Intellectus Speculativus

Bookburners Season One, created by Max Gladstone

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Magic is real, and hungry. It’s trapped in ancient texts and artifacts, and only a few who discover it survive to fight back. Detective Sal Brooks is a survivor. She joins a Vatican-backed black-ops anti-magic squad — Team Three of the Societas Librorum Occultorum — and together they stand between humanity and the magical apocalypse. Some call them the Bookburners. They don’t like the label.


Supernatural meets The Da Vinci Code in a fast-paced, kickass character driven novel chock-full of magic, mystery, and mayhem, written collaboratively by a team of some of the best writers working in fantasy.
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I’ve been looking forward to this since Serial Box first announced the Bookburners project; as someone who struggles to read fiction in a non-paper form, it’s been a long wait for it to come out in a paper form, even though that is a 780-page monster hardback from Saga Press. The whole thing is both a fascinating experiment – serialised storytelling using the form of television, with a writers’ room, rather than more traditional ways of serialising? – and a brilliant concept, albeit one that is at first glance unoriginal (see, Warehouse 13, The Librarians, et al.)

Bookburners is, as with all Serial Box’s output, structured in the same way as a television series, and written with a televisual approach to plot: each novella has a “monster of the week” as well as tying into the overall arc of the season, and Gladstone even went so far as to include a mid-season finale in the structure. I’m going to review the season as a whole and pull out elements of specific episodes to comment on, rather than reviewing each episode individually, because that seems like the better approach given how I consumed the season (binging! It’s the culture-consumption mode of the modern world!)

As a season, then, Bookburners mostly works very well; it doesn’t up the stakes too much in any one episode, but makes clear the mounting challenges that the team are facing, and builds from an introduction to the world in the pilot episode to a really full and complete picture of it by mid-season, including looking at other countries’ approaches to the problem the Bookburners face. It feels like the relationships between the team members are explored and built quite naturally and effectively, and revelations about the strictures they work under and their pasts aren’t given freely – Sal, our doorway into the world, has to earn trust and thus gain this kind of access. Gladstone’s team deftly build in a lot of teasers for later events, suggesting that much of the season was storyboarded before the series began, but there’s a midseason pivot that seems to come out of left-field and rather fails to connect to events in the first half.

The structure of each episode feels very familiar from television series; Bookburners is not breaking any new structural ground. It opens with a pilot where Sal discovers magic is real and is sucked into the world of the Bookburners, followed by an episode where she goes on her first formal mission with the team and learns about them more; these episodes are well-written, and they work very well, drawing us into the world. Bookburners isn’t subtle about this approach; but it carries it off well, with the feeling of the fast-paced TV drama which Serial Box are trying to emulate in literary form.

The characters of Bookburners are a bit of a stereotypical lot. There’s Father Menchu, the liberation-theology minded priest who leads the team, driven by faith; Liam, the formerly-possessed tech geek, whose feelings about magic are complicated and very negative; there’s Asanti, the archivist and nominal team leader, who is essentially a research nerd who thinks researching magic would be better than just confining it; there’s Grace, a Chinese fighter who is supernaturally good at dealing with the supernatural threats the team faces; and there’s Sal, investigator and former cop. Each falls into the obvious role, which can be a rather dull and expected thing come the end; some moments are cliche, but well-written, which lets the writers broadly get away with it, and character development is eked out over the season, with the few sudden shifts precipitated by triggers, rather than coming out of the blue.

Finally, a word of warning. Although much of the volume is inoffensive (and unproblematic), there is a moment in Mur Lafferty’s second episode, ‘Under My Skin’, where a secondary character (not the monster of the week) is revealed as trans. The reactions of the cast are at best problematic, and the villain’s motivation is very much founded on the transness of the character; this reader, at least, found that rather a problem.

On the whole, though, Bookburners is a fun, fast-paced series; it’s structured well and does some interesting things with oft-trodden ground, and Gladstone and his team do an excellent job. A very enjoyable tome!

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin trans. Megan McDowell

Samanta Schweblin Fever Dream
A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.

