This is not a post I ever thought I’d be writing, and I certainly didn’t expect to be writing it now, when there’s so many terrible things going on in the world. But the SFF writing and publishing community is not an island: we impact and are impacted by the world in turn, and it’s because of this relationship that I’m speaking now. This is a small matter in comparison to the ongoing protests over the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd and the egregious police brutality with which those protests have been met, but it is still, to me, an important matter, as how the SFF community responds to racism and bigotry in other contexts will always relate to how it deals with internal gatekeeping. After what’s happened, I don’t feel that I can in good conscience continue to remain silent.

Last week, Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary, who lives in Minneapolis, tweeted that she had called the police about “looters” at the gas station near her house in the wake of protests about the death of George Floyd. When other people pointed out that calling the police could potentially result in more violence towards Black people in particular – the Minneapolis protests were peaceful until police turned water cannons and rubber bullets on the crowd, precipitating the riots through a series of violent escalations – Fredrick doubled down in defense of her actions. When one of her agents, Kelly Van Sant, announced her resignation from the agency over the matter, Frederick posted a statement to the Red Sofa Literary website, insisting that there were “zero protesters” present at the gas station, just “straight up looters.” (How she could be certain there was no overlap between the two while watching from a distance is, presumably, unknown.)

Since then, two more Red Sofa agents, Amanda Rutter and Stacey Graham, have likewise resigned from Red Sofa in protest, while several of Frederick’s clients have dropped her. It was only after this that Frederick published a second statement, apologising for her actions; she has also deleted her twitter account. As as a result, I have seen many members of the SFF community debating whether or not the reaction Frederick received was proportional to her offence, with some asserting her credentials as a long-standing advocate for diversity in the SFF community as a reason why she has been treated unfairly.

It is for this reason that I have decided to speak publicly about my own past experiences with Dawn Frederick.

In 2014, I signed with Red Sofa Literary to be represented by Jennie Goloboy, an agent who subsequently left Red Sofa in 2017, not long after the events I am about to describe. While I don’t know for certain that what happened with me precipitated Jennie’s decision to leave Red Sofa, the timing of her departure has never struck me as being coincidental. At the very least, I suspect that what happened to me was a factor in her decision, and while I can’t say that my relationship with Jennie ended on good terms, I do believe that, at the end, her actions were severely constrained by Fredrick.

This is going to be a longish story, but the early details are important to the later context, and so I hope you’ll bear with me.

In December 2016, I received my edits for A Tyranny of Queens, the second novel in my Manifold Worlds duology, published with Angry Robot. As my original editor was unavailable at the time, a different editor had been brought on board, one who was also, coincidentally, an employee of Red Sofa. When the edits came in, I was upset to discover that the editor had made several problematic suggestions regarding diverse themes in the novel. In particular, she wanted me to use a different pronoun for a nonbinary character, stated that a neurodivergent character was insufficiently sympathetic because of their neurodivergence (“I love seeing that in a character, but it does make them very hard to present in a warm manner… It might be nice to present a little more of his confusion about how people interact, his fear… to assist with reader sympathy”), and said that giving the protagonist a notable PTSD symptom, after her PTSD is developed throughout the first book, was “a step too far,” describing the PTSD itself as something that should “be the focus of a whole novel” rather than a small subplot”.

I’m quoting these details now, not because I want to shame or attack the editor nearly four years after the fact – aside from anything else, it has always been my belief that these comments were the result of ignorance, not malice, and that the editor has since done active work to improve her understanding of these issues – but to explain why I was, at the time, both unhappy and stressed. I wrote an email to Jennie outlining my concerns, and later had a Skype conversation with her about it in greater detail: her response was, essentially, that everyone gets edits they disagree with sooner or later, and that I should just do my best. I didn’t feel as though this addressed the problems I was having, and I was additionally concerned that the editor being a fellow employee of Red Sofa was, if nothing else, putting Jennie in the awkward position of having her client complain about a colleague, but I was on deadline, so I set it aside and kept working on the book.

Four months later, in April 2017, fellow nonbinary writer JY Yang wrote a twitter thread about editorial pushback they’d received for using the singular they as their pronoun of choice for nonbinary characters, while also talking about how the personal blindspots of editors around issues of diversity is an element of gatekeeping in SFF publishing. Recalling what had happened with the editing on A Tyranny of Queens, and acting under the (as it turns out, incorrect) belief that Jennie had passed on my concerns to my editor back when I’d originally made them, I decided to chime in, piggybacking off Yang’s thread to share my experiences. I was careful not to name the editor, though I reiterated my belief that she was well-meaning. I hoped that my speaking up would help to further the conversation about diversity in publishing, and left it at that.

At this point, it’s important to note that, whereas Red Sofa Literary is based in Minneapolis, in 2017, I was living in Brisbane, Australia, meaning that Jennie and I were operating in very different timezones. As such – and as I’m a habitual night-owl – it wasn’t unusual for me to hear from Jennie in the evening. Even so, I was surprised and stressed to receive a DM from her after 1am my time, when I was already in bed and noodling around on my phone, saying that she wanted to talk about my tweets, which I’d posted earlier that day (my time). Our subsequent conversation went as follows:

jg tweets 1

jg tweets 2

 

At this point, I got out of bed, got dressed and went to Skype Jennie. I stated that, while I was sorry for causing upset, I didn’t think taking the tweets down would help, as traditionally, deleting tweets in the era of screenshots only tends to make an issue blow up. Jennie replied by saying that, to her, my tweets read like I was dissatisfied with Angry Robot and the final version of A Tyranny of Queens (I wasn’t), and that this was what she thought needed addressing.

And then my four-year-old stopped breathing.

More specifically, he started wheezing desperately, frighteningly for air, so loudly that I could hear him several rooms away. It woke my husband, who dashed in to look after him, and I have a very vivid memory of the last thing I said to Jennie on that call being a panicked, “I’m sorry, I have to go, my son isn’t breathing.” I shut the laptop on the Skype conversation and ran into my son’s room. He was terrified and struggling to breathe. We called an ambulance. The ambulance came, and determined the issue was serious enough to merit a hospital visit. I carried my son out to the ambulance at nearly 2am, and as I ducked my head to lift him in, I badly wrenched my lower back.

The EMTs injected him with steroids on the way to the hospital, and this did a lot to help his breathing. (He had croup; he’d had it before more than once, but never so badly, and not while he was old enough to understand what was happening.) Even so, we had to stay at the hospital for several hours to get him checked out properly. It was stressful and exhausting, both emotionally and physically, and sitting in a hard hospital chair made my back pain even worse. Still, there is not a lot to do in a hospital, and once the immediate danger had passed, I checked twitter to see what was happening. To my surprise, I found that the editor had replied to my tweets, identifying herself as their subject, apologising for her blind spots, and promising to do better in future. I was touched and pleased, and thanked her for her words, which I believe were sincere.

Eventually, at around 5am, my husband insisted I get a cab home and go to sleep, as he’d had several hours of rest to my none, and it looked like our son wouldn’t be discharged for a while yet. I did so, tweeting in the cab that I’d been in hospital and hurt my back, but that my son was okay. When I got home, I took some painkillers and got into bed, but before I fell asleep, I used my phone to send a quick email to my then publicist at Angry Robot, asking if the publisher was unhappy with me, apologising if I’d caused them any difficulties and offering to tweet a clarifying statement if they wished. Then, exhausted, I fell asleep, and stayed asleep for most of the day. I woke up a couple of times and glanced at my phone when I did so, but I was loopy on pain medication and didn’t really process anything beyond “shiny screen have words.”

It was late evening by the time I woke up properly, and when I did, I found I had an email from Dawn Frederick, head of the agency. The only other time I’d emailed with her directly had been when I signed my contract with Red Sofa. The tone of the email was blunt and aggressive. It read as follows:

Foz,

As you know, we’ve been trying to get ahold of you with the situation of the Tweets you wrote over 24 hours ago.  Jennie has tried to reach out to you repeated times, but alas it seems you’ve not gotten back in touch with her.

We need to talk. Not tomorrow. Today. I would appreciate 15 minutes of your time, I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Thanks in advance,

Dawn

Startled, I checked my twitter DMs and found that Jennie had sent me several messages while I’d been asleep:

jg tweets 3

At this point, I was starting to feel extremely anxious. Having already established both in writing and verbally with Jennie that I wouldn’t be taking the tweets down, I didn’t know what the rush to “resolve” things was, especially as she was aware of the trip to hospital. I emailed Dawn a reply, explaining why I hadn’t been available, but stating that I would get dressed and come to the computer if she wished to speak to me. When Dawn didn’t immediately reply, I hopped back into my DMs with Jennie, where we had the following exchange:

jg tweets 4

On the basis of this exchange, I stayed awake, believing that I would be skyping privately with Dawn. Instead, I ended up on a call with both Dawn and Jennie that ended up lasting nearly an hour.

And for almost the entirety of that hour, Dawn shouted at me.

It was the worst experience of my professional life. When I opened the call by trying to explain, once again, that I hadn’t been available because of the hospital incident, Dawn said, “This is not about [your son] right now.” (She did not ask if he was okay, though she made sure to tell me that, as Jennie is a mother and because Dawn likes kids, I couldn’t accuse them of being unsympathetic.)

At any time when I tried to talk, either to ask questions or to defend myself, I was shouted down. Jennie said very little, chiming in only once or twice: overwhelmingly, the person speaking (shouting) was Dawn. She told me that my professional conduct in tweeting about my editor was the worst she’d ever seen; that she had Trump-voting relatives in Tennessee with whom she managed to get along, so therefore I had no excuse for criticising my editor in public. She repeatedly claimed that what I done was bullying; that I was a bully. Over and over again, she said I had “thrown her [the editor] under the bus.” When I tried to say that the editor had apologised on twitter, she exploded at me that of course she had, what else could she be expected to do, when everyone knew she was being talked about? I expressed surprise at this, as I hadn’t identified her; Dawn claimed that “everyone knew”.

When Dawn said how unacceptable it was to raise the issues I’d had in public, out of nowhere, without giving the editor a chance to reply, I was baffled, pointing out that I’d clearly raised them with Jennie months earlier. Jennie said yes, but she hadn’t passed them on to the editor, as I hadn’t expressly asked for that to happen. (I’d assumed that, as my email had essentially culminated in me saying I didn’t want to work with that editor in the future, this would happen as a matter of course.)

Dawn then proceeded to tell me that Angry Robot was “furious” and wanted the tweets removed – so much so that they were considering pulling my book a week before it was due to launch. She said that Red Sofa was one of the most author-friendly agencies in the business, “and if you can’t work with us…” she said meaningfully, leaving the sentence hanging so as to imply that, if they dropped me, I would have no future in SFF at all. Dawn accused me repeatedly of lying about the fact that I’d been asleep earlier in the day, saying that she “knew” I’d emailed Angry Robot and therefore had clearly been awake and ignoring Jennie’s messages. Any time I tried to advocate for myself, I was told to stop speaking or risk being dropped by Red Sofa , as she “[didn’t] want to represent that.”

At one point, she tried to frame my criticism of the editor as an un-feminist act, something I should’ve known better than to engage in, “because we’re all women here.”

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I’m genderqueer.”

Dawn made a scoffing noise. “That’s not what this is about.”

(It kind of was, actually, what with the editor wanting to change the nonbinary pronouns I’d used, but when I tried to mention this, Jennie asserted I’d never brought them up with her at all. Ironically, though I’d originally mentioned this as one of my issues while drafting my December email, I’d ended up taking it out of the final version, worried at being seen as hypersensitive about gender identity. Instead, I’d raised it with her verbally when we’d Skyped about the email, which she said she didn’t remember. I tried to argue that being genderqueer was part of my lived experience, something might know less about than me in this instance, but Dawn became angry at the implied criticism. “Of course we believe in diversity! We wouldn’t have signed you otherwise!”)

At one point, Dawn’s shouting was loud enough to wake my husband, who was asleep in the other room. (It was approaching midnight our time by then.) He wandered in, an appalled look on his face at what he was hearing, but he was just as tired as I was, so I gestured for him to go back to bed. At another point, I tried to suggest that there was a conflict of interest in Dawn and Jennie advocating so strongly for the editor, who was also a Red Sofa employee, despite the fact that I was a Red Sofa client; Dawn became absolutely furious at this, denying it completely, and yelled me back into silence.

In the end, Dawn gave me an ultimatum. I had twenty-four hours to post an apology to the editor, or Red Sofa would drop me as a client.

When the call ended, I was numb and shaking. (I’m shaking now as I write this.) I rested, inasmuch as I was able to rest, and then I wrote the apology. Posted it. Received confirmation from Dawn and Jennie that they approved, and that I could keep my representation.

I was still deeply shaken, but by that time, I’d calmed down enough to realise that I still hadn’t heard anything directly from my then publisher at Angry Robot. The publicist I’d emailed, however, had responded, and their (friendly, courteous) email implied Red Sofa had been the ones to contact Angry Robot, and not the other way around. This was confusing, as it seemed to go against what Dawn had told me on the Skype call, so after consulting with an excellent, level-headed writer friend, I tentatively reached out to the publisher to get their take on things.

To my relief, the publisher happily agreed to speak to me. Unlike the call to Red Sofa, my Skype with Angry Robot was calm and professional – and extremely enlightening.

According to the publisher, it was indeed Red Sofa who reached out to Angry Robot about my tweets, something they apparently did before I ever received my first DM from Jennie. Not only that, but Red Sofa also didn’t tell Angry Robot about my December email, letting the publisher believe that my comments about the editor had, indeed, come out of nowhere. The publisher’s understanding of things was that Dawn and the editor were Facebook friends: having seen my tweets, the editor had posted privately to Facebook about how upset she was, as she’d been proud of her work on the book (it was also, apparently, her birthday, which I hadn’t known). Dawn had been so incensed on the editor’s behalf that she’d gone straight to contacting Angry Robot, reassuring them that she would “get to the bottom of it.” The publisher also confirmed that, while they’d been a bit miffed about the tweets, they hadn’t asked for them to be taken down, nor had they ever been going to pull A Tyranny of Queens. I thanked the publisher for taking the time to talk to me – they were gracious, calm and forthcoming – and we ended the call on mutually good terms.

It was at this point that I looked back over my original DMs with Jennie and noted, with a certain painful irony, that almost the first thing I’d said to her was that I didn’t want to be shouted at. I hadn’t actually thought that Jennie would shout at me; I’ve just had enough hot-tempered, unreasonable bosses in my officeworker life that my anxiety wanted me to make sure it wouldn’t happen. My mental health, at the time, was garbage, something I’d also discussed with Jennie in the past. I felt vile: maybe Jennie hadn’t shouted at me, but she hadn’t stopped Dawn from doing so, either – but then, Dawn was her boss, and had clearly given her little to no say in the situation, either.

Up until this incident, I’d never had a single negative experience with Red Sofa, which was part of why the whole thing was so jarring. It was the first time I’d done anything to make the agency unhappy with me, and Dawn reacted so violently that even now, years later, just seeing her name crop up when I’m not expecting it gives me a sharp adrenaline spike and leaves my hands trembling.

I’m still not sure how much I blame Jennie for what happened, because the truth is, I don’t know the extent to which Dawn, as her then-boss, was dictating her actions. But knowing that they’d lied to me about Angry Robot’s role in things, and feeling strongly that Jennie hadn’t been advocating for me as a client, I didn’t feel I could trust either of them going forward. As such, I dropped Jennie as my agent and Red Sofa as my agency, though it still remains the agency of record for my Manifold World duology.

Three years later in 2020, I still don’t have a new agent. I’ve got plenty of works in progress, but I don’t have anything finished that I can shop around, and part of the reason for that – aside from yet another international move, parenting a small child, and dealing with a series of health issues, both physical and mental – is that, ever since my experience with Red Sofa, I haven’t felt as though I’m welcome in the SFF industry. I’ve been demotivated, struggling to push myself to finish a first draft, because what’s the point? How can I belong in an industry that doesn’t want me to speak up when I encounter something terrible?

Because that’s the real crux of it; that’s why my experience with Dawn and Red Sofa has felt so catastrophic. It’s not just that I encountered a horrible person who treated me badly in a professional context; it’s that the culture of silence in SFF is such that, when I spoke privately to colleagues about what happened with Dawn, even when people were horrified by her actions, their overwhelming consensus was that speaking about it publicly would risk me being seen as a problem author, someone nobody would want to represent in the future, and that I’d be setting my career on fire – in other words, making myself exactly as unrepresentable as Dawn had said I was, because if you can’t work with us… 

Since leaving Red Sofa, I’ve spoken to and heard about other former clients who have also had negative experiences with Dawn, and who have likewise been advised to keep quiet about it. And perhaps I would’ve stayed quiet, too, but after this past week, I feel it’s important to make it clear what kind of person she can be behind the scenes. I have no evidence for the claim that Dawn’s treatment of me resulted in Jennie switching agencies, but I suspect it was a motivating factor, and on that basis, knowing how willing she was to muscle in and take over from one of her own agents, I’d be deeply unsurprised if it turned out that Van Sant, Graham and Rutter all had additional, pre-existing reasons for wanting to leave Red Sofa in addition to Dawn’s tweets. I don’t say this to take away from the significance of three white agents choosing to depart on the basis of their support for the Black Lives Matter movement – that is a powerful statement, and something to be applauded. But as I’m already seeing their actions described as hypersensitive and disproportionate, I think it’s important to consider that, when something like this happens, it’s never just about a single thing said publicly, but about everything that has preceded it in private.

