Tag: smash the kyriarchy

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.

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Top Ten Books I Read in 2017

There are a few days left of 2017, but I think I’ll manage at most one more book in that time.

As always, these are books I personally read in 2017, because who’s organised enough to read stuff in the year it’s published?

  1. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. I’ve read this approximately two-and-a-half times this year, probably more if you count all the times I’ve dipped in and out of it. I love it. I love its discursiveness, its artful artlessness, its gentle and undemanding hope, its ultra-readable engagement with literary theory. It’s become my go-to comfort read, and it’s not even SFF. (Sorry, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.)
  2. Palimpsest – Catherynne Valente. Palimpsest continues my quest to read all the Valente that exists in the world. It may actually be my favourite Valente (although that is an ever-changing thing). I read it slowly, on a long train journey, savouring Valente’s gorgeous prose and the lostness of her characters. I want to cosplay November someday. (I doubt anyone would get it, but there you go.)
  3. The Melancholy of Mechagirl – Catherynne Valente. Yes, it’s a bit troubling that this is a collection of stories and poems about Japan by a non-Japanese author, but that’s an aggregate issue; individually, each piece in The Melancholy of Mechagirl is gemlike, heartbreaking, enchanting, utterly and sublimely lovely.
  4. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin. It took me ages to get around to reading this, but I’m glad I made it eventually: it’s  incredibly cleverly structured, with a chatty narrative voice that plays with reader expectation and generic conventions. It features three different POV characters, each telling a horrific tale of institutional emotional abuse, tragedy and oppression.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. This is a novel rooted in fairytale. And, like a lot of novels rooted in fairytale, it doesn’t quite manage to escape the sexist mores fairytales so often encode. It’s fucking gorgeous, though, and doing something very clever with irony and sincerity, its apparent naivete concealing and revealing the horror at the heart of the Atlantic slave trade.
  6. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. Another short story collection! These are hopeful, open-ended stories, full of queer characters. Like Valente’s work, they ask us to look at life again and re-experience it as magical.
  7. A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers. I didn’t like this as much as The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: I missed the episodic, rambling structure of the first book. But I loved that A Closed and Common Orbit is just about people looking after each other. I think we all need more books like that.
  8. The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin. It’s so very rare that I read something that imagines a genuine alternative to capitalism; The Dispossessed does exactly that, building a world in which mutual aid, not competition, is the basis for all human relationships. Also, it has gay couples. In 1974. That’s awesome.
  9. Viriconium – M. John Harrison. This volume collects Harrison’s novels and stories of Viriconium, a city at the end of time that’s haunted by a long-distant past that it can never truly access. It’s a Gothic riff on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as a lot of other things. It’s hypnotic, unsettling, shifting: a science fictional Gormenghast.
  10. Nova – Samuel Delany. Nova surprised me immensely: you expect certain things from SF published in 1969, and Delany’s novel is none of them. It’s incredibly colourful, interested in the sensual rather than the rational; it plays interesting textual games.

Review: Brida

I’ve procrastinated starting this review for about an hour now, because, honestly, even just thinking about Brida makes my eyes want to bleed.

I have a terrible habit of reading an author’s worst work first and then not going back, because if you can’t hook me from the first book why should I bother with the second?

Probably most of us have heard about the supposedly life-changing genius of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. My library didn’t have The Alchemist in when I went to look; it only had Brida.

And so, here we are.

I submit that your reaction to Brida‘s foreword (or, as Coelho calls it, “Warning”) is probably an excellent barometer of your response to the book as a whole:

the few rituals described in Brida are the same as those practised over the centuries by the Tradition of the Moon…Practising such rituals without guidance is dangerous, inadvisable, unnecessary and can greatly hinder the Spiritual Search.

Passing over that grammatically hideous second sentence and the rather precious capitalisation, this “Warning” frames Brida as not really a novel but a kind of parable, a metaphor containing essential truth. The register of the “Warning” – and thus of the book as a whole – is naivete: “this is how the world is; the lessons you’ll learn in here are true”.

This isn’t really my thing, cynical British SFF reader that I am; but it can be used to interesting effect, as Ben Okri does in his Starbook, which undermines its apparently utopian fairytale charm with complex shades of irony, with rich, dark imagery.

Of course, Coelho is doing no such thing. Brida‘s naivete translates not into a sense that we’re learning something deep and important and true, but simply into a blithe unawareness of how narratives work. It forgets the first thing you learn as a student of literature: that words are not clear windows onto some objective truth, but that they’re always compromised, always subjective, always situational.