Fever Dream is a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale. One of the freshest new voices to come out of the Spanish language and translated into English for the first time, Samanta Schweblin creates an aura of strange psychological menace and otherworldly reality in this absorbing, unsettling, taut novel.
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Fever Dream crossed my radar thanks to being longlisted for the Man Booker International and for the intriguing start of its blurb; that first sentence really grabbed me, the way a good blurb ought to, and made me wonder what followed.

What follows is aptly titled, something of a fever dream of a narrative. Schweblin’s novella is a punctuated stream of consciousness, somewhere between monologue and conversation, as Amanda talks to David, occasionally being focused or redirected by the child; Fever Dream is entirely dialogue, but with nested dialogue as well, as Amanda recalls what brought her to this hospital bed speaking to David. It’s a style that has its problems – there are no good stopping points, so these 150 pages are best read in a single sitting – but the pacing really drives the reader on through the story.

The story of Fever Dream is like much of the best supernatural fiction: unclear whether it is in fact supernatural at all. Schweblin slowly adds further elements of the supernatural, the strange, the weird to the narrative, inserting them one at a time, rather than building a world in which these things are normal; and all those possibly supernatural elements could be purely natural, depending on our interpretation of them, and of events – Schweblin’s narrator(s) don’t allow us to really find that out, especially as both are, in their own ways, unreliable. What starts as a simple holiday that ended in tragedy (we know, after all, that Amanda is deathly ill from the start) becomes increasingly strange and off-kilter, and even small details that seem perfectly normal have inflated significance – the reader’s role in Fever Dream is partly to decide which of those inflations are because of the unreliability of the narrators, and which are actually the world; but also to try to read between the lines and see what is unsaid.

Fever Dream‘s prose is dreamlike and strange; the interjections from David, and exchanges about the present, change how we react to what we just read about the past, and what we’re about to read. Credit here must also go to McDowell, who translates the prose in a way that feels naturalistic; I don’t know the Spanish version, but the English version has a fantastic flow to it, a really pull. Individual phrases recur and are used to increasing poignancy in the novella, as they take on extra layers of significance as they’re referred to in the past or come up time and again in the present; this deploying of repetition as a motif really makes the whole thing feel, again, rather disconnected from reality, in a positive and powerful way.

The setting of Fever Dream furthers this sense of disconnection; Schweblin separates out what’s happening from the rest of the world by very rarely referencing it, rarely referencing what’s happening or even what happened outside the tight geography of the immediate, nonspecific area of the novel. It’s an interesting technique; a little more specificity and detail might have been nice, but on the other hand, the everyplace setting also feeds into the unreal and dreamlike atmosphere of the story in its own way.

Fever Dream is a strong novella; it could perhaps do with being a little shorter or more easily paused, but that’s a small criticism of this strange, creepy experience that Schweblin has created and McDowell has excellently translated.

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Habibi by Craig Thompson

One a month, those sponsoring my Patreon at $5/post or more get to nominate, and then collectively choose, a work for me to review that month. Last month, they chose…
Habibi by Craig Thompson
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Sprawling across an epic landscape of deserts, harems, and modern industrial clutter, Habibi tells the tale of Dodola and Zam, refugee child slaves bound to each other by chance, by circumstance, and by the love that grows between them. We follow them as their lives unfold together and apart; as they struggle to make a place for themselves in a world (not unlike our own) fueled by fear, lust, and greed; and as they discover the extraordinary depth—and frailty—of their connection.

At once contemporary and timeless, Habibi gives us a love story of astounding resonance: a parable about our relationship to the natural world, the cultural divide between the first and third worlds, the common heritage of Christianity and Islam, and, most potently, the magic of storytelling.
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It’s well known that alongside science fiction and fantasy novels, I have a serious passion for graphic novels and comics; not just the superheroes that are the most recognised and public face of the genre, but a whole variety of the form of marriage of word and art. I suspect it is with this, as much as the content, in mind that my Patreon patrons asked me to review Craig Thompson’s giant magical-realist science fiction comic Habibi!

Before we go any further, for reasons that will become clear, I think it’s worth reminding you that I’m a white British Christian raised in a white, secular household with Jewish family and influences, so what I say should be read bearing that in mind.

