Morgan (2016)

Minor spoilers ahead, but still a lot less revealing than the trailer.

I’m feeling a little lonely here. Few people seem to like Morgan, the 2016 sci fi thriller written by Seth Owen and directed by newcomer Luke Scott. Among its producers is Luke’s rather more famous father, Ridley Scott, which I guess explains why Luke got such a stellar cast for his feature-length directorial debut.

Research facility

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy, who looks like she might be Hollywood’s new It-Girl) is a genetically engineered child – the ‘L-9 prototype’ – with advanced, accelerated emotional and physical development. Something is clearly wrong with her design however; when Dr Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells Morgan that she won’t be allowed to go outside for a while, Morgan stabs her repeatedly in the eye.


Morgan, missing the outdoors

A corporate risk management consultant, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent to assess the viability of the project, as explained by a voiceover from her superior, played by Brian Cox. Lee is a stone-cold professional whose ruthless manner doesn’t go down well with most members of the team of specialists who designed, created and care for Morgan, because they’ve come to see her as their child, and formed a kind of family unit around her. Instead of lab tests and training sessions, video footage of the L-9 project shows the team playing with Morgan outside and throwing her a birthday party. They speak of her with pride and love, and Lee crisply tells them that Morgan is not a ‘she’ but an ‘it’ who has no rights whatsoever.

Lee Weathers

Lee Weathers

Because it concerns a young, artificial creature whose humanity is called into question, considers the difficulty of humans having close or intimate relationships with artificial beings, and features an isolated research facility in the woods, Morgan gets compared to movies like Splice (2009) and Ex Machina (2014), and it doesn’t fare well. The other two are genuinely interested in the methods and ethics of creating artificial life. In Scott’s movie, it’s not long before you stop asking whether Morgan can truly feel human emotion and settle down to see if she can beat Lee in brutal hand-to-hand combat or not.


The house. Surely nothing bad could happen here

Morgan gleams with potential but remains determinedly superficial. For example, when Dr Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti!) conducts a psych evaluation, he interrogates Morgan about the fact that she calls the team her friends. She may consider them friends, he says, but do they consider her as such? Would a friend keep you locked in a cage? It’s a good question. Can the scientists be her friends in any meaningful way? Can you be friends with a person or creature you created to be a weapon, a ‘potential product line’? What responsibilities do Morgan’s creators have towards her? Well, think about that on your own time; this film just gets violent.


The psych evaluation

Similarly, there’s the troubling question of Morgan’s relationship with behaviourist Amy (Rose Leslie) who has ‘boundary issues’. Amy is clearly attracted to Morgan and the feeling may be mutual. There’s no evidence that their relationship has become intimate, but it could, if given the opportunity. The thing is, Morgan is five years old. What the fuck is Amy doing? Then again, Morgan develops at an accelerated rate, so she already looks like a teenager, and she has enhanced emotional development. She’s a new kind of life form, so we can’t necessarily judge their relationship according to the usual standards. If this sounds complicated, well, you need not worry because the movie doesn’t have the guts to take it any further anyway.



I wondered though, if Morgan is manipulating Amy and the other characters, perhaps to ensure her own survival or just because that’s how she’s learned to be around people. We know that she has some level of precognition, as demonstrated when she gets under Dr Shapiro’s skin by revealing that he has a daughter who he doesn’t get to see very often. How much of her behaviour involves her ‘reading’ people and behaving in whatever way they want or expect her to behave? Not that that’s especially disturbing; isn’t it just an enhanced version of how most people behave? Nevermind – skip to action sequence.


Amy and Morgan, crossing boundaries

Despite its commitment issues, I like Morgan. A lot. It isn’t the cerebral sf thriller that it might look like, or that its cast seems to suggest it is but it’s way better than most of the commercial sf out there, especially the superhero movies that get much more attention. I’m comparing them because Morgan gave me the entertainment I want but seldom find in the latest blockbusters. I don’t expect them to be brilliant; I just want them to be fun, but they’re way too long and they generate such little interest in the characters and plots that even the action scenes bore me. They waste my time.

Morgan didn’t. It’s fast-paced and efficient, stylish, and exceptionally beautiful to look at. I like the colour palettes and the way they shift with the narrative. Most of the major characters are female and the film doesn’t objectify them.

