Review: Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead

Content Warning: Discussion of mental health issues, misogyny, and gender dysphoria.

Absorbed is an unsettling book. More importantly, it is an unsettled book. Kylie Whitehead’s strange and memorable debut feints at many things; millennial ennui, ghost story, folk horror, even time travel. But at its core is a painful and richly detailed study of the anxieties of embodiment. The novel trades heavily on ambiguity and estrangement, capturing the feverish, self-reflexive energy of being in your 20s as the millennium reaches its own far more powerfully than the Rooneys and Waller-Bridges of the world. It’s an intriguing story which consumes and complicates all potential interpretations, subsuming them into a greater and more uncanny whole.

Allison and Owen have been together for ten years. She’s a council worker who gave up on her half-serious dreams of being a writer years ago. He’s a moderately successful freelance designer who’s on his way up in the world. Owen is the most important thing in Allison’s life, yet at the same time she resents him, disliking his colleagues and on some level wanting to be him. When the two attend a New Year’s Eve party at his hip workspace, Allison finds herself desperately thinking “Please don’t leave me.” And sure enough, he doesn’t. When the two return to their hotel room and start having sex, Allison absorbs him:

“I was grinding onto him, pressing my face into his, when I began to feel that I was sinking. It is finally happening, I remember thinking, we are becoming one. I wasn’t scared, but Owen was.”

This is the novel’s central conceit, and it remains pleasingly unexplained even as it perseverates over the rest of its length. Post-absorption, Allison finds herself taking on some of Owen’s characteristics, feeling kinder towards the people he liked, planning to leave the job he had always told her to quit. Yet while Owen is inside Allison, he is also outside her. Objects begin moving around their once-shared flat of their own accord, and Allison’s narration begins to hint at something more supernatural: “For the first time in my life, I possessed love. I was possessed by love.”

We also learn more about Allison’s own history, and her disturbing and occluded origins. Allison was adopted at the age of three, after her birth parents were arrested over allegations of satanic rituals and child abuse at the day-care centre they ran. Allison’s adopted mother assures her that “there was no evidence,” but Allison obsessively reads old tabloid coverage of the affair, simultaneously indulging and disavowing their lurid speculations. She wonders if she might really be cursed, if her birth parents’ fate has anything to do with her absorption of Owen. These suspicions develop with the intervention of her new flatmate Odile, an older woman who self-identifies as “essentially a Dianic Wiccan” and performs an occult ritual to release Owen. But the ritual goes wrong (or right?) as Allison begins absorbing more people in the build-up to the novel’s convulsive and ambiguous ending.

Absorbed is a lurchingly ambitious novel, simultaneously intimate and sprawling. But Allison’s inner monologue is Whitehead’s finest achievement. Parts of the book have the wry, self-reflexive coolness characteristic of much writing about The Millennial Experience, yet always with a tangible sense of desperation amid the apathy. While Allison notes that she “always tried to think of my life anecdotally” she points out that this “typically made me realise how little of my daily life was worth sharing.” The book’s early chapters are a distressing and skilful depiction of toxic co-dependence, as Allison self-harms in response to repeated break-ups with Owen. At one point the two visit an art gallery:

“I felt dizzy and my tears blurred the art. All around me sculptures leered, laughing at me. They too knew that I would lose Owen to something he found altogether more beautiful than me. How would he still be able to love me if he found out that I could not see beauty in anything but him?”

The book is a disturbing portrait of self-loathing, which many readers will recognise aspects of their own lives in. But it is never so banal as to be relatable. The central conceit points to many pressing issues facing today’s young (and not-so-young). The absorption (or, to use Allison’s more symbolically freighted term, “consumption”) of Owen points simultaneously to the parasitic nature of romantic love, the effects of gendered power imbalances on relationships, and the harms that can arise from internal narratives about the ones we love. Allison’s distrust and alienation from her own body also suggests a wider political alienation. Allison mentions that while working at the council, “I learned that there was a simple solution to homelessness, and that it just never happened.” It’s a feeling familiar to many young people faced with intractable social and economic problems, which regulate and control our bodies through equally occult if less squidgy processes.

More viscerally, Allison’s body horror connects with feminist discourses about inhabiting a female body in a misogynist society. As her number of absorbees increases, Allison begins to suspect she may be pregnant, and receives mixed and condescending messages from every male medical professional she interacts with. These scenes effectively dramatise the pain and frustration of navigating a sexist medical establishment, and are made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that the doctors clearly don’t trust Allison, and not entirely because she may be a literal demon.

On top of this, there is a definite queerness to Allison’s development. Her obsession with simultaneously having and being Owen invokes a kind of gender dysphoria, and her second victim, Owen’s colleague Helena, is perceived with an obsessive sexual awakening: “I didn’t know if I wanted her to fuck me or mother me; if I wanted to give her everything or take everything that she had.” When the absorption arrives, it is with a real tenderness, and a curious kind of eroticism:

“I absorbed Helena in one smooth movement. It wasn’t like sinking this time. It felt like my body was stepping into another soul. Unlike Owen, Helena was not afraid. She gave herself to me fully, as only a woman can, I suppose.”

That this process is later described as a “transition” adds to the appealingly messy nature of the metaphor. Whitehead allows the book to hover anxiously between all these potential readings, never tipping into rote allegory or easy categorisation, just as Allison never quite settles on an appropriate course of action or way of thinking about her situation, all certainties dissolving with the identities of her victims.

And this, at bottom, is the pleasure of Absorbed. It’s a novel as weird and disordered, as indecisive and beautiful as being a young person in the heart of the anthropocene. It deserves to become a classic of this moment in literature, and should be sought out by anyone seeking the darker unrealities behind the current craze for millennial dysfunction. A tour de force.

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Review: We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker is one of the most exciting writers in science fiction today. Her short fiction — including such titles as ‘Our Lady Of The Open Road,’ ‘Left The Century To Sit Unmoved,’ and ‘And Then There Were N-One’ — blends clever and often fantastical conceits with a deep humanity. Grounded without being cynical, clever without being smug, Pinsker has long since established herself as an important voice in the contemporary US scene. Having won her second Nebula Award for 2019’s accidental coronavirus novel A Song For A New Day, Pinsker’s second novel, We Are Satellites, comes with high expectations. Those expectations are largely met by this thoughtful and engaging book, even if doesn’t quite have the sparkle of some of Pinsker’s previous work.