The art, it is undeniable, is beautiful. Thompson has integrated Arabic calligraphy into Habibi stunningly, using it to transition, as panel borders, and as part of the story; the pseudo-abstract patterns he creates using the sentences, poems and words in Arabic throughout the book are stunning, and provide a beautiful backdrop for detailed, rich art throughout, that is more than a little reminiscent of Hergé’s Tintin work. Unfortunately, that extends to the approach to drawing ethnicity; Thompson has a tendency towards racial caricature, notably with his black and Arab characters, who really do embody the worst visual stereotypes he could possibly have come across.

That extends into the writing of Habibi. This is a story centred around a Muslim woman who is sold into marriage as a girl, enslaved, flees and becomes a sex worker (clearly marked in the story as shameful by Thompson), and then a courtesan of the Sultan; and her companion, a black fellow slave who she cares for as a son, who becomes a water trader, and then a eunuch, before being reunited with her. With the Middle Eastern setting of the story, then, we hit all kinds of negative and problematic tropes about Muslim and Arabic culture, actively reinforced by the author and narrative alike; Thompson isn’t interested in deconstructing these tropes, only reinforcing them. This isn’t a clever deconstruction of the idea of the sex worker as inevitably-raped, objectified, and somehow damaged, nor of the eunuch or other nonbinary presentation as damaged and distorted by childhood events; instead, it straightforwardly replicated both of these, in painful ways to read. Habibi also of course suggests that all (Arab) men fetishise and sexualise peripubescent girls and want to sleep with them; this is of course tabloid-fodder in the UK, and no more true of any ethnic or religious group than it is of any other.

The real disappointment is that wrapped in this shell is some fantastic writing. Habibi borrows the tale-within-a-tale approach of texts such as the 1,001 Nights; Dodola tells stories to Zam and to herself as a kind of survival mechanism and teaching tool. These include stories from the Quran, myths about Solomon, cautionary tales, and more; they play with the differences between the different Abrahamic texts and traditions; and they do some fascinating things with religious syncreticism. The setting is also, were it less steeped in racism, worthy of thought; in a post-abundance world, there’s a blend of magical realist and post-apocalyptic elements, which creates a strange kind of familiarity and distance with the work that has some interesting ideas wrapped into it.

In the end, Habibi is almost like two things put together; some beautiful art and narrative approaches with some fantastic worldbuilding, married to an awful lot of really racist, sexist, transphobic ideas.

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Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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A government special agent known only as the Signalman gets off a train on a stunningly hot morning in Winslow, Arizona. Later that day he meets a woman in a diner to exchange information about an event that happened a week earlier for which neither has an explanation, but which haunts the Signalman.

In a ranch house near the shore of the Salton Sea a cult leader gathers up the weak and susceptible — the Children of the Next Level — and offers them something to believe in and a chance for transcendence. The future is coming and they will help to usher it in.

A day after the events at the ranch house which disturbed the Signalman so deeply that he and his government sought out help from ‘other’ sources, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory abruptly loses contact with NASA’s interplanetary probe New Horizons. Something out beyond the orbit of Pluto has made contact.

And a woman floating outside of time looks to the future and the past for answers to what can save humanity.
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Tor.com, with books like Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone, Victor LaValle’s Ballad of Black Tom, and Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide, have made something of a name for themselves as a home of good modern-day Lovecraftiana. Caitlín R. Kiernan, acknowledged master of horror writing, should be a great fit, then, and Agents of Dreamland is her turn to approach the formula.

Agents of Dreamland is something of an odd beast. It is perhaps the most true to Lovecraft of any modern-day Lovecraftiana: there’s a sense of horror at the strange, at the unknown; a sense of utterly inevitable, inescapable doom; a sense of total pointlessness in human attempts to stave off the end. At the same time, it’s much more of an espionage story than you might expect from Lovecraftiana; it’s very much in the mode of actual spy story, rather than just utilising government agents, with covert operations, covers, and interlocking international departments (think Charlie Stross’ Laundry series, but not pastiche). That gives it a strange sensibility that Kiernan executes really well, an odd atmospheric element that really does have impressive power to it.

