The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is the newest novella of P Djèlí Clark following in his theme of alt history. The setting is 1910s steampunky Cairo but djinns existing in the city led to Egypt gaining independence from Britain forty years earlier than real life, in addition to the capital becoming one of the world’s most advanced cities. Just like he did for New Orleans in The Black God’s Drums, Clark brings Cairo to life sublimely; in just 140 pages he creates a more fascinating and believable world than most do with 400. I think it’s the casual addition of little details that does it; offhand, almost fleeting mentions of diverse individuals (creating a realistically modern population), the implications of having automatons (touching on slavery), and protests for a women’s vote all build up a realistic city that functions outside of the main story.

The two main characters, Hamed and Onsi, fit into the classic detective partnership trope of one relaxed, somewhat fed up veteran paired up with an enthusiastic and nerdy newbie. Their interactions are just pure fun, with Hamed always rolling his eyes at Onsi’s earnest actions until it benefits him. And it’s very specific but I’m a big fan of supernatural activities being integrated into and regulated by governmental agencies. As such, I found the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities a great addition. In fact, that’s the type of thing that helps with realism. Of course there will be governmental oversight over something as everyday-life-changing as djinns and magic and it provides a fun twist on standard detective stories.

Despite having only male main characters, the book is very focused on women throughout. First of all, of course there’s the suffragette movement. It’s a slow burn, keeping in the background, but keeps getting talked about by the MCs (positively, on a refreshing note) and most side characters. In addition, every person whose help is required in the investigation is female along with the djinn itself – a repeated emphasis on the importance of women that is continually juxtaposed with their not being able to vote.

The plot of the book is fun and not overcomplicated. It boils down to an entertaining romp through Cairo while providing an enjoyable and unexpected story. The unimportance of the storyline is almost lampshaded at one point when Hamed realises, despite its urgency, how low stacks it is compared to other agents’ tasks.

But more than that, the story and setting is a light commentary on the effects of colonialism, or rather, the lack of. It is a visualisation of how an uncolonised North Africa might have grown along its own roots, by what it finds important. Using a subgenre that usually inherently implies required imperialism, Clark flips the perspective of exoticism (e.g. an agent wears English clothing because it’s weird and exotic) and makes the outrageous (read: very reasonable) suggestion that maybe non-Western countries could have led civilization in progressive matters, such as gender equality, had they not been colonised so many years ago.


To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers’ first novella is a story that considers the tentative deep exploration of space. And like all of her books, it abides by the two tenets of Chamberism (it’s a thing, don’t look it up) – optimism and inclusiveness.

The optimism in humanity is palpable: the space missions are not publicly or privately funded, but instead come through the third sector and are backed by citizen donations. There’s no ulterior motive, a la Cold War-style, no shareholders to appease. It is the gaining of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. In addition, throughout the mission, the astronauts are endlessly responsible in their exploration. Before stepping on each planet, they repeatedly stop to consider their effect on the foreign ecosystem. The casual and optimistic manner in which Chambers builds her futuristic vision makes for wonderfully enjoyable reading.

Secondly, an enormous diversity is represented with the novella’s small cast of four characters. Remarkable in simply how hardly remarked upon they are, the astronauts’ personal facets are brought up casually, when relevant, taking science fiction forward another important step towards transforming its norms. In addition to modernising social norms, Chambers futurises them by continuing to refine her skill in applying the found family trope with relationships that transcend the concept of ‘standard’ current day romantic and friendly relationships.

As discussed, most importantly, these two themes are not commented on much, they’re just there. More focus is given to the science. The book is harder sci-fi than the Wayfarers series  – Chambers goes into detail discussing how space travel works and its ethics, what somaforming is (sneaking in some biopunk), and the vastly different planets and their indigenous populations with gleeful enthusiasm that is impossible to not share while reading. 

(As a side note: due to the above point, after reading To Be Taught, I’m convinced that Chambers could write a fantastic, easy-to-understand non-fic on space exploration.)

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a love letter to the very concept of scientific discovery, human progress and humility, and the drive to learn – a fact clear from the beginning given the humble title paraphrased from former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s speech. Becky Chambers has carved out her niche in science fiction and fulfils it adroitly; those who enjoy Wayfarers will savour this novella (though may chafe at the shorter length), those who haven’t will find this a perfect litmus test for her body of work.