Tag: postcolonial complaining

Review: The Stars are Legion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone was white.

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

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

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

Hurley goes on to describe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Sandman – The Doll’s House

If Preludes and Nocturnes introduced us to Dream, then The Doll’s House, the second volume in the cult Sandman graphic novel series written by Neil Gaiman (collecting issues #9 through #16, if you’re counting*), really starts fleshing him out.

For the confused: Dream is one of the Endless, who personify human concepts like – to name some of Dream’s siblings – Desire, Delirium and Death. In Preludes and Nocturnes Dream escaped the clutches of a cult who had kept him magically imprisoned for seventy years, and set about reclaiming three magical artefacts that were stolen from him. The Doll’s House sees him start to repair some of the damage his long imprisonment has wreaked both on the world and on his psychic realm, the Dreaming.

But it seems to me that what the volume is really concerned with is Dream’s relationships: with his lover, his friends, his siblings, his dream-subjects, with the humans he comes across in his work. I like the way the volume unfolds this, across eight stories with a range of tones, settings and styles: the folk tale Tales in the Sand, which tells of Dream’s only human love; the dark, almost Twilight Zone-ish horror of Collectors, which sees two humans wander unwittingly into a convention of serial killers; the (relatively) light-hearted Men of Good Fortune, which zips through a century every double-page spread or so.

Dream is referred to in Preludes and Nocturnes as the “master of stories”, and there’s certainly something of a Neil Gaiman self-insert in him, so it feels appropriate that he can move through a number of story types and play a number of different roles (for example: abusive lover in the style of the Greek gods; knight in shining armour come to rescue the damsel in distress; morality figure trying to teach someone a lesson about life). He’s a trickster figure, a creature who can control, and slip between, seemingly fixed narratives. That’s why, I think, The Sandman works so well as a graphic novel: it can, to a certain extent, go beyond the linguistic surfaces of traditional narrative structures, the better to allow us to peer into the (wordless) collective unconscious, where reside the fundamental concepts that underpin those narratives – the raw stuff of Story. It’s here that Dream lives. It’s here that lies behind all the roles that Dream plays, all the stories he passes through – so, by extension, here must lie the true reality.

That’s at once the series’ strength and its downfall. As I noted in my review of Preludes and Nocturnes (almost exactly a year ago, wow), Gaiman’s work is powerful – it tugs on our imaginations – precisely because it taps into our collective unconscious, the treasure-house of narrative which we use to read the world. Gaiman knows that we know, on a fundamental and unconscious level, that things always come in threes, that you should be careful what you wish for, that dreams are never just dreams. We know these things because we’ve been told them, over and over again, in books and films and TV shows and anecdotes – in stories. And Gaiman is one of the best writers out there at laying them bare and expressing them in their purest form.

But, by the same token, Gaiman’s work is problematic because (in my opinion) it doesn’t ironise those concepts enough. In particular, it treats that collective unconscious not as culturally specific and contingent upon certain assumptions about what kind of person it’s worth telling stories about, but as global, universal and timeless – literally, in the case of The Sandman. Which means that it’s eternally trapped by the very concepts it exposes; it always, quietly, insidiously, unconsciously encodes nostalgic, conservative, oppressive structures into itself.

To take an example from The Doll’s House: the first issue in the volume, Tales in the Sand, is, as I’ve said, framed as a folk tale about Dream’s human love, Queen Nada. Nada knows (as we all know, from folk tales like this one) that loving a deity is a bad idea, so she rejects Dream, repeatedly and vehemently. He ignores her, repeatedly; pushes her boundaries; has sex with her, against her express wishes. (But it’s OK, because she was turned on by it, so obviously it was Meant to Be.) The sun rises on them together, and, horrified by this unnatural pairing, destroys Queen Nada’s city, at which point she dumps Dream. The spurned Endless sends her to Hell, proving that she was right all along that their coupledom would only bring disaster.

