Tag: feminism strikes

Review: The Rosie Project

I read this on a day trip to my old school in Somerset. Turns out that a four-hour round trip train journey with delays is the perfect occasion for a novel like this.

Our Protagonist is Don Tillman, a genetics professor who is essentially Sheldon Cooper from the earlier series of The Big Bang Theory: dedicated to routine and highly logical, he’s constantly looking for the most efficient way to do things. That includes cooking and eating the same seven meals every week; timing his lectures to last exactly an hour; scheduling his time right down to the minute.

(A note: although author Graeme Simsion claims in a Q&A at the end of the book that he didn’t intend Don to be neurodivergent, a lot of audiences have read him that way.)

Once upon a time, Don decides that he is in want of a wife. Because he struggles with conventional dating, he decides instead to embark on the Wife Project: he creates a questionnaire designed to identify the woman who is perfect for him.

What I wanted out of The Rosie Project was adorableness, if possibly slightly conservative and/or consolatory. What I got was kind of…sexist? The questionnaire, of course, does not go according to plan, and Don’s main romantic interest actually turns out to be a bartender called Rosie who fulfils none of Don’s criteria for the ideal wife. She’s horrified when she finds out about the questionnaire, pointing out that any woman who filled it in would be participating in her own objectification. But this never actually gets addressed? The main obstacle to Don and Rosie’s relationship isn’t that Don fails to see women as fully human, it’s that Don isn’t good at reading subtle social signals. But not only is the questionnaire itself pretty icky (there was a sample at the back of the library copy of the book that was billed as Fun Engagement with the Text! but which I actually found super judgemental and uncomfortable), the last quarter of the novel is laden with the kind of “fight for her!” advice that amounts to harassment in the real world. I can’t believe we’re still saying this in 2019, but: if a woman tells her male romantic interest to leave her alone, THAT IS WHAT SHE MEANS. Not “I need further convincing, please come to my place of work and make a dramatic romantic gesture”. That the novel doesn’t recognise this as fundamentally creepy behaviour is a problem for me.

Something I wondered about when I finished The Rosie Project: who is it for? It’s being marketed as light, fluffy romance, but with a male protagonist, which (as a non-romance reader) seems unusual but also interesting! But the sexist undertones of the text make this gender inversion profoundly problematic: this is a novel being marketed to women in particular that says “this is an acceptable way for men to treat you. It is, in fact, adorable! and romantic! (and therefore you should put up with it)”. Like Don’s questionnaire, it asks us to participate in our own objectification.

Which brings me back to a sunny train platform in Somerset. “How’s the book?” asks a fellow awaiter of delayed trains. (People on train stations in Somerset actually talk to each other – always faintly terrifying to this city-dweller.) “It’s OK for a train journey,” I replied. Because it is. It’s undemanding in its recycling of every rom-com cliché going (Don even gets a makeover). It repeats the kind of misogyny that appears everywhere in popular culture. It’s not like I think Graeme Simsion is a raging sexist; I think he’s a commercial writer who doesn’t think in those terms? So The Rosie Project isn’t exactly a terrible book, just a lazy and mediocre one. It’s basically a big ol’ “meh” in novel form.


Review: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

This review contains spoilers.

On Monday I wrote about Zen Cho’s The True Queen and how being a fun, silly Regency fantasy novel is its whole project, and that’s really important in the context of its representation of people of colour, working class people and queer people.

Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is going for “fun historical-ish SFF fiction” too, and entirely fails.

The titular D.O.D.O. is the Department for Diachronic Operations – or, to you and I, time travel. It seems that magic was once a reality, with witches being able to manipulate different quantum states to change the world they inhabited. Sometime in the mid-1800s, the invention of photography collapsed wave functions around the world, thereby destroying magic. Now, D.O.D.O.’s invented a way to get it back, and have embarked on a programme of time travel that involves changing things in the past to consolidate US power in the present.

I quite like the way the novel links magic to uncertainty, and presents its practitioners as savvy exploiters of human perception and cultural assumptions. That’s picked up by its epistolary form: the story’s told through diaries, chatlogs, emails, presentations and letters, making it a shifting fug of different perspectives and voices, with plenty of gaps for uncertainties to fall into.

That’s about the only thing I did like, though. One of the novel’s main registers is bureaucratic comedy – jargon-loaded emails from HR, endless humorous acronyms, that sort of thing. But while there’s a kind of gossipy fun to be gleaned from employees bitching about their managers on Slack, the humour isn’t exactly sharp, and you really don’t need 750 pages, a glossary and a list of dramatis personae to tell this kind of story.

