Celestial Empire: The Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction by Nathaniel Isaacson

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

A few years ago, when I wanted some examples of new Chinese science fiction, I had to ask a contact in China to send me some and I was reliant on various websites for summaries. Now, Liu Cixin (one of the writers I was pointed to) has won a Hugo. While for the general reader it has some of the drawbacks of being a revision for book publication of his phd thesis, and it only covers the beginnings of modern Chinese sf, it’s essential reading for anyone curious about the cultural background to the current scene.

The first chapter deals with definition and context, especially sf’s relationship with imperialism. This is discussed frequently throughout, but it’s something that cannot be left out of the relationship between China (and Japan, which nation seems to have served as a kind of mid-point in some of the developments here) and the West, especially Britain. As such, it’s occasionally dense, but frequently rewarding. China’s vast store of marvel-tales and utopias is rather skimmed over here because the focus is upon how a modern sf tradition grew out of Chinese intellectuals’ and writers’ engagements with clashes of culture. It’s interesting that science fiction (kexue xiaoshuo) was used as a term in China earlier than in the West (p. 7), and “science” is linked here with the question of modernisation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We are told that Chinese sf can deal as much with the question of the country’s own indigenous traditions as it does with confronting foreign powers or alien invasions, but that often “[t]he alien other than Chinese sf confronts is China itself” (p.45).

Lu Xun was one of the most significant Chinese writers of the 20th  century, who translated Jules Verne into Chinese in 1903. In chapter 2, Isaacson discusses the debates about science in Lu Xun’s essays and his adaptation and reinterpretation of From The Earth to the Moon. Two more chapters look at two early Chinese sf works. The first is the utopian New Story of the Stone (1905) by Wu Jianren, a “sequel” to a classic novel which, in this version, takes its hero into a technologically “advanced” future inhabited by mythical creatures. The next is the first work actually labelled as science fiction in China, Huangjiang Diaosou’s Tales of the Moon Colony, serialised (though never completed) 1904-5. Both works can be seen as exploring Chinese anxieties over whether, and how far, it is possible to emulate the technologies and internationalism (read “colonial aspirations”) of the West and what can be gained and lost by this. (The latter, which largely takes place outside China, seems particularly interesting.)

 “New Tales of Mr Braggadocio”, a kind of sequel to a Japanese story which, it has been suggested was a loose translation of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s Baron Munchausen, is the focus of chapter 5. The next chapter describes Cat Country serialized 1932-1933 by Lao She, one of the great figures of modern Chinese literature, and, like Lu Xun a fierce critic of Chinese culture. Partly inspired by World’s First Men in the Moon, Cat Country is a dystopia on Mars which the narrator quickly realises is doomed to collapse. The description is enhanced by translated extracts. The satirical flavour is given by a piece that tells how Martian “concubines” are titillated by the idea of foot-binding (which the narrator explains has been abolished though replaced by the wearing of high-heeled shoes which has equally grotesque effects). Other descriptions uncannily foreshadow the ideological battles of the Cultural revolution, during which the author was driven to suicide. The final chapter is a general exploration of how other forms such as the pictorial newspaper supplement and the science essay tackled the themes and anxieties that were highlighted in science fiction. 

As a phd thesis, Celestial Empire is a genuine and welcome contribution to scholarship but written with a specific need to look to current scholarship, and in the first instance for those with some sense of the historical context. For instance, Isaacson draws upon recent work on sf and “Empire” by John Rieder and on locating sf in a world context by Andrew Milner. While it is eventually clear what the issues of the New Culture Movement and its “political” version the May Fourth movement were, Isaacson doesn’t hold our hands by starting with a reader-friendly summary. A “Glossary of Chinese terms” is concerned with presenting the Chinese characters rather than explaining their meaning. The ignorant reader (myself) who wants to know more about the literary conventions and context may struggle. Part of the problem of these early forays into thinking anew about the world, we’re told, is how to express it and what kind of literary Chinese is suitable for these speculations.  Some of the discussion, such as that on the complex (in genre terms) “New Tales of Mr Braggadocio” focuses upon the vocabulary, diction, syntax and other literary features of the text in terms which see them as deliberately blurring a number of lines between aspects of Chinese culture and  also between Chinese and Western culture. 

Do we then get a full understanding of how writers like Liu Cixin are now part of the sf mainstream? Because Isaacson is focussed on the period up to around 1934, by which time there was a “long draught “ during which “very few works of original SF were published in China, and publication remained anemic after 1949” (179), the answer has to be no. Still, anyone interested in the background to the recent successes of Chinese sf will find it extremely helpful.

Copyright Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.

