Saturday, November 6, 2021

Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

It's the mid 2010s, and suddenly, women everywhere discover they can produce and control electricity. This power has a seismic effect on societies across the globe (the parallels with COVID-19 are stark and in some ways prophetic) as people react to the balance of power between men and women is thrown topsy-turvy. The inversion of gender stereotypes is intentionally overt. If the idea of exploring this thought experiment holds no charm for you, it will be a charmless read. 

The story telling is allegorical, both textually and meta-textually. The framing story is one of a (male) writer 5000 years into the future, presenting his well-researched but unorthodox theory for how his contemporary matriarchal society may have arisen. He notes to his (female) colleague that the characters are just instruments he uses to describe what he thinks could have happened. But of course, the characters also play the same role for Alderman in her exploration of gender and power structures.

Being allegorical, the message of the story is more important than the nuances of the character arcs or the world-building. One possible interpretation of its message is that if women were more powerful than men, it would be a matter of just years before the world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation. It wouldn't be a technically incorrect interpretation of the plot of the novel, just an obtuse one.

Another interpretation of the message is that there is no possibility of overcoming ingrained sexual or class disparities except through a Pyrrhic victory - only a cataclysmic event in which society must redevelop from the stone age could bring women to the same place of power as men.

The women will die just as much as the men will if we bomb ourselves back to the Stone Age.

And then we'll be in the the Stone Age.

Er. Yeah.

And then there will be five thousand years of rebuilding, five thousand years where the only thing that matters is: can you hurt more, can you do more damage, can you instill fear?


And then the women will win.

But I do think Alderman is a little more optimistic than that. Change without a cataclysm seems possible for her heretical historian:

The world is the way it is now because of five thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent... But we don't have to act that way now. We can think and imagine ourselves differently once we understand what we've based our ideas on.

Through Mother Eve's voice, this change requires collective action:

It follows that there are two ways for the nature and use of human power to change. One is that an order might issue from the palace, a command unto the people saying “It is thus.” But the other, the more certain, the more inevitable, is that those thousand thousand points of light should each send a new message. When the people change, the palace cannot hold. 
And this change requires recognizing that men and women are equally prone to violence and vengeance and other destructive tendencies, that it is the centuries or millennia of systemic power differences that produces the behaviours we see now.

I particularly loved the framing story. The little microaggressions from the female reviewer to the male author (including the final line of the book: "Neil, I know this might be very distasteful to you, but have you considered publishing this book under a woman's name?") were amusing, as were her arguments against his theory:

Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women - with babies to protect from harm - have had to become aggressive and violent. The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places.

I think it did a fantastic job at showing how our current cultural lens shapes our understanding of history.

This is the trouble with history. You can't see what's not there. You can look at an empty space and see that something's missing, but there's no way to know what it was.

However, I think I enjoy this book more in the rear view mirror. While reading it, I felt like it was overly long, with a rather long, odd and unnecessary "beware of fascism" detour. It could have been a fantastic novella, but it was an okay novel.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Review: Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy

Wow—what a premise. A disgraced scientist discovers a way for women to give birth to clones of themselves (through parthenogenesis), and convinces nine women to bring nine daughters into the world and live together in a remote commune. Angry men, claiming God is on their side, burn down the community and the women and their daughters scatter across the country. Twenty years later, Mother One goes missing and Girl One has to find her.

I had so many questions and I couldn't wait for the author to explore them. What would motivate women to undergo something so very experimental for such an important and private part of your life? Were they particularly interested in creating miniatures of themselves, or was it the ability to becomes mothers without the involvement of men that appealed to them? Why live together in a commune? Was it a recognition that it takes a village to raise a child? Was it polyamoury? In what ways is the mother-daughter bond different when you share 100% of your genetic materials but experience very different childhoods?

Flannery Murphy found more to explore in the younger generation, however. That's not entirely unjustified—what is it like to not have a genetic father, to grow up famous for being a scientific miracle? But I found the answer to these questions a little unsatisfying. Respectively: you idolize a creepy scientist as a father figure; you sometimes give a bad media interview here and there and kids are a little mean about it but it isn't anything you can't shrug off.

