Of Monsters, Men and Migration: Control and Identity in Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China

By Ksenia Shcherbino

It is as human to move from one place to another in search of a better life, as it is to divide the world into categories of “us” and “them.” However, there is no universal definition of a ‘migrant’. Migrants are not inherently vulnerable. However, they often find themselves marginalized in the host country and are perceived by some to threaten national identity, economy, social cohesion and cultural norms. As Saskia Bonjour and Sebastien Chouvin warn us, “discourses on migration, integration and citizenship are inevitably classed, because representations of Self and Other are inevitably classed [1]”. Practices of inclusion/exclusion are based on power dynamics which are rarely fair and more often than not based on a set of prejudices, including racial prejudices that perpetuate inequality and can lock the families in the boundaries of their ‘migrant’ status for generations. Hence, children of ‘migrants’ are continued to be seen by some members of society as migrants as well despite being born in the country or having lived there for most of their lives, thus reinforcing cultural alienation and inequality. Further, the continuity of colonialist discourse fuels dehumanisation of migrants. Read through this lens of colonialism, Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China offers a unique experience of sieving through the questions of migration, acceptance, domination and hybridity in the body of a chimera, a creature of fantasy. The book keeps asking the readers to re-evaluate the ideas of power and possession, speech and silence. Who colonised who, are humans nothing but the former beasts who have conquered the land and re-written its history? Who has the right of speech? Is silence a way of telling a story by the marginalised (beasts)? The entwined story of memory and oblivion for monsters and humans in Strange Beasts of China turns the narrative into a battlefield of falsifiable identities and historical assumptions. “This vast city, the beasts that come and go, all of this, is a secret,” muses Yan Ge’s narrator. “No one knows why they come or why they go, why they meet or why they leave. These are all enormous, distant mysteries [2]”. Yan Ge’s Yong’an is a postcolonial space where the story of subjugation of the beasts, or the struggle for de/re-territorialisation is already part of history, and the question that haunts both humans and beasts is the same that haunts in our day and time: how the interdependence of colonisers and the colonised has shaped – and continues shaping – our understanding of the world [3].

Continue reading “Of Monsters, Men and Migration: Control and Identity in Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China”

Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937

Reviewed by Sandra Unerman. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In her introduction to this collection, Melissa Edmundson refuses to pin down a definition of the Weird. She discusses the history of the genre and considers ghost stories, Victorian Gothic and encounters with the unknown. But she places the stories chosen within a broader tradition of supernatural writing by women. As a reader, I enjoyed the mixture of flavours and moods, which results from this eclecticism, in preference to a narrow focus on one kind of tale.

The stories all convey a strong sense of place, in settings from Australia to Canada by way of the English countryside. For example, ‘The Red Bungalow’ by Bithia Mary Croker is set in Northern India, in the days of the Raj. It expresses the vulnerability and alienation experienced by British women and their children in a country that is not theirs, with a landscape and traditions they do not understand.

A sense of history is also a common characteristic. Even the stories set within the lifetime of the authors introduce the current reader to details and attitudes strange to us now, like the shirt waist and corduroy skirt suitable for young women travelling in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘The Green Bowl’. One story set further into the past is Marjory Bowen’s ‘Florence Flannery’, which provides a thoroughly unromantic depiction of a Devon manor in 1800, with a couple brought together by loneliness and poverty, who are haunted by events from three hundred years earlier. ‘The Blue Room’, by Lettice Galbraith, set in a Scottish castle, also concerns a haunting of earlier times, from the 17th century but sets characters with deliberately modern (at the time) attitudes, including a ‘clever, strong-minded young lady’ to challenge the evils of the past.

The role of women is often the focus of attention. ‘A Twin-Identity’ by Edith Stewart Drewry, is narrated by a female French police detective, who shows persistence and courage in her pursuit of a murderer, as well as the sensitivity to follow the supernatural clues she is given. Other tales take a more complex approach. In ‘Young Magic’, by Helen Simpson, Viola grows up neglected by her mother and her nursemaid but is content to play by herself, ‘exactly as a cat does’. She finds opportunities for encounters with invisible beings, which are both more satisfying than those she invents and disappointing because her contact with them is so limited. At one level, the story is about the constraints and limitations of her life as a middle-class girl, especially as she grown into adolescence. At another, it is about the power and danger of the imagination.

Some stories draw their strength from their depiction of character and setting, while others evoke the uncanny with more intensity. Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The House’ is one of the most memorable entries, as it draws the reader into the painful emotions of a young woman, and her vision of domestic bliss. For me, the supernatural element here seems almost incidental, not a significant feature of the story. By contrast, I found it difficult to sympathise with the narrator of ‘Outside the House’ by Bessie Kyffin-Taylor, a man reluctant to take advice or consider the wishes of his fiancée and her family. But the haunting of the family house from the outside struck me as both unusual and powerful, particularly in the way it engages with class conflict and industrial tragedy.

Two of the thirteen stories show familiar authors in an unexpected light. L.M. Montgomery’s ‘House Party at Smoky Island’ deals with love and jealousy in a darker mode than Anne of Green Gables, while Flora Poste of Cold Comfort Farm might not approve of the way the narrator of Stella Gibbons’s ‘Roaring Tower’ indulges her emotions. But the greater strength of the collection lies in its revival of authors who have been forgotten and I enjoyed being introduced to many of them.