Now, there’s a scene in the middle of this tale when Nada, driven to desperation by Dream’s refusal to leave her alone, takes her own virginity with a sharp stone – in the belief that he won’t want her any more if she’s not a virgin.

The series constantly ties women’s worth and character to their physical appearance or their sexual attributes, while it’s reticent to the point of prudishness about male sexuality and nudity. Although it’s clear that Nada’s belief in virginity as the basis of love is rooted in the fact that she’s a character in a folk tale (this in itself is problematic, though, as the tellers of the tale are non-white desert-dwellers – who the collective unconscious is fond of casting as backward and regressive), what’s jarring is that, despite the fact that Dream proves himself outside that narrative by refusing her non-virginity as a reason to leave her alone, he never manages to ironise her action. The narrative wants us to see it as heroic, self-sacrificing if futile, rather than a stupid thing to do; in short, it sees the virginity = desirability equation as a function of how the world is, one of the narrative archetypes out of which Dream’s world is made. Dream is not trapped by it, but the work is. It doesn’t apply to Dream, but only because Dream is special, and can escape it.

And that, dear reader, is my problem with Neil Gaiman. I like engaging with his work – especially, I has to be said, the Sandman series – and I like arguing with it, because it’s fun and useful and helps me draw out my thoughts about narrative and fairy tale and Story. But actually reading it often makes me feel – uncomfortable.

*Incidentally, Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge also informs me that the first collected edition of The Doll’s House started with issue #8, The Sound of Her Wings, which I think makes more sense thematically than shoving it at the end of Preludes and Nocturnes. Anyway.

Doctor Who Review: The Doctor Falls

So: on Sunday I visited the Barbican’s exhibition “Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction” (which is excellent, by the by, and produced a few fangirl moments for me). One of the things the exhibition makes abundantly clear is the extent to which science fiction is a genre rooted, problematically, in colonialism: its roots are in Jules Verne-y tales of imperial adventure, in which Western gentleman scientists visit the unexplored corners of, say, Darkest Africa, and find dinosaurs and strange monsters to be conquered or exploited for the good of Queen and Country.

We can situate Doctor Who in this tradition, too. (Oddly, the exhibition skips almost entirely over Doctor Who, possibly because it doesn’t quite know what to do with it.) The Doctor is a white, straight man, usually old, who flies about the universe in a 1960s police box which these days symbolises Britishness.

That is, he may be canonically a Time Lord, and thus country-less; but in spirit he is definitely British. He flies around the universe, sight-seeing, exploring, boldly going, ands generally sorting out other people’s problems for them. He’s much too civilised to fight, and avoids doing so by outwitting his enemies using his technological superiority. He also Knows Best, most of the time. He is, in other words, a manifestation of a particular fantasy of British superiority over everyone else, ever.

(Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves.)

There’s often more to Doctor Who than that, of course, but that’s the basic template. Or a basic template, at any rate.

I’m interested in making this overt, in relation to The Doctor Falls, because I think that Steven Moffat’s finale to the Twelfth Doctor’s escapades and his own involvement with Doctor Who is engaged in deconstructing a lot of what makes the show what it is.

For instance: isn’t it interesting that this final episode takes place on a colony ship? And not just any colony ship, either: it’s a ship that’s become stuck (outside a black hole) before it even managed to pick up its colonists; the colonialist project, mankind’s conquering of space, frozen and stagnated before it’s begun. Not only that, either: because the colonists begin to turn on themselves, enhanced human Cybermen fighting “normal” humans (and look how those humans are constructed as American pioneers, which is to say colonialists, in dress, architecture and outlook) in a spectacular self-destruct which the Doctor sees as inevitable in any human society. (Wherever there are humans, there will eventually be Cybermen.) That’s a self-destruct of the show’s underlying ideology of colonialist exploration, of technological superiority, of progress. Even the Doctor is cut off from his TARDIS, the mode of transport that defines who and what he is.

