Review: The Fractal Prince

OK, I’ve scrolled through my Twitter feed ignoring this blank page long enough now.

A confession: I have only the dimmest memory of what The Fractal Prince is about. It’s the sequel to Hannu Rajaniemi’s post-Singularity heist novel The Quantum Thief. It’s a take on The Thousand and One Nights set in the last human city, a vaguely Middle Eastern locale that’s threatened by rogue nanobots known as “wildcode” and by the political entity called the Sobornost, which wants to upload every remaining human mind to the purity of digital consciousness. Jean le Flambeur, the thief of the first novel, is involved somewhere. There’s also a human woman called Tawaddud who used to be the lover of a jinn, a human mind trapped inside an object. Oh, and stories are dangerous in this city: telling someone a story can invite the wildcode into their minds, or the jinni.

That’s pretty much all I remember. Impressionistic flashes.

Partly, that’s because Rajaniemi’s prose is incredibly abstruse, eschewing “as you know, Bob”-style explanations in favour of, um, no explanation at all. Given that The Fractal Prince is a novel taking place in a far future in which humans have all but left Earth and all but entirely fused with computers and machine intelligence – there seems, in fact, to be no practical difference between a human mind and a software mind – this makes things tricky. A sample sentence (borrowed from Adam Roberts’ review of the novel in Sibilant Fricative):

The q-bubble struggles to keep up with the barrage it is taking across the electromagnetic spectrum and switches to neutrino tomography around the Bekinstein epicentre.

(Roberts comments, in typical laconic style: “That brings, I confess, no images at all to my mind.”)

Mind, this isn’t a case of authorial incompetence; it’s not the turgid style of, say, the physics sections in Greg Egan’s Orthogonal series. Rajaniemi’s prose is detailed, clever, jewel-faceted – like cyberpunk clockwork, or, better, like a computer circuit-board. You can appreciate the artistry, the minute, interlocking detail, but you suspect that you’ll need a degree in advanced computer science actually to understand it.

Nevertheless, I would recommend these novels, with a few caveats. (As Tori Truslow points out in her review for Strange Horizons, the use of Orientalist imagery in The Fractal Prince is potentially exoticising. And the sub-plot detailing Mieli’s past romance with a woman, a romance which informs her actions in The Quantum Thief, verges on queer tragedy.) They attempt to narrate a future that’s genuinely radically different from now, and which is not entirely, or even mostly, pessimistic – which is an important thing for SF to do. They are ambitious and unusual and they do something new in a highly saturated field. I’m not sure if I’ll read the last book in the trilogy (if I had a pound for every time I’d said that I would have…a lot of pounds), but I’ll definitely remember the ones I did read. In impressionistic flashes.

Review: The Islanders

It should not come as a surprise when I say that I enjoyed Christopher Priest’s The Islanders. It’s a book that could have been written with me in mind: a gazetteer of a fictional, fantastical and fundamentally unmappable archipelago that’s also the elliptical story of a murder? Yes please!

And so: the Dream Archipelago, we’re told by the mysterious Chaster Kammerton, who writes the novel’s foreword, consists of an unspecified number of islands – at least twenty thousand, and almost certainly a lot more, each of which has its own customs, its own laws, its own currency. It cannot be mapped, and travel is haphazard and slow, because of “temporal distortion”. It is caught between the warring nations of the north and south continents – despite its Covenant of Neutrality, the effects of those wars frequently spill over into the islands themselves. It is, in sum, a liminal place, a borderland, never one thing or the other.

The Islanders, meanwhile, takes the form of a gazetteer of these islands, as I’ve said; that is, it purports to describe each island rationally, objectively, even scientifically, looking at the geography of each island, the tourist attractions, the currency, the laws. Some of the entries, however, have very little to do with the particular qualities of the island they purport to describe; instead, there’s a short story about someone living on the island, or otherwise connected to it. These apparently unrelated short stories – whose very presence serves to disturb the self-avowed objective rationality of the text – move slowly into place as you read, building up the story of a murder.

