Tag: postcolonial complaining

Ten Diverse Books

  1. The Fifth Season N.K. Jemisin. What I love about The Fifth Season, and the other novels in the Broken Earth trilogy, is the way it decouples minority representation from its discussion of how institutional discrimination traumatises its victims. In its world, queerness of all kinds is unremarkable, women occupy leadership roles unquestioned, and dark skin is the norm. Which means that its queer and female characters and its characters of colour are not defined by those things as they so often are in popular culture. And yet its society is also, like ours, fundamentally shaped by structures intentionally designed to exclude and oppress and discriminate. I don’t think I’ve read another novel that does this work (Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire comes close, I think, but not as elegantly): it embraces the complexity of our world and the people in it in a way that’s equal parts horrifying and gratifying.
  2. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Palimpsest doesn’t touch directly on issues of oppression and discrimination as Jemisin’s work does, but it’s undoubtedly a very queer novel. Palimpsest is a queer city, and it queers the people who come to it.
  3. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. This sprawling city fantasy is in part a novel about multiculturalism and integration, and Mieville looks at it from a number of different angles. There’s the experience of Yagharek as he enters polluted New Crobuzon for the first time, and, later on, Isaac’s profound misunderstanding of what his crime means culturally; Lin’s simultaneous discomfort in, and nostalgia for, the khepri ghetto; and the vodyanoi dock workers’ strikes which form a constant background to the novel. Then there are all the entities who are so alien we really can’t comprehend them: the Weavers, with their inscrutable aesthetic sense; the artificial intelligence that is the Construct Council; even Hell’s envoy. It’s a kind of tapestry of ways of seeing the world; again, it’s a novel that embraces complexity.
  4. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. This is just – lovely. It constructs a world founded on the principles of tolerance. There are blind spots, of course: AI rights, some interspecies relationships. There are individual bigots. And there are arguments. But generally it’s a novel full of characters working to understand each other and make space for each other. And I think we also get the sense that the authorities are working to do the same thing, even if it’s a long and difficult process.
  5. Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters. I think this is 2018’s Our Tragic Universe for me; I think it’s going to appear on a lot of lists for the foreseeable future. I just, I love its project of queering Victorian history, digging up a past that’s been largely erased by popular culture and popular memory. I love that it takes its lesbian heroine through heartbreak and isolation but knows better than to leave her there. I love that it (re)constructs this whole disruptive queer community in a society we like to think of as straight-laced and prudish.
  6. God’s War – Kameron Hurley. God’s War has its own problems, not the least of which is that it’s set in an Islamic culture in the throes of a destructive, age-old holy war. Like. I see where Hurley was going with that – it’s important to have SFF that isn’t based on Judaeo-Christian cultures. But it seems like too easy a stereotype. What the novel does have is a whole load of badass women who are unapologetically feminine (even if they’re also ruthless killers) and queer, actual explicit bi representation, and a deeply-rooted portrayal of interracial and international tension.
  7. Everfair – Nisi Shawl. Everfair was really not my favourite novel: I found it a bit of a slog, and I didn’t get on well with the huge cast of characters and the big chronological gaps in each of their stories. But I also think those things are key to its project, which is an important one. Like Tipping the Velvet, it’s a reclamation of history; it revisits and reworks the colonial underpinnings of steampunk, to create a space for those who lose out from them – people of colour, non-Christians, women and queer people, mainly. And it’s also about how oppression is intersectional, and the relative layers of privilege everyone has, and how those privileges conflict.
  8. Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee. This is hard SF set in a heavily Asian-inflected society. As in The Fifth Season, the world of the novel is both structurally oppressive and queer-friendly, and there are all kinds of complexities around class. It’s also a novel that revolves around fundamental differences in the way people think about the world, right down to the conceptual level: its dystopian government’s exotic weapons are powered by consensus reality, so to take a different view of the world is to commit heresy.
  9. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. I have a feeling that if I read this again I might be dreadfully disappointed, but I remember it as a really interesting take on reproductive rights and feminism in a species for whom giving birth is literally and invariably fatal. (There was also lots of physics. With graphs. I ignored it.)
  10. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. You’ll have heard that Ancillary Justice‘s big gimmick is using the pronoun “she” for every character. Which is true, and quite interesting as a device; there are some persuasive trans readings of the novel. But…it’s not really a novel about gender; it’s much more interested in imperialism and how it co-opts the identities of its subjects.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)


A Doctor Who Post: Thoughts on “Blink” and “Midnight”

This post contains spoilers.

