Class Review: Detained

I enjoyed Detained; I don’t have much to say about it.

The sixth episode of Doctor Who spin-off Class (which, no, I haven’t managed to finish watching yet), it’s a classic example of what Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge helpfully informs me is known as a bottle episode. Miss Quill puts the entire ka-tet into detention for mysterious reasons of her own, locking them into a classroom and stalking off in the way that only Katherine Kelly can. So, when a meteor smashes through the rip in space-time and propels the locked classroom into another dimension, there’s not much anyone can do about it: Our Heroes are trapped with a meteor that a) makes them irrationally angry with each other, and b) forces anyone holding it to confess their deepest darkest secrets. The episode follows them as they try to work out what has happened and how they can escape, without killing each other (or at least destroying their friendship, which when you are a teenager often feels like the same thing) first.

This is very simple storytelling; but I actually prefer it to the contrived, convoluted plotting of shows like Doctor Who, because its very simplicity allows it to make its character development explicit rather than subtextual. And character development is something Class does very well, especially for its genre. The storytelling in Detained may be simple, but its characterisation is anything but; it’s rare to find anything in SFF that’s this interested in group dynamics, in relationships under pressure. (I’m reminded, a little, of Firefly, which also shoves a found family into a confined space, with consistently interesting results.) I particularly like how Detained leans on the two romantic relationships in the series, revealing the cracks in them, showing up the fact that what seems like uncomplicated love is actually an agglomeration of more complex emotions: fear and insecurity and resentment among them. This is kind of an important message for YA as well as for SFF; too often in both markets we get romances that are a fait accompli, unbreakable and straightforward, when real-life relationships are hardly ever anything like that.

And how lovely is Tanya’s point that “We all feel like the one who’s left out, the one who the others can do without”? And how important is it that Charlie, the alien prince in charge of a hugely powerful weapon, has claustrophobia?

The BBC announced last month that Class has been cancelled after disappointing viewing figures. That’s a real shame, because there’s so little SFF – TV programmes, films or novels – that does half of the work Detained doe

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Top Ten Authors Whose Books I’ve Only Read One Of

There is no elegant way to phrase that title.

  1. Dave Hutchinson. Hutchinson’s at the top of my mind, so to speak, because I wrote a review of his Europe in Autumn on Monday. I liked it, obviously.
  2. Samuel Delany. I’ve only read Nova, and that was splendid – unusual and quite literary SF. Libraries and bookshops don’t seem to be that fond of him this side of the Atlantic, unfortunately.
  3. Becky Chambers. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is one of my comfort reads; in fact I think it was my favourite book of 2016. I am honestly not sure how I have not yet managed to read A Close and Common Orbit.
  4. Gail Carriger. I read the first Parasol Protectorate novel recently, and it was such fun! Steampunk and werewolves and vampires, oh my!
  5. N.K. Jemisin. I liked The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which is quite surprising given my general aversion to epic fantasy, and The Fifth Season‘s at the top of my TBR pile.
  6. Zen Cho. Sorcerer to the Crown is lovely! I’d really like to read her short story collection, Spirits Abroad, if I can find it.
  7. Yoon Ha Lee. Ninefox Gambit wasn’t my favourite, exactly, but I’d not be uninterested in reading Raven Strategem.
  8. Chris Wooding. Yes, Retribution Falls is inelegant and problematic, but, like Carriger’s novel, it’s also quite a lot of fun.
  9. Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson’s 2312 is the best kind of hard SF: speculative in a classic sense, set in a future that doesn’t feel unlikely, and aware of all the complexity of human beings.
  10. Octavia Butler. Butler’s another author whose SF is nuanced, complex and interesting.

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

Review: Europe in Autumn

The unofficial tagline for Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn currently seems to be “the Brexit novel written before Brexit!”* Which, yes, you can see why that would be an apposite description, but it’s also one that plumps for the easy and over-egged narrative of “SF predicts the future!” as opposed to a more nuanced one in which Hutchinson’s picked up on a continental sociopolitical trend.

