Review: Christmas Shopaholic

This review contains spoilers.

This Goodreads reviewer, I think, pinpoints what’s wrong with Christmas Shopaholic, the tenth outing in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, when she observes that protagonist Becky “trivialize[s] so many important societal and cultural issues.”

When Becky Bloomwood first appeared in The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic, she was a carefree twenty-something singleton in the early stages of her career whose escalating debt problems were mostly played for laughs – an approach that was effective mainly because they didn’t really affect anyone apart from her, and because her substantial social safety net meant she was never in danger of any real consequences. Ten books later, Becky is married with a young daughter and not-insignificant social responsibilities, and her self-absorption and chronic inability to control her spending are beginning to look less like adorable character flaws and more like gross irresponsibility.

As its title indicates, the novel sees Becky hosting her family and friends for Christmas for the first time, with all the planning, panicking and last-minute crises that entails. Her parents have come over all hipster and moved to Shoreditch, and their resentful friends aren’t speaking to them any more; her daughter Minnie is asking for a very specific Christmas present; her half-sister Jess is labouring under some emotional strain that she won’t talk about.

It’s Jess’ storyline that the novel struggles most to handle: she’s a vegan who tries to minimise her consumption of goods, and who along with her husband Tom is in the process of adopting a South Americana child. When she first appeared in Shopaholic & Sister, she was intended basically as a joke, Becky’s complete opposite in every way. She sort of worked as a stock character, a stereotype; but now, as an established member of Becky’s family, we need to read her sympathetically, as a real and (slightly more) complex person. This leaves her anticapitalist, eco-friendly views, which are so thoroughly at odds with the series’ consumerist ethos, in a sort of uneasy limbo: neither Becky nor Kinsella are capable of engaging with them as more than an aestheticised consumer identity (cue scenes of Becky spilling lentils all over the floor of a zero-plastic shop), but they’re still THERE, uncomfortably, pointing up the excessive waste of Becky’s Christmas preparations in a way that doesn’t ever get meaningfully dealt with. Climate change: a massive bummer, amirite?

So, yeah. While I quite enjoyed Christmas Shopaholic, in a guilty-pleasure sort of way, as a getting-ready-for-the-holidays treat, I would not call it a good novel even by the standards of this series: Secret Dreamworld might have been trashy and materialistic, but at least it wasn’t trying to be anything more than it was. I’m not sure there’s much more left to be wrung out of the Shopaholic conceit.

Review: Ninth House

Ninth HousePublished towards the end of 2019, Ninth House is YA author Leigh Bardugo’s first foray into adult fantasy. Much like Hanya Yanigahara’s The People in the Trees (which is on my mind largely because it happens to have been the book I reviewed before this one), it sheds light on the privilege and entitlement at work in America’s cultural institutions. Protagonist Alex Stern, a young woman with a traumatic past who also happens, mysteriously, to be the only survivor of a multiple homicide, is offered a full scholarship to Yale in exchange for her unprecedented ability to see and talk to ghosts (or Grays, as Bardugo terms them). On arrival, she’s drafted into the titular Ninth House – Lethe House – whose members are tasked with policing the occult activities of Yale’s secret societies, which have given their alumni fabulous wealth and power. But when Alex begins investigating a murder that seems to be connected to the societies, she discovers how limited Lethe’s powers are, and how little the university administration cares about those outside the institution.

Like Yanigahara’s novel, Ninth House gains additional force from the realisation that it’s based on real circumstances: the secret societies described in the novel really exist, and are really populated by the rich, the talented and the privileged. Probably they don’t really summon occult forces (although who knows, I guess); Bardugo’s magic stands in for the real-world power these people hold by virtue of having been in the right place at the right time, and her characters’ hoarding of that magic, their use of it to cement their privilege instead of supporting those without it, is a nice reflection of how power sustains itself in the real world.

