- The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien. Illustrated by Alan Lee, naturally. Look how gorgeous this Rivendell painting is! You can actually get prints of it, apparently, for the low, low price of £400.
- The Last Hero – Terry Pratchett. Paul Kidby’s covers just about edge out Josh Kirby’s action-packed paperback ones; they’re a bit softer and feel more like the kind of thing I’d want on my wall. And I particularly love all the art for The Last Hero, a “Discworld fable” that’s probably as close as Pratchett ever got to writing an actual graphic novel.
- Saga 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I think this is the cover of the big collected editions, not the individual volumes. I love the way Alana’s glaring right at us. I love the way that explosion bisects the page, but that Alana and Marko and Hazel are still more important than it. That’s exactly what it’s like to read Saga.
- Jack Glass – Adam Roberts. The Art Deco, stained-glass feel this cover’s got going on is what made me read the book in the first place. The bubbles! The colour! The space rocket!
- The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell. I like the movement in this cover: the way that labyrinths twist into spirals twist into circles. Again, it’s a great reflection of what it’s like to read The Bone Clocks: feeling all the certainties twist with every chapter you read, and yet knowing there’s a grand plan, a common thread, to it all.
- Inkdeath – Cornelia Funke. Not my favourite of the Inkheart trilogy – that would be Inkheart itself – but I like how that illustration in the centre, with all its lush fantastic detail, draws your eye in, and it’s only with a lurch of focus that you realise it’s also a skull. (Or perhaps I’m just exceptionally unobservant.)
- The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath – Ishbelle Bee. This was really not a good book. But I do like the elaborateness of this Gothicky cover, that steampunk-fairytale title font against the simplicity of the gold silhouettes in the foreground.
- Goldenhand – Garth Nix. Again, really not my favourite Old Kingdom story. But there’s something about the wild slash of gold against that black background that would make a great, evocative piece of abstract art.
- Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I find the naivete of this cover quite interesting: the faces look like something from a 1950s Famous Five cover, but then there’s that half-glimpsed steampunk balloon above, and the rust on the basket, and that vast thing belching black smoke. And no Famous Five sky was ever that colour. It’s a book about the hidden structures of oppression beneath the familiar, so the unease this cover generates is perfect.
- Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman. That coloured woodcut of the skies of Oxford, with the Radcliffe Camera, and Carfax Tower, and the tower of St Mary’s…well, it’s everything. (The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)
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.
- Marya Morevna – Deathless, Catherynne Valente. “You will live as you live anywhere. With difficulty, and grief.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. As with, I suspect, many other people, The Hobbit was my gateway into The Lord of the Rings, a book that, almost uniquely, sits deep in my psyche. And so it was a gateway, too, into a fandom and a way of writing and thinking and into a shared code of story.
- The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. This was my gateway into feminist thinking, and into serious, weighty literary criticism in general. It showed me what you can do with criticism, the anger you can wield with it and the worlds you can create.
- Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. A gateway into the Gothic, a mode which holds so much interest for me, deep and dark and ambiguous and strange.
- The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon. This was the book that made me realise that postmodernism is actually pretty cool, definitely more cool than Modernism.
- Havelok the Dane – Anonymous. Havelok the Dane is a thirteenth-century narrative poem about, er, a Dane called Havelok who…invades Britain or something? I can’t even really remember what happens in it. Anyway, I read this a couple of weeks before I started at university, in a vague panic because I didn’t get the reading list when I was supposed to get it, and just being utterly enchanted because it was so Tolkien-y and fairy tale-esque. And it was that that made me choose to study Middle English instead of Old English in my first year, so I got to read lots of other wonderful works like it, including several Arthurian romances, and overall I had a great insight into a literary period that doesn’t get studied very often.
- Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. This was my first graphic novel, and I couldn’t really have asked for a better introduction. It’s punchy and fearless and full of emotional truth.
- The Gunslinger – Stephen King. So this was my gateway into proper grown-up fantasy, really: fantasy in which worldbuilding is metaphor and metaphor is worldbuilding, in which our world is always half-glimpsed in the strangenesses of another one.
- Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I was quite lucky that this was my first Dickens novel: it’s sentimental and sprawling and right up my street, and it’s why I continue to read Dickens novels. (To be fair, there’s only been one real dud among the ones I’ve read.)
- The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. This made me properly want to go to university and study things in dusty old libraries.
- Steampunk Your Wardrobe – Calista Taylor. I mean, I still haven’t made anything from this book, but it was my first steampunk reference book, so to speak. I now have three, and intend to collect lots more!
(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)
Steampunk Fairy Tales is pretty much what it says on the tin: a collection of seven stories, all versions of fairy tales with a steampunk twist. Most are Western stories of various origin, and there are two Japanese stories – although neither of them are by a Japanese author. Which is fine, but a bit awkward when the preface to the book specifically flags up its cultural diversity:
…the authors represented three continents and were retelling myths from Germany, England, France, Italy and Japan.
Anyway. I’m still trying to come up with a personal Working Theory of Steampunk, so what I found most interesting in thinking about the book was its approach to the genre. What makes these stories steampunk, according to the preface, is that they are “set in an advanced Victorian society powered by steam” – which is interesting, because it suggests that steampunk here is not defined by its politics (in spite of the “punk” part of the name) but by its technology: steam power. (In context, I think what the writer of the preface means by “advanced” is “technologically advanced”.)
That’s borne out by what the writers have done to make the stories steampunk. Most of the stories turns not on character or circumstance but technology, a steampunk novum, to steal a term from SF criticism. “The Clockwork People” retells “Pinocchio” with living dolls made of clockwork – and the end of the story sees a young doll made spontaneously from the wreckage of its parents. “Perfection”, a retelling of “Bluebeard” and not coincidentally the best story in the book, turns on the fact that its heroine is herself a clockwork automaton. “The Copper Eyes” features an evil inventor mother who turns her children into machines and is herself defeated by a machine. “Strawberry Sins” is a version of “Beauty and the Beast” in which a soldier tries to work out a cure to his increasing beastliness by tinkering with a scientific formula (although this story felt more dieselpunk to me). And “Aubrey in the World Above” features a beanstalk, apparently activated by electricity, that swallows people up to take them to the land of the Giants. Also a mechanical hen.
Interestingly, it’s the two Japanese stories – “The Mech Oni and the Three Inch Tinkerer” and “The Yellow Butterfly” – that are most focused on their characters; and even they are set against a background in which technology and materialism is a looming threat. “The Mech Oni and the Three Inch Tinkerer” features a vast steam-powered robot monster which its three-inch samurai is rewarded for defeating, and the hero of “The Yellow Butterfly” is grieving the loss of his family in a submersible accident, working in a factory for a tyrannical ex-samurai capitalist. (This would be the second-best story in the collection if it weren’t creepily male-gaze-y.)
So, materialism and mass production is at the heart of what the book sees as steampunk. If each of these stories hinges in some way on technology, each of them also enacts a highly specific anxiety about technology: the subsumation of the human into the mechanical. Clockwork dolls turning into people; mechanical monsters consuming frail human bodies; a scientific formula robbing someone of their humanity. Central to the book’s idea of steampunk is this tension between human and machine, this questioning of where the borderline is. Siting that tension in an “advanced Victorian society” ideologically enacts a return to an era in which modern capitalism is just about to get started properly; when factories are treating humans like machines, when human labour is being replaced by this explosion of new kinds of machine: a tipping point, an edge-moment.
(I’m distinguishing here between the “real” Victorian period and the Victorian period that lives in our cultural imagination. “Victorian” is almost unique in that it can be considered as both a historical moment and as an aesthetic – Ancient Rome is the only other such cultural signifier I can think of.)
And it’s also, ideologically speaking, the last moment when humans have tangible, Newtonian control over their machines. You can look at steam engines and clockwork and see how they work, how the piston over here spins to make this happen so the wheels move like this – a tangible, instinctual grasp of how machinery works that we’ve lost with the advent of computer chips. These stories feature characters who, despite their fears of being consumed by machinery, also exercise their power over it, through invention, or fine-tune destruction that depends on knowing how machines work. They are exercising control, even as the machines push back against that control.
