Off to a galaxy far, far away… Watching Star Wars for the first time

Like many people facing lockdown, I subscribed to Disney+, which has all of the Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel films; and like at least two of my fellow book bloggers (Elle from Elle Thinks and Simon from Savidge Reads), I decided that this might be the moment to watch Star Wars for the first time. As a member of the blighted generation as far as popular SF went, who grew up without Doctor Who and during the time when Star Wars Episodes I-III were screening, the only Star Wars film I’d seen before was Episode I, The Phantom Menace. Reasonably enough, I decided that Star Wars was over-complicated, boring and silly, and decided never to watch a Star Wars film again.

This time around, I decided to skip Episodes I-III altogether and launch straight into IV-VI, followed by Rogue One, followed by VII-IX. There are extensive fandom debates about the correct viewing order for the Star Wars films when watching them for the first time; suffice it to say that, in retrospect, I’m pretty pleased with my choice, even though it was not recommended by anybody! I don’t think you should watch Rogue One before seeing the original trilogy, even if you are keeping chronological order, because it very much functions as a prequel; watching the films in release order means that Rogue One intervenes awkwardly between Episodes VII and VIII; and if you leave it to the end, you finish, in my opinion, on a sad low.

The rest of this post contains spoilers for Star Wars Episodes IV-IX and for Rogue One.

The Original Trilogy (Episodes IV to VI)

In case anyone reading this blog isn’t already aware, I am the kind of person who is either NOT into a franchise or INTO IT; when I love something, I like to think about it for a long time until I’ve analysed every bit of it to destruction. Therefore, what a joy to watch these three films as somebody who really isn’t invested in them. The biggest surprise about Star Wars for me is how funny and uplifting it is. I’d expected serious space battles and plots that I’d have to concentrate on, but instead I got simple-but-effective storytelling and broad-but-compelling characterisation. My favourite thing about the franchise, hands down, is the droids; especially C-3PO but also R2D2 and the other droids that are introduced in the later films. I loved how we actually follow C-3PO and R2D2 through A New Hope, and even though neither of them is as central to The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, they maintain a refreshing counterbalance to the seriousness of The Hero’s Journey.

Speaking of Luke, my hopes were (ironically) not high in A New Hope, when I noted that he was ‘irritating and fluffy!’ but I was surprised by how much I’d warmed to him by Return of the Jedi, where his final confrontation with Darth Vader and his own dark side delivered a twist that I genuinely hadn’t expected. Han Solo and Princess Leia are both engaging secondary characters, and Harrison Ford is one of the best things about the films (obviously second to my beloved droids). Leia didn’t quite work for me basically because the film forgot to give her any kind of lasting emotional reaction to the destruction of her entire planet in A New Hope, and I couldn’t see her as much more than a narrative device after that, but I was still on board with her romance with Han. Courting controversy, my favourite film of the trilogy was Return of the Jedi and my least favourite was The Empire Strikes Back, although I thought all three were strong; Empire is clearly the most tightly plotted and cohesive, but I preferred the greater space that the other two films allowed for characterisation and world-building, even if they did go off on too many diversions. (I hear the Ewoks are generally unpopular with fans, but I thought they were adorable!)

In short: a solid, delightful trilogy that takes its place for me alongside my other fun adventure-film favourites like Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean. While I can see why it would have felt groundbreaking when it first came out, it’s hard to completely relive that experience in the twenty-first century – but I’d definitely watch them all again.

The rogue one

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I was SO EXCITED to watch Rogue One, the 2016 prequel to A New Hope that follows the doomed crew that managed to smuggle the blueprints of the Death Star away from the Empire, and cleverly closes a plot hole in the original film by explaining that a disaffected engineer deliberately designed the Death Star with a fatal weakness. However, I hated the film and I’m still sad about it. It has some very basic problems. We’re not given enough time to invest in any of the crew members except our main protagonist, Jyn, and she’s not well-written. A pound-shop Katniss Everdeen, she never feels sympathetic or believable, and I also think she was miscast; she’s meant to have grown up living on her wits, but she’s played by Felicity Jones with a cut-glass English accent. (I know there are meanings to accents in the Star Wars universe etc etc. but it still didn’t work.)

A fair bit of this film, in fact, feels like a Hunger Games rip-off, with its transparent determination to show that even rebels have divided motives and are not all good, but it never gives itself enough time to develop this moral complexity. The filmmakers seem to have been convinced that Morally Complex = Dark = Serious, an equation that annoys me so much that I wrote a whole other blog post about it. OF COURSE the only significant droid in this film, K-2SO, is the only person who’s allowed to be funny or have a character. ♥ droids forever. The result of all this is that we get a lot of relentlessly grim action sequences with none of the lightheartedness that’s characteristic of all the other Star Wars films. Thinking it over, I wish the protagonist of this had not been Jyn but her father Galen, who was the aforementioned disaffected engineer who designed the Death Star; if the filmmakers (rightly) wanted to have a female lead, they could have (shock!) made Galen a woman.

