Issue #57

This is the December 2023 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.

Cover: Suffragette Tree

Once again it is time to use a piece of art by the very wonderful Iain J Clark on the cover. This is the time of year when trees feature heavily in the seasonal mythology, so I thought this piece would be perfect. As well as being a lovely tree, it also features the Hugo rocket, to remind you that the Glasgow Worldcon is not far away now, which is the primary purpose of running these images.

Iain titled this piece “Suffragette Tree” because of the colours. I’m always happy to see those colours used for good, because these days they have been co-opted by the anti-trans lobby to represent a bizarre misinterpretation of feminism. I’m pretty sure that Iain agrees with me on that point.

As usual, you can find a larger, unadorned version of the art below.

The Glasgow committee noted:

Glasgow 2024 has been incredibly privileged to have been supported by the donated artwork of Iain J Clark. He was a Hugo nominee in the ‘Best Fan Artist’ category for three consecutive years and he won the BFSA award for best artwork in 2020 with ‘Ship Building Over the Clyde’ and in 2021 with the ‘Glasgow Green Woman’ which are available along with his other beautiful work at

If you want to know more about the Glasgow Worldcon, their website is:

A Midwinter’s Tail

Ah yes, it is that time of year when the entertainment industry pumps out vast quantities of soppy seasonal material. I’ve never felt any particular desire to watch Hallmark Christmas movies, or any other Christmas movie for that matter (and yes, that does include Die Hard). So what on Earth tempted me to pick up a copy of A Midwinter’s Tail by Lili Hayward?

Well, cats obviously. Also I know the author, and have liked the work she puts out under one of her many other pen names. Plus the blurb mentioned Cornwall.

Reader, the book is not set in Cornwall, it is set somewhere even better.

The Phoenicians, and later the Romans, knew of a large island off the coast of south-west Prydain. The Romans called it Scillonia insula, the Island of Scilly (or possibly Sulis, the same goddess who gave her name to Bath). It was a useful stopping off point on the tin route to Cornwall. This much we know from archaeology and Roman sources.

But the people of that island failed to pay proper respect to the god of the sea. Whether you call him Manannán mac Lir, Manawydan fab Llŷr, Poseidon or Neptune, he is an angry god who is merciless to those who offend him. And so much of the island was drowned. Nowadays it is known as the Islands of Scilly, or Lyonnesse, the drowned land. The ferry service from Penzance to Hugh Town uses a ship with a specially shallow keel to allow it to navigate the drowned lands without bottoming. (And yes, sailors, that does make her roll awfully in the swell off Land’s End.)

Hayward picks up on a Cornish folk tale version of this story, involving a sea goddess called Morgelyn (“Sea Holly” in Cornish) and her cat, Murr.

There’s no actual island in Scilly called Morgelyn. Nor is the wealthy family that owns much of the land there called Penhallow. The family in question is much wealthier than that, because most of Scilly is part of the Duchy of Cornwall. But don’t let these things spoil the story.

There is a holiday cottage on Scilly called Morgelyn. It is up on McFarland’s Down, where I spent a happy couple of weeks for several summers years ago. Also Morgelyn is popular girl’s name amongst the Cornish.

The story is one of a young woman struggling to survive in the highly competitive environment of London office life. One December she receives a letter from her godfather, a Scillonian painter whom she hasn’t heard from since she was eight. The envelope includes a key, and the message in the letter is simple: “take care of her”. A little inquiry reveals that godfather Davy is ill in hospital and may not live; his pet cat, Murr, is alone in his cottage on the beach on Morgelyn. This is odd, because Mina remembers Murr from her childhood holidays on the island, and the cat wasn’t young then.

What follows is classic Christmas movie fare, in which Mina makes a dash to Morgelyn to carry out her dying godfather’s wishes, has trouble with the locals, discovers some dastardly goings on, discovers some truths about her past, and eventually puts everything right. It is a solid goal tear-jerker. Someone absolutely should make a Christmas movie of it.

Note to American women – you should no more marry someone with a cottage on Scilly than you should marry someone who has a castle in Scotland. The weather is awful much of the year. You’d hate it. Though the cottage on Scilly is much more likely to have a roof.

So yes, it was all very predictable, but it was well done with some lovely descriptive passages. Also there is a nicely diverse cast. I’m particularly fond of Paola, the very efficient office manager who is the only nice person at Mina’s place of work.

As and when I win a lottery, I will take Kevin to Scilly in the summer. We’ll get to sit on quiet beaches, eat cream teas and delicious fish, peer into rock pools and peer at seals, and in the evening we’ll sit out in the iron age village on Halangy Down and watch Lleu Llaw Gyffes lay his spear across the sea. Until that time I shall have to rely on books like A Midwinter’s Tail to remind me of that magical place. Thank you, Lili, that was beautiful.

book cover
Title: A Midwinter's Tail
By: Lili Hayward
Publisher: Sphere
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Doctor Who: The Return of Russellon

Russell T Davies sure knows how to make an entrance. Also he is not afraid to upset people, particularly the pro-bigotry brigade. How he gets away with this on the BBC I do not know, but I’m very glad he does.

Thus far in his new stint at the helm of Doctor Who we have had four episodes. One was an adaptation of a rather thin 2000 AD story enlivened by some amazing trans representation and a brilliant performance by Miriam Margoyles. One was a very creepy science fiction story. One was an excuse for Neil Patrick Harris to camp up an evil genius role to the max while the plot blew vast holes in the tattered remnants of the Who canon. And finally we had a full-on fantasy episode with a song-and-dance number and a new Doctor whose titanic screen presence has already made him a fan favourite.

Follow that, anyone? Fortunately for the world of TV showrunners, no one has to, because Davies will be back with a new series in the spring which promises, among other things, a meeting with the Beatles.

