Friday, 28 July 2017

Doctor Who: World Enough and Time \ The Doctor Falls

So, as was partly discussed here and here, I'm not a fan of Moffat's first five seasons. I regard the Matt Smith era as a disaster, and while Capaldi is the finest Doctor ever cast, his first season was weak and his second patchy. Surprisingly, though, his final season was pretty good. The Pilot was the best season opener since RoseThin Ice, Knock Knock (despite some wonky plotting), Oxygen and The Eaters of Light were strong; and, remarkably, the final two-parter was the finest story not just of Moffat's Who but of Modern Who. How did that happen?

We start off with Moffat establishing an arc that is actually  promising for the first time in his era. The Vault is neither irritating as Clara's identity, Amy's bizarre pregnancy and the Doctor's shooting were nor boring as the cracks in time, the "Promised Land" and the Hybrid were. The idea of the Doctor as a university lecturer, sworn never to abandon the Vault but prepared to do so for the sake of  each week's excursion provided he arrives back at the immediate point in time after he left, doesn't restrict the format and yet puts an interesting spin on things, and Bill attending the Doctor's lectures reinvigorates the Doctor\companion dynamic.

Pearl Mackie is a major boon, too: certainly the best performance since Billie Piper in the 2005 season (a performance that Piper herself wasn't able to recapture in subsequent seasons), and possibly better. She has that same luminous quality: an ability to convey emotion and empathy so directly that both children and adult viewers can identify with her, and to really sell her character's natural empathy with or interrogation of those around her in whatever situation into which the Doctor plunges her.

There are three weak stories. With Smile, Frank Cottrell Boyce delivers another dud, in which the Doctor and Bill wander about while not very much happens, and what little does happen happens for not very coherent or consistent reasons, culminating in a literal reset switch climax as the Doctor saves the day by Turning It Off and On Again, IT Crowd-style (the script's making this into an actual joke doesn't make this any less insulting), and Ralf Little appears only to be given the most absurdly underwritten role for a guest star ever in Doctor Who. The monk three-parter is awful, beginning with Extremis, which is irritating in the way so many Moffat episodes are: confusing without being stimulating, indulging in pontification instead of actual storytelling, and relying on a reset-button ending. The Pyramid at the End of the World by Moffat and Peter Harness is slightly better: while the premise is still based on flawed logic, it does at least build to a decent cliffhanger. Then Toby Whithouse drops the ball spectacularly with The Lie of the Land, which is both a dreadful piece of storytelling in its own right and a conclusion that fails to make good on every single setup from its two predecessors. The trilogy also fails at selling us Missy's move towards redemption: the scene where she starts crying comes out of nowhere. Bill, too, is badly served by this story: the laughable scenes of her mother "going viral" at the end mean we lose connection with that part of her past (a shame given how wonderful the scene in which she finally discovers pictures of her in The Pilot is) and emotional makeup, and the decision not to feature her stepmother again is puzzling (as is the decision to make Bill too nervous to come out to her, a cliche which the season never justifies). As for The Empress of Mars...letting Gatiss do another Ice Warrior episode is not what the Licence Fee is for. Let Big Finish handle that sort of thing. I struggle to say more than that. One thing Doctor Who should never do is a story where you know exactly what you're in for. Gatiss's effort felt like a Doctor Who story for Ian Levine.

The World Enough and Time \ The Doctor Falls 2-parter, though, might be this generation's The Caves of Androzani. It's the most moving story in the whole of modern Who so far, and indeed its only rival in terms of emotional power in the entire history of the series is Androzani. Just as that story saw Robert Holmes taking ideas from two of his weaker stories - The Space Pirates and The Power of Kroll - and making them work, this story sees Moffat redo ideas (Oswin's fate in Asylum of the Daleks and that of Danny in Death in Heaven, Clara's exit in Hell Bent, the Doctor protecting a community in The Time of the Doctor) and this time managing to make them work brilliantly.

The Parting of The Ways, until now the the benchmark for finale episodes, was not really about Daleks, and the inhabitants of the Gamestation, other than Lynda, were its weakest aspect. This didn't matter, because it was a story about the Doctor, Rose, Jack, Mickey and Jackie, (the latter two appearing briefly but crucially) and how they react when put in this situation. The Daleks are merely a dramatic tool, a way of getting our heroes to face odds that impress the audience as insurmountable, as only the Daleks do. There are similar parameters here: as a study of the Cybermen, the story doesn't score highly. Both the nurse and the surgeon in the first episode are sketchily drawn and we don't really meet any other Mondasians, and so while we're told what drove them to convert we don't really feel it. Similarly, the inhabitants of the solar farm in the next episode could just as well be from present day Earth: there's no sense of what life onboard a giant spaceship struggling to escape Cybermen has made of them. So unlike most other outstanding Doctor Who stories (Androzani, Ghost Light, Kinda, Carnival Of Monsters, Talons of Weng Chiang, Ark in Space, The Ribos Operation), this story gives us neither a richly drawn world nor a richly drawn set of one-off characters.

But that doesn't matter because that isn't what it's trying to do. What it sets out to do is place the Doctor, Bill, Missy, the Master and Nardole in fertile soil for great drama, and on this level it succeeds magnificently. This is the first time since 2006's Army of Ghosts \ Doomsday that all the principals assembled, whether regular or recurring, are convincing characters played by well-cast actors. Matt Smith simply didn't have the dramatic weight that Capaldi invests his scenes with (he couldn't even shout convincingly). Clara never recovered from the disastrous Impossible Girl arc, nor from the jarring about turn in which her Mary Poppins-esque job - along with the two children in her care - was forgotten and she was suddenly an English teacher. Coleman's winsome performance is also clearly surpassed by Mackie's refreshing naturalism. Let's not even get started on Danny, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, Martha's underwritten family, Catherine Tate, Osgood, the dull Timelords of Hell Bent and the hideous experience of watching Chris Addison say "SQUEEEEE!" You might have enjoyed some of the above, of course, but they surely pale compared to Capaldi, Mackie, Gomez and Simm's powerhouse turns here.

Michelle Gomez is ideal casting for precisely the reasons Alex Kingston wasn't: she radiates charisma, an unnerving Tom Baker-esque use of disarming, energetic humour and an otherworldly quality. While Kingston is excellent in straight roles she doesn't have this energy (Consider how Gomez sells the "Doctor Who" scene at the start of the story in a way Kingston really couldn't have done), and tending when the stakes are raised in her scenes as River Song to stray towards melodrama, as in her unintentionally comical declaration of love for the Doctor at the climax of The Wedding of River Song. Missy also works as a character because Moffat is not blind to her moral failings, in contrast to his lack of awareness of the gun-toting River's, which harmed the integrity of the series.