Kiernan’s characters are part of that. There are three main characters in the novella; the Signalman, who is brilliantly hardworn, too-old-for-this not in the way of Top Gun but in the way of a man utterly worn down and beaten; there is Immacolata Sexton, a strange, unsettling presence in Agents of Dreamland, something other than human but working alongside and appearing to be human; and there is Chloe Stringfellow, naive devotee of a Lovecraftian cult with more than a hint of Manson to it. Each character is given a bit of a backstory, although not much, but they’re very distinct in their feel; the eternal age of Immacolata, the weariness of the Signalman, and the youthful enthusiasm and cultish devotion of Chloe are drawn very strongly, and suffuse their chapters powerfully.

The problem with the plot is one revealed about halfway through; Immacolata isn’t anchored in time, and goes to future events, that are inevitable. Agents of Dreamland doesn’t suffer from knowing that death, failure, and the coming of the Old Ones are inevitable; instead it suffers from demystifying that, making it far less strange and far more War of the Worlds than the rest of the book had it. Kiernan takes away from the creeping, creepy horror of the book to make it almost a straightforward alien invasion, that really doesn’t carry quite the punch it could do, because it’s so… understandable.

The other problem with this book is that it doesn’t really engage with the problems of Lovecraft. While the works mentioned in the opening paragraph challenge Lovecraft on one, or multiple, grounds of his bigotries, Agents of Dreamland just ignores them; arguably, indeed, by making a drug addict the only cultist we really meet, reinforces his absolute fear of the poor. Kiernan could have taken on Lovecraft’s prejudices by giving us characters of colour, or queer characters, or immigrant characters, or any number of other alternatives; instead, while not replicating the messages his stories sent, she doesn’t even think to challenge them either.

In the end, though, Agents of Dreamland does what it sets out to do: it is fanastically creepy and strange, and Kiernan has written a really unsettling novella.

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Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman

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The year is 1850 and Great Britain is flourishing, thanks to the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. When a new mage is discovered, Royal Society elites descend like buzzards to snatch up a new apprentice. Talented mages are bought from their families at a tremendous price, while weak mages are snapped up for a pittance. For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Ben’s life and their own livelihoods.

But Benjamin Gunn isn’t a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect.

When she discovers a nefarious plot by the sinister Doctor Ledbetter, Charlotte must use all her cunning and guile to protect her family, her secret and her city.
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Emma Newman has, alongside running the Hugo Award nominated Tea and Jeopardy podcast, written a portal fantasy fairy story series (with really dark fae and a strong Shakespearean influence) and a science fiction career starting with the publication of Planetfall in 2015 and After Atlas last year; now, she’s also making a play for gaspunk.

Brother’s Ruin is an interesting little book; it’s got a couple of themes running through it, and Newman plays with each of them interestingly, and the way they intersect. It’s also a very quietly incredibly subversive book; putting the punk back into gaspunk, as it were, Newman uses the book to question the established order of the pseudoVictorian world she’s writing, and by unsubtle extension elements of our own world (the parallels between a noble class and the wealthy plutocrats is pretty clear, for instance). There’s also a wonderful theme of female independence despite men’s condescension running through the book; Brother’s Ruin is really about Charlotte Gunn, after all, who defies all manner of social convention, but only ever on the sly, and using her femininity and the expectations of others to get away with it.

Charlotte is in fact a fascinating character. In some ways, Newman has written an almost typical Austenian heroine; satisfied with her marriage to a man who will make her happy and financially secure, and not wanting to draw too much attention. However, Newman hasn’t let it be that simple; Brother’s Ruin consistently sees Charlotte bucking against convention and tradition, and pushing against the boundaries placed around her female existence, while also pushing against the class and wealth system that causes so much povery and misery. The rest of the cast are less well realised, although they do still have their interesting elements, from the sweet and slightly oblivious George to Charlotte’s own family, with their quirks, her mother ripped almost straight out of Pride and Prejudice (and then made middle-class).