I don’t know what the future holds for Red Sofa Literary, but I wish Van Sant, Graham and Rutter all the best in finding new agency positions, and hope likewise that Dawn’s former clients find new and better representation. In speaking now, my intention isn’t to take attention away from the protests over the death of George Floyd, but rather to add my voice to the conversation around how real-world politics and actions continue to impact gatekeeping in SFF publishing.

Update, 1 June 2020, 7:00pm: 

Since publishing this piece, I’ve been privately contacted by another former Red Sofa agent, one who was with the agency during the period when I was represented by Jennie. With their permission, I’m sharing the message they sent me:

Hey, I wanted to say thank you so much for writing about Dawn. I’m horrified you had to go through that. I’m not sure if this is worth adding to your account, but both Jennie and Dawn, separately, communicated to me that your tweets had come out of nowhere (with no mention of the email), painting you as unreasonable, over-sensitive, and maybe even unstable. They didn’t even tell me about the Skype call. Only about a “polite ask” and you blowing up at them. I apologize for my part in this, in accepting their stories a face value. If there’s anything I can do to help and support you, please let me know. You’re brave and strong and you belong in SFF, and have more friends and power in the community than dawn ever did. One thing I’m certain of is that they didn’t tell people beyond the agency their version of events, so I’m confident you weren’t smeared anywhere.

In other words, not only was I lied about to Angry Robot, but also to other members of the Red Sofa staff. During the Skype conversation I had with Jennie following my original December email about the editorial issues, it was clear that she didn’t take my complaints seriously; that was frustrating at the time, but it’s even more so now to learn that I was being characterised as potentially unstable for raising those issues in the first place.

Update, 1 June 2020, 7:30pm:

Also with permission, I’m sharing this additional account of Dawn’s behaviour, which was sent to me privately by another former Red Sofa author:

I am so sorry Dawn put you through that. I had my own, but not nearly so awful experience with her. Shortish version: I had a different Red Sofa agent. Things started off fine, but a couple months into submission, the agent seemed to zone out. She’d give me contradictory info about editor replies, or she simply dropped into a black hole. When I got a R&R from Harper Voyager, I sent my agent the revised ms. but she never replied. I told her I needed her to be better about communication, and if that wasn’t possible, we needed to talk. The next thing I knew, Dawn emailed me, all shouty, saying the agency policy was to give updates only twice a year, and if I didn’t like that, she’d fire me as a client. I bit my tongue because…middle of submissions and all that. The book and its sequel sold, but my agent got more and more flaky. I finally parted ways with them, but Dawn was also a major part of my decision.

Warning: total spoilers for both Knives Out and Ready or Not

Periodically in Hollywood, I’m never quite sure why, it so happens that two films with strikingly similar themes are released within months of each other. Such is the case with Ready or Not and Knives Out, which hit cinemas in August and November 2019 respectively: a pair of blackly comedic yet emotionally affecting genre films whose shared, central thesis is that rich people are the literal goddamn worst. Each film follows a female protagonist of humble origins – Grace (Samara Weaving) in Ready or Not, Marta (Ana de Armas) in Knives Out – who finds herself the target of a rich family when events beyond her control see her cast as a threat to their power. She must then survive their attempts to remove her – quite literally, in Grace’s case – while figuring out which family members, if any, she can trust to help.

Of the two films, Ready or Not is undeniably the darker. Equal parts black comedy and survival horror, we’re introduced to Grace on her wedding day, when marriage to fiance Alex (Mark O’Brien) will see her join the La Domas gaming “dominion,” as the family call it. However, as part of her initiation into their number, Grace must join her new relatives for a midnight gathering on her wedding night. Forced to draw a card from a mysterious box as per the legacy of Mr Le Bail, their historic benefactor, Grace must play whatever game her card names – but when she draws Hide and Seek, the rules abruptly change. Now, in accordance with a demonic pact forged by their great-grandfather, the La Domas family must hunt and kill Grace before sunrise, or else risk death themselves. What follows is a tense hunt through the La Domas mansion, as the family – by turns brutal, bumbling, selfish and sociopathic – attempt to eliminate Grace, who must scramble to survive.

By comparison, Knives Out is much lighter viewing, yet shares the central conceit of a rich family whose wealth comes from success in the entertainment industry: in this case, the murder mystery novels of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), whose apparent suicide the night of his 85th birthday is nonetheless being investigated by a whimsical private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Originally hired to be Harlan’s nurse, our heroine, Marta, soon became his friend, too: a refuge from his backbiting, selfish descendants. His esteem for her was such that Harlan made her the sole heir of his estate; but when a fatal mix-up with Harlan’s medications made it possibly for Marta to be held accountable for his death, thereby voiding his will, he went to the extreme of committing suicide to protect her, leaving Marta – who cannot lie without throwing up – to weather the aftermath alone, avoiding both the suspicions of Blanc and the ire of the Thrombey family.

In both films, the means by which the families originally became rich – horror games and murder mysteries – are echoed in the plot structure, creating a neat genre parallel. Similarly, both films have their respective protagonists emerge alive and triumphant: Grace survives, albeit bloodied and battered, while Marta is exonerated and claims her grand inheritance. Each final scene involves the heroine in front of the mansion in which the bulk of the film has taken place: while Grace sits on the steps of burning La Domas home, Marta stands on the balcony of the Thrombey estate, looking down on its former inhabitants.

Thematically, I’d argue that Knives Out is the more ambitious film, in that it attempts a more complex understanding of race, class and privilege: Marta, her mother and sister are undocumented immigrants, and for all that the lily-white Thrombeys claim to love Marta as part of the family, she is constantly subjected to their microaggressions. A prime example is the failure of any Thrombey to know her country of origin, which is variously stated to be Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador and Brazil. However, while this “joke” is clearly meant to highlight the Thrombeys’ racism rather than being at Marta’s expense, the fact that the audience is left to share their ignorance, with her real nationality never being confirmed, unintentionally suggests that it doesn’t actually matter – which attitude is why the Thrombeys get it wrong in the first place.

By the same token, and as much as I enjoyed seeing Daniel Craig chewing the scenery as Benoit Blanc, my one critique of the film is the inescapable feeling that writer/director Rian Johnson, who is white, has gone so far out of his way to paint Marta as a “good” Hispanic that, by having Blanc speak for her at critical moments, he robs her of both her agency and her anger. The fact that Marta can’t lie without vomiting makes for a clever plot detail, as she’s constantly required to bend the truth in creative ways to avoid detection, and yet it also feels like an exaggerated way to reassure the (white) audience that Marta is an exceptionally good person. Similarly, at the climax of the film, we learn that Harlan’s grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) is ultimately responsible for the medical mix-up, not Marta – he knew she’d been named sole heir and wanted to frame her for murder, so that she’d be disinherited under the slayer rule. As such, there’s a moment where Marta, who still doesn’t know her own innocence, is ready to confess and apologise to the Thrombeys, even though they’ve been abusing and harassing her: a true angelic act. It’s Blanc who, having realised the truth, swoops in and yells at them on her behalf, pointing out how awfully they’ve been treating her – and as much as Marta’s goodness is central to the plot, I can’t help feeling that the story would’ve been stronger if she was allowed to be both good and angry, caring and assertive.

To be clear: I think Marta is a fantastic character, and I love that, even in a cut-throat, murder mystery setting, her inherent goodness and kindness are allowed to win out. However, given how overtly the film discusses race and racism as a factor in her mistreatment – which is firmly to its credit – I can’t help feeling that Johnson has shied away from doing anything that might risk Marta being even a little bit unsympathetic. When Harlan comes up with his harebrained scheme to commit suicide and thereby “save” her – a gambit that ultimately turns out to have been unnecessary – the narrative implication is that Marta is correct to play along because Harlan told her to; her agency in evading capture is “permitted” because it was sanctioned by him. That she’s also trying to protect her family – their undocumented status will be discovered if she’s arrested – should be a valid motive all by itself, and yet she’s still ultimately willing to risk their safety to come clean to the Thrombeys at the end, because she feels she owes it to them.

In my perfect version of the film, Marta is allowed to be angry at how she’s been treated; allowed to resent being shut out of the funeral, constantly called “kiddo” and then pressured to give up the inheritance. Instead of Blanc calling out the Thrombeys, I would’ve loved to see her speak for herself in that moment, and then to have it revealed that she was innocent all along – instead of, once again, having a powerful white, male character step in to validate her existence. (It also rankles that Blanc is repeatedly situated as being smarter and better informed than the actual detective assigned to the case, who happens to be black.)

That being said, the class criticism in Knives Out is otherwise spectacular. Having first established the Thrombey family as being split along political lines – some are far right, others more left-leaning – Johnson then makes clear that their real political allegiance is to money. When Marta is named sole heir, suddenly the family closes ranks against her, and while the most liberal Thrombey, Meg (Katherine Langford) is emotionally manipulated by her mother, Joni (Toni Collette) into helping them get dirt on Marta – Joni says that they won’t be able to afford Meg’s college anymore if Marta inherits, conveniently omitting the fact that her own embezzlement of Harlan’s funds is the reason why they were cut out in the first place – it still matters that she chooses money over principle. And all along, we’re treated to Ransom, who’s been the black sheep of the family for years, getting close to Marta and pretending to be on her side, because even though he hates the other Thrombeys, he still loves money foremost and is desperate to claim his share.

By contrast, the family wealth in Ready or Not is depicted as being, both literally and figuratively, blood money. Ever since their great-grandfather made his pact with the demonic Le Bail, the La Domas clan have murdered anyone who violates the established rules. Refusing to play the midnight game at your wedding is just as much a death sentence as drawing the Hide and Seek card, and at one particularly brutal moment, we see Grace fall into the literal charnel-house where the bodies of dissenters are thrown. Indeed, the film opens with a haunting flashback to the last time Hide and Seek was played, as Alex and brother Daniel (Adam Brody), then children, run through the house as their aunt’s new husband is hunted down. After stashing Alex in a wardrobe, Daniel is approached by the bleeding groom, begging for help, and in a moment of childlike terror calls out “He’s in here!” to his family, resulting in the man’s capture and ultimate ritual sacrifice. “I’m so proud of you,” his mother says; a scene later echoed between Alex’s sister Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and her own young son, who confesses to having shot Grace in the hand because he was trying to copy the grownups.

An alcoholic, Daniel has clearly lived a haunted life, for all that he’s never stood up to his family; his wife Charity (Elyse Levesque) is far more bloodthirsty. Like Joni Thrombey, she married into her wealthy clan, and having endured an upbringing implied to consist of extreme poverty, violence or both, is willing to do anything to keep her comfortable life. Throughout the film, Daniel alternates between apathy and resignation, not wanting to kill Grace himself but not quite able to let her go, either – right up until the very end, when he works to set her free and is shot and killed by Charity for his troubles. In a terrible parallel, it ends up being Alex who finally recaptures Grace: having worked throughout the whole film to try and free her, once he realises that she’ll never stay with him after what she’s endured, he echoes the fateful line of his brother and nephew and calls his family: “She’s in here!”

Though Ready or Not is class-critical, in that it explicitly situates wealthy people as being amoral assholes who’ll do anything to hang onto their money, no matter how heinous, it also uses the deaths of three maids – two of whom, Tina (Celine Tsai) and Dora (Daniela Barbosa) are women of colour – as part of its dark comedy. Both Tina and Clara (Hanneke Talbot) are killed by Emilie, who’s so coked up that she accidentally shoots them both (in separate instances) and has to be comforted by her parents. Dora, discovered hiding in a dumbwaiter by Grace, immediately tries to turn her over on learning that Grace is who the family wants; she then ends up crushed when the doors close on her torso. This cavalier treatment of their bodies as disposable, comic props isn’t mitigated by the fact that Grace, like them, doesn’t come from money: we’re told that she grew up in foster homes and – tragically, given the plot – has always wanted to join a family. At the same time, the stark difference between how the family treats the bodies of the maids and the bodies of their own is meant to emphasise their cruelty: as patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny) says to Grace, anyone not a La Domas is just another “goat” for the sacrifice.

It also helps that, by the end of the film, every single La Domas has died: after a brief moment of comedic uncertainty on the issue, it turns out that Le Bail has been real all along, and when dawn comes with Grace still alive, she watches – bloody, shocked and laughing – as her surviving in-laws explode, one by one. It’s gory and hilarious, especially when a frantic Alex, the last to be left alive, tries to plead with Grace for a reconciliation, telling her that she changed him for the better and that therefore, he must get to live; she watches, nonplussed, as he explodes all over her, then takes his mother’s beautiful cigarette case and goes out to smoke in front of the now-burning mansion.

In both films, the message is clear: until or unless you’re truly considered “one of the family,” the obscenely rich are only your friend if they can securely think of you as a lesser human being. Only fellow family members are equals, and therefore entitled to family protection: get in the way of that logic – either by inheriting ahead of them or invoking the murderous clause of an ancient demonic pact – and they’ll come after you with knives out, ready or not. For all that I’ve nitpicked parts of both films, they’re two of the best offerings I’ve seen in their respective genres in recent years, and if you’ve got the time, I highly recommend watching them as a double feature.

Warning: significant spoilers for Docile

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and sexual slavery

In a near-future Baltimore, Maryland where all debts are generationally inherited, 21-year-old Elisha Wilder sneaks away from his impoverished family to auction off their collective 3 million dollars of debt by becoming a Docile – a debtor who sells their labour to a rich individual or corporation, called a Patron, for a set term. Most Dociles choose to take Dociline, a drug developed by Bishop Laboratories, which renders them pliant, happy drones for the duration of their service, and which, once their time is up, leaves them with no memories of the experience. As such, a great many Dociles are used for sex by their Patrons: their sexual health is a guaranteed right, but their sexual autonomy is not. But Elisha, whose mother continues to act like an on-med Docile years after her own term of service ended, intends to refuse Dociline. The only trouble is, his Patron is Alex Bishop: the heir to Bishop Laboratories, whose family is pressuring him to prove that he can publicly manage a Docile as a prelude to taking over the company – and without Dociline to help keep Elisha in line, Alex resorts to other methods of control.

K.M. Szpara’s Docile is a complex, incredibly pacy book about which I nonetheless have mixed feelings. At first blush, it’s a gripping, emotional, highly accomplished debut that I finished in a single sitting: a queer rebuke of capitalism whose central thesis is an investigation of debt slavery, autonomy and consent. And yet, the more I probe at it, the more that thesis is undermined by holes in the worldbuilding; a mixture of glaring omissions and smaller slips that sit less easily with me the longer I have to think about them. At the same time, Docile is also an unapologetically sexual book, which I think is to its credit: in addition to putting queerness front and centre, it doesn’t flinch from portraying the emotional complexities and power imbalances of Elisha and Alex’s relationship, and makes a point of showing how sex is a part of that.

As someone whose primary exposure to queer romance and erotica comes via fanfic, seeing what I’ve come to think of as fanfic tropes appear in traditionally published SFF works is still a slightly weird (but ultimately satisfying) experience. When it comes to particular tropes, however, I’ve discovered that there are things I’ll happily read about in fanfic which I struggle to enjoy in other mediums, not because of any difference in the quality of the writing or level of darkness involved, but because the knowledge that a thing is fic as opposed to canon allows me to process it differently. Partly, this is the result of tagging, which works to reassure me that the author knows the dynamic or context they’re writing is fucked up and is exploring those themes on purpose; but mostly, it’s that fic, for me, exists at an extra level of remove from reality. A dark fic about a particular pairing isn’t the defining story of their relationship; it’s just one extrapolation among many. If it makes me uncomfortable, I don’t have to invest in it, because a plethora of other, gentler stories about the same characters coexist alongside it. And no matter how good or bad they may be, I don’t have to pass critical judgement on the themes and worldbuilding of such stories, because that’s what the canon is for: the fic is an escape from that, which means that I’m primarily here for the feelings.

But when the same tropes appear in an original, canon story, I can’t turn off the analytical part of my brain that wants to poke and probe at the background details, the rules of the setting, and judge how well they work. I have a greater desire for the narrative to justify its logic and decisions, because there’s no pre-existing enjoyment of a separate, existing story to act as a Because Reasons shortcut for accepting why these particular characters are being treated a certain way, or why their world functions as it does. To take some classic fanfic AU examples, when I’m browsing my way through AO3, I don’t need an in-depth explanation for how magic can openly exist in the real world, or a treatise on why every human person is either a sub, dom or switch, or a set of detailed biological diagrams to explain a particular version of A/B/O in order to enjoy a story, even if the writer feels moved to provide such information. Because it’s fanfic, I’m happy just to accept that The Setting Is Like This, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense, and to focus instead on the characters. But in an original work – and especially in a work of SFF – those other details are vital: they’re the lens through which I’m meeting the characters for the first time, and therefore integral to understanding them properly. If the world or the plot is inconsistent, it can make the characters feel inconsistent – and that, in turn, impacts my ability to invest in them.

With all that being understood: Docile is a story about sexual slavery. For many people, this is, quite reasonably, a hard limit, and one I’ve discussed before, when reviewing C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy. Though structured like a romance, with different chapters showing us the first person POVs of Elisha and Alex respectively, the ending isn’t a HEA; nonetheless, the main sexual, emotional relationship is functionally master/slave, and while that’s not the Patron/Docile terminology used in the book, that’s functionally what it is. That the vast majority of the book is spent interrogating the fuckedupedness of this relationship in particular and the nature of consent in general is certainly important – tags or no tags, Szpara understands exactly what he’s writing about, to the extent that the book itself has a trigger warning on the back cover – but even so, that doesn’t obligate anyone to be comfortable with it.

