Tag: postcolonial complaining

Review: Provenance

While Ann Leckie’s Provenance is technically a standalone novel, it’s set in the same universe as Leckie’s Ancillary series, which obviously invites comparisons – and not necessarily favourable ones.

More about that in a minute. The planet on which Provenance is set, Hwae, lies far away from Radch space, where the Ancillary trilogy is set; it’s a human culture that recognises three genders, and which lies very close to the planet of the Geck, one of the three sentient alien races in Leckie’s universe, incomprehensible and thus terrifying. Our Heroine is Ingray Aughskold, a young woman adopted into a high-ranking family, who frees a high-security prisoner convicted of forging valuable historical artefacts as part of a plan to outmanoeuvre her brother in a bid to be named her mother’s heir.

(Yes. It’s one of those novels.)

Of course, things go horribly wrong, and instead of playing an admittedly fairly high-stakes game of family power politics, Ingray finds herself at the centre of a murder case: an ambassador from a nearby planet with an interest in controlling trade access to Hwae is found stabbed in a public park, killed while Ingray was feet away.

And, for a good half of the novel, it feels like that’s what Leckie’s serving us: a murder mystery wreathed in complex alien politics. But Provenance has an odd double structure: the murder mystery winds itself up sooner than we think it will, and we find once more that there’s something a lot more serious going on, something that threatens the delicate treaty that prevents the Geck and, more importantly, the infinitely violent and infinitely alien race the Presger, from waging war on humanity, and vice versa.

That double structure is key to what the novel’s doing, I think. Provenance pares away almost all of the action and adventure of the Ancillary trilogy, to leave only Leckie’s interest in politics and etiquette and how people navigate the power structures they find themselves enmeshed in. In other words, to me Provenance is essentially concerned with identity politics: how people construct and perform themselves. There is a focus on things that SFF readers might be used to thinking of as trivial: on clothes, on interior space (parts of the novel take place on a spaceship, and Leckie is meticulous in describing how the characters move around each other in the narrow corridors), on food. Hwae society places great stock in “vestiges”, historical artefacts related to family history – the authenticity or otherwise of these drives the plot at several key moments. There’s a moment when a character calls out the press for refusing to use the name ey’ve chosen for emself:

you all flew here from the capital this morning so you could shout questions at me in person, but you can’t bring yourself to use the name I want to go by

There’s a whole storyline about a character identifying himself as Geck (though he looks human, the Geck do have hangers-on who are genetically altered humans) and what that means legally. And so on. Identity politics: not just how we create identities for ourselves, but specifically how we perform and negotiate them with others, and how the choices we make when we’re with other people are always loaded, always political. Provenance dramatises that slogan of second-wave feminism, “the personal is political”.

And so, that double structure is asking us to look twice at everything we see. A murder that looks personal is deeply political. Choices that look personal – how we dress, how we name ourselves, what we eat – are deeply political.

It’s always worth asking: why this genre? In this instance, why does Provenance need to be SF? What would it lose by not being SF?

It’s important, I think, that the culture(s?) we encounter in Provenance is (are?) an alien one; not alien in the SFnal sense but in the sense that it runs on different rules, and that, crucially, those are rules we have to figure out as we go along. That work of, essentially, reverse engineering the rules of a culture from how people act within it is work that estranges our own culture from us; like the novel’s double structure, Provenance teaches us to re-read the world, to pay attention to the myriad lines of power and influence that underlie even our most mundane interactions.

This is all brilliant and fascinating and (that overused word) timely, of course, and I really enjoyed Provenance (although I can’t honestly say I grasped all the intricacies of the interplanetary politics). But: it does just feel a little less urgent than the Ancillary trilogy, which dealt with issues like slavery and bodily autonomy and imperialism – grappling with the idea of power in a much more direct way. Provenance feels like a step back into provincialism. It’s very far from bad. But neither is it mind-blowing.


