Review: Hot Head

Simon Ings’ debut novel Hot Head is a puzzling little number, one that to some extent sits outside the conventions of its genre. The story of cybernetically enhanced Malise, a washed-up spacefighter and former hero who’s called upon once again to defend the planet from a self-replicating, all-devouring, asteroid-sized AI mass heading our way, its roots are clearly cyberpunk in nature. But an overlay of Tarot symbolism, a long prologue set in a near-future Italy impoverished by climate change and significant geopolitical upheaval and a sharply characterised heroine (who happens to be Muslim and queer – in a novel published by a white man in 1992!) take it out of straight-up Neuromancer territory into a place that feels much more literary: there’s a sense that Ings is attempting something quite ambitious and complicated.

What that something might be I am not sure: the Tarot symbolism is sufficiently obscure, and the plot sufficiently snarled (lots of running around, mysterious and menacing strangers, uncertain and altered loyalties – all that cyberpunk cynicism) that my grasp on what actually happens in the novel is pretty hazy. It’s clear, at least, that Ings is using the generic trappings of cyberpunk quite deliberately, to think about how the psyche works, how storytelling is embedded right at the root of us psychologically speaking (and that’s all the Tarot is, really – a tool for telling stories about the psyche): he’s writing a full decade after the beginnings of cyberpunk, after all, and eight years after Neuromancer. This kind of self-awareness really appeals to me as a reader. For all its oddities of pacing and narrative, Hot Head has a weight to it, a sort of considered postmodern quality, that made it a pleasingly chewy read: a vintage diamond in the rough.

Review: The Unreal and the Real Volume 2

“We live in capitalism,” said Ursula le Guin in 2014, accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

I thought of these words often as I read The Unreal and the Real Volume 2, a collection of le Guin’s short speculative stories (the first volume of the set collects her realist shorts, apparently); of the hard and necessary work of imagining alternatives to capitalism, to the way we live now, in order, hopefully, to construct better ways of being. Spanning forty years of le Guin’s career, the stories here are collectively engaged in that work: imagining alternative societies and models of being-in-the-world.

We begin with le Guin’s most famous, and most obviously polemical, story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a parable about complicity, exploitation and moral responsibility. It’s not so much the central dilemma of this piece – is the suffering of a single child too high a price to pay for the happiness of a whole society? – which interests me: although it’s powerfully stated, it’s not a question le Guin explores in much depth; once the point has been made there is not that much more to be said. What makes this story worth rereading is the way le Guin describes the people of Omelas. They are happy without being simple, she says; and then:

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Along with the imagination of alternative ways of existence, we might consider this an organising principle of the collection. Although the stories in this volume are not all happy – not by a long shot – le Guin is nevertheless unafraid to describe joy where her characters encounter it, as they not-infrequently do. Joy in the specific: there are as many types of fulfilment and contentment here as there are of pain and suffering. There is an optimism and a humanity to le Guin’s work in this volume that engenders, even in these terrible times, a hope that feels substantial and weighty and true.

“The Shobies’ Story” is a case in point. Part of the interconnected set of works known as le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, it’s about a group of people who volunteer to be the first higher-order lifeforms to try out an experimental faster-than-light technology. They must first establish a shared bond through story, in order to operate effectively as a crew; when the new technology perturbs their perception of reality so that each of them experiences a different version of events, they have to navigate back to that cohesion in order to return home. Again, it’s not so much this story’s plot that remains with me, as the quiet joy the characters experience through sharing their own stories with each other; they all come from very different cultural backgrounds and societies, and yet, as a crew, they are able to achieve a comfortable equilibrium that sees them through a fundamental upheaval in how they experience the world. It’s a warm story that speaks to the joy of family and togetherness.

We see a similarly peaceful joy among the female residents of the planet Eleven-Soro in another Hainish story, “Solitude”. Eleven-Soro is a matriarchal society where each woman lives alone, interacting with her neighbours only obliquely, cultivating a life of quietness and inner stillness. (The men, meanwhile, are banished to the wilderness in their teenage years, to form violent and lawless gangs; if they survive, they lead hermit-like existences, visited occasionally by horny women.) For the anthropologist who comes to study Eleven-Soro, this extreme introversion is a barrier to her research; for her young daughter, it is a haven. “Solitude” is not really a warm story. It’s about the splintering of a family and the difficulties of cultural assimilation. But at its heart is the joy of the introvert who’s found a place where she can avoid the pressure of other people’s regard.

“Nine Lives” takes a different view of solitude and self-reliance. A piece that’s less anthropologically focused and more hard SF adventure story, it’s about a group of ten clones who are sent out to relieve two non-cloned humans on a mining planet. The clones have been carefully trained and conditioned to work seamlessly as a team, no outside input needed, but when nine of them are killed in an accident, the one left standing has to work out how to be a person in the world again; a person able to rely on, and support, people who are not versions of himself. Like “The Shobies’ Story”, “Nine Lives” is about the life-saving grace of community and human connection, the importance of participating fully in the world.

