Favourite Books

Over on Twitter folks are currently doing their Seven Favourite (Things) and in a fit of madness I started trying to work out my seven favourite books. I did not get very far. I got as far as twenty five, whittled it down to 21 and now I’m stuck.

There are some sad observations in this list, ones that I suspect will be depressingly common across many people’s lists: the books’ writers are very white, very male and very straight. I’m not unaware of this, and I’ve been making a point of reading one-for-one between male and female writers this year. With any luck the next time I go back to write something like this, it won’t be quite so male, quite to white. In fact, I suspect that if I had a little more time to read more of their books Nnedi Okorafor, Aliette de Bodard and Louise O’Neill would place quite highly. Looking at my list, Frank Herbert, Stephen King and George RR Martin in particular do not need your support, so consider reading something by someone from those names above, or those other names below.

I have also elected not to describe the books. They are all weird, fantasy or science fiction genre books and they are fantastic. Read blind. Expectations are limiting. Or Google them, if you want like. That’s fine.

Now, in alphabetical order, I present a list of my twenty-one favourite books.

 

A Long Way to a Small, Angry PlanetBecky Chambers

A Song for Ella Grey – David Almond

A Song for Ella Grey – David Almond

A Song for Ella GreyDavid Almond

AnnihilationJeff VanderMeer

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games: Book 2)Suzanne Collins

DuneFrank Herbert

FrankensteinMary Shelley

Otherland: City of Golden Shadow (Book 1) – Tad Williams

Storm of Swords (A Song of Fire and Ice: Book 3)George RR Martin

The Bone ClocksDavid Mitchell

The Book of All Hours (Vellum and Ink) – Hal Duncan

The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle: Book 2) Maggie Stiefvater

The Fifth Season - N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth SeasonN.K. Jemisin

The Hogfather – Terry Pratchett

The Lies of Locke LamoraScott Lynch

The Ocean at the End of the LaneNeill Gaiman

The Rest of Us Just Live HerePatrick Ness

The ScarChina Miéville

The StandStephen King

The TalismanStephen King

This Census-TakerChina Miéville

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

 

What A Bunch Of Bastards

Draw up a chair, folks. Take a seat at this table. This table of men. This is a man’s table, built for men. We built it to be the only table that matters. Front of stage, top of the house. This is the table where we laugh and we drink and we decide, us men. You know men like us. We all look like us, like men.

I speak at the table. “Men,” I say, carefully. “What a bunch of bastards.” A titter of laughter. Nervous perhaps. It’s a riff off a joke from a TV show. People, it is supposed to go. People. The change makes an uncertainty, but this is a table of men. We presume the joke is funny. A man told it. Except, I am not joking. I accuse.

I say it again. I say it to you. I say it now. Men. What a bunch of bastards.

“We have to talk now again at last,” I say. Have we said it before? Have I been honest when I said it before? Did I understand when I said it before? I don’t know. Maybe I tried. Maybe I failed. We have to try again.

“Brock Turner.” I say instead. A bastard, they agree. They have to agree. But. Watch for the ones who say But. Watch us all. We perform our ritual of distancing. We exorcise Turner from our conscience. Peter after the garden, we deny him. He is not one of us. We are not one of him.

But.

But it is time to read her words. It is time that we allowed her to be a voice, to be a person, to be more than an object into which we pour. We build an image from dreams and wants and desires and make it her.

And we want her hollow so we can fill her up with all our yeses and our needs. And she is not this. She speaks and feels and hurts and the silence we made is shredding because we are hearing now, some of us are hearing what she and a thousand of her sisters and our sisters and our mothers have been screaming for an eon. She is not empty. She is not ours to fill. She is not a thing.

Hear her speak.

She is talking to Brock Turner. She is talking to men, to me. To you.

There are other names. Too many names. I only know some of them.

Alexander Pacteau.

Eliot Rodger.

Adrian Bayley.

Richard Hinds.

Trent Mays.

Ma’lik Richmond.

Brock Turner.

Women know more names. They know them personally. They know our names.

The men at this table, you’re looking at me. I’m not supposed to be saying this. Not the way I’m saying it. Rapists are other men. That’s not us. Someone say it. One of us always, always says it. Not all men. We are not those men. This is not what a rapist looks like.

I look in my mirror. I look in your face.

This. I see this. This is what a rapist looks like.

I know this truth; if I commit this crime they will tell you I have a good job, come from a good home. My friends will tell you I’m not like that. They will tell you of my future. They will tell you how bright my contribution will be. They will tell you of my mistake like it is unrepeatable, like it is an aberration in a sea of aberrations from men that look just like me.

If I commit this crime, they will tell you what she wore. They will tell you what she drank. They will tell you that she cheated, that she was easy, that she said yes in slur while she slept, that she said yes when she left the house without a jacket, in a skirt too short, too drunk, without a friend, with a friend, without her boyfriend, with her abuser, without her husband, unowned, unafraid. They will tell you why she earned it, how she asked for it. We will tell you.

We told each other Brock Turner’s swim times. We will tell you mine.

We told you she was drunk. We will say it the next time too.

I am not Brock Turner. I am not that rapist. I am not that man. But. But I am. But we are. But you are.

Would you like a drink, while we sit at this table? Men are allowed to drink. We built the table this way; it’s fine if you have one. Beer, whiskey, wine? Doesn’t matter what you drink. Doesn’t matter how much you drink. You’re sitting at this table. This table of men.

The table is a metaphor.

We built this world. This culture of rape and ownership and entitlement. I can call it Patriarchy and you can groan and say, “Again? Still? I’m getting sick of hearing about this.”

“Women are sick of dying from it.” I am not joking. I accuse.

The men, us gathered at this table, try to laugh it off, but angrier now. No one wants to hear this. We have problems too. Let’s talk about them for once.

We sit together, in our networks of fratriarchy, our brothers in shame and failure and sin, and we regard this thing we have built and refuse to talk about it. It is ours and we guard it jealously like our fathers who built it too and passed it down to us as did their fathers before and before and before.

No. We need to talk about this table we built, the table we won’t let anyone else sit at where we make the rules that excuse our crimes; crimes we bend up into virtues, necessary and triumphant.

Brock Turner sits at this table with us. His father sits here with us. They are not alone. The rapists sit with us and we are the rapists.

Brock Turner, Patron Saint of Patriarchy. Exalted in Entitlement.

Say your catechism. Say the Holy Word of Men.

“Twenty minutes of action”

“I torment myself”

“culture of alcohol consumption and partying”

“His life will never be the one he dreamed about”

 “recognize the influence that peer pressure”

“binge drinking and sexual promiscuity”

“never ever meant to intentionally hurt”

“party culture and risk taking behavior”

“the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank to press charges against him”

“things can go from fun to ruined in just one night”

“verdicts have broken and shattered him”

“He is utterly terrified and traumatized”

“Look at him. He won’t survive it. He will be damaged forever.”

We built this table on the backs of others. On the backs of women as we lie on them, as we make them lie down for us, as we build rules and worlds that allow no other choices but this and damn them if they refuse us anyway. We build this table where we decide on them.

We build it from their bones. We varnish it in blood.

This table we built is an abattoir, a charnel house.

I cannot leave this table. I dare not. It is time to break the table, to burn the wreckage of it.

