Tag: smash the kyriarchy

Review: The Lie Tree

As Frances Hardinge’s seventh novel The Lie Tree opens, fourteen-year-old Faith and her family are approaching the fictional island of Vane, having suddenly left their home in Kent on the wings of scandal – Faith’s father the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a renowned naturalist, has been accused of fabricating his most famous finds. But Vane society is no kinder than that of the mainland, and the Sunderlys find themselves beset by gossip, rumours, secrets and lies. And when Erasmus Sunderly dies mysteriously, Faith finds among his papers an account of a miraculous plant, the Mendacity Tree. Whisper a lie to the Mendacity Tree (which thrives in darkness and shrinks from the light), and make as many people as possible believe that lie, and it will produce a fruit that gives the eater knowledge – the bigger the lie, the deeper and more consequential the knowledge.

There are several literary contexts The Lie Tree could be placed in (the Victorian novel is one; I also considered reading it alongside Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst, with which it has some striking similarities), but I think it’s most productively read as a work of children’s literature. Specifically, it’s a subversion of moralistic children’s stories in which young girls and women learn to be good, wise, patient and kind; to trust in God and other sources of paternal authority; in short, to conform to the restrictive gender roles British society traditionally assigns to women. I’m thinking of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden; Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (which is, however, American, not British).

Like many of Hardinge’s heroines, Faith is not good. She has a passion for secrets: for listening at doors, stealing furtive glances at paperwork, sneaking out at night. She’s also clever, having read her way through much of her father’s library and having acquired by herself a working knowledge of Ancient Greek.

These are traits that, at various points in the narrative, she actively seeks to suppress in herself, thanks to social conditioning that tells her that girls do not sneak around collecting secrets, they cannot have intelligent conversations about science without showing off or embarrassing people. Girls are good and quiet and dutiful and uncomplaining; they place the good of others (usually men) above their own. But it’s Faith’s cleverness, her unladylike boldness and her propensity for seeking out information that the adults around her would prefer to keep secret that allows her eventually to work out why her father died; in this text, then, those traits are coded as desirable, and the social pressures that encourage her to suppress them are shown as restrictive and wrong-headed.

One of the important things the novel does, then, is signal the bankruptcy of patriarchal authority. The Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, for example, far from being a shining example of Christian love and honesty, is cold and abusive to his family and lies to the entire scientific community because he is unable to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. Doctor Jacklers, the island’s resident physician and a craniometrist, claims that intelligence is tied to brain size and thus that women are less intelligent than men – having smaller skulls on average. Faith experiences a profound sense of betrayal on this pronouncement: science itself is telling her that she is lesser. We, knowing Doctor Jacklers’ theory to be incorrect, can see this as a denouncement of the scientific establishment – not science itself – as another source of self-righteous patriarchal authority.

And then there’s the Mendacity Tree itself, which, as Erasmus Sunderly himself acknowledges, has strong resemblances to the Christian Tree of Knowledge. The Mendacity Tree, though, is clearly an unwholesome thing in its distaste for light, the opium-like effects its fruits induce in their eaters, and in its overall air of menace, its uncanny reactions to Faith’s visits. If it is the Tree of Knowledge, then that says some fairly unpalatable things about Christianity itself, and again about the social and patriarchal authority it exerts upon Victorian society.

If The Lie Tree describes ways in which Victorian society is oppressive and wrong-headed, then it also presents strategies for resistance and survival. For instance, Faith despises her mother Myrtle for her focus on keeping up appearances, and her flirtations with various men on the island, after Erasmus’ death; but towards the end of the novel we discover that Myrtle’s aim has all along been to protect her family from the ruin and reputational loss that would follow if Erasmus was found to have died by suicide. She’s simply been using the few tools that society has given her to achieve that. There are other women, too, in these pages who have found ways to exist in the cracks: the brilliant and frail scientist who uses her dilettante husband as cover; the lesbians who must keep their relationship secret. These are imperfect acts of resistance, but they demonstrate to Faith that resistance is possible, even desirable – that society’s expectations of her and of all women are not reasonable or viable.

