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Aliette de Bodard on Motherhood and Erasure

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Back when The House of Binding Thorns came out last year, Aliette de Bodard wrote a guest post for this blog about the treatment of pregnant people and the trope of dead mothers in science fiction. Now that In the Vanishers’ Palace, a brilliant queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a science fictional universe and with mothers playing key roles in the plot, has come out, she’s back here with a follow up…

On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures

I’d expected motherhood to impact my life, because of course having young people in the household and being responsible for them will bring about huge changes.

I hadn’t expected it to make me so keenly aware of erasure in media and stories.

To put it bluntly, mothers are just not there [1]. While pregnancy is either monstrous or sacred, either body horror or the delivery of the chosen child, motherhood is defined by its absence. We aren’t characters: we are people-shaped holes. We are empty spaces or hollowed-out characters, whose sole purpose–when the story bothers to give us one–is to erase ourselves for the sake of our children.

By far the most obvious hole is that left by death: our books and media are littered with the death of mothers of main characters. Star-Lord’s mother in Guardians of the Galaxy, Elizabeth Swann’s mother in Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones’s mother in The Last Crusade–the list is endless. The death can be at birth, can be off-stage, can be in the story, but it’s always either a minor inconvenience, something so far ago that it’s never even mentioned, or mined for a main character’s pain (and said character is almost always a cis man). We talk a lot about the fridging of women characters (and rightfully so): whenever a mother walks on stage I brace myself for the slamming of the refrigerator door, for it seems that we belong there permanently, our corpses there to serve, at best, as pleasant memories or motivations for our children. Nothing quite becomes us in life as our leaving it.

But there are other deaths. There are the mothers not mentioned and not named, as if they were utterly trivial (Belle’s mother is never mentioned in the original Beauty and the Beast; Arwen’s mother is similarly not mentioned in the Lord of the Rings movies [2], Killmonger’s father in the otherwise excellent Black Panther gets plenty of screen time, his mother doesn’t even rate one explanation). And then there are mothers who fail to have a story other than caring for their children, whose entire personality and motivations are subsumed in the act of motherhood (Lady Jessica in Dune, Frigga in the Thor franchise, who actually manages to both fail to have a plotline unrelated to her two kids and to be fridged in the second Thor movie).

One of the ways in which is this utterly toxic, in addition to killing off the actual characters, is that this devalues the work done by mothers by making it seem invisible and unnecessary: we seldom see the tremendous amount of work that goes into raising children (because dead mothers are usually replaced with indifferent, absent or abusive authority figures rather than warm adoptive parents [3]). And when works that centre complex, thoughtfully depicted motherhood are written, they are dismissed as of no importance, over-centred on boring relationships and over-concerned with trivial matters.

Whenever I bring dead mothers up, I generally get two explanations: the first is the natural occurrence of death in childbirth, and the second one is that this is a convenience, for how could a hero (especially but not only teenagers) go off on adventures with their mothers alive?

Let’s get the first one out of the way first: yes, death in childbirth was a major cause of death… in the past. But so were the deaths of children (a quick reminder that in 1800 more than 40% of children would die before seeing their fifth year[4]), and popular media has way more dead mothers than dead infants (or people dying from typhus or cholera or a myriad ways lives were cut short, historically speaking). To say it otherwise: we are being awfully selective, as a culture, about which historical truths we’re choosing to perpetuate. Not to mention the fact that in we’re in SFF and that historical accuracy isn’t the best justification when we’re dealing with stories that have dragons and fairies and spaceships in them.

The second one… the second one is part of an underlying fallacy that I’m sympathetic to: the idea that mothers can protect their children against everything. I understand the desire and where it stems from, but the truth is that this is an impossibility. There are things far too large for parents to protect their children from (failure to protect a child against the consequences of war isn’t a parental failure, and it’s victim-blaming of the highest order to pretend that it is); and even if I could materially protect my children from events… the reality is that I cannot keep them forever safe, and nor should I. Part of parenting (and especially motherhood) is the art of gracefully letting go: of accepting that my children will have their own lives and their own challenges to face, and that such challenges, no matter how I may wish otherwise, will be dangerous. And yes, some of this will happen before they are ready, but our children cannot and will not always be ready for everything in spite of every one of our efforts.

