Tag: postcolonial complaining

Review: The Hallowed Hunt

TW: animal death.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt, a prequel of sorts to The Curse of Chalion (the two novels share a universe, but are set in different times and places and have no character overlap), is another example of that too-rare beast, a fantasy novel deeply interested in religion. This isn’t a surprise: Chalion, which I read a couple of months before The Hallowed Hunt, is a deeply-argued look at free will and the nature of sainthood, cathartic and revelatory. The Hallowed Hunt, I would say, is less ecstatically structured and less piercing, but it’s still carefully observed and intellectually engaged.

Lord Ingrey of the Weald is sent to investigate the murder of the king’s son Prince Boleso, seemingly at the hands of Ijada, a lady-in-waiting who Boleso intended to rape. But the murder scene is unsettling: for one thing, a leopard has been hanged from the ceiling; for another, the prince’s body is covered in strange painted symbols. It seems the prince has been dabbling in ancient shamanic practices which were virtually wiped out when the Weald was invaded by the civilisation featured in The Curse of Chalion, who imposed their own five-god system on the Weald’s inhabitants. As a result, Ijada has been possessed by the spirit of the sacrificed leopard. Unbeknownst to almost anybody else, Ingrey also carries an animal spirit within his soul, having been the subject of a similarly botched ritual as a child. Ingrey and Ijada’s immediate concern is to prevent Ijada being executed for murdering Boleso, and, in the longer term, to work out how Boleso learned about the ritual in the first place and why. What emerges is a tragedy about the death of a culture and a love story about trying to redress that loss.

In fact looking at The Hallowed Hunt as a romance, although not necessarily the most immediately obvious approach, turns out to be a productive way of framing it: because this is a novel whose chief characters are wrestling with the question of how to reconcile two different theological systems, two different cultures and systems of thought. (It’s relevant to note here that Ijada is not only a spiritual heir to the people of the Old Weald – thanks to the leopard – but also an heir in the more traditional sense, being the owner of the Wounded Woods, where they fought their last battle.) That’s exactly how romances function: they’re texts that seek to bring together warring ideas or principles in order to restore order and harmony.

I think what makes this different from The Curse of Chalion is partly that the focus is not so much on the personal experience of religion as on the restoration of a nation’s identity and culture through the rejuvenation of its religion – a theme that’s very relevant to post-colonial discourse, although this isn’t a text that’s actively participating in the modern version of that discourse (in the way that novels like, say, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire are). I’m a little anxious, though, about Bujold’s choice to render the religion of the Old Weald as a specifically shamanic one (and a violent one at that): it plays into the racist idea that shamanic religions are primitive, and simultaneously into the appropriative line of thought prevalent in overwhelmingly white neopagan communities that there is a “core” version of shamanism that is culturally non-specific and thus up for grabs by anyone who fancies it. (Bujold’s setting is distinctly European; she’s actually said that the Weald is an alternative version of Germany.) It’s a pity that the novel undermines its anticolonial themes in this way.

With that in mind, it did still work for me (and of course your mileage may vary). Bujold’s religious systems are both elegant and vital – unlike many such systems in fantasy, which tend to be over-codified and lacking in that crucial element of mysticism, of ineffableness, that makes religion meaningful in the first place, they feel like evolving traditions, like something real people could believe in. Bujold, I think, properly understands why we are drawn to religion, and it’s refreshing that she makes that understanding the starting point for her novels rather than the be-all and end-all of them. The Hallowed Hunt is a flawed novel, but it’s tackling themes and ideas that not many SFF novels do; and doing so with attention to detail, careful characterisation and satisfying plotting.

Review: Sixteen Ways to Defend A Walled City

I find myself thinking quite often about this essay by Adam Roberts quite a lot when I’m reading contemporary fantasy. Its central thesis is that style and language are crucial to worldbuilding: that “a bourgeois discursive style [typical to 20th and 21st century literature] constructs a bourgeois world”; and that, therefore, evoking a pre-industrial setting is not just a question of set-dressing, it’s about recognising that pre-industrial mindsets and habits of thought were radically different to those that modern Western societies currently possess. It’s precisely the mismatch between style and content which Roberts identifies in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind that bothered me about K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.

The novel’s protagonist is Orhan, colonel-in-chief of an engineering regiment belonging to what is essentially the Byzantine Empire except with all the names changed. One of life’s natural con artists (he has strong Moist von Lipwig energy), Orhan finds himself, through a series of calamitous events, the highest-ranking military officer in a not-Constantinople besieged by a mysterious barbarian army. The situation looks dire: the entire chain of command has fled, the emperor is in a coma and the closest thing there is to a military force in the city is three thousand carpenters with blunt swords. Orhan must come up with a string of increasingly unlikely and desperate schemes to keep the city’s remaining population alive and stave off the barbarians’ inevitable assault a few hours more.

