This Power Might Not Last

During the Christmas shutdown, I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft. It’s something to do but, as I discussed with one of my brothers, it is simply fun-ish. Once I returned to Wycombe, I removed it from my hard-drive and decided to look around for a palette cleanser. There was a winter sale on the Steam service. I picked up a few games, which included Dontnod entertainment’s Life Is Strange. The first episode of Life is Strange was released in January 2015, the last in October of the same year. I will be writing about my experience of playing this game. The story is a coming of age tale with a time-travel twist and elements of murder mystery. I found it a beautiful, albeit flawed, gem. As always, I will warn the reader now that extensive spoilers are to follow.

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“One Small Part of Myself” – Ancillary Justice

A few days ago I finished Ann Leckie’s multi-award winning debut novel Ancillary Justice, released in 2013. I had heard and read about it in the past, and picked it up for my e-reader as it was on sale earlier in the month. I am really pleased that I did; it doesn’t need me to say it, but Justice is a splendid example of science fiction, the fiction of ‘ideas.’ Spoilers of major plot points follow, so please be aware if you want to read the novel unspoiled, stop now.

The story, set at some indeterminately distant future, follows the experiences of Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, an Ancillary of the troop carrier Justice of Toren, who is on a mission to avenge the murder of one Lieutenant Awn. Of course, the story is straight-forward neither chronologically nor motivationally. One Esk Nineteen – by this point operating under the identity of ‘Breq of the Gerentate’ – is not just a subsidiary component of Justice of Toren. She became the totality – or as near as possible – of it after the ship Justice of Toren was destroyed. Even before that, One Esk Nineteen had quirks of behaviour that differentiated her segment from the other segments within Justice of Toren; she sang, she had her own favourites. Justice of Toren was Awn’s executioner, just not the segment of which One Esk Nineteen. It is the ruler of the space empire of which Justice of Toren is subservient to who ordered Awn’s execution: Anander Mianaai. Mianaai has multiple bodies who have started to struggle at cross purposes to themselves, segments of the ruler as One Esk Nineteen is a segment of Justice of Toren.

Science Fiction uses technology as a device to have readers ask about both the world we live in, and of our assumptions about it. Ancillary Justice continues this tradition by questioning our ideas of what is the self and what it means to be a person, asking questions of how we construct our identity. As Breq thinks “It seems very straightforward when I say “I”” yet is anything but. Breq is open about not understanding her subjectivity, the novel begins with her professing that “sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do.”

We are told in the first chapter that she “is not what [she] once was” a statement that at face value is linked to her diminished capabilities but, underneath that, hints at the sprawling complexities of an identity: “it’s hard for me to know how much of myself I remember.” She was once part of a ship with many components, and is now one alone;

“I was all but dead, had been for twenty years, just a last, tiny fragment of myself that managed to exist a bit longer than the rest.”

Before that, the body of Breq was that of a human taken in an annexation – the conquest and subsumation of a planet in to the Radch. Whoever that person was is lost, unless they exist on in One Esk’s love of singing. Breq’s identity is questioned, not just by herself, but whether she is herself at all. On Nilt, with the doctor Strigan, Breq is advised to seek out a new life away from Radch, to which Breq’s response is, if she did as advised, should she let go of her vendetta, would Strigan require monthly updates on her exploits, so that she ‘approved’ of Breq’s identity. Does she at all have any say in what Breq makes of herself as a person?

“Is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by a convenient or useful narrative?”[1]

This is something that Breq struggles with, the way in which societal convention plays a part in how we construct ourselves. For example, among the Nilters, there are differentiated genders that she cannot identify:

“I had to take gender into account – Strigan’s language required it. The society she lived in professed at the same time to believe gender was insignificant… yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did.”

