September 1, 2014

The future is ScarJo

I have watched a lot of Scarlett Johansson movies this year. I have also watched other movies, some of which are mentioned in this thing I wrote recently for the Indian Express (this version is slightly edited, the result of having rewatched Lucy). This isn’t the long Scarlett Johansson’s Summer of SF piece I crave, and I hope someone does write that soon. I do want to write more about Lucy which, for all its badness is occasionally bad in really interesting ways (on twitter, Rahul Kanakia summed it up for me when he said it was nice to see “an SF film with vision and ambition”, even if “both vision and ambition were very stupid”). But not yet.

 

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A young American student in Taiwan falls into the hands of drug smugglers, who surgically insert a packet of a new chemical into her stomach. When the package leaks, its effects upon her system are catastrophic—her capacity to use her brain expands, allowing her to manipulate matter and absorb huge amounts of information at a glance, but she has not long to live.

Accepting the obvious, that no movie exists in a cultural vacuum, it’s tempting to read Luc Besson’s Lucy in the context of other recent movies. Scarlett Johansson, who plays the titular character, has starred in a run of science fiction films over the last year—she plays an alien in a human body in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a quickly-developing sentient computer operating system in the Oscar-nominated Her, and spy-turned-superhero the Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

All of these roles have her cast as an outsider and observer of humanity– even the Marvel movies, where her character is self-contained and closed-off. Johansson brings to them all a sort of curious detachment that is genuinely effective. Under the Skin opens with the putting-together of the alien character’s eye so that from the beginning we’re aware of her as a being who sees; in a probably-accidental parallel scene in Besson’s film, Lucy comes back to consciousness after the drug has wracked her body and we see her eye blinking through several shapes and permutations before coming to rest.

And yet. As the nameless protagonist of Under The Skin comes closer to humanity, we’re invited to see the creatures she preys on as vulnerable, thinking beings. Black Widow’s arc has her open up and form gradual friendships with her new colleagues. Samantha, the “her” of Her, begins by forging a relationship with one human but is soon involved in intimate connections with hundreds, her developing intellect allowing for a larger relationship with other creatures, human or AI. Lucy, by contrast, is growing away from the humans around her.

Lucy has a number of resonances with another big science fiction movie of this summer, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, in which brilliant scientist Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) uploads her dying husband’s consciousness to a powerful computer. With access to near-infinite amounts of information and a rapidly expanding consciousness, Will Caster (Johnny Depp) turns into something of a monster. Both films have their protagonists grow more and more remote, both are martyred for science (Transcendence seems a little more ambivalent than Lucy on this subject). Both feature Morgan Freeman in the supporting role of a scientist whose job is largely to look wise and reflect upon the follies of mankind. Both use TED talk style settings as a tool for exposition. Neither is very good.

And yet it’s interesting (or ought to be) to consider what these two science fiction films about characters transcending what we know as human, released within a few months of each other, have to say about humanity and where it goes from here.

Nowhere good, appears to be the answer. Lucy’s preliminary reaction to the changes in her body is to travel around Taiwan indiscriminately killing the local people—the film’s racial politics are about what you’d suspect from the trailer, which consists entirely of Johansson’s character killing Asian men—and even as she becomes more resigned to her situation and tries to reach out she finds it harder to make connections with other people.  Will Caster’s expanded consciousness doesn’t extend to such things as greater empathy—he quickly begins to use other people’s bodies as tools and even with the wife whom he loves he is unable to grasp the concept of consent. (The scene in which Hall’s Evelyn reacts to his violation of her boundaries with an almost-childish “you’re not allowed!” is one of the most powerful in the film.)

Apart from being a tragically limited understanding of human intelligence, I suspect this is bad science—though accepting flawed science is probably a prerequisite of both films.

Early in the film, as Lucy is pursued by her captors we cut to Discovery channel-style footage of a predator fleeing prey—at one level she is just another animal. In a late scene we see her travel through time to meet the first Lucy, our earliest human ancestor and reach out to her, re-enacting Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (previously shown in the film, which doesn’t really trust its audience to understand things like metaphors). Across time and space and thousands of years of evolution the first and last humans (because when Lucy’s brain has reached 100% capacity where else is there to go?) see each other, and forge a connection. The film can identify Lucy with animals, or with our most distant ancestors, or with the Biblical God; when it comes to humans in our current form both it, and Lucy herself, don’t seem to know what to do.

In this Lucy is the more intelligent of the two films (which is to say very little); more than once we see her struggling to hold on to her humanity.  Yet the question remains. Freeman’s character, Professor Norman, tells Lucy that one of the most important functions of life forms is to pass on knowledge. A suggestion that this knowledge might be misused is made, then dismissed. “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it,” says Lucy, at the end of the film. I suspect many of us would prefer not to.

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August 29, 2014

Bhajju Shyam, The London Jungle Book

A thing I’ve occasionally done to amuse myself since I moved to the UK is to adopt a fake curious anthropologist’s gaze and marvel at the natives with their primitive food and orange war paint and television rituals (a story they keep telling one another about an immigrant doctor who averts disaster a lot and is basically my dad*; a weekly sport involving cakes).

All of which made rereading Bhajju Shyam’s London Jungle Book on a recent trip to London particularly gratifying.

From a recent column.

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The history of anthropology, like many other areas of study, is inextricably bound up with the history of colonialism, and the assumption that the subject positions of observer, recorder, analyser belonged as naturally to the European as the position of object for study belonged to the “native”. Verrier Elwin was a tribal activist who took up Indian citizenship after independence and whose expertise was drawn upon by Nehru; he was also a man who spent years studying the Gond people, married a Raj Gond girl (she was thirteen, he was forty) and wrote and published extensively about her sexual behaviour, eventually divorcing her after his work on her people was done. Nowadays this form of research would be considered somewhat unethical (to put it mildly) and it would be nice to think it wasn’t entirely accepted at the time.

But Elwin has been dead for half a century now, and it has been ten years since the grandson of his manservant wrote a book of his own. It’s probably reductive to read Bhajju Shyam’s The London Jungle Book entirely in the context of this history, and I don’t mean to, but while it can’t negate a few centuries of modern history, it is full of joyous inversions that make that history more palatable.

