As you must know, Leonard Nimoy died last week at the age of 83, after a short illness. Though he had a career which featured everything and the kitchen sink, he was Spock, of course. With many others, I’m on Strange Horizons this week, talking about what he meant to me: Nimoy and Spock: Reflections and Farewells.
And now for something completely different! I don’t talk much about the music I listen to here, because I’m not at all cool, okay, I still like most of the music I liked when I was a teenager and a lot of that was nineties girl bands. At this advanced, tragically unhip age, the music I like divides into two neat categories: soulful queerish lady music (Vienna Teng; Dessa; Deb Talan; Dar Wiliams; Kris Delmhorst) and soulful, soft Americana: the Horrible Crowes; the Gaslight Anthem; the Oh Hellos; the Civil Wars… etc).
The Local Strangers are in the second category, an American two-piece a friend introduced me to last year when I was in Seattle for a con. Last weekend, I listened to their new track, “Gasoline“, about fifty times in two days, and I’ve spent the rest of the week listening to their new album, Take What You Can Carry, and… what to say, when you have no vocabulary for this sort of thing? Other people can talk about all the things I can’t articulate, the sweetness in the vocals, maybe, and the cutting simplicity of the instrumentals, maybe also; I like “Gasoline” because it seems to have so many layers, down and down, and the lyrics are deceptively simple, and more than that I can’t tell you.
Off the rest of the album, I particularly like “Red Dress”, which reminds me of Kim Addonizio, and “1947”, which is intimate, and again more a poem than anything else; and then there’s my hands-down favourite, which is “Pilot Light”, a love-song lullaby with simple, soaring lyrics (I will be your pilot light / I’ll burn for you through the night), that fall away into lamenting, wordless harmonies. And see above re: super uncool, okay, but I have never grown out of being seventeen in musical terms; I have never not listened to the same song over and over twenty, fifty, a hundred times, and over years, because it’s something you carry with you; when I was seventeen I still lived up on the Sefton coast and we used to hang out and drink on the pier head, watching the lights on the docks, the lights shining on the water, yearning for something. (Do people love music differently, people who don’t grow up in crappy seaside towns? Who even knows.) Anyway, that’s it, that’s the thing I’m reminded of: because I went to dinner with an old friend on Friday and we talked for a while about it, about how London isn’t easy – high rents and commuting, middle-class British woes par excellence – but we left the town we grew up in and I still listen to the same song over and over, still capable of being transported. It’s a lovely, varied, sweet album, and if I’d listened to it aged seventeen I would have come to it all in inarticulate emotion. And though I didn’t and haven’t, in its multiple sweetnesses, its simplicity, there’s still all that there: still all that falling into wordlessness, on the edge of something. I wish I had the wits to write about music: to write more than, it spoke to me, perhaps it will speak to you, but there you are. Take What You Can Carry is coming out on March 3rd, and my press copy was provided by Matt Hart of the Local Strangers – thank you.
A new story! This one is published by Expanded Horizons, and concerns, among other things, a new colony world, a new language, a very ordinary Indian household, and a garden.
Ur by Iona Sharma (4500 words)
The mali came in the morning to talk about their plans for the garden. “Flowers, madam,” he said, firmly. “We must have flowers.”
Edited to add! A lovely review of this story from Paige Kimble.
[This review has minor spoilers for Ancillary Sword and major ones for Ancillary Justice.]
About a year ago, I read a review copy of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and did a positive but measured write-up of it, guardedly talking about how much I’d enjoyed the ideas explored in it and why those ideas should win it the Hugo. Not quite a year later, Ancillary Justice is the only novel in history to have won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke Awards, and I’ve just read the newly-published sequel. The series is now called Imperial Raadch, and the new book picks up right where the last one left off, with Breq, now working for (one half of) Anaander Mianaai, on a mission to a place called Athoek Station to protect the sister of Lieutenant Awn.
