Tag: postcolonial complaining

Doctor Who Review: Knock Knock

This episode contains spoilers.

Ah, well. I suppose three good episodes in a row was too much to hope for.

Knock Knock is the requisite Scary Episode of this season. It starts off very scary indeed (well, bearing in mind that I used to get freaked out by the Daleks) and goes downhill quite rapidly.

So. Bill and five friends-of-friends are searching for a student house to rent and having abysmally little luck when a mysterious stranger played by David Suchet approaches them and offers to rent out his mansion for an absurdly low price – provided they don’t go into the tower.

Pro tip, student househunters: never, ever rent a room off a mysterious stranger you just met. Particularly one played by David Suchet.

Against all common sense, the gang sign the Landlord’s contract and move in. But why do the floorboards creak so in the empty corridors? What’s the noise like tiny footsteps that one of the housemates keeps hearing above his head? Why does the tree outside sway in the non-existent wind? And what about Pavel, the housemate who’s not been seen for a day?

These are profound questions, well asked. The paranoia and claustrophobia build up in the house until it’s nearly unbearable, and the differing reactions of the housemates – some passing it off as a prank, some genuinely terrified – are a nice touch. (Actually, Knock Knock has overtones of the spin-off series Class, thanks to its diverse ensemble cast, each with an actual character to play rather than what feel like inherently supporting roles.)

And then – the tension breaks as doors slam and shutters seal themselves and the walls knock, knock, knock. The housemates are trapped.

But they are, at least, trapped with the Doctor, who’s been helping to move Bill’s stuff in and has refused to leave since then. The Doctor quickly gets to the heart of the action and solves the mystery, and Everything is Made Better by Love. Overacted love.

Doctor Who has two problems with horror stories. The first is that 45 minutes is really too little time to build up enough tension to make it scary while also having a decent payoff for that tension. It is possible to strike the right balance, as Blink proved, but it’s difficult.

The second is that the writers always try and make the payoff emotionally meaningful, usually in a way that is entirely, painfully unsubtle. Again, it is possible to have an effective, meaningful payoff, but, again, it’s difficult, especially on a show still nominally aimed at twelve-year-olds.

In this case, the episode is trying to be about parenthood. Specifically, it turns out, the Landlord has been keeping his mother alive by feeding people to the alien woodlice which infest the house. Only he’s told her, for…reasons, I guess? that she’s his daughter, and that as her father he knows best.

That’s the battleground of Knock Knock: who knows best. When the Landlord’s mother discovers the truth, she also discovers that she can control the woodlice. That would be an interesting device, if it was established as a point of worldbuilding: that the lice respond specifically to motherhood, or something like that. But it isn’t. Apparently motherhood just gives her a natural authority – which she uses, effectively, to commit suicide and kill her son along the way.

Mother knows best!

And there are troubling overtones of parenthood in the relationship between Bill and the Doctor, too. Embarrassed by his presence – an embarrassment which I read as Bill fearing her new housemates might think she was sleeping with him – Bill pretends that the Doctor is her grandfather. She repeatedly tries to get him to leave the house in a way that makes it clear that she’s trying to set some boundaries:

This is the bit of my life that you’re not in.

Look at the way the episode frames Bill’s boundary-setting. We know, of course, that there’s something badly wrong with the house, and that the best chance for Bill and her friends is if the Doctor sticks around. So, not only does the Doctor refuse to leave; we as viewers are forced into recognising that he’s right not to leave, because, after all, grandfather knows best!

Except the Doctor isn’t Bill’s grandfather. And Bill is an adult woman. What this episode is doing is trampling all over her agency, undermining all the work the series has done to establish her as smart and independent and progressive. Being the Doctor’s companion, being under his protection, apparently makes it OK for him to infantilise her in a way that the narrative structure of the episode validates and supports.

This, by the way, is pretty similar to the Doctor’s relationship with Clara.

Knock Knock wants to be a moving exploration of the power of parenthood. In fact, what it is is a look at two very fucked up parenthood models. That’s the core problem of Moffat-era Doctor Who for me (note: this episode was not actually written by Stephen Moffat): it tries to make us believe in, and root for, relationships which are not just flawed but actually, dangerously rotten to the core. It doesn’t know what healthy relationships look like. That’s why its more emotion-driven plots don’t work.