The Breach by M.T. Hill

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

Reading this book about an infection changing us in the middle of a ‘lockdown’ in which an infection is changing us turned out to be a strangely calming experience. The topic of invasive biological agents is a not a new one, but even so it has reached an intensity in recent years in works as varied as Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin, Tade Thompson’s Wormwood trilogy and, most recently, Paul McAuley’s War of the Maps. Following these exotic species of fantastika, The Breach’s cold, sharp bite of Northern realism is a welcome anaesthetic that numbs the pain once the shock has worn off. Whether the invasive force are fairies, insect lifeforms, parasites or a type of virus is never made clear and doesn’t really matter to Shep, the trainee steeplejack, who only comes alive when climbing or urban exploring. As he says, with shrugging acceptance, ‘I think they turned up here, and now they just are.’ 

Image

‘Here’, at least in the opening two thirds of the novel, is the North sometime in an all-too-foreseeable post-Brexit future when even the promise of ‘ENGLAND’S YEAR OF REGROWTH’ is only a faded slogan on one of Freya Medlock’s retired father’s old corporate planners. Freya is living in the box room of her over-fussy parents’ bungalow following the breakup of her relationship and barely going through the motions of her job as a reporter on a dying local paper. An assignment to cover the death of a local climber leads her to the night-time world of ‘urbex’ and Shep. Shep is basically a dangerous chancer and something of a cowboy but he has a redeeming innocence. His only mode of expressing agency is through the equivalent of enacting slapstick pratfalls, rather like Buster Keaton performing his own stunts. The first three meetings between Freya and Shep are by turns charming, funny, and like something from a found-footage horror film. Rationally there is no reason why Freya should feel responsibility for Shep after this but emotionally it makes perfect sense.

In the England Hill depicts, everyday life is attenuated to the extent that all meaning seems to have been leached out of the blighted, post-industrial landscape. This present haunted by the ghosts of a future that never came is not so much tragic as farcical. A trip to the (gene) splicer’s market is neither the utopian or dystopian marker it might once have been but simply an excuse for a coffee in the garden centre on a Sunday morning. Yet while Freya has the skills to head to the place in England which has drained all the rest, London, she never really contemplates this possibility. She is still looking for something else even though there is nothing indigenous left.

The existence within this world of the attempt of an English corporation to build a version of the space elevator from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise is not just incongruous but in itself a form of extraterrestrial intervention. On the one hand, this is a parody of past dreams of the future in which the once industrious engineers who peopled the golden age are replaced by no-nonsense Northern steeplejacks and riggers like Shep. On the other hand, Clarke would probably enjoy the black humour of Hill’s novel, with its twisted take on Childhood’s End. Indeed, in some ways The Breach is the most optimistic novel I’ve read for some time. Let’s face it, the best hope for a future in most parts of England is probably alien invasion. As the cryptic text Freya reads on an urbex forum thread proclaims, ‘The path for its replicants is decided, for the extremities of worlds are essential’. Even as experience recedes further into memory, The Breach imparts a visceral sensation and promises an awakening. And while this might be like Shep’s at the beginning of the novel, in the back of his van, face pressed numb into the cabin bulkhead and with a tin of cheap lager spilled inside his sleeping bag, it’s still a new day with the promise of something actually happening.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

The Record Keepers by Agnes Gomillion

Reviewed by Shellie Horst. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In the acknowledgements, Agnes Gomillion gives credit to Paul Stevens ‘for finding value where others did not.’ I for one am thankful that someone did see a future for The Record Keepers. My only disappointment is that it’s taken me so long to discover it. She also acknowledges Mr Frederick Douglass, from this you can be reassured that The Record Keepers has intensely strong foundations.  

The Record Keeper by Agnes Gomillion

The powerful blend of African culture with western consumption set up in a world supposedly devoid of technology makes The Record Keepers a provocative, satisfying read and everything I have come to expect from a work published by Titan Books.

After World War III, Earth is in ruins, and the final armies have come to a reluctant truce. Everyone must obey the law—in every way—or risk shattering the fragile peace and endangering the entire human race.

Arika Cobane is on the threshold of taking her place of privilege as a member of the Kongo elite after ten gruelling years of training. But everything changes when a new student arrives speaking dangerous words of treason: ‘What does peace matter if innocent lives are lost to maintain it?’ As Arika is exposed to new beliefs, she realizes that the laws she has dedicated herself to uphold are the root of her people’s misery. If Arika is to liberate her people, she must unearth her fierce heart and discover the true meaning of freedom: finding the courage to live—or die—without fear.

In this post war world, everybody has their place in the new order. The few who question it are reminded that their sacrifice is for the good of the people. Arika is plucked from her crib, and by comparison to those in the surrounding village, enjoys an easier lifestyle. However, she’s not protected from cruelty. Safety is found by giving practised answers – staying in your lane if you will. Stepping out of line results in violent punishment.

Gomillion recognises that her readers need to understand the powers at play. Because of this, you realise The Record Keepers isn’t a stand-alone novel. It’s an epic stuffed with potential – much like Arika herself. This all makes for an addictively quiet yet tangible build throughout the first half of the book. 

The premise of an African territory set in America is unfamiliar, also a worryingly accepted lead into Arika’s world. The challenge the author offers is intelligently crafted, neatly questioning the certainties of life, the roots of colonialism, and the roles we choose around it. 

