Tag: science fiction

Top Ten Book Covers I’d Frame as Art

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien. Illustrated by Alan Lee, naturally. Look how gorgeous this Rivendell painting is! You can actually get prints of it, apparently, for the low, low price of £400.
  2. The Last Hero – Terry Pratchett. Paul Kidby’s covers just about edge out Josh Kirby’s action-packed paperback ones; they’re a bit softer and feel more like the kind of thing I’d want on my wall. And I particularly love all the art for The Last Hero, a “Discworld fable” that’s probably as close as Pratchett ever got to writing an actual graphic novel.
  3. Saga 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I think this is the cover of the big collected editions, not the individual volumes. I love the way Alana’s glaring right at us. I love the way that explosion bisects the page, but that Alana and Marko and Hazel are still more important than it. That’s exactly what it’s like to read Saga.
  4. Jack Glass – Adam Roberts. The Art Deco, stained-glass feel this cover’s got going on is what made me read the book in the first place. The bubbles! The colour! The space rocket!
  5. The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell. I like the movement in this cover: the way that labyrinths twist into spirals twist into circles. Again, it’s a great reflection of what it’s like to read The Bone Clocks: feeling all the certainties twist with every chapter you read, and yet knowing there’s a grand plan, a common thread, to it all.
  6. Inkdeath – Cornelia Funke. Not my favourite of the Inkheart trilogy – that would be Inkheart itself – but I like how that illustration in the centre, with all its lush fantastic detail, draws your eye in, and it’s only with a lurch of focus that you realise it’s also a skull. (Or perhaps I’m just exceptionally unobservant.)
  7. The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath – Ishbelle Bee. This was really not a good book. But I do like the elaborateness of this Gothicky cover, that steampunk-fairytale title font against the simplicity of the gold silhouettes in the foreground.
  8. Goldenhand – Garth Nix. Again, really not my favourite Old Kingdom story. But there’s something about the wild slash of gold against that black background that would make a great, evocative piece of abstract art.
  9. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I find the naivete of this cover quite interesting: the faces look like something from a 1950s Famous Five cover, but then there’s that half-glimpsed steampunk balloon above, and the rust on the basket, and that vast thing belching black smoke. And no Famous Five sky was ever that colour. It’s a book about the hidden structures of oppression beneath the familiar, so the unease this cover generates is perfect.
  10. Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman. That coloured woodcut of the skies of Oxford, with the Radcliffe Camera, and Carfax Tower, and the tower of St Mary’s…well, it’s everything. (The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Doctor Who Review: Extremis

This review contains spoilers.

I was very prepared to hate Extremis: it’s Steven Moffat’s second writerly outing this series, after the sickeningly self-congratulatory The Pilot.

I was pleasantly surprised, however.

Its initial, slightly Dan Brown-ish premise sees the Pope approaching the still-blinded Doctor to ask him to read the Veritas: an ancient text in the Vatican’s library that has made everyone who has read it kill themselves. What Terrible Secret does it contain?

Interspersed with this ecclesiastical foray is another story, of a kind of which Moffat is regrettably fond: a story from the Doctor’s past. It reveals that the inhabitant of the vault the Doctor’s been guarding all series is Missy (to the surprise of precisely no-one); that he was once supposed to execute her, for reasons, and didn’t because his dead wife River Song told him not to; that he has to guard her for a thousand years, nevertheless, because he made a vow.

It’s not a great episode, but it does actually work surprisingly well. The secret – the “truth” – that the Veritas contains, it turns out, is that the world of the episode is a computer simulation set up by a mysterious alien race so they can study humankind’s defences and invade the Earth (for reasons which I assume will become clear over the next couple of weeks). This is old, old ground that runs the risk of becoming ridiculous; but Moffat eschews Matrix-style reality-bending in favour of subtle wrongnesses that are much more effective. An arm that pixelates into nothingness. Explosives packed under tables in a canteen. A room full of people all choosing the same random number. And faced with these wrongnesses, the creeping panic that Bill feels on learning the truth feels appropriate and well-grounded; the mass suicide of the CERN scientists who’ve read the Veritas seems like the only rational response, an act of resistance designed to stop the aliens learning about humankind’s capabilities.

