation, diving into the murky, corrupt underbelly of corporate scheming that passes for Martian politics.

So the key dynamic powering the novel is the uneasy relationship between Mars and Earth: the Martian colonists both despise Earth’s bureaucrats and see Earth as an unreachable, far-off vision of home. Morgan’s Mars is a bit Wild West and a lot Victorian colony: originally a penal settlement, its inhabitants are still, 200 years later, barely subsisting on the barren red planet, ruled over by a corrupt local governor, with Earth hopelessly distant in terms both of travel time and of what it would cost financially to get there. The corporation stuff tracks too, European colonialism historically being based on trade (think of the East India Company, which essentially ruled the subcontinent until the mid-nineteenth century).

What’s missing, of course, are the main victims of historical colonialism: Morgan’s Mars has no indigenous inhabitants to be slaughtered and oppressed by exploitative Earthlings. In fact racism appears to be largely absent from this imagined future: the well-off Earth auditor Madison is Black, whereas Martian Hakan has Arabic ancestry. Morgan’s point seems to be that the forces of capital depend on the existence of an underclass, and that therefore the social conditions that enabled imperialism will continue to operate in colonialist-like ways even when the problem of racism has been solved. (Although the extent to which it has in fact been solved in the universe of Thin Air is dubious: as in Martha Wells’ Network Effect, which I reviewed last week, the novel’s worldbuilding is thoroughly Western despite the characters’ different cultural backgrounds.)

This argument would, I feel, be more convincing if there was actually anything on Mars for Morgan’s fictional corporations to be interested in, but there isn’t, particularly: no significant resource extraction, no desirable markets; the only commercial activity that is uniquely Martian is, for some reason that I don’t think is ever adequately explained, skincare development. Furthermore, Morgan’s Martians are analogous not to the relentlessly exploited indigenous populations of lands colonised by Europeans but to the colonisers themselves: the convicts shipped out to places like Australia and North America to establish a Western presence there. Of course it’s difficult to describe a transported Victorian peasant as privileged, but the comparison I think Morgan is reaching for here doesn’t quite work, and moreover obscures the actual harms capitalist colonialism did, and is still doing, to real communities across the globe.

This is a shame, because the attempted critique of capitalism is what elevates the novel above others in its genre; without it, it’s merely violent, male gaze-y and, on one jarring occasion close to the beginning, randomly transphobic. Like, I don’t want to imply that I hated reading it: I quite enjoyed what it was attempting to do, as well as Morgan’s prose, which is stylish in a sort of sub-Rajaniemi way, noirish and efficient. But it wasn’t an entirely pleasant reading experience, let’s just say, or an entirely successful one.

Review: Network Effect

Network EffectMartha Wells’ moment in SFF continues in Network Effect, a Murderbot story that was named Best Novel at the Hugos in December, beating out two genre heavyweights in N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. In this fifth entry in the series (and the first at novel length), Murderbot, a security cyborg that has hacked the governor module supposedly keeping it in line and uses its freedom to watch endless soap opera episodes, accompanies its human friend Dr Mensah on a surveying mission that quickly and predictably goes very wrong. Murderbot, along with Dr Mensah’s daughter Amena, is captured and finds itself aboard a familiar spaceship (ART, or Asshole Research Transport, who we met in Artificial Condition) – but while it’s physically unharmed, ART’s personality is gone, and it’s being piloted by mysterious, possibly alien, figures who are apparently up to no good. Can Murderbot restore Amena to her mother and bring back ART? And can it do so without having any awkward conversations about feelings?

I’ve talked before about why I think the Murderbot series has seen such remarkable success recently: its protagonist is, as I wrote in my review of the first Murderbot novella, All Systems Red, a “massive queer nerd”, asexual, agender and obsessed with its favourite media in a way that reads as fannish. Having read Network Effect: yeah, I still think that’s basically correct. There are a lot of queer nerds voting for the Hugos at the moment, and this is a book pretty much designed to appeal to that demographic. Additionally, throughout the series Wells is taking on other themes that are highly relevant to the field right now: many of her human characters are Black or brown, queerness and polyamory are common and expected, capitalism is shitty and corrupt and exploitative. As well as being ace and agender, Murderbot also has compelling neurodivergent resonances: its dislike of conversations about feelings and its discomfort in social situations reads as specifically autistic. With the push for better representation of marginalised identities in speculative fiction, and general discontent with capitalism and the lingering harms of imperialism, becoming mainstream, it’s not difficult to see how well the Murderbot series is tapping into the zeitgeist.

Combine that with a relatively straightforward plot (Murderbot and its human companions get into trouble, then get out again) and character arc (Murderbot, like many many of its fictional robotic predecessors, learns the meaning of friendship and experiences Emotional Growth), plus a sarky, readable narrative voice and Wells’ carefully textured worldbuilding (she’s particularly good on work, something I don’t see represented enough in SFF) and you get something very moreish indeed. It may not be groundbreaking – though it features Black and brown characters, its worldbuilding is thoroughly Western – but it’s deeply enjoyable, and I’d be happy to read more.

2021 Roundup

Another weird year in reading, this one: with the libraries closed again until April, a good third of the books I read this year were re-reads. Re-reading is a pleasure of its own, of course, but what it doesn’t bring is the shock of the new, the brilliant surprise of discovering something you didn’t know existed. As a result, I found it difficult this year even to identify ten new-to-me books that I thought were top-tier favourites; normally I’m whittling down a list of about fifteen.