Arika’s wilful and selfish decisions to ensure her seat in the senate drive this book well, to the point of alienating the reader. Arika throws herself into her education, keeping herself away from trouble and the usual playground social battles. She has a single understandable and far-reaching goal, and when she learns of The New Seed she doesn’t sway from it.

Just when you think you know where Gomillion is going, she switches pace, and what could have passed as a fantasy novel reveals itself as complex science fiction. Arika’s character is the strength which radiates throughout the novel. William provides a counterbalance in his steadfast passion to his duty. 

Rebellious factions are a threat to the scholarly ways Arika considers normal, but her intellect and fierce desire to do the right thing (even when it’s wrong) leads her through love interests, betrayal, her past coming back to her and attacks. Both despite Arika’s choices and because of them, I found myself hooked.  

The Record Keepers is a story of balance, and there’s a great deal of life hanging on Arika’s actions. Arika’s growth throughout the book suits the Young Adult, every chapter subtly complex giving you much to contemplate. There is so much here for the Adult shelf too, ‘grown-ups’ will be missing out.

It’s refreshing to find a book that adheres to its premise, The Record Keepers is outstanding, I don’t doubt the adaptation to the screen will be powerful and the series will be up for awards. Highly recommended.

Copyright Shellie Horst. All rights reserved.

The Man With Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger

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

Muriel Jaeger, known to her friends as ‘Jim’, was a member of the ‘Mutual Admiration Society’, a writing group formed by half a dozen young women at Somerville College, Oxford in 1912, including Dorothy L. Sayers. Jaeger’s own career as a writer, however, was rather less successful; her novels did not, for whatever reason, capture the public fancy, while, according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Jaeger ‘had an extremely combative response to criticism’. And yet, if the British Library reissues of her first two novels are anything to go by, Jaeger’s writing shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, even if it wasn’t actually great science fiction.

Her first novel, The Question Mark (1926), a response to the utopian fiction of an earlier generation, showed a world divided between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘normals’, exploring the potential consequences of such a division. Like many utopian fictions, it lacked much in the way of a plot, but Jaeger’s prose was clean and vigorous, and she was clearly sympathetic to the predicament of women in such a setting.

The Man With Six Senses (1927) is a rather more accomplished work, though it would be stretching things to say it’s truly science fiction. The plot ostensibly focuses on Michael Bristowe, a young man with an extraordinarily well-developed skill as a dowser. Or, rather, he experiences everything around him in a completely different way to the rest of us: the sixth sense of the title. Socially awkward, sickly, with only this ill-defined skill to his name, Bristowe has no idea what to do with himself in a post-war society that valorises soldiers returning from France. 

Aware of this, Hilda Torrington, a well-educated young woman, determines to help him, for the simple reason that she believes in his ability, and thinks it may prove of value to society in the future. So far, so good, but Jaeger actually tells the story from the point of view of Ralph Standring, the antithesis of Michael, self-assured, successful, and intent on marrying Hilda, not because he loves her, but because it has always assumed by both his family and hers that they would inevitably do so. But Ralph is disturbed at the changes that university seems to have wrought in Hilda. She treats him as an equal, has views of her own, and wants to discuss his writing with him critically rather than admiringly. She has a flat of her own, a job she likes, working as a secretary for a Mrs Hastings, ‘one of the political women who hoped to be in the next Parliament’ (p. 22), and no inclination to abandon any of this for marriage to Ralph. 

Indeed, when Hilda does eventually marry, she chooses Michael, because she believes she should have his child and carry his unusual skills forward into a new generation. It is a calculated decision on her part, rationally considered, a very modern moment. And that, I think, is the key to the novel. While Jaeger may genuinely be interested in exploring the idea of extra-sensory perception and the possibility of a better future for humanity, somehow this recedes into the background as the novel unfolds, even despite Hilda’s devotion to promoting Michael’s abilities. Instead, the reader is treated to the full horror of Ralph’s assumptions about an educated woman’s role in society, as a suitable companion for an educated man, to be interested in his work and not her own. There is something almost comical in his nonplussed response when Hilda finally turns him down, even though it’s perfectly clear all along that Hilda knows precisely what she wants from life. 

And that is what makes this novel so fascinating: the crisp, sympathetic and utterly uncompromising portrayal of a young woman determinedly making her own decisions about her life, not as an act of defiance but because she does know what she wants.

Copyright Maureen Kincaid Speller. All rights reserved.

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

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

We all know the riff – y’know, science fiction is “about” the time in which it is written, rather than the time in which it is ostensibly set? Like most truisms, it’s not really true – or rather it’s not true of most science fiction, but it’s nonetheless true of enough science fiction that the truism persists. It’s only when one encounters a fiction that really does nail its Zeitgeist to the page that one realises how rare such stories are. Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence, of which Europe in Winter is the third instalment, is just such a fiction.