Let us build something new, and when we do, we must be careful to set out places for those other than men. It is time for those other than ourselves. I am sick of my voice. I am sick of yours. I am sick of the face of every Brock Turner sitting here with me, and their fathers too.

But I am not dead of it. It is women who die of us.

Because men – what a bunch of bastards.

Further Reading:

Victim Statement.

‘Men See Themselves In Brock Turner—That’s Why They Don’t Condemn Him’ – ANNE THERIAULT

Statements from Turner’s friends and family.

 Asking For It, Louise O’Neill

Representation Matters: How and Who?

A squad of Western soldiers, an international brigade formed of almost white men, surround what appears to be a church somewhere in the Middle East. Armoured in black, holding rifles and pistols, they fire off warning shots and demand the surrender of the surrounded occupants.

The door cracks open and a woman emerges. “I don’t have any weapons. Please!”

The soldier orders his men to take aim but the woman begs. She calls him by name. She claims to be his mother. She claims his whole family is inside. The whole squad’s family is there. When pressed for details about his life, she appeals to his emotions, to his loyalty, his kindness and charity. “They are using us against you,” the woman cries. “I’m so scared.”

More and more people emerge from the church. Despite the Middle-Eastern location many are white, all are clearly dressed in Western clothes. They appear to be the families of the assembled soldiers.

“That is not your mother, that is an alien hostile,” a commander calls over the radio. “Kill it.”

But the soldiers choose empathy, sympathy and trust over simple violence. They follow the people who look like their families into the church.

A few minutes later, when their commander, the commander who wanted to engage in wanton slaughter, breaks into the church the truth becomes apparent. All that remains of the ambushed soldiers are smoking piles of ash, in a room littered with military maps revealing a detailed invasion plan. This is the exact moment Doctor Who’s double-episode “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” arc not only loses me, but becomes an irrevocably damaging narrative.

The Doctor and Clara - BBC Promotion Image for "The Zygon Invasion".

The Doctor and Clara – BBC Promotion Image for “The Zygon Invasion”.

In order to understand the symbolism at work here and how it becomes such a painful failure, we have to rewind slightly. The episodes here spin out of the 50th Anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, which aired on 23rd November 2013, arguably Nu-Who’s finest hour and a bit. In that story, the Zygons, a race of space-faring shapeshifters who have lost their home planet, are a technologically, militarily superior force with access to Britain’s Black Archive, a repository of lethal artefacts from a multitude of alien civilizations. At this point, the Zygons are, if not in a dominant position, at least equal to the human population in terms of personal agency and military power. When a peace treaty is established between humanity and the Zygons it is between effective equals – symbolically realised by visually establishing both parties as mirrored when the Zygons assume the form of the human negotiators. When we return to the situation in The Zygon Invasion, the dynamics have been explicitly reconfigured.

When the recurring character Osgood introduces the treaty and the underlying concepts of the episode she states: “[their task is] to resettle and rehouse an alien race, in secrecy, on planet Earth. With UNITs help twenty million Zygons have been allowed to take human form, have been dispersed around the world and are now living amongst us.” The initial language used around the Zygons configures them as being fairly analogous to refugees (albeit with science-fiction elements not equitable with any real-world dynamics). In the contemporary context it is difficult to disentangle any discourse about refugees from the ongoing refugee crisis that stems, at least partially, from conflicts in North Africa and the Middle-East, centred around Libya and Syria respectively. The UN regards this to be the worst refugee crisis since World War II. These parallels are made more explicit throughout the episode. For instance, in an abandoned Zygon command centre the Doctor references locations infamous for border-security issues (Mexico and Australia) or Islamic unrest (North Africa, the Middle East), and the screens display images that seem intended to evoke displaced or migrant populations.

A scene from "The Zygon Invasion".

A scene from “The Zygon Invasion”.

It is here that the symbolic elements of the narrative begin to take on a harmful resonance. At the same time that the narrative is drawing parallels with refugees, it also begins to interject the concept of radicalisation into the discourse, and then moves to conflate them totally.

The idea that refugees and radicalised individuals can easily be conflated is both suspect and dangerous. When we speak of ‘radicalisation’ it’s important to be clear on what we mean, what the word is inviting us to assume and who this word is deployed against. Firstly, at a basic level ‘radicalisation’ is popular parlance for the process by which individuals adopt terrorist ideologies; however we need to note that this word is almost exclusively used with regard to Muslim populations and Muslim ideologies. Dylann Roof and Elliot Rodger are not regarded as being radicalised and are rarely referred to as terrorists in mainstream media, but their actions and intentions are clearly couched within those terms. If they were espousing outright Islamic values, instead of white supremacist/racist or misogynistic ones, we would be quick and clear in how we labelled these murderers. So when Doctor Who takes that word and applies it to their fictional Zygon population, the inherent links to Muslims and Muslim refugees/immigrants cannot be brushed aside.

The linkage of refugee and radicalised individual/terrorist in popular culture has become particularly important in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. I won’t be talking here about the attacks themselves, which claimed the lives of 130 people and saw 368 injured, and were both tragic and horrific, but will instead be focusing on the reaction, both immediate an ongoing in Western media. Most significantly, within an hour of the first reports of violence, many media outlets including BBC, CNN and MSNBC were already drawing spurious and unfounded links to the refugee crisis. Newspapers have unconsciously evoked fascist propaganda, have published unsound, misleading polls with messages intended to stir up hate and have generally colluded in conflating terrorism with refugees. In America the pace of the discussion has moved even more quickly into dangerous territory, where American states are refusing to take Syrian refugees at all, the Senate is increasing already absurd restrictions and Presidential candidates are suggesting the forced registration of Muslim people in the US as a viable practice, without seeming to realise or care about the parallels with Nazi Germany.

Of course, in reality, it has been categorically proven that the Paris attackers were not refugees and did not use the refugee crisis as a means to travel across Europe. Many of them were born in Europe and the Syrian passports recovered from the bodies are most likely fakes made in Turkey for the express purpose of assigning blame to refugees and hardening attitudes against them. This has proved remarkably successful. Another important aspect of the attacks is the locations chosen which are often designated as greyzones; places of cultural mixing, often populated by younger people. These areas show that violence, distrust and hate are not the natural outcome of a meeting of cultures, but that those negative outcomes are products, symptoms of specific agendas and circumstances.

Meanwhile, attacks on British Muslims are soaring.

Where Doctor Who has so spectacularly failed, is in how it has effectively promoted the language and ideologies that ostracise and other refugees, that couch them as inherently dangerous, inside the symbolism deployed in the Zygon arc. Kate Stewart, the head of UNIT, who we can read as the nominal figurehead for British or Western military power, is the first to articulate the concept of radicalisation, expressing that they are aware that younger members of the Zygon populace are becoming radicalised, drawing on the very real terminology the military and intelligence services throw around to justify their surveillance programmes, which in turn sanction attacks and violence, even wars. When Kate Stewart declares that “the treaty has been comprehensively violated”, she is saying that she has the legal justification to use whatever means she requires to resolve the situation to her satisfaction.

It is useful to hear the Doctor, ostensibly the heroic figure, speak out against these kinds of poor solutions. He wants to open negotiations, to create a dialogue between the elements, pointing out that, “If you start bombing them you’ll radicalise the lot.” On an explicit level this works quite well, as we can see the real world parallels explicitly; the Doctor is condemning the indiscriminate drone and bombing campaigns deployed against Muslim populations internationally, actions that the West, particularly Obama’s administration, favour. There is no question that these kinds of initiatives cause real harm to civilian populations and act both explicitly and tacitly as recruiting tools for the terrorist organisations they are supposed to be destroying.