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Africanfuturism: An Anthology

Africanfuturism: An Anthology edited by Wole Talabi, Brittle Paper, 2020

Includes stories by Nnedi Okorafor, T.L. Huchu, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Mame Bougouma Diene, Mazi Nwonwu, and Derek Lubangakene.

Reviewed by Alexander Buckley

With a short introduction to African science fiction by Wole Talabi, himself a Nommo Award winning writer, Africanfuturism: An Anthology contains eight stories and boundless insights into what Africanfuturism actually is, what it should look and read like. The anthology is freely available from Brittle Paper, a literary magazine established in 2010 that champions upcoming African artists and writers. The stories invite the reader to delve into imaginative futures of African societies, all of them conjuring up a range of compelling ideas, some offering novel interpretations of dystopian ways of living. 

The anthology opens strong with a short, hospitable story by T.L. Huchu, a Zimbabwean writer, known for his debut novel The Hairdresser of Harare (2010) and his many award-nominated short stories. Huchu’s “Egoli”, written in the second person, details the life of an aged Shona woman living between the past and the future in her small village; her grandson is away working as a miner in space, meanwhile, this woman uses a smartphone and finds solace in the BBC World Service on the radio. The nostalgic inspection into the past is warm and balmy, contrasted with the introspective world of tomorrow that’s slowly encroaching, attempting to sever this woman from the life she tirelessly tries to hold on to. It’s beautiful. The writing is neat and immerses the reader in this woman’s life that seems so lonely and distant from everything around her. It’s one of the most interesting and developed stories in the anthology and is a fantastic introduction for anyone interested in Africanfuturism.


The second story is “Sunrise” by Nnedi Okorafor, whose definition of Africanfuturism, a term she coined, is featured at the beginning of the anthology. Okorafor’s “Sunrise begins with a famous Nigerian-American science fiction writer being harassed while trying to board a flight with her sister. It then shifts into a narrative about the erratic uncontrollable nature of the Artificial Intelligence on her phone and the spoilt visit to her uncle’s house. The story doesn’t seem to know which way it wants to go, and the writing doesn’t help the confused nature of the storyline. The part at the beginning, about Nnedi’s self-insert being harassed by ‘Ian Scott’ who struggles to pronounce her name correctly is strong enough to be a standalone story. Everything afterwards felt tacked on and a little needless.

Ugandan filmmaker and science fiction writer Dilman Dila’s “Yat Madit” tells the story of Amaro, whose ex-president father is released from prison. Her father visits his smart, tech savant daughter to seek advice about using the voter’s online avatars to get himself re-elected. Yat Madit is the hardware that hosts everyone’s avatar and fosters interconnectedness, the nature of which remains enigmatic. The worldbuilding is very compelling, inspiring many questions about what Yat Madit is and how it works. Yat Madit means ‘a big tree.’ There are hints that a stormy family drama is buried underneath the narrative layer, but it’s unable to emerge through the text. The father tries ludic ways to reconcile with Amaro, but the back-and-forth trial does not suffice to banish the shadow of his criminal past. The writing struggles to support the plausibility of attempts to resolve the emotional conflict between Amaro and her father. “Yat Madit”’s main strength is its science fiction novum and worldbuilding. There’s a whole future happening within the story and it would have been great to explore more of the history of the avatars. This is a case where the science-fictional ideas are more interesting and involving than the emotional story they are embedded in.  This is unfortunate because the characters want to do so much and be given the same treatment as the science that is being foretold. 

Mazi Chiagozie Nwonwu is co-founder of Omenana, an essential Nigerian-produced magazine dedicated to speculative fiction from Africa and the African diaspora. Nwonwu’s “Rainmaker” is about a young boy named Bama who must perform a Raindance to bring rain to the dry, dusty planet of Arid. “Rainmaker” is a fun, short adventure story with a simple premise. It begins with an exciting encounter with ‘dust devils’ as Bama and his friend Katma are heading to school. From there, the story doesn’t let go of its sense of adventure and vision. On Arid, it’s believed that anyone who stands up to a dust devil is granted a wish. The story is wholesome and earnest. A journey on this strange arid planet is filled with bright characters and an involving mythos. Mazi Nwonwu’s writing is clear and hospitable and he serves the planet and its inhabitants to us like a tasty, filling meal. 

Tlotlo Tsamaase is a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry and architectural criticism. Her work is featured in The Best of World SF (2021) edited by Lavie Tidhar, and appeared in Strange Horizons and the quarterly British magazine Wasafiri. Her story “Behind Our Irises” details the day in the life of a graphic designer working for a depressing corporate business to keep her life afloat after years of unemployment. This sinister company installs new technology into their employees, fitting holes into the back of their necks, draining them of their freedoms and exploiting them for profit. Although the company is based in and runs throughout Africa, one of the higher-ups is a “European man with a balding hairline, stocky fingers and a certain kind of confidence that intimidated me.” The various themes explored throughout the story are subtle and may not be so apparent on a first reading. Towards the end, the protagonist, against her will and quite suddenly, is forced to undergo ‘maintenance’ work on her ‘ports’. She is approached by “a man in blue coveralls that looked like a cross between a doctor and mechanic.” She tries to evade the procedure but finds she cannot move. She can’t even yell for help, and the man in blue coveralls nonchalantly takes what he came for then lets her go. This dystopian, sad, almost borderline horror short is well made and thought out. This story is a great addition to the anthology, reflecting on emerging issues in labour relationships between workers and corporations. 