Perhaps that seems tautologous: other readers and reviewers much faster to the mark than myself have noted the manner in which Brexit has made Hutchinson look a little like a prophet. But Brexit is merely a symptom of Fractured Europe’s true theme, which we might instead name as neoliberalism, so long as we’re willing to put up with the eye-rolling… but that’s still too narrow. We could say it’s about the collapse of the Westphalian consensus (which would at least allow us to coin the term “Westphaliure”), or the backwash of empire; less grandly, it’s about the exploitation of zero-hours workers under globalisation, or the grimy underside of the global construction industry. But really, it’s about all of these things, and more besides.

Europe in Winter (The Fractured Europe Sequence Book 3) by [Dave Hutchinson]

That said, Fractured Europe is not without literary precedent. The old po-mo saw about the map not being the territory definitely applies, letting us draw a line from Hutchinson back to Borges. Such a line might claim to sketch out a slim tradition of European magical realism more concerned with a Borgesian urban than with the ruptured rural dreamtimes of Garcia Marquez et al; Jan Morris’s Hav could be a point on that plot, as could Mieville’s The City & The City. I’d also make the case for Jeff Noon’s early books, in particular Pollen, which concretised the old map/territory riff so successfully that it became pure plot. Pollen is also, at least in part, about the relationship between society and its infrastructures, between people and systems – and that’s part of the game being played in Fractured Europe.

I’m just going to come on out and call that game psychogeography – not because it obeys Situationist methodology (such as it ever was), but because the Situationists were responding to the plasticity and fungibility of place, to the churning subjectivities of geography. In response to capital’s rewriting of the city in its own image, they attempted to disrupt that narrative through the creation of counter-stories: narratives assembled from play and randomness; directionless drifts from bar to bar, granted a rationale only in hindsight; theories that contradicted or abnegated themselves (and their creators).

Hutchinson’s Courers live rather like leaderless Situationists avant la lettre, drifting across the patchwork palimpsest of Europe, haunting its liminal spaces and infrastructural interstices, grudgingly resigned to a peripatetic existence playing out on a landscape where money has dissolved all certainties other than itself, where every map is a fiction and every story is a map. But Debord’s motley crew drifted through Paris in the hope of combatting, or perhaps outrunning, the looming hegemony; by the end of Europe in Winter, Rudy and friends are long past such naivete. They drift because drifting is the doom of the marginal, and they understand that understanding is not on the menu – though scraps do fall from taller tables, if you’re fast.

This may explain complaints about the “difficulty” of Fractured Europe, and its parsimony with regard to explanations and denouements: the reader’s experience reflects that of the characters, which is to say that individual agency is constrained, most knowledge is suspect, and the rules have a tendency to changing suddenly on the whim of distant, inscrutable powers. Fractured Europe is not so much difficult as it is perhaps too mimetic for the escapist reader’s taste: the challenge lies not in parsing its world, but in being forced to recognise it as a strip-lit fun-house reflection of the world in which you already live.

How ironic that only science fiction, the genre that helped invent The Future, is capable of documenting The Future’s foreclosure.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved.

Firefly: The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove

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

It is now coming up for fourteen years since the one and only series of Joss Whedon’s Firefly first aired but we still want more. If anything the basic premise of a likeable bunch of losers – literally so in the case of Mal and Zoe, veterans of the defeated ‘Browncoat’ side in the recent Unification War – scraping an often less-than-legal living at the edge of the star system speaks more to the present than the early pre-crash years of the century. Forget the brief flurry of hot takes a few years ago that the crew were really the bad guys, camaraderie in resistance is increasingly the only option for many, rather than simply a choice over the corporate progressivism of the Blair and Clinton years made in the name of ‘freedom’.

Firefly - The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove

The Ghost Machine is the third in Titan’s series of Firefly tie-in novels, all of which have so far been written by Lovegrove (and he has another one due to come out next year). An ‘Author’s Note’ informs us that the action is set between the Firefly TV series and the movie Serenity. In an interview with sci_fidelity.co.uk, Lovegrove points out that ‘essentially what I’m doing is fan fiction but by a professional writer’. His love for the characters certainly comes across and the obvious fun he had writing them makes this an entertaining read. I hadn’t seen any of these before and so I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was immediately convinced by the opening scene, in which an exchange of dodgy merchandise in the remote outback of an obscure planet rapidly goes pear-shaped. The voices and characterisation are spot on and I sat back to enjoy the ride but, as with the high points of the series, I also found that the story ended up making me think about some of those fundamental questions, which genre fiction can be better at highlighting than more self-consciously literary work. As Lovegrove says in the interview, if we think of these novels as a mini season two then ‘The Ghost Machine is the season’s “high concept” episode’.

