Top Ten Characters Who Struggle

I was thinking this morning that I’ve read quite a few books recently about characters for whom life is a struggle; not because they have to contend with dystopias or ravening monsters or war or tragedy, though some of them do, but just because, you know, emotions, or because being a human means that sometimes you don’t want to get out of bed and talk to other people. So this post sort of leads on from my review of Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution.

A couple of these also aren’t books, because I thought thematic coherence was more important than pedantry. In this one, isolated instance.

  1. Marya Morevna – Deathless, Catherynne Valente. “You will live as you live anywhere. With difficulty, and grief.”
  2. Katin – Nova, Samuel Delany. There’s a fantastic bit in Nova, which is a novel all about perception and subjectivity, where Katin says (I haven’t got the book with me, alas, so a paraphrase) that if someone seems to respond negatively to something he says he goes over all the different ways the conversation could have gone in his head. And the Mouse, bless him, says, “I like you, Katin. I was just busy, is all.” Something like that goes on in my head practically every day.
  3. Harry Potter – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany. Now, in the original books Harry is at best inoffensive (Philosopher through to Goblet) and at worst irritating and entitled as only a teenager can be. But grown-up Harry is a different prospect altogether: traumatised by the Dursleys’ abuse and by the Battle of Hogwarts and by years of sharing Voldemort’s fucking mind.
  4. Kesha – Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink. A podcast, not a book. At some point Kesha, the narrator, says something like: “I’m afraid of nearly everything, nearly all the time. But it doesn’t stop me doing what I need to do.”
  5. Meg Carpenter – Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas. I am not going to shut up about Our Tragic Universe; it is hands down my favourite book of the year so far. (Apart from my reread of The Scar, which I’m not counting.) Meg is slightly having a mid-life crisis, stuck in a toxic relationship with a useless boyfriend and half in love with an older man. And wondering if we are all living in a computer simulation, and about what the point of an afterlife would be, and whether there really is a Beast on Dartmoor. And about stories. And her life gets incrementally better, bit by bit, throughout the book; so there’s never any huge revelation or massive argument or great triumph; just a climb to hope and new possibility. It’s utterly lovely.
  6. Pencil Khan – The Glass Republic, Tom Pollock. Pen’s surviving with PTSD after being possessed by a creature of barbed wire in The City’s Son. But, like Kesha, she doesn’t let it stop her do what she needs to do.
  7. Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. Lirael opens with its eponymous heroine contemplating suicide. I sort of wonder whether this actually gets treated seriously enough by Nix, because she doesn’t just think about it in an emo-teenager sort of way, she actually goes up out onto the mountain and prepares to jump off. But, in any case, I think this story of lonely Lirael finding a purpose and friendship and a family is a hopeful one.
  8. Zan – The Stars are Legion, Kameron Hurley. Zan has lost her memory. Over and over again. She knows she’s done terrible things, but can’t remember exactly what, or why. And still she goes on.
  9. Bellis Coldwine – The Scar, China Mieville. Actually I am going to mention The Scar. Bellis fascinates me. She’s thoroughly unlikable, and yet Mieville gets us to sympathise with her, gets us under her skin. She’s torn away from her city, without any way back. And she keeps her grief raw, refuses to accept her new reality, as a form of defiance against her captives: the only method of resistance she has.
  10. Grace Marks – Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood. Grace is another character who uses her emotional instability as a weapon, a weapon that eventually grants her a kind of victory. She resists reading by doctors and vicars and others who want to co-opt her experience, her selfhood, for their own social or commercial ends. And she, too, goes on.

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

Review: Nova

This review contains spoilers.

I haven’t seen Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who yet: Real Life is getting squarely in the way. Of everything.

So we have Samuel Delany’s Nova, which I read almost a month ago now. It’s sixties science fiction that doesn’t feel like sixties science fiction – or, at least, like what I think of as sixties SF.