In order to control Elisha without Dociline, Alex establishes rules for Elisha’s behaviour. For his own sexual and aesthetic benefit, he also decides what clothes Elisha wears, gives him a set exercise regime and personal trainer, has him learn to cook and determines what food he should eat, sees him tutored in piano, history and languages, and – of course – teaches him what he wants in bed. If Elisha disobeys, there are three types of punishment: writing lines, kneeling on rice for a set amount of time, and confinement. Throw this all together, and what develops is an inevitable Pygmalion situation: without understanding the full consequences of his actions, Alex brainwashes Elisha into being his perfect boyfriend, someone who is wholly dependent on him in every way, and doesn’t realise what he’s done until he starts wanting Elisha to interact with him autonomously and finds that he can’t. That Alex doesn’t set out to break Elisha doesn’t exonerate him in the narrative: his initial callousness to Elisha’s situation is what causes him to set the rules in the first place. It’s only when Elisha fully becomes his creation that Alex cares enough to see him as a person and, consequently, to be horrified by how broken that personhood is.

As such, I’d argue that this section of the book is – at least in part – a thinly-veiled rebuke of the toxic BDSM “romance” in E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Like Anastasia, Elisha is a subby virgin whose body and life are fully controlled by a dominating rich man; but unlike James, Szpara is fully aware that this is an extremely imbalanced, unhealthy dynamic that doesn’t magically become acceptable because the parties have feelings for one another. Unlike Christian Grey, when Alex finally realises what he’s done to Elisha, he’s appalled with himself. He pays Elisha’s contract in full and sends him home – but Elisha, still brainwashed, doesn’t want to go and is devastated to think himself rejected by the man who’s become the centre of his world. What follows is a protracted, emotional aftermath: after a near catastrophe, Alex realises that, even though he’s the one who damaged Elisha, he’s done so in such a way that he can’t simply expect him to heal in his absence. Along with members of Empower Maryland, an anti-Dociline activist group, Alex tries to help Elisha recover – but when the Bishop family realises what he’s doing, Alex winds up in his powerful father’s crosshairs, leading to a climactic showdown in court.

Without wanting to spoil the novel in its entirety, Szpara does an excellent job of showing how Elisha and Alex come to reconcile. The ending between them isn’t romantic – which I think is the right decision – but it ends in a place of catharsis, with the potential for change in the future. A major part of why this works is the narrative acknowledgement that trauma, desire and identity are fundamentally complicated. Elisha knows that what Alex did to him was wrong, but he also can’t stop being the person who had those experiences, nor would it be healthy to hate his new self just because of its genesis. Instead, he has to negotiate: to figure out who he is on his own terms while still accepting aspects of his identity – his sexually submissive nature, his love of music – that Alex brought to the surface. Elisha doesn’t have to know with 100% certainty which parts of him are untouched by Alex and which are not; the more important thing is to like himself, to have autonomy, and to have that autonomy respected by those around him. Alex, in turn, has to learn about the blinkered nature of his privileged upbringing: how his staggering naivety has done harm not only to Elisha, but to others in his life, and how throwing money at a problem isn’t the same as understanding why it exists in the first place.

This is the heart of Docile, and the overwhelming strength of the book. The emotional intimacy of the narrative, the excellent pacing and the real engagement with questions of consent, identity and autonomy make it a fascinating read, and one I wish I could recommend without any reservations.

But.

The thing I cannot get past – the thing I kept expecting to find throughout the book, but which never appeared, and which I think is a baffling elision in a story of this nature – is the fact that actual American slavery isn’t mentioned. Not ever. Not even once. A story about slavery in near-future Baltimore – a story which features multiple black characters, many of them anti-Dociline advocates – doesn’t mention black slavery. I understand that debt slavery is not traditionally motivated by the same appalling racism that underscored the trans-Atlantic slave trade (though it can still exist within racist paradigms, as happens with a lot of people-smuggling), but the two concepts are still related, especially when it comes to the functional sale of bodies, and I can’t believe that no character mentions it at all.

Especially given that the alternative to being a Docile is ending up in debtor’s prison, the threat of which motivates Elisha to sell himself in the first place, it’s striking that the fate of such prisoners isn’t ever explained in text, either. Given that modern American prisons are literally run as businesses, with prisoners often working for a pittance to make innumerable goods for the American market – another toxic facet of the captialism Szpara is rebuking, which ensures that paid workers in those fields can’t compete with what is effectively slave labour – the lack of explanation about what they do in the world of Docile niggles. I don’t believe there’s any accurate way to discuss intergenerational poverty, debt and incarceration in modern or near-future America that doesn’t include an analysis of race and the systematic racism with which slavery was replaced, and as such, its absence from the text felt not only glaring, but broke my immersion in the worldbuilding.

In establishing how the world of Docile came to be, there is no mention of existing debt slavery; of how fines and fees are already used as a means to incarcerate poor Americans who are overwhelmingly POC. There is no mention of plantations or sharecropping (although we see that Dociles are used for manual labour), no mention of white supremacy (although the majority of the hyper-rich characters are white), no mention of the history of human trafficiking (although this is how debt-slavery frequently manifests itself in the modern world, with workers shipped overseas and promised jobs, only to find their wages increasingly garnished to “pay” for the cost of their transport, lodging and innumerable other things, thus keeping them from becoming independent). The only historical precedent given in-narrative for the Docile system comes from ancient Roman history.

Elisha only has an eighth grade education; Alex has been raised by bigoted trillionaires who view their wealth as deserved. As Szpara never states how far in the future Docile takes place, it would be wholly consistent with the existing narrative to establish – even if only in passing, via something said by a secondary character – that the history of slavery is no longer properly taught, leaving the reader to infer that neither of the protagonists understands the historical legacy of the system to which they now belong. The idea of this history being suppressed, leading to the cyclic perpetuation of an old wound, would’ve made the book a thousand times more powerful without any need to change the central narrative. But to include multiple black activist characters who never once mention real slavery while talking about their fight against fictional slavery? To include a diverse cast, but not explore race or racism as a factor in class and poverty, or to even so much as hint at explaining why that analysis might be absent in a crapsack captialist future that is otherwise extrapolated from our present reality? Feels bad, Scoob.

The lack of discussion around race feels most salient in the case of a black Docile, Onyx, who we eventually learn is only pretending to be on Docilium in order to spy on trillionaires who won’t guard their mouths around him. When Elisha finally starts to break free of Alex’s brainwashing, it’s Onyx who helps him safely start to explore his sexuality, identity, submission and autonomy, which means that the two talk a lot about boundaries and stress. In order to uphold his cover as an on-med, Onyx has been having public sex with other Dociles and Patrons, and while the story doesn’t go deep into the practicalities of this performance in any case, it feels like both a misstep and a missed opportunity that Onyx never mentions the personal, racial implications of being a black man feigning slavery to an audience of mostly white Patrons. Given how gross and dehumanising the trillionaire class is portrayed to be towards their Dociles, I find it inconceivable that racism never enters the mix – however far in the future the story is meant to be set, it doesn’t seem remotely far enough for racism to be so long a thing of the past as to never be mentioned – and yet, it never does.

The other such omission, which feels less charged than the issue of race while still being significant, is the lack of any reference to any religion, particularly Christianity. In a future America where Dociles are used as sex slaves, it completely breaks my suspension of disbelief that nowhere, not even in passing, is there any reference to Evangelical protests about sin and immorality, or how faiths of any kind reacts to the Docile system, and I cannot help but view this as a failing. Again, I’m not asking for the central narrative to be overhauled: it’s just that, in a setting which is meant to be politically and socially derived from the USA at present, in all its megachurch-having, faith-based political glory, it feels like a hole in the story.

There are other issues with the worldbuilding, too. Why, for instance, is there seemingly a practice of putting children and young adults into the Docile system? At the start of the novel, Elisha sells the family’s debt in part to stop his thirteen-year-old sister from having to do so; but given that Dociles are so often used as sex slaves, the uncomfortable implication is that paedophilia is an established part of the system. Similarly, we learn of two characters who were on Docile from ages 7 to 12, and who’ve been in therapy as adults to deal with the trauma of it. But how can children that young, even Docile, be expected to sell their labour? What could they actually do at that age to work off the debt? And given that Docilium leaves you with no memories of your time spent taking it, how would this impact child users, who’d presumably “awaken” to their former mental age once going off-med instead of developing normally? This feels like it should be a much bigger aspect of the novel – a foundational grievance against the Docile system for the Empower Maryland activists, if no-one else – and yet it’s never mentioned except in passing, as though the reader should be horrified by it, but not curious about how it actually works.

With all of these issues already in place, smaller gripes become magnified. Why does Alex sign Elisha to a lifetime contract when he’s only getting a Docile under duress and clearly doesn’t want one long-term? How is the sexual health of Dociles protected, as we’re told it is under law, when they’re sexually shared with each other and their Patrons instead of being sexually exclusive? Why, when Elisha’s mother’s ongoing Docile condition is so central to the plot, is her case the only one of its kind we encounter, instead of being one of many? Why is thirty years of continuous, 24-hour Docile labour seen as a generous contract for paying off a 3 million dollar debt, when this works out to an annual salary of $100k? Even with living expenses paid for by the Patron, this doesn’t seem like a good exchange. What other jobs exist, or don’t, and how does the Docile system change their availability?

Similarly, the fact that queerness wasn’t overtly discussed in the narrative, only depicted as normative, struck me as being oddly unsatisfying, given the context. Returning to the issue of my differing standards for worldbuilding in original content vs fanfic, I’ve enjoyed endless fics where everyone is happily out and queer in settings where, realistically, the opposite is true, and never raised an eyebrow, because the how and why of those stories is vastly less important to me than the characterisation. At the same time, I don’t believe that depicting homophobia or overtly discussing queerness is necessary to establish realism even in stories set in the present day, let alone the near future. But Docile is explicitly meant to be a dystopian rebuke of capitalism, and one of the weirder aspects of being a queer person living in a capitalist society that’s slowly being dragged, kicking and screaming, into queer acceptance, is watching things like pride events and rainbow decorations suddenly being monetised by corporations who, not so long ago, went out of their way to avoid being seen as For The Gays.

It left me wondering: how, then, is queerness marketed, perceived and understood in the world of Docile, and how would this intersect with other aspects of identity that the book doesn’t tell us about, but which must logically exist? We’re told explicitly that things still suck for disabled people, for instance: aside from medical debt and widespread poverty, Patrons are responsible for paying for medical care for their Dociles, which makes it much, much harder for those who disclose a chronic illness or disability to find good contracts. So if prejudice still demonstrably exists in the setting, then why don’t we hear about it otherwise, even when it must clearly impact the characters? Why are the awful Bishop family, who value lineage and legacy above all else, more concerned with Alex finding a man to marry or a Docile to manage than with his producing an heir? Where are the hypocritical conservatives protesting that having gay sex with Dociles is against god’s law while simultaneously arguing that the hetero alternative is just fine, because something something Old Testament concubines something? And why, when it’s clear that Dociles are treated like objects by their Patrons, do we never hear about the handful of rights they’re granted being abused or broken? Even if Dociles technically have the right to refuse Dociline, what’s to stop a Patron from forcibly injecting them and then bribing or blackmailing not to report it the next time they check in with their caseworker? The premise left me with dozens of similar questions, and while I wouldn’t expect to see all of them answered, the more social elements were left absent or unexamined in text, the more I wondered why the book was set in America at all.

I can understand Szpara wanting to have a tight narrative focus on capitalism as a metaphoric vehicle for discussing bodily consent; I can also understand his wanting to tread carefully around issues of race, faith and culture. If Docile were a work of fanfiction, I wouldn’t care nearly as much about everything he’d left out or the details that don’t make sense, because I’d already have a pre-existing, canonical context in which to situate the characters. An AU setting would be understood foremost as an excuse to explore a specific relationship in a new way, with no need to be self-supporting otherwise. But when you tell me that a story is set in a near-future America, that implies the use of our present reality as a starting point – and if major aspects of that reality are absent from the worldbuilding without any explanation, while other details stand out as being weird or contradictory, then I’m going to find it hard to buy in to the premise.

The Hunger Games is technically set in America, but in a future so distant that there’s no need to connect it to our present, let alone any deeper history, in order for it to stand on its own. The alt-reality TV show Kings was intended as a clear thematic stand-in for the modern US, but as it was set in its own world, it wasn’t tied to historical specifics. And there are any number of narratives set in fully science fictional settings – space stations, colony planets, ambiguously situated cities with familiar technology but no clear ties to modern Earth – that manage to discuss capitalism and other such social institutions without invoking the specifics of our present reality. Had Szpara chosen any of these options for Docile, the book wouldn’t feel remiss for failing to discuss black slavery, religion or anything else particular to the USA, because they wouldn’t have been a contextual part of the setting, but as things stand, the omissions really bothered me.

It’s frustrating to have been so captivated by the pace and intense emotions of a novel, only to want to smack the setting firmly upside the head. Which is why, to return to my earlier point about tropes and fanfic, I can’t help feeling that Docile is, functionally, written as a fic, and that while this does extraordinary things for the pacing and characterisation, it comes – in my opinion – at the expense of the themes and worldbuilding.

I don’t mean that as an insult to fanfic, which I love wholeheartedly; nor will I criticise any reader who, unlike me, is perfectly content to argue that the details of Docile’s premise are ultimately less important than the characterisation. Certainly, I can’t claim to speak for how a POC might react to the text, except to be certain that no group is a hivemind: as a white queer reader, I was more inclined to accept Docile’s lack of homophobia precisely because, even when realistically present in a narrative, it’s personally upsetting to me. As such, I can imagine that some POC might similarly enjoy the lack of racism and racial analysis in an SF story which still boasted a diverse secondary cast.

But at the same time, and without wanting to lay down any hard rules about who is allowed to write what and under which auspices, I feel more comfortable with Szpara choosing to remove homophobia from a (real-world, albeit futuristic) story on the basis that Szpara is queer himself, and therefore representing his own, very reasonable desire to not have to deal with that bullshit in his own writing. Choosing not to acknowledge racism and slavery, however, feels dicier for the same reason – it’s less in his lane, and while neither he nor I gets to tell any POC readers how to feel about that, it nonetheless impacted my enjoyment of the novel.

All that being so, while the ficreader in me loved the twisty, emotional heart of Docile (AO3 tags: rated E, modern AU: slavery, rape/noncon, dubcon, under-negotiated kink, abuse, mindbreak, suicide attempt, suicidal ideation, dark yet weirdly tender, the real big bad is capitalism and also privilege, Lex Bishop’s A+ parenting, hopeful ending), my SFF reader/reviewer brain wanted more from the setting than the book could provide, especially regarding the elision of historical slavery from an American slavery novel. I’ll be interested to see what Szpara writes next – on a technical level, his writing is superb, and he has a compelling grasp of characterisation – but while I’d still recommend Docile to others, I can’t do so without reservation.

Warning: mild spoilers

Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, a novella about librarian spies in a weird west setting, begins with the protagonist, Esther, stowing away in the back of a wagon to avoid an arranged marriage. Discovered after two days of hiding by Bet and Leda – Librarians whose job it is to deliver Approved Materials to remote settlements – Esther shakily reveals her predicament: she’s a woman who isn’t attracted to men, and her domineering lawman father just hanged her best friend and lover, Beatriz, after finding her with seditious Unapproved Materials. Together with Cye, their Apprentice Librarian, Bet and Leda take unexpected pity on Esther and agree to bring her to Utah, where they’re set to deliver a mysterious package. But life with the Librarians is more complicated than it first seems, and Esther is soon caught up in a dangerous adventure which, at every step, challenges not only what she thought she knew about the world, but about herself.

Written in a style that succeeds in being simultaneously whip-smart, pacey and heartfelt, Upright Women Wanted is a story about queer self-acceptance: about what it means to grow up believing that your orientation has doomed you to evil, unhappiness and a bad ending, and to shrink yourself to fit that narrative, only to discover – painfully, brutally, beautifully – that it isn’t true and never was; that you have only ever been as small as other people forced you to be. It is also a story about fascism – not in the past, as one might first expect from the western setting, but in the future. Though Gailey’s far-ranging horseback Librarians are reminiscent of the Pack Horse Library Project, which saw female riders delivering books to remote Appalachian communities in the thirties and forties, Upright Women Wanted is gradually revealed to take place in an era with drones and videos, but where diesel rationing has rendered cars a thing of the past. The United States is divided into quadrants; there is always War, and what little fuel exists is given as a priority to the tanks that fight in the beleaguered Central Corridor.

Viewed in this light, the authoritarian insistence on Approved Materials – and the lessons these stories have taught Esther about herself, about people like her – becomes even more sinister. Like the infamous Hays Code, which determined (among other things) that homosexuality could only be depicted on screen if it was made clear to the audience that it was morally wrong and its practitioners destined either for tragedy or villainy, the Approved Materials exist to indoctrinate under the guise of spreading unity. Esther knows about people like Cye, who goes by they instead of he or she (unless they’re in town, for reasons of personal safety), but only from stories that paint them in the same bad light as women like her. This leaves the audience free to fill in the blanks about what might’ve happened to lead society in such a terrifying backwards circle; blanks which, at the present historical moment, are frighteningly easy to envisage.

