Review: Interesting Times

TW: transphobia.

Interesting TimesIt’s rarely a good sign when the name of a beloved author begins trending on Twitter, and so it proved over the weekend, when transphobes attempted to suggest that the works of prolific comic fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett support their so-called “gender critical” ideology. This is…a reach, to put it mildly: Pratchett’s Discworld series features several minor characters, chief among them the dwarf Cheery Littlebottom, who can be read as transgender or genderfluid, and his works generally show a tendency towards opposing all forms of hate and any ideology that refuses to acknowledge the humanity of other people. At the same time, though, those who are defending Pratchett as a sort of ultraprogressive literary hero are, I feel, massively overstating the case: he’s nowhere near as interested in gender as either the transphobes or his liberal supporters would like him to be, and he’s more than capable of being problematic in other areas too. Interesting Times, a middle-period Discworld novel, is a salient example.

The book sees cowardly wizard (or, in his own words, “Wizzard”) Rincewind summoned to the inscrutable, powerful Agatean Empire – a caricatured analogue of China/Japan – for unknown reasons. There, he finds a people’s revolution fomenting against the cruel and oppressive imperial regime, and meets the elderly barbarian Cohen, who, together with his equally elderly Silver Horde, is planning the heist of a lifetime.

Where to start with this? Well, there’s the title, which refers to the well-known “Chinese curse”, “May you live in interesting times!” – which has never been traced back to an actual Chinese-language saying. Nevertheless, Pratchett builds on the ironic understatement of the phrase to imagine a vaguely Oriental society that’s chronically polite and rigidly hierarchical: hampered by etiquette, the revolutionary Red Army uses slogans like “Untimely Demise to the Forces of Oppression!” and “Much Ownership of Means of Production!” Their revolutionary text is What I Did on My Holidays, an account of Agatean citizen Twoflower’s visit to Pratchett’s anarchic Victorian London analogue Ankh-Morpork. (Readers first met Twoflower in The Colour of Magic, the very first Discworld novel, in which he is a caricature of a tourist.)

With all of this Pratchett is making an argument about internalised tyranny:

The Empire’s got something worse than whips all right. It’s got obedience. Whips in the soul. They [the Agatean peasants] obey anyone who tells them what to do. Freedom just means being told what to do by someone different.

While this is an interesting social dynamic to explore, and one that’s of a piece with Pratchett’s other writing on tyranny and power, it’s not one that particularly rings true in the context of historical Asia, and it’s worth considering why Pratchett felt the need to displace this particular breed of oppression into a non-Western context, when there are plenty of historical European societies that would work just as well. (The fictional Discworld country of Uberwald, which is ruled by ancient dynasties of werewolves and vampires, would have been a good place to set such a story.) Notably, Ankh-Morpork, a city ruled over by a literal tyrant, is portrayed here as a bastion of freedom and entrepreneurship, its dangers and oppressions as somehow more honest than the Empire’s. This is literally Orientalism in action, a Western-coded city-state being defined in opposition to the Eastern-coded Other, and coming out the better for the comparison.

Theoretical considerations aside, some – lots – of the jokes are just plain racist. There’s Rincewind addressing a Red Army member in a sort of broken English pidgin (which doesn’t even make sense, given that Rincewind is supposedly speaking Agatean at this point) – “Here’s bigfella keys belong door…” There are Chinese restaurant jokes. There are stereotypical, faux-exotic names that, as far as I can tell, bear no resemblance to actual Chinese nomenclature: Pretty Butterfly, One Big River. (Weirdly this actually feels more Native-coded than Chinese-coded, which just goes to show how lazy Pratchett is being in constructing Agatean culture.)