The novel opens with high school teacher Val noticing a strange blue light on the heads of two students. Soon everyone seems to have the new Pilot device, an implant which allows users to “get more out of their brains,” with the power to concentrate on multiple tasks at once. Val is sceptical, but soon both her son David and her wife Julie have Pilots installed, leaving Val and their epileptic daughter Sophie, ineligible for medical reasons, without the device. The novel tracks the family over roughly a decade; David joins the military and then returns to become a PR rep for the Pilot’s manufacturer, Balkenhol Neural Labs, while Sophie finishes high school and becomes an activist agitating against the company. The narrative is split into three parts, with time jumps enabling Pinsker to show the development of the Pilots from modish fad to smartphone-esque ubiquity. The division of this family of four into those with and without Pilots effectively dramatises “the great divide” of the novel’s imagined future.

And divided it is. The Pilot, being a piece of productivity tech implanted directly into the user’s brain, is a way into multiple pressing subjects. The debate around medical devices, the modern workplace need to be constantly optimising, the accessibility of life-changing surgery, all are present and accounted for. Despite initially being adopted by the rich, the novel is less interested in the Pilots as markers of wealth inequality. We learn that: “There wasn’t even a rich-poor divide since the company covered them for kids unable to afford the procedure; the divide was between approved brains and unapproved brains and degrees of acceptable neurodiversity.” Among the many important questions raised by its subject matter, We Are Satellites is most interested in the dynamics of ableism, and how systems react to those who present an inconvenience.

When David’s Pilot is installed, his senses become swamped by overwhelming detail, described by David as “noise.” He struggles to articulate his sensory overload to his family or to doctors, and when he tries he isn’t taken seriously:

“‘Well, it’s… the best way I can describe it is noise. It’s, like, everything from outside is coming inside at once, but then it’s all fuzzy around the edges, too, like I’m supposed to be paying attention to certain things, but each of those things has sub-things that want attention. Like petting a dog and becoming aware you’re petting every single individual hair, and every flea. And also it’s snowing, so there’s snow on the dog, and every single snowflake is different and wants to show me how different it is.’


‘“Whoa” isn’t a thing you want a doctor to say.'”

David’s experience mirrors that of some neurodivergent people, and is explicitly compared to sensory processing disorder. Pinsker’s prose recreates this sense of dislocation, with overwhelming run-on sentences which struggle into staccato impressions as David attempts to focus. But the doctor’s dismissal is the more pressing concern, both for David and for the book as a whole. As the Pilot makes David’s life harder and harder, his attempts to get it seen to and eventually removed are hindered at every turn, by disbelief and by medical gatekeeping. These are among the novel’s best scenes, as David meets with bad medical practice he nonetheless has no power to counteract. The novel is co-dedicated to “everyone who has ever been disbelieved about their own health,” and these sections resonate powerfully with that particular mixture of frustration, pain, and impotence.

But while the story effectively conveys the tensions thrown up by this new technology, there are some weaknesses in its overall construction. Our four viewpoint characters are all personable and compelling, but there are times where their perspectives start to blur together, particularly in group scenes. There’s a subplot about a spy at Sophie’s activist group that’s far too easy to guess, amounting to a whodunnit with only one suspect. And the book’s pacing suffers from a final third or so in which multiple dramatic events land awkwardly on top of one another.

More broadly, while the novel engages with a number of important social issues, there is an odd parochialism to it. Writing for Locus Magazine, Paul Di Filippo argues that We Are Satellites‘close focus on its central family means “the reader must be prepared for a more microcosmic portrayal of the themes… than might be given in a typical SF novel, where we could eavesdrop on corporate suites, scientists, generals, and other movers and shakers.” The novel’s status as a family saga may rule out a globetrotting conspiracy thriller, but even in that context there is a weird narrowness to its politics. Julie works for a Congressman, but beyond the fact that “She’d never lost any sleep over working for him” we never learn any of his policies or even what party he represents. David spends part of the book as a soldier in active combat, but we never learn where he is or anything about the war he’s fighting. He does notice an enemy combatant with a blue Pilot light, but the Pilots’ impact on countries outside the US is otherwise absent from the novel.

Even the book’s ending, in which David runs for office with the backing of his family to “get answers” from Balkenhol, feels just a little too neat. The novel is savvy enough to not present David’s candidacy as a final victory for the forces of progress. But its focus on electoral politics feels odd given the rightful distrust in institutions David grapples with elsewhere, and its disinterest in wider context is downright baffling for a story about political activism.

But for all its occasionally irritating liberalism, We Are Satellites is an effective and satisfying science fiction novel. Its characters are well-rounded, its scenarios crisply realised, and its moral quandaries compelling. Another draft or two may have smoothed out some of the book’s rougher edges, but the bottom line is that this is another solid win for Sarah Pinsker, which further cements her place as a major talent.

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Review: Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders has always subverted expectations. Whether by showing a space revolution going off the rails, creating a genie who is also a theatre critic, or simply writing the sentence “Would Samuel Johnson have let himself feel trapped in a dead-end relationship?” Anders’ work has consistently managed to surprise. Until, that is, her latest novel. Victories Greater Than Death, the first in a new trilogy of young adult space operas, offers a fun and page-turning romp, but does little else with itself. Which, coming from Anders, is admittedly something of a surprise. And while it’s impossible to actively dislike, Victories Greater Than Death does not offer much beyond a serviceable space adventure.

Our protagonist is Tina Mains, a seemingly ordinary Earth girl with an extraordinary secret. She is the clone of intrepid space captain Thaoh Argentian, technologically reincarnated after a fatal battle with would-be dictator Marrant. Once she comes of age, the space beacon implanted in her body activates, and after a quick chase sequence with hostile aliens she is inducted into the Royal Fleet. But when the process to restore her previous self’s memories goes awry, she joins the fleet as a lowly cadet, and must forge her own path while fighting in the war against Marrant’s fascist gang, the Compassion. Joining her is her best friend from Earth, Rachael, and a gang of fellow gifted young human outcasts. Together they learn about the wonders of the universe, the power of good teamwork, and the importance of being yourself, as they search for a powerful artefact and try to stop the bad guys from carrying out a galactic genocide.

So yes, the plot is fairly conventional, but with some welcome updates on old standards. The core team of Earth kids is pointedly multiracial, and the universe they explore is decidedly LGBT-friendly. Everyone in the Royal Fleet introduces themselves along with their pronouns (apart from those aliens who don’t use pronouns at all). Tina herself is diligent about bodily autonomy, never hugging anyone without their consent, and Rachael has an entire subplot about how it feels to be neurodivergent in space. This inclusiveness is an unambiguous good, and many of the book’s positive reviews highlight how refreshing it is to see LGBT people as the heroes of this kind of frothy adventure story, rather than an afterthought.