Simm is perfect in his return as the Master. While the Master has rarely worked well, the basic mythology has always remained compelling. Two friends at the Time Lord Academy, who found each other's company so much more exciting than anyone else, become the Ying and Yang of the universe. It's an idea that comes across effectively in The Sea Devils - helped by Roger Delgado's charm - but which got lost when Anthony Ainley took over. In his two Russell T Davies stories, Simm's Master struggles to truly resonate, but here, like Ainley's surprisingly effective final appearance in Survival, he makes sense. The pairing of Gomez and Simm is smart because they resemble the two sides of the Master we've previously seen: Gomez is the Delgado side, who, as she said in Death in Heaven, wants her friend back, while Simm is the Ainley side who has left that behind him. Science Fiction or fantasy often works at its neatest when a relatable idea - here an awkward friendship - is given a conceptual twist: here two versions of one of the friends at different points in time with different attitudes towards the other friend are present. This results in the Doctor's final speech to them both, in which Capaldi delivers what might be the finest piece of acting in the series's history and Moffat manages to pull off one of the show's finest dramatic moments. The Master's ultimate fate - shooting him\herself in the back - is so perfect that one hopes we never see the Master again in subsequent showrunner's takes on the show, as he\she will never be done as well as this. It's long been said that Barry Letts and Robert Sloman planned a story in which the Master died saving the Doctor's life (and let's face it, they didn't have the writing chops to pull that off) but what happens here is vastly more moving: she decides to stand with the Doctor, but her centuries of malevolence catch up with her, and so the Doctor never knows.

Simm's performance as Mr Razor in the first episode of this story is also a triumph, coming at us from left-field. He makes him genuinely engaging and funny, which for viewers who see through the disguise (and Moffat cleverly writes these scenes with the expectation that many will) works as a new take on the bizarre way that warmth and malevolence exist side by side in the Master. He's someone that we accept Bill would feel comfortable watching Doctor Who with, as they sit watching the security camera footage of the ship's slower end. This makes his taunting of Bill in the next episode all the more devastating: the Master has never been more loathsome than at that moment.

The understated loyalty and gentle humour of Matt Lucas's Nardole has been effective all through this season. His instructions to honour River's wishes and kick the Doctor's arse if he steps out of line make him a companion different to any we've seen before while also providing a strong spine for this particular season's arc. Offscreen, River Song finally becomes a character that works. Nardole is also pleasingly unobtrusive, getting on with things in the background rather than dominating so much that the show falls prey, as it did with River and Clara, to CS Lewis's dictum that to tell us  how odd things struck odd people is an oddity too many. His final scene is as effective an exit as a companion has ever had in Doctor Who. He agrees to spend the rest of his life protecting a group of people, a good deed with no reward. As with the Doctor's final speech to the Masters, the emphasis is on helping others because they need it, not in order to be lauded as a hero. This is a much-needed shift after the tendency of UNIT and other characters to hero-worship the Doctor in modern Who, culminating in the absurdity of the Doctor as President of Earth ("Without hope. Without witness. Without reward" is a major ethical improvement). The scenes between Nardole and Hazran are delightful: she's not his ideal choice of partner, he's not even the same species, but in the face of the challenges before them they will need each other's company, and he will probably be too kind not to reciprocate her affection.

Mackie makes Bill's ordeal genuinely wrenching. Just as Gomez sells her scenes  more powerfully than Kingston, so does Mackie achieve something more affecting than Jenna Coleman would have managed. Her work is complemented by Rachel Talalay's superb direction, which brings us some of the most haunting images ever seen in the programme: the incredible opening shot giving us a sense of the immense scale of the colony ship, the bandaged patients, the scarecrows. Doctor Who has never been more visually rich. 

Particularly wonderful in terms of imagery is the use of tears. In The Pilot we have the marvellous exchange between Nardole and Bill after Bill's farewell to Heather - "That's the Doctor for you. Never notices the tears." "I don't think they're mine." - which turns a former menace (helped by superb special effects: we totally buy the idea that the Dalek was no match for that creature) into a vivid depiction of love. Here, after the Doctor has noticed Cyber-Bill's tears (which resemble the tear-marks from the Cyber-design from The Wheel in Space onwards), he's says "Well, I'll tell you what else isn't possible. A Cyberman crying. Where there's tears, there's hope." The latter line is a callback to the Pertwee Doctor's final line before regenerating: "A tear, Sarah-Jane? No, don't cry. While there's life, there's..." Ultimately, Heather comes to Bill's rescue because "I left you my tears, remember? I know when you're crying them." This is some of the most masterful use of imagery ever seen in the series, managing to link so much together - hope, the body horror of the Cybermen, the Doctor's farewell and the love between Bill and Heather. Fantasy stories are often at their best when they enclose characters in nightmares that seem inescapable and irredeemable; when all seems lost and the characters' limits are pushed to the edge; when it seems there can't possibly be a happy ending. As Terry Pratchett observed, the darker and scarier the hero's encounters in the forest, the more thrilling is the moment when the hero emerges from the forest. A key text here is Richard Matheson's magnificent The Shrinking Man - one of the most harrowing novels ever written, culminating in one of the most joyful endings in all of fiction. With the tear\Cybermen idea, Moffat achieves something similarly powerful: a way of taking Bill right to Hell, to a trauma from which she and the audience surely can't escape, only to provide salvation that doesn't feel like a cop-out.

This story is also about progression. The Doctor is someone who learned to become brave, who learned to put others before himself, who learned how to make a stand. The Master is someone who swears he never will, Missy is someone who just might. Overlapping this is the need for the show itself to embrace change of a kind of it has previously not embarked upon. Before Bill, the main companions  were heterosexual, and all of the Doctors have been male. Both of these points are present in the script. We begin with a lovely exchange between Bill and the Doctor:

Doctor: She was my man crush.
Bill: I'm sorry? 
Doctor: Yeah, I think she was a man back then. I'm fairly sure that I was, too. It was a long time ago, though.
Bill: So, the Time Lords, bit flexible on the whole man-woman thing, then, yeah? 
Doctor: We're the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We're billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.

It's not just an ingenious reworking of the show's mythology: It's also playful, fun, transgressive and character-building in its own right. We get an equally wonderful exchange between the Doctor and the Master: "Is the future going to be all girl?" the Master sneers. "We can only hope," the Doctor replies. 

Then there's the final exchange between Bill and the Doctor: 

Bill: But, hey er, you know how I'm usually all about women and kind of... people my own age? 
Doctor: Yeah? 
Bill: Glad you knew that. 

 This is a splendid, epoch-changing moment, especially considering Moffat's problematic attitude towards Amy and Clara. The Doctor understands the importance  of Bill's sexuality and so does the show: unlike her two predecessors, she is not in any way defined by the scriptwriter's male gaze.  Russell T Davies achieved something groundbreaking when he put Captain Jack on our screens: as Paul Cornell put it at the time, children in playgrounds were playing at being Jack because he was a cool action hero, and it made no difference to them that  he kissed boys as well as girls.  However, a gay main companion was the step still to be taken.  When Heather rescues Bill it is, fabulously, gay love that saves the day, and a gay kiss that literally means the difference between life and death. Then, as the Doctor starts regenerating, he must face change himself, finally declaring that he will never undergo this trauma again, and coming face to face with the First Doctor as he makes the same vow while being faced with the prospect of changing for the first time. And as we know now, the change the Doctor will undergo in the Christmas special will be the most significant change in the show's history.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

On the Dark Knight trilogy



Commentary on Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy generally falls into two camps: disparaging the movies because of their dodgy politics, or attempting to argue that the movies' politics are not dodgy. Andrew Ellard twice suggests that the films "allow for both left and right readings," but that's a weak argument. If there's room for a right-wing reading as well as a left-wing one, the latter is not going to amount to much more than paying lip service to things that allow liberal movie-goers to watch it with an untroubled conscience. It's not entirely clear what Slavoj Zizek was trying to say about The Dark Knight Rises in his piece for the New Statesman, but his suggestion that "we should approach the film in the way one has to interpret a Chinese political poem" brought to mind Pauline Kael's comments in her 1969 essay Trash, Art and the Movies:

One of the excruciating comedies of our time is attending the new classes in cinema at the high schools where the students may quite shrewdly and accurately interpret the plot developments in a mediocre movie in terms of manipulation for a desired response while the teacher tries to explain everything in terms of the creative artist working out his theme—as if the conditions under which a movie is made and the market for which it is designed were irrelevant, as if the latest product from Warners or Universal should be analyzed like a lyric poem.