What's most frustrating about this difference in emphasis is that the Mother generation becomes all the more fascinating as the mysteries of Dr Bellanger's role in the "scientific miracle" and who started the fire are revealed. We learn that the Mothers were women who came together as a group out of a desire to re-discover parthenogenesis—placing themselves in the footsteps from women from witchy folkloric tales who seem to have been able to give birth to daughters without fathers, although not recognized as such at the time. With their research coming to dead ends, they sought out a scientist to help them achieve this goal, and eventually discovered the ability to become pregnant on their own without his interference. Feeling threatened by these women no longer needing him at all, Dr Bellanger manipulated and abused the women. Eventually, he burned down the house, faking his death and the death of Girl Nine, who showed telekinetic abilities. These were some delightful, unexpected, and unique twists!

In contrast, the Daughter generation discovering and combing to terms with their latent magical powers felt like well-trodden ground for anyone that lived through our present era of unending Marvel blockbusters. It was a bit of a waste of such a neat premise.

I think there is space to have told the story that Flannery Murphy ultimately told, without keeping the Mother generation at arm's length. The "found media" of newspaper clipping and letters that she already used would have been a perfect device to explore the relationship between Mother One and Trish, or how the Mothers all found one another.

Character study failings aside, I thought the social commentary was explored well. As in our world, in the world of Girl One, men respond to the loss of power over women with violence and misogyny (I get the sense that Sarah Flannery Murphy would enjoy Down Girl by Kate Manne). Men, like Dr Bellanger, insert themselves into the birthing process in positions of power and authority without respect for the autonomy of women, from abortion policies to obstetric practices. Dr Bellanger does as too many men have done before him, and steals the spotlight from women and minimizes their contributions. Through Dr Bellanger's fear and jealousy at Lilliane conceiving a second child all on her own, we see a science fiction version of the uncertainty of paternity compared to the certainty of a woman always knowing the mother of the child within her. 

I got the sense that the author was familiar with the feminist movements of the 1970s and the 1990s, the decades in which the bulk of the story was set. The characters felt like 1970s feminists and 1990s feminists, not post-slut walk or post-#MeToo feminists transported through time into the 1970s and the 1990s. I mean this in a good way; the debate was kept fresh by the unusual premise.

The blurb of the book compared the story to Margaret Atwood's work, and I think this expectation worked to Girl One's detriment. I found the prose uninteresting and the dialogue and scene structure a little pulpy. I pushed myself through the first quarter out of sheer stubbornness to learn whether the boring-as-oatmeal main character's worship of the creepy Dr Bellanger was a brilliant portrayal of an unreliable narrator or astounding lack of insight on behalf of the author. (This is not the first time I've read a book for that reason!) Fortunately, it turned out to be the former, and once I adjusted my expectations that the book was going to be a medium-smart thriller with a penchant for giving implausible excuses for why the Most Dramatic Decision must always be made it was a fun enough ride.

Ignore the book's tagline and any other media that compares this book to The Handmaid's Tale. The last bit of the book blurb, "Girl One combines the provocative imagination of Naomi Alderman’s The Power with the propulsive, cinematic storytelling of a Marvel movie", is far more accurate.


Saturday, August 7, 2021

Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I'm not really sure why this book was written. In the afterward, Atwood says it was in part a response to the many questions she'd received in the 30 years since The Handmaid's Tale about how Gilead fell. But the Gilead state was not, to me at least, the interesting part of the novel, as I've written before. Instead, I loved the exploration of how Offred, Moira, the Commander, and others reacted to the changing society; how they survived, how they rationalized their choices. It was very human; these dynamics exist in us now, in non-Gilead states. That is, to me at least, what 'good' science fiction and fantasy should be.

The book instead reads like fan fiction: some fan desperate to know what became of Offred's daughter and her suspected pregnancy writes a well-paced if somewhat predictable and plothole-riddled [1 (spoiler)]
account of the two half-siblings reuniting and bringing down the dystopian State.

I said above that I'm not really sure why this book was written, but I have a theory that Atwood used it to explore her own feelings in response to changing cultures as someone in a position of relative power. Atwood is included on many lists of prominent Canadians and on many lists as standout authors of twentieth century literature. With this clout, she has come under fire for protecting the status quo, and complaining about the mobs on twitter.

