Cadwell Turnbull – No Gods, No Monsters

Cadwell Turnbull’s new novel, NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, will be published in a few weeks (September 7). Via NetGalley, I got to read an advance copy, in return for providing an honest review.

Cadwell Turnbull was previously the author of THE LESSON, a parable about colonialism in the form of a story about aliens (from a planet technologically far superior to ours) establishing a presence in the US Virgin Islands (where the author is actually from). That novel excelled at combining vignettes of everyday life with its sf premise, which worked both allegorically (as a representation of colonialism) and intimately and realistically, in terms of the characters and their interactions.

This combination of everydayness with weird/uncanny premises works even better in NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, which makes sense entirely on its own, but which is also announced as the first volume of a trilogy (the “Convergence Saga”). The speculative premise here is one that might more readily be characterized as urban fantasy than as science fiction: there are “monsters” among us in the world as we know it now, shapeshifters (werewolves etc), psychics of various sorts, soucouyants (people from West Indies folklore who can cast off their skins and move about invisibly), and many others.

NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, however, has a far different feel than any other urban fantasy I have read. And this has a lot to do with the everydayness I mentioned. There are magical powers, and there are people using these powers both for good and ill; but for the most part, these powers are just another part of the life circumstances of the people who wield them, and who just want to get on with their lives, pursue activities of value, have romances, and so on — just like everybody else.

This in itself is a brilliant commentary on our social myths and fantasies. All too often, both in works of fiction and in what might be called the social imaginary, a distinction is made between ordinary folks and people with extraordinary powers, who become either heroes/saviors or villains (or both, depending). This type of story itself depends upon a bigoted set of assumptions; since the “ordinary folks” are generally assumed to be straight white men. Think of how the newspapers distinguish between everyman and so-called ‘special interests’ — the “average” American is always somebody like a white male working-class midwesterner who is mad as hell about immigrants and people of color allegedly getting ahead at his expense, and who therefore supports Trump. Why is such a person any more ‘ordinary’ than, say, an unmarried Black lesbian mother of two kids who has to work backbreaking jobs with long commutes just to make ends meet?

Anyway, one of the great things about NO GODS, NO MONSTERS is that it simply ignores such bigoted assumptions. Among the many characters we meet in this book, an ordinary person just trying to get along with their life might well be, say, a biracial trans man who is married to a woman but who generally considers himself asexual, and who is an anarchist activist devoted to organizing bottom-up cooperative enterprises owned and run by their workers (rather than by a capitalist boss). Or an ordinary person just trying to get along with their life might be an ex-drug addict now trying to repair relations with estranged family members, but who is also a werewolf, and who has been able to go straight and pull themselves together due to his bonds with his werewolf community. Or an ordinary person just trying to get along with their life might be somebody like the novel’s narrator, a failed academic who leaves the US mainland and goes back to his home in the Virgin Islands; he isn’t quite sure what he wants, or where he is headed, but he has the imaginative power to enter other peoples’ lives and observe them silently, which is where the material of the novel comes from.

In other words, there are lots of ways of being ordinary; most people just want to get along. It is this wanting just to get along that turns them into social activists, because our society is set up in such a way as to block their flourishing. There are many instances of this in the novel, having to do with racism, economic inequality, heterosexism, and so on. But most strongly, in this novel, it has to do with people having to hide their feelings and their very existence because they are “monsters.” Early in the novel, one of the main characters has to deal with how her estranged brother was murdered, a Black man shot and killed by a cop. Except it also turns out that her brother was a werewolf, and the cop shot him when he was in animal form. Werewolves keep to themselves, and do not harm ‘ordinary’ human beings, but who not part of the magical/monster underground is going to believe this?

