Review: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 26 May 2018.

Earlier this year, The Sun ran a story about a new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the headline “FLAKENSTEINS: Snowflake students claim Frankenstein’s monster was ‘misunderstood’ — and is in fact a VICTIM.” The article was mainly a thinly-veiled excuse to sneer at, among other things, the concept of human rights, but the story was also picking up on a similar article in The Times earlier that week: “Frankenstein’s monster? He was stitched up, say millennials.” The Sun piece caused a predictable round of social media guffaws thanks to its reactionary tone and apparent ignorance that reading Frankenstein’s monster sympathetically is common practice.

This mildly amusing social media storm casts an unexpected light on Jonathan Wright’s translation of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. Also published this year, and shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, one of the themes that Frankenstein in Baghdad explores is the relationship between press sensationalism and the politically complex nature of victimhood. The title ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ itself appears in the novel as a sensationalist media headline, grafted by an unscrupulous editor onto a more sober article by one of the novel’s journalist characters. All the news reports we see are distorted and partisan, and a general atmosphere of confusion and distrust permeates the novel, suitable for the book’s setting between 2003 and 2008. As one character remarks, “We are in the middle of an information war,” and the nature of Baghdad’s ‘Frankenstein’ is one of many contested facts.

The plot is, if not straightforward, at least easy to follow; a Baghdad junk dealer, Hadi, begins collecting the stray limbs and organs of the city’s many bomb victims, stitching them together into a gruesome “Whatsitsname” in the hopes that it might be “respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.” When a hotel guard, Hasib, is vapourised by yet another suicide bomber and his soul is left with nowhere to go, he possesses the Whatitsname and begins pursuing bloody vengeance on the killers of its constituent body parts, attracting the attention of, among others, the Baghdad press, government, and occupation forces.

The book’s large cast means the reader never gets comfortable with a single perspective, and the book’s structure is consistently wrong-footing. Each chapter is broken into five sub-chapters, an appropriately fragmented style which jumbles the chronology and subjectivity of the book’s events. This structure also serves the novel’s absurdist sense of humour, the more outlandish conceits blending in with the surreal detachment from the rest of the war. (A personal favourite moment comes just after the Whatsitsname’s escape: “Hadi went outside and looked up and down the lane for a sign that something strange had happened, but he wasn’t willing to stop any of his neighbours to ask, ‘Excuse me, have you seen a naked corpse walking down the street?’”)

The Whatsitsname himself is a compelling presence, even if the novel’s structure means he’s out of the picture for longer than one might expect. When we do hear from him, it is usually via people who have some professional interest in his existence. His longest section of narration comes via a digital recorder handed to a journalist (the veracity of which is questionable; the possibility that the tape is a hoax is repeatedly brought up). Our experience of the Whatsitsname is deliberately mediated (at one point via a literal medium), and this formal distance prevents the reader from ever trusting or siding with him completely.

What little we do know is continuously warped by rumour, or by simple misinterpretation. At one point the Whatsitsname commits a triple murder in which three homeless men are found dead, having apparently strangled each other. The authorities perceive it as almost artistically perverse (“If Hazem Abboud had seen this and taken a picture, he would have won an international prize”) but the Whatsitsname later explains it was a darkly comic accident. This disconnect is further heightened when the Whatsitsname is profiled in the Baghdad magazine al-Haqiqa (literally ‘the Truth’ in Arabic), and is illustrated by a photo of Robert Deniro from the 1994 film adaptation of Frankenstein. The media, along with almost every other character in the novel, consistently misinterprets and misrepresents the Whatsitsname, contributing to a general sense of unease and distrust around the creature.

In his own telling, the Whatsitsname discovers that, as he takes revenge on the killers of his constituent parts, the avenged parts decay and drop off. To retain a complete body, therefore, necessitates further killings to acquire new parts. At one point he acquires a cult of followers who end up stealing the corpse of a man killed fighting in the streets, forcibly grafting his less innocent organs onto the Whatsitsname’s body, before they themselves are mostly wiped out by infighting. From there, the Whatsitsname begins killing less and less discriminately, even starting to murder innocent people, implicitly because the murderous intent of his new body parts has been incorporated into his personality.