London Jungle BookCommissioned to decorate the walls of a British restaurant, Bhajju Shyam travels to London with mixed feelings. An artist, and one unfamiliar with the local language, he records his experience of the city through a series of paintings that draw upon the motifs he is familiar with, from Gond art. And so the London Underground becomes a giant worm, with the individual lines depicted by snakes (which connote the earth) and the stations by spiders at the centre of complex webs. Big Ben is a giant rooster (another keeper of time), its eye watching over the city. His regular bus, with its safe, familiar route, appears as a faithful dog. English people at a pub are represented by bats hanging upside-down on the branches of a tree—suggesting that they truly come to life at night, and that the pub itself is a sustaining, life-giving environment. The different varieties of London rain are depicted through a series of the patterns used in Gond tattoos.

There’s no sense that any of this is intended for a deliberate decolonising project; for one thing, it’s far more generous than such a project might be. The London Jungle Book is always kind to London, treating it with an openness and an interest even when speaking of unpleasant things. At one point he observes London’s homeless population; at another he points out that many of those watching him work were happier to speak about his art to one another than to him. Often it is playful and personal—the map of the underground includes a busker in one corner “because I like buskers”; later on Shyam speaks of the social cachet his travels abroad have brought him, so that he can now tell stories that other people want to listen to, and above him the crescent moon is transformed into an underground sign.London Jungle Book 2

 

And yet it’s hard not to read politically. Because here is a Gond artist from Bhopal observing the British metropole, using a title reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling (in their introduction to Bhajju Shyam’s book, Sirish Rao and Gita Wolf claim that Elwin compared one of his own books on the Gond to The Jungle Book), and insisting upon interpreting the city on his own terms, and through his own set of signifiers. The city is turned into a natural space, populated by snakes, dogs, bats, and similar creatures; it’s the author himself who figures as the human observer. And in the end he returns to his own country in the figure of a reporter and a teller of stories, someone whose words and representation of this foreign city and its people bear real weight

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*(Not my mum; it is an important part of the story that the Doctor cannot be a woman, for some mystical reason that an outsider cannot understand)

August 27, 2014

What I Did On My Holidays (Nine Worlds, LonCon3)

I spent two weeks this month in London meeting people I like (Sunny! Sid! Uttara! Yoav! Other people I have embarrassingly forgotten!) and going to museums and attending cons, also filled with people I like. I took very few pictures, and the ones I did didn’t have people in them, but such is life. This is not a con report, because such a thing would require more rigour and a better memory than I have brought to the process.

 

I was on three panels at Nine Worlds. The first of these was on myths and fairytales, with Lauren Beukes, John Connolly, Joanne Harris and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, moderated by Nazia Khatun. I was commuting from friends’ house in central London, had slipped into a panel directly before mine to avoid having to speak to new people, and was probably too disoriented to say much of value. I’d have liked to be smart and eloquent enough to properly problematise some of what other panelists were saying re. the universality of myth, but I did get to talk about the Ramayana, bestiality and Karen Joy Fowler (separately, she added hastily) and probably did not embarrass myself.

Other things I attended on the Friday: the “Archaeological Worldbuilding” Monsterclass with Debbie Challis from the Petrie Museum (great, and so well attended that most people had to sit on the floor and Jared performed bouncer duties), two good academic papers (Kelly Kanayama on Asian female assassins in comics, Samantha Kountz on immigration in post-cold war SF film), Nine Fanworks Recs (I was neutral on this–it turns out hearing people talk about their fandoms is mostly interesting only if everyone’s familiar enough with them not to need the plot explained), and the LGBTQAI and Race and Culture tracks’ joint tea party, which was the best thing because queer people and people of colour and cake all in the same room. Then I went to my second panel, on school stories, with Zen Cho, Emma Vieceli, and Tiffani Angus, moderated by Ewa Scibor-Rylska. It involved wavy hand gestures, commiserating with the audience over the later Chalet School books, and at some point I shouted something about the MORAL LACUNA AT THE HEART OF HOGWARTS. So that was alright.

The journey home featured a regular bus, two night buses, and an angry drunk man who wanted to murder our bus driver. Also two fellow subcontinentals who watched from the upper deck of the bus as the man was removed and applauded and said “good show”. I don’t know.

On Saturday I had no panels and felt very unburdened. I went to a genuinely wonderful panel titled “This Will Always Be Your Home” in the Race and Culture track; I walked in too late to hear the panelists introduce themselves but  Zen Cho and Iona Sharma and Kelly Kanayama and Koel Mukherjee were all there, and another person whose name I missed (help, someone?), and it was about carving out a space for oneself in fandom and it was personal and funny and familiar. I then went to the books panels on Westerns (Jared Shurin, Will Hill, Stark Holborn, John Hornor Jacobs, Joanne Harris) and “Looking Backwards” (Gail Carriger, John J Johnston, Marek Kukula).

Sunday was the “Reading SF While Brown” panel, with Rochita Loenen Ruiz, Taran Matharu, and Camille Lofters, moderated by Stephanie Saulter. There was a point at which it was the Reading C.S. Lewis While Brown panel because apparently Narnia stretches its tentacles towards us all, but we also talked about how people of colour are described, and smelling spicy to werewolves, and magically being a white person for the duration of reading and I may have told a roomful of people that I had a thing for racist Victorians, which was made extra odd because there were a couple of people (cosplayers? time travellers? who knows?) wandering around in solar topees. It was recorded, so it might be on the internet at some point. I think we were entertaining. It was also the last Nine Worlds panel that I attended, because socialising and book buying intervened.

[We pass here over a few days of sightseeing and being fed wonderful food. There was the comics exhibition at the British Library and Matisse's Cut Outs at the Tate Modern and the single Rachel Kneebone piece at the White Cube that made me have to go home and reread Mervyn Peake and Derek Walcott.]

 

And on to Worldcon! I arrived on Thursday afternoon, delayed by Yoav’s providing me with dhokla and mangoes for breakfast. This meant that I missed the earlier panels I wanted to attend and also failed to meet my roommate (Hugo Nominee Liz Bourke*) until late that night. It also meant that I missed most of the terrifying registration queue, rumour of which had reached me as I travelled across the city, and was out in about forty minutes. I caught the second half of “When is a fantasy not a fantasy?” (it was good) and then proceeded not to attend any panels in favour of talking to Maureen Kincaid Speller until the evening’s panel on the Hugo best novel shortlist. Maureen had read the whole of the Wheel of Time in two weeks. Matt Hilliard had read Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles. Ruth O’Reilly tried to be nice about Mira Grant’s Parasite. Everyone, in short, had suffered nobly for their art and their pain was amusing to us.

