Recent Reading Roundup 57
The first recent reading roundup of 2023 comes smack in the middle of the awards-reading period. Two of the novels discussed here have already been nominated for the Nebula (alas, I found both of them rather disappointing). The two novellas I review are ones that I hope to see on awards shortlists in the near future. And then there are a couple of random non-SFF novels, both of which surprised me, albeit in different ways. I'll have more about my Hugo nominations as we get closer to the deadline, but if you've been reading my blog for the last year, I think you probably have a good idea of what I plan to nominate.
- Babel by R.F. Kuang - one can sense echoes of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell throughout Kuang's new standalone novel—in its early 19th century, English setting; in its copious use of footnotes; in the way its characters, who are mostly academics and scholars, systematize magic and try to render it rational and scientific; most of all, in the way that magic is used to further the English nationalist and colonialist project. As previously discussed, Susannah Clarke's massively successful, beloved debut novel has had few direct successors, and one possible reason for that is the way that it mostly elides—or at best, obliquely references—English racism and colonialism. Kuang is thus one of a small number of writers to attempt to reverse that tendency, to reclaim the Oxbridge fantasy subgenre for an explicitly anti-racist project. But in the rush to counter any hint of obliqueness, she has produced something plodding and lead-footed, a book that never trusts its readers to reach a conclusion without banging them on the head with it. You see this, in particular, in the aforementioned footnotes, which are frequently deployed to hammer in a point or run into the ground what might otherwise have been a bit of dramatic irony. When a young boy reads Mansfield Park and wonders why Sir Thomas Bertram is always running off to Antigua, Kuang doesn't trust her readers to understand her reference. She makes sure to include a footnote informing us that this is "Because he owned slaves."
The boy is question is Robin Swift, who at the beginning of the novel is rescued (slash abducted) from a Canton plague house by his patron, a professor at Oxford's institute of translation, colloquially known as Babel. (Kuang has provided Babel with its own Oxford building, conveniently constructed as a tower; this is definitely one of the novel's frequent forays into clomping obviousness, but it's a cool image so it works a lot better than many other such instances.) England's empire, as Robin and we learn, is underpinned by magic derived from translation. By drawing on the power of the semantic slippage between similar words in different languages, the empire powers its steam engines, props up its public edifices, and lends speed and force to its warships. The catch is that only native speakers of both languages can activate this effect, and as English has become intermixed with other European languages (thus collapsing the semantic differences between them), Babel's scholars have had to range further afield for people who can perpetuate the empire's power. Robin is part of a new generation of scholars, raised abroad speaking both English and their native languages, then brought to England as children to be trained not only in Babel's techniques, but in the unthinking acceptance of English (and white) superiority.
The metaphor at the center of Babel is a powerful one. Robin and his cohort are literally being made into the tools of empire, their foreignness the fuel that powers its engines (while ultimately consuming itself, and forcing the empire to colonize even more foreign territories and languages in order to sustain its power). But Kuang never trusts the readers to understand this. Everything in Babel—Robin's profound ambivalence towards England, his mingled love for Oxford and awareness that he will always be treated as an interloper there, his desire to strike out against the empire and fear of the consequences of doing so—is written in seventy-point letters, reinforced and reiterated until it loses all flavor. It certainly doesn't help that the bulk of Babel proceeds along the lines of a very familiar bildungsroman, whose highlights—Robin making friends with his classmates, becoming disillusioned with his sponsor, learning the dark secrets of how Babel is used to maintain England's colonial grip, and realizing that his white friends are unable to grasp how his experiences as a person of color differ from theirs—arrive in exactly the moment and manner one anticipates.
This lingering over Robin's coming of age is particularly unfortunate because it forestalls the arrival of Babel's most powerful and interesting element. In its promotional materials (including its faux-antiquated subtitle, An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution) the novel sells itself as that rare thing, a fantasy story about labor action. And indeed, in the novel's final act Robin, recognizing that his skills are necessary to the perpetuation of empire, threatens to withhold them, barricading himself in Babel along with other translators who are disgusted with the empire and its treatment of them. For a moment, we get a glimpse of a different version of the story in which Robin's is merely one voice among many, and in which the probably-doomed but still exhilarating prospect of the colonized taking ownership of the fruits of their labor becomes the crux of the novel. But this development comes so late that there's barely any room for it to be explored before the final page arrives, and so the overwhelming impression of the novel remains Robin's predictable path to radicalization, rather than its results.