This life-saving grace is what gives “Betrayals”, another Hainish story, its gut-wrenching power. Its protagonist Yoss lives what looks at first like a self-sufficient life alone with her two pets. But when she finds a disgraced political leader ill in the mud near her home, she feels compelled to care for him, and out of a sort of mutual cantankerousness comes a relationship built on respect, on regard for each other’s safety (Yoss’ care is later reciprocated when her home burns down), and on an appreciation of each other as people, as humans. Here, again, we see the joy that can be found in connection and community, and the way that that joy can move us past failed politics.

Similarly, “Sur” imagines a group of women who make the first trek to the South Pole – before Amundsen’s successful mission and Scott’s doomed one – and then don’t tell anyone; it’s a corrective and a rebuke to the patriarchal, imperial impulse that demands glory for glory’s sake. “Achievement is smaller than men think”: it’s enough for this close-knit group of women that they reached the South Pole, taking joy in their determination, their camaraderie, in the adventure itself.

As in any short story collection, there are misfires. “The First Contact with the Gorgonids” (1991) has aged extremely poorly: although satirical in intent, its conflation of Aboriginal Australians and actual aliens centres the white gaze uncomfortably, and the overall tone of the piece is, hmm, dated. Similarly, “The Poacher” makes for slightly enraging reading post #MeToo, with its seemingly incorrigibly horny protagonist.

Other stories are inoffensive but one-note: “Mazes”, a piece about a sentient lab animal or alien who is fatally unable to communicate with the human scientist experimenting on them; “The Ascent of the North Face”, another humorous story about a group of people making an epic climb of what turns out to be an ordinary house; “The Wife’s Story”, a “punchline story” that has little to offer once you’ve read it the first time round. There are several stories – “The Fliers of Gy”, “The Silence of the Asonu” and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” – that describe cultures that are different from our own in fundamental ways, and look at how those differences play out in unexpected ways both within and outside those cultures. These are thought-provoking texts that clearly build on the themes of the collection – particularly in their reimagining of what being a person in the world can look like – but, being essentially descriptions, they lack the dynamism, and thus emotional power, of the more narrative pieces in the collection. (“The Matter of Seggri” is an honourable exception in this category, partly because its imagined society is described through fictional source-texts that are narrative in themselves, and partly because its interrogation of gender roles is so immediately and sharply relevant in our own world.)

“Semley’s Necklace” is more successful at examining competing understandings of what the world is like: its titular heroine initially appears to live in a sort of Old Norse fairytale universe, but the devastating consequences of her quest to retrieve a family heirloom reveals that the underpinnings of her universe are far more Einsteinian. The story has a wonderful doubleness – both fairytale and scientific readings remain viable throughout – which demonstrates the mutability of what we think of as truth, of what we think of as ultimately inescapable. Misfires and minor works notwithstanding, it’s this impression of mutability that the collection leaves us with: the idea that there is more, more to imagine and experience and enjoy than the logics of capitalism or the demands of literary fashion will allow. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” le Guin’s National Book Foundation speech continued. Absorbing, resonant and wise, the pieces collected in The Unreal and the Real Volume 2 together unlock the imaginative space we so desperately need to do just that.

Review: The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes first made her name with 2008’s Moxyland and 2010’s Zoo City, highly political novels set in near-future South African cities that are interested in capitalism, social deprivation, the abuse of state and corporate power. Zoo City – the only one of the pair I’ve read – is also suffused with urban energies, the ragged rhythms of the city, and its speculative element lends a note of Gothic excess to the proceedings. It’s an imperfect but dynamic novel, which, it turns out, is my favourite type. So Beukes’ third novel, her breakout The Shining Girls (2013), is…something of a contrast.

Set in Chicago, it revolves around two characters: Kirby Mizrachi, a young woman from the 1990s who survives a horrific murder attempt and dedicates herself to identifying the culprit; and Harper Curtis, her would-be murderer. In the Depression era, Harper finds a seemingly unremarkable House that compels him to travel through the twentieth century, finding and murdering promising women – the titular “shining girls” – and collecting grisly trophies at each of his crime scenes. Can Kirby, working with a world-weary sports journalist, connect seemingly impossible dots to work out what Harper is doing, and stop him?

