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.

Doctor Who Review: Ascension of the Cybermen

Ascension of the Cybermen is the penultimate episode in New Who’s twelfth series; it follows directly on from the previous episode, the Gothic/Romantic Haunting of Villa Diodati, which I reviewed some weeks ago. The Doctor and her fam travel to the far future to try and stop the half-Cyberman Ashad from reawakening the Cyber army and destroying the human race, but they’ve failed before they’ve even started: in the future they reach there are just seven humans left. Their one hope is to reach the Boundary, a place that will transport them to a random point in the universe where the Cybermen cannot follow.

In my review of Villa Diodati I hypothesised that Ashad in that episode is acting as a locus for anxieties about radicalised white supremacists, a cyborg colonised by technology and hateful ideology. If that’s the case, then what we see in Ascension of the Cybermen is the nihilism that ultimately lies behind such ideology: “the death of everything is within me”, says Ashad, a line that we won’t discover the full significance of until the next episode, but the point for now is that he stands for homogenisation, the destruction of everything that is not Cyberman.

The apocalyptic future the Doctor travels to in this episode, the run-down buildings, glitchy tech and spacefields littered with dead robots, caps off a series that’s been full of images of apocalypse – the monster-haunted nuclear wasteland of Orphan 55, the plastic-crazed birds of Praxeus, the god-razed planets of Can You Hear Me? – all tapping into the sense of fear and hopelessness liberals around the world are feeling right now. The Doctor in this episode finds herself helpless to undo her decision in Villa Diodati – to return the Cyberium to Ashad in exchange for the life of the poet Percy Shelley – and protect what remains of humanity against the reckless hate of the Cyber army: her gadgets, things which might have facilitated the denouement of another episode, fail in the first assault on the human refugee camp; the Cybermen pick off the people she’s supposed to be protecting, their numbers dwindling even further. The scientific rationality represented by her gadgets just doesn’t work against white supremacy and the alt-right; fear and panic reign, the refugee humans fleeing even as the Doctor warns them not to. It’s of course traditional for penultimate episodes, or the first parts of two-parters, to end in despair; we as viewers want to see how the characters will convert that despair into triumph, how they will climb out of this particular slough of despond. So it’s not particularly surprising or novel that Ascension of the Cybermen seeks to evoke despair. It’s just that it so precisely mirrors the tenor of despair we are all feeling right now about the direction the world is going in politically. (This episode was broadcast in February and filmed probably late last year, long before coronavirus was A Thing.)

(Nor will the next episode be particularly hopeful. But that’s a post for next week.)

Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War

Pop culture at the moment has quite a lot of truck with the Friendly Enemies trope: that is, with pairs of antagonists who rely on each other to define their own existences; who keep each other on their toes in a world full of less interesting or too-different people; who are locked in conflicts they have no interest in or intention of ending. Think of Sherlock and Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock, the Doctor and the Master in Doctor Who, Sean and Michael in The Good Place. It’s A Thing (and very much A Thing that seems designed to preserve the status quo for long-running narratives rather than having anything to do with psychological realism or artistic goals).

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s novella This Is How You Lose the Time War is not that kind of text, and in fact it demonstrates the hollowness of the entire concept.

Its protagonists Red and Blue are, technically, enemies. They’re highly-skilled posthuman soldiers of two far-future factions: the Agency, a “techy-mechy dystopia”, and Garden, a “viny-hivey elfworld”. The Agency and Garden are engaged in the titular time war, a conflict that takes place on a theatre of millennia, across universes, as each faction nudges timelines to bring themselves into being. It’s the kind of war whose causes nobody can remember: it just grinds on and on in blood and death and murder.

Against this backdrop, the story focuses very closely on the illicit correspondence between Red and Blue, either of whom would be executed by their own side if their contact was discovered. At first it begins as taunting, as friendly enmity; but quite soon it develops into something more.

The text alternates between Red and Blue as they read and respond to each other’s letters,and in fact it was (apparently) written that way too: Gladstone wrote all of Red’s parts and El-Mohtar all of Blue’s, and although they followed a general plot outline the details of the letters were often a surprise for the recipient – that emotional response shaping the text. How interesting!