It ought to be entertaining, even thought-provoking, touching on such weighty themes as institutional racism, the fall of civilisation and the ingenuity of ordinary people. Its lack of meaningful engagement with the actual sociocultural and moral dynamics of the period, though, means that it ends up just being slight. The novel is meticulously researched, the world carefully built; Parker can, and does, tell you all about how military supplies are distributed, about the workings of the city’s criminal underworld, even about its sewage disposal systems. None of it changes the fact that Orhan expresses himself in a jarringly 21st century idiom.

He stabbed me. I hadn’t seen the sword in his hand. I thought; what the devil are you playing at? He pulled the sword out and swung it at my head. I may not be the most perceptive man you’ll ever meet, but I can read between the lines; he didn’t like me.

More egregiously modern are the novel’s racial dynamics: Parker trots out that old faux-profound chestnut, “What If White People Were The Oppressed Ones???” (The besieging barbarian army are all white, as is Orhan, whereas the civilised people in the city are called, derogatorily, “blueskins”.) I will admit I don’t know much about the racial dynamics of the period, but it seems unlikely to me that they would have so closely mirrored our own constructs of whiteness and Blackness only conveniently flipped (the flipping in itself a misunderstanding of how modern Western culture treats race).

There’s a sense, possibly, in which I’m being unfair to the text. Orhan’s modernity is after all deliberate: his irreverent, working-class voice is meant to contrast jarringly, or at least surprisingly, with the antique setting, just as his lack of social status and proper respect for authority make him an extremely unlikely commander-in-chief of the empire’s forces. For me, though, this isn’t a productive contrast; it doesn’t make me revisit my understanding of the classical period the text is set in, it doesn’t force me to confront genuine strangeness. In fact the novel’s prioritisation of a Western 21st-century perspective feels pretty egotistical: the assumption that we in this corner of the globe in this particular historical moment, have somehow stumbled upon the best, the only way to understand the world around us. If I’m reading about the past, and especially if I’m reading alt-history, I want to read something that can only be set in that past; where the cultural specifics of that past are key to the author’s thesis. That’s something I don’t get from Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.

Review: The Return of Heroic Failures

Stephen Pile’s The Return of Heroic Failures is a bathroom book. You know the type: collections of vaguely humorous anecdotes, for a certain value of “humour”, with which to while away a rainy Sunday afternoon or a visit to a relative whose taste in reading material is very different to yours. A successor to The Book of Heroic Failures, it contains stories of general human incompetence, neglect and plain foolishness. Categories include “The Least Successful Shipbuilding”, in which an Italian firm builds four ships for the Malaysian navy before discovering that the only way to the sea lies past a bridge none of them can fit underneath; “The Least Successful Attempt to Murder A Spouse”, concerning a man who makes seven unsuccessful attempts on his wife’s life without her even noticing; and “The Least Appropriate Speech”, in which a member of the House of Lords speaks for five minutes on entirely the wrong subject.

Having been published in 1988, some of the book’s humour is a little off-colour, shall we say, although I don’t remember anything particularly egregious, just the general background assumption that you the reader are a straight white male Westerner that you often get in this kind of book. As for the quality of its humour: I laughed a couple of times, but it’s more “mildly amusing” than “side-splittingly hilarious”. (But see my previous posts re my sense of humour, which is not highly developed.) Basically, it’s fine for a few hours’ entertainment, but I wouldn’t recommend shelling out more than a couple of quid for it in a charity shop.

Review: The Starless Sea

Published almost exactly a year ago, Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea appeared on shelves eight years after her rapturously received debut The Night Circus. It’s an altogether more complex and grown-up novel than its predecessor, and yet ultimately I think the two books share a certain stasis, an escapist bent that stops them saying anything truly important.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The protagonist of The Starless Sea is Zachary, a gay Black grad student studying psychology and gender in video game design – although, when the novel opens just before the start of term, he’s busy procrastinating his studies by spending days in the library’s fiction section, rereading childhood classics. That’s where he discovers Sweet Sorrows, a wine-coloured volume that lists no author or publication information, but which does narrate a significant episode in Zachary’s own childhood – a moment when he found a door leading to wonders and walked away. We have just read this story: it appears at the beginning of the novel, alongside two other short tales that are also included in Sweet Sorrows, one of which tells of a magical underground library and a strange initiation ceremony. We conclude, correctly, that this library is what lay behind the door Our Protagonist did not open.