On Friday I went to “Constructing Genre History” (which had good people on it and ended up being largely about personal histories of genre, but was interrupted by mysterious noises in the room next door), “An Anthology of One’s Own” (also very good; I’m sure someone more responsible than me livetweeted it), “Imagining Fantasy Lands: The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding” (disappointingly aimless, considering how great the essay that inspired it was), and then Naomi Alderman and Christopher Priest in conversation about being on the Granta list thirty years apart, and what this has meant for genre’s place in the literary world. I felt rather let down by this one because it turned into another iteration of Literary Fiction Hates Us and I am so bored of that argument. Also people were Wrong about Jane Austen (or Jane Eyre, the two appeared to be interchangeable?!); in mitigation, Priest was pleasingly caustic about Amis/McEwan/Jacobson. Later, there was the You Write Pretty Panel and I loved this. Writers arguing for sentences (by other people) they thought great before getting the audience to vote. Frances Hardinge had to take over because moderator Geoff Ryman had disappeared; luckily she was very good at it. Greer Gilman’s line of Marvell was clearly the best thing read out; Hardinge’s choice of a line (also very good, fine) from Jabberwocky won the audience vote, but as the Hugos so often teach us democracy is all wrong.

Saturday began with the Strange Horizons brunch, at which there was fruit (a few days of con and I’d begun to worry about scurvy) and tea and all the good people, before I went to my first panel, on South and South East Asian SFF. It was a small, crowded room and we all talked over each other and I thought it was great–hopefully the audience thought so also. Later in the day I went to “The State of British SF“–as with the Worldbuilding panel, I’d had my expectations raised by a really good discussion online. This one ended up being too much about the publishing and marketing sides of things (and not in a particularly interesting way) and then someone in the audience asked the question about women writing SF and it just got embarrassing. I moved on to a book launch in the terrifying South Gallery before my next panel, “Saving the World. All of it“, where I hope I was sufficiently coherent.

Here is a picture taken on Saturday morning:

I imagine it growing tiny legs, Luggage-like, and trotting away.

 

Here is the South Gallery, which I am convinced had no end. It’s blurry because I was shaking. With fear:

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Sunday began with painful cramps and I missed two panels I wanted to attend while I waited for painkillers to kick in. But when I finally staggered in, “Representation, Whitewashing and Internationalism in Fandom” was such a warm hug of a panel; everyone was smart and funny and bounced off each other so well. “The Gendered AI“, which I went to immediately after, was also very good, even when a member of the audience brought up Enthiran and used it to Explain Indian Culture (he was not Indian: it turns out we as a people are against saving the lives of women if said women are naked, or something). Being in a good mood I was mostly just amused that everyone in the room was taking the trouble to pronounce the title right(ish); in the North of the country we just dubbed it and called it Robot. Most of the day was spent meeting people and contemplating the mysterious bubbles that seemed to come out of nowhere to attach themselves to Will. I then had two back to back panels; first the “Writing Postcolonialism” one, where I got to recommend Sofia Samatar and Derek Walcott and was too frazzled to do the obvious thing and tell people to read We See a Different Frontier, and where Shaun Duke and E. Lily Yu were both amazing. Then “Fandom at the Speed of Thought“, which was slightly truncated because everyone wanted to get to the Hugos (and in any case we had a tiny audience) but surprised me by going in directions I didn’t expect in really thoughtful ways.

The Hugos happened, we snarked in the bar. Most categories were won by works or people I quite liked but had not been my first choice (Strange Horizons, “Selkie Stories” and Abigail Nussbaum were robbed, etc), but a thing that wasn’t Doctor Who won the Doctor Who category, Sofia Samatar won the not-a-Hugo, and we had twitter and cider. We missed Ethan very much (he was with us on twitter, and also in our hearts) so we made an effigy of him. Obviously.

Later that night Liz and I recorded video footage of an unusual feature of our hotel room.

Monday began with the panel I’d been stressing about since I received my Worldcon draft programme. We started (or the rest of the panel did, because I am no fun) with a mic check that turned into a not-very-good a capella session (when they finally make the Science Fiction fans do Glee crossover show it will not have me in it); when we started talking things got genuinely good and I think we could have gone on quite a bit longer. I suspect other good things are going to come out of that panel also, but more on that later. I spent most of the day at a rapidly growing table of people I like (as the crowd grew other tables were absorbed into that one); there was a lot of wine. I would have been quite happy for it to have gone on for another few days.

 

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I’m not great at dealing with crowds of people, or new people, or a lack of privacy, or really any of the things that come with spending a couple of weeks in buildings full of people and living out of a suitcase. I was dreading the whole thing. If I thought I was likely to enjoy any part of the experience, it was Nine Worlds, because of its relative smallness and friendliness and explicitly stated politics that I agree with. And yet I quite enjoyed Nine Worlds and I loved LonCon3.

Nine Worlds did a lot of things right, and there’s a lot I really liked about it. A room for quiltbag and poc fans (my people!); pronoun badges; gender-neutral loos; lists of panellists’ book recommendations; being able to make it clear whether you were able to be talked to/photographed. A weekend of this and I was genuinely a bit surprised to see pictures of myself appearing on twitter after LonCon panels I’d been on–it’s not something I find hugely bothersome, but coming after 9W it was particularly … visible.