The dodgy merchandise in question turns out to be a bit of black tech developed by the Blue Sun Corporation in an illegal lab for the purposes of social control. Within hours of taking off from the planet where the novel begins, all of the crew except River are hopelessly ensnared in wish-fulfilment fantasies oblivious to the fact that their ship is heading full speed for a direct collision with the nearest moon. As the story progresses, these fantasies break down into overt horror but perhaps the most horrible thing about it all is just how conventional and capitalist the fantasies are in the first place. Mal imagines himself in domestic bliss, married to Inara with two kids; Wash dreams of being the wealthy head of an interplanetary freight corporation, the subject of puff pieces in society magazines; Simon wishes himself back as the privileged son of his wealthy family. Success breeds fear of betrayal as shown by the disintegration in Wash’s fantasy of his marriage with Zoe; while Zoe’s own fantasy of the Browncoats having won the war is to the detriment of her friendship with Mal. Tellingly, Zoe suspects Mal would have been happier if the war had been lost: ‘He defined himself by what he resisted, and therefore without anything to oppose he was nothing’. However, the novel is not critiquing the series for endorsing a loser mentality. Rather, it is reaffirming that oppositional mentality against the truly obscene consequences of adopting a winning mentality in what we might think of as ‘capitalist realism’. In particular, the sequence featuring Simon reveals the sheer violence underpinning patriarchal systems. Fortunately, resistance turns out to be too ingrained in some of the crew members for them to succumb completely. In its own way therefore, Firefly: The Ghost Machine has a very strong moral message: it has certainly put me on my guard against idly indulging in wish-fulfilment daydreams of conventional success.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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

Let me lay my lotería cards on the table: I read little horror, if any. I picked out Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel because I bought and published some of her earliest stories, back when Futurismic was still a going concern, and I was curious to see what she was capable of with a decade more experience under her belt; suffice to say it’s very clear to see why she’s lasted the course. The novel’s title makes it plain, even to a dilettante interloper, that there’s a direct connection to the earliest manifestations of the horror tradition—but I can’t tell you to what extent Mexican Gothic might be in dialogue with its generic predecessors, because I don’t have the necessary knowledge. As such, I will limit myself to a discussion of the book’s technique, affect and plot.

Let’s start with the latter: Noemí Taboada is a socialite in 1950s Mexico City, and her life of glamorous parties (and carefully distant dalliances with handsome but stupid young men) is interrupted by her father’s receipt of a letter from her cousin; Catalina recently married (unexpectedly, and against the family’s wishes and better judgement) and shipped out to El Triunfo, a faded former silvertown in the eastern state of Hidalgo, and has hardly been heard from since. The letter, full of high-gothic histrionics—cruelty, decay, poison, whispering voices in the night, the full works—suggests to Noemí’s father, already predisposed to disapproval of Catalina’s unsuitable husband Virgil Doyle, that she needs rescuing from her situation, or psychiatric attention, or some combination of the two: Catalina had a traumatic youth before coming to live with Noemí’s side of the family, after all, and has always been a bit flighty, her nose buried in literary Victoriana, a romantic in both the capitalised and lower-case senses of the term. Despite the horrors to come later in the novel, Noemí’s being dispatched on this mission by her stern yet doting father is perhaps the hardest event to swallow in terms of plausibility—but it’s done quickly, and no more than ten pages have passed before Noemí is en route to El Triunfo by train, with instructions to scope out the situation, and (if required) to persuade Virgil that he must either let Catalina see a shrink, or let her go entirely.

The Doyle family pile is the plainly-named High House, some way outside of El Triunfo proper, halfway up the mountain containing the mine that made the town’s (and the Doyles’s) much-diminished fortunes. High House and its cast of residents are as gothic as the title suggests they should be: this lot are, for the most part, monstrous and unpleasant from the get-go. Noemí, who starts confidently—as is her way—with the assumption that she’ll soon have her cousin out of there and onto a train back to the capital, discovers that things are (of course!) rather more complicated than the simple abusive-gold-digger-husband set-up that she and her father had assumed (though that is very much a part of the problem) and is soon entrapped in High House herself.

Now, I’ve never been much of one for deferring to the Spoiler Police, but I will in this case refrain from going deep into the spooky mechanics of the plot, which leavens its classic gothic hauntings and horrors with some scientific speculation and an (un)healthy dose of social psychology. I will say that it’s not a very violent or gory book, which I appreciated, and is perhaps all the more horrific (rather than thrilling or chilling) for that… and I will also note that the horror elements are used to explore, with no small degree of subtlety, the more mundane horrors of racism, colonialism and patriarchy. Mexican Gothic treats these themes with a sort of unflinching care, tracing the toxins without collapsing the veins of the plot. High House may be mostly lit by candles and oil lamps, but there’s a fair amount of gaslight in play, if you catch my drift; the entitled and not-always-passive aggressions of toxic masculinity, and the ways in which it warps and damages its protagonists as well as its victims, is poignantly portrayed, to the point that what might have been a far-too-fairytale ending instead feels both earned and redemptive.