The plot is perhaps the least satisfying thing about Brother’s Ruin, although not in a negative way. There are two plots which run, connectedly, in parallel; the attempt to get Ben into the Royal Society, and prove his abilities, with Charlotte’s help, and an attempt to deal with an extortionist lender with dark connections pressuring Charlotte’s father. The first is relatively resolved in the book, and Newman has some nice touches of explanation in there without it feeling like we’re being infodumped at; people have misapprehensions corrected, or are given propaganda in both directions, leaving the reader to make up their own minds. The other plot strand is wrapped up in the specific but leads to a much larger plot, resolved unsatisfactorily but with good reason, and one that allows Newman further social critique in the book itself; there’s a very unsubtle lead in to future books in the series.

Brother’s Ruin isn’t going anything new, but it is doing some old things much better than they are generally seen of late: not since The Difference Engine have I read a steampunk book that so actively goes out of its way to deconstruct Victorian class values and by very clear extension critique modern society too. I look forward to seeing what else Newman plans to do with the series.

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The Brittle Star by Davina Langdale

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When his mother’s ranch is attacked, sixteen-year-old John Evert is wounded and left to die. But John Evert is no ordinary young man. He’s a frontiersman’s son, a rancher who’s lived his whole life in the untamed Southern California wilderness of 1860.

In a journey that will take him from the bustling young city of Los Angeles to Texas to Missouri and back, to the front lines of the American Civil War and home again, John Evert will learn the cost of vengeance and the price of forgiveness.
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After reading Days Without End, something of a palate freshener was required; hence, Langdale’s The Brittle Star, another modern Western, although in this case without the queerness.

Brittle Star, like Days Without End, is an essentially American novel – about the Old West, about the Civil War, about being an outlaw, running from the law, and eventually having a reckoning with it, about belonging; and like Barry’s book, it’s by a non-American writer, in this case the British Davina Langford. However, unlike Barry, Langdale doesn’t write Brittle Star as ‘Murcan; instead, she peppers the book with a light dose of Americana, giving it the feel of a traditional Western, using the language of the Western (including Spanish loan words), and the third person prose has a style that really evokes its events and summons up a feel of the Old West and Western films.

Brittle Star is centred on relationships. Not sexual ones; instead, the familial – and pseudo-familial – relationships of John Evert Burn, first his mother, then his surrogate father, then his found family. Langdale writes with a deep sympathy and empathy about these relationships and makes them really believable; none come immediately and without work, but all are developed over time, and their full extent and nature slowly laid out across the course of the book. The various character relationships are beautifully laid out and developed, and only work because Langdale gets the reader to care about every character; however awful they may later be revealed to be, we care about them, and that cannot be changed by retrospective re-examination.

The plot is a relatively simple, linear one; Brittle Star isn’t doing anything particularly new or interesting there, and indeed, Langdale’s approach to the plot might even be a little flawed. While the novel does follow a linear progression of events that feel like a progression, they also feel, and in some cases are, rather episodic; we see an extended period of time, and then a jump, and another extended period, and what happens in those jumps, or what happens between moments, feels rather empty and undeveloped, as if Langdale simply had no interest in portraying it.

That takes a certain something away from what otherwise flows beautifully in the novel; Brittle Star is really well paced on a chapter and a sentence level, matching its style to its moment really powerfully, such that there are beautiful, long flowing sections describing nature and travel, but Langdale changes style completely when it comes to her more action-centred moments, with really punchy sentences blasting away, and the emotional beats timed well to hit in the middle of either of change up the pace, throw the reader into a new mood. It’s a stylistic quirk that feels rather cinematic: in the middle of the battle, the slow shot of the friend dying, rendered into prose, works to the same powerful effect, while somehow feeling a little less manipulative, in part because the connection to the characters is stronger than in most films.

One thing worth noting is that some descriptions of Brittle Star have suggested that it’s a book about racism. It’s not even really a book about a white person overcoming their racism; Langdale instead writes about John’s racism, which springs from a traumatic event, and how it casts a blight over many relationships in his life, and over his interactions with other people. She also focuses on how he can make exceptions for individuals as he gets to know them, and from them start to generalise out; I can’t speak for how well the narrative works from the perspective of a Native American, the focus of his racism, but Langdale certainly does not condone his bigotry, and indeed the characters around him do not either, and he challenges other bigotries of others (such as towards African Americans). The real problem with the discussion of racism is how simplistic it is; Langdale doesn’t cover societal attitudes, or subconscious prejudices, leading to a rather flat caricature of the complex realities of bigoty.