Review: Everfair

It would be interesting to compare Nisi Shawl’s alt-historical novel Everfair with the Broadway musical Hamilton. It’s not a comparison I’m going to go into in great detail here, because I only just thought of it, but: both works are trying to make space in history, and in narratives of nation-building, for people of colour. Two interesting things come out of this comparison: firstly, that Everfair does this less problematically and more honestly than Hamilton does; secondly, I still like Hamilton a whole lot more than I like Everfair. (Given how much I like Hamilton, this isn’t actually as much of an insult as it sounds.)

So. Everfair is a “what-if” novel, set against the horrific backdrop of the Belgian King Leopold II’s exploitation of the Congo Free State in the late 1800s and early 1900s – a period of perhaps twenty years during which, historians estimate, up to ten million people died as a result of Leopold’s insatiable greed for rubber.

Shawl asks: what if a group of British socialists had got together with a group of African-American missionaries to buy a parcel of land in the Congo and set up a new country there – the eponymous Everfair – a haven for refugees from Leopold’s atrocities?

The resulting novel is a series of short chapters told from the points of view of eleven different characters, ranging from the white middle-class English housewife Daisy Albin – who also happens to be Everfair’s national poet – and her mixed-race female lover Lisette, through the African-American Christian missionary Thomas Jefferson Wilson, who gradually becomes assimilated into the local religion, to King Mwenda, ruler of the territory bought by the European founders of Everfair, who enters into an uneasy alliance with them. Each chapter jumps forward in time, by as little as a week or as much as a year. So we are given a series of short vignettes, almost, that together build a picture of the founding of Everfair, from early in Leopold’s reign of terror to the end of the First World War.

It’s exactly this multiplicity of voices, this fragmentation, that makes Everfair, and Everfair, what it is. The Europeans and their African-American allies see a potential utopia in Everfair; but those eleven points of view show us exactly how much of a contested issue utopia is. The missionaries want to spend charitable donations on Bibles and religious material to convert the local people and the refugees. The socialists, broadly speaking, abhor religion, and want to build Everfair along modern socialist lines. King Mwenda wants his traditions to be respected, and for the settlers to remember that Everfair was originally his land, sold out from under him by the Belgian government.

And so on. All of these people are playing politics with each other; all of them have broadly the same goal – a peaceful life under a fair government – even if they have widely differing interests and worldviews. (One of the most interesting things about Everfair is how it treats science and magic – as exactly that, different worldviews, equally valid. The airships that feature so prominently in the economic development of Everfair are built by science; the heaters that keep them aloft run on magic and traditional belief. Doctors in Everfair’s hospitals use modern medicines to keep patients alive; King Mwenda and Thomas Jefferson Wilson are both told things by their gods and ancestors that they could not possibly know rationally.) The novel takes no sides: each character’s point of view is valid. And so we see how messy the work of nation-building is, how ideologically fraught it is from the start, a tangle of compromises and conflicts that means nobody quite gets what they want, but everyone gets as good a result as they can. Everfair is a novel about people working together, productively if not always harmoniously, to build a society that includes everyone. It’s not utopia. It’s not perfect (because the world is not perfect). There are crises and there are moral compromises. But we get the sense that, mostly, it’s the best anyone can do.

Why don’t I like it more, then?

Partly, I think it’s a case of mismatched expectations. The novel calls itself steampunk; from the “Historical Note” at the beginning of the book:

The steampunk genre often works as a form of alternative history, showing us how small changes to what actually happened might have resulted in momentous differences: clockwork Victorian-era computers, commercial transcontinental dirigible lines, and a host of other wonders. This is that kind of book.

See, I think this gets steampunk wrong. For me, a vital part of steampunk is a transgressive sense of playfulness; it knows, fundamentally, that no Victorian was ever a steampunk, that it is impossible except in modernity. It is constantly winking at its audience to let them know that its ahistoricity is deliberate, and fun, and a little bit ridiculous. That’s not to say that steampunk can’t do serious things; just that what it’s doing usually has little to do with history. Steampunk, at heart, is playing meta games with its audience.

