Tag: smash the kyriarchy

Review: The Mabinogion

TW: rape.

Oh, do we have to talk about The Mabinogion?

Even though it’s 8pm and I’m going on holiday in the wee hours of Friday morning and there’s still a million things I haven’t done?

Well, fine. If you insist.

Probably the first thing I should say here is that the sum total of what I know about the original Mabinogion – the Welsh story cycle whose closest analogue is probably Arthurian mythology – comes from reading Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and not enjoying it much. So I can say pretty much nothing about what Evangeline Walton has done to the tales – what she’s removed or added or emphasised. Which is a pity, really, because looking at an author’s sources is the quickest way of discovering what they’re trying to do.

Anyway. Walton’s The Mabinogion is actually an omnibus containing four novels: Prince of Annwn, in which a prince called Pwyll ventures into Death’s land to vanquish a terrible enemy of humanity and of the world; The Children of Llyr, in which a malcontent stirs up a devastating war between Britain and Ireland; The Song of Rhiannon, which sees a king trying to break a curse that’s fallen on his land; and The Island of the Mighty, which like The Owl Service retells the tale of Blodeuwedd, a woman made out of flowers and given to a British prince to be his wife, with predictably awful results.

So there’s a lot going on: it’s 700 pages long, after all, and it has politics and war and grief, and trickster figures who live by their wits and bards and riddles and rash promises, and heartbreak and treachery and fear and humour and joy and hope.

But it’s also not an exaggeration, I think, to say that the whole thing is in part a discussion of gender. Throughout their various high-jinks, their magic tricks and their battles and their quests, the novels dramatise a clash between the Old Tribes, whose people, male and female, sleep with whoever they like (well, they’re all straight, but you can’t expect everything from novels written in the 1930s) and leave when they’ve had enough, and the New Tribes, who have discovered how babies are made (I’m serious) and have therefore invented marriage as a way of controlling women and consequently male lineage, and virginity is a concept, and therefore so is rape, and basically the New Tribes are shit.

(It’s pretty clear, too, that Walton thought much of this was true: the idea of a sexually promiscuous Celtic society giving way to a patriarchal one was fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, and she footnotes her sources several times throughout the book.)

I spent a lot of energy trying to “solve” The Mabinogion. Is it “good” because it’s sex-positive for both male and female characters and because it sees consent as essential (which is not a given in early twentieth century literature, sadly)? Or is it “bad” because none of its female characters have the kind of reality its male characters have, and because it has a rape scene whose repercussions are more about the perpetrators than the victim, and because it sees all women as mothers at heart?

The answer, of course, is “both” (there’s a brilliant essay here by China Mieville about how culture is oppressive precisely because it’s flexible enough to accommodate both sides of a binary) and “neither” (from a critical standpoint, it’s a product of its culture with no intrinsic moral value). What’s interesting – or, rather, troubling – is why I put all that effort into coming up with a value judgement. I think there’s a lot of pressure – fuelled, undoubtedly, by the blessing and curse that is Twitter – in progressive pop culture to “solve” a text, to be able to label it objectively problematic, in which case everyone who ever reads it and enjoys it is a terrible person, or objectively progressive, in which case you are allowed to read it and express your love for it. I’m guilty of this myself: everyone who expresses admiration for Stephen Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is instantly suspect in my book, for instance, and I’m not even joking about that. There are good reasons why this is so: we’re all anxious about being aware of our cultural biases and making sure that what we recommend to others isn’t going to harm them and listening to minorities when they say their representation isn’t good enough. And those are all good things to hold in our heads. But, sometimes (just sometimes), I think we close down discussion and dialogue in favour of easy answers. That’s a problem because we live in a problematic culture, and so every product of that culture is going to be itself problematic, and labelling just some texts as problematic erases the wider context that created them.

(By the way, that Mieville article says everything I’m trying to say, only much, much better.)

This is a rather wide digression from The Mabinogion itself, which just goes to show how (not) engrossed I was in that text during the interminable three weeks I was stuck in it. (By way of comparison, I can usually read a book in 4-5 days.) I bounced hard off the representation of women here, and that stopped me from enjoying pretty much anything else in the book. That’s an un-nuanced reaction, and one which, yes, stems from the labelling impulse I’ve just talked about, and maybe if I read it again I’d find other things to value about it (as Kari Sperring does at Strange Horizons). For instance: I think there’s probably something interesting to be said about how Walton repurposes these Welsh legends to talk to wider Anglophone culture (Walton was American). In The Mabinogion, she takes up the function of myth, which is to tell us something about our place in the world, in a profoundly feminist cause; her thesis is that we came to be here, inhabitants of a misogynist culture heading rapidly towards ecological collapse, because of patriarchy. Which I agree with, partially, and it’s something I want to admire (especially given when these novels were first written, which I cannot emphasise enough), but…and here we are again.