Delany’s SFnal world, in which humanity has long since travelled to the stars, is split into three main political entities: Earth-based Draco; the Pleiades Federation; and the Outer Colonies. The economy and political power of this universe is based on supplies of Illyrion, an extremely heavy and unstable element that’s used in terraforming. The novel is about – in one sense of “about” – Lorq Von Ray, a spaceship captain who gathers together a ragged crew to harvest Illyrion in unheard-of quantities in one of the most dangerous places in the universe: the heart of a nova. Meanwhile, his arch-enemies Prince and Ruby Red are trying to catch up, to protect their own business interests and those of Draco, whose political dominance will be ended when Von Ray’s Illyrion hits the market.

Only the novel doesn’t seem particularly interested in the swashbuckling, amoral Lorq. It’s more interested in the Mouse, an itinerant worker with a rare ability to play an instrument called a sensory syrynx – a projector of holograms, sounds and scents. The Mouse is part of Lorq’s crew, but otherwise is not at all the kind of character you’d expect this kind of SF to be interested in: he’s a follower, not a leader, going where events take him, though he’s competent in his own way; he has a speech impediment; he’s poor; he has gypsy heritage; he’s black.

So part of Nova‘s project, I think, is looking at the sorts of stories the Western tradition prioritises – especially the Western SF tradition of the time. Because the other unexpected thing about it is its prose style, which is not the stilted, utilitarian style of Asimov and Heinlein and the like, but something deeply impressionistic – even hallucinogenic. Sensory experience, not sociopolitical or scientific exposition, is the order of the day: so a decadent party is rendered as a series of confused impressions; a childhood memory of an animal fight takes on a disproportionately intense brutality; the worlds the crew visits are characterised sharply by colours and sights and physical dangers (there’s a particularly spectacular scene where people fight by the light of a stream of orange lava on black rock). And the nova Von Ray is heading for hangs constantly over the narrative, a promise and a threat: because to look unprotected into the nova is to burn all your senses out, your nerve endings tricked into constant stimulation, so you’re blind but see thousands of colours, deaf but hear deafening sound all the time. And so on.

In other words, Nova is telling this pulpy space opera tale as the actual lived experience of someone fairly ordinary; and making it in the telling fairly extraordinary. The richness of Nova’s world is a deep joy to read; that it’s a richness granted to someone like the Mouse, who’s disadvantaged along so many axes, is a pretty powerful statement about who matters, both in the fictional universe and the real one.

There’s also a metatextual element running along underneath all this, which seems quite unusual to see alongside that heavy sensory focus. The Mouse’s opposite number, so to speak, is a man named Katin, an intellectual who’s trying to write a novel, though the form has long been obsolete in Nova‘s universe. He’s amassed thousands of notes, based around his theories of historical processes, but has yet to find a subject he thinks is weighty enough for the theme. The narrative seems to be asking us to think of him as rather ridiculous: powerless, all his thinking producing only creative sterility. And yet – we eventually come to realise that the book we’re reading is in fact Katin’s novel; that the Mouse (disabled, non-white, poor) is the subject who carries Katin’s theorising about historical importance.

Nova is explicitly structured around the grail quest, the hero’s journey, the figures of the Tarot. These are mythical structures that feel like they sit deep in the Western psyche, and they do that because in their unaltered forms they reinforce our colonialist, patriarchal, capitalist norms. And Delany uses them to privilege a character who is traditionally disadvantaged; to tell us about what it’s like to be ordinary, to experience life not as fodder for political games or intellectual debate but as a progression of sensory impressions, sight and sound and touch and scent and taste. That’s a really profound subversion of the genre, and of the Western tradition. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Delany’s SF.

Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution

Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays – some from Hurley’s blog, some written specifically for this volume – about oppression of all shapes and sizes, in geek culture specifically and the Western world more generally. There’s a lot about feminism, including her Hugo-award winning essay “We Have Always Fought”. But there are also essays about racism (“What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Race in America”) and classism (“The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live”)  and the abuse of creators’ power (“Let It Go”). In short, it’s a collection covering anything and everything in geek culture and beyond that challenges the white male status quo.

