In The Blood is a brilliant, emotional, and occasionally harrowing novel from author Jenny Colgan. And it should be required reading for everybody on the internet.
Across the world, people are being driven into a ferocious rage before suddenly and mysteriously dying. All they feel, in the moment before the infection claims them, is an icy fist closing around their heart. The mysterious infection is spread through the internet, from commenter to commenter. And Donna and the Tenth Doctor will have to travel around the world to find a way to stop the infection before humanity destroys itself.
Donna and the Tenth Doctor will always be one of my absolute favorite companion pairings, and Colgan brings their relationship to life brilliantly. Their dialogue is every bit as snappy and sharp as it is on the show, and you can practically hear Catherine Tate and David Tennant’s friendly bickering as you’re reading.
Colgan also captures small moments highlighting the Doctor and Donna’s personalties that just hit you right in the heart. I’ve always identified strongly with Donna, a feeling which has only grown as I’ve tried to become an adult, with a job and an endless string of bad dates and broken-down friendships and a general sense that I’m never going to be a proper grown-up. So when this moment with Donna happens near the beginning of the book, I had to set it aside for a moment to collect myself:
Then she went up to her rather basic room, and, feeling slightly ashamed, quickly had a little cry before bed, wondering if anyone ever felt truly like a proper, confident grown-up and, if they did, when would it happen for her?
But by far the most emotional moments for me happened when we see the mysterious infection claim another victim.
In the Blood has a very insightful, sympathetic perspective on internet harassment. At first the infection targets the worst of the worst — the trolls and harassers filled with anger and hate who enjoy being cruel for the sake of it. But as the infection spreads and infects more people, we see how even decent, well-intentioned people can descend into pettiness, meanness, and cruelty.
Maybe you’re having a bad day where every little thing seems to set you off. Maybe you feel like you have something to prove, and even well-meaning disagreements feel like personal judgements and indictments. Maybe you’ve been a victim of cruel harassment, and you’re responding with what feels like justified, understandable anger.
Rather than shying away from the issue and dismissing internet hate and harassment as the product of a few entirely heartless trolls, Jenny Colgan digs into how each of us has the capacity to be nasty and cruel to each other, then dials it up to nth degree. The actions of each of the victims once they’ve been infected go beyond any rational point, but their emotional journey towards that mindless rage is almost uncomfortably understandable.
Because although the infection is alien, we humans certainly provided an ample natural resource and a perfect climate for it to grow and spread. For every effort to create safer, better online spaces, there’s a counter movement against it. The same could be said for offline spaces. Another gut-punch moment from the book came from the Doctor, who quipped:
I’m wildly out of fashion. They renamed basic species empathy as ‘political correctness gone mad’, and the world’s never been the same since. Dunno why.
And is there anything else that so perfectly sums up everything that’s wrong with the current cultural and political climate, particularly in the US? A community demands respect, consideration, and a little empathy for their situation, and there is an immediate, knee-jerk reaction opposing them.
Opponents ask why they should have to change, or why they should care about the feelings of the community being targeted. They’ll say that that community should just grow a thicker skin, log-off, go away. They’ll say it’s all just ‘political correctness’ gone mad. Demanding a little bit of empathy and some small effort to make the world better for everyone seems to be a downright radical political act sometimes.
Over and over again in In the Blood we see characters trying to stand up for each other, demanding a little respect and compassion. Sometimes, they succeed. Sometimes, the harasser succumbs to their infection first. Sometimes, the good samaritan is infected too.
This book was particularly harrowing for me because I’ve been the target of some truly frightening harassment in the past few months. My harassers have upped the ante recently from casual misogynistic slurs and insults to sending me porn, repeatedly asking me to kill myself, and saying I “deserve to be raped.”