But as a frothy adventure story, Victories Greater Than Death has its structural problems. There is an almost Chibnallesque profusion of bit players, few of whom are developed enough for their spectacular deaths to have much impact. Even the core Earth team feels underserved; while Tina, Rachael, and Tina’s love interest Elza feel warm and three-dimensional, the others are often reduced to gimmicks. Physics genius Keziah gets a subplot about his aversion to violence which is conveyed almost entirely in rote exposition before becoming a minor component of the final battle. Several other subplots feel underdeveloped, and the book has some overall pacing issues. The characters don’t leave Earth’s orbit until page 110, and once they are out in space the book feels curiously uninterested in its alien planets.

The most frustrating moment is chapter 23. Our heroes land on an alien planet, are captured by the locals, learn about their culture, are brought before their rulers, and propose a clever solution to the planet’s big social/engineering problem… only for chapter 24 to begin on another planet entirely. This elides the potentially interesting drama of the setting, subordinating the lively Star Trek-style exploration to a rather dull fetch quest. It’s a shame, as the alien society, “based on a dozen kinds of sharing,” in which “The more types of stuff you share, the closer your bond becomes” deserves far more than the five pages it ultimately gets.

But for all the book’s disappointments, there are some interesting things going on. The galaxy-wide civilisation has a clever backstory, which makes diegetic an uncomfortable subtext of much space opera. Every alien in the Royal Fleet is humanoid, with non-humanoid species less advanced and often openly resentful of the Fleet. We learn that this is the handiwork of an ancient species known as the Shapers, which perverted the course of evolution to benefit humanoids at the expense of non-humanoids.

“‘Sometimes, those ancient explorers found intelligent creatures who weren’t human-shaped — with too many limbs, or claws instead of hands, or slimy round bodies. And they did everything they could to hurt those creatures. They dropped a whole planetoid onto what appears to have been a lively civilization of creatures with nine tentacles. And they triggered an ice age, to destroy a species of giant worms who had constructed huge cities full of beautiful artworks.’

Vaap’s voice drips with disgust. ‘This… project went on for hundreds of thousands of years, and it shaped the galaxy we live in today. It’s the reason why so many of us humanoid species are so powerful. And why anyone who doesn’t have two arms and two legs is still struggling to catch up.'”

This allows Anders to play explicitly with something that is usually implicit in franchise science fiction, and lends a pseudo-mystical ‘justification’ to Marrant’s fascistic dreams of purity, in a thoughtful parallel with real-life fascist mythologies.

Marrant himself is a fairly generic villain, but he has one pleasantly sadistic trick up his sleeve. He kills his enemies with a device called the death touch, which not only liquidises his victims but causes the people who knew them in life to despise them. This psychic attack is cleverly conceived and vividly rendered:

“‘We have to get back to the orbital funnel,’ Uiuiuiui wheezes, clutching his side. ‘We’re lucky nobody was killed.’

‘Except for Vaap and Iyiiguol.’ Even saying their names makes me nauseous. I shouldn’t waste my breath.

‘Yeah. That was no loss,’ Uiuiuiui says. Then he hears what he’s saying, and stops. His face-tubes sag.

‘Damn,’ I say. ‘I can remember that I used to like Vaap and Iyiiguol. I thought of them as friends, even. But now? When I think of them, all I can think is that they were garbage.’

‘I told you before,’ Bildub says. ‘Marrant’s touch does that. You can’t mourn the dead, or celebrate their lives with the godparents. You can only despise them.’

‘He doesn’t just kill people,’ Uiuiuiui says. ‘He tarnishes them.'”

This ingenious device creates a delicious tension in scenes with Marrant, and elevates him above his dead-wife-and-dreams-of-conquest origin.

Beyond these enchantingly nasty details, Tina is a personable and charming narrator. At times her voice comes close to the culture-savvy whimsy of All The Birds In The Sky, such as when she recaps an English lesson about Chekhov’s gun and says “you can’t just use a gun as a paperweight. Why? I don’t know. Dude had a thing about guns,” or when she delivers an action movie one-liner and adds internally: “Yeah, I made a quip. Sue me.” But she also shows a degree of vulnerability, befitting her youth and inexperience. One of the novel’s best scenes comes when she starts singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to cheer up her friends, only to start crying herself. Her romance with Elza is sweet and well-structured, with the two unsure of what they want for most of the novel before getting together towards the end, the penultimate chapter building to a delightfully weird detail about interspecies romance.

But by the final chapter, which ends on a sequel tease of the most banal sort, the story’s generic aspects still outweigh the fresh ones. Victories Greater Than Death is undeniably a fun novel, and it’s hard to begrudge a younger readership such a bright and agreeable introduction to literary science fiction. For everyone else though, Victories Greater Than Death is the first skippable Charlie Jane Anders novel. 

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Review: Alexei Sayle’s The Absence of Normal, Series 2

Few careers fascinate me as much as Alexei Sayle’s. While one should always be suspicious about showbiz CVs, I defy anyone to read the ‘About Me’ page on Alexei Sayle’s charmingly outdated website and not come away with their head spinning. The obvious things are all present and correct; The Comic Strip, The Young Ones, his stand-up work. But somewhere between his top 20 single and his appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (described with the single word “Movie”), you begin to have a new appreciation of the breadth of his work. And somewhere between his appearance in the infamous disaster Carry On Columbus (“As long as I live I’ll never undestand [sic] why I agreed to be in this terrible movie”) and his part in the landmark lesbian drama Tipping The Velvet, you frankly begin to suspect he isn’t real. Sayle is that rare thing in the British media; an artist who pushes himself, tackling new genres, styles, and topics with a gleeful inventiveness.

But my own favourites among Sayle’s heterogeneous output are his two short story collections, 2000’s Barcelona Plates and 2001’s The Dog Catcher. By Sayle’s own admission, the first book was a response to his own uncertainty:

“I was feeling a little lost. I wanted to move on from comedy but didn’t know where to go. When Barcelona Plates was published to such critical acclaim… and wonderful sales figures I felt like I’d come home and fell in love with the book industry in a way I’d never done with light entertainment. Like a middle aged man going all gooey over his second wife.”

Both collections reflect Sayle’s dissatisfaction and hunger, in good and bad ways. Showbiz satires abound, most memorably in the story ‘My Life’s Work,’ about a comedy writer so ground down by industry bullshit that a life-threatening car crash comes as a relief:

“With skill, dedication and hard work the surgeons dragged me back from the edge of death.

The cunts.”

As good a punchline as that is, the sense of a writer taking out their frustrations with the idiot executives can wear a little thin. More interesting are Sayle’s blackly comic stories on wider political and cultural topics. ‘Lose Weight, Ask Me How’ is another dark monologue in which cannibalism is presented as a sort of fad diet; ‘A Cure For Death’ is a Marxist science fiction story whose twist ending sees some rich bastard ascend to heaven while everyone else is trapped in eternal banality.