It is telling, perhaps, that Moreno-Garcia chose the era of the post-war “economic miracle” as the temporal setting for the story—a period in which Mexico, like much of the rest of the world, was generally on the up in terms of social progress, particularly for women and those with indigenous (rather than Spanish) roots. Noemí fits both of those categories, and her privilege is contextualised with an appreciation of how much has changed, and how much is still to be done. As such, her distaste both for the obsolete patriarchal mores of the Doyles, and their interest in eugenic “science”, is informed by intellect and experience alike. (The redoubtable Clute would perhaps add something here about the ways in which the Doyles are Bound to the earth and their adopted home, both literally and figuratively, but I’ll leave that sort of theory to the experts.)

In terms of technique, while the gothic informs the imagery, atmosphere and plot, Moreno-Garcia mostly leaves the overwrought prose stylings out of it, writing instead from Noemí’s whipsmart sceptical POV as she figures out the form of the trap she’s wandered into. Furthermore, the way in which Moreno-Garcia displaces the classic gothic tropes to Central America, so as to expand and illuminate both the source genre and its idiosyncratic setting, is handled with deft and understated craft. Is it good horror? I’m really not the man to ask—but it’s a bloody good novel, that’s for sure.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved.

The Evidence by Christopher Priest

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

Christopher Priest’s sixteenth novel, his fifth in the last decade, returns to the uneasy setting of the Dream Archipelago, most recently traversed in 2016’s The Gradual. On the one hand, The Evidence is classic Priest with the full panoply of twins, stage magicians and the endless war between Glaund and Faiandland trundling on in the background. But, on the other, it’s a crime novel with several variants on the locked-room mystery and a particularly violent murder scene. Has Priest sold out to the demands of commercial genre writing or is he sarcastically deconstructing the format?

The Evidence

The novel begins with crime writer, Todd Fremde, on a train on Dearth Island heading to Dearth City, where he will be staying in the Dearth Plaza Hotel, in order to give a keynote lecture, to a conference organised by the University of Dearth Literary and Historical Society, on ‘The Role of the Modern Crime Novel in a Crime-Free Society’. Fremde has accepted the invitation against his better judgment, swayed by the promise of top cuisine, a suite at the hotel, and being driven around in a university car. Therefore, he makes it clear he only has time to give the lecture and then leave the next day. While it would no doubt be a mistake to conflate Fremde with Priest himself, the following fear seems heartfelt: ‘The prospect of prolonged and detailed academic discourse from theoreticians who knew little of the art and craft of writing filled me with dread’. Ouch! Suitably chastened, I shall try and rein in my well-known proclivities to quote large chunks of Derrida, Lacan or Agamben for the duration of this review.

Needless to say, the amenities on Dearth fail to match up to their billing but the real trouble arises from Fremde’s inability to adhere to the ‘Seignioral mutability regulations’ with the consequences that his watch stops, the electrical equipment in his room (not suite) takes on a life of his own, letters disappear from his emails and texts, and he incurs hefty fines for ‘electrical mutability abuse’ and a ‘Seignioral surcharge’ for ‘unauthorized horizontal prejudice’. Fortunately, he is able to offset some of the cost of these by cashing in the return half of his rail ticket and accepting the offer of a lift back across the island from a woman, Frejah Harsent, who attended his talk. But even this has its consequences as Harsent, who drives a gullwing roadster with a barely-concealed automatic weapon in the boot, turns out to be a semi-retired detective in the ‘Transgression Investigation Department, Dearth Seignioral Police’. Not only does she insist on telling him extensive details of a cold case that she was involved in because it will give him material for his writing but it also transpires that she is incredibly prejudiced against serfs leading to his blunt admission that he is a ‘citizen serf’, which provokes the following exchange:

‘I’m embarrassed – I assumed you were a professional, a vassal.’

‘That’s just your assumption,’ I said. ‘Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m a writer. All writers are serfs.’

Subsequently, Fremde gets back to his home island of Salay Raba and over the following days all seems back to normal apart from the fact that there is no sign of his expenses and fee from the University of Dearth. But then, once more against his better judgement, he finds himself slowly dragged into the ongoing fallout of the cold case that Harsent insisted on describing to him and the attendant complications of twins, magicians and illusory perfect crimes. None of which is helped by the financial collapse and run on the banks, which threatens to destabilise the economy of the entire Archipelago that Fremde may have inadvertently triggered through his mutability transgressions. All of this is great fun, narrated with deadpan irony to characteristic understated comic effect; but with a marked political charge. 

The feudal class system of the Dream Archipelago has never been laid out so starkly as in the drop-down list of ‘social level’ options that Fremde accesses at one point in the proceedings: ‘Serf, Citizen Serf, Villein, Squire, Vassal, Corvée Provider, Cartage Provider, Demesne Landed, Knight, Manorial Landed, Baron, Seignior.’ Although, amusingly, magicians are categorised as a separate category of ‘Mountebank’. In The Evidence, this outdated class system is linked with finance as a manifestation of mutability, which is both a real and unreal process that happens or is thought to happen: ‘best understood as existing somewhere between quantum physics and psychology’. 

