Welcome to Tremontaine, the prequel to Ellen Kushner’s beloved Riverside series that began with Swordspoint!
A duchess’s beauty matched only by her cunning; her husband’s dangerous affair with a handsome scholar; a foreigner in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a mathematical genius on the brink of revolution. Suddenly long-buried lies threaten to come to light and betrayal and treachery run rampant in this story of sparkling wit and political intrigue.
Written serially by six critically acclaimed authors, Tremontaine is a tale of intrigue, manners, treachery, and cleverness that will delight readers.
Last month, I reviewed Bookburners, the first Serial Box series to see a physical publication from Saga Press; now, I turn to their second, a very different prospect in a number of ways. Tremontaine, rather than being a world created for the purpose of a series, is a return to a world Ellen Kushner devised in the 1980s: the world of Riverside, of the novels Swordspoint, Privilege of the Sword, and The Fall of the Kings, of some seminal queer fantasy and foundations of mannerpunk. It’s got quite the legacy to live up to, therefore.
The plot of Tremontaine is set twenty years before Swordspoint, the first of the Riverside novels; as a prequel series, it occupies an interesting place in revealing the pasts of several characters we know from those books – although none of their protagonists, who are at most newborns at the time of this series. Unlike Bookburners, this isn’t episodic storytelling; the plot is broken up into discrete episodes, but they’re more like the episodes of The Night Manager than Supergirl, each one telling part of the whole and not really working in isolation. The writers of the episodes have varied ways of dealing with that; some are excellent at slipping in the relevant details to their episode, along the way, for those reading monthly, while others seem to treat the story as if Tremontaine will be read in one go, not including that information.
There are really three plots to Tremontaine, all intertwined. Duchess Diane Tremontaine is trying to recoup the fortune she lost on a failed mercantile venture (the ship went down); Ixkaab is in disgrace with her Kinwiinik Trader family after a catastrophic failure; Rafe is trying to found his own revolutionary school of thinking – and pass his university exams; and Micah… is mostly buffetted around in Rafe’s wake. For having such a complex set of plotlines, they all come together relatively quickly, as the principals meet or interact, mingle, and their interests coincide or run counter to each other. The shape of the plot as a whole is well-controlled, and Kushner’s editorial oversight of the project in keeping things moving is judiciously used, such that seeds are planted earlier for later revelations that one does not see coming but hindsight reveals were always there.
That’s not to say that the writing is necessarily even. While most of the episodes are excellent, and Kushner’s own ‘Arrival’ makes a perfect pilot for Tremontaine, there are a couple which don’t work quite so well. Joel Derfner’s ‘Shadowroot’ takes a long, convoluted journey to get to its destination, and telegraphs from the very start what takes a long time to come, without much really to justify that time. Some of the most complex chapters are the best though; in ‘The Dagger and the Sword’, Alaya Dawn Johnson uses a nonchronological approach to intersperse two timelines in a really brilliant way that reminds the reader of TV heists like Hustle, and that really spark along and advance both plot and character.
Unsurprisingly, Tremontaine has a lot of those hanging around; across thirteen episodes involving storylines revolving around three (or four?) principals, a certain number of background characters are going to be necessary. The principals themselves are well realised; from Kushner’s introductions of each in ‘Arrivals’, they’re clearly distinctive and distinct characters, each of whom has a different agenda and set of priorities, and the way those play out across the series is beautiful. From Diane’s increasingly desperate grip on control of the Tremontaine fortune, to Kaab’s torn loyalties between her romantic entanglement with the beautiful forger Tess; from Rafe’s burning need to create a new institution of learning to Micah’s pursuit of mathematical certainty, they’re each vivid and fascinating. Micah is also that rare thing in fiction, a well-portrayed autistic character, who is also a viewpoint character; the authors between them really did a lot of work to try to accurately portray life as someone neuroatypical amongst a neurotypical crowd who don’t know what makes you different.
The background characters are all just as vivid; Tremontaine is like a TV series that not only cast great actors in its main roles, but also used every character actor it could find in the background. They have distinctive voices, mannerisms, and approaches to the different characters; they have individual motivations which we either see from their point of view or through observation. If there’s an exception, it’s in House Tremontaine’s second swordsman, Reynald; while a little of his character is revealed, throughout all his appearances it remains essentially flat, and none of the authors really give us enough to get to grips with to care much about him.
Tremontaine is a real triumph of Serial Box’s and of Ellen Kushner’s; this expansion of the Riverside universe really shows us sides of it we hadn’t seen before and expands it beautifully. I’m looking forward to the second season omnibus.
