Class Review: The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did

This review contains spoilers.

I quite liked the premise of The Metaphysical Engine, the penultimate episode of Class, but I also think it’s the least successful episode so far. It suffers considerably from the absence of its usual teenage ensemble cast: it’s set concurrently with the events of Detained, showing us What Quill Did while the ka-tet were busy trying not to murder each other. You’ll remember that, in Brave-ish Heart, Governor and Coal Hill headteacher Dorothea Ames promised Miss Quill that she’d remove the arn, the creature keeping her enslaved to Charlie, from her brain, in return for her help killing the carnivorous petals. The Metaphysical Engine sees Miss Quill, Dorothea and a shape-shifting alien called Ballon embark on a quest to get the things they’ll need to achieve this. The titular engine, it turns out, is an unstable alien technology that transports its users to fictional places – in this case, Ballon’s hell, Quill’s heaven, the birthplace of the arn and the Cabinet of Souls.

Unlike the previous episodes, in which the emotional development of the characters is pretty much inextricable from the SFnal plotlines, the quest structure of The Metaphysical Engine is essentially a backdrop to Quill’s journey; it’s really only a series of plot coupons designed to put the characters into extreme situations. (This approach reminds me much more of Moffat-era Doctor Who than it does of the generally more character-driven Class.) Although there’s still something of an emotional arc to the episode – Quill becomes more sympathetic as she befriends fellow soldier Ballon, who is himself imprisoned – it feels hackneyed and cheap. The ending, in which she’s forced by the Governors to witness the death of Ballon, the man she’s become increasingly attracted to, seems particularly egregious: why would the Governors go to such effort to remove the arn from Quill’s brain only to let her die? It’s just an excuse to damage this already traumatised woman still further; it adds nothing to her story, except, presumably, to drive the stakes of the last episode up.

It seems reasonable to suppose that at least some of the money saved by making Detained a bottle episode went on The Metaphysical Engine, given its extensive special effects. I think Detained is very possibly a perfect episode in its own right, and it certainly didn’t need a higher spend; but it’s ironic that it should be better than an episode that cost twice as much to make. Hopefully the final episode, The Lost, will mark a return to form.

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Ten Books That Were Hard for Me to Read

  1. High-Rise – J.G. Ballard. There’s a certain kind of dystopia I find really hard to read: anything where society breaks down on-page, where people become less than people. I read High-Rise recently, so it’s still reasonably fresh in my memory: it’s set in a modern high-rise building, designed to be a self-sufficient vertical city, where people start to turn on each other. There’s animal cruelty and sexual violence in bucketloads, and I came quite close to putting it down (which I never do).
  2. Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler. For many of the same reasons as I found High-Rise difficult to read. There’s just this overpowering sense of loss and hopelessness to Parable of the Sower, an idea that everything we think of as normal can all become undone in just a few years.
  3. The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor. This is a very necessary book. It’s also a series of really awful things happening to the main character – things that (and this is going to sound trite, but) have direct parallels to what people of colour in the West really do experience every day. That’s its power and its horror.
  4. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever – Stephen Donaldson. I mean. There are things I like about the Covenant books, but the prose is really, really dense, and some absolutely terrible things happen, and overall it’s really not a light read.
  5. The Dark Tower – Stephen King. Just for That Scene with Randall Flagg and Mordred. No. Please, no.
  6. Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks. The cannibal cult on Vavatch is just awful. And the rest of the novel is incredibly dark and chilly and hopeless and violent. (I’m still toying with reading the rest of the Culture series, though.)
  7. On – Adam Roberts. Like Consider Phlebas, I found On just quite barren? The concept behind the novel is precariousness; the idea that “the centre cannot hold”, that there’s nothing to cling to that doesn’t change as soon as you think you’re sure of it. It’s cleverly structured, but it’s also very dark and very violent, without any vitality to set that darkness off. Plus, I really wanted Roberts to stop calling penises “wicks”. (Yes, really.)
  8. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline. I literally wanted to throw this book out of a train window. That’s how fucking awful I found it: actively sexist, racist and homophobic, and poorly written to boot. (Lord help us, I see from the internet that there is going to be a film next year.)
  9. Age of Godpunk – James Lovegrove. See above, basically, only with bonus transphobia. HOW DOES THIS SHIT EVER GET PUBLISHED
  10. The Dice Man – Luke Rhinehart. If you could do anything without fearing society’s judgement you would…have lots of dubiously-consensual sex and be a dick to everyone, apparently. (Really?)

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

Theatre Review: The Tempest

Well, this review is well out of date, I’m afraid. I managed to catch what I think was the last performance of the RSC’s The Tempest at the Barbican, directed by Gregory Doran, on the 18th August, a good two months ago.

I’m reasonably familiar with the play – I did a close reading of “Come unto these yellow sands” as part of the coursework for my degree, and I’ve read it a couple of times – but I’ve never seen it on stage before. So this is not so much a review as a series of scattered thoughts.

My general impression was that Doran didn’t particularly have anything to say about the text. Its USP, so to speak, involved giving Mark Quartley, who played Ariel, a motion-sensitive camera and projecting a CGI sprite on hanging screens at particularly dramatic moments. Which, given that you can access CGI literally at the flick of a switch nowadays, feels like a bit of a cheat onstage, and too over-the-top for The Tempest anyway; perhaps it would work in something like the riotous Midsummer Night’s Dream, but The Tempest is subtler and sadder and stranger, and, to my mind anyway, needs a magic more tenuous and less obvious.

Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero, on the other hand, was fascinating and not at all sympathetic: veering unpredictably between generous patriarch and jealous, insecure tyrant, afraid of losing what power he has over his daughter and the people of his island, but tired of his isolation. If the Barbican Tempest was about anything, it was about the tragedy of old age, the loss of it. In this context, I found the final speech of the play – “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/Let your indulgence set me free” – really quite interesting; a fourth-wall-breaking appeal to the audience to applaud Prospero, end the play, redeem his faults, give his story meaning and purpose through the closure of an ending. I actually did some work on similar endings to plays of the period for my degree: plays like Thomas Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Apprentice and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, which end in judgement scenes which also tend to break the fourth wall. There’s a sense in which Doran’s Tempest leaves the questions and contradictions of Shakespeare’s text open for the audience to judge.

The play was most unsatisfactory, though, on its treatment of Caliban – in fact, I’d say it revealed exactly how much of a problem Caliban is in the original text. Like Prospero, Joe Dixon’s Caliban was unpredictable, veering between sympathetic and abhorrent; unlike Prospero, however, he was never given the benefit of the doubt – we were supposed to see him as comic relief at best, as monstrous at worst. It’s become commonplace to read Caliban as the colonised Other, and Doran’s refusal to engage with that, his decision to allow Prospero to drive Caliban off, the only character not to receive a consolatory happy ending, was vaguely troubling.

The Tempest as text is quite notoriously slippery – it’s been categorised by some critics as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, precisely because it’s difficult to say exactly what it is and what it’s for. In this context, the little uneasinesses of Doran’s Tempest make a sort of sense: they’re an attempt to render the text reasonably faithfully onto the stage; to create a kind of “neutral” theatrical version of The Tempest. In other words: this is conservative Shakespeare, an attempt (despite the CGI gimmickry) to represent Shakespeare’s text authentically. It’s a job that it does well! As you’d expect from an RSC production, it’s very competent indeed – well-acted and well-staged. But it’s not a memorable thing.

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

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.