Kael's view is the more convincing. We cannot find a sophisticated or coherent political stance in these movies not just because blockbusters are never auteured but because a Batman movie in particular is dependent on so many brash, expensive demands in place before the director and the screenwriters are even chosen: it's got to be centered around glorification of lone vigilante violence, it's got to have awesome tank-cars, planes or bikes in it, the vigilante most also be fabulously wealthy, the city most be overrun by crime, there must be lavish action sequences. With all these stipulations in place, it's inevitable not only that the film will have a right-wing tinge, but that any more liberal sentiments the director and screenwriters bring to the mix will clash with it.

It's more sensible to acknowledge that these are three terrific movies with dodgy politics. These films are right-wing because Batman is a fundamentally right-wing character. Even before Frank Miller - who admired Ayn Rand and Mickey Spillane just as those two admired each other - reinvented him, Batman was violence personified. Transferred to screen, the visceral thrill comes from watching a single dynamic person's will being unleashed, with a plot so dramatic and tense and the actor playing the character so compelling that we come to share that will. Batman roaring "SWEAR TO ME!" at a weaselly corrupt cop,  his smashing the Joker into a mirror, their awesome "you know how I got these scars?" \ "No - but I know how you got these" exchange  and Batman finally getting to give Bane a damn good kicking while using his own "you have my permission to die" line back on him (is there any cinematic device more viscerally satisfying than using a bad guy's line against him at the climax?) are primal cinema: memorable, quotable, exciting and allowing us to feel vicariously righteous. The same thing was true of Dirty Harry: aesthetically brilliant, morally repugnant. 

Then there's the visceral nature of the trilogy's imagery: the Tumbler, the Batpod and the Bat. These are something increasingly rare in modern film and television SF: memorable designs. It's a bugbear of mine, and examples of the decline in design I've mentioned elsewhere include how much more memorable Krypton looked in 1978 than in 2013, modern Doctor Who's reliance on monsters from the 1960s and 1970s, and how much less impressive the RoboCop suit in the reboot was compared to the original. Here, however, are three fearsome creations that lodge in the visual cortex. Who wouldn't want to drive, ride or fly one? They are brilliantly cinematic precisely because of the nasty little impulses they harness in all of us. Firstly, like Batman himself they are a gorgeous depiction of the human will to fight. Secondly, they are the ultimate depiction of wealth fantasy: what better toys could our inner child imagine playing with? The casting of Morgan Freeman is ingenious here. He's essentially playing Q, who himself works because he's a composite of two powerful archetypes: the God bestowing mighty powers on the epic hero, and Father Christmas. Just as in the Q scenes in Bond films the joy comes as much from the toys on display in the background of his lab as from the presents he gives Bond, the Dark Knight trilogy fetishizes the vast filled warehouses of which Fox is the sole custodian as much as the equipment Batman uses. If Q's workshop is Santa's grotto, than Fox's storeroom is Toys R Us. There's a striking line when Fox waives Bruce's attempts to explain why he wants access to this stuff: "As far as I'm concerned, this stuff's yours anyway." It's only his by accident of birth, and Fox doesn't know he's planning to fight crime at this point. For a moment we're reminded that Batman's powers are granted by birth rather than moral necessity, and the film trades on the thrill of privilege. 

To be fair to Nolan and his co-writers, Bruce Wayne's wealth is both a long-established aspect of the character (though I would love to see an interpretation of Batman without it) and a necessity because all those cool turbine planes and Batpods won't pay for themselves, but Batman Begins goes further and enforces a sense of status quo by portraying Bruce's parents as characters like the mythical "Kind Rich Man" that Orwell wrote of in his essay on Dickens. We're even told that one of Bruce's ancestors used to rescue slaves through the underground rail road. "The legacy of the Waynes is more than bricks and mortar, sir" says Alfred after the Manor has been burnt down. As China Mieville has argued, Bruce's deliberate destruction of his father's train in Batman Begins at a moment when the inhabitants of the Narrows are "lost" thanks to the Scarecrow's gas and and moments after they were savagely attacking him feels like a call for an end to charity and benevolent gestures across the class chasm. Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of the film is that immediately afterwards Bruce vows to spend money rebuilding Wayne Manor - where only he and Alfred live - brick by brick, yet no-one mentions rebuilding the train - which was intended to help Gotham's poor - for the rest of the trilogy. Was that really the best use of his time and money? At least the Manor is put to decent use as a children's home at the end of the trilogy, but for eight years it's put to no use at all, except as a symbol of Bruce's status and the Wayne family's legacy of having a big house. Yes, it's definitely time for a Marxist Batman, who burns down Wayne Manor as a matter of honour. Sadly, it'll be a long wait.

One of the most sinister things about the trilogy is that in Batman Begins, we're twice told Batman isn't a vigilante. Why not exactly? What makes him more than a vigilante, other than the fact that he himself knows he's good at this? This conveys the vague sense of Batman as a godlike figure, entitled to be the arbiter of justice. "What gives you the right - what makes you any different to me?" asks one of the wannabe Batmen in The Dark Knight, and the trilogy never really answers his question (the answer Batman gives - "I'm not wearing hockey pads" - brings it back to him having more money). The films also see dedicating oneself to actions regardless of condemnation as a kind of martyrdom. "Endure, Master Wayne. Take it .... They'll hate you for it. But that's the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice. You can be the outcast," says Alfred in The Dark Knight when Bruce wants to quit because his actions have caused deaths. The words are echoed at the end of the film, with Batman choosing to take the blame for Dent's murders because he is able to cope with the condemnation and elude anyone who tries to bring him to justice. "He can take it," says Gordon. The more criticised you are, the more heroic that makes you. This removes morality, as well as democracy, from the equation, and it's not surprising that right-wingers responded well to this aspect of the movie, with Andrew Klavan speaking for many right-wing commentators when he wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "There seems to me no question that the Batman film "The Dark Knight," currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war." One can imagine Tony Blair would appreciate The Dark Knight's message as well, and identify with Batman: it doesn't matter how many people condemn me, I will keep doing what I feel I must and nothing will persuade me otherwise; I will accept condemnation as my holy burden.

As a concept Batman also relies on seeing the people he protects as having little agency. If you've ever indulged in a superhero fantasy as a child, you've probably only imagined other people as awe-struck onlookers to your heroics. The superhero myth has little room for democracy. This remains true in Nolan's trilogy. In The Dark Knight, after people begin making their own costumes and attempting vigilante action themselves, Bruce remarks that "when I said I wanted to inspire people, this wasn't what I had in mind", but this raises the question, what did he have in mind? He said in Batman Begins that people needed examples to shake them out of lethargy, but how exactly did he expect people to follow his example, when all he's done is fight crime, but by fighting crime themselves? The films conflate fighting crime with political and economic revolution, evoking the latter two while shirking from considering the questions they raise. In The Dark Knight Rises Selina talks of people like Bruce enjoying great wealth while the rest of Gotham's citizens have so little, but Bruce shows no interest in the matter. Was it not worth spending the past eight years - in which fighting the mob has been unnecessary due to the Dent Act - doing something to rectify this situation? Aren't there villains other than those that use guns, even those that can wreck lives while staying inside the law? These are the questions the films avoid.

