Tag: science fiction

Review: Borrowed Time

Naomi A. Alderman’s Borrowed Time is a Doctor Who novel first published in 2011 and recently re-released to capitalise on the success of Alderman’s award-winning The Power. In it, the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory visit the headquarters of the fictional Lexington Bank in the City of London in order to have ringside seats at the 2008 financial crash (???), only to find that there’s more than one speculative bubble in the making. The bank’s employees are impossibly productive and prepared, doing vastly more work than they should have time for. Turns out that two fishy characters by the names of Symington and Blenkinsop are lending out time to all and sundry: who wouldn’t relish having an extra hour or so in the day? But the wonders of compound interest have people owing more time than there is in a lifetime – tens if not hundreds of years.

Borrowed Time is, first and foremost, a lot of fun – unexpectedly so, for a novel about banking. The conceit of having time lent out like money, and on the same capitalist principles, serves to clarify the stakes of actual, real-world banking practices like those which precipitated the 2008 crisis: practices which ruined people’s lives just as thoroughly as they would have if they’d literally taken years from them. Poverty is still a major killer, even in the West, which makes bankers the biggest villains on the planet. Perhaps some of the imagery is a little on-the-nose: Symington and Blenkinsop, the predatory loan sharks, are also literal sharks. Well, shark-headed, anyway. And it’s a little difficult to believe that bankers would fall for the compound interest trick. But, hey, this is a book that’s designed to be accessible to older children as well as adults, so I can forgive a little narrative efficiency. (This is Doctor Who, after all. Subtlety has never been its strong point.)

I’m not sure how to parse the weird meta doubleness of having all this go down in a bank. Of course it’s thematically appropriate and it’s a great way of explaining the complex economics of the sub-prime mortgage crisis; but making the bankers the victims of their own behaviour (without making it explicit that they too would engage in Symington and Blenkinsop’s trickery if they had the chance) perhaps lets them off the hook a bit. What’s more, one of the sympathetic human characters goes on to lead the bank, weathering the financial crash and achieving huge success – which definitely excuses her of culpability. The novel encourages us to think that there are “good” bankers and “bad” bankers, instead of a system that incentivises risky, predatory decision-making.

Having said that, would the story work as well if it was set in a management consultancy, or a law firm? I’m not sure. I think Alderman is aiming for clarity of purpose here rather than complete ideological purity, which might be beyond the scope of a Doctor Who novel anyway. As it is, taken on its own terms, this is a clever, light adventure story with a bit of depth to it – something for everyone to enjoy.

Doctor Who Review: Praxeus

Praxeus’ foresight looks almost uncanny now, more than three months after it was first aired and who knows how long since it was filmed. The sixth episode of Doctor Who’s twelfth series, it sees the Doctor and her fam investigating an alien bacterium, the titular Praxeus, that feeds on microplastics, threatening to spread a deadly disease to every living thing on Earth.

The handling of its environmental message – viz., that the way we’ve contaminated our entire planet with a material that doesn’t break down poses dangers we may not be able to foresee – is a nice corrective to that of the heavy-handed and weirdly Cold War-reminiscent Orphan 55. Unlike the earlier episode’s oddly insubstantial warnings of mass migration and nuclear destruction, that of Praxeus is specific, actionable and educational without being didactic. And the environmental theme serves the story in an organic (hah) way. It’s interesting that Praxeus and the pandemic it threatens to cause is presented as a problem basically of our own making, in the light of recent comments from people like Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, on the link between novel coronavirus and humanity’s destruction of wildlife habitats.

But Praxeus does less well on the details of epidemiology. Bizarrely, towards the end of the episode we find out that Praxeus is sentient (raising some moral questions about eradicating it that go unaddressed) and that it has built a kind of den at the bottom of the Indian ocean out of waste plastic after being released into the sea by an alien spacecraft.