It's hard to read parts of Aunt Lydia's autobiography and not see in them Atwood defending her own actions (or lack thereof), warning of the terror of cancel culture, and pondering her own legacy:

How will I end? I wondered. Will I live to a gently neglected old age, ossifying by degrees? Will I become my own honoured statue? Or will the regime and I both topple and my stone replica along with me, to be dragged away and sold off as a curiosity, a lawn ornament, a chunk of gruesome kitsch? Or will I be put on trial as a monster, then executed by firing squad and dangled from a lamppost for public viewing? Will I be torn apart by a mob and have my head stuck on a pole and paraded through the streets to merriment and jeers?
I meant well too, I sometimes mumble silently. I meant it for the best, or for the best available, which is not the same thing. Still, think how much worse it could have been if not for me.
She also perhaps still has some things to say about #MeToo that she wasn't able to include in her OpEd:
Innocent men denying their guilt sound exactly like guilty men, as I am sure you have noticed, my reader. Listeners are inclined to believe neither.
She seems aware, also, that some may read into this book the way I have:
You’ll labour over this manuscript of mine, reading and rereading, picking nits as you go, developing the fascinated but also bored hatred biographers so often come to feel for their subjects. How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? you will ask. You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to.

There was an intriguing bit of revisionism I noticed. In The Handmaid's Tale, the birth crisis was blamed on AIDS and nuclear power. In The Testaments, it is blamed on nuclear power, no mention of AIDS. (Is this cancel culture at work?)

I found the prose in this book much less vivid and enthralling than in the first. The first had these beautiful/horrific passages weaving together imagery of flowers and sex and food and death. These were not entirely absent in The Testaments, but they were sparser. The emotions of the narrator in The Handmaid's Tale were dynamic, switching from boredom, to hate and anger, to thoughtful critique of the patriarchal system, to a self-aware desire to be cared for by the system. Agnes, Lydia and Daisy were somewhat stock characters with limited emotional range. I did, however, enjoy how through Agnes' eyes, we explored how patriarchy and oppressive social norms are instilled in girls. Agnes's feelings of shame and fear surrounding men and her own sexuality before she even understood the mechanics of sex were, I thought, portrayed well.

The tone of the book was quite different from its predecessor. Where The Handmaid's Tale was meditative and focused on the narrator's internal journey, this novel read much more 'screenplay-ready', plot-driven with heists (the first also had a woman smuggled in a car, but the focus of the writing was Offred's dettached reflection of the Commander's boot, the only thing she could see during her smuggling, rather than a tense narrative of if she would be allowed through or not). Perhaps that's why this book was written? As additional fodder for the television show based on the first book?

There were a few Easter eggs and references I enjoyed picking up on, such as the Schlafly cafe being the site of Aunt wheeling and dealings. It was neat to see little bits of french language and quebecois culture alluded to, such as Ada's use of the phrase "toot sweet" (toute suite) and Daisy's reading list at school. It was also neat to follow the characters across Canadian land - which isn't portrayed often in fiction - from Etobicoke to New Brunswick.

In sum, this book didn't need to be written, and it certainly doesn't need to be read.

 1. Why did Lydia need to smuggle her report via Nicole at all? Does Canada not also have a problem with birth defects and declining fertility?

Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

It's been on my to-read list for a while, and I'm glad I picked it up finally. It wasn't what I expected. I was expecting a sort of Woman Versus The Dystopian State tale, something along the lines of 1984 or Brave New World but with more women. And instead, it was a much more internal look at the how one responds to changing systems and to oppression - the lies we tell ourselves to survive and the lies we tell ourselves to forgive ourselves for perpetuating oppression.

The prose was beautiful; vivid. I think if there were more women in the metal scene, there would probably be a Handmaid's Tale concept album. A lot of very metal motifs: like contrasting flowers/life with rot, Offred's thoughtful reflections about her surroundings giving way to unbridled hatred about her situation, the ghost of the former Handmaid in Offred's room, mistrust, surveillance.....

The dynamic between the Commander and the Handmaid was well woven and reminiscent of much of the #MeToo kind of stories (despite Atwood's somewhat poor take on the movement). The commander trying to lead Offred into saying everything is better now than it was before; the way he exerted power over her to make her attend him and visit the brothel with him; the way he deludes himself into thinking she was there because she wanted to be....

I wasn't such a fan of the epilogue. The details of the world were not particularly interesting to me, and the issues Atwood takes aim at (AIDS, nuclear power plants) did not age all that well. The epilogue critiques how little we are able to empathize with the pain/humanity of people from centuries ago - but the tonal shift wasn't quite what I wanted to read at that point.