The Latest Trilogy (Episodes VII to IX)

This was an interesting viewing experience, because all these films are recent enough for me to have had vague memories of what I’d perceived to be the ‘fans’ reaction’ when they came out, and I’d basically remembered that everyone loved The Force Awakens, then either hated The Last Jedi and liked The Rise of Skywalker, or vice versa. Therefore, I was surprised that I found these films much of a muchness, although I’d agree that The Force Awakens is the best and The Rise of Skywalker the worst. Again, I wondered how I would have reacted had I been a diehard fan of the original trilogy; no doubt there are a lot of nuances and missed opportunities here that have simply passed me by. Nevertheless, I felt that this new trilogy delivered an equally enjoyable ride to the first three films, with some notable improvements (decent female and BAME representation, more interesting thematic resonance) coupled with slightly more convoluted plotting. Indeed, I’d say The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars film I’ve seen, even if it cheated a bit by riding on the coattails of the original trilogy.

Rey is a much better character than Jyn, the other Star Wars female protagonist of which I am aware (Leia was clearly never foregrounded in that way). I’d heard complaints that she was too idealised, but I didn’t find that to be the case; obviously, she occupies the same Hero slot as Luke did, so there are aspects of her journey that are unrealistic, but that’s par for the course in this genre, and she experiences setbacks and misgivings as well. Finn was a fantastic co-protagonist in The Force Awakens, and one of my main complaints about the second two films is that he was shortchanged, forced very much into a supporting role when I think the story would have been better had it not focused so closely on Rey.

The films also flesh out an interesting and diverse supporting cast, and alongside the obvious cameos, I very much enjoyed Rose, Poe, BB-8 and OF COURSE all of my old favourite droids, who have lots to do, although this did reawaken many of my concerns about droid rights (why is C-3PO, clearly a sentient being, so frequently laughed at when he expresses concerns for his own safety, and why is his temporary loss of selfhood when his memories are wiped also played for laughs?) The Rise of Skywalker didn’t quite succeed in wrapping up the trilogy satisfactorily – there were too many loose ends left hanging due to the film being totally consumed by Rey and Kylo Ren, which I found the least interesting strand of the story – but neither was it the terrible catastrophe that I expected going in.

Overall Reflections

If you aren’t a diehard fan of something, it’s probably easier to enjoy it, especially when new additions to ‘it’ get released. Which is sad for me because this is just not how I watch or read most things, but these films were a perfect lockdown distraction, and so thank you to everyone who’s told me that I ‘have to see Star Wars’ over the years. In fact, I’m so keen I’m now up for watching more! Tell me which one I should try:

‘The Sequel is So Much Darker’: Why Series Don’t Always Get Darker – and Why That’s A Good Thing

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Sequels to science fiction and fantasy books, films and TV series are often described as ‘darker’ than their immediate predecessor, a trend that I first noticed with Harry Potter. Retrospectives on the book series tend to assume that Voldemort’s return in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, shifted the series towards a ‘darker’, ‘more mature’, tone; retrospectives on the film series point the finger at the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, where director Alfonso Cuaron deliberately created a Hogwarts with a very different feel to Chris Columbus’s version (at the time, most newspapers ran with ‘Harry Potter hits puberty‘, praising Cuaron’s revamp). Nevertheless, this trend started earlier; every Harry Potter film was described as darker than the one before it. A number of professional reviewers praised the second film, Chamber of Secrets for being ‘better and darker than its predecessor’. Entertainment Weekly wrote that the film ‘deepen[ed] the darker, more frightening atmosphere for audiences. This is as it should be: Harry’s story is supposed to get darker’, referring to J.K. Rowling’s stated intention that the series should ‘grow up with its readers’. However, even after the tonal shift when Voldemort regains a physical body in Goblet of Fire, reviewers kept praising the films for being darker than the last. ‘Harry Potter grows older and darker’ was Time‘s headline for their review of Order of the Phoenix .