The episode’s weak link is really the Missy plot thread, which is just not the kind of story Doctor Who is designed to tell. Against the bleak horror of the Veritas story, the various histrionics of the Doctor, Missy, the executioner and Nardole (who enters the scene to speak for River Song) are overwritten and trite. And the Missy we get here, facing her death weeping and kneeling, is unrecognisable as the Master who refused to regenerate in Last of the Time Lords in order to spite the Doctor.

Ultimately, Extremis doesn’t really feel like it’s doing much work: it makes some play with the idea that

Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward

with the idea, presumably, that this is what the scientists are doing when they blow themselves up, what the simulated Doctor is doing when he emails what he knows to the real Doctor, knowing that the simulation will be terminated at this point and he will die. But the episode is much more interested in setting the next episode up, in establishing the capital-p Plot and capital-t Themes for the rest of the season, than in exploring its rather disturbing premise. This is a shame, on the whole, as it makes for a bitty and slightly incoherent episode – though I’m also not sure how “we are all living in a computer simulation” would have worked as a standalone.

In summary, Extremis isn’t going to be remembered as a great Doctor Who episode; but I don’t think it will be remembered as a terrible one either. Next week: who the hell knows?

Top Ten Books for Firefly Fans

  1. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. It’s been noted across the internet that this book is pretty much Firefly with aliens. It’s an episodic amble across the galaxy, complete with crew tensions, individual character arcs, space pirate invasions and dodgy cargo. There’s even a bubbly lady engineer.
  2. Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks. Consider Phlebas is a lot chillier than Firefly, but it wears the same kind of pessimism about the universe. It centres on a mercenary ship, the Clear Air Turbulence, whose crew feels like Serenity‘s without the rose-tinted goggles: a group of ruthless pirates without loyalty, love or hearts of gold, who kill without a moment’s thought.
  3. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy is all about doing what you can in your small corner of space, which is very much a thematic core of Firefly‘s. Its universe also feels as culturally immersive as Firefly‘s does, and it’s about resisting a totalitarian government.
  4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This may seem like a weird pick: it’s not SFF at all, but an epistolary novel about how the people of Guernsey survived the Second World War. But, like Firefly, it celebrates the power of community to resist and overcome evil.
  5. Nova – Samuel Delany. Another space-pirate story, this one’s about the importance of the ordinary and the powerless.
  6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams. It’s set in space! I’m not sure why I feel like this should be on this list. It’s got Firefly‘s lightness of touch, its irreverence for authority.
  7. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. Although it’s a Regency military AU with dragons, I think Temeraire has something of Firefly‘s emotional heart, as its hero Laurence carves out a space for empathy in his rigidly defined social world.
  8. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. This is a steampunky story about a far-future world in which cities eat each other to survive. It’s got Firefly‘s beaten-up, lived-in aesthetic, and its deep, cynical distrust for capitalism.
  9. Railsea – China Mieville. Railsea‘s characters are, like the crew of Serenity, nomadic: the novel’s set on a train that hunts moles through the desert of capitalism. It’s about radicalism and salvage and storytelling, all concerns of Firefly‘s.
  10. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel. This is about a travelling theatre wandering through an America devastated by superflu. It’s nowhere near as depressing as it sounds: again, it’s about carving a community in circumstances that seem hostile.

(The prompt for this post comes from the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Doctor Who Review: Oxygen

This review contains spoilers.

Well, the space zombies were not actually as bad as I feared. We’re not in the-moon-is-an-egg territory yet.

Oxygen is a horror story whose ultimate villain is capitalism. Following a distress signal, Bill and the Doctor find themselves on board a mining space station whose crew is nearly all dead – killed by their own spacesuits. Those intelligent spacesuits are now hunting down the survivors, taking their dead occupants along for the ride. So: space zombies.

