Noumenon Is an Ambitious, Frustrating Space Opera

After telling everyone that I was hype as fuck for Marina J. Lostetter’s debut SFF novel Noumenon, I now can’t remember where I heard about it. If you’ve read and loved this novel, drop me a note in the comments and clear up my confusion. I’d probably have given up at the start if I hadn’t heard so much good about it; but then, of course, I wouldn’t be writing hundreds of words about the ways it wasn’t successful.

Noumenon

Noumenon is the story of a generation ship (well, a convoy of generation ships) setting out to explore an anomalous star called LQ Pyxidis. The journey will take hundreds of years and will be staffed by a series of clones whose originals have been heavily screened for any physical or mental problems that would cause problems for the convoy. The book consists of snapshots of the journey out to LQ Pyxidis and back to Earth, jumping ahead in each chapter by several decades and following a few key genetic lines through the convoy’s journey.

To start with the good, I love a generation ship. Generation ships are the closest thing SFF has to boarding schools.1 Lostetter does something I maybe haven’t seen before in giving us the entire journey of Convoy Seven (other convoys are launched from Earth at the same time to explore other parts of the galaxy), so that we see the mission through from its conception by Reggie Straifer, to its arrival at LQ Pyxidis, to its return to Earth.

Over the course of the clone generations, the convoy is perpetually trying to correct for the mistakes their predecessors have made. After a rash of suicides early in the mission, they begin to push hard on the notion of mission before individual, which in turn leads to its own set of problems. The decisions and emotions of individuals in any given generation have far-reaching consequences, and because Lostetter is dealing in decades and centuries rather than months and years, we’re able to see those consequences unfold. Noumenon is a book that’s keenly aware of the pitfalls of adhering too closely to the founders’ vision. It also knows that new generations, as they attempt to avoid the errors of their forebears, inevitably make shiny new mistakes. People don’t get smarter; we just get older. Only the convoy’s AI, I.C.C., is able to witness the full passage of generations and learn from each one as it goes by.

But for a book with such ambition in its premise and plot, Noumenon is surprisingly cautious with its characters and social ideas. Lostetter goes out of her way at one point to emphasize that biology isn’t destiny, but then makes a lot of choices in the book that suggest that it is. Unless I missed something, the straight characters’ clones are always straight (e.g., Reggie Straifer, Nika Marov), and the gay characters’ clones are always gay (e.g., Margarita Pavon). Nobody is ever trans. As a medium-sized spoiler for the seventh vignette (which frankly is given away by the title of the chapter), one child cloned from the genes of a computer specialist is raised believing that his original genes belonged to a plants guy. Despite this socialization, though, his heart always belongs to computers.

This was why Diego thought that if he were to reveal his secret — his distaste for botany — to anyone, it would be his mom. She was I.C.C.’s caretaker, and thought it would be nice if Diego shared her love of computers. And he did, so much so that he wished his genes had been brought on board for the AI. He wanted a job that wasn’t his, and he knew that was wrong.

None of the other clones — i.e., those who had the same jobs as their genetic originals — ever voices discontent with their task. For a book that repeatedly argues against holding clones responsible for the actions, choices, and tendencies of their genetic originals, Noumenon is strangely faithful to the assumption of biological determinism.

Lostetter also declines almost entirely to deal with race or nationality. In the first two chapters, characters are described in weird, racialized ways that disappear in later chapters — which charitably might be assumed to suggest that the narrators who grew up on earth are more conscious of race than the convoy characters. Either that or we’re just dealing with standard issue well-intentioned-white-lady writing awkwardly about race as we encounter characters for the first time.

With him was a dark-featured young woman, her hair as wavy and body as curvy as any Grecian goddess’s–Abigail, she’d said her name was.

and

Her eyes were a dark brown-and-gold under harshly cropped black bangs. Her expression carried the utmost seriousness, and her powerful, pointed movements were what Reggie might have expected from a strapping Russian man, not a petite Japanese woman.

and

Jamal was only perhaps half a foot taller than Reggie, but his lankiness gave the impression that he was a tower of a man. Neatly sheared dreadlocks were gathered in a ponytail at the base of his neck. He smiled broadly while they shook hands, and his smile shone bright white in his dark face.

Other characters are described as looking very Mongolian or very Polynesian. IT IS WEIRD AND UNCOMFORTABLE.