It successfully occupies an interstitial space that’s thoughtful enough to engage my intellectual interests, then indulge my mindless ones. It blooms with ideas, but avoids the risks of dealing with them. Yes, that’s cowardly. It starts out smart and geek-chic, then goes mainstream. That can be seen as a good thing, not because martial arts are more exciting than moral debates, but because the latter requires a deft touch. Of course, I have no idea if Seth Owen and Luke Scott were up to the task; I’m saying it might have been worse if they’d tried and performed poorly. As it is, I found plenty to think about, to enjoy, and I can’t argue with my own satisfaction.

Weblog 2 May 2017

I don’t want to give up on this blog. It’s spoken for me when I was quiet or absent. It spoke to more people than I do, generally, or made introductions for me. It’s my body of work. Right now, it might be half-dead if not deceased, but in the sff world death is merely a state between being. A wood between worlds.

This post is the beginning of an experiment in very literal blogging – i.e. web logging – and an attempt at revival. I should know, from all the stories I like, that this often leads to things like the zombie apocalypse, but M.R. Carey proved that even that can offer up beautiful new things.

The journal form is amorphous enough to fill the increasing space between my reviews with any content I think is worth sharing. I still read quite a bit. It’s also easier to manage than essay-length reviews, while helping me work my way towards those reviews. And keeping a journal is just something I do anyway.

I was going to list the ideas I’ve had for the Weblog, but since  all my other blog serials tripped and died – sometimes right at the start – I’m just going to leave this here and see what happens.


Find me on Instagram @violin_ina_void

The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett

the-liminal-peopleTitle: The Liminal People
Series: Liminal #1
Ayize Jama-Everett
Small Beer Press
 January 2012
 science fiction, fantasy, thriller, superheroes
own copy

It’s a rare pleasure to read something without knowing anything about it (and if you want to do the same, I’ll just tell you now that I recommend this very highly). The Liminal People came in a Small Beer Press Humble Books Bundle I bought a while back and I read it because it I was looking for something fresh and well-crafted but relatively short. I trusted Small Beer to provide both quirk and class and I got exactly what I didn’t know I needed: a pacey sff thriller with edgy writing I want to read all day and some very cool ideas.

Taggert calls himself a healer, but although that word captures the core of the person he considers himself to be, it doesn’t accurately describe the extent of his powers.

I read bodies the way pretentious, East Coast Americans read the New Yorker. With a little focus, I can manipulate my body and others’ on a molecular level. With a lot of focus, I can push organs and whole biological systems around.

What this means is that when Taggert is in close proximity to someone, he can gauge their psychological state (happy, anxious, finger-on-the-trigger) by reading things like heart rate, muscle tension, body chemistry, etc. He can see what medical problems they’ve had, have or might develop, and what kind of physical state they’re in (“The veins are tight, lots of blood coursing through them. She’s been working out.”). He can hack bodies and heal them, but those same abilities allow him to cause insane levels of damage and pain. He can instantly turn hereditary defects into immediate suffering or force the body to turn on itself in the most excruciating ways. Or he could just make snipers take a nap and help an anxious kid stay calm.

Taggert can also transform his own body, even changing his melanin count:

I need to be less black to pull this off, so I focus until I can tell that I probably look mulatto. I close off my hair follicles and pull the thick mats that I have out and flush them down the toilet. Then I focus on slick black hair, coated in oil. I let it grow until I can fix a small rubber band at the base of my neck. Since I’m at a toilet I vomit up sixty-five pounds, making sure to check my discharge for too much stomach acids. I just need to lose the pounds, not my voice. When I step out I look like a sexy young intern that works too hard.

He’s a very useful person to have around, which is why his boss, Nordeen, keeps him on a very short but comfortable leash. Nordeen has some kind of mysterious power that Taggert cannot figure out, claiming only that he can’t be lied to.