I was really intrigued by the gender construction in Justice as I was reading the book, as it forced me to stop and think. Obviously, I live in a nominally two-gender society.[2] The Radch have only one gendered pronoun, ‘she’, and Breq continues throughout the book to refer to characters as ‘she’ and ‘her’ almost exclusively. Even Seivarden, a time-lost officer who Breq rescues, who is identified as biologically male, Breq thinks of as she and her. Leckie could have just used a neutral pronoun, or a made-up one, but by instead going with she, she pushes us in to a critical position. As Breq explains to Strigan, it is not that there is no gender, or sex, but that the priorities of Radch are different. In English, we possess two gendered pronouns and, as grammarians would have it, ‘he’ is the neutral pronoun. In Justice, ‘she’ is not just the default, but the exclusive pronoun. This inverts the linguistic culture in which the text is composed, forcing the reader to pay attention to the characters in the text, and communicating Breq’s discomfort. Being part of Patriarchal society, we are taught from an early age to look for gender signifiers, which Breq struggles with. In turn, we the reader peer in to the text trying to discover gender without the helpful shorthand of pronouns. It also places us in a position to approach the characters divorced from any hold-over linguistic assumptions: Breq, Seivarden, Mianaai, Awn, Saaiat are just there; old Sevin’s cognitive estrangement achieved with the simplest of flourishes.

Justice does not present self in a dichotomous fashion, with reason as you and your emotional life as some nefarious other desperate to drag the higher mind down – I mentioned in watching the film Lucy that I find this othering of emotional consideration a frustrating and lazy tendency that manifest in sf – but rather a vital part of the cognitive process. When we are introduced to Seivdarden, she is suffering withdrawal from a drug called Kef. This drug numbs the emotions of the users, in the belief that “emotions out of the way, supreme rationality would result.” Breq, (and the ship that she once was) dismisses this simply that “it doesn’t work that way.” Emotions are useful: Mianaai does not excise the emotional reasoning of the ships despite the risk of disloyalty because without it, they are simply unable to prioritise. It is because she, or One Esk, is able to have emotional attachments that she is able to oppose Mianaai. Seivarden, without emotions, was dying in a snow drift until Breq found her.

It might be easy to dismiss that as all that book does, explore the fragmentary psyche of a being questionably possessed of personhood, but Justice is far better, and far smarter, than that. Breq’s problems are reflected in the universe she travels in, and the conflict of the story, those contradictions that flourish in living. The culture that Justice of Toren originated within and served, the Radch, is structured around the idea of civilisation and being civilised. Breq illuminates a pun within Radchai is that to say one is not Radch is to say one is not civilised. Yet, much like the Roman culture which Leckie drew on for some inspiration, the Radch are barbarous, a culture built on ceaseless aggression and conquest, that dispenses atrocity in conquest, a police state; it is also a utopia that provides for its citizens, practices syncretic religion, and has (as evinced in the pronouns) massively more progressive values re gender than our own society. Yet “the noblest, most well-intentioned people in the world can’t make annexations a good thing.” This is absolutely clear to the reader, as it has already been described to us that the humans that are converted in to Ancillaries are neither dead nor insensate, but aware the whole time. The things in Radch that are considered good, that civilise the society, are inextricably intertwined with the brutal, bad things:

“The same drugs used for aptitude testing… could also be used for interrogation.”

Radch had an irreconcilable differences within it that manifest in the supreme leader, Anander Mianaai.

“Which me do you serve?” Mianaai asks Breq near the end of the novel, when the crippled, vengeful ship has come to kill Mianaai, as many of her as she can. Of course, what she is really asking Breq is what vision of the Radch she aligns to: the nominally progressive Radch that wants to change as circumstances change, or the Radch that seeks to retrench militarily and preserve, or reassert, the older values of the imperium. Breq rejects the idea that she serves either – “I didn’t kneel, or even bow” – or even the Radch; if she serves anything it is only the memory of the dead Lieutenant Awn. The point of allegiance to the Radch is, for Breq, a pointless one. The whole thing is morally compromised as, whatever end is met, it will be Anander Mianaai. This is familiar territory for science fiction[3] but it is Mianaai who observes that for all the fact that, while from a high-level view, small changes mean nothing, for many people those small changes could be the difference between life and death:

“If you’ve got power and money and connections, some differences won’t change anything… It’s the people without the money and the power, who desperately want to live, for those people small things aren’t small at all. What you call no difference is life and death to them.”