Zachary is understandably a little freaked out by an episode from his own life that he’s never told anyone about appearing in a library book, and after some research into where the book may have come from he chases a tenuous lead to a literary party in New York. There, a handsome storyteller named Dorian convinces him to steal another book from a powerful organisation, before sending him through another painted door into that underground library: a Harbor on the Starless Sea, stuffed with cats and a miraculous kitchen and, of course, more stories than you could ever count. But the Harbor’s closed for business; its heyday past; the Starless Sea is rising; and someone is shutting all the doors.

The Starless Sea is a lot more formally ambitious than The Night Circus: various fairytales and stories of the Harbor’s past weave themselves around the main narrative, and many of those tales are artefacts within the main narrative, creating an impression of endlessly recursive Story. The prose, similarly, is intensely descriptive, focusing on details of what things look and smell and taste and sound like to build a beguiling sense of place. The overall effect of structure and prose combined is to immerse you, the reader, in a kind of warm bath of story-symbology, to draw you into the heart of its metafictional world. In a sense the novel is what it describes: a cosy space to curl in, a seemingly-endless repository of story, a place composed of layer upon layer of half-familiar symbols.

It’s an enormously comforting read; particularly, I found, the first half, in which Zachary gets to explore the Harbor, accompanied by an apparently limitless supply of cats and fuelled by perfectly-baked treats available on demand. By the same token, though, I’m not sure there’s much going on beneath the novel’s obsession with material comforts. The symbols that recur throughout the narrative – hearts, bees, keys, swords, crowns and feathers – lead to nothing but themselves; as do the fairytales that loop endlessly back on themselves, weaving in and out of the main narrative. Stuff goes on, of course: Zachary and Dorian fall in love (an improvement on the white het romance at the centre of The Night Circus); a man out of time searches for his lover on the shores of the Starless Sea; the Harbor changes irrevocably. But all of this is coded as part of a great cycle; we get the sense that these are just stories repeating themselves. There is nothing truly, startlingly new in this story-world; it’s a recycled composite of childhood portal fantasies, of bookish fantasies like Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, of fabulous fictional libraries like the one in Garth Nix’s Lirael, of fairy tales and stories and songs. “Arch” is the word that occurred to me while I was reading it: it feels precisely calculated to appeal to book-lovers without necessarily having anything truly urgent to say.

In that sense, it is, perhaps, the ideal pandemic read. Tapped out on real life? Sink into The Starless Sea and imagine you’re curled up in a fancy old-fashioned bedroom beside a roaring fire, no chores to do, no outside world to worry about. It is escapism in the most literal sense of the word. At the same time, though, I am uneasy with the novel’s conception of what reading is for and what readers are like. The Starless Sea above all conceptualises reading as a comfortable pursuit: the Harbor is a place where all your material needs are seen to apparently magically; and, as I’ve said, the novel’s form, structure and content creates a sense of intellectual comfort, telling us familiar narratives over and over again. But reading at its best should be anything but comfortable. We should be critical readers, examining the biases of the texts we’re given; new understanding should make us uncomfortable; as readers we should be pushing the boundaries of our engagement with the world. Above all reading should not be about retreating to an ivory tower – or an ivory cavern, as the case may be – and relinquishing our duty to the world outside. To be a good reader is to take what we have learned in books and use it in our lives to build new and better things. The vision The Starless Sea offers of readers and reading is beguiling and dangerous; it is not one we should take with us into our real lives.

Review: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales

Reading the work of celebrated horror writer H.P. Lovecraft today is something of a fraught experience. Much recent discussion in SFF fandom has focused on how his virulent racism is foundational to the affect and worldview of his fiction, even where it is not made explicit. His shoggoths, his tentacular elder gods, his deep-sea monstrosities are all expressions of a profound fear of and hatred for the Other, which is often explicitly racially coded, tangled up too with a queasy disgust for fleshly physicality of all kinds. To read Lovecraft is to peer into a mind in turmoil, a psyche afraid of everything that is not itself. No wonder it’s terrifying.

And yet it’s difficult to deny that his work, his vision of the world of humanity as a tiny ship of sanity sailing on vast unknowable seas, has a visceral and frightening power; and that his shadow lies long on twentieth and twenty-first century fantasy. This, then, was why I found myself picking up this Vintage collection of Lovecraft’s short stories, having read Haunter of the Dark, volume 3 of Wordsworth Classics’ edition of his Collected Short Stories, a few years ago. I was interested to read more of the Cthulhu cycle, which Haunter of the Dark touches on only a little, and which has probably had the greatest impact of all Lovecraft’s work on general pop culture today: where and how did it all begin, I wanted to know.