Why? How? This isn’t how bacteria work! If Praxeus eats plastic, surely it would be breaking it down rather than building with it? And why does it need such a space anyway?

The Doctor and her friends work together to create an antidote to the disease caused by Praxeus and test it on Adam, a handy astronaut who’s been exposed to the bacterium. “You need a clinical trial, a human body, and now you’ve got one,” says Adam as he’s volunteering for this role.

Again: not how clinical trials work. You need thousands of people, not just one.

These are nitpicks, obviously, and generally I try to avoid such Watsonian critiques: they’re rarely helpful to looking at what a text is trying to do. But now, in the midst of the most significant health emergency the West has experienced since the Spanish flu…it’s important to get these things right. It’s important that people understand how disease works, and that writers don’t misuse technical terms like “clinical trial”. Misinformation is a killer.

In other areas, though, I felt Praxeus was a strong episode relative to the first half of the series, with a strong identity and a single unified theme. The relationship between Adam and his husband Jake is touchingly handled – the matter-of-fact inclusion of LGBT+ people is something this series is getting right. It’s not clear whether vloggers Gabriela and Jamila are a couple, but I certainly read them that way and I think the episode gives us the space to do so. Praxeus isn’t as good as its predecessor Fugitive of the Judoon, but it’s a solid entry in the series.

Review: The Paganism Reader

Like many of the books on paganism and related subjects that I’ve reviewed here recently, The Paganism Reader, edited by Chas S. Clifton and Graham Harvey, was a loan from a friend, now returned. I don’t have it here to refer to, in other words, which is a little sad – I’d have liked to pay tribute to its comprehensiveness by being comprehensive and thorough myself.

In any case, The Paganism Reader brings together a selection of texts that have informed various flavours and philosophies of paganism in the last century or so. The works range over a much larger span of time, though, from Apuleius’ Golden Ass (160-170AD) to a couple of remarkably down-to-earth essays by modern Pagans: “Finding your way in the woods: the art of conversation with the Genius Loci” by Barry Patterson and “Entertaining faeries” by Gordon Maclellan were particular favourites. (It seems, however, that Maclellan is a white man calling himself a “shaman”, gah. It’s worth noting, too, that there’s an essay in the book entitled “What happened to Western shamanism?”, although I don’t remember anything about it.)

The book also contains extracts from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – famously the inspiration behind the Church of All Worlds – the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, the entire Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley (which is a trip, let me tell you) and work by Margaret Murray, Doreen Valiente, Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner, among much else. Another of my favourites was “Initiation by ordeal” by Judy Harrow – a look at military service as a modern-day initiation ceremony, a marking of the border between childhood and adulthood, examining the ways it succeeds and fails in this capacity.

I don’t know enough about the field to say with any accuracy how comprehensive or balanced this book is as a look at paganism and its sources, but its list of contributors is certainly impressive, and there’s a lot of texts here I feel grateful to have had ready access to – things like The Book of the Law which I would never have sought out on its own. It’s not really an introductory text: it won’t give you an accessible overview of what paganism looks like now. As a collection of sources, though, it’s wide-ranging, useful and enlightening. I wrote recently about how I’d like pagan authors and their readers to be much more mindful of where their traditions and beliefs are coming from, to avoid appropriating things that aren’t ours to take; having The Paganism Reader on the shelf strikes me as a great place to start.

Doctor Who Review: Fugitive of the Judoon

This review contains spoilers.

It’s revealing that pretty much all the responses I’ve read to Fugitive of the Judoon (episode 5, series 12) consist of fan theorising, rather than, say, criticisms of character or plot. It’s not difficult to see why: this story of rhino-like Judoon descending into a weekday-morning Gloucester to menace an apparently unremarkable couple features a cameo from Captain Jack Harkness, back for the first time in ten years, a hitherto-unknown incarnation of the Doctor (the first played by a person of colour) and a cryptic reference to “the lone Cyberman” to which, we assume, the long arc of series 12 is bending. Oh! And a bonus sexy Time Lord. With its hints and mysteries, it’s not so much a standalone episode as it is a set-up for larger stories to come.