Derek Lubangakene, whose work has appeared in Omenana and Strange Horizons, brings “Fort Kwame” to the anthology, named after the orbital city that suffers the consequences of a failed rebellion. Its protagonist, Jabari Asalur, “acknowledged his dread.” Fort Kwame, and the inhabitable planet it floats above, is a deep and detailed world, full of exciting science-fictional ideas and entertaining characters. Lubangakene’s exploration of this futuristic orbital city is quite an adventure. The workings of Jabari’s “thermskin” are particularly well imagined and tickle a certain sci-fi itch. “Fort Kwame” fits perfectly into the anthology. 

On her website, Rafeeat Aliyu’s describes “Fruit of the Calabash” as being “something I initially dreamed of, I recall hastily jotting down memories of the creepy dream before it faded”. In the story, Maseo fertilizes artificial wombs in her lab. The development of a fetus for the local senator doesn’t go as planned and she heeds the advice of a wise, judicious woman to help gain insight into the reason behind the fiasco. The plot develops with an urgent pace; elements of Maseo’s world are immersive and plausible, the characters are believable, the story feels like it could become a reality. It’s a delight to read and get lost in.  

Mame Bougouma Diene, whose novella Hell Freezes Over which was nominated for a Nommo Award, blends mysticism with science fiction in “Lekki Lekki”, the final story of the anthology. Huge trees contain “engines” that connect humans to a giant network of seemingly everything. Humanity had harmed nature, and now it must painfully adapt. This story conjures up interesting imagery for the mind and the story’s lyrical ecocritical otherworldliness is noteworthy. 

The anthology is a host to a range of wonders and imaginative worlds. Judging by what is contained within these digital pages, it’s regrettable that some of these writers have yet to become as widely read as their Western peers. This anthology is a brilliant introduction to Africanfuturism and hopefully its free PDF edition will attract new readers to the genre. I think it’s important that all serious fans of science fiction are conscious of the emerging talent in African science fiction. Publishers around the world should snap their stories quickly before they get beaten to it. 

Ruby by Nina Allan

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Titan have been publishing Allan’s work since they brought out an expanded edition of The Race in 2016. This was followed by The Rift in 2017 and an updated edition of The Silver Wind in 2019. Their latest offering from her is Ruby, which was originally published as Stardust: The Ruby Castle Stories in 2013. As that earlier title indicates, this book consists of a sequence of linked stories. At first, they seem to be very loosely linked––tied together only by fleeting references to the eponymous Ruby, a film star whose career ends when she is imprisoned for murder––but more connections become apparent to the reader in later stories.

Indeed, when I got to the end, I had to fight hard against an overwhelming urge to go back to the beginning again with my new knowledge and put all the events in the stories together into one coherent plotline. However, that would be the wrong reason to read these beautiful and entrancing stories again. Not only is there no overall temporal continuity but also, to the extent that these are horror stories, the horror lies in wait for those determined to keep religiously to the straight and the narrow. Morally these stories are ‘chaotic neutral’ and trying to impose order on them would at best be inviting frustration and at worst risking getting trapped in some maze-like time loop, as happens to several characters in these stories. Paradoxically, though, for those prepared to embrace the apparent unreason of time paradoxes and coincidences that unspool sinuously through these stories, potential nightmares turn into dreams of possibility.

Ruby by Nina Allan

For example, in ‘Laburnams’, Christine ‘had often wondered if it was possible to take a wrong turning and end up living a life that was not your own’ and there are lot of people in these stories trapped in lives that are not their own. In ‘Wreck of the Julia’, this condition is explicitly linked to the evasion and lying inherent to south London lower-middle-class suburbs such as Croydon and Sidcup, which are very similar to the one I grew up in. And you don’t get out of those lives by conforming to the moral parameters that structure and limit them. Therefore, escape is itself a traumatic experience that scars and is only overcome retrospectively by sensing the rightness of the new life. The protagonist of ‘Stardust’ feels ‘the change happen, a discernible click, as if a key had been twisted inside me’.

Such transformations also have little to do with free choice and that is what makes them doubly scary. One of the protagonists tries to make sense of his experiences through ‘dream science’ and ‘the idea of the subconscious as a crime writer’ throwing out as many red herrings as useful clues. But it is only by negotiating both the red herrings and the clues that he finds his way again. These stories are not merely tales of the unexpected or simple mysteries but a series of labyrinthine twists which simultaneously fold in and out on themselves to reveal unexpected perspectives and hidden views. The result of such an intricate weaving together of signs and wonders is a collection of stories that reads like a novel which you want to go on and on. So, while I didn’t immediately reread the stories, I would have been happy to have continued to lose myself within more of them for another thousand pages or so. Nevertheless, I didn’t end Ruby feeling unfulfilled because after thinking about it––and these stories do tend to embed themselves in your mind for a while––I realised that I could take the fluid mode of reading that the stories had seduced me into adopting and use it to read other stories and novels in productive ways. In this manner, Allan not only generates possibilities through her writing, but she also teaches her readers to generate possibilities through their reading.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work by John Danaher

Reviewed by Michael Pitts.

