Review: Patternmaster

PatternmasterOctavia Butler’s 1976 novel Patternmaster occupies a slightly odd position in her oeuvre. Although it’s Butler’s first novel, chronologically it’s the last in her Patternist quartet, which also includes Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed and Clay’s Ark (as well as the now out-of-print Survivor, which Butler repudiated). The ideal reading order of the series is hotly contested: I haven’t read any of the other novels, but structurally Patternmaster is very strange for a series finale, and is slightly unsatisfactory even as a standalone.

Butler’s far-future North America is inhabited by a society of Patternists – telepaths connected to one another by a sort of mental energy field known as the Pattern. The most powerful Patternist, and the ruler of their society, is the titular Patternmaster, who at the time the novel takes place is an old man named Rayal.

The Patternists’ mortal enemies are the Clayarks, humans mutated almost beyond recognition by the Clayark disease. The Patternists believe that the Clayarks are essentially animals, and the two groups attack each other at every opportunity. Similarly, the Patternists call un-mutated, non-telepathic humans “mutes” and treat them like cattle, setting them to menial tasks in their households.

Our protagonist is Teray, a young and gifted Patternist just out of school who’s forced into servitude by his older, more powerful brother Coransee. Coransee is the strongest of Rayal’s sons, and hopes that by removing Teray from the equation he can secure his succession to the role of Patternmaster when Rayal dies. Teray, of course, has other ideas, and together with a healer named Amber he embarks upon a dangerous journey across the country to seek sanctuary from Coransee’s scheming and the mental control with which Coransee threatens him.

What makes Patternmaster so odd, considered as an SF dystopia, is that nothing really changes in it: it’s fundamentally a novel about how entrenched power structures perpetuate themselves. As Teray journeys across the Patternist world, he experiences its various injustices both in his own person – as when his sister-wife Iray is taken from him by Coransee, thanks to laws and social mores that give Housemasters absolute power over their households – and through observation of how Patternist society treats various groups (the Clayarks, Patternist women, the mutes). As genre-savvy readers, we might expect that Teray will use his burgeoning powers to resist the society in which these injustices are allowed to thrive – especially given his romance with Amber, whose position as a wandering healer is politically tenuous, leaving her as it does at the mercy of various male Housemasters. (She is also bisexual in a world that doesn’t really understand female bisexuality.) Instead, however, Teray continues to seek power within that society – to take the place of the oppressors rather than overthrow them.

It’s a bleak vision of the future, one in which humanity’s descendants continue to tear each other apart and old prejudices still hold; in which those with the power to change things choose simply to maintain the status quo. I don’t think that this is how Butler thinks the future really will look: all dystopias are, after all, reflections of the concerns of the time they’re written in. But it’s striking how relevant Patternmaster‘s concerns still are today, how inescapable our own power structures increasingly feel. I can’t say I precisely enjoyed Patternmaster: it’s too bleak and too stark for my taste. But it’s certainly doing a lot of heavy lifting for such a slight volume, and I’m interested to read the rest of the series.

Review: The Overstory

The OverstoryOne of the main criticisms that I’ve seen levelled against Richard Powers’ Booker-shortlisted eco-novel The Overstory is its lack of complex characterisation. In a judgement for the Tournament of Books, for example, Tomi Obaro writes that “Characters increasingly felt more like archetypes than real, lived-in people…[Powers] loses the people for the trees.” Others have pointed out its use of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and its stereotyping of its Chinese-American and Indian-American characters. These flaws all undoubtedly exist; but they’re interesting to me because I think they’re by-products of an attempt to write a literary novel that is not anthropocentric. That is: if Powers misses the people for the trees, it’s because he means to.

It’s a messy novel, hard to summarise, that weaves together multiple strands and plotlines; but at its heart it brings together nine-ish characters whose lives have been changed or shaped, for better or for worse, by trees. Neelay Mehta falls from a tree as a child and is permanently paralysed; Olivia Vandergriff, having undergone a near-death experience, hears the voices of the USA’s last redwood trees calling on her to protect them; Nicholas Hoel is the inheritor of a remarkable family heirloom, a collection of old-style analogue photographs of a chestnut tree, taken every day from the same angle for close on a century. And so on. Many of these stories eventually become woven around tree-focused activism of some sort: a camp of hippies defending virgin forest against loggers; weeks spent in the branches of a towering redwood slated for felling; amateur arson in the dark.