And – well, I’m not at university any more. I don’t have to spend three weeks of my precious reading time trying to suck meaning from a text that’s actively annoying me.

I hope, though, that if I find myself talking to someone who’s read it as well (which seems vastly unlikely, but you never know) I’ll actually have a discussion, with listening instead of labelling.


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.

Review: The Seed Collectors

Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors is sprawling, like the roots of a tree. That’s appropriate, since it begins with a family tree: that of the Gardeners, many of whom are named after plants – Bryony, Clematis, Ash, Holly. Some years ago, the previous generation of Gardeners disappeared into the rainforest, in search of a plant whose seed pods, it’s said, are the source of true enlightenment – at the cost of an excruciatingly painful death.

The novel opens with the death of Oleander, great aunt to the current generation of Gardeners. She’s left all her surviving descendants a seed pod each, as well as leaving behind a mansion, Namaste House, which has been converted into a retreat for celebrities and very rich people, and a large fortune.

And it wanders forward from there, dipping into the lives of various Gardeners, Namaste House staff, starlets, and at one point a robin, these diverging perspectives bound loosely together by the mystery of the seed pods and the question of what will happen to Namaste House.

At heart, I think, The Seed Collectors is a novel about enlightenment, which Thomas sees as interchangeable with transcendence: according to Oleander, the novel’s wellspring of spiritual wisdom, the seed pods have the power to free souls from the cycle of reincarnation and individuality to become, er, one with the universe, the World Soul. (Yes, this is cheesy; more on that later.) So many of the Gardeners lead variously self-destructive and ultimately selfish lives: Bryony, the ultimate consumer, drinks and eats and shops to excess, to distract herself from her marital problems; the odious botanist Charlie insists on a paleo diet and has a shopping list of attributes he wants in his girlfriends; creepy academic Oliver bumps up the grades of a pretty girl in his class and utterly fails to understand the point of a team-building exercise that requires people to be unselfish so everyone can win. Interspersed with these stories we have bits of Oleander’s wisdom, as the characters begin to unravel the mysteries of the seed pods, and thought experiments that ask us to reframe the world (“If you discovered that you were the only person in the world, and everything you see around you was in fact a part of you, dramatised, how would that change what you are doing right now, right this very instant?”), and intertwined through all of this are the roots and leaves and seeds of plants, familiar as breathing and yet also unfathomably alien.

Like the two other Thomas novels I’ve read, The End of Mr Y and Our Tragic Universe, The Seed Collectors looks at how we codify and curdle reality – in Lacanian terms, how we freeze the terrifying incomprehensibility of the Real into the safety of the Symbolic – and at how, despite everything, reality still leaks out, calling all our cultural values, and so our very subjectivities, into question. In the earlier novels, that codification takes place mainly through narrative: we kill reality into art, limiting the shapes our lives can take as we do so. In The Seed Collectors, individual identity itself is what obstructs and conceals the Real: the things we use to mark ourselves as different from other people, whether that’s a special diet, nice clothes, tennis prowess, being the best at team-building, or sitting in first class on a train. To Thomas, these are all artificial (Symbolic) constructs. And the seed pods, symbols (perhaps ironically) of an alien Nature which can’t be codified into the Symbolic (though botanists like Charlie try), are how the Real erupts into the world – by taking souls out of the cycle of reincarnation, they take them back into the Real, back into nature, and planthood.

I should stress that The Seed Collectors is a good deal less hokey than all this is making it sound. Thomas’ voice throughout the novel is chatty and relaxed, and she has great empathy for most of her characters (well, apart from bloody Charlie). It’s a novel you want to spend time in.

But. (You know there’s a but, don’t you.) There’s a catch with representing the Real in fiction, which is that it’s very hard to do – because fiction is part of the Symbolic, so it can’t actually represent the Real, not directly. I bounced hard off Oleander’s wisdom, her explanations about reincarnation and transcendence – to me, these sections of the book felt trite and too easy. Because, when you get down to it, reincarnation is just another schema in which to confine the Real. It’s just another human way of looking at the world; another order of the Symbolic.