The “morality” of the drone strikes is further called into question in a scene where a drone operator sees what we can presume to be members of her family standing inside the designated strike zone. The actions here are categorised by the Doctor as “fun and games”, referring to the PlayStation mentality often associated with these strikes. When the ‘targets’ are humanised with the appearance of her family members, the drone operator refuses to carry out the attack. Unfortunately, the idea is not left here. In the scene I referred to earlier, a squad of soldiers enter a town in the fictional middle-eastern Turmezistan and are again persuaded to eschew a violent response by the familiar, friendly faces. The same military commander is once again frustrated in her attempts to fight the “enemy”. She warns, consistently, “You know what they are capable of”. When she is ultimately proved correct, when the Zygons – wearing stolen, familiar faces – execute the trusting soldiers, we must continue to read this within the context established by the narrative. If these aliens are analogous to refugees, explicitly Muslim refugees, we have to interrogate what the symbolism is saying.

It is here that we have to return to the concept of ‘radicalisation’ as espoused by the Zygon narrative. There are a few ways it is deployed, but it is almost always involuntary and unstoppable. The first victim, though we theoretically don’t know it, is the Doctor’s companion and arguably the audience POV character, Clara Oswald. Again focusing on the charity and warmth of the human/Western figures, Clara finds her young neighbour crying in the hall. The young boy, Sandeep, who appears to be of explicit Middle Eastern descent, cannot find his parents. Clara goes in search of them, and as they are already radicalised Zygons, she is captured and ‘replaced’ so that the Clara who occupies the rest of the episode is actually a Zygon sleeper agent who has infiltrated the narrative. To break this down into its most simplistic, a friendly, white native woman goes to the aid of a child of middle-eastern descent and is attacked by his possibly-immigrant father and then subsumed into their radicalised ideology as a sleeper agent. In light of the already established links to refugees, this becomes fundamentally troubling as it essentially espouses every fear that right-wing media has been promulgating as reality if Britain does not clamp down on refugees entering the country, particularly since the Paris attacks. Sandeep himself is later shown to be forcibly radicalised by his parents, when he is dragged off to the secret underground facility beneath London.

This is not even the only problematic symbolism foisted upon children in this arc. There is a scene early in the episode where the Doctor badgers two seven-year old girls on a playground. While the scene is essentially played for comedy, it reinforces the narrative that Zygons (radicalised Muslim potential terror threats) can be anywhere, any time, even in our schools, with our children. His interrogation of them reads a little differently if we reframe it outside the rascally adventures of our loveable but mad rogue, the Doctor, and instead view it in terms of the everyday reality where babies have been removed from airplanes and teenagers arrested for building clocks. The narrative furthers this problematic association by explicitly having the children claim ultimate responsibility for all Zygon factions, while our Doctor, the great, white adult saviour, won’t even allow them agency and declares that he is usurping their supposed authority. When they are murdered and their hierarchical position immediately subsumed by the radicalised faction, the inference seems to be that there is only a thin line of authority holding the Zygon population back from falling into an inevitable terrorist ideology.

The sense that the Zygon immigrants are perpetually on the verge of rebellion, insurrection or whatever term is best applied to their violence remains constant throughout the narrative. The episode itself opens with a natural-state Zygon attacking the recurring character Osgood, who is essentially configured as the avatar of the Zygon-human peace accorded. When, at the end of the first episode, a Zygon commander reveals their plan, we are led to understand that the fragile détente has not just been under threat, but has actually collapsed long before we entered the narrative. According to the Zygon, “the invasion has already taken place, bit by bit.” Twenty million Londoners, or some high percentage thereof, have been replaced by shapershifters who are now lying in wait amongst the British public to strike, just as every right-wing pundit ever has warned us.

When the following episode opens, we are immediately presented with an image of “invaded” Britain. Eerily silent teenagers loiter while a Government council-worker sweeps up what appears to be vaporised remains; we suspect none of them are human. A dishevelled and distressed man runs through the scene. He is followed tenaciously by a radicalised Zygon wearing Clara Oswald’s identity, embodying the sense of infiltration, that this radicalised ideology has crept into our legitimate, Western reality. She invades his home in order to “set him free”, removing his ability to “hide” behind a borrowed identity. As a result of her touch he begins to revert to his natural Zygon appearance, and also seems to lose control of his innate electrical powers. This leads to the accidental deaths of several people. Although the man rejects his radicalisation, declaring, “I’m not part of your fight, I never wanted to fight. I just wanted to live here. Why can’t I just live?” the narrative makes his violence inherent, instinct and uncontrollable. The metaphorical language here, in case it is unclear, strongly points to a sense of forced, involuntary radicalisation being something inherent in the Zygon, and thus Islamic, populations currently residing in and fleeing towards the West. What is the audience meant to read from the man’s decision to turn his violent discharges inward, vaporising himself?

A Zygon in natural state.

A Zygon in natural state.

It is important to bear in mind the actual stated complaint of the Zygon population; they declare explicitly that all they want is “the right to be ourselves”. It is, in fact, quite likely a common expression amongst minority populations being asked to integrate into Western society. It is certainly a legitimate grievance or concern for the Zygons, but when we apply it to the context of the the narrative arc we can see something more sinister at work. The phrase “normalise” is used throughout the episodes to refer to Zygons changing from an appropriated human state to their natural state. It is in Zygon-form that they are often at their most menacing, or are seen to attack others like Osgood or the leader-children, and it is while returning to Zygon form that the involuntarily-radicalised man accidently murders a number of people. In this context, “normalise” for the Zygon population appears to be inherently linked to being dangerous, destructive or indeed uncontrolled. Normal, in Zygon terms, is monstrous.

If the Zygon population is explicitly bound to refugees and/or Muslims, we cannot ignore the wider implications of the symbolic language being used here.

Ultimately, safety and peace are granted on “human” terms, which are explicitly being encoded as “Western”. The Doctor himself makes many eloquent points about the nature of war and forgiveness, which outside the context of this analysis are worth engaging with, particularly around personal responsibility and agency; however, the explicit thrust envisions a conflict proportioned between equals. In the context we cannot resolve the symbolic constructions between Zygon and Muslim populations inside an easy Western/Middle-Eastern conflict, within a binary duality. It bears no resemblance to the reality of the situation and envisions the disenfranchised as far more powerful than we allow them to be. The narrative itself fails to be quite as insightful as the Doctor’s declarations, too full of very real, very Western privilege that fails to accurately account for the symbolic resonances already established and their real-world application. It exemplifies a certain kind of attitude which doesn’t offer co-existence as much as tacit assimilation on the part of the minority population as the only viable solution to conflict. While the Zygon commanders are made representative of the totality of the Zygon population, Kate Stewart is never made to assume the same responsibility for the human/Western dynamic. Both the Doctor and Clara serve as explicit reminders that other forms of human authority and philosophy exist, while Osgood represents a form of hybridised identity, as you never know whether she is human or Zygon and she actively identifies as both. Safety and peace exists inside a hybridised union, couched in terms of human mainstream values. The Clara-Zygon ultimately takes on permanent human form, becoming one of the two Oswald-entities which embody the peace, but it is deeply important that this resolution rests on her adopting a familiar, human appearance. That she is alien is acknowledged, but that is in itself packaged within a human template and the Zygon desire to “be” is abandoned.