What makes the novel different from the countless such sprawling social narratives Western literary culture has produced since Dickens (see also: Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru; Jonathan Franzen’s Purity; David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks; and so on) is Powers’ ascribing of intent to the trees: they narrate key passages as a sort of Greek chorus, and may or may not influence events in the narrative. This is well and subtly done: the trees’ narration is used sparingly enough that it never becomes cheap or trite or easy, and similarly their agency in the story is always sufficiently doubtful (is the compulsion Olivia feels just a side-effect of her accident? Did that tree really tip Neelay to the ground, or is that an impression born of a child’s overactive imagination?) that their true purposes remain unknowable, just out of sight. The trees of The Overstory are not wise, kindly Treebeards on the side of all good people; the effect is rather that of a vast, unknowable, alien presence lurking just off-page.

Powers writes with wonder and awe of the things that trees can do: of forests connected to a single underground organism spreading across acres; of the organic chemicals they emit to communicate with each other, chemicals that can even affect humans; of the incredible feats of biology that allow giant redwoods to draw water and nutrients up fifty metres into the air. In the face of their age, majesty and size, and the vast tragedy that is the deforestation of the USA, the actions of individual humans, however well-intentioned, begin to look increasingly irrelevant and futile. The trees, in other words, are the true protagonist of The Understory; individual trees (Mimas the giant redwood, the Hoel chestnut, the evergreen grove that engineer Mimi Ma fails to save) as well as trees in the abstract; and if the human characters are thinly sketched and their motivations questionable, it’s because they are, for Powers, not the focus of the story. Their individual subjectivities are relatively insignificant in the grand scale of the narrative.

It’s a bold approach for a genre like litfic that is generally focused on the individual bourgeois psyche, and not one that’s entirely successful. That the human characters are not ultimately important does not mean that they need to be lazy stereotypes; indeed, using such stereotypes in this way to gesture at humanity in the abstract suggests problematically that Powers thinks such stereotypes are true, or at the very least accurately representative. There are also odd threads of story that Powers fails to weave wholly successfully into his narrative tapestry: Neelay’s plotline, which sees him developing a massively profitable MMORPG based on exploring and developing a virgin world, seems poorly thematically integrated into the rest of the novel; similarly, it’s hard to see where stroke-paralysed Ray and his unfaithful but caring wife Dottie fit in. Ray and Dottie’s imaginary daughter is called Olivia, a detail which, together with the fact that another character’s story has an alternative ending that depends on whether she meets Neelay or not, suggests an underdeveloped mystical/many-worlds angle. It’s as if Powers has gone for a Cloud Atlas-ish “everything is connected” vibe without quite knowing what he intends to do with it.

And yet, for all its flaws, I find myself thinking of The Overstory when I’m out among trees, thinking of that vast and unknowable consciousness and all the things we’re still learning about these remarkable organisms that we share our planet with. The Overstory may be a flawed attempt to grapple with a non-human perspective, but it’s attempt I’ve seen relatively few writers make, especially outside the walled garden of SFF. So many of our narratives about the climate crisis and biodiversity loss centre humanity, even those that cast us as the villains; perhaps, if we are to reverse the damage we are doing to the natural world, radical change and radical approaches are needed. Powers’ is one such approach; I hope others will follow.

Review: Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable SunKate Elliott’s most recent novel, 2020’s Unconquerable Sun, has been marketed fairly extensively as “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space”. I have to say that Alexander the Great as a cultural touchstone means little to me: about the only two things I knew about him before looking at his Wikipedia page last night were that he had a horse called Bucephalus and that he was really excellent at conquering other nations. I’ve certainly never come across a tradition of Alexander the Great literature (a tradition like the Matter of Britain, say, or the endless readaptations of Shakespeare or Austen or Grimm fairytales); but given his military reputation, and specifically his reputation for conquest, I have to say that science fiction, a genre whose most characteristic impulses sprang directly from colonialism, seems a natural choice for adapting and examining his story.

Elliott’s Alexander analogue is Sun, Princess of the Republic of Chaonia, a nation that has recently driven out the occupying Phene Empire and which is now in the process of expanding into Phene territory. Sun is desperate to prove her military acumen to her mother, an ambition that’s complicated by the fact that her father isn’t Chaonian, exposing Sun to suspicion and leaving her vulnerable should her mother choose to marry again. Her father, meanwhile, a prince of the space-nomadic Gatoi, is working on a top-secret project researching the Phene Empire’s use of Gatoi soldiers, and whether the Gatoi’s famous loyalty to their employers has a more sinister origin than the Phene would have their neighbours believe.