On the other hand (and this is in large part because I wasn’t staying at the hotel and therefore couldn’t retreat to my room), at 9W I felt constant pressure to be switched on and interacting with people. There simply weren’t quiet spaces I could escape to and rooms full of strangers, however lovely said strangers might be, are still something of a nightmare. I had some great conversations with people (Zen! Alex! Ewa! Rhube! Sophia!) and I wish I’d spent more time with all of them, but the bits in between were not always great. This is one of the ways in which the hugeness of a worldcon worked in its favour for me. The Excel was big and impersonal enough (I think this may also be why I like airports, which are a thing the Excel resembles. Complete with frequent plane noises.) to absorb even the thousands of people who attended, and if I needed a space to be alone there were lots of them. And as it turned out I didn’t need that space; there was so much going on, much of it involving people I wanted to see, that I kept going for days and am still feeling weirdly energised. As well, the LonCon3 programme was a thing of wonder; here too the sheer size of it meant that I could choose at any point between multiple things that interested me, and individual panels could focus on a super-specialised subject (9W’s general “myth!”, “westerns!” etc meant more flexibility, but they also meant that discussions started from such a broad base that they couldn’t really move much beyond “so, why is this thing cool?” I caught myself speaking in platitudes more than once and being quoted, which was worse.)

Being a brown queer woman at a con was still not an eyeroll-free experience in either case. I don’t feel like the inclusiveness that is so consciously a part of 9W’s larger structure and part of specific tracks has quite made its way into all of their programming yet. I spent a lot of books panels as an audience member not raising the question of race or empire because who wants to be the brown person in the audience who keeps asking about race? (But it’s a panel about Westerns. But it’s a panel about Victorians studying Egypt). LonCon was conscious about diversity to the point that I know a few people of colour felt they were only on panels about not being white and/or western, and there were still a number of well meaning con-goers** whose “welcome” to all these new young fans was more cringeworthy than encouraging (shoutout to Will, who not only rescued me from one of these situations but did so with wine). Occasionally Men Told Me Things. I know there were a few fraught moments at panels. I was in one such fraught moment and I did not handle it well. But as far as I could tell, the organisers jumped in to fix things as soon as possible; I got the sense that people were really trying.

 

Highlights of this two weeks of con-going: too many to name. Mahvesh dealing with a patronising man in the most glorious of ways, Maureen’s disapproval of things, the mysterious Karen, several conversations with people I look up to (some of whom know who I am), Niall’s leg ears, discovering that people I like on Twitter are exactly the same in person, a famous writer’s opinions on the modern toilet system, finding a beloved bracelet I thought was lost (a LonCon miracle!), Sid’s biryani, Yoav’s pumpkin kuzhambu, Emily’s Ursula dress, sitting in the Excel and looking up at the rain and wondering when the see-through roof was going to cave in, the disgust of Erin’s cat, any number of embarrassing things that I said that have hopefully been forgotten by the people who were there to hear them. I wish I’d spent more time with almost everyone I met. I even miss Tiny Shower.

 

 

*Sorry Liz

**Which needs a hyphen, because I’m not sure what the verb “to congo” suggests but it’s probably not this.

August 24, 2014

Tove Jansson, The Moomins and the Great Flood

Tove Jansson’s birth centenary was on August 9, and I thought a celebratory column might be appropriate. It’s been less than a year since I wrote about Fair Play (here) and I do try not to write about the same author too often, but this was clearly a special occasion.

While in London I also went to this small exhibition about her life and work; if I’d had time I’d have gone back just to look at one particular picture again. Recommended, if you can get there in the next three or so weeks.

 

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Anniversaries are useful things. It is Tove Jansson’s birth centenary this week, and in celebration of her work a number of her books have been published or republished this year, and an exhibition currently on display at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. But this Jansson revival has been going on for some years now among English-language readers, ever since Sort Of Books republished some of her wonderful writing for adults (including Fair Play, discussed in this column in the past). Yet it’s as the writer and artist of the Moomin stories that Jansson is best known, and they are some of the finest children’s books ever written.

“It was the winter of war, in 1939. One’s work stood still; it felt completely pointless to try to create pictures”. The first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was begun the year the war broke out, set aside and completed the year it ended. It was also, for some reason, the last of the series to be translated into English; appearing in a limited edition in 2005, some years after Jansson’s death, and only widely available since 2012.

Moomintroll and his mother, Moominmamma, walk through the great forest in search of a place to build a home. The forest is dark and full of danger, the swamp is home to a giant Serpent, and Moominpappa has gone missing and they may never see him again. The world is vast and unknowable and terrifying, all they can hope for, as Moominmamma suggests, is that “we’re so small that we won’t be noticed if something dangerous comes along”. Jansson’s illustrations add to this effect; the moomins are so tiny, so fragile compared to the landscape around them, and when the serpent appears, the artwork suggests that the moomins are about the size of one of its eyeballs. They are subject to a storm, and to the flood of the title. They are never safe in their smallness.

The Moomins and the Great FloodThis vastness and bleakness is a part of the later Moomin books as well, particularly in Moominland Midwinter (my own favourite of the series). But in the later books there is generally the solidity and comfort of home and family. Here, Moominmamma may have dry socks in her bag, but there is no home to go to, the family is divided, and the world is full of unhappy things. “But you see, sir, it’s really all very sad. Moominpappa has disappeared, and we’re freezing and can’t get over this mountain to find the sunshine, and we haven’t anywhere to live,” says Tulippa the flower fairy to an old gentleman who is also lonely, though his mountain home is made of sweets.

Jansson’s short introduction, and the knowledge that the book was written during WWII make it difficult not to read it in that context. But this effect is enhanced by the artwork, which combines drawings of the style familiar to readers of the other books in the series with painted, sepia-tinged pieces that give the whole a quieter, elegiac feel.

But if there’s sadness, and fear, and a lack of safety, there are still other things in the world. Moominpappa is found safe and well, and has built a splendid home for them all. Disparate creatures, brought together by the ravages of the flood, help one another. Tulippa finds a home in a lighthouse, guiding other lost creatures to safety. In the face of awful things “one’s work [stands] still”, as Jansson puts it. The more I read the Moomin books, the more I value their kindness, their sense that if all we have to hold on to are spontaneous acts of kindness, of generosity, of willingness to make homes and open them those who need them, that these things may –almost—be enough.

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August 22, 2014

Frank Cotterell Boyce, The Unforgotten Coat

I’ve been away for a couple of weeks and so have been slow to put the last few columns here. But from two weekends ago, here is a thing on Frank Cotterell Boyce’s The Unforgotten Coat which does some things that I love and one thing that I really, really do not.