In the end, The Brittle Star is a rather good Western in the modern mode, evoking the wide open plains and the feel of the period, and with fantastic characters; but Langdale’s attempts to cover such a broad time period hurts the cohesiveness of the novel somewhat, and her discussion of racism is, at times, a little tin-eared.

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The Problematic Presentation of Gender in Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning

TRIGGER WARNINGS for discussion of ciscentricity, allocentricity, intersexism, and gender essentialism, and for quoted anti-trans and anti-intersex slurs apply to the following essay, as well as SPOILER WARNINGS.

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Too Like the Lightning has been feted and critically acclaimed, and now nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I read it back when it first came out, after hearing about how well it supposedly handled queerness, and especially gender in the context of queerness, from a number of people whose opinions on the topic I usually respect; I did not agree with these assessments. I’ve been asked a number of times to discuss more fully my issues with the presentation of gender in the novel, so, with the Hugo Awards now open for voting, it seems like this might be the moment, to let voters see what this particular genderqueer person thought of the presentation of gender in the book. For context, I’m a bisexual nonbinary person and my pronoun is they.

It’s worth establishing some baseline elements. Supposedly, the world of Too Like The Lightning is a post-gender world; “gender, we were supposed to be past that too”1 the narrator says of the world. This is somewhat undermined by the way other characters occasionally make reference to biological sex2, and by the way sex is referred to as being “neutered egalitarian copulation” when done outside of the gender binary3. This is also evident in titles; the frontispiece of the book references “His Majesty Isabel Carlos II of Spain”4, and another character is given the title “Princess”5. We can therefore see that this supposed post-gender world is no such thing, but that gender is apparently not something normally discussed – Mycroft, the narrator, says to the reader that “you must forgive my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s, my ‘he’s and ‘she’s”6 on the very first page of actual prose we encounter, as opposed to what appears to be the societal norm of using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.

Mycroft is, then, instantly established as breaking the societal norms by their use of gendered pronouns; indeed, on multiple occasions, Mycroft directly addresses the reader on the matter of using them, and tends to justify it in the most distressingly binarist and allocentric of terms, very early in the text, for instance saying that gendered pronouns “remind you [that is, the putative future reader] of their sexes” and that “gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors [that is, us, the reader] as it is to us”, despite the putative reader Mycroft addresses protesting that their “distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place”7. Indeed, Mycroft states that the singular they is the product a “prudish” era, and a “neutered”7 (in this case, meaning unsexual, desexualised) pronoun. Another character states that “sex is in everything… If you don’t believe that, you need to get laid”8; thus we see binarism and allocentricity as apparently common beliefs.

The text, however, cannot support the weight of Mycroft’s reasoning in the way it uses gender; most egregiously, in the fact that the Mukta, the prototype of a fleet of vehicles that is now planetwide, is gendered as female9, and in the gendering of a hypothetical person used in a simile10. Beyond that, however, children are gendered; rather than referring to Bridger as a child, Mycroft refers to them as a boy11. There’s also the repeated turn of phrase, “a day on which men had honoured their Creator in ages past”12; none of these examples can be seen to be referencing sex, except that of Bridger, and if that’s meant to be sexual, that’s a strange comment on Mycroft and Palmer both.

The exceptional case in which Mycroft as narrator does, however, use ‘they’ is of characters whose gender they are unable to guess; particularly of Utopians, because of their manner of dress13. Mycroft also briefly uses they of Eureka, whose status as a set-set means they’ve never been exposed to the outside world, and whose nerves are all rewired as input modes; but very rapidly, Mycroft in narration switches to using she, for no clear reason14.