What’s more, Europe in Autumn isn’t even set in Britain. Or, actually, since a large chunk of the book does, in fact, take place in London, what I mean is: it doesn’t centre Britain, which is rare enough for a genre novel published in the UK to be worth commenting on. Our Protagonist is Rudi, an Estonian chef working in a restaurant in Krakow. The near-future Europe he lives in has become balkanised, fractured into hundreds of small nations and polities:

The Continent was alive with Romanov heirs and Habsburg heirs and Grimaldi heirs and Saxe-Coburg heirs and heirs of families nobody had ever heard of who had been dispossessed sometime back in the fifteenth century, all of them seeking to set up their own pocket nations. They found they had to compete with thousands of microethnic groups who suddenly wanted European homelands as well, and religious groups, and Communists, and Fascists, and U2 fans.

The EU has become an irrelevance, its main activity being (apparently) throwing tantrums in the UN. Instead, what unites the fractured continent – if “unites” is the right word – are the Coureurs: a shadowy organisation which transports contraband, secrets and people over unfriendly borders. Basically, the novel is the story of how Rudi gets drawn further and further into this organisation, finding out more and more about Europe’s secrets as he does so.

Formally, the novel’s really a thriller: there are some SFnal elements, and the ending suggests that the sequels, Europe in Winter and Europe at Midnight, are significantly more so, but the only speculative elements in Autumn are the near-future setting and some slightly more advanced technology. But, for a thriller, there’s also surprisingly little going on. There’s no particular mystery Rudi’s trying to solve. He’s in the dark about pretty much all of the odd (but not necessarily especially violent or threatening) things that are happening to him for most of the time. (To take an example from the beginning of the book: Rudi meets a man in a neighbouring polity, has a coded conversation which lasts about five minutes, and goes home the next day none the wiser as to what the encounter actually meant. “Nobody else approached him. Nobody tried to arrest him. Nobody tried to mug him.”)

In fact, Hutchinson seems most interested in the mundanities of life as a Coureur. He pays a lot of attention to the work of “stringers”: non-Coureurs, or sometimes junior Coureurs, who are occasionally paid to leave paper trails and other traces to back up a Coureur’s cover story, by taking a lease on an apartment in a certain name, for example, or complaining about bins to a specific person. Like Rudi, we’re mostly not given any idea of how these little actions will come to be important. We see the granular detail, not the wider picture.

So what’s the point of this novelistic myopia? (I realise none of this sounds terribly complimentary; perhaps I should point out here that I liked Europe in Autumn!) Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think Hutchinson is making a political point. Because the effect of this granularity is to evoke a kind of constant, low-grade paranoia; an ever-present sense that the mundane things that make up a life are concealing something more sinister, or perhaps simply more meaningful. And, crucially, that something, that meaning behind mundanity, is inaccessible to almost everyone – including the reader, who’s so used (by the conventions of Western narrative) to being in a privileged position in relation to fictional characters.

The Europe Hutchinson conjures up is a grey and often tedious one, filled with borders and barbed wire and concrete. It’s not a dystopia, exactly, but nor is it a particularly fun place to be. It is, in fact, a continent that has slipped backwards, into Cold War paranoia. The near-future tech – which includes paper TV screens and purses that read thieves’ DNA – only points up how this world hasn’t progressed in any meaningful sense.

Despite its apparent lack of traditional SFnal furniture, then, Europe in Autumn is doing that most SFnal of work: using speculative elements to ironise, and thus to cast light on, our own historical moment – which is one of growing paranoia and distrust and cultural (if not yet national) balkanisation. And the danger of that historical moment; which is that, as we assert our differences, protect our own particular identities and ideologies to the exclusion of all else, we also give up our ability to access a wider kind of significance, our access to a shared European culture.

*At least, that’s how the person on Solaris’ stall at Nine Worlds described it to me and everyone else who happened to be walking past at the time.

Film Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

This review contains spoilers.

I really don’t want much from my summer blockbusters. Pretty visuals, moderately attractive actors, a well-plotted, simple story and gender politics that don’t make my eyes bleed. Is that really too much to ask?

I seem to have said this about a lot of things this year: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has all the ingredients of A Good Film, or, at least, An Inoffensive Film. (That’s why I went to see it, after all.) In its first sequence, we see the titular city, Alpha, being built around the International Space Station, as a series of alien races shake hands with the human crew: it becomes a concatenation, an accretion of architectures as decades pass, until eventually it becomes big enough to threaten Earth’s gravitational stability (OK, if you say so, Hollywood) and sails off into the big black to find its own destiny.

