Tag: science fiction

Review: Provenance

While Ann Leckie’s Provenance is technically a standalone novel, it’s set in the same universe as Leckie’s Ancillary series, which obviously invites comparisons – and not necessarily favourable ones.

More about that in a minute. The planet on which Provenance is set, Hwae, lies far away from Radch space, where the Ancillary trilogy is set; it’s a human culture that recognises three genders, and which lies very close to the planet of the Geck, one of the three sentient alien races in Leckie’s universe, incomprehensible and thus terrifying. Our Heroine is Ingray Aughskold, a young woman adopted into a high-ranking family, who frees a high-security prisoner convicted of forging valuable historical artefacts as part of a plan to outmanoeuvre her brother in a bid to be named her mother’s heir.

(Yes. It’s one of those novels.)

Of course, things go horribly wrong, and instead of playing an admittedly fairly high-stakes game of family power politics, Ingray finds herself at the centre of a murder case: an ambassador from a nearby planet with an interest in controlling trade access to Hwae is found stabbed in a public park, killed while Ingray was feet away.

And, for a good half of the novel, it feels like that’s what Leckie’s serving us: a murder mystery wreathed in complex alien politics. But Provenance has an odd double structure: the murder mystery winds itself up sooner than we think it will, and we find once more that there’s something a lot more serious going on, something that threatens the delicate treaty that prevents the Geck and, more importantly, the infinitely violent and infinitely alien race the Presger, from waging war on humanity, and vice versa.

That double structure is key to what the novel’s doing, I think. Provenance pares away almost all of the action and adventure of the Ancillary trilogy, to leave only Leckie’s interest in politics and etiquette and how people navigate the power structures they find themselves enmeshed in. In other words, to me Provenance is essentially concerned with identity politics: how people construct and perform themselves. There is a focus on things that SFF readers might be used to thinking of as trivial: on clothes, on interior space (parts of the novel take place on a spaceship, and Leckie is meticulous in describing how the characters move around each other in the narrow corridors), on food. Hwae society places great stock in “vestiges”, historical artefacts related to family history – the authenticity or otherwise of these drives the plot at several key moments. There’s a moment when a character calls out the press for refusing to use the name ey’ve chosen for emself:

you all flew here from the capital this morning so you could shout questions at me in person, but you can’t bring yourself to use the name I want to go by

There’s a whole storyline about a character identifying himself as Geck (though he looks human, the Geck do have hangers-on who are genetically altered humans) and what that means legally. And so on. Identity politics: not just how we create identities for ourselves, but specifically how we perform and negotiate them with others, and how the choices we make when we’re with other people are always loaded, always political. Provenance dramatises that slogan of second-wave feminism, “the personal is political”.

And so, that double structure is asking us to look twice at everything we see. A murder that looks personal is deeply political. Choices that look personal – how we dress, how we name ourselves, what we eat – are deeply political.

It’s always worth asking: why this genre? In this instance, why does Provenance need to be SF? What would it lose by not being SF?

It’s important, I think, that the culture(s?) we encounter in Provenance is (are?) an alien one; not alien in the SFnal sense but in the sense that it runs on different rules, and that, crucially, those are rules we have to figure out as we go along. That work of, essentially, reverse engineering the rules of a culture from how people act within it is work that estranges our own culture from us; like the novel’s double structure, Provenance teaches us to re-read the world, to pay attention to the myriad lines of power and influence that underlie even our most mundane interactions.

This is all brilliant and fascinating and (that overused word) timely, of course, and I really enjoyed Provenance (although I can’t honestly say I grasped all the intricacies of the interplanetary politics). But: it does just feel a little less urgent than the Ancillary trilogy, which dealt with issues like slavery and bodily autonomy and imperialism – grappling with the idea of power in a much more direct way. Provenance feels like a step back into provincialism. It’s very far from bad. But neither is it mind-blowing.


Top Ten Things I Hate in Fictional Romances

I rarely ship fictional characters, because I rarely ever read a fictional romance I find convincing. Not uncoincidentally, pretty much all of these are things I dislike about fictional het romances, because so many of our cultural norms for het romances are warped and coercive and, frankly, really fucking weird.