Whereas Everfair is anything but playful. I read it fast, travelling home by train after Christmas, and it resisted me every step of the way. It’s a novel that demands to be taken seriously, to be read slowly and with great attention to detail. Look at that “Historical Note”; the three-page list of “Some Notable Characters” at the beginning of the novel (only some); the detailed, serious-looking map, not at all like a fantasy map. From the “Historical Note” again:

Of course steampunk is a form of fiction, a fantasy, and the events within these pages never happened. But they could have.

As I’ve said above, the function of steampunk is precisely not to say “this could have happened”. That’s the function of alt-history. Everfair is really alt-history. Its project is to create a space in Western historical fiction for people of colour as participants in nation-building. Its project is to bring an under-studied and terrible interlude in recent European history to the attention of readers who at best only know it through reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at university once – and to do so in a way that casts people of colour as more than victims.

To be clear: this is important work, and I think it’s work that Everfair does very well – I don’t want to diminish that. I also think that the novel is basically all worldbuilding, in M. John Harrison’s sense: despite its multivocalism, it’s not a novel that leaves much space for interpretation or exploration (although, I suspect, every reader will empathise with different characters – I spent a lot of time rooting for Lisette and willing Daisy to realise how racist she was being). As a reader, I prefer baggier, more playful novels; steampunk novels, not alt-history ones. But that’s on me, not the book.

Review: The Compleat Discworld Atlas

The Compleat Discworld Atlas is a lovely book. Let’s get that out of the way first. Thick, richly-illustrated pages describing each of the colourful countries and lands that make up Terry Pratchett’s Discworld; one of those elastic loops to keep the book closed; an impressively detailed fold-out map, complete with lines of latitude and longitude (appropriately adjusted for a flat world), magic concentrations and temperature ranges. It’s very geeky. And, for a Discworld fan like me, it’s…fun.

But less fun than it should be. Because there’s a sense in which a book like this (which was, it seems, one of Pratchett’s last creations) misses the point of Discworld. Discworld was built out of a series of jokes. There are consistencies between the books, especially as the series goes on, but we always have the sense that Pratchett’s happy to bend the setting around the story he wants to tell. It’s not a place that was ever meant to be mapped. (I think there’s actually a joke to that effect in the preface to one of the books. It goes something like: “This book does not contain a map. Feel free to draw your own.” Fourteen-year-old me loved that.)

That’s…not a problem per se. The problem is, I think, is that this particular book completely misses the sense of fun and parody and transgression that characterises Discworld as a body of work. (There are fun Discworld maps that exist! I’ve seen an Ankh-Morpork map drawn by Stephen Player which I particularly covet.) It takes itself too seriously, its mock-encyclopaedic objectivity unleavened by the wit and wordplay of the novels. (There are some puns. They are leaden and over-explained.)

And codifying Discworld in an atlas like this makes the novels’ Anglocentrism particularly overt and particularly problematic. Everyone knows that Ankh-Morpork is the heart of the Discworld. It is its vital, beating heart; it feels like a real city even in the early novels. It’s also pretty explicitly a London analogue. That’s sort of fine in the novels, because Pratchett was a British author, and the books’ humour is specifically British, and most of their main characters are recognisably British in some form or another (with a few exceptions): so it makes a certain amount of sense that this vast and teeming world should be filtered through a British point of view.* But the objectivity of an atlas means that equal weight is ostensibly placed on each country. Which makes it very obvious when many of those countries are made up of vaguely racist stereotypes. Seeing “wives” listed alongside “camels” as an export from an African-coded country of nomads was a particular kick in the teeth: a vicious form of sexism thrown off as a careless, racist joke.

