Tag: smash the kyriarchy

Review: Childhood’s End

This review contains spoilers.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, widely considered an SF classic, is most assuredly Not For Me – and not just because I realised halfway through that I’d already seen half of the Syfy adaptation of the novel and thus already knew what the Big Reveal at its crux would be.

As a piece of SF it feels Extremely 50s (it was published in 1953). An account of the invasion of Earth by a benevolent alien species called the Overlords, it’s more thought experiment than narrative, featuring little in the way of character development or even character continuity: the events of the novel take place over generations, and we experience them through the eyes of several different human characters.

The central conceit of the novel is: what price utopia? Alternatively/additionally, what price evolution? The Overlords are benevolent and under their rule injustice and inequality is eradicated; but at what cost to humanity as a whole?

These questions are pretty much all the book has to offer, but the way they’re examined and dealt with is not at all compelling to me; in fact, I’d call it simplistic. That’s because Childhood’s End centres Western, male, neoliberal, middle-class experience in everything it does, as the basis of its utopia and its discussion of what humanity is and is for. For instance: the Overlords intervene violently in humanity’s affairs only twice, once in Spain to put an end to bullfighting on the basis of animal cruelty (no mention of the massive exploitation of livestock perpetrated by the meat industry), and once in South Africa, where white people are being oppressed by Black people after the fall of apartheid…???!!!! WHAT

Not to mention that a hundred years into the Overlords’ much-vaunted utopia, where everyone is equal, the women are still the ones expected to cook and clean for their (conveniently still nuclear) families. Not to mention that Clarke’s idea of utopia is one in which everyone – globally – speaks English and is culturally undifferentiated. (Clarke belabours the point that nobody pays any attention to a silly thing like skin colour any more in his imagined future society, but I think there is about one, minor, character of colour in the whole book, and everyone is suspiciously American.)

Like. I know this is all “standard” “for the time period”, and context is everything, etc., etc., and additionally that none of this is exactly The Point of the text. But the same kind of oversimplification affects things that are The Point. Clarke asks us to swallow the old capitalist chestnut that resource scarcity and hardship are what give life meaning, that taking those pressures away makes art and the sciences stagnate. I’m sceptical. But I’d be more inclined to entertain the notion if the text were a little more invested in actually exploring it, rather than just…giving it to me as A Thing That Happened. The novel’s final reveal suffers from the same problem: turns out the Overlords are themselves working for a higher power, the Overmind, an omnipotent psychic intelligence that eventually claims humanity’s children for its own. I don’t have a problem with the telepathy stuff, as many readers apparently do (Clarke himself disowns it as a product of heady younger years, in a preface to the novel); I do have a problem with the idea that all of humanity immediately gives up hope and stops having children. What, everyone? Humans don’t work like that, they’re messy and irrational and hard to predict.

Which basically sums up everything I have to say about Childhood’s End: that’s not how people work. That’s not how society works. It’s a novel that flat-out ignores the vast majority of the global population and the invisible forces of power and privilege that cause the problems the Overlords look to solve. And in doing so, it makes solving those problems look simple; it abrogates our responsibility to look for workable compromises that everyone’s happy with.

I can’t help comparing this, anachronistically, to Kim Stanley Robinson’s work, which is the kind of hard, long-horizon SF I think Clarke is aspiring to here, but which doesn’t elide the messiness of humanity, which acknowledges that some people, many people! are not cis straight white men. I know the two authors are a generation apart and come from quite different cultural backgrounds – but I think one of the things I’m struggling with in reading Childhood’s End is this idea that it’s one of SFF’s foundational texts, something that all “real” fans should read; that it’s thus somehow still a relevant, modern text, when it’s so very dated. This is one of the problems with canon, of course: it represents a certain view of what a genre “should” be, and invariably shuts out other histories in the process.

That’s basically a very unfocused way of saying: Childhood’s End has very much not sold me on Clarke, or on any of the other white male authors of “classic” SF. I might read more. I might not. But I don’t think either choice would make me a better or worse reader of SFF.


Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians is a tale of extravagant wealth, designer dresses, catty relatives, wonderful food and a lavish wedding.

The obligatory couple at the centre of all this is Rachel Chu and Nick Young of New York. Unbeknownst to economics professor Rachel, Nick is the scion of one of the wealthiest families in Asia – so when he invites her home for the holidays to attend a society wedding in Singapore, it’s something of a shock for her. For their part, Nick’s family isn’t terribly impressed that he’s determined to marry a nobody.