And it’s here, I think, that the book displays the bourgeois bias that steampunk can be prone to. Invention – the exercise of power over machinery – is throughout most of these stories the preserve of upper-class inventors with rambling Gothic mansions and time to spare; or it’s supplemented by magic, which is by its very definition exclusive. The two best stories in the collection – “Perfection” and “The Yellow Butterfly” – are those that recognise that there are people other than these privileged inventors; people who have no power over machinery and cannot stop the dehumanising march of capitalism by invention.
I don’t actually think this is a very successful collection: the stories mostly feel very old-fashioned in their concerns, and (with the exception of “Perfection”) don’t engage very extensively with the politics of their originals. I’ve had more fun thinking about it than I did reading it.
- Future Earth – Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. The Earth is fucked, everyone spends their time in a video game and whitewashing is the solution to oppression. Yeah, no thanks.
- Panem – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. Panem is a place of massive inequality, a system designed so that it’s near-impossible not to become complicit in the murder of children. Even the revolution is morally compromised.
- The silo – Wool, Hugh Howey. Another oppressive world, designed to keep its citizens in check. (Pesky citizens.) Pretty much every right you can think of is compromised: reproductive rights, freedom of expression, freedom of movement. Again: no thanks.
- Orthogonal – The Clockwork Rocket, Greg Egan. Misogyny! Treacherous biology! Extra-dimensional danger from the skies! All that bloody physics!
- End-World – The Gunslinger, Stephen King. It’s a world that’s literally winding down: echoes of our own world lie scattered amongst the desert dust. There’s just nothing any more to look forward to, except death, and the mountains.
- Umayma – God’s War, Kameron Hurley. Another desert world, this one in the throes of a holy war that’s gone on for so long no-one can remember why they’re fighting. And, let’s face it, I would be crap in a battle. Also, everything runs on bugs. Eurgh.
- The Wild West – Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne Valente. Rich, racist colonists? Dusty, filthy ruby mines? Woods full of bears? Sounds great! /sarcasm
- Kingsport/Arkham/Innsmouth – H.P. Lovecraft. I think the Dreamlands would probably be quite interesting – if they even allow women in – but in Lovecraft’s Massachusetts you can barely move for haunted houses, weird fishy things from the depths of the sea, night-ghasts, witches, sinister aliens and fungi from Yoggoth. And then you die. Or, more likely, go mad.
- The Solar System – Proxima, Stephen Baxter. Probably the only remotely interesting thing about this book was its depiction of over-population: the packed public transport, the domes on Mars and the moon where people live crammed together, the ratcheting international tensions. Smelly, crowded and busy – and nowhere to escape to.
- The Solar System – Jack Glass, Adam Roberts. Again, this solar system is a massively overpopulated one, with the vast crowds of the poor living in fragile plastic bubbles orbiting the sun and prisoners used to make asteroids habitable for the rich. I mean, what is there to visit?
(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)
- More books by Marisha Pessl. I think I’m just in that kind of reading mood at the moment: I want twisty, Gothicky, sparky novels about people who think too much about things.
- More New Crobuzon novels. I just love China Mieville’s steampunky, politically fraught city: like all real cities, it’s hypnotic, oppressive, dirty and alive.
- A book about a supernatural detective in a real city. I appreciate this probably already exists, but I haven’t found it yet. I think the detective story is a great way of exploring a new world; and I’m fascinated by urban stories that channel the energies of the city.
- Space pirates. I think I actually want a novel about The Mechanisms. Because that would be awesome.
- A book set on a ship. Ships are just fascinating, aren’t they? Like little worlds of their own, warring against the elements. And ship crew dynamics tend to be really interesting too.
- A grown-up fairytale. Something perfectly formed and resonant and gorgeous like Catherynne Valente’s writing, and something a bit like The Hobbit too: “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending.” Something that keeps Fairyland mysterious and strange and wonderful and dangerous.