The Whatsitsname’s anxiety over his own makeup is a fascinating tension throughout the novel. Composed of a multitude of people’s remains, from a wide variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, at one point he declares himself “the first true Iraqi citizen.” This mixed identity bleeds into later anxieties about the morality of his actions:

The Whatsitsname was now at a loss for what to do. He knew his mission was essentially to kill, to kill new people every day, but he no longer had a clear idea who should be killed or why. The flesh of the innocents, of which he was initially composed, had been replaced by new flesh, that of his own victims and criminals.

This blurring of victimhood and guilt is one of Saadawi’s clearer inheritances from Shelley, though Saadawi’s setting means that the provenance of the monster’s parts is more central here than in the original. Put simply, it matters who has died, and how, to create Saadawi’s monster. What’s more, the idea of a multitude of parties, combined in one messy, unstable body, whose violence only begets more violence, is a functional metaphor for the war itself. It’s a context far removed from Shelley’s Romantic anxieties, and one possessing a disturbing power of its own.

If the novel has flaws, they mainly come in the last few chapters. The late introduction of the character of “the Writer,” who interviews the rest of the cast and diegetically writes the novel itself, feels a bit too neat for a book so otherwise invested in untrustworthy mediation. Also frustrating is a late twist in Hadi’s own subplot which, while an amusingly sick joke for lovers of the original Frankenstein, feels underdeveloped, blazed past without the space to properly move or horrify.

Overall, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a thoughtful, engaging, and darkly amusing novel. It feels particularly relevant not only post-Iraq War, but in our current age of fake news and cultural warfare. Saadawi’s Whatsitsname, like the original Frankenstein’s Monster, is both victim and villain. The struggle to reconcile the two, and to understand their intersections — a task not helped by hyperbolic, even misleading media portrayals — feels more important than ever.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is available to buy, RRP £12.99. The novel is translated by Jonathan Wright.

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Review: Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain by David Gerard

Among the myriad pleasures of the IT industry, blockchain hype is one of the most baffling. The amount of time I have spent sifting through white papers, press releases, and industry bafflegab about this technology was inversely proportional to how impressed I was when I finally discovered what it was (a fancy database, basically). But blockchain is more famous as the technology underpinning Bitcoin, which, while surrounded by plenty of its own bafflegab, is rather more entertaining to read about, given that it recently suffered the third horrendous market crash in its brief history. Into all this walks David Gerard, whose self-published book, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, sets out to answer the lay person’s main question about Bitcoin: ‘what the hell is this bullshit anyway?’ Crisp, witty, and refreshingly clear-sighted, it is the single best thing I have read about the Bitcoin/blockchain racket, even if it occasionally assumes a bit more technical knowledge than is perhaps reasonable.

The book opens with a lurid taster of things to come. A strange world of internet-based money made with “frightening firetrap computers” in which someone called “Pirateat40” starts a glorified Ponzi scheme, and “Aggrieved investors eventually manage to convince the authorities not only that these Internet tokens are worth anything, but that they gave them to some guy on an internet forum calling himself “Pirate””. The overriding question is quite simply “How did we get here?”

From there the book launches into a straightforward account of the technology behind Bitcoin, explaining what these coins actually are:

“If you “have” bitcoins, you don’t actually have them as things on your computer. What you’ve got is a Bitcoin address (like a bank account number) and the key to that address (another number, which works like the PIN to the first number). The Bitcoin address is mentioned in transactions on the blockchain; the key is the unique thing you have that makes your bitcoins yours.”

As well as how they are ‘mined’ (or ‘created’, to us lay persons):

“Unprocessed transactions are broadcast across the Bitcoin network. A miner collects together a block of transactions and the hash of the last known block. They add an arbitrary “nonce” value, then calculate the hash of the resulting block. If that hash satisfies the current difficulty criterion, they have mined a block! This successful block is then broadcast to the network, who can quickly verify the block is valid. The miner gets 12.5 BTC plus the transaction fees. If they failed, they pick another nonce value and try again.

