Archive for ‘science fiction’

October 18, 2015

Various Marses

Water on Mars, and so this.



“ … since Mars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of the superficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time’s beginning but nearer its end,” explains H.G. Wells, at the beginning of The War of the Worlds.

silent planetEarly science fiction makes much of Mars’s age, of its supposed greater proximity to its ending than our own. Its fabled canals become the waterways and irrigation systems of a dead or dying people, elaborate civilisations that the books in question talk about with a sort of yearning regret—because they are dying, because they are unreachable, because they were never real, because it’s the turn of the century and everything anyway feels like the end of the world. Occasionally, in the midst of all the fantasy adventure of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars books, we’re reminded that the world is ending—in A Princess of Mars the atmosphere is kept breathable via machinery that fails, after its (earthly) human hero John Carter kills the operator in self defense. With only days left to live the red Martians prepare themselves for doom, and only Carter’s fortunate intervention may (since the book ends inconclusively, though all is made clear in the sequels) save them. C.S. Lewis has another well-populated society in his Out of the Silent Planet, in which the canals of Mars are really only giant rifts in the surface of the planet that open into lower, warmer valleys with plenty of water and vegetation and three sentient races of aliens living in harmony. Yet we learn towards the end of the book that the surface of the planet was once populated, that there was a golden age of beautiful, winged beings living on those vast red expanses. This is Fallen Mars much as Earth, for Lewis, is fallen, but it’s also postapocalyptic Mars.

And then there are Leigh Brackett’s Mars stories, which are gorgeous in their own right but gain extra weight by unashamedly placing themselves in this tradition—decadence and doom and adventure—and I think they might just be my favourite.seakings

Mars was my first dying Earth. My first encounter with that particular sub-genre of science fiction (surely having a revival at the moment, though I’m not sure anyone has explicitly connected this wave to those earlier ones), but also my first encounter with the larger concept. I sometimes worry about my own tendency to respond to our actual dying planet with doom and nostalgia, and I wonder how much my tastes in genre fiction have to do with that. Later science fiction, working with more information, treats Mars as a real place, subject to actual science, and I find myself not caring very much. Is there something a bit exploitative (and a lot colonialist) about treating real places as places to project your own desires and emotions? Yes.

And watching The Martian, the movie based on Andy Weir’s novel, I find myself again not caring very much. Matt Damon’s Watney is stranded on Mars due to a tragic error—the only man on the planet, his chances of survival are low to non-existent. Yet there’s no real facing or waiting for the end here—only potatoes and problem-solving and a brilliant, upbeat soundtrack. Perhaps the book, which I haven’t read, is more interior, but there’s no indication that this is ever the sort of story that The Martian wants to be. Which is fair enough, and it’s not as if we’re short on narratives of characters waiting for the end.

It may, possibly, mean that the only great recent Mars story that is also a powerful story of loss and hopelessness may be an xkcd strip about the poor little Mars rover Spirit, stranded on a desolate planet and unable to contact home.



June 3, 2015

John Conway, C. M. Kosemen and Darren Naish, All Yesterdays

I really enjoyed this book and then I wrote this column and then this story came out.

(Pictures screenshotted from the kindle version–how great is that manatee?)


Watching the trailer for the rather abysmal-looking Jurassic World we all agreed that the only thing that might have redeemed it for us was for the dinosaurs to have had feathers. Naturally they did not.

I have let my knowledge of dinosaurs slip over the last couple of decades—at eight or nine I knew about as much as popular science would let me. I’d heard the theory that they might have had feathers, though I suspect my interest had waned before more concrete evidence was found. (I think I had also heard that Brontosauruses weren’t real, but can’t have been very convinced; when they were reinstated this year I was genuinely happy for them).Screenshot_2015-06-03-00-16-07

Part of the appeal of dinosaurs is that our knowledge about them has changed so much over time—even just over my own lifetime. I’m not sure it’s possible any longer to capture the sheer mystery and wonder of that first revelation a couple of centuries ago that at some point giant beasts had walked (or swum) the world, but we’ve had something else: we’ve seen our knowledge growing and changing, old mysteries solved (or at least provided with believable solutions) and new ones arriving to take their place.

