Tag: smash the kyriarchy

Review: Boneshaker

Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker begins with a disaster. Sometime in the early 1860s, inventor Leviticus Blue of Seattle creates a steam-powered gold-mining machine, the titular Boneshaker, which promptly runs horribly out of control, destroying several city blocks and releasing a noxious gas called the Blight which turns people into zombies. The survivors build a wall around the city to contain the gas and the zombies, and many of them go on to scratch out a living in its shadow.

That’s exactly what we find Leviticus’ widow Briar doing sixteen years later, working in a water treatment plant to counteract the effects of the Blight. When her son Zeke ventures into the walled city, now a no-go zone, she follows, determined to keep him safe and bring him home.

It’s hard not to read Boneshaker as a critique of capitalist greed, at least in part. Leviticus is selfish and money-hungry; his lack of care and consideration for the community he lives in leaves hundreds of people dead, hundreds more reduced to poverty and an entire city and its water supply polluted and barely livable. It also unleashes an environmental menace in the form of the zombie hordes who occupy the walled city. (Zombies, of course, are infamously common metaphors for capitalist consumers!) The poisonous, gas-filled streets Zeke and Briar move through call to mind horrific industrial disasters like the Bhopal tragedy [content warning: link contains descriptions of the effects of toxic gas on human bodies] – which was caused by corporate negligence and an utter disregard for human life and health. Later on in the novel, it even turns out that someone in the city is using the disaster for his own ends: the mysterious machine-builder Doctor Minnericht.

But the novel’s potential as capitalism critique is undermined by one of steampunk’s key flaws: its emphasis on individualism. Steampunk as an aesthetic is all about being unique, standing out; it tends towards exclusivity and classism. Priest avoids this to an extent by focusing on characters who are functionally working-class (although Briar and Zeke were both upper-class before the Blight – in fact, the prospect of hidden gold in their old house is a moderately significant plot point, and the end of the novel seems to hint at a return to prosperity). But both of her villains are individuals, crazed inventors who’ve been able to change the course of history by personal achievement alone. And she doesn’t seem massively interested in digging into the forces that allowed these men to occupy positions of such power in the first place – Leviticus’ pre-existing wealth, for instance. Without an awareness of such systems, Boneshaker is less corporate critique than it is a work that just draws on those images for emotional affect. Which makes it feel a bit hollow, honestly.

I mean, I guess my criticism of Boneshaker is more a criticism of steampunk: the only steampunk works that are actively advocating social change are things like Nisi Shawl’s Everfair that are highly aware of their genre and deliberately working against it, or things like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station that are only taking parts of steampunk to put in new contexts. Steampunk in itself – especially in its fashion guise! – is not really capable of cultural subversion; that’s just not how it functions as a phenomenon.

To return to Boneshaker: I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I read it while ill in bed, and it was not the book I would have chosen to be stuck with in that situation. It’s not as problematic as much steampunk is: it does focus on social outcasts, and it does feature people of colour, albeit as very minor characters. But, meh. It doesn’t feel like it’s doing that much work as a novel.

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Review: The Embassy of Cambodia

So this little book by litfic writer Zadie Smith is a short story originally published in the New Yorker. Elliptical, character-focused, light on plot, it’s not at all the sort of thing I usually read (although the category “what I usually read” is shifting towards litfic and non-fiction lately, largely because of the limitations of SFF sections in public libraries).

Our Protagonist is Fatou, a young woman from Ivory Coast working for a wealthy family, the Derawals, in North London. Willesden, in particular. The Derawals hold her passport and don’t pay her any wages, reimbursing her with room and board only. Nevertheless, Fatou doesn’t seem aware – or, at least, isn’t letting herself be aware – that she’s being exploited:

In a discarded Metro found on the floor of the Derawal kitchen, Fatou read with interest a story about a Sudanese “slave” living in a rich man’s house in London. It was not the first time that Fatou had wondered if she herself was a slave, but this story, brief as it was, confirmed in her own mind that she was not.

Her acceptance of the situation she finds herself in pervades the story. She has one close friend, Andrew, who she goes to church with; although she’s not particularly interested in or passionate about him, she seems resigned to the fact she’ll end up marrying him. Similarly, the Derawals are ungrateful and abusive; they do know that they’re exploiting Fatou, and that knowledge makes them awkward (not awkward enough to pay her, though). Again, this is a situation that Fatou simply accepts; she uses disengagement as a tool of resistance, perhaps.