Unconquerable Sun, then, is a space opera/military SF novel that’s centrally concerned with power, conquest and the machinery of war. What’s particularly interesting about it is that, despite Sun’s place at the centre of the text (along with her hand-picked, high-status Companions) and the narrative status she’s given by analogy with Alexander the Great, the novel isn’t necessarily wholly on her side. In fact we have three point of view characters here: Sun herself; a woman named Persephone Lee who has attempted to disown her powerful Chaonian family in order to attend military academy; and Apama, a newly-fledged Phene pilot who’s assigned to a major campaign against Chaonia. Apama and Sun are obviously on opposite sides, and yet both are sympathetic; Persephone’s story draws attention to the unprincipled self-interest at work among Chaonia’s ruling families, effectively the social order that Sun is fighting for.

The idea that Chaonia is perhaps not fully a force for good is further reinforced by the glimpses we get of everyday life there. Although full citizens seem to have a relatively high standard of living –public transport is free, for example, albeit as part of the war effort – the celebration of royal occasions such as the queen-marshal’s wedding is mandatory. And one of Sun’s bodyguards, Ti, is the daughter of refugees; her willingness to put herself in extreme danger, even to die, in order to collect her paycheck for her family, is an indication of how desperate their situation is; an indication that’s confirmed when we see the off-world refugee camp where they live later on in the novel, where even fresh air is rationed for non-citizens.

There is, in other words, a nice sense of roundedness to Unconquerable Sun: it’s interested in complicating simple notions of good and bad, heroism and villainy, the conqueror and the conquered. That roundedness extends to the queer representation we get in the novel: same-gender relationships are unremarkable, and Sun’s mother the queen-marshal has at least two spouses that we know of (one male, one female). It’s there, too, in the attempt Elliott has made to depict a version of the future that is non-Western: Chaonian culture in particular has a vaguely Asian flavour, although it is just that, flavour, rather than anything more substantial.

That, and other flaws, make this a solid novel rather than an exceptional one: on a sentence level the writing is a little clumsy – not terrible, just insufficiently harmonious – and Elliott is unfortunately prone to infodump. I also think Elliott could have perhaps done more with her historical premise: as it is the Alexander the Great parallels feel more like an Easter egg for history buffs than anything that actually informs the novel thematically or metatextually. But I enjoyed the crunchiness of it, its willingness to complicate its readers’ preconceptions; to show us a full picture of a universe at war, and who loses and who gains from that. Its awareness of axes of power, social and political, and how they operate on ordinary people both civilian and military. I’m moderately surprised this wasn’t on the Hugo ballot this year; Elliott’s a recognised name in SFF at the moment, and Unconquerable Sun is precisely the kind of novel that Hugo voters are rewarding right now. In any case, I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

Review: Paper Girls 2

Paper Girls 2Nostalgia, regret and the inexorable passage of time are some of the themes that Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang tackle in this second volume of the comic series Paper Girls. In this volume, the titular teenage newspaper deliverers are flung forward in time to 2016, where Erin comes face-to-face with the adult version of herself and Mackenzie learns something unpleasant about her future. In keeping with the chaotic, fling-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks feel of the first volume, there are also airships, giant tardigrades, time-travelling clones and battle pterodactyls.

I still don’t have a great sense of what’s going on plotwise here, but once again it works because the story’s central quartet are so vividly emotionally realised. Our confusion is the girls’ confusion, and we piece together what’s going on at the same rate as they do. As a result, they feel convincingly ordinary, swept up in events that are much larger than they are.

This emotional grounding also allows for some extremely poignant moments – as when adult Erin’s grown-up cynicism meets young Erin’s determination and pluck, and both are forced to consider the trajectory of their life. It’s these moments that stand out amidst the science-fictional zaniness, keeping our attention on the human stories at the heart of the narrative.

Consuming serial works like comics, TV seasons or even fantasy trilogies is in large part about trust: do I trust that this creative team knows what they’re doing, that they can weave the disparate threads of story into something coherent and meaningful, in short that they are doing what they do intentionally? With the first two volumes of Paper Girls, Vaughan, Chiang and the rest of the team absolutely establish that trust: we’re in the hands of capable creators who know exactly what they’re doing. As readers, we just need to settle in for the ride.

Review: Fragile Things

Fragile ThingsNeil Gaiman needs little introduction: easily one of the bestselling and best-known SFF authors out there, he’s responsible for lucrative media properties including comic book series The Sandman, the novels Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett) and American Gods, the TV adaptations of which have strong fan followings, as well as Stardust and Coraline, which have been turned into beloved feature films. He is, in short, a major voice in the field, commercially if not aesthetically; as an author who’s won numerous genre awards, he’s a good indicator of what kind of work the core genre community consistently rewards.

