Review: Narbonic: The Perfect Collection Volume 1

Narbonic was a webcomic that ran daily between 2000 and 2006. I only know this because the Bandersnatch supported a Kickstarter to publish the entire run in two physical volumes, which thus currently reside on our bookshelves. (You can also find Narbonics here, for free, with notes by author Shaenon K. Garrity. This will prove to be a source of distraction and procrastination for me for at least the next week or so. Although I am told it is also a source of spoilers for the second volume, so.)

The strip revolves around the exploits of Helen B. Narbon, mad scientist, and her henchfolk: Dave the computer guy, Mell the evil intern and Artie the genetically engineered superintelligent gerbil.

Actually analysing something like this feels a bit like missing the point. It’s not really…for that? Most of what it’s doing is mashing up our cultural expectations of what mad scientists are and do with Western cultural codes around the workplace. For Humorous Effect, obviously. And it’s a webcomic: I’m not sure how far Garrity planned in advance, but certainly the early strips are an explosive mish-mash of cultural references and themes and general light-hearted internetty fooling around. It’s fun, and it’s possible to enjoy things that are fun, but I’m not sure there’s that much more to say about it.

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Review: Three Moments of an Explosion

In Three Moments of an Explosion, you never find out what’s going on.

That’s true, at least, of many of the stories in China Mieville’s short story collection. As you’d expect, all of them are touched by weirdness. Many of them are set in worlds only slightly different from our own: in “Polynia”, the second story, icebergs gather over London even as they melt over the poles; in the final story, “The Design”, a medical student finds elaborate scrimshanders on the bones of a corpse he’s been dissecting; in “Covehithe”, sunken oil rigs walk out of the seas and lay eggs. In all three cases, we never find out exactly why.

Then there are the stories that more explicitly push formal boundaries: “A Second Slice Manifesto” is a piece about a deconstructivist artistic movement that reveals half-glimpsed uncanny truths in our world; “The Rope is the World” is more or less pure worldbuilding, a tale about the construction and decline of a number of space elevators sprouting around the Equator; a “Syllabus” for a course entitles Humanity, Introspection and Debris hints at a world in which time travel, sentient insects and privatised illness are all day-to-day facts of life. There are a number of scripts for film trailers, too, which get increasingly esoteric as the book goes on.

The point is to defamiliarise normality; to gesture at a reality that’s far stranger and more capacious than the realist literary tradition allows for. Sometimes this is for political ends, as in (the horrible) “Säcken”, a ghost story about how a failure of justice redounds upon itself in endless cycles of vengeance. Sometimes it asks us to question our genre assumptions: “In the Slopes” is a story about the excavation of a Pompeii-like volcanic site where extraterrestials lived and prayed alongside humans. We never find out where they came from. Sometimes it’s simply about how our societies are shaped by natural forces outside our control: strange new diseases (origins unknown) are a theme, in “Keep” and “The Bastard Prompt”, and there’s the return of the environments we’ve been neglecting in “Polynia” and “Covehithe”.

This is, in other words, a technique that opens to us other ways of seeing and thinking – to peer beyond the ideology of late capitalism and see new things. This is SFF doing what SFF does best: too unsettling to console, and too insistent on its own form to allow us to escape through it. I found myself rationing the stories out, one story per sitting, so I could give myself space to absorb and think about each one; it felt wrong to binge them, though I often wanted each story to be longer, to reveal more about the world it described.

If it’s not already obvious, I enjoyed Three Moments of an Explosion a lot. It’s really rare to find SFF as good as this; so a whole collection of it is a proper treat.

Review: The Magicians

I’ve been meaning to read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians for a while, despite being burned by his sub-Da Vinci Code airport thriller Codex: how could that writer come out with something that seems so well-known in genre circles?

Well…I see it now.

It’s pretty explicitly a response to the Harry Potter series, which is in itself a commercial decision, right? Our Hero is Quentin Coldwater, a whiny teenager who is one day unexpectedly accepted into Brakebills, a sort of university for magic. Brakebills is like Hogwarts except with more sex, drugs and general nihilistic menace: at one point, a prank of Quentin’s sees a teacher’s spell go disastrously wrong, so a demon breaks in from another reality and leaves a hollowed-out husk in place of one of the students.