 

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Last week I spoke about the ways in which things like cover art, blurbs, epigraphs affect the ways in which we read books. They’re meant to; the text may be the real substance of the book, but all of these elements affect the lens through which we read it. All of this is obvious, of course, but it’s useful to remember that reading is rarely a completely unmediated experience, and to expand this understanding further. Our reading is affected by where in the bookshop something is shelved; it is affected by the gender of the name on the cover; it is affected (however grudgingly) by things we may know about the author’s life and opinions.

It stands to reason that the afterword of a book might also entirely change the way in which we read it. But this has never happened to me until quite recently, with The Unforgotten Coat, a novella by Frank Cotterell Boyce with photographs by Carl Hunter and Clare Heney.

In Julie O’Connor’s last year at primary school two new students show up. Their names are Chingis and Nergui (not his real name), they are from Mongolia, and Julie is entirely fascinated by them. She undertakes the job of being their “good guide” to the considerably less exciting town of Bootle, reads everything she can find about the history and culture of their country, and over and over, unsuccessfully, tries to get them to invite her home. Their world, as she experiences it through their stories of hunting with eagles, her own research and the polaroid pictures that Chingis shows her, is rich and strange and she cannot get enough of it. It’s new and unknown, and the mere realisation that there are unknown things makes her world a bigger and more magical place. The polaroid pictures, included throughout the book, depict a series of uninhabited landscapes or close-ups of unfamiliar objects. It’s another world, rich and strange. When Julie finds out that Nergui is being pursued by a demon, that his nickname means “no one” in an effort to throw this creature off the scent, in this new world it is no less believable than all the rest. “If there were seas of grass and woven palaces in this world, why wouldn’t there be demons too?”

Of course, the reality of Chingis and Nergui’s world is more mundane than Julie wants to believe. The bare flat in an unsavoury part of town, the crying mother. Rather than keeping up the mystique, they insist on learning about football, trying to fit in. “I’d been hoping he would turn me into some kind of Mongolian princess, but instead he was turning into a Scouser”.

And then we discover that the strange landscapes in the pictures aren’t so strange after all; that Chingis has used both his adopted Englishness and his perceived exoticness as shields from the truth. The boys are refugees fearing deportation, the photographs were all taken in Bootle. In a gorgeous sequence towards the end the three children go on a walk through a landscape that is strange and familiar by turns.

The whole thing is framed through the adult Julie looking back on this short period of her childhood. And there sometimes appears a rueful recognition of the ways in which the child Julie exoticises these two boys, speaks over them, demands that they be foreign enough for her story, even as everything about them undercuts her assumptions. So what are we to make of the Afterword, in which the author explains that the whole thing is based on a child he met at a school, where “the other children were touchingly proud of her” and “her presence massively enriched their lives”? It seems inconceivable that the intelligent (if imperfect) book about exoticism and its uses and this cringeworthy section that treats a child as if she were a sort of class mascot should have come from the same source but they have. I am completely thrown by this. And while The Unforgotten Coat is a far better book if I pretend that this afterword doesn’t exist, I’m not sure that I can.

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Also here, with bonus comment from the author.

August 3, 2014

July Reading

 

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jean of Storms: Which I read in June, but failed to include in my monthly reading round-up for that month. So it is here, and it is weird, and here is a column that is sort of about it.

Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike: I loved this. It loves its genres, and it gets what it means to sit uncomfortably within them and it’s funny and its characters are real and it felt like a hug. Column here.

Kate Zambreno, Green Girl: I should probably write about this at some point. But as I read it I kept having to go back and read Suba so really she should be the one writing about it and the internet should nag her about this forthwith.

Garth Nix, Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen: Still deeply satisfying. I spent the first couple of books finding the emphasis on bloodlines a bit too bad-fantasy-cliche, and then Sam becomes a Wallmaker (spoiler? whoops?) and I was a lot less annoyed. Why isn’t this a movie/tv series?

Saba Imtiaz, Karachi, You’re Killing Me!: This was a lot of fun. I wrote about it here.

Gladys Mitchell, Laurels Are Poison: I was surprised recently to find that Mitchell was writing well into the 1980s. This one was published in 1942, Tom Brown’s Body (the only other one of hers I’ve read) in 1949, and those years feel late for both of them. All the class and racial politics you’d expect (woo), but also a relationship to the genre itself that feels a lot older.

Rokeya Sekhawat Hosein and Durga Bai, Sultana’s Dream: Also read in June and not included in that month’s reading round up. I’ve read the story before, several times (and here is a thing where I talk about it) which is why I was in a position to notice what a difference Durga Bai’s illustrations made to how I read it. This is the reissued Tara Books edition, and it is beautiful.

Courtney Milan, The Suffragette Scandal: All you really need to know about The Suffragette Scandal is that one of its protagonists spends most of the book telling the woman he’s falling in love with everything that’s wrong with him–to warn her off, or to prepare her– to know that I was going to drown myself in it. I think I have a long piece of writing about this book in me somewhere; how it feels like the series has come full circle since The Duchess War, how personal its relationships felt to me, how it achieves that thing where it can be accurate about depressing historical realities and also be like fuck you these characters are starting their own egalitarian commune. And that’s before the feminism bits, and the women writing stuff bits and the queer relationship that is a side-plot, and the queer relationship that isn’t a side-plot because everyone just takes for granted that it exists so it doesn’t need to be a plot at all, and real and adopted families and the central metaphor that is taken from Shakesville and I was drained by the end of it but in the best possible way.

Frances Hardinge, A Face Like Glass: For at least a couple of years now people have been demanding that I read Frances Hardinge and I have been collecting her books (Cuckoo Song and Gullstruck Island are the only ones I don’t have) and failing to sit down and read them. I have finally made a start, and A Face Like Glass is a bit Mervyn Peake and a bit Diana Wynne Jones and a bit Joan Aiken and I thought it was really good. Many of the people recommending her work to me aren’t huge children’s lit readers and I did wonder if Hardinge could really be as good as they claimed or if the hype was in part the result of a lack of familiarity with other good writing in the genre. Turns out she’s great, if not (maybe) uniquely so.

Linda Grant, I Murdered My Library: Should write a longer thing on this soon, but I really enjoyed it.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon: Yes, okay, I read my way through all the Peter-and-Harriet books last August. But I was at a secondhand book market and there was a copy of Strong Poison and what else was I going to do, realistically?