This is not to say that neither pop-culture nor fiction are the right place for this kind of conversation; they absolutely are. There are many effective examples. Battlestar Galactica, for instance, is one place in which we can see a well-constructed refugee narrative. The Fleet is metaphorically deployed in many ways over the course of four seasons, but certainly it stands out as a population in exile with no home, particular when they attempt to resettle and are occupied by Cylon forces. This narrative is in turn subverted by “The Woman King” episode which features a Sagittaron population transferred to the main (metaphorically privileged) ship of the Fleet, Galactica, where they are ignored, ill-treated and abused on the basis of their fringe religious beliefs. This duality invites us to examine ourselves in both the position of the disadvantaged and as privileged.

In fact, stories of radicalisation themselves are not even taboo. It’s just that they are, as in the case of Doctor Who here, regularly poor and offer little to the ongoing cultural conversation. A recent storyline from the Ms. Marvel series featured an arc with very clear evocations of radicalization. Unlike Doctor Who and many other narratives playing with this concept, Ms. Marvel’s protagonist, Kamala Khan, is a Muslim and is stewarded by American Muslim creators, writer G. Willow Wilson and editor Sana Amanat. The ‘Crushed’ arc introduces the child of friends of Kamala’s parents, who is, just like our eponymous hero, both Muslim and Inhuman. In less deft, careful hands even the confluence of those words would be problematic, such as when Doctor Who conflates the phrase “normalise” with becoming monstrous. However, when Kamran is radicalised it is not within the context of his religion. They are held out as separate expressions of identity, not dovetailed in symbolism. Kamran is an agent for Lineage, a recurring Marvel Universe villain attempting to co-opt the existing Inhuman power structures for his own benefit and dominance. When Kamran attempts to recruit, indoctrinate and coerce Kamala into joining the rebellion/splinter group/terrorist cell, it is a foregone conclusion that she will reject and defeat him. The narrative actually comes into its own when Kamran attempts to radicalize Kamala’s brother. Aamir has been characterized throughout Ms. Marvel as a devout, enthusiastic Muslim character, and essentially represents exactly the kind of figure Western discourse often pigeonholes as a potential or inevitable terrorist convert. After he is exposed to a (terrigen) catalyst that appears to transform him into an Inhuman, the metaphorical implication is that he is being forcibly radicalised. Again, in opposition the narrative promulgated by Doctor Who, this act fails to inspire any terror or new violence in brother. His response remains perfectly in character and is an utter rejection of any radicalised or terrorist principles. When Kamran explicitly mentions Aamir’s faith and disposition, this forms part of Aamir’s rejection and affords him and the narrative the space to explicitly remove his religious background from the metaphorical space occupying his potential Inhuman configuration. In this, the narrative offers something more substantial than Doctor Who’s somewhat lazy articulation of the Zygon/refugee dynamic.

That said, we must be clear that Doctor Who is not responsible for the idea that either Muslims or refugees are somehow inherently dangerous. Doctor Who is not responsible for the reaction to the Paris attacks and the blatant racism and Islamophobia publically on display. However, when those of us in positions of privilege construct narratives around current events and make real world parallels, it is necessary that we, so to speak, “punch upwards”. Instead of taking Kate Stewart or the Western-prefigured humanity fully to task for our failings, instead of a light rap on the knuckles for our military imperialism, instead of offering a solution of co-existence that required Western/human compromise instead of capitulation of the minority population, Doctor Who’s creators have pinned the plot on poor, lazy and reductive stereotypes. In the wake of Paris we can watch the results of those ideas in action.

Our fictions can show us who we are, and they can show us who we could be.

I have always felt Doctor Who is intended to be largely aspirational, that The Doctor was trying to show his companions the best face humanity could put forward. At times, Doctor Who has even achieved this, but with the Zygon arc, with its poorly wrought parallels to the modern refugee crisis, it has failed, and failed utterly Instead of offering us a better compromise, instead of offering us a new way to look at our own actions, our own guilt and complicity within the situation, it has only spun out the familiar mess of fears, prejudices, excuses and abhorrence hiding beneath our civilized skins.

Books You Could Give As Christmas Presents, If You Wanted!

Every January I seem to end writing a list of the best books I read in the last year or so, and I realised that isn’t very useful when Christmas happens right before that and people are looking for presents. So this year I’ve written out a bunch of my favourite books from the last two years or so that you could buy for people you like/are obligated to get gifts for. I’ve tried to pick a few in each of the various genres I read in, and there are some relatively “normal” books in there too.

Hope this helps someone.

Teen/YA Fantasy

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here Ireland/UK cover

The Rest of Us Just Live HerePatrick Ness

One of my favourite books ever, this maps the of every day survival of those kids who usually exist on the edge of fiction’s narrative – the characters who just

want to go to school, finish their exams and get to college, those kids who aren’t trying to save the world, just survive in it.

The Scorpio RacesMaggie Stiefvater

Every October on a small Celtic island, murderous water-horses emerge from sea and all life on the island becomes about the dangerous annual race across the island’s beaches on the backs of the blood-thirsty creatures. The book tells the story of two teenagers, Puck and Sean, who need to win because there isn’t any future for them otherwise.

A Song for Ella GreyDavid Almond

The legend of Orpheus is reconfigured into the modern day as seen from a teenage girl on the periphery of the tragedy.

Special Mention:

The Hunger GamesSuzanne Collins

Always worth mentioning in case people haven’t gotten around to it; the first book sees Katniss volunteer for the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister Prim, where teenagers are forced to compete in an annual Government-sponsored murder Olympics for the gleeful audiences of their nation’s Capital.

Fantasy

The Fifth Season - N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season N.K. Jemisin

In a world ravaged by tectonic instability, those with the power to control the earth are hated just as much as they are utterly necessary to the survival of the species. Dancing across multiple timelines, the narrative moves backwards from the cataclysm that ends the world, to the events that make it almost inevitable, and forward to the attempts of the survivors to live with the world left behind.

Scar NightAlan Campbell

The city of Deepgate lies suspended by chains over the pit of a great, sleeping demon, being fed the souls of the dead. When a string of murders threatens the whole city, it falls to a hapless teenage (angelic) boy, last of the line of angels who have defended the city for centuries, who can barely lift his father’s greatsword, let alone fly, his mentor, a teenage assassin, a bereaved father and a rogue, lethal angel who drinks mortal blood to sustain herself to stop the ancient demon from rising to claim the entire city.

House of Shattered Wings - Aliette de Bodard

House of Shattered Wings – Aliette de Bodard

The House of Shattered WingsAliette de Bodard

In a Paris ravaged by the fallout of the Great War of magic, dynasties of fallen amnesiatic angels rule what’s left. Their Empires are broken, their magic failing and the houses war amongst themselves for the scraps. Thrust into the midst of the bloody politics is a drug-addict doctor, a powerful, immortal immigrant from the colonies and a new, exceptionally powerful fallen angel.

Science Fiction

The MartianAndy Weir

When a NASA astronaut is left stranded on Mars, it’s up to him to figure out how to contact home and keep himself alive until a rescue mission can be staged.