Relatively speaking, the harassment I’m facing is mild. There haven’t been serious threats to my safety, but that’s also not really the point of these types of messages. They just want me to feel threatened and afraid. They want me to feel unsafe in this fandom. They want to silence my voice on the internet. They want me to be afraid, every time I go out in public, that someone might want to hurt me. And it works, too. Before I go out to conventions, I often have stress nightmares that someone will find me and hurt me. After one particularly frightening message in the fall, I practically shut down online. Blog posts became increasingly late because the stress that something I said in a post would incite another round of harassment made it almost impossible to write.
But I have a good community surrounding me. I have a strong network of people supporting me and ensuring that I feel safe and welcomed. It is my own emotional response to harassment that constantly set my teeth on edge while reading In the Blood.
Because I know, I know what it feels like to be trapped in that feedback loop. You get a hateful message and suddenly you’re filled with fear and anger and frustration too. You’re terrified of what they’ve promised to do, you’re angry that someone could be so horrible, you’re filled with impotent fury knowing that nothing you do could change them or stop them. All you want to do is respond, to make them feel the pain of what they’ve done to you, to show the world what a terrible person your harasser is, to show them that you won’t be treated this way —
And it happens. You feel the blood pounding in your head, the adrenaline shooting hot and cold through your veins, and an icy pressure closing in around your heart.
It’s perfectly normal to react to harassment with fear and anger. I try to project an air of unconcerned calmness online, but frankly, if I ever truly reach that zen moment where violent threats don’t phase me, I’d be alarmed about how that became my new normal. But I am often concerned about how my reaction to harassment impacts my life. Feeling fear and anger is normal, but I don’t want those feelings to control my life or my interactions online.
Sometimes, if I can, I try to respond with humor. This helps, even if just for a little while. I also tried to just ignore it and move on with my life. This didn’t help much, mostly because I have a very hard time simply forgiving and forgetting. The fear, resentment, and anger just festers away, giving me nightmares and turning all my online interactions bitter.
Colgan also doesn’t seem to advocate the “shut down emotionally” response. She introduces a character who turns from an absolutely terrifying mercenary to a surprisingly sweet foil for Donna, Fief. His emotions are technologically suppressed, and while that protects him from the infection, it also denies him the ability to feel things like wonder, affection, curiosity, and love. It may be efficient and encourage cooperation, but it also prevents him from feeling the things that life is worth living for. Humans, with all of our messy emotions and our penchant for hurting each other, at least get to experience all the joy the universe has to offer. You can’t have the good emotions without the bad. We just have to learn how to manage and respond to those bad emotions.
Without giving too much away about the conclusion to the novel, Colgan’s answer is surprisingly direct and simple: self-care and empathy.
And frankly, that’s usually what works best for me. I get together with friends and vent my feelings over a glass of wine. I go for a long walk. I buy a stranger a coffee and help a mother soothe a baby on the train by making funny faces. I call my parents. I order my favorite take-out and settle down to watch the Third Doctor venusian-aikido some well-deserving bad guys.
And then I wake up the next morning and keep fighting. Because I can’t abandon these spaces to the trolls, and I don’t want to either. This is my community, my home. AndI want to save it for everyone.
Wilf would probably tell me that I’m not going to make the world any better by shouting at it, but all I can do is try.
“Hey bitches!” It’s late morning, and Jenna greets them cheerfully. “I’m back! Did you miss me?”
Grace barely acknowledges that she’s being addressed, which seems to set Jenna off somehow, because she kicks her legs unceremoniously.
“So” she says turning towards Hannah “I bet you’re just as excited as I am. Do I need to ask again?”
Hannah shakes her head, and Jenna sighs heavily. “You’ll talk, honey, or maybe Body Art here will melt if she sees you being treated.”
As she pulls out the hot iron from the bucket filled with fresh coal, Grace keeps her eyes on the ground, teeth clasped together. Hannah’s scream fills the air as the exposed skin on her neck gets scorched.
“No? Nothing?” Jenna asks, and bends down forcing Grace to make eye contact “You’re one heartless bitch.”