The thing is, I enjoyed Ancillary Justice and very much respected its projects, and my review at the time reflected that, talking about all the stuff I and everyone have written about already: about the worldbuilding, the fascinating themes of identity, bodies and difference; the way the Radchaai inhabit an entirely female linguistic universe. And all those things are still in evidence, especially the last, which, aaah, is still as remarkable as it was and maybe even more so for being the second book that does it. It is psychologically warming in a way I can’t even articulate to read a whole novel that doesn’t use “he”; to have everything, every plot, every romance, every good deed and bad deed and minor detail be a thing that a woman does, or could be doing.
But Ancillary Sword is different. To me it reads as though two things have happened: that Leckie has become more comfortable in this universe, and that Breq has, too. This is the middle book in the series and Leckie has the time and space to play, and while I enjoyed Ancillary Justice, I loved Ancillary Sword and want to make everyone read it immediately, which is a slightly different thing. Possibly, though, this may be more because of me and my taste for small-scale worldbuilding than the novel, but let’s see. As above, Ancillary Sword picks up right where Ancillary Justice left off, on the way to Athoek Station – Breq heads out there with Seivarden, her former drug-addict companion and now loyal lieutenant, on board Mercy of Kalr, a ship just like Breq used to be when she was Justice of Toren. One of Breq’s soldiers, Kalr Five, is nervous about expressing it but still adamant: if they’re heading out into space, they need good china. This very rapidly transforms into a running gag about Breq wondering who actually gets to eat off said good china. In the meantime, Seivarden is ineptly-but-charmingly flirting with Breq; the rest of the crew have discovered Breq sings when she’s happy and have, themselves, begun singing when they’re happy; and seventeen-year-old Lieutenant Tisarwat, Breq’s youngest officer, is nervous as hell and wants to throw up a lot. And Mercy of Kalr, the ship, watches over the whole thing with a somewhat ironic eye. Of course, typically of Leckie, there’s a lot more to all of this than meets the eye – the good china is a mark of social status; seen from without, the crew are the agents of a terrifying imperial force; there are many more reasons than the obvious why Lieutenant Tisarwat is a nervous baby lieutenant. But at the same time, there doesn’t have to be more to this than meets the eye, and I was reminded very incongruously of George McDonald Fraser’s McAuslan books, in which a young officer gets used to his rank and file soldiers (who treat him exactly as Tisarwat’s treat hers) and starts figuring out some stuff about the world he lives in, as well. It’s a small-scale story against a giant space opera backdrop.
And, obviously, that’s my favourite thing: small-scale stories in an SFF setting is totally my jam, and this novel delivers beautifully. Breq’s quest in this novel is to make amends to Basnaaid, Awn’s sister, a very little human story, compared to her quest for revenge in the last book. Tisarwat’s growing up. Seivarden is learning how to be a good officer. In treating them with the same care and attention that she treats epic, galaxy-spanning battles for dominance, Leckie is telling us that these things matter. I think that’s a powerful idea in itself, but even more so for a story with a protagonist like this. Breq is Justice of Toren. She was a ship; she was a warship; she was responsible for the deaths of millions. As we know from the first novel, the thing that broke her was her being ordered to kill Lieutenant Awn in cold blood and carrying out that order; Breq has come by who she is the hard, hard, hard way. Which is why Breq’s kindness is a hard thing, too: Breq’s kindness to Tisarwat starts out so hard you don’t even know that it’s kindness. Her compassion for Basnaaid is terrifying. And there is another character in the novel, Queter, who points this out – who tells Breq that she was an imperialist and a warmonger, that she can only bring violence. That kindness is no longer something she can offer. Breq neither accepts nor denies this; she is who she is, because she can’t be anything else. She is who she is, she is what she’s done, and this is all she can do, now.
In the same way, I think the most powerful moment in the novel is close to the end, a last moment of connection between Kalr Twelve, Lieutenant Tisarwat and Breq. To explain it would be to spoil it, but again, the themes are evident: because unlike in the first novel, Breq can admit to the fact that she loved Lieutenant Awn, that she saved Seivarden from the snow because she felt sorry for her; and that she desperately misses the ship she used to be. In this novel, such small stories have the same power as the big ones. And so, Mercy of Kalr and its crew can do their best to help. The new ship isn’t like Justice of Toren – Breq isn’t one intelligence, encompassing all these people. But Mercy of Kalr and its crew, who sing their songs with her, who share what they are with her – they’ll do.