A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

A Long Way to a Small, Angry PlanetBecky Chambers

Particularly for fans of Firefly and Mass Effect, it tells the story of a diverse, oddball crew on a job to a remote part of the Galaxy.

Ancillary JusticeAnn Leckie

The book follows the adventures of a fragment of a spaceship’s artificial intelligence housed inside repurposed human body, as she seeks to understand and avenge events that occurred two-decades previously.

Books that don’t fall into an easily explainable non-spoilerish catagory

The Bone ClocksDavid Mitchell

This was probably my favourite book from 2014.

The Girl With All The GiftsMR Carey

A tense, action-driving thriller full of mysteries and abrupt changes in dynamics.

Asking For It – Louise O’Neill

Asking For It – Louise O’Neill

Asking For ItLouise O’Neill

This is a rough, but great read that leaves you with lingering unpleasant but necessary considerations.

Ocean at the End of The LaneNeil Gaiman

A middle-aged man returns home for a funeral and relives events from his childhood in this dark, adult fairy tale.

Comics (safe for a young audience)

Ms. Marvel VOL. 1: No NormalG. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona

Marvel comics breakout new hero, Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager growing up in New Jersey, full of the kind of joyous energy that made Spider-Man’s earliest adventures so compelling.

Gotham Academy Vol. 1: Welcome To Gotham Academy - Becky Cloonan, Brendan Fletcher, Karl Kerschel

Gotham Academy Vol. 1: Welcome To Gotham Academy – Becky Cloonan, Brendan Fletcher, Karl Kerschel

Gotham Academy Vol. 1: Welcome To Gotham AcademyBecky Cloonan, Brendan Fletcher, Karl Kerschel

This book is essentially the answer to the question, “what if there was a Hogworth’s-type school in Gotham city?”

Lumberjanes, To The Max EditionNoelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, Brooke Allen

Teenage girls attending a summer camp for ‘hardcore lady-types’ quickly realise that all is not what it seems as they fight wolves, solve life-threatening puzzles and try to survive a conflict between Gods.

Comics (definitely not for kids)

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary MachineKelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Robert Wilson IV

Riffing off Blaxploitation films and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in equal measure, Bitch Planet takes place is a sci-fi misogynistic dystopia that is unfortunately not particularly far removed from our own broken social structures.

Injection, Vol 1 – Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire

Injection, Vol 1 – Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire

Injection, Vol 1Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire

Five gifted people decide to take the necessary steps to ensure that human ingenuity and discovery does not stagnate as they foresee it will and create an artificial, mythic intelligence to inject into the planet itself. Years later, the consequences of their actions become clear as the Injection reveals it has its own agenda.

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1: The Faust Act – Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1: The Faust Act – Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1: The Faust ActKieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson

 Twelve ancient Gods, modelled like contemporary pop-stars, are reincarnated every ninety years. In modern day London, where they will live out two years in the public eye before dying again, the twelve Gods emerge one by one, but when Lucifer is accused of murder, fangirl Laura is dragged into the web of their messy lives, and discovers that Godhood is not a simple as it appears.

Sandman OvertureNeil Gaiman, JH Williams III

Taking place just before the first volume of the original Sandman series, Overture is a great starting point and a wonderful way to that world.

Big Hard Sex Criminals HardcoverMatt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky

A sweet, honest romance that is nothing like the title makes it sound.

Pretty Deadly Vol. 1: The Shrike - Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire

Pretty Deadly Vol. 1: The Shrike – Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire

Pretty Deadly Vol. 1: The ShrikeKelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire

A gothic horror western filled with supernatural characters and small children.

Death VigilStjepan Sejic

Lovecraftian monsters fight holy reapers armed with everything from scythes to playing cards and feathers.

The Pillars of Ireland’s Homelessness Policy

We are less than a month from the first anniversary of Jonathan Corrie’s death, and as the reality of winter nights set it, it is becoming obvious that the crisis is worse than ever, as NGOs and charities cry out for Government action yet again.

The resources available to these frontline defenders proved insufficient many, many months ago, through no fault of their own, and the scale of failure of the Government’s “solutions” has, up until now, only been concealed by the summer and a relatively mild autumn. Homeless people have still been dying as a result of their circumstances, and as winter descends in earnest, we can only wonder what the toll will be this year.

You have to remember that Jonathan Corrie was not the only homeless person to die last winter. Most were considerably less high-profile, but Mr Corrie died in a very inopportune location for the Fine Gael/Labour administration, right out on their very doorstep. Writing last August, Gene Kerrigan set out explicitly how the Government’s homelessness policy was working to tackle the visible elements of the issue, rather than the root causes. One of his most notable comments bears repeating eternal: “if a set of circumstances persists for years, it is not a problem, it’s a policy.”

Since Mr Corrie’s death we have seen Minister Alan Kelly tasked with ensuring a solution to the problem was found. His solutions were welcomed at the time, with the caveat that they were short-term measures and long-term ones would need to be put in place. This autumn we were treated to a public disagreement between Kelly and the homelessness charities on the frontline of the issue, and in particular Peter McVerry. Conventional wisdom would suggest that if you are in a public disagreement with a campaigner the calibre of Peter McVerry, it might be worth re-evaluating your position.

However, Alan Kelly is not attempting to solve homelessness. That was never the task he was assigned. Alan Kelly is simply the public face of the Government’s attempts to negotiate a path through the homelessness crisis and appease public ill-will, without having to disturb or dismantle the pillars on which the crisis is built. It is my contention, following Kerrigan’s logic, that homelessness cannot be effectively tackled because of its intersection with three particular, often unadmitted Government policies. Specifically, the policies I am referring to are:

  • Devalued labour
  • Inflated property prices
  • Reduced public transport spending (which a view to privatisation)

In effect, these three pillars of the homelessness crisis are so bound up in the ideological underpinnings of the current Government and their devotion to free-market capitalistic ideals that it becomes functionally impossible for them to solve the homelessness crisis; homelessness is not a problem, it is the end result of policy.

The first issue here, that of devalued labour, has been a clear Government policy since its inception. When schemes like JobBridge and Gateway are providing what amounts to Government-mandated indentured labour, the effect on the workforce is blatant. Not only does it create mass amounts of essentially free labour, but it drives up competition for paying jobs in an economy that was, until recently, performing poorly in terms of job creation. When a surplus of workers clamour for jobs where pay is already devalued by sanctioned free labour schemes, wages could only ever go into free-fall. This was not an unforeseeable consequence of the internship culture inculcated by the Government. It was the intended result of their political policies.

The fact that wages are slowly beginning to creep back up, that jobs are being created again, that Generation Emigration is slowly trickling its way home, and that we can finally talk seriously about ending the monstrosity that is JobBridge doesn’t take away from the fact that the Government bartered our economic recovery on the backs of a generation forced into one of three unenviable options – providing their labour for nothing, seeking work and stability abroad or languishing in the soul-crushing destitution of unemployment and social welfare. Of course, we also decided that under-25s we not even entitled to the safety-net of full social welfare payments, which further fuelled the race-to-the-bottom devaluation of young people’s labour and their contribution to both society and the economy. Forced engagement with internships and the ensuing weakening of wages across the economy was sold on the back of an idea that young people needed to “learn” how to work, how to apply their skills to labour, but realistically this was only ever spin. We can see from the nature of so many of the available “internships” that they were far from “honest”; the idea that office workers, bio-chemists, chipper cooks and janitors all need “work-experience” in order to perform their daily tasks is a fairly derisible statement at the outset – once you add to this that the initial term for JobBridge labour was nine months and was later extended to eighteen, it becomes clear that people, particularly the young, were being asked to provide their labour for nothing, and that the “experience” ostensibly paid back to them was, and remains, poor compensation compared to a real wage.