There is a vague conceit that the atlas has been partially compiled by Rincewind, the cowardly wizard-hero of some of the earlier Discworld novels, who comes with his own bundle of (partly-unexamined) insecurities and prejudices. But this is mentioned once in the preface and then never again; the text has none of the colour that might otherwise serve to distance narrator from author. (See, by way of contrast, the Discworld companion book Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, which is a delight throughout, sprinkled with quintessentially Ogg-ish gems like “If you go to other people’s funerals, they’ll be sure to come to yours.”)

I don’t want to say “this is a terrible book”. Pratchett gets a lot of leeway from me, in part because it’s impossible for me to have any kind of critical distance from his novels. But this doesn’t feel like Discworld, this overly fannish work of codification and reification. (It’s perhaps telling that the Discworld Emporium, the company licensed with selling Discworld merchandise, is listed as one of the copyright holders.) Or, rather, it feels like the worst of Discworld. The map itself may turn out to be a lovely reading companion; but I can’t imagine ever really going back to the gazetteer. Which is a shame, given how expensive the whole package actually is.

*Even so, I think Interesting Times and Pyramids might make me uncomfortable if I read them for the first time now.

Top Ten Authors Who Were New to Me in 2017

  1. Ursula Le Guin. It should not have taken this long for me to get around to reading Le Guin, but I’m glad I finally have made it – not least because now I have some half-glimpsed sense of what SFF has lost with her death. Her novels are thought experiments, character studies and things of wonder all at the same time. Even those that were published half a century ago feel fresh and exciting and radical.
  2. N.K. Jemisin. Mainly for The Fifth Season, which is the angriest book I’ve read since Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, and twice as textually tricksy. But I also enjoyed The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which treats religion quite differently from most fantasy.
  3. Kim Stanley Robinson. I only read 2312 last year, but I’ll definitely be reading more of his work. 2312 is that rarest of things, lyrically-written hard SF, and it pushes at gender and sexual norms in a way that’s also extremely unusual for the genre.
  4. Hannu Rajaniemi. I can’t honestly say I understood The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince, but they are gorgeous things, intricate and gleaming as cyberpunk clockwork. (That’s a thing.)
  5. Steven Brust. I’m not going to claim that the Vlad Taltos novels are high literature, because, you know, they’re not. But they know they’re not too, and that’s partly why they’re so much fun. And, in their own way, they push back against our expectations of high fantasy.
  6. Christopher Priest. I enjoyed The Islanders! I loved its Pale Fire-ish vibe – but I didn’t think it was that different from Pale Fire, either. Still, I’d be very happy to read more Priest.
  7. Samuel Delany. Another classic author who I feel I should have got round to a lot sooner. I was very surprised by Nova, and I’d like to read more.
  8. Ben Okri. I didn’t like In Arcadia. I did, however, like Starbook, very much; and, independently of whether I like his work, Okri’s clearly an important author who’s doing some very clever stuff with his prose and his ideas.
  9. Octavia Butler. So I’m still slightly side-eyeing some of Butler’s choices in Parable of the Sower (no a romance between an eighteen-year-old and a fifty-year-old is not appropriate) but, again, she’s a classic author with some scarily prescient things to say. (During Parable of the Sower a reactionary demagogue who wants to relax labour laws gets elected president of the US. I’ll just leave that there.)
  10. Iain M. Banks. Consider Phlebas was a little chilly for my taste, but apparently the Culture novels do get better, and Banks is good at conjuring that sense of wonder that’s difficult to get outside SF.

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

Film Review: The Last Jedi

This review contains spoilers.

I saw The Last Jedi a month ago: while I was exceptionally and unusually organised at seeing it soon after it came out, clearly that organisation has not extended to actually getting round to reviewing it. Never mind: it’s probably still showing in a cinema near you, Star Wars being the multi-bajillion-pound property that it is.

So, the state of play at the beginning of The Last Jedi, as announced by the time-honoured crawl of text (I defy anyone not to feel a spike of excitement as the theme tune plays) is this: budding Jedi Rey is on Skywalker Island, trying to convince Luke to lead the Resistance/teach her the ways of the Force/at least not be quite so grumpy about everything. Meanwhile, the Resistance, for mysterious reasons of its own, is fighting a pitched battle against a huge First Order fleet.