The Lie Tree, then, critiques a tradition of children’s literature that aims to initiate young girls and women into an oppressive social order by undermining that social order and showing that resistance to it is desirable. Instead of asking readers to accept arbitrary pronouncements from holders of patriarchal authority, it encourages them to think for themselves, to seek out knowledge and to be willing to change their minds; skills we could all benefit from in the times that lie ahead.

Review: Empress of Forever

This review contains spoilers.

The protagonist of Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever is Vivian Liao, a queer tech billionaire with the unstated aim of tearing it all down from the inside – “it” being global capitalism and the uneven distribution of power that’s associated with it. Her radicalism’s attracting the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of people, though, and so she goes underground, working on a plan to exploit third-party systems her own company built in order to create the world’s first true AI. Mid-implementation, though, something…happens, and she wakes up in a posthuman far future ruled by the titular Empress, a titanic figure revered and hated in equal measure by the citizens of a galaxy who have long since achieved functional immortality by having their souls, in effect, backed up to the cloud.

In order to return to twenty-first century Earth, she reasons, she needs to find the Empress. Her companions in this adventure are Hong, a monk of the Mirrorfaith, who study the Empress’ works with an almost fanatical devotion; Zanj, a legendary pirate queen who’s been imprisoned in the heart of a star for the last three thousand years, at the Empress’ behest; and Xiara, pilot extraordinaire, Viv’s love interest and daughter of a society destroyed by, yes, the Empress.

As a novel about the posthuman, Empress of Forever is centrally concerned with the borders of the self and the edges of the human. In a universe where you can teleport to anywhere through the cloud, your body reassembled from whatever materials are handy upon arrival; where the bodies of people like Hong are filled with circuitry; where people like Xiara can bond with the mind of a ship until they forget the way back to their organic bodies; what does “human”, as a concept, actually mean? More pertinent, though, is the replicability of the self in such a universe. The novel makes extensive use of doppelgangers and doubles: it turns out, for instance, that Viv herself is the result of one of the Empress’ experiments, which involved running thousands of simulations of herself in order to find the solution to the Bleed, a phenomenon that consumes any civilisation that grows too technologically advanced. In a very real sense, then, Viv is the Empress – a realisation that forces her to grapple with her own capacity for authoritarianism. Similar doublings in the novel likewise ask the characters to reconsider their sense of self and identity in a universe that troubles the boundaries of subjectivity.

This is not especially groundbreaking stuff thematically speaking, but it works well because of Gladstone’s finely developed characterisation: Zanj and Viv in particular are nuanced and complex people who go well beyond generic stereotypes, and Empress of Forever is one of those rare genre novels that I’d say is actually more interested in its character arcs than it is in its genre trappings or plot – which, while there is a plot it’s quite episodic and, as I remarked to the Bandersnatch at the time, distinctly reminiscent of an RPG tabletop game.

Where it does fall down is that, like much of the SFF work I’ve read that deals with the posthuman (Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief series, Gladstone’s own novella co-written with Amal El-Mohtar This Is How You Lose the Time War, Dempow Torishima’s Sisyphean), it fails to think – communally. What I mean by that is that although there are communities in the novel (Xiara’s clan, the Mirrorfaith, etc.), they are all predatory or threatening communities that our heroes must escape in order to continue their quest narrative. Perhaps that’s part of the point: the Empress works to restrict individual communities’ technological development in order to keep the Bleed away, and in doing so creates the kind of atomisation and mutual mistrust that also pertains under late capitalism. And there’s an argument to be made that Viv, Zanj, Hong and Xiara form a kind of found family, bringing together their different strengths and experiences to achieve their goals – a new community, an alliance against the dark. But, hmm. Ultimately the story is centred on Viv’s self-actualisation, and although it feels weird to complain about a novel doing what novels do (viz., focus on the self-actualisation of a bourgeois subject), I have this sense that literature of the posthuman has the potential to be vastly more radical than it actually is? It would be nice if these stories which are about the boundaries of the self could move away a little from their capitalistic focus on individual fulfilment. The posthuman self always seems so isolated, despite the fact that it inhabits a universe where reaching and working with others should be easier than ever.