  1. Where creepy and/or abusive behaviours are “romantic”. This includes: watching strangers sleep, entering their space without permission, and pretty much anything that has to be justified by the phrase “it’s for your own good”. Oh, hello Twilight!
  2. Where the (female) love interest is a prize for the (male) protagonist. As in, for example, the dishearteningly popular Ready Player One. DON’T DO THAT. (If we’re gonna be intellectual about it, this is a layover from 12th-century chivalric ideals of knights fighting each other for the hand of The Most Beautiful Woman Ever. It’s objectification, pure and simple.)
  3. Where a supernatural(ly hot) woman pronounces her love interest The Kindest Man In The World. This is a good sign that the novel (which may or may not be Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer) is not actually interested in the woman as a person: it’s just male fantasy, of the Nice Guy variety.
  4. Where No Really Means Yes. I fucking hate it when persistence makes a love interest change their mind, because what kind of message does that send? (Remember Mr Collins from Pride and PrejudiceNobody deserves that.)
  5. Where a woman Just Needs A Man to settle down and stop being so uppity and weird and unfeminine. *cough*Eowyn*cough* Ooh! Also Bella in Our Mutual Friend.
  6. Where there is a significant age gap. I mean, this is particularly a problem when there are literal centuries between the couple (Twilight again! But also the elf-human relationships in The Silmarillion). But I also can’t get past May-December romances in things like Parable of the Sower, where a godsdamn fifty-year-old man sleeps with an eighteen-year-old girl (even consensually).
  7. Where a woman stays at home while her love interest has awesome adventures. Enough said.
  8. Where a man makes his love interest shelter behind him even if he has clearly never fought anything ever. Except in some historical or historical fantasy novels, ’cause men were shitty in the past.
  9. Where there is an angel in the house. Basically, all of Dickens’ women. They are saintly, altruistic, good at household chores and, generally, boring. And utterly fictional.
  10. Where the queer couple dies. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is as awesome as you have heard; but it does destroy an awesome queer relationship (along with a lot of other things). The wider point is that: queer people almost never get decent fictional relationships, because we all lead Tragic and Unfulfilled lives, obviously.

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

Top Ten SF Novels I Want to Read

  1. The Warrior’s Apprentice – Lois McMaster Bujold. I suspect this will be on my must-read list for a while.
  2. New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson. I read Robinson’s 2312 last year and it was much better than I expected it to be and I’ve heard good things about New York 2140.
  3. Binti – Nnedi Okorafor. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while. It’s a novella, though, which means it’s stupidly difficult to find in libraries or bookshops.
  4. Dhalgren – Samuel Delany. I mean, I’m picking randomly from Delany’s backlist here, on the basis that Nova surprised me and I want to read more.
  5. The Word for World is Forest – Ursula Le Guin. Because it’s sort-of in the same series as The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, both of which are fantastic, dialectic novels. And I’m kind of on a vintage SF kick at the moment.
  6. Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer. This is popping out as one of the canonical works of SF of the last few years, and it’s always sounded pretty awesome to me.
  7. Bats of the Republic – Zachary Thomas Dodson. I’ve been revisiting old Tournaments of Books, in preparation for this year’s (less than a month away! squee!), and remembered that this existed and that I want to read it and it more-or-less counts as SF. Sadly, no bookseller in the UK apparently seems to stock it.
  8. Downbelow Station – C J Cherryh. I’ve heard Cherryh’s SF spoken of as quiet, considered, political, paying attention to relationships between people – just the kind of SF I like.
  9. The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I vaguely want to read this, for completeness’ sake and because the Long Earth series is moderately interesting. I probably won’t get round to it for a while, though.
  10. Raven Strategem – Yoon Ha Lee. I liked Ninefox Gambit? It was…unusual? I’m not in any hurry to read the sequel, but I’d borrow it if I found it in my local library.

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

Doctor Who Review: Twice Upon a Time

Twice Upon a Time was 2017’s Christmas episode of Doctor Who, and, glory be, Stephen Moffat’s last episode ever. I remember astonishingly little of it.

I remember that the First Doctor was in it, because Stephen Moffat liked to fuck around with Doctor Who mythology for no discernible or interesting purpose. (Oooh, but using the past tense just then felt so good.) I remember the First Doctor being outrageously and obviously sexist, for, as Andrew Rilstone points out, no internal narrative reason: this isn’t an episode that’s interested in the history of the Doctor, it’s interested in the history of Doctor Who, and TV was outrageously and obviously sexist in the 60s, and so the First Doctor is sexist. This all feels like Moffat’s final dig at those pesky feminists who pointed out time after time that his female characters are always enigmas, romantic interests, cyphers with no lives of their own – anything but fully human. “Look,” he says, “this is what real sexism looks like! I’m much more enlightened than this!”

To which the only possible response is: fuck off.

Or, more politely: if you have to go back to the 1960s to find stories more sexist than yours, you’re doing something wrong.

