Author: Shay Shortt

Juliet Takes a Breath (2019)

Cover image for Juliet Takes a Breath (Dial Books Edition) by Gabby Riveraby Gabby Rivera

ISBN 9780593108178

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “How could anything as huge as feminism be universal?”

Juliet Palante has just come home to the Bronx from her first year at college, and she is trying to figure out how to come out to her Puerto Rican family before she moves across the country for a summer internship. She will be spending the summer in Portland working for Harlowe Brisbane, author of Raging Flower, the book that sparked Juliet’s feminist awakening. But when she arrives in Portland, Juliet quickly feels out of her depth. Her girlfriend Lainie isn’t returning her calls, Harlowe doesn’t seem to have a clear plan for her internship, and everything is unfamiliar. The longer she is in Portland, the less sure Juliet is about Harlowe’s brand of feminism. But the summer nevertheless introduces her to people and experiences that will open her mind in ways she never expected.

Originally published by Riverdale Avenue Books back in 2016, and hailed by Roxane Gay as “fucking outstanding,” Juliet Takes a Breath has been picked up and rereleased by Dial Books. As I noted in my original review back in January 2017, the book was a strong story marred by an unfortunate profusion of typos and extra words, badly in need of additional proofreading. Happily, the new edition has taken that story and polished it to a shine. Although I was reading an ARC, I spotted only one mistake. The new edition also removes some problematic lines that reviewers drew attention to at the time of the original publication.

Juliet Takes a Breath is a coming-of-age novel about finding your voice and discovering your identity. The book opens with the letter that Juliet wrote to famous feminist author Harlowe Brisbane in order to land her internship. As with my first reading, by the end of this five page introduction, I was fully invested in Juliet’s character, and mesmerized by her voice. She is in many ways a naïve character who learns a lot over the course of the novel, and the reader gets to go along with her on that journey. She is just beginning to grasp the language of the social justice movement, and readers can be educated alongside her, or if already fluent, reminded of what it feels like not to know or understand the terminology. While some sections are still a bit didactic, it is certainly more accessible than a textbook.

One of the most appealing aspects of Juliet’s character is her openness, and pure curiosity. Her hope for Portland is so bright, and her willingness to be open to new people makes the city her oyster. Although Harlowe isn’t exactly what she expected, she still connects with everyone from Harlowe’s primary partner Maxine to Kira, the “junior librarian” at Portland’s central library (professional quibble: I have never heard of a junior librarian. Nor do I know any librarians who go around flirting with their patrons while on duty, or making out with them in the stacks). We get to see the outlines of a true community growing up around Juliet, and her brief sojourn in Miami provides hope that her family will accept her and become part of that community in time.

In some ways, it was harder to read this book the second time around. The narrative builds towards Harlowe giving a big reading at Powell’s, during which she uses Juliet in an unforgivable way.  Knowing that scene was coming only made it more of a punch in the gut. Worse still is watching Juliet care for Harlowe’s feelings in the aftermath of her big fuck up, rather than the other way around. Harlowe is more interested in being forgiven than she is in fixing the harm that she caused. The impact of the story is increased by knowing what is coming, rather than reduced by removing the element of surprise. Juliet Takes a Breath stands up well to rereading, and I am happy to be able to recommend it going forward without the caveats I previously attached.

You might also like Brother by David Chariandy

Of Ice and Shadows (Of Fire and Stars #2)

Cover image for Of Ice and Shadows by Audrey Coulthurstby Audrey Coulthurst

ISBN 9780062841223

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “It felt like the latest in a series of mistakes, and I wasn’t even sure what the first one had been. Was it letting everyone believe I’d died in the star fall? Was it the morning I’d gotten up before dawn to leave Mare behind? Or, the darkest part of my heart asked, was it the night I’d chosen to flee from the man I was betrothed to in order to save his sister instead?”