I do want to stress that I enjoyed Empress of Forever immensely. I loved the strange, baroque universe Gladstone creates; the sharp wit of his prose, at a sentence level; its interest in deep, nuanced characterisation; its refreshing lack of a male gaze. (Viv hardly ever goes a chapter without remembering an old flame, usually one we haven’t encountered before, which some might find a bit much but which I actually kind of appreciated as an acknowledgement that queer people can have busy romantic pasts too.) It is a really strong example of its genre, and it’s an absolute pleasure to read. I just don’t think it ever manages to transcend its genre and fulfil its radical potential.

Doctor Who Review: The Timeless Children

This review contains spoilers for The Haunting of Villa Diodati, Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Children.

The Timeless Children is the last episode in Doctor Who‘s twelfth series, completing the arc that started with The Haunting of Villa Diodati and continued in Ascension of the Cybermen. With the Doctor and fam converging on the Boundary, a kind of gate that opens onto a random point in the universe, in an attempt to flee the Cybermen, the Master rocks up to ruin everyone’s day and reveal a dastardly plot to destroy the universe.

In my last couple of reviews I’ve been reading Ashad the Cyberleader as a focus for anxieties about social media radicalisation – basically, as a lone wolf white supremacist intent on re-establishing the dominance of what he sees as a threatened master race. I’m not sure there’s much mileage in pursuing this metaphor into this episode: although the Master’s nihilism speaks to Ashad’s in Ascension of the Cybermen, and although the anxieties about cyborg technology we saw in Villa Diodati are still at work (witness the monstrous CyberTime Lords the Master creates in the story’s final act), it’s not an episode that adds anything new to the conversation.

The Timless Children is at its heart a story about defiance through confidence in one’s self. The Doctor defeats the Master in a psychological sense by refusing to be cowed by the revelations he makes about her history and about the history of the Time Lords; by refusing to be defined by repressed abuse. It’s a focus on the power of asserting one’s identity and values that feels very familiar; I’m thinking of Luke Skywalker’s refusal to give into anger in Return of the Jedi, or Tiffany Aching’s fierce love for her land in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men. Added to the fact that the Doctor is essentially revealed as a Chosen One in this episode – the Timeless Child, the one from whom all of Gallifrey’s powers spring – it’s a narrative beat that gives an individualistic spin to this tale, victory coming not from community or solidarity but from individual strength and identity. Despite the “flat team structure” the Doctor’s been hyping for as long as she’s been Thirteen – despite series eleven’s themes of mutual personhood, understanding and tolerance – this is a story arc that puts the Doctor back in “lonely god” territory, making her once again the centre of the universe. Which is a shame: I’d like to see more stories that are about community-building and that deemphasise the importance of the individual, and I think series eleven was taking some interesting steps towards making that work in the context of Doctor Who. It is not individual power that will save us from the various messes we as a species have gotten ourselves into; it’s collective action, the hard work of loving and respecting each other as equals.

Doctor Who Review: Ascension of the Cybermen

Ascension of the Cybermen is the penultimate episode in New Who’s twelfth series; it follows directly on from the previous episode, the Gothic/Romantic Haunting of Villa Diodati, which I reviewed some weeks ago. The Doctor and her fam travel to the far future to try and stop the half-Cyberman Ashad from reawakening the Cyber army and destroying the human race, but they’ve failed before they’ve even started: in the future they reach there are just seven humans left. Their one hope is to reach the Boundary, a place that will transport them to a random point in the universe where the Cybermen cannot follow.

In my review of Villa Diodati I hypothesised that Ashad in that episode is acting as a locus for anxieties about radicalised white supremacists, a cyborg colonised by technology and hateful ideology. If that’s the case, then what we see in Ascension of the Cybermen is the nihilism that ultimately lies behind such ideology: “the death of everything is within me”, says Ashad, a line that we won’t discover the full significance of until the next episode, but the point for now is that he stands for homogenisation, the destruction of everything that is not Cyberman.