From a series perspective there is some interesting stuff going on here. Cohen and Rincewind – the ultimate hero and the arch-coward – are always good foils for each other; the fact that both end up triumphing against overwhelming odds despite their opposing worldviews is a nice touch. I like the overt metanarrative about luck and fate; that’s quite fun, despite the fact that it connects poorly to the novel’s grander themes of power and tyranny. And ultimately it’s not a nasty novel. It’s a story about putting people ahead of ideology, a story that cares about individuals in all their variety and idiosyncrasy. All the same, it’s a novel that’s aged extremely badly, and not one that Pratchett fandom should be proud of.

Review: A Slip of the Keyboard

Published in 2014, A Slip of the Keyboard was Terry Pratchett’s first collection of non-fiction pieces, covering everything from casting bees in gold to his work on assisted dying.

I held off on reading it for years out of a combination of healthy scepticism about the commercial reasons for publishing such a collection and exhaustion with the glut of substandard Pratchett work coming out at the time (his Alzheimer’s had a marked effect on Discworld – not his fault, necessarily, but also deeply sad for a lot of his readers), and it turns out I was not wrong to avoid it. Not that A Slip of the Keyboard is terrible by any stretch of the imagination, it is just…limited. Pratchett in non-fiction, it turns out, is pretty conventional, lacking the ferocious wit and inventiveness of a Douglas Adams, say, or even the crusading anger of someone like Kameron Hurley – which is strange, because one thing everyone who knew him seems to comment on is his rage, the engine that, apparently, powered him. (I would never characterise the Discworld novels as angry; quite the opposite: they are full of hope and humanity. They often feature moments of anger, people angry on behalf of their families or their communities or their land, but it is not an anger that lasts beyond immediate need.)

He’s also pretty repetitive: this is, of course, a function of collecting pieces written for different occasions and venues across several years in a single volume, but it doesn’t make for a particularly memorable reading experience (and see Douglas Adams’ The Salmon of Doubt for a non-fiction collection that isn’t overly repetitive).

There are also hints here of the unwelcome conservatism that began creeping into his later novels (although if you look carefully it’s always been there, I think). Complaining about 50% taxation, in print, as Pratchett does in “Taxworld”, is not a good look for a millionaire who popularised the Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness. And in Neil Gaiman’s foreword to the collection, where he talks once again about Pratchett’s rage, he relates an anecdote in which he and Pratchett are late to a radio show because Pratchett refused to take a taxi. Affable old Sir Terry is so angry about his own mistake that they make the journey in silence. This basically sets the tone for the entire collection: here we have a grumpy old man, well past the peak of his career, complaining about taxes and making off-colour jokes.

It’s not all bad. There are some good bits about science fiction conventions, and writing Discworld, and signing tours; and his essay from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, “Notes From a Successful Fantasy Author: Keep It Real” is always a gem. But, you know the old saying. Never read your heroes’ ill-considered opinion pieces. On the whole, I could have done without this collection and its unflattering picture of an author I’ve always loved.

Review: The Long Cosmos

The Long Cosmos, the fifth and final novel in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s Long Earth series, is structurally indistinguishable from its four predecessors. A cast of characters, some familiar, some new, encounter various connected mysteries that point to the nature of the Long Earth – an infinite series of parallel Earths which humans have suddenly found a way to “step” to. As a result, an intrepid team of experts embark upon a journey of discovery into space, stepping between universes to explore humanity’s new reality.

In other words, it’s a series that owes a lot to science fiction’s colonial beginnings: it’s about exploration, pushing beyond the boundaries of the known, and symbolically conquering new worlds by rationalising them. The colonisation of the Long Earth, aesthetically, looks very much like the European colonisation of America: the settlers can only take what they can carry with them, and iron cannot be taken between Earths, so the new towns are built of local materials, luxuries are relatively scarce, life is hard work but rewarding. The novels mostly valorise the Long Earth pioneers, contrasting their relatively simple lives of physical labour with the crowded, dirty conditions back on Datum Earth, our Earth, where capitalism alienates workers from the products of their work. And one of the series’ main characters, Joshua Valiente, is regularly compared to frontiersman Daniel Boone, who apparently hated other people so much he would move if he so much as saw a plume of smoke on the horizon.