But the crown jewels of Sayle’s short fiction are undoubtedly ‘The Last Woman Killed In The War’ and ‘The Only Man Stalin Was Afraid Of’. The former is the story of a Liverpudlian exile returning to her parents’ estate after decades of estrangement, the latter a black comedy about the Soviet dictator’s psychiatrist. Both stories balance a global scale with a savage individuality, portraying the brutality of restrictive communities and perverse ideologies, and the ways they follow from wider historical events. They are also very, very funny. In the final scene of ‘The Last Woman Killed In The War,’ the protagonist runs into Stanley Park:

“She came to the boating lake, once it had bobbed with colourful rowing boats but when the Militant had been running Liverpool the genial old men who ran the lake had shown insufficient knowledge of Trotsky’s disagreements with Stalin over the theory of Socialism in one country so they’d drained the lake and made the old men care assistants in a halfway house for lesbian crack users. Now it was a muddy bowl.”

‘The Only Man Stalin Was Afraid Of,’ meanwhile, outlines its central conflict like this:

“It thus came to Novgerod Mandelstim that if he was somehow to cure Stalin then the murder would immediately begin again. Normally he knew that the patient’s wellbeing was supposed to be the only concern of the psychiatric practitioner, but he felt he was beyond hiding behind such spineless evasions. Nothing was normal in the Soviet Union. No, he concluded: every second that Stalin remained ill, others remained well; therefore it was his duty as a human being, though perhaps not as a psychiatrist, to actually strive to make his patient worse! God knows enough of his colleagues had managed to do this without trying.”

The dryness of the language, its deadpan descriptions of conflicts and atrocities, is akin to much British comic fiction. But the insistence on political context, clearly informed by Sayle’s Marxist background, gives the jokes a real potency, enhancing the personal nature of the characters’ dilemmas rather than distracting from them.

Both stories were shoo-ins for the first series of Alexei Sayle’s The Absence of Normal, a set of half-hour radio versions of his short stories, adapted by Graham Duff and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in 2019. They were joined by ‘Banner Bright,’ about a group of students amid the ’68 protests, and ‘The Minister For Death,’ about a geriatric assassin working for communist militants. The first series was slick, confident, and uniformly well-acted (with Peter Capaldi as the neurotic Stalin a particular highlight). The general reception was positive, although little actual press coverage is easily findable, and Sayle joked at the time that “there will be subsequent series of The Absence of Normal, no matter how it goes down.” Yet the joke belies a fundamental issue for the second series of The Absence of Normal, which ran on Radio 4 from the 10th to the 31st of March 2021. Having burned through the obvious classics, what to adapt next?

Clive Hole
To which the first episode presents one rather distressing answer: the dregs. The original ‘Clive Hole’ is not one of Sayle’s better stories. The tale of a TV commissioner incapable of making a decision, and a pair of hapless TV writers trying to get their kitschy crime drama commissioned, it has a decent line in absurd humour, but the basic premise is very media-centric and painfully 2001. The joking reference to “the small and neglected part of TV centre where programmes were sometimes made” was probably a cutting reference then, but since publication the number of studios in use by the BBC there has more than halved, to the point where a media satire which treats Television Centre as an unassailable temple of British media feels out of step.

And sure enough, the 2021 play feels curiously anachronistic. A few details have changed — Clive Hole now pours ants and honey into his computer in a fit of procrastination, where in the story it’s a VHS player — but in 2021 it feels odd to portray a pair of TV writers so utterly at the beck and call of the BBC. (To say nothing of the fact that the show they are pitching, a detective show set in Lancashire in the 70s, with “all that great glam music for the soundtrack” is so obviously a rip-off of Life On Mars that it’s weird nobody mentions it. It’s the one part of the story that feels prescient, yet it gets in the adaptation’s way).

It’s not a complete write-off. Tim McInnerny gives an effectively dithering performance as Clive Hole, conveying a sense of humanity even through his very archly-narrated nervous breakdown. And the best gag from the story, in which TV writer Tatum assumes that a hospital’s signs about switching off mobile phones don’t apply to him because “I’m in television,” survives the adaptation intact. But it’s a weak start to the second series, and hints at a lack of strong source material for the episodes to come.

Barcelona Chairs
Fortunately, the second episode improves things, by leaning into the source material’s age rather than ignoring it. ‘Barcelona Chairs’ is a portrait of a psychopathic architect named rupert, who becomes a key adviser to Tony Blair due to his total disdain for democracy. The horrors of Blairism have become even more apparent in the years since the story’s publication; to actually hear rupert (a sharkily smooth Hugh Quarshie) fantasise about “starting major wars in minor countries” is even more chilling in 2021.

The radio version cannily builds on the original’s critique of Blairism, and shows some media savvy that the first episode lacked. The story is framed by a podcast interview with rupert’s wife Helen (bullied by rupert into starting her own flag-cleaning business, “Ensign of the Times”), who has retired with rupert to southern Spain. This acknowledges the adaptation’s status as a satire of Blairism in retrospect rather than contemporaneously, and allows for some strong new gags. A line about rupert and Tony being photographed drinking Prosecco with Noel Gallagher and Ben Elton is a sharp comment on Blair’s celebrity fixation, as well as a pot-shot at Sayle’s more cynical alternative comedy colleague. The original story’s lengthy skewering of think tanks and taskforces is distilled into a handful of lines such as “Blair loved think tanks: they meant he didn’t have to do all his own thinking.”

But the story’s best details spin out of the minimalist monstrosity of a house rupert builds for himself and his family, the maintenance of whose utter bareness drives everyone including him mad. Yes, it’s a very unsubtle metaphor for the neoliberal project, but it gives rise to several delicious images. The best of these is the secret bedsit Helen rents in Vauxhall, where she sneaks away to “sit in the rocking chair and stroke a ceramic clown.” ‘Barcelona Chairs’ makes for a far stronger piece of radio than ‘Clive Hole.’ While the play’s final beats are somewhat patronising, spelling out a twist ending that was perfectly clear on the page, the overall effect is a much stronger portrait of a mad executive, with much broader and more cutting things to say.

The Nameless Park
“You know, my wife Linda has always disliked this story,” says Sayle’s narrator halfway through the radio version of ‘The Nameless Park Between St Michaels Hamlet and Riverside Drive.’ “She thinks it’s too nasty, and also somewhat derivative. I shout at her, ‘What do you know? I won the BBC Audio Drama Award for Best Scripted Comedy in 2019!'” While taking this sort of fourth-wall break seriously is usually a fool’s errand, it’s hard not to take Linda’s side here.