I read this during the Summer of 2020, Shelter In Place orders intact, the week after George Floyd's was murdered by the police, with curfews lasting days in cities across the country. I saw somewhere a criticism that the world reflected in The Handmaid's Tale is too unrealistic; society doesn't change so quickly. That criticism rings so hollow right now - it is very easy to see how society could change so significantly over the course of a few years. I hope it does - but in a very different direction.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Who could resist the premise "genius lesbian uses intrigue and math to save her polyamourous homeland from an evil colonial empire"?

Given such a unique pitch, I was surprised how strikingly similar the first 140 pages of The Traitor Baru Cormorant were to Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire: smart gay woman from a close-knit far-flung community is appointed to a powerful government position in the empire after the mysterious murder of her predecessor, alone but for a clever aide to help her figure out both the foreign culture and the ongoing political machinations.

Unfortunately for Traitor Baru, the contrast with A Memory Called Empire serves only to highlight its flaws. The empire of Baru's world conquers the world, exterminating gay people, enforcing an extensive eugenics breeding program, and improving record-keeping as it gobbles up cultures. It is very clearly capital E Evil, and nearly every citizen of the empire that we meet is either a political puppetmaster or a puppet. A Memory Called Empire's Mahit finds herself trying to protect her people from the Teixcalaan empire while also loving parts of the empire: its people, its culture, its literature. This contrast adds tension, but also presents a more relatable empire. The biggest empire of the 21st century is an oppressive colonial power with some wonderful people and a great canon, including notable works like Casa Blanca and Bojack Horseman.

The flat world-building extends also to Aurdwynn, the province brimming with rebellion to which Baru is assigned as Imperial Accountant. There are hints at interesting designs—the druidic Ilykari, or the Unsullied-like Clarified, for example—but it felt like all the scenes characterizing the minor characters (excepting, perhaps, Muire Lo, Tain Hu, and Xate Olake) and describing the Aurdwynni culture and history were cropped to keep the novel to a tidy 399 pages. Aurdwynn could be any fantasy country. The dukes could be fully summarized with a tagline and never developed personality beyond that: "the philosophical one", "the sailor one", "the one that collects handsome baby daddies." The result is a story packed with political intrigue and twists where I don't care about any of the players, nor do I really care about the fate of the country. The exception to this is the slow burn relationship between Baru and Duchess Tain Hu; the two have great chemistry and their scenes together are adorable. But because such long swathes of the book were low emotional impact, the book was somehow too long for it to be a tight story of a savant accountant trying to out-maneuver seasoned politicians to save her home, and too short for a compelling narrative about how economics and the personalities of political leaders shape the course of a revolution.

Baru was an enjoyable protagonist. Her weapons of war are unconventional and its fun to watch her wield them: controlling inflation to stop a rebellion, using annual tax forms to discern loyalties, identifying political ambitions through sales of commodity goods. She's very aware of the importance of keeping up her metaphorical (and sometimes literal) mask: she must project power and the right sort of ambitions, and she must hide her sexual orientation and her loyalty to Taranoke. The first person point of view gives us an intimate perspective from which to watch her calculations about which facial expressions to make, or what information to reveal when, and see her react to realizing when she's made mistakes and let her mask slip, or developed more attachment to people and places than she had intended. Still, this intimate perspective is inconsistently applied—we know she has made a deal with the shadow cabinet behind the imperial throne, but not what it is. This separation between Baru and the reader seems (to me, at least) intended to allow for a plot twist, rather than say anything about the nature of the mask between Baru and the reader. I think this would have been more effective if Baru was aware of the reader, taunting us a little with her unreliable narrator perspective.

The end of this book, the first of a planned trilogy, is dark and bleak. The Falcrest empire asks Baru to foment a rebellion then betray it. The Empire crushes the hope of the Aurdwynni people for generations to come, and Baru gets the approval of the Empire and the power that comes with it. This is the way the Empire operates: convince people there is no point in rebelling:

In Falcrest, in the Metademe, they condition prisoners just so: permit escape. Offer a rescuer, a collaborator. Slip a key in with the food. Let them come close to freedom, let them feel real triumph—they would not let me this far! This is the crux: give them the taste of victory, the certainty that this cannot be part of the game. And then snatch it away. The collaborator betrays them. The key will not open the outermost door. With enough repetition, most prisoners learn to ignore a key, an open door, a whisper to run. Led out onto the street, they will wait to be returned to their cells. After a time, they begin to teach new prisoners the same.

Her rebellion, the one to save her home country of Taranoke, will be different, Baru tells herself. The costs to the Aurdwynn people are worth it—and actually this brief, squashed Aurdwynni rebellion saves Aurdwynni lives in the long run.