Next time, zombies in space. Really?

Review: Nova

This review contains spoilers.

I haven’t seen Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who yet: Real Life is getting squarely in the way. Of everything.

So we have Samuel Delany’s Nova, which I read almost a month ago now. It’s sixties science fiction that doesn’t feel like sixties science fiction – or, at least, like what I think of as sixties SF.

Delany’s SFnal world, in which humanity has long since travelled to the stars, is split into three main political entities: Earth-based Draco; the Pleiades Federation; and the Outer Colonies. The economy and political power of this universe is based on supplies of Illyrion, an extremely heavy and unstable element that’s used in terraforming. The novel is about – in one sense of “about” – Lorq Von Ray, a spaceship captain who gathers together a ragged crew to harvest Illyrion in unheard-of quantities in one of the most dangerous places in the universe: the heart of a nova. Meanwhile, his arch-enemies Prince and Ruby Red are trying to catch up, to protect their own business interests and those of Draco, whose political dominance will be ended when Von Ray’s Illyrion hits the market.

Only the novel doesn’t seem particularly interested in the swashbuckling, amoral Lorq. It’s more interested in the Mouse, an itinerant worker with a rare ability to play an instrument called a sensory syrynx – a projector of holograms, sounds and scents. The Mouse is part of Lorq’s crew, but otherwise is not at all the kind of character you’d expect this kind of SF to be interested in: he’s a follower, not a leader, going where events take him, though he’s competent in his own way; he has a speech impediment; he’s poor; he has gypsy heritage; he’s black.

So part of Nova‘s project, I think, is looking at the sorts of stories the Western tradition prioritises – especially the Western SF tradition of the time. Because the other unexpected thing about it is its prose style, which is not the stilted, utilitarian style of Asimov and Heinlein and the like, but something deeply impressionistic – even hallucinogenic. Sensory experience, not sociopolitical or scientific exposition, is the order of the day: so a decadent party is rendered as a series of confused impressions; a childhood memory of an animal fight takes on a disproportionately intense brutality; the worlds the crew visits are characterised sharply by colours and sights and physical dangers (there’s a particularly spectacular scene where people fight by the light of a stream of orange lava on black rock). And the nova Von Ray is heading for hangs constantly over the narrative, a promise and a threat: because to look unprotected into the nova is to burn all your senses out, your nerve endings tricked into constant stimulation, so you’re blind but see thousands of colours, deaf but hear deafening sound all the time. And so on.

In other words, Nova is telling this pulpy space opera tale as the actual lived experience of someone fairly ordinary; and making it in the telling fairly extraordinary. The richness of Nova’s world is a deep joy to read; that it’s a richness granted to someone like the Mouse, who’s disadvantaged along so many axes, is a pretty powerful statement about who matters, both in the fictional universe and the real one.

There’s also a metatextual element running along underneath all this, which seems quite unusual to see alongside that heavy sensory focus. The Mouse’s opposite number, so to speak, is a man named Katin, an intellectual who’s trying to write a novel, though the form has long been obsolete in Nova‘s universe. He’s amassed thousands of notes, based around his theories of historical processes, but has yet to find a subject he thinks is weighty enough for the theme. The narrative seems to be asking us to think of him as rather ridiculous: powerless, all his thinking producing only creative sterility. And yet – we eventually come to realise that the book we’re reading is in fact Katin’s novel; that the Mouse (disabled, non-white, poor) is the subject who carries Katin’s theorising about historical importance.

Nova is explicitly structured around the grail quest, the hero’s journey, the figures of the Tarot. These are mythical structures that feel like they sit deep in the Western psyche, and they do that because in their unaltered forms they reinforce our colonialist, patriarchal, capitalist norms. And Delany uses them to privilege a character who is traditionally disadvantaged; to tell us about what it’s like to be ordinary, to experience life not as fodder for political games or intellectual debate but as a progression of sensory impressions, sight and sound and touch and scent and taste. That’s a really profound subversion of the genre, and of the Western tradition. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Delany’s SF.

Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution

Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays – some from Hurley’s blog, some written specifically for this volume – about oppression of all shapes and sizes, in geek culture specifically and the Western world more generally. There’s a lot about feminism, including her Hugo-award winning essay “We Have Always Fought”. But there are also essays about racism (“What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Race in America”) and classism (“The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live”)  and the abuse of creators’ power (“Let It Go”). In short, it’s a collection covering anything and everything in geek culture and beyond that challenges the white male status quo.

Like all of Hurley’s work, and despite the insinuations of the cheerfully irreverent cover, it is not a book that offers easy answers. Which is to say, it does not peddle the brand of upbeat geeky feminist positivity channelled by books like Sam Maggs’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy (though, don’t get me wrong, that kind of work has a place too); it’s a book whose focus is squarely in revolution, and all the blood and sweat and tears that real revolutions entail.

A central theme of Hurley’s is perseverance, endurance, persistence: the work that’s involved in Being a Writer, in being a responsible creator, in fighting the system’s biases – sometimes just in surviving. The collection weaves personal material in with its politics: so we have, for example, the harrowing “The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance”, which should be required reading for everyone with an influence on health policy on both sides of the pond, sitting alongside “Becoming What You Hate”, a short piece about the controversial blogger Requires Hate and the ethics of assumed identities on the internet. This is generally symptomatic of the book’s eclectic approach: while notionally it’s divided into four sections – “Level Up”, “Geek”, “Let’s Get Personal” and “Revolution” – to be honest I’m not sure how meaningful these distinctions are. The message of all of them – if there is a single message – is simply that the fight for equality is not over, and perhaps never will be; that after every victory there are countless battles yet to fight.

On a personal note, and weirdly, I found this idea comforting rather than dispiriting. I think there’s a cultural narrative in the West – it’s quite a capitalist narrative really – which casts life as a quest for something specific, whether that’s a dream job or a perfect partner or a social life that makes Kim Kardashian seem like a stay-at-home, a quest at which you either succeed and become immediately happy and graceful and self-confident, or fail and remain a miserable loser for the rest of your life. Hurley’s collection, with its stories of personal and political endurance, is a counter-cry to that narrative, reminds us that the great story of the world is not, in fact, about us as individuals at all. We’re more like those extras at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields who maybe get to stab an orc or two, if we’re lucky. After every victory, there’s always another battle to fight: so it’s OK, actually, not to be OK all the time. It’s OK to cut ourselves some slack, so long as we pick up that sword again after a while and keep fighting.

After all: we have always fought. And we always will.

Doctor Who Review: Thin Ice

This review contains spoilers.

Two not-bad episodes of Doctor Who in a row? Good lord.

Thin Ice, written by Sarah Dollard, sees the Doctor and Bill arriving in London, 1814, by accident. (They’d been aiming for London, 2017, so I guess by the standards of these things they weren’t too far out.) It’s the year of the last Frost Fair, when the Thames froze solid enough that markets could be held on the ice. Bill is delighted and charmed by her visit to Olde Englande, until she isn’t: the Doctor and Bill spot green lights under the ice, surrounding unwary wanderers and dragging them down into the depths. Investigating, they find themselves digging into the underbelly of Regency England, the racism and the poverty and the oppression. Why is there a massive sea-creature chained at the bottom of the river? What are the dredging-yards doing? Why are the upper classes such dicks?

There are some great observations about oppression here: the series is obviously continuing its theme of multicultural understanding and tolerance. Bill remarks that 1814 is considerably less white than she expected (which, kudos to the production team, who have obviously worked to put multiple people of colour into actual important speaking roles, rather than just the token extra); the Doctor replies, “History is a whitewash.”

Huzzah! I honestly never expected to hear Twelve saying that.