The apocalyptic future the Doctor travels to in this episode, the run-down buildings, glitchy tech and spacefields littered with dead robots, caps off a series that’s been full of images of apocalypse – the monster-haunted nuclear wasteland of Orphan 55, the plastic-crazed birds of Praxeus, the god-razed planets of Can You Hear Me? – all tapping into the sense of fear and hopelessness liberals around the world are feeling right now. The Doctor in this episode finds herself helpless to undo her decision in Villa Diodati – to return the Cyberium to Ashad in exchange for the life of the poet Percy Shelley – and protect what remains of humanity against the reckless hate of the Cyber army: her gadgets, things which might have facilitated the denouement of another episode, fail in the first assault on the human refugee camp; the Cybermen pick off the people she’s supposed to be protecting, their numbers dwindling even further. The scientific rationality represented by her gadgets just doesn’t work against white supremacy and the alt-right; fear and panic reign, the refugee humans fleeing even as the Doctor warns them not to. It’s of course traditional for penultimate episodes, or the first parts of two-parters, to end in despair; we as viewers want to see how the characters will convert that despair into triumph, how they will climb out of this particular slough of despond. So it’s not particularly surprising or novel that Ascension of the Cybermen seeks to evoke despair. It’s just that it so precisely mirrors the tenor of despair we are all feeling right now about the direction the world is going in politically. (This episode was broadcast in February and filmed probably late last year, long before coronavirus was A Thing.)

(Nor will the next episode be particularly hopeful. But that’s a post for next week.)

Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War

Pop culture at the moment has quite a lot of truck with the Friendly Enemies trope: that is, with pairs of antagonists who rely on each other to define their own existences; who keep each other on their toes in a world full of less interesting or too-different people; who are locked in conflicts they have no interest in or intention of ending. Think of Sherlock and Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock, the Doctor and the Master in Doctor Who, Sean and Michael in The Good Place. It’s A Thing (and very much A Thing that seems designed to preserve the status quo for long-running narratives rather than having anything to do with psychological realism or artistic goals).

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s novella This Is How You Lose the Time War is not that kind of text, and in fact it demonstrates the hollowness of the entire concept.

Its protagonists Red and Blue are, technically, enemies. They’re highly-skilled posthuman soldiers of two far-future factions: the Agency, a “techy-mechy dystopia”, and Garden, a “viny-hivey elfworld”. The Agency and Garden are engaged in the titular time war, a conflict that takes place on a theatre of millennia, across universes, as each faction nudges timelines to bring themselves into being. It’s the kind of war whose causes nobody can remember: it just grinds on and on in blood and death and murder.

Against this backdrop, the story focuses very closely on the illicit correspondence between Red and Blue, either of whom would be executed by their own side if their contact was discovered. At first it begins as taunting, as friendly enmity; but quite soon it develops into something more.

The text alternates between Red and Blue as they read and respond to each other’s letters,and in fact it was (apparently) written that way too: Gladstone wrote all of Red’s parts and El-Mohtar all of Blue’s, and although they followed a general plot outline the details of the letters were often a surprise for the recipient – that emotional response shaping the text. How interesting!

So the acts of reading and writing are supremely important here. The act of one’s words being read is described as “infiltration” (referring of course to the dangerous context in which Red and Blue are operating); letters are “structures not events”, “place[s] to live inside”. Towards the end of the novella, Red literally consumes Blue’s words and is literally changed by them (to the extent that we can understand any of this posthuman future as literal), allowing her to enter Garden undetected and physically change Blue too, in order to protect her from the Agency.

This essay in Strange Horizons is relevant here. Writing about queer cyborgs, Ben Berman Ghan posits that Red and Blue’s mutually-altering correspondence allows them to build a space of their own; a queer space apart from the dominant, binary paradigms of the Agency and Garden. It allows them to imagine something else. In the closing words of the text: “This is how we win.”