Presumably in celebratory anticipation of the fact that the first lady Doctor is coming to our screens this autumn, the BBC has made all 146 new Who episodes available free on iPlayer.

You guys, that’s three whole series, plus Christmas specials, of David Tennant doing what he does best.

So I want to do something a little bit different this evening, and talk about a couple of new Who episodes I’ve rewatched recently: Steven Moffat’s Blink, and Russell T. Davies’ Midnight. Because I think putting them side-by-side will help me tease out some of the differences between these two writers-and-showrunners, and elucidate why I prefer Davies’ work to Moffat’s.

Blink‘s one of the most famous new Who episodes – maybe the most famous – while Midnight tends, I think, to be overlooked. Everyone remembers the Weeping Angels; hardly anyone remembers that the Tenth Doctor nearly got killed by a bunch of scared, ordinary humans.

Let’s start with Blink, then: a classic haunted house story. A woman called Sally Sparrow (played, astonishingly, by the now internationally famous Carey Mulligan), and her friend Kathy Nightingale go to a creepy old house to take photographs. There’s a knock at the door: a young man bringing a message for Sally, from his grandmother, who died twenty years ago. Her name, he reveals, was Kathy Nightingale. And Sally’s friend has disappeared. Later on, the Doctor tells Sally that she was sent into the past by the Weeping Angels, creatures who can only move when nothing’s looking at them. The rest of the time, they’re statues.

Midnight, meanwhile, is a classic bottle episode. The Doctor and Donna are visiting the titular Midnight, a diamond planet bathed in lethal xtonic light. The Doctor decides to take a shuttle to a beauty spot four hours from the spa where he’s left Donna – but the shuttle breaks down an hour from help, leaving its seven passengers and three staff stranded on a toxic and supposedly barren planet. And that’s when something outside starts knocking.

There are some obvious points of similarity here: both episodes are horror stories; they’re both relatively low-budget; both of them are designed to fit around the filming commitments of the show’s stars. (Blink features the Doctor and Martha for all of about five minutes, while Donna only appears in two short scenes in Midnight.) They both fill a specific Whovian ecological niche.

But they exploit that niche in quite different ways, and that’s what I’m interested in. Moffat, ever a lover of puzzles and schemes and metafiction, turns to Gothic excess and the peculiarly Victorian device of unfolding mysteries through texts – Kathy’s letter, the DVD Easter egg through which the Doctor warns Sally of the Weeping Angels, the scrawled warning on the wall of the haunted house. Moffat externalises (externalises what, I’ll get into in a moment). Davies, by contrast, turns inward: a claustrophobic shuttle, the mounting panic of its passengers, the horror of encountering something that may not be there at all. This, too, is a kind of Gothic: it is Gothic in the way that it refuses to explain its central mystery (was there a monster or not? if there was, what kind of monster was it? what did it want with the humans on the shuttle? and what will it do now, with Midnight evacuated?), in the way it operates through gaps and suggestions and things left half-said.

So what are these episodes grappling with? What demons are they trying to purge through their use of the uncanny and the unseen?

With Blink, I think, the answer is relatively straightforward: this is an episode that indexes our fear of a past we can’t quite see, except in frozen moments recorded in a letter or on film; frozen moments terrifyingly mimicked by the angels’ seemingly inexplicable stop-motion movement. The episode is solved by making the past legible, by joining up the textual fragments – drawing a line from the Doctor losing his TARDIS in 1968 to Sally Sparrow handing him everything he’ll need to know to get it back in 2007. (It’s interesting that Sally herself doesn’t seem to have a past. She doesn’t have a job or a family. She is obsessed with old places, though, and it seems suggestive in this context that the episode ends with a specific nod to the future: when she hands the folder to the Doctor, she takes the hand of Kathy’s brother Larry. Having exorcised the demons of the past, she’s ready to move on to a future with Larry.)

