Tag: book reviews

Review: Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures, the tenth in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, is a “Discworld discovers” story. (See also: The Truth, in which Discworld discovers newspapers; Soul Music, in which Discworld discovers rock music, or Music With Rocks In; Going Postal, in which Discworld discovers post offices.) In this case, Discworld discovers Hollywood.

Our Hero is Victor – “Can’t sing. Can’t dance. Can handle a sword a little.” – a student who has dedicated his not inconsiderable intellect to remaining a student. In fact, he has elevated laziness to an art form: he spends not insignificant effort in keeping himself fit, for example, because it’s too much effort dragging an unfit body around. He finds himself unexpectedly drawn to Holy Wood, a sandy bay in the middle of nowhere where the Disc’s newest industry is starting up. Here, together with Ginger, a fledgling actress, and Gaspode the Wonder Dog, the Disc’s only talking dog, he finds himself equally unexpectedly becoming a star.

Oh, and investigating the strange Lovecraftian horrors Holy Wood is awakening from behind the walls of a false and hollow reality…

The plot’s never the most important thing about Pratchett’s books, though. (I’d be hard-pressed to describe the actual plot of Moving Pictures, and I only read it about a month ago.) It’s not even his characters, although many of them have become fan favourites, as close and familiar as friends.

No: Pratchett’s line is in interrogating the narrative structures that underlie our culture and our expectations of reality. In that respect, he is actually surprisingly formally innovative – surprisingly, that is, for such an unabashedly popular writer, though his fans have been pushing people to his work for years.

Moving Pictures is an excellent case in point, though it’s not really a fan favourite – perhaps because it’s missing the savage flashes of explicit social criticism some of his works exhibit. (From Guards! Guards!: “we were dragons. We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless, and terrible. But…we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.”) It’s a veritable tissue of structural irony, packed with a plethora of narrative levels. At its heart, it’s a tale that twists Hollywood sidelong by transplanting it into a fantasy world; asks us to look afresh at the silent-movie tropes that are by now embedded into our own cultural consciousness. On the Discworld, the magic of Holy Wood eventually makes those narratives real, makes them all the characters can see; which blinds them, almost disastrously, to the incursion of those monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions.

These narratives, says Pratchett, prevent us from seeing what’s really real. And they’re inherently unfair: Ginger, for example, can only get parts playing passive damsels in distress, there to be kidnapped and rescued, because that’s the only narrative Holy Wood has for women; and so that becomes what women are in the real world. And Gaspode is continually being passed over for a much more photogenic dog, Laddie, who is also terminally stupid: because Laddie looks the part, he must actually be the hero, the clever one, the one who leads the humans to safety.

And this is complicated by the fact that Moving Pictures is set in a world – the Discworld – which canonically runs on story. On the Disc, million-to-one chances always work. It’s a place that’s aware of itself as fictional, an immersive fantasy world continually destabilising itself as such. And Moving Pictures especially is intensely intertextual, packed with references to famous films and moments in Hollywood history (there is, for example, a re-enactment of that shot of Marilyn Monroe standing over the grating). There’s even an in-universe explanation for this: the idea that is Holy Wood takes the same form across many worlds. These moments are, again, acknowledgements of the fictionality of the novel and the world and the situation – and yet, even that acknowledgement is destabilised by the fact that there is an in-universe explanation. It’s a hugely playful novel, one which also takes its characters seriously enough to have real warmth.

The point of this post, I think, is that the Discworld novels are a lot cleverer than I think I’ve given them credit for in the past. In fact, I think Pratchett might well be the Dickens of the twenty-first century: a popular writer who deals in kindly caricature and savage humour, who’s doing some real work beneath the densely detailed surface of his fiction. Dickens wove Themes throughout his long books; Pratchett did postmodernism, ironising the stories we choose to tell, and the stories we unconsciously live by. If you’ve not read anything by either of them, you’re missing out.

50-Word Review: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island is celebrated travel writer Bill Bryson’s account of a farewell trip around England before he moved to America. It’s sexist in that nauseatingly Middle England way that tells you unconsciously that you’re being a bore if you take offence. And is not even that funny.

(Micro-post because it’s Friday evening and, really, this book deserves nothing more.)

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.

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.