For all that, though, I don’t think its critique of elitism is as trenchant or as troubling as Yanigahara’s: wealthy, abusive Yale boys are easy targets, after all, and the novel’s villains are all people with the kind of power that most of its readers will never be able to acquire. It’s not a novel, in other words, that really asks us to interrogate how we ourselves might be enabling and excusing these power structures. That doesn’t make it worthless: it’s a solidly written novel that’s not afraid to look unflinchingly at what happens when powerful people are allowed to wield their power unchecked (content warnings apply for rape, drug addiction and emotional abuse); but it’s not particularly memorable.

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: Warm Bodies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Three Parts Dead

What happens when you apply the logics of modern-day contract law to a world in which deities provably exist and provide quantifiable services to their followers? That’s the question posed by Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, his debut novel and the first novel in his Craft sequence, which he describes on his website as “legal thrillers about faith, or religious thrillers about law and finance”. About which claim more anon; let’s just say for now that this is the story of Tara Abernethy, a disgraced young lawyer of sorts who specialises in arranging the affairs of dead gods. She’s approached by Elayne Kevarian, senior partner in the firm of Kelethras, Albrecht and Ao, to assist her in the case of Kos Everburning, the god who powers the cosmopolitan city of Alt Coulomb and who has recently died, leaving him, obviously, unable to fulfil his obligations to the city. The pair have firstly to figure out what killed Kos in the first place, and secondly resurrect a version of him to keep the city running.

There’s something nerdily fascinating, isn’t there, about the “fantasyland does bureaucracy” formula: it’s what makes Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, in which a convicted criminal rejuvenates the postal system of a steampunked London analogue, work so well; or a novel like Steven Brust’s Orca, which features a financial crisis in a high fantasy world ruled by elves. I think this has something to do with the pre-industrial economies often depicted in such works: in the absence of significant mechanisation (which is often replaced by magic, an individual craft almost never used in circumstances of mass production), the protagonists of these novels have a tangible relationship to their work and the products of their work that modern-day knowledge workers do not have. Tara, Elayne and the other lawyer-types in Three Parts Dead do magic as a key part of their practice; in Going Postal, favourably comparing the tangibility of the mail to the ephemerality of a semaphore message is a specific marketing strategy deployed by protagonist Moist. Orca is perhaps the most subversive of the three in that it makes use of generic convention – i.e. our culturally conditioned expectation that pre-industrial economies are based on tangible goods rather than abstractions – to shed light on the utter ridiculousness of our current economic system: the fact that protagonist Vlad finds nothing of substance beneath the businessman Fyres’ complex financial arrangements is the point, it’s the great scandal of the book. And if it’s a scandal in that world, why isn’t it more of one in ours?

Going Postal, too, features a critique of economic systems that prioritise delivering profits to shareholders rather than producing goods or useful services: the semaphore company that is the post office’s main competitor has been acquired by the arch-capitalist Reacher Gilt in a way that seems to have involved convoluted financial mismanagement, and he’s busy running the system into the ground while extracting as much profit as possible from it. Three Parts Dead, by contrast, doesn’t quite seem aware of the difference between its protagonists’ relationship to the products of their work and our relationship to it in the same way, which I guess makes it feel a little…mendacious. It tells us that, ooh, aren’t these characters’ lives fun and detailed and interesting, and therefore isn’t work under late capitalism basically fun and detailed and interesting (even if there are some bad eggs), when the two things aren’t the same at all?

So. What about Gladstone’s legal/religious thriller claim I mentioned above? Well, Three Parts Dead isn’t really about religion or faith, and I think in fact its legal framing of how deities work in its world actually precludes it from being about religion or faith. In this world, the gods definitively exist. They are governed by discoverable rules. They pay attention to contract language. There is, in short, nothing of the numinous or mysterious about them. They are just extraordinarily powerful but ultimately knowable beings. That’s not how religious faith works, and this is something that SFF authors very often get wrong when writing about the gods: faith is fundamentally irrational. It is about the unknowable dimensions of human existence.