Whoever designed Alpha did a brilliant job, by the way: it looks grown not made, as all real cities do.

So. Fast forward a century or so. (Possibly; I can’t actually remember the timescales all this takes place on.) Something is rotten in the heart of Alpha: an apparently toxic zone has appeared inexplicably deep inside the city; communications devices don’t work inside and police squadrons who have entered don’t come out again. Our Heroes, special police agents Valerian and Laureline, are sent to investigate. What’s growing in the city? And does it have anything to do with the mysterious ghost-planet of Mul, which seems to have vanished from the archives?

Spoiler: yes, it does. As it turns out, Mul, a seaside paradise occupied by a peaceful, iridescent race of humanoids called the Pearls, was destroyed during a war between humanity and another alien race; a casualty of a doomsday device deployed partly in order to advance the interests of the human race, without proper due diligence. The Pearls who survived are refugees hiding in the toxic zone until they can build a new paradise aboard a spaceship and leave.

So, the film nods at colonialism and the toxicity of capitalist self-interest; that’s one thing that makes it potentially more promising than much of the Hollywood blockbuster crop. It’s also, Star Trek-ily, mildly interested in the processes of democratic governance: there is much talk of summits and protocols and chains of command. It gestures at an awareness that, in a place like Alpha, systems are more important than individuals in maintaining peace and cooperation. That awareness feels radical, in a capitalist society that valorises individual competition and achievement.

The background of the film is fascinating. It’s the foreground that gives me pause.

Because the central relationship of the film is between Valerian and Laureline. There’s never any doubt as to where this relationship is heading: almost the first thing Valerian does on screen is ask Laureline – his junior, by the way – to marry him. She refuses; she doesn’t want to become another notch on his bedpost – or, in the parlance of the film, another track on his playlist. It quickly becomes clear that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is going to be the story of how Valerian wins the love of his fair Laureline.

Excuse me while I gag.

(Do I really need to point out that this is effectively workplace harassment? That it’s completely inappropriate for a commanding officer to put pressure on his junior officer in this way? That no means no means no, and why can’t the film industry get a handle on that?)

What’s worse, Laureline is a Strong Female Character of the “Girl Power!!” variety. She’s superficially badass – wise-cracking, gun-toting – but she’s dressed in clothing that screams Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and also Totally Inappropriate For Military Action. She insists that she can handle things herself, but she shouts Valerian’s name when she’s in danger (and he’s not even there). She wants to be treated like a professional, but she has a tantrum when Valerian doesn’t thank her for saving him. She literally gets served up on a fucking plate to a man-eating alien. This is what director Luc Besson thinks a strong, self-assured woman looks like: eye candy, a reward for the man who can put up with her tantrums, a person whose world revolves around male approval.

And then there’s singer Rihanna’s character: a shapeshifting immigrant prostitute who spends three solid minutes doing a sexy dance for Valerian for no conceivable plot reason, who survives just long enough to save Valerian and Laureline from the man-eating aliens and then dies happy in the knowledge that she has secured Valerian’s explicit approval. Why. Why. Why.

The denouement of the film actually sort of answers that question, and the question of how such an interesting and promising background produced such a terrible foreground. There’s a lot of things that could be said about the ending; I’m interested in its sudden insistence that Valerian isn’t, and shouldn’t be, defined by Alpha’s rules and protocols, when the rest of the film – certainly to my reading, anyway – seems to be suggesting that actually rules and protocols and systems keep people safe, keep power accountable. The film industry likes its mavericks, of course, and that’s why Valerian needs to break the rules – because male blockbuster protagonists have (ironically) to conform to capitalist logics of individualism and competition. He has to “win” the film, to be better (morally) than the conglomerate that is Alpha, that is effectively the film’s world. He has to be the hero, and that means no-one else can be.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets doesn’t work because its character action and its setting don’t match up. Its setting is socialist, communal, collective, hopeful – a city, a community trying to make things work for everybody. Its character action is the complete opposite of that – competitive, oppressive, individualist. Maybe that list of things I want in a summer blockbuster really is too much to ask, because “decent gender politics” isn’t something summer blockbusters are set up to deliver.