What else? The World War I Christmas truce, “it never happened again, any war, anywhere”. (For what it’s worth, this isn’t actually true: there were Christmas truces in 1915, and unofficial truces up and down the front throughout the year.) Rusty the Good Dalek, for no discernible reason. An invisible glass woman. A project to record the memories of the dead, which goes nowhere interesting. Yet another fucking suggestion that Bill is romantically interested in the Twelfth Doctor. And the appearance of the Thirteenth Doctor, crashing the TARDIS as is traditional, and causing a tsunami of “women driver” jokes among the misogynists of the world.

The human brain’s wired to retain narrative; the reason why I end up writing more about plot than anything else is because that’s what I remember a month or two after I read or watched or heard whatever I’m writing about. That I can only remember fragments of Twice Upon a Time therefore suggests something about its approach to narrative; viz., that it has none.

Moffat’s never really been interested in stories as such, the work of plot you have to put in to reach the climax, the building of emotional investment you need to get to the payoff. He’s interested in set pieces, in gimmicks, in moments like snowglobes; in pretty pictures. And, in that sense, Twice Upon a Time is Quintessentially Moffat.

I think, structurally, what the episode’s trying to suggest is that the Twelfth Doctor will always exist somewhere in time, as will the First Doctor, like a picture, or, indeed, a TV show. A frozen and asynchronous now. Ceasing to be in the future does not negate your being now. This is an idea that’s always been latent in Doctor Who, and, indeed, in most time travel narratives which see the past and the future as places you can visit at will. If people who have died still live, in a place you can access, have they really died at all?

And it’s an interesting idea. Of course it is, to us humans who live in the flow of time and always want to escape it. It’s just that Moffat-Who is not especially capable of dealing with it in any kind of profound way. After all, the analogy between regeneration and death only goes back to David Tennant’s time on the show; before that, the emphasis is on the beginning of a new life, not the end of an old one. Moffat fails to make a case for why it’s so important that the Twelfth Doctor’s memory sticks around; he’s consistently failed, in other words, to build our interest in, and empathy with, the character, because he’s consistently failed to tell stories.

You cannot build a story out of set-pieces. You cannot build a character out of moments.

Let us hope for better things from Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whitaker.

Ten Books I Utterly Failed to Read in 2017

…that I planned to read in 2017, obviously.

  1. The Warrior’s Apprentice – Lois McMaster Bujold. Last February I vowed to read the Vorkosigan saga in 2017. I have many abject reading failures under my belt, but this probably one of the abjectest.
  2. The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin. I have had this on my TBR pile at least since November. Probably before that, even. This is particularly egregious since it is borrowed from a friend who has probably given up all hope of seeing it again.
  3. The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. See above.
  4. Three Moments of an Explosion – China Mieville. I bought this to celebrate moving to London last April. It is still sitting near the bottom of my TBR, because of library books and borrowed books and my inveterate habit of, gasp, buying more books.
  5. PopCo – Scarlett Thomas. Uh, see above again. I do actually want to read these books! I am just tyrannised by some slightly obsessive habits when it comes to my TBR.
  6. The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I mean, I should have read this years ago, it’s a Terry Pratchett novel. Ah, but it’s not a Discworld novel, is it. And the Long Earth series got kind of tedious a while ago.
  7. Infidel – Kameron Hurley. The library has Rapture. The bookshops have God’s War. None of them has Infidel. Godsdammit.
  8. The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden – Catherynne Valente. MUST. HAVE. ALL THE VALENTE. Although I didn’t do too badly Valente-wise last year, actually (I managed Palimpsest, Deathless and The Melancholy of Mechagirl, plus some short stories online and a load of Patreon posts WHICH DEFINITELY COUNT).
  9. Saga Volume 5 – Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. I can’t believe I didn’t manage any Saga last year. Well, actually, I can, since my new local library has a sadly impoverished graphic novel section and £15 for 120 pages still feels like too much even if they are beautiful pages and I can technically afford it. Maybe 2018 is the year that I get over that. Maybe.
  10. King Rat – China Mieville. I did manage a Mieville last year – The Last Days of New Paris – but for me it was one of his drier books, and I’m hoping King Rat is more on the Gothic-Lovecraftian-screaming-void-of-meaning side of his work.

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

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness feels like an older generation’s Ancillary Justice.

I say that partly because it’s a good first sentence that makes me sound like a more seasoned SF reviewer than I actually am, and partly because, like Ancillary Justice, a lot of the discussion that goes on around The Left Hand of Darkness focuses on its approach to gender to the exclusion of much else that’s important and interesting about it.