What I found was, yes, interesting, and perhaps a little disappointing, as maybe all investigations into the source of things are. Essentially: I sort of think that most of Lovecraft’s stories fit maybe three or four basic templates, and once you have read three or four of his stories you have read as much as you need to. The particular formula that most of the stories in this collection follow is: academic/researcher/explorer delves too deep into ancient secrets; academic/researcher/explorer gains the attention of Things from Beyond that are better left alone; academic/researcher/explorer dies, goes mad or attempts to stop others from following in their footsteps and wreaking untold calamity upon the human race.

(The one story that doesn’t follow this formula in some manner is “The Festival”, which is instead an entry in the venerable “man witnesses dread ritual and ends up in hospital” tradition of storytelling. It is a decidedly minor work.)

Pulpy as this formula is (fictional scientists have been awakening powers they do not understand since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came out in 1818), it is not incidental to Lovecraft’s project. The vast majority of Lovecraft’s original output is from the interwar period, 1918-1939, and the stories in this collection are pretty evenly distributed across that span of time (the earliest, “The Picture in the House”, was written in 1920 and published in 1921; the latest, “The Thing on the Doorstep”, was written in 1933 and published 1937). In other words, he is writing in the aftermath of a conflict conducted on a literally industrial scale; the first such conflict in humanity’s history. Death was made mechanised; meaning and rationality fled in the face of such faceless violence. At the same time, scientists were making increasingly abstruse discoveries about the nature of the atom and of various kinds of radiation: we knew for the first time that much of matter is just empty space, and learned of dangerous and invisible energies that could give you cancer, or allow others to peer inside your body. Lovecraft’s tales of scientists pressing too hard against the borders of human knowledge reflects both the new understanding of the world as deterministic and uncaring (Cthulhu and his ilk care not at all about humans; they are consciousnesses utterly alien) and the seeming irrationality of what real-life scientists at the cutting edge of the field were finding.

My two favourite stories in this collection, then, are “The Nameless City” and “At the Mountains of Madness”. Both of them are about explorers venturing into an ancient and titanic city in some far-flung region of the earth; a city that predates humanity by some considerable margin. Both these stories, I think, absolutely nail the explorers’ gathering sense of horror as their understanding of the universe is gradually eroded; and as they come to understand that not only were these cities once inhabited by a vast and inhuman civilisation, members of that civilisation may still be down there in the depths of the earth. The fear these characters feel is not the relatively simple fear of the monstrous; it is the existential fear of that which is utterly beyond our experience, the fear of that which is beyond the human in scale and proportion.

The thing is, though, that existential horror is like most kinds of horror very vulnerable to over-explanation. This, it turns out, is what doesn’t quite work for me about the collection on an artistic level: Lovecraft’s “world”, his underlying mythos, is explicated more or less completely here, and knowing how it all works renders each individual story that less powerful. The atmosphere of “At the Mountains of Madness”, for example, is somewhat punctured when the shoggoths appear from the depths of the nameless Antarctic city. Shoggoths turn up everywhere in Lovecraft’s work as terrifying beings whose very appearance shocks people into gibbering madness – but as it turns out they are no more than formless, mindless lumps of flesh. Grotesque, perhaps, but not, like, mind-destroyingly horrible? One would think? In a similar vein, Lovecraft often has unfortunates who have witnessed cosmic horrors from beyond the boundaries of our dimensions moan unconnected and mysterious phrases, a technique that’s considerably less effective when you know what all those phrases mean. I think the conclusion that I’m groping towards, here, has to do with the regrettable tendencies of so many SFF authors to attempt to tie all their stories together into their own personal mythos. I don’t think “The Nameless City” needs to take place in the same universe as “The Haunter of the Dark”, for instance. I kind of wish I didn’t know that the Elder Things in “At the Mountains of Madness” are the same creatures that Gilman dreams about in “The Dreams in the Witch House”. I don’t gain anything from that knowledge; instead, I lose a potent sense of things half-known, half-coherent and dimly glimpsed; a sense that I think is closer to what Lovecraft actually wanted to achieve than the fully-articulated cosmology that we actually get.

There are other ways in which Lovecraft is technically not a good writer. He has basically no interest in character, for example. His prose, always verging on the purple, veers between Gothically appropriate to the subject matter and hysterically, repetitively overheated. He’s not doing anything particularly interesting with form or structure.