Technically, I suppose, it’s a kind of Bildungsroman. Brida is a young woman searching for meaning and purpose in her life. She goes to two teachers (quoting from Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, because I can’t actually bring myself to put this into my own words):

a hermit mage who teaches her to overcome fear and a witch who teaches her how to dance to the hidden music of the world.

But they don’t teach her to question; and surely that’s odd? Surely if you’re learning about magic as a hidden truth in the world (which, remember, Coelho is framing as true) you learn to question everything, to weigh evidence, to work out where the truth lies? That’s how SFF readers read, which is perhaps why I personally found Brida so jarring.

Because the mundanity of this magic! Much of the book revolves around Brida working out who her Soulmate (yes, capital S, kill me now) is. See, Coelho trots out the old chestnut that we are all one half of a soul and we have to find the other half of our soul and they are our Soulmate who we will love for all time. On the face of it this is vaguely romantic; if you think about it for more than three seconds it’s deeply fucking depressing – especially since, in Coelho’s version, the two halves of the soul are specifically male and female. Where are the gay people in this narrative? Where are the aromantic people? This explanation of the universe only sounds right because our culture has a deep, patriarchal investment in the concept of heterosexual romantic love – and a certain kind of romantic love at that – as the highest possible form of human emotion. Far from being an ultimate truth of the universe, it’s a lazy, unexamined cliché steeped in a specific cultural moment.

If this is magic, I want no part in it.

I’m not going to read The Alchemist.

Review: Soulless

This review contains spoilers.

Mrs Loontwill…burst into the room. Only to find her daughter entwined on the couch with Lord Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, behind a table decorated with the carcasses of three dead chickens.

Which is Soulless in a sentence. And it is glorious.

Some context: Soulless is the first novel in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, an immensely satisfying confection of steampunk, paranormal romance and British wit. (Which is particularly remarkable given the fact that Carriger’s actually American.) When a lone vampire is found murdered in a library (totally not stabbed with a sharp parasol, no not at all), Alexia Tarabotti, confirmed spinster with an unfashionably Italian complexion and decidedly unbiddable demeanour, becomes drawn into the investigation, alongside the ruggedly handsome werewolf alpha Lord Maccon.

High jinks ensue, as they inevitably do in these situations, helped along by the fact that Alexia has no soul, and can thus turn vampires and werewolves temporarily human while she’s touching them.

The best thing about Soulless is that it is completely aware of how utterly ridiculous its premise and its plot are. It knows that no actual Victorian gentlewoman would ever be allowed to get herself into half the compromising situations Alexia finds herself in (let’s just say that there’s a lot of entwining). It also knows that letting Victorian women do what they would never have done is part of what steampunk’s for: it is wish fulfilment, and also an exploitation of a historical moment (Soulless is set in an alternative 1873) when femininity was on the cusp of becoming something new. It’s partly that tension, between tradition, etiquette, the trappings of wealth (Soulless is obsessed, again in a gloriously knowing, over-the-top way, with stuff: colourful Victorian costumes – many of them worn by the gay vampire Lord Akeldama – mouthwatering cakes, carriages and carpets and those devoured chickens), and social progress, the boldness of youth, that draws us back to steampunk, I think. It’s a space in which the future is both full of potential and bounded in very specific ways, and that’s an interesting site to explore.

Of course, because it is steampunk, and a romance, its progressiveness is limited. It centres privilege: Alexia may have been passed over for a husband, and her mother and stepfather may not be loving parents exactly, but they hardly deprive their daughter. Delightful as the novel’s interest in manners is – Alexia is more likely to spike a piece of cake with her fork than drive a stake into a vampire’s heart – it’s also symptomatic of steampunk’s central flaw: its conviction that, to put it flippantly, etiquette and breeding make the world more shiny. Adam Roberts explains it better than I do (in his review of Aurorarama, printed in Sibilant Fricative):

…the ground of [steampunk’s] appeal is a sense that the modern world is lacking in refinement. What steampunk tells us is that there’s nothing to prevent the marriage of contemporary technological convenience with the elegance and good manners of the 19th century. shorthand for this, of course, is breeding, and to think of it like that is to understand the extent to which steampunk is embroiled in reactionary ideologies of class superiority.

And: Alexia is headstrong, intelligent, pragmatic and active – in other words, a female character who’s allowed to be as complex as her male counterparts – but she does also end up married. Her revolutionary potential, her infinitely-horizoned future, is tamed, redirected into heterosexual romance. It is, undoubtedly, a particularly satisfying romance, and a better match than a lot of female characters get – I don’t want to downplay that at all – but it does still represent a closing-down, a narrowing of horizons. This is not a novel that has solutions for other women like Alexia, or indeed for lower-class women.