Its premise is simple enough: Genly Ai is an ambassador to the icy planet of Gethen (Winter, in the language of its inhabitants) from the Ekumen, a confederacy of worlds. Most of the time, the Gethenians are gender-neutral and biologically intersex; but for about a week every month they go into kemmer, becoming either biologically male or biologically female, depending on what other nearby people in kemmer are doing. Kemmer, it seems, is mainly spent having sex with all and sundry: there are monogamous couples on Gethen, but it’s by no means the norm. And, of course, any one Gethenian can sire and bear children (although not, presumably, at the same time).

The novel follows Genly (whose society has the same gender norms as ours – more on that later) as he navigates the politics of the two major Gethenian nations, Orgoreyn and Karhide, in an attempt to bring the planet into the Ekumen. His efforts – his very presence, in fact – threaten to destabilise the fragile balance between the powers and topple the planet into war – a concept that’s entirely new to Gethen, because its societies have never developed ideas of toxic masculinity that’s performed through large-scale aggression.

So. What I find most interesting about The Left Hand of Darkness is how it uses language to construct a world that’s very different from ours – not just in terms of gender, but in general outlook and philosophy. I don’t mean by that the mundane work of worldbuilding that most SFF authors engage in, but a much more potent and challenging semantic slippage, a textual instability that evokes a world that is always already irrevocably changing.

The novel is told from multiple perspectives, in other words. So we have Genly’s report on his mission (although, “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination” – from the very first lines a gap is growing between observer and observed, between narrated experience and unmediated “reality”); notes from the diary of a Karhide politician called Estraven, who’s trying to push his reluctant country into a new age; ethnological notes from the Ekumen’s first clandestine mission to Gethen; and a series of Gethenian myths and legends. That’s four views of Gethen, overlapping, jostling for factual and emotional primacy; each of them with different priorities, different focuses, different assumptions, different prejudices. Their conflicting clamour distorts the edges of what we can know about Gethen (especially in later chapters, when we get different versions of the same events from Genly and Estraven); but it also serves to give us a better picture of what Gethen is like than an omniscient narrator can. Gethen, like all real societies, is constantly rewriting itself. It never stays still, it’s never just one thing. What was once true is always, almost by definition, now untrue. Genly’s arrival on the planet, and his message of Ekumenical peace and love, has exacerbated this process somewhat; it’s a society on the cusp of great change, and this clamour of voices is a particularly apt way of evoking that textually.

And so, onto some problems with The Left Hand of Darkness. (In all fairness, it was first published in 1969. It would be practically impossible for it not to have some problems.) The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed the most glaring one: the use of male pronouns to describe the gender-neutral Gethenians.

This is partly an effect of semantic slippage, the gap between author and protagonist that helps to create the world of Gethen more fully. Put less pretentiously, Genly is enormously, outrageously misogynist.

The [Gethenian] guards…tended to be stolid, slovenly, heavy, and to my eyes effeminate – not in the sense of delicacy, etc., but in just the opposite sense: a gross, bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge.

Yes, that’s right: Genly thinks women are cows. Le Guin was a strident feminist; these are assuredly not her views.

So we can, if we so wish, argue that the novel’s use of “he” as a universal pronoun is Genly’s use, not Le Guin’s; a reflection of the sexist strategies he uses to construct his world and his own experience. (Remember: this is a novel that’s deliberately placing emphasis on the truth-value of experience.) But, still, I think we run into a problem with the fact that all of the narratives use male pronouns to describe the Gethenians, who surely have their own pronouns. We can speculate that Genly’s translated these narratives (although: not the ethnological reports, which I think were written by women from Genly’s society), and so they’re also subject to his construction (as they assuredly are anyway, per that first sentence), but I don’t think this is speculation that goes anywhere, and at some point along that line of speculation the gap between protagonist and author narrows to a width so tiny it’s not worth mentioning any more. Which is to say: the universal male pronoun is ultimately an authorial choice, no matter the semantic slippage that’s happening along the way. And it’s a problematic choice.

Ah, but: as I said at the beginning of this post, gender is only one of many things The Left Hand of Darkness is interested in. (And, for the record, I don’t think its treatment of gender is entirely problematic: it’s certainly always refreshing to read something that tries to reconstruct gender and sexual norms so thoroughly.) It’s also interested in duality, change, survival, politics, war, time, shared humanity; it’s a portrait of a world and a character and a relationship all at once. Above all, it’s dialectic, not didactic: it leaves space for conversation, contemplation, reinvention. I liked it. I’m glad I read it. That’s all; that’s enough.

