Sirens by Simon Messingham

Simon Messingham
Derelict Space Sheep, 338 pages
Review by Katie Gray

I was tentatively excited for Sirens. Being a die-hard Doctor Who fan I was familiar with Simon Messingham’s work – he’s the author of no less than seven expanded universe novels across four different books ranges. Naturally I was interested to read his first original novel and Sirens had an intriguing and gripping premise.

All around the world, two hundred people simultaneously acquire the same superpower: the ability to ‘glamour’ other human beings, to make them fall utterly and wholeheartedly in love with you. Glamoured people will do anything their new master asks of them – even at the cost of their own lives.

One of the newly made Sirens is Anthony Graves, a thirty-year-old London office worker. He was wholly unimaginative and unremarkable. Now he rules all of Europe and North America – and he has designs on the rest of the world. The narrative switches between his aimless life of luxury and extended flashbacks detailing how he came to realise what he could do, how he came to be emperor, and what he lost along the way.

Sirens doesn’t get too bogged down in how and why the eponymous beings exist. They simply do, and the consequences are dealt with in a realistic way, the destruction and subsequent reorganisation of society made to feel chillingly real.

Messingham has a real flair for the disturbing. Sirens is an often skin-crawling read, in large part due to the strength of the world-building – it’s clear a lot of thought has been put into exactly what two hundred, randomly selected people having this power would mean. An infant Siren destroys an entire town in its panic; an elderly woman with dementia first kills the other patients in her care home and then incinerates half of Europe.

There’s some fascinating concepts in Sirens. What really lets the novel down is its protagonist; every other Siren seems to have a more interesting story than Anthony Graves.

Some of the new Sirens try to use their abilities for good, some for evil and destruction. Others reject their new existence altogether and choose to take their own lives. Anthony does none of the above.

At no point does it occur to Anthony to make a conscious moral choice about how to use his power, for good and for evil. He uses the Glamour to have fun and ensure his continued existence. He isn’t even imaginative enough to think of anything to do with his power – he has to be prompted by others to realise that he can get anything more ambitious than free drinks in bars. Even when he glamours all of Britain, it’s because someone else pulled some strings to get him a TV interview.

He’s shown to be deeply sexist and homophobic, and he struggles to connect with other people, especially woman. All of this informs the way he uses his ability; selfishly, pettily, and violently. One way or another, he kills every woman he has a sexual relationship with.

We’ve all known men like Anthony, nasty, immature creeps and it’s all too plausible that given this kind of power, they would snap and become killers. But the novel presents Anthony as a kind of everyman, or even an everyperson; the message of the novel could easily be taken as that in Anthony’s circumstances, we would all become not just monsters but petty monsters.

But on the flip side, it’s worth noting that the handful of Sirens indicated to have chosen death over dominating others are all women, which I can only assume was intentional. Sirens could also be understood as a commentary on sexism and male entitlement.

Late in the novel, Anthony realises he’s come across as a villain. He claims he hasn’t been doing himself justice in his own autobiography (the book we’re reading) and that he did all sorts of interesting and creative things with his power. But he then struggles to name any of them or even to tell the reader anything ‘true’ and authentic about himself.

Sirens is certainly a thought-provoking book. Ultimately, though, I think Messingham is more concerned with being dark and ‘edgy’ than with communicating a coherent moral message. Was Sirens intended to be about misogyny, or about human nature? Both interpretations are supported by the text and neither is fully satisfying.

I enjoyed reading Sirens, but I think perhaps it might have been stronger as an ensemble piece, with several different Sirens sharing the spotlight. As it is, the more I reflect on it, the more I dislike it.

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 9.