Speculative Fiction Reviews since 2012

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Mars Evacuess by Sophia McDougall


Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall


Two boys, two girls and a genderless robot go for a wander across the semi-terraformed martian landscape. Of course that wandering isn’t exactly chosen, and of course that landscape is hardly meadows and butterflies, and of course the alien Morrors and some strange beasties called space-locusts are going to make the trip a little different to the usual stroll in the park. Whatever the plot was, however strange and fascinating and brilliant fun, Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees was exactly what I needed.

I was feeling jaded. I’d read a fair bit in January and February, core genre, mostly fantasy. That fantasy was adventurous, yes, fun, yes – Neverwhere and The Copper Promise – but McDougall’s work soothed me in a way these didn’t. Part of that is the voice. The book is marketed for 9-12 year-olds, but apart from the protagonists age and a more clipped, crisp air, more similes than metaphors, you wouldn’t know it. Told from the world-weary perspective that only a twelve-year-old has, particularly one who is so much like I was, Alice Dare (yes, the Alice Dare/Alistair joke gets played out. And made funny. It’s quite impressive) is the daughter of a high-ranking, world famous fighter pilot in the war against the Morrors, an invisible race of aliens who have reversed global warming to the extent that the polar ice-caps are encroaching on Nottingham, and the whole world is slowly freezing.

Sent to Mars, as an evacuee (surprising that, considering the title), Alice meets Justine, an insanely intelligent (black) Londoner, and Noel and Carl, two (Filipino-) Australians. When life at the base falls apart, they are forced to attempt to flee across the wasteland of Mars in a dodgy spaceship with barely any training. At points, it’s the base scenes in Ender’s Game as the world come apart, as factions form and fight and children are reduced to their most tribal states. Then, on the journey, it is an exploration of friendship, of reliance on one another in adversity, and, importantly, of finding value despite difference. The portrayal of Morror society is different in the extreme. Not only are Morrors physically alien, they are sexually alien too – possessing five sexes, different sense perception, different emotional capacities, different ways of experiencing culture, art, communication. And yet despite this most extreme of difference on the surface, similarities are found. The Morror kid Thsaaa that our gang meet is also just a scared kid in a war situation. They have lost a mother-equivalent, as Justine has. They (and the use of ‘they’ as Thsaaa’s correct pronoun is a really interesting descriptor of McDougall’s progressive take on sexuality, presented on a level understandable to your average pre-teen reader – no mean feat, and one can see the foundation of accepting fluid gender in everyday life) are different, yes, but they are accepted, embraced, become ‘one of the gang.’ Just as Justine, Noah and Carl’s race does not impact on Alice’s perception of them, once she gets used the normalcy of the Morror she accepts their differences and allows them into her trust.

Let’s talk about the humans for a moment. McDougall has been a very public supporter of gender equality among books, on the screen, in reviews – indeed in her brilliant piece in The New Statesmen last year, she references the selling of Mars Evacuees and the problems it faced being equally gendered. To all intents and purposes, without going in depth on background characters (though I’m fairly certain that there would be parity there, this being a world-wide evacuation with a lottery system involved) Mars Evacuees is great with gender. But, more importantly, it’s great with race. You probably saw my parenthetical ‘black’ above when describing Justine? Or ‘filipino-’ [I originally believed Noah and Karl to be aboriginal Australians. Either way, the point remains.] when describing Noah and Karl. Maybe you thought ‘why the hell does he need to highlight that???’ Understandable. The reason I highlight it is for the exact reason it isn’t highlighted in the text. It is normal. The black character is smart, sassy, interesting, flawed, loveable, essential, without her blackness being necessary as a plot device.

This is all too rare.To treat black as normal remains a radical idea. In my review of Zone One, I spoke of the effect of finding out that the view-point character, Mark Spitz, is black. Mark Spitz proclaims, and indeed revels, in his mediocrity. When he reveals his race, the reader is inevitably shocked. What is clear from that effect is that even to someone who considers themselves well-rounded, cultural racism is endemic. Because to me, and, I’d hazard, to most in Western society, normal = white. Justine’s blackness is subtle – mentioned once in passing on the ship to Mars, and again on base when a Nigerian girl fixes Justine’s hair because it is similar to hers. That’s it. That’s the only times that Justine is racially classified – in passing, non-judgmentally, as simple fact of what she looks like. It doesn’t affect the plot. It doesn’t affect other character’s views. It doesn’t affect any damn thing, and as well it shouldn’t. What’s more, Carl and Noah are aboriginal Australians. Again, the descriptors of this are subtle – some mild phrasing, using ‘kuya’ to mean ‘big brother’, and Alice’s initial confusion on seeing them. McDougall picks up on assumptions based on race here – Alice’s immediate reaction is that Carl is ‘Malaysian or Filipino or something’. When they are revealed to be Australian, happy days. It’s accepted blindly, without comment.