Still, I am interested in where the author will take this theme over the course of the next books. Perhaps the mathematical and rational to a fault Baru will need to inspire hope in her people, inspire belief that there is a better solution and that it is possible to get there. How does one go about this? What is the answer to "well, there's no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism, so I just live my life and don't think too hard about it"?

Friday, June 18, 2021

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

 It's early in the year, but I think this might end up being my favorite read of 2020.

This really is a beautiful book. The political intrigue and murder mystery are tightly plotted, and the pacing is good, but really, the book is about so much more than that.

As a language nerd, I very much appreciated the theme of culture shaping language, and language shaping how we perceive ourselves and our histories.

"Teixcalaan has seen eighty years of peace. Three of your lives, stacked up, since the last time one part of the world tried to destroy the rest of it."

There were border skirmishes reported every week. There'd been an outright rebellion put down on the Odile System just a few days back. Teixcalaan was not peaceful. But Mahit thought she understood the difference Six Direction was so fixated on: those were skirmishes that brought war to outside the universe, to uncivilized places. The word he'd used for "world" was the word for "city." The one that derived from the verb for "correct action".
I loved the philosophical elements of what does it mean to be a person? It was neat to explore this particularly through the eyes of Mahit, whose perspective on this answer is probably quite different from our own. Is personality just endocrine responses? Is a person just the sum of their memories?

I loved that this book discussed the biases inherent to artificial intelligence - that there is no such thing as a neutral algorithm.
There was an originating purpose for an algorithm, however distant in its past -- a reason some human person made it, even if it had evolved and folded in on itself and transformed. A city run by Ten Pearl's algorithm had Ten Pearl's initial interests embedded in it. A city run by an algorithm designed to respond to Teixcalaanli desires was not innocent of those same Teixcalaanli desired, magnified, twisted by machine learning.
Perhaps not since I've read Robin Hobb's Fool's Fate have I felt the same level of emotional tension while reading a book. Mahit's sense of loneliness and abandonment by her imago. The strange mix of both loving the cultural output of the Empire and the very real fear of the Empire destroying her home. The irony of self-discovery through culture that is foreign to your own, and in a foreign language. The mix of pride in being complimented in mastering imperial customs combined with the sadness in being subjugated and knowing that no matter your mastery you will never 'belong' in the Empire.

The dialogue, particularly between Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea, was great. Really enjoyed their dry humor and banter (while also really feeling Mahit's envy of their friendship).

I wish I enjoyed the poetry in the book. I often felt like I didn't quite get it - but maybe that was the point. Like Mahit, the nuances of Teizcalaanli art is too alien.

I liked the way romance was weaved in - explicitly polyamorous and non-heteronormative. Love shapes the people and the events in small ways, rather than being massive story-shifting forces. But nor is the romance just orthogonal to the rest of the plot. The reveal of Yskandr being both in love with the emperor and with Nineteen Adze is a little thread that adds support and tension to the web of events, but it's not the keystone that the whole structure of the intrigue relies on. Even if he hadn't been in love with those people, his maneuvering could have made sense. But, the relationships also feel very real and human, and messy in the way those kinds of things can be messy.

I enjoyed that much of the rest of the universe was left mysterious. It makes me curious to discover what the next book will be about.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Review: Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

This wasn't a deep or profound book. It didn't change my perspective on the ethics or sociology of Silicon Valley and 21st century capitalism. But it was a very cathartic read. 

Like Wiener, I moved from the East Coast to the Bay Area around 2012. I also joined a <20 person business-to-business software start-up in a non-software engineering role. Wiener relates few anecdotes that I couldn't have also lifted from my own life. She responded emotionally in many of the same ways I do or did. Reading her memoir helped me contextualize my own experiences.

The book, which is a longer form version of her n+1 article and her Atlantic article, is at its best when describing the weird cult(ure) unique and endemic to Silicon Valley. It's a bit of a miss for me when decrying "very online" culture. It was a little limited in its analysis of the forces at work that created surveillance capitalism, disgusting amounts of inequality, efficiency hacking, monopolies and oligarchies, and disdain for art and empathy that she describes. (For example, she briefly recounts getting excited about Marx and unionization, only to be shrugged off by some worldly SWE brought up in a blue collar family who tells her that software engineers already have enough privilege and bargaining power—what would they ask for? The topic is not revisited.) It's a "safe" read, but still a recognizably "insiders perspective."