What follows is a not-exactly-revolutionary romantic comedy, as Rachel navigates the convoluted rituals and customs of the society she’s inadvertently stumbled into, facing the contempt of Nick’s family, the jealousy of the women who want him for themselves, and the impossible standards she must now live up to. Will their relationship survive this turmoil?

I enjoyed it primarily as escapism, a glimpse into the kind of lifestyle that is for the overwhelming majority of people utterly out of reach; a chance to live that life vicariously, through fiction. In other words, I experienced it as a comfort read, consolatory and conservative: it never criticises the extraordinary privilege of its characters, or the systems which produce such privilege, and as such, it shores up that privilege, encourages us to admire and aspire to it, protecting the hidden injustices on which it rests.

This conservatism overwhelms the gestures the novel does make towards a more nuanced engagement with its subject. It’s most problematic when it comes to the novel’s ableist title, which signals that we’re meant to read the characters’ wealth as ridiculous while simultaneously propping up a value system that (indirectly) enables their privilege in the first place. And while I appreciated Kwan’s recognition of how deliberately exclusive the rituals of the wealthy are, how calculatedly obfuscatory they are to outsiders, how difficult, in other words, it really is to be Cinderella, the fact remains that this is a world that Rachel inevitably eventually chooses to enter, and so one that’s validated as desirable. It’s the ultimate fantasy: as a woman, you just have to be nice enough, persevere long enough, be romantically interesting enough, to overcome those barriers.

There are good things, of course; most obviously, the fact that this, a novel aimed squarely at a mass-market Western audience, is populated entirely by Asian characters. It’s also, despite/because of its conservatism, a lot of fun to read – the narrative beats come exactly in all the right places, a familiar, comfortable, cosy rhythm. I think it’s okay to enjoy things like that, as long as we can acknowledge their flaws too, and call for better. For now, though – there are two sequels to get stuck into…

Review: My Year of Meats

TW: domestic abuse, miscarriage, eating disorder

My Year of Meats confirmed it to me: I just love Ruth Ozeki’s writing. Her novels (by which I mean this and A Tale for the Time Being) have this extraordinary generosity: the world is screwed up, but there is grace too.

So: our heroine is Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese-American filmmaker who’s hired at the beginning of the novel to make a reality TV series called My American Wife! Sponsored by BEEF-EX, an American beef export company which wants to expand its market share in Japan, the series is supposed to feature “wholesome” American wives making their favourite meat dishes. Jane, however, has a bit of a contrary streak, as well as a frustrated impulse towards telling the truth in her documentaries, and inspired by both of these things she starts learning more about the meat industry and seeking out more diverse families to feature in the series.

Interwoven with Jane’s story is that of Akiko, a Japanese woman in an abusive relationship with a husband, Joichi, who she’s never particularly cared for and whose primary interest in his wife is mainly her childbearing capacities. Convinced that meat-eating is the secret to conception, he demands that Akiko cook the recipes featured on My American Wife!

It’s a novel about misogyny and the meat industry and the neoliberal capitalist forces that lie behind both. It’s a novel about commodification: the commodification of female and animal bodies by a system that sees them both as no more than resources to be exploited, means to an end. Women are for making more men, and for sex. Animals are for eating.

I thought I would have a lot more to say about what My Year of Meats is doing, but it turns out I don’t really. That’s not a bad thing, at all. Ozeki draws connections between these seemingly unrelated topics elegantly, delicately – although “delicate” feels like an odd word to use of a novel that features miscarriages, slaughterhouses, hormone poisoning and bulimia. And I love how she posits ways out of the system, however imperfect: ways to escape abusive patriarchy and the webs of big industry. They’re not perfect, because the world is imperfect; but there is grace.

Oh, but. It’s a moderate but. It’s particularly glaring, though, given how well these women’s narratives are handled otherwise. Right at the end of the novel, Jane finds a man named Sloan, with whom she has History, in a bar. The History involves casual sex that gets gradually more serious and then a Crisis and lots of anger but also lots of romantic tension, and basically the novel encourages us to root for this couple despite/because of everything that’s happened to them. They’re technically separated at this point, but as soon as Sloan sees Jane he gives the cold shoulder to another woman he’s clearly romantically involved with and forcibly marches Jane out the bar, and then they shout at each other and have sex and everything’s fine again.

This is a novel that’s in part about escaping domestic abuse. Do we need it to end with a man twisting a woman’s arm up her back only for them to ride happily off into the sunset? We do not. Please and thank you.