The tension the novel generates, or rather makes visible, between the scientific impulse to categorise and describe and the essentially uncategorisable, unknowable nature of everyday human experience reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I also love and which is long overdue a re-read. It’s a novel that asks its readers to work for meaning – to make implicit connections to work out the “truth” behind the surface. It’s also – necessarily – beautifully structured: each piece of information you get, however irrelevant or incidental it seems at first, becomes vital to building the whole picture.

I find it particularly suggestive that both novels – Nabokov’s and Priest’s – prominently feature artists. In The Islanders, most of the named characters, who crop up across many of the short stories and the more straightforwardly “factual” ones, are artists of one sort or another: novelists, writers on social reform, landscape artists, magicians. And many of them operate on the wrong side of the law – for repressive laws, shadowy government agencies, official secrets crop up again and again throughout the novel, again generating an uneasy tension between the official, “scientific” version of the truth and whatever it is that might actually be going on. An admittedly reductive analysis of The Islanders might posit that the artists are seeking to represent the actual lived experience of the islanders, while those in authority are protecting an “official” version of a multifarious “truth”.

That’s a lot of quotation marks for one post; but that’s also the kind of novel The Islanders is. It disturbs notions of textual authority in a way that’s deeply satisfying, emotionally as well as intellectually. It isn’t, strictly speaking, doing anything that’s particularly new (Pale Fire does pretty much everything The Islanders does), but it does do it well. And, c’mon. A fictional gazetteer? Be still my ever-geeky heart.

NINE WORLDS 2017! Or, I Am Really Quite Proud Of Myself

So I went to the Nine Worlds geek fest convention for the second time over the weekend just gone. (At least, it was just gone when I started writing this post.) I went on my own, which I wasn’t quite expecting when I bought the ticket, and for this and other reasons it was a very different experience from last year. It was, in particular, far less terrifying than my first Nine Worlds – I feel like I got a lot more out of the con experience this year, and I’m proud of myself for doing a number of things that would have made me horribly anxious a year ago.

This is going to be a long, and quite personal, post. You have been warned.

Nine Worlds 2017!!

I arrived at the Novotel London West, in Hammersmith, on the Thursday night, after an extremely busy and stressful week at work (because, of course, it is fundamentally impossible to go on holiday without having a busy and stressful week at work beforehand). This being a deeply unhelpful state of mind to be in just before the emotional tour de force that is a three-day convention, I checked in, registered, and went straight to bed.

Friday: Mars One, the Mechanisms and More

Friday I wore Generic Steampunk, and received many compliments and an “Awesome Cosplay!” token, even though I wasn’t cosplaying anything. So that was lovely.

After the all-important meal that is breakfast, my first event of Friday morning was Studying Policy on Prevention of Terrorism in Education, a fascinating talk by PhD student and former teacher Megan Bettinson about the government requirement that schools promote “British values” – defined as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect for and tolerance of different faiths. She pointed out that these terms are nowhere properly defined – which leads into worrying situations like fracking protestors being arrested under anti-terrorism laws because they’re breaking the rule of law. As someone who’s concerned about the current rhetoric around terrorism in Britain, I found this talk eye-opening and fascinating, and it was probably one of my favourite of the con. And I also did a thing I was proud of: I raised my hand and contributed to a discussion at the beginning of the talk about what the audience thought “British values” were. Last year I didn’t dare put my hand up in anything, and if I had it would only have been with much trepidation.

Next (after a quick chat with one of my TolkSoc friends who I saw across the corridor) was Undercover Geek: How to do Stealth Cosplay, another favourite: a talk about cosplaying in real life situations where full cosplay would be inappropriate. So, for instance, using block colours to evoke Disney characters or Star Trek redshirts, or wearing Deathly Hallows earrings at work. It wasn’t a particularly content-heavy session, but it turned into a bit of a conversation with the audience, and raised some interesting points about in-group identification and belonging. Stealth cosplay will definitely be something that I do! (I have already asked my sister for stealth cosplay items for my birthday in a couple of weeks…)

I grabbed a swift sandwich lunch at one of the (quite eye-wateringly expensive) hotel outlets before heading off to Classical Monsters in Popular Culture – a panel looking at the reception of classical monsters, mostly in films and TV. It started off well: Dr Liz Gloyn talked lucidly and intelligently about monster theory, which says that monsters are manifestations of what we worry about as a society, and then asked why, in that case, we’re still using monsters thought up in a very different time period in modern media.

