Voluntary Extinction

In J.G. Ballard’s groundbreaking 1975 novel High-Rise, the residents of a high-rise tower block, after a period of apparent contentment with their living-machines, turn on each other in an orgy of violence. This causes the tower to descend into murder, robbery, and worst of all, littering, with the residents of the lower flaws declaring war on the upper, and vice versa, in an apparent instance of class warfare. In the novel, the inherent violence of the human animal is laid bare, rendered as stark as the grey concrete of the tower. This is literalised in the 2015 film adaptation by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, which features a scene where Tom Hiddleston’s Doctor Laing dissects a human head before a group of medical students, noting that: “As you can see, the facial mask simply slips off the skull.” This scene is repeated later in montage as the building descends further into anarchy.

All of this is probably a metaphor, presumably to do with society or something, but the novel repeatedly frames the tower as both discretely individualised and otherworldly. Laing reflects that the tower is “less a habitable architecture… than the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event”, and that from this vantage point “the office buildings of central London belonged to a different world, in time as well as space.” Whatever the tower’s problems, they do not belong to the wider world which eventually strikes Laing as an “alien planet” but to itself. In the high-rise, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and their families, and their delicious, edible house-pets. The high-rise is a concrete desert island, cut off from planet Earth, and J.G. Ballard the William Golding to this Lord of the Flyovers.

The theme of entrapment is expanded on by Wheatley and Jump, who, with the benefit of foresight, explicitly build up the high-rise as a herald of neoliberalism. Laing’s pondering in the novel’s sixteenth chapter that “he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted” is moved up to the film’s prologue, and the film ends with the architect’s bastard child listening to a speech by Margaret Thatcher. Given that the Iron Lady would be co-architect for an even grander project at the End of History, this represents a canny extension on Ballard’s themes, with potential space for a new conservatory. Jeremy Irons’ architect, Royal, even frames his project as a concretisation of free market economics:

“There will be five towers in all, encircling the lake. Something like an open hand. The lake is the palm and we stand on the distal phalanx of the index finger.”

The invisible hand has been forced into being, by a powerful man with a big dream and ambitions to disrupt the market. It’s like Uber, but for social collapse.

All of which is somewhat undermined by the fact that nothing about this apocalypse is necessary. And not just in the sense of being an avoidable catastrophe; the high-rise is an entirely voluntary system, which goes to hell for no other reason than that its inhabitants want it to. It is the perfect embodiment of the Non-Aggression Principle of American Libertarianism. (For the unfamiliar, the NAP is the sacred political principle by which taxation is violence but slavery is not).

As the tower continues its slow trajectory, it sees a gradual abandonment by the hired help. The supermarket is increasingly short-staffed, and then empty. When Royal and his wife visit the tower’s exclusive restaurant in chapter 7, we are told that “the two waiters had already gone”, and by chapter 9, “After serving a last lunch to the Royals the chef and his wife had left for good.” This leaves only the building’s actual residents, who are hardly a diverse bunch. As Laing observes:

“The two thousand tenants formed a virtually homogeneous collection of well-to-do professional people – lawyers, doctors, tax consultants, senior academics and advertising executives, along with a smaller group of airline pilots, film-industry technicians and trios of air-hostesses sharing apartments. By the usual financial and educational yardsticks they were probably closer to each other than the members of any conceivable social mix, with the same tastes and attitudes, fads and styles – clearly reflected in the choice of automobiles in the parking-lots that surrounded the high-rise, in the elegant but somehow standardized way in which they furnished their apartments, in the selection of sophisticated foods in the supermarket delicatessen, in the tones of their self-confident voices.”

This apocalypse is exclusively a middle-class pastime. The working, and indeed the upper classes are almost entirely absent. The Hobbesian war of all against all is no more than a spat between the clientele of Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. The real horror is not that all humans are really like this; it is that the middle class wants to be like this, and thinks everyone else does, too.

And they may be right. After all, apocalypse is a middle-class pastime. It’s an aspiration. A recreational activity which grows increasingly popular, especially now that tech-savvy entrepreneurs have created scrolling towers of infinite hate which fit neatly in our pockets, and white supremacy is an agreeable time-waster that fits neatly between the big grocery shop and picking the kids up from school. Laing ends the novel gazing out at the second tower in the ongoing global development project:

“Already torch-beams were moving about in the darkness, as the residents made their first confused attempts to discover where they were. Laing watched them contentedly, ready to welcome them to their new world.”