This ideological dissolution of the show’s Whoishness is compounded in other, smaller but not less significant ways. Look at the Doctor’s refusal to regenerate at the end of the episode: another kind of stagnation that undoes the very essence of what the Doctor is, a palimpsest of personalities made up of hundreds of often contradictory episodes. (The show has the man’s name on it, after all.) Look at the Missy/Master side-plot: Moffat squanders the narrative potential generated by the Master’s appearance at the end of World Enough and Time by having the Doctor foil his plan almost immediately, so that the Master is reduced to purposeless, sterile evil, destroying his future self to prevent her standing with the Doctor. The parallel with the ending to The Last of the Time Lords only accentuates how the mighty is fallen: from a plot that stretched to the end of the universe and back in that episode to petty, self-involved irrelevance that destroys its own future.

And, finally, look at the dissolution of the little ka-tet that has formed the core of this season of Doctor Who. Nardole is left behind on the dying colony ship, fighting a war he cannot win. (I wonder if Moffat actually realises that this is what the Doctor has done by taking the TARDIS to Antarctica? Even if Nardole and the colonists make it eventually to the bridge, they will be unable to leave.) And Bill, pointedly and significantly, leaves the Doctor behind; escapes into a new relationship and a new mode of being which is anti-colonial, insomuch as it specifically excludes the paradigm of the white straight male explorer. This step into the future is pretty much the only note of hope in the entire episode. Having comprehensively dismantled the ideological framework of the show, Moffat gestures at what might come next – something very different, something that breaks Doctor Who and remakes it again.

There’s been a lot of speculation in the wake of World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls that the next Doctor might be female; and plenty of ambivalence as to what that might mean for the show. It’s clear, I think, from this episode that a female Doctor would represent a symbolic end for Doctor Who – that is, an end to the colonialist and misogynistic ideological structures on which it’s implicitly built.

But would it, as Andrew Rilstone asserts, mean that the future could only ever be female, lest a male replacement seem to imply that a female Doctor is inferior?

I think it depends on what incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall does with Moffat’s deconstruction of Doctor Who. I think, from here – from that image of Bill and Heather stepping into the sky together – it’s possible to imagine a reconstruction of the show, with a woman at its centre, that’s inclusive enough, that’s anti-colonial enough, that it opens a way for the Doctor to be any gender, or none, without the implication that any of them are inferior; a reconstruction that exists outside the need for such logics. It’s also possible to imagine Doctor Who continuing much as it always has done: with a female Doctor who cannot help but be compared to her male predecessors.

It remains to be seen, then, what the ultimate “meaning” of Moffat’s deconstruction of Doctor Who will come to be – whether it creates a new future for the show or just represents a creator at the end of his tenure wrecking things for his successor.

Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far This Year

I’ve read some great books this year. Some not so great, of course, but let’s not dwell on those. And we’re only halfway through 2017!