Dr Amanda Potter followed this up by describing a couple of modern approaches to classical monsters: rationalisation (the Doctor Who model, which recasts monsters as aliens who have strange powers because of Science); making them sympathetic (mentioning the way that Atlantis’ Medusa tells Hercules to cut off her head and use it as a weapon – which to Potter makes her a heroine of sorts, though to me it reads “objectification”); and eroticising them. I wanted to know a bit more about why it’s important to modern creators to defuse classical monsters in these ways, and what it says about us as a society that these are the ways we choose to do it. That was my general impression of the panel: they touched on a number of topics without really addressing any of them quite adequately, and didn’t manage to come to any kind of thesis by the end.

It turned out that several of my TolkSoc friends had also attended this panel, so we all had a bit of a debrief (I had crisps; they had lunch), and then I headed off to Mars: The Journey of a Lifetime with one of them. This was a talk by Hannah Earnshaw, a Mars One candidate.

If you’ve not heard of it, Mars One is (probably) equal parts scam, publicity stunt and complete fucking lunacy. There is an entire post to be written about the fantasy that is Mars One; I direct you to this rather good one. In a nutshell, though, Mars One says they are going to send a crew of four on a one-way trip to Mars, for just $6bn, in 2032. Pretty much everyone else says they don’t have the technology, the funding, the people or the ability to do it. A group of PhD students from MIT found that, under its current plan, the first crew member would die within 68 days of landing on Mars, if they ever made it there in the first place.

I knew all this before I went to Earnshaw’s talk; but I hoped they might talk about what moves a person to sign up to leave Earth forever, to head out into the unknown. Instead, they reeled off what sounded suspiciously like pre-formed corporate drivel. We spent a good deal of the talk alternately sniggering and being bored.

Then there were the questions, which made it abundantly clear what kind of organisation Mars One is. There were many questions, about tiny details like, oh, why Mars One hasn’t published any scientific papers into its methods (because America won’t let them, apparently, which, what?), whether there’ll be a legal system on Mars (“we might have to have a sponsor country” – OK, that’s not a terrible answer, but it was clear that Mars One doesn’t have a plan in mind), and what’s going to happen about sex in a Mars colony. (Earnshaw implied that they wouldn’t want to raise children on Mars for at least a couple of decades after the landing, at which point, as my TolkSoc friend pointed out, the colonists would be about fifty years old.) I asked why Mars One has recruited members of the public as colonists rather than, say, the kind of people at NASA who have trained for a zillion years and have astrophysics PhDs. The answer? In a nutshell, Mars should belong to everybody.

OK, this is not the London Marathon, this is GOING TO MARS. There is a very real risk of death; and if the mission goes horribly wrong, there’s also a risk that no-one else will ever dare to try it again. This is not a place for rank amateurs and random sci-fi readers.

Moving on. The next panel I went to was Security for Beginners, whose description kind of intrigued me (“cyber/crypto security for activists and everyone else as well…things we can do for ourselves, so we can be ourselves online”). It was more techy than I was expecting (it says “beginners” right there in the title), and began with a request that nobody incriminate themselves (which, whoa), but touched on some interesting points about whether our real identity is the one online or the one IRL.

Straight after that I went to an RPG run by Rusty Quill called Zero Void, in which we (“we” being me and five strangers) were all space criminals fresh from a heist trying to obtain by nefarious means enough fuel to escape the Imperial forces. We ran into some space zombies and died in the end, but we had fun along the way, not least because the GM was Jonny D’Ville from THE ACTUAL MECHANISMS and I quietly fangirled for about three hours. What even is air.

Can I also just stop and emphasise that I spent three hours role-playing with some complete strangers. Again, that’s a thing that I’m enormously proud of myself for doing.

After the RPG – which finished at 9pm, in the middle of one of the panel slots – I went and ate an oily and not brilliant curry in the hotel lounge bar, and read Affinity by Sarah Waters until some people I knew turned up, and I ended up chatting to someone I’d never met (another point!) about Garth Nix and sexism in fantasy. Then we went to the Friday Nite Lite disco, which was fun and I knew some songs, but I was tired and went to bed reasonably early. (About midnight, I think.)