Midnight, though, doesn’t bother with elaborate metaphors. Its stripped-back aesthetic – no special-effects monster, no McGuffins – means we’ve only got one thing to concentrate on: the humans on the shuttle and their rapidly amplifying panic. The horror here comes as much from what these people – normal, pleasant people for the most part, people who generally think themselves decent – are capable of as it does from the possibly-possessed Skye Silvestry (played by the always electric Lesley Sharp).

And, after all, is she possessed? As one of the passengers points out, she’s the most terrified of them all when the shuttle breaks down; she’s recently broken up with her long-term girlfriend. Could her actions be the result of hysteria? Could those knocks have been only rocks falling, after all?

I don’t think this is an interpretation that the episode supports, actually, but the very fact that there’s room for it is an indication that Davies isn’t really interested in the supernatural whys and wherefores of his set-up. He’s interested in human reactions to what we decide is Other, and therefore dangerous – which makes it a pretty interesting episode to watch at this moment in human history.

It’s pretty noticeable that Midnight is generally a lot more inclusive than Blink: Davies’ future is one in which a shuttle hostess’ standard greeting, one she repeats under pressure, is “Ladies, gentlemen and variations thereupon”; it’s one in which no-one raises an eyebrow at a woman having recently been in a relationship with another woman (although, I am slightly side-eyeing Davies’ decision to make this one queer character the victim of the episode). I also enjoyed the way bombastic Professor Hobbes’ repeated denigrations of his talented assistant Dee Dee were quite clearly gendered and racialised; we’re invited to see his behaviour as selfish, sexist and racist, and that works interestingly with the way the possessed Skye is othered. Blink, on the other hand, is full of manipulative men preying on women in vulnerable situations: the on-duty police officer who asks Sally for her number (we’re expected to find this cute); the 1920s farm labourer following Kathy across the fields after she’s asked him not to (she ends up marrying him); and Larry, who we see at the end of Blink apparently trying to guilt-trip Sally into a relationship (as we’ve seen, he turns out to represent her future). The fact that Moffat clearly sees nothing wrong with any of this is of a piece with his later work on Doctor Who, and as such is not especially surprising. The fact that fandom has collectively chosen to erase this fact (Blink is often trotted out as compensation for all Moffat’s Whovian crimes, “he may be ragingly sexist, but at least he wrote Blink”) is pretty troubling.

On this subject: let’s think, finally, about who the Doctor is in these two episodes. Because in Blink, the Doctor is, basically, a manipulative arsehole, manoeuvring a terrified Sally like a chess piece, keeping vital information from her. He doesn’t tell her, for example, that he’s set the TARDIS to leave her behind when it dematerialises towards the end of the episode; sure, he knows the Angels will be immobilised, but she doesn’t, and neither does Larry, and if the Angels are scary on our screens can you only imagine what they’d be like in real life? And what about the people he sends forwards in time to warn Sally? They have to get to her the hard way, without time travel, waiting all their lives just to get a message to her – and all, ultimately, so the Doctor can get his TARDIS back. Why can’t he transport these lost travellers back to their own time?

In other words, the Doctor treats people like puzzles, or pawns, things to be moved around for his own benefit. Which is also, I think, how Moffat treats his characters: think of the Impossible Girl, the Girl Who Waited; they’re puzzles for the Doctor to solve, not people in their own right. They’re bits of plot.

Whereas Davies’ Doctor in Midnight is interested in everyone as a person. He spends time chatting to each of his fellow passengers and finding out their stories (apart from, notably, the hostess, who remains pointedly unnamed). He’s even interested in what the monster wants, and in how he can help it. Sure, he’s not perfect – “I’m clever!” he says, desperately, as his fellow passengers begin turning on him – but look at how the very structure of the episode interests us in each of these characters, and encourages us to see them as the Doctor does, as complex people. The biggest tragedy in Midnight is for someone to have their voice coopted by someone – or something – else.

And, again, I think that focus is reflected in the rest of Davies’ work for Doctor Who: it sees people as complex, baggy, not always thoroughly good and not always thoroughly bad. I’m not, of course, saying that Davies-era Who was always a masterpiece of subtle characterisation, because it wasn’t. It was a monster-of-the-week science fiction show, sometimes glorious, sometimes silly. But it had as its founding ethos the idea that everyone deserves respect as themselves, as unique and interesting and human – which sometimes means cowardly and weak and stupid, and sometimes means being capable of great sacrifice. And it was that which made Davies’ universe bigger and wilder and more wonderful than all the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey-ness Steven Moffat ever came up with.

