Tag: book reviews

50-Word Review: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed is all world-building. It’s about an anarchist society on a near-desert planet – think Utopia but without the kyriarchy. It’s as much a thought experiment as (e.g.) Asimov’s short stories are, but Le Guin’s writing and her characterisation are lovelier than his. The last line is perfect.

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50-Word Review: Master and Commander

Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Master and Commander follows hot-headed Captain Aubrey as he hunts enemy ships. A meticulously-researched comedy of manners, the novel’s interested in the social structures of the time. Published in 1969, it’s essentially conservative, centring a white man, but does feature a gay man and POCs.

Word count: 50

50-Word Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin

Epic fantasy featuring a WOC protagonist caught up in the court intrigues of colonialist overlords. There’s also a polyamorous incestuous pantheon and a matriarchy: this is epic fantasy reimagined, and I liked it! Jemisin looks at oppressive structures of power and how few choices everyone has under them.

50-Word Review: High-Rise

I’ll be doing these all through November, because NaNoWriMo.

High-Rise, J.G. Ballard

High-Rise is about a super-high-rise tower, designed as a self-sufficient vertical city, whose inhabitants all go a bit Lord of the Flies. A seminal text for thinking about the social effects of architecture and city planning, but content notes for gender essentialism, sexual violence, animal cruelty and general gore.

Word count: 49

Review: The Margarets

Happy Halloween, if that is a thing you celebrate! Having thought up a tenuous thematic link this morning on the Tube, today I will be writing about monstrosity in Sherri S. Tepper’s The Margarets.

This review contains spoilers.

The Margarets is set at the end of the twenty-first century. Overpopulation has destroyed the biosphere: pretty much the only living things left on Earth are humans. The Interstellar Trade Organisation, which consists of a number of intelligent alien races of varying degrees of sympathy (more on which later), has given Earth an ultimatum: reduce the population drastically, or be destroyed. As a result, Earth’s governments enact brutal population control measures: excess children, defined as such under retroactively applied laws, are sold into bondage on other planets, probably never to return to their families on Earth.

Our Heroine is (surprisingly enough) Margaret. As a child growing up on Mars, she invents for herself six imaginary friends: a warrior, a shaman, a healer, a telepath, a queen and a spy. She eventually returns to an overcrowded Earth; and in times of stress or at important decision points in her life, these imaginary friends split from her, to become Margarets of their own (although they’re not all called Margaret, thank goodness). The novel follows these seven selves through the inhabited universe, as they experience slavery, diplomacy, domestic life, loneliness and military service among other things. It becomes clear that they’ve been created, seven selves who are one, by the benign, inscrutable, alien Gentherans, to save humanity from itself by restoring its racial memory and thus its sense of the importance of its natural environment.

So it’s a novel that’s about, among other things, humanity’s monstrosity: whether humans are monstrous or just flawed, whether humanity is redeemable, whether its mistakes are inevitable. In that sense, at least, its concerns are similar to those of quite a few liberal space operas I’ve read recently (Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 both come to mind); as well as in the sense that it sees humanity’s hope in communality, in shared experience and memory. But the way it constructs that monstrosity is kind of deeply troubling. If it’s progressive in outlook, in actual detail and content it feels weirdly 1950s.

Firstly and most obviously, those alien races. There are two kinds of alien races in the universe, apparently: good and evil. So the example Tepper gives us of true monstrosity is the reptilian Quataar race, slavers, torturers, murderers. Humanity is not like the Quataar. But neither is it like the Gentherans and similar races: high-minded, wise, protective of their environments.

This good/evil binary smacks of high fantasy racism; it is, at best, very tedious.

But, I mean, it’s not like Tepper stereotypes any human communities, right?

Oh, wait…

One of the Margarets encounters a tribe that’s essentially a Native American analogue. They speak in fractured English. They are violent kidnappers. They steal each other’s women. They are, in fact, not unlike the Quataar. This is a failure to imagine complexly how other cultures might live, a denial of exactly the kind of shared experience that Tepper insists is the only way humanity can be saved. This is making a monster out of something we don’t understand – that we haven’t done the work to understand. This is an extension of the kind of logic that divides fictional alien races into “good” and “bad”.

There are other examples. One of the Margarets, Naumi, is male, so that, the Gentherans say, the seven selves can experience as much of humanity as possible. This feels like a slightly essentialist way of looking at things, but okay! Except Naumi falls in love with his male best friend, and the novel again reads this as monstrous; fallout from his female origins; inadmissible in the order of the world; and he has to see his friend fall in love with another Margaret, a female one. Naumi’s queerness, Tepper’s telling us, is wrong, a mistake.

PSA: The Margarets was published in two thousand and fucking seven. I’d expect this kind of thing in a 1970s novel, maybe, but not in something published this side of 2000, and not in something shortlisted for the Clarke Award.

Another failure of empathy, another monster created by privilege: we find out near the end of the novel where cats come from. They are the brain-damaged children of the Gentherans. Yes: Sherri S. Tepper compares neurodiverse people to actual animals.

The Margarets gives us a seemingly hopeful answer to the problem of monstrosity: we’re not inherently monsters; we can, with time and cooperation, become as high-minded as the Gentherans. But so much seems to be lumped in with what Tepper sees as monstrous that her imagined future looks dystopically conformist rather than triumphant. I’d heard good things about Tepper’s work, especially Beauty, which was why I picked this up; but I won’t be reading any of her other novels.

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.

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”.