Disclaimer: Ellen Kushner is a friend.
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The kingdom of the Six Duchies is on the brink of civil war when news breaks that the crown prince has fathered a bastard son and is shamed into abdication. The child’s name is Fitz, and he is despised.
Raised in the castle stables, only the company of the king’s fool, the ragged children of the lower city and his unusual affinity with animals provide Fitz with any comfort.
To be useful to the crown, Fitz is trained as an assassin; and to use the traditional magic of the Farseer family. But his tutor, allied to another political faction, is determined to discredit, even kill him. Fitz must survive: for he may be destined to save the kingdom.
Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book to appear under the Robin Hobb pseudonym of Megan Lindholm, was published over two decades ago; since then it has remained constantly in print, and a number of sequels – the rest of the Farseer trilogy, but also four other series set in the same world – have appeared, the latest, Assassin’s Fate, bringing to a close the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, the main character of Assassin’s Apprentice, nine books across three trilogies later, only this year. So it seemed like a fine time to pick up where it all began…
In many ways, Assassin’s Apprentice hews close to trends in epic fantasy from the Eighties; the lowly child who turns out to not only be part of the royal family, but also have special magical gifts – if you’re getting flashes of David Eddings, that’s not unreasonable. However, Hobb uses that basic model to go to very different places; for a start, Fitz is raised as a royally acknowledged bastard – that is, in the palace, with an education to make him useful to the royal family – rather than anonymously; he’s also not someone we see as destined from the word go, let alone to destroy a singular great Evil, since Hobb resists presenting us such a thing.
In doing so, Assassin’s Apprentice is also a very obvious influence on and forerunner of the fantasy of the twenty-first century: grey morality, plots and schemes, an interest in the actual reality of the complexity of politics over simplistic approaches, a more complex engagement with historical influences, and of course, assassins. The trend of the hooded assassin hasn’t gone anywhere, and it’s one Hobb is a significant figure in; her book presents us the assassin as conflicted hero, serving his king loyally but not without moral qualms at times, and with a satisfyingly subtle approach to assassination (few knives in the dark here).
Beyond the ways in which Hobb created something of a critical turning point in fantasy, though, there’s the quality of the book itself to consider. Assassin’s Apprentice has some of the subtlest characterisation I’ve seen in a novel, especially in some of the secondary characters. While Fitz is very open, others – especially his surrogate parental figure Burrich – are much more interestingly layered with complexity; not in the sense of mystery, but in the sense that there’s always more than just the surface characterisation. Every single character has their own web of relationships and motives that Hobb has thought through, and those are complicated, interesting, human relationships. The closest we come to an exception is Galen, something of a Snape figure without the eleventh hour pseudo-redemption; but Hobb, unlike many other authors using a similar figure, openly has characters acknowledge that Galen’s teaching is abuse, and Assassin’s Apprentice condemns both it and, separately, points out that it is ineffective for teaching anything but pure obedience.
This is also a book with quite a nontraditional plot. Assassin’s Apprentice reads much more like a true biography than most seemingly-biographical fantasy novels: not everything impacts on Fitz’s eventual victory, although there are some great Chekhov’s guns loaded early that the reader may not realise exist. Instead, it’s a story about growing up, and the more formal model of plot only really occupies the last hundred or so pages of the book; while everything has been building towards it, it’s not an inevitable conclusion, it’s just the most dramatic set of events, that wraps up with a conclusion that could end a series, without frustratingly obvious cliffhangers or the absolute necessity of another book.
Assassin’s Apprentice now doesn’t read as radical in what it does with epic fantasy only because it’s so often been (often poorly) imitated: Hobb’s work is a classic of the genre, and based on this encounter with it, very deservedly so.
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After a high-profile tumble, Cirque American’s star wire walker, Jules Maroni, has a lot to prove—and her invitation to an exclusive exhibition in Paris looks to be just the opportunity to put her back on top. Unfortunately, the City of Lights glitters with distractions, including the presence of her first serious boyfriend and a mysterious figure haunting the venue.
Girl Over Paris is part of the Cirque American series, but unlike the two novels in the series, is a comic book co-written with veteran comics writer Kate Leth (of series such as the wonderful, albeit now concluded, Patsy Walker aka Hellcat from Marvel); it’s also the first time I’ve encountered Bond’s Cirque American setting.
