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Laurie Penny: John Gray's “all-new” science fiction reading list

John Gray’s article names not a single woman writer, nor any writer of colour.

Science fiction is pertinent, and it is political. John Gray's essay "War of the words", published by the New Statesman this week, is a magnificent and lyrical attempt to rehabilitate science and speculative fiction within the western canon.

It is gratifying that Gray has finally noticed what decades' worth of critics, authors and judges have failed to recognise: that science and speculative fiction is a vibrant and important school of writing whose observations on politics and the human condition "enable us to see more clearly the elusive actualities". This particularly the case in Britain, which has long produced the best science fiction in the world, all of which has been roundly snubbed by the bourgeois literary establishment.

Gray misses the mark, however, in assuming that western culture's loss of humanist principles means that science fiction is "no longer a viable form". On the contrary -- contemporary science fiction boasts exciting novelists like Ken MacLeod, Gwyneth Jones, Geoff Ryman, Cathrynne M Valente, China Miéville and Charles Stross, whose works cluster at the cutting edge of modernity. It is, perhaps, a certain poverty in Gray's own humanism that restricts his reading of science and speculative fiction to such a narrow field of writers.

Reading Gray's essay put me in mind of studying English at university, where learned tutors would open our minds to dazzling new strata of language and ideas before presenting us with a reading list entirely composed of books by dead white males from the early 20th century.

Gray comments that Miéville's astonishing The City and The City makes readers "realise how much of human life -- your own and that of others -- passes by unseen". Unfortunately, what "passes by unseen" in Gray's attempt to reappropriate science fiction to the mainstream is approximately a century's worth of important speculative writing by women and people of colour.

Gray's article lists not a single woman writer, nor any writer of colour -- nor, indeed, any living writers from the 21st-century save Miéville. It is particularly startling that, in his digest of 20th-century dystopian fiction, he neglects to mention Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, an near-future novel set in a brutal patriarchal theocracy, alongside Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley's Brave New World.

"I am really tired of hearing men discuss the field as if there are no women writers," says Farah Mendlesohn, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. "There is not a single decade of science fiction in the 20th century in which there were no women authors. What about Katherine Burdekin's anti-fascist dystopia, Suzy McKee Charnas's challenges to the patriarchy, or Joanna Russ's fierce critiques of liberal politics?"

Women's liberation has always been, in Gray's words, an "impulse of world transformation". Imagining alternative futures in order to create a potentiality of action has been particularly important for women writers and writers of colour seeking to articulate social oppression. Miéville, whose work Gray extensively and deservedly celebrates, said last week that "speculative fiction is about radical moments of estrangement, and about exploring potentiality. It's not surprising that speculative fiction written by people at the sharp end of modernity, whether that's women or people of colour, will reflect especially powerfully on patterns of privilege."

Like radical politics, science fiction seeks to disturb -- and what could be more disturbing than a vision of a world where gender and sexuality are differently constructed? Even the most populist science fiction engages playfully with gender: consider Russell T Davies's relaunch of Doctor Who in 2005 which, along with scary monsters, intergalactic battles and epic quantities of BBC slime, posited the notion that, in the future, being gay or bisexual might not be any sort of social impediment.

At its most powerful, science and speculative fiction seeks to delocalise and make strange the structures of everyday existence. In so doing, it can't help but replicate the strategies of radical politics and identity politics. Gray's assessment of the importance of science fiction is welcome, but his attempt to reconcile the genre with a certain form of redactive literary liberalism was always destined to fall short.

Like feminism, there is something inherently weird about science fiction -- and, whether we like it or not, it cannot be rehabilitated.

Writing Women's Worlds: a reading list by Farah Mendlesohn and China Miéville

  • Margaret Atwood -- The Handmaid's Tale (the classic feminist dystopia, exploring women's lives under totalitarian theocracy. Winner of the first Arthur C Clarke award)
  • Kirsten Bakis -- Lives of the Monster Dogs (a sequel to The Island of Dr Moreau, winner of the Orange Prize)
  • Katherine Burdekin (as Murray Constantine) -- Swastika Night, 1937 (a dystopian vision of Europe under the Third Reich, written before the outbreak of WWII)
  • Octavia E Butler -- Dawn (Xenogenesis trilogy)
  • Suzy McKee Charnas -- Walk to the End of the World
  • Nalo Hopkinson -- Brown Girl in the Ring
  • Gwyneth Jones -- Bold As Love
  • Ursula Le Guin -- The Disposessed and Left Hand of Darkness (the authors couldn't bring themselves to choose just one Le Guin)
  • Judith Merril (as editor) -- England Swings SF, 1968
  • Tricia O'Sullivan -- Maul
  • Joanna Russ -- The Female Man and How to Suppress Women's Writing
  • Alice Sheldon (as James Tiptree Jr) -- Her Smoke Rose Up Forever


Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game