With everyone believing that Princess Dennaleia of Havemont was killed in the starfall that also struck down the scheming Lord Kriantz of Sonnenborne, Denna and Mare are finally free to be together. But as Princess Amaranthine, Mare also owes a duty to her brother, the newly crowned King Thandillimon of Mynaria. With the Sonnenborne plot revealed, it is crucial that they recruit the magical kingdom of Zumorda as an ally, despite Mynarian’s instinctive suspicion of magic. Better yet, in Zumorda, Denna will be accepted, and able to receive training for her gifts, the destructive scope of which has frightened Mare beyond words. So with Denna disguised as her maid, Mare sets out as the newly appointed Mynarian ambassador to Zumorda. Unfortunately, the Zumordan queen seems uninterested in Mynaria’s troubles, and unconcerned by the Sonnenborne plot. Denna’s gift, on the other hand, is extremely interesting, and soon Queen Invasya is trying to recruit her into an elite but dangerous magical training program that threatens to separate her from Mare.

If Of Fire and Stars was about forbidden love, Of Ice and Shadows is about what happens when the initial obstacle is removed, and the next stage must be faced. Traveling in disguise, Denna encounters new constraints, having to pretend to be Mare’s maid, and hiding her intelligence and diplomatic skills. And once across the border, no one can understand why a powerful magic user like “Lia” would be a servant to a vakos like Mare, who has no gift at all. While Denna seeks training for her gift, she becomes uncomfortably aware that Mare would rather find a way to eliminate her magic altogether—Mynarian prejudice against magic runs deep. Having already given up her identity to be with Mare, Denna is faced with the question of whether she will sacrifice more of herself in the name of love. Magic also keeps the two apart in more ways than one; after accidentally burning Mare in an amourous moment, Denna refuses to touch her again until her power is under control. I wasn’t a huge fan of this trope being introduced, as it tends to be rooted in sex shame, and I don’t think this use subverted that problem.

Of Ice and Shadows is told in alternating chapters, from Mare and Denna’s perspectives. Their voices aren’t terribly distinct, and it can be easy to mix the two up during the first part of the story, when they are both generally in the same place. As their paths diverge a bit in the latter half of the book, this becomes less of a concern. While both characters grow in the course of the book, it is especially important for Mare. Out from under the critical eye of the Mynarian court, she is finally able to accept some responsibility for what it means to be a member of the royal house, while also taking advantage of the freedom offered by distance to pursue interests and skills that would have been forbidden to her as a woman in Mynaria. Ultimately, I think it is being able to grow this way herself that enables her to accept Denna’s development as well.

As a setting, Zumorda makes for a much more interesting backdrop than Mynaria. Magic is rife, and there are many different types to be discovered. This makes Mare uncomfortable, but the prevalence makes Denna feel normal for once, like she might belong. Three powerful women play a major role, including the ancient dragon queen, Invasya, Guardian Laurenna, and Grand Vizier Zhari, who are powerful magic users in their own right, based in the Southern trade hub of Kartasha, while the Queen holds court in Corovja. None of the women seem especially concerned by the Sonnenborne threat, leading Mare and Denna to wonder if they are really so powerful in their magic that they have nothing to fear, or if one or more of them may be in league with their enemies.

Of Ice and Shadows wraps up this particular storyline, but leaves ample room to continue exploring the world, and what happens to Mare and Denna next. Currently no further installments have been announced, but a reader can hope!

You might also like The Cursed Queen by Sarah Fine

Spaceside (Planetside #2)

Cover image for Spaceside by Michael Mammayby Michael Mammay

ISBN 978-0-06-269468-3

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “You seem to think of Cappans as a homogenous group… I would suggest to you that they’re as diverse in their thinking as humans.”

Having walked free despite his decision to annihilate much of the population of Cappa, Colonel Carl Butler has started a new life on Talca Four, home to the galaxy’s military bureaucracy. Forced into retirement, Butler now has a nominal civilian title as Deputy VP of Corporate Security at a tech firm that mostly keeps him around for the optics. Divorced and living alone, Butler continues to grapple with his guilt, his infamy, and what the future holds for a man known as the Scourge of Cappa. Then his boss entrusts him with a secret assignment to investigate a rumoured security breach at a rival firm that holds important military contracts. Soon Butler’s sources are turning up dead, and he realizes that what he has gotten himself into is more than a simple hack, and that the stolen information may cost him his life.