I love the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, and have done for many years. I only just watched through to the end of it, and as a result, have been inflicting my rage over it on many people, most of whom do not care. So here is why I am really angry about How I Met Your Mother, a show I love, with apologies yet again to those who do not care.
So here are the three things that are embedded into the premise of the show. Thing the first: future Ted, sitting on a couch with his two children in the year 2030, is telling them the story of how he met their mother. Thing the second: the reason – the in-universe reason – why it is such a long, ridiculous, meandering story is that he’s also telling them the story of how he came to be the person he was when he met their mother. And, thing the third: Robin is not the kids’ mother. (The first episode, which is all about how Ted saw Robin across a crowded bar and fell dippily in love with her, ends with: “And that, kids, is how I met your Aunt Robin.”)
So far so hoopy, right? And, you know, I’m fine with that as a premise. It gives the whole show an interesting twist from the beginning: because you know, right from the start, that a) Ted’s in love with Robin – ridiculous, love-at-first-sight, choirs-of-angels stole-a-blue-French-horn-for-her in love with her; but also b) even if they do get together, they’re not going to stay together. So even though Ted pursues her for a long time despite the fact she says she doesn’t want to date him, and actually acts very Nice-Guy-ish around her, the audience is meant to think it isn’t healthy, because they know it won’t work out! Again – I’m fine with that. That’s self-aware storytelling. And then when they do get together they can’t stay together – because Ted wants to get married and have kids and settle down, and that’s just what Robin doesn’t want: she wants to travel and see the world. It’s not that either of them want things that are wrong – and the writing is very good about emphasising that – and not that they aren’t very fond of each other, it’s just that they’re wrong for each other.
In the meantime – Barney! Barney, who is a womanising misogynist dick, becomes… less of one. When you put it like that it doesn’t sound like the miracle of character development that it is, but it is. And partly that’s because of Robin – because when he falls for her, he takes Lily’s and Tracy’s and Ted’s advice and becomes a better person. And still, the show does that carefully – it’s not redemption through love, but redemption through hard work and self-examination, so when Barney and Robin do get together, finally, it’s on an equal footing. They’re perfect together: irreverent, malevolent, loving, kind of dysfunctional but functional for them. They don’t want the settling-down-having-babies thing – Robin wants to carry on travelling the world as a journalist – and Barney supports that and loves her for it. It’s a lovely romance which I am not doing justice to here: it’s meaningful and rooted in character.
And here’s the thing: all the while Ted is still carrying a torch for Robin, and it’s not romantic. It’s not a grand love story. It’s miserable, and the writing makes it clear that it’s miserable, and about the saddest episode of the entire show is the one where Ted finally admits it, and finally admits he needs to let it go. At the very end, this is where we’ve got to: Barney and Robin are about to get married, and Ted – who is lost and sad and tired, and ready to leave New York for a new life in Chicago – has become the person he has to be to meet Tracy at Barney and Robin’s wedding.
And in a brief digression: I’ve seen people say that it’s depressing, this idea that real life is hard work and true love isn’t real. And sure, that is depressing, but that’s not what’s happening here: what’s happening here is that love is complicated. This is the show that tells you that love is Lily and Marshall, who after seventeen years together are still working stuff out, still communicating stuff, still loving each other as much as they did when they were lovestruck teenagers, but differently; love is Barney’s brother James and his husband Tom, whose peaceful relationship is what makes Barney think a happy marriage is possible; love is Lily, Marshall and Robin dropping everything to run across the city – covered in paint, barefoot, and in the middle of a live TV broadcast, respectively – because Ted has been in a car accident; love is Ted and Marshall driving 22 hours together listening to the Proclaimers’ 500 Miles on constant repeat; love is Marshall finding Robin a Canada-themed karaoke bar in New York City and love is Lily rescuing Ted from Staten Island on Christmas Eve and telling each other things they haven’t told anyone else and love is all of them never letting onto the fact that they know Bob Barker is not Barney’s father! Love is not only, though it can be, eyes meeting across a crowded room: there are a thousand types of love and it’s complicated and it’s everywhere and that right there is why I like this show so much. And so: Barney and Robin get married, and it’s beautiful. And Ted meets Tracy, and it’s beautiful.