Review: From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor

I feel like I say this more often than not, but Jerry Della Femina’s From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor was not quite what I expected.

It was the subtitle that drew me in: Front Dispatches from the Advertising War. Advertising is my field, so to speak. When I’m not overthinking pop culture, I’m a bid writer, which is a specific kind of advertising that calls on you to hold someone’s interest over pages and pages of technical information. It’s tough. It’s fun. If you want to write for your living but also want, you know, financial security, check out becoming a bid writer.

The point being that advertising, the process of advertising, of getting inside your audience’s head and staying there till you’ve said what you want to say, fascinates me. So a memoir about America’s golden age of advertising, by the founder of a major advertising agency, seemed just the thing for a holiday in Norfolk.

(“The cult classic that inspired Mad Men”, says a little silver circle on the cover of my library copy. I haven’t watched Mad Men, but I do love me some 1970s glamour, and so! here we are!)

Here we are, in New York, 1970. The first thing you need to know about From Those Wonderful Folks is that Della Femina is, well, a bit of an arsehole, even by the standards of his time. You can’t read a page, practically, without stumbling on a sexist or homophobic or (as you might have guessed from the title, a tongue-in-cheek suggestion for a campaign for Panasonic) racist remark. Fairly unusually for me, the detail of the book was interesting enough that I could tune this out after a while – but your mileage may well vary.

The second thing, the more surprising thing, is that From Those Wonderful Folks doesn’t really have a coherent shape as a book. It doesn’t have a story. It’s not about a man who sets up an advertising agency (though presumably it could have been). It’s not even about a man who starts a career in advertising one day. It’s just…pages on pages of anecdotes, grouped loosely into chapters, written in slangy, repetitive and kind of terrible prose, like Della Femina has just talked at a dictaphone for several hours and some poor ghostwriter has tidied it up a bit and thrown it at the page as-is.

(Come to think of it, that’s probably exactly what happened.)

Another surprising thing: it’s nowhere near as scandalous as the cover copy would have you believe. Della Femina is very keen to establish that there’s nowhere near as much drinking or sex at the advertising agencies as the pop culture of the 1970s says there is. There are some delicate creative types (one anecdote is about a copywriter threatening to push his desk out of a high window), but delicate creatives have existed since Apollo killed Niobe’s children, so.

What From Those Wonderful Folks does have is some lovely insight into 1970s ad campaigns. This was a time when big, stuffy, old agencies with huge overheads were being threatened by younger, leaner, more creative operations, and were becoming more careful, more conservative, as a result. Della Femina looks at campaigns and pitches and business practices from across the industry, at why they worked or why they didn’t. There’s Volkswagen’s famous “Think Small” advert; the Jolly Green Giant; a disastrous campaign for low-calorie beer that failed because 1970s beer drinkers couldn’t give a fig about losing weight. It’s all this precise detail, this fine-tuned understanding of the psychology behind capitalist consumption, that, for me, made it worth wading through that terrible and decidedly unenlightened prose. It’s certainly not my favourite read of 2018 – not even close – but it’s pretty interesting, and worth a read if you’re into advertising and can look past the rampant 1970s prejudice.

