Tag: science fiction

50-Word Review: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed is all world-building. It’s about an anarchist society on a near-desert planet – think Utopia but without the kyriarchy. It’s as much a thought experiment as (e.g.) Asimov’s short stories are, but Le Guin’s writing and her characterisation are lovelier than his. The last line is perfect.

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50-Word Review: High-Rise

I’ll be doing these all through November, because NaNoWriMo.

High-Rise, J.G. Ballard

High-Rise is about a super-high-rise tower, designed as a self-sufficient vertical city, whose inhabitants all go a bit Lord of the Flies. A seminal text for thinking about the social effects of architecture and city planning, but content notes for gender essentialism, sexual violence, animal cruelty and general gore.

Word count: 49

Top Ten Character-Driven Novels

  1. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. This is more or less a plotless novel; it relies entirely on what you think of its protagonist Meg. I think she’s great: Thomas has a real talent for writing characters you care about despite their mistakes.
  2. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. The ensemble cast who lead this novel – another one that’s pretty much structureless – range from a vilely racist human to a polyamorous sentient lizard. They all have their own backstories, their own struggles; Chambers gets under the skin of all of them, to try and help us understand why they are who they are. If this book is about anything, it’s about very different people working together to support each other. It’s lovely.
  3. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. OK, this one technically does have a plot, but it’s only perfunctory. Really, we’re reading for four broken strangers, their wretched humanity rendered beautiful by Valente’s infinitely sympathetic gaze and her prose precious as hoarded gold.
  4. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy is Gothically strange and dense: its characters are at one and the same time Dickensian grotesques and deeply, richly psychologically imagined. It’s not quite like anything else I’ve read.
  5. Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl. There’s some postmodern trickery going on here, but unlike many novels that play with textual authority it has character at its heart: specifically the character of Blue van Meer, a lost, precocious teenager scrabbling for a deeper meaning to her life.
  6. Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov. I’ve only read this once, a few years ago, but it’s stuck with me. Like Pessl’s novel, its postmodern trickery is all in the service of building up a character, as Charles Kinbote’s commentary on his neighbour’s unfinished poem spirals further and further away from its initial performance of cool criticism.
  7. Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter. At the heart of Carter’s novel is Fevvers, a larger-than-life circus woman who resists all attempts to define her or pin her down. She’s awesome.
  8. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. It’s not individual characters that Novik’s interested in so much as their relationships. Temeraire is a Regency comedy of manners, really, and Novik’s excellent at delineating the rigid social structures and codes that define her characters’, behaviour.
  9. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. Like Naomi Novik, Leckie’s fundamentally interested in social structures and how they define and proscribe relationships. Unlike Temeraire, though, Ancillary Justice has a protagonist with a degree of complexity: an AI who has lost her hive mind and who’s bent on revenge.
  10. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood. At the heart of Atwood’s novel is convicted Canadian murderess Grace Marks, a woman born into poverty who spends her life fighting the male gaze.

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

Review: The Margarets

Happy Halloween, if that is a thing you celebrate! Having thought up a tenuous thematic link this morning on the Tube, today I will be writing about monstrosity in Sherri S. Tepper’s The Margarets.

This review contains spoilers.

The Margarets is set at the end of the twenty-first century. Overpopulation has destroyed the biosphere: pretty much the only living things left on Earth are humans. The Interstellar Trade Organisation, which consists of a number of intelligent alien races of varying degrees of sympathy (more on which later), has given Earth an ultimatum: reduce the population drastically, or be destroyed. As a result, Earth’s governments enact brutal population control measures: excess children, defined as such under retroactively applied laws, are sold into bondage on other planets, probably never to return to their families on Earth.

Our Heroine is (surprisingly enough) Margaret. As a child growing up on Mars, she invents for herself six imaginary friends: a warrior, a shaman, a healer, a telepath, a queen and a spy. She eventually returns to an overcrowded Earth; and in times of stress or at important decision points in her life, these imaginary friends split from her, to become Margarets of their own (although they’re not all called Margaret, thank goodness). The novel follows these seven selves through the inhabited universe, as they experience slavery, diplomacy, domestic life, loneliness and military service among other things. It becomes clear that they’ve been created, seven selves who are one, by the benign, inscrutable, alien Gentherans, to save humanity from itself by restoring its racial memory and thus its sense of the importance of its natural environment.