Despite those undoubted flaws, though, and the fact that his writing relentlessly, uncompromisingly shuts everyone who isn’t a straight white man out, I can see myself returning to it in the future, for the atmospheric power he achieves in his best passages, for his vision of a vast and uncaring universe. I am fascinated by these stories as much as I am revolted by them, although I’d hesitate to recommend them to, well, anyone. If you are going to read them, be warned: here there be monsters, of more than one kind.

Review: Rotherweird

For me, Andrew Caldecott’s first novel Rotherweird suffered from a mismatch of expectations. The cover and jacket copy (including a quote from MR Carey describing it as “Baroque, Byzantine and beautiful”) suggest a cross between Gormenghast and Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell’s weird and wonderful Edge Chronicles; something Gothic and menacing with a strong sense of place and alterity.

It is not like that.

The titular Rotherweird is a town tucked away in rural England, a medieval enclave hostile to outsiders, history before 1800 and modern technology. Thanks to a decree dating back to the Elizabethan period, it has no MP or bishop, only a mayor; to all intents and purposes, Rotherweird and the valley in which it sits are a realm apart. The story opens as Jonah Oblong, an outsider, takes a post as history teacher at Rotherweird School; as a mysterious set of beads is sold to an antiques shop in the town; and as another outsider, Sir Veronal Slickstone, takes up residence in the long-empty Slickstone Hall that sits at the heart of the town. The tale that unfolds from there reveals the history of the town and its connection to the little universe known as Long Acre, which can be reached from a couple of places in Rotherweird and which is filled with strange and dangerous biological hybrids.

Despite the Gothickry of its subject matter, the book’s actual tone is quite – light; it lacks the steadying sonorousness of Mervyn Peake’s work, which for me meant that the Dickensian exaggeration applied to the characters – most evident in their names, but also in the exaggerated mannerisms of personages like parkouring lady scientist Vixen Valourhand – tipped over into irrelevance. Put simply, I couldn’t find a reason to care about any of these thinly-drawn people in their middle-England bubble.

Actually I think this insular Englishness is a key part of why I bounced off Rotherweird so hard. With its Dickensian references (decoupled from the things that make Dickens great, his anger and his sense of social justice), its medieval architecture and its folk customs drained of religious content – a May morning coracle race down the River Rother; a midsummer pageant that plays host to the novel’s denouement – the novel is conjuring a myth of Merrie England that is exclusively white, straight and cis. Sure, there are some extremely sinister happenings in the town’s past and its present, but its seclusion from the outside world reads very much like a strategy on the author’s part to avoid dealing with anything that’s actually relevant to modern life. I just didn’t find anything for me in Rotherweird, and its total lack of atmosphere meant there was nothing to make up for its irrelevance. It’s not, like, an actively bad book; I didn’t find it offensive, or anything, so your mileage may very much vary. It just – wasn’t for me.

Review: Kindred

This post contains spoilers.

Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred is the story of Dana, a Black woman in 70s America who finds herself inexplicably and repeatedly travelling to pre-Civil War Maryland – an exceptionally dangerous place and time for any Black person. Gradually she figures out she’s being pulled there by her white ancestor, Rufus, the son of a plantation owner and eventually a slaveowner himself; and that, despite his cruelty and sense of entitlement, she needs to keep him alive long enough to conceive the daughter who’ll become Dana’s great-great-grandmother.

There’s a lot going on in Kindred, but at its heart it’s an exploration of power and responsibility. What stands out to me particularly is Dana’s ambiguous position in plantation life. Her modernity makes the nightmare that is the antebellum south both more acute and more survivable – it gives her emotional and physical resources (medicine, a historical education, the simple knowledge that things get better) that her enslaved ancestors do not have access to. She occupies a liminal position socially – not technically a slave, but not free either, as once Rufus works out who she is and why she keeps returning he holds that knowledge over her in an attempt to control her. But that very attempt gives her power too – his regard for her is something Dana can exploit in her own interest and that of the plantation’s slaves.

To me this complex dynamic links to a whole theme of compromise across the novel: specifically, the compromises that Dana and to an extent the other slaves on the plantation have to make every day to survive and to protect their children and families. For instance, Dana realises about halfway through the novel (after her great-great-grandmother Hagar is born) that Rufus’ death would paradoxically be a terrible thing for the plantation’s slaves: it would mean the sale of the estate and almost certainly the break-up of slave families. The crisis of the novel is really about the bounds on her personal autonomy that Dana will accept to avoid that eventuality – how many of her modern expectations of humane treatment she can bear to shed to protect the people who’ve become her friends. Rufus does eventually go too far, and Dana stabs him in self-defence; with her reason for time-travelling gone, she returns to the 1970s for good, left with a sense of guilt for the estate sale she knows will follow/has followed. The question that the text leaves us with is: How responsible is Dana for the break-up of those families? Of course it was her actions that ultimately precipitated it, but when a whole society is arrayed against you can you ever really make good decisions? And I think the whole project of Kindred is about complicating simplistic conceptions of slavery. (Butler herself said that she wrote Kindred in response to a young Black activist saying that he hated his ancestors for not standing up to white people.) For Dana and the slaves of Kindred, there are just no easy or right answers, no moral certitude.