Danaher, John. Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work. Harvard UP, 2019. Hardcover. 248 pg. $99.95. ISBN 9780674984240.

Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work is crafted as a response to fears over an automated future in which humans are made obsolete by technological developments. Written by John Danaher, senior lecturer of law at the National University of Ireland, Galway, the text consists of two main sections, which cover automation and the possibility of a utopian future, respectively.

After outlining the scope and purpose of his research, in the first chapter Danaher forecasts the obsolescence of humankind in an automated world. But this is not as catastrophic as it may sound since, for Danaher, “Obsolescence is the process or condition of being no longer useful or used; it is not a state of nonexistence or death” (2). In the rest of the automation section, Danaher responds to two propositions: that automation in the workplace is both possible and desirable, and that automation outside of the workplace is potentially dangerous and its threats must therefore be mitigated.

After making his case for why automation should be conditionally embraced, in the second section Danaher turns to two possible, ‘improved’ societies with automation fundamental to their economies, the cyborg and virtual utopias. While the cyborg utopia enables humankind to remain valuable members of the economy, occupying the cognitive niche that has historically provided an initial evolutionary advantage to the species, Danaher posits that such a future will likely maintain the degradations of employment, enhance our dependency upon machines, and disrupt humanist values while, due to the technological advancements it requires, ensuring no worthy improvements to human wellbeing in the near future.

Following up this analysis of the cyborg polity, Automation and Utopia concludes with a presentation of what Danaher views as the ideal, improved society, the virtual utopia. This improved society, in which humankind ventures into the virtual world to enhance its flourishing, is presented by Danaher as an ideal goal towards which humankind may aim since, as the author posits, it will ensure human agency, pluralism, stability, a myriad of alternative utopias, and a meaningful connection to the non-virtual, real world. 

Pivotal to Danaher’s assessment of automation, and a possibly utopian future, are his views on labor and the avenue he identifies as optimal for human flourishing, the virtual utopia. For the purposes of his argument, he adopts a definition of work which he acknowledges as unusual and likely controversial, since it excludes “most domestic work (cleaning, cooking, childcare)” as well as “things like subsistence farming or slavery” (29). Defining work as “any activity (physical, cognitive, emotional etc.) performed in exchange for an economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving an economic reward,” Danaher builds the case that obsolescence is almost certain and could result in as low as 10% or as high as 40% of the future population remaining employed (28). Such a development is framed as a positive result since work, he emphasizes, has a negative effect upon employees and improving it in the current economic milieu is, according to him, a more difficult route to take than shifting towards a virtual utopia. Specifically, Danaher argues that improving work, which often involves fissuring, precarity, colonization, classic collective action, domination, and distributive injustice is unlikely in our current system since it “would require reform of the basic rules of capitalism, some suppression or ban of widely used technologies as well as reform of the legal and social norms that apply to work” (83). Though this dismissal of the possibility of improving working conditions is short-sighted and ignores the likelihood that labor organizing will prove necessary as technological advances continue, this weakness of the text stands on its periphery. More important to Danaher’s vision of the future is his adoption of an approach that is interestingly more radical than such efforts to protect workers: the introduction of a universal basic income and the normalization of technological unemployment in current economic systems. 

Danaher envisions this radically different distribution of economic power as a salient feature unique to the virtual utopia. Danaher rejects the cyborg utopia, believing it will threaten the prospect of universal basic income and technological unemployment and ensure the continuation of work and the injustices endemic to capitalistic systems. In considering the virtual utopia, Danaher’s audience must consider the ethics and consequences of a nation in which utopian games and escape become a salient feature of its culture. This ideal society is marked by its focus upon virtual worlds as the mechanism by which human flourishing may take place. By venturing into simulations that are shaped to satisfy the desires and needs of individual users, it avoids the problems of a single utopian ideal that must be enforced upon all citizens. It can therefore, as Danaher explains, “allow for the highest expressions of human agency, virtue, and talent… and the most stable and pluralistic understanding of the ideal society” (270). 

Yet as with the cyborg utopia, the virtual utopia is plagued with ethical complications. The question of what actions are permissible in such a simulated environment is closely related to the ethical considerations surrounding cyborgs and artificial intelligence. In very briefly confronting this topic, Danaher asserts that the same moral constraints that shape human interactions in daily life will impact those occupying the virtual world. He supports this argument by pointing out that some of the characters inhabiting the simulation will be operated by human players and that interactions with such players will have ethical dimensions. In addition, he asserts that other actions may be deemed intrinsically immoral even without a corresponding ‘real-life’ consequence.  Danaher asserts that, though there will be some moral frameworks unique to the virtual utopia, there will be no major alteration to human ethics. The virtual utopia, he claims, is therefore a reasonable goal for the post-work society since it enables human flourishing and protects values such as individualism and humanism.