So it’s a novel that’s about, among other things, humanity’s monstrosity: whether humans are monstrous or just flawed, whether humanity is redeemable, whether its mistakes are inevitable. In that sense, at least, its concerns are similar to those of quite a few liberal space operas I’ve read recently (Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 both come to mind); as well as in the sense that it sees humanity’s hope in communality, in shared experience and memory. But the way it constructs that monstrosity is kind of deeply troubling. If it’s progressive in outlook, in actual detail and content it feels weirdly 1950s.

Firstly and most obviously, those alien races. There are two kinds of alien races in the universe, apparently: good and evil. So the example Tepper gives us of true monstrosity is the reptilian Quataar race, slavers, torturers, murderers. Humanity is not like the Quataar. But neither is it like the Gentherans and similar races: high-minded, wise, protective of their environments.

This good/evil binary smacks of high fantasy racism; it is, at best, very tedious.

But, I mean, it’s not like Tepper stereotypes any human communities, right?

Oh, wait…

One of the Margarets encounters a tribe that’s essentially a Native American analogue. They speak in fractured English. They are violent kidnappers. They steal each other’s women. They are, in fact, not unlike the Quataar. This is a failure to imagine complexly how other cultures might live, a denial of exactly the kind of shared experience that Tepper insists is the only way humanity can be saved. This is making a monster out of something we don’t understand – that we haven’t done the work to understand. This is an extension of the kind of logic that divides fictional alien races into “good” and “bad”.

There are other examples. One of the Margarets, Naumi, is male, so that, the Gentherans say, the seven selves can experience as much of humanity as possible. This feels like a slightly essentialist way of looking at things, but okay! Except Naumi falls in love with his male best friend, and the novel again reads this as monstrous; fallout from his female origins; inadmissible in the order of the world; and he has to see his friend fall in love with another Margaret, a female one. Naumi’s queerness, Tepper’s telling us, is wrong, a mistake.

PSA: The Margarets was published in two thousand and fucking seven. I’d expect this kind of thing in a 1970s novel, maybe, but not in something published this side of 2000, and not in something shortlisted for the Clarke Award.

Another failure of empathy, another monster created by privilege: we find out near the end of the novel where cats come from. They are the brain-damaged children of the Gentherans. Yes: Sherri S. Tepper compares neurodiverse people to actual animals.

The Margarets gives us a seemingly hopeful answer to the problem of monstrosity: we’re not inherently monsters; we can, with time and cooperation, become as high-minded as the Gentherans. But so much seems to be lumped in with what Tepper sees as monstrous that her imagined future looks dystopically conformist rather than triumphant. I’d heard good things about Tepper’s work, especially Beauty, which was why I picked this up; but I won’t be reading any of her other novels.

Class Review: The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did

This review contains spoilers.

I quite liked the premise of The Metaphysical Engine, the penultimate episode of Class, but I also think it’s the least successful episode so far. It suffers considerably from the absence of its usual teenage ensemble cast: it’s set concurrently with the events of Detained, showing us What Quill Did while the ka-tet were busy trying not to murder each other. You’ll remember that, in Brave-ish Heart, Governor and Coal Hill headteacher Dorothea Ames promised Miss Quill that she’d remove the arn, the creature keeping her enslaved to Charlie, from her brain, in return for her help killing the carnivorous petals. The Metaphysical Engine sees Miss Quill, Dorothea and a shape-shifting alien called Ballon embark on a quest to get the things they’ll need to achieve this. The titular engine, it turns out, is an unstable alien technology that transports its users to fictional places – in this case, Ballon’s hell, Quill’s heaven, the birthplace of the arn and the Cabinet of Souls.

Unlike the previous episodes, in which the emotional development of the characters is pretty much inextricable from the SFnal plotlines, the quest structure of The Metaphysical Engine is essentially a backdrop to Quill’s journey; it’s really only a series of plot coupons designed to put the characters into extreme situations. (This approach reminds me much more of Moffat-era Doctor Who than it does of the generally more character-driven Class.) Although there’s still something of an emotional arc to the episode – Quill becomes more sympathetic as she befriends fellow soldier Ballon, who is himself imprisoned – it feels hackneyed and cheap. The ending, in which she’s forced by the Governors to witness the death of Ballon, the man she’s become increasingly attracted to, seems particularly egregious: why would the Governors go to such effort to remove the arn from Quill’s brain only to let her die? It’s just an excuse to damage this already traumatised woman still further; it adds nothing to her story, except, presumably, to drive the stakes of the last episode up.

It seems reasonable to suppose that at least some of the money saved by making Detained a bottle episode went on The Metaphysical Engine, given its extensive special effects. I think Detained is very possibly a perfect episode in its own right, and it certainly didn’t need a higher spend; but it’s ironic that it should be better than an episode that cost twice as much to make. Hopefully the final episode, The Lost, will mark a return to form.