The other underlying fallacy is that mothers and adventures are incompatible, which is a terrible thing to assume on two fronts: the first, that mothers themselves cannot have adventures (see above for my objections: obviously motherhood is an important thing in mothers’ lives, but mothers’ lives cannot and should not be reduced to the importance of their children). The second is the fallacy that it is impossible for families to have adventures together: that any children’s adventures (I use “children” here as the opposite of parents rather than as an age category) have to be exclusive of parental presence. It is a very particular perception, coming from a society with socialization greatly stratified by age as well as strong individualism, which makes us see adventures with parents or older people (or, for that matter, parental presence in our lives [5]) as undesirable rather than commonplace occurrences.

There are exceptions to these rules, and I treasure them all: Jackie and Rose Tyler in Doctor Who, the numerous mothers in Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince trilogy, Jess and her mother (and her four sisters) in Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives trilogy, Tralane Huntingore and her daughters in Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels, Essun and her daughter in NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Consort Jing in Nirvana in Fire, Mme de Morcerf in Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, Queen Talyien in KS Villoso’s Wolf of Oren-Yaro, Anyanwu in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Cordelia Naismith in Barrayar, Lillian in Victor LaValle’s The Changeling

In my own fiction, I made a deliberate choice to have mothers as characters, and to have them with their own vastly different stories. My latest book, In the Vanishers’ Palace, is a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they are both women, and the Beast is a dragon… except that Yên, my impoverished scholar and Beauty analogue, has a mother who is the village healer, who is very much present and important in Yên’s life; and Vu Côn, the shapeshifting dragon who is Beast analogue, is herself a mother to two teenage children, who are both an important part but not the main thrust of Vu Côn’s own life or story. I wanted to make a not very subtle point that mothers are their own characters: Yên’s own mother is crucial to Yên’s view of the world, but she also very much has her own outlook and her own life: she is the village healer and aims to remain that way, unlike Yên who only dreams of escape. And meanwhile, Vu Côn is certainly struggling with two over-inquisitive dragon children on the cusp of adulthood, but the main thrust of her own story is her relationship with Yên (she takes Yên as payment for a debt, and finds herself attracted to her–knowing that she cannot act on that attraction because she’s Yên’s mistress and there is no consent between master and servant).

I think of this, and of the mothers in my other stories and books, as necessary work: as my own brick in the wall to make sure that mothers aren’t erased, that the holes we have become in the fabric of stories are instead filled with genuine, complex and rich characters instead of faceless, nameless and unimportant cyphers. Some days I worry that my stories are such small stones in a universe full of such holes, but then I remember that every wall is built brick by brick, and that not everything can go up as fast as I’d like. I remember that we have to try–that we all have to try, because how can we do otherwise?

[1] Throughout this blog post, I’ll be making a deliberate gendered distinction, because the set of expectations is vastly different between cis mothers and fathers. People who don’t fall in either of these categories (trans, non-binary people, and other marginalised genders and sexes) are even more at risk of erasure, othering, demonization, etc.
[2] I’m talking about the movies here: in the books Arwen’s mother is Cerebrían, who passes into the West prior to Arwen’s meeting with Aragorn following torture at the hands of Orcs (which is again erasure but of a different kind).
[3] The idea that adoptive parents and adoptive families in general are trumped by blood relations, no matter how much love they might have poured into raising children, is another hugely problematic one.
[4] Source: https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality
[5] Some parents are terrible, abusive and should be excluded from lives: I’m not saying parental presence should be the norm or that all parents are loving–simply that their absence cannot and should not be the only narration that exists.

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Buy In the Vanisher’s Palace from the evil empire Amazon.co.uk here. Buy Aliette’s other books from Waterstones here.

What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

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A childless woman resorts to forbidden magic in her quest for a baby. A widow boils with rage at the grudging welcome her daughters receive in her sister’s home. In a devastated, not too distant future, a ‘grief worker’ discovers a miraculous ability to remove emotional pain – at a price.

The characters in What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky are men and women who want things that remain impossible or out of reach. What unites them is the toughness of lives where opportunities are scant, and fortunes can change faster than the flick of a switch.