Still. With that caveat, My Year of Meats is a lovely thing. And I’ll be reading more of Ozeki’s work.

Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

This review contains spoilers.

The latest film in the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald focuses on magical creatures specialist Newt Scamander’s search in Paris for the immensely powerful, frightened and dangerous teenager Credence. The dark wizard Grindelwald is seeking to recruit Credence to his cause. The established powers of the magical world would, understandably, like to stop this happening.

As a fantasy blockbuster, it’s not the most compelling thing in the world. Like most films of its type at the moment, it’s so plotted it might as well be plotless: things happen in a vaguely logical sequence but it doesn’t really add up to coherent narrative drive.

That was a problem with the first film as well, though. And, I don’t think The Crimes of Grindelwald is as good as the first film, but it does have its compensations: namely that it’s a thing lovely to look at. The gorgeous, inventive 1930s costumes. The lovingly-rendered magical creatures in Newt’s menagerie. And, ahem, Newt himself, played by Eddie Redmayne, who brings a level of conviction to the role that miraculously lifts it out of stereotypical-nerd-boy territory, and which the rest of the film doesn’t quite deserve.

Oh, but. Let’s talk about ideological problems, because we all know that is where my critical heart lies. I’m fascinated by the way this film – this franchise, really – is so invested in the idea of family ties, despite its overt rejection of Grindelwald’s ideology of racial purity. Credence’s entire plot arc is about searching for his family, searching, as he puts it, for who he is; the film’s implication is that not finding his family is what makes him turn ultimately to Grindelwald. Meanwhile, there’s a simmering tension between Newt and his brother Theseus; a plot point involving the family of Theseus’ fiancée Leto Lestrange, who is of course related to the Bellatrix Lestrange who terrorises the later-set Harry Potter series; a full-blown argument between Newt’s friend Queenie and her Muggle boyfriend Jacob about the laws that prevent Muggles and magical people from marrying; and the fact that Newt’s crush Tina is Queenie’s sister. Everyone in this film is related to each other, in a way that seems to reinforce Grindelwald’s ideas that blood purity, and specifically blood ties, are what make the wizarding world strong. It’s the breaking of those ties that drive people into Grindelwald’s arms.

The film’s ideological muddle is best illustrated by the Queenie-Jacob subplot. In a nutshell, Jacob won’t marry Queenie, though he wants to, because it would make her a social pariah in wizarding circles, and is against the law in those circles anyway. Her unhappiness with this state of affairs eventually pushes her into Grindelwald’s faction, despite the fact that one of Grindelwald’s stated aims is to subjugate Muggles and prevent magical people from marrying them? I don’t think the film does anywhere near enough work to convince us that Queenie can really see this as a viable solution to the specific social problem she and Jacob are encountering. Everything about how she has been positioned as a character suggests that she’d be the very last person to support Grindelwald.

Part of the film’s problem is, I think, that it’s reaching for sophomoric political relevance in its portrayal of Grindelwald as charismatic demagogue. It’s trying, in a fairly shallow and obvious way, to talk about what makes otherwise sympathetic people support hateful ideologies (the shadow of Donald Trump, and, more historically, Adolf Hitler, rears up behind Grindelwald). It wants to talk about how social displacement radicalises people like Credence and Queenie – but it does so without taking account of the particular political tensions and divides that Rowling’s already written into her world. The status quo of the wizarding world already depends on blood ties and blood purity, so it’s not as if joining Grindelwald’s faction is upending the status quo in any particularly meaningful way.

(Actually, it occurs to me at this point that Grindelwald’s actual politics are only nebulously defined, beyond “enslave the Muggles”. Like Darth Vader and Sauron, he’s essentially just a symbol of Evil, which makes the kind of nuance Rowling is aiming for here tricky to achieve.)

Let’s talk about the film’s romances here a bit, shall we? Because they are Not Good. Newt may be utterly adorable as a character, but even so it’s hard to overlook the fact that he travels to Paris partly because he’s learned that his crush Tina is working there. Tina is under the unfortunate impression that Newt is engaged to somebody else, a misunderstanding that, in the worst traditions of on-screen romance, neither of them quite gets around to resolving for the next two and a half hours. For gods’ sake. If you can’t manage to have a reasonable conversation now how are you going to navigate any kind of serious relationship? And it’s actually a bit creepy to go abroad specifically to locate your romantic interest. Newt’s endearing social ineptitude obscures that creepiness but doesn’t excuse it.