Journalist Hayes Brown writes about the collective denial of the middle classes in the global North about the high-rise project we are building for all the world. These people, “the massively wealthy on a global scale, the powerless compared to the truly rich in this world, the average human in the United States of America”; these are the architects of the end of the world, simultaneously villains, victims, fall guys, and ultimately dust that will not even have the satisfaction of a pension plan. In a peculiarly Ballardian passage, Brown writes:

“We do our best to go about our days, filling them with a constant stream of distractions.

I’m right there with them, making my way home from the store, arms laden with groceries, sweat forcing my T-shirt to cling to my back, yet already pondering whether my craving for a chopped cheese from the bodega is more important to me in this moment than using up the fresh vegetables already in my refrigerator before they rot. But then my phone vibrates and there’s another push alert imploring that I read a fellow journalist’s new report on the fate rushing towards us.

There’s a moment’s hesitation before I swipe up, sending it into oblivion, forgotten as so many other divinations before it.”

The horror is not that we choose this world, and this end of the world. The horror is that we choose it. You and I choose it. I choose it.

I’m still choosing it.

Of Men & Monsters

1. I was ten years old when I first watched Love & Monsters. My memories of it are hazy, and, as it tried to remind me, childhood memories cheat. But I remember absolutely hating it. Of course I did; I was a kid. I had no idea what to do with this band of bizarre misfits, the absence of the Doctor, the idolisation of decades-old pop culture detritus, the grungy industrial sets. I was scared out of my wits by the Abzorbaloff, to the point of being unable to look directly at it on subsequent viewings. For a long time, I thought it was the worst episode of anything ever. But then I grew up, and realised it was all true.

2. A year or so ago, the marketing for Ready Player One was doing the rounds on social media, to a round of predictable guffaws. I haven’t self-identified as a geek for a number of years now (but that’s another story), but I commented at the time that the best story about ‘being a geek’ was still Love & Monsters. Which I stand by. The marketing for Ready Player One seemed to revolve entirely around remembering arcane trivia, but the things we were asked to recognise were… completely mainstream American pop culture artefacts from the last 30 years or so, i.e. stuff most of the film’s audience would recognise with little-to-no effort. Which is so often the paradox of geekhood, or indeed fandom in general; we’re the people so invested in the most popular commodities that we forget their own ubiquity. Perhaps because we must.

3. Fandom discourse around Love & Monsters, at least in my experience, is bizarrely blind to Peter Kay. We’ll talk about his petitioning Davies for the role, the idea he was asked to play Elton, and even (especially) the fact he was a fan of the show. But there’s comparatively little talk of just how weird it is that the biggest comedian in the country ended up on Doctor Who playing a low-rent bully in a comparatively tiny episode. For a better idea of this weird anti-stunt casting, imagine if Michael McIntyre had played Tim Shaw. Or if Adam Sandler had played the Kerblam! Man. At the very least, going from watching Peter Kay’s Car Share to this was… actually a fairly smooth transition. If Elton had been into a wider range of pop music, you can absolutely picture him in that show.

4. ‘Look at your hands!’ The grasping hands of Victor Kennedy are a repeated motif of this episode; he not only reaches out, he snatches, clutches, and at one point grabs directly at the camera before pulling back. Jack Graham and Niki Haringsma have written fascinatingly about Victor Kennedy as the embodiment of Doctor-Who-as-commodity, and Haringsma points out that Victor Kennedy can also represent sexual predators who use fandom as cover. There’s a reason Bliss and Bridget are the first to disappear; why he marks Ursula out as ‘most likely to fight back’. Victor Kennedy is the bad fan, with all the implications of that term, literally sustained by a clenched, silver fist. Given this, it’s notable that breaking the cane also sees that fist unclench; Victor Kennedy can be defeated, but not without taking an entire community down with him. LINDA, I let you go.

5. Except, of course, we don’t quite. The episode’s final speech is, if we’re being honest, a little overplayed in fandom — darker, madder, better, etc. — the ‘hello Stonehenge’ or ‘can you hear them singing’ for a more cynical age. Like both those speeches, the lines themselves are undermined by the episode they appear in; they’re exactly the kind of awkward, fumbling attempts at profundity you would expect from a sermon which begins by quoting Stephen King, delivered by a man whose primary aesthetic influence is Jeff Lynne. And yet, they clearly do move; the joy of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. Personally, my favourite bit of this scene is that Elton has finally got the remote control zoom he said he needed in the opening; I believe the technical term is ‘Character Development’.

6. Besides which, the episode’s most moving moment actually comes a few minutes earlier. It’s just a shame we have to get there via the Doctor standing silently over yet another dead woman; a cynical pop culture trope that Doctor Who really ought to be smarter than, even now. But as Haringsma points out, LINDA is aptly-named; this was always a detective story. The fact that Elton’s mother does not get a single line of dialogue, despite being the emotional lynchpin of the story, would be a contradiction were it not for the already-established tradition of such things. None of which is to disparage the episode; only to contextualise it.