This is, then, a very different novel to Zoo City: instead of a riotous urban fantasy set in a richly depicted Johannesburg, a meditation of sorts on the nature of guilt and complicity, we have something much more solidly commercial; an SF thriller of the likes of Claire North’s Touch or M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts. Which is not to say that there isn’t thematic depth here. Beukes’ key rhetorical move in The Shining Girls is to give each of the women Harper murders a chapter of her own, documenting in tight first-person perspective her hopes, her dreams, her family life (or lack of it), the texture of her existence. Beukes imbues each of these women with life, which of course sharpens our sense of tragedy when each of those lives is snuffed out. But the rude curtailment of each of their stories also makes a wider social point: these women are remarkable, and they could have achieved remarkable things if not for the spectre of male violence. How many other women across the world, across history, have been prevented from leading fulfilling family lives, becoming more fully who they are, making scientific and other breakthroughs, shaping their societies, by men?

It’s striking that, by contrast to the detailed histories of Harper’s victims, Harper himself is relatively underdeveloped. He broke his brother’s legs as a child, sort of but not really by accident; he commits violence casually, to serve his own ends, even before the House draws him into its orbit; he feels entitled to the bodies of women, even when he’s not murdering them. But what drives him, what motivates him, what has turned him into this person? We don’t really know. And that’s the point. Is there not a vast swathe of Western literature – not to mention popular culture – dedicated to examining the psyches of violent men, while their female victims remain unregarded, pitied but never taken seriously as people who once had lives and hopes? And does it ultimately matter why men are violent, when the simple fact of their violence limits the existences of everyone around them? In this novel, it’s the women that matter, that we care about; Harper, by contrast, is a pathetic, petty figure, entirely inglorious.

Beukes’ classic, closed-loop time travel plot underscores this, as the novel’s denouement returns us to scenes we’ve seen before with a satisfying sense of inevitability. Harper murders because he does. There is no real cause, just an endless loop of violence in which he is seemingly trapped – unable to move beyond his compulsion, which fails at every turn to satisfy him. Meanwhile, it’s Kirby who’s able to move on beyond that trap, her implied dynamic future a contrast to Harper’s magically incurred stasis.

If Beukes avoids the temptation to psychoanalyse her serial killer, she also avoids the trap of middle-class white feminism: her shining girls include a Black welder and a transgender showgirl. This is thoughtful work: a well-made, carefully controlled novel that combines a taut thriller plot with thematic and emotional heft. On a personal level, I preferred the messiness of Zoo City; here, it feels like all that resonant messiness has been filed away in favour of technical excellence. Nevertheless, it’s a good book, and a highly readable one.

Review: A Song for a New Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

The last novel in Becky Chambers’ series of loosely-connected novels set in her Wayfarers universe, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is also, unfortunately, the least accomplished. Structurally, it is what’s known in TV as a bottle episode: six aliens, one of them a minor character from the first Wayfarer novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, find themselves trapped by an infrastructure accident at a rest stop on the planet of Gora, a major transport hub. The delay causes tensions within the group for various reasons, but it also gives them a chance to connect and to form unlikely friendships; when the emergency is over, each leaves Gora enriched by their experience.

There’s nothing, I think, intrinsically wrong with the format of the bottle episode: in the context of a TV show it can be a truly excellent thing, giving writers a chance to delve deeply into the psychology of a group and the motivations of each of its characters, as well as slowly ratcheting up tension (the Doctor Who episode Midnight is a masterful example). But it’s a pretty thin plot to hang an entire novel on, and it does require some excellent character work to make up for the relative lack of Things Happening. My main problem with The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is that Chambers seems to mistake cultural exchange for characterisation.

All of the Wayfarers novels have been centrally concerned with issues of representation and inclusion: the galaxy where they’re set is largely a welcoming and diverse place, with many of its public spaces designed to accommodate the very differing access needs of the species that live there. Queerness of all kinds is unremarkable; most characters (with notable exceptions) work comfortably alongside people who are different from them in various respects; the second novel in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit, features some pretty obvious trans themes. How successful the series actually is in tackling issues of social justice is up for debate, but they are undoubtedly there. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within follows up on this conversation by, essentially, having its characters sit around and explain the nuances of their differing cultures to each other.

The chief focus in this exercise is Speaker, a member of a species called the Akaraks whose history is one of colonisation and displacement. None of the other characters know anything substantial about the Akaraks – and what they do know is mostly false and discriminatory – because of that history, which has left them homeless, powerless and without representation in the galactic government. Speaker’s presence on Gora gives her an opportunity to correct the record, at least in a small way, by sharing facts about Akarak culture with the other travellers and pointing out commonplace inaccuracies.

There are two problems with this approach, one of which is a problem of execution and one of which is more foundational. Firstly, and least seriously: this is all very Structural Oppression 101. This is what unconscious bias looks like, this is what casual racism looks like, this is what institutional disenfranchisement looks like…And it’s not done subtly, through character action, through metanarrative, through dialogue; it’s just infodumped into the text, and it…sits there, doing nothing except making the other characters feel good about themselves for having acquired this knowledge.