Like all of Hurley’s work, and despite the insinuations of the cheerfully irreverent cover, it is not a book that offers easy answers. Which is to say, it does not peddle the brand of upbeat geeky feminist positivity channelled by books like Sam Maggs’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy (though, don’t get me wrong, that kind of work has a place too); it’s a book whose focus is squarely in revolution, and all the blood and sweat and tears that real revolutions entail.

A central theme of Hurley’s is perseverance, endurance, persistence: the work that’s involved in Being a Writer, in being a responsible creator, in fighting the system’s biases – sometimes just in surviving. The collection weaves personal material in with its politics: so we have, for example, the harrowing “The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance”, which should be required reading for everyone with an influence on health policy on both sides of the pond, sitting alongside “Becoming What You Hate”, a short piece about the controversial blogger Requires Hate and the ethics of assumed identities on the internet. This is generally symptomatic of the book’s eclectic approach: while notionally it’s divided into four sections – “Level Up”, “Geek”, “Let’s Get Personal” and “Revolution” – to be honest I’m not sure how meaningful these distinctions are. The message of all of them – if there is a single message – is simply that the fight for equality is not over, and perhaps never will be; that after every victory there are countless battles yet to fight.

On a personal note, and weirdly, I found this idea comforting rather than dispiriting. I think there’s a cultural narrative in the West – it’s quite a capitalist narrative really – which casts life as a quest for something specific, whether that’s a dream job or a perfect partner or a social life that makes Kim Kardashian seem like a stay-at-home, a quest at which you either succeed and become immediately happy and graceful and self-confident, or fail and remain a miserable loser for the rest of your life. Hurley’s collection, with its stories of personal and political endurance, is a counter-cry to that narrative, reminds us that the great story of the world is not, in fact, about us as individuals at all. We’re more like those extras at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields who maybe get to stab an orc or two, if we’re lucky. After every victory, there’s always another battle to fight: so it’s OK, actually, not to be OK all the time. It’s OK to cut ourselves some slack, so long as we pick up that sword again after a while and keep fighting.

After all: we have always fought. And we always will.

Top Ten Bookish Things I’d Like To Own

  1. A Jay Johnstone Tolkien oil painting. I mentioned this particular life goal here about two weeks ago. I just love these paintings: they strip away the modern realism that characterises the high fantasy aesthetic at the moment in favour of a more thematically appropriate medieval feel. For instance, isn’t this treatment of Isildur fascinating?
  2. A time turner necklace. I am still operating under a fairly significant play hangover (like a book hangover but for plays) after going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child last week, so it may be that this particular wish has dissipated by next week.
  3. Ankh-Morpork board game. I played this at a geek meetup a month or so ago, and it is fantastic (unlike the wretched The Witches game). Everyone gets a different role and you FIGHT for control of Ankh-Morpork! And there are special-effects cards with, like, Susan Sto Helit and the Librarian and it’s AWESOME.
  4. This Josh Kirby Librarian print. This list is going to have a lot of prints in it. Josh Kirby’s work is so detailed and animated and I would definitely not object to looking at this every day.
  5. A Charter Mark necklace. This exists! It kind of took my breath away when I saw it – not because it looks particularly complicated to make, but, oh my, the nostalgia. I love these books so much I almost don’t notice.
  6. Beszel/Ul Qoma “Unity” badge. Yes, I know it’s horrifically ironic to buy merchandise based on socialist novels, and also I didn’t like The City and the City very much, but this is quite cool.
  7. This Gormenghast print. I just found this on Etsy and wow, I love that really intricate artwork – very like Chris Riddell’s work. In fact, I might buy this right now.
  8. This Midsummer Night’s Dream t-shirt. Isn’t it pretty? It reminds me of that unspeakably lovely Russell T. Davies adaptation of the play on the BBC last year.
  9. This Reading is Radical print. It may not be entirely true. But look at it, godsdammit.
  10. This Little Women bookmark. Because, oh, yes. What a perfect quote.