Given the larger number of books and films in the Harry Potter series, this trend is most obvious for this franchise, but is not confined to it. You might not think that a series that kicks off with the state-sanctioned murder of 23 children and adolescents by their peers could get any darker, but according to reviewers, the Hunger Games franchise did. The Atlantic found Mockingjay: Part 1, the third film in the series, ‘darker, more relentless’ than the previous installments, spelling out what they meant while unintentionally proving the Sequel Is Always Darker rule: ‘The second installment was already weightier than the first, and in this outing the moral gravity has been ratcheted up once more.’ The Star Wars prequel Rogue One was obviously going to have a different tone from the earlier films, given its content, but alongside its universal reputation as ‘dark’, fans still asked ‘Should Rogue One Have Been Even Darker?‘ To look at a different kind of follow-up, remakes of classic movies are often praised as being ‘darker’ than the originals. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake was seen as ‘the darker side of Willy Wonka‘. Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been reviewed as both ‘darker’ than the original 1990s sitcom and comic book series and as getting darker than its original self season-by-season. Showrunners also love to tease fans with ‘darker’ sequels, as with this piece on the third season of Stranger Things,  which claims, ‘it’s definitely going to get darker still – [it will go to?] places that I think audiences are going to really love.’

But what do reviewers actually mean when they say that a book or film is ‘darker’ than its predecessor? We could spend ages arguing over what it means to be ‘dark’ (kill count? tone? grey morality?) or whether or not these sequels are actually darker, but instead, I want to suggest that when people say something is ‘darker’, they mean it is ‘better’, and this is a big problem.

Why does darker = better, especially when it comes to popular science fiction and fantasy series? My hypothesis is that it’s a signal that these books and films are worthy of adult attention, and so it’s OK if you’re an adult and you like them. Popular associations surrounding these genres still associate them with children, and one way for both artists and their fans to try and shed this ‘childish’ reputation is to talk about how dark their work is, and how much darker it’s going to be. This also explains why the first episode may be dark, but the next one is always darker: series need to ‘mature’, ‘grow up’, ‘develop’, because these are all Good Things, whereas remaining in the supposedly immature and undeveloped world of childhood is bad.

This is problematic enough in itself, because it simultaneously devalues children and adolescents, claims that young people don’t want complex stories, and assumes that being into ‘darker’ media makes you a better, more serious adult. It sets up a false binary between cheery, morally black-and-white children’s fiction and dark, morally grey fiction for adults. However, I’d also argue that playing into this narrative leads writers, filmmakers and showrunners into serious trouble. I’m going to reserve my full Harry Potter rant for another post, but suffice it to say that I think Rowling’s decision to make the series ‘grow up with Harry’ not only gives it a horribly uneven tone, but actually leads to it becoming less morally interesting. Rogue One disappointed me terribly because it served up such simplistic and boring characters compared to its companion film, A New Hope, as if being serious means that you don’t get to have a personality (you know you’ve gone wrong when the robot is the most compelling person in your film). And season three of Stranger Things misstepped by deciding that it had to fully embrace adolescence rather than exploring the ways in which our protagonists are still children – or realising that it was its celebration of childhood creativity and ingenuity that made the first two series so great.

I think it’s time to abolish the assumption that darker is better, or even that calling something ‘dark’ is a meaningful description. I love a lot of fiction that has been called ‘dark’, such as A Song of Ice and Fire and Black Mirror. But give me The Force Awakens or the book version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone any day over other films or books in those franchises that try to be ‘dark’ because they think that’s how to be ‘grown up’, and, in doing so, reinforce our limited ideas of what is worthy of our notice.

 

 

Should you write in the voice of an oppressor?

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In January, fans’ excitement over a promised prequel to the extremely popular YA Hunger Games series, written by Suzanne Collins, turned to dismay when it was revealed that the prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, would be told from the point of view of one of the central villains of the original series, President Snow. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the premise of the Hunger Games, President Snow ruled over a dystopian North America whose most vicious act was the staging of an annual ‘Hunger Games’, where twenty-four teenagers chosen by lottery from the twelve oppressed Districts were forced to fight to the death on live television. While many fans seemed unhappy that the prequel wasn’t focusing on a different character, framing Collins’ choice as a missed opportunity, or were simply uninterested in hearing from President Snow, some (adult) fans have been putting forward a different argument. In short, these writers suggest, it’s morally wrong to write a prequel from the point of view of a younger President Snow because it will ‘humanise’ him and ‘encourage readers to sympathise with an egotistical dictator.’[1] The prequel ‘can’t redeem’ Snow because he is not ‘a cog in the machine… he is the machine… It’s telling that Collins seems more invested in humanizing the architect of cruelty than exploring its aftermath.’ [2]

While I’m not hugely invested in a Hunger Games prequel of any kind, although I enjoyed the original books and (especially) the films, this debate is interesting to me because it’s based on no evidence at all – at the moment, all we have about this book is its blurb and a brief excerpt, neither of which indicate the direction in which the story is going to go. Obviously, this book might be awful, but nobody knows that yet. In the absence of a text, then, all we can argue about is whether it is ever OK to write from the point of view of an oppressor – and some of these angry reactions seem to me to indicate either a fundamental misunderstanding of what fiction can be for, or a firm belief that fiction can and should only ever have one function.