And yet it works pretty well, certainly in my view, as a lore-focused episode; in fact it’s probably the best of the series’ stories so far. Unlike, for example, Spyfall, it’s pretty consistent in tone and perspective, following a single mystery – why are the Judoon after a tour guide and someone who works at Bathrooms4U? – through to its conclusion, without getting distracted along the way.

I think that what makes it work so well as a fan-service story is that it’s self-consciously structured as one: it asks us to revise our understanding of Doctor Who just as it asks the Doctor to revise her understanding of her own past (a process whose significance will become clearer later on in the series). The first half of the episode juxtaposes the mundane and the alien: the Judoon in a quiet cathedral town, inside the cathedral itself (“this is a place of worship,” the Doctor says, “show some respect”), besieging an ordinary-looking block of flats.

The recurrent image of a lighthouse leads us, appropriately enough, into the second half of the episode. A lighthouse is decidedly not mundane; nor is the practice of living in it, as tour guide Ruth’s parents apparently did. This mysterious building, which Ruth sees a couple of times in flashback before taking us there, functions almost Gothically: it’s a liminal, haunted space where Ruth and the Doctor encounter unexpected truths about themselves, before travelling into the fully alien space of a Judoon spaceship.

So the episode leads the Doctor, and by extension us, through a psychological rupture, leaving our understanding of Chibnall-era Who fundamentally changed. Its biggest flaw is probably Captain Jack’s subplot: his literal only purpose is to kidnap Graham, Yaz and Ryan accidentally and give them a cryptic warning before depositing them back on Earth, which seems a rather clumsy way of removing the Doctor’s companions from the main plot. On the other hand, I appreciated the depiction of the Judoon as a trigger-happy police force – an analogy given particular force by the fact that Ruth is Black.

All in all, I’d call this the first good episode of series 12, a turning point leading into a relatively stronger second half.

Doctor Who Review: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, the fourth episode of Doctor Who‘s series 12, does not improve its impressively dismal run. Despite its pulpy title, I found it dull and uninspiring. I think I may have gone to unload the dishwasher at one point.

Set in 1903, the plot revolves around the rivalry between Nikola Tesla (pioneering, a solo flyer, has no money) and Thomas Edison (commercially-minded, wealthy), with a mysterious alien orb thrown in for good measure. It turns out that a vaguely lizardy/snakey species called the Skithra want Tesla for his engineering skills, and are prepared to destroy the planet to get him.

The overall thrust of the episode, broadly, seems to be that Stealing Intellectual Property Is Bad. Tesla dislikes Edison because he buys intellectual property and commercialises it; the Skithra are cheapskate deadbeats because their spaceship is made up of bits and pieces of other species’ technology. Be like Tesla! writer Nina Metivier seems to say. Invent your own stuff! Create the future!

Which is a mindset that neither the salvagepunk nor the socialist in me can get behind, fundamentally. It smacks of American exceptionalism, this idolisation of ~pure~ genius/creativity: not everyone can invent, and equally not every inventor is skilled at deploying and distributing their inventions effectively. Metivier’s Edison isn’t a corporate monster: he knows his staff and mourns their deaths at the hands of the Skithra; he doesn’t seem to be exploiting anyone. As for the Skithra – well, criticising their practice of cobbling together other species’ technology seems pretty rich for an alien whose time machine looks like a 1960s police box.

It’s possible your mileage may vary! There’s nothing outright wrong or offensive about Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – what it was trying to do just didn’t resonate with me. I found it a pretty dismal addition to an already fairly dismal series 12, though.

Review: Yellow Blue Tibia

Set in Soviet-era Russia, Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia opens with five science fiction writers being taken to a dacha in the countryside. There, Stalin himself instructs them to invent a story about an alien invasion – the idea being that, with America seemingly on the brink of collapse, the Soviet Union needs another massive ideological threat to hold it together. A few months later, they’re told to stop working on the project and forget about it completely, on pain of death.