Saturday: Cosplay, Communism and Cabaret

Saturday was cosplay day! I woke up about an hour early, I was so excited, and ended up dancing around the room to the soundtracks from Sunless Sea and Fallen London. Because that, of course, was my cosplay: I had an Exceptional Hat, and a Bejewelled Cane (which featured about 240 plastic jewels I’d stuck on myself, by hand), and a long black opera coat, and here is a picture:

I received many “Awesome Cosplay!” tokens, though I also kept handing them out, so I never had enough on me to cash them in for a prize. Everyone loved my hat. (I took a whole suitcase full of hats to Nine Worlds.)

OK, let’s talk about the actual day. The first talk I went to was How to Write a Location You Can’t Go To, by urban fantasy author Melissa F. Olson. The talk itself was excellent: Olson gave a well-structured presentation covering not only how to write about somewhere you can’t visit but also what to do if you do manage to visit the place where you want to set your novel. Tips for writing about somewhere you can’t visit (which was the bit I was interested in: I’m writing a novel set in Crete in the mythology of the Greek gods, and also a short story set on the planet Trappist-1b) included finding someone who does live there who’s happy to answer random questions and to act as a beta reader, and looking at the local library’s internet presence to find out what the community there cares about. However, I felt she didn’t really know her audience very well, and that was particularly apparent when someone asked about how they should write about Mars, which no-one can go to (no, not even Mars One). She indicated that you’d have a lot more freedom to write about Mars, “because who’s going to tell you you’re wrong?”

Um. The many members of the geek community who are academics and scientists, maybe?

Next I went to Representations of the City in SFF, which currently ties for my favourite panel of the con: the panellists talked about ideas of the relationship between space and morality, which is exactly the kind of concept involved in the Grand Thesis I am constructing in my head about Gothic fiction and its haunted castles. The panel touched on Le Corbusier’s Modernist theories about purging antiques from our domestic lives so we become healthier and more productive – architecture as a way of creating better, more integrated, more economic citizens. Towards the end, they started talking about why utopian aspirations for architecture get talked about less than dystopian ones, and about the politics of high-rises – particularly interesting and pertinent in the wake of the Grenfell fire. I would really like to see another panel like this next year.

I met one of my TolkSoc friends there, so we had a chat about how much we enjoyed the panel, and found some of our other TolkSoc friends, and went to grab a quick sandwich with them before the next event, which for me was Cosplayers: Larp! I’ve never done any larping before; I’d like to say that this session encouraged me to do more. Unfortunately, I definitely think it could have done with  a bit more direction – the scenario was just, “these characters meet in a bar. Go.” Like, I know coming up with a proper campaign would be difficult without knowing which characters were going to turn up, but as it was a lot of people seemed to melt away throughout the session, and the handful of us left ended up having awkward, mock-drunken conversations about how depressed all our characters were. (Me: “We never see the sky in Fallen London! Never!”) I think I wanted the larping to be a bit more live action.

I found my TolkSoc friends again and we went to Dumbledore – Good or Evil?, a panel debate which one of my Oxford friends was taking part in. I’m not really particularly interested in taking Dumbledore seriously as a real person, just because so many of his decisions and actions are clearly a function of his role as headmaster of an upper-middle-class English boarding school, but for me the panel was fun and light and snarky and questioned some of the ideological bases of Rowling’s books, which is always good. As a serious debate it didn’t work too well – it failed, for instance, to define what “good” and “evil” actually were – but taking it for what it was, I enjoyed it.

Next we went to Poor Life Choices: A live choose your own adventure, in which the audience had to save the world by basically assembling an Avengers team. The choices were made by the simple expedient of the performer giving everyone a raffle ticket and pulling a number from a hat each time the script called for a choice to be made. I made a winning choice close to the end of the session which meant we collected Lucifer, so that was awesome! Overall the session was funny, the performer James Webster animated (though he spoke perhaps a little too fast at times), and the script at times poetic without being parodic or over-flown – a difficult balance to achieve, I think.