Incidentally, this is where I think speculative fiction has the edge over realistic fiction. When we read SFF, we know it’s not meant to be taken literally; it’s always working metaphorically, or ironically. So it’s much better placed to think about the Real, and about elements of human experience that we can’t put properly into words without diminishing them. SFF can gesture at things realistic fiction can’t say, because SFF is always already gesturing indirectly at the world. That’s how it works.

So my issue with The Seed Collectors is that it isn’t quite SFnal enough. It doesn’t work symbolically enough: it wants us to take reincarnation as literally, as matter-of-factly, as we take the realist sections of the novel. Which, of course, we can’t: it’s a different order of thing. It can only ever be taken metaphorically; but Thomas doesn’t give us the right protocols to read it that way.

The Seed Collectors was a disappointment after Our Tragic Universe (but then, almost anything would be). I get what Thomas was trying to do (well, sort of), and shifting our fundamental notions of reality is not work that every novelist is having a go at, so props for that. It just – didn’t work for me. Sometimes that’s how it goes.

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.)

Film Review: The Last Jedi

This review contains spoilers.

I saw The Last Jedi a month ago: while I was exceptionally and unusually organised at seeing it soon after it came out, clearly that organisation has not extended to actually getting round to reviewing it. Never mind: it’s probably still showing in a cinema near you, Star Wars being the multi-bajillion-pound property that it is.

So, the state of play at the beginning of The Last Jedi, as announced by the time-honoured crawl of text (I defy anyone not to feel a spike of excitement as the theme tune plays) is this: budding Jedi Rey is on Skywalker Island, trying to convince Luke to lead the Resistance/teach her the ways of the Force/at least not be quite so grumpy about everything. Meanwhile, the Resistance, for mysterious reasons of its own, is fighting a pitched battle against a huge First Order fleet.

The film wends its way through both storylines, slowly. Luke inevitably, reluctantly, agrees to give Rey three lessons in the ways of the Force, like a fairytale mentor. But during her time on Skywalker Island she begins to experience visions of Kylo Ren (First Order Supreme Leader-in-training and Han and Leia’s son, honestly, keep up), and tries to convince him that he’s not a bad guy, really, and would be welcome in the Resistance (which, he blatantly wouldn’t).

I’m being flippant, but the Rey/Ren scenes are the best thing about The Last Jedi. Elsewhere in the film, Ren’s tortured emo-ness (which he expresses, obviously, through blowing things up) becomes a little wearying, and Daisy Ridley isn’t given very much to do as Rey except shouting and stamping her foot, but the strange, intense bond – not quite friendship, not quite romance – that develops between them has all the passionate idealism of teenhood. For a while, we genuinely wonder if Kylo Ren will turn to the light after all, or Rey turn to the dark.

Meanwhile, though, the Resistance’s tiny fleet is defeated in battle, and turns and flees: they’re just fast enough that the First Order can’t catch them, but not fast enough to outrun the First Order completely. What’s more, they only have enough fuel for one hyperspace jump, which there’s no point in them making while the First Order is tracking them. With only a few hours of fuel left, the Resistance leader Vice Admiral Holdo decides simply to keep flying.

This, however, is not enough for pilot extraordinaire Poe Dameron, who hatches a plot with escaped stormtrooper Finn and engineer Rose to capture the best codebreaker in the galaxy, sneak him aboard the First Order’s flagship vessel, and get him to disable their tracking device. All in the space of six hours or so, give or take.


If there’s one thing that made The Last Jedi impossible for me to like, it’s this: Poe’s actions effectively (and needlessly) decimate the Resistance, but the film and its characters still see him as a likeable maverick.

Further: Poe questions the judgement of his female and very feminine commanding officer (she’s tall, willowy, speaks softly, wears flowing clothing that emphasises her figure without being revealing – these are all very deliberate character design choices), defies her orders (in scenes that are painfully familiar to any woman who’s ever worked in a traditionally male profession, like, say, battle command), and gets her and most of the Resistance killed, but the film and its characters still see him as a likeable maverick. Instead of, you know, a sexist idiot. (Because, of course, Holdo had a plan all along, and Poe went and screwed it comprehensively up.)