7. Specifically, to contextualise Elton’s mother walking away, leaving the little boy on his own. That fade to white, with the mournful, distorted chant of ‘Please… Turn… Me… Over’ is among the most moving things in Doctor Who history.

The happy contexts of sad memories;

the cynicism in the heart of all optimists;

the loneliness embedded in the popular.

 

 

Niki Haringsma’s Black Archive on Love & Monsters, which I had the pleasure of proof-reading an early draft of, is out now, and is brilliant. You can buy it here.

Review: Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett

PROSPERO: Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since,
Thy father was the Duke of Milan and
A prince of power.
MIRANDA: Sir, are not you my father?
PROSPERO: Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and
She said thou wast my daughter.
— The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2

These lines constitute the one and only mention of Miranda’s mother in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As such, they open an intriguing gap: beyond being “a piece of virtue,” who was Miranda’s mother, and what happened to her? Many have tackled this question, with a variety of results. Literary critic Stephen Orgel used it to explore the anxiety around parentage for Shakespeare generally. Filmmaker Julie Taymor viewed it as a screenwriting problem, and solved it by making Prospero Miranda’s mother. Debut novella author Katharine Duckett, meanwhile, uses it as a jumping-off point for a queer Gothic romance, with Miranda’s mother one of many dark secrets at the heart of a Milanese castle. Inventive and dark, yet full of genuine heart, Miranda in Milan turns Shakespeare’s beloved text on its ear, creating something both more macabre and more liberating in the process.

The story picks up a few weeks after Shakespeare leaves off, with Miranda and Prospero’s return to Italy. While Prospero retreats immediately to his isolated study, Miranda finds herself “a monster.” Cut off from both her island home and her fiance Ferdinand, she is forced to hide from the world at large, servants “moving around her as though she were a cockroach,” a veil forced upon her whenever she leaves her chambers. Her only friend is the “Moorish” servant Dorothea, a self-confessed witch, and thus the only person “with nothing to fear from you or your father.” Yet there is very good reason to be afraid of Prospero. The wizard is back at his old tricks; the vow to drown his book has been broken. What else has Prospero lied about? What really happened to Miranda’s mother? And can Miranda escape the influence of the man who has scripted her entire life so far?

As all this implies, Miranda in Milan is an openly revisionist sequel to Shakespeare’s Tempest. Early on, Miranda reminisces about a much more sympathetic Caliban than readers may remember, and Duckett implies that the two were deliberately forced apart by Prospero. Ariel also makes a brief cameo appearance, in an even more ambivalent form than the original, and Duckett offers the intriguing detail that Miranda

“had wanted an Ariel of her own, once, an ethereal slave to do her bidding, like those under her father’s command. But when Prospero found her cultivating one of the small island spirits, he beat her until she was black and blue. Since that day, Miranda had learned to handle her own affairs.”

Prospero himself is the most obvious target of revisions, revealed by Duckett as an outright villain. Dorothea wakes Miranda up to his lifetime of manipulations, as she realises her memories are dotted with “Strange sights, inexplicable visions: and then sleep, a heavy, sudden sleep she never experienced here, on the mainland.” Readers of The Tempest will know that these sleeps were in fact magically-induced trances, meant to shut Miranda up while her father carried out his work, adding a sinister air to once-accepted stagecraft. Miranda ultimately realises that “Her father was a story he had told her himself”; Shakespeare’s version, it seems, was unreliably narrated.

Yet while the novella is intensely critical of Shakespeare’s old wizard, there is also a sense of affection and playfulness. There are nods to several Shakespeare plays, including As You Like It and Titus Andronicus as well as The Tempest. But the most delightful revision comes in Miranda’s relationship with Dorothea, which develops into a full-on lesbian romance. Shakespeare has often rewarded queer readings, and moments like Miranda’s realisation that “she thought she had discovered marvels when first she looked upon the faces of new men. But women: women were another wonder entirely” expand cleverly on the original text while joyously queering it. Particularly memorable is Miranda and Dorothea’s first sexual encounter, which stems from a fantasy-inflected homage to the grand tradition of Shakespearean cross-dressing, and then adds a fantastic gag of its own.

