Tag: science fiction

Top Ten Films

Have I really never done this post before? OK, then…

  1. Les Miserables, dir. Tom Hooper. This is the one with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman and (mmm) Eddie Redmayne. The first time I saw it I was so wonderstruck I nearly walked in front of a taxi. The music is a cut above that of most musicals, the story is an acknowledged heart-breaker, and I will never see a better Marius than Eddie Remayne, though I admit he is not really a singer.
  2. The Return of the King, dir. Peter Jackson. This film has a gazillion endings, and they are all perfect, and then comes that most wonderful of songs, Annie Lennox’s “Into the West”. There are things Jackson gets wrong (*side-eyes Faramir’s truncated character arc), but in essence the film captures the heart of the books in a way that’s sadly rare for book-to-film adaptations.
  3. The Fellowship of the Ring, dir. Peter Jackson. You can see how this list is going to go down, can’t you? (Though the Hobbit films are an abomination against all that is good and holy.) I love the lightness of Fellowship, our introduction to hobbits who are still (relatively) carefree, the character dynamics of the Fellowship which we don’t see in later films. Fellowship is still an adventure. They’ve yet to slog through the battlefields of the second film in the trilogy…
  4. The Two Towers, dir. Peter Jackson. This is really only here for completeness’ sake: Towers is my least favourite book in the trilogy just as it’s my least favourite film of the three. Helm’s Deep bores me. Frodo and Sam walk through the same carbon-fibre set of rocks about a zillion times. Andy Serkis’ Gollum, though, is a masterpiece.
  5. Stardust, dir. Matthew Vaughn. Stardust is based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, so naturally it is secretly sexist. (It’s totally OK to kidnap an injured woman if she turns out to be your True Love.) But, oh, how delightfully fluffy this film is! Its Fairyland is wild and dangerous and strange but not too strange, and it’s full of everything you want to find in Fairyland: princes and witches and weird bloody necklaces and desperate horseback rides and magical markets and epic landscapes, unscrupulous merchants and captive princesses and sky pirates and Babylon candles. It’s funny and magical and I love it with all my fannish heart.
  6. The Matrix, dir. the Wachowski sisters. I like The Matrix because it is cool. That is all. I love the cyberpunk aesthetic. I think bullet time looks awesome. I like the way the hackers’ handles all have deeper meanings. The soundtrack is perfect. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss both look very attractive in their badass cyberpunk outfits. And the film manages to pull off “and the World was Saved by Love” with style.
  7. Cloud Atlas, dir. the Wachowski sisters. Cloud Atlas was controversial among the critics, but I was already a fan of the novel, so I was halfway there. I came out of the cinema after watching Cloud Atlas feeling like I did when I finished the book: like I’d glimpsed some overarching structure to the universe, that there was some ambitious and elusive truth amid the disconnected flashes of experience that make up all our histories.
  8. The Social Network, dir. David Fincher. The Social Network is carried by Jesse Eisenberg, an astonishingly high-energy actor who specialises in making arseholes supremely watchable. Plus, the screenwriter is Aaron Sorkin, he of The West Wing, and the film zings with his swift, intelligent, witty dialogue.
  9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dir. Russell T. Davies. This is my favourite Shakespeare adaptation: gloriously camp and colourful, diverse and carnivalesque, a flash of bright left-wing hope against the thunderclouds of Trump and Brexit and irreversible climate change. I cried at the end, so defiantly triumphant was it.
  10. The Muppet Christmas Carol, dir. Brian Henson. YES, I am a grown English student and I still watch this every Christmas (much to the disgruntlement of my sister, who is naturally much cooler than I am). It’s so Christmassy and delightful! And is surprisingly faithful, in story and in spirit (no pun intended), to Dickens’ original.

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

Review: The Stars are Legion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone was white.

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

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

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

Hurley goes on to describe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Quantum Thief

I’ve struggled to find a way into The Quantum Thief, to write about it. Admittedly that’s partly because I read it several months ago (yes, I am a bad reviewer with an extensive backlog); but I also think it went slightly over my head.

It’s set in a universe which has hit the singularity and passed cheerfully out the other side. Human minds can be cloned and copied like software programmes; menial computing tasks are carried out by what are apparently conscious, artificial minds called gogols. Extreme bodily injury is mostly a matter of discomfort; flesh can be grown back as easily as a very easy thing. And death is not necessarily permanent. All of this is taken as given, as things that the reader will know as a matter of course, which does not exactly make for light reading.