To return to the Roman inspiration for a moment, Breq and Mianaai both have their Rubicon moments that establishes discreet identities, the choices they make birthing their new and separate selves, connected to their prior identities but also forced to acknowledge they are somehow different. As we experience the story in Breq’s perspective, that sense of self is always tinctured with a feeling of loss, of diminishment. The synthesis (if you’ll forgive the butchered Hegelianism) is more a fall from the perfect knowledge of Justice of Toren to the limited perspective of just One Esk Nineteen. And yet as Breq she can achieve things, think things that the ship never could. Similarly, when Breq forces the Mianaais to recognise their fracturing in to more than one self, something is lost in the change, but something is gained, even if only in the possible. Justice is replete with the idea that identity is not a fixed thing, subject both to ourselves and others, and often unpredictable, whether it is One Esk shooting the Mianaai that ordered her to kill her beloved Lieutenant Awn, or the change in perspective that Seivarden undergoes that sees her embracing change in the face of reaction. Though, as she thinks she is dying, Breq thinks of herself only as “a machine meant for killing” we see that her internal contradictions make her much more, and create the possibility for us to consider others in the same light.

[1] The idea that identity is something that is subject to scrutiny resonated with a favourite exchange in China Mieville’s Embassytown, here BrenDun tries to explain to Avice: “If I’d thrown his away and kept mine, you’d think I was clinging to my dead identity or resenting his death. If I threw them both away, you’d see me in denial. If I kept his but not mine you’d say I was refusing to let him go. There’s nothing I can do you won’t do that to.”

[2] It should be noted here that the reality of life is very different from the way it is described – basically, two genders doesn’t even begin to describe what actually goes on, but it is used to do so.

[3] Any conversation about utopian cultures and intelligent spaceships gravitates around the late Ian M. Banks’s Culture novels, and if I still had access to those, a compare and contrast with, say, Use of Weapons, would be cracking.

Difficult Reading

In the past few weeks I have been taking the trains a lot, visiting different cities. While riding the rails I have allowed myself a bit of lighter, leisure reading. For the past few years I’ve drifted towards classical history, philosophy, and a bit of political theory in my reading, as well as critical & literary theory. I’ve moved in this direction not out of any distaste for fiction (that would be a bit rich) but rather out of a desire to educate myself a bit more. I went to University and learned how little I knew. However, a train ride, with all its attendant interruptions and discomforts, isn’t too great a place to concentrate on a theory reader, so I switched to my e-reader and downloaded a few e-books.

Of the ones that I started to read, I finished two. When I was a child I never abandoned a book, no matter how bad, because I considered there to be a virtue in finishing what I had started. As I’ve gotten older I’ve given up on that notion: there are many books, and I do not have the time to read them all. The two that prompted me to press on were Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and James Smythe’s The Explorer. Both well written, it was a moment of dissonance that prompted me to keep at them rather than put them aside for a crossword puzzle. Spoilers to follow, please proceed with that in mind.

Neil Gaiman is, obviously, the more famous writer of the two, and needs no introduction, least of all by me. Stardust is a novella originally published in 1999, telling the story of the slightly hapless Tristran and his star-crossed lover Yvaine. Normally, I’d say there’s more to it than that, but in the case of Stardust that really is the whole of the tale, barring some witchiness and Tristran being heir to the kingdom. It was also adapted to a film in 2007, which I mostly liked. I have read a few Gaiman stories (American Gods, Anansi Boys, Fragile Things collection) but I’m hardly an expert. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Stardust was something of an experiment by him. The prose read to me as quintessential Gaiman: the junction where fairy-tale poesy meets modern prose.1 Gaiman is very, very good at this style, I’d even go so far as to suggest that writing in a pre-modern fantastic idiom is his lived in home when it comes to words. He weaves in touches of the fantastic, invoking mythology to make a magic that feels everyday but not precisely commonplace. I particularly like the fieldmouse that “was a prince under an enchantment” eaten by an owl “herself under a curse”, the potential “Nut of Wisdom” then falling in to a river to be eaten by a salmon, evoking the bradán feasa eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill. The commonplace binding chains are of Norse origin; even the reference to stars falling and never rising evokes Milton and Paradise Lost. Gaiman is a writer who knows much, is not afraid to show it, yet does so deftly and with a light yet commanding touch. His agility with language is reflected as he describes an opened body as with “vital organs like wet jewels” or a rakish character “a foppish assassin from a minor Elizabethan historical play.”