Secondly, it is…not great to put the marginalised character in the position of having to explain her own marginalisation; to educate those more privileged than she is about her culture. The text does lampshade this, but, again, it doesn’t particularly do anything with the fact that Speaker’s forced to do it at all. We’ve been told over and over again in this series that this is an enlightened and tolerant galaxy: where are the allies in the group on Gora? Why couldn’t Chambers have a more privileged character step in to correct assumptions, to prevent everyone else quizzing Speaker? At one point, Roveg, a wealthy sim designer who’s been exiled from his home planet, does contemplate rescuing her, but instead begins asking his own questions because he is: curious. Oh, great. (I will note here that the Wayfarers universe has a fully-functioning interplanetary Internet analogue which we have seen characters using in previous instalments.)

This all bespeaks a kind of shallowness that characterises the novel as a whole, for me. This is a text about cultural difference and structural oppression that doesn’t have anything coherent to say about those things except “structural oppression is bad and tolerance is good”. It’s a character-focused novel whose characters are largely unremarkable and flat. It’s a novel that means well, but which ultimately fails to grapple with questions about what meaningful allyship looks like. It is, like all of Chambers’ books, a perfectly readable novel: gentle, sweet, unchallenging to Western liberal sensitivities. But it’s a clunky note on which to end a series.

Review: The Future of Another Timeline

Annalee Newitz’s second novel The Future of Another Timeline is a science fiction story about history: history’s malleability in the hands of those with power, and the way that history’s long arc of justice can be reversed.

In a universe where time travel exists and the past can be “edited” – leaving no trace in the memory of anyone but the time traveller who changed it – a group of feminists calling themselves the Daughters of Harriet (after Harriet Tubman, who in this world was elected a US Senator after American women gained the vote in 1869) attempt to combat the efforts of the incel-like followers of moralist and anti-abortionist Anthony Comstock as they strive to bring about a world in which women are little more than breeding stock.

Newitz is careful to make their definition of feminism an inclusive and intersectional one: the ranks of the Daughters of Harriet include trans women, non-binary folk and women of colour. A key plotline sees our point of view character Tess, a woman who lives in a contemporary America where abortion has never been legal, travel back in time to 1893, to the Chicago World’s Fair, to join working-class, free-thinking Middle Eastern belly dancers in working against Comstock in the time when he was alive. This is very much a text that’s interested in collective, grassroots action, in welcoming allies wherever they are to be found.

But it’s interested in the personal, too, as its other main storyline attests. Alongside her work in 1893, Tess is also, illicitly, making a number of visits to the timeline of a nineties teenager named Beth, whose friend Lizzie has become disconcertingly fond of murdering predatory men and whose father casts an abusive shadow over her life. The conditions that Tess finds herself existing in demonstrate the importance of what the Daughters of Harriet are doing, the difference that they stand to make to countless lives.

The metaphors that Newitz is working with, then, are fairly obvious. The Daughters’ “edit war” for history – and thus for the future – is a reflection partly of current movements across Anglo popular culture to reinscribe people with marginalised identities into history – to recover the erased stories of women, LGBT+ people and people of colour – and partly of the left’s fight against the erosion of the progress we have made in recent history. The Future of Another Timeline is partly about reclaiming the narrative, and partly about protecting the successes we’ve made from the people who’d like to destroy them so completely they might never have existed. (See: the proposed overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, pretty much anything the UK Conservative party has done since 2016, etc., etc.)

It’s a satisfyingly crunchy speculative approach to representing the struggle for women’s rights: one that draws attention to little-remembered (but crucial) movements in US history in a way that’s thematically relevant as well as being a goal in itself; that asks, and leaves open, crucial questions about the role of violence in political action; that’s thoughtful about who gets to be included in stories about feminist uprisings. “Thoughtful” is the operative word here: like Alix E. Harrow’s 2020 historical fantasy The Once and Future Witches, one of the things Newitz is doing in The Future of Another Timeline is creating a new vision of feminism, one that brings everyone along on the journey to emancipation, rather than excluding everyone who isn’t a respectable middle-class white woman.

It’s a refreshingly unusual read: I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before, ranging as it does through a multitude of time periods, from the Cretaceous to the far, far future, and switching its focus from the personal to the political and back again within the space of a few chapters or so. But it failed, interestingly, to move me in the way I was moved by The Once and Future Witches; I think because it is so thoughtful, so careful, so academically inclined (Newitz was a science writer before they were a fiction writer), that there’s little space for human messinesses to slip in. Newitz is no prose stylist, either: their writing is competent but rarely elegant. The Future of Another Timeline offers a vision of our past, our present and our future that is, ultimately, hopeful; its trust is in the power of collective political action and allyship between marginalised groups. It’s a good read. But without that human angle, that deep connection with its characters, it’s hard, in the final analysis, to share fully in that trust, that hope.

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.