The most interesting, and problematic, case of how Mycroft refers to a character in this particular book is the case of Dominic Seneschal, who presents as aggressively male, although is explicitly described as having “breasts beneath that taut waistcoat, that the thighs and pelvis which the coat’s high cut displays are very much a woman’s”15; Mycroft refers to them as “the woman… is the boldest and most masculine of men”16, and uses the pronoun he for them throughout the text. So far, this would seem to simply be Mycroft following the gender preferences of the character; however, Mycroft puts the term “she-man”17 into the mouth of the putative reader about Dominic. If the term is unfamiliar to you, perhaps a close analogue, ‘shemale’, might not be; it is a slur against trans women, which has no place without serious critique of the term going on around it and the user being very explicitly called out for its use18.

The way Mycroft’s gendering works is consistently unclear; the narration suggests that Cousins should always be pronouned with she because of their caring role, “maternal heart[s]” and “flowing robes”19. Carlyle, however, because of genitalia, is referred to as he, something which you’ll note does not constrain the way Mycroft refers to characters such as Dominic; there’s a confusion of whether genitalia or role plays the centre of how Mycroft chooses pronouns, perhaps most pronounced when Mycroft genders Chagatai as female:

With Chagatai, however, your guess [that is, the guess of the putative future reader as to why Mycroft genders Chagatai female] is wrong. It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes. I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood berserks them. That strength wins her ‘she’.20

The way that passage assigns gender to Chagatai is based on the stereotypical image of the mother, something that follows for a lot of the way characters gendered as female are portrayed.

This is a consistent problem with the way Mycroft approaches femininity. The first time this appears is in a reference to “practiced femininity”21, something which ought to have no meaning in this supposedly post-gender world. However, this “practiced femininity” is apparently incredibly and inherently sexual, and makes others think of sex, something against which Mycroft states they have no defence. A later discussion of a different character talks about a “display of ‘wife'”22; this is part of a series of pages describing a conversation with Danaë, who is described as acting and appearing in incredibly gendered ways, and builds up to “the husband wrenching the kimono back to bare the honey-wet vagina”23. This section is apparently why Mycroft feels they have to gender all the characters in the narration; because of the way Danaë uses a particular idea of femininity as a weapon.

Now, so far, almost all discussion has been about how Palmer’s choice of narrator has gendered characters, albeit with one exception noted above2. But the problem extends beyond Mycroft. Two chapters are narrated by another character, Martin Guildbreaker, who uses they as the pronoun of choice in them24; however, in discussing the vital statistics of interviewees in their chapters, Martin marks gender in one case (a character Mycroft has not encountered), but not in the other (a character Mycroft has gendered as male)25. A later example is the way two characters gender Carlyle Foster, gendered by Mycroft as male, as female in a discussion, until Carlyle is mentioned as having a penis, at which point both characters switch to using the pronoun ‘they’26; if the point of the pronoun were the transgressive reference to sex and gender, surely it should be consistent or change to he?

Perhaps the strangest example is that of the animated toy soldiers brought to life. They are brought to life with “attitudes of hundreds of years ago when those ancient toy soldiers were made; one of those attitudes Mycroft explicitly mentions in this description is “They use ‘he’ and ‘she'”27. However, in the actual quoted dialogue of the toy soldiers, the only pronoun we ever hear them use is they28; however, they are gendered by other characters, as Thisbe refers to the Major as “he”29, strangely.

The single most problematic portrayal in this book is one that reveals issues with the whole society of Too Like The Lightning, and that spills over and becomes worse in the sequel, Seven Surrenders, revolving around Sniper. In the first book, Sniper is pronouned as he, but Sniper is “tantalisingly androgynous” and “Sniper’s publicity team has worked so hard to keep the public from learning the androgyne’s true sex”30. Indeed, the genital configuration of Sniper is such a mystery to the public that it is something to be discovered by the media31, and a sibling of Sniper’s refers to something being “a public mystery to rival what’s in Cardie’s [that is, Sniper’s] pants”32. Indeed, dolls are made of Sniper for people to play with, including as sex toys; these final category of dolls come as “fully anatomical Sniper-XX and Sniper-XY models”33, suggesting that either Palmer or the world, or both, believe that chromosomes only come in these configurations, and define an exclusively binary set of genitalia, neither assertion of which is true. All this revolves around a character who is, in book two, revealed to be intersex; at this point the narration ceases to use the pronoun he and switches to the pronoun it to refer to Sniper34. If you are unaware, it as a pronoun refers to objects and sometimes animals; but people, adults, are not generally referred to as it, and it is incredibly offensive to almost all intersex people to pronoun them as it, with the exception of those few who reclaim it as their own pronoun, knowing how controversial it is.