The Long Cosmos, and the series as a whole, does admit to the problems of colonialism as well as its apparent glamours. The Long Earth, it turns out, is not as empty as once supposed: although empty of humans, it’s populated by a range of sapient humanoids who have evolved to take advantage of stepping – most notably the solitary beagles and the trolls, whose collective knowledge is encoded in song. Then there are the Next, a race of superintelligent humans who appeared in the fourth book in the series. In The Long Cosmos, many of the trolls have been forced into servitude in human factories, working in poor conditions for cruel and/or clueless handlers. Meanwhile, the Next look upon humanity with disdain. Colonisation is not without its flaws; nor has humanity learned its lessons from its history.

Yes, but. That would be fine and interesting if the novel was, ultimately, interested in developing any of these conflicts. It isn’t, though. What it’s interested in, what the series is interested in, is itself: the concept of the Long Earth. It’s interested in worldbuilding, and, more specifically, it’s interested in finding cool stuff, in exploring. Its critique of colonisation is undermined by the very fact that colonisation is the model the series is built on. To put it another way, it brushes past its own critique to go and look at shinies – to colonise Space, the Final Frontier.

That’s really been the problem with the whole series, which has only ever been one good idea repeated five times. It’s far more interested in creating/rationalising a world than in developing conflicts or characters or themes, and so the more revelations it makes about the Long Earth the more underwhelming each one seems. Why should we care about the Long Earth’s mysteries when they have no relevance to us, when we are given no reason to care? It’s a series built of interesting vignettes and concepts that go nowhere very profound. Pratchett and Baxter cannot really even achieve the sense of wonder that much hard SF is built on. These novels offer us no new insights into ways of thinking or being or acting in the world; despite the literal infinity of their horizons, they’re depressingly conventional, rational, literal.

Review: The Dream of Perpetual Motion

I enjoyed Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion while I was reading it, found it moderately interesting, thought there’d be plenty to think and write about it.

Now, a couple of months down the line, it seems it hasn’t quite “taken” in my memory. Likely I’m just very tired at the moment, for a range of reasons. Likely, too, I’ve just bounced off it for mysterious reasons.

It’s steampunk, at least nominally, and so should be very much my thing. Narrated by its protagonist Harold, it’s the tale of how he ended up imprisoned in an airship high above the earth, with only the disembodied voice of a woman named Miranda and a rapidly failing perpetual motion machine for company. The tale takes in Miranda’s fantastically rich and controlling inventor father Prospero Taligent, the grim travesty of a birthday party he throws early in his daughter’s life and his ominous granting to each of the randomly selected children who are his guests their “heart’s desire”. It’s a story of disillusionment and the corruption of meaning, the mechanisation of art and the ivory tower unreality of the rich.

It’s an anti-capitalist story, as far as it goes, figuring the industrial production that imbues Prospero with (eventually) near-despotic power as uncanny: in Palmer’s alternative world, mechanised labour is done by steam-powered mechanical men of varying degrees of intelligence. Prospero’s ultimate goal is to create a fully synthetic human, completing the displacement of the human by the artificial.

It’s an unusual treatment of steampunk, which tends to read industrialisation and mechanisation as progress and potential. I suspect part of the reason I’ve bounced off it is because it’s a little male-gazey: Harold’s interest in Miranda is somehow never about her but about an idealised version of her; the same is true of her father, literally, as a horrific late sequence in the novel shows. (Content warning for non-consensual surgery.) Steampunk usually is good at decent female characters (Gail Carriger’s Soulless, Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, let’s even throw in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, why not), so perhaps it’s the departure from the genre that’s distracting me. This is steampunk being used as a literary device not a genre? Which is fine, but it calls for different reading protocols. And even if I’d read it as Literary, I don’t think I’d have been able to ignore the objectification of Miranda – I’m rapidly running out of patience with litfic’s treatment of women in general.