Beneath all this concept, the plot’s actually relatively straightforward: a heist plus a detective story. The titular thief, Jean le Flambeur, is rescued from a brutal quantum prison by the mysterious woman Mieli, who’s in the service of a goddess, the pellegrini. (I think we’re supposed to read the goddess as an extremely advanced computer consciousness, but who knows.) Mieli and the pellegrini, for their own reasons, want Jean to retrieve some of his own memories, which he’s left locked away somewhere on Mars. Specifically, in a city called the Oubliette, which is governed by social codes of privacy whereby people can regulate how much of their interactions others can remember.

Meanwhile, a young up-and-coming detective tries to solve a mysterious murder involving chocolate and the Quiet Ones, the re-embodied minds who run the city.

There’s a lot of world-building in this book; matched by prose that’s overflowing with neologisms, names for tech we don’t have and factions whose powers we never quite work out:

The spimescape view is seething with detail, a network of q-dots under the skin, proteomic computers in every cell, dense computronium in the bones. Something like that could only be made in the guberniya worlds close to the Sun. It seems my rescuers are working for the Sobornost.

That passage makes probably as much sense to you as it does to someone reading the book.

This makes for a difficult read, and to some extent I relished that difficulty: it’s a refreshing change to read something that engages so thoroughly with how fundamentally different the far future will look; how what we consider as “human” may change so thoroughly.

That’s not to say that The Quantum Thief manages entirely to escape the pitfalls into which more relatable science fiction tends to fall. In particular, it occasionally feels uncomfortably male gaze-y – Jean’s attracted to Mieli, and his narration can tend to privilege her sexual attractiveness rather than her character. And there’s a thing called “combat autism”, seemingly a mental enhancement of some sort which allows Mieli to experience and analyse dangerous situations dispassionately, which feels vaguely appropriative and stereotypical of people who have actual autism – crucially, Mieli can switch “combat autism” on and off at will.

And that prose really does make the shape of the novel hard to pick out. I enjoyed it, but I feel like I took less away from it than I should have.

Top Ten Classics

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, and so it retains a special place in my heart. It’s sprawling, melodramatic, often sentimental, sometimes angry, and altogether wonderful. And it features one of Dickens’ most spirited heroines: Lizzie Hexam.
  2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen. I also love Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but Pride and Prejudice takes the crown because of Elizabeth’s spirit, and because Jane and Bingley are simply charming.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. This is a remarkable novel that smushes together Dickensian caricature and Gothic menace. Threatening, ponderous, hypnotic.
  4. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. Every politician should read this. It’s a stark warning about the consequences of social isolation, the folly of oppression, and the perils of hubris.
  5. Paradise Lost – John Milton. Milton’s verse is a revelation (hah): resonant, spirited and grand, and surprisingly accessible to a modern reader.
  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. Much like Titus Groan, this is a novel that draws you into its melodramatic world and won’t let go: a lush and richly described work full of foreshadowings and pathetic fallacies and moustache-twirling villains.
  7. Evelina – Fanny Burney. Burney was a sort of proto-Jane Austen, and her first novel is her best: an epistolary tale of a young woman in London for the first time, it combines social comedy with, um, high melodrama. (There is definitely a theme to this post.)
  8. The Tempest – William Shakespeare. My favourite Shakespeare play varies wildly depending on the version I’ve seen most recently. But The Tempest is definitely up there for its elegiac tone, and the way its action takes place in strange boundary states, between the sea and the land, between the city and the wilderness, between life and death.
  9. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad. I’ve only read this once, at university: but I loved the lush menace of Conrad’s writing, the gathering sense of dread as we advance along the Congo.
  10. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory. I’m a sucker for Arthurian stories, and though Malory’s Arthurian cycle was by no means the first version of the Once and Future King’s story (or the best), it’s certainly been one of the most influential on Western literature.

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

Doctor Who Review: The Doctor Falls

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

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

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

(Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class Review: Brave-ish Heart

It’s always difficult to talk about Class episode-by-episode, because it’s so much less a monster-of-the-week show than Doctor Who is. Unlike its parent show, its individual episodes all feel like they make up part of a coherent whole; which makes it tricky to identify the work they’re doing individually.

Still. Brave-ish Heart is another charming episode – if just a little overburdened with the teenage earnestness the series has so far managed to leaven with its ironising self-awareness. Having crossed into the realm of the Shadow Kin, April, supported by her love interest Ram, attempts to defeat Corakinus once and for all; while, back on Earth, Dorothea Ames (Coal Hill’s new headmistress, you’ll remember) tries to manipulate Charlie into using the Cabinet of Souls to destroy the flesh-eating petals menacing the planet – a course of action which Charlie believes will end all chance of resurrecting his people.