It’s enough to keep Taggert in check and he’s ok with being a crime lord’s pawn largely because he’s a self-reflective man who wants to understand his power, and Nordeen was the first person to mentor him, a kind of terrifying father-figure:

If you can understand why I stayed with Nordeen, then you can understand me a little better. I’m not a sycophant. I don’t crave power, nor do I have a desire to be under anyone who does. Nordeen’s description of the power inside of me was perfect: “the thing that decided to take up residence inside of me.” On rough days, it made me feel like an alien beast or, as Yasmine would say, like a freak. But on good days, when I exercised my power in right relation to the world, I felt nearly unstoppable. I grew with power. Living a bipolar life, rocketing between freak and human, made me long for some stability. And despite the bowel-spilling terror Nordeen invoked, he offered that. I knew that under his protection and guidance I would learn more about myself.

Taggert’s stability is disrupted when his ex-girlfriend uses an untraceable, one-time-only phone number to call him for help. Yasmine was – is – the love of Taggert’s life, despite the fact that she called him a freak, something he never really got over. He’s still angry, but he loves her without requiring anything in return, and of course he’s harbouring all sorts of hopes about what her desperate call for help might mean for their relationship. More importantly though, when he promised to come if she ever needed him, he meant it. So he gives Nordeen as little of the truth as he can and escapes Morocco for London, where Yasmine’s daughter has gone missing. Searching for her brings Taggert into contact with an underground exisitence of other powers like him and, as Nordeen has warned him, ‘People like us tend to stay away from each other for good reason’. However, it’s not clear if that’s true or if Nordeen is just manipulating him.

I’ve mentioned before that the current glut of superhero movies – ranging from decent to Jesus Christ how could it possibly be this shit – have given me superhero fatigue. Right now, it’s a genre defined by mildly entertaining mediocrity, but maybe I should be looking at superhero novels, if The Liminal People is anything to go by. It has so much more nuance and style that it has me rethinking the potential of the superhero. We tend to exploit them for sfx orgies but these days they almost completely fail to satisfy my (now dwindling) desire for big-budget spectacle. Taggert, however, is more impressive than any superhero I’ve seen in a long time; why is that?

Firstly, it’s great to have a black superhero and a diverse cast of characters for a change, not only as a matter of authenticity but because it’s more interesting than the bland norm of the white western male. An added bonus is that racial identity is significant, and not only in comparison to whiteness. Taggert is not a character who happens to be black but could be white with a few simple tweaks. He sees his identity as being rooted in blackness, but this doesn’t mean his life is consumed by racial oppression. This is about who he is, who he chooses to be, and the stories he involves himself in. I’m not dismissing stories about racism, but they’re heavy as fuck, so it’s cool to read a book about a black dude that isn’t all about what white people have done to him.

Secondly, I like the way Taggert has mastered his abilities. Many superheroes seem to look inward: it’s all about understanding their own mechanisms and learning to use them with greater precision or potency. Taggert’s approach is different: he fine tunes his skills but he also educates himself. He studies physiology, neurology, psychology, genetics, etc. because his talents would be crude if he didn’t understand all the complex systems her was working with. The following character analysis he does on a teenage girl is a good example of how he rings together his powers, education, intuition and life experience:

One day she’ll be fat and bloated, like her mother; I can already feel a slower metabolism than normal. Which is why she smokes, so she doesn’t have to eat and so she doesn’t have to work off those calories.

Taggert is one of the most intelligent, highly educated superheroes out there, but without being the kind of cliché troubled genius we see in Tony Stark or Dr Strange. Part of his appeal is also philosophical: Taggert is constantly reflecting his past, his morals, his relationships (with his brother, Nordeen, Yasmine). He wants to figure out what it means to have powers, and to exist in a world with others like him.

The novel occasionally falls prey to the common pitfalls of superhero stories though. There’s some overdone posturing and a floppy one-liner or two. Taggert can be too slick at times, and I got tired of the way he oversexualises Yasmine, especially when he describes her breasts as “heaving and falling quicker than California tectonic plates”. Tectonic plates? Really? I get that he’s intensely attracted to her and his feelings are exacerbated by an obsessive longing that’s stayed strong for almost two decades, but I’m not exactly moved when I see this expressed as tits-and-ass lust.

I can let that slide though, because I love pretty much everything else about this book. It’s helping save the superhero.

The horses of Westworld

(Don’t worry, this is spoiler-free.)