But Shakespeare is not the only literary tradition in play, and Duckett’s crossing it with the Gothic yields strong, if mixed, results. The novel’s mid-section, where we learn the true fate of Miranda’s mother, feels a little over-long, although it packs a real punch towards the end. Though the book resurrects most of the play’s noble characters, a visit from Stephano and Trinculo might have added some variety. And while the book’s final twist is fitting (and its last sentence absolutely gorgeous) the means of getting there is not quite adequately seeded earlier on, which adds a sense of contrivance to an otherwise neat parallel.

But then again, what would the Gothic — or indeed Shakespeare — be without contrivance? Miranda in Milan is a delightful expansion of Shakespeare’s characters, and a critical yet affectionate interrogation of The Tempest. As answers to its central question go, it’s a damn good one, and one that feels precisely calibrated to the needs of 2019.

Miranda in Milan is available for preorder from Macmillan, in ebook and paperback editions.

Review: Borrowed Time by Naomi A. Alderman

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture review on 3 July 2018.

From a career perspective, the middle initial is the would-be sci-fi writer’s greatest asset. Especially if you also hope to maintain a career in the Literary Sphere, a good middle initial can demarcate your science fiction from the ‘real world’ stuff, while still reeling in your inbuilt audience. Hence Iain M. Banks, Jenny T. Colgan, and the subject of today’s review, Naomi A. Alderman. Now world-famous as the author of 2016 bestseller The Power, in 2011 Alderman was “only” a very successful and respected literary novelist, known for titles including Disobedience and The Lessons. Apparently at the request of her younger cousin that she ‘write something for him to read,’ Alderman donned the middle initial to pen a Doctor Who novel featuring Matt Smith’s Doctor for BBC Books. The result, Borrowed Time, is a thoughtful and exciting Doctor Who story about nefarious bankers and alien con merchants, seeing a re-release this month to capitalise on Alderman’s still-rising star. 

Given the commercial reasons behind this re-release, it is perhaps ironic that Borrowed Time concerns itself so heavily with late capitalism. The first chapter follows a day in the life of Andrew Brown, a harassed and overworked junior analyst at Lexington International Bank, as he oversleeps, forgets his sister’s birthday, and turns up late and under-prepared to a meeting. At peak frustration, he is approached by two sinister businessmen, Mr Symington and Mr Blenkinsop, who make him an offer he can’t refuse:

‘Mr Brown, we can loan you time.’
‘That’s right, Mr Brown. We can lend you as much time as you need. As much time as you can handle. As much time as you could ever desire.’”

But of course, this offer comes with a catch: 

“‘Now of course, Mr Brown, that time will have to be paid back.’
‘At what we think you’ll agree,’ muttered Mr Blenkinsop, just a little too fast for Andrew to fully catch, ‘is a very reasonable rate of interest.’

A few months later, the Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive to find strange goings-on at Lexington International Bank. Its employees are almost inhumanly productive, apparently spending more time at work than there are hours in the day, and its new boss, Rebecca Laing-Randall, seems to be hiding something… 

The novel’s basic setting and concerns have aged well. Borrowed Time came out three months before the start of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and the intervening years have seen repeated controversies surrounding bankers’ bonuses, austerity, Corbynism, and even Doctor Who itself explicitly fighting ‘capitalism in space’ in the 2017 episode Oxygen. There’s a maturity to the way Alderman deals with these concepts that feels refreshing for a Doctor Who book, not to mention being ahead of the larger franchise. That said, Borrowed Time is nothing as dull as ‘Doctor Who for Grown-Ups’. Alderman is unashamedly writing an all-ages action adventure with all the requisite monsters and chases (including a rather fun runaround with some giant cockroaches under the Millennium Dome). 

This all-ages remit is hard-wired into Doctor Who. Originally conceived as a family programme, intended to bridge the gap between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury in the BBC One Saturday evening schedule, its original cast consisted of two middle-aged schoolteachers, a teenage girl and an older man — designed to be as demographically diverse and thus broadly appealing as possible (within the limited range of people who could attain starring roles on BBC One in 1963). This family focus, always present to one degree or another in its subsequent 26-year run, meant the show was ripe for a revival in the early 2000s wave of ‘crossover’ children’s fiction marketed to adults. The standard-bearer for this wave was the Harry Potter franchise, and Russell T. Davies repeatedly cited J.K. Rowling as an influence over his 2005 revival of Doctor Who (at one point even speculating about casting her in an episode). This literary tradition was further played up when Steven Moffat took over in 2010, emphasising the show’s ‘fairy tale’ qualities, and it’s broadly this tradition that Alderman writes in here. The ostensibly ‘adult’ setting of the bank is made accessible to children through the familiar figures of the Doctor and his companions, while the abstract threat of financial disaster is made more visceral through the use of monsters. 