Since it’s all but impossible to pick what data will have a particular hash, guessing what value will give a valid block takes many calculations – as of June 2017 the Bitcoin network was running 5,500,000,000,000,000,000 (5.5×1018, or 5.5 quintillion) hashes per second, or 3.3×1021 (3.3 sextillion) per ten minutes.

The 3.3 sextillion calculations are thrown away, because the only point of all this technical rigmarole is to show that you can waste electricity faster than everyone else.”

Gerard’s coverage of the technical basics is succinct and clear, but as the introduction suggests, the book’s real appeal is its Case Studies. There is a perverse pleasure in reading how the flawed technology of Bitcoin goes horrendously wrong in practice, and Gerard is merciless in his skewering of the technology’s more cultish advocates. As well as the aforementioned Pirateat40, there is the tale of bright-eyed idealist Ross Ulbricht, owner/operator of darknet market the Silk Road (‘darknet’, i.e. illegal goods and services being the primary non-speculation use for Bitcoin). Ulbricht not only ended up ordering hits on people he deemed a threat to his operation, he also kept a written record of this and other transgressions on the laptop that was eventually seized by law enforcement. Gerard notes that “This file is commonly referred to as “mycrimes.txt,” but its actual name was “log.txt””.

Gerard is delightfully sarcastic in his treatment of the strange ideologues of the Bitcoin world, and provides a brief account of their roots in American Libertarianism, Austrian economics and gold standard fetishism. The short form is that “Bitcoin failed… because all of this is based in crank ideas that don’t work.” It’s a fine summation, but Gerard is largely content to leave it at that —  the chapter on ‘The Bitcoin Ideology’ is relatively short, and one is left with the feeling that a more in-depth exploration of the overlap between Bitcoin and Austrian economics would be worthwhile in its own right. (A good starting point might be this book’s acknowledged sibling, Neoreaction a Basilisk, which contains an essay on the Austrian school, though does not cover Bitcoin specifically).

But Gerard’s book is a general-audiences primer, not an in-depth history, and as such it’s extremely solid. The style may grate for some readers — Gerard is a former contributor to RationalWiki, and the book’s style owes a fair amount to that site, especially in its eye for slick one-liners. The humour is a needed counter-weight to the self-importance of most Bitcoiners, but at times it can feel a bit Christopher Hitchens. While Gerard takes care to explain the key technical terms (and includes a very good glossary) he also assumes a reader with a baseline level of IT competence, especially when he turns to the ‘respectable’ iteration of Bitcoin hype in the form of business blockchain. As a relative newcomer to the IT industry I confess I ended up googling quite a few terms along the way, but Gerard does a good deal more to keep the reader’s feet on the ground than the average blockchain hype-monger, and the reader is never allowed to get completely lost.

The book’s biggest problem is that it will age fairly quickly. In basing itself so heavily in tales of epic failure, the lack of more recent gaffes is palpable. The book was published too early to document the most recent Bitcoin crash, or the ongoing IBM blockchain hype, or the bizarre spectacle of Kodakcoin. So this review comes with a double recommendation; as well as the book, Gerard also runs an excellent blog version of Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, in which he chronicles both the wacky world of cryptocurrencies and the ongoing efforts of the business community to make blockchain happen (it’s never going to happen).

It’s an idiosyncratic journalistic beat, just as Attack winds up a fairly idiosyncratic book (the final chapter, ‘Case Study: Why you can’t put the music industry on a blockchain’ feels like it’s largely there based on the author’s wider interests, though it does have a spectacular Imogen Heap anecdote). But for all the strangeness of his subject matter, Gerard remains resolutely committed to the common sense aesthetic, and it’s one the world of blockchain sorely needs. While there are probably many more books to be written about the history, technology, and culture behind this stuff, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain is an excellent primer on the foolishness surrounding Bitcoin, and a bracing reminder of just what a bad idea the whole thing was in the first place.

Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain is available on Amazon (UK/US) and Smashwords, RRP £3.99/$5.65.