We must be absolutely clear, creating free labour was a Government policy. Lowering wages was a government policy. Mass emigration was a Government policy. Devalued, exploitative labour made us an attractive market. Emigration kept the social welfare budget under control (and took away the voting rights of thousands upon thousands who won’t get a say in next year’s election). In a very real, tangible way, those of us who left and those of us who worked for little or for nothing purchased the economic recovery that the Government parties scramble to claim for themselves.

Now that we have purchased it, it wouldn’t be absurd to think that some effort at meagre recompense might be considered. Something extravagant would be tantamount to admitting this is what happened, so don’t expect that, but it wouldn’t be out of bounds to imagine that after re-floating the economy, the least our Government might do is ensure that we had adequate access to housing and other essentials. That the jobs we do have would be sufficient to purchase the shelter and food and amenities that we need for at least a basic standard of modern living should not be a radical concept.

But here we come directly into conflict with the next pillar of Government policy, inflating property prices. The argument will, I’m sure, be that these prices are simply still rising to their real level, their natural pre-crash state. However, given the number of people currently being priced out of the Dublin housing market, even for rental properties, we can safely suggest that the Government are far more concerned with the upper-middle class to upper-class property developers who are their core interest groups. They are concerned with allowing NAMA to dominate the housing market, creating an artificial bubble for banks and developers to recoup the money they didn’t make following the recession. In order to allow this to happen, no controls on rent or building or lending can be mandated, and certainly not ones which force down the price of houses. This is policy, not accident.

If we were to introduce much needed rent caps in Dublin city, what would be the outcome do you think? I imagine, for one, developers who are currently milking profits from the scarcity of available units might turn their collective attention to building new ones. After all, what profits cannot be achieved with a stranglehold on the market, could quite possibly be achieved by widening the availability of the product to more of the market. That’s not an insane proposition.

Where would these units magically appear from, someone will be wondering? Well funnily enough, many of them exist or are close to existing. Ghost estates litter the country, and empty fallow land still remains in many parts of Dublin itself. Some of these are, of course, slowly being exploited, but not so quickly as to ease the pressure on the market or slow down rapidly escalating house prices. If rent controls were set to keep rents reasonable inside Dublin you would likely find many of these properties utilised, new ones developed. Most importantly however, building outside of Dublin city, particularly on the fringes of the city’s catchment zone, would become a viable (or necessary) economic reality.

There is a caveat, though, to the concept of building outside of Dublin, and it is centred on the third pillar of the homelessness crisis that I have highlighted; public transport spending. This might seem like a tangential topic, but it intersects more specifically than is superficially obvious. In order for any new-built estates outside of Dublin to be effective in servicing the Dublin labour market, it is necessary to move the population into Dublin from far beyond the current expectations. It is unlikely that personal cars are the necessary solution. Firstly, cars are a luxury, though one made almost compulsory given Ireland’s transport infrastructure, and unless wages continue to scale upwards not always open to everyone. London is a perfect example of the less well-off being priced out of city locations, and London has far more real-estate than Dublin, even if it also has a much denser population. With the M50 is approaching is maximum capacity again and there being little or no more expansion possible along much of the route, road use cannot be relied upon to bring the necessary workers into the city regions. Even if the funding existed, even if the will existed, it might not be possible to create another high-capacity Dublin road route because there may not be anywhere to build it.

It seems likely that rail would provide a more realistic solution, if married with bus, metro and tram options, like expanding the LUAS far beyond its current projections. This kind of building project would actually generate a reasonable number of jobs and it makes sense right up until the moment you consider that the Government has been scaling back on bus and rail funding (a disputable but realistic claim), is engaged in constant legal and industrial disputes (via the proxy of “management” with workers, and has almost no realistic transport plan that envisions the increase in the Dublin catchment area. A number of further routes are expected to be privatized this year, and it seems likely that much like in Britain, the Government are engaged in tactics meant to underfund and devalue the transport system so that they can make a case to sell it off to private operators, much like they have done with waste collection and are trying to do with our water. In terms of public transport privatisation, it does not follow that privatisation is the same as complete de-regulation. It is far more likely that a huge de facto monopoly, which would bleed subsidies from the State for decades, would be sold off to private hands and kept in existence for as long as possible before any other competitors were even allowed into the market. Waste collection costs us more than ever, but there has been no new social or Government service that has sprung up since privitisation that we can point to and say, well at least we know where that money is now going. Instead we are paying the same and getting less and less. In some cases we are even paying more, as we lose services.

So in order to give the population of housing estates (that can’t exist because of one policy) access to the city, the Government would need to engage in a building programme that flies in the face of another policy. In order to give workers the ability to negotiate the kind of improved working conditions like flexible hours or working from home, or increased wages that would allow them to live inside the city itself, our politicians would be required to renounce a third policy, ending the glut of free and/or cheap labour. The result of maintaining all three policies, I hope I have managed to illustrate, projects definitively towards creating the conditions for a homelessness crisis that cannot be managed. As waged workers fill up more and more emergency accommodation, as better paid workers snap up the available rental and for sale properties, the more vulnerable are pushed further and further down the line, with only the overwhelmed frontline charities between them and living on the street. As the capacity of these services is swallowed up with people who should be in a position to see to themselves but cannot because of economic policies, the most vulnerable become the most likely to slip through the deepening, widening cracks spreading across the face of our society.

Just remember – remember, remember, remember – “if a set of circumstances persists for years, it is not a problem, it’s a policy.”

Remember that homelessness is, if not active Government policy, still the product of the political policies instigated and continued by Fine Gael and Labour. Homelessness is a choice that our officials are making, day in, day out. When the next person dies on our streets, remember whose policies made it inevitable.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here – Patrick Ness

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here Ireland/UK cover

I enjoyed The Rest Of Us Just Live Here so much I read it in essentially one sitting, stopping only briefly in the middle to make some toast. It’s thoroughly engrossing and if not for the actual physical need to ingest person-fuel – a weakness in my character, not the book itself – I probably wouldn’t have taken even that short break.

In many ways this book comes along as a sort of antidote to the habitual, ever-present trope of the extraordinary individual, the Chosen One. While I wouldn’t ever argue against that kind of narrative, and in fact I feel it has an important place in YA in particular, it is also refreshing to take a look at characters that inhabit their own story but who do not need to be the most super-special snowflakes without whom the universe dies in fire and blood. The story of The Rest of Us Just Live Here belongs to the people who sit on the margins of most other tales; the girl behind Harry Potter in Potions, hoping Snape doesn’t notice she didn’t do her homework; Buffy’s teenage neighbour, who pretends not to see her climbing out her bedroom window every other night. These are the characters who are just hoping to survive the Prom.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is concerned with the everyday lives of Mickey, his sister Mel, best friend Jared, and friend/love interest Henna, in the run up to their rapidly approaching graduation. While it is utterly bound up in natural concerns, it still manages to be full to the brim with pain and suffering, drama and unrestrained desires. In many YA texts, particularly in fantasy/horror/sci-fi, the supernatural or unreal, operates as a metaphor for real life issues that might affect teenagers; werewolves and puberty, vampires and sex (and not drugs for some reason), Government-engineered televised murder Olympics for the toll our social structures and expectations place on our youth. You know the kind of thing I mean.