In its deliberate evocation of a past era recreated in new shades of misogyny and fascism, Upright Women Wanted is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s Fade to White, where a post-nuclear, Macarthyist USA puts a smiling, fifties spin on matchmaking fertile youngesters, and where teenage Sylvie has to hide her Japanese heritage in a white nationalist state. Both stories highlight the terror of difference, and the frightening ease with which propaganda shapes culture, society and self-perception. Fade to White is the bleaker story, ending on a note of poignant despair – and to deliberate, chilling effect. But while Upright Women Wanted doesn’t go full Star Wars, the rebels triumphant and the evil empire defeated, it nonetheless lands us in a place of powerful hope, with Esther aware of her strengths and determined to fight for herself and others.

Given its status as novella rather than novel, there are details about the wider setting of Upright Women Wanted – about its history, culture and characters – that go unexplained, or which an eager reader could be forgiven for wondering about, but these omissions are never due to bad writing or inconsistencies. Rather, it’s that the story is a greyhound, sleekly muscled and pointed straight down a set track: the core and soul of things is Esther’s journey, both literally and thematically, establishing her as a microcosm reflective of a greater whole. Even so, there is plenty of room left for further stories set in this universe, and I for one would be very happy to read them. Upright Women Wanted is a queer heartpunch, reminding us of the ways in which simply existing happily, without shame or abnegation, is a rebellion all its own. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Plus and also: queer librarian spies. I’m not made of stone!

I’m not putting a spoiler tag on this. It’s fucking Cats. Get a grip.

I saw Cats today. Voluntarily. On purpose. It’s important you know that I wasn’t coerced in any way, nor was the friend who accompanied me. Of our own free will, being of sound mind and body, we exchanged real human money for the experience of seeing Tom Hooper’s Cats on the big screen, in the company of other real human strangers. Not that our session was packed – aside from the two of us, there were only five other people in attendance, all older to middle-aged women – but the two ladies sitting near us not only cried during Jennifer Hudson’s bifurcated rendition of Memory (more of which shortly), but applauded during the credits. Their happy reactions, audible in the theatre’s yawning silence, added a further layer of unreality to what was already a surreal and vaguely disturbing experience, but once we emerged in the aftermath, stunned and blinking like newborn animals, their enjoyment helped us cobble together a theory about who, exactly, Cats is for – if such a film can truly be said to be for anyone.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Here is the first thing you need to know about Tom Hooper’s Cats: the cats, who are played by human actors in CGI catskins, are meant to represent cat-sized cats, such that all the human-sized props and settings are likewise meant to loom proportionally large around them. Meant to being the operative phrase: instead, the film’s sense of scale and proportion are those of an Escher drawing, consistently inconsistent. It’s a problem of props as well as backdrop: in one scene, a cat wears a ring as an oversize bracelet, while in another, the cats are big enough to stand at a human-sized bar. No matter how comically big the chairs or tables or other accoutrements compared to the cat-actors, the surrounding space – height, depth and breadth – is never enlarged accordingly, such that the intended atmosphere of cat-sized actors playing in human-sized spaces is never achieved. Coupled with the frequently cartoonish designs and colour palettes of the – sets? CGI backdrops? mixes of same? who knows! – the impression is rather of human-sized cat-people inexplicably playing with giant novelty items, while the bad CGI adds acid-trip levels of confusion to what their bodies are doing at any given time.

Here is the second thing you need to know about Tom Hooper’s Cats: the entire musical has effectively been re-engineered around a new star character who – and it physically pains me to type these words – is functionally Tom Hooper’s genderbent Mary Sue catsona. Look into my tortured eyes: I have been in the goddamn trenches of the Mary Sue Discourse Wars, and I do not want to use this term in this particular manner. Nonetheless, the facts are these: our new Protagonist Cat, Victoria, is introduced in the opening when The Token Human throws her away in a sack. She is a beautiful white cat who all the other cats are immediately in love with. She shares in all their musical numbers, is hit on by all the handsome boycats, interrupts Grizabella’s rendition of Memory with her own, new song, comes up with the idea of having Mr Mistoffelees rescue Old Deuteronomy from Macavity, singlehandedly brings Grizabella into the Jellicle Ball, starts singing Memory for her to get her started again, and is then made a Jellicle at the denouement. She’s like Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and Bella Swann’s cowritten fursona, and I hate that I’ve been on the internet long enough to write such a highly cursed sentence, but here we fucking are.

As this terrible knowledge came to me in the cinema, I flashed back to seeing Cats on stage as an impressionable pre-teen, and to watching a VHS recording of the 1998 performance a year or three later. Amygdala twitching desperately, I recalled the presence of a pretty white cat in both these versions – one of the kittens, who might have been called Victoria – who was the first to touch Grizabella when implored to do so during the climax of Memory. Possibly this is so; just as possibly, I was having some sort of seizure brought on by the endless parade of smooth, befurred Ken Doll crotches gyrating beneath CGI tails that twitched the way cat tails only do during sexual pleasure or territorial spraying. I could Google it and find out, but I fear what terrible images I might encounter in the process. Either way, I stand by my assessment: regardless of whether Victoria is a pure OC or a background NPC elevated to protagonist status, functionally and emotionally, she is Tom Hooper’s catsona, and I look forward to a member of the furry community gently sitting down with him in the coming months to answer whatever questions he might have.

Here is the third thing you need to know about Tom Hooper’s Cats: by trying to explain the musical via Victoria’s journey and some original snippets of dialogue, aided and abetted by the terrible CGI, Hooper draws constant attention to the fact that Cats makes no fucking sense and never has, thereby breaking the cardinal rule of any good Cats production. As a stage show, the success of Cats lies in the initial establishment of atmosphere: mystical, dreamlike, weird and a little bit magical, so that when the spandex-clad performers finally slink onstage, we’re ready to just accept it as a Coherent Thing instead of asking questions of it; questions like Is the Rum-Tum-Tugger DTF? and What the fuck is a Jellicle?. There’s always been a certain ambient horniness to Cats, but when you can physically see a troupe of talented actor-singer-dancers flinging themselves about while belting out Andrew Lloyd Weber numbers, it’s not the only thing you have to focus on. But in Hooper’s Cats, the CGI is so terrible that it constantly obfuscates the physical effort of the actors, clumsily blurring their bodies so that, even if something impressive is being done, it still looks like that scene in The Matrix: Reloaded when Neo fights all the Agent Smiths.

At very least, you’d hope you could retreat into the sountrack, but aside from a couple of decent performances, the best I can say of the music is that it was clearly audible. The nature of this particular gaffe made more sense to me when I remembered that Tom Hooper was also responsible for the 2012 version of Les Mis, which managed to star two men (Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe) who cannot actually sing in the range required for either of their characters. In restructuring Cats to make space for both Victoria and the new spoken dialogue, Hooper changed which cats sing about themselves, as opposed to being sung about, and has done this without paying any real attention to whether the actors cast in those roles can carry a tune in a bucket. It almost has the feel of a casting retcon, like he went in wanting big names for Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) and Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), but only realised afterwards that Dench, not famed for her singing voice, had been given a traditionally basso male part with some of the biggest, deepest lines in the show, while Wilson, who can technically sing but is usually cast as someone who does so with more enthusiasm than talent (as per Pitch Perfect), is more sung about than singer.

As such, we get a Deuteronomy whose lines are warble-spoken, not truly sung, and a pratfalling Jennyanydots who’s given extra spoken asides to make up for her minimal singing time. (One of these lines is a snark that, as the Rum Tum Tugger is hitting some very high notes, he must’ve been neutered – not an original joke at the best of times, but when your audience is already trying desperately not to think about all the Blank Cat Genitalia being crammed into their eyeballs, it’s especially unwelcome.) Robbie Fairchild does a decent job as Munkustrap, and my personal dislike of James Corden’s stock-in-trade Bumbling Man aside, he’s at least well-cast as Bustopher Jones. Jason Derulo has a lovely voice as the Rum Tum Tugger, but the rhythm of the song is missing, the beats given over to visual rather than vocal gags, and giving the traditionally dark, smoky Macavity number to Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina, who performs it with a studied, high-voiced breathlessness, is a waste of both song and singer. Idris Elba, who actually is Macavity, barely sings at all; he does, however, spend the first half of the movie brooding in an oversize fur coat, so that when he finally strips it off, you’re doubly struck by the sight of his vacant cat-crotch.

Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae) is about what you’d expect but with more tap-dancing, and is inexplicably the only cat who wears pants, which outfit makes him look like a very specific type of highly caffeinated theatre twink on Instagram. (I tell a lie: Jennyanydots briefly wears clothes, but only after she unzips her actual fur and then eats some cockroach-people with human faces who look like early PS1 Harry Potter graphics, oh god why my EYES.) Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, performed by Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan, is shifted into an entirely different key and comes across more like recitative than not, and as with Dench’s Old Deuteronomy, Ian Mackellan’s Gus the Theatre Cat is more quavery-spoken than sung, with no chorus singer to frame and contrast his original parts of the melody. Laurie Davidson’s Mr Mistoffelees, rather than being suave and confident, is stammering and shy, and while I might’ve appreciated that in a different production, here it means just one more song that isn’t sung on tempo or with passion.

And then we come to Memory, performed by Jennifer Hudson, which ought by rights to be the showstopper – and indeed, if you ignore the disconcerting visuals of Hudson’s Grizabella sobbing through her CGI catface as she sings, vocally, it’s far and away the strongest, most affecting performance in the film. But because Victoria Raven Way Swann is our protagonist, Hooper literally CUTS MEMORY IN HALF so that she – or rather, Francesca Hayward, the actress bringing life to Hooper’s catsona – can sing an entirely NEW song called Beautiful Ghosts, which is… a Thing, after which there is a considerable interlude before Grizabella gets to sing Memory again.

I’m tired, guys. I’m so very tired. The light is fading, and I have but little strength.

The fourth and final thing you need to know about Tom Hooper’s Cats is that, as you watch it, your mind starts to latch onto small, specific incongruities as a way to deal with the overwhelming madness of the visuals – things that do not matter in comparison to everything else, but which nonetheless shine as vividly as the last hallucinations of a drowning man. Around the time that Old Deuteronomy first appears, for instance, the doubtless underpaid and overworked computer people responsible for executing Tom Hooper’s CGI vision stop giving the actors hand-fur and claws, so that Cat Judi Dench has people-hands throughout (as do various others who previously had paws). I don’t know what experience Tom Hooper has with directing in CGI, but I suspect it to be minimal, and have thus developed a mental image of him as a Monty Python directorial caricature, bescarfed and smoking a cheroot, yelling across the soundstage in an old-timey Hollywood accent, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll get it in post!” while his more knowledgeable underlings pray quietly for death. Mungojerrie, a boy cat, is depicted as a calico, which is technically possible, but very unlikely. I applaud the genderflipping of Old Deuteronomy in principle, but because Hooper is a goddamned coward, it came at the expense of cutting the line about him – or her, rather – burying nine wives, because god forbid Naked Cat With People Hands Judi Dench be a lesbian. Idris Elba’s Macavity is brown-furred and well-built, a fact we can see even as Taylor Swift sings about him being thin and ginger, just as Mr Mistoffelees, who describes himself as being all black, has a white bib, hands and face. All the cats get stoned on catnip, but only some wear shoes. Why is this? What have we done with our lives, collectively, to bring us to this point?

As Grizabella ascended to the Heaviside Layer in a floating chandelier balloon and the happy ladies in our row began to applaud the credits, I had a realisation about Cats that came sharply into clarity the moment I sat down with a much-needed tankard of frosé. Though ostensibly meant for general audiences, Cats is, in reality, a highly niche film meant for fiftysomething+ fans of the original musical who haven’t seen anything CGI-heavy since they accompanied their formerly tweenage children to a matinee showing of Mortal Kombat in 1995, and who thus look upon Hooper’s efforts as a revelation. These moviegoers aren’t internet-savvy, either; they don’t know what a furry is, and as such can look upon Rebel Wilson scratching her invisible cat vagina, legs spread wide, without flashing back to goatse or 4chan or something they saw on tumblr at a tender, more formative age (or last week, for that matter). They just want to see some singing cats, and are gloriously unburdened of any modern cultural baggage surrounding Hooper’s presentation of same that prevents them from enjoying his great works.

I am happy for them, this joyful group of viewers who emerged from Cats not only unscarred, but moved. Meanwhile, my friend and I staggered out as if from a recitation of Vogon poetry and went promptly to the nearest bar, which blessed us with its tender liquid mercy.

Enough. I can write no more. Remember me fondly to mother; I can hear the angels calling.

DON’T SEE CATS.

Warning: total spoilers for TROS, and also for Steven Universe.

Coming into The Rise of Skywalker today, I didn’t know what to expect. Despite my best efforts to remain unspoiled ahead of time, my internet goblin lifestyle – and the outrage of people who don’t use fucking spoiler tags – got the better of me. As such, I went in knowing exactly two things: one, that Kylo Ren dies at the end; and two, that for every person I’d seen on social media who was big mad about either this or the film in general, there was another who’d loved it wholeheartedly.

For the purposes of contextal recap, I reviewed both prior instalments when they first came out: I really loved The Force Awakens, but had issues with The Last Jedi. Since then, I’ve happily rewatched TFA more than once, but have yet to complete a full rewatch of TLJ – not because I haven’t had the time or the opportunity, but because each time I’ve tried to sit through it (and there have been multiple attempts), the early butchering of Poe Dameron’s character and the subsequent idiot plotting leaves me with gritted teeth. (Also, and this is a minor irritant in comparison, but every time there’s a closeup on Rey in TLJ, I cannot get over how jarringly overdone Daisy Ridley’s makeup is. I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else, so possibly it’s just a me thing, but even so, it grates.)

From what I’ve seen online since TROS came out, there is a large – but by no means universal – overlap between its loudest detractors and those who loved TLJ. Otherwise, the bulk of the criticism I’ve glimpsed boils down to three things: an excess of nostalgia, a perceived disrespect of Rian Johnson’s work, and a dislike of how Kylo Ren was treated. Having now seen the film, I disagree with all three of these takes. In fact, I’m prepared to say that TROS is my favourite instalment in the new trilogy – an opinion shared by both my husband and our six-year-old son. This latter opinion is, to me, the crucial one: multiple times on the way into our screening, my son was excitedly proclaiming his love for Kylo Ren and the hope that his “team” would win (he likes to play as Kylo in games of Battlefront with his dad). Both my husband and I were therefore braced for tears and disappointment at the finale; we’d even lined up a plan of action for if he was heartbroken.

But instead, he came out exhilarated. “I love it,” he proclaimed, “because Kylo Ren came to the good side!”

As an adult consumer of entertainment that is often meant primarily for or written in consideration of children, it’s sometimes easy to ignore the importance of their perspective – and therefore of their status as a desired, intended audience – on the end product. To take a small critical detour, consider the show Steven Universe, which I also watch with my son. I’ve seen a great deal of adult discourse trashing the later seasons because Steven reconciles with the Diamonds rather than killing them for their crimes, as though this was ever going to happen in a show aimed at young children; as though it is a failing not to prioritise the adult complexities of empire, revolution and colonialism over the more child-oriented themes of personal growth and love.

Adult eyes look at the Diamonds and protest that they’re war criminals, imperial tyrants who, in the real world, wouldn’t deserve a second chance, forgetting that a dash of unreality is the actual goddamn point. If we wanted to play by real world rules, the constant alien attacks and countless Gem relics on Earth would have long since prompted actual human governments to get involved, thus making it rather difficult for a single half-Gem tween and his adoptive family to run the show on intergalactic relations in the first place. We allow such behavioural exemptions in stories for kids because, quite simply, there’d be little scope for children to play such a powerful, autonomous role in those narratives otherwise. The heart of Steven Universe is a navigation of family, love, communication and queerness: the imperial elements aren’t the main narrative arc, but are rather used both as a metaphor for and in parallel with the idea of dysfunctional families. It’s a testament to how skilfully the show has been made, that adult viewers can find in it so much with which to engage so deeply, but they are still not the primary audience, and it is solipsism to fault the show for acknowledging this.

Returning to Star Wars and The Rise of Skywalker, therefore, I’m inclined to lend more weight to my six-year-old’s happiness at the ending – and to the audible delight of multiple other small children in our cinema when the credits rolled – than I am to the outrage of adults about the fate of Kylo Ren. To be clear: I’m not saying adults aren’t allowed to have their own opinions about the film. That would be an especially egregious form of hypocrisy, as I, an adult, am currently writing a review of it. Nor am I saying that Star Wars is aimed primarily at children: unlike Steven Universe, which is first and foremost a children’s show, the modern Star Wars movies are aimed at a general audience of kids and adults alike, with specific pieces of tie-in media being aimed more narrowly at specific age groups. What I’m saying is that, in my opinion, it matters that a little boy who loves Kylo Ren – a boy who is so often sensitive to the fates of his favourite characters, who cries when they suffer or die on screen, and who went in wanting Kylo to be victorious – came out happy with how his character was treated.