Quentin is very believable as an older version of Harry Potter, though: unexceptional, entitled and vastly less interesting than any of his friends. The emotional core of The Magicians is his vast sense of disappointment with the world: disappointment that his life is not more like a story. This disappointment has its foundations in a series of books he used to read as a child, about an enchanted land called Fillory, visited by four children who become Kings and Queens and…yes, Fillory is a Narnia analogue. The Fillory books have told Quentin for years that life should be simple, and authentic, and exciting; instead, he gets modernity, complex and mundane.

I mean. Yes? I think probably a lot of SFF readers have grown up like Quentin, searching for magic (for which read meaning) in a postmodern world; that’s an interesting Theme to explore. The problem is, partly, that Grossman frames Brakebills as a place of extraordinary privilege; magic stands in for wealth and power. Again, that’s an interesting move in itself, and there’s an implied critique here of the abdication of social responsibility that’s going on in the Potter books when its wizards refuse to help solve Muggle problems with magic. But it means that Quentin’s disillusionment just feels whiny and overprivileged; poor little rich kid, life is so hard. It doesn’t help that he’s standing in the way of characters who are facing genuine hardship even at Brakebills: Eliot, who is gay (or more probably bi, but Quentin hasn’t heard of bisexuality; it would probably make his mind explode, given his reaction to Eliot’s sexual orientation) in what reads as a pretty homophobic environment; Alice, whose brother died at Brakebills a few years earlier; heavily-tattooed and presumably working-class Penny. All of these people are more interesting than Quentin. Perhaps that’s the point. It’s still an unrelentingly miserable read.

Werll, all right, that’s not exactly true. The Magicians is fun on a world-building level. We get a lot of detail about the teachers and lessons and daily routine at Brakebills, which once again feels like a commercial decision: none of this is strictly necessary to what Grossman is trying to do, which is, broadly, Be Cynical About Hogwarts (to be fair, this isn’t difficult to achieve). But audiences like reading about Hogwarts, will sign up in their millions to sites like Pottermore that drip-feed pure world-building, so let’s give ’em more Hogwarts!

But it’s also endlessly, endlessly mean-spirited. There’s cynicism around every corner; everything is tainted by pettiness and rivalry and a terrible boredom eating at the edges of things. And, yeah, I can see Grossman’s point, but also he made the same point like 300 pages ago? And, really, do we still think cynicism untempered by empathy or hope is clever or constructive? Do we need to repeat the opening steps of postmodernism endlessly?

Which is to say: I have hated The Magicians and I have…not exactly loved it. Liked it, maybe. It has some moderately interesting points to make, which is vastly more than you can say for Codex. It is, however, as the Bandersnatch is fond of saying, not my favourite.

Review: Jheghaala

Ooh, look, yet another novel I have little to no opinion on.

Which is not to say I disliked Steven Brust’s Jheghaala. The eleventh novel in Brust’s Vlad Taltos series, it’s one with lower stakes than usual (though I’ve only read two others in the series – as with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, you can comfortably duck in and out of without too many problems). Fleeing from the city of Adrilankha after some unspecified diplomatic Event which I shall probably encounter in another novel, our assassin-hero Vlad heads to his home country to find out more about his family. But his questions inadvertently get his kinfolk killed. So Jhegaala is really a murder mystery: who killed Vlad’s family, and why?

There’s a lot of chatting, and a lot of waiting, and a lot of eating. The ending doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and I couldn’t be bothered to flip backwards and work it all out. (It seems Jo Walton had the same problem, so I don’t feel too bad about this.) It’s kind of a meh book, in other words, but on the other hand it’s quite fun hanging out in this high-fantasy world while not very much happens. Vlad is a fun protagonist who doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is also, incidentally, a good way of describing this series.

Review: The Rig

Roger Levy’s The Rig is better than it seems at first; if you’re having doubts, I’d encourage you to persevere if you can.

For much of its 600+ pages it reads like a pretty traditional SF dystopia. It’s set in a hyper-capitalist future in which humanity has spread to the stars, at the cost of longevity, good health and high standards of living. People die in their forties after a life being manipulated by a few powerful rulers. All but the inhabitants of two planets have given up religion. The one thing that gives hope to most of humanity is AfterLife, a programme which allows people to vote on which of the dead should be given a second chance at life, based on what they did when they were alive.

Against this backdrop: a murder happens. A man who’s suffered severe neural damage goes to work on a rig on the aptly-named planet of Bleak. Two children grow up on the fundamentalist Christian planet of Gehenna.

