Tag: politics

Review: The Stars are Legion

There’s definitely something to be said for reading Kameron Hurley’s latest novel, The Stars are Legion, alongside her essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. The Stars are Legion is trying both to enact and to urge political change; it’s a demonstration of, or a metaphor for, the political worldview Hurley sets out in Revolution.

There are very many excellent things The Stars are Legion does which are easy to take for granted because the novel itself does so; so let’s start with those. Its backdrop is the Legion, a fleet of world-ships, journeying to an end no-one can remember any longer, whose inhabitants are at war with each other, fighting for control of the Legion.

Which is all very traditional science-fiction space-opera stuff, except for two things: those ships are organic; and their inhabitants are all women. Hurley doesn’t feel obliged to explain where all the men went, or how reproduction works in the Legion; she’s not particularly interested in pushing the boundaries of how we understand gender: it’s just that everyone is a woman, in the same way that everyone in a Asimov story is a man. This also has the very un-Asimovian corollary that everyone in the Legion is a lesbian – which is, again, not something that Hurley ever marks as unusual: it just is.

I said just now that Hurley’s not particularly interested in gender. That’s not entirely true, though: I think The Stars are Legion is about femininity in a wider sense. I find the organicity of the Legion suggestive in this context, given the age-old association of women with bodies and blood and birth, as opposed to “male” associations with science and reason and thought. And the novel is full of bodies, blood and births: the Legion is dying, and so it’s full of mutants, of women giving birth to monstrosities and eating them, of people hacking their way through flesh walls to get to other parts of the ship, travelling by umbilicuses, eating mushrooms. If flesh is feminine, then The Stars are Legion is defiantly, bloodily, viscerally so. It is feminine science fiction, standing in opposition to more traditional SF novels and stories in which (usually) men explore the chilly depths of space in artificial iron shells, solving problems with The Power of Reason.

And so onto specifics. The heroine of The Stars are Legion is Zan, a member of the Katazyrna, ruling class aboard one of the world-ships. She begins the novel with amnesia: Jayd, a general and leader of the Katazyrna, tells her that she, Zan, has just returned from a failed attack on the Mokshi, a ship with the seemingly unique ability to leave the Legion. Jayd tells Zan that she must go back to reclaim the Mokshi, which will allow the Katazyrna to win the war for control of the Legion once and for all.

(Zan and Jayd are also love interests. This is nice, but not as plot-important as general Internet hype has made it out to be. It just is.)

But before Zan can try attacking the Mokshi again, the Katazyrna ship is invaded by a rival clan, and Zan is recycled – thrown into the bowels of the ship to be taken apart for organic parts. Of course, she manages to avoid the terrible recycling monsters who do this work, and from there she has to make the long slog up to the surface of the world again. During the course of this trek, she meets women from lower levels she never could have guessed existed – women who live entirely different lives to hers, women who have never heard of the Katazyrna or their wars, or even of the Legion.

Firstly, then, this is a novel about a woman who’s severely damaged: by amnesia, by what she thinks is the loss of her world, and generally by the oppressive system she lives in. Hers is always an uphill struggle against all of those factors, and she still gets to be a heroine, she’s still worthy of being an SF protagonist. It’s important to have stories like this one, which tell us that it’s OK not to be OK.

Secondly, Zan’s progress through the lower levels of the world is a process of unfolding and opening her horizons, of exploding the things she thought she knew to be true. There’s a parallel, I think, with Hurley’s essay “What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Being White in America”, in which she describes coming to the realisation that America looks whiter than South Africa only as a result of social policy, of deliberate construction and segregation:

After living in Durban for eight months or so…I had a layover in Minneapolis airport…I realized I felt deeply uncomfortable. Something felt very off…I looked up…and realized what the source of my discomfort was.

Everyone was white.

…Well, of course, I told myself – it’s Minnesota. Of course everyone is white here…

It wasn’t until I went to the food court to get something to eat that I was reminded of the lie.

Because the people working in the food court? Were overwhelmingly non-white.