As I wrote recently, certain readers seem to think that the purpose – the only purpose – of fiction is to ‘give voice’ to people whose stories we need to hear. As a historian, I find this interesting because it parallels particular developments in the discipline of history, recalling a set of historical ‘turns’ that kicked off in the 1960s that promised to write ‘muted groups’, like working-class people, women, and people of colour, back into history. At the same time, though more recently, historians have become increasingly reflective about how who they choose to write about affects power dynamics in the contemporary world. Kathleen Blee’s incredible essay [paywalled] on conducting oral histories with female members of the Ku Klux Klan is a great example. Despite the fact that she sought to understand why these women were drawn into violent white supremacist far-right politics in order to condemn it, she reflects that ‘perhaps the nature of oral history research… itself empowers informants, by suggesting to them, and to their political descendants, the importance of the Klan in American history.’ As a white woman from Indiana, Blee found that her interviewees would simply assume that she shared their political views: ‘Even challenging their beliefs had no effect on their willingness to talk. They simply discounted my spoken objections as ‘public talk’ and carried on the ‘private talk’ they assumed was universal among whites.’

Blee’s concerns are genuine and important, but things become more complicated when we turn to fiction rather than oral history. Most obviously, President Snow isn’t real, and there aren’t a lot of disaffected President Snow diehards out there longing for someone to finally pay proper attention to his story, even if they write a critical account. This does not mean that Collins should write a novel that seeks to simplistically ‘redeem’ Snow, but as of right now, there’s no evidence that she aims to do that. Some of the articles on this subject seem to have a very limited sense of what it means to be a protagonist, assuming that, because Snow is the narrator, this must be a story that aims to elicit sympathy with Snow, and that the overall structure of the novel will be a redemption arc.

These takes also assume that because Snow holds ultimate power in the original trilogy that he must always have been a free agent, even though The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place sixty-four years earlier. This argument is especially bizarre because the protagonist who is unwillingly or unknowingly complicit in evil is the central concern of the series, moving from the microcosm of book one, where Katniss is forced to enter the Hunger Games and kill other tributes in order to survive, to the macrocosm of book three, where Katniss realises she has been a crucial part of bringing a new regime to power that looks like it could be as bloodthirsty as the last.

What I find particularly concerning, though, is the persistent use of the word ‘humanise’ and the idea that humanising Snow would be wrong. If Collins wrote a novel that simply showed that Snow was ‘evil from birth’, and, like little Voldemort, he ‘never cried’, that, to me, would be just as much a betrayal of her readers as a novel that expected us to forgive Snow everything because of his tragic past. If we all believe that all oppressors are psychopaths, then we won’t be able to recognise how ordinary people oppress others. That, for me, is why it is not only permissible, but vital, to write in the voice of an oppressor; because the origins of oppression don’t lie with its victims, but with its perpetrators.

[1] ‘Opinion: We don’t need a President Snow origin story’, Jerrett Alexander, Indiana Daily Student.

[2] ‘Snow Thank You: “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” can’t redeem Coriolanus Snow’, S.E. Smith, Bitch Media.

Not The Wellcome Prize 2020: Exhalation and A Good Enough Mother

Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour poster

Thanks to Annabel for this graphic!

I’m delighted to be taking part in both the blog tour and the judging panel for Not the Wellcome Prize this year, which has been so brilliantly organised by Rebecca Foster of Bookish Beck. As the Wellcome Book Prize, which aims to recognise books that have a  ‘central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness’, is on hiatus this year, we are hoping to fill the gap by highlighting some of the best health-related fiction and non-fiction of 2019, then choosing our own ‘winner’ in May! Be sure to check in with the other stops on the blog tour to see what other books we’ve picked.

I’m excited to showcase two titles on my blog today: Ted Chiang’s latest collection of SF short stories, Exhalation, and Bev Thomas’s debut psychological thriller, A Good Enough Mother. These two books are very different from each other, but share common concerns about parenting, childhood and a ‘healthy’ upbringing.

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I was utterly gripped by Exhalation when it first appeared in July 2019 (as was Barack Obama, who said that it ‘will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction’.) It was one of my top ten books of 2019 and contains one of my favourite short stories of all time. You can read my full review of Exhalation here, but for the purposes of this blog post, I thought I’d focus on one novella in this collection that seems to me to be especially concerned with themes of medicine, health and illness.

‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and examines the ethical issues that this introduces. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator, Ana, among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. Because of this, this novella asks questions about what is healthy for both the digients and their owners; is it fair to keep the digients ‘alive’ when they have minimal social interaction and are often unhappy, but on the other hand, how can it be right to ‘kill’ a sentient being simply because you’ve got bored with it? A lot of owners start to ‘suspend’ their digients as a compromise solution, but this unsurprisingly unsettles the digients when they find out they’ve missed whole chunks of time.

The story continually plays with the analogy between digients and human children, up to the point when their owners have to decide whether to let their ‘teenage’ digients be recoded as sexual beings, and which, early on, is made explicit when one of Ana’s friends gets pregnant and tells her ‘People always say that we’re evolved to want babies, and I used to think that was a bunch of crap, but not anymore… Cats, dogs, digients, they’re all just substitutes for what we’re supposed to be caring for.’ Indeed, one of Chiang’s points in this novella is that ‘healthy’ AIs will need to be brought up like human children: ‘The years [Ana] spent raising Jax… gave him… fluency at navigating the real world, creativity at solving new problems, judgement you could entrust with an important decision. Every quality that made a person more valuable than a database was a product of experience.’ Chiang writes in his ‘Story Notes’ that ‘based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person.’ I’d challenge the idea that children and adolescents can’t be creative, resourceful or trustworthy, but the overall point is one worth making.

Nevertheless, I felt there was a darker message about the biological need for creating children that Ana’s friend talks about early in the story buried in ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’. One of the major obstacles for the digients and their owners in this novella is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. While Chiang is delightfully good at teasing out the specifics of this situation, it also has symbolic weight; is it right to create new people who will be born into a world that is becoming unfit for purpose? As ever, Chiang doesn’t offer answers, but he poses some major questions.

Other stories in this collection that, in my opinion, have something to say about health, medicine and illness are ‘Exhalation’, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’.

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Way back in October 2018, I was lucky enough to hear Bev Thomas discuss this novel, which was published in March 2019, at the Durham Book Festival. Thomas previously worked as a clinical psychologist, and her expertise is evident in the very title of this novel, which is drawn from the work of the post-war child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who published a number of popular childrearing guides as well as becoming a regular feature on BBC radio. Winnicott asserted that mothers should not worry too much about making ‘mistakes’ with their children, saying that ‘The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.’ In his popular texts, he built on this by writing that mothers would instinctively know what their infants needed, and did not need to rely on external expertise. As I’ve argued, this may have been intended to reassure mothers (coincidentally, Winnicott was reacting against the strict inter-war ‘behaviourist’ ideas that Chiang satirises in Exhalation, in his story ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’!)  but, in practice, left many feeling inadequate because their parental instincts did not seem to have kicked in and they would have liked some outside help.

So, what does this mean for Thomas’s novel (other than setting it up with a title that feels pretty sinister to me!)? The book focuses on Ruth Hartland, a professional psychotherapist who is haunted by her missing son, Tom, who disappeared a year and a half ago. As she starts treating a new patient, Dan, she can’t shake the fact that he reminds her strongly of Tom, and her increasing inability to separate the two men leads her into tragedy. A Good Enough Mother functions perfectly as a gripping psychological thriller, but is much more thought-provoking than the average thriller about therapy (or indeed than the approximately two million other thrillers that deal with missing children). We see that Ruth has never felt she was a ‘good enough mother’ to Tom, despite the supposedly soothing nature of Winnicott’s advice; Tom always struggled to separate from her and she worries that she did not encourage him to become independent. Now that they are completely apart, she can only guess how he’s navigating the world by himself. This theme is especially highlighted by the fact that Tom is a twin, which – although he and his more confident sister are obviously fraternal rather than identical – makes Ruth strain even harder to understand why her two children are so different. Ruth’s gradual emotional breakdown felt utterly convincing, and this is a hugely promising debut. (Incidentally, it also gets the thumbs up from my mum!)

Make sure to check out the other great books featured on our blog tour! 

Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour covers collage

Have you read anything recently that deals particularly well with themes of health, medicine and/or illness?

Recommended Reading for a Pandemic

If You Actually Want To Read Books About A Pandemic

I can’t face reading pandemic fiction at the moment, but judging by the sales of pandemic films and novels, lots of people don’t feel the same way, so here are some suggestions:

  • Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven was one of my top ten books of the decade. It deals with the aftermath of a grim pandemic with a much greater mortality than coronavirus that sweeps the Earth, killing the majority of its population. However, the bright side of Station Eleven is the society that it imagines on the other side of this catastrophe, following a travelling theatre company across Canada. It also brings to life the fictional comic-book world of ‘Station Eleven’, which both parallels the events of the novel and exists as a significant space of its own. Ultimately, like a lot of good fiction that takes a disaster as its starting-point, I’d argue that this novel is less about A Pandemic and more about how art relates to reality.
  • Naomi Booth’s Sealed is, again, ostensibly about a terrifying skin-sealing disease that is sweeping Australia, but actually has more to say about the relationship between humans and the environment. It’s a brilliant eco-horror that follows Alice, who is heavily pregnant with her first child, and her partner Pete, who leave Sydney for a town in the Blue Mountains because they believe they will be safer there. But the idea of escaping to a ‘cleaner’ rural location soon turns out to be a dangerous fantasy. If this sounds like your sort of thing, please consider ordering Sealed directly from the publisher, Dead Ink, a small press who are struggling right now.
  • Finally, the first (and best!) novel in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, deals with a creepy space plague caused by a mysterious protomolecule that reassembles biological matter. Our protagonists have to stop this spreading through a space station. The Expanse’s writers have so far failed to fully deliver on the promise of this first novel, but it works as a gripping stand-alone.

If You Want To Read Books Where People Face Up To Bad Things That Are Not Pandemics

This is basically where I’m at right now – I want books where the characters face serious social and economic disasters but still manage to survive – so here are some ideas:

  • Hanna Jameson’s thoughtful and engaging The Last focuses on a group of people trapped in a remote hotel in Switzerland after the world is devastated by a series of nuclear attacks. Jon, our narrator, starts investigating a suspected murder; the body of a young girl is discovered in one of the hotel’s water tanks. While some of his fellow survivors try to persuade him of the futility of this quest, Jon seems to be driven by the conviction that life still matters even in the face of this disaster, and that society can be rebuilt. Ultimately, and despite its Lord of the Flies-esque set-up, The Last is very optimistic about human nature.
  • I’ve recently been raving about Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Skyand now I wish I hadn’t raced through both novels and the associated short stories so quickly! This series imagines an alternative version of post-war American history where a meteor hits the Earth, setting off a spiralling environmental disaster that leads the US to rapidly accelerate its space programme, believing that humanity’s future now lies on other planets. Our narrator, Elma, whose voice is so funny and addictive, was a pilot in WWII and is still a brilliant mathematician; she is determined to become one of the first ‘lady astronauts’. I’ve never read a post-apocalyptic novel that’s so comforting.
  • I’m hesitant to indulge any of the poor Second World War analogies that have been floating around, but Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is just such a good novel. One of my top ten books of 2015, this Blitz-set book focuses on four young people doing their best for the war effort. Mary and Tom are trying to keep London’s education system running; Alistair is fighting in Malta; Mary’s resentful friend Hilda stands on the sidelines. It sounds like it’s going to be saccharine, but it’s actually hilarious, heartbreaking and intelligent.
  • John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes sees an alien invasion from the sea threaten civilisation. Both genuinely tense and enjoyably ridiculous, this, in my opinion, is Wyndham’s best novel, spookily anticipating later climate change fiction. It’s also notable for being just as sexist as the rest of Wyndham’s science fiction, but, unlike his other books, if you read between the lines you can pretend that the male narrator is completely unreliable and his wife is actually running the show.
  • I’ve also returned to my first love in fiction, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series. I devoured this long-running US kids’ series as a pre-teen and teenager. It focuses on five teenagers who are given the ability to morph any animal they can touch to fight an alien invasion, and ends up in some very dark places. At their core, Animorphs are anti-war novels for the post-Cold War generation, and one day I am going to write something serious about them!

If You Want Books That Aren’t About Any Really Bad Things, Including Pandemics

Personally, I’m finding these kinds of novels difficult at the moment, and can’t summon up many original ideas, but if you want something truly escapist, here are some suggestions:

  • Anything by Robin McKinley, my favourite fantasy writer; my top comforting recommendations are her two retellings of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and Rose Daughter, and her feminist dragon-slaying epic The Hero and the Crown.
  • In a similar vein, Naomi Novik’s fairytale-inspired Uprooted and Spinning Silver are both beautifully escapist, although I thought Spinning Silver was far superior. They’re both stand-alones, so you can read them in any order.
  • If you want something that’s both contemporary and escapist, I recommend Erica Ferencik’s thriller The River at Night; four female friends, all in their forties, are left stranded on a dangerous white-water rafting trip through the Allagash Wilderness in Maine.
  • YA can also be a haven: my top YA picks right now are Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat, which refreshingly foregrounds queer female teenagers, and Bridget Collins’s YA-esque The Bindingwhich is set in an alternative past where bookbinders bind people’s memories into individual volumes.

What comfort reads, of any kind, would you recommend? I’d especially love to hear about books that fall into the second category.