It’s complicated being a teenager.

In all seriousness, that’s exactly Class‘ project: rendering the emotional lives of its teenage protagonists as literal struggles against literal dragons. Certainly, the symbolism of April’s story couldn’t be more overt: the land of the Shadow Kin is a (sorry) shadow-realm in which April can act out, and thus resolve, her feelings about her father’s controlling influence over her life and her emotions.

It’s perhaps troubling that, in Class as in many YA narratives of its type, this struggle is transmuted into a specifically violent one – although it’s hard to think what other metaphor the show might use. But April’s violence is at least treated ambiguously: there’s a fine line, the episode seems to be saying, between righteous anger and toxic rage; between defeating your enemy and killing them. I’m not sure that ambiguity completely addresses the fact that dealing with your issues through violence – even metaphorical violence – is pretty unhealthy, but it’s more than a lot of narratives of this type are doing.

Charlie’s storyline, meanwhile, is more nuanced, and a better example of what makes Class really stand out. It uses a science fictional conceit – flesh-eating petals – to talk about issues of genocide and revenge, Big Themes that are nicely juxtaposed with April’s personal struggles. Charlie’s seen the murder of his people: will he use his weapon of mass destruction to take revenge on the race who did it (who also happen to be the Shadow Kin, obviously) – thereby dooming humanity to death-by-petal – or to save another race? It’s not a storyline that works through metaphor; it’s a discussion that can literally only work in science fiction (or conceivably fantasy).

As I’ve said before, I think what’s at the heart of what makes Class work is the fact that it switches between metaphorical and literal modes of science fiction. It recognises the potential SF has to encode emotional truth, but it can also use its SFnal conceits as if they’re real. This flexible approach, I think, allows the show to address some of the emotional issues that the genre at large tends to skate over. Although individual storylines can be a bit hit-and-miss (as I said above, April’s fight with Corakinus is just a little too over-dramatic), the series as a whole has a heft to it, as a result, that Doctor Who never quite manages.

Ten Cover Trends I Have Strong Feelings About

Strong-ish feelings, anyway.

  1. Covers that look like books. I’m a sucker for anything that’s been made to look like an old leatherbound book – or even a battered paperback, like this edition of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair.
  2. Covers with photographs of people on them. Photographs of people will always turn me off a book – especially a fantasy novel. I find them kind of tacky.
  3. Busy covers. For instance: I love Josh Kirby’s illustrations for Terry Pratchett’s books. Anything with that larger-than-life, colourful wackiness is good for me.
  4. Metallic covers. I’m not talking full-on Scholastic Hunger Games here; just covers that deploy tasteful metallic highlights here and there. I think it really makes them stand out. Case in point: my lovely edition of Scarlett Thomas’ Our Tragic Universe.
  5. Matt covers. I generally prefer matt covers to glossy ones. I think it’s because glossy ones scratch and dent easily, so they get tatty quite quickly; whereas matt ones feel more classic, and are more environmentally friendly too!
  6. Paintings on the covers of classics. Penguin Classics are guilty of this quite a lot. Putting a painting (or a sculpture) on the cover of a classic novel often does both works a disservice: the painting gets taken out of context – often it’s a detail that’s used, not the full work – so its power is ruined; and the book is often not represented accurately by the painting.
  7. Film covers. Ugh. Nothing annoys me more than a book cover that’s really a film poster. Partly this ties into my dislike for covers with photographs on them; partly the obviousness of the marketing irritates me; partly I’m annoyed by the implication that the book and the film are the same narrative, which, again, tends to do both works a disservice.
  8. Vintage covers. I love covers that evoke a sort of 1920s vibe, without actually looking like books from the 1920s, because books from the 1920s generally didn’t look like anything much. Case in point: this cover of Radiance by Catherynne Valente.
  9. Themed series covers. I love series covers that do something clever to link each volume together. The New English Library covers for Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, for instance, have the Tower getting bigger and bigger on each successive cover, which is a really striking way of illustrating the progression of Roland’s quest.
  10. Painted fantasy scenes. I don’t usually much like fantasy covers that go for straight “realistic” depictions of characters or scenes: too often they jar with my idea of what the world or the character looks like. I actually prefer covers that are indirect, or abstract, or slightly surreal.

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