My Ten Favourite Top Ten Posts

  1. Top Ten Characters Who Struggle. This was a great opportunity for me to write about a whole bunch of characters who have emotional or mental struggles that don’t (necessarily) end when the book does. For whom worry and trauma and stress and depression are ways of being, not monsters that can be magically overcome. And they still get to be heroes. They’re still worthy. They’re still awesome. It would be great to see more characters like these ones.
  2. Top Ten Books for Steampunks. Steampunk is one of my current fascinations. Mostly because I find long swooshy skirts and waistcoats and pocket-watches and dirigibles and the whole aesthetic of Victoriana really cool. And yes! I know steampunk is culturally reactionary and a little bit late capitalist and quite colonialist! I can’t help it. But it does also seem to me that there’s a rebellious undertone to steampunk, that it’s in some way pushing at our notions of Victorian England. And that’s the tension that draws my overthinking overanalysing brain right in.
  3. Top Ten Queer CharactersIt was pretty surprising how hard this list was to write: I feel I’ve read a lot of books with a queer sensibility, if that means anything, but I couldn’t think of that many queer characters. And I kept coming up with characters I’d read as queer who maybe canonically weren’t (Frodo and Sam, Sidra in A Closed and Common Orbit, Stanley’s daughter in Told by an Idiot). I’m pretty happy with the final result, though.
  4. Top Ten Bookish Things I’d Like to Own. I feature this one not so much because of the quality of the finished post, but because of how much fun I had writing it and doing the equivalent of window shopping on the Internet. (I never did buy that Gormenghast print.) Plus, Jay Johnstone.
  5. Top Ten Bookish Characters I’d Like to Cosplay. Googling cosplay pictures is never a bad thing. Also, ooh, I’m now re-considering Steerpike for Nine Worlds (and not only because I could potentially reuse bits of last year’s cosplay…)
  6. Top Ten Favourite Book Quotes. I wrote this, dear gods, four years ago, so I’m not particularly proud of my flippant style, but as for the quotes themselves? Good choices, 19-year-old me.
  7. Top Ten Dystopias; Or, True and Accurate Representations of Post-Trump America. Oh, I remember how angry and depressed I was when I wrote this just after the American elections. FUCKING TRUMP.
  8. Top Ten Bookish Emotional Moments, or, All the Feels. My list would maybe look a little different now, but I do still love all these passages. (Well. Perhaps not the Thomas Covenant one, which strikes me now as a bit, uh, overwritten. And not in a good way.) And these are the moments I read for, after all: moments of visceral, terrible-wonderful empathy.
  9. Top Ten Books for Halloween. I just…like all the books on this list? And I think it’s one of my more successful theme posts, partly because almost nothing on here is straight-up horror (I don’t have the stomach for that shit, thanks very much).
  10. Top Ten Reasons I Love Blogging. Because these are all still true. (Especially the explodey bit. I have however somehow managed to find some more people IRL who will listen politely to my rants though. And really what more could you ask for.)

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Year’s Best Science Fiction – Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection

I’m a little late with this review: this is the Year’s Best Science Fiction for 2007. It’s the twenty-fifth in a series of “year’s best” anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, which seems to be pretty well-regarded in the genre community. (I’ve never heard of it, but then I am not a particularly big reader of short stories.)

It contains 32 short stories from that long-ago year, plus a very thorough summation of practically everything that happened in genre in 2007 (which magazines were in operation, who died, etc.) and a list of “honourable mentions”. I have no way of evaluating whether any of this is a good or accurate representation of what was going on in SF in 2007 (although the summation is kind of fascinating as a historical document – it refers to the internet, and to the tentative rise of ebooks, with a sort of faint uneasiness that’s hilariously quaint now) – and that’s not what I’m particularly interested in anyway.

What is interesting, and a little dispiriting, is how Dozois defines those two key terms in the title: “best” and “science fiction”. “Science fiction” has always been a hotly contested phrase; from comments in the summation Dozois seems to define it by the inclusion of scientific or pseudoscientific elements. If it’s got Science, or something that looks like Science, it’s SF.

Which…fine. I don’t have a Working Theory of SF and I’m not particularly interested in making a counter-argument. But prioritising the science content of SF invariably means you get a lot of stories that expound some gosh-wow premise but are not actually terribly good. Greg Egan’s “Glory”, in which a woman – improbably called Ann – from a far-future interplanetary society visits a planet that’s not yet figured out space travel to research ancient mathematicians, is one of these: packed full of potentially interesting concepts but incredibly clunkily written. Similar is Stephen Baxter’s “Last Contact”, a story about the Big Rip which has a curiously muted emotional impact considering that it describes the end of the observable universe.