January Fifteenth by Rachel Swirsky - It's not uncommon for science fiction to engage with the political and economic issues of its day, but Swirsky's novella might be a harbinger of a new trend, of science fiction works that imagine how the popular leftist policy positions of their moment would play out in reality. January fifteenth is the day on which, in the near-future of the story's setting, the US government disburses the yearly UBI payment to every one of its citizens. The story follows four women over the course of this day. Hannah is a mother of two on the run from her abusive ex-wife, for whom her "oobi" payment is a double-edged sword. It has allowed her to escape, but the necessity of picking up the check in person is an opportunity for her ex to discover where she's staying and return to terrorize her and the children. Janelle is a political activist turned freelance journalist, who spends "Windfall Day" interviewing people about their opinions on the policy and what they plan to do with the sudden influx of cash. On this January fifteenth she has her teenage sister Nevaeh, whom she is raising after the death of their parents, in tow, which triggers a long-overdue conversation about her decision to leave activism behind. Olivia is a rich girl reuniting with high school friends after a year away at college, whose annual Windfall Day tradition is to find the most ostentatious way to waste their disbursement as soon as they receive it. And Sarah is a pregnant teenage member of a fundamentalist Mormon sect, angrily trudging with her sister-wives to receive the checks that allow them to maintain their way of life, but starting to consider the possibility of doing something different.
If there's a thread uniting these four narratives, it is the fact that UBI is not a panacea that resolves all social problems, and in fact goes some way towards exacerbating some of them. You see this, first of all, in the way the policy has been implemented—forcing people to come in and receive a physical check can endanger abuse victims like Hannah, for whom UBI is the only means of escaping their abuser (though it also forces Sarah's community to engage with the outside world, producing opportunities for at least some members to break away). Janelle interviews a disabled woman who points out that once UBI was implemented, other social programs were cut back, which left people depending on, for example, home health care high and dry. Politicians are constantly threatening to deny UBI to felons (who are still disproportionately non-white) and immigrants. But there are also some fundamental philosophical disagreements with the policy on display in the story. Nevaeh spends the day reminding Janelle that she used to campaign against UBI, arguing that it was a bandage whose universality was a means of avoiding tough conversations about who in American society is owed a leg up. It also feels significant that the real progress characters make in getting out of bad situations is achieved not through an influx of money into their bank accounts, but because of human interference—the social workers who offer Sarah a safe haven, or the neighbor who helps Hannah chase away her ex-wife.
Each of the stories is delicately and thoughtfully handled, as we've come to expect from Swirsky. But taken together, the result can end up feeling a little lopsided. There are examples in the novella of the good UBI does—a nurse who observes that Windfall Day is always one of the hospital's busiest, because people can finally afford to pay for treatment; a guest at Olivia's party who rails at the entitlement and obliviousness of throwing the disbursement away, who turns out to have been using UBI to pay for college; any number of people interviewed by Janelle who are treating themselves to something nice or throwing a party for their friends and neighbors. But for the most part, these people are pretty far in the background, whereas the voices that speak against UBI are given far more space and attention. I don't think the ultimate goal of January Fifteenth was to make an anti-UBI argument—though its point that the policy is insufficient in itself is inarguable—so much as that it assumes everyone knows what the arguments for the policy are, and overcorrects in making the counterpoint. Even with that complaint, the story is worth discovering for its exploration of how economic policy would change the lives of ordinary people (and how some of their problems would remain the same), and for placing politics at the center of its storytelling.