To return to the Friendly Enemies trope: This Is How You Lose the Time War reveals that it is based on, and perpetuates, precisely those binary paradigms. There’s a point in the novella where Red and Blue have to contemplate just such a relationship, admiring each other’s work while remaining forever in conflict; but it is an impossible state for them. They have been changed too much by each other. It’s important, I think, that the novella’s conflict is an actual war; so that it becomes obvious that to accept the status of Friendly Enemies is to entrench the status quo and continue a state of senseless violence in service to factions neither of them care much about. To accept the status of Friendly Enemies is to give up their agency (hah).

This Is How You Lose the Time War is, then, a story about the importance of reading and writing and genuine connection in resolving conflict, in escaping the self-perpetuating systems that keep us at each other’s throats. As such, it is interested in seeing an end to these pointless conflicts, not a perpetuation of bankrupt Friendly Enemy dynamics (although the authors are not averse to fighting the good fight – Red and Blue will have a lot to do to carve out a safe space for themselves amid the warring troops of the Agency and Garden, after all).

It does have to be said, however, that despite its romantic focus This Is How You Lose the Time War is pretty hard SF. Though the details and mechanics of the time war aren’t important to the narrative, I think the reader needs to have a lot of trust in the authors to recognise that – to realise that they don’t actually need to worry about understanding, literally, what exactly is happening at every single moment. That’s a skill SFF readers gain but not, I think, one that literary authors cultivate in their audiences: recognising that metaphors like this are about things passing our current scientific understanding, that they’re almost just there for flavour:

Garden goes to seed, blows us away, and we burrow into the braidedness of time and mesh with it. There is no scouring hedge to pass through, we are the hedge, entirely, rosebuds with thorns for petals. The only way to access us is to enter Garden so far down-thread that most of our own agents can’t manage it, find the umbilical taproot that links us to Garden, and then navigate it upthread like salmon in a stream.

If not understanding what this passage literally means worries you, then you’re probably not the right audience for this book. But if the writing style excites you, or if you’re happy to be flung into the deep end – go ahead and read This Is How You Lose the Time War. It feels important, right here, right now.

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.

Review: Swing Time

Narrated by a young biracial woman, who remains unnamed, from a housing estate in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time charts the course of a friendship. Our Narrator and Tracey meet at a dance class aged about eight. Tracey is a talented dancer; Our Narrator is a good singer but has hopelessly flat feet. Tracey is confident and straightforward; Our Narrator is inconsistent, passive, contrary.

The two grow up: Tracey strives for a professional career in theatre but never makes it out of the chorus line, while Our Narrator gets a glamorous, jet-setting job working as an assistant for pop sensation Aimee.

On the face of it, Our Narrator’s achieved the success Tracey was going for: she’s made it out of London, she experiences Aimee’s showbiz life almost first-hand. But Smith, of course, complicates this picture. Aimee’s philanthropic ambitions take her to West Africa, where she founds and funds a school for a rural village, but her glittering visions of educational excellence far outshine the unglamorous day-to-day support the villagers actually need, and do nothing to affect the structural reasons that put school out of reach for the young people there. Back in London, meanwhile, Our Narrator’s self-educated mother, freed of the burden of domesticity, makes a career for herself in local politics, serving the community she’s lived in most of her life.

Taiye Selasi’s review of Swing Time in the Guardian identifies change as a key theme of the novel, citing the various characters who pull themselves up by their bootstraps into a narrowly-defined version of success. For me, however, the novel’s key concern is not change but inescapability. Despite these characters’ outward success, there’s always something pulling them back, back; unavoidable structural factors or personality flaws that keep them trapped in their own heads, that prevent them growing as people or achieving contentment. Nothing that Our Narrator can do can shake Aimee’s self-absorption, her cultural and economic power. That inability to reach her employer eventually sends her back to her old London housing estate, where she began. The narrator’s mother’s career in local politics can’t undo the decades of resentment and intellectual stifling she experienced when the narrator was a child. Tracey can’t escape her class and the circumstances of her birth, and like her best friend she, too, ends up where she began.

This, I think, explains Our Narrator’s passivity, even her lack of a name: she’s propelled through life by forces beyond her control. She has no agency to change her fate. Her one significant act in the novel, at its climax, achieves nothing. Like most people, her choices and her future are circumscribed by factors she has no control over: most notably socioeconomic class, but also race and gender – all three influencing the power structures she, and we, move through every day.