Danaher is also keen to emphasize that “the distinction between the virtual and the real is fluid” (229). He rejects the “stereotypical” science fictional view of virtual reality, as something that is only produced within immersive technological simulations, like the Matrix or Star Trek’s Holodeck. On the other hand, he also rejects the “counterintuitive” view that everything humans experience is virtual reality in that our reality is constructed through language and culture. Instead, Danaher offers a middle position. Some things may be more virtual than others, but nothing is wholly virtual or wholly real. He sees virtual utopia as being filled with emotionally and morally meaningful interactions, but in the context of relatively inconsequential stakes (rather than survival, or struggle for hegemony). A Holodeck-style simulation is only one of many ways this could be accomplished. 

Automation and Utopia delves significantly into the topic of possible futures at the intersection of ethics, technology, and humanism. It is a valuable resource for scholars, students, and laypeople engaged with conversations surrounding the advancement of automation in the 21st-century, its impact upon economics and workers, and optimal approaches to accommodating such new technologies through the advent of a post-work society. The work continues discussions at the intersection of technology and labor, but necessitates broader considerations related to the virtual utopia Danaher proposes. Namely, it does not convincingly explain how virtual utopia will avoid the ethical pitfalls outlined in relation to the cyborg utopia. It also does not thoroughly discuss how such simulations may be safeguarded from economic exploitation at the hands of those owning or operating these systems, or address the potential for intersectional inequalities. Finally, Danaher does not comprehensively discuss how such escapism and the further minimization of human interaction in the natural world may impact climate and the environment. Though it is difficult to accurately predict, estimations of both the ecological and psychological effects of a society in which the main mechanism of human interaction is not within nature but instead within a virtual world are vital to identifying optimal utopian aims.

Overall, Automation and Utopia productively dives into the topics of technological advancement and labor policy, proposes thought-provoking socioeconomic policies related to the challenges of automation, and necessitates further discussions concerning ‘the ideal society,’ its connection to technology, and the impact it may have upon human psychology and the environment. 

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The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Reviewed by Anne F. Wilson. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

“Even worthless things can become valuable once they become rare. This is the grand lesson of my life”.

Cara is a survivor. Literally. She is a traverser between 380 alternate worlds, each fractionally different from the next. But she can only travel to worlds where her alternate has already died. Only 8 of the 380 still house living versions of her. All the others have died of natural or unnatural causes. Illness, neglect, abuse, murder. This is because she is a poor child from the deprived area of Ashtown, not a protected citizen of the neighbouring city of Wiley. 

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Cara is employed by the Eldridge Institute, headed by the charismatic Adam Bosch. Alone of his alternates, Bosch discovered the technology for travelling between the worlds. Cara’s job is data mining on the different worlds. What needs to be changed to achieve a particular effect? Go to the world where it has changed. What is going to happen in the future? Go to a world which is slightly ahead in development. Because she is so rare she is valuable, in that the Institute doesn’t have to employ so many other traversers. But her time is running out, as the Institute is expecting an imminent breakthrough that will make traversers redundant.

But Cara has secrets. She isn’t supposed to bring back trophies from her visits to other worlds, but she does. She isn’t supposed to interact with the inhabitants of those worlds, or get involved in their local disputes, but she does. And it’s from these interactions with the alternates of people in her own world, with lives and relationships slightly shifted, that she starts to put together a very different picture of what is happening on her own world, and what Adam Bosch really wants.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It’s full-on science fiction, exploring that most fundamental question: “What might be changed?” Cara is a thoroughly believable character: bolshy, rough-edged, insecure. She is brutalised by her upbringing, but she’s still human. And in a world where merely surviving is the main aim, or (in Wiley), maintaining or improving one’s position, she is willing to act to improve things. 

The space between worlds isn’t just the space between the 380 worlds that Cara traverses, it’s also the space between Wiley, where she maintains a precarious existence, and Ashtown, her birthplace. It is no coincidence that the original inhabitants of Wiley are pale-skinned and fair-haired, and the Ashtowners are black and brown. “People brought for labor, or come for refuge, or who were here before the first neoliberal surveyed this land and thought to build a paradise”. It’s a dystopia, and in most of the alternate worlds things are getting worse, the gap widening between the privileged in Wiley and those outside, who are prey to brutal gangs and suffer the effects of lack of money, of healthcare, of opportunities. 

Johnson is that most excellent of things, a storyteller. I was caught up in the action and kept reading to find out what happens next. The surprises keep coming. The tight focus on Cara’s viewpoint means that the author can slide in little bits of information that turn out to be significant later. It’s always great to read a novel where what’s next is completely unexpected, and yet when it has happened you think: yes, that fits.

I liked the way that Cara develops as a character. She begins the novel as someone who is defensive and belligerent, scrambling not to lose her hard-won place in Wiley. Once she begins to find out the rules that govern her existence, Cara discovers that she can make choices, and unsurprisingly these lead her and others into danger. It is only by using the ingrained knowledge from her harsh upbringing outside Wiley that she has a chance of surviving and saving those that she cares for.

Copyright Anne F. Wilson.