The film wends its way through both storylines, slowly. Luke inevitably, reluctantly, agrees to give Rey three lessons in the ways of the Force, like a fairytale mentor. But during her time on Skywalker Island she begins to experience visions of Kylo Ren (First Order Supreme Leader-in-training and Han and Leia’s son, honestly, keep up), and tries to convince him that he’s not a bad guy, really, and would be welcome in the Resistance (which, he blatantly wouldn’t).

I’m being flippant, but the Rey/Ren scenes are the best thing about The Last Jedi. Elsewhere in the film, Ren’s tortured emo-ness (which he expresses, obviously, through blowing things up) becomes a little wearying, and Daisy Ridley isn’t given very much to do as Rey except shouting and stamping her foot, but the strange, intense bond – not quite friendship, not quite romance – that develops between them has all the passionate idealism of teenhood. For a while, we genuinely wonder if Kylo Ren will turn to the light after all, or Rey turn to the dark.

Meanwhile, though, the Resistance’s tiny fleet is defeated in battle, and turns and flees: they’re just fast enough that the First Order can’t catch them, but not fast enough to outrun the First Order completely. What’s more, they only have enough fuel for one hyperspace jump, which there’s no point in them making while the First Order is tracking them. With only a few hours of fuel left, the Resistance leader Vice Admiral Holdo decides simply to keep flying.

This, however, is not enough for pilot extraordinaire Poe Dameron, who hatches a plot with escaped stormtrooper Finn and engineer Rose to capture the best codebreaker in the galaxy, sneak him aboard the First Order’s flagship vessel, and get him to disable their tracking device. All in the space of six hours or so, give or take.


If there’s one thing that made The Last Jedi impossible for me to like, it’s this: Poe’s actions effectively (and needlessly) decimate the Resistance, but the film and its characters still see him as a likeable maverick.

Further: Poe questions the judgement of his female and very feminine commanding officer (she’s tall, willowy, speaks softly, wears flowing clothing that emphasises her figure without being revealing – these are all very deliberate character design choices), defies her orders (in scenes that are painfully familiar to any woman who’s ever worked in a traditionally male profession, like, say, battle command), and gets her and most of the Resistance killed, but the film and its characters still see him as a likeable maverick. Instead of, you know, a sexist idiot. (Because, of course, Holdo had a plan all along, and Poe went and screwed it comprehensively up.)

What makes this so particularly jarring is that, otherwise, the film makes very positive choices in terms of diverse representation. Not only are there plenty of women in the Resistance forces (and the film passes the Bechdel test) – including Leia, Holdo herself, and Rose, a new character – there are also plenty of POCs. Poe may have dreamed up the codebreaker plot, but it’s Finn (British Nigerian actor John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, whose parents are Vietnamese) who carry it out. In a blockbuster film in 2018, this still, unfortunately, feels groundbreaking.

The Last Jedi also has an interesting, and in context rather odd, tic around cute animals, and specifically cute animals which help the Resistance in some way. There are the notoriously adorable porgs, included in the film so the production team didn’t have to edit out the puffins who haunt the real-life Skywalker Island; one of them joins Chewie in the Millennium Falcon as a sort of mascot. There are the rather lovely crystal foxes who lead the dregs of the Resistance out of the mines they’ve become trapped in at the end of the film. There are some horse analogues which carry Rose and Finn out of trouble during the execution of their misbegotten plan, and which also incidentally smash up a casino full of evil capitalists.