Review: Neoreaction a Basilisk by Elizabeth Sandifer

EDITOR’S NOTE 17/3/17: The author of the book under discussion, Elizabeth Sandifer, recently came out as transgender. This article has been updated accordingly,

The Referendum was over a year ago now, but I still remember June the 24th. The polls had predicted the result for months, so I was unable to share the shock of my social network. I felt only a grim resignation, one I struggled to put into words. Then, around lunchtime, my phone pinged. A book I’d backed over a month ago had finally been delivered. Glad of the distraction, I downloaded the epub.

The first sentence: “Let us assume that we are fucked.”

Ah, yes. That was the stuff.

Specifically, it was Neoreaction a Basilisk, the latest book from blogger and media critic Elizabeth Sandifer. It details the philosophical roots of the Neoreactionary Movement, or the Alt-Right, or the Dark Enlightenment, or whichever name makes them sound most like the villains of a crap cyberpunk novel. They’re essentially a group of ultra hard-rightists, who believe in unchecked capitalism combined with absolute monarchy, with a spoonful of white supremacy to help the medicine go down. They’re a diffuse and largely leaderless group, but they’ve become more visible in the last few years, contributing to the general air of chaos by, among other things, bringing down Hilary Clinton with the power of shitposting, getting appointed to Donald Trump’s cabinet, and leading the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville. They have garnered plenty of mainstream attention, but Sandifer’s book largely eschews their headline-grabbing antics, instead focusing on their philosophical roots, by examining three writers considered foundational to the movement.

First, there’s Eleizer Yudkowsky, an AI researcher and blogger (best known for his epic fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality). Yudkowsky is not himself a neoreactionary, but his blog, LessWrong, dedicated to making sure humanity can be reincarnated on an immortal AI god in the far future, provided an early forum for the movement. Then there’s Mencius Moldbug, A.K.A. Curtis Yarvin, who believes in both absolute monarchy and the reinstitution of slavery, and expresses these views in long-winded blog posts which purport to be political philosophy. And finally there’s Nick Land, an ex-Warwick university researcher who turned hard right and coined the term ‘Dark Enlightenment’.

While Sandifer is open about the factual wrongness of these men, she is far more interested in their existential wrongness, using them as a jumping-off point for discussions about John Milton, China Miéville, and Thomas Ligotti, among others. Sandifer posits that all political philosophy is a response to existential dread — a reaction to the knowledge that we are, indeed, fucked. Whatever problems there are with Sandifer’s methods, she’s certainly in tune with the zeitgeist.

Sandifer’s prose is dense, but accessible, and she’s frequently hilarious in his assessments of Neoreaction. She’s particularly dry in her treatment of Moldbug, the most openly ridiculous of the three, who once seriously argued that Steve Jobs should be crowned King of California, with the aim of maximising the state’s profits. Sandifer notes that “while there are a great many obvious critiques of liberal democracy, “there’s just not enough respect for profit” really doesn’t feel like one of them”. Other highlights include Moldbug’s idea that educational systems make dominant ideologies desirable, to which Sandifer responds “the phrase is not “just as cool as school””, and Moldbug’s maxim on the dangers of democracy, “Cthulhu always swims left.” Sandifer points out that this constitutes a rewrite of “Martin Luther King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” as Lovecraft fanfic”.

This approach can feel ostentatious, especially given the idiocy of the ideas on display, but Sandifer subordinates her quips to more piercing analysis. The key insight is the assessment that we’re fucked from the beginning, which is both depressing and oddly liberating. The book builds ruthlessly from ridiculous blog posts to the fundamental horror of western civilisation, what Nick Land calls “the great black hole that is hidden at the dead center of modern political possibility”. This is the horror embraced by neoreactionaries, and this death-drive is part of what makes them so perverse. In embracing the horror of this view, Sandifer runs the risk of siding with Neoreaction’s outlook, and Land is certainly the most intellectually credible of the book’s unholy trinity. But Sandifer is clear that this view, while intriguing, is one which threatens as much as it enlightens (darkly or otherwise).