(Another brief digression, about Tracy – I love her so, so much. What I love about her is that she’s not just a love interest for Ted: she’s a real person with a real story. I love that she’s a giant nerd, that she’s a musician, and most of all, I love that she’s quirky, but not a manic pixie dream girl; if anything, that’s what Ted is for her. She has her own tragic backstory of womanpain! Men are killed, fridged and rolled on and off stage to further Tracy’s character development, it’s amazing. Tracy puts her own life back together, she falls in love, she finds a passion for her work. In later life, she’s a well-respected economist and writer, because aged twenty-five she decided she wanted to work to end poverty. I love her.)And then in the last episode… Continue reading Yellow umbrellas everywhere; or, why I am really angry about How I Met Your Mother
Here are the panels I’m either on or moderating:
Positive Practice: Awesome portrayals of people with mental illnesses
(Friday, 3.15 – 4.30pm, Connaught B)
Those of us with mental illnesses aren’t just collections of symptoms — we’re at this con, we’re in these panels, we’re wearing awesome cosplay we spent the last three months cobbling together from scrap metal and geekery. This panel aims to (critically) celebrate fiction that knows this. We want to talk about the stories that don’t just get the illness right, but get the person right, too — especially those that strike a hopeful note about life containing, but not defined by, mental ill health.
Voices From Other Worlds
(Friday 5.00 – 6.15pm, Connaught B)
Readings from authors of colour on the theme of race and culture. Taran Matharu, Zen Cho and Adam Lowe will be reading excepts from their work, and I will be moderating.
This Will Always Be Your Home: Race, Culture, and Fannish Life
(Saturday 1.30-2.45pm, Connaught B)
Western media fandom, from zines to Tumblr, has been something special to so many people: a community and a home. We live here too – so what does it mean to be a fan of colour?
Generally, if you know me, come and say hi! I will be delighted. For recognition purposes, I am short, South Asian, wear hipster glasses and (for one weekend only!) have pointy ears. (Lazy Vulcan cosplay – the cosplay is lazy, not the Vulcans.) I plan to be around from at least Friday morning to Sunday night; not sure about Thursday evening just yet.
One-Day Listing by Iona Sharma
People say that the asteroid that destroyed 47 Piscium was set in motion by a passing star. That it was a handful of dust coalesced into rock, with a bare nothing of a molten core, minding its own business out on the far reaches of traversed space, until its nearest star puffed off its outer layers in a radiant twinkling and it tumbled into history contrariwise to the spin of the galaxy.
I have another story forthcoming with Expanded Horizons, “Ur” (which is neither post-apocalyptic nor about lawyers), on which more anon.
The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance is a collection of legal oddities collated by Kevin Underhill, the (very funny and usually spot-on) guy who runs Lowering The Bar. It is a very fun book, and, full disclosure, my partner Andrew Gray is namechecked in the acknowledgements for having provided his own favourite bit of legal trivia, the Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspection) Act. (Which makes it illegal to detonate a nuclear weapon in the United Kingdom. Just in case you managed to do it without coming any other crime).
I got a bit snippy at page 293, however, which deals with the Statute of Marlborough. It suggests, in fact, that ipso facto, refusing to repeal a 747-year old statute that forbids a tenant from laying waste to their landlord’s land is ridiculous.
Well, in my non-SFF-writing existence I am a lawyer with a specialty in rural land litigation and I have cited the Statute of Marlborough as part of my working life. The statute is 747 years old because it is entirely fit for purpose. We still have tenants; we still have the doctrine of waste; it’s still decent public policy to protect co-terminous estate owners against each other. And it’s not like the law I deal with is usually much less august. This week I wrote about the Prior’s Case, the bit of fourteenth-century common law setting out how restrictive covenants run with the land. Friday’s reading featured a little about the Law of Property Act 1925 and quite a lot more about how it relates to the whole body of pre-existing artefacts of title back to the Norman Conquest, because the doctrines of tenure are that old and they do still matter.
I got upset, is what I’m saying.
Then came the horrible realization. I am a rational human being and usually a good lawyer, and I am willing to go right down to the wire for this statute. The Statute of Marlborough is important! Let me tell you about my STRONG FEELINGS ON THE SUBJECT! Etc.