I’ve fallen all the way down the rabbit hole of fan theories about HBO’s Westworld, which is currently my favourite show. With so many online conversations about what’s really going on and how it’s going to turn out, I don’t see much point in adding my speculation, but there are lots of other details I really enjoy about the show.

One random thing I love is that the horses never get shot.

I hate having to watch the animal brutality in movies and series involving horses and violence (e.g. Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings), even though the focus is seldom on the animals’ suffering, but in Westworld the bullets never hit horses. There are loads of scenes with multiple characters firing rounds, killing plenty of hosts but leaving the horses untouched. Two characters even use gatling guns without a single horse being harmed.

It’s unrealistic, but in the context of the park it makes sense. The horses are all machines, presumably so that no one has to deal with real animals, who would need food, water, rest, medical care and so on, all of which would spoil the guests’ fun and require a lot of menial labour from the staff. Robot horses would also do as they’re told, so they can all be used by guests who aren’t skilled riders, and hosts don’t have to be programmed to deal with the temperaments of actual animals.


If the horses got shot, the Westworld staff would have to repair them. They could do this easily, but why waste time and resources on that? The guests aren’t there to hurt animals – the ones who come to the park to indulge their suppressed brutality want to inflict their cruelty on people. Plus, wounded or dead horses might leave guests stranded. It’s more convenient for everyone if they’re safe from most forms of harm.

As we’ve seen, the ‘smart’ guns or bullets can injure or kill hosts but not humans. They also seem to be coded for accuracy: guests and hosts can all take out a target with one shot, which usually hits the heart or left shoulder, and while hosts could shoot accurately because they’re robots, the human guests wouldn’t all be so good at it. So the guns/bullets and arrows are coded, I’m guessing, to avoid shooting horses.

This is no doubt a minor detail to some, but for those of us who worry more about whether the dog is going to make it than the main character, it makes Westworld that much more enjoyable.

Notes on Doctor Strange


A disclaimer: I didn’t read the comics and I don’t plan to, so these are just thoughts on the movie as an isolated entity. I’m rapidly losing interest in superhero movies as they become increasingly disappointing, so I didn’t follow the film’s development, except to read an article or two when a friend mentioned the whitewashing of The Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton. Still, I hold out hope that these movies will at least be fun to watch, and Marvel has been doing far better than DC in this regard.

A visually beautiful, trippy movie. No complaints there. It seems I can still be swayed by aesthetically pleasing action.

Oh cool, a white dude travels to the East to learn some esoterical shit and shortly after he has to to save the world because none of the POC characters who have been training for years – particularly Mordo, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – are as special as him. You can just smell how fresh this plot is.

heading-east But I won’t lie – I like Benedict Cumberbatch. That voice. Those eyes. That snooty sarcastic genius typecast he’s fallen into. I don’t care that his face is weirdly long. I’m only human; I have my weaknesses okay.

On Christine, the ER surgeon and ex-lover played by Rachel McAdams: one of only two women in this Bechdel-test fail, Christine exists purely for Stephen’s sake. At the beginning, she directs his attention to a dying patient with a unique injury so we can see what an awesome neurosurgeon he is. During the course of the movie, she always happens to be at the hospital (but unoccupied) when Stephen rocks up needing her help. The only time we see her anywhere else is during Stephen’s recovery, when she delivers food to his home and informs the audience that he’s gone broke trying to fix his ruined hands. Christine has no life or personality outside of the functions she serves for Stephen Strange. The fact that she’s a surgeon is not enough to make her a strong female character. She hardly has any character.


Supporting character

Tilda Swinton’s action scenes are the best. I found her stereotypical guru persona banal (blah blah blah mystical wisdom blah) but I loved watching her mind-bend architecture with signature elegance.

The villains suck. Their multidimensional plot is a one-dimensional scheme of bland evil with the usual small-minded goal of becoming uber-powerful and taking over the world, causing spectacular destruction in the process. I barely know what Mads Mikkelsen was on about when he explained the reasoning for this in that one scene (where, for some reason, he just couldn’t kill Strange, despite him being a total noob), but it didn’t seem to matter. All you need to know is that the baddies are going to destroy the world, and must be stopped. By Strange, who is the only one smart enough to figure out how, obviously.