Everything about Borrowed Time points to a writer who fundamentally “gets” Doctor Who. The book has twenty chapters of near-uniform length, each containing an interesting set piece, from ‘our heroes are trapped in a confined space with alien crabs’ to ‘the Doctor attempts to blend in at a business meeting and fails utterly’. These keep the action nicely varied while still advancing the main plot, creating a brisk pace that ensures no idea outstays its welcome. It is by no means a revolutionary structure, but it does demonstrate that real thought has gone into shaping the story and making it engaging to younger readers. References to Doctor Who old and new are sprinkled throughout (seeing a Respected Literary Author reference The Masque of Mandragora is a rare joy for the long-term fan) and the basic idea of ‘aliens wreak havoc in contemporary London’ owes a clear debt to the 1970s iteration of the show, as well as its more modern incarnations. There’s even a revival of the show’s educational mandate, with the revelation that the book’s villains are exploiting the human race’s craving for time by lending it to them at impossibly high rates of compound interest, resulting in them owing more time than they could ever repay. This not only turns the novel into a sci-fi retelling of the 2008 financial crisis, it also leads to a pleasantly kid-friendly explanation of how compound interest works, through layers of icing stacked upon a slice of cake:

‘The interest goes up much faster than your actual borrowings. Once an hour, a slice of icing for every hour you’ve borrowed.’
‘That’s a lot of icing.’
‘That’s how compound interest works. Eventually, the icing you have to pay on the icing is thousands of times more than the cake.’
Amy stared at the soft sweet brown mass of icing. She’d never disliked icing before, but she wasn’t sure she ever wanted to eat it again now.

By making the villains’ scheme hinge on a real feature of the financial system, the book manages to highlight the potentially predatory nature of that system without resorting to raw didacticism. In this moment, we are not merely asked to contemplate the possible danger of compound interest — we are made viscerally aware of it, with the knowledge that Amy has herself been borrowing time and now owes thousands of years. By evoking the existing financial system, and subjecting a character we care about to a particularly brutal iteration of it, Alderman demonstrates the unfairness of that system while providing a moment of dramatic horror. 

On top of that, the book has a number of clever riffs on the idea of money in Doctor Who generally, and how the show tends to obscure concrete economics. At one point Rory gives a homeless woman money, musing:

It was funny how, living in the TARDIS and travelling with the Doctor, money began to feel less important, even meaningless. There were seemingly limitless supplies of all kinds of exotic alien currencies piled up in some of the TARDIS’s rooms… but they never found anything much to spend money on, and the things they did and saw couldn’t have been bought at any price. He’d brought loads of money, just in case, but now he only carried his wallet out of habit, and this woman needed its contents more than he did.

This is a clever observation, and one which naturally extends from Rory as a character. Not only is Rory a generally kind person, he’s also someone who notices and comments on the rules governing the world of Doctor Who (in series five, for example, he twigs how the TARDIS works before the Doctor can explain it to him). Amy is similarly well-served by Alderman, with an entire chapter dedicated to her over-borrowing time, neatly demonstrating the seductive power of the villain’s offer. If anything, the Doctor is the one given the least attention in the character department, with relatively little insight into his emotional state as he dispenses jokes and exposition. Mind you, this is far from unusual for the series, and is made up for by a well-developed supporting cast, including three employees of Lexington Bank whom the Doctor and his friends help rebel against their corporate masters. 

Even with its shiny new edition, Borrowed Time is likely to remain a footnote in Alderman’s larger career. But as career footnotes go, it is far more interesting than it has any right to be; an imaginative, intelligently-structured Doctor Who story with lots of jolly anti-capitalism for the kids. Indeed, on the strength of this book, it’s easy to see why Alderman was tapped as one of the first authors to write for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in prose, with an as-yet unnamed story featuring the Thirteenth Doctor set to drop next March. One can only hope that story will continue in the vein of Borrowed Time; exciting, characterful, and unmistakably Doctor Who. 

Oh, and it also contains the greatest thematic riff ever written on Attack of the Cybermen. 

Borrowed Time is re-released in paperback now. It is available here, RRP £7.99. 

Review: The Basilisk Murders by Andrew Hickey

As premises go, ‘stranded on an island with the alt-right’ is surely one of the most nightmarish in recent memory. The Basilisk Murders, the new (ish – this review being a bit fashionably late) novel by Andrew Hickey, makes a savvy move in playing this premise for sick comedy more than outright horror. The alt-right, Lesswrong, techno-libertarians and their assorted fellow-travellers comprise a fundamentally ridiculous ideology, and Hickey mercilessly skewers them over the course of this murder-mystery-cum-satire. The result is a fun book, one that intelligently breaks the mould in key places, but which may not play to people who aren’t aware of why the title image is so funny.