Now imagine. Somewhere in the world, there is perhaps someone like me for every page of that book. Someone out there feels just as strongly about the emergency sasquatch ordinance passed by Skamania County, Washington, in the 1960s; a sequence of enactments concerning how to pronounce “Arkansas”; and various state butterflies, crustacea, microbes, etc. At the time of Hammurabi there were scribes sitting there waving their hands about going, no, guys, this is super-important, we need this.
Oddly, I don’t think I feel that bad about it.
So if you have the misfortune of following me on Twitter you may know I am having a Star Trek renaissance. This happens every couple of years and mostly goes like this: show! Feelings! Oh show! Oh feelings! This time around I am having love for TNG, which is odd – I’ve never liked it as much as DS9 – but interesting, and having thoroughly abused the 140-character format I think I would like to be verbose as to why.
So I am for the most part not really interested in generalised discussions of race on Star Trek? I mean, spoilers, Trek isn’t very good on race! Most of the time – but what it is great at is ideas. And nothing mainstream, for me, has ever done anything like it on cultural assimilation. There’s this one episode of Voyager that gets this really well and I’ve always thought is underrated. In “Lineage”, pretty late on in the run, B’Elanna finds out she’s pregnant and it’s basically adorable.
Gossip travels at warp ten, everyone on the crew wants to be the baby’s godparent and/or namesake, and Tom realises the only person on the entire ship he knows who’s a father is Tuvok (!) and they have a sweet and genuinely poignant awkward conversation in a Jefferies tube. (Every time Star Trek does this conversation it’s amazing. Dax advising Sisko on fatherhood! O’Brien advising Worf on marriage! ….anyway.) So B’Elanna finds out that her baby, who will be one quarter Klingon to three quarters human, will nevertheless look Klingon because Klingon traits are dominant. And through a series of fights with Tom, fights with Janeway, and, eventually, an incredibly unethical application of her engineering ability to the Doctor’s programming, B’Elanna persuades him to alter the baby’s genetic make-up in utero so she’ll look human. Roxann Dawson, who plays B’Elanna, is Latina; Robert Duncan McNeill is white. A baby who looks more like him will look… oh, you get it. And I just cry and cry at it, because whether or not you agree with it, she’s making what she thinks is the best choice for her baby. Tom tries telling her that there are Vulcans on board, Talaxians, Bajorans – and B’Elanna turns around and snaps, “And one hundred and forty humans!”
And of course he tries to argue and she tells him he doesn’t understand: “When the people around you are all one way and you’re not, you can’t help feeling like there’s something wrong with you” – and I cry.
And it’s not just about race, of course, but culture; not just how you look, though of course that matters, but what you are. (B’Elanna’s Klingon fighting instincts! How hard her human father found her to live with!) And how else can you articulate that? That feeling of being four or sixteen or twenty-seven, and you’re in someone’s house or at a party or at your desk surrounded by your colleagues, and someone says something and you’re just – at the precipice of your lack of understanding. When the people around you are all one way, and you’re not.
And it’s kind of odd and counter-intuitive, but this time around I’ve realised the application of this same narrative to, of all people, Data. Not all the time: I think the show sometimes misfires on this, and sometimes does it really well – it seems to depend on the particular episode and set of writers? But, okay, so: Data is an android, and because this is Star Trek, operations officer on the Enterprise. I adore Data and always have – I was saying to someone recently that my Star Trek feelings are getting on for twenty years’ standing, owwww – and I’ve always mostly thought that I love Data and Spock for the same reasons. In different ways, they both serve as a moral compass for their respective captains. I mean, with Spock it’s usually an outright, Jim, don’t do this, this is a terrible no-good idea, and with Data it’s more often from the mouths of babes, truth – but I love that. (And, the other side of the trope which I also love: the few occasions when it’s reversed. When it’s Kirk reining in Spock from murdering Stonn, or from complicity in horrors in “Mirror, Mirror”; when Picard tries to pull Data back from the brink with Lore – I love that narrative arc.)