Hurley goes on to describe

how our government’s programs and policies – even those from just ten or twenty or forty years before – had totally skewed the way we all experience the world

Zan, and the people in the levels below, are unaware of each other because of a system designed to keep them stratified. This ignorance makes Katazyrna rule deeply unjust: because their engaging in war with their neighbours jeopardises a whole ecosystem with no interest in, or even knowledge of, the fight. (There’s a point to be made here, surely, about politicians’ power squabbles in the wake of, say, the Brexit referendum.) And it’s partly this knowledge of injustice that keeps Zan going despite the temptations of despair: the novel is adamant about the importance of fighting a broken system however hopeless it looks, because not to fight is to be complicit. Again, this is a theme of The Geek Feminist Revolution: from “Where Have All the Women Gone: Reclaiming the Future of Fiction”:

I’m a grim optimist. I understand that the road to a better future is long and bitter and often feels hopeless. Yes, there is a warm gooey core of hope I carry with me at the very center of myself, and it is the hope of someone who knows that change is difficult, and feels impossible, but that even a history which has suppressed and erased so much cannot cover up the fact that change is possible.

I think, though, we have a potential problem here in the fact that the novel centres power. That is, our viewpoint character is Zan (and, partially, Jayd), who’s a member of the ruling class of her world, who has the privilege that the women on the lower levels lack. Her trek back to the surface of the world may be long and difficult, but at the end of it she genuinely does have the political power to make unilateral decisions, changing the entire Legion single-handedly.

What does resistance to oppression look like if you are not in Zan’s position? What if you are one of the women from the lower levels, and you find out that not only are you being oppressed from above, you’re oppressing and exploiting those below you, because of the very nature of the system you’re living in? That, after all, is where most of us tend to find ourselves in reality: without the power to effect major change single-handedly, without the possibility of neat narrative closure in our lifetimes; possibly struggling in a way that’s genuinely futile. Hurley doesn’t seem aware of her character’s privilege, ultimately; or of the fact that using the women of the lower levels (well-drawn as they are) to push Zan to realisations about the world she’s living in is itself exploitative. The plot structure of The Stars are Legion is actually far more conservative than its content, which is a shame.

Still, let me emphasise again: there are many, many things about the novel which are interesting, important, innovative, defiant. I’m glad it exists; and if there’s still some way to go, it doesn’t mean that the journey’s been wasted.

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 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: The Book of Phoenix

OK.

What can I say about The Book of Phoenix?

It opens in a post-apocalyptic desert. An old man stumbles into a cave full of ancient technology. One of the computers hijacks his hand-held communicator, and it tells him a story: the story of Phoenix, in her own words.

Phoenix grew up in Tower 7, New York, in our own world, not very far in the future. She’s three years old when the story begins, but she has the body and mind of a forty-year-old: she’s an accelerated human, one of various nefarious genetic experiments going on in the Tower. There are plenty of other humans like her incarcerated in Tower 7 – a man who can’t eat normal food, only glass and rust and concrete; a man who can pass through walls and floors; a woman who can twist her head around like an owl – practically their only similarity being that they are almost all African.

Phoenix passes the time mostly contentedly, reading voraciously, until one day she’s told that her love, Saeed, has killed himself after seeing something terrible in the Tower. Her ensuing rage destroys Tower 7, and reveals the true meaning of her name: like the mythical phoenix, she periodically burns to ash, only to regenerate and live again a week or so later. She escapes the Big Eye, the government who still hunts her, to Ghana, and makes a life there; only to be hunted down again, and again lose everything she has built, and again burst into flames.

And so on, ad infinitem.

It’s an angry book; but that’s so true, so self-evident, it almost feels trite as an observation. Besides, “angry” doesn’t really cover it. The Book of Phoenix is a book about race and exploitation; it is keenly, painfully aware of the ongoing horror of colonialism, the way that Western capitalist power structures go on taking, and taking, and taking everything desirable in the world, as if it were entitled to them, destroying the lives of those who are in the way.

Phoenix is explicitly likened to a terrorist throughout the book – at first by the American news media; and later on, she exploits the authorities’ racial profiling, deliberately drawing attention to herself as potential terrorist, to create a diversion allowing herself to access the Library of Congress.  The comparison becomes ever more apt as her behaviour becomes increasingly violent: as she attacks another tower, destroys more and more of the Big Eye’s soldiers, and finally embarks on a cataclysmic rampage of despair and grief and fucking rage.