Conjuring worlds at once familiar and unsettlingly different, What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky showcases the work of a writer of startling promise at the beginning of an exciting literary career.
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I’m not much of a literary fiction reader, as regular followers of this blog will have noticed; however, sometimes, an author crosses my path with enough force and weight behind them from both genre and literary communities that I have to pick them up. Lesley Nneka Arimah is one such author, and her debut collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, seemed like the place to start…

The collection opens with a real firecracker of a story, ‘The Future Looks Good’. The title is a definite misdirect; the story looks at the history of lives that have led to the moment that Bibi is in, the expectations and relationships of her predecessors that went into producing her and the moment she occupies. Arimah beautifully builds misdirects into these histories, and writes with a fascinating grace; which lends the unexpected punch of the last line an incredible power, which makes ‘The Future Looks Good’ take on a very different shape.

‘War Stories’ is more typical of the collection, a slightly longer story, and again a story that is as much about stories as anything else. The focus on parental and familial relationships, and the way the past shapes the present, are again powerfully brought to the fore. This story suffers a bit from not knowing quite where it is going, however; Arimah doesn’t really end it, but instead just stops the narrative, either just before or just after its natural conclusion, leading to a kind of dissatisfaction with what had gone before.

‘Wild’ is a story of immigrant experiences and parallel lives; the lies people tell each other and believe of each other form a key part of this third story. The way Arimah builds up and knocks down expectations is very effective, and her deployment of female friendship and rivalry incredibly powerful. The way that mothers treat their daughters is the central theme, and it is very well conveyed. However, this is another story that drifts to a close; while the last line is powerful, it isn’t an ending, and it feels rather as if Arimah wrote towards that line but didn’t quite know how to use it to wrap up the story.

‘Light’ is less a story than a character study; Arimah looks forward and backwards through the life of a girl and her father, who is parenting her alone while his wife studies in the United States of America. It’s a powerful, moving story about the risks of parenting, about the difficulties of relationships at a distance, and about the struggles to bring up a child in a world that is hostile to them. The circular structure of the story works incredibly well, and the slight unhinging from time is very effective in really giving us a fantastic look across a life.

‘Second Chances’ is less effective, although the central conceit is arguably more so; a mother returned from the dead. This is a plot we’ve read before – it’s almost Orphic in its resonance, and Arimah’s treatment of the conceit definitely has a strong scent of that about it. The way Arimah draws the discontented relationship of one daughter with her mother against the rest of the family feels a little strained; it’s almost excessively differentiated, and the story as a whole feels a little drawn out, although the punch of the end is very powerful.

‘Windfalls’ is one of the least effective stories. Arimah’s use of the second person feels strained, and the lack of focus is a little wearying. It is once again the story of a difficult relationship between mother and daughter, but the way Arimah tells it, we really don’t care about the mother, who comes across incredibly two dimensionally; unusually, the characterisation here is incredibly weak, and the end of the story is spectacularly predictable almost from its start.

‘Who Will Greet You At Home’, one the other hand, is a very effective use of a twist on the common metaphors around making babies from various materials. Arimah’s mingling of a number of fantastical elements is very effective, none of them themselves the focus of the story but rather lens through which to approach human relationships. The way she treats the metaphor she’s using for childbearing is at once very unsubtle and very effective, with a glorious commitment to some of the darkest extensions of the idea. The end of the story is a brilliant close, with a call back right to the beginning that is a clear hallmark of Arimah’s best stories.

‘Buchi’s Girls’ is the exception to that rule. This story is the only one of those about mothers and daughters which centres the mother over the children; her concern for her offspring, and her attempts to give them a good life, are the focus of the story. Arimah never loses sight of the central relationships and the possibility of betrayal in the story, and the layered accidental woundings characters give others never fail to have consequences and all feel horribly real, right up to the open ending.

The titular story of the collection, ‘What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky’, is perhaps the most fantastical, combining sin eaters, a post-climate apocalypse future, and an equation that allows for magical abilities into one narrative. It is also one of the weaker stories; Arimah has gotten a lot of concepts in, but a number of them feel underdeveloped and underexplored, leading to a world which doesn’t quite make sense. The whole narrative is drawn out, and while the foreshadowing of the end is very effective, Arimah has failed to really make the story connect to the reader enough for the ending itself to work.