- Decopunk. Like Valente’s Radiance: the rage and social revolution of steampunk combined with the aesthetics of the 1920s.
- Books about unconventional relationships. Because I think it’s important to tell stories that resist our cultural norms and create new paradigms; because our relationship norms are based so much in old-fashioned misogyny and power imbalances.
- More books about science and society. What I loved about Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket was that science and culture aren’t opposed, they’re inextricably intertwined. That’s how science works, or how it should work, anyway: it’s important that we remember that science isn’t some obscure process carried out by people in white rooms, it’s something that affects all of our lives, all the time.
- Steampunk books! I’m building up a collection of steampunk coffee-table books, basically, for writing inspiration and just because I like looking at the pictures.
(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)
Moana – pronounced not how it unfortunately looks in English, which puts me in mind of Mona the Teenage Witch, but Mo’ana – is, of course, Disney’s latest animated film. Its eponymous heroine is the daughter of a generic Polynesian chief who struggles, in classic Disney fashion, between her longing for the sea and her duty to her tribe, who she’ll lead one day. Her father, and most of the rest of the tribe (apart from her slightly bonkers granny) disapprove of the sea: it’s dangerous, and the island provides everything they could need. But when a mysterious, rotting blight threatens the fish and the crops, Moana sets out to find a legendary Polynesian figure – the trickster god Maui – and save her people.
There’s lots of obvious things to talk about here (which is to say, things that Disney wants us to talk about): the fact that this Disney heroine has no romantic interest and that her female-ness has nothing to do with becoming chief, the fact that the film’s set in Polynesia and lays claim to some level of accurate representation. (Although not very much: the production team’s much-feted cultural consulting apparently consisted of spending two weeks in Polynesia, and the film’s hype machine doesn’t seem quite aware of the fact that Polynesia is made up of a vast number of smaller cultures.)
Of course, because I am cynical and also a little bit pretentious, I’m wary of obviousness; it’s so often a diversionary tactic. One of the things the diversity hype is diverting us from is the fact that the plot is not only a fairly unembellished version of the classic struggle-between-duty-and-personal-life which has been around since Romeo and Juliet, it’s also quite culturally conservative in the end: Moana’s essentially acting to restore the status quo of her ancestors, who were travellers before they were stay-at-homes. I’m not saying these are problems, necessarily; at least not from a Western perspective. It’s partly because the film has such a classic, fairytale structure that it works as well as it does; together with its music and its rather unexpectedly lovely animation, it’s really quite wonderful.
I suppose what I am saying is that we have to treat Moana as a commercial product, certainly to a greater extent even than most other blockbusters. And markets are essentially conservative.
Look at that plot structure: that story of Moana’s rediscovery of her heritage, the fact that her ancestors were once seafarers and travellers. It’s triumphant, and slightly unusual for a narrative with a woman as its central character; and, in a certain light, you can read it as a narrative of diaspora, a rediscovery of links to a forgotten culture. Is it slightly problematic, then, that this story of immigrant experience is told by a group of white writers – writers who, further, have drastically simplified the real-life cultures it depicts?
That’s a virtually unanswerable question, I think, one that squirrels down into further questions of cultural privilege and what stories are for. Because you can also read Moana as a narrative that celebrates a culture and a history that’s rarely if ever depicted on screen: this Strange Horizons piece foregrounds responses from two reviewers who are from Polynesian cultures which both take this stance to some extent, and I don’t want to negate that response. I’m asking it here because – well, because I haven’t really finished thinking about Moana; because I think resisting the obvious narrative is important work in itself; because I think conversation, the generation of alternative readings, is one of the primary tasks of artistic (as opposed to commercial) production.
I liked Moana. It made me cry, a bit, with that pitch-perfect emotional structure, honed over decades to hit exactly the right storytelling notes. I think that Disney’s going in the right direction (as it did in Rogue One) even if I think it’s not perfect yet. I definitely think the fact that this film can even be made – even looks sellable to Disney – is an indication of progress somewhere, despite everything. And I think there’s more work still to do.