Dr Strange’s red cloak is a more enjoyable character than Mads Mikkelsen’s. This is one of the main reasons I’m getting sick of superhero movies: the characters are so flat I don’t actually care what happens to them, and the spectacular action scenes are rendered meaningless. This isn’t quite the case in Doctor Strange, which has just enough charm to get by.

There are quite a few funny moments. This movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. That said, I’m slightly discomfited by the way Wong (played by Benedict Wong) mostly seems to be there so Stephen can make fun of him for our amusement.

 Entertaining, but I wouldn’t watch it again.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Title: Sorcerer to the Crown
Series: Sorcerer Royal #1
Zen Cho
Pan Macmillan
 September 2015
eARC from the publisher


In Regency London, Zacharias Wythe has just become the first black African Sorcerer Royal. Besides stepping into a minefield of bigotry, he takes up his position at a time of crisis for the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers – England is suffering from a shortage of magic, a calamity that Z has a duty to address in addition to sorting out the Government’s diplomatic gaffe with the witches of another country and the rumours that he murdered the previous Sorcerer Royal, who happened to be his adoptive father.

To escape London for a few days, he travels out of town to give a speech at a school for gentlewitches, where girls of the upper and middle classes are taught to suppress their magical powers. Because, obviously, women are too frail for thaumaturgy. The illogic of misogyny is in full force here. Zacharias has long suspected this assumption to be false, and has in fact been researching the household magic often practiced by female servants but ignored by the gentry. The wilful blindness of bigotry is in full force too. Zacharias’s suspicions are confirmed when the girls show more natural thaumaturgical skill than displayed by the Royal Society snots.

He also meets the formidable Prunella Gentleman, an English–Indian orphan who was taken in by the schoolmistress as a baby. Prunella has such a natural talent for magic that she can throw together complicated impromptu spells whenever she needs them. But unlike Zacharias, who had the advantage of genuinely loving parents, her benefactor sees her more as a prized servant than a daughter, and offers her nothing more than a life of servitude.

Prunella is not the sort of person to accept this bullshit, and when she discovers priceless thaumaturgical treasures left behind by her father, she decides to pursue the life she knows she deserves. She throws on an invisibility spell as easily as a coat and stows away with Zacharias. He’s appalled at the impropriety but hopes her talents will change English society’s beliefs about women, and takes her on as an apprentice.

Sorcerer to the Crown is an absolute delight from beginning to end. It’s charming and funny, full of action, engaging characters and thoughtful worldbuilding. The language is rather pompous if not outright purple, but the style is quite suitable. You get the sense that Cho had a lot of fun with the bombastic sentences and archaic words, and I did too. But where the novel really excels is in its depiction of prejudice and intersectionality. I’m seriously impressed with what Cho has achieved here.

From the moment he steps into the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers at the vulnerable age of six, Zacharias understands that he represents the entire black race to these old white men. That’s one of the ways in which bigotry functions: people aren’t viewed as individuals but as undifferentiated parts of a monolithic group. The behaviour of one is used to characterise all, usually only when it’s negative. When Zacharias casts a spell to demonstrate his magical abilities, he’s not just proving that he deserves a place in the Society – he’s fighting the assumption that black people are little more than talking animals. And he has to do it as a tiny child with a crowd of strange old men grumbling about being “summoned to watch a piccaninny stutter” (4). If he fails, they’ll never chalk it up to nerves, intimidation or youth; they’re going to say that black people are stupid and can’t do magic.

Of course Zacharias performs brilliantly, but since racism isn’t rational, no amount of talent can dispel the general belief that he’s a barbarian. The fact that he wields the staff that only the chosen Sorcerer Royal could wield grants him tenuous acceptance only because no one can argue with the fact of the staff. However, Zacharias doesn’t have a familiar, which is highly irregular. And because he was the last person to see Sir Stephen before he died, and he’s never revealed exactly what happened that night, some members of the Society are inclined to believe he murdered his benefactor. Never mind that Zacharias was, in part, so traumatised by the death of his father that he hasn’t been able to talk to these assholes about it.

His relationship with Sir Stephen isn’t a simple one though. He loves his father and is loved in return, but being both adopted and black, he treaded carefully for fear that “he might find he was no longer wanted” (17). As a result, “their relationship could never have been mistaken for one of equality” (120).