A couple of weeks ago, someone drove a car into crowds of tourists on Westminster Bridge, and went on to stab a policeman in front of the Houses of Parliament. An unusually lucid caller on Lembit Opik’s Radio Kent Sunday talkshow pointed out that the West’s narrative of defiance in the face of such acts – while in many ways an important and necessary narrative – falls somewhat short of recognising that we are, in fact, part of the problem. The West’s war for oil in Iraq – the hand of colonialist capitalism taking, and taking again – helped to create the conditions for Da’esh to thrive. And home-grown terrorists are almost always the dispossessed and disenfranchised of our society: usually ex-prisoners or petty criminals, usually recent converts who turn to hate and terror when we as a society have failed them.

I don’t think we are supposed to approve of Phoenix’s actions, any more than we approve of the actions of real-life terrorists like the Westminster Bridge killer. (And he was a murderer, and what he did was inexcusable.) I think we are supposed to recognise, though, that rage and hate does not spring from nothing; that the West is at least in part responsible for what Phoenix becomes. Individuals are shaped by systems; this is something we’re only just starting to wake up to properly as a society.

In some ways, whether or not I actually liked The Book of Phoenix seems kind of irrelevant. Phoenix certainly wouldn’t give a damn. It’s an important book for SF, certainly. It walks lines that are difficult to tread. That’s what matters, I think.

Ten Bookish Resolutions for 2017

  1. Continue making a concerted effort to read books by women and POCs. The quality of my reading shot up last year when I started setting myself targets for female- and POC-authored books from the library. I’ve recently moved house so haven’t figured out what exactly the targets will look like this year, though. My reading for 2017 already looks pretty good on the female authors front (eight out of twelve!), and I’ve got a handful of books by POCs on my TBR pile. I expect it’s going to be TBR stuff until I work out where my nearest library is.
  2. Continue writing this blog. I mean, that’s probably an obvious one. Blogging is what I do and what keeps me sane. And especially in these dark and difficult times of Brexit and Trump, blogging is what reminds me that I still have a voice and a way to resist.
  3. Spend at least an hour a week editing my NaNoWriMo novel. I would love this target to be higher, but I feel like there just isn’t enough time in the day any more. So we’ll see. I’ve definitely been feeling the urge to return to my writing lately, though.
  4. Read more fiction online. I read Strange Horizons fiction regularly, of course, but I want to branch out into other fiction venues too; I feel like I’m missing out on a whole field of wonderful writing.
  5. Read more SFF criticism. I don’t want just to be shouting my opinions into a vacuum; I want critical context, other voices to speak back to and reflect on.
  6. Stop chasing nebulous things like “audience” and “community”. Yeah, this is a difficult one (and I’m aware, here, that this is more “blogging” than “bookish”). I’ve been writing this blog for, what, three and a half years now, I’ve poured hours and hours of my life into it, and still I have approximately three readers (one of whom is a Russian spambot, probably). This is because I am fucking crap at commenting on other people’s blogs, I am terrible at Twitter, I don’t have a tumblr or an Instagram or any of the other things where online community actually lives. I don’t have the time or the energy to do these things because they make me emotionally exhausted and anxious. I can’t be permanently online. So I have to accept that all this work is for me; to help me think through stuff and resist the oncoming tide of capitalism and be me.
  7. Comment substantively on at least one online article a week. Having said the above…I do have hour-long lunch breaks at my computer now I work somewhere without a canteen. I can use that time to start participating in venues where I actually want to be: I think it’s going to be a case of pruning back the places I visit to what adds most value to my life. It helps that the Tournament of Books is starting up soon!
  8. Leave Booklikes. I’ve actually already done this. My reasons, basically, are that I haven’t found the community there that I hoped I would, and scrolling through all those posts is such a timesuck and I don’t always enjoy it and also it’s so slow.
  9. Join a geeky society. I work in London now, there are like a bajillion of these floating around, and I know from experience that there is nothing like shared geekdom to bring people together and make really strong connections.
  10. #resist. Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep thinking. Keep marching. I may only be a voice in a city of noise, but I’m not going to stop talking any time soon.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I’d Send To Donald Trump

So I read an article the other day about protesters sending books to the White House for Valentine’s Day, and it got me thinking.