What makes this so particularly jarring is that, otherwise, the film makes very positive choices in terms of diverse representation. Not only are there plenty of women in the Resistance forces (and the film passes the Bechdel test) – including Leia, Holdo herself, and Rose, a new character – there are also plenty of POCs. Poe may have dreamed up the codebreaker plot, but it’s Finn (British Nigerian actor John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, whose parents are Vietnamese) who carry it out. In a blockbuster film in 2018, this still, unfortunately, feels groundbreaking.

The Last Jedi also has an interesting, and in context rather odd, tic around cute animals, and specifically cute animals which help the Resistance in some way. There are the notoriously adorable porgs, included in the film so the production team didn’t have to edit out the puffins who haunt the real-life Skywalker Island; one of them joins Chewie in the Millennium Falcon as a sort of mascot. There are the rather lovely crystal foxes who lead the dregs of the Resistance out of the mines they’ve become trapped in at the end of the film. There are some horse analogues which carry Rose and Finn out of trouble during the execution of their misbegotten plan, and which also incidentally smash up a casino full of evil capitalists.

What’s the connection between diverse representation and cute animals? Well, in the context of The Last Jedi I think they spring from the same impulse: thematically, they position the Resistance as a heterogeneous, grassroots organisation which draws on, and values, a wide range of different skills and backgrounds. (This isn’t a new idea: think of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.) That’s in contrast to the hosts of identical stormtroopers, marching in formation, which make up the First Order’s army. But with the idea of the Resistance of grassroots goes, inseparably, the idea of the Resistance as guerilla; which is where, I think, the film gets its problem with authority. Guerilla armies don’t have formalised structures; at least, not in the popular imagination they don’t. They never get big enough or homogenous enough to need command structures, as the Resistance does. So we have a mismatch between our idea of what the Resistance should be (a group of free actors, bound together only by a shared sense of Right, and basically able to perform acts of heroism with impunity) and what any fighting force, or indeed any organisation that wants to remain functional beyond the next five minutes, needs to be (structured, with lines of command and process, and consequences for breaking those lines). Add to the mix Hollywood’s obsession with individual heroism above collective work towards betterment, and you get a film fatally confused about what, exactly, the Resistance, or indeed anything else, stands for.

Probably all of this would have annoyed me less if the film was actually a proper shape, but, like every single blockbuster film I’ve seen recently, The Last Jedi has screenwriters who just don’t know when to stop. There is too much plot. There are too many denouements, too many climaxes. Not to get all cod-nostalgic here, but the genius of the first three films is that they are shaped like fairytales, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Despite their SFnal set-dressing, they are fables, and so they feel timeless. (And, yes, what is timeless in one decade is oppressive in another; what I’m trying to say is that the original trilogy judge what we in the West currently consider “a good story” very, very well.) The Last Jedi isn’t, and doesn’t. It’s too messy to be Star Wars.

Review: The Fifth Season

This review contains spoilers.

You’ve heard of The Fifth Season. If you know anything about current SFF, you’ve heard of The Fifth Season. It won the Hugo Award in 2016; it was shortlisted for the Nebula; practically every SFF critic on this earth seems to have read it and at the very least enjoyed it.

It’s set on a planet (a far-future Earth? an alien planet? or somewhere else entirely?) tortured by tectonic activity. Every couple of centuries or so a major earthquake or volcanic eruption will precipitate an extinction event; a so-called “Season”, which may last decades, during which crops and animals will die, water sources turn to poison, the weather and seasons become dangerously unpredictable. The society of the Stillness, the single vast continent on this planet, has developed a set of rules, of unbreakable laws, to survive these events – although a lot of people will inevitably die, the idea is that some will live. Jemisin’s worldbuilding in this respect is detailed and convincing without ever being overwhelming and clumsy: she hints at the systems of bureaucracy that keep all this running, the emergency procedures drilled into townspeople’s psyches, the hard choices that town leaders have to make to get their communities through a Season. Because the people of the Stillness deliberately don’t develop communications technology that’s vulnerable to natural disasters – although they do have hydroelectric power – the world feels very epic fantasy; but these details also give it a realism most epic fantasy doesn’t possess.