So the acts of reading and writing are supremely important here. The act of one’s words being read is described as “infiltration” (referring of course to the dangerous context in which Red and Blue are operating); letters are “structures not events”, “place[s] to live inside”. Towards the end of the novella, Red literally consumes Blue’s words and is literally changed by them (to the extent that we can understand any of this posthuman future as literal), allowing her to enter Garden undetected and physically change Blue too, in order to protect her from the Agency.

This essay in Strange Horizons is relevant here. Writing about queer cyborgs, Ben Berman Ghan posits that Red and Blue’s mutually-altering correspondence allows them to build a space of their own; a queer space apart from the dominant, binary paradigms of the Agency and Garden. It allows them to imagine something else. In the closing words of the text: “This is how we win.”

To return to the Friendly Enemies trope: This Is How You Lose the Time War reveals that it is based on, and perpetuates, precisely those binary paradigms. There’s a point in the novella where Red and Blue have to contemplate just such a relationship, admiring each other’s work while remaining forever in conflict; but it is an impossible state for them. They have been changed too much by each other. It’s important, I think, that the novella’s conflict is an actual war; so that it becomes obvious that to accept the status of Friendly Enemies is to entrench the status quo and continue a state of senseless violence in service to factions neither of them care much about. To accept the status of Friendly Enemies is to give up their agency (hah).

This Is How You Lose the Time War is, then, a story about the importance of reading and writing and genuine connection in resolving conflict, in escaping the self-perpetuating systems that keep us at each other’s throats. As such, it is interested in seeing an end to these pointless conflicts, not a perpetuation of bankrupt Friendly Enemy dynamics (although the authors are not averse to fighting the good fight – Red and Blue will have a lot to do to carve out a safe space for themselves amid the warring troops of the Agency and Garden, after all).

It does have to be said, however, that despite its romantic focus This Is How You Lose the Time War is pretty hard SF. Though the details and mechanics of the time war aren’t important to the narrative, I think the reader needs to have a lot of trust in the authors to recognise that – to realise that they don’t actually need to worry about understanding, literally, what exactly is happening at every single moment. That’s a skill SFF readers gain but not, I think, one that literary authors cultivate in their audiences: recognising that metaphors like this are about things passing our current scientific understanding, that they’re almost just there for flavour:

Garden goes to seed, blows us away, and we burrow into the braidedness of time and mesh with it. There is no scouring hedge to pass through, we are the hedge, entirely, rosebuds with thorns for petals. The only way to access us is to enter Garden so far down-thread that most of our own agents can’t manage it, find the umbilical taproot that links us to Garden, and then navigate it upthread like salmon in a stream.

If not understanding what this passage literally means worries you, then you’re probably not the right audience for this book. But if the writing style excites you, or if you’re happy to be flung into the deep end – go ahead and read This Is How You Lose the Time War. It feels important, right here, right now.

Review: Borrowed Time

Naomi A. Alderman’s Borrowed Time is a Doctor Who novel first published in 2011 and recently re-released to capitalise on the success of Alderman’s award-winning The Power. In it, the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory visit the headquarters of the fictional Lexington Bank in the City of London in order to have ringside seats at the 2008 financial crash (???), only to find that there’s more than one speculative bubble in the making. The bank’s employees are impossibly productive and prepared, doing vastly more work than they should have time for. Turns out that two fishy characters by the names of Symington and Blenkinsop are lending out time to all and sundry: who wouldn’t relish having an extra hour or so in the day? But the wonders of compound interest have people owing more time than there is in a lifetime – tens if not hundreds of years.