‘Glory’ is one of the most frustrating stories in the collection, because it just doesn’t work very well. Arimah’s story of Glorybetogod, a woman who always makes the wrong choices, feels somehow off; it doesn’t really have a heart, it feels like a story written because its author had the concept but didn’t really have any characters. Everyone in the story is an archetype, and feels very thin, as do all the relationships; there isn’t really anything to get emotionally hooked into.

‘What Is A Volcano?’ is, from a different angle, almost equally frustrating. A just-so story of the origins of vulcanism, it is also a mythic story of warring gods; but it never really feels like it takes its concepts seriously, and every time a critique of some of the key parts of the tale start to appear, Arimah skips over them and moves on, never engaging. There are hooks to a much more interesting story which problematises its assumptions scattered throughout, but they’re never picked up on, which makes this just another mythic story that doesn’t really do anything.

Finally, ‘Redemption’ closes out the collection with a return to realism. This is a powerful an effective story in many ways, with its themes of rape culture, classism, and the shared reality and oppression of women, but the lack of emotional connection between any of the characters is frustratingly distancing. Arimah emphasises repeatedly the way the narrator creates fictional emotional connections, but meanwhile, the narrator is too flat for us to even connect with her; thus, we fail to have any connection to the story, although the ending retains a lot of power despite that.

What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky is a strong collection in terms of ideas, and Arimah clearly has the ability to write beginnings and middles; but a lot of the stories simply drift off, rather than ending, and there are too many missed emotional connections to call this the masterwork it is being described as. The best stories are brilliant, but there simply aren’t enough of that quality in here.