I’m aware that this is all sounding Very Depressing. It isn’t, really: its inevitability is leavened by moments of genuine connection and understanding. And alongside its tracing of power structures goes some insightful exploration of the limitations of Western philanthropy, the importance of community and the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade. I enjoyed Swing Time a lot.

Review: New York 2140

Set, unsurprisingly, in the year 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 sees the Big Apple thriving in the aftermath of climate change. The sea level has risen about fifty feet in the aftermath of two “Pulses”, about a hundred years apart, leaving lower Manhattan underwater. Which hasn’t stopped people living there, using boats, skybridges, water taxis and airships to get around. Otherwise, life in the city continues pretty much as it always has: people still commute to work, pick up dates in bars, grab coffee with exes, etc., etc.

The novel focuses on the inhabitants of the Met Life building, repurposed as a residential community housing about two thousand people, with a communal dining room and farm level. Our main players are: a superintendent in the NYPD; a reality TV personality who traverses the world in an airship, showcasing and supporting conservation efforts; a pair of quants with ambitions of overhauling the financial system; an analyst who’s developed a financial index linked to sea level rise; the head of the Met Life building’s resident committee, who’s determined to fend off a hostile takeover bid; and a couple of treasure-obsessed kids.

One of the novel’s core themes is volatility: specifically, the volatility of the changing climate and the volatility of the markets that changed it. 2140 New York is still a financial centre, and is thus positively sloshing in volatility, both metaphorical and literal: much is made in the text of the intertidal, the places in the city that are flooded at high tide and walkable at low tide. It’s here, in buildings abandoned by capital, where this future New York gets most interesting:

Hegemony had drowned, so in the years after the flooding there was a proliferation of cooperatives, neighbourhood associations, communes, squats, barter, alternative currencies, gift economies, solar usufruct, fishing village cultures, mondragons, unions, Davy’s locker freemasonries, anarchist blather, and submarine technoculture…Also…art-not-work, the city regarded as a giant collaborative artwork; blue greens, amphibiguity, heteregeneticity, horizontalization, deoligarchification

(Notice here how Robinson’s very sentence structure performs volatility, that pile-on of commas turning sentence into paragraph, or straight-up list; this is a style that’s present to a greater or lesser extent throughout the book.)

Of course, having abandoned the intertidal when things got bad, the markets want to re-capitalise on it now it’s exciting again. So the relationship between the radical volatility of the intertidal and the volatility of the markets is essentially parasitical. We see this in the person of Franklin Garr, the aforementioned financial analyst. For him, highly-paid as he is, flooded New York is a glamorous SuperVenice, an opportunity to impress women in fast boats and make a lot of money shorting the intertidal property bubble. He sees the intertidal, and the markets, as abstract things, games to be played in the quest for individual wealth. His attitude stands in stark contrast to those of other characters who are more directly affected by the games the markets play: the residents resisting the buyout of the Met Life building; the quants targeted by ruthless investment companies; the old man who loses his crumbling home and all his possessions to the sea. These are people for whom the markets, and the volatility they produce, are not a game; they have damaging, real-life effects. Their values of mutual support and shared humanity are, in fact, in direct opposition to the selfish principles governing the markets (as represented in microcosm by Franklin, who notably wants nothing to do with the two dispossessed boys he keeps running into in various pickles).

Volatility also comes into play in the narration of a character named only as A Citizen, who puts the New York-focused action of the book into context by drawing our attention to global developments. Although the text tends towards optimism, the efforts of the Met Life collective to hold out against the pressures of capitalism eventually spreading to the wider city and even nation, A Citizen reminds us that such efforts are always contingent, a happy ending never assured:

there was no guarantee of permanence to anything they did, and the pushback was ferocious as always, because people are crazy and history never ends, and good is accomplished against the immense black-hole gravity of greed and fear.

One of the lessons of New York 2140, inasmuch as good novels have lessons, is that volatility will always be with us, the forces of capital and greed and an uncertain future attacking the structures we try to build. But that is, in itself, not a good reason to stop trying.