Perhaps the more innocent eyes of a twelve year-old can do this – I couldn’t – but the result is fantastic cultural blindness. Much like gender blindness, or sexual blindness, a cultural stereotype has built up, and McDougall is trying to break that barrier down, and succeeding to boot.

Oh yeah, and the book is bloody good. Which helps.

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The Copper Promise – Jen Williams

This post is part of the Hodderscape Review Project. Go look at what my project-mates think here! (They’re all clever folks, you’ll like what they say)

Jen Williams – The Copper Promise 

The Copper Promise is a welcome look back in a world where the norm for fantasy is hulking behemoths filled with blood, sex and gore. That’s not to say the Jen Williams’ debut novel isn’t big – it’s fairly whopping at 530 or so pages in proof – nor that it doesn’t have its fair share of blood and thunder – it starts with a torture scene, and there are bloody battles aplenty.  What it does to these, however, is infuse them with a sense of fun and adventure that is not as present in the more ‘realistic’ fantasy of the grimdark mode.

Wydrin and Sebastian are sellswords for hire, and hired they are by the crippled Lord Frith to explore The Citadel, a hulking building that dominates the city the live in. Split into four separate novella-sized parts (the book was originally self-published as a series of novellas, and Headline published each part individually on Amazon), we follow Sebastian, Wydrin and Frith as they basically balls up the Citadel, and end up unleashing an ancient God on the unsuspecting world.

Where Williams’ story really works is its depictions of its three characters. Each comes with their own set of issues, and the way they mesh together (or not) is a source of constant fascination. For a debut, she has a wonderful grasp of the ebb and flow of dialogue, and the elucidation of character through it. A particular favourite is Wydrin: spunky, fiery, a bit of a rogue, she is one of those characters who is both self-absorbed yet thoroughly likeable, ballsy and always with a quip to hand (think Locke Lamora, Tyrion Lannister). In a knowing nod to the history of fantasy literature, she is also a normal person, not half tits, half sword – there is a moment when Frith meets her and his comments show the old cliché to be idiotic.

While Frith and Sebastian pale in comparison to Wydrin, they are admirable support. Each has their complexities – Sebastian is honourable to a fault, and when that honour comes into conflict with his desire to do good, we see an excellent internal conflict in the latter half of the book. Frith is Sebastian’s polar opposite – selfish, obsessed with revenge, hell bent on getting it any which way possible. His character arc shows him slowly coming to terms with the fact that such selfish behaviour just makes you an arsehole. While these are well done, considering the books will be a trilogy (though standalone) one could ask that the arcs are too complete – does Williams’ have space for further self development in future titles?

The plot at times hardly seemed to matter – there’s a big bad, the ancient God in dragon form Y’ruen (who I’m reliably informed is simply a bad pun of ‘You ruin’), and our adventurers must chase around the world fixing their own shit before collecting the right amount of knowledge and equipment to defeat said big bad in a final, epic battle. This epic battle happens to be over far too quickly, and at time I felt that the way that the overarching plot was dealt with was a little hackneyed and already done. Yes, dragons are cool, and yes the lore surrounding magic is interesting, and yes, the final battle sounds good on paper, but there isn’t, to me, enough to make it last when reading. This is the kind of plot that would fill a whole trilogy in your average epic fantasy, though, and I applaud Ms. Williams for having the balls to squash it down and oh-so-nearly make it work.

The pace, throughout, is frenetic as a result of having to try and make this big plot work in a small space. The opening novella is basically an enhanced dungeon crawl, complete with set-piece rooms. This speed is one of the defining characteristics of what make Williams’ novel so fun. There is no navel gazing, no scene that are there just for the sake of it. It forces characters to be built through dialogue, through action rather than exposition. And it makes the book what it is – absolutely brilliant fun, and  a no-nonsense modern take on classic sword-and-sorcery.

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Zone One – Colson Whitehead

Zone One – Colson Whitehead

Mark Spitz is mediocre. He is average, in every way. He happens to use this averageness to become something special, to become that rare breed: a survivor. Tasked with cleaning ‘Zone One’ of stragglers, a type of ‘skel’, or zombie, which for some unknown reason doesn’t move, over the course of three days we watch as Mark Spitz, Gary, and Kaitlyn clear sections of downtown New York. Interspersed with flashbacks to Mark Spitz’s earlier days of fleeing the plague that has beset the world, we experience the decline and attempted rebirth of civilization first hand.