Review: Libriomancer

This review contains spoilers.

Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer has a premise calculated to appeal to every book lover ever: libriomancers are magicians who can summon objects to life from books. Not people, apparently, because their brains turn to mush. And not anything that wouldn’t fit through a hole the size of an open book. And really powerful objects that would ruin the world – like Tolkien’s Ring, for instance – are “locked” inside their books by the head libriomancer, Johannes Gutenberg (yes, the Gutenberg), who has apparently discovered the secret to eternal life and promptly locked it away again.

So. Our Hero is Isaac, an ex-libriomancer who was retired from the field after an attempt at reining in unauthorised libriomancy went horribly wrong. As the novel begins, he’s working in a library specialising in SFF, cataloguing books that contain potentially useful weapons for libriomancers. This may sound like the awesomest job in the world to us mere mortals, but of course Isaac misses magic. Luckily for him, some vampires rock up and attack the library he’s working in, as well as a number of prominent magic-users, and he’s pulled back into the field to try and work out why the vampires have broken their delicate peace with humanity.

It was probably inevitable that Libriomancer would disappoint me – a premise like that is fiendishly hard to live up to. I think my disappointment boils down to the fact that the novel doesn’t do very much with its various intertexts – that is, it’s not particularly self-aware about its status as an SFF text in explicit conversation with the SFF texts Isaac uses for his libriomancy. That’s partly because the rules of libriomancy, and the demands of the plot, don’t allow Isaac to summon anything much more interesting than fancy SFnal guns; and, diverting as the sudden appearance of a lightsaber is (even if Hines isn’t allowed to call it that because of copyright), it turns out that weapons look pretty much the same whichever novel you summon them from.

The one piece of literary criticism Libriomancer does indulge in felt vaguely problematic to me. Or, rather, it fell into that interesting mental category labelled “I don’t know what to do with this”. One of Isaac’s sidekicks is Lena, a dryad from what Hines describes as a subgenre of mild SFF 1960s erotica. (I don’t know if this is an actual thing, by the way, since I can’t remember the name of the author Hines name-checks. Let’s assume that it is for the purposes of this review.) Lena’s been written to be the perfect lover for whoever her romantic partner happens to be – so her appearance and her personality both change to suit them. (I can’t remember now why Lena is exempt from the brain-turning-to-mush that afflicts most fictional characters coming to the real world.) At the beginning of the novel, she’s in a relationship with a woman called Nidhi Shah, a therapist who’s kidnapped by the vampires. Believing Nidhi dead, Lena propositions Isaac (who, I got the impression, lives several hours’ drive from Nidhi), because – get this – she thinks he’s her best option.

Werl…Isaac is inoffensive enough, but for this literally perfect woman to stake her entire being on him as the best possible romantic partner feels like the most enormous wish-fulfilment fantasy – not to mention the tangled issues of consent and free will spiralling around here.

It turns out, of course, that Nidhi aten’t dead. But now Lena is magically attached to both of them! Whatever shall she do?

The answer is, in fact, unexpected, and probably the best way of dealing with an immensely problematic plotline: she shall date both of them (no, not in a threesome-orgy-male-fantasy type way), and so, being not quite perfect for either of them, find something like autonomy in the cracks between their desires.

I mean, I do appreciate this thinking outside the box of monogamous heterosexual romantic normativity. And I also appreciate that the point of Lena’s storyline is to point up how problematic the idea of “the perfect woman” is. I just think that this particular novel is not really up to handling it. For one thing, Isaac is incredibly creepy towards Lena: while slightly (but only slightly) uninhibited on truth drugs, he tells her (in front of one of her colleagues):

This is not how I used to fantasize about you turning up on my doorstep.

Uh…inappropriate much? And, however much Lena may appear to go along with this behaviour, she’s magically obliged to do so. Isaac’s creepiness never gets dealt with; I got the impression I was meant to read it as slightly inept flirting, which it is not.

Add to that the fact that Hines’ prose is serviceable at best and wincingly clumsy at worst, and that he seems more interested in explosions and vampires than in unpacking the intricacies of Lena’s situation, and it begins to feel like the romance subplot is something of an afterthought tacked onto the story Hines really wanted to tell. Essentially, there’s a lot in Libriomancer that demands significantly more attention than it ever gets; so everything feels underserved.

TL;DR: I shouldn’t read books that haven’t been recommended to me. Because usually there’s a reason why they haven’t.