There are a couple of stories that don’t feel like SF at all: Ted Chiang’s Hugo-award winning “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, which gets into the anthology on the strength of its time travel premise and some hand-wavy exposition about space-time, but is set several centuries ago, has no modern characters, and feels more Arabian Nights in structure and backdrop than any kind of SF. (I also didn’t like it that much.) Then there’s Michael Swanwick’s “The Skysailor’s Tale”, one of the more formally adventurous stories here, which, although it features a version of the many-worlds hypothesis, is obviously steampunk and thus not SF but fantasy. (In my own personal taxonomy, anyway – your mileage may vary. I guess SF says “futuristic technology” to me more than it says “Science at all costs”.)

I’m not particularly complaining about these inclusions; some of the more fantastic ones were my favourites. I guess what really disappoints me about this collection is how conventional these stories feel in aggregate. There’s a scattering of queer characters, but in a 600-page book (in a speculative genre) a scattering is not really enough. There are only two stories by people of colour (the Ted Chiang story, and Vandana Singh’s “Love and Other Monsters” – one of the standouts for me, it’s about a telepath figuring out where his powers come from). Generally, there are very few stories here that push the boundaries of what humans are and what society is – that do the re-imaginative work that is the real work of SF, the stretching of boundaries, the exploration of experience. Too many of the stories fall back on traditional, hackneyed sentiment, or project contemporary social mores thousands of years into the future.

There are exceptions. I really enjoyed Ian McDonald’s “Verthandi’s Ring”, set in a baroque post-singularity world heading for bloody intercultural war on an unimaginable scale, in which a trio of lovers inhabit a range of physical bodies, from trees to alien fish. Bruce Sterling’s “Kiosk”, set in a vaguely Eastern European milieu, traces the massive social and economic upheaval that’s brought on by the advent of 3D printing on a mass scale. “The Skysailor’s Tale” reflects its protagonist’s disordered memories in its non-linear narrative.

I mean, all this really tells me is that my idea of good SF is not the same as Gardner Dozois’. If I squint a bit, I can see a case for most of these stories being in a “year’s best” anthology: none of them are actively terrible, and they’re all doing something a little unusual, with the science or with the fiction.

But not unusual enough, dammit. I don’t want “quite interesting” in a “year’s best” anthology. I want “radical”. I want “shock of the new”. I want “imagines alternatives to the neoliberal kyriarchy”.

At the very least.


Yesterday I called a fish a four-letter word.

To be fair, it had come out of nowhere and was apparently trying to bite my leg off.

Nope, I haven’t suddenly gotten into extreme swimming: this happened in the world of Subnautica, a PC game of survival, exploration and crafting in a lush and terrifying underwater world.

The story goes something like this: you crash-land on an alien planet. As far as you know, all your crewmates on the enormous starship you flew here in are dead. You have to find water and food and a way to survive in this hostile environment where everything wants to eat you.

There’s a story, but you can ignore it if you want to and just build stuff in the ocean. Or just swim around looking at cool stuff, if you so wish: the world of the game is huge, and I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of all the monsters and biomes and seascapes there are to find.

I’ve played seven hours of Subnautica so far. I’m pretty new at gaming, so it may be there’s a whole bunch of stuff out there that looks just as lovely as this, but I doubt it: I’m constantly amazed by the quality of the water effects, and, more, the quality of the light in this game. Sunbeams lancing into murky blue-green depths; the red light of sunset glowing in the shallows; the wobbly circle of white light on the sea-surface seen from underneath.

The Aurora at sunset. The interface details have changed (this is an early build graphic), but this scene? Is actually in the game. It’s phenomenal.

On my first dawn on the planet, I trod water in the shallows to watch the alien sun rise. It’s the kind of game that makes you want to do that.

That’s not to mention the things that live in the sea: the herbivorous leviathans with entire reefs on their backs; the tiny fish that glow with phosphorescence at night; the giant tube corals you can swim through.

It’s because of that lushness that everything is fucking terrifying in this game. There’s a fish called a Stalker that’s longer than your body and approximately fifty per cent teeth. Half the time you don’t know it’s chasing you till you turn around and see this sinuous body right next to you. There are underwater caves and bits of shipwreck that you know probably contain valuable resources but are also potential death traps (it’s amazing how claustrophobic a game can make you feel). The sound design is very, very detailed: every creature has its own noise, and when you’re in the depths of the ocean in the dark you can hear…things, and you have no idea what they are.