And when Bill is angry and upset about a child being eaten by the creature under the ice, the Doctor explains to her that outrage is a luxury; that if she doesn’t pull herself together more people will die. It’s a smart choice, by the way, to have Bill and the Doctor in middle-class period costume, while most of those they interact with are working-class or lower; it makes for an interesting discussion of privilege, highlighting the sharp distinction between Bill’s relatively luxurious 21st-century lifestyle and the street urchins’ desperate, hand-to-mouth 19th-century existence.

Like Smile, though, I think some of the good, well-intentioned representational stuff in Thin Ice has some unintentional connotations. Specifically, I feel like Thin Ice‘s implicit comparison between 19th-century and 21st-century mores strays into self-congratulatory territory. Let’s not forget, after all, that we might expect Bill to know something about the luxury of outrage already, being both working-class (how much does that canteen job pay, anyway?) and a person of colour herself – as the episode points out. And it’s a shame that the only person who is outwardly racist is the villain of the piece, utterly uninterested in anything except capitalist progress, and so utterly irredeemable: it perpetuates the lie that only really evil people are racists, that a few powerful villains made the slave trade (which Thin Ice references both explicitly – Bill raises it with the Doctor, concerned that Regency England may not be safe for her – and symbolically, through the chained sea-creature) possible; when in fact the very opposite is true. Where’s the casual racism of Regency England, the beliefs so widespread that they were uttered entirely without conscious malice, as self-evident truths?

At the end of the episode, Bill is asked (as seemingly all the Doctor’s companions are at some point) to make a choice: whether or not to set the sea-creature free. On the one hand, it is clearly not a very happy sea-creature, and it is eating people. On the other hand, if it goes free it might eat some more people. “If your future is based on the suffering of that creature,” says the Doctor in his infinite wisdom, “what’s that future worth?” This is an excellent point, but sort of elides the fact that our future is still based on the suffering of others, because that’s what capitalism means. The system is founded on it; but Thin Ice suggests that solving capitalist greed is easy, as simple as freeing the chained slave and destroying the venture capitalist. Look at how ludicrously one-sided Bill’s dilemma is: there’s never any serious suggestion that letting the creature go will endanger London, whereas keeping it in chains is definitely Evil. (Compare this situation to the similar one in The Beast Below, when everyone thought that letting the space-whale go would cause the break-up of the ship and kill millions of people. That’s a better metaphor for the relationship between capitalist greed and Western society.)

And what about the Doctor’s speech to the capitalist villain keeping the creature chained up: “Human progress isn’t measured by industry; it’s measured by the value you place on a life”? To me, it seems that the Doctor is making an implicit comparison between the backward, oppressive values of the Industrial Revolution and our more enlightened times: we value everyone equally now! Isn’t that nice?

Except we don’t. People still die in crowded factories in China and India, working twelve hours a day to bring the West iPhones and fast fashion. Children still sift through toxic waste to find the minerals for Western touchscreens. Disability and chronic illness still plunge people into poverty in England. We haven’t solved racism, sexism, oppression; it’s important to remember that.

While I’m enjoying the social conscience that Doctor Who seems to be re-developing, I’d like to see episodes that reference colonialism and oppression actually dig a bit more into the implications of those metaphors, within the constraints of the format. It’s a show where literally anything could happen; so if we’re finally getting away from the white male patriarchy it developed during the last season, it would be good to see something properly radical come out of it.

Review: The City’s Son

This review contains spoilers.

The City’s Son is urban fantasy along the lines of Neverwhere and A Madness of Angels: it’s about London, the vital magic of the biggest city in Britain. Our Heroine is Beth, a teenage truant and graffiti artist. Running away from a detention and a seeming betrayal by her best friend, she stumbles upon a hidden London where the ghosts of railway trains fight and the streetlights are inhabited by tiny flickering beings. And here she meets a boy, as grey as the streets, who calls himself Filius Viae, son of Mater Viae, the Goddess of the city, who has been missing for many and many a year.

Filius and his mentor, Gutterglass (a woman made of rubbish) are leading a resistance against a being known as Reach, whose armies are cranes and barbed wire, whose thrones are skyscrapers of metal and glass, who’s literally killing the city – London’s fabric and foundations are revealed to be sentient. Beth finds herself caught up in the war: brokering alliances, learning about this new side of London, and trying to solve the mystery of where Mater Viae has gone.