The House of Fortune by Jessie Burton - At the end of her wildly successful 2014 debut The Miniaturist, Burton presented an alluring yet gruesome tradeoff. Heroine Petronella Brandt, a 17th century gentlewoman, stands alone amidst the ruins of the family she has recently married into. Her husband, Johannes, has been executed for homosexuality, and her sister-in-law, Marin, has died giving birth to an illegitimate child. Nella, the teenage bride they bought to conceal their indiscretions, now has charge of Marin's baby Thea, forming an ad-hoc family unit with the baby's father, Johannes's formerly-enslaved manservant Otto, and housekeeper Cornelia. But, as a wealthy widow in the mercantile capital of Amsterdam, she also has the freedom to pursue her own career in business . One of the first things established at the outset of The House of Fortune, Burton's unlooked-for sequel to The Miniaturist, is the swift unraveling of that promised future. Nella's gender, Otto's race, and the scent of scandal still wafting over the Brandt name, we learn, all combined to make it impossible for them to do business in conservative, appearance-obsessed Amsterdam. As the novel opens, eighteen years after the end of The Miniaturist, the Brandts are on the verge of destitution. This is only one of the ways in which The House of Fortune systematically dismantles the core assumptions of its previous volume, and though the result is no less engrossing and finely-observed than that novel, fans of the earlier book may find themselves feeling disoriented by the turns taken in this new one.
The novel alternates between the viewpoints of Nella and the just-turned-eighteen Thea. Bowed down by financial worries and fearful for her niece's future, Nella has become convinced that the same scheme that proved such a mixed blessing in her own life will secure Thea's safety and happiness, and sets out to find her a rich husband. Thea, meanwhile, has had her head turned by the theater and its dramas, and is determined to marry for love—perhaps specifically, the handsome set-painter Walter. The new perspective serves to complicate our understanding of the first novel and its characters. In The Miniaturist, Nella was defined by her sense of duty, her willingness to sell herself into marriage to help her impoverished family, and then to carry the burden of Johannes and Marin's secrets, and of maintaining their family name after their deaths. When seen through Thea's eyes, however, that self-sacrifice—and Nella's expectation that Thea do the same, making pragmatic choices for her and her family's future—is taken for heartlessness. Her head filled with poetry and dramatic speeches, Thea is convinced that she alone knows what love is, and rejects in disgust Nella's insistence that love can mean many different things, and should sometimes pause to consider practical considerations.
If this is ringing some bells, it may not surprise you to learn that large parts of the novel's middle segment appear to have been lifted whole cloth from Sense and Sensibility. Thea, in particular, does an excellent job of evoking the mingled feelings of protectiveness and exasperation one often has towards Marianne Dashwood—like Marianne, you want to throttle her for her selfishness and certainty that she knows best, while also feeling outraged on her behalf when the world takes advantage of her open heart. But Burton adds other layers to the familiar Austen-ian characters, ones inflected by finance, class, and most of all race. Thea may be stubbornly blind when it comes to Walter, and deeply unkind to her aunt, but she's also a lot stronger than Nella gives her credit for, able to dismiss the condescension of the city's shallow, petty elites in a way that Nella, so desperate to make a good match for her, won't allow herself to do. And Nella's sense of duty often seems to slip into self-martyrdom, an injured desire to be appreciated for everything she's given up when, as Otto repeatedly points out, she had, and continues to have, other options. Most of all, there is the fact that Otto and Thea are people of color in a city where others of their race are almost exclusively servants. As Otto keeps trying to explain to Nella, the men she's trying to foist Thea on are likely to look on her as little more than an exotic ornament—a truth Nella recognizes almost too late.
The result has a bit of creakiness to it—one can tell that Burton hadn't always planned to write this sequel by how she gets rid of Nella's own family, whose absence is necessary to make the plot work, in a way that ends up making her heroine look quite cruel. The reappearance of the miniaturist, who sends Thea coded trinkets as she once did to her aunt, feels almost perfunctory (the actual woman is never seen). And at the close of the novel there are several loose threads—in particular, unresolved issues between Otto and Nella, both of whom have legitimate grievances against the other—that might imply that another sequel is in the works, but alternatively might simply be a sign that they're not where Burton's interest lies. But the heart of the novel—the healing of the mother-daughter relationship between its two heroines, and their mutual realization that they can find freedom and new possibilities away from Amsterdam's stifling marriage market—is moving and effective. The final reversal offered by The House of Fortune is that where The Miniaturist saw Amsterdam as a city of possibility and freedom, in this new novel it is a trap whose norms of conformity and propriety nearly destroy the Brandt family. It remains to be seen whether their second new beginning will prove more successful than the first.