Sixty-odd years later, there are only two writers left: Konstantin Skvorecky and Jan Frenkel. They’re thrown together when Frenkel realises that the story they wrote is actually coming true…

When I was researching this post, one of the most notable criticisms of Yellow Blue Tibia I stumbled across, in a couple of places, was that its presentation of Russian culture and language is – not just inauthentic, but plain wrong. Catherynne Valente, in particular, points out that SF and other fantastika, far from being despised and looked down upon as it is and has been in the West, has a venerable and respectable history in Russia; that the many and various bilingual puns and plays-on-words rely on a Western reading of Russian letters, and don’t work if you can actually read Russian; that Konstantin doesn’t act like a person living in Soviet Russia would.

I think Valente is missing the point to an extent here, though I sympathise with why she has done so (how many times have I refused to engage with a litfic novel because of its treatment of its female characters?). Lavie Tidhar posits that unlike most SFF writers, who are looking to make unfamiliar worlds seem familiar and comfortable, Roberts “seeks to defamiliarise the unfamiliar” (italics original):

His interest does not lie in convincing us this is real. On the contrary. His SF seeks to distract us, to point out to us the superficial structures and devices being used.

In other words, Roberts’ SFnal worlds are not meant to be accurate; his works respond not to conditions of external reality but to the condition of SF itself. Yellow Blue Tibia is not about Russia; it’s about a Western idea of Russia.

Which leaves us with two related questions. One: is it okay to use Russian history and culture in service of a project that in truth has very little interest in the country? Two: what’s Roberts hoping to achieve by using Russia in this way?

Let’s start with the first question, although I may circle back to it once I’ve thought about #2. The answer would, I think, be pretty clear if the country in question was, say, India, or China, or the UAE: no, it’s not okay to mangle the culture and language of historically oppressed people in service of a story about the West. Although I think the calculation is a little different for Russia, given its privileged position on the world stage for much of modern history, it’s fair to say Roberts is on shaky ground here. (Enough people on Goodreads have described the book as “historically accurate” without having any knowledge of Russia to suggest that Roberts’ satire is not flagged very clearly.) I also agree unequivocally with Valente that the portrayal of Dora, an American Scientologist and incidentally also the only female character in the text, is fatphobic; and the character of Saltykov, who is ludicrously literal-minded and rules-oriented because of his anachronistic Asperger’s diagnosis, is an ableist stereotype.

So, question two: why Russia? And what’s Roberts’ larger project here?

One of Yellow Blue Tibia‘s characters describes Skvorecky, Our Protagonist, as an ironist – a description that fits Roberts himself equally well. Neither of them mean anything they say. Or, perhaps, it’s just that what they say is not exactly what they mean. Someone once defined irony to me as a gap: a gap between what is said and what is intended, or between what is and what is expected. Yellow Blue Tibia is full of such gaps. Having rejected science fiction as a moribund and foolish genre, Skvorecky makes a living in the “present day” of the novel – the 1980s, when he’s reunited with Frenkel – an English-Russian translator; much is made of the interplay between the two languages, the problems of representation and communication that translation throws up; the lossy transfer between two different ways of seeing the world as they are conditioned by language. (It’s this interplay, of course, that attracts much of Valente’s ire.)

Saying not exactly what we mean: is this indicative of what Yellow Blue Tibia thinks of science fiction? In an endnote, Roberts says of his novel that it seeks to reconcile two “seemingly contradictory facts about UFOs: that, on the one hand, they have touched the lives of many millions […] and on the other, that they clearly don’t exist”. This is an ironic statement, is it not? In a couple of ways: factually, that something that doesn’t exist can touch the lives of so many people; and self-referentially too. It’s a red herring insomuch as it suggests we read the text superficially, as pure hard-SF thought experiment, an explanation for UFOs. But, if we read UFOs as metonymy for science fiction as a whole – then, perhaps, it gives us a key to Roberts’ project in Yellow Blue Tibia. Because, isn’t it ironic that SF touches the lives of millions of people with stories of things that don’t exist?