Let’s start with the good, shall we?

In terms of representation, The City’s Son is doing some good work. Beth’s best friend, Parva “Pencil” Khan, is a practising Muslim, and I think (with the usual caveats: I’m a white, Western woman) that Pollock does a good job of making her a normal teenager without erasing her faith. I feel like most stories give us one or the other: either a character who’s superficially Muslim – say, they won’t eat pork – but is mostly indistinguishable from a white Westerner; or someone whose entire existence is predicated on the fact that they are Muslim – or whatever other form of non-Christianity/liberal atheism it is. Pen is both a British teenager and a Muslim – which is refreshing.

Speaking of Pen: her relationship with Beth is amazing. Female friendships are rare in speculative fiction, and Pen’s and Beth’s has all the intensity of teenagerhood – the sort of friendship that’s a bit like being in love, as Filius observes a bit jealously.

Because, of course, Filius and Beth fall in love; one criticism I do have of how Pollock handles his characterisation is that the L-word starts flying around a bit too quickly. But he does navigate the intersections between Beth and Filius and Beth and Pen well: when Pen is captured by a terrible creature called the Wire Mistress and forced to do her bidding, Beth ignores Filius’ advice and leaves him on the battlefield to rescue her. And, unusually for YA, there’s a scene at the end where they both manage to put aside their feelings for each other to do what needs to be done.

Oh, and Beth’s dad has depression, and Pollock shows us how he can be both a lousy father and a bit sympathetic. Oh, and Beth isn’t all toughness, though she pretends to be: Pollock shows us how she takes hold of her doubts and transforms them into action and decisiveness. Oh, and one of the very first conversations Beth and Pen have is one in which Pen outlines the distinction between arranged and forced marriage. Oh, and –

There’s a lot of oh, ands.

It’s a shame, then, with all this detailed, careful characterisation, that, for me, the story doesn’t quite work. The figure of Reach is quite a powerful one for a modern mythology of London: Reach is the embodiment of gentrification, unsustainable development, the capitalist greed driving Londoners out of London – killing the city, in the sense that it’s driving the heart out of it. Reach is terrifying because, it turns out, it’s mindless: a child constantly in the throes of birth, crying over and over “I will be”; just as the slow gentrification of London, the rise of all those empty, glittering residential towers on the South Bank and in the City and elsewhere, is the product not of any individual evil but of mindless, unchecked capitalism, a system driven by the need of companies to survive, crying that single-minded mantra: I will be, I will earn, I will exist.

Most of us work in that system so we can be, earn, exist, and that’s how it perpetuates itself. We’re all part of the problem.

That’s a pretty clear-eyed observation of how capitalism works, as far as it goes. But the book really has a problem in dealing with that symbol. London’s built on capitalism. It was a trading port, for a long time; that’s how it got its wealth and status, how it became the heart of an empire, how it survived the Roman invasion and the Norman Conquest and the Great Fire to become the city that it is today, layer upon layer of history and culture, all existing side-by-side. Reach has always been here. Rich developers of one kind or another have always razed the houses of the non-rich to build great deserted temples to capitalism.

What does it mean, then, for the fabric of London, created by Reach, to be fighting Reach? (Gutterglass is a particularly interesting case in point: aren’t rubbish dumps sort of the ultimate symbol of capitalism?) And, more pressingly, what does it mean for London if Reach is destroyed?

The consequences are radical; they have to be. But the novel doesn’t, in my view, do a good enough job of addressing this. The price Beth and Filius pay to destroy Reach is high, but nothing really seems to change afterwards.

The problem is partly a product of the fact that The City’s Son is only the first book in a trilogy. If the enemy you fight and defeat in book one is capitalism itself, where do you go from there? How do you follow that, if not with a revolution (which is not the road Pollock’s chosen, based on the evidence of the second novel)?

Making the monster of capitalism easy to defeat, a destruction that leaves society unchanged, is a lie, one that serves the system it criticises.

But then, so do we all.

Doctor Who Review: Smile

This review contains spoilers.