  1. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. This is a charming novel. Its heroine, Meg, starts in a bad place, broke, unfulfilled and in a toxic relationship. By its end, she’s in a much more hopeful place, ready to start moving forward; but the movement between the two is almost imperceptible. It’s a deliberately storyless novel, full of chatting, basically, but Thomas’ skill at characterisation means it’s never boring.
  2. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. This story of a sexually transmitted city is one to be read slowly and savoured; full of Valente’s lush sensory prose, her instinct for just the right symbol, creating a world that’s fresh and magical and right all at once.
  3. Starbook – Ben Okri. I think Starbook has its issues, ideologically (review to come), but there’s no denying that the writing is masterly. The novel’s written in an oblique, fairytale prose that can be hard going, but which rewards the work you put into it. It transforms the world around you; and it brought home to me, as nothing else has, the absolute monstrosity of the slave trade.
  4. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood. I loved this tale of madness, of resistance to exploitative patriarchal systems of being. I liked its ambiguity, the way it deliberately resists interpretation. I liked Grace.
  5. Nova – Samuel Delaney. Nova was just utterly unexpected: a 60s SF novel that focused not on hard science but on individual, human experience, especially sensory experience. The universe it evokes feels genuinely full of wonder, even as it’s also (still) full of injustice.
  6. 2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson. Another SF novel that surprised me. On the one hand, it’s exactly what you’d expect from its cover and blurb: hard SF looking at issues like advanced AI, terraforming, interplanetary politics, climate change. On the other hand, the actual writing is technically really good: we have detailed characters with real depth, images and motifs weaving through the text, an actual identifiable prose style that isn’t just conveying information.
  7. The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor. This is here, really, because it feels “important”. It’s a novel that takes on terrorism as a product of systematic oppression, while still recognising it for what it is. It’s brutal and horrifying and not one to read lightly.
  8. The Islanders – Christopher Priest. I confess, I enjoyed this primarily not as the Pale Fire-ish murder mystery woven through it, but because, on a fundamentally geeky level, the idea of a gazetteer of an entirely invented chain of islands is really fascinating to me.
  9. The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley. Hurley’s work is always hard-hitting: even a collection of internet essays like this one is unflinching about the amount of work still to do in the social justice arena. Her combative style won’t be to everyone’s taste, but, personally, it did me a lot of good.
  10. The Quantum Thief – Hannu Rajaniemi. I enjoyed the inventiveness of this SF novel, which does the quite tricky work of imagining a post-human future that’s fundamentally different enough to be interesting without depriving readers of any point of reference.

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

Doctor Who Review: The Eaters of Light

I’m really not sure about The Eaters of Light.

On the one hand: what a fantastic name – a name to go along with a fantastic symbolic set-up.

On the other hand: I think it has to muddle its moral world somewhat to get to that set-up.

It’s the second century AD. The Doctor and Bill have rocked up in Scotland to settle an argument about what really happened to the Ninth Legion of the Roman Empire (which, to save you a trip to Wikipedia the Font of All Knowledge, disappears from surviving Roman records round about 120 AD). The Doctor thinks they were destroyed by the Pictish army. Bill believes they escaped. They separate, and tramp off in search of clues for their respective hypotheses. This is, as we know, always a good idea in a mysterious historical time period.

After a deal of mild peril and a foray into local folklore, it transpires that the Ninth were destroyed by the titular Eaters of Light: interdimensional locusts, as the Doctor dubs them, clustering Lovecraftianly at cracks in space-time, ready to come into our world and eat the sun. For three generations a local tribe of Picts have held the interdimensional gate against the Eaters, using a temporal trick of the gate to extend their lifespans – a couple of seconds within the mound that houses the gate amounts to a couple of days outside it. But the current gatekeeper, a young woman named Kar, has let one of them through, to destroy the army colonising her country. This, obviously, is A Bad Thing, and the Doctor comes up with a cunning plan to lure the creature back to its dimension.

There is one excellent scene which I would like to commend to your attention before I start complaining. Temporarily trapped with some deserters who are all that remain of the Ninth Legion, Bill comes out to Cornelius, the Roman soldier who’s obviously interested in her In That Way. “This is probably just a really difficult idea,” she says. “I don’t like men…Just women.” “Ah! You’re like Vitus, then!” Cornelius chirps, unperturbed. “He only likes men!” Cornelius himself is (what we would think of as) bisexual: “I’m just ordinary. You know, I like men and women.”

I just want you to think about that for a minute.

This is a prime time, popular science fiction show.

This is a show that spent last season punishing its strong women and blithely ignoring its vaguely racist undertones.

This is a show whose first episode this season made the lesbian love interest a literal possessive alien.

Not only is it now giving secondary characters non-heteronormative sexualities for non-plot reasons, it’s also doing the conceptual work to recognise that our sexual norms are culturally specific; further, that our assumptions about historic sexual norms basically erase non-normative people from history. (I don’t know enough to say whether Romans really thought bisexuality the norm, but it doesn’t seem hugely unlikely.)