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

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In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
~~~~~
Brooke Bolander’s work has garnished any number of nominations, including multiple Locus, Hugo, and Nebula awards, among others. The Only Harmless Great Thing is her first solo volume; a slim novella out of Tor.com, it’s already picked up a lot of interesting buzz and an excellent marketing campaign… but does the novella bear out the speculation?

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a very odd book; it marries together alternate history with a science fictional future, in two parallel narratives, with a third, folkloric deep-history narrative running alongside those two. Bolander’s choices of narratives are not pleasant ones. The Only Harmless Great Thing is the story of an elephant, Topsy, brought with a little alternate history into the story of Regan, a Radium Girl. In Bolander’s world, elephants are discovered to have language and a degree of sentience in the 1880s, and so when the effects of radium were discovered, US Radium brought elephants in to paint the watches – one of whom is Topsy. In a parallel narrative, much later, Kat is trying to persuade elephants to allow humans to make them glow near nuclear waste dumps as a lasting warning about the presence of radiation, as a ten-thousand-year warning sign.

Bolander slips between the different narratives, registers, and narrators of The Only Harmless Great Thing with a skillful grace and ease that ties the whole thing together; the voices are very distinct, and that helps to distinguish between the stories as we slip between them. At times, it can be a little confusing for a few lines, but on the whole which narrative Bolander has the reader in rapidly becomes clear. The alternate and future histories are intertwined seamlessly with reality, and on the whole their revelation is well done; there are moments Bolander relies on knowledge that she hasn’t given the audience yet, but they’re few and far between.

This is a sparsely characterised novella; The Only Harmless Great Thing has a grand total of nine characters, which includes two pachyderms, one character who only speaks once and that through a post-mortem letter, an interpreter, a supervisor, an academic, a corporate executive, and a bitter Radium Girl. Of these, three are at various times viewpoint characters, and the rest appear only briefly; Bolander doesn’t make their characters much more than the flat necessities for the advancement of the plot, but her three core characters, those whose viewpoints we follow, are far better realised.

Each has a very unique voice and thought process, from the slangy dialect of Regan through to the mythopoetic style of thought of Topsy and the straightforwardly modern Kat. The Only Harmless Great Thing does a fantastic job of showing how Topsy’s and Regan’s lives parallel each other and how their struggles with forces outside and larger than themselves change them. There is a strong streak of radical politics on display in the work, and a class anger, that Bolander infuses with a kind of bleak despair at the state of the treatment of the working classes and of nature; and the way she uses that and filters it through her characters is incredibly powerful. The problem is Kat; Bolander’s treatment of her is uneven, and her character veers sharply between profoundly empathetic and profoundly disconnected, growing from one to the other and back again, and without any real sense of who she is as a person outside the project she proposed.

Finally, and almost without characters, is the deep-history myth-narrative that runs alongside these two core narratives. Bolander tells this in something akin to the style of a Just So story; and her style for these sections is absolutely beautiful and perfect, and the story itself is dark, moving, and painful. The Only Harmless Great Thing takes this extra piece of the jigsaw and moves, suddenly, from a two dimensional to a three dimensional puzzle, a complex narrative of interlocking parts with multiple messages; it’s only at the end that the relevance of this story becomes obvious to the others, in a very neat bit of writing.

The Only Harmless Great Thing isn’t a perfect novella, but it is a fantastic one; Bolander’s continues to go from strange, dark strength to dark, strange strength, and this continues that trend.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC provided on request by the publisher, Tor.com.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt

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The shady crew of the White Raven run freight and salvage at the fringes of our solar system. They discover the wreck of a centuries-old exploration vessel floating light years away from its intended destination and revive its sole occupant, who wakes with news of First Alien Contact. When the crew break it to her that humanity has alien allies already, she reveals that these are very different extra-terrestrials… and the gifts they bestowed on her could kill all humanity, or take it out to the most distant stars.
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Angry Robot Books send me semi-regular packages of books they think I might like; one arrived, purely by coincidence I presume, on my birthday, and included Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars. It took a few weeks to get around to reading it, but I ended up in the mood for an interesting space opera, and there it was…

The Wrong Stars is, perhaps above all else, fun. This isn’t space opera as serious or po-faced; one crew member is named purely so Pratt can get in a few different pop culture references and running jokes across the course of the novel, after all. There are fast-paced action scenes, ridiculously strange aliens with a brilliantly twisted and hilarious approach to first contact with humanity, and wise-cracking crew members. The majority of the book is written in quite a breezy style, even where there are relatively heavy discussions going on, and even the action scenes have a certain humourous quality to them.