Nor does Noumenon posit any gendered, racial, or national awareness on the part of the convoy. Lostetter is clearly aware of and interested in dealing with the human tendency to prejudice: Eventually there emerges (spoilers here, again) a kind of slavery, which gets abolished, and then a kind of stigma against the former slaves. Lostetter thereby takes the path — incredibly common among SFF writers — of ignoring real-world prejudices in favor of invented ones (prejudice against certain genetic lines). And I just don’t believe it. I don’t believe that a convoy from Earth would retain no national allegiance at all, no awareness of different races, and no distinction among genders. Prejudices in real life are never instead of; they’re too. THAT IS KIND OF THE WHOLE CONCEPT OF INTERSECTIONALITY.

The Watsonian explanation for this, I think, is that the team organizing the convoy screened out — among other things — bigots.

The crew has been chosen based largely on their DNA and histories. On top of that, the consortium is getting full psych evals and family histories. There are predispositions that have been left out. Those with violent tendencies won’t be aboard, or those who lack loyalty, or those who are flighty. . . . No anarchists . . . . or dictators, or psychopaths, misogynists, etcetera. No matter how intellectually brilliant they are, without the proper emotional factors — emotional intelligence, if you will — they will hinder societal stability, and could endanger the mission’s success.

In past years I would have been more forgiving of this plot device: Lostetter doesn’t feel qualified to deal with race in her book (fair enough), so she handwaves it by implying that those people have been screened out. But one year into the Trump presidency, I am more than ever worried about propagating the narrative that prejudice is confined to an identifiable group of people. And since screening for rebels and authoritarians fails — we see clones who are both — it’s not reasonable to accept that screening for bigots worked flawlessly.

Again, Lostetter is clearly conflicted about genetic determinism and pushes back against it sometimes. The convoy decides to discontinue certain genetic lines if one of those clones behaves in ways they believe are detrimental to the mission (rebellion, suicide, etc.), and the book clearly believes this to be authoritarian folly. Yet when much or most of the clones’ makeup — from sexuality and gender to job preference — remains true to their genetic originals, it’s hard to feel that Lostetter doesn’t believe that at some level, biology is destiny.

tl;dr: Lostetter is full of cool ideas, but Noumenon disappointingly fails to grapple with the sociological implications of the world it sets up.

Have y’all read Noumenon? I’d be interested to hear other responses! Is my crabbiness just a function of having read and loved both Six Wakes (clones on a generation ship) and Ninefox Gambit (nothing in common with Noumenon really, but Yoon Ha Lee blurbed this book and the covers are sort of similar) this year? PS please read Ninefox Gambit because holy shit is it ever good.

  1. Just kidding. SFF totally has boarding schools. But still, generation ships are boarding-school-y, and I’m into it.

Review: The Bloodprint, Ausma Zehanat Khan

Note: I received a review copy of The Bloodprint from the publisher. This has not impacted the content of my review. As Katie always says, it would take more than a single copy of a single book to buy my loyalty.

Bloodprint

Arian is a warrior, linguist, and Companion of Hira, an order of women who draw their power from the Claim, a type of magic that draws its power from sacred scripture. They are battling against the Talisman, a movement led by the One-Eyed Preacher that seeks to eradicate scholarship and knowledge and the written word and to subjugate all the lands under an absolutist patriarchal rule. But Arian has a chance to find the Bloodprint, a physical copy of her faith’s scripture — if she can undertake the dangerous quest to retrieve it.

I’ve been a fan of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s for a while now. She gets me to read mysteries, and I never read mysteries! But her mysteries are grounded in history and grapple deeply with questions of culpability, complicity, and oppression, so they’re catnip to me. The Bloodprint deals with many of the same issues: Arian’s enemy, the Talisman, use a distorted version of her own faith to enslave women, brutally conquer every city in their path, and suppress literacy wherever they go. This is genuinely really hard to read in places, because the Talisman are destroying monuments and texts that Arian’s order values deeply, but that cannot be replaced.

The Bloodprint is very much a road trip story, which is always fun for me. Arian travels with her apprentice, Sinnia; her friend and would-be lover, the Silver Mage Daniyar; and a freed slave named Wafa. They cover a lot of territory, and I was glad that Khan had provided vocabulary and character guides in the back of the book. However, things did tend to get a trifle complicated, in that way secondary world fantasies often do, where the writer has a lot of elements and is trying to introduce all of them in the series’s first book. I got muddled in spots, and it wasn’t always clear which names and concepts I needed to remember for later vs which ones were just there to provide local color on Arian’s journey.

