Tag: smash the kyriarchy

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.

Review: Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake begins with Snowman: an old man living in a forest by the sea. The forest is full of savage genetically-engineered monstrosities; Snowman, starving, might be the only human left on the earth following a deadly plague. He’s not exactly alone, though – by the shores of the sea live the Crakers, a group of posthumans who have also been genetically engineered to, among other things, digest grass and other raw plants, have sexual urges only at specific times, and heal each other by humming at a certain frequency.

The Crakers see Snowman as a kind of god, and press him for stories about their creator, Crake. As Snowman tells them sanitised fables designed to consolidate his own position, we learn through flashback the true story of their genesis and of the apocalyptic plague. We hear about Snowman’s childhood friend Crake, who grows up to be a top geneticist with dangerous ideas, and about his crush Oryx, a sexual fantasy made suddenly real.

There’s a lot to unpack in this text. I want to think first about Atwood’s oft-quoted claim that her books are not science fiction: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” This is not only a bad take, it’s a weird one, rooted as it is in the assumption that what happens in a book, its plot, is the most important or indeed only element doing any work. And, really, it’s hard to imagine that Atwood really, truly thinks of the events of Oryx and Crake as something that “could really happen”. Its SFnal parts – by which I mean mainly the parts involving Crake – are brightly painted and shallow, peppered with capitalised neologisms (RejoovenEssense, HelthWyzer, BlyssPluss) and references to a hyperviolent society gone far, far off the rails, with freely available child pornography, televised executions and general brutality as entertainment. A complex and skilful portrait of a realistic future it surely ain’t; in fact it’s in the grand old tradition of the cautionary tale, as exemplified by George Orwell’s 1984 or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit-451.

These parts of the novel are, in other words, satire; satire of corporate power, of our obsession with shiny new tech, of our ever-more-toxic relationship with the internet. And in their satire they’re as – hmm – referentially unrealistic as the talking squids, intergalactic space travel and Martians Atwood repudiates so vehemently. They’re using a type of fantasy to talk about present culture, present obsessions.

But then there’s the other half of the novel: the parts about Oryx and Snowman. And these are in their own way as chilling as anything Crake gets up to, despite their lower stakes. See, Snowman first sees Oryx, as a child, in a porn video. As her story unfolds it becomes clear that she was trafficked away from her village in an unspecified non-Western country. It also becomes clear that Snowman is more attracted to her as a victim than as a person, constantly nagging her for details about her childhood which she is unwilling to give. (Snowman, of course, thinks he loves her.) Oryx’s strategies of evasion remind me a little of Grace Marks, the heroine of Atwood’s earlier novel Alias Grace: like Oryx, she’s surrounded by men who want to solve the riddle of her, and manages to preserve her humanity by remaining elusive, mysterious. These sections of the novel are more conventionally “realistic” than those featuring Crake, focusing on things that could and do “really happen” and on Snowman’s and Oryx’s reactions to them – in other words, they’re much more character-based, in a way that literary fiction tends to prize. So it’s true, in a way, that Oryx and Crake transcends science fiction: SF is just one of the modes it’s deploying, but it’s not all SF.

But what’s Atwood hoping to achieve by folding these two modes, SF and litfic, together? To answer that, I want to look first at what she’s doing making Snowman our point-of-view character. He has no heroic qualities: pre-apocalypse, he is an advertising copywriter cynically twisting the English language into unrecognisable shapes; post-apocalypse, he’s quite happy to manipulate the innocent Crakers for his own comfort (forcing them, for example, to kill fish for him every day, despite their vegetarianism). By comparison with Crake, certainly, he is utterly unremarkable.

The key lies, I think, in his willingness to go along with Crake’s plans when he’s eventually hired by Crake’s corporation; his utter moral incuriosity about the fact that Crake’s literally breeding a new strain of humans. Snowman is Everyman, accepting moral compromise in return for material comfort, as most of us are forced to under capitalism. His inaction makes him complicit in Crake’sa hubris; and his Everyman status makes us, in turn, complicit. We are all Snowmen: enablers, willing or unwilling, of a globalised system that objectifies humans and animals both. Because what else is Crake doing, in engineering a perfect version of humanity, than failing to see humanity “in the round”, the good and the bad?

