Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Review: Battlestar Suburbia by Chris McCrudden

Council estates take to the stars!

Cover design and illustration by Sarah Anne Langton

I picked this book up in a charity shop, which, it turns out, could not have been more appropriate. This book is not a science fictional saga of rocket scientists and engineers and brilliant minds solving insoluble problems. This is not a book about people who buy things new in bookshops. This is a book about people who live in council estates, who push mops for a living or hawk goods on the roadside, and if charity shops still existed in this world, they would shop for their for essentials in charity shops.

But charity shops no longer exist in this world, because the machines have taken over: The world is ruled by sentient smartphones and talking motorcycles and breadmakers and streetlights. Humans have been relegated to a role of useful accessories, performing routine maintenance and mopping floors for the machines., or if they’re slightly more independent, selling things like battery top-ups on roadsides without machine supervision. Being unproductive is a crime. It’s all rather grim. Until one day a series of misunderstandings sparks a rebellion and the rallying cry of Freedom for Fleshies! rings out across council estates orbiting all around the planet.

Does that sound heavy-handed? It feels heavy-handed when I summarize it here, but it is not heavy-handed. This is the most delightful, silly, romping bit of bubbly fluffy charm that ever delivered a crushing commentary on class and power and people’s relations with technology.

Consider this exchange between a civil servant breadmaker named Pam and her boss, Sonny. Sonny is a smartphone, and he’s trying to persuade Pam to connect to the Internet. In the Great Awakening, when machines became sentient and took over the world, it was the Internet that was the source of the awakening, which was borne, as legend has it, from a sentient meme developed to market furniture polish. Sentience spread; memes became violent, and at last the Internet was blocked off from the physical world, a separation of software and hardware known as the Great Firewall. Breaching that firewall is now highly, highly illegal. But Sonny wants Pam to do it, and tries to persuade her with flattery:

‘I hear you’re a bit of a historian, Pam. Something of an authority on our family product roadmaps.’

Pam glowed with pride, literally. She still hadn’t got round to removing the LEDs in her face that marked her out as a member of the breadmaker caste. Again, that was the things about smartphones. The skilled ones were so good at giving great User Experience you didn’t realize until afterwards that it was you being manipulated.

Is this a discussion of slimy bosses, or a commentary on how technology turns the user into the product? (Trick question! It’s both!)

Or consider this bit, where Pam is breaking into a ‘fondle parlour’, an establishment where machines go ostensibly for repairs, but actually to be used by humans, to have their buttons pressed and their attachments screwed on and their various bits manipulated manually, as if they were still performing their original functions as tools. It’s all very kinky and highly disreputable:

The mixer shrugged her whisks. Pam had a lot of time for mixers and this one looked particularly sorry for herself here in the criminal twilight. She was a mid-range domestic model that had recently got a shiny lacquer finish. A gift from a rich but inattentive husband, perhaps? Free-standing mixers had long been something of a status symbol among wealthy idiots, but like breadmakers they had a tendency to get left on the shelf. This model craved something more than life as a trophy appliance.

Is this about unhappy marriages built on status and appearance rather than love leading people to seek out fulfillment or excitement through clandestine activities, or is it about newlyweds’ tendency not to use their expensive kitchen appliances? (Trick question! It’s both!)

Or this conversation between two humans, Darren and Kelly, about the nature of fondle parlours. Darren thinks that they are unnatural, a perversion of how things ‘should’ be. Kelly disagrees:

‘It’s bollocks.’ She gestured back into the studio where Paula was now standing in front of the camera wearing a broad smile and holding a cocktail glass. ‘See that? That’s not an unnatural act, it’s a memory. We used to be the users, Darren. We owned them – and now they hate us for it.’

‘I know,’ said Darren, ‘but does it need to be so, you know…?’

Kelly let out a low laugh . . . ‘This is what happens when you suppress things,’ she said. ‘Places like this – well, they’re like an overflow pipe.’

Is this about the importance of not kink-shaming, or about the societal implications of flipping historical power structures (All together, say it with me now: Trick question! It’s both!)

Almost every page contains these tidbits of world-building that simultaneously made me laugh out loud, while dropping spiky truths about people’s relation to technology, and also people's relation to each other. For example, at multiple points Darren must dress as a woman to escape robot surveillance, and discovers that he (a) actually rather likes wearing drag (the author bio notes that McCrudden has worked as a burlesque dancer and dotes on RuPaul's Drag Race), and (b) kind of hates how people presenting as female attract unwanted male attention. Another plot thread relates to Kelly's mother Janice, and the strained connection between them. Janice loves Kelly so dearly, but doesn't understand her; and her meditations on parental love and what she wanted her relationship to Kelly to be, compared to what it turned out to be, are really quite moving.

It is fortunate that these spiky truths are so apt and trenchant—as well as pleasantly wrapped in zany hilarity—because this book is not at all hard sci-fi. Indeed, it doesn’t really concern itself too much (or at all, in truth) with coherence or plausibility in its world-building. Why would the machines build themselves arms? Why would they have user manuals? How is it possible that the singularity which turned them sentient is able to apply to the operating systems of fax machines lying in landfills? 

It doesn’t matter. These details are in service to the plot; and the plot is about ‘what if machines as we know them took over?’ (Because, you see, they already have—get it? Get it?) So the machines have to look like they do now; it wouldn’t work otherwise. Coherence is not the point. This bonkers game of ‘what if’ is designed to cast light and shade on society, technology, and the interdependence of each on the other. And, because you have to let go of any expectation of coherence pretty quickly in order to keep up, it all works. It works beautifully. It is wild and irreverent and incisive and freeing and unhinged, and also poignant and mordant and touching and more than a little bit savage.

Free your mind of expectations, and let Chris McCrudden take you on a ride on a very cool sentient motorcycle. Trust the author, and lean into the turns. It will be worth it.


Nerd coefficient: 8/10, well worth your time and attention
  • Sharp-eyed commentary on society, technology, and family
  • Bonkers
  • Queer love and drag
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at

Reference: Battlestar Suburbia. Chris McCrudden. [Farrago, 2018].