 

Leap Year Science Fiction, 2020*

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I adored The Calculating Stars, the first novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s  Lady Astronaut series. (If you want to get a taste of the style of this series, there are a number of short stories available online – I’d suggest starting with ‘Articulated Restraint’, which indeed I would advise everyone to read before getting too deep into the series). The series is reminiscent of Michael Grant’s YA alternate WWII trilogy Front Lines, in that it takes a big event in modern American history and writes women back into the story not only by uncovering the hidden contributions of women at the time but by explicitly changing the facts so that women were equal participants. In The Calculating Stars, we’re offered an alternative version of the development of space exploration in the US; after a huge meteorite hits the earth in 1952, the space programme is accelerated to find new places for humans to live in the universe, and some women become serious contenders for astronaut training due to their flying experience in the Second World War. The novel is narrated by Elma Yorke, a brilliant mathematician who is keen to be one of the first women into space, and her voice is light, funny and so incredibly readable. I wrote on Twitter that I’d never read a post-apocalyptic novel that’s so comforting, and I stand by those comments.

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The Fated Sky, the sequel to The Calculating Stars, was in some ways more of the same, but didn’t quite work as well for me, although I still very much enjoyed reading it. The Fated Sky jumps forward into the 1960s, and rightly makes issues of race much more prominent than they were in the first novel; however, I felt that Kowal struggled to know how to handle Elma’s interactions with her fellow astronauts of colour within the stylistic parameters she set for herself in the first novel. Kowal wants to show us that Elma, as a white woman in the post-war US, would likely be ignorant and insensitive on matters of race despite her good intentions, and in that she succeeds, but only through a series of repetitive scenes where Elma gets things wrong and black characters put her right (the novel also features significant Hispanic and Taiwanese characters, but it tends to be the African-American characters doing the heavy lifting in these conversations, especially the one prominent black woman, which is worrying in itself). The overall effect is that of a tick-box take on ‘diversity’ that makes Elma difficult to like – maybe we shouldn’t like her, but if we don’t, the books don’t work!

Kowal also missteps, quite badly, in her handling of gay and trans characters [highlight for spoiler] The book reproduces the Bury Your Gays trope, which is pretty unforgivable in 2019, especially as it also resorts to the cliched device of only having the other characters realise that the two men concerned were actually a couple after one of them is killed. It also technically features a trans man, but handles this in a very peculiar way. There is nothing to suggest the character is trans in the text – he is referred to as she throughout – but Kowal reveals in the author’s note that she has misgendered this character because Elma, our narrator, doesn’t know he is trans. To me, this is not really representation and is akin to JK Rowling proclaiming ‘Dumbledore is gay’ despite writing nothing about it in the actual texts. Also, I understand that Kowal was concerned about historical accuracy here, but this is an alternate history that is pretty light-touch – I didn’t think it would have felt jarring to have this character come out, even if he had used terms that are less familiar to a modern audience to describe his experience.[end spoiler] It all feels a bit like Kowal was trying and worrying about this too hard and didn’t have the courage of her convictions. However, I’m still a big fan of this series, and am looking forward to the third in the quartet, The Relentless Moon.

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In a very different corner of the science fiction universe, I read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s hard SF sequel to Children of TimeChildren of Ruin. When I reviewed Children of Time last year, I wrote that ‘I couldn’t shake the sense that this was 600 pages of set-up for the next novel in the series’ and I’m pleased to say that I was right; Children of Ruin worked much better for me than Children of Time, although I think this could have been accomplished with much less preamble. To recap: Children of Time followed two plot threads. In the first, the remnants of humanity are using stasis machines to travel for centuries looking for habitable planets to terraform after the destruction of Earth; in the second, another group of now long-dead humans have introduced an evolutionary virus into a species of spider on a distant planet, which is now slowly developing towards sentience. I found the first novel frustrating because it seemed to take so long for the spider civilisation to get to a point where they could make contact with humanity on an equal level, and this inevitable confrontation only takes place at the very end of the novel. But because of this, Children of Ruin hits the ground running, showing us how humans and spiders have now allied in a search for new worlds. This book is also divided between two plotlines, one in the past and one in the present, but this time, I found both equally fascinating, and I loved how this sequel amped up the horror elements that were inchoate in the first book. Tchaikovsky returns to questions about inter-species communication by inventing a race of sentient octopuses, but evolutionary biology doesn’t dominate the book as it did in Children of Time, which means that the plot has a lot more direction and the ideas that Tchaikovsky is playing with have more immediate implications for his characters.

I also read the sixth book in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, Babylon’s Ashesthis month, but the last few books of this series have blended together for me – I’m HOPING this was the one where they finally solved the race for the Iron Throne interplanetary political conflict so they can get on with facing the much more horrific threat from the Others protomolecule.