That lightness of touch means that when Pratt does get heavy, The Wrong Stars doesn’t feel like a book about issues of slavery or colonialism, even though at its heart are questions about that. The heavier discussions are introduced slowly through the book, which engages increasingly seriously with heavy issues as it goes on, to the point where there are some horrendously dark sections towards the end of the novel that would feel, had there not been the slow build up, completely at odds with the opening of the book, which was open horror but not this kind of evil. Pratt balances things carefully, and the humour never goes out of the book, but the heaviness is also not undercut by a willingness to include humour.

In many ways, The Wrong Stars shares a lot of structural similarities to Bioware’s wonderful Mass Effect games. Pratt’s approach to characterisation is the strongest overlap here. The whole cast of The Wrong Stars would not be out of place on board the SSV Normandy; they’re wise-cracking, curious, daring, and intelligent. Different crew members have radically different outlooks on life; we have traumatised survivors of alien medical procedures, in the form of Drake and Janice, who are treated sensitively and intelligently, and who Pratt doesn’t use as the butt of any humour (although Janice’s dark cynicism and misanthropy are a source of a lot. The captain, Carrie, is a bold, decisive character with a troubled history and a strong sense of loyalty; and Elena’s unabashed sexuality make a pleasing contrast here, their budding relationship being one of the highlights of the book.

Indeed, the queerness of The Wrong Stars is refreshing to behold. Carrie and Elena are both bisexual, Carrie also self-identifying as demisexual; Janice is asexual, and explicitly this was the case before her trauma; Uzoma is nonbinary, using they pronouns, and touch-averse; and one other character is, at the close of the book, casually and in passing revealed to be a binary trans woman. None of these are a big deal; in Pratt’s future, queerness just is, not a source of angst (although romance can be, in the general minefield of interpersonal relationships way of things).

At times, the book can get a bit wearing, however. The Wrong Stars really could have resolved its romantic tension far faster, although it isn’t left simmering unresolved too long; the urge to bash characters’ heads, or other bits, together grates somewhat. Similarly, the humour and lightness of the banter at times feels a touch too uniform; Pratt’s dialogue is good, but Carrie, Lantern and Elena aside, the characters’ voices tend to blur together, in the same way Joss Whedon’s characters often do, and with the same register and tone.

I did enjoy The Wrong Stars, though, and Tim Pratt’s first space opera is a very enjoyable ride; especially if you’re a fan of Mass Effect!

Disclaimer: This review was based on an unsolicited final copy of the novel sent to me by the publisher, Angry Robot Books.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Lightless by C. A. Higgins

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Serving aboard the Ananke, an experimental military spacecraft launched by the ruthless organization that rules Earth and its solar system, computer scientist Althea has established an intense emotional bond—not with any of her crewmates, but with the ship’s electronic systems, which speak more deeply to her analytical mind than human feelings do. But when a pair of fugitive terrorists gain access to the Ananke, Althea must draw upon her heart and soul for the strength to defend her beloved ship.

While one of the saboteurs remains at large somewhere on board, his captured partner — the enigmatic Ivan — may prove to be more dangerous. The perversely fascinating criminal whose silver tongue is his most effective weapon has long evaded the authorities’ most relentless surveillance—and kept the truth about his methods and motives well hidden.

As the ship’s systems begin to malfunction and the claustrophobic atmosphere is increasingly poisoned by distrust and suspicion, it falls to Althea to penetrate the prisoner’s layers of intrigue and deception before all is lost. But when the true nature of Ivan’s mission is exposed, it will change Althea forever—if it doesn’t kill her first.
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Lightless has been on my shelves for at least a year, and in my awareness for even longer, ever since I heard about it as a potentially interesting space opera; finally, this first book in Higgins’ series made it to the top of the TBR when I was looking for an interesting science fiction novel…

The premise of Lightless is an unusual one; the story is told from the perspective of two people, Althea, an engineer loyal to the System and with what seems to be some kind of autism, and from her arrival, Ida Stays, a sociopathic agent of the System’s law enforcement. Ida’s perspective is rather flat and uninteresting on the whole, simply giving us an evil agent of an evil dystopia, with only her personal ambition as a motive; it’s useful for background and exposition, as well as an interesting position to take in the interrogations of Ivan, but as a character she’s utterly unsympathisable with and something of a caricature.

Althea, on the other hand, has her own frustrations. Lightless is set in a world with a repressive dystopian System of governance that includes constant universal surveillance. Althea seems aware of how dystopian it is (the extreme methods used to suppress dissent, and her nerves about being watched, for instance); but at the same time she seems perfectly happy with and loyal to the System itself. This cognitive dissonance is never explored, and works as a strange faultline down the middle of her character. Similarly, her hyperfocus on her work and inability to communicate well with fellow crewmates seems to come and go; at times she is written as being to some extent autistic, and at others, completely neurotypical, with some strangely inconsistent characterisation.