What’s the connection between diverse representation and cute animals? Well, in the context of The Last Jedi I think they spring from the same impulse: thematically, they position the Resistance as a heterogeneous, grassroots organisation which draws on, and values, a wide range of different skills and backgrounds. (This isn’t a new idea: think of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.) That’s in contrast to the hosts of identical stormtroopers, marching in formation, which make up the First Order’s army. But with the idea of the Resistance of grassroots goes, inseparably, the idea of the Resistance as guerilla; which is where, I think, the film gets its problem with authority. Guerilla armies don’t have formalised structures; at least, not in the popular imagination they don’t. They never get big enough or homogenous enough to need command structures, as the Resistance does. So we have a mismatch between our idea of what the Resistance should be (a group of free actors, bound together only by a shared sense of Right, and basically able to perform acts of heroism with impunity) and what any fighting force, or indeed any organisation that wants to remain functional beyond the next five minutes, needs to be (structured, with lines of command and process, and consequences for breaking those lines). Add to the mix Hollywood’s obsession with individual heroism above collective work towards betterment, and you get a film fatally confused about what, exactly, the Resistance, or indeed anything else, stands for.

Probably all of this would have annoyed me less if the film was actually a proper shape, but, like every single blockbuster film I’ve seen recently, The Last Jedi has screenwriters who just don’t know when to stop. There is too much plot. There are too many denouements, too many climaxes. Not to get all cod-nostalgic here, but the genius of the first three films is that they are shaped like fairytales, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Despite their SFnal set-dressing, they are fables, and so they feel timeless. (And, yes, what is timeless in one decade is oppressive in another; what I’m trying to say is that the original trilogy judge what we in the West currently consider “a good story” very, very well.) The Last Jedi isn’t, and doesn’t. It’s too messy to be Star Wars.

Review: The Fifth Season

This review contains spoilers.

You’ve heard of The Fifth Season. If you know anything about current SFF, you’ve heard of The Fifth Season. It won the Hugo Award in 2016; it was shortlisted for the Nebula; practically every SFF critic on this earth seems to have read it and at the very least enjoyed it.

It’s set on a planet (a far-future Earth? an alien planet? or somewhere else entirely?) tortured by tectonic activity. Every couple of centuries or so a major earthquake or volcanic eruption will precipitate an extinction event; a so-called “Season”, which may last decades, during which crops and animals will die, water sources turn to poison, the weather and seasons become dangerously unpredictable. The society of the Stillness, the single vast continent on this planet, has developed a set of rules, of unbreakable laws, to survive these events – although a lot of people will inevitably die, the idea is that some will live. Jemisin’s worldbuilding in this respect is detailed and convincing without ever being overwhelming and clumsy: she hints at the systems of bureaucracy that keep all this running, the emergency procedures drilled into townspeople’s psyches, the hard choices that town leaders have to make to get their communities through a Season. Because the people of the Stillness deliberately don’t develop communications technology that’s vulnerable to natural disasters – although they do have hydroelectric power – the world feels very epic fantasy; but these details also give it a realism most epic fantasy doesn’t possess.

The people of the Stillness do, however, have a secret weapon against angry Father Earth (who is never named but to curse him): the orogenes, people who can shape and direct and use the power of the earth to keep the Stillness safe. But their power is dangerous – untrained orogenes have been known to kill entire towns along with themselves when frightened or angry. And so they’re hated and reviled by everyone else: young orogenes are taken from their parents (orogeny is hereditary, but it can also appear randomly in non-orogene families) to the Fulcrum, a place that pretends to be a school where orogenes can develop and refine their power for the good of all the Stillness, but which is actually a tool of control.

The novel follows three different women: Damaya, a child given up to the Fulcrum by her parents; Syenite, a skilled orogene who’s sent on a mission with Alabaster, one of the best orogenes in the Stillness, and ordered to conceive a child with him to further his line; and Essun, an orogene in hiding whose husband has found out that their three-year-old son is an orogene and murdered him. The novel is shadowed most by Essun’s story, in which a Season is just beginning, one that will last not the decades the Stillness has prepared for but hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. It is shadowed by the end, finally, of the world.

This is the way the world ends. For the last time.

