Review: Feel Free

It turns out that I get on much better with Zadie Smith’s non-fiction than with her novels. Feel Free is a collection of essays on a smorgasbord of subjects, ranging from Facebook to jazz. I found that reading it was like having a series of conversations with a particularly wise and thoughtful friend – these are essays that go beyond the starkly drawn lines of the newspaper opinion piece and into analysis and insight. Here’s Smith on what she might tell her granddaughter about why we didn’t do more about climate change:

So I might say to her, look: the thing you have to appreciate is that we’d just been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that most of our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simple wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes–and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat.

In particular, I enjoyed her essay on Facebook (via Aaron Sorkin’s film The Social Network), in which she contends that the social media platform, in its limited conception of what meaningful social engagement looks like, traps us all in the highly particular worldview of its egotistical founder; and her piece on defending public libraries, in which she notes that the public library is one of the only places left in modern towns where you don’t have to spend money to go in.

Because the topics are all so different, I’m not sure there’s a particular thematic thread I can draw out here. These are opinion pieces, so it’s not as if I agree with everything Smith writes – but they’re also pieces designed to elicit thought, engagement and informed disagreement. In short, I enjoyed the time I spent in the company of Feel Free; there were a couple of points that have become part of my own thinking; and if a lot more public discourse looked like this the world would be a kinder place. But it’s not a book I feel particularly compelled to return to.


Review: The Hungry Empire

Full title: The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. Historian Lizzie Collingham’s book is a voyage round the British Empire in twenty dishes, from Newfoundland salt cod in the sixteenth century to iguana curry in Guyana, 1993. It examines the global webs of trade and influence associated with each of these meals that maintained imperial power and kept Britain, specifically, fed – invariably at the expense of the countries under her rule. (Coincidentally, the other day I read Shiv Ramdas’ story “And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, which is about the famines in Bengal caused when Winston Churchill’s government chose to divert the region’s food to Allied troops in the Middle East – one of the episodes covered by The Hungry Empire.)

One of the things I really appreciated about The Hungry Empire was how it made me re-evaluate what the past looked like. Take the Newfoundland salt cod, which became a fundamental underpinning of the Atlantic slave trade: the process for catching, drying and preparing the fish was done on an industrial scale, making those fisheries on the shore of the Atlantic in the sixteenth century basically the first factory food plant. That was five hundred years ago.

Also: after the enclosure of common land in the mid to late seventeenth century in England, milk was too expensive for the working classes; treacle (made from sugar farmed by slaves in the Caribbean) scraped across bread became the staple meal. The widespread adoption of tea by the English working classes was actually a symptom of poverty: rising coal prices meant they could no longer afford to brew beer, which was highly nutritious, and a cup of (almost nutritionally worthless) tea with their bread at least gave the impression that they were eating a hot meal.

The general drift of the book is that the imperial past was also a lot more global a lot earlier than we often think. There’s some highly sophisticated trade links going on around the world that often served to prop up the exploitation of minorities everywhere – not just the Atlantic slave trade or the famines in Bengal; the practice of hiring indentured workers from India to harvest sugar after the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean is covered, as is the fact that imperial trade brought nutritional deficiencies to parts of Africa in the nineteenth century: American maize became a staple foodstuff on the continent, but local populations didn’t know that if it’s not prepared correctly it’s nutritionally rubbish.

It’s also depressingly unsurprising to find out that the British government caused the tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland by moving Protestant English farmers onto the island and stealing Catholic land to farm it in a “civilised” way.

The “British empire in twenty meals” thing works really well to convey the scale and complexity of how trade sustained and enabled these oppressions, precisely because it gives Collingham the range to look at food production around the world while also drawing out shared themes and reverberations of cause and effect. The result is a really interesting look at the roots of globalisation and its associated injustices that’s focused and engaging while also spanning five centuries of empire. I would love to read more history books like this one.

Review: The Rosie Project

I read this on a day trip to my old school in Somerset. Turns out that a four-hour round trip train journey with delays is the perfect occasion for a novel like this.