Kindred is, accordingly, not an easy read, but it is a thoughtful and fascinating one; like the best SFF, it uses its speculative elements to achieve an effect that realistic fiction cannot. In its interrogation of our assumptions about slavery, power, responsibility and history it remains incredibly timely despite its age. There have been heated debates about the concept of an SFF canon recently, but if ever there were a text that deserved its canonical status, it’s this one.

Review: The Tropic of Serpents

Marie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents is the second in her Lady Trent series, which follows the eponymous naturalist around her steampunk-inflected alternate world in search of dragons of various types and sizes. In this case, Isabella (not yet a Lady, and not yet a Trent – these novels being positioned as her memoirs) is headed for Bayembe, an analogue of an African country where colonial interests and the ambitions of neighbouring countries are contributing to a tense political situation – which Isabella and her companions of course get caught up in. As a result, they find themselves descending into the Green Hell, a tropical jungle/swamp that’s impossible to navigate or even survive without the aid of its indigenous people, the Moulish.

A key theme of this series, it seems to me, is exploration. Of course Isabella is a heroine made in the mould of colonial explorers like Indiana Jones or Jules Verne’s intrepid adventurers in novels like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Journey to the Centre of the Earth; but whereas those protagonists ultimately seek to export imperial European values around the world, Brennan, aware of the pitfalls and false assumptions implicit in such an approach, is much more interested in exploring social alternatives to life in Scirling, her Britain analogue. Far from seeking to impose Scirling values on the people they meet in the course of their researches, Isabella and her companions choose to assimilate instead. Often this is more about convenience than anything else; gaining the favour of local people means they have greater freedom to study dragons. But it’s notable that Isabella is staunchly opposed to the use of violence, unlike her colonial literary forebears.

So, for instance, Isabella and her companions live for a time among the Moulish, who have little use for a concept of individual property, given their nomadic lives and how easy it is to replace the objects they do use from the materials in the forest. Later on in the novel there’s also a good example of how spiritual beliefs shape worldview and, in a way, reality: believing Isabella to be cursed because of a series of mishaps she’s suffered in the forest, the Moulish press her to take part in a purification ceremony in which she clears the air with anyone she’s wronged. Among other things, she admits her true motives to the Moulish and hashes out a longstanding conflict with one of her companions, the working-class Thomas Wilker. Although Isabella sees the ceremony as superstitious nonsense, participating only in order to keep peace with her hosts, it works: the party encounter fewer setbacks and everyone trusts and respects each other more. The point being that living among the Moulish and participating in their customs opens up social possibilities that don’t exist in Scirling society.

There are other points of difference from Scirling culture whose social implications are explored in varying detail: for instance, while staying in the palace of Bayembe’s king Ankumata, Isabella and her female companion Natalie are required to seclude themselves away from the rest of the court during menstruation. While Isabella chafes at this restriction, she discovers that the other women of the court see it as a kind of holiday, as they don’t have to do any work during this period. And we learn that the people of Bayembe and its surrounding countries trace inheritance down the female line, not the male – as a single woman Isabella presents an interesting opportunity to Ankumata’s son, given that if he married her Scirling custom would allow him to pass property down to his children, which he couldn’t do under Bayembe tradition. That last struck me as an interesting look back at empire, a reversal of the imperial gaze: if Isabella, a member of an imperial nation even if her outlook isn’t especially colonial, benefits from exploring social possibilities beyond Scirling, then the nations subject to her gaze can explore back, as it were, turning Scirling’s patriarchal social norms to their advantage.

But the most important work of exploration here is not external but internal. Isabella and her companions Natalie and Tom are all three of them working out modes of being that run counter to what’s expected in Scirling society. Isabella is a woman in a patriarchal society trying to figure out how she can be taken seriously as a scientist in her own right; Tom is a working-class man trying to break into a scientific field dominated by the middle and upper classes who look down on him for his origins; Natalie is exploring her sexuality, specifically her lack of it, and navigating conflict with her family around her resistance to marriage. In pushing against what’s expected of women and working-class people in Scirling society, each of them is trying to reimagine it as a place in which they can achieve their full potential – so their exploration of different societies around the world is an outward reflection of this personal, internal struggle.