The original story appeared in The Independent on New Year’s Day 2008, and is freely available online. It’s a curious choice to adapt, even setting its nasty derivativeness aside; the whole thing barely breaks 2,000 words, which doesn’t seem enough to fuel a half-hour play. On top of that, its best moment is the lengthy description of the eponymous park, which doesn’t feel well-suited to radio:

“Jade, though, secretly thought of herself as a little bit different to other girls her age superior, more spiritual: the proof of that was that she reserved her greatest enthusiasm for the nameless and neglected park that ran between her home in St Michaels Hamlet and Riverside Drive. She thought it had to be her most favourite place in all the world. As soon as she passed through the battered sandstone gateposts with the weird Celtic-looking cross carved into them, she felt like a young girl in a fairy tale, or possibly a television advert for expensive shampoo.”

And sure enough, hearing the actors spout dialogue like “I feel like I could be anywhere, I could be in a fairy tale or an expensive shampoo advert” is largely an exercise in frustration. Without enough plot to justify its thirty-minute runtime, the play resorts to gimmicks like the aforementioned fourth-wall break, and a spirited Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style musical number. Again there are a handful of decent gags, but the overall piece drags, and the misogynist undertones of the original story are all the more noticeable here. Sayle writing that ‘Like most girls her age, Jade Suvari had many enthusiasms: pop music, stuffed toys, video games, horses, make-up and fashion,” might prompt an eye-roll, but radio!Jade proclaiming “I’ve literally got a tattoo that says ‘push yourself, because no-one else is gonna do it for you’ on my arse!” just feels crass, and not in a particularly clever way.

‘The Nameless Park’ is the worst episode of The Absence of Normal to date, a thin story padded to within an inch of its life. Sayle and Duff are clearly trying, but the episode feels misconceived at a fundamental level. They frankly needed to throw out the source material and adapt something else.

Locked Out
The final episode, on the other hand, is a triumph, taking another very short piece and expanding it in thoughtful yet intuitive ways. The original ‘Locked Out’ is an eight-page third-person mood piece about a high-flying lawyer locked out of her home, who has a nervous breakdown after watching the comings and goings of her own street on a typical weekday evening. The radio play reconfigures the story into a first-person monologue with Maxine Peake as the neurotic and reactionary Katherine, who talks us through her street observations and relates them to her personal history.

Straight away this is a compelling set of changes. The shift from third- to first-person gives Katherine’s emotional collapse an immediacy it never had on the page, and the play’s extended runtime allows for a richer, more intimate characterisation. Peake gives a typically astute and sensitive performance, even if she borders on the hammy towards the end. Sayle’s historical awareness asserts itself here, too. Katherine begins the play by recollecting her art teacher telling her class about the Situationists. The psychogeographic slogan “Beneath the pavement, the beach,” comes up early in the play, and Katherine relates it to contemporary psychogeographers Iain Sinclair, Will Self, and Peter Ackroyd, who she says wrote “some creepy books about London.” That sense of simultaneous fascination and revulsion at the city’s underbelly informs Katherine’s reaction to the uncouth teenagers and “swarthy” men who pass her by. “I didn’t think my street was like this!” Peake splutters, perfectly capturing a tone of middle class indignation as she realises the people she shares a space with.

Towards the end Katherine deliriously states that “I can’t think of anywhere I’d ever feel safe!” before the play delivers a sickening punchline that blows the pat ending of the original story completely out of the water. Compared to the previous episode’s piling on of gimmicks, ‘Locked Out’ is remarkable for its basic confidence in the material and its performer, which pays off in a rich, layered production. It is the clear highlight of the series, and a vindication of Sayle and Duff’s project in adapting these twenty-year-old stories for radio now. Done right, Sayle’s fiction can still surprise, challenge, and disturb with all the power it once did. And it is still very, very funny.

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Review: No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

No One Is Talking About This is a novel about being Extremely Online. It is also a novel about family, grief, and caring for a baby with Proteus syndrome. Part One is a novelisation of Twitter (here called “the portal”) interspersed with the life of an unnamed digital culture connoisseur, who “had become famous for a post that said simply, Can a dog be twins?” This section is a reworking of Lockwood’s excellent 2019 talk/essay ‘The Communal Mind,’ and like that piece, it’s a dizzying kaleidoscope of delight, disgust, and painful, painful memories. Laura Adamczyk at The AV Club describes the novel as “a greatest and worst hits of the 2017 internet,” and I certainly felt a horrified recognition at the events of Charlottesville (“When the car plowed into a crowd of protestors at a Nazi rally, she was there”) and the eruption over Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’:

“Everyone was reading the same short story. It was about texting, hearts for eyes, bad kisses with their terrible bristles, porn moving in vague blobs through the body, how social protocol constitutes another arm of perception… and how men sucked, of course!”

As with the original piece, Lockwood has a fantastic eye for the memeable phrase, and a poetic instinct for juxtaposing the Online with the IRL. My favourite of these moments is the following:

“‘What a cute little pair of panties,’ her mother said as she emerged from the laundry room, holding up a pair of her brother’s military silkies, which were the bright trumpeting yellow of the DON’T TREAD ON ME flag and embroidered with the words NO STEP ON SNEK.”

But a little after the halfway point, the book carefully pivots. Where Part One is a Twitter travelogue that explicitly scorns the idea of plot, early in Part Two the narrator learns that her pregnant sister’s child has Proteus syndrome, and rushes to Ohio to care for her and eventually the newborn baby. The baby lives for a total of six months and one day, and Lockwood relates the death and funeral arrangements in deeply moving detail. The book is inspired by, and dedicated to, Lockwood’s own niece who died of Proteus syndrome after being diagnosed in utero. It ends after the funeral, with the narrator delivering ‘The Communal Mind’ at the British Museum, before having her phone stolen at a club.


The Modernists loom curiously large in No One Is Talking About This. Early on, the narrator describes a visit to Scotland:

“On the Isle of Skye, she and her husband ate langoustines at a restaurant overlooking a long gray ridge of rock with a lighthouse at the tip of it, and laughed at the herds of tourists who insisted on visiting lighthouses wherever they went. ‘Some things!’ her husband whispered. ‘Are the same! No matter where you go!’ But later, taking an afternoon out of the portal to read Virginia Woolf, she realized that that must have been it, the lighthouse the family sails to on the final page. Was that the final page? Or did the book end with herself and her husband, cracking the red backs of little sweet creatures, cutouts of each other and all the same, and laughing at the people who moved in one wave, the family who went to the Lighthouse?”