In culture, however, dinosaurs have remained oddly static.

It’s at the level of popular culture that John Conway, C. M. Kosemen and Darren Naish’s All Yesterdays (featuring skeletal diagrams by Scott Hartman) is particularly fascinating. The authors’ point (Conway and Kosemen are paleoartists) is simple enough: that there is a certain amount of knowledge that we can gather from fossils, and that knowledge is mainly concerned with the musculoskeletal system—what goes on top of it—the integument—is not always as obvious, even as we continue to learn more about it. Popular images of dinosaurs tend to be the shapes of their skeletons with skin over the top. But as we know from the animals that we study in the present, nature isn’t always that obvious. All Yesterdays concerns itself not with what we know, but with the range of possibilities that might fit within the facts that we have. And so we have Plesiosaurs that camouflage themselves among coral, Leaellynasaura adorably covered with fluff and given a flagpole-like tail, semaphoring Carnotaurus, Protoceratops climbing trees because in our world lots of animals that are not specifically adapted for particular behaviours indulge in them anyway. This is also the reason that the authors are able to imagine dinosaurs playing, resting, coexisting with hostile species, having interspecies sex (the book is meticulously illustrated).

Screenshot_2015-06-03-00-20-19This project (speculating about the possibilities of bodies within certain fixed parameters) is one that is familiar to science fiction fans, though it’s usually directed at the future, rather than the past. In a later section, titled “All Todays”, the book does take us into the future. It imagines far-future scientists, studying the remains of what is our present and coming to conclusions of their own that are a little bit off—car crushing, predatory hippos, graceful, antelope-like cows, bipedal toads and vicious cats that crept into human homes before finishing off their inhabitants.

As convinced as I am of Kosemen and Conway’s points (and as approving as I am of fluffy dinosaurs) I can’t imagine real scientists adopting these images—an openness to possibility is probably a good thing for a scientist, but so is sticking to relatively solid fact. But it’s not to scientists that the authors are addressing themselves—they’re responding to popular imagery. This is clearest when they depict a peaceful, sleeping Tyrannosaurus or a Tenontosaurus which is, incredibly, not being torn apart by predators.

And if this book is addressing popular images of dinosaurs, it’s also addressing those of us who produce and consume those images. It’s okay to demand feathered dinosaurs from our terrible blockbuster movies. In fiction at least we can build ourselves a fluffier, less gray-green past.


May 13, 2015

Jared Shurin (ed), Irregularity

A review of this in a recent issue of Vector.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been reviewing a couple of children’s literature shortlists recently and I’m so bored of having to stick “this is a very white list of authors, isn’t it?” into my reviews of things [and it's such a dull thing to keep having to write (always stuck somewhere unobtrusive, because it's such a ubiquitous annoyance that it's never the most interesting thing about the book)]. I’m not sure what Irregularity‘s excuse is; I had a related complaint with another Jurassic London anthology last year.

Some good stories in here– Rose-Innes and Roberts in particular. As a whole I was insufficiently whelmed.


Irregularity (edited by Jared Shurin) was published to coincide with the Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. This connection sets the collection in a very specific context—the 17th-19th centuries in the history of science, the age of enlightenment. Most of the stories sit comfortably within this framework; the earliest, Richard de Nooy’s “The Heart of Aris Kindt”, is set in 1632; the latest, Simon Guerrier’s “An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought”, in 1854.