At root, Oxygen is satire. Its conceit is that, this far out in space, oxygen is enormously valuable; so the corporation running the station supplies oxygen “for personal use only” – through the suits, rather than filling the station up with air. If the workers aboard the station want more oxygen, they have to buy it. Capitalism at its most efficient! It’s an exaggeration of the kind of financial logic that makes budget airlines charge you to check in. And the Doctor’s ghoulish conclusion at the end of the episode is that the suits (there’s a wonderful play on words that equates the spacesuits with “suits” – the accountants, lawyers and compliance officers popularly equated with The Man, and popularly portrayed as zombified by such allegiance) are murdering their occupants to save money – the crew have become unproductive and are to be replaced by a fresh one, and what’s the point of giving idle hands valuable oxygen? (And that sentiment feels chillingly Victorian, or even Trumpian.)

I think the episode’s power as satire, though, is diminished by its failure to understand capitalism as a truly overarching social system. I am aware, by the way, that this is but an episode of Doctor Who and I cannot expect it to do everything; but I do think there are a couple of ways Oxygen could have gone to be a little less…mendacious about capitalism’s power.

The moment of the episode that really sticks out to me here is the moment – in many ways the emotional crux of the episode – when Bill’s spacesuit malfunctions, anchoring her immovably to the station floor while an undead horde approaches. The survivors try to carry her, but are informed by the malfunctioning spacesuit that this is “an illegal move”. “Health and safety”, one of the survivors explains. It’s funny and makes a kind of sense against the satirical framework of the episode up until that point, but, crucially, makes no sense when the solution to the spacesuits’ behaviour is revealed: why would a company so obsessed with the bottom line that it’s prepared to kill its workers care about health and safety? Health and safety doesn’t exist because it’s intrinsically good for companies; on the contrary, it gives rise to a hell of a lot of paperwork they could probably do without. Health and safety exists because legislation has ensured that it potentially costs a company much, much more in damages not to do it. But, if this is a company that can, again, kill its workers (and I definitely read this as a systematic practice, not an isolated incident), then surely we can assume that no such legislation exists any more?

My point is, I suppose, that, far from being the party-pooping capitalist gremlin it’s popularly imagined to be, health and safety legislation is actually a quite astonishingly effective way of making sure that companies don’t kill people wantonly any more. And Oxygen‘s failure to recognise that is surely a failure to imagine capitalism properly.

The other moment that takes the wind out of Oxygen‘s sails, so to speak, is another throwaway line, this one at the end of the episode: the Doctor tells Bill that the upshot of the events on the mining station is that two of the survivors go to “head office” and make a complaint. And so ends capitalism.

What?

I mean, this underestimates capitalism’s ability to defend itself to an extent that’s actually laughable. And, again, it’s supremely easily fixed. Perhaps the company folds, and everyone sees that killing people in the name of efficiency is not good for the brand. Perhaps the legal battle stretches on for years, and in the end new, far-reaching legislation is put in place.

But the conclusion “and they all lived happily ever after” is one that doesn’t even make sense for Doctor Who‘s moral universe, and it certainly isn’t helpful for the project of the episode. The way out of capitalism isn’t whistleblowing alone; it’s years and years of legislation, of hard work that isn’t monetised, of sustained political activism. We can start at whistleblowing, certainly. But that’s not where we’ll end. And, generally, the Whoniverse tends to resist such easy answers.

At a micro level, then, there’s a lot that’s good about Oxygen: apart from the satirical elements I’ve mentioned above, the Doctor has a great line about being responsible for bad stuff:

You know what’s wrong with this universe? Believe me, I’ve looked into it. Everyone says it’s not their fault. Well, yes, it is. All of it. It’s all your fault. So, what are you going to do about it?

Which to me looks like a recognition of the state of complicity that capitalism puts all of us into; although the Doctor is feeling guilty about leaving Bill behind to be potentially zombified at this moment, so I think there’s a possibility that this line unhelpfully conflates capitalist complicity with the Doctor’s patriarchal god complex. Still.