This is not going to be a Moffat-rant. Surprisingly enough, I actually didn’t hate Smile; partly, I suspect, because it wasn’t actually written by Stephen Moffat (it springs from the pen of Frank Cottrell-Boyce), but mostly because it feels very much like Davies-era Who. Bill and the Doctor rock up in the future, on the first colony of Earth, Erehwon. The Doctor rhapsodises about the optimism that built this shining white city, the garden-of-Eden promise of a brand-new planet; but where are all the people?

After some investigation, it turns out that the skeleton crew who were to prepare the city in advance of the colonists’ arrival have been turned into fertiliser by the Vardies, the robots built to keep the humans happy. The Vardies communicate through emojis, hence the episode’s title; they’ve killed the humans because they identified grief as the enemy of happiness and decided to eradicate it. Which is a bit of a bummer for all concerned.

And now, the real colonists are waking up from their long cryo-sleep, ready to walk into a city that will kill them.

So, as I said, it’s a pretty standard findy-outy episode, recycling old Who tropes – sinister robots who just want to help, a utopian dream gone horribly wrong, an inexplicably deserted city – and combining them with some convincing extrapolation (the multi-purpose nano-robots are orders of magnitude more plausible than anything that usually makes its way into Doctor Who) to make a plot that actually makes a surprising amount of sense and doesn’t rely on The World Being Saved By Love. The ending, which has the Doctor realising that the Vardies are now a sentient species, resetting their memories so they don’t remember the colonists so won’t try to kill them, and negotiating peace between the two factions, feels similarly like classic Who: a balance between the moral imperative of pacifism and the Doctor’s particular brand of gung-ho problem-solving.

I do have some Thoughts on the episode, though, which I think are more about inherent biases than the rampant misogyny that characterises some of Steven Moffat’s episodes. See, the premise of Smile, and in particular its ending, is that the Vardies aren’t evil; they’re just different (much like the puddle of oil in The Pilot). In other words, it’s a story about competing cultures, about profound cultural difference and how that can manifest.

This is a laudable project, of course: stories in which genuine difference is celebrated, or at least presented as something we can live with, are rare in SF novels, let alone genre television. I just think it’s rather muddily executed.

In particular, Smile specifically refers tp the culture clash involved in colonialism: the Doctor refers to the Vardies as the “indigenous species”, with the humans as colonists. And there’s an interesting little reflection, perhaps, on the idea that difference is socially constructed as the Vardies’ cultural difference was literally constructed, built into them, by humans. But that particular metaphorical construction becomes problematic in conjunction with the Doctor’s mind-wipe of the Vardies – and only the Vardies – at the end of the episode. Sure, the Vardies get to earn rent from their human creators, seemingly reversing the dynamics of colonialist exploitation. But this seeming reversal is only achieved by a much more problematic forcible erasure of the Vardies’ racial memory.

Sure, the Vardies won’t kill any more humans. But the humans have reason to kill the Vardies too, yet they get to keep the memory of their grudge. If the Doctor can talk the humans out of genocide, why can’t he do the same for the Vardies? Or, if mind-wipe is necessary, why can’t he mind-wipe the humans, too? Or, why does the story have to end with the humans living in the Vardies’ city?

And there’s the rub. The episode can’t, or won’t, get away from the fact that the Vardies were built by humans. Despite the Doctor’s protestations to the contrary, the narrative refuses to budge from the idea that the city belongs to the humans, and not to the sentient Vardies. It’s split, awkwardly, between superficially declaiming a post-colonialist happy ending and structurally re-enacting colonialist atrocity.

This split is performed, it seems to me, by an interesting little bit of self-inconsistency at the level of the plot. If the Vardies aren’t evil, only different – if they think they’re doing good by murdering people – why do they use an obviously evil emoji? The writer wants us to see cultural difference; the story, which has so much more inertia, tells us to see evil. There’s a salutary lesson about unconscious bias in there.

Next week, the Frost Fair on the Thames! I’m looking forward to it.

Review: The Book of Phoenix


What can I say about The Book of Phoenix?

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

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

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

And so on, ad infinitem.

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

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

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

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

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