Sir Stephen lives on as a ghost and communicates regularly with Zacharias, and it’s interesting to see how death has changed their relationship. Zacharais can be more straightforward with his father, because he no longer has to worry about being left destitute. The gaps created by “wealth, influence age and obligation” […] had closed imperceptibly” and Zacharias is able “to see in the spirit the frailties of the man” (120).

And Sir Stephen certainly has his shortcomings; he’s not an unfailingly good, wise saviour figure. For example, he only signed Zacharias’s emancipation papers when he was thirteen. You’d think he would not have dithered when freeing his son from slavery, but he’s perhaps too comfortable to be truly revolutionary. One of the moments I find notable in the book is when Sir Stephen reprimands Zacharias for being overzealous about reform: “But you have not my advantages, you know. Besides, I know my limits, my dear fellow – I know my limits” (81).

Yes, Sir Stephen is suggesting that social reform is best handled by the privileged, and you don’t want to change things too much because, I suppose, it’s hard to keep a stiff upper lip with society shifting towards equality beneath you. What I like about this exchange is that these words are literally uttered by an old dead white man whose character isn’t purely good or evil, just tainted by privilege. As generous and well-meaning as Sir Stephen is, he was never going to change society.

Mind you, Z isn’t a radical either. Raised to be a consummate gentleman, his reaction to racism has been to counteract stereotypes by being as dignified and disciplined as possible:

His chief aim had always been that he should stand beyond reproach in word and deed, since his colour seemed to prove a ground for any allegation. (236)

What this means, is that he’s a stiff, reserved person. He never loses his poise, which may be admirable, but it’s because he doesn’t have the freedom to do so:

his life had been such as to cultivate his ability to feign complaisance even when he was angriest. For all the privileges Sir Stephen’s patronage had lent him, Zacharias could not often afford the liberty of honest emotion. (41)

So Zacharias is character within a character; his civility [is] a polite fiction, disguising very different feelings (171). You don’t quite see the dual nature of his existence in the book, perhaps because his true side has been so deeply suppressed, but the issue is there and it’s something I’d be interested to see developed in later books.

Prunella is a stark contrast; she’s my new role model for not giving a fuck. She knows she’s talented and pretty and is never afraid to admit it or use it to her advantage. She’s got little regard for etiquette or anyone’s convenience, but she’s not a boor. She’s ruthless yet kind. She’s not interested in pleasing anyone but herself and it’s this selfishness that empowers her and saves her from being boring. It also gives her the means to change society in ways that Zacharias cannot, although at the same time she needs his support to do it.

Prunella is such an adept character, so unfailingly smart and talented, that I had to consider the possibility that she’s too perfect. Not for very long though; I find her immensely enjoyable, partly because she’s a bit frightening but without being demonised the way capable women often are. And I love that she doesn’t have to spend most of the book figuring out that she is neither ordinary nor a doormat, as often seems to happen to young female protagonists of the special snowflake variety.

There are also moments when you realise how desperately Prunella needs her self-confidence. As a brown female orphan, she’s even more disempowered and vulnerable than Zacharias, and this is where Cho’s depiction of intersectionality comes into play. Both protagonists are POC, but they experience privilege and prejudice differently. Because her skin is lighter, Prunella has an easier time being accepted in London’s high society, and she has a bit more freedom because she’s not in a public position of authority.

That said, she has no legitimate way of using her talents to make a decent living as a man might. At best, she could use magic to aid whatever menial work she could find. Zacharias, as a man with “all the ease and assurance that could be imparted by a capital education and a lifetime’s intercourse with the good and great of the magical world” (9), remains blind to the vulnerability of Prunella’s position until she explains it to him.

And he’s shocked when Prunella states that she has little interest in scholarship and will be devoting her time to entering society and finding a respectable husband. From his perspective, she could want nothing more than to study magic, now that she has the luxury of his support. He also considers it her moral responsibility: she has unprecedented power, which could be highly destructive if she does not know how to wield it. But what will happen, Prunella asks, when her apprenticeship is over? She is not being lazy or stupid here, and she is not consumed by a longing for romance. She’s being practical: the right husband will give her the security she needs to change English society’s approach to feminine magic.