However, Stardust imports something a bit unpleasant, a bit of unthinking that it never really resolves, and which dogged my reading experience. To put it simply, Tristran is quite the creeper. He initially goes in search of the fallen star (Yvaine) because he is attempting to win the affections of Victoria Forester, described in this way:

Every boy in the village was in love with Victoria Forester. And many a sedate gentleman, quietly married and with grey in his beard, would stare at her as she walked down the street, becoming, for a few moments, a boy once more, in the spring of his years with a spring in his step.

When I read this, my heart went out to Victoria. I do not know, personally, what it is like to be scrutinised on the street, but I have spoken to enough people who have that Victoria immediately had my sympathy. She is a young woman who wants a job, is impeded in this by convention, and at every turn is ogled by men and boys. She comes across rather well in light of this.2 Tristran is, of course, in love with Victoria, though he is “painfully shy” for which he overcompensates. This is presumably a set up so that we don’t judge him too harshly but… there follows a scene where Tristran forces Victoria in to conversation, invites himself to walk her home, asks to kiss her and is rebuffed, asks to kiss her again and doesn’t understand why she won’t kiss him now when she did before, proposes to her while ignoring what she is saying, then finally gets her to agree to marry him3 and then struts off in to Faerie where he finds Yvaine, a star incarnated as a woman, ties her up in an unbreakable chain4 with the intention of taking her back through to Wall5, his cruelty to her justified by his desire for Victoria:

every time she winced or flinched Tristran felt guilty and awkward, but he calmed himself by thinking of Victoria Forester’s grey eyes.

We never see Tristran develop or question how he behaved to Victoria in the first place, nor how he treats Yvaine. It is particularly galling since the fictive world of the book supports a perspective of Victoria as the trouble-maker, and the appropriate response being to:

tell her to go shove her face in the pig pen, and go out and find another one who’ll kiss you without asking for the earth.

Where Stardust is a fairy-tale, and embraces fairy-tale mores. I don’t know whether it was in adherence to this, but it felt as if the latter part of the book was quite hurried. We get Tristran and Yvaine’s adventures reported to us in a brief, almost cursory paragraph. To some extent this is in adherence to the demands of the genre, to not stay overlong once the tension of Yvaine and Tristran (and the witches) is resolved. However, because so much rests on believing that not only could Yvaine forgive and even love Tristran, I find that being told rather than shown damages the conclusion of the story, as does having Victoria only free to marry who she wants by Tristran’s largesse. I was disappointed by the time I had finished Stardust, given the obvious care and thought that went in to the language and the mythological grounding that was not applied to the development of the characters. I don’t know, obviously, but I sense that the reluctance to interrogate this stems as much from love of the inspiration as anything else, and to question the assumptions underpinning a fairy-tale work is to scare away magic.6 It also might be said that it is simply ‘not that sort of story’ but it at least implicitly draws on the ideas of bildungsroman, but does not actually execute them. I think in a post Angela Carter/Bloody Chamber literary landscape, though, this just isn’t the case.

The Explorer is narrated by Cormac Easton, a journalist on a once in a lifetime journey in to space. He’s separated from his wife7 It is a science fiction narrative that at first one might be forgiven for thinking of as in the vein of Star Trek, boldly going where none have gone before. That is indeed part of the premise under which the characters operate. It even includes this about the pursuit of exploration:

And it inspired people; it made others do the same, and that led to countries being discovered, populated.