Which brings us to the inescapable fact that, despite its respectful treatment of the Moulish and Bayembe societies, despite the presence of developed, interesting characters like Ankumata (whose leg braces are a rare example of positively presented disability aids in this sort of fiction) and the half-Moulish Faj Rawango, The Tropic of Serpents is still an Anglocentric novel; it’s still told from the perspective of empire. As Electra Pritchett points out here, a character like Ankumata or Faj Rawango could never be the protagonist without making it a different sort of story; the memoirs of a Victorian naturalist are always going to centre an imperial perspective. Isabella, Natalie and Tom may be exploring different social possibilities but they are not doing so from a neutral position; they are benefiting from the social insights they gain ultimately to enrich empire and empire’s goal of knowing the world through science.

This is a limitation of the subgenre Brennan’s working in rather than a limitation of this specific novel; but it is a limitation all the same. Identity politics aside, the novel itself is not particularly nuanced or complex – it follows a single narrative thread linearly through to its end in serviceable but not brilliant prose; rereading offers no overlooked delights. It’s a reasonably entertaining tale with a diversity of characters to recommend it, and I think in the end that’s all it strives to be – it’s not something that’s seeking to overturn the genre at a stroke. That’s fine! Not everything can be truly revolutionary. But this isn’t a book I’ll be returning to, I think.

Review: The Martian

I suspect everyone in SFF has heard of Andy Weir’s The Martian by now: a self-publishing success story, it was picked up by Random House in 2013 after selling 35,000 e-copies on Amazon in three months and was made into a blockbuster film starring Matt Damon.

Civilian astronaut Mark Watney is inadvertently stranded on Mars when the mission he’s a part of is aborted in extreme weather. With communications down, and only enough food for a year, he must figure out how he can stay alive for long enough to be rescued by the next manned mission to Mars in four years.

The novel’s interest lies not in how Watney copes psychologically with his extreme isolation but rather in the science that keeps him alive; it follows him problem-solving the many obstacles big and small he encounters in his quest for survival in a uniquely hostile environment. Want to know how to make water from rocket fuel? The Martian‘s the book for you. Despite its occasionally didactic tendencies, though, it’s actually fairly entertaining on a first read, Watney’s calculations about the calorific value of potatoes leavened by his irreverent, upbeat narration. (There’s something of podcast Wolf-359‘s Communications Officer Eiffel about Watney, although Wolf-359 is much more intentional in the issues it’s exploring than The Martian.) The sheer difficulty of what Watney’s trying to do means there’s always another crisis around the corner, and we’re propelled along by the narrative momentum of those crises, wondering how he can survive this one. Watney’s first-person logs are interspersed with more traditional third-person omniscient narration describing NASA’s rescue efforts and their response to the media circus surrounding Watney’s stranding: the interpersonal drama of these sections offers a contrast to Watney’s science-heavy logs, giving storytelling scaffolding to his Robinson Crusoe-esque battle against an entire planet.

Entertaining and solidly constructed as it is, The Martian nevertheless feels…old-fashioned. Comparisons to Robinson Crusoe are no accident: at its core the novel is about a man pitching himself against the Other, a tradition going back to SF’s origins in colonial narratives about Victorian gentlemen exploring exotic lands full of monsters and barely-human savages. If there’s little psychology in The Martian there’s also no sense of wonder: no descriptions of awesome landscapes, no pause taken to acknowledge the unspeakably vast tracts of empty void that lie between us and the red planet. Mars, all 55 million square miles of it, is reduced to a problem to be solved, a series of obstacles to be overcome; the Other is to be rendered intelligible by the light of Western science. This colonising tendency is referred to in an email Watney gets from his alma mater the University of Chicago:

“They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially “colonized” it. So technically, I colonized Mars.

In your face, Neil Armstrong!”

Notably, Weir doesn’t acknowledge the fraught history of colonisation on Earth: for Watney, colonisation is cool, neat, a fun technicality.

None of this is to say that the novel is actively offensive. True, Watney’s irreverent attitude often blends into sexism and gender essentialism: he feels the need to insist that he’s not a “mummy’s boy” after reading an email from his mother fifty times; when someone at NASA admonishes him to watch his language because all his communication with them is made public, he immediately makes a boob joke. I can see how another reader might be put off by this – it’s completely unnecessary even in the context of Watney’s characterisation. But: there are women and people of colour on the NASA team trying to get Watney home; the commander of the aborted Mars mission is a woman who Watney has a lot of respect for. This isn’t a novel that has a problem acknowledging the humanity of women and people of colour, overall; it’s just that structurally it’s partaking of a tradition that is essentially colonialist, and failing to reckon with that colonialism. That failure, and the accompanying narrowness of focus, makes it a weaker book. As I said, it’s entertaining enough on a first go, and I actually found it quite helpful dealing with the beginning of lockdown earlier this year. But do I want to read it again? Nah.