The unexpected appearance of the medieval term ‘Vassal’ in contemporary British usage presents an example of this kind of simultaneously real and unreal existence. It is used to express the concern of Brexiteers, such as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, not to be reduced to the status of vassals of the European Union regardless of the fact that this is neither a likely outcome nor necessarily an undesirable one. That this kind of absurdity now constitutes the political reality of the UK is a reflection of the state of affairs described in a recent book, This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain (2020), by William Davies, Professor of Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. Davies posits that the mismatch between ever-expanding digital data and timebound analogue frames of meaning is generating ‘escalating opportunities for conflict over the nature of reality’. This strikes me as essentially the same phenomenon that Priest describes as mutability. Fremde might have been tasked with the seemingly paradoxical task of talking about the role of the modern crime novel in a crime-free society but Priest sets himself the even more difficult problem of writing about the relationship between illusion and reality in a world in which the distinction between them has collapsed. Somehow, by sleight of genre and time-honed skill, he achieves this, and order is restored at the end of The Evidence with revels ended as all is mended. The dream still works even as all falls apart around us.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction edited by Canavan and Robinson

Reviewed by Anthony Nanson. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In Rob Latham’s Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) the field of ecocriticism was conspicuous by its absence. That gap could have been nicely filled by Gerry Canavan’s Introduction to Green Planets, or indeed Latham’s own contribution to this book. Ecocriticism and SF may have been reluctant bed-mates, but in this book we see an explicit insemination of SF criticism with ecocritical thinking. Not only that, Canavan argues that science fiction itself is an ideal means of ecological critique. As Kim Stanley Robinson points out in the interview concluding this volume, the ecological crisis confronting the world is so complex, and so much about process unfolding in time, that it is better described in terms of story than of abstract concept.

Canavan structures his introduction and – the book’s three parts – using a set of categories borrowed from Samuel Delany. First, the contrasting utopias of New Jerusalem (the high-tech super city) and Arcadia (the rustic good life). Each of these inverts into a dystopia: respectively, the Brave New World and the Land of the Flies. In the interstices between these arise new postmodern categories: Junk City (slow-motion urban collapse), whose positive side (‘an ecstatic vision of improvisational recombinative urban chaos’) is unnamed (how about ‘Brexit’?); and the not formally named ‘ruined countryside’ (‘Edgeland’?), whose positive aspect is the Culture of the Afternoon (sunset shining through the smog). Transcending these sixteen categories is the Quiet Earth, where humankind is completely or almost completely absent.

Part 2, ‘Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies’, thus focuses on dystopian stories. Part 3, ‘Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon’, tends that way also. Eric C. Otto’s chapter there applies the concept of ‘critical dystopia’ (from Raffaela Baccolini and Tom Moylan’s Dark Horizons [2003]) to show how Paolo Bacigalupi exercises an ecotopian (ecologically utopian) desire through dystopian scenarios that create a tension between his characters, who become motivated to act differently but whose options are foreclosed by the structures of their world, and the reader in this world for whom change remains possible.

What really struck me is that most of the texts examined in the supposedly utopian Part 1, ‘Arcadias and New Jersusalems’, also incline towards dystopia. Christina Alt’s chapter on H.G. Wells compares the ecological awareness of The War of the Worlds with humankind’s ruthless extermination of undesired species in his notionally utopian novel Men Like Gods. Latham’s ‘Biotic Invasions: Ecological Imperialism in New Wave Science Fiction’ surveys a range of grim invasion stories. Michael Page’s study of Golden Age SF touches on some utopian texts when discussing the theme of ‘evolution’ but then returns firmly to dystopia with his second ecological theme of ‘apocalypse’. This leaves Gib Prettyman’s study of Le Guin as the only chapter, besides the Robinson interview, that wholeheartedly engages with the utopian imagination.

The notion of a kind of merging of SF and ecological critique is made tangible by two chapters about ‘science faction’, texts that are essentially works of speculative popular science but framed in a future narrative. I use the term in a broader sense than the narrow one in which Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman deploy it, to refer specifically to depictions of a world devoid of people. Equally ‘science faction’, I’d say, is Garrett Hardin’s Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle, the focus of Sabine Höhler’s chapter. Both these chapters run into a political dead end: Bellamy and Szeman’s because, as they conclude, a post-human world is a priori devoid of politics; Höhler’s because Hardin’s thought experiment leads to a neoliberal cum fascist conclusion that the resource limitations of Spaceship Earth necessitate a coercive survival of the fittest. In proposing a lifeboat exit strategy from this dilemma, Höhler appears to reject the premise that the Earth is a closed system and fall back on the dream of a destiny somewhere else – which both Canavan’s introduction and the interview with Robinson make clear is no solution to humankind’s ecological quandary.