Snowman, too, is guilty of objectification, in the way he treats Oryx, not as a person but as an ideal. This, then, is the link between the two modes, SF and realism. And through this link Atwood suggests that small, individual failures of humanity, empathy, curiosity can, writ large, spell disaster; is, in fact, the same as disaster.

It has to be said that this is not a terribly interesting conclusion: substituting the speculative for the real is just what SF writers do, and have been doing for a long time. Really I think that sums up my experience of Oryx and Crake: it was a fine book, I didn’t dislike it, but nor can I see myself reading it again.

Review: Shopaholic Ties the Knot

This review contains spoilers.

Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series is a real guilty pleasure for me. Much like the consumer goods its protagonist Becky Bloomwood is always buying, they offer wish-fulfilling instant gratification that also feels a bit gross, long-term. In this, the third novel in the series, Becky gets engaged to her hunky rich boyfriend Luke and starts planning a wedding. But she soon finds she has to choose between a lavish New York wedding organised by Luke’s snooty and emotionally uninvolved mother Eleanor, or a homespun one at her parents’ house in English suburbia.

The solution combines the logic of capitalism with the logic of romantic comedy: she has not one but two weddings, and helps Eleanor and Luke rebuild their strained relationship along the way, thereby neatly pacifying both families and reconciling two apparently competing value systems: the one that says “family comes first” and the one that says “all your dreams can come true!” Although this reconciliation is really just a triumph for capitalism, which, as we know, is flexible enough to consume everything, even ideas.

Of course it’s ridiculous to talk about a Kinsella novel in this way, because ultimately they are the fast fashion of literature, meant for reading and discarding, no brain engagement needed, and they are very successful at that! But I wouldn’t want them to be the only things I read.

Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Susanna Clarke’s short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu is best read as a companion to her magisterial Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. In fact, the text itself encourages readers to do just that, with its mock critical apparatus referring to “a somewhat obscure novel published a few years ago” which concerns the 19th-century magicians Strange and Norrell. The book, then, is a collection of stories about Faerie; or, to follow Clarke’s conceit, stories which may shed some light on the history and doings of the Sidhe, and the development of magic, in the British Isles.

What’s immediately noticeable is that most of these stories are about people living on the edges of the society envisioned by Clarke in her novel – briefly, a society where magic is a respectable pursuit only for gentlemen. The central characters of these stories are abandoned gentlewomen, Jewish doctors, impoverished clergymen, servants’ daughters; specifically, they are people whose circumstances bring them close enough to gentility and respectability to be manipulated by it without benefiting from it. Their use of magic, or their alliances with Faerie, gives them access to power that is not determined by their social status, and so undermines and threatens the established order. These are, in other words, unsettling stories: the gap between magical power and social power manifests sometimes as humour, sometimes as something more uncanny; it never sits entirely easy.

It’s a collection that perhaps seems light in comparison with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; but it both fulfils a fannish need for more detail about Clarke’s universe, and has a coherent artistic worldview of its own, and it’s frankly criminal how rarely both things are true of the same work. A book for Strangites and Norrellites both to enjoy.

Review: Artificial Condition

This post comes with a disclaimer: I have not read any other Murderbot books (because they were not Hugo finalists). This seems to make a difference.

Martha Wells’ novella Artificial Condition is, so t’Internet tells me, the second book about Murderbot: an escaped security robot that likes TV shows and once apparently massacred a bunch of humans on a mining planet, for reasons it cannot fathom or remember. In Artificial Condition, it returns to the scene of the crime to try and find out more about why it did what it did, and why it can’t remember doing it.