Reading Zone One reminded me of Jared Shurin’s ‘good’ vs ‘great’ books post a couple of weeks ago. Following our inveterate ‘hero’, Mark Spitz (always both names, never one), we are thrown into the post-‘skel’ apocalypse, where the American Phoenix must rebuild its legacy from the ashes of civilization. The book is by no means ‘good’ from Shurin’s definition. It is not enjoyable: it has all the pace of a snail with a limp, meanders off into vicious, if heavy-handed, satire of consumerism and its plot is basically non-existent. And yet it is a great book. It has meaningful things to say on ‘post-racial’ America, on the nature of the middle class, on capitalist society, on the military, on the American Dream. In short, it is an impressive literary treat.

Patrick Ness’ review in The Guardian on publication made a long spiel about the perceived difference between genre and literary fiction. In short, he argued, those who think that to write genre fiction is slumming it can go stick their head in a hole (paraphrasing slightly, but it’s pretty much right). However, there is an argument the other way here. By deliberately avoiding genre tropes beyond the overt, the zombies that Zone One’s mediocre plot revolves around, Whitehead negatively affects the novel. Rather than the usual negatives of ‘slumming it’, Whitehead attempts to shoehorn the literary into the speculative rather than vice versa. The result is … difficult, to say the least. Typical Whitehead sentences, long, overwrought, filled with needless complex litter the text. When action occurs it is  terse, in need of some blood and thunder. Whitehead is more concerned with long descriptions of office life in downtown New York than he is in the nature of human-on-zombie action. The sad fact is that there is a very decent genre novel here, buried under the allusion. All it needed was some mining.

I can’t deny that Whitehead challenges reader assumptions, and the point he makes of the late capitalist human condition being analogous to zombies is a fascinating one. The masses are homogenised in much the same way as the zombie horde. But clever points maketh not a good book.

There is one point that is utterly fantastic [MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE PARAGRAPH]: that Mark Spitz, that paradigm of mediocrity, is black. This isn’t told to us until we are approaching the end of the book, where our worldview is flipped upside down. By making Mark Spitz’s race a casual throwaway remark, 230 pages in, Whitehead knows exactly what he is doing – he is reminding the reader that they have pictured Mark Spitz as white. Mediocrity is white. The middle is white. Normal is white. Whitehead is showing us that the contemporary world is racist by its very culture. That the revelation comes in a racist epithet, explaining Mark Spitz’ character – something the reader has wanted to know by virtue of  the real Mark Spitz’ fame, and the use of both first and last name always – makes the revelation all the sweeter. [END MASSIVE SPOILER]

It is these large ideas that make this book so impressive. It’s just a crying shame that the plot, the framing narrative that hid the ideas was so mediocre.

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Art & the Author, or the Kameron Hurley effect.

I always find it difficult to separate the author and art.

I bought God’s War by Kameron Hurley on the day it came out in the UK, some time last year. I bought it for two reasons: firstly, it won the Kitschies Gold Tentacle. It won Hurley the BFS best newcomer award. People raved. But secondly, importantly, I read it because I like Kameron as an online personality – I like her blog, her non-fiction, her staunch and passionate feminism, her active twittering. She felt like a person I’d get on with in real life. She wsas someone I respected the opinion of, and enjoyed reading online things by.

Yet If you go to my reviews index, you may find that God’s War, and Kameron Hurley, aren’t there.

This isn’t because I simply left the book on the shelf – something I do with a great deal of regularity (oh hi there, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tad Williams, Saladin Ahmed, G. Willow Wilson, Stephen King… I hope you’re enjoying that shelf. I’ll get round to you eventually, I promise) – no, it was because I never finished it. You see, God’s War and I didn’t get on.

I don’t know what it is: the total world-building, and the lack of an Earth-like structure to hang my hat upon (which is technically excellent, mind)?; the dislikeable nature of Nyx, the main character?; the plot, which goes along really quite slowly, despite interesting action here and there (perhaps related to the worldbuilding – the need for excessive [IMHO] exposition, and in some cases its lack, threw me)? A combination of all three, plus a side dish of high expectations? Who knows. All I knew was that I wasn’t a fan.

However, when news of Hurley’s The Mirror Empire came through last week, I was excited. This is strange, I thought: I’m excited about an author whose work I didn’t enjoy. Why is this? And it hit me: it’s because I like the person.

I met Kameron at WFC briefly, and while a friend of mine praised her, I ruined the atmosphere (or so I feared) by blundering in with an ‘oh, I read some but didn’t get it’. Instead of looking at me like a diseased wallaby, Kameron then proceeded to take some time out of her probably very busy schedule to chat with me for five minutes about my reasons for not liking the book, and thank me for telling her. She thanked me. For thinking her book wasn’t good. See? Lovely person.