Everyone wandered off at this point, so I had a hot dog at one of the hotel outlets (yay for excellent food choices at conventions!). I skipped the next session in favour of a glass of wine and Affinity in the bar, and then we all went to the Bifrost Cabaret! This was mostly excellent: I can never remember the names of acts, but there was a balloon animal magician who was very funny, a singer-songwriter who sang the song about rubbish feminists rescuing Rapunzel that I just cannot find on the internet anywhere and which I heard and liked last year as well (I think the singer was Alice Nicholls, but the song doesn’t seem to be on her Bandcamp), and someone reciting their mildly filthy but also rather sweet poetry. (Normally I am of the opinion that there is almost no excuse for reciting your own poetry on stage, but there’s an exception to every rule.) We just about managed to escape MC Skywalker, who we saw last year rapping incomprehensibly about Star Wars, and all-out ran from the last act of the second half, which seemed to consist entirely of leading unsuspecting members of the audience up onto the stage to dance, which, nope. We all noped.

There was a brief space between the cabaret and the Bifrost disco; I ended up following my TolkSoc friends to the hotel room where one of their friends was staying (another scary thing I did!) and drinking wine out of plastic cups and chatting.

The disco itself was, sadly, a disappointment: we missed the early part of it (but isn’t this standard disco practice?), so it’s quite possible we missed the geekier songs, but I only knew about three songs in the whole night, and everyone else said the same thing. Mainly it was techno/heavy metal type stuff which you can’t really dance to and which seems to exist solely to assault your ears. We kept going back to see if the music was getting any better, but it didn’t. So then I chatted until 3:30am in the bar about Steven Moffat, and that was fun.

Sunday: BookTube, Blanket Forts and Brilliant Hats

Four hours’ sleep later, it was the last day of Nine Worlds. (Sad face.) I was in Low-Key Steampunk, with another hat that also garnered compliments. My first panel, at the unearthly time of 10am (remember: four hours’ sleep), was BookTube – Reviewing Books in the 21st Century, which was really geared towards people looking to start a BookTube channel – i.e, not me. (I have this blog!) Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear that none of the panellists really had any technical equipment when they started; and one of them (who I met on Friday night) worked for a publishing house, so it was interesting to hear from her perspective.

Next, for me, was Protocols for the education of young witches and wizards, in which Alison Baker discussed her research into approaches to education in the Harry Potter, Bartimaeus and Tiffany Aching series. (I went just for Tiffany Aching, naturally.) Like the Classical Monsters panel on Friday, this started off promisingly, with Baker looking at the different teaching styles of Hogwarts teachers (basically, Lupin is the only good teacher at Hogwarts. Harry is also a good teacher, apparently), but tailed off into description rather than analysis. She suggested of the Discworld series that education that doesn’t teach people to be good members of the community – in other words, the education delivered at Unseen University – is portrayed as useless and sterile. I found myself pushing back against this idea, actually: while Pratchett clearly has a lot less respect for the wizards of Unseen than he does for the self-taught witches, I also feel that part of Pratchett’s point in the Discworld series is that everyone has a place in society and a way of contributing to it. The wizards, for example, do save the Disc on at least one occasion (Reaper Man, I think?) and assist in saving it, however cack-handedly, in other books. (Going Postal, Hogfather, The Last Hero.) It’s when people don’t find a place for themselves that things go wrong. Obviously that kind of analysis wasn’t really in the scope of Baker’s talk, but I felt she could have said more about the larger societies depicted in each series.

Next was the session I was probably most looking forward to in the whole convention: Social Gaming with the Haberdashery Collective, basically an hour of playing silly party games like lemon jousting (now a stalwart at TolkSoc meetings), Ninja – where you strike your best ninja poses in an effort to hit the back of your neighbour’s hand, putting them out of the game – and Jedi Training, which involves stabbing people with a foam sword. It was brilliant fun and I lost all the games and it was exactly the right time in the convention to do it.