That’s not to say Three Parts Dead is a bad book: you can write about gods without writing about religious faith, I think, it’s just a question of what you’re using them for. But actually I didn’t find it a hugely compelling novel, partly because of the ideological problems I’ve talked about above: it reproduces capitalist orthodoxies in its fantasy world without really saying anything about them, and I’m not sure how interesting that is, ultimately. I certainly didn’t find it anywhere near as intricate and intelligent as Gladstone’s latest solo novel Empress of Forever; but then there’s seven years and about as many books between them, so I suppose that’s not surprising. I might well read more of the Craft sequence, just because I did enjoy Empress so much; but Three Parts Dead was quite hard going, and a little disappointing.

Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Lie Tree

As Frances Hardinge’s seventh novel The Lie Tree opens, fourteen-year-old Faith and her family are approaching the fictional island of Vane, having suddenly left their home in Kent on the wings of scandal – Faith’s father the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a renowned naturalist, has been accused of fabricating his most famous finds. But Vane society is no kinder than that of the mainland, and the Sunderlys find themselves beset by gossip, rumours, secrets and lies. And when Erasmus Sunderly dies mysteriously, Faith finds among his papers an account of a miraculous plant, the Mendacity Tree. Whisper a lie to the Mendacity Tree (which thrives in darkness and shrinks from the light), and make as many people as possible believe that lie, and it will produce a fruit that gives the eater knowledge – the bigger the lie, the deeper and more consequential the knowledge.

There are several literary contexts The Lie Tree could be placed in (the Victorian novel is one; I also considered reading it alongside Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst, with which it has some striking similarities), but I think it’s most productively read as a work of children’s literature. Specifically, it’s a subversion of moralistic children’s stories in which young girls and women learn to be good, wise, patient and kind; to trust in God and other sources of paternal authority; in short, to conform to the restrictive gender roles British society traditionally assigns to women. I’m thinking of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden; Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (which is, however, American, not British).

Like many of Hardinge’s heroines, Faith is not good. She has a passion for secrets: for listening at doors, stealing furtive glances at paperwork, sneaking out at night. She’s also clever, having read her way through much of her father’s library and having acquired by herself a working knowledge of Ancient Greek.

These are traits that, at various points in the narrative, she actively seeks to suppress in herself, thanks to social conditioning that tells her that girls do not sneak around collecting secrets, they cannot have intelligent conversations about science without showing off or embarrassing people. Girls are good and quiet and dutiful and uncomplaining; they place the good of others (usually men) above their own. But it’s Faith’s cleverness, her unladylike boldness and her propensity for seeking out information that the adults around her would prefer to keep secret that allows her eventually to work out why her father died; in this text, then, those traits are coded as desirable, and the social pressures that encourage her to suppress them are shown as restrictive and wrong-headed.

One of the important things the novel does, then, is signal the bankruptcy of patriarchal authority. The Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, for example, far from being a shining example of Christian love and honesty, is cold and abusive to his family and lies to the entire scientific community because he is unable to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. Doctor Jacklers, the island’s resident physician and a craniometrist, claims that intelligence is tied to brain size and thus that women are less intelligent than men – having smaller skulls on average. Faith experiences a profound sense of betrayal on this pronouncement: science itself is telling her that she is lesser. We, knowing Doctor Jacklers’ theory to be incorrect, can see this as a denouncement of the scientific establishment – not science itself – as another source of self-righteous patriarchal authority.

And then there’s the Mendacity Tree itself, which, as Erasmus Sunderly himself acknowledges, has strong resemblances to the Christian Tree of Knowledge. The Mendacity Tree, though, is clearly an unwholesome thing in its distaste for light, the opium-like effects its fruits induce in their eaters, and in its overall air of menace, its uncanny reactions to Faith’s visits. If it is the Tree of Knowledge, then that says some fairly unpalatable things about Christianity itself, and again about the social and patriarchal authority it exerts upon Victorian society.