And then there’s Queenie and Jacob, who the film’s trying to sell as a loving and reasonably stable couple. But…the very first time we see them, Queenie has enchanted Jacob in the hopes of coercing him into marrying her. And the very last time we see them, when Queenie chooses Grindelwald, Jacob says, “You’re crazy”. Not only is this an ableist slur, it’s one deliberately chosen to hurt Queenie specifically; her mind-reading powers have often seen her labelled “crazy” in the past, and she’s explicitly asked Jacob not to use the word to describe her. Of course, Jacob is angry and hurt at this point, but he’s also being positioned as the reasonable one, the “good” one, in this particular transaction; he is not choosing the dark side. So the film is endorsing his casual cruelty towards a woman he presumably, at this point, still loves.

The Crimes of Grindelwald, then, is a lazy film: one which wants to think of itself as more progressive and liberal than it really is. (I haven’t even touched on the Dumbledore controversy: the relationship between him and Grindelwald, which Rowling has implied in interviews and on Twitter was a romantic one, remains textually just a close platonic friendship.) It’s latched onto The Current Political Situation without thinking about how it would realistically affect the wizarding world, and it uses the same toxic romantic clichés as every single capitalist Hollywood blockbuster. But then, Rowling’s work has always been like this: full of unexamined, unsophisticated good vibes that unwittingly perpetuate systems of oppression. It doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch. But it’s not good either.

Review: Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel, which (astonishingly, when you think about it) puts it relatively early in the series. It’s the third novel about Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, a police force which is slowly regaining relevance under Commander Samuel Vimes.

As with all of the Discworld novels, the plot is so encrusted with wordplay and humour and rich vital detail that it’s pretty much vestigial, but it is, more or less, a murder mystery. Someone has been killing old men. Somehow, the golems of the city are involved: giant clay people without voices, who are feared at worst and ignored at best, although they’re highly prized as workers because they don’t need to rest or eat or sleep. There’s also a plot to depose Ankh-Morpork’s supreme ruler Havelock Vetinari, because there’s always a plot to depose Vetinari. And there’s a dwarf who defies convention by openly identifying as female, in what is possibly Discworld’s closest approach to a queer storyline.

There is, in other words, a lot going on. That’s one of the great joys of the Ankh-Morpork novels, though: how full they are of life and incident, of the anarchic and wonderful energies of the archetypal city. (Ankh-Morpork is pretty obviously a mirror of London, with its great curving polluted river, its Isle of Gods, its defunct city gates.)

Much of that energy is generated by the social tensions the novel lays out, conflicts between old and new: the centuries-old vampire who manipulates short-lived humans like pawns on a chessboard comes up against the newly-relevant Watch and its stubbornly working-class Commander Vimes, fast rising to prominence; the brand-new concept of dwarf femininity attracts the opprobrium of much of dwarf-kind; the idea of golems suddenly having rights and thoughts and plans of their own is abhorrent, even terrifying, to Ankh-Morpork’s citizenry. But there’s nothing schematic or straightforward about this broad pattern of tension. Cherry Littlebottom, the lipstick-wearing, skirt-clad dwarf, harbours a commonly-held prejudice against werewolves, which she expresses repeatedly to her friend Constable Angua, who is herself a closeted werewolf. Vetinari, despite being the best ruler the city has ever had, despite being despised by aristocrats and generally on the side of justice, is an unelected tyrant with the capacity for occasional cruelty. The golems aren’t really new, they’re old, much like the Watch: so old they’ve become invisible. It’s this seething complexity, this web of allegiances and relationships, that makes Feet of Clay one of the very best of the Discworld novels: its view on the world is not simple.

But there is an arc, of course, and it is the long arc of justice. Discworld, and especially Ankh-Morpork, is founded on a vaguely Victorian idea of progress: the idea that things are getting better, slowly, by degrees, but inexorably. Things tend to be slightly better for people at the end of a Discworld novel than they do at the beginning.

Which is what makes these novels so comforting to return to, over and over again, in a time when things seem to be going backwards, when civil rights campaigns are appropriated by the interests of capital. That reassurance that things will get better, coupled with that acknowledgement that the world is messy and complex. The energies of a city slowly climbing to the light.

Review: The Calculating Stars

It’s Women’s History Month in March. Cue a month of corporate appropriation of an originally socialist movement; a month of shallow virtue-signalling on the part of big businesses who won’t actually do the work to improve structural inequality within their organisations; a month of lean-in feminists talking about “strong women” while expecting everyone who isn’t a cis, straight, white woman to wait their turn in the diversity queue.