Here’s the thing: I don’t understand the complaint that TROS is too nostalgia-heavy, because what the fuck else are adult fans watching Star Wars for in 2019, if not to indulge the fantasy that “nostalgia” is the correct way to describe your feelings about a globally ubiquitous franchise that’s been producing tie-in novels, kids’ books, comics, animated specials, cartoon shows, live action TV series, toys, LEGOs, collectables, RPGs, MMOs, MMORPGs, board games, tabletop games, branded merchandise and eight major full-length, live-action feature films (plus a smatter of other movies) at an exponential rate of increase since 1977? The expanded Star Wars universe is a sandbox, not because it contains infinite narrative possibilities, but because it contains near-infinite ways to do the same things over and over again with slightly different variables and in a range of narrative flavours. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

Star Wars is where we go for bounty hunters and space lasers, chosen ones and eldritch MacGuffins, space opera and kitsch panoply, weird galactic politics and battles between the forces of good and evil. Some of its stories, like Rogue One and The Mandalorian, fall at the “grittier,” more adult end of the available spectrum, while others, like the 2008 animated Clone Wars film and the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, are decidedly less serious. Does this mean we’re wrong to have expectations and preferences about new instalments in the franchise, including greater diversity? Of course not! But of all the complaints to level at a Star Wars movie, too much nostalgia feels a bit like accusing the ocean of being too wet. Of course it’s nostalgic; or at the very least familiar: what else did you come here for? Do you also demand breathless originality from Marvel movies? Come on, now. Nobody eats at McDonald’s because they expect a gourmet burger, even if the franchise is going through one of those phases where they advertise options that pass as gourmet only in comparison to the regular menu. No: we go because it’s the satisfying trash we love to hate to love, and even though we can feel our arteries hardening with every slurp of thickshake, that’s what we signed up for.

With that in mind, let’s have a detailed plot summary, because I can’t do a proper analysis without one. So:

The Rise of Skywalker begins with Kylo Ren investigating the apparent return of Emperor Palpatine, who he sees as a threat to his power. Palpatine is indeed back, ensconced on the creepy, hidden Sith planet of Exogol, where he’s spent decades building a secret fleet of planet-killing ships with his minions, called the Final Order. To receive this fleet, Kylo needs to do only one thing: destroy Rey, and through her the Jedi Order. Details of this fleet are soon passed to the Resistance – specifically, to Finn and Poe – by an unknown spy inside the First Order. As they race through space to bring the details to General Leia, Rey struggles with her training, plagued by visions of her past while trying to contact the spirits of dead Jedi masters.

In order to combat both Kylo Ren and Palpatine, the Resistance needs to get to Exogol – and to do this, they need an ancient Sith relic that can show them the coordinates. Using Luke’s notes as a starting point, Rey, Finn and Poe – along with Chewie, R2D2, C3P0 and BB8 – set out in the Millennium Falcon to begin their search where Luke’s left off. What follows is an encounter with Lando Calrissian, who helps get them pointed in the right direction, which kicks off an exciting string of MacGuffin chases: to start the search for the Sith relic, they need to find a downed ship; and in the ship, they find a Sith dagger with a clue to the relic’s location. Luckily, C3P0 can read the Sith glyphs on the dagger; unluckily, he is forbidden by his programming from translating them because Evil Language Of Evil. Before they can get off-planet, however, Chewie is captured and (so they wrongly think) killed when Kylo pushes Rey into accidentally using force lightning to down a transport ship. He also steals the Sith dagger,  so that the only record of the relic’s location is now stuck in C3P0’s memories, while the Falcon is taken on board his ship.

Not wanting Chewie’s perceived death to be in vain, the trio decides their only option is to find an illegal droid-hacker to access C3P0’s memories. Still pursued by the First Order, this takes them to Zorii, an old spice-running friend of Poe’s who helps them after some fun, fighty banter. Her droid-hacker associate then reveals that accessing the Sith translation will wipe C3P0’s memory, but the stakes are high enough that he, rather touchingly – on the back of several scenes where he’s played his usual comic relief role –  agrees to this, a neat callback to his previous, unwilling mindwipe at the end of Revenge of the Sith.

With C3P0 wiped and Kylo’s ship now overheard, Rey realises that Chewie is still alive and being held prisoner. The trio hurry aboard to rescue him, and while Finn and Poe grab the wookie, Rey backtracks to reclaim the dagger. As she takes it, she and Kylo have a tense confrontation through their force-bond, where Kylo reveals that he knows the secret of Rey’s heritage and promises her that she’ll take his hand when next he holds it out to her. Elsewhere on the ship, Finn and the others are captured and taken for execution – but are saved by, of all people, General Hux, who reveals himself to be the Resistance spy in the First Order. His motives, very plausibly, have nothing to do with altruism: he’s just sick of Kylo Ren, who constantly thwarts and berates him, and wants to see him defeated. (However, even though Finn wounds Hux at his request to aid the pretence that he was overpowered during their escape, General Pryde immediately kills him after seeing through the lie.)

Reunited with Rey, the heroes escape on the Falcon and fly to the coordinates C3P0 provided, where the wreck of the Death Star lies in the Endor system. Here, after crash-landing the damaged Falcon, they encounter a group of former Stormtroopers, led by a woman called Jannah, who all, like Finn, defected from the First Order rather than kill innocents. Her group pledges to help them reach the Death Star ruins, which lie amidst a turbulent sea, but Rey – increasingly troubled by visions of herself falling to the dark side – takes a skimmer and goes alone to reclaim the Sith relic from Palpatine’s vault. Finn hurries to help her while Poe repairs their ship, but arrives too late to prevent her epic showdown with Kylo Ren, who goads her into a fight by first revealing her ancestry – she is Palpatine’s granddaughter, heir to Sith blood – and then crushing the relic she came all this way to find.

While Kylo and Rey fight on the other side of the galaxy, General Leia reaches out to her son through the Force. As with Luke’s actions in The Last Jedi, this massive effort costs her life, but to powerful gain: Kylo hesitates at a crucial moment, so overwhelmed by the contact that he drops his lightsaber, allowing Rey to run him through. Earlier in the film, when trapped in underground tunnels searching for the first downed ship, Rey used the Force to heal a giant snake that was threatening the group, achieved by transferring some of her lifeforce to it. She does the same here to Kylo, showing him mercy at the moment they both sense his mother’s death; a mercy that extends to healing the facial scar she gave him. She tells him that she would’ve accepted Ben’s hand, not Kylo’s, and then – as Finn and Jannah look on – takes his ship and flies off in it. Left alone, Kylo speaks with the memory of his Han Solo, echoing the conversation they had in The Force Awakens right before he killed him; but this time, he flings his lightsabre into the sea instead of repeating the patricide.

Returning to the Resistance base, Finn and Poe find Leia dead and are elevated to co-generals in her stead. Taking Zorii’s earlier advice, Poe sends the newly-arrived Lando to help recruit allies from ordinary people who want to fight back and has R2 restore a backup of C3P0’s memories, while Rey flies to Luke’s old home on the Isle of Porgs. (I know that’s not its real name in canon, but come on. It’s the Isle of Porgs.) There, she burns Kylo’s ship and, newly terrified of her Palpatine heritage, pledges to retreat from the world so as not to be a danger to it, as he did. But when she tries to throw away her lightsaber, Luke’s Force ghost appears and talks her out of it, telling her that he retreated out of fear, and that she has everything she needs to find Exegol: a second Sith beacon, which survives in the wreckage of Kylo’s ship (and which we, the viewers, saw him obtain at the start of the movie), and Luke’s old x-wing, risen from the sea. He also gives her Leia’s lightsaber, which he’d hidden away in life.

And so Rey sets off for Exegol, all while transmitting the coordinates of her journey back to the Resistance, where Finn and Poe promptly set up a plan to attack the Final Order fleet before it can launch. On arrival, Rey finally confronts Palpatine, who reveals not only that Snoke was his creation, but that, if she strikes him down with hate, he will live on in her and the Sith will be reborn. As she falters, Kylo shows up to help her. Palpatine proclaims them a dyad in the Force: a linked pair, the first in generations, and steals the energy of their bond to help himself physically regenerate.

As Rey lies insensate and Palpatine flings Kylo into a nearby fissure, the Resistance arrives and begins a battle with the starships overhead. It’s a deliberate callback to the end of Return of the Jedi, Rey and Kylo facing off with Palpatine in place of Luke and the barely-turned Vader. As Palptine targets the ships overhead with a massive burst of force lightning, Rey finally hears the voices of the Jedi masters she’d been striving to contact at the start of the film. They tell her that, just as Palpatine is the Sith, she is the Jedi, and with this burst of clarity and power, she uses two lightsabers – Luke’s and Leia’s –  to turn his force lightning back on him from a place of calm, annihilating him completely.

Overhead, the battle turns: Lando arrives with reinforcements just as Poe was beginning to despair, giving him time to rescue Finn and Jannah from a nearby enemy ship. But destroying Palpatine has taken all Rey’s strength. As she lies dying, Kylo crawls over to her and copies her Force healing technique to bring her back, effectively returning the lifeforce she used to save him earlier. This act comes at the cost of his own life: Rey calls him Ben, they share a kiss that feels more relieved than romantic, and then he dies, his body vanishing from his clothes as a cut to Leia’s shrouded form shows her likewise vanishing, the pair of them being accepted into the force.

Both the First and Final Orders are destroyed; as per Return of the Jedi, celebration is seen across the galaxy, with all the heroes celebrating together. The film ends with Rey returning to Tatooine, to the long-abandoned Skywalker homestead. There, she buries both Luke and Leia’s lightsabers in the sand. When a passing stranger walks by and asks her name – her full name, not just Rey – she sees the Force ghosts of Luke and Leia standing nearby, and gives her name as Rey Skywalker. Cue the John Williams as she stands against the iconic backdrop of Tatooine’s two suns, and roll credits.

With that out of the way, I’d like to return to the two main criticisms I’ve seen levelled at the film beyond the complaint of excessive nostalgia: firstly, that Rian Johnson’s work is being ignored and disrespected by J.J. Abrams; and secondly, that Kylo Ren’s character is being fundamentally mistreated.

When I first reviewed The Last Jedi, I disliked the idea that Kylo was being set up as a romantic partner for Rey, but was interested in their being contrasted as dark and light sides of the Force who nonetheless shared a bond. What I didn’t want was for Kylo to be woobified into being forgiven for his (many, murderous, genocidal) crimes, such that his manipulative, terrible treatment of Rey could be retroactively cast as romantic. What I disliked most about TLJ – and this a hill I will die on – is how it mangled Poe’s characterisation, did a gross disservice to Holdo in the process, and ended up with a soggy middle based on a series of idiot plot decisions. As such, I would argue, TROS takes the very strongest aspects of Johnson’s contribution to the trilogy and builds on them while ignoring the weakest. My only complaint is that Rose Tico ends up as a minor background character, but given that TROS gives us two new female characters in Zorii and Jannah – the latter of whom is also a woman of colour – it’s a less egregious failing than I’d feared it would be, and does nothing to walk back how important Rose was in the previous film.

As for Kylo Ren, I’m genuinely baffled by the claim that TROS does him a disservice. His arc throughout the trilogy has been one of a tormented, tortured character – by turns explosive, monstrous, wounded, betrayed and nihilistic – who has nonetheless committed such horrific crimes on such a grand scale that blanket redemption was never on the cards. I reiterate again the difference between Steven Universe, which is intended primarily for young children, and Star Wars, which is meant to appeal to both kids and adults. In SU, the Diamonds are framed foremost as abusive members of a toxic, dysfunctional family, with their hierarchical empire used as both a metaphor and framing device for discussing these themes; in the new Star Wars trilogy, however, this emphasis is reversed, with Kylo Ren, the Sith and the First Order framed foremost as agents of evil and empire, with their familial connections to the heroes used to mirror the tragedy of their actions on a smaller, more intimate scale.

When Vader is redeemed at the end of Return of the Jedi, it comes at the cost of his death and his transition into a Force ghost. That Kylo is given a parallel end feels only fitting, given that the new trilogy has cast him as Vader’s echo. No, we don’t get a funeral scene like Vader did, but why would we? There’s no body left to burn or carry away, and nobody alive but Rey who either could or should plausibly mourn him. His parents and uncle are dead – one by his own hand – and of the main trio, he tortured Poe and saw Finn’s childhood stolen. For me, it was enough that we saw our heroes weep at the finale: their separate griefs and joys didn’t need individual reiteration, because we’d already seen them happen.

If you were anticipating Rey and Kylo getting a happily ever after or had hugely invested in Kylo as a character needing redemption, then I can understand why you’d feel hurt and dissatisfied by the ending of TROS, but at the same time – and I don’t know how else to put this – we’re talking about Star Wars canon here, not fanon. Possibly this might change in the future – and I’d be happy if it did – but right now, there are, if not exactly rules, then very firm conventions that go hand in hand with being a global property owned by the same soulless mega-corporation that makes the Avengers movies, and one of those is that even sympathetic villains don’t get the girl, even if they do get a one-time Kiss of Redemption prior to dying. (Relatedly: I’m right there with Oscar Isaac lamenting the fact that Finn and Poe didn’t end up as a couple, and I was sure as hell eager for it to happen after I first watched TFA, but I’m not angry-shocked-betrayed that it didn’t happen, because I never expected it to. That’s how it goes right now.)

More to the point, and without wanting to make everything about, you know [gestures broadly at 2019] politics, if The Rise of Skywalker had ended with the sad genocidal white dude who’d tried to for the better part of three films to gaslight Rey into turning evil so they could be sexy Sith together getting not only the girl, but a parade and a big shiny future without anyone holding him accountable for, you know, destroying multiple planets, that would not, I feel, be the best of looks, either presently or historically. I’m cool with Rey giving him a kiss in the moment because look, we survived and won and you’re not evil anymore, and also you just brought me back from the dead basically!, but Kylo Ren is very much worse than, say, Zuko from Avatar.

As for the structure and overall plot, I really have no issues. Yes, it’s a bit handwavium as to how Kylo gets back to Exegol and why the Final Order fleet couldn’t just launch itself, but no more egregiously so than anything else in any other Star Wars movie you’d care to name. And in any case, I’m inclined to forgive its failings because of what it gave me that The Last Jedi manifestly didn’t: plenty of scenes between Finn, Poe and Rey that not only got their characterisation right, but which actually made them feel like friends, striking all the right notes between humour, tension and pathos. A great deal of my love of Star Wars is founded on the pithy one-liners and snappy bicker-bantering that overlay genuine affection, and I was happy to have it back.

The tragedy of Carrie Fisher’s death means that Leia’s role in the film was necessarily minimal, but what there is of it is, I think, respectfully done. Small moments like Rey calling her “master” and the addition of her lightsaber feel poignant and meaningful, and beyond that, I love how many women are in the film. Though Maz, Rose and Lieutenant Connix are all background characters, when put together with Leia, Jannah, Zorii and, most importantly, Rey – who gets some spectacularly badass fight scenes and great emotional moments both – it feels like the most female-oriented film of any in the Star Wars universe. Finn and Poe’s relationship with each other and with Rey is shown with care as well as laughter, and in terms of ending on a hopeful note, there’s a brief, yet powerful moment of salience in the final battle, when Lando’s new allies shows up and a First Order stooge says in confusion, “That’s not a navy. It’s just… people.” Maybe it’s just me, but that one line felt more encouraging to me – and more relevant – than Kylo’s redemption ever could.

In The Last Jedi, Poe racked up a collateral body count by putting the mission – or rather, his view of the mission – ahead of individual lives, deaths for which he was never truly held accountable by the narrative and which we never saw him mourn. But in The Rise of Skywalker, Poe gladly risks the mission and his life to save Chewie once they realise he’s still alive – a portrayal much more in keeping with the character we first met in The Force Awakens. If asked to choose, I know which iteration of him I prefer, and if that counts as disrespecting Rian Johnson, then so be it.

While a lot of people currently appear to dislike The Rise of Skywalker, my feeling is that it’s going to end up ageing well, as I suspect that opinions might change once it’s viewed from a less heated distance. Yes, there’s a great deal of MacGuffin chasing, but that’s true of every other film in the trilogy – and in Star Wars generally, for that matter. (And at least in TROS, the logic behind each successive fetch-quest is internally consistent and hangs together with what both the audience and the characters know, as opposed to “we’ve secretly come to the Evil Space Casino to hire a Hacker Guy because our leader won’t talk to us Because Reasons, but security caught us instantly, so now we’re going to trust this one Extremely Sketchy Dude we just met in jail with the future of the Resistance.”)

All in all, the pacing is fast, the visuals are stunning, the main trio kicks ass and it feels like a proper Star Wars movie; which is to say, a Star Wars movie that reminds me of all the things I like about other Star Wars movies – and also, my kid loved it. What else can you ask for?

Warning: spoilers

In many respects, Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth is a superb, original novel; in others, it is a needlessly frustrating one. In the days since I finished reading it, my thoughts in each of these directions have met, overlapped and – for the most part – separated out again without resolving the dissonance, leaving me to wonder which aspects of storytelling I most value in a work, and why. If I skew towards the negative, am I being unduly harsh on a novel which I ultimately enjoyed and whose sequels I plan to read? If I skew towards the positive, am I being overly kind to a story whose discrepancies come more sharply into focus the longer I have to consider them? What matters more to my stance as a reviewer: the feelings I had while reading a book, or my tempered analysis of it? In this case, I’m honestly not sure, but I hope that writing this review will be clarifying for someone, even if it isn’t me.

Gideon the Ninth begins with its titular heroine trying and failing to run away from home to join the cohort, aka the space army – trying, because the home in question is the Ninth House, a sect of necromancers set on a desolate planet in a system run by same; failing, because Gideon, who is not a necromancer despite being raised by them, knows too many House secrets to be allowed to leave. Her planned departure is thwarted by the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, aka Harrow, her sole age-mate in the Ninth after a terrible plague wiped out all the other children during their infancy. Harrow, a highly skilled necromancer and heir to the Ninth, is a constant thorn in Gideon’s side, and has been for their entire lives.

