Tag: postcolonial complaining

50-Word Review: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower, dir. Nikolaj Arcel

Nikolaj Arcel’s adaptation of Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series is delightful for fans, but also objectively not very good. Casting Idris Elba as the white-coded Roland is a genuinely interesting choice, but unlike the series the film’s derivative and poorly characterised, and cuts all of King’s complex female characters.

Word count: 50

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50-Word Review: Master and Commander

Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian

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

Word count: 50

50-Word Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin

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

Review: The Margarets

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

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, wait…

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Books That Were Hard for Me to Read

  1. High-Rise – J.G. Ballard. There’s a certain kind of dystopia I find really hard to read: anything where society breaks down on-page, where people become less than people. I read High-Rise recently, so it’s still reasonably fresh in my memory: it’s set in a modern high-rise building, designed to be a self-sufficient vertical city, where people start to turn on each other. There’s animal cruelty and sexual violence in bucketloads, and I came quite close to putting it down (which I never do).
  2. Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler. For many of the same reasons as I found High-Rise difficult to read. There’s just this overpowering sense of loss and hopelessness to Parable of the Sower, an idea that everything we think of as normal can all become undone in just a few years.
  3. The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor. This is a very necessary book. It’s also a series of really awful things happening to the main character – things that (and this is going to sound trite, but) have direct parallels to what people of colour in the West really do experience every day. That’s its power and its horror.
  4. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever – Stephen Donaldson. I mean. There are things I like about the Covenant books, but the prose is really, really dense, and some absolutely terrible things happen, and overall it’s really not a light read.
  5. The Dark Tower – Stephen King. Just for That Scene with Randall Flagg and Mordred. No. Please, no.
  6. Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks. The cannibal cult on Vavatch is just awful. And the rest of the novel is incredibly dark and chilly and hopeless and violent. (I’m still toying with reading the rest of the Culture series, though.)
  7. On – Adam Roberts. Like Consider Phlebas, I found On just quite barren? The concept behind the novel is precariousness; the idea that “the centre cannot hold”, that there’s nothing to cling to that doesn’t change as soon as you think you’re sure of it. It’s cleverly structured, but it’s also very dark and very violent, without any vitality to set that darkness off. Plus, I really wanted Roberts to stop calling penises “wicks”. (Yes, really.)
  8. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline. I literally wanted to throw this book out of a train window. That’s how fucking awful I found it: actively sexist, racist and homophobic, and poorly written to boot. (Lord help us, I see from the internet that there is going to be a film next year.)
  9. Age of Godpunk – James Lovegrove. See above, basically, only with bonus transphobia. HOW DOES THIS SHIT EVER GET PUBLISHED
  10. The Dice Man – Luke Rhinehart. If you could do anything without fearing society’s judgement you would…have lots of dubiously-consensual sex and be a dick to everyone, apparently. (Really?)

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

Theatre Review: The Tempest

Well, this review is well out of date, I’m afraid. I managed to catch what I think was the last performance of the RSC’s The Tempest at the Barbican, directed by Gregory Doran, on the 18th August, a good two months ago.

I’m reasonably familiar with the play – I did a close reading of “Come unto these yellow sands” as part of the coursework for my degree, and I’ve read it a couple of times – but I’ve never seen it on stage before. So this is not so much a review as a series of scattered thoughts.

My general impression was that Doran didn’t particularly have anything to say about the text. Its USP, so to speak, involved giving Mark Quartley, who played Ariel, a motion-sensitive camera and projecting a CGI sprite on hanging screens at particularly dramatic moments. Which, given that you can access CGI literally at the flick of a switch nowadays, feels like a bit of a cheat onstage, and too over-the-top for The Tempest anyway; perhaps it would work in something like the riotous Midsummer Night’s Dream, but The Tempest is subtler and sadder and stranger, and, to my mind anyway, needs a magic more tenuous and less obvious.

Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero, on the other hand, was fascinating and not at all sympathetic: veering unpredictably between generous patriarch and jealous, insecure tyrant, afraid of losing what power he has over his daughter and the people of his island, but tired of his isolation. If the Barbican Tempest was about anything, it was about the tragedy of old age, the loss of it. In this context, I found the final speech of the play – “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/Let your indulgence set me free” – really quite interesting; a fourth-wall-breaking appeal to the audience to applaud Prospero, end the play, redeem his faults, give his story meaning and purpose through the closure of an ending. I actually did some work on similar endings to plays of the period for my degree: plays like Thomas Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Apprentice and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, which end in judgement scenes which also tend to break the fourth wall. There’s a sense in which Doran’s Tempest leaves the questions and contradictions of Shakespeare’s text open for the audience to judge.