Still. I live in hope.

Top Ten Underrated Fantasy Novels

  1. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Nobody talks very much about Palimpsest, but it might actually be my favourite of Valente’s novels. The city of Palimpsest is at once beautiful and magical and painful and terrible; reading the novel makes the world seem wide and wonderful again.
  2. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Hardly anyone outside academic circles has heard of Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which seems ridiculous, because it’s had the most enormous impact on fantasy as a genre. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste: it is dense, baroque, Gothically overwritten. I love it.
  3. A Face Like Glass – Frances Hardinge. Hardinge actually seems to be getting more press since The Lie Tree won the Costa; at least her new novel A Skinful of Shadows is being advertised on the Tube, which, surely, must be an Author Goal? A Face Like Glass is wonderful in ways that are similar to Palimpsest: the world where it’s set is horrifying and dystopic, but also lush and full of wonders.
  4. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. The few reviews I’ve read of Oyeyemi’s collection of linked short stories have been vaguely critical of its unfocused nature; but to me that’s a feature, not a bug. I love the messiness of the book: again like Palimpsest, its inconclusiveness leaves doors open for wonder to creep in.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. Ben Okri is hardly underrated; nor is he a fantasy author, strictly speaking. But I’d never heard of Starbook before I stumbled across it in the library, which is a shame, because, although it has problems, it’s also very beautiful. It’s rare that anything I read really makes me see the world differently, and Starbook did.
  6. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. Lud-in-the-Mist is a novel from a genre completely overshadowed by Tolkien and his literary descendants. Published in the 1920s, it’s a story of Fairyland – where Fairyland is at once alluring and perilous, sitting just out of reach over the horizon. It does wonder very well indeed, maintaining Fairyland’s mystique and magic right through to the end.
  7. Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho. This is a fun, diverse Regency romance that draws on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Like Clarke’s novel, it also scrutinises the self-defeating nature of institutional oppression.
  8. The Book of Taltos – Steven Brust. I’m not sure why I haven’t heard more about Brust’s novels: The Book of Taltos is one of the very few epic fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed recently, precisely because it doesn’t take itself very seriously. And because, I suspect, of its moral ambiguity: its protagonist, after all, is a wisecracking assassin.
  9. The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula Le Guin. The Lathe of Heaven feels more like fantasy than SF: it’s about dreams becoming reality, and nothing is more fantastical, probably, than dreams. I also get the impression that it’s one of Le Guin’s minor works – which still makes it better than whole swathes of SFF by other authors.
  10. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I reread this first book in Reeve’s MG series about mobile cities preying on each other recently, and was seriously impressed by a) how steampunk it is, and b) how aware it is of institutional oppression. It’s a very sophisticated work of MG, and I want to get round to reading the sequels again soon.

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

Review: The Wolf in the Attic

I don’t think there are words to express just how much I do not care about Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic.

The signs were, it has to be said, inauspicious. I got an uncorrected proof copy of the book in my Nine Worlds goodie bag this year; it was actually published last year. I would submit that if you are giving away uncorrected proof copies of your book for free a year after it was published then something has gone very wrong with your marketing strategy.

Notwithstanding this, the novel itself starts promisingly enough. Anna Francis is a young Greek refugee from the 1922 Great Fire of Smyrna; she and her father have fled to Oxford, a city where Anna meets Lewis and Tolkien briefly and randomly. Lonely and unhappy and dreaming of adventure, Anna runs into the woods, where she stumbles upon a group of Romany people, and…well, that’s where it all starts going a little bit wrong.

Now, by setting this story specifically in Oxford, and, further, name-dropping Lewis and Tolkien (I will admit to a little fangirl thrill when “Tollers” arrived on stage, as it were), Kearney’s obviously evoking a particular kind of story. They’re stories heavily based on folklore, on magic that’s tied very specifically to British landscapes; stories that feel true because they encode traditions we in Britain have been familiar with all our lives. And, sure enough, Anna’s travels with the Romany people sees her trekking across the landscapes of Oxfordshire, experiencing the terror of what might as well be one of Tolkien’s barrow-wights, taking shelter from mysterious shadowy figures called the Roadmen in stone circles. Putting Anna, a refugee, an immigrant, into this profoundly British narrative landscape is a really interesting thing to do; it makes a point about whose stories get told, and it has the potential to generate interference within these traditional narratives.