I gave up on secondary world fantasy years ago, when I started to notice how heavily inflected by imperialistic worldviews it all seemed to be. The Bloodprint, which draws on Islamic art, culture, and history, is a refreshing reminder that there’s nothing inevitable about Eurocentric fantasy stories. I’m thrilled to see Ausma Zehanat Khan branching out from mystery into fantasy, and I’ll look forward to reading more in this series.

Review: The Bedlam Stacks, Natasha Pulley

Note: I received a copy of The Bedlam Stacks from the publisher for review consideration. This has not influenced the content of my review.

So a funny thing about Natasha Pulley is that I resisted reading The Watchmaker of Filigree Street for ages, as the cover and premise sounded much more whimsical than I thought I’d be into. But actually, the word I’d use for both that book and her sophomore novel, The Bedlam Stacks, is melancholy. They are really not whimsical at all, so if — like me — you have been avoiding them for that reason, do not do so!

The Bedlam Stacks briefly features Keita Mori (the eponymous Watchmaker of Filigree Street), but apart from that the two books are not really related. The Bedlam Stacks is about former smuggler Merrick Tremayne, who gets pulled in for One Last Job after months trying to recover from an injury that almost lost him his leg. The mission is almost certainly doomed: Merrick and his friend Clem must fetch quinine from within the depths of Peru, and everyone else who’s made the attempt has died. But Merrick’s family has connections to Peru, and so off he goes to a mission colony on the edge of the Amazon where the locals tell stories of lost time and living stones.

The Bedlam Stacks

If you liked The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, I commend The Bedlam Stacks to your notice as well. Like Pulley’s debut novel, Bedlam Stacks is slow to begin and takes some time in confirming a supernatural truth that was reasonably guessable even to a notoriously poor guesser like myself (particularly as it’s suggested in the book’s jacket copy). If those are traits not likely to annoy you, full steam ahead with The Bedlam Stacks. It’s wistful and strange in the same way that Watchmaker was, packed with haunting details that creep into your dreams and imbue the everyday world with the possibility of magic.

A small weirdness that I may have failed to understand: Watchmaker included as an apparently-central-but-ultimately-minor plotline a gang of Irish terrorists planting bombs. Nobody in the book really says “well hey maybe we, the English, ought not to have occupied their country,” and I thought it was odd but then I was like “okay fair play to you Natasha Pulley, nobody should blow people up because murder is wrong.” In Bedlam, set thirty(ish) years earlier, Merrick tosses off a remark about his fear of Irishmen talking of bombs. Is that a callback to Watchmaker? If not it makes a weird little pattern of English people deciding how angry Irish people ought to be about the loss of their own nation. British and Irish readers? How should I feel about this?

Actually, as a broader note, it’s odd that Pulley doesn’t grapple much with the ethics of imperialism in either of her books. I noticed it in Watchmaker, but it’s particularly striking in Bedlam, whose protagonist is an agent of the British Empire under perpetual threat of death by (he believes) The Natives. Everyone in the book treats Empire like a weather condition: You can prepare for it, or you can (maybe) get out of its path, but it can’t be talked back to. While this pragmatic approach is plainly true, it’s not great to watch our protagonist considering the possible consequences of the voyage he chose to undertake as if they are and have always been out of his own control.

Anyway! That has been a lot of blather on topics about which I know nothing. Peruvians, First Nations folks, disabled folks, Irish folks, weigh in and let me know what you made of this book.

Review: Jubilee, Margaret Walker

I’d like a show of hands who’s heard of Margaret Walker’s book Jubilee, a 50th-anniversary edition of which was just recently released. Because I hadn’t, and I’m mostly angry with myself about that, but largely angry with America. There’s honestly no reason we should still be talking all the time about Gone with the Wind and I’ve never heard of Margaret Walker’s book Jubilee. Seriously.

(A note: You don’t need to defend Gone with the Wind to me in the comments. It has plenty of defenders already and it is doing absolutely fine even now that I have mildly criticized it. It will continue to propagate its shitty, glossed-over, sentimentalized version of American history for many decades yet to come.)