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

 

Doctor Who Review: Thin Ice

This review contains spoilers.

Two not-bad episodes of Doctor Who in a row? Good lord.

Thin Ice, written by Sarah Dollard, sees the Doctor and Bill arriving in London, 1814, by accident. (They’d been aiming for London, 2017, so I guess by the standards of these things they weren’t too far out.) It’s the year of the last Frost Fair, when the Thames froze solid enough that markets could be held on the ice. Bill is delighted and charmed by her visit to Olde Englande, until she isn’t: the Doctor and Bill spot green lights under the ice, surrounding unwary wanderers and dragging them down into the depths. Investigating, they find themselves digging into the underbelly of Regency England, the racism and the poverty and the oppression. Why is there a massive sea-creature chained at the bottom of the river? What are the dredging-yards doing? Why are the upper classes such dicks?

There are some great observations about oppression here: the series is obviously continuing its theme of multicultural understanding and tolerance. Bill remarks that 1814 is considerably less white than she expected (which, kudos to the production team, who have obviously worked to put multiple people of colour into actual important speaking roles, rather than just the token extra); the Doctor replies, “History is a whitewash.”

Huzzah! I honestly never expected to hear Twelve saying that.

And when Bill is angry and upset about a child being eaten by the creature under the ice, the Doctor explains to her that outrage is a luxury; that if she doesn’t pull herself together more people will die. It’s a smart choice, by the way, to have Bill and the Doctor in middle-class period costume, while most of those they interact with are working-class or lower; it makes for an interesting discussion of privilege, highlighting the sharp distinction between Bill’s relatively luxurious 21st-century lifestyle and the street urchins’ desperate, hand-to-mouth 19th-century existence.

Like Smile, though, I think some of the good, well-intentioned representational stuff in Thin Ice has some unintentional connotations. Specifically, I feel like Thin Ice‘s implicit comparison between 19th-century and 21st-century mores strays into self-congratulatory territory. Let’s not forget, after all, that we might expect Bill to know something about the luxury of outrage already, being both working-class (how much does that canteen job pay, anyway?) and a person of colour herself – as the episode points out. And it’s a shame that the only person who is outwardly racist is the villain of the piece, utterly uninterested in anything except capitalist progress, and so utterly irredeemable: it perpetuates the lie that only really evil people are racists, that a few powerful villains made the slave trade (which Thin Ice references both explicitly – Bill raises it with the Doctor, concerned that Regency England may not be safe for her – and symbolically, through the chained sea-creature) possible; when in fact the very opposite is true. Where’s the casual racism of Regency England, the beliefs so widespread that they were uttered entirely without conscious malice, as self-evident truths?

At the end of the episode, Bill is asked (as seemingly all the Doctor’s companions are at some point) to make a choice: whether or not to set the sea-creature free. On the one hand, it is clearly not a very happy sea-creature, and it is eating people. On the other hand, if it goes free it might eat some more people. “If your future is based on the suffering of that creature,” says the Doctor in his infinite wisdom, “what’s that future worth?” This is an excellent point, but sort of elides the fact that our future is still based on the suffering of others, because that’s what capitalism means. The system is founded on it; but Thin Ice suggests that solving capitalist greed is easy, as simple as freeing the chained slave and destroying the venture capitalist. Look at how ludicrously one-sided Bill’s dilemma is: there’s never any serious suggestion that letting the creature go will endanger London, whereas keeping it in chains is definitely Evil. (Compare this situation to the similar one in The Beast Below, when everyone thought that letting the space-whale go would cause the break-up of the ship and kill millions of people. That’s a better metaphor for the relationship between capitalist greed and Western society.)

And what about the Doctor’s speech to the capitalist villain keeping the creature chained up: “Human progress isn’t measured by industry; it’s measured by the value you place on a life”? To me, it seems that the Doctor is making an implicit comparison between the backward, oppressive values of the Industrial Revolution and our more enlightened times: we value everyone equally now! Isn’t that nice?