The rest of the cast of Lightless is small; Ivan, our criminal, is meant to be incredibly charismatic, but never shows that charisma in any meaningful way, and people listen to him not because of anything shown in his character but because the plot demands it to work. Domitian, the captain of the Ananke, is a frustrating character because he doesn’t really have a character; he’s just utterly swayed by the events of the moment to a degree that is spectacular. Finally, Gagnon is a kind of comic relief for the most part; he’s an interesting character whose friendship with Althea is absolutely beautifully written, but at times it just falls apart, again for reasons of Plot.

Given all this, Lightless really hangs together on the plot. Higgins gives us a rather minimalist structure; Gale and Ivan break into the Ananke, are captured, Gale escapes and does something to the ship’s computer, Ivan remains in captivity and is interrogated by Ida, as things become more tense and Something is clearly coming. There should be a sense of claustrophobia, but that’s not the kind of book Higgins has written; instead, it’s a fast-paced con novel, with stories inside stories and layers of deception everywhere. This is where the novel comes in to its own; very little action with very high stakes are pulled off fantastically, and the emotional intensity comes across powerfully, despite the flaws of the characters themselves. The final plot twists are relatively obvious, although one reveal was unexpected but well seeded, and Lightless doesn’t have many curveball surprises, but the tenseness is kept up through to the last quarter and works powerfully effectively.

In the end, I read Lightless in the space of a few concentrated hours, and enjoyed it while reading it, even while I was deeply frustrated with the inconsistency of the characterisation; Higgins writes tension exceptionally well, I just wish there was a little more to this novel.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Barbary Station by R. E. Stearns

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Two engineers hijack a spaceship to join some space pirates — only to discover the pirates are hiding from a malevolent AI. Now they have to outwit the AI if they want to join the pirate crew — and survive long enough to enjoy it.

Adda and Iridian are newly minted engineers, but aren’t able to find any work in a solar system ruined by economic collapse after an interplanetary war. Desperate for employment, they hijack a colony ship and plan to join a famed pirate crew living in luxury at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space.

But when they arrive there, nothing is as expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury — they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system has gone mad, trying to kill all station residents and shooting down any ship that attempts to leave — so there’s no way out.
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I’ve been excited for this one ever since Navah Wolfe first started talking about it, describing it as “lesbian women of color space pirates vs a murderous AI” on Twitter. I’ve been waiting since then with bated breath to get my hands on Stearns’ debut, and Barbary Station is finally here!

Barbary Station is primarily a fun novel about swashbuckling pirates, even with the darker concerns at its heart. The whole book is focused on a rather simple premise, of a kind perhaps familiar to players of Portal: the need to use intelligence and brute force in combination to escape a murderous situation in which the clock is ticking down to inevitable death. Stearns plays with the concept a little by expanding the group who need rescuing – not just the protagonist, or her and her lover, but a whole merc group cum pirate crew and a group of refugees trapped on the space station too.

The writing is, on the whole, the breeziness that this kind of plot needs; Barbary Station is tense and dramatic, but those things meant to raise the stakes don’t land with quite the emotional force Stearns needed. While no one is safe, and child death is used on multiple occasions as an emblem of ruthlessness on the part of those opposing our protagonists, these deaths are little felt, in part because we don’t tend to know the characters well; even to the rest of the cast, they feel passing, as the impacts wear off too quickly. The action scenes are where Stearns is at her best; fast-paced and slightly chaotic, they don’t feel choreographed, and that makes those parts of Barbary Station the best by a distance.

Stearns’ other strength is the relationship between three of her characters, the two viewpoint protagonists and one secondary; that is, Iridian, Adda, and Adda’s brother Pel. Barbary Station is told in alternating chapters from the viewpoint of Adda and Iridian, and their love is touching and beautifully written; the way each is deeply concerned with the safety of others and knows their own, and each other’s, strengths is movingly told. They are the central star around which the other orbits, and Stearns gets that emotional payload across without it feeling forced or meaningless. Barbary Station‘s only other emotional weight is that between Adda and Iridian, as newcomers to the station, and Pel, Adda’s brother but who brought them to the station with promises of wealth; it’s a well written developing relationship that really does help to ground everything.

Unfortunately, the relationships within the rest of the crew, and between crew and Adda and Iridian, are much less solid. Barbary Station tends towards light characterisation, and lightly worn emotion; things that should have extremely heavy emotional impact might have that briefly, but then it rapidly wears off – just as Stearns has physical impacts surprisingly rapidly vanish from the characters. This gives a sense of superficiality to the book; nothing particularly matters to the characters for long, and where Stearns is trying to invest us in them, that really falls down.

