Two recent Tor.com Publishing offerings each, in their own way, are interested in monsters. They have monsters for protagonists, protagonists who operate in worlds that are in their own ways utterly monstrous and yet undeniably familiar. Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone is a little more obvious about its monsters than Laurie Penny’s Everything Belongs To The Future. But it’s fascinating to read them back to back and see the parallels.
Hammers on Bone is modern Lovecraftian noir set in London’s Croydon. It shouldn’t work: noir and Lovecraftiana are easy to pastiche, difficult to do well. Their respective moods, their registers, are often strikingly different—horror and world-weary cynicism tend to be at odds. And yet, Khaw uses the language of old-fashioned noir in a modern setting, uses the tone of noir against a narrative of creeping Lovecraftian horrors, and it really works.
It helps that John Persons, the protagonist, is a monster. A private investigator and a monster, hired by an eleven-year-old to kill his stepfather (who is also a monster), Persons finds himself faced with a little more than he planned for. Khaw sustains a sense of lurking dread, of existential horror, and indulges in body-horror—bodies bursting out in inhuman eyes, flesh breeding tentacles—in the best traditions of Lovecraftiana, while steering well clear of the racism latent (or obvious) in Lovecraft’s works. Persons is a monster in a world full of monsters. But he’s less monstrous and more understandable than many.
That’s what makes Hammers on Bone work, I think: Persons is, in his own way, a very human sort of monster.
At first glance, Alex, the main protagonist of Laurie Penny’s Everything Belongs To The Future, doesn’t seem like a monster. In a world where life-extension treatments are available only to the very rich or the very lucky, we first meet him as part of a collective of artists and anarchists—his lover Nina, former therapist Margo, Fidget—who’re trying to steal life-extension pills from a party on the grounds of Oxford’s Magdalene College in order to redistribute them to those who can’t otherwise afford them. Also at that party is Daisy, the youthful nonagenarian who helped invent the life-extension treatment as a young teenager and who’s become disaffected with the society her invention has helped produce. Soon, Daisy will have joined the collective—or convinced the collective to help her—to produce a generic, affordable version of the life-extension treatment, though in the process she’ll discover something that’s just as dangerous in a different way.
But Alex is a tout. A police informer. He works for a security agency, and he joined the collective in order to inform on their activities. He might think of himself as in love with Nina, but he became her lover under false pretences: although he tells himself that he’s doing everything for Nina, so that he and she might get the life extension treatments and live years and years together, what he’s really doing is a species of rape. Alex’s self-delusion and sense of entitlement is what makes him monstrous. He’s just as monstrous as the system that offers indefinite life to those rich enough to afford it (or lucky enough to be sponsored to it) while discarding everyone else. But he’s an ordinary, mundane sort of monster, and the society he lives in is immediately recognisable as version of our own.
Alex, full of self-justification, is the monster next door.
Everything Belongs To The Future is an intensely political story. It’s also intensely conscious of relations of power and the compromises people make—with power, with themselves, and with each other. Penny writes deftly, with a graceful ear for prose: her characters are vividly drawn and her narrative—and her choice to tell part of it in epistolary fashion from a letter-writer who’s only properly revealed at the end—is compelling. I recommend it.