I might be tempted to read this again, though – it’s definitely the sort of thing that would reward re-reading, especially re-reading with greater attention. For now, though, it’s a case of wrong reader, wrong time.

Review: Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel, which (astonishingly, when you think about it) puts it relatively early in the series. It’s the third novel about Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, a police force which is slowly regaining relevance under Commander Samuel Vimes.

As with all of the Discworld novels, the plot is so encrusted with wordplay and humour and rich vital detail that it’s pretty much vestigial, but it is, more or less, a murder mystery. Someone has been killing old men. Somehow, the golems of the city are involved: giant clay people without voices, who are feared at worst and ignored at best, although they’re highly prized as workers because they don’t need to rest or eat or sleep. There’s also a plot to depose Ankh-Morpork’s supreme ruler Havelock Vetinari, because there’s always a plot to depose Vetinari. And there’s a dwarf who defies convention by openly identifying as female, in what is possibly Discworld’s closest approach to a queer storyline.

There is, in other words, a lot going on. That’s one of the great joys of the Ankh-Morpork novels, though: how full they are of life and incident, of the anarchic and wonderful energies of the archetypal city. (Ankh-Morpork is pretty obviously a mirror of London, with its great curving polluted river, its Isle of Gods, its defunct city gates.)

Much of that energy is generated by the social tensions the novel lays out, conflicts between old and new: the centuries-old vampire who manipulates short-lived humans like pawns on a chessboard comes up against the newly-relevant Watch and its stubbornly working-class Commander Vimes, fast rising to prominence; the brand-new concept of dwarf femininity attracts the opprobrium of much of dwarf-kind; the idea of golems suddenly having rights and thoughts and plans of their own is abhorrent, even terrifying, to Ankh-Morpork’s citizenry. But there’s nothing schematic or straightforward about this broad pattern of tension. Cherry Littlebottom, the lipstick-wearing, skirt-clad dwarf, harbours a commonly-held prejudice against werewolves, which she expresses repeatedly to her friend Constable Angua, who is herself a closeted werewolf. Vetinari, despite being the best ruler the city has ever had, despite being despised by aristocrats and generally on the side of justice, is an unelected tyrant with the capacity for occasional cruelty. The golems aren’t really new, they’re old, much like the Watch: so old they’ve become invisible. It’s this seething complexity, this web of allegiances and relationships, that makes Feet of Clay one of the very best of the Discworld novels: its view on the world is not simple.

But there is an arc, of course, and it is the long arc of justice. Discworld, and especially Ankh-Morpork, is founded on a vaguely Victorian idea of progress: the idea that things are getting better, slowly, by degrees, but inexorably. Things tend to be slightly better for people at the end of a Discworld novel than they do at the beginning.

Which is what makes these novels so comforting to return to, over and over again, in a time when things seem to be going backwards, when civil rights campaigns are appropriated by the interests of capital. That reassurance that things will get better, coupled with that acknowledgement that the world is messy and complex. The energies of a city slowly climbing to the light.

Review: Maskerade

This review contains spoilers.

Maskerade is the eighteenth novel in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, so Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge tells me. I tend to think of it as one of my favourites, because there are some habits that are hard to shake: I was distinctly unimpressed with it on my last read over Christmas, but here I am again, going, “Maskerade! That’s a good one!”

To be clear, that’s not because I actually think it’s a good Discworld novel, as Discworld novels go. It sees a pair of formidable witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, heading down to Ankh-Morpork, the big city, to recover a young woman called Agnes Nitt. Agnes has run away to join the opera, with the help of her literally preternatural vocal abilities: she can sing in harmony with herself. Only, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg want her to join their coven in the benighted, mountainous country of Lancre.