All of these choices reflect worldbuilding choices Ada Palmer made, and arguably, they could be justified as being part of the world Palmer chose to build. But there are no constraints on Palmer’s choice of worldbuilding; she could have, instead, built a truly genderless world. She could have built a world where Sniper’s being intersex, Carlyle’s penis and Dominic’s gender identity have no relevance whatsoever; where there truly is not gender or sex differentiation in society, only biologically. Instead she built one which claims to have this while significantly undercutting it; that’s an authorial choice, and one that led to her book punching me in the face35 repeatedly. Insofar as it is related to her choice of narrator in Mycroft, there are a number of other characters who could relate the story; but Palmer chose to give us Mycroft, who forces gendering on us because it’s part of an Enlightenment style they adopt. However, it is notable that the Oxford English Dictionary, in talking about the usage of “they”, makes reference to historical use of the singular they in the Sixteenth Century; and one of the most prominent writers in English of the period, Jane Austen, used the singular they across her body of writing36. The style Palmer is having Mycroft emulate has no constraint against the use of the singular they.

In sum, this book has severe issues with ciscentrism, allocentrism, intersexism, and gender binarism and essentialism. Palmer cannot justify this by saying her hand was forced; she chose this set-up for the book, she chose how to present gender, she chose to have other characters reinforce Mycroft’s assertions about sex and gender, and she chose the whole frame in which the discussion in the book takes place. Too Like The Lightning isn’t progressive or doing interesting things with gender: it is painful, regressive, and I’m going to be ranking it below No Award in the Hugo voting. You, of course, should do as your conscience dictates.

Edited to add links to some others’ interesting, differing opinions on the approach to gender in Too Like the Lightning:

Yoon Ha Lee

Cheryl Morgan

Please note all page numbers refer to the pagination of the 2016 first printing first edition hardback published by Tor Books. Many thanks to my paid sensitivity reader for this essay, who asked to remain anonymous.
1. Page 337
2. Eg Thisbe questioning Mycroft on Mycroft using male pronouns in conversation about a character with breasts, page 248
3. Page 322
4. Page 5, frontispiece in the style of an Enlightenment-period printed book
5. Page 48
6. Page 13
7. All references to page 27. Note also that “neutered” is a term many intersex and trans people regard as a slur, per this poll.
8. Page 331
9. Page 35
10. Page 43
11. Page 24
12. First encountered on page 14, but repeated multiple times through the book, always using ‘men’
13. Page 361, although note that earlier Mycroft has gendered Utopians based on an unknown and unclear metric, pp156-7
14. Page 57-8
15. Page 89
16. Page 90
17. Page 94
18. See Wiki for more on the term ‘Shemale’
19. Page 70; see also page 269, where Cousins’ wraps are referred to as “dresslike” and feminine – although this femininity seems to derive as much from them being worn by Cousins as anything else, with a certain circularity
20. Page 237
21. Page 30
22. Page 48
23. Page 50
24. Page 163-174, 339-349
25. Martin describes Tsuneo Sugiyama as female on page 165 in giving their vital statistics, whereas their recitation of the vital statistics of Cato Weeksbooth does not give a sex or gender
26. Page 368-9
27. Page 66
28. See for instance the dialogue of the soldiers on page 19, where they consistently use they
29. Page 26
30. Both page 138
31. Page 143
32. Page 299
33. Page 139
34. This happens on page 98-9 of Seven Surrenders, according to Marissa Lingen, who discussed the presentation a little more here
35. For an explanation of the term “punching in the face”, see this blog post by Ann Leckie
36. The Oxford Dictionary, and specific references to the singular they in Jane Austen’s corpus

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