One of my TolkSoc friends was there and afterwards we went off to Blanket Fort Construction 101, where we met other TolkSoc people and also someone I half-know from the LOTNA meetup group, which is awkward because I only went to LOTNA a few times. We supported the construction of a giant blanket fort, although there was something of a too-many-cooks issue, and then we all hid in the blanket fort and I found out that one of my TolkSoc friends – who I didn’t know very well before Nine Worlds – listens to Paul Shapera. I have never met anyone else who listens to Paul Shapera (independently, anyway – I made the Circumlocutor listen to it once), so that was awesome.

Then we all went to my final event of the con: Playing with Pride: LGBT Relationships in Gaming. This was a filmmaker presenting his footage of queer gamers across America, and some in Europe, talking about their experiences trying to reconcile queer culture with geek culture. This was…emotional: many of the stories, of rejection and disenfranchisement, were sad, but there were also causes for hope, too, as representation in gaming improves. It was very worth going to, and encapsulated the spirit of Nine Worlds – a lovely note to end the con on.

I didn’t leave straight away: we went for dinner at Bill’s, then sat in the bar playing the card game Man Bites Dog. I was vaguely hoping to go to the Rock Club at the End of the Universe, but I couldn’t get the internet to tell me when the last underground train left Hammersmith, which worried me; so I left around 10pm. And that was the end of Nine Worlds.

It was a brilliant, tiring, wonderful few days, in a place that really feels like a community, among queer geeks. I always felt I could be myself there; I had conversations about things I loved; I met interesting people; I never wanted to leave. It’s such a colourful, kind place – inclusive and welcoming – and I’m already planning for next year!

Review: Shopaholic to the Stars

I am at Nine Worlds! So this review will be short.

Shopaholic to the Stars annoyed me. Not because it’s a sex-and-shopping novel about an utterly self-centred and totally vapid woman, because I expected that, nay, sought it out in fact. I read it in that one weekend in May when it was utterly gorgeous outside, and a light, fun, predictable, brain-fluff read was exactly what I wanted.

No, Shopaholic to the Stars annoyed me because it ends on a cliffhanger.

It’s the seventh entry in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, which follows the misadventures of, um, shopaholic Becky Bloomwood. Becky moves to L.A. when her hot-shot (and, obviously, just hot) husband Luke gets a job representing a Hollywood star, Sage Seymour. Becky sees this as a huge opportunity to launch a career as a Hollywood stylist, and of course gets into all kinds of shenanigans, which get worse and worse until her marriage runs into trouble and her best friend’s husband joins a cult and her best friend hates her and her nemesis makes friends with her best friend and everything, obviously, is terrible.

And then it just stops, as Becky embarks on a journey to go rescue her best friend’s husband. Then there is an advertisement for the next book. The commercial equation could not be clearer.

Look: a romantic comedy like this has one job, which is to reinforce the status quo by disturbing it and then remaking it, only better. That means all the problems have to be solved by the book’s end, because it’s not actually doing any other work that justifies a cliffhanger. So, Shopaholic to the Stars is not, in fact, a novel. It is half a novel. Which makes it bloody annoying to read on a summer’s day when all I want is a light, funny story with a consolatory ending.

I will not be seeking out the next book.