And it’s doing all this in a two-minute throwaway scene that has nothing to do with the plot.

This is brilliant.

Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t extend that conceptual work to the bits that actually are plot-relevant. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the episode knows where it wants to get to: the Ninth Legion and the Keeper of the Gate, Romans and Picts, fighting the Eaters of Light, together, forever. Music under the hill, for those to hear as will listen. The crows, remembering down the centuries: “Kar! Kar!” Very Celtic. Very pretty. Very mythic. It’s just that, to get there, it has to do some painful-looking moral contortions.

The Eaters of Light picks up the theme of desertion from last week’s episode, Empress of Mars. Here, at least, Bill says to the Roman soldiers what we instinctively felt she should also have said to Captain Godsacre last week:

You’re not cowards. You’re scared. Scared is fine. Scared is human.

But, you know, I think that sentiment would probably have meant more if the soldiers of the Ninth hadn’t redeemed their desertion, narratively speaking, by sacrificing their lives in an eternal fight against monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions; just as Captain Godsacre redeemed his past desertion by laying down his life in the service of a warrior race. So The Eaters of Light has the same problem as Empress of Mars: it co-opts the ideological structures of colonialism, invisibly, to make martial endeavour and sacrifice the “right” atonement for deserting the colonial project.

And, speaking of colonialism: the Doctor’s treatment of Kar, the Keeper of the Gate, struck me as deeply patronising and unsympathetic. Here is a woman – hardly more than a child, actually, but still – who has lost many of her people and much of her land to the Romans. Sure, she did release an interdimensional locust on the unsuspecting Earth – but then the Romans sent an army of five thousand to kill some Scottish farmers, as Bill puts it. The point being: none of the Ninth Legion ever get the kind of condescension and scorn the Doctor unleashes on Kar, who is, after all, de facto leader of her people. And the Ninth Legion are colonisers. Ultimately, the best answer the Doctor has for colonialism is “you’re all behaving like children, get over it,” which would seem to apportion blame equally to colonisers and colonised. This is, self-evidently, stupid.

The most egregious contortion the episode makes, though, is when the assembled cast start to discuss who’s going to guard the gate from now on. The Doctor points out that he is functionally immortal, compared to puny human lifespans; he can literally guard the gate forever.

Now, the moment he points this out the episode has written itself into a corner. Because, according to the logic of the story, this is actually the most sensible and the most moral course to take. The universe will be protected from the Eaters of Light for eternity, and the Picts won’t have to sacrifice themselves, generation after generation, any more, which is really what the Doctor is about. But the Doctor obviously can’t go and stand in a Scottish cairn for the rest of his eternity, because for one thing the BBC still has lots of perfectly good money to make from him.

The episode can only get itself out of this corner by making one of its characters do something, well, out of character. And because the Doctor is the Doctor and therefore an untouchable moral authority, it’s Bill who’s made to do the same thing she did at the end of The Pyramid at the End of the World: to whit, sacrifice a world – a universe, in this case – for love of the Doctor.

To put it another way: this smart, empathetic, deeply morally engaged character thinks the Doctor, after ten episodes, is literally worth more than the universe.

“This isn’t your fight,” she says to him, weakly, ignoring the fact that the whole point of Doctor Who is him getting involved in fights that aren’t his. And when she says “this isn’t your fight”, what she’s actually saying is: it’s these people’s destiny to sacrifice themselves. Let them die in a strange universe – despite the fact that you could defend the universe better than they could.

I’m sure this wasn’t the intended effect. I think this was hasty writing designed to bring about a specific ending, an undoubtedly resonant combination of symbols. That doesn’t change the fact that the episode fundamentally weakens Bill’s moral authority as the Doctor’s companion, as well as our perception of the Doctor’s moral judgement. It doesn’t work. And that’s a shame.

Doctor Who Review: Empress of Mars

First reactions to popular media can tell us a lot about what the work is trying to do, and also, if we can look beyond them, whether it succeeds.