The actual citizens Batman protects have surprisingly little presence throughout the trilogy. All the significant characters are either part of Gotham's rich class, the criminal world or the law enforcement world. Otherwise, we get only brief appearances of frightened or grateful citizens, usually without names: the tramp Batman congratulates on his coat, the child Batman throws the telescope to, the two wannabe Batmen, the people on the two boats, the child Blake befriends. "You don't owe these people any more. You've given them everything," Selina tells Bruce, but we're never shown this, or told it from their point of view.

As Slavoj Zizek observed in The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, what's most disturbing about The Dark Knight is the emphasis it places on the need to deceive Gotham's citizens about Harvey's crimes, because they cannot be trusted to know the truth, and the lie that a great man has died will have the same effect as the death of Bruce's parents, which according to Ras Al Ghul in Batman Begins 'galvanised the city into saving itself" (given the amount of murder and deprivation Gotham's poor have suffered, the idea that they pulled themselves together because of the death of one disgustingly rich couple who live in a disgustingly big house is particularly insulting). This continues in The Dark Knight Rises, in which Dent's death has hilariously led to eight years of practically no crime (even the Adam West series wasn't that simplistic), by providing the incentive for the Harvey Dent Act which locks up mobsters without trial (the only objection the films raise to this is that it was done upon the basis of a lie). At the end of the trilogy, a new lie and a new fake martyr is put in place: the people of Gotham are told Batman sacrificed himself when towing the bomb away, when in fact he was able to survive due to an autopilot system. The people cannot be trusted to know the truth. This is no way to build a healthy society: it's a view of human beings, as China Mieville observed of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, as "sheep, who need strong shepherds."

 Indeed, real life frequently demonstrates that tragic deaths do not help to move society out of its slump. The most poisonous thing about Brexit was that it was unmuted by the violent murder of a female MP: right-wing journalists spent their time on Twitter recommending each other's pieces about why no-one should allow this death to interfere with their advocacy of Brexit, Farage openly complained that no-one would have made any fuss about his poster if it hadn't been for the murder and even made a pointed reference when he boasted that Brexit had been achieved "without a shot fired", and the mood among the right-wing on the day of victory was one of jubilation, with frightening levels of racist attacks and abuse.  Similarly, I remember being naive enough to hope that after the image of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi was published, attitudes towards refugees would change, but again Farage brazenly complained about how the picture had obstructed the issue, clickbait columnists in the business of referring to refugees as "cockroaches" to be mown down by gunboats simply moved on to claiming the photo was staged without losing their columns or their Twitter accounts and it took David Cameron just four months to go from claiming to be deeply moved by the photograph to sneering at the leader of the opposition for spending time in Calais with what he called "a bunch of migrants." In America, toddlers can be shot dead and the Gun Lobby doesn't flinch.

Selina, appealingly, embodies an Occupy Wall Street spirit (and Anne Hathaway is fabulous in the role: formidable, streetwise, sexy, vulnerable and funny), and the film never suggests her approach isn't preferable, but the revelation that Bane is merely exploiting desire for revolution and is actually planning to destroy the city still allows the film to "tame" her. The "clean slate" Bruce gives her implies that she will now keep to the straight and narrow, and that in turn suggests she won't threaten the status quo again. (This takes on a queasily homophobic dimension when we consider that Juno Temple as Selina's possible lover is forgotten about when Selina and Bruce elope: like Pussy Galore in Fleming's Goldfinger, Selina is kept on the straight and narrow in more ways than one.) The disappointment of The Dark Knight Rises is that even though it appropriates the imagery and feeling behind Occupy Wall Street, no real revolution takes place: it is sidestepped in favour of a nuclear bomb plot. Not only is Occupy Gotham given to the bad guys (which delighted Andrew Klavan), but they turn out not to be real revolutionaries after all but an opportunistic death cult, and the only hope at the end comes from Joseph Gordon-Levitt's John Blake as the next Batman. Once again it all comes down to one unelected man using violence and anonymity, attacking crime rather the causes, presumably continuing not to attack the various ways the rich in Gotham keep others poor which are not actually illegal and again not working to empower the citizens themselves.

Harvey Dent, despite being described as Gotham's "White Knight" as opposed to Batman's Dark one, and being seen by some commentators as representing Barack Obama to Batman's George W Bush and the Joker's Osama Bin Laden, is as dubious and problematically presented as Batman. The Dark Knight presents Dent, the District Attorney, as a politician, yet he still sees saving Gotham as coming down to one unelected heroic tough guy being allowed to use violence. He points out that "when their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn't considered an honor, it was considered a public service." In reply, he's warned that "the last man that they appointed to protect the Republic was named Caesar, and he never gave up his power." Harvey replies with the creaky signpost of a line "OK, fine. You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Not long afterwards, he's prepared to murder someone in cold blood (again, Batman's response is simply that the people can not be allowed to find out about this). The entire hopes of Gotham are waged upon the standard action movie gamble: whether one tough guy can put his ego to good use. The other problem with this is that there is so little detail about how Harvey is cleaning things up to counter the dubious politics of someone in favour of suspending democracy. Bruce assures us that Harvey has made it possible to retire the Batman, and the campaign slogan "I believe in Harvey Dent" runs throughout the film, but what does it really mean? It encourages us to think about personalities (not that Harvey really has one), but not about actions or policies, nor about how a dystopia might become a utopia, or how corruption might actually be fought. Like the lives of Gotham's citizens, this is kept absent from the films so that we can focus on the heroic ego, which is an invention of pulp fiction.

Dent also admits that he will take over this mantle of protector of the Republic from Batman "if I'm up to it", defending Batman by pointing out that he doesn't intend to do this permanently and later on insisting that Batman will ultimately answer for his crimes. This is one of the trilogy's main elisions in the moral questions raised by Batman's actions. For one thing, Batman never does answer for his crimes. For another, Batman passing the baton on to another does not dissolve his culpability, and however many Batmen there are, their actions remain as dubious as if they were performed by one person. Passing on the mantle is part of the same pretence that Batman is something other than a vigilante: denying human agency in order to try and pass his actions off as something greater and beyond reproach. 

But did these films need Dent anyway? Katie Holmes is excellent in Batman Begins, yet her performance met with a great deal of condescension, which seems to be based on the fact that she was in Dawson's Creek and that she was at the time married to Tom Cruise. The second film suffers from her absence: the normally reliable Maggie Gyllenhaal is given too little to do, stuck with the unenviable task of playing a role written as a continuation rather than a different version. Dramatic as her death is, it would have been even more powerful had it featured the same actress we had got to know from the previous film, and its effect on Bruce would have packed more emotional punch. As well as  the loss of Holmes, the film suffers from the insistence on bringing in Harvey Dent, even though Rachel was a strong enough character to have fulfilled his role. There's a touch of sexism in the way that once Harvey appears on the scene, Gotham's gangsters are running scared of him, Batman declares himself obsolete and the Joker (who thinks of Rachel only as Harvey's girlfriend) targets Harvey because, as Batman puts it, he is "the best of us", even though in the previous film Rachel already had criminals running scared seven years before Harvey arrived on the scene (and when Bruce was clueless). Why doesn't she get any of the credit? Surely she's the best of them? It's not dissimilar from the one niggle raised by the excellent Mad Max: Fury Road - why couldn't Charlie Theron have been the lead? - and it's part of the same reason why it was heartening to see an all-female remake of Ghostbusters: mainstream action cinema demonstrates a timidity about handing over key roles to women. While our investment in Rachel from Batman Begins would have helped to sell the idea that she could save Gotham in the second film, and made her transformation into Two-Face more affecting, Aaron Eckhart as Dent has the thankless task of being introduced, set up as Gotham's "White Knight", and then converted to Two-Face within a single film. Eckhart is the only actor in the trilogy  who isn't cast slightly against type, and while his performance is inoffensive, it's a role that required more memorable casting in order to make the character more than blandly heroic. 