The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler - Nayler's debut has lofty goals, and a premise that will be instantly appealing to science fiction fans. Its execution, however, often falls short of its ambitions. In the near-future, marine biologist Ha Nguyen travels to an abandoned Vietnamese archipelago where for decades there have been legends of a sea monster. Ha's corporate sponsors believe that the tales may indicate the existence of a species of octopus who have developed language, culture, and tool use. With the assistance of Evrim, the world's only (allegedly) sentient android, Ha begins tracking the creatures and trying to come up with techniques for communicating with what is ultimately an alien intelligence—one that justifiably views humans with suspicion. As their research progresses, Ha and Evrim also begin to grasp the ulterior motives of their sponsors, who are looking for insights into other forms of intelligence in order to advance their AI projects, and have no interest in protecting the octopuses. Other plot strands involve the hacker Rustem, who has been hired to suborn Evrim, and programmer Eiko, abducted and forced into slavery on an automated fishing trawler.
The core problem with The Mountain in the Sea is that it has a lot of great ideas, but doesn't go very far into developing any of them. The geopolitics of the novel's world are reminiscent of Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence—lots of political fragmentation and corporate entities with nation-like powers. But in practice, the world feels empty. It's hard to believe that any of it exists outside the characters' points of view. Eiko being trapped on a crazed automated ship that is trying, Universal Paperclips-fashion, to empty the oceans of every last bit of protein because that is its only directive is an eerie image, but we never get a sense of how this system came into being, whether it reflects a change in consumption habits due to climate change, and whether the enslavement of people aboard these ships is something anyone is trying to stop. Other geopolitical entities are mentioned, such as an all-powerful Tibetan protectorate, or the war where Ha and Evrim's security officer, Altantsetseg, acquired both ferocious scars and an array of psychological issues. But rather than coming together into a coherent world, these feel like opaque tokens that exist purely in order to move the plot where it needs to go.
Similarly, readers of books like Peter Watts's Blindsight will recognize a lot of the ideas raised here about intelligence—in particular, that human-like sentience is a response to specific evolutionary pressures, and that it is entirely possible for other species to develop equivalent intelligence while still being entirely different from us psychologically. But this is about as far as Nayler goes with this concept. He comes up with some original ideas for how the octopus society might look and function, but as Ha's explorations of this society progress, he keeps finding new ways for her to breathlessly say the same things about it, over and over again. More interesting is the novel's handling of AI, and through it, the notion that things that look like sentience and intention can be little more than clever algorithms—such as the bustling trade in AI companions who provide their users with emotional support and intellectual stimulation without ever coming close to real personhood. But this is all leading up to the question of Evrim's sentience, and here again Nayler fails to persuade. Evrim never feels convincingly alien—Ha muses, for example, that a sentient being who is unable to forget would be radically different, emotionally as well as intellectually, from a human, but this never actually shows up on the page. Ha's ultimate conclusion that Evrim is, despite his own misgivings, truly sentient feels less like the outcome of anything we've witnessed from the character, and more like a foregone conclusion.
As Nayler makes clear with an abundance of on-the-nose speeches and internal monologues, the ultimate concern of The Mountain in the Sea is empathy—the ability to see ourselves not just in the alien intelligence of the octopuses or an AI like Evrim, but in each other. To overcome the alienation that makes it possible to scroll past news of the exploitation of people like Eiko, or use your skills for corporate espionage and murder like Rustem. But the novel's success at eliciting that reaction is spotty. The octopuses are cool, and Eiko's story is very affecting, but in other places it feels as if the narrative is hammering at a point that it hasn't managed to earn. Ha and Evrim's deepening friendship, for example, is mostly rooted in the two of them delivering speeches at each other. Taken as a whole, the book feels like a sketch of what it wanted to accomplish, without the shading that would have successfully done so.