(Okay, now I have criticized it un-mildly. But it is still doing fine, I promise, and also, it would be okay if it stopped doing fine and fell out of print. We would all survive that.)

Jubilee is about a girl called Vyry who is born into slavery, the daughter of a slave mother and the white man who owns her. As the story goes on, we witness the progress of the Civil War and follow Vyry through emancipation and after, as she and her family struggles to find a safe home for themselves through the Reconstruction years.

I didn’t exactly like Jubilee, because I always don’t like historical fiction set in America (my most positive feelings about American settings for historical fiction are approx. three stars, which is where I’m at on Jubilee). At the same time, I can’t see any reason I didn’t read this book in school. It’s a classic, it’s accessible and reads quickly, it draws from Margaret Walker’s historical research as well as her family’s oral history, and there’s none of the kind of language or sexual violence (except the violence implied by Vyry’s parentage) that tends to give book-banning parents itchy trigger fingers. It’s courteously nuanced in its treatment of the white characters, so nobody could scream “reverse racism” at it,1 and it covers years of American history (the Reconstruction era) that often get skimmed through in favor of getting on to the wars of the twentieth century. Why wouldn’t this book be as standard an element of American curriculum as, for instance, Huck Finn?

It’s okay, y’all. I already know the answer. The answer is racism.

  1. Yes they could. People will scream “reverse racism” at anything, I have learned.

Review: Strange the Dreamer, Laini Taylor

My God, Laini Taylor has a lot of ideas. Have we talked about how many ideas Laini Taylor has got? The inside of her brain must be an absolutely wild place to be. Strange the Dreamer is the first in a new series (her earlier one having finished up with Dreams of Gods and Monsters in 2014), and it’s a hell of a ride.

Strange the Dreamer

Lazlo Strange has always been a dreamer, and what he’s dreamt of is the lost city across the desert. For many centuries, travelers came to Lazlo’s country on camels, bringing stories of a city of domes and marvels. Two hundred years ago, the travelers stopped coming. Fifteenish years ago, Lazlo reached into his memory for the name of the city and found that its real name was gone from his mind. The only name he could give to the city now was Weep.

Meanwhile, back in Weep, a girl named Sarai and her siblings live in a citadel and subsist on what little food they can grow, hiding their existence and the powers from the city below. But the arrival of strangers from across the desert threatens the delicate balance that Sarai’s family have established for themselves.

If you do not care for a book that ends with a To be continued sort of notice, then I warn you off Strange the Dreamer right now. Laini Taylor writes at a reasonable clip! You can depend on her to finish the second book in a year or two, and you can return to the duology at that point. I am not in love with that type of cliffhanger, but I’m not mad about it either — I read the end, so I knew all along that there was going to be a To be continued notice.

For those of you who don’t mind reading a YA novel whose sequel does not yet exist in the world, Strange the Dreamer was a trip. Laini Taylor writes perfectly serviceable characters for whom I of course want all the best, but ultimately I am on this ride for Jesus Christ how does one single woman have so many goddamn ideas? Strange the Dreamer is akin to this one Tarsem Singh movie The Fall where all the sets are preposterously beautiful and all the colors are super-saturated and your dreams thereafter receive an infusion of color and light and strangeness.

what a great movie
I HAVE BEEN TO THE TAJ MAHAL AND IT WAS SO COOL

They also both contain moths! I wonder what it means.

Well, this has been many words in which I have said virtually nothing actually about the book itself, so you will have to go by the above mini-mood-board and my description and whether or not you feel comfortable reading a 500+ page book that ends unresolvedly. Either way, though, you should definitely rent and watch The Fall. It stars Lee Pace, an adorable child, and a running gag about Indian-from-India vs. Indian-indigenous-to-America that makes me laugh every time I think about it.

Review: I, Iago, Nicole Galland

Some years, my pal Jeanne from Necromancy Never Pays makes it down to Louisiana and stops by for a visit with my family. Last year, she so so kindly brought me a book as a gift: I, Iago, by Nicole Galland, which she said I would enjoy.

I Iago

(Spoiler: I did, indeed, enjoy it.)