When this merry cavalcade reaches the Opera House, though, something is amiss: performers and staff alike are being terrorised by a mysterious masked, cloaked figure who makes improbable demands punctuated by far too many exclamation marks. The opera people know him as the Ghost: until recently he’s done nothing worse than demand a box to himself on opening night, but now he’s killing people. And yet: the show must go on…

And go on it does, with Pratchett’s customary humour, wit and humanity.

There’s something very Twelfth Night about this novel: the Opera House is a place where people experiment with their identities, slip into new roles, as it were. Agnes reinvents herself as Perdita X. Nitt (“Perditax”, as Nanny Ogg insists on calling her), a person she feels is more interesting and thinner (more on that later) than Agnes is. Nanny Ogg becomes A Lancre Witch, bestselling author of a cookbook that puts Nigella Lawson’s innuendoes to shame. A painfully shy young man finds confidence and grace when he puts on a mask.

It’s good fun seeing the witches confronted with this chaotic role-play: Pratchett tends to put them in stories about stories anyway, about how stories shape our perceptions of ourselves and others, and how we perform those stories. But I think Maskerade is a weaker example of the type: I’m not convinced that its anarchic performative play has a point beyond itself. It’s just fun. The Opera House, and its particular superstitions and narratives, is important in that it allows for this kind of experimentation, but it is ultimately a closed world, beholden only to itself. When people leave, things go back to normal. Nothing changes, outside in society.

Comedy is at its roots a conservative genre, of course, and Pratchett is a small-c conservative writer: his Discworld novels mostly involve something going wrong in the body politic, and that something becoming redressed by the end. (The Rincewind books are notable exceptions, as is Small Gods.) That conservatism also finds its way out in some slightly, uh, old-fashioned views. In particular, Maskerade has a bunch of fat jokes that haven’t aged well, and like Pratchett’s early writing relies on some humour with subtly sexist undertones.

I still like it, of course. Some habits are hard to shake. Besides, visiting Ankh-Morpork, this wonderful vibrant world of Pratchett’s, pragmatic yet hopeful, is always a joy. Just. Maybe don’t start with this one.

Review: Going Postal

So Going Postal is obviously a re-read. Obviously. It’s my favourite of all Terry Pratchett’s books. I’ve read it, what, at least five times?

Somehow I’ve never reviewed it here though.

This, the 33rd Discworld novel, is probably the peak of Pratchett’s technical powers as a novelist. Before this, the slow build-up from the light romp of The Colour of Magic through novels that become ever more serious in theme, ever angrier in their satire and ever more humane in their palpable love for their flawed-but-lovable protagonists; after this, the rapid stagnation and decline into inflexible dogma (check out, or rather don’t, The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day).

Pratchett’s books have always been about character, with plot taking a back seat, and Going Postal is no exception. Our Hero is Moist von Lipwig, a conman who is hanged as the book opens for a long list of inventive and profitable crimes.

And then, as Pratchett puts it, an angel appears unto him.

Except the angel is Lord Vetinari, the despotic Patrician of London-adjacent fictional metropolis Ankh-Morpork, and the second chance he offers Moist is to reopen the city’s long-defunct Post Office, a job that’s already killed four of Vetinari’s most capable clerks.

If he fails, he’ll be hanged for the second time, and this time Vetinari will make sure it’s fatal. To succeed, he’ll have to compete with the vile Reacher Gilt, chairman of the Grand Trunk, a company that runs a semaphore system (“the clacks”) that can carry messages across the continent in a matter of hours – if you can afford the extortionate fees, and if the clacks is actually operational when you want to send your message.

It’s a novel about a lot of things: redemption, corporate greed, the power of words, the importance of community. The lynchpin holding these things together is the Post Office itself, a once-grand building that houses thousands upon thousands of dry, dead letters, undelivered because of a tragedy that remains unspecified until quite late in the book. One of Moist’s first adventures as Postmaster is to deliver some of those letters, causing a kind of joyous chaos that’s felt across the city: an elderly couple are married when a love letter arrives fifty years late; a ruckus is caused when a family realises the wrong sister got mum’s best jewellery.