In a book so obviously about the present moment, there’s a deliberateness to this invocation, a stressing of the novel’s not-newness. For all its references to climate change and the popularity of ass-eating, there is a careful precedentedness to it. This is clear in one of the more frequently quoted scenes, where the narrator observes that “Stream-of-consciousness was long ago conquered by a man who wanted his wife to fart all over him.” The comparison I kept coming back to was Murphy. How much difference is there, really, between one narrator musing that “Modern womanhood was more about rubbing snail mucus on your face than she had thought it would be” and another carefully contemplating the precise order in which to eat his biscuits?

Well, the obvious answer is the presence of other people. As the Joyce scene goes on: “But what about the stream-of-a-consciousness that is not your own? One that you participate in, but that also acts upon you?” Not one Murphy, but a million Murphys, all reacting to and elaborating on each other’s dadaish outpourings; hypernormielisation.


But this Modernist theorising is deliberately undermined in the second part. One of the book’s most haunting scenes involves the narrator falling out of the web:

“The question that was the pure liquid element of the portal — who am I failing to protect? — had found its stopped-clock answer. She fell heavily out of the broad warm us, out of the story that had seemed, up till the very last minute, to require her perpetual co-writing. Oh, she thought hazily, falling rainwise like Alice, finding tucked under her arm the bag of peas she once photoshopped into pictures of historical atrocities, oh, have I been wasting my time?”

It’s a powerful moment, and a key part of what the book is doing. Lockwood elegantly describes the narrative as about “being very inside the internet and then being very outside of it.” Nonetheless, it’s hard to read as a triumphant renunciation of the internet, or as something that makes the narrator happy; it reads, and feels, like a moment of traumatic shock.

Which makes it all the stranger that much of the book’s press portrays it as a parable about the importance of Real Life over Online. Heller McAlpin at NPR states that “Important lessons ensue” after the narrator learns about her niece, and describes the novel as “a sort of conversion story in which sincerity supersedes irony.” Merve Emre at The New York Times posits that the novel’s chief virtue “is how it transforms all that is ugly and cheap about online culture… into an experience of sublimity.” For all their effusive praise, there is something backhanded about these reviews. Becca Rothfeld at The Baffler argues that No One Is Talking About This suggests that “the best books about the internet will be about the people who resist it.” There are traces of another Modernist impulse here; a sense that the Extremely Online are just another tribe whose dialect needs purifying.

Because the remarkable thing about Part Two is not its abandonment of the Online for the Personal, but rather their imbrication. This is, after all, the part of the book where the narrator suggests to her sister that they take the baby to the Cincinnati Zoo, and her sister responds: “Yes… We can also mourn Harambe.” This is the part of the book where the narrator reads the baby Marlon Brando’s Wikipedia page: “Nothing useful, but one of the fine spendthrift privileges of being alive — wasting a cubic inch of mind and memory on the vital statistics of Marlon Brando.” And it’s the part of the book where the family realises the baby is dying:

“Music, her sister called, and she flapped her hands, frantic, what do you play? What do you play as someone is dying? A name flashed into her mind — perhaps because she saw the cracked cassette case on the floor of her mother’s van, perhaps because those Pure Moods commercials were stamped on her memory along with the imagery of ocean waves, perhaps because she had recently read a thinkpiece about her unexpected critical resurgence — the name that flashed into her mind was Enya.”

And a little afterwards:

“It was like nothing any of them had ever seen. There was nothing trivial left in the room — not the clearing of a throat, not an itch on the arch of a foot — except that phone on the pillow, which had malfunctioned somehow to keep playing ‘Sail away, sail away, sail away.'”

Adam Fales at the LARB writes that “some of the novel’s most heartbreakingly intense moments arise when Lockwood’s comedy insists on its own presence despite its being out of place.” But what makes these moments truly devastating is not their awkwardness or inappropriateness, but their pristine rightness. In an interview with Hazlitt, Lockwood responds to a question about the Marlon Brando scene, “I mean, that is being alive, that sort of ephemerality.” Elsewhere she states bluntly that, for her, “the takeaway would never be, we all need to drop our phones into the river and walk away from this.”

No One Is Talking About This is not a novel about how we all need to log off. It’s a novel about what happens when circumstances force us to log off, and how having been logged on affects the way we process it. And we don’t always process it badly. There is a repeated phrase in the second part of the book: “For whatever lives we lead they do prepare us for these moments.”


But I wasn’t prepared for the novel’s ending, its phone theft an abrupt and total end stop.

“Someone at some point slid her phone out of her pocket and she lifted off her feet, lighter. Her whole self was on it, if anyone wanted. Someone would try to unlock it later, and see the picture of the baby opening her mouth, about to speak, about to say anything.”

This ending has received little attention in the press, despite seeming to fit with the tendency to read the novel as a sweet escape from communications technology. Rothfeld is one of the few to grapple with it:

“The implication, I think, is that life still extends so far beyond the internet that it can pluck the portal right out of your grasping hands. Lockwood is not hostile to the sapphires of the instant, but she is not hostage to them either… A novel is barely a novel if it does not succeed in slipping your phone out of your pocket.”

And yet when I read the novel, I hardly ever put my phone away. Its fragmentary style, its cascade of literary fireworks, the beauty and joy and weirdness and heartbreak delivered in elliptical, shareable flashes… I must have take pictures of half the pages in the book. Early on the narrator says, to be funny, “They’re getting it all wrong, aren’t they? Already when people are writing about it, they’re getting it all wrong.”

Have I, too, been getting it wrong?


Well, maybe. But other readings are available. Personally, my favourite part of that last paragraph is the modest little clause, “if anyone wanted.” A theft, an indignity, its own small tragedy, yes, but also a kind of apotheosis; a final act of sharing. A catharsis as much as an unburdening.


You must keep posting. I can’t keep posting. I’ll keep posting.

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Review: My Mum Tracy Beaker: The Person I Most Admire

Tracy Beaker trended on Twitter this week. The pre-broadcast hype surrounding the adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson’s novel My Mum Tracy Beaker saw a wave of 2000s nostalgia breaking over UK Twitter, with one promotional clip on actor Dani Harmer’s account reportedly being viewed over one million times. In my own social media bubble I saw a number of fellow ex-CBBC fans talking about tuning in to the new show, a sincere love for the original apparent beyond all the memes and reminders to bog off. It raises an interesting question for we adult watchers of Tracy Beaker: The Next Generation. How do our expectations of Tracy Beaker change in adulthood? What does it mean for parents and children to interact over a cultural touchstone like this? And how best to partake in a sequel to a beloved childhood story without imposing our narratives on a show built for today’s kids?