Reading this, I had to pause and consider the implication there. Exploration, in the tradition being discussed, is that of western sailors going to already populated places and declaring them ‘discovered’, usually resulting in colonisation and lots and lots of suffering. “This is about man, and what we’ll find out there” we are told. It put me on edge, but this was merely the set-up.

The Explorer sets up this expectation to explode it. It is not about discovering new places, but rather about discovering the self and, unlike with the tradition of explorer narratives such as She or Heart of Darkness, the blank canvas upon which this exploration is undertaken is not just of an existing space white-washed, but rather of absolute blank space. The events of The Explorer take place within a time-loop on board a sabotaged space exploration. Cormac is forced to watch himself over and over again, living through the same series of accidents and murders. Cormac realised about himself that he “can’t deal with knowing I’m here with no purpose.” It is an interesting comment on the idea of the neutral observer, how Cormac’s initial experience differs from how he observes things that the story returns to:

the faces of the dead as they tell us about themselves when they were alive – not who they really were, but who the public perception of them was.

Cormac, in being able to see himself, come to despise himself. It is most succinctly described by Emmy who, following Cormac Prime’s murder of another member of the crew, tells Cormac Other that he is “a man… who thinks that the world revolves around him. That what happened is because of your choices, not hers.” Cormac never considers himself not at fault, or not instrumental, even when he considers himself ‘just’ part of the circuit that makes up the timeline.

What The Explorer does with its time paradox is a reflection of the particular capability of science fiction in a meta-textual sense. As science fiction allows us to reflect on ourselves at a remove, so does Cormac do so. Yet it is quite bold in that, despite being aware of his failures, Cormac acknowledges that he

can berate him [the other Cormac] doing it [staring at pictures of his dead wife] as much as I like but, truth be told, given the opportunity, it’s what I would be doing as well.

And he does indeed go back to stare at her pictures when the other Cormac leaves the terminal open. The Explorer is about personal growth and change, the difficulty of it, that is requires “hindsight, and even then I’d be suspicious.” Like Stardust, The Explorer does miss out a long period of time in Cormac’s subjective timeline: we know he has repeated this experience many, many times, but not a particular figure. Yet it does this to illuminate how hard change and growth are. Yet it does offer Cormac the tantalising, painful opportunity to change, having lived this loop so many times he has lost count. Just at the end, he can either return to the loop or reach out to the potentially destructive unknown.

As I have written before, I believe stories are as much tool for empathy and self-reflection as they are entertainment. These two books proved to be difficult reading for similar reasons – concerns about the characters and where the narrative was going – with two quite different outcomes. Yet even though I was disappointed with Stardust and surprised by The Explorer, I think being able to identify and consider the good and bad, contrasting how they operate in their particularly niches, embracing them as they do, helps to a more full understanding of the text.


  1. “it [the star, Yvaine] said ‘Fuck.’ And then is said ‘Ow,’ once more.”
  2. Unlike in the film which, because of reasons, she was rewritten as rather horrible.
  3. An agreement that, we learn at the end of the book, Victoria intends to honour, even though she does not want to!
  4. Of the same sort used to bind Fenris, naturally.
  5. This will kill her.
  6. “each land that has been forced off the map by explorers and the brave going out and proving it wasn’t there has taken refuge in Faerie.”
  7. We later learn that his wife had committed suicide just before he boarded the spaceship.

Like the first monkey shot in to space.

On 28 November I (re)watched Marvel’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’ Having written about various middle-brow entertainment, I thought it was well past time to write about something big, flashy and blockbuster. For those who don’t know, GotG is the latest summer tent-pole movie from Disney subsidiary Marvel. It is an epic space romp featuring a quintet of decent people on the wrong side of the law. The central protagonist is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who wishes to be known as ‘Starlord.’ He is joined by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket the Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). They are opposed by, or rather are opposing, Ronan (Lee Pace) and Gamora (Karen Gillan). Spoilers will be made in this post.