Nearly an entire year later, when I recalled that Jeanne would possibly be visiting again soon (yay!), I gave myself a stern talking-to about putting off reading books that were gifts, and I pulled I, Iago down off my TBR shelf and read it. And the thing is, the thing is, the book was completely delightful. Why would I not have read it before? Why do I own books and not read them?

internal monologue

I, Iago was predictably delightful. It’s a retelling of the Othello story from Iago’s perspective, and it doesn’t so much try to rehabilitate Iago as it tries to explain how he got to a place where he was willing to do all the evil deeds that he does in the play. The first half of the book is dedicated to his life as a Venetian, a man of battles, and a husband. Galland fleshes out a wonderful backstory for Iago, and his relationship with Emilia is particularly enjoyable. (I can’t speak to her historical research as I know 0 things about old-time Venice. They had doges? I dunno. I, Iago makes it seem like they had hella parties.)

The second half, in my opinion, was less successful, falling prey to the same problem that many Shakespeare retellings faces, i.e., that it is very, very difficult to produce a faithful retelling of a Shakespeare play that doesn’t just annoy you for not actually being the Shakespeare play. In many places, Galland is reproducing dialogue from the play, but in a more casual idiom in line with the rest of her book. Since Shakespeare’s dialogue is a byword of genius, this is — maybe not the choice I’d have made. The fun of fanfiction (at least a major part of the fun of fanfiction) is its ability to flesh out stories that occur in the margins of the source text, and I, Iago is at its best when it does exactly that.

Tell me, friends, now that I’m in the mood for it: What’s the best Shakespeare retelling you’ve ever read?

Review: The Liminal People, Ayize Jama-Everett

The marvelous Bina reviewed The Liminal People some time ago and mentioned that it’s frequently compared to X-Men, which naturally was all the inducement I needed to buy it and its two sequels a few AWPs ago. “X-Men meets [literally anything]” = a sales pitch that will win me over 10/10 times.

The Liminal People

Taggert, our hero (ish), is a healer with the power to magically repair any ailments of the body, from wounds to asthma to cancer. He has wandered the world for most of his life, desperate to meet more people with powers like him, and his wanderings have washed him up on the metaphorical shores of a warlord in Morocco, who has helped1 him develop his powers, in exchange for Taggert’s help pursuing the warlord’s own ends. But when Taggert gets a desperate call from Yasmine, the only woman he’s ever loved, he rushes to London to help find her missing daughter — who may have powers of her own.

In so many ways, The Liminal People is the type of fantasy I’m excited to be reading. Jama-Everett takes a familiar trope — the minority population of superheroes — and puts it in global perspective, so that we see how differently Taggert’s powers have been received in the many places he’s lived. Whereas many iterations of this trope have used it as a stand-in for race, The Liminal People looks at how powers like Taggert’s interact with race (and other marginalizations).

It’s also just a good story. I’m never not going to be there for “tough loner teams up with angry youth,” even if we weren’t living through a calendar year that gave us the apparently-very-gruesome-so-I-haven’t-seen-it-yet-please-don’t-@-me Logan. There’s a plot element towards the middle that wasn’t a great look for Feminism, but since it was in clear service of the tough loner / angry youth team-up, I am prepared to overlook it. Jama-Everett is quite fantastic at fight scenes, even if you don’t think you care about fight scenes. His are excellent, weird, and inventive, and they make full use of Taggert’s powers and the powers of the people he’s fighting.

Okay. That’s the good stuff. Now for some things that are not so good in re: the portrayal of villains. One of the big villains of the piece is a hired thug called Rajesh whose powers run to blowing things up. Here’s how Tamara (a protagonist and fundamentally sympathetic character) describes him:

He’s Asian, Paki, I think. . . . He’s a bully. A big stupid Paki bastard bully. He pushes his parents around. I’ve heard he’s raped girls. . . . He’s a savage fucking brute.

I get that troubled youths say gross things and don’t appreciate the impact of their words, but the text doesn’t frame this description as problematic. There is no push-back against the use of the term Paki (which unless I’ve misunderstood England completely is a really racist thing to say), and we don’t see any acknowledgement that Tamara has been ugly here: Her rage and the expression of it appear justified by the text, because Rajesh is a rapist and a murderer.

Moreover, because there are no other significant South Asian characters in the book, the depiction of Rajesh and his family takes on an outsize importance. Unlike the other villains, whom Jama-Everett portrays with more nuance, Rajesh is exclusively, simplistically evil, and the reader is meant to feel viciously satisfied when Taggert tortures and kills him (in the Indian restaurant his parents own). I suspect Jama-Everett didn’t intend to link Rajesh’s nationality with his villainy, but it’s noticeable and really disappointing in a book that gives us a terrific array of superheroes of color.