Jane Green, Jemima J.: As a romance-loving fat girl I feel I should have more intelligent things to say about this than that I didn’t like it very much. I didn’t.

Nikesh Shukla, Meatspace: Underwhelming, and yet. I have a lot of questions about it, that may end up being a column soon.

Stephanie Laurens, The Curious Case of Lady Latimer’s Shoes: Insufficient murder. This sub-series of books has done the romance thing, and brought its various protagonists together, and they all seem to be managing their personal lives quite well, and these later books’ attempts to connect said personal lives to the plot just feel forced. Surely at this point we can move on to fun, historical murder mysteries?

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian: For the next few months I get to read about Narnia and call it work. This is a thing with which I am entirely okay.

 

 

July 31, 2014

Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike

I bought Stevens’ book about ten minutes after I’d discovered its existence (via Daisy Johnson and Farah Mendlesohn, who both had good-to-gleeful things to say about it). So obvious was it that it was for me that a friend asked if I was sure I hadn’t written it myself. I hadn’t, I’m not good at fiction.

Part of the reason this was such a wonderful discovery is that I’ve been in a school story murder mystery mood for a few months now. I reread the Blake and Crispin books mentioned below, two Gladys Mitchell books (I discuss Tom Brown’s Body below. Laurels Are Poison does not have a non-white student; it does have an Amusing Black Servant. Fun times!), and Gaudy Night. And earlier this year I read Missee Lee, which is not a murder mystery or a school story, but which also has that incongruous figure, the brown student who worships everything English and tries so hard. And I cringed a bit when Hazel speaks about her family’s obsession with England; it’s heavy and unsubtle and one of the few places the book slips up for me. But for the rest of the book, the ways in which Hazel does not fit that stock character type came as such a relief.

Plus, how nice to have a prominent character (okay, the murder victim, but she wasn’t murdered for this reason at least?) be bisexual, and have no one within the book’s universe be surprised or puzzled.

From this weekend’s column.

 

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I am a very limited crime fiction reader, and I know what I like. Amateur detectives, not much gore, a focus instead on the web of individual human dramas that make up the small community (golden age detective fiction is very fond of small communities) and a comparatively low stakes (though not for the victims, presumably) approach to murder. There’s a reason they call more modern iterations of this genre “cosy crime”. It’s soup on a cold day, or an airconditioned room in summer; at least as far as any of these comforting things can be built upon violent death.

For the lover of school stories (and readers of this column know that I am one), the detective novel set in a school or college is particularly magical. And so much great crime fiction has this setting. There’s Edmund Crispin’s wonderful Love Lies Bleeding (which combines crime, a school setting and Shakespeare and therefore almost deserves a genre of its own); Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. John Le Carré ventures partway into the genre with A Murder of Quality. The first of Cecil Day-Lewis’ Nigel Strangeways novels, A Question of Proof, has a school setting as well. And I have a fondness for Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons and Val McDermid’s Report For Murder, even if neither of these is an example of either author’s best work.

But most of these authors belong to an earlier time, and reading them today it’s hard not to notice that it was apparently a time in which casual racism was acceptable, the working classes are fundamentally slack-jawed and superstitious, and if occasionally a character is not upper-class or white, the reader is very quickly made to wish they were. I recently read some of Gladys Mitchell’s classic crime novels; the “African prince” in Tom Brown’s Body has an unfortunate habit of biting opposing footballers due to his ancestry.

And then there’s Murder Most Unladylike, the first in a modern series of crime novels for younger readers by Robin Stevens. Set in 1934 (but published in 2014), it follows the adventures of thirteen year old boarding school detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, after Hazel finds the body of one of their teachers in (where else?) the gymnasium. Both Stevens and her characters are very genre-conscious; early in the book we learn that the girls have been reading Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham, and we will discover that Hazel is a school story reader as well. The whole thing opens with one of those terribly useful floor plans, and we have all the school politics and crushes and annoying juniors of an Angela Brazil book. The references to earlier literature are sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle enough to be in-jokes. More than once I laughed out loud in recognition.

But it’s unfair to Stevens to treat this merely as a pastiche of two genres, and it’s where she deviates from them that Murder Most Unladylike is at its best. Because Hazel, our narrator, is from Hong Kong (she is, as far as we can tell, the only non-white pupil at Deepdean school); she’s clever and pretends not to be; she has a complicated relationship with her overbearing, popular best friend. This is about as far as it’s possible to be from Gladys Mitchell’s African prince, or the Hurree Jamset Ram Singh of the Billy Bunter books—or even Christie’s precocious Princess Shaista. Stevens’s depiction of Hazel’s cultural background is sometimes clumsy, but it always acknowledges her as more than a stock character, and depicts a world in which casual racism exists and affects those who are its targets. It’s unlikely that most of the target audience for this book will recognise these deviations from a pattern with which they are not yet familiar, but they mattered to me. In more ways than one, Murder Most Unladylike felt like being given a place in a genre (two genres) that I love.

 

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Apparently Stevens’ next book in the series is a country house murder. Which, as far as I’m concerned, just proves that she is writing for me.

July 26, 2014

Saba Imtiaz, Karachi, You’re Killing Me!

From last weekend’s column. I enjoyed this.

Something that interests me that is mostly unrelated to the book itself is the thing where the cover suggests (current weight, calories) a preoccupation with being overweight that isn’t in evidence in the book–Ayesha goes to the gym maybe once or twice, and spends very little time thinking about dieting. It strikes me that worrying about weight is being used as a genre marker here, and while I suppose this is both obvious and understandable, I do find it rather fascinating.

 

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How a book is packaged can be revealing. Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi, You’re Killing Me! comes with multiple tubes of lipstick on the jacket, alongside a revolver and a view of the street; and is described on the back as a combination of Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Diary of a Social Butterfly. The book begins with a quote from the former, and the back cover gives us such statistics as the weight of its main character, calories consumed, cigarettes smoked. And then, at the end, the most important statistic of all: number of deaths from target killings. It’s a juxtaposition that demands that you notice it; look how incongruous it is to have the sort of protagonist that the rest of those numbers signal placed against this background. To work, this requires the reader to make certain assumptions about what sort of novel this is, and about Karachi itself—assumptions with which the rest of the book will enjoy playing.