At the macro level, though, Oxygen doesn’t quite do enough work to give itself real teeth as a satire. “The Doctor against corporate greed” has been done a number of times before (see, for example, Sleep No More, which even had a similar industrial spaceship setting), as has the link between zombies and capitalism. The latter’s practically a trope now, in fact. Oxygen is a better episode than Knock Knock; but it’s not exactly good, either.

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?

Top Ten Characters Who Struggle

I was thinking this morning that I’ve read quite a few books recently about characters for whom life is a struggle; not because they have to contend with dystopias or ravening monsters or war or tragedy, though some of them do, but just because, you know, emotions, or because being a human means that sometimes you don’t want to get out of bed and talk to other people. So this post sort of leads on from my review of Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution.

A couple of these also aren’t books, because I thought thematic coherence was more important than pedantry. In this one, isolated instance.

  1. Marya Morevna – Deathless, Catherynne Valente. “You will live as you live anywhere. With difficulty, and grief.”
  2. Katin – Nova, Samuel Delany. There’s a fantastic bit in Nova, which is a novel all about perception and subjectivity, where Katin says (I haven’t got the book with me, alas, so a paraphrase) that if someone seems to respond negatively to something he says he goes over all the different ways the conversation could have gone in his head. And the Mouse, bless him, says, “I like you, Katin. I was just busy, is all.” Something like that goes on in my head practically every day.
  3. Harry Potter – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany. Now, in the original books Harry is at best inoffensive (Philosopher through to Goblet) and at worst irritating and entitled as only a teenager can be. But grown-up Harry is a different prospect altogether: traumatised by the Dursleys’ abuse and by the Battle of Hogwarts and by years of sharing Voldemort’s fucking mind.
  4. Kesha – Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink. A podcast, not a book. At some point Kesha, the narrator, says something like: “I’m afraid of nearly everything, nearly all the time. But it doesn’t stop me doing what I need to do.”
  5. Meg Carpenter – Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas. I am not going to shut up about Our Tragic Universe; it is hands down my favourite book of the year so far. (Apart from my reread of The Scar, which I’m not counting.) Meg is slightly having a mid-life crisis, stuck in a toxic relationship with a useless boyfriend and half in love with an older man. And wondering if we are all living in a computer simulation, and about what the point of an afterlife would be, and whether there really is a Beast on Dartmoor. And about stories. And her life gets incrementally better, bit by bit, throughout the book; so there’s never any huge revelation or massive argument or great triumph; just a climb to hope and new possibility. It’s utterly lovely.
  6. Pencil Khan – The Glass Republic, Tom Pollock. Pen’s surviving with PTSD after being possessed by a creature of barbed wire in The City’s Son. But, like Kesha, she doesn’t let it stop her do what she needs to do.
  7. Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. Lirael opens with its eponymous heroine contemplating suicide. I sort of wonder whether this actually gets treated seriously enough by Nix, because she doesn’t just think about it in an emo-teenager sort of way, she actually goes up out onto the mountain and prepares to jump off. But, in any case, I think this story of lonely Lirael finding a purpose and friendship and a family is a hopeful one.
  8. Zan – The Stars are Legion, Kameron Hurley. Zan has lost her memory. Over and over again. She knows she’s done terrible things, but can’t remember exactly what, or why. And still she goes on.
  9. Bellis Coldwine – The Scar, China Mieville. Actually I am going to mention The Scar. Bellis fascinates me. She’s thoroughly unlikable, and yet Mieville gets us to sympathise with her, gets us under her skin. She’s torn away from her city, without any way back. And she keeps her grief raw, refuses to accept her new reality, as a form of defiance against her captives: the only method of resistance she has.
  10. Grace Marks – Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood. Grace is another character who uses her emotional instability as a weapon, a weapon that eventually grants her a kind of victory. She resists reading by doctors and vicars and others who want to co-opt her experience, her selfhood, for their own social or commercial ends. And she, too, goes on.

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

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.