Doctor Who Review: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

The eighth episode of the most recent series of Doctor Who, The Haunting of Villa Diodati takes us, along with the Doctor and her fam, back to the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, where Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Dr Polidori are playing happy families. Arguably the first science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is about to be born out of unseasonable rain and a night telling ghost stories. It’s one of the most famous house parties in literary history.

Except that when the Doctor and her companions rock up on the doorstep, the group is more interested in dancing than storytelling. The tale’s Gothic horror kicks up a notch when the characters start seeing ghosts and a disembodied skeletal hand starts rocketing through the corridors. Rooms loop back on themselves so it’s impossible to leave. And where is Percy Shelley, anyway?

It’s in this episode that we first meet one of the major villains of the series finale: Ashad, the “lone Cyberman” prophesied by Captain Jack in Fugitive of the Judoon. Except he’s not quite a Cyberman: for reasons we’re not yet privy to, half his helmet is missing and he still feels the emotions that Cyberman technology usually suppresses – giving us a cyborg who’s much more uncanny than your standard issue Cyberman. In the episode he’s presented as the inspiration for Frankenstein’s creature, but I think he’s also speaking to our own anxieties about the permeable boundary between technology and the human: his un-Cyberman rage, his lone-wolf attempt to restore the race of the Cybermen and his rejection of the kindness and sympathy Mary Shelley offers him all have something of the radicalised white supremacist about them. And where does such radicalisation come from? The internet, of course; endless racist screeds colonising young men’s minds, creating rage-fuelled cyborgs determined to defend whiteness from a non-existent sea of threats.

In true Gothic fashion, placing the symbol of this anxiety in 1816 both distances it and makes it more troubling: on the one hand, it’s temporally distant from us, placed in a Gothic pastiche that’s rendered unthreatening by its familiarity; on the other hand, Ashad’s presence there, as well as the presence of the thing he seeks, is changing history itself (altering the inspiration for Shelley’s Frankenstein) and threatens to alter it further by causing Percy Shelley’s death six years too early. (To stretch the metaphor a bit, consider how internet white supremacy is linked to acts of historical revisionism like Holocaust denial.) And the threat Ashad poses is not successfully contained: he escapes, with the knowledge of all the Cybermen contained in the Cyberium, which Percy Shelley has unwittingly been hosting. The Doctor has to make a choice between Percy Shelley’s survival and the thousands of lives a regenerated Cyberarmy might claim: a choice we might characterise as one between the individual and the collective. The Doctor makes the Romantic choice, favouring the individual genius (Shelley) rather than following the utilitarian principle of securing the greatest good for the greatest number; but it’s a choice that leaves Ashad at large, the anxiety he embodies unresolved and uncontained. Here we see, perhaps, the Romantic ideal breaking down, its emphasis on individualism revealed as dangerous and imperfect – depending on how compelling we find the Doctor’s assertion that Percy Shelley’s death in 1816 would be worse for the future than allowing Ashad to rampage through it.

This Great Man theory of history is one we’ve seen a couple of times in Thirteen’s run (as well as in Doctor Who more generally), most notably in last series’ Rosa – which is where I want to pick up on another Thirteen trend, that of spotlighting notable women in history. The focus of The Haunting of Villa Diodati is initially on the truly remarkable Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein as a pregnant, unmarried teenager, as well as the equally unmarried Claire Clairmont, who in the episode recognises the narcissism and selfishness of her lover Lord Byron and decides to throw him off (sadly not something that really happened); that its Great Man turns out to be Mary’s lover Percy Shelley, who though he may have had a substantial impact on Western thought has not received anywhere near the popular and critical attention that Mary’s work has, does a disservice to both these women and the generally more inclusive bent of Thirteen’s series.

Having said that, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, though imperfect, is probably one of the best episodes in the series so far, with its Gothic creepiness and its array of well-written female characters. It’s also meaty enough to reward close engagement, with its use of Gothic and Romantic conventions, which I haven’t particularly found to be the case with other episodes this series. There were things which annoyed me ideologically about it (namely the prioritisation of the individual over the collective and the shift of focus from Mary to Percy Shelley), but overall it was a fun watch and a relief from the general pacing errors that have plagued series twelve.