Ayesha is a journalist in her late twenties, in the sort of job that requires her to report on everything from bomb blasts to bakery openings. She has a nightmare boss, a popular twitter account, and a social life that her salary (when it shows up) can’t accommodate. She is surrounded by people who think regular weekend trips between Dubai and Karachi are cost-effective, who buy designer clothes and have expensive drug habits; she’s not sure she can afford rickshaw fare to her next assignment.

But she’s also good at her job; something that Imtiaz never tells us openly (since the whole thing is in the form of Ayesha’s diary it’s hard to see how she could without making her insufferable) and enjoys it, and thinks it important. She’s clearly aware of the occasional absurdity of her own situation; being flirted with at 1 am by the spokesperson for a terrorist organisation; driving to parties in cars with guards, reporting one day on the runway cameo of a cat at Karachi fashion week, and on another tracking the runaway pet lion cub of a major gunrunner. Every entry begins with a newspaper headline—hopefully fictional (“Deadly brain-eating amoeba resurfaces in Karachi”), though I could swear I’d seen “Books not bombs at Pakistan literature festival” before—and these too emphasise not only the occasional absurdity of her city, but the extent to which her own life, which involves Breaking Bad and alcohol and the difficulties of casual sex when everyone in your extended social circle knows each other, sits awkwardly in relation to all of this. It works both as an undoing of the ways in which cities like ours are written about, and a comment on how class functions within them.

All of which makes Karachi, You’re Killing Me! sound terribly worthy, and it’s not; it’s just as easy to read as a snarky expose of a certain group of people (and if I was from Karachi I suspect I’d be making wild and inaccurate guesses about who each character was intended to represent). But the real story is Ayesha’s own career, which survives an encounter with an attractive American plagiarist and at least one near-death experience, to put her exactly she wants to be at the end of the book. It’s unusual and wonderful to have a fluffy, snarky wish-fulfillment novel make this the desired object, rather than the attainment of the perfect romance.

Because this isn’t a love story. We rarely see Ayesha think of Saad in romantic terms, and this makes the rushed ending which places our heroine neatly in the arms of her best friend rather disappointing. It’s all done with a good deal of genre-awareness (is an unironic rush-to-the-airport scene even possible anymore?), but it feels a little like a last-minute attempt to force the book into a template that it no longer fits.

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July 13, 2014

Worldcon and Nine Worlds

I seem to be going (perhaps unwisely) to two SFF conventions in London in August– Nine Worlds Geekfest and LonCon 3, and they have (perhaps unwisely) put me on Panels. The Nine Worlds programme is out, and LonCon sent out their draft schedules a while ago. So if you’re going to either convention (and LonCon prices go up from tomorrow, so this is probably a good time to decide), this is where you can find me, and possibly heckle.*

 

Nine Worlds:

 

Mythology and Fairytales: pernicious supernaturalism or meaningful exploration of existence?

Friday (8/8) 1.30pm – 2.45pm

Where do myths and fairytales come from, and how are they influencing genre today?

Panel: Lauren Beukes, Joanne Harris, Rochita Loenen Ruiz, Aishwarya Subramanian

 

School Stories: prefects, headmasters and tuckshops, oh my!

Friday (8/8) 10.15pm – 11.30pm

School stories: why are we so fascinated by them? From Harry Potter to Ender’s Game, from St. Trinian’s to the X-Men, will we ever really escape our school days? Oi, no talking in the back of the class, there.

Panel: Aishwarya Subramanian, Zen Cho, Emma Vieceli, Tiffani Angus

 

Reading SF While Brown

Sunday (10/8) 11.45 – 1.00

For many of us, reading science fiction and fantasy was a formative experience — one that introduced new ideas, and shaped what we knew or hoped to be possible. But what imaginative leaps does a reader have to make to buy into worlds that don’t include anyone who looks or talks like them? And what impact does making that imaginative leap, time and again, ultimately have? Genre writers and readers talk about their experiences of reading SF while brown.

Panel: Aishwarya Subramanian, Taran Matharu, Camille Lofters, Rochita Loenen Ruiz

 

 LonCon:

The World at Worldcon: SF/F in South and South-East Asia

Saturday (16/8) 13:30 – 15:00

South and South-East Asia include a huge span of nations, cultures and languages, so does it make any sense to talk of “Asian SF”? What are the traditions and touchstones of fantastical storytelling in South and South-East Asia? What is the state of genre there, and how have shared myths and a joint heritage of colonialism influenced it? A panel of writers and critics from India, Pakistan, Malaysia and The Philippines compare notes

Panel: Mahvesh Murad (M), Zen Cho, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Victor Fernando R. Ocampo, Aishwarya Subramanian

 

 

Saving the World. All of It.

Saturday (16/8) 20:00 – 21:00

When aliens invade, why do they almost always hit New York? With a few partially-honourable exceptions, such as Pacific Rim and District 9, the American-led alliances of Independence Day and its ilk are still the norm for SF cinema’s supposedly global catastrophes. What is it like to watch these films outside the Anglophone world? Do attempts to move away from American exceptionalism feel real, or are they just window-dressing? And how do different countries deal with apocalypse in their own cinematic traditions?

Panel: Victor Fernando R. Ocampo (M), Yasser Bahjatt, Aliza Ben Moha, Irena Raseta, Aishwarya Subramanian, Samantha Joseph Ms

 

 

Writing post-colonialism

Sunday (17/8) 18:00 – 19:00

Many sf novels of invasion and colonisation end with the glorious liberation. But what happens next? How deep does the impact of colonisation go – culturally, politically, economically, socially – and how long does it really take to recover from its consequences? In what ways is the coloniser, too, changed by the experience? What can we lean from real historical case studies of conquest, settlement and trade exploitation?

Panel: Jennifer Terry (M), Nin Harris, Grá Linnaea, Aishwarya Subramanian, E. Lily Yu

 

Fandom at the Speed of Thought

Sunday (17/8) 19:00 – 20:00

The story of fandom and the SF field in the twenty-first century is the story of the internet: more voices, fewer gatekeepers. How are authors, reviewers, editors and readers navigating this shifting terrain? In what ways has the movement of SF culture online affected the way books are written, presented, and received — and how has it affected the way readers identify and engage with authors and books? Do the old truisms — never respond to a review! — still hold sway, or are author-reader shared spaces possible, even desireable?