The focus of the anthology (helped along by, to put it mildly, not the most diverse list of contributors) makes it inevitable that the majority of these stories are of Northern Europeans doing science in Northern Europe. But the age of enlightenment is also the age of empire (what did we think they needed all those ships for?), and occasionally this fact comes into play in these stories as well. The fatal game in Rose Biggin’s story is played out in Port Royal, and the role of empire is explicit in Roger Luckhurst’s “Circulation”, which is proper Victorian horror. It’s also the disturbing undercurrent to Henrietta Rose-Innes’s “Animalia Paradoxa”, one of the strongest stories in the anthology. Rose-Innes’ unnamed protagonist is in search of a spectacular new animal for the collection of a rich patron in France, but he’s prone to thinking of the African men he’s hired to help him as collectibles as well.

As is often the case with a themed collection, a number of the stories here are variations on the same central idea—that ordering and knowing and mapping and exerting power upon and destroying are all inextricably bound up in one complex knot. (“’He’s mapped us,’” says a character in Rose Biggin’s “A Game Proposition”, “in a tone that meant murdered us.”) The strongest of these is E.J. Swift’s “The Spiders of Stockholm” in which a young girl befriends the spiders that live under her bed, only to unwittingly kill them one by one as a visiting scientist tells her their names. This is basic fairy tale logic—to know a thing’s true name is to have power over it—but it’s also at the heart of the enlightenment project. The child protagonist makes these two systems of understanding the world fit together surprisingly well. “Knowledge is power” is hardly an original idea, but the lonely, detached perspective of Swift’s Eva would make up for greater sins than this, and “The Spiders of Stockholm” really is powerful and lovely. Though it’s unfortunate for both stories that Swift’s should be placed immediately after Biggin’s, which treads similar ground.

In Kim Curran’s “A Woman Out of Time” humans aren’t the ones imposing order upon the world, but the creatures upon whom order is imposed. Unknown forces (in my head a version of Terry Pratchett’s Auditors) watch Emilie du Chatelet in alarm as she threatens to discover too much too soon. Humans are not entirely powerless, though, and Curran’s nameless narrators have plenty of help from the patriarchy.

It sometimes feels as if all of Irregularity is at war with Linnaeus—he is indirectly responsible for the death of Eva’s spiders, is one of the driving forces that leads Henrietta Rose-Innes’s protagonist to hunt for the chimera in Africa, shows up (as a sympathetic figure) in Tiffani Angus’ “Fairchild’s Folly” grappling with the question of whether or how one might classify love. It always comes back to the question of classification—to what extent it’s harmful, to what extent it’s natural and human, to what extent the universe is classifiable. None of these stories makes reference to William Blake’s Ancient of Days; I’m not sure if this is a pity or a relief.

This drive to impose order, whether innately human or not, extends in some ways to Irregularity itself. The Afterword, by Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring, suggests a relatively ordered understanding of the history of scientific progress; dependent on success and failure (the collection is dedicated to “failure”), strewn with “false leads” and “dead ends” but largely teleological. But then there’s the best story in the collection, Adam Roberts’ “The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle”.  This story is gloriously silly, the whole thing is an extended pun; but it’s also chaotic, its framing of the history of human thought destabilising the collection completely.

Some of the most powerful (and the most powerfully weird) SF stems from this sort of chaos—the thing that doesn’t belong exploding into the world. Nick Harkaway’s framing narrative tries to place the book Irregularity itself in this position, but it feels rather inconsequential. More successful is M. Suddain’s The Darkness”, a version of the great fire of London, as told by Samuel Pepys, but with an inexplicable black hole and multiple instances of cruelty to bears.  It’s very cleverly done, with Pepys’ account (convincing, at least to me, in its stylistic details) of life going on as normally as possible juxtaposed with the giant vortex slowly consuming the city. Guerrier’s “An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought” takes for its starting point another great moment of literary rupture, that megalosaurus “forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill” at the beginning of Dickens’ Bleak House. Guerrier’s alternate history brings together the history of this book, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs and Ada Lovelace but it doesn’t have anything like the same effect; the story is too concerned with signposting its sources.

This is a problem general to a number of the pieces that make up this collection. There are honourable exceptions—Swift, Suddain, Rose-Innes, whose quiet, clever story bursts into weirdness at the end, James Smythe’s brilliant, over the top prose. But too often these stories are a little too well-researched, a little too carefully signposted, a little too written to spec. And the whole is underwhelming as a result.