The plot starts out conventional enough – our hero, freelance journalist Sarah Turner, receives an invite to a conference on a remote island, of which she is at first apprehensive, but accepts out of sheer curiosity. What’s less conventional is that she is entirely right to be apprehensive, even before the murders begin. The invite is to “the 1st International Conference on Controlling Existential Threat Through Humane Artificial Intelligence”. Organised by “The Safe Singularity Foundation”, and guaranteed to be swarming with neoreactionaries, it is an environment unlikely to welcome a self-described “bi poly woman” with no regard for ethics in games journalism. Sarah is the ideal character with which to explore the basic bigotry of this ideology, but the scenes of her being condescended to, and at one point even sexually assaulted by one of the conference speakers emphasise the very real danger Sarah is putting herself in by even attending. Sarah’s narration is intelligent and droll, allowing Hickey to entertain the various obsessions of neoreactionism (immortal AIs, matriarchy, “race realism”) without coming close to endorsing them, and this dynamic of exploring a toxic ideology from a radically different perspective is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

Another of its great strengths is humour. Hickey is not shy about the ludicrousness of the psuedo-intellectual right, and gets in some hilarious swipes at silicon-valley libertarianism in particular. A personal favourite moment comes in chapter three, as Sarah attempts to check in to her hotel room:

“A man (of course) a few years younger than me – I’d guess twenty-four – with a trimmed goatee beard, round little glasses, wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt with white writing on it saying “The singularity is my retirement plan” was in front of me. This man had a point to make, and was going to continue making it no matter how futile his attempts were or how much inconvenience it was causing anyone else.

“What do you mean, you don’t accept bitcoin?””

This passage is particularly cathartic if, like me, you’ve had to deal with a lot of Bitcoin/Blockchain hype in your line of work, and the book is full of delightfully sardonic asides about the foibles of neoreactionism. (Another highlight is when Sarah attends the “AI vs SJW” panel, “in which various people discussed how to make sure that if they created a machine god it would be just as racist and sexist as them”).

Most of the jokes work well, and anyone familiar with this vile little subculture will probably get a kick out of them. But I do wonder how much of the novel will even be comprehensible to people who don’t at least have a basic grasp of the various alt-right movements. The book assumes a certain level of knowledge about LessWrong, Peter Thiel, Reddit, and Roko’s Basilisk, at least enough that the reader can grasp what it’s parodying in any given scene. I already knew far too much about this subculture from reading Elizabeth Sandifer’s work, and even I felt there were one or two references I wasn’t quite getting. The book is an effective piece of satire, but in getting as specific as it does, it may have blunted its broader appeal.

Absent the satire, the novel falls back on its murder-mystery mechanics, which are something of a mixed bag. The structure feels arbitrary, with sections set over individual days sometimes blurring into one another, and the pacing meanders a bit in the middle. Some of the supporting cast feel interchangeable (one of the problems with having so many of them be white male alt-righters) and there were a couple of murder revelations that made me go ‘which one was he again?’ It’s a shame, because the final reveal of whodunnit is rather clever, hinging on one of the most memorable parts of the book so far, and the villain’s motive is literally chilling. There’s also a fantastic twist to Sarah’s family-drama subplot, and some clever little details to the investigation itself. Moments like receiving a red herring death threat from a Tumblr Anon, or Sarah tweeting out the killer’s identity as she tries to escape give a pleasing ‘of the moment’ vibe to the more Agatha Christie-ish parts of the plot.

The Basilisk Murders is a cathartic little romp, provided at least some awareness of what it’s sending up, and feels like a natural response to the world of 2017. An interesting companion piece might be Sarah Pinsker’s And The There Were (N-One), a more overt Christie pastiche about a conference of all the multiversal versions of a single woman. The basic image, of being surrounded by strangers, any one of whom may wish death upon you for largely inscrutable reasons, feels rather appropriate for this particular cultural moment.

The Basilisk Murders is available to buy on Amazon, RRP £3.77, or free via Kindle Unlimited.

Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

CONTENT WARNING: This review discusses industrial and animal abuse, as well as detailed descriptions of cancer symptoms. It also discusses the book’s ending, if spoilers are a big deal for you.

Science fiction these days seems to be intractably stuck in both the past and the future. Which is to say, the present. Brooke Bolander’s new novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing, embodies this generic mandate. Set in both the past and the near future, it nonetheless speaks to our chaotic cultural moment. While the execution occasionally falls short, the book is most fearsome, and most timely, in its depiction of solidarity among the oppressed, even as it is unflinching about the reality of that oppression.