But as it turns out, Harrow has need of Gideon. The immortal Emperor of the Resurrection – a man who became God and a God who became a man, who has ruled for ten thousand years – has sent a missive to the Houses asking for each necromantic heir and their sworn cavalier to come to Canaan House on the First planet, a planet of ruins and mystery, to undergo trials to become Lyctors: the immortal, most powerful Hands of the Emperor. Or, almost immortal: after nine thousand years, the existing First Lyctors have dwindled in number – hence the need for trials to attain replacements. In order to attend, survive and pass the trials, Harrow needs a cavalier primary: a swordsman, bodyguard and confidant. And as her existing cavalier is manifestly not up to the task, that leaves Gideon to fill the gap.

Arriving on the First, Gideon and Harrow – and, by extension, the audience – are soon introduced to the representatives of the other Houses, all with their own agendas. Under the guidance of the enigmatic Teacher and a literal skeleton crew (because necromancy), the necromancers and cavaliers are given one single rule to start them on the journey to Lyctorhood: open no locked doors in Canaan House without permission. But the First is a dangerous place to be, and when people start turning up dead, the stakes are raised: it’s not just about becoming a Lyctor any more – it’s about surviving.

For the first two thirds of the story, Gideon the Ninth is a tense, characterful and wholly original species of locked room mystery. Though Gideon has grown up around necromancers, she has no real understanding of the various theorems and methods they employ, and as such, the readers learn these details along with her. Rather than making this an excuse to infodump, however, Muir uses Gideon’s ignorance as a deliberate tease: though the system of necromancy feels both compelling and well thought out, it maintains a tense mystique by dint of being under-explained, discussed primarily by experts who, with few exceptions, have no reason to give a 101 rundown of their discipline. As a narrative technique, it reminds me most of the way we slowly learn about gems, fusion, the diamonds and the history of Homeworld in the early seasons of Steven Universe: an organic, background tuition that rewards an attentive audience with glimpses of a hidden, but nonetheless coherent, whole.

In this context, the trials that Gideon and Harrow start to undergo – to say nothing of the process by which Harrow works out what the trials are – make for gripping reading. We’re given enough identifying glimpses of the other characters to get a feel for them without being led by the hand, and as their motives start to become more distinct, this characterisation – with what is ultimately revealed to be one glaring exception – bears up admirably.

And it’s here that we enter true spoiler territory: because while the first two thirds of the book are exceptional, it’s the final third that gets a little dicey. For me, this was exacerbated by the fact that, until I reached the end of Gideon the Ninth and saw that it was book one of a series, I’d been thinking of it as a standalone novel. In my defence, until you finish the final chapter, there’s nothing printed anywhere in/on the physical copy to indicate otherwise, which I’d argue is a discourtesy to the reader: knowing whether a book is part of a series changes your expectations of its structure, and it was confusing in the extreme to feel that the build-up of the first two thirds, all of which centred around the mysteries of Lyctorhood, had suddenly become secondary to a different, belatedly-revealed conflict. This would’ve been forgivable if said conflict had made sense; instead, however, it has the unfortunate effect of making certain key aspects of what came before feel weird and illogical.

Specifically – and to those who want to remain unspoiled, turn away now – the problem lies in the Big Reveal about Dulcinea Septimus, the chronically ill necromancer of the Seventh House. At the finale of the book, we learn that Dulcinea is not who she pretends to be: instead, she is Cytherea, one of the Emperor’s still-living Lyctors who, for reasons that don’t really parse, has decided to try and kill off the would-be Lyctors. To quote the explanation she gives to Palamedes Sextus, one of Gideon and Harrow’s allies:

I knew that if I ruined his Lyctor plans – killed the heirs and cavaliers to all the other eight Houses – I’d draw him back to the system, but I had to do it in a subtle enough way that he wouldn’t bring the remaining Hands with him. If I had arrived in full force, he’d have turned up on a war footing, and sent the Lyctors to do all the dirty work like always. This way he’s lulled into a false sense of… semisecurity, I suppose. And he won’t even bother coming within Dominicus’s demesne. He’ll sit out there beyond the system – trying to find out what’s happening – right where I need him to be.

As a statement viewed on its own, the logic of this hangs together. In the context of the novel up until this point, however, it manifestly does not, which makes the nearly forty page long, emotionally fraught battle sequence that follows ring frustratingly hollow once you’ve had a spare moment to think through the implications.

For instance: we are told, over and over again, that there is no communication allowed between Canaan House and anywhere else in the system, even in the case of an emergency. During the trials and until their completion, the First is meant to be functionally cut off. This only changes by accident, when the members of the Second House, frightened by the ongoing deaths and affronted by the seeming lawlessness that permits them to happen, kill Teacher and send an illicit transmission, which only reaches the Emperor because it’s not strong enough to reach a neighbouring planet and because his ship, for undisclosed reasons, is the only one close enough to hear it. During the Emperor’s brief appearance at the finale, we’re given no reason to believe he suspected Cytherea of treachery prior to this point, and by the same token, we’re also told he either can’t or won’t set foot on the First again – so why was he near the system at all? How was Cytherea’s plan meant to work, if she couldn’t possibly count on the Emperor showing up in response to her disruption?

And if, as seems to be implied, Cytherea wasn’t already suspected of treachery by the Emperor, then why not simply attack him elsewhere instead of constructing a needlessly elaborate plan to draw him back to the First? It’s hinted at that the Emperor can’t be killed except on the First (or possibly by the being entombed forever on the Ninth; the details are deliberately hazy, presumably for future plot reasons) but if so, there’s good reason to have been clearer on this point, just as it makes no sense to emphasise the lack of outside communication and then hinge the whole finale on its ultimate necessity.

Working backwards from this point, we end up with yet more questions about Dulcinea/Cytherea’s actions prior to being exposed. Most pressingly: how was she able to send her murderous bone construct after Gideon and the two members of the Fourth House when she was under constant medical supervision by Harrow, Palamedes and Camilla? The logical answer is that the construct was acting autonomously – but if so, then why, when Gideon and one of the Fourth were sleeping in the same room, did it only murder one of them? It’s hinted that there’s a long-game reason for this – “You don’t even know what you are to me,” Cytherea tells Gideon, along with, “I’ve spared you before,” – but given that, to all intents and purposes, Gideon dies during the finale, an act of self-sacrifice that elicits no reaction from Cytherea, who was literally trying to murder her at the time, this feels like an inadequate explanation. And as whatever special feelings Cytherea might have for Gideon presumably don’t extend to Harrow, the fact that Dulcinea helped Harrow on multiple occasions – not just to understand the trials, but to survive them – further muddies the water.

Throw in the fact that Cytherea’s appearance is the first time we learn anything at all about the existing, original Lyctors, and it’s hard not to feel frustrated. To all intents and purposes, she’s a reveal that comes out of nowhere, taking the existing emotional conflict and mystery the book had worked so hard to build – the megatheorem, Ianthe’s ascension – and steering it in a different direction. Without such a hard left turn at the end, I might have been content to ignore other, seemingly minor questions about the worldbuilding, but when the narrative rug gets yanked out from under your feet, it’s human nature – in my case, anyway – to wonder if that ultimate instability was hinted at in earlier, smaller missteps.

Such as: if Cytherea was the only threat to the trialgoers all along, then why was Teacher so adamant that other, dangerous entities were lurking in Canaan House? If Gideon was raised by people who feared and hated her on an isolated, desolate planet with no access to anywhere else, then where did she get her comics, sunglasses and pornography? What’s going on in the rest of the empire, and how much of it does Gideon know about? If the Emperor is actually as benevolent as the ending implies (which, that’s a whole other area of potential criticism re: imperium, albeit a sidebar to the plot of this first instalment) then why is he constantly at war? And why, in a space-age setting with guns and magic, are cavaliers expected to learn swordplay? It’s the kind of detail that seems like it should have some minor in-world justification – I’m honestly not picky; swords are cool and I’m very hyped to see them here – but none is ever provided.

(Also, I could do with fewer descriptions of eye colour. Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% a sucker for Interesting And Pretty Eyes, but given how striking Muir’s descriptions are otherwise compared with how repeatedly she describes the same people’s eyeballs, it ends up being a little too much of a good thing.)

All these nitpicks don’t mean much on their own, but taken collectively, they’re not so much grating as disappointing – as, indeed, is the aforementioned part of the ending where Gideon seems to die. I say seems to, because there’s so much about Gideon’s mysterious backstory that we don’t yet know – to say nothing of the fact that we’re dealing with literal necromancy – that I don’t trust for a hot second that she’s actually permadead. If she is, my queer ass will be pissed as hell, because giving me an awesome snarky lesbian protagonist and then killing her is profoundly Not Bros; but if she’s not, I still have a deep and abiding dislike of the Surprise Cliffhanger Death trope. Making Harrow think Gideon is dead for an emotional gut-punch is one thing; making the reader think so too is quite another. It feels like a gotcha! moment to me, an unwelcome flirtation with the dead lesbian trope – and if it’s not a flirtation, then that’s even worse, because AUGH.

And yet – and yet! – the reason this is an emotionally bifurcated review, despite how much time I’ve spent laying out my grievances, is because the rest of the book – the parts that work – are absolutely amazing. Both in terms of the narration and the character banter, Muir has gone all-in on a mixture of modern snarkasm and gothic shade, the effect of which is equal parts hilarious and (in a good way) disturbing. The descriptions of necromancy and bone magic are graphically vivid in the most linguistically skilled and memorable ways; the plotting is tight, and – I cannot emphasise this enough – the concept of angry lesbian necromancers in space is so goddamn appealing, it’s hard to put into words. It’s like our collective inner teenage gothgirl got to rub her little queer hands all over science fiction, and I love how unapologetically For The Aesthetic the resulting story is, both thematically and narratively.

The real strength of Gideon the Ninth, however, is the enemies to friends to almost-dating arc of Gideon and Harrow. Their banter is crisp, their emotional histories, both singly and when intertwined, are complicated and tragic, and Muir does an absolutely spectacular job of making you root for the two of them – not just as a couple, but as individuals. I’ll be genuinely, heartbreakingly angry if it turns out that Gideon is permanently dead, but despite my misgivings about the end of the book, it’s a measure of how much trust Muir’s writing earned otherwise that I’m confident enough in my happier suspicions to be eagerly awaiting the next volume.

Gideon the Ninth: it’s a hell of a debut novel, and while the structure is buggy near the end, there’s a great deal of scope for future instalments to rectify matters, or at least to clarify them. I’d still prefer to have that clarity now, of course, but the bulk of the narrative does so much right that, until I can judge the whole series in its entirety, I’m willing to give the wobbly parts the benefit of the doubt. I don’t recommend it without reservation, but I do recommend it strongly – and that, I think, is the most important thing.

Warning: total spoilers for Midsommar, references to suicide, incest and drug use

Midsommar is the second feature-length film directed and written by Ari Aster; the first, Hereditary, I haven’t yet seen, but on the basis of how much I enjoyed Midsommar, I’m strongly inclined to check it out.

On the surface, Midsommar is a film with a simple yet darkly compelling premise: in the wake of a family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh), joins her long-term boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends, Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), on a holiday organised by their third friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who has invited them all to his community’s midsummer celebration in Hårga, Sweden. Things are rocky at the outset: not only has Dani’s sister recently committed a horrific murder-suicide, killing both herself and their parents with carbon monoxide poisoning, but Christian is The Worst: a self-absorbed, emotionally neglectful and thoroughly disinterested partner who was planning to break up with Dani prior to her loss. But what Pelle has sold to his friends as a drug-filled festival soon turns from pastoral vacation to sinister ritual: guests start disappearing, and in a haze of horror and hallucinogens, Dani begins to realise that there’s no way to escape.

Right from the outset, Midsommar leans both narratively and thematically on the four-act, seasonal structure of its pagan mythology. Early in their arrival at Hårga, Pelle explains that his community views life as a cyclical series of stages, all marked as periods of twice-nine years: childhood, from birth until age 18, is viewed as spring; 18 to 36 is the summer of young adulthood, a time of exploration; 36 to 54 are your working, adult years, the autumn; and 54 to 72 is old age, winter. At the end of this explanation, Dani asks what happens after 72, and Pelle replies by drawing a finger across this throat, indicating death.

This cyclical, seasonal motif imbues the entire film, as do references to Swedish pagan mythology and pastoral life. In the very first scenes, a kulning – a Swedish herding call used to summon the cows home to pasture, but which can also be sung as a farewell – plays hauntingly over shots of a winter landscape, only to cut out jarringly and be replaced by the ringing of a telephone. The ringing takes us inside Dani’s parents’ house: we hear her leave a worried voice message on their answering machine as the camera pans over their sleeping (and soon to be dead) bodies before cutting back to show us Dani herself. Likewise, when the title card comes up, it does so over a depiction of the seasons – winter, spring, summer and autumn, in that order – rendered in the same traditional, Scandinavian-pagan style used throughout Hårga.

Thus: the film begins with a symbolic winter, marked by the deaths of a young woman and two elders, overlain by a song that acts as both a farewell and – crucially – a means of calling someone home, the “someone” in question being Dani. In early scenes in her apartment, the camera makes sure to show us the paintings on her wall: two different images of women wreathed in summer and autumnal flowers, vibrant yellows and oranges, and a third painting, displayed prominently over a bed where we see Dani sleeping, of a young girl holding out a burning lantern to a bear. Like the kulning, the significance of these images is not immediately apparent, but they mark a pattern of foreshadowing that continues throughout the film.

The same is also true of scenes with Christian’s friends. Prior to the revelation of Dani’s loss, Christian, Mark, Josh and Pelle are all out to dinner, with Mark encouraging Christian to break up with Dani. In retrospect, it’s telling that Pelle alone refrains from contributing to this conversation, while Josh – an anthropology major, like Christian – suggests that his friend is drawing out his relationship with Dani despite his unhappiness as a way to avoid his academic issues, such as his lack of a thesis topic. Christian is annoyed by this, but is easily sidetracked by Mark making a crass joke about all the Swedish women he could be “impregnating” on their trip to Hårga. Later on, during a trip-planning session, Mark makes a similar wish to do some sex tourism in Stockholm on route to Hårga, and is disappointed when Pelle says that they won’t be passing through Stockholm at all, as it’s in the opposite direction.

Though Christian’s lazy selfishness is already evident in his treatment of Dani, it soon becomes clear that this behaviour also extends to his friends: when Dani learns unexpectedly of his plans to go to Sweden in just two weeks, Christian responds by inviting her along, but only tells Pelle and the others of his offer when Dani is literally at the door, so that none of them can argue. While Josh and Mark are clearly bothered by this – Josh because of the awkwardness it creates, Mark because he wants it to be a boys’ trip – Pelle is almost incongruously accepting of it. He alone makes conversation with Dani, who notices him sketching, but when he mentions losing his own parents as a child, the word family becomes a trigger: she gets up abruptly to recover in the bathroom, and in a superb scene transition, the bathroom of the flat becomes the bathroom of the plane, where all of them are now en route to Sweden, the plane shaking in a brief encounter with turbulence.

Arriving in Hårga, the group takes psychedelic mushrooms together in a field with other newcomers: Dani is initially hesitant to join in, wanting to get settled first, but when Mark points out that taking the drugs at a separate times will result in them being on separate trips, Dani caves and participates. The subsequent scene is deliberately and successfully funny: as Pelle talks calmly about being one with nature, Mark freaks out that the sky is still blue at 9pm, while Christian is comically upset at the prospect of meeting new people. Dani, however, is doing just as Pelle says, watching the bark ripple on the trees as blades of grass appear to grow through her hand. It’s only when Josh starts saying that the guys are his real family that the word, once again, proves a trigger: Dani gets up and bolts, taking refuge in a wooden outhouse. There’s a brief flash of horror as she lights a candle and a face seems to appear briefly behind her in the dark, after which she runs into the woods and collapses into sleep, dreaming of her dead sister and parents.

When she wakes up again, it’s still light, and Pelle is leading the group on a hike to the actual homestead. Accompanying them are his “brother,” Ingemar, and Ingemar’s British friends Connie and Simon. There’s a moment of social awkwardness when Ingemar says he dated Connie before Simon did, only for Connie to say that they went on just one date that she didn’t even know was a date at the time. The moment passes, however, and soon the group are being welcomed to Hårga: a pastoral, low-tech setting where all the locals are dressed in white, with most of the women wearing flowers. It’s here that we get a truly fantastic trope subversion in the form of Josh, a black anthropology major, studying a “primitive” white culture: he wants to write his thesis on Hårga, and is excited to take notes on the midsummer festivities, which – we soon learn – are particularly special this year, involving rituals that happen only once every 90 years.

As Pelle – and, by extension, the cinematography – show us around the village, several unsettling things stand out. In one area, a large bear sits in a small cage, its presence deliberately unexplained; in another, the camera takes a slow pan across a tapestry which shows, in successive steps, how a woman can bewitch a man into her bed by carving a rune, feeding him a meal containing her pubic hair, and then making him drink a certain potion. It’s significant that this depiction goes chronologically from right-to-left, which would ordinarily be backwards: it’s a subtle visual cue that the expected narrative for the visitors is being upended, while the tapestry itself is a clue to later events. The same is also true of a dance on the lawn, which Pelle explains is called Skinning the Fool; and it’s here, as she dances past Christian and kicks him to get his attention, that we start to notice the interest Maja, one of Pelle’s “sisters,” has for him.