Girl Over Paris is a compact little introduction to the world and the characters; over four issues, we only meet six people, really, plus a number of nameless fans and spectators briefly, and half of those are really just background parts to the story of Jules, her boyfriend Remy, and Remy’s sister Dita (and Dita’s girlfriend Gab). These central characters are a little thin; although Doyle’s art keeps things interesting by making sure every character’s reaction to events is clear on their faces, and even background crowds have a variety of expressions, the central cast are a little simple, even two dimensional, and Jules’ reactions are a little flat for a lot of the story. Dita is the stand-out character, the most emotionally interesting one, so it’s sad this story didn’t centre more on her.
The intense focus on such a small group means we don’t really see a lot of the world – there are hints to what goes on around this story, including black magic and curses being definitively real, but Girl Over Paris is a ghost story, and a rather good one at that. It’s not a tragedy, but has tragedy in its past; there’s a certain Phantom of the Opera vibe to elements of the story, and Bond and Leth are clearly aware of the vibes they’re playing with, using the supernatural to amplify human emotionality and exploring relationships primarily, even between characters who are fundamentally quite flat. This isn’t a comic of action so much as one of feel; Girl Over Paris isn’t flashy, but it does have a strong sense of place, reinforced by the detailed art of Doyle which puts in small details to make it clear this isn’t some fantasy Paris.
In the end, Girl Over Paris has an all-star creative team behind it, but it just doesn’t have enough substance to really make use of their talents: the hints of the levels of skill involved are there, but no one really shows their best work on this one.
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In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.
AIs and personhood are issues which have a long science fictional heritage, one that is again in the air as AI appears to be an ever-more-achievable goal; what would the implications of the personhood of AIs be? All Systems Red is Martha Wells’ injection into that discussion, although there’s more to this novella than just an ontological discussion.
Before we go further, it should be noted that Murderbot is a person who appears to prefer the pronoun “it” for itself, hence I will refer to Murderbot by that pronoun in this review.
All Systems Red is narrated by the titular Murderbot, who hacked its own AI governor unit to give it a fully independent, rather than externally regulated, intelligence; it has to keep this carefully under wraps because the society Wells has created isn’t keen on AIs as independent, self-directed beings, only as property. Murderbot’s own sense of self is somewhat defined by that: while seeing itself as sentient, and even self-directed, it also sees itself as not human, not a true person, and has social anxiety about itself. Wells writes Murderbot sympathetically and interestingly, and the obsession with serials – shared with a number of other similarly liberated AIs, such as Ancillary Justice‘s Breq – provides some brilliant comic moments.
The rest of the cast of All Systems Red, seen through Murderbot’s eyes, is brilliantly vivid too; each one has a very distinct character and role in the group, from the leader and the one who has most sympathy towards the particular psychology of Murderbot to the augmented human who is deeply suspicious of Murderbot and doesn’t trust it. Wells drops in humanising details all over the places, such as characters randomly testing Murderbot, or their discussions among themselves which we overhear snatches of revealing their own fears and neuroses. What Wells also does is background a very queer world; there are a mix of sexualities on display in relationships that are mentioned between people on the mission, and with those they’ve left behind; and polyamory is a perfectly accepted life, with multiple marriage and extended complex family units something mentioned completely without comment.
The plot of All Systems Red is almost secondary to all the character moments and gracenotes, but it’s also what enables all those things. Wells has constructed a locked room mystery on a survey planet, and Murderbot has to simultaneously solve it while protecting its charges; the way Wells balances the plot between high drama and light moments is exquisite, and the way they can heighten the tension is incredible. The plot is a little contrived and doesn’t ever really resolve – there is an extent to which the motives of the antagonists are opaque and ill-defined, and All Sustems Red also suffers from Wells’ tendency to hold back information for later revelation in a way that feels very contrived, especially given the apparent conceit of the novella as being written by Murderbot for someone who already knew all the events it contains.
In the end though, plot is really a secondary consideration for All Systems Red, which is really about Murderbot’s developing sense of itself, and in that particular regard, Wells has done a spectacular job. I really look forward to meeting it again in future work.
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The comic industry comes together in honor of those killed in Orlando. Co-published by two of the premiere publishers in comics—DC and IDW, this oversize comic contains moving and heartfelt material from some of the greatest talent in comics, mourning the victims, supporting the survivors, celebrating the LGBTQ community, and examining love in today’s world. All material has been kindly donated by the writers, artists, and editors with all proceeds going to victims, survivors, and their families. Be a part of an historic comics event! It doesn’t matter who you love. All that matters is you love.