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.



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.



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



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.


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.


May 24, 2014

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon

I saw quite a bit of discussion of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon in the weeks before I read it myself. Most of the discussion consisted of reviewers being terribly impressed by the fact that it was set in Nigeria—often to the exclusion of all else that might conceivably be said about it. Naturally I decided that when I wrote about it I would barely mention this fact and I think I’ve mostly done that here. Lagos is integral to this story, but there are far more interesting things to say about the book (and hopefully I have said some of them) than that it is set in a different country to most mainstream SF.

Having said which, I don’t think one can entirely ignore its non-UK, non-USness, when this is something of which the book itself is very aware. More than once, we have the characters stopping to reflect how weird it is that this should happen here. I suppose that’s inevitable, and I think at one point it would have disappointed me a little, but—as I said some weeks ago, I recently read Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space and I’ve been thinking a lot as a result about the question of what groups of people are able to imagine science fiction (or science fact) in particular ways. And perhaps it’s because that is currently at
the forefront of my mind, but the fact that Lagoon’s characters know what international pop culture has to say about alien visitation stories and where they occur began to feel necessary. In a longer piece, I think I’d have had to talk about this, regardless of my original noble ambitions.

From last week’s column.


The smallest creatures seem to be having the worst time of it in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon. Aliens have landed off the coast by Lagos, bringing with them all manner of change. Marine creatures morph into weirder, deadlier versions of themselves; figures from myth take physical form, the roads themselves rise up and attack travellers. But in the midst of all these changes the real sufferers seem to be the bats; at least thrice during the course of the novel the chaos that follows the arrival of these mysterious strangers causes bats (along with birds) to fall out of the sky, be hit by aeroplanes, to generally be swept away in the larger
events taking place around them, often after a brief moment of expanded consciousness. The chaos that follows change can be cruel.

And chaos is exactly what you’d expect following an alien invasion. Lagoon follows three main characters; Adaora, a marine biologist and the closest thing this polyphonic novel has to a protagonist; Agu, a wounded soldier; and Anthony, a Ghanaian rapper, all three strangers from different backgrounds with some unusual talents in common. (It’s tempting to read what follows as the greatest Amar Akbar Anthony tribute ever written, though for all I know Okorafor may never have heard of the film). Okorafor doesn’t follow that (always impressive, but not particularly original) city novel trope of having the three plotlines weave in and out of each other occasionally intersecting—though the narrative voice skips from one character to the other, their plot is broadly the same one. But it’s far from being the only plot here; the novel leaps from minor character to minor character, from visiting Nigerian-American teenager to cross-dressing would-be-kidnapper, orphaned child to head of state, puzzled and angry swordfish to mythical being to anthropomorphised land to overconfident spider. It’s not a technique that is conducive to character development, but this is hardly the point. The result of all of these intersecting lives is to offer up a world of overlapping layers, a city made up of competing and contradictory voices. There’s even a multiplicity of genres and languages, as Okorafor invokes pop culture, myth, science fiction and fantasy in a variety of voices, has her characters shift between Standard and Pidgin English. It’s a real city, and a chaos that is familiar, and fertile, and intimidating.

Chaos is also the result when the news of aliens among them leaks to the inhabitants of Lagos through the mechanisms of word of mouth, social media and cameraphone. It’s a world that is immediately recognisable particularly to those of us who expect the internet to be with us constantly, a sea of information that in itself resists the shape of linear narrative. And it results in a complete overthrow of order; in the carnivalesque scenes in the middle sections of the book religious groups, LGBT activists, aspiring criminals, rap music fans and (therefore) street food sellers gather outside the house where our three main characters and their alien friend have taken shelter.