Finally, this is not science fiction, but I loved Jean McNeil’s intricate and contemplative memoir Ice Diaries, which recounts the four months she spent as a writer-in-residence in Antarctica, and found that it echoed the themes of these novels in its consideration of how humans seek out empty places only to find either that those places don’t want us or that we are already there.

Have you read any science fiction or speculative fiction recently?

*I obviously didn’t read all of these from start to finish on the 29th February, but the leap year gave me extra reading time to finish several of them off!

Rewatching Black Mirror: Arkangel

This is part of a very occasional series where I rewatch and review Black Mirror episodes. I’ve already written about ‘San Junipero’ and ‘Hang the DJ’. I only review episodes where I feel like I have something to say, so don’t expect this to be comprehensive. (I am a big fan of Black Mirror, so when I’m critical, it’s only because I hold the show to such high standards… and often I have more to say about episodes that I think didn’t quite work.)

WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for the Black Mirror Season 4 episode ‘Arkangel’. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to be spoiled, do not read this post.

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‘Arkangel’ is Black Mirror’s modern childhood episode, an episode that writer Charlie Brooker thinksonly a parent could write’, that introduces a piece of technology that ‘it would be very hard for many parents to not agree to use’. That piece of technology is Arkangel, an implant in a child’s brain that allows the parent to track their every movement, to look through their eyes, and to impose ‘parental control settings’ on what they can see and hear. When single mother Marie first has Arkangel installed into her daughter Sara, Sara is a small child, and it seems essential to be able to see where she is when she runs away or to screen out the large dog that barks at her and scares her. But as Sara becomes a teenager, even though Marie has promised not to use Arkangel any more, she can’t resist the temptation to take the controller out of its box when Sara stays out too late one night.

The problem with ‘Arkangel’, for me, is, although it effectively uses a tried-and-tested Black Mirror technique by offering us two interpretations of the events that unfold, neither of those interpretations are very interesting. One: Marie is a control freak, children need to be exposed to the bad things in the world, and parents need to let go. This is backed up by Marie’s boyfriend, a motorcycle rider, who thinks that life is about taking risks; by Marie’s father, who points out that while she might have broken an arm as a child it didn’t do her any long-term damage; and by Sara’s experience as a pre-teen, when she is isolated from the other children at school because she can’t see the gory things they’re watching online. Two: Marie went too far with Arkangel, but there are obvious reasons why this technology is a good thing, so we can’t reject it so easily. Through Sara’s eyes, Marie realised her father was having a heart attack and was able to get him medical help; the teenage Sara, once free of Arkangel, strides out to accept a lift from a stranger without any thought for the consequences; and are the gory things Sara watched online as a child partly behind her vicious attack on her mother when she finds out the truth?

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Both of these narratives about childhood and adolescence are already very familiar, and ‘Arkangel’ doubles down on the cliches by presenting a mother and a teenage daughter who have a completely stereotypical relationship. Fifteen-year-old Sara rebels by taking drugs and having sex, and lies to her mum about where she’s been. Rather than talking to Sara about this, Marie prefers to use Arkangel to spy on her; while this is an extreme reaction, it fits into the fictional parental playbook of teenagers who scream ‘You don’t understand me!” and parents who respond “You’re grounded!” This episode is watchable enough, but it never brings its characters to life in the same way as other Black Mirror episodes manage to do in an equally short space of time (not my favourite episode, but compare the presentation of the young American backpacker in ‘Playtest’, whom we care about as a person before horrible things start happening to him).

There was real potential in ‘Arkangel’. One alternative plot that I kept thinking about while rewatching the episode was: what if Marie had handed over control of Arkangel to Sara when she became a teenager? Arkangel is billed as a parental control device, but you could also manipulate your own settings to protect yourself from traumatic things you don’t want to see. Would this be a way of avoiding reality, or a sensible move to allow yourself to adapt to stimuli that scare you? ‘Arkangel’ pushes the idea that you can only get past your fear of something by exposing yourself to it – Sara only stops being afraid of the scary dog once she can see and hear it – but is that fair? (I know a lot of people who are still scared of dogs to this day because they were barked at aggressively as children).

‘Arkangel’ reflects recent sociological and historical work on modern Western childhood and youth, tapping into the argument that the reduction of children’s and adolescents’ freedom to roam independently in the last seventy years has been profoundly harmful. However, it’s not as squarely on the side of children and young people as it might appear on first viewing, by presenting Sara as violent and impulsive, unable to understand the consequences of her actions. By allowing Marie and Sara to collaborate over how to use this technology, ‘Arkangel’ could have presented both characters with truly difficult choices. Instead, Sara becomes a reckless adolescent, and Marie an abusive mother, fulfilling their tropes rather than questioning them.