Radio Life by Derek B. Miller

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Our world collapsed in chaos and war at the end of the 21st century after a solar flare disrupted information networks. Now, the Commonwealth, devoted to rescuing knowledge from the Gone World, is sending out expeditions and creating an Archive. Fifty years ago, Lilly’s discovery of the “Harrington Box” inspired a renaissance based upon the collection of books and the “Trivial Pursuits” set it contained. Lilly is now Chief Engineer of the Commonwealth, whose headquarters is a sports centre built for the Olympics. One of her projects is rebuilding technologies including a radio, on which voices from elsewhere were heard until it ceased to work. A new fuse has been found by a pair of scavengers and given to Lilly. But a tribe known as the Keepers are threatening the networks of Raiders and Explorers and Runners, and the Commonwealth itself. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Elimisha, an Archive Runner, is pursued into a building which collapses, leaving her injured and unable to escape – but in a room containing an “artificial intelligence entity” which identifies itself as a Librarian . . . and a radio.

When Elimisha’s voice is received by Lilly’s radio, another Runner, Allesandra, is sent to rescue her. Her mission is critical, because it is suspected that Elimisha has found the secret of the Ancients’ success – the Internet.

Radio Life

The joke here – it rapidly becomes clear that Lilly etc. don’t actually know what the Internet is – is certainly one of the reasons to read the book: running through it is a vein of humour which counterpoints the bleak post-apocalypse scenario without undermining a serious core: an examination of the nature and purpose of knowledge. Miller has acknowledged the influence of Walter M. Miller’s (no relation) A Canticle for Leibowitz in Radio Life. In some ways he has written a parallel to – or even a parody of – the earlier classic. (There is even a religious community, in which the telling of another joke, an old and hoary music-hall item, somehow underlines the story’s essence.) Like Leibowitz, which itself reveals a dark, even despairing joke at its core, Radio Life is about regaining knowledge, even at the cost of not fully understanding the extent and implications of that knowledge. Derek Miller distributes the hazy search for uncovering the history of this precarious society among a number of interestingly-imagined characters: Lilly, Allesandra and Elimisha, but also Henry (Henrietta) and Graham, (Allesandra’s parents), and Birch, the “Master of the Order of Silence” (one of the interesting things about the Commonwealth is the complicated web of organisations, networks and rivalries within it).

For a while, this is a standard if well-imagined and told tale of post-Apocalypse recovery. But as the complexities within the Commonwealth and its immediate history become apparent, things get deeper. A confrontation between Graham, captured by the Keepers, and the Keeper leader makes us face the question begged by too many of these fictions: are they right to want to regain the knowledge of the past? During their conversation we learn why the Keepers are called the Keepers, and what they want to keep. This is not necessarily a debate between right and wrong. The Ancients had wonderful technology. (The generic term for material scavenged and brought back is telling: “shinies”). One of the delightful “histories” of the pre-catastrophe decades uncovered by Elimisha and Allesandra is the up-until-then undiscovered treasure trove of recorded music. But the legacy of previous days also includes war, genocide, slavery, racism: “So many categories of people, all attacking other categories”. The Ancients did “awful things to each other”. Should those memories be brought back, risking shame and anger and revenge?

Or could the world be rebuilt, better? Walter M. Miller’s theology seemed to suggest not. His namesake, possibly more secular, seems to prefer otherwise. Radio Life rather slips, at the end, into hand-waving improvement, but the arguments are worth confronting.

Copyright Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.

Fearless by Allen Stroud

Reviewed by Dev Agarwal. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Allen Stroud’s name will be well known to readers in this parish. He is currently BSFA Chair and has long been prominent in genre circles. His latest novel has been positively reviewed, including in Amazing Stories, where Ernest Lilley recommended Fearless and observed that Stroud brings “a Clarkian feel that grounds the story in the best tradition of science fiction.”

Fearless is, by flavour, not only science fiction, but specifically, space opera. Space opera, as a subgenre, has arguably two sets of defining characteristics. There is its iconography of spaceships, colony worlds, disasters, piracy and spaceship battles. However, equally important are its tonal choices of larger-than-life characters, intrigue, extravagant settings and fast-paced plotting.  Which Brian Aldiss neatly captured in his term “widescreen baroque.”

While it is fallacious to say that space opera is enjoying a renaissance (as it never went away) it is true to say that prominent names, including James S.A. Corey, Charles Stross and Ann Leckie, have boosted space opera and broadened its appeal. They built on the founding ideas of the original space opera and the popularity of the New Space Opera that came after it.  This number of books has inevitably crowded the field and the challenge for any writer is how to make their space opera stand out. 

Allen Stroud throws us into his version of the “widescreen baroque.” The novel is set in AD 2118 with habitats across the solar system (where humanity has colonised the Moon, Mars, Ceres and Europa). Fearless feels confidently New Space Opera, as it melds pyrotechnic action with ethical dilemmas and strong characterisation. This is particularly evident where Stroud challenges the male-dominated narratives of the past, to put a woman, Captain Ellisa Shann, in command of the space going vessel Khidr. Shann is one of the novel’s three first person protagonists (which also include two junior crew members, Johannson and Sellis). Shann is the most distinct of the narrators, in part because she was born without legs. Ordinarily, her story, or backstory, would include how she overcame this disability, or is defined by it.  However, Stroud has said that he “wanted to portray a disabled character in space who was not attempting to overcome her disability.” Shann’s disability is a part of her, rather than all of her.