Early in the novel, as a small boy watches the woman from another world walk out onto the beach, he welcomes her arrival—understanding that “things around him were about to change forever” and that change could only be an improvement. He’s wrong; for him this is not necessarily the case. The breakdown of order is opportunity, but it can leave the vulnerable even more so (just ask the bats). Yet the world we’re left with at the end of the novel is one that is radically transformed, where the inhabitants of Lagos (human or otherwise) are altered forever, and the change that the aliens brought is spiralling slowly outwards to the rest of Nigeria, the rest of Africa, the rest of the world. The possibilities are endless.




May 12, 2014

Bulletpoints: Transcendence

Transcendence, dir. Wally Pfister. Spoilers, obviously.

I’m aware even as I write this that it’s rather pointless; by now this movie is widely understood to be quite bad, and my writing many words about it being quite bad isn’t really adding anything to the world. Only my baffled love for Bettany and Hall spurs me on.


  • The important thing about Transcendence, I think, is that someone clearly set out to make a movie based on some sort of venn diagram of my interests. Do I like science fiction? Yes I do! Do I like Rebecca Hall? I think she is perfect. Do I like Cillian Murphy? Very much. Paul Bettany? Paul Bettany in GLASSES? Etc. Perhaps I should have spent less time squeeing about attractive people on the internet and more on pointing out that I also like films to be good. This one wasn’t.
  • Hidden somewhere in Transcendence is a far better film, and one that has Paul Bettany’s character Max Waters at its centre. Waters is given the film’s framing narrative, but to me this only highlights the ways in which it’s clear to me that it would be better balanced were he its protagonist. After we’d watched it Niall said something about how it would have worked in book form, and I can see this as the sort of literary SF where the dubious SF background exists to provide an occasion for the protagonist’s story; a man who found himself ranged against his best friends, who watched his world fall apart, who now mourns them. Transcendence chooses to linger on (“explore” would be the wrong word) the details of how and why its world fell apart, and … it’s a bit embarrassing when it does.
  • At one point Cillian Murphy says “*dramatic pause* We’ll have to shut down the internet.” I wonder if the actor laughed a bitter laugh, or just made a face and went with it, or.
  • And yet some of Transcendence’s characters, and some of its relationships, are ambitious. The huge, doomed love of the Casters—Will is martyred For Science, Evelyn is unable to accept his inevitable death and does big, foolish things to keep him, until the two realise this is impossible and choose to die in each other’s arms. These aren’t the emotions of real people, but they might have worked in a Greek tragedy. Max’s love for his friends (and also his almost courtly love for Evelyn) also feels like it belongs to a literary or dramatic tradition, rather than any mundane SFnal (and it has to be okay to use those words together in some situations) world.
  • Early in the film Depp’s Will Caster is about to give some sort of TED talk and a young woman comes up to him and asks him for his autograph. Max complains that he does not have groupies (I will be your groupie, Paul Bettany! I cried silently from my seat. Nic may have been doing something similar). It’s gratifying later in the movie to find that Bree (Kate Mara) and her band of anti-technology “terrorists”, RIFT, often gather to discuss Max’s work.
  • Bree’s commitment to eyeliner while camping out in the desert, on the run from the law and hiding from any technology, is admirable.
  • A fun exercise might be to watch Transcendence and watch the trailer for Luc Besson’s Lucy (or the film itself, when it comes out in a few months) and try to work out to what extent Morgan Freeman’s roles in them are interchangeable. He seems to be at a phase in his career where his characters are acknowledged as wise and important but otherwise ignored, and in the actual plot reduced to shaking their heads slowly in slow horror at what humanity has done now. Perhaps his role in Lucy will surprise me? (And perhaps that film will turn out to be about more than Scarlett Johansson killing brown guys?) At least his character in Transcendence stays alive.
  • He comes close, though. Almost all of the staff at Dr Joseph Tagger’s lab celebrate a colleague’s birthday; Tagger (Freeman) alone sits at his desk, working, with a slice of very chocolatey cake next to him. When he next looks up, many of his colleagues are dead. The cake had been poisoned by terrorists. This is brilliant because it’s the worst plot ever (THE CAKE. WAS POISONED. BY TERRORISTS.) but also because it may be the only time I’ve read or seen any sort of fictional disaster, natural or man-made, and come out of it thinking “perhaps I could survive that”. I am not a fan of chocolate cake.