  1. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. A powerful warning about the corrosive effects of hate, the irreparable mutual harm that oppression does both to oppressed and oppressors. Plus, it’s written by a woman.
  2. Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor. A novel that argues, melodiously but forcefully, the blinkered folly of Anglo- and anthropocentrism, how absurd it is to think that we, personally, are the centre of the universe. Okorafor depicts Lagos, Nigeria as a vibrant, modern city; in many ways a more interesting locus for an alien invasion than the more conventional Los Angeles or New York or London.
  3. Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne M. Valente. Another angry novel, taking two of the great American myths – the Wild West and Disney’s Aryan, prettified Snow White – and making them brutal; describing self-perpetuating cycles of abuse which the marginalised inflict upon themselves and each other in a hopeless attempt to win the approval of their oppressors. Plus, it’s short enough even for Trump’s limited attention span.
  4. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A sharp, intersectional look at race in America; I defy anyone not to weep and rage.
  5. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. Maybe if Trump read this, he would actually understand how science works, and how it relates to society. (Pro tip: it’s not a hoax invented by the Chinese.) Then again, maybe not.
  6. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. Such a lovely, hopeful story about integration and working alongside those who are different to us. #hopenothate
  7. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. This is a novel about the incremental value of kindness; the sheer work involved in achieving any kind of progress. Hopeful about humanity’s potential, pragmatic about its reality.
  8. Railsea – China Mieville. Another spin on a classic American myth – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. But whereas Melville’s novel’s about conquest, Mieville’s is about the self-defeating wastefulness of rampant capitalism.
  9. Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi. And yet another retelling, this one (again) of Snow White: there is nothing new under the sun. Anyway, this one also brings the toxic nature of hate to the fore, but its ending is slightly more hopeful than Valente’s version (albeit problematic).
  10. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Essentially a 700-page feminist rant about the systematic repression inherent in women’s writing of the nineteenth century – albeit an extremely well-researched and readable one. It’s extremely aware of how systems of oppression work.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Ten Topics I Avoid

  1. Tortuous high fantasy politics. Into this genre falls A Song of Ice and Fire, Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire and anything by Raymond Feist. I don’t have the patience for 800+ pages of names I can’t pronounce making elliptical alliances and, usually, crushing the lower classes into the dust.
  2. Family sagas. I read far too little literary fiction because I just feel so bored by their blurbs, which make them all sound navel-gazing and tedious.
  3. Modernism. Talking about navel-gazing. The Modernists were quite possibly the least helpful storytellers who have ever existed. Reading Ulysses made me want to scratch my eyes out.
  4. Romance. By which I mean, any book that threatens a heterosexual romance as a central plot point, especially modern ones. The vast majority of heterosexual romances are still set within an unacknowledged heteronormative framework which sees certain things as “normal” when they’re at best applicable only to some of the population and at worst actively unhealthy. I find this boring.
  5. Invisible demons/ghosts with teeth/girls who crawl out of TV screens/supernatural creepy crawlies. I am a wimp. I regularly wake up thinking Slender Man is going to eat me (although lately Donald Trump has also featured in my midnight terror) and I find the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who difficult to deal with. I do not need more fodder to scare myself with.
  6. Women’s fiction. What does this even mean? I tend to class it along with family sagas: it just sounds dull and quotidian to me, and also a bit sexist.
  7. War/military. The Resident Grammarian has about a million history books and a good eighty per cent of them are war books. Politics and war aren’t particularly what interest me about history – how efficient generals were at killing enemy soldiers. I’d much rather read social histories, which for me are a much better indication of what any given historical period felt like to the people in it.
  8. Gardening. Most of the plants under my care die in about three weeks and I have no interest in or energy for doing anything more complex than watering something.
  9. Murder mystery. Especially modern, “gritty” murder mysteries that are all darkness for darkness’ sake. I can get on quite well with a nice Agatha Christie, though.
  10. Religious conspiracy theories. The Da Vinci Code, I am looking at you. Any book promising apocryphal revelations and exciting secrets will always turn out to be a dull and counterfactual retread of old and damaging conspiracy theories. This is a law of the universe.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)