The prejudices of English society are actually shown to be holding it back – a notable aspect of the plot and worldbuilding. From what we learn of other countries and Fairyland (the source of magic), the narrow-minded nature of English society is actually causing it damage. Bigotry is, after all, poison.

Now, despite my enthusiasm, I don’t think this is a masterpiece. The novel’s weakest point is probably its plot, which gets a bit out of hand and isn’t particularly memorable in comparison to the book’s many other charms. The POV also jumps all over the place, although this might be something that’s more likely to bug me now that I’m editing for a living. The less pedantic me can ignore it, and anyway I like this book so much I’m willing to overlook its flaws. Rather, I want to give out copies as shining examples of how you can write diverse, thoughtful fantasy and be entertaining as fuck.


An interview with Helen Brain

helenCape Town-based author Helen Brain loves to make things: miniature books for keeping secrets in; a garden fence decorated with discarded objects; music and laughter. She also loves to tell stories, and her latest book is entitled Elevation, the first in a post-apocalyptic YA series set in an altered Cape Town, the last human settlement in a ruined world.

Sixteen-year-old Ebba de Eeden grew up in a colony with two thousand chosen children in a bunker beneath Table Mountain. When she is recognised as the missing Den Eeden heiress, she is elevated to the surface, which is not a radioactive wasteland, as everyone in the colony has been told, but home a functioning society split into elite and servant classes.

After a life of slavery, Ebba finds that she is now a rich young woman with servants, a luxurious home and a farm with more potential to grow food than anywhere else in the ravaged world. There is little opportunity for her to enjoy these comforts, however, as Ebba is immediately faced with extreme demands and difficult choices. Aunty Figgy says Ebba is the descendant of the goddess Theia and has to use her power to save the world before the next cataclysm. The High Priest and his handsome son are doing everything they can to get Ebba to leave her farm and join the rest of the elite in their religious community, which worships the god Prospiroh. And Ebba herself can’t ignore the responsibility she feels to use her new resources to rescue her friends in the bunker.



Helen’s novel is a fast, exciting read full of the ecological concerns that are so often captured in post-apocalyptic fiction today. In the middle of this is a young woman who, like most teenagers and many adults, finds herself in a world that’s so much bigger and more complicated than she realised. And she can’t just live in it; she has a responsibility to try to understand it and change it for the better. It’s a scenario that raises all sorts of tough questions. I posed some of mine to Helen, who kindly took the time to answer them.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Helen!

LS: You’ve written over 50 books for children and young adults. What is it that you love about writing for a younger readership? What stories and subjects are you most drawn to?

HB: I love children, I find them much easier to relate to than adults, and I remember my childhood with all its complex emotions vividly, so writing for children came naturally. As a child I read all the time. My mother was the librarian at a teacher’s training college, and she brought home all the Carnegie and Newberry medal winners for me to try out, so I was introduced to the best kids lit and loved the way they could take you into another world.

As a reader I like swashbuckling tales, edge-of-your-seat adventures, imaginative fancies and word play. I try to write what I want to read.


Post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA novels have become wildly popular over recent years. What do you think it is about this subgenre of fantasy and science fiction that is so appealing to YA fans (of all ages)? What is it about the genre that attracted you?

I think many teens are in a place that psychologically resembles a dystopian landscape. Their childhood has been destroyed, and they’re struggling to create a new way of being in an adult world. They’re like moths in a cocoon, fighing to break through the layers of silk and, once they’re free, to work out how to open their wings and use them. That’s a very dystopian place to be.


The trope of the Chosen One has a long history in fantasy, and it fits neatly into apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, in which authors frequently suggest that humanity has caused too much damage or become too corrupt to save itself or the world. What we need, in some of these narratives, is the intervention of a higher power, such as evolved or enhanced humans, superior alien intelligence or, in this case, divine beings. Descended from a god, Ebba is the saviour – or she will be, if she can step up to the challenge. How did you go about writing this character? What’s it like to rest the fate of the world on the shoulders of a naïve young woman who has, almost literally, spent her entire life living under a rock?

Ebba is of course an element of my own personality – my own struggle to find my inner power and to stop relying on someone else to look after me. She’s also every young woman who thinks she can’t manage life without a boyfriend or a best friend, and who gives away her power because she’s scared to use it. Over the course of the three books she has to learn to access her inner strength – represented by her four ancestors – and to literally wise up.