So…this is a text that’s interested in two things, I think. One is the age-old question of what rights AIs have, and whether they’re people. This is interestingly modulated from the usual Asimovian models by the fact that Murderbot doesn’t have a gender: Murderbot’s pronoun is “it”. Which foregrounds how gender is built into our ideas of personhood quite effectively: typically, we use “it” for things, not people. Yet Murderbot is a person. Should it have to engage with gender, a concept it sees as meaningless, just to be recognised as such? This feels like a really topical take on the question of AI sentience and associated debates about thingness and difference and who gets to have rights. It’s also interesting to compare this usage to the servitors in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy: they are sentient “its” too, but aren’t humanoid in the way that Murderbot is, and so I think don’t run into the same cultural assumptions about gender and personhood.

Overlapping with the question of AI rights, and possibly a little more timely, is the novella’s anxiety about corporate power. Murderbot is on the run from its manufacturers, who (it transpires) are partly or wholly responsible for the massacre, and for Murderbot’s own inability to remember or find out what happened. That inherently unequal power dynamic is reflected in the plight of the group of techs who hire Murderbot as a security consultant, giving it an excuse to visit the mining facility: the techs’ employer RaviHyral has stolen their intellectual copyright. Though RaviHyral has agreed to give it back, the techs think their lives might be in danger if they go to collect the files. In this world, as, increasingly, in ours, the big corporations hold all the cards – and both AI and human rights are threatened by this. Positioning both the techs and Murderbot as disposable in the eyes of the corporations also has the effect of blurring the line between employer and owner: Murderbot’s manufacturers see it as a thing; RaviHyral, similarly, sees its techs as a resource to be plundered, not people with rights. Again, Wells is raising questions of personhood and who gets to have rights.

So…I think there is interesting conceptual work being done here. But, for me, the paths Wells treads are a little too well-worn: it’s hardly unusual to read about evil corporations, and the question of AI rights is as old as science fiction itself. And the things that are new and unusual aren’t necessarily the themes that are being particularly drawn out in the text.

I would probably read more Murderbot, but I’d have preferred to see Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach (another novella about capitalism and different modes of personhood!) take the Hugo.

Review: Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach

Kelly Robson’s Hugo-finalist novella Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach is probably one of my favourite reads of the last few months. It’s set far in the future, when much of the Earth’s ecosystems have been devastated, and are just now beginning to recover, with help from humanity. Our Protagonist is Minh, an ecological remediator who’s hired to go back in time and study the ecology of ancient Mesopotamia in the hopes of restoring that region of the world in her own time.

There’s a time travel plot, plus some intrigue of the shadowy-corporation variety, but what I really enjoyed about the novella was the…granularity? of the society it depicts. In one sense everything has changed from our present time: people live either underground or in protected habitats on the surface dedicated to ecological restoration; adaptive surgery is common (Minh has octopus legs, for instance); time travel is a thing. In another sense, nothing has: many of the trappings of capitalism are still in place. That means funding is very much a priority, and much of the politics of the novella are informed by that. It also means that this is a story about project management, a story in which workplace dynamics and tendering processes and workflow management are all important plot pressures.

It’s so interesting that these are the familiar things guiding us through the text – we may not understand how this new society is set up, but most of us have dealt with office/workplace politics before – when these are also things that almost never crop up in SFF. That’s an elision that’s very convenient for capitalist systems: we may not want to read about our offices in our spare time, but their absence from speculative and popular media means that we rarely think about the implications of those workplace pressures, the invisible ways in which they condition our ways of thinking and being. For instance, in Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach, the invention of time travel has drawn investment away from ecological restoration, drastically altering the outcomes Minh can feasibly achieve in her work; a comment, perhaps, on our own prioritising of profit over conservation.

Which segues neatly into the next thing I think is important about this novella: the fact that the worst has happened, climate change wise, and yet people are still working under this desperately flawed economic system to make it better. I think this actually ties into the novella’s focus on the mundanities of work: these are characters doing unglamorous and often thankless things in the pursuit of – not even something as self-consciously dramatic as The Right Thing; it’s something they care about and think is important.

A lot of good is done by people working in the background in the pursuit of things they care about and think are important. In fact, I think one of the points of Robson’s story is that in this complex world of ours this is more or less the only way to get anything good done at all: by building communities in the face of capitalism; remembering the people in the process. That’s a message I want to hear more of.