It’s all very grim, and violent; very straight, white and male. (There’s just one major female character, despite this being a world that’s apparently equal-opportunities.) But as the novel unfolds it becomes apparent that it’s quite a complex meditation on memory, story-making and belief. What happens when we no longer have the consolations of religion? Is there a middle way between fundamentalism and atheism?

It’s surprisingly rare for SF to tackle these themes, but The Rig manages it in a way that is not trite, not purely academic, not preachy nor too earnest. It’s also worth noting that it features two neurodivergent characters, though I’m not sure if one of them isn’t too stereotypical. What The Rig is, is a novel that’s a bit out of the way for SF; considered and thoughtful, despite the violence of its world.

Review: Down Under

Down Under is travel writer Bill Bryson’s account of Australia, based on a number of visits over what feels like a year or so. He covers the major cities, crosses the outback by train, plane and car, and makes friends with a range of people in remote places. There is, apparently, Humour.

I have a chequered history with Bryson’s work: while I love Notes from a Big Country, his book of columns about life in New Hampshire, I found Notes from a Small Island, an account of his farewell tour of England, chauvinistic and pompous. And not funny.

Down Under falls, I think, somewhere in the middle. Bryson describes Australia right from the get-go as a kind of earthly paradise:

Let me say right here that I love Australia – adore it immeasurably – and am smitten anew each time I see it…The people are immensely likeable – cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted and unfailingly obliging. Their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water. They have a society that is prosperous, well ordered and instinctively egalitarian…

Which may well all be true, so long as you aren’t queer, female or a person of colour. Australian society is famously homophobic, and the Australian government is famously anti-immigration. (We’ll get to Indigenous Australians in a bit.) But then Bryson is more than a little bit racist himself, which might be why he and Australia get on so well together:

One of the effects of paying so little attention to Australia is that it is always such a pleasant surprise to find it there. Every cultural instinct and previous experience tells you that when you travel this far you should find, at the very least, people on camels. There should be unrecognisable lettering on the signs, and swarthy men in robes drinking coffee from thimble-sized cups and puffing on hookahs and rattletrap buses and potholes in the road and a real possibility of disease on everything you touch – but no, it’s not like that at all.

This book has aged badly, to put it mildly.

At least Bryson does eventually get round to discussing the plight of the Indigenous Australians, although it does take him about ten chapters, and he’s appalled at the way they’ve been treated by white Australians. But at no point does he make the effort to meet, interview or talk to anyone Indigenous; they’re always in the background, presented as sad, damaged figures without agency or narrative.

Which is all to say that Bryson experiences Australia very much as a white straight man, which is occasionally problematic but mainly just a particular lens. It does have the effect of making this not very interesting to me? Bryson isn’t really looking at the things I’d be interested in, or the things I’d need to know about as a queer woman if I visited Australia. And it’s not that funny to me, either – but then humour is a subjective thing, after all. Sometimes books and readers just don’t hit it off, and this was one of those times.

Review: Apex Hides the Hurt

Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt follows an unnamed “nomenclature consultant” (someone who specialises in naming new products) who’s hired by the council of a small American town called Winthrop which is considering changing its name. It’s a proposition that’s bringing up some painful history: Winthrop was originally founded by escaped slaves, who called it Freedom, and the town’s mayor is advocating a reversion to that name; it was then named Winthrop after a wealthy white family who set up a barbed wire manufacturing business in the area, profiting off the labour of the Black population but also, crucially, helping to legitimise them; and now, finally, the tech magnate who’s recently moved his business to the town wants to christen it New Prospera.

It’s a short novel that covers a lot of ground, considering how names define us and how corporations use that in their own interest. The novel’s title is a slogan written by Our Hero for a pharmaceutical company called Apex whose brainwave was to make plasters in a huge variety of skin shades – so as to “hide the hurt” better for more people. Which looks like a positive social justice move, but is also a way for corporations to profit from disadvantaged minorities. And “hiding the hurt”, of course, is a way of papering over the cracks, putting things out of sight that are uncomfortable to see – as is happening with the renaming of Winthrop.

There’s a lot to unpack here which I haven’t really had the time to think about. It’s been a long week! But I liked it, I liked its play with a range of concepts – racism, naming, corporate culture – and probably I’d like to read it again.