But that’s not what Soulless is aiming for, after all: it’s aiming for affectionate parody, for lovely romance, for a bold female character who knows what she wants, for a swift plot with vampires and werewolves and insults and cake.

So: take it as it is, and it is glorious.

I’ve asked for the sequel for Christmas.

50-Word Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin

Epic fantasy featuring a WOC protagonist caught up in the court intrigues of colonialist overlords. There’s also a polyamorous incestuous pantheon and a matriarchy: this is epic fantasy reimagined, and I liked it! Jemisin looks at oppressive structures of power and how few choices everyone has under them.

Film Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

This review contains spoilers.

I really don’t want much from my summer blockbusters. Pretty visuals, moderately attractive actors, a well-plotted, simple story and gender politics that don’t make my eyes bleed. Is that really too much to ask?

I seem to have said this about a lot of things this year: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has all the ingredients of A Good Film, or, at least, An Inoffensive Film. (That’s why I went to see it, after all.) In its first sequence, we see the titular city, Alpha, being built around the International Space Station, as a series of alien races shake hands with the human crew: it becomes a concatenation, an accretion of architectures as decades pass, until eventually it becomes big enough to threaten Earth’s gravitational stability (OK, if you say so, Hollywood) and sails off into the big black to find its own destiny.

Whoever designed Alpha did a brilliant job, by the way: it looks grown not made, as all real cities do.

So. Fast forward a century or so. (Possibly; I can’t actually remember the timescales all this takes place on.) Something is rotten in the heart of Alpha: an apparently toxic zone has appeared inexplicably deep inside the city; communications devices don’t work inside and police squadrons who have entered don’t come out again. Our Heroes, special police agents Valerian and Laureline, are sent to investigate. What’s growing in the city? And does it have anything to do with the mysterious ghost-planet of Mul, which seems to have vanished from the archives?

Spoiler: yes, it does. As it turns out, Mul, a seaside paradise occupied by a peaceful, iridescent race of humanoids called the Pearls, was destroyed during a war between humanity and another alien race; a casualty of a doomsday device deployed partly in order to advance the interests of the human race, without proper due diligence. The Pearls who survived are refugees hiding in the toxic zone until they can build a new paradise aboard a spaceship and leave.

So, the film nods at colonialism and the toxicity of capitalist self-interest; that’s one thing that makes it potentially more promising than much of the Hollywood blockbuster crop. It’s also, Star Trek-ily, mildly interested in the processes of democratic governance: there is much talk of summits and protocols and chains of command. It gestures at an awareness that, in a place like Alpha, systems are more important than individuals in maintaining peace and cooperation. That awareness feels radical, in a capitalist society that valorises individual competition and achievement.

The background of the film is fascinating. It’s the foreground that gives me pause.

Because the central relationship of the film is between Valerian and Laureline. There’s never any doubt as to where this relationship is heading: almost the first thing Valerian does on screen is ask Laureline – his junior, by the way – to marry him. She refuses; she doesn’t want to become another notch on his bedpost – or, in the parlance of the film, another track on his playlist. It quickly becomes clear that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is going to be the story of how Valerian wins the love of his fair Laureline.

Excuse me while I gag.

(Do I really need to point out that this is effectively workplace harassment? That it’s completely inappropriate for a commanding officer to put pressure on his junior officer in this way? That no means no means no, and why can’t the film industry get a handle on that?)

What’s worse, Laureline is a Strong Female Character of the “Girl Power!!” variety. She’s superficially badass – wise-cracking, gun-toting – but she’s dressed in clothing that screams Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and also Totally Inappropriate For Military Action. She insists that she can handle things herself, but she shouts Valerian’s name when she’s in danger (and he’s not even there). She wants to be treated like a professional, but she has a tantrum when Valerian doesn’t thank her for saving him. She literally gets served up on a fucking plate to a man-eating alien. This is what director Luc Besson thinks a strong, self-assured woman looks like: eye candy, a reward for the man who can put up with her tantrums, a person whose world revolves around male approval.

And then there’s singer Rihanna’s character: a shapeshifting immigrant prostitute who spends three solid minutes doing a sexy dance for Valerian for no conceivable plot reason, who survives just long enough to save Valerian and Laureline from the man-eating aliens and then dies happy in the knowledge that she has secured Valerian’s explicit approval. Why. Why. Why.