The concept at the heart of The Fifth Season is control; or, perhaps more specifically, the conflict between control and precariousness, the struggle to keep hold of something of one’s own. The orogenes of the Fulcrum are taught that control of their power is essential; any slip is met with punishment, or, if the transgression is great enough, death. (Remember: these are children.) And yet, the great irony: they have no real control over their own lives and fates and futures, where they go, what they do, who they sleep with. Syenite tries to gain some modicum of control, of autonomy, by collaborating with the system, doing what the Guardians of the Fulcrum tell her, so she can rise in the ranks; the higher-ranking orogenes get better privileges. But Alabaster’s situation reveals how wrong-headed her thinking is. He is the highest-ranking orogene we meet – the highest-ranking orogene Syenite is ever likely to meet – and yet all his privileges, astonishing as they seem to Syenite (he can travel on his own, refuse the sexual partners the Fulcrum assigns to him, enjoy greater privacy than anyone else), only conceal the fact that he has no real agency, no good choices. His life is just as subject to the whims of the Fulcrum, just as precarious, as any other orogene’s. The idea that it is not is of course just another tool the Fulcrum uses to control the orogenes.

So: The Fifth Season describes systems of physical and psychological control, and the (usually doomed, always destructive) struggles of the oppressed to wrest some of that control back. But it also enacts problems of control at a textual level – and that’s what I found most exciting about the novel (if “exciting” is the right word for a book that contains so many terrible things, which I’m not sure it is). It resists passive, complacent reading; it is combative. Essun’s chapters, for instance, are narrated in the second person, an unusual choice the main effect of which isn’t, I think, identification – or, at least, it isn’t straightforwardly identification (or Jemisin would have written in the first person, surely). Although Essun doesn’t make the hardest choices of the women in the novel (that dubious honour goes to Syenite), she is the one most obviously fighting for emotional and physical survival. She is the most free to choose of everyone in The Fifth Season, and her choices are consistently hard. So that second person pronoun, that “you”, is confrontational: it forces us to take the burden of Essun’s choices, and in doing so it forestalls judgement. In some way it takes away our right to judge Essun, because she is us. It upsets the control we think we have as readers over the narratives we consume.

Another such strategy that’s worth mentioning – and the reason for the spoiler warning above; look away now if you wish to remain unspoiled, and take it from me, you probably do – is how those three narratives coalesce, delightfully but also horrifyingly, into one. Damaya, Syenite and Essun are all one woman. And yet each of their narratives feel complete. This is one woman who loses everything three times over; who lives, in effect, three separate lives. Again, this disrupts our sense of control over the text, as well as, neatly, enacting the sense of precariousness that all the orogenes – and, in a wider sense, everyone on Jemisin’s troubled planet – face: multiple worlds end in The Fifth Season, emotional and physical ones.

The Fifth Season‘s discussion of control is, obviously, rooted in real-world strategies of oppression. (The novel has other contemporary contexts, of course: climate change and the idea of a world suddenly turning hostile is a major one.) But it’s never directly metaphorical: in fact, one of the best things about the novel is that the axes of oppression at work in the Stillness are completely different. Queerness is tolerated, impressively for a society in which reproduction might be vital for the survival of a community during a Season – Alabaster sleeps with men by choice, a woman flirts with Essun in the very first chapter, and there is a bisexual polyamorous pirate. (Yes, you read that right.) Racism exists, but it seems to be based much more on facial features than skin colour. It’s an approach that throws into relief the arbitrariness of prejudice while being aware of the sheer extent of the structures that maintain it.

So The Fifth Season is that rare beast: a novel that actually lives up to its hype. It’s gripping, important, horrific, intricately imagined, confrontational, diverse and true.

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

This review contains spoilers for The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit picks up where its predecessor The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet left off: in space, with a new and unsure AI heading rapidly away from a crew devastated by the loss of her predecessor, housed in the highly illegal artificial human body that predecessor was about to inhabit, accompanied by tech genius and general Nice Person Pepper.