Review: The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader isn’t really a novel; it’s more of a long short story – a novella, perhaps – which first appeared in The London Review of Books in 2007. The titular uncommon reader is Queen Elizabeth II, who finds herself by accident (thanks to her unruly corgis) in a mobile library in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. It seems rude to leave without borrowing a book – so she does so; and thus begins an obsession with the written word that plunges her advisors into despair. Soon, the Queen is neglecting her ceremonial duties in favour of her books, and nonplussing her adoring subjects by asking them what they’re reading instead of where they’ve travelled from. And when she actually starts talking about writing a book…

The nice thing about The Uncommon Reader is that it takes a joke and weaves it into something a bit more layered, a reflection on the nature of reading and on the nature of the British monarchy. The Queen’s reading embarks her on a process of becoming specific, transforming from a symbol of authority to a person who can use that authority – though, fortunately, what she mainly uses it for is to obtain more books. In other words, the Queen’s encounter with other minds, other selves through her reading forces her to define her own self, to differentiate her self from theirs: she transforms from object to subject, and begins to have her own opinions.

Hence the consternation of her staff, because that process of selfhood proves incompatible with effective queening. The political neutrality we’ve come to see as emblematic of the modern monarchy is gone: instead of finding common conversational ground – or seeming to, at any rate – with everyone she meets, whether that’s the ambassador of France or the person handing her a bunch of flowers at a hospital opening, she’s looking to have proper, in-depth conversations about reading, which her advisors see as elitist and out of touch. (And they are not, in fact, entirely wrong: Bennett’s Queen Elizabeth shares the sneering contempt for genre fiction that much of the British literary establishment still displays.) What they mean, of course, is that a reading Queen, a Queen with her own opinions and her own established selfhood, is no longer a mouthpiece for the government: she’s a separate entity, with a constitutional power that is suddenly threatening. Like an eighty-year-old Katniss Everdeen, she’s pushing back against an oppressive structure that allows her only one role to play.

Lest we start, through the empathy of reading, feeling sorry for the real Queen, though, it’s probably a good idea to remember that the monarchy’s image of neutrality and universal accessibility – is there anyone in England who really, virulently hates the Queen? I honestly don’t think so – is largely one of her own creation. Her father, George V, defied constitutional law to show support for Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler; her uncle, Edward VIII, chose marriage to a divorcee over remaining king. And Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, still effectively had some political power. No: although the concept of a politically neutral monarchy existed before Elizabeth came to the throne, she has played a key part, over her extraordinarily long reign, in constructing the image of the monarchy that we all now take for granted.

Where does that leave The Uncommon Reader? It’s an interesting look at what reading can do, its bourgeois interpretation of what “good” reading looks like leavened a little by the Queen’s footman Norman, whose reading choice is dictated by whether or not the author is gay. Bennett’s portrait of the Queen is sprinkled, as all good comedy is, by a note of the tragic: her sadness at realising that she has missed a lifetime of reading, and will never catch up no matter how hard she tries. And its analysis of what the monarchy is is sound. But to cast the Queen as a trapped woman bound to passive compliance with her ceremonial role, like some Earl of Gormenghast, when in fact she is a dedicated and canny leader, is disingenuousness itself.

Review: Deja Vu

In Deja Vu‘s opening chapter, a woman named Saskia has twelve hours to figure out who killed her secretary and stuffed her in the fridge.

But it’s when she works out – with the help of some clever computering – that the murderer is herself that we know something really weird’s going on.

Turns out the investigation is a test; that Saskia is a criminal being controlled through a computer chip implanted in her head to become an agent for the EU police; that, if she refuses to work for them, or runs away, she’ll die.

Oooh! I thought. State repression and an exploration of personhood and technology! It will be like Nikita but futuristic and good!

Sadly, after the first couple of chapters, Saskia is shunted sideways to make room for David: an English academic, suspected of bombing a research facility twenty years ago and killing his wife, who’s encouraged by a mysterious masked woman to return to the scene of the bombing and destroy a virtual world he once worked on. What follows is a really tedious thriller plot, as David goes on the run from the police, with Saskia and a member of the British police hunting him. There is also time travel.

The problem I had with Deja Vu was that genuinely interesting, SFnal stuff gets subordinated to this thriller plot, which for at least three-quarters of the book might as well take place in the present day. For instance, there’s talk of capital punishment and mind-wiping as established punishments, and the EU has its own FBI analogue – but once the action moves to England there’s no sign of any of the political climate that’s brought these developments about. The virtual world David created and must destroy is apparently full of artificial intelligences for which it is a prison – but, again, nothing is made of this dystopian premise. And although Saskia’s gradual rediscovery of her own criminal past, her struggle with what it means to be a person without memory, is a theme throughout the novel, it turns out that essentially her entire psyche is based on her suffering a sexual assault. Her whole identity is “rape victim”, and, sure, she was really fucking angry about it – her crime was enacting revenge on her attackers – but, really? There was nothing else important in her past?

Deja Vu feels like an interesting novel buried in a marketing category. It’s such a pity that that damn thriller plot and that white male academic (*cough* Robert Langdon *cough*) get in the way of a story about a woman struggling to define herself under state control.