Despite these flaws, the trilogy works because the three scripts are consistently good at conjuring up dramatic scenarios. The "two boats, two detonaters" idea works because it builds to a simple but affecting moral: maybe we aren't all wicked deep down, and maybe wickedness is a choice. It's similar to the moral of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, but works just as well here, especially as this version doesn't use a gratuitous sexual assault to make its point. A particular favourite setpiece of mine is Bruce escaping from the prison in the third film. I find it very moving, I think because it works on such a primal level of storytelling. The idea that only the fear of death can keep us fighting, that only by accepting death can we conquer it, and that only by facing up to absolute despair can we find hope is so neatly expressed by the rope story that it works as an Aesop-style fable, and there's a real thrill in finding ways of bringing out the heroism in the protagonist other than the action sequence (although even this has a right-wing implication, as is argued here). This is the kick that the less reputable kind of genre fiction - action, superhero fantasy - provides that other fiction doesn't: it puts us in touch with pure narrative. As James Ellroy said of the climax to the film adaptation of his novel La Confidential, It may be bullshit but it's inspired bullshit.

It's because none of these scenarios (the death of Bruce's parents and Falcone's role in it, Bruce's training, Batman helping the cops and Rachel gain leverage over Falcone, Crane's toxin and the antidote, Ras Al Ghul's plan, the Joker's demands that Batman take off his mask, Dent taking Batman's place, the Rachel\Harvey bombs, the Joker's hospital ultimatum, the two boats scenario, the abduction of Dr Pavel, Selina's use of the senator as an escape plan, Bane's robbery, Batman's return, his fight with Bane, Bane's revelation of the Dent deception, Bruce's escape from the prison, Bane's scheme with the bomb, the finale) are dull or overlong, and because they are frequently surprising, always inventive, always end memorably and are all skillfuly connected that we can accept the trilogy's use of comic-book logic. For example, in Batman Begins, the League of Shadows trains Bruce without once asking him if he is okay with their policy of capital punishment and their plot to destroy Gotham, and Bruce trains under them without once asking them what their actual plans are or whether they actually kill the criminals they fight (and they drop a pretty ominous hint about the latter at one point). It's not until the training is completed that Bruce realises he's been trained by a terrorist organisation, and they realise he doesn't share their terrorist beliefs. It was nearly ten years before the absurdity of this hit me: all that time together and no-one discussed politics? Crucially, it doesn't hit you while you're watching the movie. The story has been so engrossingly constructed (the intrigue of where Bruce is now, the surprising entrance of Ducard, the intrigue of the League of Shadows and how they know about Bruce, the strong screen presence of Christian Bale and Liam Neeson, the flashback rich in character detail and motivation, the increasing excitement of the training, the surprise when the League show their true colours, the excitement of Bruce asserting his moral values, the thrill of the resultant fight and escape) and fast-paced that its entertainment value holds the credibility in check. 

The Dark Knight Rises has some similarly unintentionally amusing concepts: the idea you can utterly cure a broken vertebrae by snapping it back in and leaving the patient to hang by a rope for a while, Bane managing to have a man with a broken back transported to a foreign land without killing or paralysing him and my personal favourite: the whole of Gotham's police force entering the tunnels together so that Bane can render the city police-free with one explosion. One has to approach this in the right spirit. We accept when watching musicals that people will sing even though they wouldn't in real life, and we should similarly accept that we are in a world where capes can instantly become gliders, snapped vertebrae heal better than you'd think and a city sends its entire police force into one tunnel at once. Yes, that turbine-plane thing wouldn't fly, but doesn't it look magnificent? Doesn't it just breathe cinema, just as the Batpod looks truly like the bike the Devil would ride, the ride every bike dreams of being- all the more because, as with the Tumbler and the Batpod, Nolan eschews CGI and uses full-scale models for that satisfyingly thick, blocky, tactile look. We know that someone taking a safety rope off would probably fall to their deaths, but what we lose in realism we gain in higher excitement: we are in the realms of our imagination and primal desires, and there is something liberating in throwing off real life to pay attention to what we find stirringly heroic on an instinctual level.

The trilogy is also well structured. The flanking volumes are epics, which explore Bruce's growth from child to superhero, and how the worldly and centuries-old League of Shadows come to target Gotham. The middle volume creates a different rhythm, tone and aesthetic. There's no mention of the League of Shadows or of Bruce's childhood. The focus is entirely on the escalating tension within Gotham, and Hans Zimmer's music plays a crucial role. His Joker theme is notably different from the more classical sweep of the themes throughout the trilogy, conveying the sense of wires about to snap, and creating a much more intimate sense of tension. A recurring motif throughout is the sudden jolt: the body of the wannabe Batman on a noose hitting the window (which makes me jump every time I see the film), the Joker leaning across the lorry driver to shoot at the cops, his appearing without makeup and shooting at Gordon, Batman appearing behind the Joker in the interrogation room, the nurse turning out to be the Joker. The Dent deception works because it comes right after the film's optimistic swell as the boat hostages don't kill each other. This is why The Dark Knight has an odd way of swatting aside objections despite the dodgy politics, a few flat action sequences (the Hong Kong sequence is odd, and both the opening fight and the one in Bruce's Penthouse could have been longer) and occasionally confusing points (what was that about "five people dead, three of them cops" at the end?). It creates a rhythm all of its own, which is extremely hard for sequels to do, and places it in the company of such achievements as Terminator 2, Godfather Part 2, The Road Warrior, Aliens and The Bourne Supremacy (although it's equal to none of them). 

John Blake's story is as satisfying emotively as it is disappointing politically. Nolan is particularly effective at boiling characters from the Batman comics down to their essential memorable, mythic elements, and here he reduces Robin to the name of Batman's heir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the screen presence to really sell this: compare it with the awkward moment in the last Indiana Jones movie where Shia Leboeuf tries on Indy's hat. It was clear the filmmakers had no intention of doing a Indy Jr movie just as here there's no question of a Blake-Batman movie, but the idea of Blake becoming Batman within the story-world is evocative, while the idea of Shia cracking a whip and running from boulders frankly isn't. The scene between Bruce and Blake sets up the orphan parallel nicely, and the scene where Blake roars at the police officer for putting his orders above saving the lives of children gets us rooting for Blake to take on Batman's mantle.

Christian Bale and Michael Caine are essential to the trilogy's success. Something Bale sells particularly well is the way that the warmth and humour of that relationship puts him back in touch with his humanity, preventing him from sinking into pontification and heroic self-importance. Michael Caine brings the requisite dry humour to the role, but also wears his heart on his sleeve, playing Alfred as someone who has invested so heavily in Bruce and the crumbling legacy of Thomas Wayne that he is on the verge of having nothing to live for. The scene in the third film where Alfred reveals he would often visit a cafe during Bruce's sojourn outside Gotham and daydream that he would see Bruce with a family and know he was no longer needed is genuinely touching, setting up Bruce's subsequent survival as something with real emotional kick rather than a cop-out, and the scene where Alfred tells Bruce about Rachel's letter is beautifully played by both actors.