I first watched GotG at the cinema in August, at the Salisbury Odeon, a listed building that is a bit cold, and with a tiny (relatively speaking) screen. Sorry Salisbury Odeon! It didn’t really lend itself to the epic scope of space that GotG readily engages with in the best traditions of space opera. However, it does scale down to a home television. Contradictory but true.

There are alien empires, space-ships the size of cities, nebulae, technobabble space guns, and sidereal godheads being exploited for mineral wealth. The ‘spaciness’ is integral to the film, with plots and perils hinging on the conditions of space such as Rocket’s escape plan, and Gamora’s stranding in the vacuum. The latter is also one of the most beautiful scenes in this (or any) film with Gamora floating in a nebulae, slowly freezing. GotG indulges in the visual splendour that the cosmos offers when it is not empty blackness. It draws you in with a wide-eyed wonder.

The characters are well-drawn enough for a space romp; played with one eye for romps but at the same time eliciting pathos in their personal tragedies. As Rocket acerbically puts it, everyone has dead people behind them. The film takes the time to establish that most of the Guardians have experienced loss (except Groot, who is Groot), but also that they can and do overcome them. We do not know if this is being played against Ronan’s single-minded obsession with the lives and traditions of his people.

My brother Liam has a theory that Marvel’s success is in taking Superheroes and combining them with other types of film and I think he might be on to something: Winter Solider is a Spy film that happens to have a super-soldier, the Mighty Thor was as much fantasy romp as it was about lightning superman. Guardians is superheroes in space and, while the space is in the foreground, it is because of the confidence of what makes a superhero that is can be understated.

Someone at Marvel has a very clear idea that super-heroism isn’t about power, but action; the action to save lives and protect people. It is easy to overlook the work that goes in to establishing what makes the Guardians different from super-powered thugs, but attention is put in to the this film. It is not enough to say the Guardians are heroic, we must be shown. “Prove me wrong” growls Denarian Saal (Peter Serafinowicz) to the Guardians when he states he doesn’t agree with supporting the team; and they do: Quill risks his life to save Gamora; Rocket flies in to support Saal’s desperate stand against the Dark Aster. This is one of my favourite moments in the film, when most of the Nova corps (the space police) soar forward to stop Ronan not with a fire-fight, but by (effectively) linking arms and holding back the evil. It costs most of them their lives because Ronan has marshalled an infinity gem (a pre-universe power source) but the victory is theirs because the people they were trying to protect are saved.

The film is fun, but not perfect. It replicates the troubling trend in Marvel movies (and cinema in general) of focusing on a white male lead, with both women and people of colour being under-represented. Gamora is an excellent character with good lines and a refreshing aggressive combat-style (which is gold in an action film) and Nebula an effective foil and reflection to her. However, in conversation with Liam he observed how problematic it was that Nebula had been facially disfigured to signal to the viewer that she was the ‘bad’ one. There is a moment in the film where Nebula says of Ronan and Gamora they are both insane; there’s potential for a more full understanding of the relationship between the sisters that we never see. Glenn Close is a convincing Nova Prime; I’m torn on whether Saal’s heroic stand should have been hers. Djimon Hounsou is criminally underused; he’s an actor of high talents who gets few lines and is disposed of in an almost off-hand manner. I am hopeful with the announced Black Panther and Captain Marvel films, Marvel are improving, and I hope they get the promotion they deserve.

On this second viewing my opinion of the film is high as a high action space romp; the misgivings are an observation of the trend of marvel productions. I would be hard pressed to think of a film that embraces high-concept science fiction as thoroughly as Guardians of the Galaxy, and it was nice to see that the filmic universe could be moved from the superhero milieu that is becoming, a little bit, a rut. I am also hopeful that, following on from the recently released Star Wars teaser, science fiction can become every bit as diverse as it should be.