That anarchic joy is the overriding mood of the novel, despite its occasional delvings into tragedy. As news of the reopening of the Post Office spreads, as Moist recruits new postmen and restores the building’s signage and invents stamps and reopens the mail coach route to other major cities, the people of Ankh-Morpork flock to participate. Because it’s fun; by gods, it’s fun, even when you’re not a citizen of Ankh-Morpork. It makes you want to get up and get things done and join in with the world.

The point is that Pratchett sees each letter that is delivered as a miniature social contract, an act of participation in a wider community. By extension, the Post Office is a social hub, a publicly-funded institution that exists to facilitate community and help people connect meaningfully; that brings joy. Moist saves the Post Office, but the Post Office also saves him: being able to see how these letters matter, the changes that such tiny things make in people’s lives, gives him the tools to comprehend why his past behaviour, which saw him parasitise communities instead of participating in them, was wrong. Moist prides himself on never having used force on his victims, and he thinks that renders him somehow guiltless; but: “When banks fail, it’s not bankers who starve,” as he’s told in no uncertain terms by his golem parole officer Mr Pump.

The social energy that the Post Office pumps into the city is contrasted with the toxicity of Reacher Gilt and the Grand Trunk, who bought the clacks off its original owners for a knockdown price in a highly questionable deal, and who have proceeded to run the system into the ground. The result is that people are paying a premium for a second-rate service. And the Grand Trunk assuredly does not care about people. We’re given reason to suspect right from the start of the novel that it has had a hand in murdering one of the clacks’ original owners. And it is ruthless about its newfound competition, hiring an arsonist to destroy the Post Office.

It would be easy to read the novel as anti-technology, but I think that would be a mistaken reading: it’s not the clacks themselves that are damaging to communities, but the Grand Trunk’s inability to comprehend that the messages it carries mean nothing without the people it exploits. I think we recognise that in the closing scenes of the novel, when Moist sends a message through the clacks that acknowledges the importance of community, of human lives, and in doing so effects real change.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning Adora Belle Dearheart, Moist’s romantic interest and one of the spikiest women in Pratchett’s oeuvre. She believes that the Grand Trunk murdered her brother John, one of the original founders of the clacks. It’s easy to see how she could have been just an emotional prop for Moist: a prize for him to win at the end, a way to up the emotional stakes of his deadly competition with the Grand Trunk, a source of information – and, indeed, that’s largely what Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle’s TV film of the novel does to her. But book!Adora is more than that. There’s a wonderful scene (which unfortunately I can’t quote, since my copy of Going Postal is currently buried somewhere at the bottom of a bag) in which she and Moist meet for a date in a notoriously rough pub (her choice) and she sticks her stiletto heel through the foot of a drunk man who accosts her.

“He was only a drunk,” Moist says, or words to that effect.

“Yes, men always say that,” she replies.

It’s only a small moment, easy to miss, but it’s precisely because it’s small that it’s important: it has no other purpose in the story other than to establish character. Here’s a woman who protects herself because men don’t see why she needs to. Here’s a woman who needs no man. But might quite like one, anyway.

That’s, in microcosm, why I think this is Pratchett’s best novel: it gives space and nuance to its characters; it’s wise about what those characters face in the world; and yet it’s hopeful about the possibility of connection in that world. I’m not claiming it reaches the dizzying heights of Great Literature – it uses satire to make its moral outlines less fuzzy, its Good and Bad clearer. But it is, exactly, a joy to read.

Doctor Who Review: The Ghost Monument

It’s the Second Episode of Doctor Who! The season’s settling into its stride, telling us what kind of thing it’s going to be, bedding down and making itself comfortable. I’m very happy with that.

This week, the Doctor and her new companions get caught up in a massive galaxy-wide trial of strength and endurance. The final challenge for competitors Angstrom and Epzo – one of them fighting for her family, the other for himself – is to cross a planet simply and ominously called Desolation, to find the ethereally-named Ghost Monument; which turns out to be, of course, the Doctor’s own lost TARDIS.