Our Protagonist is Don Tillman, a genetics professor who is essentially Sheldon Cooper from the earlier series of The Big Bang Theory: dedicated to routine and highly logical, he’s constantly looking for the most efficient way to do things. That includes cooking and eating the same seven meals every week; timing his lectures to last exactly an hour; scheduling his time right down to the minute.

(A note: although author Graeme Simsion claims in a Q&A at the end of the book that he didn’t intend Don to be neurodivergent, a lot of audiences have read him that way.)

Once upon a time, Don decides that he is in want of a wife. Because he struggles with conventional dating, he decides instead to embark on the Wife Project: he creates a questionnaire designed to identify the woman who is perfect for him.

What I wanted out of The Rosie Project was adorableness, if possibly slightly conservative and/or consolatory. What I got was kind of…sexist? The questionnaire, of course, does not go according to plan, and Don’s main romantic interest actually turns out to be a bartender called Rosie who fulfils none of Don’s criteria for the ideal wife. She’s horrified when she finds out about the questionnaire, pointing out that any woman who filled it in would be participating in her own objectification. But this never actually gets addressed? The main obstacle to Don and Rosie’s relationship isn’t that Don fails to see women as fully human, it’s that Don isn’t good at reading subtle social signals. But not only is the questionnaire itself pretty icky (there was a sample at the back of the library copy of the book that was billed as Fun Engagement with the Text! but which I actually found super judgemental and uncomfortable), the last quarter of the novel is laden with the kind of “fight for her!” advice that amounts to harassment in the real world. I can’t believe we’re still saying this in 2019, but: if a woman tells her male romantic interest to leave her alone, THAT IS WHAT SHE MEANS. Not “I need further convincing, please come to my place of work and make a dramatic romantic gesture”. That the novel doesn’t recognise this as fundamentally creepy behaviour is a problem for me.

Something I wondered about when I finished The Rosie Project: who is it for? It’s being marketed as light, fluffy romance, but with a male protagonist, which (as a non-romance reader) seems unusual but also interesting! But the sexist undertones of the text make this gender inversion profoundly problematic: this is a novel being marketed to women in particular that says “this is an acceptable way for men to treat you. It is, in fact, adorable! and romantic! (and therefore you should put up with it)”. Like Don’s questionnaire, it asks us to participate in our own objectification.

Which brings me back to a sunny train platform in Somerset. “How’s the book?” asks a fellow awaiter of delayed trains. (People on train stations in Somerset actually talk to each other – always faintly terrifying to this city-dweller.) “It’s OK for a train journey,” I replied. Because it is. It’s undemanding in its recycling of every rom-com cliché going (Don even gets a makeover). It repeats the kind of misogyny that appears everywhere in popular culture. It’s not like I think Graeme Simsion is a raging sexist; I think he’s a commercial writer who doesn’t think in those terms? So The Rosie Project isn’t exactly a terrible book, just a lazy and mediocre one. It’s basically a big ol’ “meh” in novel form.

Review: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

This review contains spoilers.

On Monday I wrote about Zen Cho’s The True Queen and how being a fun, silly Regency fantasy novel is its whole project, and that’s really important in the context of its representation of people of colour, working class people and queer people.

Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is going for “fun historical-ish SFF fiction” too, and entirely fails.

The titular D.O.D.O. is the Department for Diachronic Operations – or, to you and I, time travel. It seems that magic was once a reality, with witches being able to manipulate different quantum states to change the world they inhabited. Sometime in the mid-1800s, the invention of photography collapsed wave functions around the world, thereby destroying magic. Now, D.O.D.O.’s invented a way to get it back, and have embarked on a programme of time travel that involves changing things in the past to consolidate US power in the present.

I quite like the way the novel links magic to uncertainty, and presents its practitioners as savvy exploiters of human perception and cultural assumptions. That’s picked up by its epistolary form: the story’s told through diaries, chatlogs, emails, presentations and letters, making it a shifting fug of different perspectives and voices, with plenty of gaps for uncertainties to fall into.