Except we don’t. People still die in crowded factories in China and India, working twelve hours a day to bring the West iPhones and fast fashion. Children still sift through toxic waste to find the minerals for Western touchscreens. Disability and chronic illness still plunge people into poverty in England. We haven’t solved racism, sexism, oppression; it’s important to remember that.

While I’m enjoying the social conscience that Doctor Who seems to be re-developing, I’d like to see episodes that reference colonialism and oppression actually dig a bit more into the implications of those metaphors, within the constraints of the format. It’s a show where literally anything could happen; so if we’re finally getting away from the white male patriarchy it developed during the last season, it would be good to see something properly radical come out of it.

Review: The City’s Son

This review contains spoilers.

The City’s Son is urban fantasy along the lines of Neverwhere and A Madness of Angels: it’s about London, the vital magic of the biggest city in Britain. Our Heroine is Beth, a teenage truant and graffiti artist. Running away from a detention and a seeming betrayal by her best friend, she stumbles upon a hidden London where the ghosts of railway trains fight and the streetlights are inhabited by tiny flickering beings. And here she meets a boy, as grey as the streets, who calls himself Filius Viae, son of Mater Viae, the Goddess of the city, who has been missing for many and many a year.

Filius and his mentor, Gutterglass (a woman made of rubbish) are leading a resistance against a being known as Reach, whose armies are cranes and barbed wire, whose thrones are skyscrapers of metal and glass, who’s literally killing the city – London’s fabric and foundations are revealed to be sentient. Beth finds herself caught up in the war: brokering alliances, learning about this new side of London, and trying to solve the mystery of where Mater Viae has gone.

Let’s start with the good, shall we?

In terms of representation, The City’s Son is doing some good work. Beth’s best friend, Parva “Pencil” Khan, is a practising Muslim, and I think (with the usual caveats: I’m a white, Western woman) that Pollock does a good job of making her a normal teenager without erasing her faith. I feel like most stories give us one or the other: either a character who’s superficially Muslim – say, they won’t eat pork – but is mostly indistinguishable from a white Westerner; or someone whose entire existence is predicated on the fact that they are Muslim – or whatever other form of non-Christianity/liberal atheism it is. Pen is both a British teenager and a Muslim – which is refreshing.

Speaking of Pen: her relationship with Beth is amazing. Female friendships are rare in speculative fiction, and Pen’s and Beth’s has all the intensity of teenagerhood – the sort of friendship that’s a bit like being in love, as Filius observes a bit jealously.

Because, of course, Filius and Beth fall in love; one criticism I do have of how Pollock handles his characterisation is that the L-word starts flying around a bit too quickly. But he does navigate the intersections between Beth and Filius and Beth and Pen well: when Pen is captured by a terrible creature called the Wire Mistress and forced to do her bidding, Beth ignores Filius’ advice and leaves him on the battlefield to rescue her. And, unusually for YA, there’s a scene at the end where they both manage to put aside their feelings for each other to do what needs to be done.

Oh, and Beth’s dad has depression, and Pollock shows us how he can be both a lousy father and a bit sympathetic. Oh, and Beth isn’t all toughness, though she pretends to be: Pollock shows us how she takes hold of her doubts and transforms them into action and decisiveness. Oh, and one of the very first conversations Beth and Pen have is one in which Pen outlines the distinction between arranged and forced marriage. Oh, and –

There’s a lot of oh, ands.

It’s a shame, then, with all this detailed, careful characterisation, that, for me, the story doesn’t quite work. The figure of Reach is quite a powerful one for a modern mythology of London: Reach is the embodiment of gentrification, unsustainable development, the capitalist greed driving Londoners out of London – killing the city, in the sense that it’s driving the heart out of it. Reach is terrifying because, it turns out, it’s mindless: a child constantly in the throes of birth, crying over and over “I will be”; just as the slow gentrification of London, the rise of all those empty, glittering residential towers on the South Bank and in the City and elsewhere, is the product not of any individual evil but of mindless, unchecked capitalism, a system driven by the need of companies to survive, crying that single-minded mantra: I will be, I will earn, I will exist.