While Neoreaction is one half of the title, the other half — the Basilisk — refers to an idea of Yudkowsky’s, which didn’t so much ‘get away from him’ as ‘turn around and bite him in the arse’. Roko’s Basilisk was an idea posed by a commenter on LessWrong, who “used the peculiarities of Yudkowskian thought to posit a future AI that would effectively torture everyone from the present who had ever imagined it for all eternity if they subsequently failed in any way to do whatever they could to bring about its existence”. The result was “a frankly hilarious community meltdown in which people lost their shit as ideas they’d studiously internalized threatened to torture them for all eternity”. Needless to say, “it was not the sort of incident from which one’s school of thought recovers its intellectual respectability.” But ridiculous as it is, the basilisk remains a menacing presence throughout Sandifer’s book. The fear that our ideas could think for themselves, that consciousness itself might be the enemy, is a key part of the assessment that we are fucked.

The slogan ‘take back control’ echoed throughout my reading of the book. It was a fatuous claim when Vote Leave made it, but it might be outright impossible given the reality, not only of global capitalism, but of human thought in general. Neoreaction a Basilisk is frequently a tough read, but as dives into the abyss go, it’s well worth taking. Given the state of global politics — Brexit, President Trump, the looming threat of human extinction — this book feels like essential reading. Just be aware that, when you gaze into the abyss, it may gaze back in the form of shitty blog posts. Oh, to be eaten by a more intelligent monster.

Neoreaction a Basilisk is available from Amazon UK and US, price £4.49/$6.01.

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: Now We Are Six Hundred by James Goss and Russell T Davies

This article first appeared on DoWntime on 14 September 2017.

It’s a fair question why this book exists. With Doctor Who off the air until Christmas and Jodie Whittaker on the horizon, the decision to release a poetry collection, of all things, is  inscrutable. Its author, James Goss, has been writing Doctor Who spinoff material for more than a decade, and its illustrator is Russell T Davies, who famously revived the series in 2005. The result is a book that feels stuck in the past, and its overall tone is wildly confused. It’s hard not to be disappointed, as a fan of both Doctor Who and poetry in general. Now We Are Six Hundred is a wasted opportunity, a funny little footnote on the way to better things.

Of course, it’s the illustrator who is the real draw here. The reasons for this are obvious, but Davies does demonstrate some real artistic talent. His style is somewhere between Martin Brown and Pete McKee, with a scratchy line and exaggerated facial features, which help create a sense of playfulness. As on television, he has a solid line in visual gags, with highlights including K9 sitting on Snoopy’s kennel, and Four using his scarf as a lasso. But he also manages to inject some real pathos. His illustrations of a lonely and abandoned Sarah Jane, or a nostalgic yet forgetful Donna Noble are genuinely moving, and demonstrate real emotional range. Judged solely as a vehicle for Davies’s illustrations, Now We Are Six Hundred is a fabulous success.

Unfortunately, the accompanying poems are uniformly dreadful. Goss bases many of them on the work of A.A. Milne (the title refers to Milne’s Now We Are Six) placing the book firmly in the realm of children’s literature. But there’s very little sense that Goss has engaged with children’s poetry, or indeed poetry in general, beyond 1927. His attention to metre is sloppy at best, and he has a knack for ear-scraping forced rhymes.

Take the poem ‘Absences’, about schoolteacher Clara Oswald disappearing for an adventure, and then reappearing to the consternation of her class. This is prime subject matter for children’s poetry – one can imagine Michael Rosen or Andy Tooze writing something very witty in exactly this vein – but Goss squanders the premise with this final stanza:

“Miss Clara

Slipped back in the

Middle of a lesson. “Now, where were we?”

Where were you?!?” “What’s the hurry?

I’ve been in space, met Ghandhi for curry,

Saved the human race, s’okay don’t worry

And no, don’t thank me.”

Oh Miss Clara

Miss, this time

You’ve gone too far-er.”