That’s about the only thing I did like, though. One of the novel’s main registers is bureaucratic comedy – jargon-loaded emails from HR, endless humorous acronyms, that sort of thing. But while there’s a kind of gossipy fun to be gleaned from employees bitching about their managers on Slack, the humour isn’t exactly sharp, and you really don’t need 750 pages, a glossary and a list of dramatis personae to tell this kind of story.

Actually, that’s what’s at the heart of my problems with The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.: it is far, far too long for what it’s actually doing. Sure, there’s a time travel plot, but really it’s more of a sequence of things happening than a coherent and satisfying narrative arc. The “historical” writing (diaries and letters from people living in the past – including an Elizabethan witch and a Victorian lady) is overwrought and unconvincing: “I was incredulous and I expressed my incredulity with colorful language.” There’s a fine line between expansiveness and over-explanation when you’re writing in a historical “voice”,, and Stephenson and Galland cross it repeatedly.

The tension between science and magic here – in that the proliferation of scientific thinking literally wipes out magic – is also pretty boring: it’s something that’s been done so many times, and this novel is not adding anything to it. As it’s presented here it’s also historically inaccurate – the concept of rationality as a response to the world goes all the way back to the Enlightenment. Tying it to the first widespread use of photography makes a little more sense, but it still feels like it’s playing into a false idea of the Western world. There’s also very little scrutiny of the ethical implications of the USA’s use of magic and time travel. This is the US government literally meddling with time to consolidate their power! It has far-reaching consequences for at least one timeline! The novel registers this as a bit sinister but doesn’t do anything with that recognition; it both cares and really doesn’t.

It almost feels as if this enormous book (I repeat: 750 PAGES) was meant to be the start of a series. Certainly its ending is abrupt and anticlimactic: D.O.D.O. is taken over by a disgruntled witch who’s determined to restore magic by any means necessary – including dismantling the entire technological foundation of modern American society. A bunch of ex-D.O.D.O.-ers go rogue in order to stop her. “And that, dear reader, is who we are, and what we now are doing.”* I want to read that novel! That novel has conflict and women in positions of power and maybe some deeper interrogation of the tension between magic and science! Not this novel, with its weird black-ops vibe and support for existing oppressive systems which are literally colonising the past and nothing terribly interesting actually happening.

I just – really did not appreciate working my way through this doorstop of a novel only to find that it ends where a better novel might begin. And it’s not like the writers are bad! I loved Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which is exactly the kind of doorstop that presses all my readerly buttons, and although I haven’t read anything else by Nicole Galland it doesn’t seem like she’s an amateur or anything. It’s just…weirdly edited and weirdly conceived and, I can’t stress this enough, too long. If the job of reviewers is to evaluate whether a novel succeeds at what it’s trying to do – well, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is trying to be fun, and fun it is not.


*This is literally and without exaggeration the entire last sentence of the novel.

Review: The True Queen

This review contains spoilers.

Zen Cho’s The True Queen is a sequel to her Sorcerer to the Crown – a novel set in Regency England following Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first African Sorcerer Royal, and Prunella Gentleman, a mixed-race young woman determined to legitimise women’s magic.

Now, in this second novel, Zacharias and Prunella are established figures, albeit ones still facing some pushback from the more conservative members of society. As Sorceress Royal, Prunella’s founded a magical school for women. It’s here that Malaysian sisters Sakti and Muna travel after a brief diplomatic incident that threatens to heighten tensions between the vulnerable island of Janda Baik and the mighty, ever-expanding British Empire – but their route to London lies through Fairyland. When Sakti gets lost there, Muna, who has no magic of her own, must pretend to be a powerful sorceress to convince Prunella and the rest of the school staff to help her retrieve her sister.