The people of the Stillness do, however, have a secret weapon against angry Father Earth (who is never named but to curse him): the orogenes, people who can shape and direct and use the power of the earth to keep the Stillness safe. But their power is dangerous – untrained orogenes have been known to kill entire towns along with themselves when frightened or angry. And so they’re hated and reviled by everyone else: young orogenes are taken from their parents (orogeny is hereditary, but it can also appear randomly in non-orogene families) to the Fulcrum, a place that pretends to be a school where orogenes can develop and refine their power for the good of all the Stillness, but which is actually a tool of control.

The novel follows three different women: Damaya, a child given up to the Fulcrum by her parents; Syenite, a skilled orogene who’s sent on a mission with Alabaster, one of the best orogenes in the Stillness, and ordered to conceive a child with him to further his line; and Essun, an orogene in hiding whose husband has found out that their three-year-old son is an orogene and murdered him. The novel is shadowed most by Essun’s story, in which a Season is just beginning, one that will last not the decades the Stillness has prepared for but hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. It is shadowed by the end, finally, of the world.

This is the way the world ends. For the last time.

The concept at the heart of The Fifth Season is control; or, perhaps more specifically, the conflict between control and precariousness, the struggle to keep hold of something of one’s own. The orogenes of the Fulcrum are taught that control of their power is essential; any slip is met with punishment, or, if the transgression is great enough, death. (Remember: these are children.) And yet, the great irony: they have no real control over their own lives and fates and futures, where they go, what they do, who they sleep with. Syenite tries to gain some modicum of control, of autonomy, by collaborating with the system, doing what the Guardians of the Fulcrum tell her, so she can rise in the ranks; the higher-ranking orogenes get better privileges. But Alabaster’s situation reveals how wrong-headed her thinking is. He is the highest-ranking orogene we meet – the highest-ranking orogene Syenite is ever likely to meet – and yet all his privileges, astonishing as they seem to Syenite (he can travel on his own, refuse the sexual partners the Fulcrum assigns to him, enjoy greater privacy than anyone else), only conceal the fact that he has no real agency, no good choices. His life is just as subject to the whims of the Fulcrum, just as precarious, as any other orogene’s. The idea that it is not is of course just another tool the Fulcrum uses to control the orogenes.

So: The Fifth Season describes systems of physical and psychological control, and the (usually doomed, always destructive) struggles of the oppressed to wrest some of that control back. But it also enacts problems of control at a textual level – and that’s what I found most exciting about the novel (if “exciting” is the right word for a book that contains so many terrible things, which I’m not sure it is). It resists passive, complacent reading; it is combative. Essun’s chapters, for instance, are narrated in the second person, an unusual choice the main effect of which isn’t, I think, identification – or, at least, it isn’t straightforwardly identification (or Jemisin would have written in the first person, surely). Although Essun doesn’t make the hardest choices of the women in the novel (that dubious honour goes to Syenite), she is the one most obviously fighting for emotional and physical survival. She is the most free to choose of everyone in The Fifth Season, and her choices are consistently hard. So that second person pronoun, that “you”, is confrontational: it forces us to take the burden of Essun’s choices, and in doing so it forestalls judgement. In some way it takes away our right to judge Essun, because she is us. It upsets the control we think we have as readers over the narratives we consume.

Another such strategy that’s worth mentioning – and the reason for the spoiler warning above; look away now if you wish to remain unspoiled, and take it from me, you probably do – is how those three narratives coalesce, delightfully but also horrifyingly, into one. Damaya, Syenite and Essun are all one woman. And yet each of their narratives feel complete. This is one woman who loses everything three times over; who lives, in effect, three separate lives. Again, this disrupts our sense of control over the text, as well as, neatly, enacting the sense of precariousness that all the orogenes – and, in a wider sense, everyone on Jemisin’s troubled planet – face: multiple worlds end in The Fifth Season, emotional and physical ones.

The Fifth Season‘s discussion of control is, obviously, rooted in real-world strategies of oppression. (The novel has other contemporary contexts, of course: climate change and the idea of a world suddenly turning hostile is a major one.) But it’s never directly metaphorical: in fact, one of the best things about the novel is that the axes of oppression at work in the Stillness are completely different. Queerness is tolerated, impressively for a society in which reproduction might be vital for the survival of a community during a Season – Alabaster sleeps with men by choice, a woman flirts with Essun in the very first chapter, and there is a bisexual polyamorous pirate. (Yes, you read that right.) Racism exists, but it seems to be based much more on facial features than skin colour. It’s an approach that throws into relief the arbitrariness of prejudice while being aware of the sheer extent of the structures that maintain it.