That evening, sleeping in an open, communal building whose interior walls are covered with storytelling pictures, Pelle explains that tomorrow, they’ll witness an ättestupaOnly Josh recognises the term and is stunned; Christian, despite also being an anthropology major, tries to Google the term, but misspells it and gets no results. The next day, the group participates in a solemn lunch where an older man and woman are seated at the head of a series of tables shaped to form a giant Odal rune: Josh asks Pelle if these are the ones, which Pelle confirms, but neither cues the others in to what’s happening. What follows is a shocking, gruesome scene where, after great ceremony, first the woman and then the man jump to their deaths from a cliff onto a flat rock below. While the woman dies instantly, the man survives with his legs smashed, and is effectively euthenased by three members of the community, who take turns smashing his head with a giant wooden mallet.

Prior to being killed, when the man with the smashed legs starts moaning in pain, all the Hårgans start wailing and screaming along with him, though only the horrified Connie and Simon actually try and help. This communal outpouring of emotion is repeated several times throughout the film, becoming more comprehensible in purpose – to the viewer, at least – as time goes on; but in this first instance, it feels alien and frightening, as though the man’s failure to die on impact means something has gone wrong and the Hårgans are lamenting. Instead, as we can later intuit, this is a way of showing that his pain is shared by the community: he hurts, so everyone screams as if they are hurt, too. Taken in this context, the fact that Christian lets a shaken Dani go off to grieve and process her trauma alone in the aftermath of the ritual shows a fundamental disconnect between Dani’s isolated experience of pain compared to how pain is treated in Hårga. His unconcern for her is also highlighted by the fact that, whereas he forgot her birthday the previous day and only remembered at Pelle’s prompting, Pelle drew Dani a portrait of her wearing a May Queen crown, having noticed her appreciating pictures of May Queens past.

That evening, despite being shaken by the ritual, Christian not only convinces Dani of the need to stay, but informs Josh that he’s going to do his thesis on the Hårga, too, effectively forcing Josh to split his research. That night, Dani has disturbing nightmares about Christian and the others leaving her in Hårga that intertwine with images of her dead family and the dead elders. The next morning, Josh observes Maja putting a carved rune under Christian’s bed and asks Pelle about it; Pelle replies that Maja has evidently set her sights on Christian, but is unconcerned by the implications.

It’s at this point that a true sense of unease begins to settle over the group: as their existing conflicts start to morph into bigger fractures, Dani is also aware of the fact that, according to the elders, Simon has incongruously left without Connie – a claim that Connie doesn’t believe. Dani tries to raise this with Christian, but he’s preoccupied “researching” by asking the Hårgans about their customs. Pointedly, both he and Josh ask different questions of different villagers that relate to incest: where Christian baldly asks if inbreeding is a problem in such a small community and is told no, but that interbreeding with outsiders is sometimes necessary, Josh is told by an elder that the community’s oracle, a deformed, disabled boy named Reuben, is a deliberate product of inbreeding – as are all their oracles. He also takes the time to point out one of their runes, called an affekt, which stands for grief. Later, as Dani is helping the other women in the kitchen, a scream rings out in the distance, but nobody reacts to it.

In the background of events, we see that the dead elders whose bodies were burned the night before – in one earlier shot, their pyre fades out over a shot of Dani sitting on the grass – have had their ashes poured into the roots of a fallen tree. Oblivious to this, Mark chooses this tree to piss on, and is yelled at for his disrespect to the community’s ancestors. During lunch, Dani tries once more to make Christian care about Simon’s disappearance, muttering that she could believe such a departure of him, but not Simon. Annoyed, Christian takes an early bite of his pie and finds a pubic hair in it, which Mark laughs about until a girl he’s been eyeing comes and leads him away. This same day, Pelle confronts Dani about Christian’s thoughtless treatment of her, saying that, out of everyone who came with him to Hårga, he was most excited for her to be there, because the Hårgans became his family after he was orphaned and he thinks she deserves that same sense of family and support in her life, too.

By nighttime, Mark still hasn’t reappeared from his tryst. Assuming he’s still with the girl, the others all go to sleep – all except Josh, who sneaks back out to take photographs of the Hårgan’s religious text after being forbidden to do so earlier. As he wields his camera in the dark, Josh is approached by a half-naked man he thinks at first is Mark; but as a hidden assailant smashes Josh over the head with the same sort of mallet used in the ättestupa ritual, we see that this isn’t Mark at all, but an unknown Hårgan wearing Mark’s skinned face as a mask. This is our second callback to early foreshadowing: just as Maja is steadily enacting the ritual shown on the tapestry to try and bewitch Christian, so has the dance called Skinning the Fool become literal, with hapless Mark the victim.

The next morning, the elders announce that their sacred text has been stolen, and point to the supposed overnight disappearance of Josh and Mark as proof that the pair are culprits. Dani is sceptical, but also increasingly distant from Christian, who eagerly tries to blame Josh for the crime while trying to ingratiate himself with the elders, the better to continue his research. Thus divided, when the Hårgans announce that Dani will go with the women for the day, she makes no protest, and it’s only when Christian is steered towards speaking to one of the female elders instead that he begins to sense that something is off. Even so, he continues down his assigned path, meeting with the elder in a building whose walls are covered with drawings, one of which in particular – that of bear on fire – catches his eye. While Christian sits uncomfortably, the elder informs him that he’s been approved to mate with Maja, as they are a perfect astrological match.

Meanwhile, Dani prepares to participate in the May Queen celebrations, where all the women take a psychedelic tea, then dance until they fall down, with the final woman standing to be crowned queen. Dani doesn’t understand these rules but participates regardless, and during the opening to the dance, she once more sees herself merging with nature, her feet growing roots in the grass. As the dance goes on, Dani temporarily appears able to speak and understand Swedish, conversing happily with her new friend. Pelle and Christian watch from nearby; Christian is offered a special tea by one of the girls, clearly on Maja’s behalf, and while he briefly tries to refuse, he irritably gives in and drinks it. When only eight girls are left, including Dani – a number of penultimate significance within the film, as the midsummer festivities are meant to last nine days – everyone seated cheers for those remaining; everyone except Christian, who ignores Dani’s participation completely. She sees this and is upset by it, but keeps on dancing and ends up being crowned May Queen.

As all the Hårgans cheer for Dani, she is swept up in a crowd of wellwishers while Christian stands on the outside, excluded and unhappy. Pelle, however, rushes forward and kisses Dani happily – she appears dazed but pleased by this – and in a brief moment of confusion, she thinks that one of the older women walking past her is her mother, only for the stranger to vanish back into the crowd. She is then given a massive crown of flowers, carried aloft on a wooden platform and taken to sit at the head of the table during lunch, a shot that mimics the position of honour held by the now-dead elders before their suicide. Christian appears sick and confused during the meal, while Dani sits resplendent on a throne of flowers. As the greenery pulses both in her vision and to the viewer, we see a single yellow flower irising open and shut in her headdress, as though indicating the presence of a third eye. She is then told that, as the May Queen, it is her job to bless the crops and livestock for the year to come. This involves being separated from Christian again, and while she asks if he can come with her, when she’s told no, she doesn’t protest.

As Dani goes to fulfil her duties as May Queen, an increasingly uneasy Christian is led along a path of petals to a barn, where a naked Maja – surrounded by a group of equally naked, singing women – is waiting for him on a bed of flowers. Though alarmed by this pageantry, Christian lies down to have sex with her, and continues to do so despite becoming more and more unnerved by the way the singing women mimic both Maja’s moans and his own laboured breathing. This is another example of the community’s shared expression of feeling: Maja feels pleasure, so they express pleasure, too. It’s also yet another callback to early foreshadowing, as it becomes clear that Christian is being used as breeding stock – an inverted, perverse fulfilment of the joke Mark made in America about impregnating Swedish milkmaids.

Returning from her May Queen duties, Dani hears the singing and moaning coming from the barn and, despite being cautioned not to stay away, goes to investigate. Peeping through the keyhole, she sees everything and spirals into a panic attack, much like the ones she’s experienced multiple times throughout the film. But whereas she’s previously been left to grieve alone on every occasion, this time her May Queen attendants come with her, mirroring her screams and cries while offering physical comfort. This creates a scene of simultaneous wildness and catharsis, the women offering a sympathetic expression of pain that echoes what happened during the suicide ritual: the Hårgans may have helped facilitate Christian’s betrayal of Dani, but they also offer her comfort in the aftermath.

Unaware of having been spied on, Christian finishes with Maja and reels back as she holds her knees to her chest, trying to aid conception. Naked and frightened, he runs from the barn, looking for someplace to go, but is put off by the screaming coming from Dani and her attendants in one direction and scared by the presence of Hårgans in the other. It’s then that he sees Josh’s severed leg sticking up from a garden patch, a rune carved on his foot. In panic, he runs into a chicken coop and finds Simon’s body displayed in a blood eagle for the hens to use as a perch, his eyes replaced with the same type of flower we just saw pulsing in Dani’s crown. Before he can run again, an elder appears and blows dust in Christian’s face, paralyzing him; he then closes Christian’s eyes with his thumb, which is shown as though he were smearing darkness over the camera, so that the audience is now encompassed by Christian’s point of view.

His eyes are opened again in the same fashion moments later, with a woman reaching in to thumb the camera clear. She tells Christian that he can’t move or speak, and as he – and the audience – watch, the final part of the ritual is described aloud to a crowd of onlookers by an elder. Along with four newcomers – Simon, Connie, Mark and Josh – who have been killed, four Hårgans will also die to ensure the prosperity of the community for the next 90 years: two of these latter are already dead, their bodies made into puppets with branches for arms, while one of the living two is Ingemar, who is acknowledged for bringing in two of the outsiders. Pelle, however, is praised for his insight in bringing not only a source of new blood – meaning Maja’s future child by Christian – but the May Queen, Dani, who is now considered a member of their community. All that remains is for the May Queen to choose whether the ninth and final victim will be Christian himself, or a Hårgan selected by lottery.

When Christian – and the viewer – now look at Dani, she is trapped in what is effectively a giant, triangular box-dress covered in flowers, so that only her face is visible beneath her crown. We do not see her make her choice, but we do see her gaze linger on Christian, and as Ingemar and the other live Hårgan sacrifice are taken into a ritual building – along with what remains of the bodies of the four dead outsiders and their two, pre-dead kinsfolk – the camera cuts to the body of the bear we earlier saw in a cage, now dead on a table, as an elder instructs a group of young boys on how to remove its intestines. Christian, still paralyzed, is then sewn into the body of the bear, his face peeking out while the rest of his limbs are hidden, concealing him in the skin just as Dani is concealed by flowers. He is then placed into the ritual room, and as the two other living sacrifices are given yew to stop their pain, an elder proclaims that the bear represents the greatest evil affekt, and that destroying it will cleanse the community.

As Dani and the other Hårgans watch, the building is then set alight. When one of the sacrificial Hårgans begins to scream in pain, the community – as at the suicide ritual (winter), the sex rite (spring) and during Dani’s grief (autumn) – all scream with him, including Dani herself. Unable to really run or move within the confines of her costume, we think at first that Dani is screaming in genuine fear and terror as she watches Christian and the others burn to death, but in the final shot of the film, we see her smiling. She has joined the Hårgans and been a willing participant in this final ritual, and with Christian’s death – the death of her grief, which the bear represented; foreshadowed by the affekt rune for grief, which the elder showed Josh – she is finally free.

And so the movie completes its seasonal, fulfilling what was promised by the kulning in the opening scenes: the herding call was to call Dani home, and in the end, she accepts. The painting hung over her bed in her apartment, showing a blonde girl extending a fiery lantern to a looming bear, not only presaged what was to come between her and Christian, but acknowledged the early imbalance in their roles: the girl was dwarfed by the beast. Yet at the end, Dani takes on the May Queen role and thus becomes representative of the greatest force for good in the Hårgan community, just as Christian is made representative of its greatest evil.

Why does Dani join the Hårgans? Because she’s grieving and vulnerable, mistreated by her partner, isolated from her friends and alone in the world after the recent death of her family – the perfect target, in other words, for recruitment to a cult, which the Hårgans undeniably are. The group may not have gone to Stockholm, as per Mark and Pelle’s early conversation, but Dani’s arc is ultimately one of Stockholm syndrome, a development aided, somewhat ironically, by the fact that Christian systematically ignores her early unease with what’s happening, causing her to accept the comfort of the very people she’s originally afraid of. This is paralleled in his early dismissal of her fears about her sister, who emails Dani about her intent to kill herself and their parents: though Dani is worried to tears, Christian insists that it’s just a ploy for attention and says Dani should ignore it, a misjudgement for which we never see him apologise.

And then there’s Pelle, who has clearly wanted Dani from the beginning. Though this intentions are never stated outright, it’s easy to speculate that he brought the pair along specifically so that Christian would die and Dani would then be available. This motive is paralleled by Ingemar’s unrequited feelings for Connie, who he brought along with Simon: whereas Ingemar, who ends up volunteering as a sacrifice in the wake of his failure, misjudged his targets and their feelings, causing both of them to reject the Hårgan setup and be killed instead, Pelle knew that Christian was disinterested and selfish, and that this made Dani vulnerable to an ideology which, despite its violence, would offer her the comfort and sense of belonging she craved.

And this is why it’s impossible to discuss Midsommar without running through the events of the film as a whole: though we don’t know it at the outset, the entire narrative is geared towards showing us how Dani comes to accept – and be accepted into – a cult. Over and over again, later occurrences are foreshadowed early on, and in keeping with the seasonal motif, they are often repeated in fours. The bear painting in Dani’s apartment, the live bear in the cage and the picture of the burning bear all herald the fourth and final reiteration where Christian burns in the bear-skin, just as the pictures of floral women in Dani’s apartment, the times she hallucinates the landscape of Hårga growing into her skin and Pelle’s drawing of her in a May Queen crown all presage her final capitulation.

Symbolically, Christian is tied to monstrousness while Dani is tied to growth, but while Dani ends the film accepting this imagery, the audience is aware that the two concepts are intertwined, doevetailing like the crux of the Odel rune: Christian is killed to facilitate the growth of the land, making his murderers monstrous, while Dani’s growth is dark and twisted, her final happiness growing out of blood. Likewise, Mark’s early worry about the group being on different trips becomes a different sort of prophecy: while Dani drinks one hallucinogenic tea prior to participating in the May Queen dance, Christian is separated and given a different drink at a later time, marking the point of irrevocable schism between them.

The whole film is superbly acted, scripted and shot, and will doubtless stand up to many successive viewings. I highly recommend Midsommar as both a horror film and as a superlative example of visual storytelling, and look forward to seeing what Aster does next.

As social media platforms enter their collective adolescence – Facebook is fifteen, YouTube fourteen, Twitter thirteen, tumblr twelve – I find myself thinking about how little we really understand their cultural implications, both ongoing and for the future. At this point, the idea that being online is completely optional in modern world ought to be absurd, and yet multiple friends, having spoken to their therapists about the impact of digital abuse on their mental health, were told straight up to just stop using the internet. Even if this was a viable option for some, the idea that we can neatly sidestep the problem of bad behaviour in any non-utilitarian sphere by telling those impacted to simply quit is baffling at best and a tacit form of victim-blaming at worst. The internet might be a liminal space, but object permanence still applies to what happens here: the trolls don’t vanish if we close our eyes, and if we vanquish one digital hydra-domain for Toxicity Crimes without caring to fathom the whys and hows of what went wrong, we merely ensure that three more will spring up in its place.

Is the internet a private space, a government space or a public space? Yes.

Is it corporate, communal or unaffiliated? Yes.

Is it truly global or bound by local legal jurisdictions? Yes.

Does the internet reflect our culture or create it? Yes.

Is what people say on the internet reflective of their true beliefs, or is it a constant shell-game of digital personas, marketing ploys, intrusive thoughts, growth-in-progress, personal speculation and fictional exploration? Yes.

The problem with the internet is that takes up all three areas on a Venn diagram depicting the overlap between speech and action, and while this has always been the case, we’re only now admitting that it’s a bug as well as a feature. Human interaction cannot be usefully monitored using an algorithm, but our current conception of What The Internet Is has been engineered specifically to shortcut existing forms of human oversight, the better to maximise both accessibility (good to neutral) and profits (neutral to bad). Uber and Lyft are cheaper, frequently more convenient alternatives to a traditional taxi service, for instance, but that’s because the apps themselves are functionally predicated on the removal of meaningful customer service and worker protections that were hard-won elsewhere. Sites like tumblr are free to use, but the lack of revenue generated by those users means that, past a certain point, profits can only hope to outstrip expenses by selling access to those users and/or their account data, which means in turn that paying to effectively monitor their content creation becomes vastly less important than monetising it.

Small wonder, then, that individual users of social media platforms have learned to place a high premium on their ability to curate what they see, how they see it, and who sees them in turn. When I first started blogging, the largely unwritten rule of the blogsphere was that, while particular webforums dedicated to specific topics could have rules about content and conduct, blogs and their comment pages should be kept Free. Monitoring comments was viewed as a sign of narrow-minded fearfulness: even if a participant was aggressive or abusive, the enlightened path was to let them speak, because anything else was Censorship. This position held out for a good long while, until the collective frustration of everyone who’d been graphically threatened with rape, torture and death, bombarded with slurs, exhausted by sealioning or simply fed up with nitpicking and bad faith arguments finally boiled over.