Most of us work in that system so we can be, earn, exist, and that’s how it perpetuates itself. We’re all part of the problem.

That’s a pretty clear-eyed observation of how capitalism works, as far as it goes. But the book really has a problem in dealing with that symbol. London’s built on capitalism. It was a trading port, for a long time; that’s how it got its wealth and status, how it became the heart of an empire, how it survived the Roman invasion and the Norman Conquest and the Great Fire to become the city that it is today, layer upon layer of history and culture, all existing side-by-side. Reach has always been here. Rich developers of one kind or another have always razed the houses of the non-rich to build great deserted temples to capitalism.

What does it mean, then, for the fabric of London, created by Reach, to be fighting Reach? (Gutterglass is a particularly interesting case in point: aren’t rubbish dumps sort of the ultimate symbol of capitalism?) And, more pressingly, what does it mean for London if Reach is destroyed?

The consequences are radical; they have to be. But the novel doesn’t, in my view, do a good enough job of addressing this. The price Beth and Filius pay to destroy Reach is high, but nothing really seems to change afterwards.

The problem is partly a product of the fact that The City’s Son is only the first book in a trilogy. If the enemy you fight and defeat in book one is capitalism itself, where do you go from there? How do you follow that, if not with a revolution (which is not the road Pollock’s chosen, based on the evidence of the second novel)?

Making the monster of capitalism easy to defeat, a destruction that leaves society unchanged, is a lie, one that serves the system it criticises.

But then, so do we all.

Top Ten Most Unique Books I’ve Read

  1. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is the trilogy that launched a thousand imitations, but no-one’s really tried taking on The Silmarillion. No-one who’s succeeded, anyway. It’s not really a novel, because it doesn’t really have characters. It’s not a fictional history, either – it’s too self-consciously literary. It’s a fictional myth cycle, and I’ve never heard of another one of those.
  2. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. Oh, House of Leaves! A real puzzle-box of a novel, a horror story about the treacherous power of story, one that thinks about the intersection of text and space, the uncanny and the unheimlich, in such a fascinating way. It’s almost a literary essay in its own right.
  3. The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake. This is kind of impossible to place in any particular literary tradition. It’s definitely not realism, but it’s not quite fantasy either; by turns deeply, claustrophobically psychological and almost absurdly Dickensian in its caricature. It’s precisely that indefinability that makes it so interesting, though.
  4. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. This is quite recognisably literary fiction; but unlike most literary fiction I’ve read, its approach to the big questions in life feels specifically shaped by literary theory. It’s also bewitchingly charming in a way that I can’t quite pin down.
  5. Nova – Samuel Delaney. I read this a couple of weeks ago, and it’s very unusual indeed: sixties SF that’s formally innovative, eschewing scientific infodump in favour of sensory affect and literary theme.
  6. Evelina – Frances Burney. Evelina is a gem. Published in 1778, it’s a novel about a young woman coming out into society. It mixes sensational melodrama with sharp social comedy in a way that’s really quite interesting, and revolutionary, too, for a woman writer in the 18th century.
  7. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. I still haven’t read anything like the first few books of the Dark Tower series, with their apocalyptic dream-sequence landscapes, their uncanny echoes of our world; and I don’t expect I ever will.
  8. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Each of Valente’s novels is different in theme and setting and approach, though they’re tied together by her approach to myth and story. Palimpsest isn’t my favourite – that would be Radiance – but it is the one I most wanted to savour: its meaning unclear and becoming ever more multiple the more you think about it.
  9. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu. This was another surprisingly literary SF novel, one that plays with the inherent metafictional tendencies of SF to say something about science fiction and about reality.
  10. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. This is interesting because it talks about the intersection between science and culture, a theme that doesn’t crop up too often in SF. Also, feminism!

(The prompt for this post came from the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)