MOREOVER. The Big Bad of this book is a club promoter called Alia, who uses her powers to conceal her true face. When Taggert and Tamara face off with her in the final battle, they force her to drop her illusions, and she is described in the following super-ableist way:

And she’s ugly. Not everyday ugly — she had major genetic problems: oversized cranium, malformed palette, cleft lip — mother-was-probably-her-sister type ugly. Her teeth are gray and look like they belong to an infant. Her arms are deformed, almost flippers.

It goes on from there but I got depressed typing it and decided to tap out. Like. Number one, can we retire the flippant tone when we’re talking about incest? Number two, the Evil Cripple trope is harmful to disabled people. Number three, the aligning of disability with ugliness is yuck, and both Taggert and Alia explicitly refer to her as ugly (repeatedly). In a book that I generally really loved and found inventive and brilliant, it was disappointing to see it lean on tedious cliches about disability at the end.

If you’ve got other feelings about the portrayal of Rajesh and Alia, and particularly if you want to let me know if there’s stuff I should watch out for in the subsequent two books, I’d love love love you to get at me in the comments.

  1. for some values of the word “helped”

Review: All the Real Indians Died Off, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker

After reading An Indigenous People’s History of the United States a few years back, I was in the tank for p. much anything from Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz. All the Real Indians Died Off (and 20 Other MYths about Native Americans) is her latest book, cowritten with Colville author Dina Gilio-Whitaker, and it serves as an excellent 101 text for understanding Indian history in the US and ongoing legal, social, and economic issues.

All the Real Indians Died Off

Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker (my stars they have a lot of name between them) tackle issues ranging from terminology (Indian? Native American? Indigenous?) to broken treaties (too many to count) to casino earnings to indigenous tax breaks. Each section (well, nearly each, but I’ll get into that) lays out the origins of the myth, cites some examples of its function in historical or contemporary discourse, and then explores the reality behind it.

While the structure of the book — each “myth” receives five to ten pages — precludes the authors from going into depth about any one issue, they pack a lot of information into this slim book. The notes section also provides plenty of avenues for further reading, both foundational works by scholars like Vine Deloria Jr. (who even I have heard of) and recent peer-reviewed research. For instance, in the chapter about tribes getting rich from casinos (they mostly don’t), the authors lay out the hard numbers of casino earnings and their impact on average tribe members (on and off reservations).

Occasionally there’s a disconnect between the “myth” as described in the the chapter heading, and the actual content of the chapter. The chapter “Indians Are Anti-Science” touches on indigenous knowledge and scientific racism but devotes the bulk of its time to technological advances made by Indian groups in history. Which is awesome! Yay for agricultural innovation and such! But like — doesn’t really address the question, particularly? I closed out the chapter not sure who was saying Indians were anti-science or on what basis or why it was wrong.

However, even in chapters where that’s the case, All the Real Indians Died Off has tons of good information for readers who are seeking a basic grounding in Indian history, discourse, and activism. Recommended!

Review: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Eva Rice

There is nothing quite as cleansing as finally reading a book that’s been on your TBR list for untold ages. Ana of Things Mean a Lot reviewed it in 2012, which is on the outer edge of how long I’ll let a book linger on my TBR spreadsheet. If I’ve let it go for five years without reading it, I have to accept that I didn’t truly want to read it in the first place.1 Alice from Of Books reminded me more recently why I wanted to read it, so thanks to both of you, lovely blogging friends!

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

As Ana and Alice both mention in their posts, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets recalls almost irresistibly I Capture the Castle, a comparison of which I had absolutely no recollection when I started reading. And perhaps it’s best that I didn’t; comparing a new book to one of the twentieth century’s great works of fiction is hardly a recipe for success. Please forget I said that. Except don’t, because I want you to read this book. Except do, because I don’t want to get your expectations too high.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is about a girl called Penelope who lives in a ramshackle old manor house called Milton Magna in postwar England. She rattles around her old manor house with her younger brother Inigo, who dreams of being a pop star, and her beautiful, widowed mother, married at seventeen and widowed in the Second World War. As Penelope is waiting tidily at the train station, a total stranger swoops in and carries her off to have tea with her family, and Penelope’s life changes entirely. In a manner that is not entirely unlike, yet not so much like that it should raise your expectations in a significant way, the events of I Capture the Castle.