So that's why I love these films. And that's why I don't trust anyone who doesn't dislike their politics



Friday, 10 February 2017

Review: Slipping by Lauren Beukes

(I've avoided crude spoilers, but this review does discuss the stories in some detail. I  do discuss the end of some of the stories, but  I don't actually reveal what happens.)

After four novels, Lauren Beukes has established herself as one of the most exciting voices in contemporary SF, as well as one of the most relevant of contemporary novelists. Moxyland (2008) was one of the most satisfying dystopias of recent years; Zoo City (2010) was among the most emotionally engrossing fantasy novels to appear since Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials; The Shining Girls (2013) was a thriller about a time travelling serial killer that left the reader engrossed in the lives of ordinary women and their various struggles to challenge patriarchy; Broken Monsters (2014) juxtaposed another supernatural serial killer with modern Detroit, and the result was not only a tale of fast-paced horror thrills but a remarkably sure account of people living under economic deprivation. 

The stories collected here display many of the talents that have made her novels so compelling. Some are funny, some are terrifying, some are intimate, all are convincing: never overly twee, never predictable in their SF speculations, and all with characters whose voices ring with authenticity rather than come across as literary. Beukes's journalistic background is an obvious asset, allowing her to sketch a South Africa so terrifying in its moves towards dystopia and so rich in its history, culture and patois that the reader becomes used to a familiar experience reading the opening sentences of these brief stories: wondering and attempting to deduce whether they are set in the future or the present. One of the most worrying stories, "Riding with the Dream Patrol", is set just one year in the future. Beukes even lends her own name to the reporter in this story, and so authentic is her journalistic style that the distance between reality and fiction becomes worryingly small. Beukes's namesake interviews the head of the Mongooses:

Whereas apartheid’s Special Branch would have had to embed undercover agents to spy on union meetings, for the Mongooses, total transparency, at least for private citizens, is only one click away. A glance at Facebook events, your Flickr set, your Twitter feed, or your Mxit friends list provides information on your known associates, recent whereabouts, political, social and sexual proclivities. But the combination of RICA, which makes every SIM card traceable down to its GPS coordinates, the Protection of Information Act and the Corporate Responsibility Act of 2013 (CRA), which legally obliges corporations to cooperate with government demands such as shutting down cellphonecoverage in a riot zone, for example, makes their job a whole lot easier. The Mongooses can not only monitor open networks but private ones too, including phone calls, emails and your Internet history. They can even track your current location using your cellphone’s GPS -- and they can shut down anything they don’t like.

Particularly impressive here is the story's understatement: Beukes is content to let the report stand for itself rather than add a coda developing it into a more story-like structure. It stays in the reader's memory more like a disturbing journalistic account we once read. Perhaps this was how listeners to Orson Welles's War of the Worlds broadcast felt.

A second reason for the sheer niftiness of Beukes's near-future world building is her strong ear for young people: how they talk, how they reference culture, how technology shapes their lives. Many novelists have found this impossible to pull off, and have ended up sounding merely old-fogeyish. One thinks of Martin Amis seizing on the literary potential of texting in Yellow Dog only to confuse texting with emailing, and his novel Lionel Asbo, named after a Blairite initiative which had already ended by the time the book was published. One also thinks with a shudder of Ian McEwan's recent novel Nutshell, in which an unborn fetus narrating the book mocks Young People Today and their safe spaces, trigger warnings and other things McEwan has received a one-sided account of from reactionary sources. Beukes's writing is both too empathetic and too in tune with the rhythms of different speech and writing -- emails, texts, tweets, posters, slang -- to make these kind of blunders. 

The excellent, very brief story "Confirm\Ignore" manages to capture, in just a few paragraphs, an entire zeitgeist of young people and social media: a world of anonymity, deletion, failure and trying again. She manages the impossible task of understanding the culture of celebrity worship and social media with some degree of affection without becoming indulgent towards to it. "Pop Tarts" captures this idiom nicely, evoking a South African nightlife in which "everyone and their domestic worker has public access broadcast rights and a private channel to call their own". We follow Jude (real name Koketla), "South Africa's official Most Desirable", who hits the town on a tour of the VIP rooms accompanied by her friends, her camera man and Dirk, "the coldest, savviest, most flamboyantly evil bastard of a marketing pimp you ever could meet". While getting into their limo, they are hijacked by "Joshua-X. Joburg’s number one white-boy hijacker, whose daring criminal exploits go out 24-7 on 136 channels around the world, not including subscriber Internet." It's paced fast enough so that these characters don't become tiresome, with their language and surroundings deftly rendered -- they're broadcasting on a five-minute delay, "something all the live TV producers cottoned onto after that whole thing with Janet Jackson’s boob" -- until the story ends on a shocking note when drastic action is taken to boost ratings. The ingenious "Easy Touch", a variation of which appeared in Zoo City, tells the story of a scam emailer prepared to fleece a couple who need money for their disabled son. The story gains much power from the way Beukes regularly punctuates it with the emails themselves, exposed in all their banal glory, from pleas from Robert Mugabe's wife to congratulations on winning a Nokia promotion. The story takes a different path to the Zoo City version, ending with a hugely satisfying twist.

 It is all too easy to go down the Black Mirror road and write predictable now-technology-owns-YOU stories, or short stories about someone being stopped as they try to leave a store with a crashingly predictable twist-ending in which, of course, they are stopped for *not* taking anything, because, you know, capitalism. Beukes never goes down that trite path. "Exhibitionist", an earlier take on a scene that appeared in Moxyland, is the most Ballardian of these stories. It focuses on an exhibition of various works of art including this installation:

The thing is gore￾deluxe, red and meaty, like something dead turned inside out and mangled, half-collapsed in on itself with spines and ridges and fleshy strings and some kind of built-in speakers, which makes the name even more disturbing --Woof & Tweet. I don’t understand how it works, but it’s to do with reverb and built-in resonator-speakers. It’s culling sounds from around us, remixing ambient audio, conversation, footsteps, glasses clinking, rustling clothing, through the systems of its body, disjointed parts of it inflating, like it’s breathing. 

As with several Ballard stories, particularly those collected in Vermilion Sands, the reader finishes the story with sounds ringing in his or her ears. The story's effectiveness lies in its willingness to forgo trite twists and moralising and instead let us "fondle the details", to use a phrase of Nabokov's. The same is true of "Branded", another embryo version of Moxyland, featuring some of the same characters and ideas. Its idea, crucial to Moxyland, that everyone's mobile phone is fitted with a "defuser",which administers an electric shock to keep you unconscious until the police arrive, is one of the most effective fictional extrapolations of 21st century capitalism that contemporary fiction has produced. Also memorable is the logo "just be it" visible through the skin of its character Kendra, a "sponsor baby" for a brand of cola named Ghost, who is fitted with nanotech that makes it her drink of choice and necessity: 

Brain reacting like she was on some fine-ass bliss, drowning her in endorphins and serotonin, the drink binding with aminos and the tiny bio-machines humming in her veins. Voluntary addiction with benefits. Make her faster, stronger, more coordinated. Ninja-slick reflexes. Course, if she’d sold her soul to Big Red Cola instead, she’d be sharper, wittier. Big Red nano-lubes the transmitters. Neurons firing faster, smarter, more productive. All depends on the brand, on your lifestyle of choice, and it’s all free if you qualify.