So! I was at a Worldcon panel on Regency fantasy featuring Zen Cho (as well as Mary Robinette Kowal, Heather Rose Jones and Susan de Guardiola). One of the things the panel talked about was the appeal of the Regency period and also what defines a Regency novel as Regency. What these discussions came back to, ultimately, was class. It’s not Regency without middle-class protagonists, and balls, and Englishness – because those are the reasons that people write Regency. The social mores are fun and narratively useful; it’s easy to keep heterosexual couples apart because of the conventions of the time, and the language allows for great insults and witty comebacks. And those dresses!

That acknowledged, I do think that part of what Cho is doing in The True Queen involves bringing people into this conception of the Regency who are often written out. Take Sakti and Muna, who are both Malaysian and are functionally orphans – although they’ve been taken in by a witch with high status on Janda Baik, Muna in particular has spent much of her time there working in the kitchen. Then there’s the scholars at Prunella’s school, who include a governess and a cook’s daughter (though their teachers are both from “respectable”, middle-class families). And one of the book’s subplots revolves around a gay man whose partner is a dragon from Fairyland. Bringing these people into our conception of the Regency doesn’t have to be about telling true tales (although minorities did exist in these circles at the time) – it’s about allowing people now to see themselves in this social construct of the Regency that’s as much created by our own present preconceptions and cultural history as by those of the people who were alive then.

One of the things that allows Cho to do that is Fairyland itself, and the wider structures of fantasy. I’ve written before about how the Fairyland portrayed in the TV adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell functions as a dark funhouse mirror of Regency society, reflecting, revealing and exaggerating its oppressions and abuses of women and people of colour. Cho’s is a more upbeat vision, though; although her Fairyland occupies a similar role in the world she’s written – in that magic in England is scarce and running out – it is more a source of liberation than oppression. It’s in association with Fairyland that Paget Damerell can have a gay relationship (which is mirrored in the social world by a marriage of convenience at the end of the novel to a lesbian; Fairyland offers freedom, the real world polite social fictions). It’s through Fairyland that Sakti and Muna come to their true power – and that Muna finds her way to a queer relationship of her own. (This is the BEST surprise of the novel, and one it keeps faithfully to its last few pages.) In other words, Cho’s Fairyland is a place that allows marginalised people to be true to themselves while allowing them to participate in polite society under genteel social fictions.

Above all, it’s important to note that The True Queen is fun! And ultimately I think that’s what it’s doing: including people of colour and queer people in a story that’s fun and silly and romantic, in a genre that’s traditionally reserved for white, straight, middle-to-upper-class people. That’s all, and that’s enough.

Review: Boneshaker

Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker begins with a disaster. Sometime in the early 1860s, inventor Leviticus Blue of Seattle creates a steam-powered gold-mining machine, the titular Boneshaker, which promptly runs horribly out of control, destroying several city blocks and releasing a noxious gas called the Blight which turns people into zombies. The survivors build a wall around the city to contain the gas and the zombies, and many of them go on to scratch out a living in its shadow.

That’s exactly what we find Leviticus’ widow Briar doing sixteen years later, working in a water treatment plant to counteract the effects of the Blight. When her son Zeke ventures into the walled city, now a no-go zone, she follows, determined to keep him safe and bring him home.

It’s hard not to read Boneshaker as a critique of capitalist greed, at least in part. Leviticus is selfish and money-hungry; his lack of care and consideration for the community he lives in leaves hundreds of people dead, hundreds more reduced to poverty and an entire city and its water supply polluted and barely livable. It also unleashes an environmental menace in the form of the zombie hordes who occupy the walled city. (Zombies, of course, are infamously common metaphors for capitalist consumers!) The poisonous, gas-filled streets Zeke and Briar move through call to mind horrific industrial disasters like the Bhopal tragedy [content warning: link contains descriptions of the effects of toxic gas on human bodies] – which was caused by corporate negligence and an utter disregard for human life and health. Later on in the novel, it even turns out that someone in the city is using the disaster for his own ends: the mysterious machine-builder Doctor Minnericht.