Our Heroes have little choice but to go with Angstrom and Epzo, however much Epzo resents their presence. They all quickly find, in delightfully unsubtle fashion, that they are Stronger Together; that the only way to survive the horrors of Desolation is to pool their various skills and resources, and to learn about the planet and its secrets rather than simply enduring it.

Is it totally on the nose? Yes. Is it also a thing of wonder? Yes, yes, yes.

I’m intrigued by how the galactic obstacle course imagined by this episode recalls Tim Shaw’s ritual hunt in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Matthew Kilburn makes the link to Ryan’s ill-advised assumption that because he’s an expert at Call of Duty he can deal with several deadly robot snipers simply by shooting at them: competitions that reward individuals acting in isolation are, in Chris Chibnall’s view, toxic and counter-productive. It’s tempting to read in this a response to a prevailing political climate in which isolationism and competition is becoming the norm. It’s also tempting to see it as a corrective to Steven Moffat’s habit of making every single character who is not the Doctor into a puzzle to be solved, another game level to be unlocked.

People are not puzzles. A zero sum game is not a good model for a functioning society.

Unfortunately for an episode that’s so invested in the idea of community and humanity, though, the companions were easily the least interesting people on screen. That’s a shame: these characters and their dynamics are pretty unusual for New Who, and I want to love them, but I’m finding them strangely affectless and flattened, far outshone by the two strong female leads in this episode – Thirteen, of course, who remains a joy to watch, and Angstrom, a queer woman battling incredible odds to reunite her persecuted family (be still my beating heart).

Thirteen and Angstrom made this episode personal, godsdammit. In particular, the scenes in which Thirteen finds her TARDIS again make up for the unconvincing companions approximately ten times over. The Doctor’s relief and love for her ship are palpable, but there’s also a sense that these scenes are for every woman who grew up wanting to fly the TARDIS. All the Trumps and Kavanaughs and idle Twitterers in the world cannot stop us, harhar. Which is in some ways a fantasy, but it’s a delightful one, one which we can curl up in for 45 minutes every Sunday, and, as the late great Terry Pratchett said of fantasy:

You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?

For all its flaws and blind spots, this iteration of Doctor Who is shaping up to be a fantasy that’s worth believing in: one in which everyone has something to contribute and everyone is valued and tyrants can be defeated with a snap of the fingers.

Because: how else can these things become?

