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: 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: Defekt

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Thin Air

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

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

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

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

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

2021 Roundup

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

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

Top Ten Books of 2021

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

Spreadsheet stats

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

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.