I can at least say that without specifically remembering the I Capture the Castle comparison,2 I was immediately charmed by The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. Penelope spends a great deal of time thinking about romantic love; but the fundamental relationships in the book are between Penelope and Charlotte and, to a lesser extent, Penelope and her maddening, dramatic, married-too-young mother. The book was a frothy delight from the first page, and if it’s not exactly up to the standard set by I Capture the Castle, it’s at least along the lines of a lesser Dodie Smith book or an ungrim Maggie O’Farrell novel. If that’s something you need (in this grim dystopian hellscape), go forth and read it with my blessing.

(Note that I had to bust out the old “Sparkly Snuggle Hearts” category for this book. That is an exact description of how I felt about it.)

  1. The oldest book currently on there dates to December 2013.
  2. So you should forget it too! Forget it at once!

Review: Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar

Because I am perverse, the first Superman comic I ever read was Superman: Red Son, by famed Scottish comics creator Mark Millar, whose name I thought sounded vaguely familiar when I was scanning the comics shelf at my library. The premise here is that instead of being dropped in the middle of Kansas, Superman ends up in a Ukrainian collective farm. He fights for Stalin, socialism, and the neverending expansion of the Warsaw Pact; while American scientist Lex Luthor plots how to bring him down. Fun, right?

Superman: Red Son

Art is by Dave Johnson, Andrew Robinson, Kilian Plunkett, and Walden Wong; colors by Paul Mounts; letters by Ken Lopez.

If you haven’t read any Superman, Red Son will still make sense, and it’s a good comic to read because it’s contained to the one volume. The introduction to the volume assured me that it was so, and indeed it was so. But I think it was also a little bit like reading Kurt Busiek’s Marvels without knowing, for instance, the classic Spiderman / Gwen Stacy story. It still works; the story explains what’s happening. The punch is just less punchy. As I was reading, there were (many) times when it was clear there was a callback being made, and I was missing it because I don’t know anything about Superman’s history.

That said, Red Son is a very cool story that takes away Superman’s heroism mostly without taking away what’s fundamental to his character. Lex Luthor fights against Superman not because he believes Superman is wrong — he explicitly doesn’t care — but because he doesn’t like to lose, which means that this is a book whose two primary characters are both fundamentally villains. The heroism of other characters, like Batman and Wonder Woman, or the team of fighters trying to oppose the spread of Russian autocracy1, are no less brave for being ancillary to the work that Superman and Luthor are trying to achieve. It also has a hugely satisfying (to me) ending.

Ready for your Angry Feminism Minute? You must have known it was coming! Lois Lane is around basically to mope over Lex Luthor (her husband in this universe) and, now and then, wonder what her life would have been like if she were with Superman.

Lois: Listen. Bring Norma Jean and Jack to dinner if you want. Lex, I’m not sure I even care anymore.
Lex: Oh of course you still care, Lois Luther. Why else would you have chosen to live alone all these years, eh?
Lois [with image of Superman in background]: I guess you’re right, Lex. Maybe I am just a one-man woman.

Framing one of the only women in the comic as fundamentally about her romantic life is tediously regressive. I’d say atavistic were it not for the fact that comics just have not come that far from the days of this shit in the first few issues of Iron Man.

Happy: Are ya brushin’ me off… Me, Happy Hogan, who has finally found the dame of his dreams?
Pepper: My dear Mr. Hogan, your dream would only be my nightmare! In short…you wouldn’t be my type even if you were my type!
Happy: Hm, I get the picture…it’s him…Stark…who makes yer ticker go thump thump. Right?
Pepper: Right! Only he doesn’t know I’m alive, but someday he will…and then he’ll give up all his actresses and debutantes…and I’ll become Mrs. Anthony Stark!

Again, this Iron Man comic is from 1963. Red Son was published four damn decades later, and it’s still coming at me with this same retro gender shit. I googled “Mark Millar gender” to see if I was being oversensitive, and it turns out that this is a thing he told the New Republic in an interview with (omg of course) Abraham Riesman.

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”

Ah.

Comics, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.

  1. Jenny sobs into her tea