Spaceside picks up about two years after the events of Planetside, when Colonel Butler found himself maneuvered between a rock and a hard place, and chose to take the fate of Cappa and its people into his own hands. He thought his decision would eliminate the hybrid super soldiers that were the result of secret military experiments on Cappa, but now, on the streets of Talca Four, he keeps thinking he sees humans with Cappan eyes. Is he finally succumbing to the guilt of all the murders he committed, or just losing his mind? A hero to some, and a pariah to others, Butler has few people he can trust to help him unravel the mystery, and find out whether any of the hybrids made it off Cappa.

Spaceside leans more towards sci-fi mystery or spy novel than military fiction, with only a couple of prolonged tactical engagements, one of which actually takes place in the context of a VR game. Most of the military elements of this installment come in the final pages, when Butler unexpectedly finds himself deployed with a private mercenary corps. Although two years have passed since the events on Cappa, it is clear that they still continue to profoundly affect Butler’s mental health, and cause him to question himself. While we do not land in the immediate aftermath of the mental health consequences of such a deployment, the reverberations are felt as he chooses a path forward, and ponders whether any kind of atonement is even possible in such a situation.

It is a tricky thing to keep a reader’s sympathy with a character who is arguably a war criminal. Butler has charisma, but he also continues to use people to get what he wants, even when that puts them in danger. That he begins to think about atonement, and to see the Cappans in a more nuanced light is small consolation for the continued casualties, even though Butler is merely a cog in an overall corrupt system. If Planetside showed the military in that light, Spaceside turns its attention to how corporate interests perpetuate and profit from the problems of imperialism. A third as yet untitled Carl Butler story is slated for a likely 2020 release.

You might also like Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

House of Salt and Sorrows

Cover image for House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig by Erin A. Craig

ISBN 978-1-9848-3192-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “I turned the page and saw a drawing of all four of them, watching Verity as she slept, hanging from nooses. In disgust, I dropped the notebook, and sheets of loose papers—dozens of sketches of my sisters—escaped. They exploded across the hall like macabre confetti. In the pictures, they were doing things, ordinary things, things I’d seen them do all my life, but in every drawing they were unmistakably and horribly dead.”

Ever since her mother died giving birth to her youngest sister, Annaleigh and her father and sisters have lived in a state of constant mourning. Four of her older sisters have also died under mysterious circumstances, leading to rumours of a curse that haunts the Thaumas sisters. The latest is her sister Eulalie, who fell to her death from the cliffs of Highmoor at midnight—or perhaps she was pushed? Despite Eulalie’s death, the Thaumas sisters are sick of mourning, and even their father has finally remarried, bringing his new wife Morella back to the islands off the coast of Arcannia that the People of the Salt call home. When they discover a secret door—supposedly used by the sea god Pontus to travel vast distances—the remaining sisters begin to spend their nights visiting all the best balls Arcannia has to offer, dancing the night away to forget their grief. But Annaleigh can’t shake the feeling that she and her sisters are still in danger, and that something dark really is haunting the halls of Highmoor.

House of Salt and Sorrows builds on the fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, whose father locks them in their room each night, only to find that they have worn out their shoes come morning. Stumped by the crumbling shoes, their father charges his daughters’ suitors with solving the mystery. When Annaleigh’s father decides that the family will throw off their mourning weeds, he buys each of his surviving daughters a beautiful pair of fairy slippers from the finest cobbler, yet when he returns from a business trip, he find that the shoes are already falling apart. Belief in the Thaumas curse has left most men wary of courting the Duke’s daughters, but in a drunken temper, he promises a handsome reward to anyone who can figure out what the girls are up to.

Erin A. Craig employs a creepy, atmospheric setting in the dark, old family estate of Highmoor, set by the sea as winter approaches. I was reading this book on a sunny summer day at the lake, but it felt more like the kind of read that suits a dark and stormy winter night. The gothic elements contrast with the growing romance between Annaleigh and Cassius, the illegitimate son of a sea captain, who has come to the island to care for his sick father. Cassius doesn’t seem to believe in the curse, but perhaps Annaleigh’s fortune is the real allure? Mistrust permeates everything, even new love.