Setting aside the appalling last line, the misspelling of Gandhi’s name, and indeed the crassness of ‘meeting him for curry’, what’s most annoying about this poem is the disservice it does to Clara as a character. Throughout the series Clara is framed in terms of both literature and childhood; she’s an English teacher, she refers to ‘basic storytelling’ in explaining things to the Doctor, and her second story involves her literally taking a leaf out of a children’s book. This makes her perfect for a poem like this. But she’s also defined as “a bossy control freak” with a pathological need to keep things in order. So when Goss has her casually disappear for weeks in the first stanza (“Miss Clara?/ Where are yer?”) it simply doesn’t wash. The tension between Clara’s desire for adventure and her need to maintain responsibility is what drives her relationship with the Doctor, and indeed Doctor Who. To have her carelessly swanning off is not just out of character, it misunderstands what makes her character interesting.

This tendency to ignore thematic depth in favour of shallow blandishments is best exemplified in the climactic poem ‘Friend Ship’. It attempts to pay tribute to the Doctor’s companions over the last fifty years, and it does this by simply listing their first names:

“Rose, Jack and Jackie

Martha, (horse) and Mickey.

 

Donna, Donna, Donnaaaa!

(Never forgetting her)

 

Amy, Winston, Rory

River (that’s another story).”

The problem with this list is twofold. First, it relies entirely on the reader knowing who all these characters are, and in quite a lot of detail. We need, for instance, to remember that Donna’s final story involved having her memory wiped, that Winston Churchill appeared in two episodes nearly seven years ago, and that a horse appeared in a single episode more than eleven years ago. No problem for the dedicated adult fan, but surely baffling for the children this book is ostensibly aimed at. But this list also fails by the standards of the continuity-minded adult fan, who will instantly point out that Winston wasn’t ‘really’ a companion, and that the horse’s name was Arthur. Goss has failed to think through his readers’ experience here, and so the book ends up feeling vapid and cynical to an older fan, and likely confusing to a younger one.

But even worse is the poem’s final couplet:

“Then Nardole, Bill and River too

And,

MOST IMPORTANTLY

There’s

YOU.”

This is not just trite and unimaginative, it actively talks down to its supposed audience, something Doctor Who never did under Russell T Davies (or for that matter Steven Moffat). The worst that can be said of Now We Are Six Hundred is that in its fealty to the letter of Doctor Who, it is almost antithetical to its spirit.

The sad thing is, this project could so easily have been better. There are surely dozens of published poets who would love to play with the wealth of concepts (and the wide audience) Doctor Who has to offer. Hell, there are hundreds of writers and artists online doing exactly that, mostly for free. So instead of wasting a tenner on this book, I recommend you go and follow some of them. Particularly good are unknown-companion-poems, Johannesviii, James Wylder, and Jonne Bartelds, all of whose work is far more stylish, and far more deserving of support than Goss and Davies’s efforts. At the end of the day, the value proposition of this book is far less than that of simply opening a Tumblr account.

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.

Review: The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 16 January 2017.

With any new publication, especially concerning the “universal” bard, it’s worth asking, ‘Who is this for?’ The New Oxford Shakespeare is no different. Coming to us from general editors Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan, Oxford University Press’s fourth iteration of the complete works is actually not one book, but four: The Complete Works: Modern Critical Edition (under review here), The Critical Reference Edition (containing the folio and quarto texts in their original spelling), the Authorship Companion (explaining the editors’ choices in detail), and an online resource gathering all of the above. The Complete Works’ modern spelling and slick cover design marks it as one for Waterstones’ shelves, but its prospects for this audience seem dubious. At fifty pounds it’s hardly in the ‘stocking filler’ price range, and it comes at a time when access to Shakespeare is widening anyway, through live streams of major productions and online resources like Folger Digital Texts. Despite apparently having taken 27 credited editors and consultants ten years of work, The New Oxford Shakespeare seems uncertain of its audience, and for all its critical insight it never quite satisfies.