If The Lie Tree describes ways in which Victorian society is oppressive and wrong-headed, then it also presents strategies for resistance and survival. For instance, Faith despises her mother Myrtle for her focus on keeping up appearances, and her flirtations with various men on the island, after Erasmus’ death; but towards the end of the novel we discover that Myrtle’s aim has all along been to protect her family from the ruin and reputational loss that would follow if Erasmus was found to have died by suicide. She’s simply been using the few tools that society has given her to achieve that. There are other women, too, in these pages who have found ways to exist in the cracks: the brilliant and frail scientist who uses her dilettante husband as cover; the lesbians who must keep their relationship secret. These are imperfect acts of resistance, but they demonstrate to Faith that resistance is possible, even desirable – that society’s expectations of her and of all women are not reasonable or viable.

The Lie Tree, then, critiques a tradition of children’s literature that aims to initiate young girls and women into an oppressive social order by undermining that social order and showing that resistance to it is desirable. Instead of asking readers to accept arbitrary pronouncements from holders of patriarchal authority, it encourages them to think for themselves, to seek out knowledge and to be willing to change their minds; skills we could all benefit from in the times that lie ahead.

Review: Empress of Forever

This review contains spoilers.

The protagonist of Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever is Vivian Liao, a queer tech billionaire with the unstated aim of tearing it all down from the inside – “it” being global capitalism and the uneven distribution of power that’s associated with it. Her radicalism’s attracting the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of people, though, and so she goes underground, working on a plan to exploit third-party systems her own company built in order to create the world’s first true AI. Mid-implementation, though, something…happens, and she wakes up in a posthuman far future ruled by the titular Empress, a titanic figure revered and hated in equal measure by the citizens of a galaxy who have long since achieved functional immortality by having their souls, in effect, backed up to the cloud.

In order to return to twenty-first century Earth, she reasons, she needs to find the Empress. Her companions in this adventure are Hong, a monk of the Mirrorfaith, who study the Empress’ works with an almost fanatical devotion; Zanj, a legendary pirate queen who’s been imprisoned in the heart of a star for the last three thousand years, at the Empress’ behest; and Xiara, pilot extraordinaire, Viv’s love interest and daughter of a society destroyed by, yes, the Empress.

As a novel about the posthuman, Empress of Forever is centrally concerned with the borders of the self and the edges of the human. In a universe where you can teleport to anywhere through the cloud, your body reassembled from whatever materials are handy upon arrival; where the bodies of people like Hong are filled with circuitry; where people like Xiara can bond with the mind of a ship until they forget the way back to their organic bodies; what does “human”, as a concept, actually mean? More pertinent, though, is the replicability of the self in such a universe. The novel makes extensive use of doppelgangers and doubles: it turns out, for instance, that Viv herself is the result of one of the Empress’ experiments, which involved running thousands of simulations of herself in order to find the solution to the Bleed, a phenomenon that consumes any civilisation that grows too technologically advanced. In a very real sense, then, Viv is the Empress – a realisation that forces her to grapple with her own capacity for authoritarianism. Similar doublings in the novel likewise ask the characters to reconsider their sense of self and identity in a universe that troubles the boundaries of subjectivity.

This is not especially groundbreaking stuff thematically speaking, but it works well because of Gladstone’s finely developed characterisation: Zanj and Viv in particular are nuanced and complex people who go well beyond generic stereotypes, and Empress of Forever is one of those rare genre novels that I’d say is actually more interested in its character arcs than it is in its genre trappings or plot – which, while there is a plot it’s quite episodic and, as I remarked to the Bandersnatch at the time, distinctly reminiscent of an RPG tabletop game.