Particularly in progressive circles, the relief people felt at being told that actually, we were under no moral obligation to let assholes grandstand in the comments or repeatedly explain basic concepts to only theoretically invested strangers was overwhelming. Instead, you could simply delete them, or block them, or maybe even mock them, if the offence or initial point of ignorance seemed silly enough. But as with the previous system, this one-size-fits-all approach soon developed a downside. Thanks to the burnout so many of us felt after literal years of trying to treat patiently with trolls playing Devil’s Advocate, liberal internet culture shifted sharply towards immediate shows of anger, derision and flippancy to anyone who asked a 101 question, or who didn’t use the right language, or who did anything other than immediately agree with whatever position was explained to them, however simply.

I don’t exempt myself from this criticism, but knowing why I was so goddamn tired doesn’t change my conviction that, cumulatively, the end result did more harm than good. Without wanting to sidetrack into a lengthy dissertation on digital activism in the post-aughties decade, it seems evident in hindsight that the then-fledgling alliance between trolls, MRAs, PUAs, Redditors and 4channers to deliberately exhaust left-wing goodwill via sealioning and bad faith arguments was only the first part of a two-pronged attack. The second part, when the left had lost all patience with explaining its own beliefs and was snappily telling anyone who asked about feminism, racism or anything else to just fucking Google it, was to swoop in and persuade the rebuffed party that we were all irrational, screeching harridans who didn’t want to answer because we knew our answers were bad, and why not consider reading Roosh V instead?

The fallout of this period, I would argue, is still ongoing. In an ideal world, drawing a link between online culture wars about ownership of SFF and geekdom and the rise of far-right fascist, xenophobic extremism should be a bow so long that not even Odysseus himself could draw it. But this world, as we’ve all had frequent cause to notice, is far from ideal at the best of times – which these are not – and yet another featurebug of the internet is the fluid interpermeability of its various spaces. We talk, for instance – as I am talking here – about social media as a discreet concept, as though platforms like Twitter or Facebook are functionally separate from the other sites to which their users link; as though there is no relationship between or bleed-through from the viral Facebook post screencapped and shared on BuzzFeed, which is then linked and commented upon on Reddit, which thread is then linked to on Twitter, where an entirely new conversation emerges and subsequently spawns an article in The Huffington Post, which is shared again on Facebook and the replies to that shared on tumblr, and so on like some grizzly perpetual mention machine.

But I digress. The point here is that internet culture is best understood as a pattern of ripples, each new iteration a reaction to the previous one, spreading out until it dissipates and a new shape takes its place. Having learned that slamming the virtual door in everyone’s face was a bad idea, the online left tried establishing a better, calmer means of communication; the flipside was a sudden increase in tone-policing, conversations in which presentation was vaunted over substance and where, once again, particular groups were singled out as needing to conform to the comfort-levels of others. Overlapping with this was the move towards discussing things as being problematic, rather than using more fixed and strident language to decry particular faults – an attempt to acknowledge the inherent fallibility of human works while still allowing for criticism. A sensible goal, surely, but once again, attempting to apply the dictum universally proved a double-edged sword: if everything is problematic, then how to distinguish grave offences from trifling ones? How can anyone enjoy anything if we’re always expected to thumb the rosary of its failings first?

When everything is problematic and everyone has the right to say so, being online as any sort of creator or celebrity is like being nibbled to death by ducks. The well-meaning promise of various organisations, public figures or storytellers to take criticism on board – to listen to the fanbase and do right by their desires – was always going to stumble over the problem of differing tastes. No group is a hivemind: what one person considers bad representation or in poor taste, another might find enlightening, while yet a third party is more concerned with something else entirely. Even in cases with a clear majority opinion, it’s physically impossible to please everyone and a type of folly to try, but that has yet to stop the collective internet from demanding it be so. Out of this comes a new type of ironic frustration: having once rejoiced in being allowed to simply block trolls or timewasters, we now cast judgement on those who block us in turn, viewing them, as we once were viewed, as being fearful of criticism.

Are we creating echo chambers by curating what we see online, or are we acting in pragmatic acknowledgement of the fact that we neither have time to read everything nor an obligation to see all perspectives as equally valid? Yes.

Even if we did have the time and ability to wade through everything, is the signal-to-noise ratio of truth to lies on the internet beyond our individual ability to successfully measure, such that outsourcing some of our judgement to trusted sources is fundamentally necessary, or should we be expected to think critically about everything we encounter, even if it’s only intended as entertainment? Yes.

If something or someone online acts in a way that’s antithetical to our values, are we allowed to tune them out thereafter, knowing full well that there’s a nearly infinite supply of as-yet undisappointing content and content-creators waiting to take their place, or are we obliged to acknowledge that Doing A Bad doesn’t necessarily ruin a person forever? Yes.

And thus we come to cancel culture, the current – but by no means final – culmination of previous internet discourse waves. In this iteration, burnout at critical engagement dovetails with a new emphasis on collective content curation courtesies (try saying that six times fast), but ends up hamstrung once again by differences in taste. Or, to put it another way: someone fucks up and it’s the last straw for us personally, so we try to remove them from our timelines altogether – but unless our friends and mutuals, who we still want to engage with, are convinced to do likewise, then we haven’t really removed them at all, such that we’re now potentially willing to make failure to cancel on demand itself a cancellable offence.

Which brings us right back around to the problem of how the modern internet is fundamentally structured – which is to say, the way in which it’s overwhelmingly meant to rely on individual curation instead of collective moderation. Because the one thing each successive mode of social media discourse has in common with its predecessors is a central, and currently unanswerable question: what universal code of conduct exists that I, an individual on the internet, can adhere to – and expect others to adhere to – while we communicate across multiple different platforms?

In the real world, we understand about social behavioural norms: even if we don’t talk about them in those terms, we broadly recognise them when we see them. Of course, we also understand that those norms can vary from place to place and context to context, but as we can only ever be in one physical place at a time, it’s comparatively easy to adjust as appropriate.

But the internet, as stated, is a liminal space: it’s real and virtual, myriad and singular, private and public all at once. It confuses our sense of which rules might apply under which circumstances, jumbles the normal behavioural cues by obscuring the identity of our interlocutors, and even though we don’t acknowledge it nearly as often as we should, written communication – like spoken communication – is a skill that not everyone has, just as tone, whether spoken or written, isn’t always received (or executed, for that matter) in the way it was intended. And when it comes to politics, in which the internet and its doings now plays no small role, there’s the continual frustration that comes from observing, with more and more frequency, how many literal, real-world crimes and abuses go without punishment, and how that lack of consequences contributes in turn to the fostering of abuse and hostility towards vulnerable groups online.

This is what comes of occupying a transitional period in history: one in which laws are changed and proposed to reflect our changing awareness of the world, but where habit, custom, ignorance, bias and malice still routinely combine, both institutionally and more generally, to see those laws enacted only in part, or tokenistically, or not at all. To take one of the most egregious and well-publicised instances that ultimately presaged the #MeToo movement, the laughably meagre sentence handed down to Brock Turner, who was caught in the act of raping an unconscious woman, combined with the emphasis placed by both the judge and much of the media coverage on his swimming talents and family standing as a means of exonerating him, made it very clear that sexual violence against women is frequently held to be less important than the perceived ‘bright futures’ of its perpetrators.

Knowing this, then – knowing that the story was spread, discussed and argued about on social media, along with thousands of other, similar accounts; knowing that, even in this context, some people still freely spoke up in defence of rapists and issued misogynistic threats against their female interlocutors – is it any wonder that, in the absence of consistent legal justice in such cases, the internet tried, and is still trying, to fill the gap? Is it any wonder, when instances of racist police brutality are constantly filmed and posted online, only for the perpetrators to receive no discipline, that we lose patience for anyone who wants to debate the semantics of when, exactly, extrajudicial murder is “acceptable”?

We cannot control the brutality of the world from the safety of our keyboards, but when it exhausts or threatens us, we can at least click a button to mute its seeming adherents. We don’t always have the energy to decry the same person we’ve already argued against a thousand times before, but when a friend unthinkingly puts them back on our timeline for some new reason, we can tell them that person is cancelled and hope they take the hint not to do it again. Never mind that there is far too often no subtlety, no sense of scale or proportion to how the collective, viral internet reacts in each instance, until all outrage is rendered flat and the outside observer could be forgiven for worrying what’s gone wrong with us all, that using a homophobic trope in a TV show is thought to merit the same online response as an actual hate crime. So long as the war is waged with words alone, there’s only a finite number of outcomes that boycotting, blocking, blacklisting, cancelling, complaining and critiquing can achieve, and while some of those outcomes in particular are well worth fighting for, so many words are poured towards so many attempts that it’s easy to feel numbed to the process; or, conversely, easy to think that one response fits all contexts.

I’m tired of cancel culture, just as I was dully tired of everything that preceded it and will doubtless grow tired of everything that comes after it in turn, until our fundamental sense of what the internet is and how it should be managed finally changes. Like it or not, the internet both is and is of the world, and that is too much for any one person to sensibly try and curate at an individual level. Where nothing is moderated for us, everything must be moderated by us; and wherever people form communities, those communities will grow cultures, which will develop rules and customs that spill over into neighbouring communities, both digitally and offline, with mixed and ever-changing results. Cancel culture is particularly tricky in this regard, as the ease with which we block someone online can seldom be replicated offline, which makes it all the more intoxicating a power to wield when possible: we can’t do anything about the awful coworker who rants at us in the breakroom, but by God, we can block every person who reminds us of them on Twitter.

The thing about participating in internet discourse is, it’s like playing Civilisation in real-time, only it’s not a game and the world keeps progressing even when you log off. Things change so fast on the internet – memes, etiquette, slang, dominant opinions – and yet the changes spread so organically and so fast that we frequently adapt without keeping conscious track of when and why they shifted. Social media is like the Hotel California: we can check out any time we like, but we can never meaningfully leave – not when world leaders are still threatening nuclear war on Twitter, or when Facebook is using friendly memes to test facial recognition software, or when corporate accounts are creating multi-staffed humansonas to engage with artists on tumblr, or when YouTube algorithms are accidentally-on-purpose steering kids towards white nationalist propaganda because it makes them more money.

Of course we try and curate our time online into something finite, comprehensible, familiar, safe: the alternative is to embrace the near-infinite, incomprehensible, alien, dangerous gallimaufry of our fractured global mindscape. Of course we want to try and be critical, rational, moral in our convictions and choices; it’s just that we’re also tired and scared and everyone who wants to argue with us about anything can, even if they’re wrong and angry and also our relative, or else a complete stranger, and sometimes you just want to turn off your brain and enjoy a thing without thinking about it, or give yourself some respite, or exercise a tiny bit of autonomy in the only way you can.

It’s human nature to want to be the most amount of right for the least amount of effort, but unthinkingly taking our moral cues from internet culture the same way we’re accustomed to doing in offline contexts doesn’t work: digital culture shifts too fast and too asymmetrically to be relied on moment to moment as anything like a universal touchstone. Either you end up preaching to the choir, or you run a high risk of aggravation, not necessarily due to any fundamental ideological divide, but because your interlocutor is leaning on a different, false-universal jargon overlying alternate 101 and 201 concepts to the ones you’re using, and modern social media platforms – in what is perhaps the greatest irony of all – are uniquely poorly suited to coherent debate.

Purity wars in fandom, arguments about diversity in narrative and whether its proponents have crossed the line from criticism into bullying: these types of arguments are cyclical now, dying out and rekindling with each new wave of discourse. We might not yet be in a position to stop it, but I have some hope that being aware of it can mitigate the worst of the damage, if only because I’m loathe to watch yet another fandom steadily talk itself into hating its own core media for the sake of literal argument.

For all its flaws – and with all its potential – the internet is here to stay. Here’s hoping we figure out how to fix it before its ugliest aspects make us give up on ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

Trigger warning: referenced child abuse

In the land of Uztar, falconry is everything. From the ruling kyrgs in their castles to the commoners who trap and train birds for a living, Uztari culture is centred on birds of prey. Yet one bird is feared and revered above all others: the legendary ghost eagle, a massive raptor whose strange, psychic cry exposes the worst selves of all who hunt it. Many falconers have died in pursuit of the ghost eagle and the glory it represents – including Yzzat, an abusive drunkard whose cruelty has forever scarred his children. Now free from their father, twins Kylee and Brysen are finally close to escaping out from under the debts he left behind – until Brysen’s boyfriend, Dymian, lands in trouble with the Tamir family. To save him, Brysen makes an impulsive promise: a ghost eagle in exchange for Dymian’s life. As the threat of war between the Uztari and the feared Kartami, extremists who revile all falconry, begins to shape wider events, Brysen and Kylee must negotiate their own troubled relationship in order to save their future. But what chance do two teenagers have against the ghost eagle?

Every so often, I find myself drifting away from YA as a genre, until a book comes along that drags me back in and reminds me what I love about it. Black Wings Beating is such a book: beautifully worldbuilt, exceptionally characterised and deftly written, it packs a lot of feeling into a compact, pacey package. It also hits that (for me) perfect sweet-spot of magic fantasy adventure meets queer romantic feelings: though queerness is normative and accepted within the setting, Brysen is still allowed to struggle with romance and identity along a different axis, neatly paralleling Kylee’s quest to accept and understand her gift for the Hollow Tongue, an ancient magical language that bestows control over birds.

Told with alternating third-person focus on Kylee and Brysen and interspersed with glimpses of wider political happenings, Black Wings Beating is, at its heart, a novel about abuse, autonomy and survival. Since childhood, Kylee and Brysen were pitted against each other by their father, Yzzat, who yearned to exploit his daughter’s gifts while reviling his son’s comparative lack of talent. Though furious with and frustrated by Kylee’s disinterest in falconry and her refusal to use her magic to his advantage, Yzzat still dreamed of winning her to his cause and, through her, obtaining prestige. As such, his physical abuse was reserved for Brysen alone: whippings, beatings and worse that left Brysen desperate to prove himself useful. And so the dichotomy between the twins was set: Kylee, reluctant to use her talents and thereby see her brother further diminished, forced to carry the weight of the world along with the care and management of her family; Brysen, rushing headlong into any opportunity to shine without realistic planning, dreaming big to cover how small he feels and the knowledge that, if he stops to think, he’ll remember to hate himself.

It’s an achingly real dynamic, and one that sees the reader rooting for both siblings despite – or perhaps because of – how often their feelings and shared-yet-different experiences put them at odds. London has a nuanced grasp of psychology and characterisation that makes even his minor characters feel fleshed out, and when combined with his vivid portrayal of falconry and its place in Uztari culture, the effect is powerful. Reading Black Wings Beating, in fact, I was finally able to articulate something I’ve been struggling to pin down in terms of YA novels generally: the distinction between a story in which potentially difficult teenage behaviours are excused, and one in which they are explained.

In the former instance, neither the text itself nor the events it depicts make any real judgement or commentary about the characters’ actions: whether they’re being kind or cruel, sensible or impulsive, hesitant or brash, and if this ultimately has a positive or negative effect on those around them. Rather, we’re shown how their motives are justified to them, such that it’s easy to conflate the character’s feelings with the author’s approval of their actions – sometimes correctly, sometimes not, but in either case due to the lack of textual evidence for a different interpretation. In the latter instance, either the text or the events it depicts, or both, are used to make us think critically about the characters, such that, even when we understand their self-justifications, we’re encouraged by the text – and, by extension, the author – to form our own conclusions.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the former type of story is bad, or that this dichotomy between stories that lack or feature authorial commentary exists only in YA. However, in the specific context of the teenage characters in YA SFF, who are often called upon to act in extraordinary ways or participate in world-altering events, and whose youthful impulsiveness is often used to propel them through their adventures, reading Black Wings Beating has confirmed my preference for the latter type of story. Over and over again, both Brysen and Kylee make terrible choices while only sometimes being aware of it. But while London shows us their rationalisations, he doesn’t present them as being objectively rational. Both Kylee and Brysen are trying their best, but their abusive childhood has twisted their relationship, their judgement and their self-perception in different ways, such that, even when they know they’ve made a bad decision, they don’t always know what the right one would’ve been, or even if there was a better choice to be made at all.

Set over the course of a few days, Black Wings Beating uses Kylee and Brysen as an intimate lens through which to view the incipient struggles of Uztar as a whole. Though we only catch glimpses of the power-hungry kyrgs and the coming Kartami threat, these parts of the story all fit neatly together, so that our focus on the twins looks like a convincing telescopic zoom-in on the localised details of a wider landscape. And throughout it all, the influence of falconry – of the eternally unrequited love of a falconer for their birds – is incorporated into the narrative. Just as Brysen’s existing relationship with Dymian, a falcon master, is contrasted with his newfound bond with Jowyn, a bone-white boy who lives with the mysterious Owl Mothers, so is Kylee’s friendship with Vyvian, a spy for the kyrgs, contrasted with her feelings for Nyall, a long-time friend who loves her despite her indifference to romance.

The love a falconer has for their bird will never be reciprocated, the story tells us, and yet that love – the willingness to care for a creature that may only hurt or disdain you – lies at the heart of falconry. It is this love which the Kartami despise as weak, but it is also central to the strength both Kylee and Brysen show: the courage it takes them to love at all – to love themselves, to love others, and to contemplate being loved – despite the abuse they’ve endured.

Though Black Wings Beating is clearly the first volume in a planned trilogy, it nonetheless ends on an emotionally satisfying note. I can’t wait to see what happens in the rest of the series, and I look forward to reading whatever else London writes in the future.