From there, it divides into two plotlines: one, set in the present day, follows the AI, now named Sidra, as she attempts to get used to a body she wasn’t designed to inhabit while trying to avoid detection in the slightly shady spaceport Port Coriol; the second, set some years in the past, follows a girl called Jane-23 as she discovers The Truth about the factory she’s spent her short life working in (its operators having hit on the Truth that it’s cheaper to clone humans than it is to build robots).

It took me an inordinate amount of time actually to get round to reading this (it was published in, whisper it low, 2016) given how much I enjoyed Small Angry Planet; but, in the end, it worked out rather well, as I ended up reading it while I was deep in the throes of NaNoWriMo last November. Like its predecessor, it’s a very comforting book, the kind you want to curl up in for ever and ever and never come out (except, possibly, for tea and/or chocolate). At its heart, it’s interested in emotional labour: the work that people do to find practical ways to help and accommodate each other. Problems are more likely to be solved discursively, through conversation, through empathy, than through shows of power or violence. And tolerance is a fundamental of Chambers’ worldbuilding, too: everything on Port Coriol is run with the social and physical needs of multiple alien races in mind. This is a galaxy full of imperfect people trying, in sometimes circuitous and often unglamorous ways, to rub along.

It’s easy to forget how radical such niceness, such a concerted effort at tolerance is; easy to dismiss such comfort reading as anodyne, rose-tinted escapism, as several reviewers have. Even optimism feels radical in a present that’s feeling ever more dystopian. But it’s also true that the optimism of A Closed and Common Orbit is a problem for the novel.

That’s primarily because, structurally, it’s a good deal more conventional than Small Angry Planet: whereas the latter was an episodic, leisurely, rather baggy trip through Chambers’ invented galaxy, A Closed and Common Orbit switches rather mechanically, chapter by chapter without fail, between its two storylines – which then dovetail as we reach the denouement of the tale and the past catches up with the present. And the discursiveness that makes A Closed and Common Orbit such a pleasure to sink into by its very nature can’t generate the narrative drive needed to make that tight structure really work. Instead, it just feels constricting and artificial – a barrier to talking about precisely what the novel’s most interested in.

Another, connected issue with that discursiveness, that built-in tolerance: the nastier elements of Chambers’ galaxy – the clone factories, the threat of oblivion that Sidra faces if the authorities discover she’s an AI in a human body – don’t really convince. At no point do we meet anyone who attempts to defend those factories, or the laws about AIs: they are, instead, vague and faceless threats. I never thought that Sidra was seriously in danger; I never quite bought into Jane-23’s story.

This is a problem firstly because, again, it takes tension out of a narrative structure that’s kind of designed to deliver tension, and secondly because these characters’ stories have analogues with real-world minorities. Sidra’s body dysphoria has parallels with the experience of some trans people; her difficulty in processing stimuli means she can also be read as neurodiverse; there’s a tragedy near the end of the novel, when a woman is legally wrenched away from what she considers to be her family, that recalls uncomfortably how Western countries, particularly America and Britain at the moment, treat refugees and asylum seekers. This is all important representation, of course! But the fact that we can read a world that wants to kill Sidra, and that can treat refugees in this way, as basically benign – which is how I read Chambers’ galaxy – is potentially troubling; at the very least it reinforces a privileged view of both the fictional and the real worlds as “basically OK for most people”, which is not even broadly true for this world.

A Closed and Common Orbit wasn’t a disappointing sequel, exactly. I was looking for the tolerance and the hope that featured in Small Angry Planet, and I found it. And I mean what I said about that optimism, and the sheer emotional work it takes Chambers’ characters to maintain it, being radical, and important: we need more of this kind of book, for the days when it feels like absolutely nothing will go right ever again. But, we also need other kinds of books, too, for the days when we feel braver: books that don’t flinch from the nastinesses of the world, the institutional discrimination and the low-level prejudice that make our world less than benign.