But then, there’s the Embassy of Cambodia. The Derawals’ mansion sits next to this embassy, and the only signs of human life anyone sees from the building is a shuttlecock flying through the air as someone plays an interminable game of badminton with someone else. This unseen match between invisible players becomes a metaphor for everything Fatou does not have access to: wealth; privilege (particularly male privilege; Fatou’s decided that both badminton players are men); leisure time; privacy. The image of the badminton match is the way the story registers and acknowledges the profound inequalities that Fatou isn’t exactly allowing herself to think about.

It also links to the second of the story’s key themes, encapsulated in a sentence about halfway through the text:

The fact is, if we followed the history of every little country in the world – in its dramatic as well as its quiet times – we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or apply ourselves to our necessary tasks

“Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle,” continues the unnamed narrator, a self-identified person of Willesden. “But how large should that circle be?”

The Embassy of Cambodia is one such circle – inward-looking, giving nothing to the community in which it stands. At one point, Andrew and Fatou have a conversation about genocide and how each community of people mourns their own losses the most. The narrator even weighs in at the end of the story, when we’re left with an image of Fatou, waiting for Andrew as the people of Willesden pass by, worried about her but not worried enough to stop. We don’t get to know what happens to her: that is beyond our circle of attention.

So this is partly a story about living in a city: in cities we see worrying things all the time, and usually put them outside our circle of attention pretty quickly. Not necessarily because we are bad people, but because we have only limited room for others to take up in our heads. Should we widen those circles? And if we did, would we see people like Fatou, and try to help them?

Like any really good story, The Embassy of Cambodia has no answers, just questions. The response is up to us. Are we going to be like the Derawals, aware of our privilege and not wanting to look it in the eye? Or like the people in the Embassy of Cambodia, withdrawn into an endless and irrelevant game of badminton behind high walls? Or are we going to be something else?

Review: The Mars Room

The Mars Room opens as a young woman, Romy Hall, is being transferred by bus to the fictional Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, somewhere in California. A woman dies on that journey; nobody notices until they get there. Another woman boasts about her string of child abductions. A third just won’t stop chatting.

It is not a cheerful book.

A one-time exotic dancer, Romy’s serving two life sentences for murdering one of her former clients – a man so obsessed with her he followed her to a new city. Interspersed with descriptions of her new reality in America’s inhuman prison system are memories of her past in San Francisco as well as chapters from the point of view of a corrupt cop also serving time and a prison teacher named Gordon.

Gordon is broke. He lives in a one-room cabin in the woods. In this way he is like the Unabomber, apparently: Kushner includes extracts from Kaczynski’s diary by way of making the comparison. And it’s here, not in the meat of Romy’s story, that we find clues about The Mars Room’s project. Although Gordon vaguely thinks he’s doing something charitable by working at the prison (he can’t get a job anywhere else, though), he’s also sort of a terrible person – he too becomes obsessed with Romy, objectifying her and her fellow inmates even as he breaks rules for them. In the end, his own self-image is all he cares about. By including these stories of men who cannot see past their own self-interest (add to Gordon and the Unabomber the cop who kills a young Black man who witnessed his corruption, and Romy’s stalker, who frames his obsession as love), Kushner draws connections between toxic masculinity and a prison system that insists upon the inhumanity of its inmates. Stanville is absolutely impersonal: no allowances are made for grief or illness or common sense. It is the creation of a society that cannot look beyond the self-interest of a privileged few. The structures of toxic masculinity are everywhere: in the abuse inflicted on trans prisoners by inmates and guards alike; in the way that prisoners giving comfort to a woman in labour are wrested violently away by prison staff; in the fact that nobody notices the dead woman on the bus.

No wonder Romy’s future is a dead end: there is no allowance in the system for mercy or flexibility or even the acknowledgement that a wrong decision may have been made somewhere along the line. The moral ambiguity of pretty much everyone in the novel doesn’t change Kushner’s assessment of the system’s brokenness – in fact, it makes it worse. The absolutes the system insists on, that toxic masculinity insists on, that both use the absolute of violence to enforce, are incompatible with complex humanity. And under these conditions, justice is impossible.

I found The Mars Room valuable, if not precisely enjoyable, because of its discussion of a topic I know little about. I don’t know what the prison system here in the UK is like, but I can easily imagine it being similar. And I think it powerfully evokes a sense of entrapment and enclosure: the idea that you are restrained not just physically but ideologically, by circumstance and by the temperament of those around you. In other words, it’s a novel that, despite describing the smallness of life in a single physical prison, reveals how toxic masculinity and patriarchy makes prisons for us all.

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.