The novella reworks the historical stories of both Topsy the elephant and the Radium Girls, respectively an elephant publicly executed on Coney Island and a group of women systemically poisoned in an effort to save money. This does involve fudging the dates slightly Topsy was electrocuted in 1903, while the Orange New Jersey factory opened in 1917, yet the novella depicts these events as happening simultaneously. This allows Bolander to create a general commentary on the early twentieth century, and her version of events, in which Topsy’s electrocution causes a nuclear explosion off the coast of New York, is open about the cruelty and exploitation on which modernity was founded.

The narrative shifts between multiple protagonists, both before after the Topsy disaster, as well as media cuttings, commemorative songs, and a Kipling-inspired fable about an ancient mother elephant. This might sound like information overload, and the cacophony of voices is very much part of the novella’s effect, but Bolander manages her transitions impeccably. Every narrative jump feels natural, and each one either helps the story progress, or injects fresh perspective on what has come before. Pacing overall is absolutely flawless; the book is precisely the length is needs to be, building ruthlessly to a telegraphed ending that still manages to shock.

The book in general is long on horror, as befits its heavy subject matter. The novella opens with a description of a mountain contaminated by nuclear waste, long after humanity’s extinction, and the irradiated elephants who live there.

“At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.”

The problem of nuclear waste lasting longer than human civilisation is a real and terrifying thing, but this abstracted horror soon gives way to more visceral nastiness, as we meet the character of Regan, an elephant handler poisoned by radium paint. Regan spends most of the novella slowly dying, and Bolander describes this in agonising detail:

“The ache in her jaw has gone from a dull complaint to endless fire blossoming from the hinge behind her back teeth, riding the rails all the way to the region of her chin. It never stops or sleeps or cries uncle. Even now, trying to teach this cussed animal how to eat the poison that hammered together her own rickety stairway to Heaven, it’s throbbing and burning like Satan’s got a party cooked up inside and everybody’s wearing red-hot hobnails on the soles of their dancing shoes. She reminds herself to focus. This particular elephant has a reputation for being mean as hell; a lack of attention might leave her splattered across the wall and conveyor belt. Not yet, ol’ Mr. Death. Not just yet.

These metaphors may feel overwrought at first, but they effectively convey Regan’s overwhelming pain, the sentences carefully modulated so that they never feel monotonous. The subtle, jerking moves this paragraph makes towards describing Regan’s interactions with Topsy help convey the conscious effort Regan is making to concentrate on her work. Her pain may be enormous, but she literally cannot afford to dwell on it.

These lengthy, painful descriptions are a clear, and even affecting, part of the book’s point, but there are moments which risk tipping over into simply aestheticising that pain. Worse, though, is the occasionally crass depiction of Regan’s fellow workers. There’s a rather clumsy attempt to sympathetically characterise her abusive foreman, and at one point Regan receives a letter from fellow Radium Girl Jodie that feels a little patronising in its efforts to demonstrate how these women have been denied education.

“Regan,

Just want you to no, aint no hard feeling about the way things paned out. You all did best you cood lookin out for me like blood kin when you no I never had no body since Mama past away. Even yor own mama used to give me a seat at the tabell when holy fokes sooner feed scraps to a stray tomcat than a big uglee plain mannerd girl like me.”

Jodie clearly *can* write she is not illiterate ­ so to have her misspell every other word like this seems like overkill, and the sentences are a bit too lucid to suggest the misspellings are a result of mental deterioration. It’s a small slip, but it is a shame, especially given the novella’s overall success in depicting the humanity of these workers who have effectively been poisoned for profit.

It’s also odd given the savviness of the book’s politics overall. Bolander is heartbreaking in her portrayal of reckless industrial and political elites. Particularly striking are Regan’s long, awkward confrontation with her boss in Part Two, and an early scene where political negotiator Kat realises she is effectively asking a group of elephants to do something for nothing, because it simply had not occurred to her to offer them anything.

“The translator stares at Kat for a little longer than is necessary. She glances back over her shoulder at the matriarch, then back at Kat.

“I just want to make sure I’m hearing this correctly before I translate,” she says, in a lower register. “Did you seriously just show up to what is basically a diplomatic meeting with no bargaining chips whatsoever?””

Moments like these are subtle, yet savage in their portrayal of a system which would not only allow, but encourage this disregard for marginalised groups.