Here they are, anyway: my top ten reads of 2021; and, afterwards, some spreadsheet stats.

Top Ten Books of 2021

  1. Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell (2020). This mostly-realist tale of a fictional 60s band has some misfires – most notably its somewhat schlocky speculative element – but its characters are so vivid, so humanly flawed, that you can’t help but love it. Dean, Griff, Elf, Jasper and Levon all – still! – feel like friends of my heart; this is a truly warm and wonderful novel.
  2. Hild – Nicola Griffith (2014). It took me twelve days to read this 550-page novel, and I’m a fast reader. Part of what makes it a slow read is its almost speculative treatment of its seventh-century setting: it plunges the modern reader into a very alien cultural and social milieu, asking us to keep up with political divisions and developments that we know almost nothing about, using unfamiliar terms that it doesn’t stop to explain. And part of it is that Hild herself gains power in a hostile society by observing, quietly, the movements and currents of the world around her. It made me want to do the same: to pay attention; to read slowly and carefully and thoughtfully. One of those rare books that changes your worldview as you read.
  3. The Water DancerTa-Nehisi Coates (2019). Another novel that applies speculative techniques to the stuff of realism; in this case, Virginian slavery. I loved Coates’ lyrical, supple prose, and his use of fantasy to point up the ways in which his enslaved characters are estranged from their own history. For me, it’s a novel that achieved what Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad did not.
  4. Possession – A.S. Byatt (1990). I was never not going to like this layered, brilliant tale of academic discovery and forbidden romance. It just works on so many levels: the tone-perfect pastiche of Victorian poetry; the exploration of intellectual and romantic possession; the complex, fraught relationships it charts between its various pairs of lovers. A novel to curl up into and to savour.
  5. Unconquerable Sun – Kate Elliott (2020). This take on “Alexander the Great in space” is just really solid, enjoyable SF. The worldbuilding has texture and substance; the text resists easy moralities; queerness is an expected and unremarkable aspect of its fictional society. Deeply satisfying.
  6. Shriek: An Afterword Jeff Vandermeer (2006). I didn’t know much about Shriek before I started reading it, and I found it absolutely fascinating. The fictional city of Ambergris is underlain by a fungoid society that is terrifying in its absolute illegibility. There are shades of China Mieville here, but Vandermeer’s work is more personal, more focused on its twin protagonists, and so that sense of the abcanny, and the threat of it, is magnified. I’m excited to read more about Ambergris.
  7. The Unreal and the Real Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands – Ursula K. le Guin (2012). I read this collection of short stories in a day, travelling, an immersion that never became wearing. So many of these stories are linked, drawn from le Guin’s Hainish Cycle (although a few stand on their own, and one of them is set in the Earthsea universe), but they all explore very different ways of being and living. I don’t think I’d ever quite realised how transformative le Guin’s work is before: the collection made me think of le Guin’s quote about how capitalism feels as inescapable as the divine right of kings once did, and it really bears out that optimism, that idea that it might be possible to imagine a new kind of society into existence.
  8. Hot HeadSimon Ings (1992). My last read of 2021, this was another one that came as a pleasant surprise. Set in a cyberpunk future in which the Singularity is about to be invented, it’s deeply engaged with questions of identity, of storymaking and of cultural cohesion. Despite its early 90s publication date, it also features a Muslim protagonist and multiple queer characters. Like many debut novels, it’s a little uneven, but there are some interesting ideas here.
  9. Infidel – Kameron Hurley (2011). I’ve been looking for this novel in libraries and bookshops for literal years; what a pleasure finally to find it! Hurley’s later work doesn’t appeal to me, but the terse, punchy prose and apocalyptic desertscapes of her Bel Dame trilogy really do. Another SF novel that’s just – fun.
  10. Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (2020). A novel about the family that Shakespeare left at home in Stratford as he achieved fame and fortune in London, Hamnet is another litfic work that’s also a little bit speculative. In this case, the speculative elements are there to immerse us in a worldview very different from the modern one; a worldview that contained the supernatural, the otherworldly, as accepted fact. It’s a technique I’ve always enjoyed; and I also like O’Farrell’s close attention to domestic life in this time period, the textures and smells of 16th-century England.

Spreadsheet stats

  • I read 89 books in 2021; much less than last year’s anomalous 121.
  • The longest book I read was my mammoth collected edition of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, at 953 pages; the shortest was Thomas Pynchon’s snappy The Crying of Lot 49, at just 125. Both were re-reads. In all I read 35,787 pages in 2021, significantly down from last year’s whopping 41,837.
  • The oldest book I read in 2021 was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, another re-read and first published in 1813. The average age of the books I read in 2021 was 19, up from last year’s 12.
  • Genre: 43% of the books I read in 2021 were fantasy, down from 45% last year. Just 19% were science fiction, down from 26% last year. In fact, for the first time since I started recording my reading in 2014, I read more litfic than SF this year: 22% (last year only 8% of the books I read were litfic). The remaining 16% consists of four historical novels, four classics, three non-fiction books, two contemporaries, a Granta anthology and a book of poetry (Catherynne M. Valente’s A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects).
  • As I mentioned earlier, almost a third of the books I read in 2021 were re-reads: 29%, considerably up from last year’s 9%.
  • 60% of the books I read in 2021 were by women and non-binary people – the same as in 2020.
  • 19% of the books I read in 2021 were by people of colour – slightly up from last year’s 18%.
  • And 19% of the books I read in 2021 were by queer authors – up from last year’s 15%.