Small Game by Blair Braverman - Probably best known for the delightful twitter account in which she chronicles her misadventures with an adorable dog-sledding team, Braverman is an outdoorswoman with a great love of nature, but also a healthy respect for its dangers, and a profound understanding of the reasons that humans throughout history have sought to insulate themselves from it. In her first novel (she has already written several volumes of nonfiction), she explores all of these reactions to the great outdoors when she posits a survival reality show gone wrong. Our protagonist, Mara, is an instructor at a survival school who signs on to Civilization, a show in which contestants are left in the wilderness with minimal clothing and no supplies (they're each given the choice of one tool) and challenged to survive for six weeks. Mara's fellow contestants are Ashley, a fair-weather camper who hopes to use the show to jumpstart an entertainment career; Kyle, a dogmatic but insecure nineteen-year-old who idolizes Chris McCandless; and Bullfrog, a loner survivalist. In the first half of the novel, cameras dog the survivors' every step as they build a shelter, forage for food, and try to come up with schemes for hunting or trapping. Then, about halfway through the shoot, the crew disappears, and what was once a game becomes a terrifying reality.
Somewhat unfairly for someone who already wears so many hats, Braverman turns out to be a skilled and compelling writer. Small Game is told in lean, propulsive prose that both pulls you along the story, and captures its natural setting in all its beauty, complexity, and treacherousness—a bundle of moss that Mara collects for bedding turns out to be infested with beetles; walking in the river is easier than on land but carries the risk of slipping on a slime-covered rock. Even before the cameras disappear and the danger the characters are in becomes real, the novel does a great job of conveying the enormity of the task before them. How everything that we take for granted in making our lives possible—the easy availability of food, clothing, and tools—is the product of someone's thought and labor. When left to build that apparatus from the ground up, the survivors find themselves dangerously close to starvation, and scrambling for even the most meager of comforts. At the same time, these chapters also foreground the very modern concerns of navigating a reality show—Mara tolerates the obviously creepy attentions of one of the camera operators in exchange for extra food and backstage gossip, while Ashley parlays her looks (she has successfully smuggled a comb onto the shoot) into hero shots that downplay her relative lack of survival skills.
In the hands of another author (or, for that matter, in the hands of the show's producers if it had ever gone to air), it's easy to imagine the stereotypes that the survivors could have slotted into: Ashley, the vapid fame-whore; Kyle, the budding incel; Bullfrog, the right-wing loon. Part of Braverman's project with this novel is to approach her characters with far more compassion and respect. They're all flawed, and they all let the stress of the situation get the better of them sometimes. But ultimately, they care about one another and want to help each other survive. It's just that their good intentions might not be enough, in the face of the challenge they're up against. (This makes Small Game a perfect read if, like me, you're increasingly frustrated by how a show like Yellowjackets chooses to goose up an already terrifying situation with psychotic personalities and dark magic.) Mara, in particular, is a wonderful creation, practical and level-headed but also a bit of a loner, unaccustomed to human connection after a childhood spent with back-to-earth parents who became increasingly paranoid and isolationist. Of the group, she's probably the most equipped to survive alone in nature, but also repeatedly blindsided by her emotions—her immediate, intense attraction to Ashley, or the need to care for one of the others after they're injured.
Ultimately, Small Game is less about survival as it is about the double-edged sword of human connection. Human relationships are complex and thorny—Mara and Ashley's romance turns out to be more utilitarian than she had originally realized; Bullfrog eventually admits to being estranged from his daughter. It's easy to see the attraction of walking away from all that in order to become one with a natural world that demands nothing from you. As Mara muses, there's something primal about what people become when they're deprived of the comforts of civilization, reduced to their desperate need for food and shelter. But valorizing that transformation—as so many of her clients at the survival school do, or as the producers of the show are implicitly suggesting—is, she realizes, missing the point. As much love and respect as Braverman and her characters have towards nature, Small Game is ultimately a paean to all the things we (and the generations that came before us) have created to separate us from it, and do more than just survive. Mara's survival ends up hinging on her ability to form a community with her fellow contestants, and the happy ending for that community (those of it who make it to the end, that is) is finding a way to rejoin real civilization.