Top Ten Authors by Number of Their Books I Own

  1. Terry Pratchett. Good old Sir Terry wins by a considerable margin: I have most of the Discworld books, plus the first three Long Earth books, the Bromeliad trilogy, the Tiffany Aching series, a couple of Science of Discworld books, two Discworld spin-offs (Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook and The Discworld Companion), and a number of one-offs like The Unadulterated Cat and The Carpet People. And Good Omens, of course. 90% of everything he ever wrote is awesome.
  2. Brian Jacques. A family friend gave me a whole load of Redwall books when I was younger, and I bought a couple more: I read and re-read them endlessly.
  3. Enid Blyton. I have about 15 Famous Five books: lovely centenary hardback editions, given to me by my grandparents when I was small. Every time I went to see them they’d have another book for me. Obviously I can’t get rid of them.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien. I have a relatively small number of Tolkien books – 11, and that’s bulked out by French editions of The Lord of the Rings and a Latin edition of The Hobbit. I’ve never particularly been interested in the wider Legendarium, fragmentary and heavily edited by the Tolkien estate as it is – The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings are enough for me to visit Middle-earth. I also have Tree and Leaf, and Unfinished Tales, but that’s it.
  5. Eoin Colfer. The Artemis Fowl series was another that I loved as a child – I grew out of them after Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony (which was also, incidentally, when twelve-year-old Artemis and hundred-year-old Holly started crushing on each other, which, ugh).
  6. China Mieville. It is no secret that I am a massive Mieville fangirl, even though I only enjoy about half of his books. I have Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council, The Last Days of New Paris (signed!), Un Lun Dun, Kraken and The City and the City. Funnily enough, I only really like the first three of those; the other two I’ve loved, Railsea and Embassytown, I borrowed from the library. Oh! I also have the short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion on my TBR pile.
  7. Stephen King. The Dark Tower series, despite its disappointing back half, is still one of my favourite fantasy series, for its sheer ambition, its disjointed strangeness that echoes our world so terrifyingly.
  8. J.K. Rowling. I think this is probably a mandatory entry for anyone of my generation: I have the whole Harry Potter series, plus Quidditch Through the Ages. (My sister also has The Tales of Beedle the Bard and the scripts of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’m pretty sure I also used to have a copy of the spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but it’s been lost along the way.)
  9. Catherynne M. Valente. Valente’s lush prose and wild, strange worlds mean I basically hoard her books like treasures. I have four of her Fairyland books, Palimpsest and Six-Gun Snow White; Palimpsest is my favourite of the ones I own, but my very favourite is one I borrowed from the library, Radiance.
  10. Charles Dickens. Four of the Dickens books I own – Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son – are a set, given to me by my grandmother (not the one who gave me the Famous Five books). The other – David Copperfield, my least favourite – I bought in a second-hand bookshop.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Hexwood

Hexwood‘s protagonist is Ann Stavely, a teenage girl who, convalescing from a fever, watches out her window as a series of strangely dressed people enter – but don’t leave – the mysterious Hexwood Farm Estate, opposite her house. The next day, well enough to get up, she visits the tiny wood next to the farm. It’s the kind of wood recognisable to most people who grew up in a small town or village in England: a handful of trees with a dusty path running through them, exciting and safe all at once. But, this time, it goes on and on, uncannily, until Ann stumbles across a man named Mordion: a wizard who creates a child from his blood and from hers.

Ann returns to the wood several times over the next few days to visit Mordion and the child, Hume. But time in the wood is odd: one day Hume will be an infant of five, the next a teenager of fifteen. Magic works there, and there are castles, and monsters, and dragons, and other beasts of story.

We’re told that these effects are being produced by the Bannus, an enormously powerful machine that creates simulations to help with decision-making, which has been hidden away on Earth so no-one important can get their hands on it. But now it’s woken up; and as Ann visits Mordion and Hume on Earth, the important and despotic rulers of Earth and a good deal else besides are getting ready to visit Hexwood Farm and shut it down.

Hexwood feels a little like Diana Wynne Jones by numbers (which, to be clear, is still quite a lot more interesting than a lot of fantasy being written at the moment, even for adults): the plucky, pragmatic heroine; the knowing use of genre tropes; and, especially, the dizzying shifts of perspective as the things we thought we knew about the world of the novel change and move outwards. Like Power of Three, Hexwood starts off simple and becomes ever more complicated – a reflection, perhaps, of how the world becomes ever more complicated as we grow up.

That technique of “zooming out” has some particularly interesting things to say about how we use stories. The Bannus, it turns out, isn’t just a decision-making machine: it’s actually the machine that was once used to decide who the next rulers of the galaxy would be. Since being hidden away on Earth to keep the current Reigners in power, it’s schemed to bring everyone eligible to Earth, so it can test them: and this it does, specifically, through story. As the despotic Reigners enter Hexwood Farm – where the Bannus lives – one by one, they disappear into the Arthurian simulation it’s running; they forget their purpose. Meanwhile, the good characters – Mordion, Hume and Ann – though they become caught in the simulation, never forget that they’re not actually Arthurian knights; they never forget that they’re only playing roles.

In other words, Hexwood warns us against getting lost in the stories we tell. They’re useful places to play out scenarios and make decisions; but we have to avoid getting lost in them, and forgetting that we are more than the stories.