It's an ingenious conceit: simple, yet as perfect a fictional embodiment of Naomi Klein's No Logo as could be imagined. It's cool, it's horrible, it's intensely visual and it's creepily sensuous: Beukes literally gets under the skin.

There is impressive range here. As well as SF, there are intimate portraits of everyday lives. "Algebra" skillfully rattles through the stages of a relationship through the structure of an alphabet, a conceit of the kind often used by Ballard but here used to convey almost the opposite of his preferred subject matter of apocalypse and psychosis: everyday life. "Dear Mariana" is told from the point of view of a woman writing a letter to her ex-girlfriend on a typewriter in the latter's flat while she is away. The notion of the narrator's typing ability on the unfamiliar device fluctuating with her mood is put to witty effect, allowing Beukes to bring a distinctive, subtly embittered voice to life. In "Dial Tone", a woman spends her time ringing numbers from the phone book and silently listening to the replies, never ringing the same number twice. "My Insect Skin" is an almost unbearable account of a woman suffering a miscarriage while encountering sexist harassment. It's a story that simply has to be experienced: it is so raw that quoting from it would not do it justice. "Parking" tells the story of a parking attendant who admires a regular parker from afar, and upon finally getting the chance to give her a ticket, nervously says he'll waive it if she has coffee with him. The story is effective in taking the premise of a romcom and playing it with realistic consequences -- showing the painful reality behind entitled fantasies -- and is given added piquancy by the details of the protagonist's job and its political implications: 

Part of his job is to chase away the informal car guards and the street people and the barefoot children who sleep in doorways. His job is to keep the city safe, especially for the visitors, to chase away the rubbish. It is a respectable job, and they say that this is how they sorted out the crime situation in New York. That by stopping the small crimes, you can stop the big ones. But this is the work he tries to avoid, when he can. Emmanuel says he is soft, that he would not last in the Congo, if he can’t even handle children.

Beukes manages to take those who are part of the everyday machinery of South Africa, and show the humanity behind the bureaucracy.

Unabashed entertainment is offered in the form of "Unathi Battles the Hairballs", which begins quite brilliantly. Unathi, a member of the Saiko Squadron -- "the most elite Mecha Squadron on Earth" -- is on shore leave in a karaoke bar about to sing along to a new Britney Spears cover of the Spice Girls' Wannabe when a giant tentacle comes smashing through the wall and dismembers several of Unathi's fellow squadron members:

The karaoke jukebox clicked over to the duet. Looking in your eyes, there’s reflected paradise. And that might have been true if Ryu still had eyes, or, for that matter, a head. His body stood swaying for a moment, like an indecisive drunk. And then a bright, hot jet of blood fountained from the stump of his neck, spraying Unathi in the face like some vampire bukkake video. She managed to suck in enough air to scream. She’d had an inkling of his crush. It was in the way he showed all his teeth and scratched the back of his head whenever she gave him a direct order. The cheesy eighties duet cemented it. And now he was dead. Excepting herself, the whole of Saiko Squadron was dead. And, worse, there was blood and spilt sake on her white patent-whale-penis-leather boots.
“Someone is going to fucking pay!” Unathi growled.

The combination of the comic details, the verisimilitude, the fast pace and the kickass heroine is quite irresistible. It ultimately goes down a one-joke metafictional avenue (complete with Haruki Murakami guest-starring as himself), but remains impossible to dislike.

Beukes's charm is also on full display in "Princess", an Angela Carteresque reworking of the Princess and the Pea written for an erotic anthology, in which the Princess is a modern rich kid in a similar vein to Jude from "Pop Tarts" -- her duties as Princess include "making the cover of Heat and People and US Weekly, dabbling in music or fashion or reality TV, looking hot at all times, dancing on tables and, most importantly, Being Seen" -- and the pea her clitoris. She faces the glare of the paparazzi with the aid of her handmaid, an economic refugee from Ecuador "who deeply loved the princess in a manner not entirely appropriate or approved, despite what you may have seen on those Spring Break reality TV specials". The tone here nicely marries the contemporary with the fairy-tale, bringing verisimilitude to potentially twee characters and not outstaying its welcome. "Ghost Girl" is a more quietly engaging story, in which the title character -- the mysterious ghost of a young girl who claims to have committed suicide -- befriends a male architectural student. It achieves its effects through the chemistry between the two characters, weaving a nice parable about creativity and social responsibility --is it enough for architects to unleash their imaginations, or should they concentrate on homeless shelters?

This more fanciful side of Beukes's imagination can also be unsettling, and can continue to disturb the reader for some time afterwards. Perhaps the most harrowing story here is "Unaccounted", which tells of a prison previously run by aliens which falls under human occupation following a conflict between the two species. The story opens thus: 

The ittaca is wedged into the uneven corner of cell 81C, as if it is trying to osmose right through the walls and out of here. It is starting to desiccate around the edges, the plump sulphur-colored frills of its membrane turning shriveled and grey. Maybe it’s over, Staff Sergeant Chip Holloway thinks, looking in through the organic lattice of the viewing grate. The thought clenches in his gut.

Things get worse, and Holloway starts to hear the word "maggot" used as abuse. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are present here on every page. Beukes is too sophisticated to make the comparison explicit: as China Mieville has often pointed out, SF's strength lies in is ability to allow its metaphors to be things in their own right as well as metaphors. The story is powerful because the ittica is just that: the ittica. It isn't a clumsy metaphor for Muslims or for Al Qaeda, as Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica have respectively blundered into: instead the situation has the integrity of something that gets more horribly real as we read on, so that we can smell the urine in the trashed cell and hear the snarls of "maggot!" Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are not tritely and predictably reassembled in metaphorical form: instead they are present as a whisper. The nightmarish drives that caused them and the implications they raise as 21st century history progresses animate this story and they linger in the mind as the reader finishes it, but so does the power of Beukes's story itself.

"The Green" and the title story are also riveting excursions into full-on SF. In "Slipping", Pearl Nit-seeko, a fourteen-year-old girl from Cape Town who lost both legs while trying to race a train, arrives in Pakistan to compete in the "+ Games". She can run thanks to cybernetic legs, and her fellow competitors are a girl who runs in an exo-suit, a girl with a sculpted tail, a girl with robotics wet-wired into her nerves and a brain-dead girl remote-controlled by a quadriplegic in a hospital bed. With such a fascinating line-up, it all builds up to a moment of great exhilation on the racetrack. Pearl's augmented body leads to some great moments of unsettling but fascinating body horror -- or rather, body weirdness:

She feels along the rigid seam that runs in a J-hook down the side of her stomach, parallel with her hysterectomy scar, and tears open the velcroskin.
“Let me,” Tomislav says, kneeling between her legs. She holds her flesh open while he reaches one hand up inside her abdomen. It doesn’t hurt, not anymore. The velcro releases a local anesthetic when it opens, but she can feel an uncomfortable tugging inside, like cramps. Tomislav twists off the valves on either side, unplugs her stomach and eases it out of her. He sets it in a sterile biobox and connects it to a blood flow. By the time he turns back, she is already spooling up the accordion twist of artificial intestine, like a magician pulling ribbons from his palm. It smells of lab-mod bacteria, with the faintest whiff of feces. She hands it to Tomislav and he wrinkles his nose. 
"Just goes to show,” he says, folding up the crinkled plastic tubing and packing it away. “You can take the meat out of the human, but they’re still full of shit!"