A final problem for Barbary Station is how contrived it becomes as the action ramps up to the climax. Stearns introduces not only multiple additional vectors of problems, but also a whole new faction, to the station as she brings things to their head; the split in reader attention is frustrating and the attempt to heighten all the stakes at once actually just serves to undercut all the stakes before, as if Stearns hadn’t felt like there was any danger until this moment so had to add more. Barbary Station comes to a head less with a bang than a bit of a chaotic whimper, sadly.

In the end, I’m judging Barbary Station by the wrong standards, though. Stearns doesn’t appear to be writing high literature; she’s writing a fun, swashbuckling novel, with action and (well-written lesbians). On that front, at least, she unequivocally succeeds; just don’t look too deep.

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An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

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Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remains of her world.

Aster lives in the lowdeck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer, Aster learns there may be a way to improve her lot—if she’s willing to sow the seeds of civil war.
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When a book comes with a blurb from a thriller-writing sensation like Lee Child, and a stellar review from the wonderful Amal El-Mohtar, that’s already a fascinating pitch to me. When the author is themselves an agender person, and writing about queer characters? Well, finally, An Unkindness of Ghosts came out, and I got a copy…

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a generation ship novel, and in many ways, partakes of the standard tropes of that subgenre of science fiction novel; including a dystopian social structure evolved over the generations, myths of a long-ago Earth, and something going wrong that means the journey is, apparently, to those on the ship, now endless. Solomon’s innovations are on the more specific, than the abstract, level; what they do with these tropes is where their genius comes in, how they execute this standard model.

The key influence in the worldbuilding of An Unkindness of Ghosts is plantation slavery as practiced in the United States of America. Solomon has taken that social model and transposed it, almost without alteration, to a spaceship, the HSS Matilda. The way the whole social life of the ship works is based on slavery and racism, and Solomon doesn’t shy away from the brutality of plantation slavery; the opulence of the white rich is contrasted sharply with the abject poverty and abuse of the black slave-classes.

Regular, gendered violence is part of An Unkindness of Ghosts, something Solomon’s characters recognise as both appalling and inevitable (Aster, our protagonist, takes daily precautions to reduce the physical harm rape would do; but the characters are scarred and hurt by their experiences). Similarly, racist language and thought permeates An Unkindness of Ghosts, the way it permeates a good novel about the 19th century Southern United States of America: presented and represented as part of life, as something to be struggled with, but also absolutely unacceptable and wrong.

One of the joys of the novel is how queer Solomon has made it. Aster, our main viewpoint character in An Unkindness of Ghosts, is intersex and bisexual; it’s not one of the defining features of her character. More key to her character is that she is what we would refer to as autistic, and that is portrayed beautifully and sensitively by Solomon; they don’t go in for stereotypes, like making Aster unfeeling or unempathetic, but think about what lies under behaviours such as an apparent lack of sense of humour or excessive literalism. Aint Melusine, who brought Aster up, is asexual and aromantic; the chapter from her viewpoint is absolutely beautiful, and while centring her asexuality also expands on things like her feelings about being a nanny for the white upper classes of the ship. Theo, the Surgeon, is trans and possibly homosexual; he doesn’t seem wholly clear himself about his gender, but clearly he feels uncomfortable with the cis male role he is socially forced in to as part of the ship’s heirarchy. And so on; there are various queer characters in the novel, and Solomon portrays them honestly and humanly, as imperfect and not defined by their queerness.

An Unkindness of Ghosts faces them with a homophobic, queerphobic society, driven by a twisted set of religious beliefs very recognisable as evangelical Christianity with a pinch more Calvinism thrown in for good measure. Solomon, in their unflinching look at prejudice, doesn’t have much interest in showing the caring face the prejudiced man shows to those he believes his equal; instead, they are solely focused on the impacts of prejudice on those who suffer it, and the novel is stronger for that focus. As a result, the white characters tend to be less fully fleshed out than the black ones, but also rather more infrequent and minor, too; and it’s a refreshing change to not be asked to empathise with the enforcers of an appalling social order.

An Unkindness of Ghosts isn’t solely an exploration of the brutality of plantation life, of racism, of queerphobia; it’s also a novel about curiosity and discovery. Aster’s story is about learning, and about finding out what underlies much of the ship; each discovery leads her further into future discoveries, and Solomon makes them all link beautifully. Each discovery also brings her further into conflict with the heirarchy of the ship, and Solomon doesn’t flinch from inflicting tragedy on both Aster and the reader as a result; the raising stakes are deftly done, and darkly honest. This gives the climax of the novel incredible power; it is a perfect culmination for both the plot of the novel and its emotional stakes, while being very open for the reader to imagine what comes next.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is one of those novels that just changes what the reader thinks of as possible with the genre it partakes of, by proving just how much excellence is possible; it’s also a brutal, powerful, gut-wrenching read. This is Rivers Solomon’s debut, so where they go next, and how they find space to level up, is anyone’s guess…!

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