I think there’s quite a lot of this going on in Yellow Blue Tibia: Roberts constantly directing our attention to the superficial, giving us the uncanny sense that he doesn’t actually mean anything he’s saying. Hence the exaggerated stereotypes, the comedic banter, the madcap car chases and KGB encounters and other high jinks that make up the last half of the book: these things are there to elicit a reaction; laughter, or suspense. (I laughed. Books don’t often make me laugh.)

Where does the ironical nature of science fiction come into it? There’s a scene where Skvorecky is waylaid by a UFO appreciation society and asked to give a speech, in his capacity as an esteemed science fiction author. He denies all knowledge of and belief in UFOs; the society, though, assumes that he’s doing so in order to avoid persecution from the authorities, and interprets his words as meaning their opposite. And what about the presence of the two Scientologist characters – members of a religion that famously has taken science fiction a little too seriously? What these fanatics have in common, perhaps, is an overenthusiasm for reading science fiction literally, superficially; for not spotting its ironical potential. Which is exactly what Roberts is directing us to do, of course; to pay attention to the superficialities of his text.

A regular refrain of Skvorecky’s opposes the real/not real dichotomy adhered to by Scientologists and SF fans alike: best expressed here as “It was [x]; or it was [y]; or it was some third thing”. As in, “She loved me. Or she did not. Or some third thing.” The book’s aliens, by the time they appear towards the end of the novel, are similarly indecisive, being inhabitants of a quantum multiverse who manipulate probabilities to create a timeline that suits them best. That means, among other things, that they can complicate the dichotomy between death and life, existence and non-existence. So Roberts resists a literal reading of Yellow Blue Tibia even as he directs us towards its superficialities. Which I think tells us what Russia is doing in this novel: it’s there to evoke a sense of the paranoia engendered by state surveillance, the inability to identify what is real and what is not. It is always “some third thing”.

So, like Lavie Tidhar, I read Yellow Blue Tibia as a critique of Western science fiction fandom and SF’s tendency towards familiarisation. In drawing our attention to the text’s superficialities while also resisting a literal reading of the same text, Roberts anticipates criticisms like Valente’s which demonstrate exactly his point: that SFF readers are too focused on the literal to the detriment of the ironical.

Is this a fair criticism? We’ve all heard of and met people who don’t believe politics, or any other kind of “message”, belongs in SFF. We’ve all read Watsonian reviews and comments that treat SFF texts as logically consistent secondary worlds with no authorial design or bias. But there are also lots of people out there doing fascinating SFF criticism that does pay attention to subtext, to irony, to metaphor. So –

Like many of Roberts’ novels, Yellow Blue Tibia is flawed. Although there are reasons for the unpleasant stereotyping of Dora, Saltykov and Russia in general, I don’t think criticisms like Valente’s are invalid. Pleading artistic integrity is not a defence against cultural appropriation, ableism and fatphobia. But there’s also a heck of a lot to engage with here if you’re able and willing to overlook those things: Roberts’ novel may be flawed, but it’s also kind of brilliant.

Doctor Who Review: Orphan 55

Hmm. Well, this is easily the worst Doctor Who episode I’ve seen this season. I see many critics agree with me on this.

Orphan 55 opens as the Doctor and her companions arrive at Tranquillity Spa, an all-inclusive holiday destination, for some intergalactic luxury. Doctor Who being what it is, of course, the relaxation doesn’t last very long, as the hotel’s defence system collapses and a horde of terrifying murderous creatures burst in, separating Ryan from the rest of the group. Fantastic! A good old-fashioned base-under-siege episode!