But… okay, with Data. In “The Measure of a Man”, which by the way is my favourite courtroom drama ever and probably one of my favourite episodes of anything, some dude shows up and gives Data transfer orders: he’s being sent to the lab to be dismantled so they can figure out how to make more of him. Data’s answer is, huh, what if you can’t put me back together again? Rather than do this, I will resign – and then they tell him, you can’t resign, you’re property of Starfleet. And Picard is forced to argue in court for the position that Data has rights over his own body. It’s a story about humanity, and sentience, and life. It’s a story about transformation. And it’s a story that allows Guinan to say this to Picard, when no one else will (for those playing along at home: Guinan is the Enterprise’s venerable bartender, played by Whoopi Goldberg): “Consider that in the history of many worlds there have always been disposable creatures.”
That gives me chills. That if Data is property, then property obscures sin. In the history of many worlds, there have been those whose bodies were marked. I’m sorry, Riker whispers into Data’s ear, and reaches in to remove his hand.
And then, the ruling, when it comes, is very narrow. It is not that Data is human, or even sentient, or that he has a soul; it is that he might, as we all might, and that while he occupies his own body, he has the right to discover that in his own time. I think that not only is it excellent TV, it’s excellent jurisprudence. Picard notes that the fact Data was created doesn’t mean he’s not a person; children are all created by their parents – and what is established here is that he is, at least, a potential person. It doesn’t say anything about humanity.
But after that, they do lots of episodes where Data wants to be human? Which I’ve been thinking, misses the point that that episode makes so succinctly. Sometimes it’s understandable – at one point Data tells Geordi that he’s afraid of outliving everyone he’s ever known – and sometimes less so. Spock, of all people, tells him: “There are Vulcans who aspire all their lives to achieve what you’ve been given by design.” And Data can’t defend why he would rather be human, though he does point out that it’s a choice – like Spock’s choice to be Vulcan through and through, despite his human mother. Spock’s father, Sarek, made that choice for him when he was young; and that choice and what follows from it are arguably the first story Star Trek ever tells.
So I’ve found myself thinking, isn’t that kind of… colonialist, if that’s even the word? Data wanting to be a person is a very different thing from his wanting to be human, especially if the narrative embraces the latter as though it were unproblematic. And the show gestures at this distinction quite a lot without ever quite making it: Picard comments at one stage that Data might be a culture of one, but it’s no less valid than a culture of billions; when he’s dying, Noonien Soong tells Data that he will grieve, “in your own way”; and there’s also the spot-on sweetness of the way the show never questions Data’s right to refer to his two human creators as his parents. His mother describes him as “the child of two people who loved him and each other” – which is lovely, but they never take the additional leap and say, Data’s is a form of human life. If that has value, then why should he aspire to a different kind?
But then – here it is. Data, who is different from everyone else around him, even more so than half-human half-Klingon B’Elanna and half-human half-Vulcan Spock – and there’s nothing wrong with him, but, well. Well, wouldn’t you wish to be white? You would lose what you were, but without your soul in doubt. What it is, is this: Data doesn’t want to be human, he wants to be normal, unmarked. Like B’Elanna wants for her daughter; like Sarek wanted for Spock. What gives me the feelings is that the show for all its failings, engages with that desire so closely and gives it to these characters who are gifted and loved and flawed, and gives them the consequences of that desire, Data’s loss and B’Elanna’s desperation and Sarek and Spock not talking to each other for thirty years, because it’s okay to want to assimilate into the majority culture; to not just be yourself. It’s okay to wish for whiteness; it’s saying, sometimes, not all the time, we all do.
[Note: this review has major spoilers. It also has some minor discussion of suicide and self-harm. The novel has a great deal of discussion of suicide and self-harm; I wouldn’t recommend it if you have triggers concerning those things.]
Harry August dies in the early nineteen-eighties, aged nearly seventy or thereabouts, and is born again. Not in the sense of being reincarnated, at least not conventionally: for he is born again in exactly the same place as last time, in 1919 in Berwick-upon-Tweed, in a station waiting room. He’s a kalachakra: one of a group of people who are always born again, as themselves, with their memories of their previous lives returning to them in early childhood.