Khidr is a rescue ship and this feels like a distinct social point that Stroud makes. He is writing space opera, and enthusiastically opening its toybox for the reader. But he is not revelling in the violence of a warship. Khidr has been described by other reviewers as analogous to the coast guard or an emergency service and its purpose ordinarily, is to assist other vessels, rather than fight. New Space Opera is able to widen the narrative to include people like Shann, physically disabled but still capable, who are in space with altruistic intentions––rather than opportunistic ones.

The Khidr’s role also allows Fearless to explore similar motivations to the work of writers like Frederick Pohl and Alistair Reynolds, who have looked at blue collar workers living in space and looking to make a living rather than warriors and world-beaters. These are the people who do the unglamourous and necessary work that often gets overlooked in the widescreen baroque.

Fearless begins with a routine emergency when Shann receives a call for help from the spaceship The Hercules. They expect to offer routine assistance, but this soon leads the crew into an attempted mutiny and Shann into a political drama that spans the colony worlds. Stroud’s use of three revolving viewpoints offers differing perspectives on the mounting crises both on and off the ship.

Space opera is well known for the speed at which tension mounts and the range of the catastrophes that its characters face. In Fearless, the plot develops fast, with all the narrative acceleration and pyrotechnic action that we might expect. The Khidr deals with an onboard murder, external attack by an unidentified spaceship, and intrigue and battles across the solar system. 

This setup gives Stroud an opportunity to turn a fresh authorial eye to a number of familiar tropes. Cliques in the space-going Fleet, hidden colony worlds and a tantalising alien manifestation dating back to Apollo 10 all appear. This makes for a story that is both a high-octane adventure and a character study for each of the three viewpoint characters.

In terms of plotting, Stroud walks the tightrope of completing the arc of his characters’ story by the final page and also setting up a sequel. He puts in motion a number of threads (starting with that alien manifestation that Apollo 10 encountered in real life) and it would have been unwise to try to neatly tie off all of these strands (and dissatisfying to the reader). By the end of the novel, the Khidr has discovered and abandoned artifacts and several political players remain unmasked and still working against the Fleet. At the same time, Stroud brings his novel to a satisfying dramatic crescendo.

Lastly, a mention for a stylistic decision that Stroud made. This is his use of present tense.  Stroud has said that this was a deliberate choice, having experimented with the form at shorter length. Ultimately, he found that present tense added more immediacy and tension to his writing. While it can be off-putting to read a long work in present tense, Fearless may just be the right place for readers to start.

And if you like Fearless, more is on its way as Stroud is currently at work on a sequel.

Copyright Dev Agarwal. All rights reserved.

A Diary in the Age of Water by Nina Munteanu

Reviewed by Paul Kincaid. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, drowns us all. Not quite what Brutus was trying to say, but a sentiment much closer to the common impulse of humankind. We are drawn to disasters and catastrophes, to worst-case scenarios and conspiracy theories. Even if the thing we dread the most is no more likely to occur than the thing we hope for most fervently, still it is the dread that seems to prevail. And so we tell ourselves tales of the end of the world and the hopelessness of existence, perhaps secretly believing that the more we detail the worst the less chance there is of the worst occurring.

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A sense of collective guilt runs through our fictions of a dying earth. At one point it might be nature, or perhaps more commonly god, reacting against the hubris of humanity. In time that became a common dread of the finger poised above the nuclear button. Nowadays, our visions of finality seem to fall into one of two variants. Either we dread the failure of the technology we have become so reliant on, as in Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (2018) or The Silence by Don DeLillo (2020); or we dread the failure of our ecology. Since the natural disaster that is climate change is most commonly caused by human technology, these two variants are perhaps not that far apart.

A Diary in the Age of Water by the Canadian author and environmental activist, Nina Munteanu, clearly belongs in the second camp. It is a step-by-step guide to the way that human malfeasance, greed, and ignorance exhaust the water that we all rely upon for our very existence. One of Munteanu’s recent works, Water Is … (2016), is a non-fiction account of the role that water plays in every aspect of our lives. The influence of that earlier work in shaping Munteanu’s new novel is illustrated by the frequency with which the phrase “water is …” is repeated throughout the work.

Except I hesitate over the word “novel”. I’m not exactly sure what this book is, but it has few of the novelistic virtues – well-drawn characters, story, sense of place – that we might normally expect to find. Apart from relatively brief opening and closing scenes set in an undefined but relatively distant future, the bulk of the book is made up of extracts from a diary written over a period of some 20 years starting in 2045. The author of the diary, Lynna, (like the author of the book) is a limnologist, someone who studies the relationship between lakes and rivers and their ecological context. As the diary opens, she is an academic at the University of Toronto whose work is sponsored and controlled by an outfit called CanadaCorp. CanadaCorp, it turns out, is really an American company owned by China, and it is concerned with channelling Canadian water to the drought-stricken USA, leaving Canada itself subject to severe water rationing. Despite Lynna’s tendency towards self-deception (during the course of the book she is apparently responsible for the firing of one colleague and indirectly for at least one murder) her doubts about her political masters grow until she is forced out of her job, only to watch as her daughter, Hilde, takes to dangerous but only vaguely described activism.

