Hugo reading 2017: Laurie Penny

Next up in the Campbell Awards was Laurie Penny. I read Your Orisons May Be Recorded first, and somewhat by accident.  This is basically a story about a call centre staffed by angels and demons (there was a recent merger) to answer prayers.  Not necessarily with positive answers, mind you, but still.  It’s quite amusing, rather cute, and often endearing, but slowly gets darker.  It’s also strongly reminiscent of volunteering at Lifeline.

Laurie has a nice, humourous, understated way of writing, and by the end of the story, I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.  It’s almost horror.  Maybe it is horror.  But it’s quite funny, and the ending is rather sweet.  I quite liked this.

Having realised that this wasn’t actually part of the Novella nominations, I then moved on to a Laurie Penny Binge read.  Next up in the Hugo pack for Penny was Blue Monday which was utterly distressing and definitely in the horror department.  Basically, any story that starts ‘I used to want to change the world. Now I just want my cat back.’ is unlikely to end well for this reader.  And it didn’t.

It is about a government-funded company that mass produces cute animal videos, because this keeps the population happy even when they are poor and hungry and have no prospects.  The animal cruelty implications of this are explored.  And when the protagonist’s girlfriend leaves and leaves her cat behind, and the protagonist starts making videos of the cat looking sad because she misses her person, the company sees an opportunity to make viral videos of unhappy animals.  And steals the cat.  And it gets worse from there.  Nothing is made explicit, but the implications are distressing enough.

I found this very upsetting to read and I very nearly didn’t get any further, but I decided to give Penny one more chance.  Which was a good thing, because her next story, The Killing Jar, was fantastic.

Once again, we have a heroine in a very banal job (Penny is very good at putting people in petty admin jobs with quirky or fantastical contexts).  She is an unpaid intern working for a serial killer in a world where serial murders, provided they can prove artistic merit and get funding, are considered a fine art.  People even apply to be victims.

This one was very funny, because you have all the usual hallmarks of a horrible boss, who has a lot of raw talent but is fixated on fame, and completely exploits his intern, along with the bureaucracy (grant applications, complaint forms) and misogyny (women just don’t have the right sort of passion and upbringing to become truly great serial killers, you know) that goes with it.  I love the girlfriend who is a taxidermist who shows her care by killing butterflies especially for the protagonist.  And I love the way the protagonist comes into her own in the end, in the only possible way this story could end.

I actually really loved this one.

So I decided to read the fourth book in the pack after all.

Everything Belongs to the Future is a novella about a world in which someone has found a cure for aging, but the patents are held by a pharmaceutical company that charges enormous sums for the privilege, and so only the rich can afford not to age.  An underground cell becomes involved in stealing the medication and distributing it freely as part of a soup van thing, but we know from the start that they have been infiltrated by Alex, who is genuinely in love with Nina, one of the women in the cell, but who also fully intends to betray the group.

This was the most overtly political and science-fictiony of Penny’s works, and it was very good.  The characters were well-drawn – I rather love Daisy, the scientist and inventor of the initial process who is 90 years old but looks like a teenager because she was ‘fixed’ at a young age – and the worldbuilding was horrifyingly plausible.  It looked like pretty much what I’d expect to have happen, if such a cure was found in America (we *might* do better here with the PBS, but I don’t know).  It explored rather lightly the ways in which such a fix would change society, but went more into the dynamics of the team of rebels themselves, and the various different responses they have to the problem that is to hand.

It was, in many ways, a dark story, but it’s quite compelling, and at the end, there is definitely hope.  And I liked the way it twined into the story of the Devil’s Bridge.

Overall, then, for Laurie Penny I have one story I loved, one which I hated, and two which I quite liked.  All were well-written and quite clever, and I do like the way she takes very banal, mundane jobs and adds science fiction or fantasy to them.  I like her humour and ability to use understatement, too.

So far, Penny is clearly worlds ahead of Mulrooney, because even when I hated what she was writing, I was engaged and she was writing it well.  It will be trickier if we get a writer in there who doesn’t give me nightmare material but who doesn’t compel me as much, either…

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