In The Rest of Us Just Live Here, the eerie supernatural is a fact of existence and the characters are far more concerned with their personal problems. Cyclically reoccurring invasions of aliens, vampires and the like have inured the majority of the local teens to the issue, while the adults seem to mysteriously forget or, more likely, consciously fail to remember. The previous weird cycle, for instance, claimed Henna’s brother, but that loss is couched in real, human terms. Her reaction is not to embark upon a lifetime of vengeance-seeking violence, but rather to mourn and continue on, like any real teenager might. Mickey’s mental health issues are not a lead-in to dramatic psychic powers. Jared, being the exception that proves the rule, might be part-God, but he wants nothing to do with the strangeness breaching their story.

The book focuses on unrequited love, family tension, boy-band pop concerts and car-crashes more than magic, and cleverly displaces the expectations of the genre. The tale of the Chosen One, here nestled in the background figure of indie-kid Satchel, is sketched in amusing brevity in the chapter openings. The twisting, melodrama of that story makes a surreal companion to ordinary concerns of Mickey and his friends.

I found The Rest of Us Just Live Here a refreshing, captivating read, full of humour, sadness and hope, and well worth reading in one long night. Nearly a week later I’m still thinking about it. The best thing any book can do is stay with you after you’ve started something else.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is out now in Ireland and the UK, and will be released in the US in October. You should buy it.

On Inside Out and the Necessity of Sadness

(This is not actually a review or critique of Inside Out. It might be one or the other of my emotional state. Spoilers abound)

Inside Out

Inside Out

Last night I saw delightful children’s film, Inside Out, which just opened in Ireland. The twisting knife it jabbed joyfully into my insides has been working through me ever since.

Anyone who grew up with Disney and later Pixar cannot really claim to be surprised by the occasional emotional gut punch delivered by way of colourful children’s entertainment. I suspect Mufasa’s fall was my particular initiation but whether you first encountered it in Bambi or Finding Nemo, the existential tragedy of mortality has been Disney/Pixar’s stock in trade for generations.

Up, for instance, is perhaps the best example of this. Just think about that film, and you will find ghosts fluttering in the vaults of your memory. I think of my grandmother who died about six or seven months before I saw it. The first ten, fifteen minutes of Up stand as a mission statement for Disney/Pixar’s capacity and willingness to provoke distress. A friend of mine recently commented that Up is perhaps the most harrowing, honest short film about mortality ever made; the last hour is just sleight of hand to cheer us up. Wall-E, the ‘cute’ robot film, is not so much concerned with literal death, but it is still littered with stark images of decay, abandonment and isolation. The Sisyphean monotony of his task, as well as his heart-breaking optimism and crushing image of his loneliness conspire to present a bleak, melancholic view of our reality. The child viewer might, and I stress might, be assuaged by the ultimately happy resolution, but the older we get, the more we are forced to deal with unspoken, tragic vision of existence that lingers around the fringes of these narratives. We begin to recognise Wall-E’s wasteland in the inhabited world all around us.

Inside Out continues that proud tradition of ripping out your emotional heartstrings and playing with them for fun, even waving them gleefully in your face.

The story of Inside Out involves an eleven year old girl named Riley as she moves from Minnesota to San Francisco where her father is starting a new software company. Much of the plot, however, takes place inside Riley’s head, played out in the interactions between her anthropomorphised emotions. These emotions inhabit a control room inside Riley’s mind and are shown to be responsible for her daily interactions, and reactions. Irish and UK folks might be familiar with The Numbskulls from The Beano/Dandy, which operates on a similar concept. Let Amy Poehler (the voice of Joy) explain it much better than I can:

The plot largely revolves around the competing stresses placed on Riley as she negotiates the move, starting a new school, fitting herself and her needs into a new situation. The action plays out in the necessarily map-cap adventure undertaken by Joy and Sadness as they attempt to get back to Headquarters after getting lost in Long-Term Memory. We also get glimpses inside the heads of other characters, to see their emotional make up. For instance, while Joy is the ‘lead’ emotion for Riley, Sadness and Anger take point for her mother and father respectively.

If the deck seems stacked in favour of emotional distress, you can believe me when I say I was prepared for that. I didn’t quite expect, however, that days later I’d still be picking it over, examining myself and my new (and/or suddenly exposed) neuroses. I have spoken a little, here, about my particular sense of self, and while Inside Out hasn’t quite provoked a crisis of identity, it has certainly encouraged me to starkly examine some realities I generally rather leave to hang around the edges of my consciousness. I imagine it is hard to watch the personified antics of the Emotions, without at some point finding yourself wondering about your own emotional make-up, which leads quite directly to wondering about your emotional health.

This act, perhaps, is innocently curious for a child. The question, “Who Am I?” is fundamental and foundational, after all. As we age, I feel like it becomes increasingly fraught with terrors and disappointments; the edifice on which we build ourselves becomes infinitely more prone to fracture as it solidifies. In this respect, the challenge of self-examination presented by the film becomes more emotionally charged. Indeed, for adults, I feel like each of these films carries a darker, bleaker undercurrent. When my sister brought my younger cousins to Toy Story 3, she bawled crying (as so many of us did), during that particular scene in the rubbish incinerator. My cousins, the children, the supposed audience, saw this as standard film threat, soon to be resolved. For my sister, for us adults, it is not the threat of death, but the toys’ resigned resilience to it that engenders our reaction. It is the sight of them as they reach for one another, joining hands, in the face of certain death, that brings us to tears. We wonder, I suppose, if we will face our ends with such composure? If we will be lucky enough to be in such fine company when our time runs out? If we will, as we secretly suspect, be alone when our day comes? We know, with certainty, there is no Claw coming to our rescue.

Toystory3-36

That is not to say, however, that adults and children have wholly irreconcilable experiences of these films. Disney’s continuing commitment to plumb the depths of emotional turmoil actually provides fertile ground for mutual understanding. For parents/guardians/teachers or even simply adults who are willing to engage with these concepts, they can provide excellent tools. While a child is busy following the bouncing giddy adventures through these lavish imaginary landscapes, they are also developing the vocabulary to discuss mortality, death, loneliness and tragedy. This is healthy, and indeed helpful. Both communication and society are built on the foundation of shared vocabulary. In the case of Inside Out, it seems clear that the creators (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Jonas Rivera) have done an amazing job creating a largely accurate template by which adults and children can engage with their emotional structure. You can read more on that here, here, and here.

Of course I cried. Of course I did. I’ve never hesitated to cry for unreal worlds, imaginary people. In real life, in my real life, when these moments come there is so often so much, too much, to be done and there’s no time for tears. I know I cried for my grandfather, in the dark outside the pub after his funeral, when I lied and went to smoke a cigarette alone so no one would see. My grief doesn’t belong to anyone but me.

It is so much easier to cry for fiction.