But the novel’s potential as capitalism critique is undermined by one of steampunk’s key flaws: its emphasis on individualism. Steampunk as an aesthetic is all about being unique, standing out; it tends towards exclusivity and classism. Priest avoids this to an extent by focusing on characters who are functionally working-class (although Briar and Zeke were both upper-class before the Blight – in fact, the prospect of hidden gold in their old house is a moderately significant plot point, and the end of the novel seems to hint at a return to prosperity). But both of her villains are individuals, crazed inventors who’ve been able to change the course of history by personal achievement alone. And she doesn’t seem massively interested in digging into the forces that allowed these men to occupy positions of such power in the first place – Leviticus’ pre-existing wealth, for instance. Without an awareness of such systems, Boneshaker is less corporate critique than it is a work that just draws on those images for emotional affect. Which makes it feel a bit hollow, honestly.

I mean, I guess my criticism of Boneshaker is more a criticism of steampunk: the only steampunk works that are actively advocating social change are things like Nisi Shawl’s Everfair that are highly aware of their genre and deliberately working against it, or things like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station that are only taking parts of steampunk to put in new contexts. Steampunk in itself – especially in its fashion guise! – is not really capable of cultural subversion; that’s just not how it functions as a phenomenon.

To return to Boneshaker: I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I read it while ill in bed, and it was not the book I would have chosen to be stuck with in that situation. It’s not as problematic as much steampunk is: it does focus on social outcasts, and it does feature people of colour, albeit as very minor characters. But, meh. It doesn’t feel like it’s doing that much work as a novel.

Review: The Causal Angel

The Causal Angel is the last novel in Hannu Rajaniemi’s trilogy about Jean le Flambeur, arch-thief and conman in a post-singularity, far-future universe populated by digital minds and deadly viruses.

War is swallowing the solar system – a war fought over the very secret of existence. Jean and his occasional ally Mieli navigate a complex network of alliances as they try to avert disaster and resist the Sobornost, a tyrannical collective of uploaded minds who want to enslave all of humanity.

It’s a little disappointing compared to the first two novels, which balanced dizzying flurries of neologisms (“spime”, “qupt”, “zoku”) with an intricate, precise prose style that brought Rajaniemi’s vision of an intricate posthuman solar system filled with unimaginably advanced technology into focus.

The Causal Angel, by contrast, feels airless and superficial. The prose no longer lives up to the dazzling complexity of the society Rajaniemi’s created, and so the various twists and turns of the narrative feel unearned, inconsequential. The trilogy as a whole is also, I think, lacking a worldview: Jean and Mieli are the only characters who feel at all real, in that the entire world seems constructed around them. What would everyone else in the universe be doing if Jean and Mieli weren’t carrying out their Extremely Important Missions? I have no idea.

Or – perhaps the worldview of this series is just very individualistic; very Silicon Valley. It’s a story about individual brilliance and being the specialest person in the universe; about being a disruptor, to use the dreaded tech-speak. Which is disappointing. This is a trilogy about the Far Future, a future so changed as to be unimaginable. And yet we have this very familiar, very capitalist Great Man narrative. It’s a story that’s a lot more small-c conservative than it thinks it is.

I’ve been thinking a lot about small-c conservative SF recently: when I was at Worldcon last week, someone asked a panel of critics whether they could recommend some books that were “more conservative” than the ones they’d been talking about. I’m pretty sure that what that audience member meant was not “do you know of any books that subscribe to a conservative worldview?” but “do you know of any good books that don’t feature women, people of colour, disabled people or queer people?” The critics’ answer was basically “no” (or, actually, “I hear Terry Goodkind is still publishing…”), because those kinds of texts are not where the good work in the field is being done at the moment, generally speaking. But recommending Rajaniemi’s work might be a good way to troll people trying to disguise bigotry as personal politics. The Quantum Thief trilogy is small-c conservative (by some definitions), and it has lesbians kissing. So…it’s doing something right.