Let’s talk Themes, for I am an English student first and foremost and literally cannot resist an opportunity for cultural criticism. One of the really interesting things about Subnautica is that there are no weapons. (Well, there’s a survival knife, but I’ve not yet managed to gut a Stalker with it.) Instead, one of the items you can craft early in the game is a scanner, which you use to analyse plants, fish, bits of wreckage and other items for information that might help you survive.

This seemingly-innocuous piece of game furniture has some structurally fascinating effects, which I want to root in science fiction’s colonialist beginnings. Subnautica, for all its ultra-modern VR technology, belongs with early SF classics like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: it draws on typical late-Victorian SF themes of exploration and encounters with monstrous and semi-mythical nature – themes which are themselves based in racist and imperialist ideologies which cast non-Western countries and their inhabitants as Others to be subdued through force and categorisation. Subnautica just locates those themes on another planet, because all the exploring here on Earth has already been done. It gives us as players a blank slate, pristine nature, to explore and, by exploring, conquer.

(It’s telling that, in Subnautica, you’re automatically coded as male: there’s no option to pick a differently-coded body. It’s one of the few things that really irritates me about the game. But think about all those metaphors of male explorers penetrating mother nature’s secrets.)

The shift from attacking nature to collecting data about it updates the colonialist dynamic. Not having a weapon puts you on a superficially more level footing with the denizens of the planet’s ocean: you don’t have overwhelming firepower to blast them into submission, only your speed and your strength and your wits – and your knowledge. It’s a subtler, and in some ways purer form of SFnal colonialism: more than once I’ve found myself swimming directly at a predator, scanner held high, knowing that I’ll probably die but that it’s worth it – because when I respawn I’ll know a little more about the planet; I’ll be a little closer to understanding it, conquering it, living in it. The effort you make in this game is explicitly all about making this world habitable. You’re not trying to survive just long enough for a rescue team to come; you’re building a permanent complex for you to live in. You’re doing it with science instead of guns (although, the characters in the novels of Jules Verne and his contemporaries were scientists too), but in the end the drive and the result is the same.

I’m not sure the game is entirely unaware of this dynamic, to its credit: there’s a couple of slightly creepy mechanisms by which you seem to become aware of your short presence on the planet. The crashed starship is leaking radiation, and the radiation zone seems to be spreading – which, given that the life pod that serves as your first base is not that far from the starship, is a bit of a worry. Secondly, one of the readiest sources of food, certainly in the early game, is a seaweed called creepvine, which grows in long, waving columns in kelp forests. I’m trying to be careful – never cutting down a whole plant for food, and spreading my harvesting out over several different kelp forests. Still – I’m not entirely sure, but the forests near my base seem to be a little sparser than they used to be…

I guess my point is that Subnautica does occupy a similar cultural space to colonial SF; but it does so queasily, uneasily, the balance of power constantly swinging between you and nature and back again. I don’t know how this will change as I play through the game and learn more about the world – as mystery turns to knowledge. Will I still find it terrifying when I know what’s out there? Will I still find it beautiful?

I don’t know.

Review: Green Earth

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, a revised and consolidated version of what was previously a trilogy (comprising Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting), is a lot of things – spy thriller, romance, novel of ideas, near-future science fiction, West Wing-reminiscent political novel – but fundamentally it’s a novel about change.

An incomplete summary looks like this: in a near-future Washington D.C., climate change is ramping up and the myopic political establishment is refusing to do anything about it. The novel follows a scientist working temporarily for the (real-life) grant-giving body the National Science Foundation, Frank Vanderwal, as he falls in love with a random woman who turns out to be a spy with an abusive husband, also a spy, both of whom are complexly involved with an election-rigging intelligence group; and a political advisor and stay-at-home father, Charlie Quibler, husband to one of the Foundation’s top scientists and aide to environmentally-minded opposition senator Phil Chase, as he simultaneously navigates his changing relationship with his boisterous three-year-old Joe and tries to get environmental legislation through Congress. Along the way it takes in a Buddhist nation, Khembalung, whose island home in the Indian ocean has been lost to sea level rise; the stalling of the Gulf Stream; a group of homeless people living in one of Washington’s parks, dispossessed by a capitalism that cultivates fear of unemployment to keep wages low; freeganism; and feral gibbons.