  • The dialogue in this film could easily have been written by aliens. It’s an understanding of what people sound like that is inaccurate, but it’s the inaccuracy of a complete outsider observing something utterly foreign. It’s rather fascinating.
  • “They claim to be defending humanity … but they kill people!” (I’m paraphrasing) says Will, profoundly. “That’s not logical!”
  • The last thing in which I saw Rebecca Hall was the often-very-good Iron Man 3, which did at least pass the Bechdel test. In IM3, she plays Maya Hansen, a brilliant scientist whose work Tony Stark is able to improve upon, who makes some terrible decisions, repents of them, and dies trying to fix the damage she’s caused. In Transcendence she plays Evelyn Caster, a brilliant scientist whose work is subordinate to that of her brilliant scientist husband , who makes some terrible decisions and causes massive, world-changing problems, and dies trying to fix the damage etc.
  • I think what irritates me most is that it would be so easy for this film to be about a completely different woman and scientist. It’s established for us at the beginning that Evelyn’s the one who deals with the social things, like placating investors and wearing appropriate clothing. Soft skills—Will, on the other hand, can barely dress himself, and exclusively does Science when he’s not signing autographs or appearing on the cover of Wired. Evelyn gives introductory speeches about her husband’s work; Will is the main act. And so the movie establishes her as helpmeet rather than partner and equal.
  • When Will finds out he’s dying, he only wants to spend his remaining time with his wife. Evelyn hardly spends this time with him—she’s convinced she can solve the problem with science. Between then she and Max achieve something amazing, yet the role into which the movie has already placed Evelyn makes it easier for us to read this as the obsessive, over-emotional behaviour of a wife who refuses to accept reality (she won’t simply accept Max’s opinions) than those of a scientist obsessed with her work, turning to her understanding of science to solve a problem and as a result doing things no one has achieved before. All her subsequent actions are framed as deluded or brainwashed; as if she’s so wrapped up in her newly-returned (or is he?) husband that she simply isn’t noticing the huge events taking place around her.
  • So imagine a different film, built upon what Transcendence says about Evelyn rather than what it does. In which she turns to science to solve her problems not out of an inability to face reality, but because she’s good at science and believes in its ability to fix things. In which she knows exactly what she’s doing when she builds an underground lab in the desert, in which the thing that may or may not be Will Caster is focused on healing the environment because Evelyn built it and these are Evelyn’s priorities. In which her huge mistake isn’t the result of disproportionate love but of hubris. It would still BE a huge mistake, but one of those motives is more culturally respected (and I’m not sure it should be) than the other.
  • Almost everything that Subashsini says here, because she’s right and wonderful.
  • I do think, though, that it’s interesting that Evelyn’s dawning realisation that everything is horribly wrong is framed in terms of her own bodily integrity. The first time she seems to see that something is wrong is when “Will” appropriates the body of a man he has healed; someone she barely knows approaches her, saying in her husband’s voice “I can touch you now!” Later, she finds out that “Will” is monitoring her to the point of even keeping track of her hormones (the all-seeing husband, as Suba says) and it’s a violation too far. “You’re not allowed”, she says, and it works as a line because it’s filled with that sort of childish incomprehension at this exertion of power. It’s here that she leaves, and I think this is the point at which stopping “Will” becomes something that she’s capable of considering.
  • I make the distinction between Will and “Will” because for much of the film (including, I’d argue, the end) it’s not clear that they are the same thing. The film makes more of this question than necessary—considering that, as Tagger says at one point, even if it was Will, he’s evolved so far so quickly that the question is moot.
  • Speaking of violations of bodily integrity. The first instance of “Will” healing-then-taking-over another body is one in which consent for his continued infestation is not given—it’s an emergency, as is the other instance of his healing someone. What about the other people lining up to be healed? I think it’s interesting (particularly with regards to, again, Suba’s post and what it says about collectivity) that we aren’t told.
  • I’ve just used the word “infestation”. I think there’s a moment where the movie suggests that “it” (“Will”) is building a nest of sorts underground. For something apparently highly evolved beyond humans, I find the film’s ways of talking about “Will” interestingly basic. Nest. Control. Protect.
  • It is a very pretty film, though.
May 8, 2014