Although the story has a fairy tale basis, the psychological elements are perhaps more important. Annaleigh begins to suspect that there is something more than coincidence to her sisters’ deaths—and it isn’t a curse. She digs into Eulalie’s secrets, suspecting murder, even as she begins to see and hear things, and discovers that her youngest sister believes she has been talking to the ghosts of her dead siblings, even those she is too young to remember. Annaleigh begins to have terrible nightmares that feel all too real, leaving the borderline between reality and imagination blurry at best. Reality is subjective, and the ground is constantly shifting in this twisty tale.

While this story was extremely promising, some of the supernatural elements could have been better integrated. It wasn’t immediately clear that this was a world with gods operating in the world, though perhaps this is because I was expecting faeries, or something more in keeping with the original source material. The first clear hint of this comes when a dressmaker intimates that she has had the honour of designing a gown for the goddess of love, but other deities show up later who were never previously mentioned. It can be difficult to surprise readers without leaving them feeling tricked. Bringing in more of the pantheon earlier in the story might have helped with this dissonance. The balance between the psychological elements of horror and the actual fantastical elements is also hard to strike, and the integration is somewhat uneven. This mars an otherwise promising tale that ably employs an eerie atmosphere alongside well-drawn sibling relationships.

You might also like The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Silence Between Us

Cover image for The Silence Between Us by Alison Gervaisby Alison Gervais

ISBN 9780310766162

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “Who was I? That was not a question I could answer very easily anymore. I had ambitions for my future, but who was I right now? A Deaf girl suddenly dropped into the middle of a hearing world I was positive I didn’t belong in anymore.”

Since losing her hearing to meningitis at the age of thirteen, Maya Harris has attended a school for the Deaf in New Jersey, where all her friends are part of the Deaf community. But when her mother moves the family to Colorado, she is faced with attending a hearing school for her senior year, ASL interpreter in tow for all her classes. Maya dreams of becoming a respiratory therapist, so she can help kids like her brother Connor, who has Cystic Fibrosis, but that seems like tall order when she struggles to participate in group discussions, or get most of her new peers to see her as anything other than the strange new Deaf girl. But Beau Watson seems willing to try, even if his first attempts at ASL are a total disaster. Maya is defensive, and worried about her future, but perhaps it is worth giving Beau a chance to overcome their differences.

Alison Gervais—who is hard of hearing herself, and works as a deaf services specialist—makes a number of effective stylistic choices designed to render Maya’s experiences of spoken and signed language into print form. Ellipses are used to demonstrate how she is piecing together the conversation despite missing words when she lip reads. ASL is rendered in capital letters, including the different grammar rules and the absence of verb tenses. Maya’s transition to a hearing school also allows Gervais to easily integrate matters of etiquette, like speaking directly to the deaf person rather than their interpreter.

Gervais places a strong emphasis on Deaf culture and community, which she works into the story despite the fact that Maya has left much of her community behind. Maya signs on video calls with her best friend from New Jersey, Melissa, who was born deaf. As a result, Melissa’s text messages reflect ASL grammar, since it is her first language. Maya has also opted not to get cochlear implants, a medical device that would directly stimulate the auditory nerve, but which would require a major surgery and significant amounts of speech therapy afterward. Both the story and Gervais’ author note makes clear that this is a subject of controversy and debate within the Deaf community, and that Maya’s choice represents one position. Although there are not a lot of Deaf characters in the book, we nevertheless get a glimpse of some of the diversity within the community, beyond this single narrative.

Although Maya’s growing romance with Beau is a significant part of the story, her family relationships and friendships are also central. With a single mom, and a brother with a chronic health condition, Maya feels the pressure to help take care of her brother, and make sure that she isn’t causing any additional problems for her mom. Beau faces a similarly tense home life, where his father, a pediatric surgeon, is pushing for Beau to attend Yale and study medicine. While I enjoyed the overall portrayal of the family relationships, Maya’s brother Connor could have been further developed beyond his Cystic Fibrosis. He is a significant motivator for Maya’s behaviours and career ambitions, but not a well-developed character in his own right.