You grew up in a staunch Catholic home, married a priest and lived in parishes all over the Western Cape. Elevation, however, is deeply critical of institutionalised religion. Prospiroh is an angry male god who wipes out most of the world with an ecological catastrophe, leaving only a few select survivors, much like the Christian god does with the Flood. The worship of Prospiroh is characterised by fear, conformity and modesty, while the community of worshippers is bonded by the music and rituals of church services. The High Priest is authoritarian and, most notably, religion is used as a tool of oppression, enslaving the poor to serve an elite. How has your relationship with religion changed from childhood to the writing of this novel?

This series is essentially about wrestling with my issues around faith and religion. I was a committed Christian from 16 to 40. Then, after a year or two of struggling, I stopped believing.

Four years later my very devout husband, the most moral and ethical person I’ve ever known, was struck down with colon cancer, aged 46. In his last month he had periods of the worst physical pain imaginable where he begged god to tell him why he had turned him into his whipping boy.

I couldn’t reconcile how a caring god would do this to someone who loved him. Murderers, rapists, war criminals, torturers were flourishing, and here was someone who genuinely loved god and had served him faithfully begging to die, screaming from pain. It was excruciating. If he’d been a dog or cat we’d have ended his suffering. I didn’t want to know a god who stood by and let someone who loved him suffer like this.

I began this series as an atheist but as the books are progressing I’m revising my theological stance. In essence they’re a record of my private wrestling match with god. Whether god exists only as a function of my brain chemistry or is a being out there in the ether somewhere I haven’t decided yet.


Goddesses are often presented as the nurturing, eco-conscious, egalitarian alternatives to conservative, destructive male gods, and in Elevation, it’s only through the goddess Theia that the world could be saved. Do you think a goddess could save religions from their pitfalls?

I don’t think it’s about having a matriarchal god instead of a patriarchal one. I think it’s about the two living in balance. That’s what Ebba’s job will be – to get them to make peace.


You blog about financial advice for an investment and budgeting app, and your posts got me thinking about the powers and pitfalls of money in the novel. Although the world has been reduced to a few small societies at the tip of Africa, it still runs on money. When Ebba is elevated, she not only rises from the bunker to live on the surface, but rises in class thanks to an inheritance that makes her fabulously wealthy. She finds it both liberating and confusing, and although her money empowers her, it endangers her too. How would you describe the role of money in terms of plot, worldbuilding and character development? And why is it that these people are still clinging to the concept of coin?

I found this tricky. I decided that the citizens would still use coins and have a monetary system, but the rest of the world will be using bartering. Ebba’s rich not only because she’s inherited a lot of gold stashed away in a bank vault, but also because she owns the only arable land in the city, and because her goddess blood means plants grow very fast around her. Food is the major commodity in this post apocalyptic world, and she has a unique ability to provide it. That’s why everyone is trying to gain control over her.

The idea of the book came about through my concern about the way we’re destroying the planet in search of material happiness. I think of the series not so much as dystopian or mythology but as eco-theology. I used religion and the gods and goddesses as a metaphor to highlight what I see as our biggest problem today – our material dissatisfaction.

I imagine us like the Little Prince standing on the top of his planet in a pile of garbage. He’s holding more and more things, and to make them he has to dig away at the planet he stands on.


Helen’s garden fence, decorated with the things other people discarded.

If we don’t stop wanting more and more and more, new cars when our old ones work, the latest phones, more clothes and things for our increasingly big houses, and toys and gadgets, we will destroy our earth.

We’re treasuring the wrong things. It’s the green spaces, the forests and beaches and gardens and veld that bring us happiness, not more stuff. But we’re hellbent on destroying the very thing that brings us life.


Without giving away too much, can you tell us what to expect from the rest of The Thousand Steps series?

In book 2 Ebba has to rescue the two thousand from the bunker before the General genocides them by closing up the ventilation shafts. To do this she has to sacrifice herself, and she doesn’t want to.

In book 3 she is elevated to Celestia, and has to sort out the gods and find the cause of their dysfunctionality. It’s kind of Enid Blyton meets Dante with a healthy dose of Philip Pullman.