Borrowed Time is, first and foremost, a lot of fun – unexpectedly so, for a novel about banking. The conceit of having time lent out like money, and on the same capitalist principles, serves to clarify the stakes of actual, real-world banking practices like those which precipitated the 2008 crisis: practices which ruined people’s lives just as thoroughly as they would have if they’d literally taken years from them. Poverty is still a major killer, even in the West, which makes bankers the biggest villains on the planet. Perhaps some of the imagery is a little on-the-nose: Symington and Blenkinsop, the predatory loan sharks, are also literal sharks. Well, shark-headed, anyway. And it’s a little difficult to believe that bankers would fall for the compound interest trick. But, hey, this is a book that’s designed to be accessible to older children as well as adults, so I can forgive a little narrative efficiency. (This is Doctor Who, after all. Subtlety has never been its strong point.)

I’m not sure how to parse the weird meta doubleness of having all this go down in a bank. Of course it’s thematically appropriate and it’s a great way of explaining the complex economics of the sub-prime mortgage crisis; but making the bankers the victims of their own behaviour (without making it explicit that they too would engage in Symington and Blenkinsop’s trickery if they had the chance) perhaps lets them off the hook a bit. What’s more, one of the sympathetic human characters goes on to lead the bank, weathering the financial crash and achieving huge success – which definitely excuses her of culpability. The novel encourages us to think that there are “good” bankers and “bad” bankers, instead of a system that incentivises risky, predatory decision-making.

Having said that, would the story work as well if it was set in a management consultancy, or a law firm? I’m not sure. I think Alderman is aiming for clarity of purpose here rather than complete ideological purity, which might be beyond the scope of a Doctor Who novel anyway. As it is, taken on its own terms, this is a clever, light adventure story with a bit of depth to it – something for everyone to enjoy.

Review: Swing Time

Narrated by a young biracial woman, who remains unnamed, from a housing estate in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time charts the course of a friendship. Our Narrator and Tracey meet at a dance class aged about eight. Tracey is a talented dancer; Our Narrator is a good singer but has hopelessly flat feet. Tracey is confident and straightforward; Our Narrator is inconsistent, passive, contrary.

The two grow up: Tracey strives for a professional career in theatre but never makes it out of the chorus line, while Our Narrator gets a glamorous, jet-setting job working as an assistant for pop sensation Aimee.

On the face of it, Our Narrator’s achieved the success Tracey was going for: she’s made it out of London, she experiences Aimee’s showbiz life almost first-hand. But Smith, of course, complicates this picture. Aimee’s philanthropic ambitions take her to West Africa, where she founds and funds a school for a rural village, but her glittering visions of educational excellence far outshine the unglamorous day-to-day support the villagers actually need, and do nothing to affect the structural reasons that put school out of reach for the young people there. Back in London, meanwhile, Our Narrator’s self-educated mother, freed of the burden of domesticity, makes a career for herself in local politics, serving the community she’s lived in most of her life.

Taiye Selasi’s review of Swing Time in the Guardian identifies change as a key theme of the novel, citing the various characters who pull themselves up by their bootstraps into a narrowly-defined version of success. For me, however, the novel’s key concern is not change but inescapability. Despite these characters’ outward success, there’s always something pulling them back, back; unavoidable structural factors or personality flaws that keep them trapped in their own heads, that prevent them growing as people or achieving contentment. Nothing that Our Narrator can do can shake Aimee’s self-absorption, her cultural and economic power. That inability to reach her employer eventually sends her back to her old London housing estate, where she began. The narrator’s mother’s career in local politics can’t undo the decades of resentment and intellectual stifling she experienced when the narrator was a child. Tracey can’t escape her class and the circumstances of her birth, and like her best friend she, too, ends up where she began.

This, I think, explains Our Narrator’s passivity, even her lack of a name: she’s propelled through life by forces beyond her control. She has no agency to change her fate. Her one significant act in the novel, at its climax, achieves nothing. Like most people, her choices and her future are circumscribed by factors she has no control over: most notably socioeconomic class, but also race and gender – all three influencing the power structures she, and we, move through every day.

I’m aware that this is all sounding Very Depressing. It isn’t, really: its inevitability is leavened by moments of genuine connection and understanding. And alongside its tracing of power structures goes some insightful exploration of the limitations of Western philanthropy, the importance of community and the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade. I enjoyed Swing Time a lot.