Review: How to Build a Girl

I’ve always enjoyed Caitlin Moran’s columns in the Sunday Times Magazine. Her writing feels unstudied, off-the-cuff, casual, in a way that’s both very rare and very hard to achieve, the smattering of ALL CAPS SENTENCES, slang and brand names belying compelling rhetorical structures and serious political (often feminist) points.

How to Build a Girl is her first novel: a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a young woman called Johanna Morrigan living in 90s Wolverhampton and dreaming of being – someone else. Almost anyone else, really. So, she invents Dolly Wilde, a gothpunk Manic Pixie Dream Girl Lady Sex Adventurer alter ego in a top hat, gets a job as a music critic and embarks on a life of drink, drugs and moderate, grungy showbiz. So far, so standard a teenage rebellion; what makes How to Build a Girl notable is its commentary on the poverty created by the closing of traditional industries under Margaret Thatcher; the Morrigans’ ever-present fear of having their benefits cut; and the objectification of female bodies. It is altogether a more…cerebral novel than its subject matter and origin might suggest.

The conversational nature of Moran’s non-fiction writing has been dialled back here: gone is the brand-name specificity, the knowing-wink directness. In long form, and without these embellishments, the relative simplicity of her sentence and narrative structures become apparent: I don’t think I’d ever categorise How to Build a Girl as literary fiction, it is too artless for that. But, just occasionally and at its best, Moran’s prose is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s in its very artlessness, its tumble of teenage emotion:

…it is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish.

One consequence of this artlessness is that the novel is, let’s say, quite tell-y not show-y. Which is to say, instead of allowing its readers to come to conclusions based on narrative and character, it spells out what you should take from it: see the above statement on cynicism, or this, from John Kite, a singer and Johanna’s crush:

When the middle classes get passionate about politics, they’re arguing about their treats—their tax breaks and their investments. When the poor get passionate about politics, they’re fighting for their lives.

Despite the fact that How to Build a Girl is ostensibly written from Johanna’s point of view, these passages feel like statements from an insecure author who wants to make very sure we Get The Point.

Which we do. And we agree with you. Don’t worry, Caitlin. It’s all good.

And yet. This is still, I think, an important book. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is how very many sex and masturbation scenes there are in this novel. Johanna/Dolly is, after all, a teenage girl discovering all the mysteries and pleasures of incipient adulthood, all at once, with multiple partners, or no-one at all if necessary. In one memorable scene, she gets cystitis from someone with a very large penis. This is important because, as Johanna herself says, “There is very little female narrative of what it’s like to fuck, and be fucked.” There are not many stories in which women are allowed to be like this without being seen as a kind of fascinating lusus naturae. There are not many cultural narratives as honest about the female sexual experience.

I don’t know that How to Build a Girl is going to stand as a classic through the ages, or anything like that. It is not a novel that can sustain much critical scrutiny or discussion – it wears its messages too obviously on its sleeve for that; we are never in much doubt as to Moran’s politics or Johanna’s opinions or motivations. As a “lighter” read, though, a chick-lit-style novel that doesn’t make you feel like you do when you’ve binged on Dairy Milk (unsatisfied and slightly nauseated) – well, it’s much better than Shopaholic, let’s put it that way.

Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

This review contains spoilers.

Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock opens, appropriately enough, on a dark stormy night in Gravesend, 1785, with a well-off merchant by the name of Jonah Hancock opening his door to the news that his agent has sold his prized ship in exchange for what is allegedly a taxidermied mermaid. Hoping to make the best of a bad situation, Hancock takes the mermaid to London, where it becomes a sensation – catapulting him into the upper echelons of society and steering him into the path of one Angelica Neal, glamorous, high-class courtesan. Their worldviews couldn’t be more different, but they’re thrown together when an ill-advised love affair sees Angelica facing bankruptcy and ruin; to save her, Hancock offers to marry her and take her to his staid household in Kent. And then a second mermaid comes into the Hancocks’ lives, one whose influence is much more sinister.