Manil Suri, City of Devi

A few years ago I read “The Screwfly Solution” in the middle of what felt like an epidemic of random, violent attacks on women (it is possible that it was just the normal amount of violence against women, at a period when the media was particularly keen to report it. And that possibility is scary too.) and it was terrifying. I didn’t think [spoiler?] that aliens were orchestrating the end of our species, but something of the horror of the book echoed off the horror of the real world and made both worse. Something of the sort happened to me with Manil Suri’s latest, particularly since I haven’t been able to go online in months without being immersed in worrying (and very shouty) news. I’m not sure any book should have to shoulder the weight of the world in this way, but it did rather wish it upon itself.

From this week’s column.


Perhaps the middle of India’s elections was not the best time to read a book in which the election of a right-wing religious party sets off a series of events that rapidly lead to impending nuclear war.

“Four days before the bomb that is supposed to obliterate Bombay and kill us all,” Sarita haggles over the cost of a pomegranate in Crawford Market. Her family, along with much of the city’s population, has fled the city. Sarita alone stays, waiting for her husband Karun, who has disappeared.

There’s a lot going on in Manil Suri’s City of Devi; probably more than there needs to be. It is part of a thematic trilogy (though the author has hinted that there may be a fourth book) with Suri’s earlier books The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva. Trinities are invoked many times in the book, though often through the characters’ musing upon them in a way that is neither particularly subtle nor profound. It’s the weakest aspect of a book that has a lot more to recommend it.

The love stories, for one. City of Devi has two alternating narrators, Sarita and Jaz (Ijaz), both of whom are in love with the same man and who find themselves becoming allies in the attempt to find him and to escape the city. It would be easy enough simply to read this set of relationships as a cliché of Indian family life—the gay man unable to come out, the bewildered wife married as a smokescreen, the secret lover (doubly scandalous because of another religion!) on the side. It’s to Suri’s credit that he makes more of them than this. Jaz is profoundly irritating (must he call himself “the Jazter?”) and his courtship of Karun is often comical (“’Jai Hind,’ he declared. ‘What?’ I had been given the brush-off before, but never with a patriotic slogan.”) but these are human failings. Sarita and Karun do build something between them, even if that something is fragile and unconventional and features the worst euphemism for sex that you will hear this month; she’s never just the poor, deluded wife.

At one point, as she documents the violent political changes taking place around her, Sarita is able to claim that she was too caught up in her personal life to really pay attention. Which explains why she is able to stand in the middle of a market after a bomb blast and worry about the cost of the pomegranate that becomes a talisman of sorts for their relationship.

It’s rather pointless to argue whether Suri’s near-future, communalism-flavoured nuclear apocalypse is plausible, though watching or reading the news it can easily feel that way. Religious mobs roam the streets within carefully-maintained borders; in a darkly comic interlude a man is nearly hanged when mistaken for a Muslim, but saved at the last minute when they pull his pants down. Legislation has decreed that cartoon characters can only have proper Hindu names, so that Donald Duck lives on as Bimal Batak. The whole country is obsessed with Superdevi, star of a superhero film and the perfect mix of religion, commercialism and pop culture.