The denouement of the film actually sort of answers that question, and the question of how such an interesting and promising background produced such a terrible foreground. There’s a lot of things that could be said about the ending; I’m interested in its sudden insistence that Valerian isn’t, and shouldn’t be, defined by Alpha’s rules and protocols, when the rest of the film – certainly to my reading, anyway – seems to be suggesting that actually rules and protocols and systems keep people safe, keep power accountable. The film industry likes its mavericks, of course, and that’s why Valerian needs to break the rules – because male blockbuster protagonists have (ironically) to conform to capitalist logics of individualism and competition. He has to “win” the film, to be better (morally) than the conglomerate that is Alpha, that is effectively the film’s world. He has to be the hero, and that means no-one else can be.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets doesn’t work because its character action and its setting don’t match up. Its setting is socialist, communal, collective, hopeful – a city, a community trying to make things work for everybody. Its character action is the complete opposite of that – competitive, oppressive, individualist. Maybe that list of things I want in a summer blockbuster really is too much to ask, because “decent gender politics” isn’t something summer blockbusters are set up to deliver.

Still. I live in hope.

Review: Fingersmith

This review contains spoilers.

Is it possible to write the past accurately without adopting its literary forms? I ask because Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is probably the closest I’ve seen a modern author come to recreating a Victorian sensation/Gothic novel, with its dense, twisty plot, its doublings, its shifts of perspective, its interest in misplaced inheritances and miscreant thieves.

Its premise goes something like this: Sue Trinder, daughter of a family of thieves (or fingersmiths), poses as a maidservant to Maud Lilly, the niece of a rich country gentleman. The idea is that she’ll befriend Maud and convince her to elope with a rake known ironically as Gentleman, who will thereby get his hands on Maud’s fortune and share it with Sue’s family.

Of course, things don’t really go to plan – not to Sue’s plan, anyway.

And, of course, Fingersmith is not a Victorian novel. It’s a Victorian novel with lesbians, which is a) awesome, and b) a difference that’s fundamental to the work Waters is doing here.

Fingersmith actually reminded me a little of what Margaret Atwood does in her Alias Grace. Atwood’s novel takes the story of real-life convict Grace Marks and uses its ambiguities, the cracks between the sources we have for it, to write a woman who defies the objectifying (white, male, straight) gaze of history, whose refusal to be rationalised away into the social order sees her returning, again, to haunt it. In a similar way, Fingersmith takes a traditional novelistic form (names like Dickens and Wilkie Collins spring to mind, as well as female authors of earlier Gothic fiction like Ann Radcliffe) and, exactly, queers it; uses its own conventions to undermine it, to challenge its basis in “reality” (and Dickens in particular prized the social realism of his novels, with their casts of thieves and fallen women and workhouse poor), to haunt it.

An example, albeit a pretty spoilerific one: as the conventions of the genre demand, Fingersmith has its consolatory happy ending, its reward for the trials and travails of True Love. (In other words, its heroines get together and live, probably, happily ever after.) But it’s not structurally consolatory, because the union in question is not a marriage, not even a heterosexual love match; so it doesn’t, as these endings usually do, gesture towards a restabilising of the status quo, a restoration of patriarchal society. Instead, it inscribes an escape for these two women, from the patriarchal-capitalist structures of inheritance which have trapped them both throughout the novel – structures which make women disposable and interchangeable (one of the plot twists literally sees them switch places – this feels very Dickensian to me), objects to be hoarded and exchanged for wealth – into a new kind of social structure, that attaches no importance to wealth and is based only on love. In other words, this is a rewriting of the marginalised back into the literary tradition, in a way that destabilises the very idea of that tradition.

I think there’s an argument to be made that what Waters is doing is actually not so very different from late eighteenth-century female-authored Gothic novels like Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, or even something like Fanny Burney’s Camilla. The literary orthodoxy, even its feminist contingent, is very good at ignoring, or forgetting, the fact that these excessive novels, with their overwriting and their melodrama and their continually swooning heroines, have always been self-haunting; they’ve always fretted and pushed at the boundaries of patriarchal social norms, deployed those norms to remind us of their limitations. Last week I longed to be able to write a thesis on the use of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in modern Gothic novels; another thesis I’d love to write is one on the Gothic novel and feminism.

But that’s by-the-by, and can’t detract from the fact that Fingersmith is also a damn good read, suspenseful, absorbing and oh my word the sexual tension. I didn’t like The Little Stranger at all, so I’m glad I gave this a chance.