On June 12, 2016, a year ago today, a man went into a gay club in Orlando on Latin Night and shot 102 people, killing 49 of them. The outpouring of grief, solidarity, and love in the wake of the Pulse shooting was powerful and moving, and hasn’t finished yet. One of the forms that outpouring took was Marc Andreyko, a gay man and writer of queer comics including Batwoman and Manhunter, bringing together a number of luminaries of comics, and the publishing houses IDW and DC, to create Love Is Love, which came out on January 4th and immediately sold out; the second print run also sold out within days of release, but my partner managed to snag me a copy…
Love Is Love is a slightly strange thing to discuss, because I’ll be discussing personal reactions to a tragedy that shook my community to the core; but those responses need praise and criticism for the narratives they are part of and perpetuate, in some cases positively, in others less so. I won’t address every single one of the one-to-two-page contributions, but I’ll highlight the ones I find most significant in one way or another.
One of the constants of the book is direct relaying of personal reactions to the shooting. For instance, Jeff Jensen, in ‘Thoughts and Prayers: A Confession’ (illus David Lopez, lett Dezi Sienty), talks about all the actions he could have, but did not, take in the wake of the shooting, and how he only gave thoughts and prayers – a message that, had it included more ideas of concrete action, or more condemnation of failing to make prayer into action, would have worked far better. On the other hand, the untitled comic by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir (illus Emma Vieceli, col Christina Strain, lett Neal Bailey) brings a humour and a pathos to reactions to the events; it records a conversation with someone’s parents, who want him, in the wake of the shooting, to be careful, be himself, be safe, be brave. It’s beautiful and heartwrenching in its truth. Matthew Rosenberg’s piece (illus Amancay Nahuelpan, col Tyler Boss, lett Ryan Ferrier) is about his reactions to being asked to contribute, as a straight white cis guy, to this anthology; his footnotes to the comic include resources to support people who AREN’T straight white cis guys in comics, and works really beautifully.
Other stories use superheroes; some do it beautifully, and thoughtfully, such as ‘Pulse Shooting: the shooter inside the club is dead’, a Batman story by Marc Guggenheim (illus Brent Peeples, col Chris Sotomayor, lett Comicraft’s John Roshnell) about the complexity of coming to easy answers in this particular case, where the shooter’s motives are such a tangle of religious fanaticism, internalised homophobia and sexual self-loathing. It’s empathetic to both shooter and victims and has a subtle balance that really strikes one. Others, such as ‘Harley and Ivy in Love is Love’ by Paul Dini (illus Bill Morrison, col Robert Stanley, lett Cipriano), simply show love, in this case queer love, as normative; it’s a single page comic that shows the compromises Harley and Ivy make for each other, the neogitations they go through, and what they do for each other, and it is beautiful. Dan Didio’s piece (illus Carlos D’Anda, lett Carlos M. Mangual) has some of that power, using DC’s queer heroes (and for once owning up to some really awful elements of DC’s past, such as Extraño) to talk about the progress made and the road yet to go… but at the same time, it serves as a reminder of just how few queer characters there are, and how few of them headline their own titles. Others are straightforwardly misjudged, such as Matt Wagner’s offering, ‘Every Little Bug’s Got A Honey To Hug’, a splash page featuring no less than three heterosexual couples, two single people, and not a single queer character, as if this was any kind of relevant statement; and Sterling Gates’ ‘Why’ (illus Matt Clark, col Mike Atiyeh, lett Saida Temofonte) is simply terrible, being far more about Supergirl and her response to this real tragedy and how it links in with the loss of Krypton than anything specific to the shooting itself.
Inevitably, there are comics that concern themselves more with guns than queers; Taran Killam’s Deathstroke one-page comic (illus Barry Crain, col Giulia Brusco, lett Joshua Cozine) manages to make the point in a humourous way directly related to the Pulse shootings and with some humour about the absurdity of the way comics treat violence. Mark Millar on the other hand has never been accused of self awareness, and his contribution (illus Piotr Kowalski, col Brad Simpson, lett Michael Heisler) is simply a lecture about the prevalence of guns in the United States, and the fact they can only be used for killing – there’s no attempt at specificity to the Pulse massacre, and indeed, it feels as if Love Is Love simply provided a Scottish man a chance to lecture Americans.