Top Ten Fairy Tale Retellings

  1. Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne M. Valente. Of course a Valente novel would have to be top of this list. Her Wild West retelling of Snow White is dark and hard as the Grimm original, but sparser, unrelieved by fairytale’s usual descriptive excesses; it’s a story about how trauma perpetuates itself in systems of oppression. (It’s less dour than that makes it sound.)
  2. Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi. I really like the lyrical magical realism of Oyeyemi’s Snow White retelling, a subtle, nuanced look at race and gender and how the kyriarchy twists all our relationships with each other. It’s lovely work; unfortunately, it’s tainted by a transphobic ending that comes virtually out of nowhere.
  3. Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik. Novik pulls off the tricky feat of expanding and enriching her source material (Rumpelstiltskin) to speak about female agency while retaining its essential fairytale quality – its emphasis on words and promises and names and deep elemental magic.
  4. The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents – Terry Pratchett. This is actually a very dark novel considering it’s one of Pratchett’s ventures into YA; it channels the Germanic Gothickry of the Grimm fairy tale it’s based on (The Pied Piper of Hamelin). It’s also a lot of fun, though, the horror carried along by Pratchett’s wit and humanity.
  5. Witches Abroad – Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett’s witches are always great fun, and their practicality makes for a funny, incisive critique of the unrealistic perfection of fairy tales and the danger of making simple stories out of messy lives.
  6. Mr Fox – Helen Oyeyemi. This is an interesting book, a novel in short stories about a writer whose character comes to life. It’s a take on the Bluebeard myth, that favourite of feminist writers everywhere; expect stories that are fierce and witty and uncompromising.
  7. The Sandman – Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s graphic novel series is really based on a jumble of sources that owes only a little to the original stories of the Sandman. But it is interested in traditional fairy tale structures, and it has the darkness of fairy tale, and I like it so I’m counting it.
  8. The New Moon’s Arms – Nalo Hopkinson. This is another recent read, and it’s here because I read it as a selkie story; it’s open-ended enough that there are other possible readings. I enjoyed it mainly because of the way its fantastic elements are allowed to coexist with complex characterisation – our heroine is unlikable in many ways (including her rooted homophobia and biphobia, which the narrative is careful to condemn) without being irredeemable.
  9. Deathless – Catherynne M. Valente. Deathless isn’t my favourite of Valente’s novels: her retelling of the Russian fairy tale Koschei the Deathless is too loose and unfocused, even slightly affectless, for me. Still, it’s Valente, which makes it worth one read at least.
  10. Cinder – Marissa Meyer. I found this cyberpunk YA retelling of Cinderella really fascinating when I read it a few years ago: its futuristic New Beijing setting felt lived-in, convincing, busy with all the messinesses of ordinary life under capitalism (although I have no idea how superficial or not its Asian elements are). As an update of Cinderella, it’s also smart and feminist – or, at least, that was the impression I got four years ago.

(The prompt for this post came from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

The Last Ten Books That Came Into My Possession

Not counting library books or books lent to me.

  1. The War Poets: an anthology. You know how grandmothers always try and give you random crap when you go visit them? That’s where I got this, a couple of weekends ago. Because poetry. (Actually Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” has been one of my favourite poems since I read it out in assembly at school. Like all the best poetry, it dictates how you read it aloud; it makes you dramatise its fury through how you sound it out.)
  2. Sisyphean – Dempow Torishima. So apparently the last time I bought something in a bookshop was in April? In New York? Which seems unlikely, but I can’t think of anything I’ve actually bought since then. Sisyphean was okay, a bit organic for my taste.
  3. Space Opera – Catherynne Valente. This was part of my New York haul. I was ridiculously excited about this, as I bought it around the time Amazon sold out and the only copies left were scattered around various Barnes and Nobles and I GOT ONE and it’s lovely.
  4. The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne Valente. Yeah, I basically treated America as a chance to buy all the books that are fiendishly difficult to find over here. This included ALL THE VALENTE.
  5. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I read this a couple of years ago, but I’ve been wanting to own it for a while – the art is so lovely and MY HEART ALANA’S FACIAL EXPRESSIONS. Plus, it actually seemed to be cheaper in New York than over here.
  6. S.  – J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. I actually cannot remember exactly when I bought this, except I know it was definitely in the Oxford Blackwell’s shop. I haven’t read it yet, because of the vagaries of my TBR pile, but I can’t wait.
  7. What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This was an emergency buy when I was stuck in Bologna without anything to read, and it was a great choice if I do say so myself: engaging, thought-provoking and empathetic.
  8. Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. I bought this in Oxford in January. It was rainy and cold and we were looking for somewhere to hide for an hour before dinner, and Blackwell’s rode to the rescue (not literally, although that would be impressive). I read the first couple of chapters of this fascinating book curled up in one of their armchairs.
  9. The Compleat Discworld Atlas – Terry Pratchett and the Discworld Emporium. This was a Christmas present from my sister! It is, physically, a lovely book. It is very geeky. It is also…a bit problematic, and nowhere near as fun as the actual Discworld novels, or even some of the older companion books.
  10. The Book of Dust – Philip Pullman. Also a Christmas present, also from my sister, more interesting than the Discworld Atlas even if it’s not quite what I wanted from a His Dark Materials prequel.

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)