Actually, that’s what’s at the heart of my problems with The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.: it is far, far too long for what it’s actually doing. Sure, there’s a time travel plot, but really it’s more of a sequence of things happening than a coherent and satisfying narrative arc. The “historical” writing (diaries and letters from people living in the past – including an Elizabethan witch and a Victorian lady) is overwrought and unconvincing: “I was incredulous and I expressed my incredulity with colorful language.” There’s a fine line between expansiveness and over-explanation when you’re writing in a historical “voice”,, and Stephenson and Galland cross it repeatedly.

The tension between science and magic here – in that the proliferation of scientific thinking literally wipes out magic – is also pretty boring: it’s something that’s been done so many times, and this novel is not adding anything to it. As it’s presented here it’s also historically inaccurate – the concept of rationality as a response to the world goes all the way back to the Enlightenment. Tying it to the first widespread use of photography makes a little more sense, but it still feels like it’s playing into a false idea of the Western world. There’s also very little scrutiny of the ethical implications of the USA’s use of magic and time travel. This is the US government literally meddling with time to consolidate their power! It has far-reaching consequences for at least one timeline! The novel registers this as a bit sinister but doesn’t do anything with that recognition; it both cares and really doesn’t.

It almost feels as if this enormous book (I repeat: 750 PAGES) was meant to be the start of a series. Certainly its ending is abrupt and anticlimactic: D.O.D.O. is taken over by a disgruntled witch who’s determined to restore magic by any means necessary – including dismantling the entire technological foundation of modern American society. A bunch of ex-D.O.D.O.-ers go rogue in order to stop her. “And that, dear reader, is who we are, and what we now are doing.”* I want to read that novel! That novel has conflict and women in positions of power and maybe some deeper interrogation of the tension between magic and science! Not this novel, with its weird black-ops vibe and support for existing oppressive systems which are literally colonising the past and nothing terribly interesting actually happening.

I just – really did not appreciate working my way through this doorstop of a novel only to find that it ends where a better novel might begin. And it’s not like the writers are bad! I loved Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which is exactly the kind of doorstop that presses all my readerly buttons, and although I haven’t read anything else by Nicole Galland it doesn’t seem like she’s an amateur or anything. It’s just…weirdly edited and weirdly conceived and, I can’t stress this enough, too long. If the job of reviewers is to evaluate whether a novel succeeds at what it’s trying to do – well, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is trying to be fun, and fun it is not.


*This is literally and without exaggeration the entire last sentence of the novel.

Review: The Mars Room

The Mars Room opens as a young woman, Romy Hall, is being transferred by bus to the fictional Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, somewhere in California. A woman dies on that journey; nobody notices until they get there. Another woman boasts about her string of child abductions. A third just won’t stop chatting.

It is not a cheerful book.

A one-time exotic dancer, Romy’s serving two life sentences for murdering one of her former clients – a man so obsessed with her he followed her to a new city. Interspersed with descriptions of her new reality in America’s inhuman prison system are memories of her past in San Francisco as well as chapters from the point of view of a corrupt cop also serving time and a prison teacher named Gordon.

Gordon is broke. He lives in a one-room cabin in the woods. In this way he is like the Unabomber, apparently: Kushner includes extracts from Kaczynski’s diary by way of making the comparison. And it’s here, not in the meat of Romy’s story, that we find clues about The Mars Room’s project. Although Gordon vaguely thinks he’s doing something charitable by working at the prison (he can’t get a job anywhere else, though), he’s also sort of a terrible person – he too becomes obsessed with Romy, objectifying her and her fellow inmates even as he breaks rules for them. In the end, his own self-image is all he cares about. By including these stories of men who cannot see past their own self-interest (add to Gordon and the Unabomber the cop who kills a young Black man who witnessed his corruption, and Romy’s stalker, who frames his obsession as love), Kushner draws connections between toxic masculinity and a prison system that insists upon the inhumanity of its inmates. Stanville is absolutely impersonal: no allowances are made for grief or illness or common sense. It is the creation of a society that cannot look beyond the self-interest of a privileged few. The structures of toxic masculinity are everywhere: in the abuse inflicted on trans prisoners by inmates and guards alike; in the way that prisoners giving comfort to a woman in labour are wrested violently away by prison staff; in the fact that nobody notices the dead woman on the bus.