How fitting, then, that these same questions are the dramatic engine of My Mum Tracy Beaker itself. As Emma Davies’ Jess Beaker tells us in the first episode’s charming opening narration, she is living her mum’s dream. Jess’s supportive family home and rewarding school life (albeit with a frenemy or two) are precisely what Tracy wanted as a kid. Yet Tracy’s own desire to “do better,” by moving in with ex-footballer (ex-Football?) Sean Godfrey brings her into conflict with her own daughter. The brash and opinionated Tracy aspires to a better life for herself and her daughter; the shy and bookish Jess wants the comfort of her familiar life; the charming but egotistical Sean wants to show the Beakers “the finer things in life” and is befuddled when he doesn’t instantly win them over.

It’s a good, solid dramatic conflict, and like Emma Reeves’ previous CBBC project it’s scripted with cleanness and precision. The opening narration is an effective way into this version of the characters, translating Wilson’s prose to the screen while taking advantage of the visual elements to demonstrate Tracy and Jess’s life. Jess’s confrontation with Tyrone initially plays along the lines of a Classic Beaker argument, but her jumping to her teacher’s defence highlights the ways in which she’s a different sort of protagonist. This is similarly highlighted by Jess and Tracy’s objections to Sean; “stop telling me what I want” and “stop trying to buy us” have a rhetorical similarity, but elegantly demonstrate the differences between the two characters.

The one scripting weakness comes at the episode’s cliffhanger, where Jess’s narration intrudes on an otherwise quite straightforward dramatic proposal. This may work better in the feature-length omnibus version of the programme, but in this cut it feels like a needless spelling-out of a perfectly clear dramatic beat.

Niggles aside, this is a well-paced and confidently produced half-hour of television, which functions perfectly as ‘act one’ of a larger story. John McKay’s direction is strong, and takes advantage of a nice variety of locations. The scene of Tracy and Sean in the chicken shop is particularly good, a potentially cloying dramatic beat delivered with an easy naturalism, and the subsequent shot of Jess literally coming between Tracy and Sean is a cheeky but effective bit of visual storytelling.

McKay also gets a lovely set of performances out of his cast. I suspect I am incapable of judging Dani Harmer’s acting objectively, but she seems to effortlessly slip back into her most famous role. Emma Davies is a delight as Jess, effectively conveying the Beaker tenacity through a more introverted character. Jordan Duvigneau has a more thankless role as Sean, but he’s a likeable screen presence who nonetheless naturally slides into vulnerability and occasional obnoxiousness. The three actors have an engaging dynamic, managing to make you sympathise with all of them simultaneously. It will be interesting to see how subsequent episodes build on a set of relationships that could easily have sustained 90 minutes of television by themselves.

My Mum Tracy Beaker is a solid, meat-and-potatoes drama with its heart in the right place and its eye on larger social concerns. In that respect it’s a perfect encapsulation of what we fondly remember about the original show. While adult opinions on children’s media are always slightly suspect, this first episode does a damn fine job at being My First BBC Miniseries. I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

Oh, and I like that Jess’s school is named after Duke.

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Review: Revolution of the Daleks

It was fine. No, really, it was fine. It had jokes and set pieces and it moved at a decent pace. It was a perfectly welcome distraction at a time when plenty of us could do with one of those. Really, it was fine.

All the same, I’m glad I didn’t stake all the political questions of my previous post on this. To complain that the episode failed to address coronavirus and the 2020 election would be unfair, of course. To complain that the satire it does offer is toothless and underwhelming feels closer to the mark. Harriet Walter is a delightfully nasty screen presence, but her character’s vague speechifying about “stability and security” fails to land as the “strong and stable” parody it’s clearly aiming for, almost as if the show is worried about alienating one of its higher-profile fans.

Chris Noth’s Jack Robertson, meanwhile, is almost unrecognisable. Gone is the vague Donald Trump parody of Arachnids in the UK, in favour of a Lex Luthor-style mad science tycoon. The events of Arachnids and his presidential ambitions get a nod, but nothing in the story actually requires Robertson as such. The episode would need few changes if he were replaced by Henry van Statten. Certainly he wouldn’t be the only character from 2005 the episode inexplicably banks on.

Which brings us to Captain Jack. As with his last appearance, he primarily serves as a plot enabler, showing up to move another character from A to B, and subsequently pulling out a new (or old) gadget whenever the plot requires. Tellingly, he doesn’t even stick around for the emotional farewell, which contributes to a general coldness between Barrowman and the other leads (only mildly thawed by a nice-but-brief heart-to-heart with Mandip Gill). The idea that the Doctor might not be all that pleased to see Jack is an intriguing one, hinted at by some early banter about changing faces and TARDIS bedrooms, but the script does little with it. Indeed, for all his prominence in the marketing the episode seems curiously uninterested in using Jack; he may boast that he’s immortal, but he never actually does his coming-back-to-life routine.

Speaking of empty references, this may be the most callback-laden special since Twice Upon a Time. The return of Jacks Robertson and Harkness is one thing; the quick infodump on Rose is another, let alone making Graham’s parting line a reference to the pat ‘we don’t get aliens in Sheffield’ gag from The Woman Who Fell To Earth. The closing scene on the hilltop at least manages some decent parallelism, though it clashes oddly with the previous scene in the TARDIS. Ryan expresses a wish to leave the Doctor because “my planet needs me.” He immediately goes back to trying to ride a bike, and then he and Graham get the idea to go and investigate the supernatural. It just about flows logically, but it feels very jarring for an apparent would-be activist to so literally return to square one. It speaks to a contentlessness in the departure, which makes the ditching of precisely half the fam feel arbitrary.

(Plus there’s the fact that this marks the second episode in a row where a mystical vision of a black woman turns up to inspire the main heroes and contribute nothing else to the proceedings, which is rather unfortunate).

But for all the problems with the wider episode, Revolution of the Daleks does get one thing right: the Daleks. This sounds like damning with faint praise; the Daleks, after all, are one of the hardest things in all of Doctor Who to fuck up, and it’s frankly amazing that Terry Nation managed it so many times. But Chibnall manages a handful of cool twists on classic flavour Daleks, most of which at least raise a smile and don’t outstay their welcome. The corporate knockoffs of the Daleks proper are a good idea, and Lee Haven Jones’ direction conveys both cheap naffness and genuine threat. The horny possession tentacles are still an intriguing twist on the traditional Dalek mutant, and highlighting the victim’s consciousness (“You give this body false hope!”) gives this go-round a potency that Resolution lacked. For my money the best new tricks are the invocations of corporate motivational speaking. Having a Dalek proclaim “This is what I have built!” or the ever-popular social media slogan “I did that!” is delicious. Plus it’s always fun to see a Dalek exterminate a Scots Guard.