The Two Doctors Górski by Isaac Fellman - Dark academia is all the rage right now, and in some ways, Fellman's recent novella slots very comfortably into that subgenre, in which young seekers after knowledge get more than they bargained for when they arrive in the halls of the academy. The focus on STEM and on such mundanities as getting facetime with one's advisor, however, are just the first things that set this story apart from the pack. Heroine Annae Hofstader is an American graduate student in magic who arrives at an invented, Oxbridge-esque college hoping to complete her PhD, which involves experiments in mice in which she magically removed their sense of fear—a result Annae hopes to replicate in humans as a magical alternative to anti-anxiety drugs (as soon as she can overcome the pesky side effect of the mice subsequently developing brain tumors). Annae's new advisor is Marec Górski, a former wunderkind best known for having split himself into two people at the height of his career, a technique that wizards use to rid themselves of unwanted character traits, but which invariably leaves the original shattered. Marec, accordingly, hasn't done any new work since creating his homunculus Ariel. When Annae meets him, he is an embittered man who bullies his advisees and has a reputation for accepting female, American students merely for the pleasure of chasing them away.
It would be a glib reduction to say that the darkness in The Two Doctors Górski's dark academia is rooted purely in the mundane horrors of the academy's often-abusive treatment of its most junior members. The novella does feature such supernatural horrors as Annae slipping into the minds of her fellow students and professors in order to find out what they think of her, a dissociative habit that only exacerbates her anxiety and depression. And late in the story she semi-accidentally applies her fear-removing technique to another grad student, rendering him incapable of almost all emotion. But the trigger for the story is the sort of horror that happens in our world all too often. Annae, having been hailed as a genius for her mice study, had her career destroyed when her first advisor—who was also her lover—announced to the world that she was a fraud and an intellectual lightweight, who had seduced him into acclaiming her work. She has come to study with Marec, even knowing his reputation, because he's the only one who will accept her into his program. Fellman excels at capturing the insidiousness of this sort of abuse of power, how it has shattered Annae's confidence and hopefulness, even as she's forced to perform them if she's to have any chance of salvaging her career. A particularly cruel twist is the fact that many people in her field understand that Annae has been slandered, but still see her as damaged goods, worried that the trauma she's experienced has left her incapable of doing new work (this is Marec's excuse for refusing to approve her proposed studies, insisting that he is waiting to see if she's stable enough to be worthy of his tutelage).
The Two Doctors Górski is thus a MeToo story, but one that refuses easy categorizations into good and evil. Annae is a victim, but she also casually violates others' boundaries, and is capable of doing tremendous harm to them. Marec is a monster, but one whose defeat does little to solve Annae's problems, and may even be a distraction from the real work ahead of her, that of processing the unraveling of her life and choosing a new direction for it. The relationship that develops between them is twisty and claustrophobic, exacerbating their worst qualities and intensifying Annae's depression and growing indifference to her work. (That feeling of intense closeness is ably conveyed by Fellman's prose, which is plain but insistent, effortlessly capturing a character, a setting, and most of all a demented, damaging situation in just a few lines.) A central theme in the story is the idea of compartmentalizing yourself, cutting off the parts that you hate, as Annae is trying to do with anxiety, and as Marec did with the qualities he thought were preventing him from doing top-notch science. Annae becomes obsessed with understanding Marec, to which end she seeks out Ariel, now a doctor of psychology. He correctly intuits that she is on the verge of attempting the same split that created him and Marec, which is perhaps a form of suicide, but one that—as we see from the aftermath of Marec's own efforts—can end up having destructive after-effects long after it's achieved.
The crux of the story becomes, then, not whether Annae can restart her career and "prove" her naysayers wrong, but whether she can save herself—an echo, perhaps, of the way that so many academic refugees have been questioning the core assumptions of the institution. The Two Doctors Górski does not offer a clear-cut conclusion to its story, nor a redemptive triumph at its end (if anything, the story's epilogue implies that academia remains just as congenial to uncaring, privileged men, and just as hostile to anyone who doesn't fit that template). But it does offer its characters acceptance and forgiveness, the chance to move forward as whole people, instead of lopping off parts of themselves to fit a toxic ideal.