Outlined like this, the book might seem dramatic enough, but none of this is centre stage. There is nothing that might be considered dramatic that does not occur off-stage; and even the overall story I’ve imputed to the book is mostly drawn from reading between the lines. The entries in the so-called diary are not accounts of the events of the day, but are rather meditations on the behaviour of rivers and lakes and their impact on the surrounding environment. These are almost invariably couched in technical language that is not, for the most part, interpreted for a non-technical reader. Sometimes, particularly when they are given over to ferocious (and well-deserved) denunciations of the ecological policies of the Trump regime, these entries rise to the level of polemic. For the most part, however, they read like lectures aimed at undergraduates, particularly given their frequent and extensive quotes from academic texts on the subject, most consistently Limnology by Robert G, Wetzel (2001).

Typically, as we begin to suspect that Hilde’s actions might be giving the book a belated plot, the diary comes to an abrupt end and the scene jumps forwards decades to when a blue-skinned, four-armed girl who may be Hilde’s descendant is reading the diary. What happened in the interim, and how a blue-skinned, four-armed girl modelled on a Hindu deity is supposed to be the answer to surviving the environmental collapse caused by the loss of water is never made clear.

Ursula Le Guin talked about the lure of the pulpit, the writers who were more interested in expounding their ideas than in exploring them. Munteanu has succumbed to the lure of the lectern. She is so intent on layout out her scientific ideas about water that these ideas never acquire the novelistic weight of metaphor. They seem, therefore, divorced from the polemical aspects of the book. While the polemic, focused as it is upon the Trump presidency, a quarter of a century or more before the setting of the book, is similarly divorced from what passes for story here. There are interesting and important ideas underpinning the book, something that we should be paying urgent attention to. But the structure, a series of technical lectures pretending to be a polemic disguised as a novel, is not the best way to convey these ideas.

Copyright Paul Kincaid. All rights reserved.

Railhead by Philip Reeve

Review by Christopher Owen. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Nominated for the Carnegie Medal and the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, Railhead and its sequel, Black Light Express, are set in a future where sentient trains travel the galaxy. The Great Network is an intergalactic railroad that connects planets across the universe through mysterious portals. It is controlled by the rich, and obsessed over by railheads, riders who travel for no reason other than to see strange and distant planets. Zen Starling is a railhead.  

Zen Starling is a thief. With a sick mother and an overworked sister, Zen steals so they can afford to survive. But he also does it for the adventure, hopping trains to escape the law and travel the universe in the process. When a mysterious stranger named Raven approaches Zen and offers to pay him a fortune to steal a mysterious box from the Emperor, Zen agrees to pose as a distant relative of the Emperor’s large family and board the Emperor’s train. He is accompanied by a motorik, a humanoid robot, named Nova, and on the train he befriends the Emperor’s daughter, Threnody Noon. After a series of mistakes, Zen and Nova are forced to destroy the Emperor’s train, killing many (including the Emperor himself) and fleeing as terrorist outlaws.

Railhead by [Philip Reeve]

Their adventures lead them to the answers of the secret history of the K-gates, the portals that allow the trains to travel across the universe. It is a widely held belief that the K-gates were built by the Guardians, Artificial Intelligence so powerful that they became like gods, worshipped by humanity through digital prayers. But the Guardians are hiding the true origins of the K-gates, and Raven knows that the answer lies with the mysterious box Zen has stolen for him. 

Meanwhile, Rail Marshal Lyssa Delius has decided that Threnody Noon will be the next Empress. But Lyssa Delius fully intends to control Threnody, and in turn the Great Network. This sets off a civil war, causing Threnody and her criminal servant Chandni Hansa to flee into hiding and inadvertently join Zen and Nova on their adventures to learn the truth about the origins of their intergalactic society. 

The two novels feature imaginative world building with fascinating societies, complex systems of power and intriguing characters. The majority of characters are people of colour, and several protagonists are queer, including a gender non-conforming robot, a gay soldier and an asexual criminal. The borders between who is a human, who is a machine and who is a god are played with in a society that is as diverse as it is oppressive. 

The first novel, Railhead, is set in a universe in which a complex and unfair system of power pervades in the background of a thrilling adventure set on several different planets. The characters are well developed and interesting, and the story takes many surprising twists and turns. While it is unfortunate the book features the tired trope of a human boy falling in love with a robot girl, the book otherwise features some really unique and interesting characteristics in a richly imagined universe. 

Unfortunately, the sequel, Black Light Express, falls off the rails. This book really wants to be two books. The plot is unfocussed with a disconnecting structure. The ending feels incredibly rushed, and instead of tackling the system of power in a nuanced way, the story takes an easy and violent out that leaves several social issues unresolved. 

Railhead deserves all of its praise and award nominations, but its sequel, Black Light Express, is rather disappointing. Yet both books feature diverse characters, exciting adventures, and strange new worlds, demonstrating Philip Reeve’s famous imagination. 

Copyright Christopher Owen. All rights reserved