No wonder Romy’s future is a dead end: there is no allowance in the system for mercy or flexibility or even the acknowledgement that a wrong decision may have been made somewhere along the line. The moral ambiguity of pretty much everyone in the novel doesn’t change Kushner’s assessment of the system’s brokenness – in fact, it makes it worse. The absolutes the system insists on, that toxic masculinity insists on, that both use the absolute of violence to enforce, are incompatible with complex humanity. And under these conditions, justice is impossible.

I found The Mars Room valuable, if not precisely enjoyable, because of its discussion of a topic I know little about. I don’t know what the prison system here in the UK is like, but I can easily imagine it being similar. And I think it powerfully evokes a sense of entrapment and enclosure: the idea that you are restrained not just physically but ideologically, by circumstance and by the temperament of those around you. In other words, it’s a novel that, despite describing the smallness of life in a single physical prison, reveals how toxic masculinity and patriarchy makes prisons for us all.

Review: An Orchestra of Minorities

Here is a flowchart of where I am with sexism in litfic right now:

Don’t laugh, I made it in OpenOffice

You might be able to guess what I thought of An Orchestra of Minorities.

Chigozie Obioma’s second novel is informed by Igbo religion. In it, the world we see and hear is interpenetrated by a spiritual world populated by figures both malevolent and benevolent. It’s narrated by the chi, or guardian spirit, of a Nigerian chicken farmer called Nonso; Nonso’s chi is defending him in a spiritual court for committing a heinous crime.

The defence involves unspooling Nonso’s life story, in which he falls in love with a wealthy woman called Ndali, goes to Cyprus to get a degree and earn Ndali’s parents’ approval, gets conned out of a lot of money by a fellow Nigerian and eventually ends up in a Cyprus prison for a number of years for a crime he didn’t technically commit. When he returns to Nigeria, Ndali is married to another man with whom she has a child.

So a jealous Nonso harasses her and eventually sets fire to her workplace and (inadvertently) leaves her seriously injured.

That’s it. That’s the crime his chi wants to acquit him of.

Your mileage may vary, but that’s it. I’m out.

(Entertaining a charitable reading here: the novel is written as one side of a dialogue; we never hear what judgement is made against Nonso; and so we as readers are invited to judge him ourselves. But then…that this book thinks there’s a defence for stalking a woman and then setting fire to her place of work because she didn’t wait ten years for her ex-boyfriend is pretty much exactly my problem with a literary culture that constantly prioritises MANPAIN over female safety and agency.)

Review: The Dream of Perpetual Motion

I enjoyed Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion while I was reading it, found it moderately interesting, thought there’d be plenty to think and write about it.

Now, a couple of months down the line, it seems it hasn’t quite “taken” in my memory. Likely I’m just very tired at the moment, for a range of reasons. Likely, too, I’ve just bounced off it for mysterious reasons.

It’s steampunk, at least nominally, and so should be very much my thing. Narrated by its protagonist Harold, it’s the tale of how he ended up imprisoned in an airship high above the earth, with only the disembodied voice of a woman named Miranda and a rapidly failing perpetual motion machine for company. The tale takes in Miranda’s fantastically rich and controlling inventor father Prospero Taligent, the grim travesty of a birthday party he throws early in his daughter’s life and his ominous granting to each of the randomly selected children who are his guests their “heart’s desire”. It’s a story of disillusionment and the corruption of meaning, the mechanisation of art and the ivory tower unreality of the rich.

It’s an anti-capitalist story, as far as it goes, figuring the industrial production that imbues Prospero with (eventually) near-despotic power as uncanny: in Palmer’s alternative world, mechanised labour is done by steam-powered mechanical men of varying degrees of intelligence. Prospero’s ultimate goal is to create a fully synthetic human, completing the displacement of the human by the artificial.

It’s an unusual treatment of steampunk, which tends to read industrialisation and mechanisation as progress and potential. I suspect part of the reason I’ve bounced off it is because it’s a little male-gazey: Harold’s interest in Miranda is somehow never about her but about an idealised version of her; the same is true of her father, literally, as a horrific late sequence in the novel shows. (Content warning for non-consensual surgery.) Steampunk usually is good at decent female characters (Gail Carriger’s Soulless, Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, let’s even throw in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, why not), so perhaps it’s the departure from the genre that’s distracting me. This is steampunk being used as a literary device not a genre? Which is fine, but it calls for different reading protocols. And even if I’d read it as Literary, I don’t think I’d have been able to ignore the objectification of Miranda – I’m rapidly running out of patience with litfic’s treatment of women in general.