For me, the most interesting line of thought arises in three chapters that, in different ways, engage with the idea of a change of consciousness through some concept of immersive ‘depth’. Melody Jue explains now, in Stanisław Lem’s Solaris and Greg Egan’s ‘Oceanic’, the metaphor of mysterious ocean depths is manipulated to suggest possibilities of reciprocal connection between the human and non-human. Timothy Morton’s essay on the film Avatar is a tour de force of postmodernist criticism, blithely drawing upon the likes of Kant, Spinoza, and Heidegger to explore an alluring void of reason in which we may find connection with all that is, only to leave us with a nightmarish image of alienation. Brilliant though it be, this kind of writing strikes me as more a performance of the critic’s cleverness than a useful contribution to our problems, whether ecological or existential. Contrast this with Prettyman’s clearly structured argument that the transcending of the ego facilitated by a spiritual path such as Daoism, to enter a broader field of connectedness, is instrumental to Le Guin’s strategic engagement with ‘the “enshrinement” of egocentrism that makes capitalism “the enemy of nature”’ (quoting Joel Kovel).

With the passing of Saint Ursula – I say that with tearful respect – this excellently produced book only reinforces my impression that Kim Stanley Robinson is out there on his own in applying the SF imagination to explore hopeful pathways into the future. We need more writers like him with the guts to step beyond the self-fulfilling prophecy of dystopia. As Canavan says, ‘The future has gone bad; we need a new one.’

(c) Anthony Nanson. All rights reserved.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

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

The Left Hand of Darkness is set on the planet Gethin, also known as Winter where there is no sexual difference between people apart from a monthly period of kemmer. When the androgynous Gethenians meet in kemmer, hormonal secretions increase so that either male or female dominance is established in one and the partner takes on the other sexual role: 

Normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role in kemmer; they do not know whether they will be the male or the female and have no choice in the matter. (Otie Nim wrote that in the Orgoreyn region the use of hormone derivatives to establish a preferred sexuality is quite common; I haven’t seen this done in rural Karhide.). Once the sex is determined it cannot change … If the individual was in the female role and was impregnated, hormonal activity of course continues, and for the 8.4 month gestation period and the 6 to 8 month lactation period this individual remains female. … With the cessation of lactation the female … becomes once more a perfect androgyne. No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more. (91)

Thus read the field notes of Ong Tot Oppong of the Hainish Ekumen on her initial observations concerning the sexual life of the Gethenians. These notes are in the possession of Genly Ai, who has openly come to Gethen as an ambassador from the Ekumen with the purpose of inviting the Gethenians to join the wider interstellar community. ‘The Question of Sex’ – as the chapter in which Ong’s notes appear is titled – is the aspect of The Left Hand of Darkness which has attracted most attention over the near half century since its original publication.

Front cover of the first edition, with art by the Dillons. Cover depicts two faces against an abstract background.

I was going to begin this review by arguing that ‘if Heinlein’s line “the door dilated” is often presented as an example of the cognitive estrangement of 1940s Golden Age SF, then Le Guin’s “The king was pregnant” is representative of a more profound late 1960s countercultural and feminist defamiliarisation’. But then I read China Miéville’s introduction to this new edition of Le Guin’s 1969 classic and discovered to my horror that not only does he make the exact same comparison, he also sums up its significance more effectively: ‘Heinlein renders one corridor strange: Le Guin reconfigures society’. For Miéville, the novel’s defamiliarisation of gender makes it unquestionably a precursor of the gender queerness and sexual fluidity of our twenty-first-century present. 

However, as he acknowledges, it was not always seen in such a radical light. Le Guin’s use of universal male pronouns to denote a society without a permanent sexual divide and therefore without a gender division, led to Joanna Russ, among others, criticising The Left Hand of Darkness for only containing men in practice. In In the Chinks of the World Machine (1988), Sarah Lefanu argues that the lack of sexual difference means that there is no historical dialectic and that the novel’s popularity is due to it simultaneously offering women a retreat from conflict back to the pre-Oedipal imaginary order while offering men the opportunity to roam freely unconstrained by the difficulties that arise from sexual difference. Adam Roberts went as far as to say, in Science Fiction (2000), that The Left Hand of Darkness is remarkably non-binary as a novel, with an appealing spirituality but an unengaging storyline, and mainly dependent on the quality of its world-building to attract readers’ imaginative and emotional investment.

In fact, The Left Hand of Darkness has long had all the hallmarks of one of those novels which one feels guiltily ashamed of uninhibitedly enjoying in private while publicly pretending indifference in order to fit in with the apparent critical consensus. There is something about all that apparently non-existent narrative tension concerning the fate of Genly’s mission and his relationship with the mysterious and enigmatic King’s Ear, Estraven, that makes one need to keep turning the pages even on the umpteenth rereading. The plot is not negligible by any means. The central irony that the rather backward kingdom of Karhide does eventually turn out to be more important to Genly than the apparently more modern and democratic Orgoreyn, is the inspiration for Iain M. Banks’s Culture-related planetary romance, Inversions (1998). And, of course, the Culture is also a society in which it is possible for the mother of several children to become the father of several more.

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