In the course of the novel, the existence of monsters is revealed to the general public (or to straight people), in an event called The Fracture. Many of the monsters are more relieved than disturbed by this; they are anxious to come out of the closet and go public with who they are – a civil rights movement arises. But there are also forces seeking to suppress the evidence, and to make the monsters disappear from public view once again. The videos that proliferated across the Internet, showing the transformation of werewolved back into human form, mysteriously get erased. This itself seems to be a supernatural act. For there are also secret societies of monsters with their own hidden agendas, who seek to manipulate events for their own power and profit. And some of the monsters do in fact have scary supernatural powers. And there is also a lot of bigotry against monsters on the part of other people, even otherwise progressive other people. And there is still a lot of violence; this is a book that does not shy from representing murder, mutilation, and other ugly forms of abuse. Some of this violence is of the sort that we expect from the supernatural-with-elements-of-horror subgenre that this book belongs to. But more of the violence comes from straight people killing monsters by shooting guns — a form of violence that monsters are just as susceptible to as any other human beings. Monsters, like other outsider minorities, are much more often the victims of violence than its perpetrators.

NO GODS, NO MONSTERS does not have a single narrative focus; the narrative will stay with one character or set of characters for a few chapters, then switch attention to other ones. This back-and-forth seems to have disturbed some of the more simpleminded advance readers who posted on Goodreads; but it is essential to how the book works. This is a sort of networked novel. Human beings, ‘monsters’ or not, are social beings; nobody is an island unto themselves. What happens to people happens in the context of their relationships to other people. The different characters and plot strands scattered through the novel ultimately turn out to be interconnected — albeit interconnected often by what network theorists call ‘weak ties’, rather than through some grandiose and paranoid design. I have already said that the novel focuses on everydayness, and that it absorbs its supernatural and ‘monstrous’ visions into this everydayness; well, loose entanglements and interconnections are part of this everydayness. The novel gives us a powerful sense that, although nobody is unequivocally in control, nobody is insignificant either. This is one of the novel’s gifts, and part of what makes it so moving.

This sense of interconnection also pertains to the narrator. Though often he is recounting, in the third person, what happens to other people, he also has his own story, and his own emotional problems — his failed relationships, although entirely mundane, resonate strongly with the failures and problems experienced by the other characters, who are either monsters or the straight people who love them. The narrator’s insight into the lives of these other characters is itself something of a monster-like power; his “I” is there, although invisible, when things happen to other people. Mostly he is unnoticed, but sometimes the monsters, with their supernatural powers, are able to detect his presence, He seems, therefore, to be able to travel through time and space via astral projection; there are also references to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the sad life of that theory’s inventor, Hugh Everett, itself becomes a strand in the novel interwoven with the entirely fictional ones. It is noteworthy how the special status of the narrator who says “I” does not seem like a metafictional/postmodern conceit, but is itself woven into the textures of the novel’s world of networked interchanges, mirroring situations, and general drift. Throughout the book, existential crisis and everydayness also interpenetrate one another.

The novel’s title, NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, is itself a play on the old anarchist slogan, “no gods, no masters.” This is an egalitarian hope, something that cuts against the structure of the system of patriarchal racial capitalism in which we actually live. But such an “axiom of equality” (to cite something that has been formulated in varying ways by such theorists as Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou) is essential both to what it means to be human, and now to what it might mean to be posthuman or more-than-human. It is essential to anybody’s flourishing. In the novel, there are both gods and monsters. But the slogan “no gods, no monsters” is chanted by the monsters themselves, and their supporters. The “monsters” we meet do not want to give up being monsters — which is who they are, or what it means to be themselves — but they want to abolish the sense that “the monster” is an absolute other, an aberrant category, designating people (or sentient beings) who cannot be admitted into society. Isn’t this the dilemma faced by so many insurgent groups today (people of color, women, gays and lesbians, trans people, disabled people, and so on) who are always getting accused of “identity politics” when they point up how they are being excluded and victimized precisely on the basis of their perceived “identity”?

In short, NO GODS, NO MONSTERS is a reflection on some of the most crucial issues and social conditions that we are faced with today. At the same time, it is quite singular — different from just about anything else I have read. Its combination of detached drifting and fascination makes for a unique reading experience, a tone I have not found anywhere else.