This is the powerful idea that sustains The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and about the first half of the novel is devoted to exploring it fully, which is as it should be, because it’s a richer seam than you might think.Harry lives the same life over and over: that’s understood. It makes all his childhoods apart from the first an exercise in tedium, which isn’t something I had thought of, and then of course with a basic amount of the intelligence and all the time in the world, you can become an expert in anything. So Harry in his later lives is a polyglot polymath, having studied medicine, physics and history knowing he can become an expert in each. (I don’t know what it says that it takes him fourteen lives to come to my particular profession, but he even does become a lawyer at one point.) And right from the start, of course the novel engages with the classic SF premise of whether, armed with foreknowledge, we can change history – does this universe work this way, and if it does, should we? I’m told that Claire North is a pseudonym for an established author who normally writes very different books, which might explain why this novel takes such an unusual stab at an idea that’s kind of an SF old chestnut. Harry is trying to save the world from some future cataclysm – which is a conceit I last encountered in, of all places, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books – and it’s interesting to see this trope played entirely straight, Harry journeying through the twentieth century on his mission to save the world. (He’s visited by another of his kind, from the future, carrying the message back in time – the end of the world is coming sooner and sooner. It’s that kind of thing that makes this novel, probably before anything else, a proper, compelling, thrilling page-turner.)
And in some ways, this is the other great strength of the novel, the life and colour that Harry’s sometimes very dispassionate narration can bring to the history of the modern world: Harry lives through the Second World War many, many times; he lives through the Cold War; he journeys through 1950s China and the 1960s USSR; he sees the Great Leap Forward, the Soviet closed cities, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He gets kidnapped by Argentinian bandits and he’s around in the early days of Israel. The chapters are short and often serve as short snapshots of a greater story, like all history.
Against that colour, there’s the contrast of a lack of colour: Harry’s childhood in the north of England as the illegitimate child of an impoverished aristocrat, spent on the Northumberland moors, with little parental love or ambition. Sometimes the narrative seems to be saying that that sense of alienation stays with him throughout his lives, which I actually don’t buy, but it’s complex. One thing the novel does spectacularly and chillingly well is to depict Harry’s increasing ruthlessness and increasing willingness to treat people as things, including, at times, himself. In his first life, we see him traumatised by his experiences killing enemy soldiers in the Second World War; in his third life, we see him tortured by an American intelligence agent who has (correctly) surmised that he can tell him how the Cold War turns out. It’s a turning point for him, Harry writes, because, “I learned that there is a black pit inside my soul with no limit to its falling”. Not being Harry, the reader can think instead that to want to die, to escape, is to be human. But in later lives, torture and death become strange, dark inconveniences, as does the childhood that follows; they are all as nothing in the face of his quest to save the world, that becomes, as he admits himself, a quest for vengeance. As above, I don’t buy that Harry’s childhood can be the cause of his increasing alienation, not when there’s also the simple fact that he lives over and over, without much companionship and a resultant tendency to regard ordinary people as “linears”, nothing to do with him – but the narrative occasionally doesn’t seem to know what to do with that idea, giving us a meandering daddy issues subplot that skirts the edge of it but never quite comes out and says it. Harry gets less and less human as his lives progress and eventually even the family subplot lapses, so perhaps it’s a wash. And at the very end, we get to the climax of the vengeance plan and it’s nothing to do with Harry’s early life: it’s just Harry August, his nemesis, and possibly the ending of the world.
What the novel is about, then, is about how a life can have meaning. How Harry’s life, which will be as long as he could possibly want, gradually reduces to one quest for vengeance; how in rejecting everything else, including love, faith, work, selfhood, it comes to mean very little to him, because those are the things that give life meaning. Which is a noble theme and a powerful one, as powerful as the starting premise, for those of us reading who don’t live the same life over and over. And for that reason, it’s a good book. And I don’t read literary fiction, for the most part – I’m not well-versed in its tropes, so perhaps this is a category-error criticism and if so I apologise. But perhaps, coming to this from the SF and not the literary standpoint, there could have been a little more redemption for Harry, a little sacrifice of theme to character rather than vice versa. Having spent four hundred pages on the first fifteen lives of Harry August, I think I wanted a glimmer of a happy ending for him, too.