This lack of satisfaction is partly due to a frankly bewildering introduction. The first part, ‘Why Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works?’, takes the standard tack of listing every major historical or literary figure to ever say anything vaguely positive about Shakespeare. This routine list is enlivened by the editors’ knack for cringeworthy phrases. We are told that “Shakespeare is the ghost with the most”, and that The Complete Works is “an anthology of extraordinarily powerful and varied virtual reality game worlds.” Besides the fact that they mix metaphors like a sea of troubles, lines like these feel incredibly patronising, especially addressed to a reader who has already picked up the Complete Works, and so presumably does not need persuading of Shakespeare’s importance. The presentation is also woefully inconsistent. One section attempts to refute accusations of racism in Shakespeare’s plays with a bullet-point list of notable non-white people who have interacted with the bard. All of Shakespeare’s other appreciators are generously discussed in continuous prose rather than simple listing. The introduction also mentions both Delia Bacon and J. Thomas Looney, without once stopping to clarify who these people are, despite its stated aim to create “something more accessible”.

This inconsistency further manifests in the second part of the Introduction, ‘Why Read This Complete Works?’, which explains the book’s editorial decisions. The editors note that this is “the first edition of Shakespeare’s complete works to include music for the songs, whenever a reliable original score is available”. While this is slightly less radical than the editors state (the 2015 Norton Shakespeare’s online edition featured recordings of the original music), it is a genuinely worthwhile move. The Tempest, for example, reads very differently with a more pronounced emphasis on music, and this simple change does more to inspire fresh reading than any waffle about virtual reality. Similarly good are the performance notes accompanying each play. The Tempest opens with the following:

“The play begins aboard a ship at sea. This is often accomplished through the uses of wind machines or sound effects, and ropes and sails manipulated by the actors. In early modern stagings a cannonball was rolled down a wooden trough to simulate the sound of thunder.”

This running commentary draws attention to the gaps and ambiguities of the script, as well as to different periods and types of staging. But while these performance-centric details are admirable, the authorship choices are baffling. Collaboration is this edition’s watchword, reflecting the trend in Shakespeare scholarship over the last fifteen years or so, as seen in books like Shakespeare, Co-Author and William Shakespeare and Others. This edition has grabbed a few headlines for listing Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays. Yet its other choices betray its bardolatry; Shakespeare is interminably front and centre, even when his hand in a play is minimal. The collaboratively-written The Spanish Tragedy and Sir Thomas More are represented only by the bits ‘probably’ written by Shakespeare, with no indication of what came before or after, obscuring his impact on the overall script, and frustrating any reader unfamiliar with the plays. This fragmented presentation comes to a head with The History of Cardenio. A lost collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, it was adapted by eighteenth century playwright Lewis Theobald as Double Falsehood. In presenting it here the editors have used specialist software to identify the words most likely to have been written by Shakespeare, and left out everything else. This approach results in unreadable gobbets of text:

RODERICK   Why he hath pressed this absence, sir I know not
But [             ]  letters [
Wherein [Cardenio], good Camillo’s son,
[             ] (as he says) [
[                                 ] gold
To purchase certain horse that like him well

know the value of

There is some critical value to an exercise like this, but presenting it this way is not only frustrating to read (and hardly accessible for the general reader), it contradicts the sense of co-authorship the editors seek to emphasise. It may have been better to include the complete texts while typographically demarcating the collaborators. The Oxford Middleton, for instance, put Middleton’s additions to Macbeth in bold, and the Arden Titus Andronicus presents an inserted scene in a different typeface. The insistence on isolating Shakespeare serves to increase his iconic stature, rather than qualify it.

All told, The New Oxford Shakespeare has a distressing tendency to miss the wood for the trees. For the most egregious example we must return to the introduction. In relating Shakespeare to today’s theatre, the editors spend a page on Hamilton, ‘the most conspicuous theatrical event of the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death.’ The influence, it turns out, is fairly minor, but the truly shocking moment comes in reference to playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dedicatory sonnet at the Tony Awards. The editors dutifully mention that it contained “the very Shakespearean tautology “And love is love is love is love is love”.” What they fail to mention is that the sonnet was written in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting that happened the same week. This is The New Oxford Shakespeare in a nutshell. For all its worthwhile contributions, its careful attention to detail, and its slick presentation, it suffers from a near total divorce from the context in which its material appears, be it that of 1616 or 2016.

‘The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition’ is available to buy in hardback, RRP £50.