The play was most unsatisfactory, though, on its treatment of Caliban – in fact, I’d say it revealed exactly how much of a problem Caliban is in the original text. Like Prospero, Joe Dixon’s Caliban was unpredictable, veering between sympathetic and abhorrent; unlike Prospero, however, he was never given the benefit of the doubt – we were supposed to see him as comic relief at best, as monstrous at worst. It’s become commonplace to read Caliban as the colonised Other, and Doran’s refusal to engage with that, his decision to allow Prospero to drive Caliban off, the only character not to receive a consolatory happy ending, was vaguely troubling.

The Tempest as text is quite notoriously slippery – it’s been categorised by some critics as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, precisely because it’s difficult to say exactly what it is and what it’s for. In this context, the little uneasinesses of Doran’s Tempest make a sort of sense: they’re an attempt to render the text reasonably faithfully onto the stage; to create a kind of “neutral” theatrical version of The Tempest. In other words: this is conservative Shakespeare, an attempt (despite the CGI gimmickry) to represent Shakespeare’s text authentically. It’s a job that it does well! As you’d expect from an RSC production, it’s very competent indeed – well-acted and well-staged. But it’s not a memorable thing.

Top Ten Underrated Fantasy Novels

  1. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Nobody talks very much about Palimpsest, but it might actually be my favourite of Valente’s novels. The city of Palimpsest is at once beautiful and magical and painful and terrible; reading the novel makes the world seem wide and wonderful again.
  2. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Hardly anyone outside academic circles has heard of Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which seems ridiculous, because it’s had the most enormous impact on fantasy as a genre. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste: it is dense, baroque, Gothically overwritten. I love it.
  3. A Face Like Glass – Frances Hardinge. Hardinge actually seems to be getting more press since The Lie Tree won the Costa; at least her new novel A Skinful of Shadows is being advertised on the Tube, which, surely, must be an Author Goal? A Face Like Glass is wonderful in ways that are similar to Palimpsest: the world where it’s set is horrifying and dystopic, but also lush and full of wonders.
  4. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. The few reviews I’ve read of Oyeyemi’s collection of linked short stories have been vaguely critical of its unfocused nature; but to me that’s a feature, not a bug. I love the messiness of the book: again like Palimpsest, its inconclusiveness leaves doors open for wonder to creep in.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. Ben Okri is hardly underrated; nor is he a fantasy author, strictly speaking. But I’d never heard of Starbook before I stumbled across it in the library, which is a shame, because, although it has problems, it’s also very beautiful. It’s rare that anything I read really makes me see the world differently, and Starbook did.
  6. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. Lud-in-the-Mist is a novel from a genre completely overshadowed by Tolkien and his literary descendants. Published in the 1920s, it’s a story of Fairyland – where Fairyland is at once alluring and perilous, sitting just out of reach over the horizon. It does wonder very well indeed, maintaining Fairyland’s mystique and magic right through to the end.
  7. Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho. This is a fun, diverse Regency romance that draws on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Like Clarke’s novel, it also scrutinises the self-defeating nature of institutional oppression.
  8. The Book of Taltos – Steven Brust. I’m not sure why I haven’t heard more about Brust’s novels: The Book of Taltos is one of the very few epic fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed recently, precisely because it doesn’t take itself very seriously. And because, I suspect, of its moral ambiguity: its protagonist, after all, is a wisecracking assassin.
  9. The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula Le Guin. The Lathe of Heaven feels more like fantasy than SF: it’s about dreams becoming reality, and nothing is more fantastical, probably, than dreams. I also get the impression that it’s one of Le Guin’s minor works – which still makes it better than whole swathes of SFF by other authors.
  10. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I reread this first book in Reeve’s MG series about mobile cities preying on each other recently, and was seriously impressed by a) how steampunk it is, and b) how aware it is of institutional oppression. It’s a very sophisticated work of MG, and I want to get round to reading the sequels again soon.

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