And so I read more of Hurley. She was as lovely in person as she seemed intelligent and forthright on the internet. I really enjoyed her short fiction, the 2006 The Women of Our Occupation in Strange Horizons. Enyo-Enyo, originally from Jurassic’s The Lowest Heaven. I read more of her non-fiction: her blogging (her recent blog tour was great) giving insight which I hadn’t often seen in online writing, particularly regarding feminism – see We Have Always Fought, a best related work Hugo nominee if ever I saw one.

Which goes to show, really, that that the author influences me. It influences who and what I read: I am more likely to read an author whose online or personal presence I admire, particularly if said online presence is backed up by review hype. I am excited about The Mirror Empire. I will buy it when it comes out, I will, at least try, to read it. If it isn’t my cup of tea, maybe I’ll give up on Hurley’s longer works. Then again, maybe I’ll give her another chance. She’s the kind of author whose persona will win a reader even when her words perhaps don’t.

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I am a sexist, I am a racist, I am a homophobe

Yesterday Elise Catherine Tobler wrote a post discussing a friend of hers, Chris DeFilippis, who had not read a single woman author since 2012. This shocked me. Stunned me, in fact. His response in the comments, that he is gender-blind, totally threw me. No-one is gender-blind. No-one is colour-blind.

DeFilippis says: ‘When I expressed my embarrassment at not having read any novels by female authors in 2012 and 2013 it wasn’t due to any perceived shortcomings in my reading habits. It was in genuine shock that I had bucked the odds for so long. It was a “say what?” moment, because gender doesn’t enter into what I choose to read. At all. I just go into my library and grab the book that speaks to me at that moment.’

I beg umbrage with this. The cultural facilities at play to suppress women’s writing (and, in turn, those of other repressed groups, particular those of people of colour [to use an Americanism I really don’t like] and LGBT* peoples) are enormous. We are in a world in which the dominant force are cis, white, males – of which I am one. So what can I add? That an effort, therefore, can be made to break this trend. The odds if 1 in 4 bookss are published by women are, according to Jim Hines, 1 in nearly 1300 of it being simply chance that deFilippis simply didn’t pick up a book  by a woman in two years. 1 in 1300. To put this in perspective, if you read 25 books per year you are more likely to live to 110 years old than to not have picked up a book by a woman using blind chance in the last two years. That’s only if Hines’ 1 in 4 fraction is correct. Increase it nearer the 1 in 2 of mainstream SF publishing nowadays and the odds massively increase in turn.

Why is this happening? Simple really. Cultural bias. Women’s writing gets less press, less marketing, less awards, less recognised.

I did a study of my university, King’s College, London’s, set texts for every undergraduate English literature course. I found that 76% of the books studied are by men. Even removing the skewing of women’s writing before 1900 gives a 74% male reading list. This in a major university, with a student body of 73% women and a lecturer body of 60% women in the school of literature. If gender bias is so obvious even in a major academic setting, that prides itself on its inclusivity (King’s is world renowned for its Queer @ Kings program, for example) then in everyday culture what hope do we have?

Again, it appears simple. Watch what you read. Proclaim your gender/colour/sexuality blindness all you want, but make sure you don’t slip. I don’t read 50/50.  However, as my immersion in the world of online SFF criticism has grown, so too has my percentage of books by women.

In 2011 I worked in a bookshop, then had my first semester at university. I read 5 books out of 56 by women. That’s 9%. It’s not like I wasn’t exposed to women – and yet none of my university texts were by them, and those I read? 2 of them were Mira Grant, one was Susanna Clarke. Hardly lacking visibility.

2012, I dipped into the online scene. And yet only 7 of 53 (with one unknown) were women. 12%. Again, only 3 in university (Bronte, Shelley, Plath) and outside included Beukes & Grant.

2013, I immersed myself in online culture. 19 of 63 (including one man & woman) were women. 30%. Not great, but moving up slowly.

Of my reviews, the majority (20/33, 60%) since 2012 are male.

I am not gender blind, clearly, despite my thinking at first I am. This realisation required a lot of soul searching. And then I realised, I am not race blind either. I am not blind to sexuality. I live in a culture that exists in this way, and through no conscious decision on the part of myself – indeed a conscious decision the other way, toward equality and liberty – I am part of that culture, and parts of that culture an imbued in me.

I fail at gender blindness, because I am not blind to gender. I am not blind to culture. I am not blind to colour, ethnicity, sexuality. I am a homophobe, a racist, a sexist, because I am brought up in a sexist, homophobic, racist world. We all are.

The only way to combat this is through visibility, through active work, through attempting to combat this at its root. It’s one of the reasons why, in my position as editor of the British Fantasy Society’s journal, I wanted my first themed issue to be on LGBT & Fantasy. It’s why I’m setting myself a goal to read and review equally between sexes this year. It’s why I want to immerse myself in cultures that aren’t mine, in sexualities that aren’t mine, ideas that aren’t mine.

Everyone deserves equality. Everyone deserves visibility.


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