Maya is a prickly heroine, but her defensiveness belies her hopeful vision for the future, and her desire to connect with people who love her for herself, and accept her the way she is. The Silence Between Us patiently develops these crucial relationships, highlighting the importance of community and acceptance.

You might also like El Deafo by Cece Bell

The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2)

by R. F. Kuang

ISBN 978-0-060266263-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “She had too much power now, too much rage, and she needed a cause for which to burn. Vaisra’s Republic was her anchor. Without that, she’d be lost, drifting.”

Having called down the power of the fire god known as the Phoenix to destroy the islands of the Mugen Federation, Runin “Rin” Fang and the remaining Cike take refuge in the southern port city of Ankhiluun. In order to gather the resources they need to take their revenge for the betrayal of Nikaran Empresss Su Daji, the Cike take on a series of assassinations for Moag, the opium pirate queen of Ankhiluun. Grappling with the consequences of her actions, her involvement in Altan’s death, and her new responsibility for the Cike, Rin turns increasingly to opium to dampen the whispers of the god of fire and vengeance. Her mission to assassinate the Empress is the only thing giving her purpose, but to do so she will need to make common cause with Yin Vaisra, the Dragon Warlord, and father of her old school rival, Nezha. Vaisra promises a democratic republic that will usher in a new age of prosperity for Nikara, but when the other warlords refuse to join him, he turns to Hesperia for help.

In trying to cope with the consequences of her actions, Rin is spiraling into deep self-hatred. The atrocity she committed against the Mugen people weighs heavily, and she tries to sooth it with a variety of methods, from self-harm, to opiates, to pledging to commit various acts of atonement. Rin’s past actions are at once monstrous, and understandable, and her reaction is entirely human, if deeply disturbing. Her power means that it is a profoundly dangerous thing for someone like her to be so angry and emotionally vulnerable. Having gone dark at the end of The Poppy War, it is painful to watch her try to flail back towards the surface, even as circumstances around her continue to deteriorate, and Nikara plunges into civil war.

Despite Rin’s shifting allegiances throughout the book, her ultimate enemy remains the Empress, Su Daji. While Rin’s flawed humanity has never been in doubt, the Empress has been something of a distant, all-powerful villain. In The Dragon Republic, we gain a few closer glimpses at the woman who rules Nikara, as well as a peek into her past, when Rin encounters the Ketreyids, a nomadic people who live along the northern borders of the empire, and who can communicate mind to mind. Their leader is able to show Rin the young woman known as the Vipress who would go on to become the sole ruler of Nikara. Though Rin cannot see the similarities between herself and Daji, the Empress sees them all too clearly, recognizing both the threat and the promise of the last Speerly. Each face-to-face encounter with Daji proves critical as Rin questions what the future holds for her, and for Nikara.

Another character who comes further into focus in this second installment is Yin Nezha, Rin’s former rival and Sinegard classmate. The two made peace when the country went to war with the Mugen Federation, and all the students of Sinegard military academy were called up to serve. The two share an uneasy attraction, but their differences and their trauma make it hard for their feelings to come to fruition. In joining his father’s faction, Rin gains further insight into the power and privilege with which he was raised, as well as the secrets the family has been hiding beneath a carefully polished public exterior. His mother, the Lady Saikhara, has deep ties to Hesperia, as well as the missionaries of the Grey Company who believe that shamans are manifestation of Chaos incarnate. While The Poppy War focused on the conflict between Mugen and Nikara, with The Dragon Republic attention begins to turn back towards the old wounds left by Hesperia’s imperialist ambitions.

The Dragon Republic brings all the strengths of The Poppy War, and continues to combine 20th century Chinese history with the best conventions of dark fantasy, taking the series to new highs as Rin continues to fight for her future, and try to figure out how best to wield her power for the good of Nikara, despite terrible trauma and impossible choices.

You might also like City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

Custodians of the Internet

Cover image for Custodians of the Internet by Tarleton Gillespieby Tarleton Gillespie

ISBN 978-0-300-17313-0

“The fantasy of a truly ‘open’ platform is powerful, resonating with deep, utopian notions of community and democracy—but it is just that, a fantasy. There is no platform that does not impose rules, to some degree. Not to do so would be simply untenable.”