Ten Books That Were Hard for Me to Read

  1. High-Rise – J.G. Ballard. There’s a certain kind of dystopia I find really hard to read: anything where society breaks down on-page, where people become less than people. I read High-Rise recently, so it’s still reasonably fresh in my memory: it’s set in a modern high-rise building, designed to be a self-sufficient vertical city, where people start to turn on each other. There’s animal cruelty and sexual violence in bucketloads, and I came quite close to putting it down (which I never do).
  2. Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler. For many of the same reasons as I found High-Rise difficult to read. There’s just this overpowering sense of loss and hopelessness to Parable of the Sower, an idea that everything we think of as normal can all become undone in just a few years.
  3. The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor. This is a very necessary book. It’s also a series of really awful things happening to the main character – things that (and this is going to sound trite, but) have direct parallels to what people of colour in the West really do experience every day. That’s its power and its horror.
  4. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever – Stephen Donaldson. I mean. There are things I like about the Covenant books, but the prose is really, really dense, and some absolutely terrible things happen, and overall it’s really not a light read.
  5. The Dark Tower – Stephen King. Just for That Scene with Randall Flagg and Mordred. No. Please, no.
  6. Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks. The cannibal cult on Vavatch is just awful. And the rest of the novel is incredibly dark and chilly and hopeless and violent. (I’m still toying with reading the rest of the Culture series, though.)
  7. On – Adam Roberts. Like Consider Phlebas, I found On just quite barren? The concept behind the novel is precariousness; the idea that “the centre cannot hold”, that there’s nothing to cling to that doesn’t change as soon as you think you’re sure of it. It’s cleverly structured, but it’s also very dark and very violent, without any vitality to set that darkness off. Plus, I really wanted Roberts to stop calling penises “wicks”. (Yes, really.)
  8. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline. I literally wanted to throw this book out of a train window. That’s how fucking awful I found it: actively sexist, racist and homophobic, and poorly written to boot. (Lord help us, I see from the internet that there is going to be a film next year.)
  9. Age of Godpunk – James Lovegrove. See above, basically, only with bonus transphobia. HOW DOES THIS SHIT EVER GET PUBLISHED
  10. The Dice Man – Luke Rhinehart. If you could do anything without fearing society’s judgement you would…have lots of dubiously-consensual sex and be a dick to everyone, apparently. (Really?)

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

Class Review: Detained

I enjoyed Detained; I don’t have much to say about it.

The sixth episode of Doctor Who spin-off Class (which, no, I haven’t managed to finish watching yet), it’s a classic example of what Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge helpfully informs me is known as a bottle episode. Miss Quill puts the entire ka-tet into detention for mysterious reasons of her own, locking them into a classroom and stalking off in the way that only Katherine Kelly can. So, when a meteor smashes through the rip in space-time and propels the locked classroom into another dimension, there’s not much anyone can do about it: Our Heroes are trapped with a meteor that a) makes them irrationally angry with each other, and b) forces anyone holding it to confess their deepest darkest secrets. The episode follows them as they try to work out what has happened and how they can escape, without killing each other (or at least destroying their friendship, which when you are a teenager often feels like the same thing) first.

This is very simple storytelling; but I actually prefer it to the contrived, convoluted plotting of shows like Doctor Who, because its very simplicity allows it to make its character development explicit rather than subtextual. And character development is something Class does very well, especially for its genre. The storytelling in Detained may be simple, but its characterisation is anything but; it’s rare to find anything in SFF that’s this interested in group dynamics, in relationships under pressure. (I’m reminded, a little, of Firefly, which also shoves a found family into a confined space, with consistently interesting results.) I particularly like how Detained leans on the two romantic relationships in the series, revealing the cracks in them, showing up the fact that what seems like uncomplicated love is actually an agglomeration of more complex emotions: fear and insecurity and resentment among them. This is kind of an important message for YA as well as for SFF; too often in both markets we get romances that are a fait accompli, unbreakable and straightforward, when real-life relationships are hardly ever anything like that.

And how lovely is Tanya’s point that “We all feel like the one who’s left out, the one who the others can do without”? And how important is it that Charlie, the alien prince in charge of a hugely powerful weapon, has claustrophobia?

The BBC announced last month that Class has been cancelled after disappointing viewing figures. That’s a real shame, because there’s so little SFF – TV programmes, films or novels – that does half of the work Detained doe