Jaz and Sarita’s journey through this landscape can often get tedious, with message overriding all other concerns of setting. But the early scenes of the novel are a thing of beauty. Perhaps there’s something inherently compelling about not moving, about staying in one place, waiting for the end, being certain of doom. There’s a feeling almost of hyperreality about this section of the novel—the deserted aquarium with most of its fish eaten by a security guard, the empty street down which Sarita runs to retrieve her pomegranate. Normal rules are in abeyance, and the motivations of ordinary people aren’t what you expect them to be. And perhaps it’s simply the eeriness of seeing Bombay, of all cities, almost empty.


Unrelated to anything, but there’s a weird, unlikely resonance between the opening scenes of this novel and those of Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Tropical fruits haggled over in the heat-ravaged Asian cities of the future. The similarities between the books end there, but I wonder if, as mainstream SF moves into newer settings, this is a scene we’re going to see repeated.
May 3, 2014

Suniti Namjoshi, The Mothers of Maya Diip

For context, here is a short review from last year of The Fabulous Feminist. I’ll be doing a longer (and therefore better) piece on The Mothers of Maya Diip at some point. A shorter version exists in my notes, and consists entirely of the sentence “This book gives no fucks”.

It really doesn’t though.

(From this week’s column.)


When Zubaan’s Suniti Namjoshi reader, The Fabulous Feminist, came out last year, I wasn’t sure what to make of some parts of it. The fables, for which she’s probably best known, were wonderful, but the extracts from longer works often left one adrift. Particularly fascinating to me was the chapter from the middle of The Mothers of Maya Diip, which looked a lot like a classic feminist utopia story.

Maya Nagar is a matriarchy on a remote island (presumably off the coast of India), populated only by women. Motherhood is synonymous with adulthood in this society, the raising of children (biological or otherwise) is seen as the fundamental function of an adult, and social hierarchy is based on the maternal duties one is considered qualified to perform. Into this world the Blue Donkey (who appears in some of Namjoshi’s other work as a sort of stand-in for the author) is invited for a visit. She brings with her her friend Jyanvi, who immediately falls in love with a woman from the city. Unfortunately, Jyanvi also immediately finds herself chafing at the lack of choice, the inability for a “mother” to define herself separately from children and both outsiders find themselves caught up in the machinations of state politics.

The Mothers of Maya Diip was published by the Women’s Press, which had also published a number of works of feminist science fiction, among them Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, and it’s difficult not to read it as a book that is aware of and in conversation with this tradition of writing. The utopia or dystopia is (or sometimes is, or ought to be) a novel of ideas, of taking things to their logical conclusions. The Mothers of Maya Diip moves between three fictional societies; the woman-dominated Maya Nagar, the male-majority Ashagarh, and the island of Paradise where gender hardly seems to exist. Each model is examined and found to contain some form of violence at its heart—the revelation of what happens to the boys born in Maya Nagar would by itself be enough reason to condemn that society.

But if The Mothers of Maya Diip is placing itself in that tradition, it isn’t necessarily submitting to it. There’s a sense that the book is at least one remove away from the sort of story it is telling; there’s an ironic distance that is maintained throughout. At times one gets the impression that this is itself part of Namjoshi’s response to the tradition of books in which she’s writing; and the presence of Valerie, a visitor and western feminist who explains these traditions to the Blue Donkey and Jyanvi (and who believes that Jyanvi, a lesbian, has things easier here) seems to bear this out.

If it both emulates and distances itself from feminist utopian science fiction, The Mothers of Maya Diip is willing to invoke (and discard) other genres as well. There’s something of the epic about this story, with its arcane religious ceremonies, its power struggles between priestesses and queens. We are offered not one, but two fictional, fantastic city states. At one point the Ranisaheb and her entourage are cast out of the city and exiled in a forest. There’s a bizarre science fictional interlude featuring a group of androids and a maternal helicopter. There’s even a love story, most of the time about two people who are completely incapable of understanding one another.

At the centre of it all is the Blue Donkey, sometimes treated as human and sometimes not, and devastatingly commonsensical in the face of all that is going on around her. It’s her cool detachment from the book that allows it to be as odd a thing as it is, that makes thought experiments of its genres as well as of its fictional cities.