What does this have to do with The Calculating Stars, the first novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut duology, an alternate history in which a meteorite slams into Washington D.C. in 1952 and kicks off the space programme with a literal bang?

I liked this novel. I liked it enough to stay up till 2am finishing it. (It was Christmas. There was a cat. These seemed like good excuses.) I liked it enough to nominate it for a Hugo Award.

Our Heroine is Elma, a brilliant mathematician and former WASP pilot who’s desperate to get into space. The Calculating Stars is the story of her fight to do just this: to convince The Powers that Are to let women (and specifically her) join the astronaut programme, in the teeth of virulent sexism, both institutional and personal. I really like Kowal’s project here: rewriting women back into historical narratives where we’ve been conditioned not to expect them. We hear about the WASPs, the female American pilots who flew more than 60 million miles between them during WW2; the human computers at NACA (NASA’s predecessor) who used pencil and paper to work out flight paths and fuel consumption on the fly. It’s a project that reminds us that women have always been there, in the technical industries, doing the unglamorous but vital jobs, kept away from the front line. We have always been capable, we have always existed.

I like Elma’s relationship with her husband, Nathaniel, which is sweet, geeky and sex-positive (expect much space-based innuendo, though – ): they communicate, they argue, they support each other; a healthy, realistic relationship that doesn’t compromise Elma’s general badassery. I also like how the novel treats the climate collapse that Elma works out is just around the corner, thanks to the meteorite strike. Because the climate cools before entering its deadly runaway warming phase, and because the point when the planet is set to become actually uninhabitable is some decades away, the novel’s characters face some challenges with keeping the minds of policymakers, businesses and the public alike on the urgency of the situation; many people simply don’t believe the apocalypse is coming. Which clearly has some parallels with what’s going on now, in our timeline, with ecological collapse and climate disaster already well on their way: it’s hard to concentrate on a crisis that’s happening so slowly.

So: I liked The Calculating Stars. There was a lot I liked about it.

But, then there’s Adri Joy’s review of both books in the duology, from Strange Horizons, which points out that although Kowal does include women of colour, and has her heroine do some of the work of recognising and understanding her own white privilege, she doesn’t go far enough: the novels privilege Elma’s experience at a structural level, at the expense of the women of colour around her. (Elma is Jewish, but as Joy points out the novel mostly treats her as white.)

As long as we are purely inside Elma’s story, there is no way to square the circle of her own ambition, and a politics of inclusion that goes beyond the non-intersectional hierarchy of “least marginalized first”…Elma manages to get the space program opened up to women, but is powerless in the face of structures that prevent women of color from qualifying due to their lack of experience flying in World War II.

On the subject of intersectionality, there are as far as I remember also no queer characters in The Calculating Stars. Which is…interesting, given Kowal’s comments in this interview:

I made a conscious effort to populate the world with characters who reflect the world I live in, which means there are characters who are bi, trans, ace, gay, and even some straight folks. Because it’s the 1950s and the books are written in first person, my main character isn’t aware of most of this.

Uh-huh. Okay. So these characters are, in fact, so invisible to the novel’s heroine-narrator that they are invisible to us. Again, this is the structural effect of choosing to centre the novel on Elma, a character whose het privilege allows her not to see or consider queerness.

What these particular blindnesses produce is a text that echoes the violence that corporations do in honour of things like Women’s History Month. In a certain light, it looks progressive. Possibly there even is some valuable work being done: in the novel’s case, putting women back in the narrative. But it is a lean-in sort of progression, one which privileges the least marginalized, leaving behind queer people and people of colour. And it is not good enough. Feminism that isn’t intersectional is feminism that isn’t doing its job.

Review: PopCo

Scarlett Thomas’ sixth novel, PopCo follows Alice Butler, a cryptographer and erstwhile crossword-setter who’s now working for PopCo, the third-largest toy company in the world, as a Person Who Has Ideas. Once upon a time, PopCo asks Alice and a group of her colleagues to stay in a remote country house on Dartmoor to come up with a product that will help them break into the teenage market and thereby dominate the toy industry. Or something.

Despite her protestations otherwise, Alice is pretty cynical about the function of a toy company under late capitalism:

The words ‘toy company’ usually make people think of fluffy things and wooden blocks…In fact, these days, toys are more likely to involve fast food promotions, film tie-ins, interactivity, ‘added value’, super-branding and, of course, focus groups observed through one-way mirrors.