Except, as with Spyfall, the story pivots rapidly away from its initial shape: the Doctor discovers that Tranquillity Spa is built on an “orphan” planet, a planet destroyed long ago by its original inhabitants and left a toxic wasteland. The mutated creatures now living there – named, ominously, the Dregs – have taken Benni, one of the hotel guests; the Doctor and everyone staying at the hotel (including a child and an elderly woman) set out on a dangerous mission across the poisonous surface of the planet to rescue him.

Various inevitable complications follow: their armoured truck breaks down, Benni’s voice is heard mysteriously close, their oxygen begins running low as they make a dash for some underground tunnels. In the midst of all this they discover the awful truth of the planet’s origin: it is Earth, ravaged by a nuclear war caused by climate change-induced food chain collapse; while the benighted Dregs are the mutated remnants of humanity. In case we hadn’t quite got the message, the Doctor repeats it for us once the gang has escaped:

In your time, humanity is busy arguing over the washing-up while the house burns down. Unless people face facts and change, catastrophe is coming. But it’s not decided. You know that. The future is not fixed. It depends on billions of decisions, and actions, and people stepping up. Humans. I think you forget how powerful you are. Lives change worlds. People can save planets, or wreck them. That’s the choice.

I don’t think Doctor Who does edutainment well: in the mouth of the all-knowing Doctor, speeches like this come off a little too didactic. (Which is not to say I don’t think SFF should be political; on the contrary, all fiction is by nature political. But there are ways and ways of doing it.) Nevertheless, moments like this can be redeemed by a strongly-written episode, like last season’s Rosa. Orphan 55 is not strongly-written. On any level. There’s simply too much going on, and too much of that is frankly quite bizarre.

Firstly: I think Doctor Who episodes do best when they have a strong unity of place. I’m thinking of episodes like Gridlock, Midnight, even Blink, all of which explore a situation, a setting, and its various symbolic or psychological ramifications. (Spyfall, notably, lacked unity of place, as did many of Moffat’s episodes.) It’s a format well-suited to a 45-minute segment. The fact that we don’t see the toxic wasteland of Orphan 55 until about twenty minutes in, and that we don’t spend that much time in it, means that we never feel its full emotional resonance. The episode doesn’t take the time to build a sense of atmosphere, which means in turn we don’t experience the full horror of realising this barren wasteland is Earth.

Besides which, the anxieties on display here are weirdly outdated and difficult to connect with modern fears about climate change. The nuclear wasteland (which apparently used to be Russia) and the mutated Dregs feel more Cold War than anything – the Dregs especially tapping into racist concerns about purity and degradation. (It’s interesting that Orphan 55 shows signs early on of turning into a story about colonialism: “You built this somewhere you shouldn’t…The native species want you and your guests dead.”) The later Praxeus does a much better job of working contemporary environmental concerns into a compelling storyline, focusing as it does on plastic proliferation; I might also expect to see flooded planets, drowned cities (bonus if they contain recognisable buildings) or extreme weather events in a story about climate change. It is possible to repurpose old imagery to talk about new things, but it hasn’t worked here.

While the failed climate change messaging is the worst thing about Orphan 55, it’s not the only thing the episode fluffs. There’s plenty of stuff that just seems to be…forgotten? Why did the Dregs keep Benni alive for so long, and why does his death happen off-screen? How did three people run a spa on their own, and how did they hope to terraform a whole planet? Sure, the semantic content of popular SF narratives isn’t always important or worth interrogating, but the episode just doesn’t cohere on any level. It’s frustrating – a far cry from the simple, narratively satisfying episodes of season eleven.

And, look. As a species we need more stories about climate change – especially popular ones. There just aren’t that many that tackle it head-on; that present us with solutions, not moralising; that ask us to face the terrifying truth that the climate is collapsing, that everything is dying, that there is no place on Earth we have not polluted. This kind of half-baked storytelling? Is not going to cut it. Do better, Doctor Who.