"The Green" is narrated by Coco Yenko, part of a corporate bio-tech team put out to work in armoured suits harvesting the flora of an alien planet. One of the main results of their discoveries are: 

self-organizing cellular amoebites that ooze around on their own until one of them finds a very recently dead thing to grow on. Then it lays down signals, chemical or hormonal or some other system we don’t understand yet, and all the other amoebites congeal together to form a colony that sets down deep roots like a wart into whatever's left of the nervous system of the animal . . . and then take it over.

Consequently, zombies of deceased crewmembers -- aka Organically Preserved Personnel -- lurch around, including Rousseau, Coco's former boyfriend. The description of the accident that led to Rousseau's death, after his suit is compromised due to the carelessness of another crewmember, is particularly harrowing:

We had to sit in the cafeteria, the only communal space, listening to Rousseau die, pretending not to. It should have been easy. The loud drone of the air conditioner and the filters and the sterilizer systems all fighting The Green is the first thing you acclimatize to here. But Ro’s voice somehow broke through, a shrill shriek between clenched teeth. We hadn’t known anyone who’d ever died from the stingstrings. The labtechs must have been thrilled. [...] 
The other crews were making bets on what would kill him. Marking up the odds on the back of a cigarette packet. Black humor and wise-cracking is just how you deal. We’d have been doing the same if it wasn’t one of ours. Yellow Choke 3:1. Threadworms 12:7. The Tars 15:4. New & Horrible: 1:2.
Ro’s voice changed in pitch, from scream-your-throat-raw to a low groaning—the kind that comes from your intestines plasticinating. The spores must have got in to the rip in his gut through the tear in his armor.
OhgodohgodohgodeuggghgodOHpleasefuckgodOH

This story fuses SF details with grim realism to great effect, often in a single paragraph:

Which was the same line my mom spun me when she took me to the sterilization clinic in Caxton, mainly for the incentive kickback the government provided, but also to make sure I didn’t end up like her, pregnant and homeless at fourteen, working double shifts at the seam factory--which is what she did after I was born, to keep the pair of us alive. That only makes me feel more guilty--all the sacrifices she made so I could get out of Caxton.

This is a story as memorable for details such as Coco's childhood memories of working with her mother --"I am scampering over the factory floor, back when she still had the job, dodging the electric looms to collect scraps of fabric that she will sew into dishcloths and dolls and maybe a dress, to sell to the neighbors, illegally" -- as for the descriptions of the zombified crewmembers, their tongues coated with a "seething furry growth". It builds to an ending in which the sublime fear of the unknown is all the more convincing because of the believable details of the SF setup.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the most compelling features of this collection is the process at the start of each story where we wonder if this fascinating world evoked is futuristic or contemporary. This is why the present tense is often essential to her style. The present tense is a form that can be a natural companion to estrangement: it is more likely to eschew explanations of the environment in which the story takes place and take us straight to the experience of the protagonist. "Smileys", one of the collection's finest stories, tells of Thozama, an elderly woman who sells the titular foodstuff -- an intact sheep's head cooked over a fire until its lips pull back in a grin -- at the market. Thozama is on her train to work, when a man tries to strike up a conversation. He's a former member of the Azanian People's Liberation Army who, after the fighting ended, tried to join the police but didn't have the qualifications ("We were lions fighting that apartheid struggle, lions defending our communities, but what happens when you bring the lions into the kraal, among the sheep?"), and so instead he put his talents to use starting the Anti-Crime Association, a vigilante group, the mention of which reminds Thozama of "the man stripped naked and beaten in the streets, on the word of another man and a R150 'transport fee', of the man found hanging behind the taxi rank, his eyes blindfolded". "Soldier" offers to escort Thozama to and from her place of work, reminding her that there are things the ACA can do that the police would not dare, and that all they would need is the occasional donation, perhaps of food. As he continues to harass her as they get off the train, Thozama's life flashes before her: 

Her husband working in Germiston as a petrol attendant, both of them bringing in money, building their home, a family from two different cities over a thousand kilometers apart, when he died in the fighting between the Zulus and the ANC in 1993. She thinks about her twenty-six-year-old daughter who drinks up her government grant, drinks to drown the anger and the shame of her diagnosis, and forgets to give her baby, Thozama’s grandson, his anti-retroviral medicine. 
She thinks about her best wishes: to live with her kids (all grown up, the customs done, her son has already been to the bush), for her business to grow and her kids to take over, so she can relax, stop riding the train to the butcher, stop shaving the heads, boiling the heads, selling the heads.

It's a great story because it captures the combination of estrangement and attention to lived experience that makes Beukes's stories so distinctive. The sheeps' heads are an eerie image, but they also represent Thozama's livelihood, and the image beautifully complements the story's theme of sheep and lions. Like most short stories at their best, it works by emphasising a single moment, where a novel would have to move on. Our understanding of the kind of life that Thozama has lived comes at the same moment as a cathartic moment of violence. In this snapshot the reader has the taste of something weird, yet we are put in tune with South Africa's history and psychological landscape.

The latter, briefer part of the book consists of several pieces of non-fiction which demonstrate both how journalism has allowed Beukes to see and evoke South Africa, and the importance of feminism to her mission as a writer. We see glimpses that have clearly been crucial to her fiction such as the intimidating vigilante group Penisula Anti-Crime Association (PEACA), the refugees from Mugabe's Zimbabwe who have found their experience in South Africa to be so dire that they are consider returning home, the people condemned by Government TV campaigns as "iz’nyoka"(snakes) who climb up poles to break power cables and steal the copper intestine and the security guard at a tenement block who remembers the time he felt bad because "I had to evict this old black guy who hadn’t paid his rent. And I had to hit him with the baton to get him to move because he wouldn’t go. And it made me feel swak, like he must think of old times, like apartheid, this young white oke beating him, but it’s my job, what am I supposed to do?" There is a memorable portrait of the courageous Justice Unity Dow, a High Court judge and one of Botswana's leading novelists, and a curious coincidence in which a young dishevelled woman appears at her house appealing for help during Beukes's visit. We see Beukes convey anger in prose of great brio and economy when referring to a blog that blames urban decay on the black population:

Always the blacks. As if apartheid’s (white) secret police, the ironically named Civil Cooperation Bureau, didn’t meet at the Quirinale Hotel on Kotze Street in Hillbrow to orchestrate atrocities, assassinations and political unrest in their efforts to derail democracy. As if a hundred years before that, Cecil John Rhodes and the (white) mining magnate Rand Lords didn’t scheme in the library of the gentlemen’s club downtown to bring the colonial empire snaking into the interior on railway tracks and the corpses of countless dead.

There is also an excellent, spirited piece about the writing of The Shining Girls condemning the tendency of modern fiction and media to eroticise female victims of serial killers which brings to mind the debate around the BBC's increasingly dubious drama series The Fall.

The book ends with a moving letter to Beukes's five-year-old daughter, reminiscent of Philip Larkin's poem "Born Yesterday". She tries to move her away from "Barbie and the Dreamhouse or Monsters High because they’re all about clothes and boyfriends and popularity, like the Kardashians for kids, and I try to nudge you to My Little Pony and She-Ra and The Powerpuff Girls and even Winx Club, where they have cool outfits and go on adventures. Where it’s about more than being beautiful." This seems as delightful and appropriate a note to end the book on as could be imagined: the importance of life is not to accept bullshit from the patriarchy, not to accept clich├ęs of beauty and femininity, but to have adventures, and there is no more scintillating adventurer in modern fiction than Lauren Beukes.