Which is a pretentious way of saying: I liked Empress of Mars. In fact, my first thought after the closing credits was: “That worked!”

This episode is the much-anticipated One With The Ice Warriors. Briefly: when present-day NASA discovers that someone has written “God Save The Queen” on Mars, despite the fact that to their knowledge no human has been there yet, the Doctor and Bill go back to 1888 to investigate. They discover that an Ice Warrior awaking on Earth has persuaded a unit of the British Army – which, in true colonialist style, has called him Friday and made him a kind of pet servant – to travel to Mars in an Ice Warrior rocket, under the pretence that there are unfathomable riches there. In fact, Friday has returned to Mars to wake his Empress from a five-thousand-year sleep. This is, unsurprisingly, bad news for the British Army, who haven’t yet worked out how to get back to Earth, and moreover are disinclined to back down, having claimed Mars for Queen Victoria.

In other words, Empress of Mars is old-school Who, to go with its old-school monsters: a scenario with more than a whiff of the ridiculous about it; an old-fashioned science fantasy mystery; a stand-off in which the Doctor must intercede to avoid violence. It’s neatly plotted, with a finely-adjusted mix of sentimentalism and plausibility. It has characters we can root for, or at least understand, on various sides of the conflict. It works.

We should be cautious, when something works as well as this does; because a lot of narratives that feel like they just work at a fundamental level feel like that because they’re based on familiar, nostalgic narrative structures. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; just something we need to be aware of in encountering these texts; because it means that popular media can lie to us quite efficiently, looking superficially benign, neutral, even progressive, when in fact the assumptions of the underlying structure are deeply suspect.

So: Mark Gatiss* has given us an episode that feels very  Victorian, ideologically as well as aesthetically and thematically. It’s tempting to make comparisons with Thin Ice, the other historical episode of the season; but Thin Ice  did not actually feel very Regency, and was moreover actually aware of the unfairnesses inherent in the class system in a way that Empress of Mars emphatically is not. The emotional meat of Gatiss’ story is the power struggle between commanding officer Colonel Godsacre, a sensible man who nevertheless turns out to have been a deserter, and the technically loyal but hotheaded Captain Catchlove. Godsacre is outed as a deserter, and Catchlove takes control; it surprises no-one that Godsacre turns out to save the day.

It’s a predictable story, but then most Doctor Who episodes are when it comes down to it. What’s interesting about Empress of Mars is the way that it makes Doctor Who – a show that’s usually deeply mistrustful of traditional authority, especially military authority – co-opt the colonialist military values of the late Victorian period. The superior officer turns out to be morally superior, while the lower ranks are busy endangering the unit by trying to steal gems from the Ice Queen’s hive: officers are intrinsically worthy of command, soldiers intrinsically need to be commanded. Moreover, the episode is pointedly silent on the issue of Godsacre’s previous desertion, and in fact rewards him for symbolically undoing it – offering his life to the Ice Queen for the sake of his men in a gesture which turns out to be the key to the whole situation. By its silence, the episode supports the Victorian concept of desertion as a capital crime – a concept unquestioned even by Bill, who has developed over the course of this season into the progressive voice of the twenty-first century. Note: we have no details of exactly what Godsacre did. Did his troops die for his cowardice? Presumably the episode would have mentioned it if he had. And yet we’re supposed to make a moral judgement of him based only on the label “deserter” – a moral judgement that’s specifically Victorian.

I don’t think this necessarily has to spoil the episode for us. It is, after all, a non-trivial achievement to write something that so thoroughly enacts the mores of the time period it’s about; and it is a very well-structured episode of Doctor Who. But this season in particular seems to be feeling its way towards a more progressive vision for the show than I think we’ve seen yet in Moffat’s run, and I think it’s worth looking closely at where that works well, and where that throws up structural inconsistencies.

Next week: more historical high jinks, in what looks like Roman Britain. Hurrah!