Panel: Chris Gerwel (M), Ana Grilo, David Hebblethwaite, Kevin McVeigh, Aishwarya Subramanian

 

 

Critical Diversity: Beyond Russ and Delany

Monday (18/8) 11:00 – 12:00

The popular history of SF criticism might just be, if possible, even more straight, white and male than the popular history of SF — but things are changing. Online and in journals, diverse voices are starting to reach a critical (if you’ll excuse the pun) mass. Which publishers and venues are most welcoming to critics from marginalised groups? What are the strengths and weaknesses of academic and popular discourse, in this area? And most importantly, whose reviews and essays are essential reading?

Andrew M. Butler (M), Liz Bourke, Fabio Fernandes, Erin Horakova, Aishwarya Subramanian

 

[Shorter version: they gave me a school story panel! They gave me a ranting about the state of crit panel! I have just noticed that they put me on back-to-back panels, one of which is about "the speed of thought" and there is probably a joke in there somewhere!]

When not on panels I’ll be lurking in corners and looking ill at ease. Feel free to say hello if you see me.

 

*Please do not heckle, I’m easily flustered.

July 13, 2014

Megan Milks, Kill Marguerite

The whole time I was reading Kill Marguerite I was conscious of an undercurrent of yes these are my people yes in my head. On twitter, I described it as “genre-blend-y, queer, outsider-y, perverse fiction that is also about 90s girl pop culture and myth”(I ran out of space for “intertextual”); I was never not going to love it. It all got quite personal, and now I’m afraid that if I ever meet Milks I will embarrass myself in some awful way.

But even if it hadn’t been so obviously relevant to my own interests (and I’m sometimes dismissive of readings that value recognition above all else, but on the rare occasions that I find it I realise that it can be incredibly powerful), I’d think a lot of this collection. It’s fiercely intelligent, it’s energetic, it’s just very good writing. There are entire sections I’ve marked simply for how perfect those words in that place are.

(Also, I want someone to read this alongside Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe, just for their complementary covers)

A slightly shorter version of the piece below was published as my regular column on Sunday.

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Somewhere in suburban America teenaged Caty is making out with a boy on a rope swing. The setting with which Megan Milks opens her collection of short fiction, Kill Marguerite, is a familiar one to me, as I suspect it would be to most people reading this. Not because I’d lived it (Delhi in the ‘90s was short on rope swings) but because scenes like this seem to belong to a mythical preteen/teenagerhood of the 80s and 90s that is part Instagram-filter and part the result of reading too much American preteen fiction. Not that Caty is thinking of the genre she belongs in; she is preoccupied with how kissing this boy on this swing will help her relationship … with her best friend, Kim. And shortly she will be embroiled in a series of attempts to kill her rival Marguerite, in a universe that follows the conventions of a video game.

This title story encapsulates a number of Kill Marguerite’s concerns. A preoccupation with girlhood in popular culture; the queering of relationships; dizzying shifts between genres that test out the limits of each.

Some of these limits are of format. There are fourteen stories in the collection but only thirteen included in my ebook—“Circe”, which requires its recto and verso pages to be read simultaneously, had to be left out for formatting purposes but is available on the website. Meanwhile “Sweet Valley Twins #119: Abducted!”, fanfiction with large chunks of text borrowed from the original series, is in the form of a choose your own adventure story, to which the ebook format is far better suited than the print versions we had to grow up with. Many of the stories are collaborative—“Floaters” is written with Leeyanne Moore, “Earl and Ed” illustrated by Marian Rink and “Traumarama” pieced together from the responses of several friends. It’s obvious that other texts, whether classical or popular, are closely interwoven into these stories, sometimes less obviously. “The Girl With The Expectorating Orifices” doesn’t gender its narrator and doesn’t draw the reader’s attention to this, until a throwaway reference to Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body which famously did the same.

Myth and metaphor and reality blur into one another in these stories, and it’s never possible to claim that, for example, “Dionysus” is “about” a relationship with an alcoholic. In “My Father and I were Bent Groundward” the “sword” that impregnates the narrator and her father (both of whom claim a dislike of penetration) is also able to slice off their legs. In “Slug”, a young woman who has been on a disappointing first date has sex with a giant slug while turning into one herself. “Tomato Heart” is, literally, about a woman with a tomato for a heart, and has the distinction of being the only story (in a collection full of stories about bodily fluids and slug erotica) to make me feel a little ill. In “Circe” the myth and video game genres slot neatly together as Hermes “drops bottle of immunity into Odysseus’ lap”. The connections between stories are as startling and as perfect; the “Patty has died” in “Slug” which connotes orgasm comes shortly after the series of “Caty has died” in the previous story that signify her failing to beat a level in the game. A metaphor from the relatively mundane “Floaters” resurfaces in the weird, liminal space of “Swamp Cycle”. As each story progresses it becomes clear how much about this world each protagonist takes for granted; the resignation with which one narrator, for example, explains “that was when I knew we were to bear immortal children from our wounds” is very appealing. When the lovers in “Earl and Ed” (an orchid and a wasp) enter into a transgressive relationship, the text immediately turns them into a singular Earl&Ed.

Yet my favourite thing about this collection is its interest in a particular kind of adolescent girlhood in which other girls are all that matters and where aspiration, desire and the urge to wound are all tangled together; particularly if you’re the sort of girl-reader (too not-blonde, not-white, not-straight, not-etc) for whom this model of adolescence is fundamentally impossible. A story based on a column from the magazine Seventeen, for example, and another told through Tegan and Sara lyrics. This last is “Elizabeth’s Lament”, another piece of Sweet Valley High fanfiction and also an angry, incestuous declaration of love. All of these stories, with their young female narrators, begin from the assumption that teenage girls are fascinating. It’s particularly pleasing that Milks does much of this through fanfiction, a medium that has developed in large part through unravelling and queering received narratives.

This is an area of popular culture which literature rarely draws upon—possibly because of its association with young girls, whose tastes are always particularly vulnerable to mockery. That Milks sees it as important would be itself be enough to make me love her work. That the collection deals with it in this way—smart, queer, perverse, intertextual—means even more. The stories in Kill Marguerite are unsettling and often unpleasant but they feel like a gift.

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