Where it does fall down is that, like much of the SFF work I’ve read that deals with the posthuman (Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief series, Gladstone’s own novella co-written with Amal El-Mohtar This Is How You Lose the Time War, Dempow Torishima’s Sisyphean), it fails to think – communally. What I mean by that is that although there are communities in the novel (Xiara’s clan, the Mirrorfaith, etc.), they are all predatory or threatening communities that our heroes must escape in order to continue their quest narrative. Perhaps that’s part of the point: the Empress works to restrict individual communities’ technological development in order to keep the Bleed away, and in doing so creates the kind of atomisation and mutual mistrust that also pertains under late capitalism. And there’s an argument to be made that Viv, Zanj, Hong and Xiara form a kind of found family, bringing together their different strengths and experiences to achieve their goals – a new community, an alliance against the dark. But, hmm. Ultimately the story is centred on Viv’s self-actualisation, and although it feels weird to complain about a novel doing what novels do (viz., focus on the self-actualisation of a bourgeois subject), I have this sense that literature of the posthuman has the potential to be vastly more radical than it actually is? It would be nice if these stories which are about the boundaries of the self could move away a little from their capitalistic focus on individual fulfilment. The posthuman self always seems so isolated, despite the fact that it inhabits a universe where reaching and working with others should be easier than ever.

I do want to stress that I enjoyed Empress of Forever immensely. I loved the strange, baroque universe Gladstone creates; the sharp wit of his prose, at a sentence level; its interest in deep, nuanced characterisation; its refreshing lack of a male gaze. (Viv hardly ever goes a chapter without remembering an old flame, usually one we haven’t encountered before, which some might find a bit much but which I actually kind of appreciated as an acknowledgement that queer people can have busy romantic pasts too.) It is a really strong example of its genre, and it’s an absolute pleasure to read. I just don’t think it ever manages to transcend its genre and fulfil its radical potential.

Doctor Who Review: The Timeless Children

This review contains spoilers for The Haunting of Villa Diodati, Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Children.

The Timeless Children is the last episode in Doctor Who‘s twelfth series, completing the arc that started with The Haunting of Villa Diodati and continued in Ascension of the Cybermen. With the Doctor and fam converging on the Boundary, a kind of gate that opens onto a random point in the universe, in an attempt to flee the Cybermen, the Master rocks up to ruin everyone’s day and reveal a dastardly plot to destroy the universe.

In my last couple of reviews I’ve been reading Ashad the Cyberleader as a focus for anxieties about social media radicalisation – basically, as a lone wolf white supremacist intent on re-establishing the dominance of what he sees as a threatened master race. I’m not sure there’s much mileage in pursuing this metaphor into this episode: although the Master’s nihilism speaks to Ashad’s in Ascension of the Cybermen, and although the anxieties about cyborg technology we saw in Villa Diodati are still at work (witness the monstrous CyberTime Lords the Master creates in the story’s final act), it’s not an episode that adds anything new to the conversation.

The Timless Children is at its heart a story about defiance through confidence in one’s self. The Doctor defeats the Master in a psychological sense by refusing to be cowed by the revelations he makes about her history and about the history of the Time Lords; by refusing to be defined by repressed abuse. It’s a focus on the power of asserting one’s identity and values that feels very familiar; I’m thinking of Luke Skywalker’s refusal to give into anger in Return of the Jedi, or Tiffany Aching’s fierce love for her land in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men. Added to the fact that the Doctor is essentially revealed as a Chosen One in this episode – the Timeless Child, the one from whom all of Gallifrey’s powers spring – it’s a narrative beat that gives an individualistic spin to this tale, victory coming not from community or solidarity but from individual strength and identity. Despite the “flat team structure” the Doctor’s been hyping for as long as she’s been Thirteen – despite series eleven’s themes of mutual personhood, understanding and tolerance – this is a story arc that puts the Doctor back in “lonely god” territory, making her once again the centre of the universe. Which is a shame: I’d like to see more stories that are about community-building and that deemphasise the importance of the individual, and I think series eleven was taking some interesting steps towards making that work in the context of Doctor Who. It is not individual power that will save us from the various messes we as a species have gotten ourselves into; it’s collective action, the hard work of loving and respecting each other as equals.