*I just looked up the writer of the episode, and it surprises me that it’s Gatiss; his episodes are usually not so…coherent.

Review: The Glass Republic

This review contains spoilers.

I wonder if Tom Pollock wanted to call his book The Mirror Empire – a much more appropriate title than the one the book’s got – but saw it was taken?

The Glass Republic picks up some time after the events of The City’s Son. This time, it follows Parva “Pen” Khan, Beth’s best friend, who’s suffering from PTSD and substantial facial scarring after her possession by the Wire Mistress in the previous book. For four months, unbeknownst to anyone else, she’s been talking to her own reflection: a literal doppelganger who lives on the other side of the mirror, in the mirror-city of London-under-Glass, populated by reflections.

When mirror-Parva goes missing, Pen decides to follow her through the mirror. In London-under-Glass, it turns out, her scars make her stunningly beautiful: facial symmetry is commonplace behind the mirrors, whereas asymmetry is rare and valued, an automatic ticket to aristocracy. Pen is mistaken for her missing doppelganger, and she becomes drawn into a life as the face of the Looking-Glass Lottery, an annual event which gives one lucky underclass, symmetrical Londoner the gift of asymmetry, and fame.

The Glass Republic is a dystopia, then, a very simple black-and-white one in which power is distributed and maintained according to physical characteristics, the underclasses kept in check by the tantalising, almost-but-not-quite unattainable hope of betterment. Its central gimmick – flipping our standards of beauty around so that symmetry is ugly and asymmetry beautiful – is structurally the same one Malorie Blackman used in Noughts and Crosses (in which black people are privileged and white people treated as second-class citizens): functionally, its point is that binary value systems like black/white or ugly/beautiful are arbitrary structures inevitably used as tools of oppression. It’s not a complex or particularly nuanced world, and in that respect I don’t think it’s as interesting a novel as The City’s Son.

However, like the previous book, The Glass Republic is doing some important work representationally. Pen is a practising Muslim, and Pollock continues to make that a significant part of how she relates to the world without it being the be-all and end-all of her character. (Note: this is, of course, from my own white Western perspective.) In particular, an understated but ever-present tension in the novel is Pen’s own knowledge that her scars will make it vastly more difficult for her parents to arrange a marriage for her. And that intersects interestingly, too, with the romance that’s brewing throughout The Glass Republic between Pen and her London-under-Glass lady-in-waiting Espel. Pen’s never thought of herself as gay before, and her realisation is well-done: a moment of surprise, but not one she obsesses over too much. She’s got a doppelganger to save, after all.

It’s interesting, too, that both The City’s Son and The Mirror Empire have a scene in which The Right Thing to Do trumps romantic love – and that in both cases this is something that the romantic interest actually encourages. In The City’s Son, Filius asked Beth to kill him, to bring the Chemical Brotherhood to the fight to destroy Reach; in The Mirror Empire, Espel asks Pen to let her die and reveal London-under-Glass’ Terrible Secret to its people. It’s a much-needed corrective to a media culture which holds romantic love as absolutely sacred – even, and especially, if the lovers have known each other for all of a week. For Pollock, romantic love is important, but some things are more, or differently, important.

And it’s rare to read a fantasy heroine, even an urban fantasy heroine, who’s suffering from PTSD, which is ridiculous when you think about it. In Pen we have a heroine who’s not unaffected by it, but who’s finding ways to deal with it: she’s strong despite it; she doesn’t let it stop her fighting injustice. In other words, she feels like a real person, dealing with real shit.

The Glass Republic is not a perfect book. (Honestly, what is?) It’s not even particularly up my street; I originally picked it up thinking it was something else. But if you’re looking for YA urban fantasy that’s smart about representation and neoliberal structures of oppression, you could genuinely do a lot worse than Pollock’s series. I’m not sure yet if I’ll be reading the third and final book, Our Lady of the Streets, but I’m reasonably sure I won’t hate it if I do.