Green Earth is unusual, perhaps unique, in my experience, in seeing climate change as process. There are plenty of novels set in the aftermath of climate change and ecological collapse, in wasteland dystopias or flooded Earths (Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix, Robinson’s own 2312); there are novels in which climate change, although ongoing, is presented as a fait accompli, as inescapable and inevitable as the heat death of the universe (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower). All of these see climate change and ecological collapse as a rupture, an apocalypse, a lacuna, literally unspeakable, and thus inevitable. (If we can’t talk about it, how can we do anything about it?) It’s as if climate change is an on/off switch: we have pristine Earth, and we have the ruined planet, and both are essentially stable states, with no transition period between them. The problem with this approach is obvious: seeing climate change as inevitable absolves us of responsibility for doing anything about it; for imagining ways out of the mire. And it’s an approach that flattens the complexity of what climate change means: endless feedback loops as homeostatic systems that have been stable for millennia tip out of balance – feedback loops that are already happening. Climate change is not some unimaginable apocalypse waiting for us in the future. It is our present. If it is unimaginable, it’s because we’re not imagining hard enough.

Enter Green Earth, which posits change as itself the default state of human existence. Which is in itself not that unusual a literary point to make; it’s in the yoking of the vast and terrible truth of ongoing climate change, an apocalypse we’re all living through right now, to human-scale changes like a three-year-old’s development, moving to a different city, taking a new job, the Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation, that Robinson’s novel feels radical. It’s a literary strategy that brings climate change into the realm of the human, making it speakable and thus no longer inevitable. The human changes that happen during the course of the novel – the National Science Foundation gaining considerably greater political power, for example, or the change of administration halfway through the book – mean that the characters can actually make a difference to their environment. The effort is still huge – an effort to restart the stalled Gulf Stream involves thousands of tankers spraying billions of tons of salt into the Atlantic over the course of several weeks – but it’s huge in human terms. It can be measured. It can be talked about.

(Underlying all of this, of course, is the spectre of capitalism, and how its refusal to take the costs of climate change into its accountings of profitability is a central cause of our collective refusal to look at climate change properly.)

In other words: Green Earth‘s characters get shit done. That very fact gives the novel some blind spots: necessarily, it centres power. Its point-of-view characters are white, male and middle-class; more pertinently, they’re all American. We experience climate change as it affects the US: the novel elides the fact that the apocalyptic floods, deep freezes and blackouts that hit Washington in this imagined future are already realities in some developing countries. And the US is portrayed as the solution – the countries disproportionately feeling the effects of climate change nevertheless don’t do anything about it, and, in fact, at one point the US army effectively stages an intervention to prevent ecological collapse in China, sending nuclear warships in to run the country’s essential functions while an intensive programme of environmental rehabilitation is started.

(The very fact that only passing mention is made of this development, and that such overtly colonial behaviour is framed as better than the alternative, is potentially troubling. Potentially: there’s an argument to be made that such action is justified. But it’s worth noting as an indication of where the novel’s priorities perhaps lie.)

That’s not to say the novel’s cast is hopelessly homogenous; in fact, I think Robinson does much better in this respect than a lot of SF. The novel’s large cast list of secondary characters features women, people of colour and queer people, most of them scientists. Frank is friends with a number of homeless veterans, who are themselves disproportionately affected by climate change in Washington. And, of course, there are the Khembalis, exiled first from Tibet by China and then from their island nation by climate change: their Buddhist philosophy underlies the novel’s thinking about change in general, and their ongoing presence makes sure we as readers don’t forget that climate change isn’t just a phenomenon that affects America.

Green Earth runs to over 1000 pages. It would be surprising if it didn’t have blind spots and weak links. (On a purely personal level, I wasn’t convinced by Frank’s feelings for his on-off spy girlfriend Caroline. But I’m rarely convinced by fictional romances, so.) And I think that what it does manage to do – that willingness to speak about climate change, to make it a thing we can try to affect, even if we fail, even if the results are inconclusive – is important and radical and unusual enough that it’s worth reading despite those blind spots. We need writers like Robinson to shake us out of our complacency and apathy, to help us find better solutions.