Unfortunately, Kearney doesn’t seem all that interested in actually scrutinising any of the chauvinistic bullshittery that often underlies those stories. The presentation of the Romany people in particular is hugely problematic. Kearney does give us a disclaimer of sorts which is presumably aimed at deflecting such criticism:

We’m of an old and wandering folk girl, a tribe as ancient as you Greeks – or the Jew-folk too, comes to that. The ignorant calls us Romani, but we ain’t the same as the travellin’ people, though we has dealings with ’em. Egypt is where our kind hails from, in the old, old part o’ the world.

Let’s unpack some of the problems in that passage, shall we? I’m sure we have nothing better to do with our Monday evening.

Firstly: it doesn’t matter that Kearney tells us that his “old and wandering folk” aren’t Romany people; we’re still going to read and remember them as Romany people, because all the traditional fictional markers that say to us “these are Romany people” are there – their existence in the woods and fields, on the edge of civilisation; their nomadic lifestyle; their exoticised mysticism. It goes without saying that these markers are othering and harmful. Secondly, there is just no excuse for that cod-dialect: not only is it deeply irritating to read, it’s, similarly, a constant and patronising reminder of otherness. Thirdly, that description of Egypt as “an old, old part o’ the world” (what does that even mean?) is massively exoticising, drawing as it does on the tired trope of mystical Egypt, Egypt as repository of ancient wisdom which is now to be trotted out for the benefit of the West. It is racism under a veneer of false respect.

To cap it all off, this “old and wandering folk” turn out, in a bizarre and totally unforeshadowed twist, to be the villains of the piece – predatory werewolves who’ve spent the whole novel deceiving Anna. I mean, really? Isn’t this one of the most obvious racist tropes there is? Surely someone should have spotted it before this went to print? Maybe in an uncorrected proof copy?

I also want to talk (briefly) about how Kearney treats femininity here. A fairly significant plot point in the novel is Anna getting her first period, while she’s on the run from the Roadmen, accompanied only by – how hilariously awkward! – A Boy. This is how he reacts (after handing her a woollen sock to soak it up with, which sounds like the most uncomfortable thing):

Don’t be looking at me to tell you more. It’s not a man’s business…T’ain’t my place.

That’s it? This girl is cold and in pain and scared of this new thing that’s happening to her and you give her a sock and that’s it?

And then, the Romany women explain to her later on:

We is all daughters o’ the moon Anna. We feel the waxing and waning of it in our bodies the way no man ever can. ‘Tis our gift and our curse. We brings forth life, but must bleed for it. Blood must be paid for everything.

This has quite clearly been written by someone who has no fucking idea what menstruating is actually like, and moreover has not bothered to ask anyone who does know. Menstruation is not a mystical or powerful thing (I promise!): it is uncomfortable, inconvenient and deeply unpleasant. Pretty much every woman in the world (and I’m generalising about gender roles here, I know, but this is a point that I feel needs to be made) is surrounded by men who don’t want to engage with the actual lived truth of what they experience each and every month of their lives; they’d rather ignore it altogether, or, as here, romanticise it in imagery that casts women as other, unknowable, participants in some secret and threatening mystery of life and death. As with Kearney’s presentation of the Romany people, this is discrimination masquerading as respect. We do need more women who menstruate in fantasy; we don’t need it like this.

I just…don’t understand how any of this book is supposed to hang together. Kearney doesn’t seem to know what story he’s trying to tell: a heavily symbolic tale about femininity? A realist story about being a refugee in Britain? A fantasy about a magical Oxford? The only way to describe the result is: “a mess”.

I’m reading Tolkien again

…because it’s October, and that means Tolkien Reading Marathon time. Because the days are shortening slowly but inexorably. And the leaves are turning to gold. And this failing season of autumn, when the world – at least this northern part of it – turns towards the long cold quiet of winter, when the year is old but not yet dead; this season of nostalgia when the blue dawn smells of woodsmoke and mists under the soft golden sun lull the earth to sleep; this is the season of the Elves, sailing, sailing, sailing over the sea, and leaving us.

For we are old now, and wise. And the Straight Road is lost to us.