The two comics I want to draw out as uniquely moving to me, though, are first of all, Gail Simone’s beautiful contribution (illus Jim Calafiore, lett Travis Lanham, col Gabriel Cassata), which is beautifully written, slowly building up to its moment of both tragedy and resilience at the end: “You can’t stop us from dancing” comes to mean, in Simone’s hands, so much more than dancing. The other is Teddy Tenebaum’s contribution (illus Mike Huddleston, lett Corey Breen), which is about a father explaining to his child about homosexuality: it isn’t different, but because of the way it is perceived by others, it is, and the comic really draws that out and gives it power.
This barely scratches the surface of an anthology that has some really powerful, beautiful contributions, and some that were singularly misjudged, but in the end, Love Is Love is a powerful statement by the comics community, and meaningful, and beautiful. Love is, after all, love.
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Before we go any further, a public service announcement for UK readers! Today is election day here! If you can vote, do! Today is your chance to cast a vote which is going to irrevocably effect the course of our country going forward!
Jeremy works at the counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s the 1990s, pre-DVD, and the work is predictable and familiar; he likes his boss, and it gets him out of the house.
But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets, she has an odd complaint: ‘There’s something on it,’ she says. Two days later, another customer brings back She’s All That and complains that something is wrong: ‘There’s another movie on this tape.’
Curious, Jeremy takes a look. And what he sees on the videos is so strange and disturbing that it propels him out of his comfortable routine and into a search for the tapes’ creator. As the once-peaceful fields and barns of the Iowa landscape begin to seem sinister and threatening, Jeremy must come to terms with a truth that is as devastatingly sad as it is shocking.
John Darnielle is best known as the primary (on occasion, only) member of the Mountain Goats, an indie-rock/folk band that focuses on concept albums. He has lately started making forays into prose fiction too, with Wolf In White Van in 2014 and now, Universal Harvester in 2017…
Universal Harvester is an incredibly strange novel, and a hard one to pin down. Darnielle mixes elements of horror, the Weird, and literary fiction together, with some fascinating psychogeographical observations; to pin just one genre on this novel would be very reductive, because while it draws on the tropes of each, it is not entirely of any of those genres. Darnielle uses a mounting horror of something he keeps out of view throughout the novel, an unknown that is strange and bizarre, to take what seems otherwise entirely mundane into a stranger realm; but at the same time, a lot of the novel is concerned with the ordinary everyday lives of its characters, and especially Jeremy, its protagonist, in a very literary way.
This contrast is heightened by the slow series of revelations that Darnielle allows the reader into what the horror and strangeness at the heart of the novel is; Universal Harvester doesn’t do a simple reveal, but shows corners of the sculpture, and the vague shape of it under a tarpaulin, until the reveal at the very end, which gives the reader a completely different sculpture to the one we had previously expected.
One of those revelations is as to who the narrator is; what seems at the start to be a simple omniscient third person narrator breaks in to the narrative to interject comments and questions directly to the reader, and to throw in some foreshadowing. The most fascinating way Universal Harvester does its foreshadowing is by giving alternate paths the novel could have gone; Darnielle, at certain key points, tells us about the alternative routes characters could have taken that would have totally derailed the novel, highlighting the key moments in the book, and the key decisions, especially those which look less central. It’s not a subtle approach but, because of the way Darnielle controls his narrative, it’s an effective one, and a well-accomplished one.
Universal Harvester essentially concerns a very small cast in a Midwestern town in Iowa; the whole book is written as a kind of nostalgic haze for a very specific late-90s in a very specific kind of place. The book would not work without the technology of the home VCR, and the institution of independent video rental stores; both of which have now become, fundamentally, obsolete. There’s a real concern with ensuring the reader understands exactly what small-town Iowa is like, and repeatedly, the narrator breaks off to give a kind of psychogeographical overview of the town Universal Harvester is set in. It’s an approach which occasionally meanders and goes on too long; and some of these sections feel like Darnielle is deploying special pleading, without looking at the problems of those places (the world of Universal Harvester is very straight and very white).
There’s also a nostalgia for a certain kind of person that Universal Harvester seems to think has maybe vanished; Darnielle centres the novel on Jeremy, the son of a blue-collar worker who lost his mother in his teen years, and who seems at the start of the novel to be drifting through life and somewhat emotionally repressed. It’s an interesting portrait and a very generous one; indeed, Darnielle is generous to all his characters, who he seems to have a huge amount of empathy for. The idea of that kind of youth seems to be one Darnielle has huge admiration for, and sees as a mixed blessing: the emotional repression of characters is one of the things at the heart of Universal Harvester, and the different directions it can take – positive or negative.
Universal Harvester is brilliantly written, incredibly empathetic, and doing fascinatingly strange and Weird things; but Darnielle’s nostalgia occasionally takes over the book too much, leading to some frustrating bumps in the road.