No matter what web platforms you use, the contents presented to you inside that software shell are shaped by a series of policies and decisions which are probably largely invisible to you as the end user. Focusing on the major English language platforms, Custodians of the Internet analyzes the myth of the neutral platform, introduces the US regulatory scheme that gave rise to the current state of affairs, and examines the strengths and weaknesses of the different moderation methods currently in use, as well as making some modest proposals for how adjust the situation going forward. Tarleton Gillespie is both an academic and a tech industry insider, employed by Microsoft Research New England, as well as Cornell University. The book is published by Yale University Press.

Custodians of the Internet aims to focus our attention on the hidden work that the social media platforms would rather have remain invisible. Content moderation functions silently behind the scenes, and the end user never knows what it is they do not see. Moreover, thanks to personalization algorithms, they do not know what they see that others do not, and vice-versa. The content is not only moderated, it is also curated, often to maximize engagement and time on screen. Platforms have worked very hard to preserve this illusion of smooth operation, requiring their third-party moderators to sign non-disclosure agreements, and remaining tight-lipped about how they decide what to allow on their sites, and how their algorithms function. Most people spend little or no time thinking about what isn’t on the platforms they use, or why they see what they do see, but these invisible boundaries are what shape and distinguish these spaces, and constitute them into usable, monetizable products.

Gillespie also attempts to encompass the inherent and irreconcilable complexity of the moderation endeavour, and the broad range of unseen work it entails, from policy teams, to crowd workers, to individual users who are deputized rate or report content. He includes analysis of three main moderation strategies, which are editorial review, user flagging, and automatic detection. Each strategy has constrains and weaknesses. For example, editorial review is hugely labour intensive, flagging mechanisms can be abused for social or political purposes, and even potential violations automatically detected by a computer often need to be verified by human eyes. While it is easy for users or the media to criticize a particular moderation decision or policy, Gillespie is determined to highlight the broader context and framework inside which each individual decision is ultimately made and disputed.

Gillespie identifies two categories that platforms tend to fall into when it comes to moderation; they position themselves either as “speech machines” or “community keepers,” and build their policies around those stances. However, he does not oversimplify, noting the tension and interplay between the two camps, and how platforms ricochet between these justifications when trying to position themselves in the best possible light, often after an individual decision comes under scrutiny. As Gillespie puts it, “If social media platforms were ever intended to embody the freedom of the web, then constraints of any kind run counter to these ideals, and moderation must be constantly disavowed. Yet if platforms are supposed to offer anything better than the chaos of the open web, then oversight is central to that offer—moderation is the key commodity, and must be advertised in the most appealing possible terms.” It is a contradiction that can never be fully reconciled, and one that is inevitably shaped by the economic imperatives of making a platform profitable as well as functional.

For those unfamiliar with American law, Gillespie includes an introduction to Section 230, the provision of telecommunications regulation better known as “safe harbor” that holds intermediaries or conduits innocent of any responsibility for the speech or content of their users. It further stipulates that moderation in good faith does not change this provision. This regime was designed for the telephone era, and Gillespie convincingly argues that social media platforms, which the law could not have foreseen, “violate the century-old distinction between deeply embedded in how we think about media and communication,” and further that they constitute “a hybrid that has not been anticipated by information law or public debate.” The book is not largely focused on solutions, but Gillespie does propose that safe harbour need not be unconditional. Rather, platforms could be asked to meet certain requirements in order to maintain that status, whether that means greater transparency or improved appeal structures. However it seems likely that the platforms would vociferously oppose any change to this generous provision, which grants them the best of both worlds—the right to remove any content they please, but responsibility for none of it.

Gillespie is largely interested in looking at the big picture, and at the breadth of content which platforms host and police. Policies must be designed to cover a wide range of content, and Gillespie seems less interested in specific case studies, except in so far as they show how a broad dictate such as “no nudity” can come into conflict with a more specific situation, such as breastfeeding, to which he dedicates a chapter. Gillespie is also interested in problems of scale, and the issues that arise when a platform is home to multiple communities of people with conflicting values, and differing ideas about where lines should be drawn. Small, homogeneous online communities that believe they do not require moderation often get a rude awakening when they receive a large influx of new users who do not share their presumed values.