The original model Daleks are less exciting, existing mainly to spout a predictable line about purity and then fall into a McGuffin. But their scenes largely work, bar an undercooked appearance from the original recon Dalek. The visual effects work here is particularly strong, with the scrunching-up TARDIS evoking a pleasantly Doctor Who hybrid of Star Wars and Blue Peter.

Revolution of the Daleks, like its departing leads, is hard to dislike, but equally hard to get much of a handle on otherwise. Certainly it offers few clues about where the show will go from here. Yaz’s obsession with the Doctor will surely play into Series 13, though given the scant attention paid to her character over the past two series the execution remains up in the air. And while John Bishop is a charismatic performer who will likely do just fine as a companion, the introduction of yet another middle-aged comedian to eat up the TARDIS team’s oxygen just feels like a drag. Long-term speculation aside, Revolution of the Daleks is a perfectly adequate episode that nonetheless fails to live up to its name. But what else could we expect from a Re of the Daleks story?

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Prelude to Revolution of the Daleks

No Doctor Who episode has ever had as much to do as Revolution of the Daleks. Even if we ignore the wider context, the checklist it has set itself is daunting: it needs to bring back the Daleks as a massive force as opposed to a lone scout, effectively send off Graham and Ryan, and act as a sequel to both The Timeless Children and Arachnids in the UK. The latter point makes that wider context harder to ignore; a story with a Donald Trump parody villain, made before but broadcast after the 2020 election, was always going to be a gamble, and Chibnall’s, to say the least, mixed track record on Political Doctor Who raises questions about how effectively it will land.

Even more daunting are the expectations created by circumstances beyond its control. It is probably unfair to expect Revolution of the Daleks to be a “post-coronavirus” story – the serendipity of the Doctor being arrested and thrown in jail just before the UK entered lockdown is unlikely to be repeated – but just as the miners’ strike hangs over the subterranean season 21, so Black Lives Matter will inevitably hang over a Doctor Who story about fascist dustbins working for the government.

More broadly, it’s hard not to wonder how coronavirus will shape Doctor Who in the future. How does an audience react to science fiction after living through the real thing? How do we tell Dalek stories against a backdrop of global fascism? What do we do when a portion of the audience believes the world is run by a sinister cabal with an MO suspiciously similar to the aliens in Torchwood: Children of Earth?

More narrowly, there are questions about the ongoing development of Doctor Who itself. 2020 was an odd year to be a Doctor Who fan, characterised by a hybrid of joy and cynicism. The Lockdown Who phenomenon was, by and large, a delight, creating a sense of community amid the isolation of coronavirus, and spawning a fascinating micro-genre of Doctor Who storytelling. Less delightful were the continued exploits of the Doctor Who Brand. The labyrinthine commercialism of Time Lord Victorious and the bizarre appearance of a Doctor Who blockchain scam made it hard to feel good about Doctor Who’s commodity status, and even in that context, the relative lack of new material about the current female Doctor left something of a bad taste. The show itself bowed out a spectacularly mediocre run at the start of the year with a continuity bomb simultaneously earth-shattering and irrelevant; a labyrinth with no centre, making the crassness of marketing harder to ignore.

Doctor Who, like the rest of us, finishes 2020 with a set of hard questions. How best to engage with a fraught political climate? How best to connect a large and fractious fanbase? How to manage the tension between its commercial status and its public service mission? Is Doctor Who’s vast accumulation of history and spinoffery a help or a hindrance to effective storytelling?

Revolution of the Daleks will likely not give a satisfactory answer to any of these questions. Indeed, it may struggle to achieve ‘reasonably entertaining bit of telly’. But these questions will dog Doctor Who’s footsteps for as long as, and indeed if, it survives the 2020s. A reckoning is due. Something is slouching towards Gallifrey to be born.

Oh, and I guess Captain Jack will be there as well.

Goodbye Substack, Hello Patreon

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

In case you didn’t know, Substack has recently found itself mired in controversy. Here are a couple of good write-ups of the situation. Here is Substack’s response to the controversy.

The short version is that Substack has been paying substantial advances to a select group of writers to use its platform, but will not disclose who those writers are. Given the number of high-profile transphobes on the platform, this has led to speculation that Substack is actively subsidising transphobia. Substack denies this, but since it will not disclose who it is funding, it’s somewhat difficult to verify.

Needless to say, I am not happy with Substack. This refusal of transparency and accountability is bad enough, but coupled with the reports of harassment which Substack has failed to check, I no longer feel I can associate with the platform.

I stand in solidarity with trans writers and the trans community at large. But there is also a degree of self-interest involved. If Substack is going to allow itself to become associated with transphobia and harassment, and refuse to correct the record when questioned, I do not want to bear the reputational cost of working with it.

I have suspended billing on my Substack account, so subscribers will not be charged for the month of April. The Substack itself will remain up until the end of April, at which point it will be deleted. All free posts will be migrated over to my existing WordPress site, and all premium posts to my new Patreon.

I apologise to all premium subscribers who are unhappy with this change. I thank you for your support, and I understand if you do not wish to follow me to Patreon. You can contact me at williamshawwriter at gmail dot com for a refund. I should stress that this would be an out-of-pocket refund from me personally, not an official Substack refund.

Moving to Patreon should mean relatively few changes to my actual writing. I am still committed to monthly free posts, although patrons will now receive them a week before everyone else. I still intend to review the next series of Doctor Who and The Demon Headmaster, with the first episode reviews being free to everyone and subsequent episode reviews available exclusively to patrons for as little as $1 a month. My next review will be of the second series of Alexei Sayle’s The Absence of Normal, and I plan to review new books by Charlie Jane Anders and Sarah Pinsker later in the year. I’m still here, and I’ll keep writing as long as people keep reading.

Once again, you can subscribe to my WordPress here, and my Patreon here. I am very grateful to everyone who followed me on Substack, and I hope you will keep following me as I strike out anew.

Onwards and upwards.

Launching a Substack for Fun, Profit, Daleks

Hi all, just a quick post to say I’m launching a Substack.

You can find it at

This is where you’ll find my review of the upcoming Doctor Who New Year’s Day Special Revolution of the Daleks, as well as coverage of new shows like Alexei Sayle’s The Absence of Normal and the second series of The Demon Headmaster. Everything you need to know is in the initial post, which you can find here.

If you’ve enjoyed the material I’ve posted here, you’ll probably enjoy this too. Come and subscribe, and I’ll see you in 2021.