His 2006 collection of “Short Fictions and Wonders” Fragile Things contains 28 short stories and poems written between 1997 and 2006, four of which are Locus and Hugo award-winners; the collection as a whole won a British Fantasy Award and a Locus award in 2007. I emphasise this because, appropriately given the book’s title (although not in the way I suspect Gaiman intended it), almost every piece in Fragile Things feels slight, insubstantial, unmemorable; nothing here, to me, is remotely award-worthy.

Take those four winning stories. First up, “A Study in Emerald”, voted Locus Best Novelette in 2004, a Lovecraft/Sherlock Holmes mashup in which the monarchs of Europe are Great Old Ones. It’s one of the better stories of the collection, I’d say, but one that never rises beyond pastiche: certainly it never approaches the atmosphere of gibbering horror that lies just beneath the surface of Lovecraft’s excessive purple prose.

The same is true of “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire”, a Locus Best Short Story winner whose premise is so utterly facile that I am actively annoyed by it. The story’s protagonist lives in a Gothic mansion where melodramatic happenings such as shrieking ghosts, swordfights with estranged family members and ravens cawing “Nevermore!” are all commonplace occurrences; he finds escapism in writing what we would consider literary realism, which to him is fluffy fantasy. That’s it. That’s the story. It’s what I think of as a “punchline story”: a piece that’s structurally identical to a joke, in that it’s constructed solely around a piece of wordplay or an unexpected inversion or a literalised metaphor, without having anything to say beyond “look how clever I am”.

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”, another Locus Best Short Story winner, falls neatly into this category too. The teenage protagonist attends a house party where he meets two girls who are actually aliens – except, because he’s already expecting teenage girls in general to be unapproachable, sophisticated and generally Other, he doesn’t actually notice. There is, as several commentators have noted, some truth in the notion that when you are fourteen it can feel as though people of other genders might as well be from another planet: teenage me certainly felt that way about boys. The problem here is that, as with many “punchline stories”, it’s painfully obvious from very early on just how the piece will turn out; as soon as the narrator’s friend Vic says the fateful words “They’re just girls…They don’t come from another planet” there’s no need to read any further. The boys meet the aliens; then they leave, and forget about them. Again, that’s it; there’s nothing else going on here.

“Sunbird”, the final award-winning story in the collection (another Locus Best Short Story), is, like “A Study in Emerald”, a reasonably competent piece that nevertheless makes little impact. An Epicurean Club whose members have spent their lives in pursuit of ever rarer delicacies take the opportunity to sample a phoenix, but things don’t go entirely their way. There’s a nicely folkloric slant to the tale, a resonant bit of poetic irony, but the piece lacks the sharp edge of menace it needs to make it truly effective.

In fact true menace, or at the very least a sense of Gothic atmosphere, is what’s missing from most of the stories in this collection – a problem that renders horror stories like “The Flints of Memory Lane”, “Closing Time” and “Feeders and Eaters” little more than shaggy dog stories. Ephemera like “Strange Little Girls”, “My Life” and “Diseasemaker’s Croup”, written to accompany, respectively, a CD, a photograph and a book of fictional illnesses, do little to add to the weightiness of the collection; the same is true of Gaiman’s poetry, which is overly literal and none too euphonious.

The one piece that I think really properly works here is also the only one I’d read before: the novella The Monarch of the Glen, which takes place in the American Gods universe. That novel’s protagonist, Shadow, is hired to provide security to what is apparently a highly exclusive weekend of revelry in a remote manor house in Scotland – only to discover that the weekend is a cover for a sinister and ancient ritual. This story possesses the atmosphere of menace, the folkloric resonance, that the rest of the collection is missing; there’s a sense of dark forces lurking beneath the apparently mundane everyday, and Gaiman does a good job of mapping his modern protagonists onto the myths he’s working from. There’s also a layer of social commentary here, the revellers’ privilege and entitlement contrasted with the itinerant lifestyle Shadow (a Black man who has been in prison) leads.

Overall, though, this is not an impressive collection. It’s not so much that these stories are bad: they’re decently constructed and clearly expressed; the dialogue mostly feels natural and authentic; the prose is competent. They are, in short, professional efforts by an author who’s been in the game a long time. But that’s the very least one should be able to expect from someone who’s received so much praise and recognition from the community. The pieces collected in Fragile Things have no teeth, no substance; as texts that aim to unsettle, they pull their punches too often to stick in the memory. I’m sceptical, to say the least, that any of these stories were the best of their year.

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.