In this broad discussion, Custodians of the Internet is laying the groundwork for our emerging conversation about the role the platforms have played during the growth of the web as our dominant form of media, and the role we want these platforms to play in public discourse going forward. This is part of a larger discussion about not only moderation, harassment and free speech, but also data privacy, the gig economy, microtargeting, algorithmic bias, and more. The distribution of power and responsibility will shape our future in ways we have only begun to comprehend.

Invisible Women

Cover image for Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perezby Caroline Criado Perez

ISBN 978-1-4197-2907-2

“Routinely forgetting to accommodate the female body in design—whether medical, technological, or architectural—has led to a world that is less hospitable and more dangerous for women to navigate. It leads to us injuring ourselves in jobs and cars that weren’t designed for our bodies. It leads to us dying from drugs that don’t work. It has led to the creation of a world where women just don’t fit very well.”

In a data driven world, evidence is everything. But so much of our data is biased, or incomplete, often entirely failing to account for a full half of the population. Author Caroline Criado Perez—known for receiving death threats for advocating to have Jane Austen on the back of Britain’s £10 banknote—calls this the “gender data gap.” And while Criado Perez believes that this gap is, generally, neither deliberate nor malicious, it nevertheless has consequences, ranging from inconvenient to deadly. Poised on the edge of a future where proprietary black box algorithms will use this data to make decisions humans can barely understand, amplifying this invisible bias by orders of magnitude, Criado Perez argues that it is more important than ever that we collect this data, and separate it by sex in order to prevent women from falling through the cracks of a male default world.

Invisible Women reads as a veritable laundry list of gaps, omissions, and injustices that result from presuming a male default in everything from medicine to urban planning to product design. Testing treatments on young (mostly white) males, and then adjusting for women and children, presumes a level of understanding of human biology that we have yet to achieve, and probably never will if we continue to avoid studying large segments of the population. It can also lead to astonishing oversights, such as building houses without kitchens. This happened in the wake of not one, but several disasters in South East Asia, where only consulting with men about the process of rebuilding lead to the creation of houses that failed to include the facilities that were predominantly the domain of women. Some of the examples are glaringly obvious, while others are patched together through a variety of smaller or older studies that give us an impression of what we might be missing because we’ve failed to study “atypical” patterns or behaviours that are in fact only atypical for men.

Done well, science is a tool for discovering the truth about our world. Done poorly, it can enshrine falsehoods and half-truths as doctrine. And leaving women out of almost all medical research for the sake of simplicity and reducing variables is just one example of how research can arrive at such half-truths—truths that are valid for one half of the population, but do not necessarily hold for the other. After nausea, Criado Perez found that the most commonly cited adverse drug reaction among women was that the drug simply didn’t work. For the author, this also raises an equal but opposite question; how many drugs that would have worked for women, but not men, never made it past trials because they were not effective in the majority of the (male) study participants? It is this kind of default thinking that can lead a company to make bank on a drug that stimulates erections in men, while completing ignoring the fact that the same drug was reported in trials to complete eliminate menstrual cramps in women for up to four hours. That’s like sitting on a gold mine and ignoring half of it.

In a book about gaps and biases, I did notice one significant omission in the discussion. Not once does Criado Perez mention transgender women. Nor is the term cisgender ever used. This is in spite of the fact that the she acknowledges that “the female body is not the problem. The problem is the social meaning we ascribe to that body, and a socially determined failure to account for it.” Criado Perez follows three themes through the book, which are the female body, women’s unpaid care burden, and male violence against women. While transwomen’s medical realities are different than those of ciswomen (and probably in the middle of an even bigger data gap thanks to their small numbers) they are very much a part of the latter two, most especially male violence against women. Combined with neglecting to discuss the singular they pronoun in a discussion of gender inflection in languages, and a couple of comments that reduced gender to genitals, I was left wondering if Criado Perez was thinking intersectionally. This was a glaring omission in an otherwise very thorough book which included many examples specific to working class women, women of colour, and women in the developing world.