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Things Can Only Get Better is the personal account of a Labour supporter who survived eighteen miserable years of Conservative government. It is the heartbreaking and hilarious confessions of someone who has been actively involved in helping the Labour party lose elections at every level: school candidate: door-to-door canvasser: working for a Labour MP in the House of Commons; standing as a council candidate; and eventually writing jokes for a shadow cabinet minister.
Along the way he slowly came to realise that Michael Foot would never be Prime Minister, that vegetable quiche was not as tasty as chicken tikki masala and that the nuclear arms race was never going to be stopped by face painting alone.
Do you remember the evening of May 1st, 1997? Do you remember the morning and day that was May 2nd, 1997? Do you remember that things can only get better? That was the first day in my life that I lived under a Labour government. It’s my second political memory. It’s a memory full of joy, and awe, and amazement, and surprise. For John O’Farrell, it was the culmination of nearly two decades of hard work as a Labour activist; and so, over the course of the six months following victory, he wrote his political memoirs of Labour’s time in the wilderness: the result is, of course, Things Can Only Get Better.
This isn’t a standard memoir; really, it’s a series of snapshots in the life of a Labour supporter, taking in each election in which O’Farrell took any active part from the General Election of 1979 that brought Margaret Thatcher to power to that of 1997, which finally removed the Conservative government from office. Things Can Only Get Better is therefore a little parochial at times: Scotland, for instance, which underwent a political earthquake in 1997 unparalleled until 2015, gets only a brief mention, and England outside London barely more than that. When talking about the political mood, it’s notable how often O’Farrell means the political mood in London specifically, or even just in Battersea.
However, that limitation aside, Things Can Only Get Better is actually rather fascinating in one particular way that is often overlooked: the hard work of actually running an election campaign on the local level. O’Farrell worked as ward secretary, campaign agent, and campaign organiser in various elections of various scales over the course of the Tory dominion, and he talks about the processes involved in running a campaign operation. The complete lack of glamour and lack of general recognition volunteers get is something he drives home to the reader with a real sense of the importance of the work.
O’Farrell’s history of the Labour Party’s 1980s wilderness years seems to presage a lot of their new wilderness years in the 21st century; the infighting and desperation, and the arguments over the soul of the party. Things Can Only Get Better sides solidly with the Blairites, because they brought Labour to power, even while acknowledging that Blair was pawning the soul of the party for victory. Obviously, written in 1997 and published in 1998, the decade that followed was something that O’Farrell couldn’t predict, from the Iraq War and erosion of public ownership of public services (such as health and education) to the huge expansion of gay rights and the strengthening of our relationship with Europe.
The biggest theme of O’Farrell’s book, though, is also the reason I’m posting this review out of sequence, the day before election day; as Things Can Only Get Better hammers home time again, it is vital to take part in democracy. It is vital to vote. Polls, time and again, are proved wrong in the book, because people don’t turn out, or because they lied to pollsters; a counsel of despair is a false counsel, because you, the voter, can take part, and O’Farrell has some very choice words for those who claim that both sides are the same:
Other people told me they were not voting because ‘they’re all the same’. As if the party of Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit and Nicholas Ridley was the same as the party of Neil Kinnock, John Prescott and Dennis Skinner. The idea that there’s no point in voting because ‘they’re all the same’ is just intellectually lazy. You don’t have to wholly endorse everything one particular candidate stands for, you just have to consider one person as preferable to the other. If all of them are completely unacceptable, then stand for election yourself. Nothing gets my hackles up more than people who should know better copping out of the political system because they think they are above it. (p215)
That quote also illustrates one of the great strengths of Things Can Only Get Better; O’Farrell, a writer for Have I Got News For You and Spitting Image, and occasional joke-polisher for then-Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, is funny. He’s angry, he’s passionate, he’s political, and all of that is interspersed with brilliant bon mots, and moments that undercut his moral severity; O’Farrell isn’t above poking fun at himself or at the foibles of the Labour Party, any more than he’s above making cracks at the expense of the Tories. Some of the things O’Farrell goes after are the easy, obvious targets, but he’s also willing to do the harder political lifting too.
In the end, Things Can Only Get Better is a paean to the importance of getting stuck in and persisting to create change; I look forward to O’Farrell’s sequel, Things Can Only Get Worse, to be released in September, bringing the story up to the current election. Now, go out and vote on Thursday, write O’Farrell’s last chapter for him… and let’s make it a hopeful, progressive one!