At its heart I think The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a novel about the exploitation of women in the Georgian period, and the sheer precariousness of their position in society. Angelica sees marriage as a domestic cage, preferring the sexual, financial and emotional freedom she enjoys as a courtesan; but her near-ruin and the example of one of her friends, another former courtesan who becomes the wife of her client, shows that marriage is still the only long-term guarantee of security available to her. (She could also become a madam – but this option is strongly aligned in the text with becoming complicit in her own exploitation.) Then there’s Polly, a mixed-race courtesan-in-training who runs away from her madam to escape a lifetime of relentless objectification as an “exotic” experience for upper-class men only to find herself offering the same services to genuinely dangerous men for shillings on the street. Finally, there’s Hancock’s niece, Sukie, a girl of respectable family who nevertheless has absolutely no say in her own employment situation, forever at risk of being shunted by her mother between the households of various relatives to play maid-of-all-work. These are women in very different circumstances, united by the fact that they really have no good choices because of a system that treats them in various ways as objects for the delight and convenience of white men.

This dynamic of exploitation actually gets slightly extended along a different axis: Polly’s story is part of an underdeveloped subplot involving her and the Black servant of her madam, who, like Polly, must exploit his own objectification and exoticisation if he’s to survive in Georgian London. Both he and Polly are hyper-aware of issues of performance, decorum and respect in a way the white characters aren’t – because their existence at a relatively comfortable level of society is much more heavily dependent on how other people see them.

This is all summed up by the image of the novel’s second mermaid, captured somewhere in the North Sea by a heavily bribed captain after Hancock’s marriage to Angelica. Kept underground in a dark grotto, far from her native waters, the mermaid emanates a creeping depression that infects the entire household: a metaphor for the damage inflicted on women, people of colour and the natural world by the rampant forces of mercantile exploitation. (Content note for miscarriage.) It’s only when Angelica finally takes back control of her life, literally and metaphorically setting the exploited free, that she can take her rightful position in society – as a fabulous style-setter and thrower of parties. Significantly, the Twelfth Night-style revel that ends the novel sees upper classes mixing with sailors, a symbolic breakdown of social boundaries hinting at the possibility of a more equal future.

It’s interesting to consider the historical background to all this: though of course The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a modern text, novelists choose their settings for reasons which are generally better developed than “because the Georgian period is cool”. The Georgian period saw the rise of imperial mercantilism on a grand scale: this was a time when much of the world was quite literally for sale. That’s a key dynamic underlying Gowar’s discussion of objectification and exploitation – and of course it’s highlighted by Hancock’s own business (more on that in a moment). This is also a period of mass urbanisation, which brings out certain anxieties in the literature of the time: the city’s lower classes are either conspicuously absent, as in Jane Austen’s novels, or portrayed as venal moneygrabbers, as in Alexander Pope’s satirical Dunciad. With The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, I think Gowar is attempting something similar to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: rewriting our understanding of a historical period to address and bring to light the invisible inequalities that inform our present-day situation. In other words, she’s highlighting that the Georgian period is a key historical point in the development of modern capitalism, and the oppression and exploitation that comes with it.

It does have some capital-P Problems which undermine this work. Chief among these is the fact that Hancock’s wealth must have come from slavery, somewhere along the line, just because of how the economics of the time worked. It’s this wealth that enables Angelica’s freedom and flowering at the end of the novel; which means that the novel is essentially about white middle-class women fulfilling their potential at the expense of everyone else. I also find Hancock’s Nice Guy tendencies a little…uncomfortable; he hangs around Angelica pre-bankruptcy despite knowing he has no chance with her, and then is conveniently in exactly the right position to take advantage of her desperation. This does not seem a great foundation for a lasting relationship – and the fact remains that she is forced into domesticity and marriage despite her resistance to the institution; it’s not really a free choice for her, given her situation at the time.

These are Problems, and I don’t want to downplay them. But I also found Angelica and Hancock so winningly sympathetic as characters that I couldn’t help but root for them, and hope they found happiness together. It’s an imperfect but cosy book, a novel for long rainy Sundays with a blanket and a cup of tea, thoughtful and melancholy and full of the sights and smells of Georgian London.