So The Fifth Season is that rare beast: a novel that actually lives up to its hype. It’s gripping, important, horrific, intricately imagined, confrontational, diverse and true.

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

This review contains spoilers for The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit picks up where its predecessor The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet left off: in space, with a new and unsure AI heading rapidly away from a crew devastated by the loss of her predecessor, housed in the highly illegal artificial human body that predecessor was about to inhabit, accompanied by tech genius and general Nice Person Pepper.

From there, it divides into two plotlines: one, set in the present day, follows the AI, now named Sidra, as she attempts to get used to a body she wasn’t designed to inhabit while trying to avoid detection in the slightly shady spaceport Port Coriol; the second, set some years in the past, follows a girl called Jane-23 as she discovers The Truth about the factory she’s spent her short life working in (its operators having hit on the Truth that it’s cheaper to clone humans than it is to build robots).

It took me an inordinate amount of time actually to get round to reading this (it was published in, whisper it low, 2016) given how much I enjoyed Small Angry Planet; but, in the end, it worked out rather well, as I ended up reading it while I was deep in the throes of NaNoWriMo last November. Like its predecessor, it’s a very comforting book, the kind you want to curl up in for ever and ever and never come out (except, possibly, for tea and/or chocolate). At its heart, it’s interested in emotional labour: the work that people do to find practical ways to help and accommodate each other. Problems are more likely to be solved discursively, through conversation, through empathy, than through shows of power or violence. And tolerance is a fundamental of Chambers’ worldbuilding, too: everything on Port Coriol is run with the social and physical needs of multiple alien races in mind. This is a galaxy full of imperfect people trying, in sometimes circuitous and often unglamorous ways, to rub along.

It’s easy to forget how radical such niceness, such a concerted effort at tolerance is; easy to dismiss such comfort reading as anodyne, rose-tinted escapism, as several reviewers have. Even optimism feels radical in a present that’s feeling ever more dystopian. But it’s also true that the optimism of A Closed and Common Orbit is a problem for the novel.

That’s primarily because, structurally, it’s a good deal more conventional than Small Angry Planet: whereas the latter was an episodic, leisurely, rather baggy trip through Chambers’ invented galaxy, A Closed and Common Orbit switches rather mechanically, chapter by chapter without fail, between its two storylines – which then dovetail as we reach the denouement of the tale and the past catches up with the present. And the discursiveness that makes A Closed and Common Orbit such a pleasure to sink into by its very nature can’t generate the narrative drive needed to make that tight structure really work. Instead, it just feels constricting and artificial – a barrier to talking about precisely what the novel’s most interested in.

Another, connected issue with that discursiveness, that built-in tolerance: the nastier elements of Chambers’ galaxy – the clone factories, the threat of oblivion that Sidra faces if the authorities discover she’s an AI in a human body – don’t really convince. At no point do we meet anyone who attempts to defend those factories, or the laws about AIs: they are, instead, vague and faceless threats. I never thought that Sidra was seriously in danger; I never quite bought into Jane-23’s story.

This is a problem firstly because, again, it takes tension out of a narrative structure that’s kind of designed to deliver tension, and secondly because these characters’ stories have analogues with real-world minorities. Sidra’s body dysphoria has parallels with the experience of some trans people; her difficulty in processing stimuli means she can also be read as neurodiverse; there’s a tragedy near the end of the novel, when a woman is legally wrenched away from what she considers to be her family, that recalls uncomfortably how Western countries, particularly America and Britain at the moment, treat refugees and asylum seekers. This is all important representation, of course! But the fact that we can read a world that wants to kill Sidra, and that can treat refugees in this way, as basically benign – which is how I read Chambers’ galaxy – is potentially troubling; at the very least it reinforces a privileged view of both the fictional and the real worlds as “basically OK for most people”, which is not even broadly true for this world.

A Closed and Common Orbit wasn’t a disappointing sequel, exactly. I was looking for the tolerance and the hope that featured in Small Angry Planet, and I found it. And I mean what I said about that optimism, and the sheer emotional work it takes Chambers’ characters to maintain it, being radical, and important: we need more of this kind of book, for the days when it feels like absolutely nothing will go right ever again. But, we also need other kinds of books, too, for the days when we feel braver: books that don’t flinch from the nastinesses of the world, the institutional discrimination and the low-level prejudice that make our world less than benign.