But it’s the ending which takes The Only Harmless Great Thing from savvy and well-crafted story to essential-feeling political statement. Topsy is being marched to her public execution, with both the reader and the main characters knowing it will result in nuclear disaster. At first, she refuses to move. “She smells her ending, and her feet plant themselves, bending-parts senselessly locking.” But then Regan emerges:

“Another human pushes out of the mass the dead girl, still moving, still somehow on her feet when every part of her stinks of corruption. […] She turns, asking in the language of twisted trunk-paws: Are you well? Can you walk? It’s just a little further. We’ll go together.

And even this much We is enough to drive the fear back into the high grass. Her mind stills. Her legs unstiffen. Together they cross the overwater, men flytrailing behind. Together they go to sing the song of their undoing, the joining, teaching, come-together song.”

This final act of compassion, this insistence on solidarity in the face of fatal oppression, is fundamental to the book’s success. The Only Harmless Great Thing is bold, cutting, and exactly what science fiction needs to be right now.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is available to preorder from Tor.com, in ebook and paperback editions.

Steven Moffat: A talk at the Oxford Union

This article first appeared on The Cherwell website on 14 November 2016.

“I am rubbish.” This was the opening statement of Steven Moffat’s talk at the Oxford Union on Monday, and it’s an assessment most of the audience presumably disagreed with. Best known for helming Doctor Who and Sherlock, Moffat’s career stretches back to 1989, and covers such varied genres as children’s TV, sitcoms, feature films, as well as the BBC One dramas which helped make his name. In his brief address before a general Q&A, Moffat stressed the importance of self-awareness.

“I am rubbish. I first became aware of my rubbishness when I overheard my wife on the phone to some camera-people. ‘Don’t get him to take the lens back to Cardiff,’ she said. ‘Why? Because he’ll lose it. I know he’ll lose it. Because he’s rubbish.’ I heard her say that. I took the lens. I lost it.” But rubbishness is a universal trait: “everyone is in disguise as a competent human being.” Diligence is an important factor in success: “you can’t control how rubbish you are… but you can control how hard you work.”

Moffat has been called many things; showrunner, creator, executive producer. But the title he really cherishes is ‘Writer’. “It’s great to be a writer, because we make it up! It’s like you’ve done all the homework, and everyone else copies it.” Moffat was playfully resentful of directors. “They’ll say ‘my inspiration for this movie was this or that moment in my life or this or that artistic vision… and not the 120 pages of finished script my screenwriter gave me! Who else has that, in their job? Oh look, here’s exactly what I need to do.”

The talk then moved into an interview, starting with Doctor Who. Moffat has no patience with the idea of ‘overloading’ the audience. “Children nowadays, teenagers nowadays, are some of the cleverest audiences in history – they’re keeping up with television while texting and tweeting each other, and they’re all getting it. We try never to have a dull moment on Doctor Who.” Catering to adults is fairly straightforward – “it’s like when you go into a restaurant and you eye the children’s menu, and you wish you could order from that instead – it’s the same principle.” There are challenges – “you have to be ringingly clear” – but Moffat was adamant that “to write for children is to write better… everybody likes children’s stuff.”

As well as executive producing Doctor Who, Moffat is co-producer on Sherlock. They’re two very distinct shows, but Moffat finds the differences easy to manage. “I’ve spoken to Mark [Gatiss] about this; we’ve just got to pretend that we don’t work on both. They’re both part of the same landscape, so when a similarity crops up we just try and go with it rather than getting anxious.” It’s not a difference that keeps either writer up at night: “The Doctor is a sort of space Sherlock Holmes anyway.”

Sherlock and Doctor Who are both prestige BBC shows; how does Moffat view the corporation and its future? “The BBC is an unequivocal good – that doesn’t mean every decision it makes is good, or that it’s above reproach, but there’s nothing else in the world like it, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. The circumstances which produced it are never coming back.” Moffat is not totally enamoured of the beeb; “Mark says: ‘you love the BBC, but you don’t expect the BBC to love you back.’” Governments naturally go after the corporation; “no-one likes being criticised. If I had power over every TV critic in the world, I’d have them all executed!” Nevertheless, Moffat hopes that the BBC “remains the powerhouse that it is.”

Returning to Doctor Who, an audience member asked if there was anything Moffat could tell us about the next series. There was talk of a return of the Cybermen, perhaps even an origin story, but Moffat seemed reticent. “Anything is possible… but it’s not an idea that I’m aware of. It’s kind of been done, and I’d be hesitant to return to it. But then I generally speaking lie, so you never know”.

Conscious of potential spoilers, Moffat ended with a tease of series 10: “The Doctor will reliably save the day. There will be big speeches and evil monsters. There will be an epic amount of urgent standing. And you’ll all fall in love with Pearl Mackie as Bill.”