Which raises an interesting question: because Hexwood itself is, despite the ontological uncertainty it generates by switching from fantasy to science fiction and repeatedly questioning the reality it has established, at root an essentially traditional kind of story. The evil or weak characters all die or disappear, often in comic or ironic ways; the good characters become kings and queens; there’s even a love story (although it’s delightfully pragmatic: Ann, feeling “a queer pain in her stomach,” thinks, “Oh no! I’m in love with [spoiler]!”). It’s a comedy, in other words, an essentially conservative tale whose effective function is not to disturb the status quo but to restore it.

So, the question for the reader of Hexwood (and I’m not sure if it can be answered) is: is this a tale which we’re in control of, which we can use to make decisions and play out certain scenarios? Or, is it a tale we have become lost in, seduced by romantic tropes and consolatory happy endings, so that we forget the world is wider and more unsettling than any story?

Something to think about.

Review: Starbook

Speaking technically, Ben Okri’s Starbook might be the best book I’ve read – probably, will read – this year. Formally, it’s a fairytale: one of its protagonists is a prince who, in time-honoured fashion, begins to question the morality of his father’s kingdom; wanders away into the woods; finds a woman he thinks is a goddess; loses her and sets out to find her. The other protagonist is the woman herself, a maiden from a tribe of artists, who finds herself the centre of a courtship contest. This simplest of romances is shadowed, though, by a “white wind” blowing through the kingdom, blowing away its history and its culture and its memory. The white wind, of course, is slavery; the kingdom is the African continent.

Despite the simplicity of its plot, and its idealised setting, Starbook is a difficult book. At the sentence level, Okri’s prose has the unselfconscious clarity of fairytale – an unselfconsciousness that often teeters on the edge of naïve risibility:

This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child. The rest I gleaned from the book of life among the stars, in which all things are known.

But the cumulative effect of such prose – rhythmic, oral, seemingly straightforward – is quite different. It’s a prose characterised by repetition, by echoes, by allusion; it develops thereby a quality of density, a way of deploying imagery, that I’d usually associate with poetry. In fact, I found that the most rewarding way to read Starbook was as poetry: it demands an attention that’s at once sustained – you have to focus on every single word – and adaptable. That is, though it’s a speculative text, in the sense that there is magic and ritual and mysticism, it’s not meant to be read as you would read a traditional SFF novel, hunting for clues about how the world works. To attempt to form a rational, consistent schema for Okri’s imagined kingdom is to miss the point: in Starbook, everything is imagery; yet fixating on what any particular image means is to miss the totality of the novel. This Guardian review compares Starbook to the work of William Blake, and I think that’s a good comparison: both writers use very striking, simple imagery to complex effect.

In other words, Starbook forced me into a different mode of reading, and that was something that enriched everything I did while I was reading it, even when the covers of the book were closed. It changed my life for a little while, and that’s something that happens astonishingly little for the amount that I read.

That’s not to say, though, that I found Starbook unproblematic. In particular, I was disappointed by its relegation of its female protagonist to an entirely passive narrative role: she is sought out by the prince, she refuses to make a decision on which suitor she’ll accept, she spends much of the novel ill, she is judged by her fellow townsfolk without recognising it or doing anything about it. This is in part a problem of genre: left unexamined, fairytale tends to cast cultural constructs as timeless truths, and the way that Starbook works as a novel puts a lot of weight on a small number of relatively simple basic concepts that are easy to take as timeless truths.

This effect also lies behind Starbook‘s prioritisation of romantic love as the pinnacle of human relationships: the love of the prince and the maiden is one that literally changes worlds – and they seem to have no other meaningful human relationships. My problem with this, really, is that it has little emotional truth; I don’t think this is how anyone in a functioning, healthy romantic relationship really experiences the world, and in such a technically accomplished novel its presentation of romance feels shallow and disappointing.

I want to stress, though, that Starbook is the rare kind of book whose flaws make it more interesting, tell us something about what the it’s trying to achieve; a book to be studied, and mulled over, and re-read. I hope, one day, it becomes a classic of post-colonial literature; it really deserves to.