I might be tempted to read this again, though – it’s definitely the sort of thing that would reward re-reading, especially re-reading with greater attention. For now, though, it’s a case of wrong reader, wrong time.

Review: The Gate to Women’s Country

TW: homophobia, transphobia.

This review contains spoilers.

It was only as I was leaving my local library with Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country in tow that I remembered that Tepper was responsible for the woeful The Margarets, an unfocused and regressive novel that took me simply ages to finish.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened The Gate to Women’s Country, and with some surprise that I realised I rather liked it.

It’s set in a post-apocalyptic version of what is probably North America, about three hundred years after what was probably a nuclear war. The recovering landscape is dotted with small towns with names like Marthatown and Susantown. In these towns, the women work, learn, practice medicine, grow food, raise children and generally run a functioning, sustainable society (complete with a thriving artistic culture), while the men (mostly) live in garrisons and conduct periodic wars with the garrisons of neighbouring towns.

It’s the kind of over-simplistic social stratification that I usually find deeply suspect. And, to be sure, Tepper makes her society’s views on queer people abundantly, vindictively clear:

“Even in preconvulsion times it had been known that the so-called ‘gay syndrome’ was caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy. The women doctors now identified the condition as ‘hormonal reproductive maladaption’ and corrected it before birth. There were very few actual HRNMs – called HenRams – either male or female, born in Women’s Country, though there was still the occasional unsexed person or the omnisexed who would, so the instructors said, mate with a grasshopper if it would hold still long enough.”

That nasty paragraph, round about page 76, is extremely hard to swallow. (It’s worth noting that The Margarets is similarly homophobic and transphobic – though less explicitly so than here.) And I don’t want to play down the damage it does!

And yet – still I found Tepper’s novel fascinating. Because this isn’t a Hunger Games-style dystopia, where a Chosen One works to bring the system down. No. The Gate to Women’s Country is a bildungsroman of sorts: we watch as Our Hero, the young woman Stavia, grows into her society; as she strains against its apparently arbitrary restrictions and rules, she begins to appreciate their function.

Because one of the big questions the novel is asking is: what price utopia? The novel’s most vertiginous reveal, right at the end, is that the secrecy-shrouded sisterhood that rules this society is basically running a selection programme with the remnants of humanity: they’re striving to breed violence out of the population to avoid another catastrophic war. This, without the consent or knowledge of the people who they’re sterilising or impregnating to get the right results. It’s this sisterhood that Stavia grows into, having experienced first-hand the violence that men can visit upon women when she inadvertently strays into a community of paternalistic fundamentalist Christians which is suffering from a chronic shortage of wives. (Content warning here for rape.)

While the idea that violence is a) exclusively male and b) genetically determined is obviously simplistic, I think the moral picture here is quite interesting. It’s pretty clear that having to make these decisions on behalf of the populace is a curse for these women; and equally clear that they feel it’s necessary to protect humanity from itself. It’s also clear that Women’s Country is, by and large, happy, stable and functioning; there are sacrifices to be made, when sons reject their mothers to join the garrisons; but everyone is reasonably well-fed, everyone is healthy, and though the women work hard they also seem fulfilled. (Garrison culture, on the other hand, is basically toxic. But then that’s Tepper’s point.) So: is this contingent, imperfect utopia – which is getting ever better as the land heals and fewer and fewer boys choose to join the garrisons – worth the price everyone is paying for it?

There’s also a sub-question, here, about what honour looks like. Is it the men squabbling in their barracks, scheming maliciously against the women and punishing the weak – but, oh, how bright their banners? Or is it the women, working steadily to remake the world? I do enjoy Tepper’s examination of women’s work and how fundamental it actually is to a functioning society – it’s something SF doesn’t often consider structurally, and in that respect I can see how this has been hailed as a feminist classic.

Of course if you’re going to do that you also have to acknowledge the limits of its feminism: its exclusion of LGBT+ people, and its gender-essentialist conclusion that women are not capable of excessive violence (and that they’re genetically inclined to its obverse, the work of nurturing and caring). It is, in other words, a massively flawed work – albeit a well-structured one with an unusually coherent worldview and some pertinent questions about what society should look like. I enjoyed it without enjoying its politics, which I think is pretty rare for me. I’ll approach Tepper warily in future, though.

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.