There are moments of supreme sadness in Riley’s story throughout Inside Out. As adults we’re probably quite familiar with the elements of loss that pervade the narrative; her friend Meg, left behind in Minnesota; the (thankfully brief) collapse of her love of a particular hobby; and interestingly, the loss of her “goofball” aspects. Watching these pieces fall into oblivion, and seeing how that warps her reactions in the real world, I can’t think of any more appropriate response than grief. We’re not simply responding to Riley, of course. In many respects, we’re also drawn into considering the aspects of ourselves that have been shed, abandoned or destroyed in the march to maturity. For Riley, these tragedies are worked out positively by the narrative, but the film never strays too far into fantastical optimism.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Inside Out is its concern with the concept of sadness. Not just grief, but the more pervading, engulfing, lingering kind of sadness. The film has a remarkably mature attitude to Sadness. We live in a cultural and social construction where sadness is often framed in a particularly negative context. There is a pressure, which we all sometimes unconsciously collude in, to be happy. Be careful, when reading the word sadness, not to conflate it with depression; depression, as much I can condense something so vast and poorly understood, is perhaps differentiated from sadness by a sense of emptiness. It is marked by its hopelessness, pessimism, guilt, a sense of worthlessness, helplessness, mania and/or fatigue.

Sadness is not this.

We live in a damaged, broken world, and we are damaged, broken people. It is all right to mourn, from time to time. This is something that is not merely neglected by our mainstream, utterly consumerist society; you are not meant to be unhappy. If you are, there is a solution. There is a product. A distraction. There is something to consume. “Why are you not happy?” you are asked. “Well here then!” you are told.

Sadness is often considered as a selfish act, particularly in public. Who among us hasn’t demanded, or begged, either ourselves or another person to cheer up, to put on a brave face? I am certainly guilty of both. However, sadness is not easy, and comes with specific and awful burdens. It is a great strength of Inside Out that its resolution revolves around the acceptance of sadness.

I want to note here that there is a lot of symbolic importance in making Riley female, as girls and women often face more explicit societal calls to police their emotional responses, and to perform happiness publically. There is a mountain of reasoning behind having “Goofball Island” be the first personality trait to crumble as Riley negotiates growing up. Riley’s turmoil extends from the fact that her parents need her to act “happy” while her father deals with the stress of setting up his new life. Riley doesn’t want to make it any harder, but in denying her authentic emotional response her repression leads to frustrated, explosive bursts of erratic behaviour and upset. When she finally explains to her parents that she misses home, and articulates her sadness, she also begins to function emotionally again. Both Joy and the audience are expressly invited to examine how Sadness is necessary, how it can be useful, and that there is often a profound need to experience it. When Riley cries, for instance, her parents comfort her; but more explicitly, metaphorically, once Sadness is returned to the control room and allowed to act, Riley’s internal workings begin to function again.

It is possible that Inside Out’s message can operate as a much needed panacea to the Latter Day Cult of Positivity that infects our culture. In one way, this manifests as the aforementioned casual, omnipresent insistence that we preform public happiness, in our social circles, in our work, etc. There are those who consciously press the ideology further, insisting that performed happiness will contribute to real joy, even in private. These are the people who (often innocently) tell you to think positive thoughts. They are those who insist that if you want something hard enough, that if you preform positivity well enough, the universe will provide. Whole industries exist around this dogma, selling “wellness” like it’s a shower gel. Businesses bring in agencies to teach “work-life balance” but essentially operate on the principles of enforced optimism, coerced public happiness. Rather than address the significant issues that threaten public/staff/personal moral, we are trained to buy into the cult of delusional positive thinking. Any sadness, unhappiness, or anxiety that cannot be bought off with material products or expensive mental rhetoric is rendered taboo.

Inside Out affirms the right of people to be emotionally honest, not only with themselves, but with society at large. It affirms the absolute necessity of this act. The most personally profound realisation I had, since watching the film, is the idea that Sadness is most likely my ‘lead’ emotion, that it is my core. It is not that I have realised I am in some way more sad than I had previously believed; I know, with varying degrees of insight, who I am. I still feel like Inside Out provides a new critical tool for measuring my internal structure.

I’m well aware that I struggle with anxiety and stress. I grind my teeth in my sleep to the extent that I’ve literally shattered one of them. My job sucks, I’m broke and I work hard at a long-term solution that eats up most of my free time, leaving me with little or no time to enjoy myself. The best hours of the twenty-four come on either end of too little sleep, either in the swimming pool before work, or reading before bed at night. I’m relatively lucky that I have good friends and reasonably stable support structures, as well as enough money to cover my dental costs. That doesn’t invalidate my problems.

We live in a broken society with a constantly widening gap between rich and poor, continued explicit assaults on every aspect of social progress in the name of austerity. Internationally, xenophobia and racism are on the rise. Cultural, political and social apathy fester like a sore. The pervading socio-political structure seeks to commodity and control women’s bodies and actively, insidiously orchestrates my participation. Dangerous machismo lurks at every turn, offering a place at the foot of a table I don’t want to sit at in exchange for becoming my worst self, in exchange for damaged mental health and a heap of vague but supposedly glittering rewards. Just because I’m privileged enough that many of these issues don’t directly affect me, or affect me less than others, doesn’t mean they don’t impinge on my mental outlook.

I know I’m lucky. I know I’m sad.

Sometimes I am sad about things actively happening my life. Sometimes I am sad because of what I see when I look at the world. And sometimes, even when I am enjoying myself, I know that the entire superstructure of my selfhood is tinted entirely with a morose, pessimistic blueness. I can look at a beautiful sunset and think first of the day the sun will swallow our world, and worry that we won’t have gotten off the planet before it happens. That we might have already wiped ourselves out before ever having a shot at Earth 2.0. That perhaps every intelligent species in the universe grows up alone and dies the same way, never meeting, whole universes and eons distant from each other. That maybe it’s the same for people.

So, yes – I think that Sadness is the primary emotion in my metaphorical control room. I don’t imagine that Joy and Sadness are inherently opposite, and to its credit, neither does Inside Out. Rather than being at war with each other, they have their own specific functions. Sadness runs the show. Fear and Anger act as stalwart lieutenants, providing the heavy lifting, the fuel and determination to exist. Disgust keeps us from trusting broccoli. For me though, Joy will perhaps always be a small, flitting thing, precious and wondrous, but utterly fragile. That is not to say that I am not often happy; it is just small, mixed and tinged with a hint of melancholy. Joy, pure and alone, comes in only the stillest, rarest of moments.

I am a broken thing, damaged and warped by traumas and anxieties and neuroses I cannot even remember or articulate, and I am built of memories and dreams and hopes and responses that come because of and despite this damage. I am formed of the scar tissue left in the wake of my life. I exist as I am because of my experiences, and much like Riley, like all of us, my core is shaped by hurt and loss, disappointment and sadness, as much as joy and love and support.

It is interesting that Riley’s mother’s lead emotion is also Sadness. Yet, she is a fully functioning, caring and committed individual – she is not in any way lessened, broken or damaged simply because of her emotional construction. This, I believe, is the essential message of the film. Who we are, who we have come to be, by way of experience and fracture, is profoundly correct. You are entitled to be angered by this world, its injustices and failures. You can laugh at its silliness and be awed by its majesty. You can mourn it. No matter how you are built, what life has carved into you or how the scars have healed over, you are still an authentic self. You get to choose what to do with who you are.

So I shall fear, and I shall rage. I will have my moments of joy, precious, quiet and still.

And right down in my deepest core, I shall be sad.

And I shall be me.