This, on page 5. (A couple of pages later: “That’s not to say I’m cynical”, she says, dubiously.) And therein lies the rub: the novel is clearly meant to chart Alice’s descent into disaffection with the industry she works in, and by extension the system of shallow consumerism it serves. But she’s already pretty disaffected at the start of the novel, and her clear-eyed understanding of what she and her colleagues are actually doing at work, behind the wacky idea-generating activities (when the novel begins, Alice has just returned from two weeks’ paid leave doing research for her toy brands), never really changes.

Sure: she becomes vegetarian, learns about ethical fashion and has some thoughts about how big corporations monetise identity. But, when it comes down to it, Thomas’ discussion of consumerist culture is a little…sophomoric – more introductory article than sustained critique. An example, from the very first page:

I know people who would make all sorts of assumptions about the clothes I am wearing. They would assume I had chosen a ‘look’…Even if I wore – as I have done in the past – a truly random selection of weird clothes, this would simply be labelled my ‘Jumble Sale’ or ‘Homeless’ look. I hate this so much.

This idea that consumerist culture co-opts all the choices you can make into its own system of signification is one that crops up throughout the novel. And…I can kiiind of see what Alice is getting at: consumerism’s inescapability, its ubiquitousness. But, also: this is what fashion does? This is what clothes have always been for? In every culture clothes are used to signify and perform status. It is not a feature unique to late capitalism. What Alice is actually talking about is the ubiquitousness of culture, which is another thing altogether. On a purely aesthetic level, her educated but shallow take on fashion makes her come across as kind of a whiny hipster.

This shallowness characterises the novel in more ways than one. Intertwined with Alice’s work for PopCo and her gradual enlightenment as to the Evils of Consumerism are chapters about her childhood living with her grandfather, a well-known cryptographer who left her a mysterious necklace with a code she’s never been able to crack. These threads sort of get tied together narratively at the end of the novel, but I’m not quite sure what Thomas is doing thematically. I’m not very interested in thinking about it, either, because many of these chapters are basically indigestible infodumps about codes and cryptography and look, if I wanted a detailed description of prime factorisation I would have read a reference book, not a novel. (The Voynich Manuscript is super interesting, though. I want a whole novel about the Voynich Manuscript.)

My reading of PopCo has definitely suffered from my knowledge of Thomas’ writing methods, as outlined in her (nevertheless quite useful) writing guide Monkeys with Typewriters. Thomas suggests using bits and pieces of experience from your own life to generate characters with believable quirks. Alas, knowing this meant that, for me, it was difficult to see Alice as a “real person” rather than what she actually is, a random collection of traits lumped together on the page. She was just Too Hipster, too Manic Pixie Dream Girl, to be entirely convincing and/or satisfying.

I’ve also lost a lot of goodwill for Thomas’ work since I learned that she puts a lot of stock in homeopathy. I have nothing against homeopathy per se, as a traditional remedy for occasional headaches, mild anxiety, light colds and so on; but when I read a scene in which a doctor prescribes a million billion different drugs for Our Heroine so that she can then forswear actual clinically tested medicine as unnecessary and dangerous and suspect, in favour of homeopathy, well, that makes me more than a little annoyed.

When I was about seventeen I was going through a very rough patch and they tried to give me Prozac. I didn’t need pills, I just needed to get hold of my life.

Because “pills” are Bad and doctors are Always Wrong and giving teenagers possibly life-saving drugs is a symptom of a diseased society.

Also, unrelatedly, I just found this in my copy of PopCo and it’s made me angry all over again. Alice is musing on the fact that a male-coded doll sold with a nurse uniform was made in China:

How nice that in this country we are on to messing around with gender roles while in so many foreign-owned factories it’s still impossible to form a union and get fair pay, whether you are a man, woman or child.

Fuck off? It’s not a zero sum game? Re-imagining gender roles and making sure workers get paid are not mutually exclusive aims? (In fact I’m inclined to think of them as two sides of the same coin, but it’s late, let’s not get into that now.)

I’m probably grossly misrepresenting my actual experience of reading PopCo, which was largely pleasant. Thomas’ characters are engaging if not entirely believable, her satire on corporate culture is fun, and it’s always satisfying to read a takedown of late capitalism. It’s just that the whole thing has this pious, holier-than-thou undertone which is really quite unpleasant when you stop and think about it – especially given how underbaked Thomas’ critique of consumerism actually is. It’s a novel that, more than anything, wants to make you feel guilty – about what you eat, what you wear, what form your self-care takes, how you identify. It’s an ugly impulse, and it makes ultimately for an ugly book.