So yeah, that was impressive. I was, for obvious reasons, particularly pleased with the very positive trans representation in the first of the David Tennant specials. I note also that there was a trans woman in the cast of the Christmas special, and a trans man is slated to appear in the new series. Davies isn’t messing about. As a result, the UK’s anti-trans lobby has now become The People Who Hate Doctor Who, which I’m sure is doing their public image a world of good.

Having not paid a lot of attention to the original Tennant run, I didn’t fully follow a lot of the references to the past adventures of the Doctor and Donna, but Davies clearly felt that there was a wrong that he needed to put right. Also no one in their right minds would say no to having David Tennant do another three episodes.

The idea that there is a retired Doctor living in Camden while the new Doctor heads out across the universe doing the adventure thing is a bit batshit, but then the ability of the Doctor to travel through time has always meant that things could get very weird. Season #2 of Loki picked up on that same weirdness to great effect when Loki spent a thousand years becoming an expert in astrophysics while a few seconds passed in the lives of the other characters.

As for Ncuti Gatwa, he’s absolutely delightful. Thus far he’s a sort of Puck version of The Doctor who is determined to have fun as well as adventures. The kids will love it, and that will allow Davies to continue to offend the sensibilities of Daily Malice readers. Sooner or later, Who fandom will find an excuse to be outraged too, but in the meantime let’s all enjoy this splendid renaissance.

The History of the Welsh Dragon

This past month I have experienced two supposed histories of the dragon in the UK, neither of which made any reference to the one part of the country that actually has a dragon on its flag. One was a History Hit documentary from Jasmine Elmer (whom I met at HistFest earlier this year). The other was an episode of Rhianna Pratchett’s Mythical Creatures, reviewed elsewhere in this issue. This doesn’t surprise me. “British” history, as it is taught in English schools, and portrayed in the English media, tends to ignore Wales entirely unless it is being conquered by the English. Also a lot of the sources are in mediaeval Welsh which is rarely studied outside of Wales. But the story of why there is a dragon on the Welsh flag is interesting, so I’m making a stab at telling it.

Please note that this is very much a first pass. There is a lot of follow-up reading that I would like to do, but that requires a trip to Aberystwyth to visit the National Library of Wales, and I won’t be able to do that for a while.

Our story begins in ancient Romania and Moldova. Between the Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea lived a people whom the Romans called Dacians. The Romanian car company, Dacia, is named after them. Their precise ethnicity is a subject of some debate as they seem to have been influenced by the Greeks to the south, the Celts to the north and the Scythians to the east, but we do know that they caused the Romans an awful lot of trouble. Domitian and Trajan both fought extensive wars against the Dacians, and though parts of their territory were conquered they continued to be a thorn in the Roman side until the late 3rd Century when Aurelian gave up and abandoned the province.

The Romans were great adopters of ideas. If any people that they incorporated into the Empire did something well, they would take that idea and make it their own. The Dacian military impressed them greatly, and one of the innovations that they adopted was a standard that the Romans called the Draco.

A Dacian draco was a metal image of a wolf’s head (the Dacians particularly revered wolves) behind which trailed a long fabric tube. The standard was carried by cavalry. At speed, the wind would rush through the draco, causing the tail to stream out and making a howling sound as it passed through the head. The Romans thought this looked like a dragon, and adopted it for their cavalry.

However, the Dacians may not have invented the draco standard themselves. They did, after all, live on the western border of Scythian lands. And if anyone was going to invent something neat involving cavalry it was the Scythians. The Greek historian, Arrian (86-160 CE approx.), said that the Romans got the idea of the draco from the Scythians, and we do know that at least some Scythians used it.

In 175 CE Marcus Aurelius scored a notable victory over a people called the Sarmatians. They were culturally Scythian and lived in the region to the north-east of the Black Sea, so bordering on Dacian territory. As part of the peace treaty, the Romans demanded the service of 8,000 Sarmatian cavalry to serve in the Roman army. Rather cruelly, he sent more than half of them to Britain.

Being nomads, the Sarmatians probably brought their families with them, so that was a sizeable influx of steppe horse people into Britain. I’ve seen estimates of as many as 20,000 people. Recent DNA analysis of a grave in Cambridgeshire has proved that at least one of them died here. The Sarmatians were originally based at Deva (Chester) alongside Legio XX Valeria Victrix. Some of them may have been moved back to the continent, but we have evidence of one wing of the unit being based at Bremetenacum (Ribchester in Lancashire) as late as the end of the 4th Century. Famously there is a funerary monument at Chester showing a Sarmatian cavalryman carrying a draco standard.

On a tangent, Herodotus tells us that the Sarmatians were descended from a group of Amazons from Themiscyra (it is a real town in northern Turkey) who got captured by maritime raiders, slew their captors and, not being very good with boats, ended up on the north shore of the Black Sea. There they made a deal with the locals, trading sex for any female babies thus resulting. The men wanted the Amazons to marry them, but the Amazons refused to live in a patriarchal society. They said that and man who wanted to continue a relationship with them must come and live with them in a gender-equal society. And this was the origin of the Sarmatians.

There were probably women warriors in the Sarmatian cavalry unit sent to Britain, because the graves of two of them were found at Brovacum (Brougham Castle in Cumbria). They were buried together with horses and weapons, and may be the first recorded lesbian couple in British history.

The Sarmatians were known to use cataphracts, heavy cavalry where both the horse and rider are covered in scale mail. However, it would have made no sense for Marcus Aurelius to send such troops to Britain. What he wanted was light cavalry who could patrol the northern border region and get to instances of trouble very quickly. Nice as it might have been for Arthuriana, our Sarmatians would have looked nothing like mediaeval knights.

But, when the Romans left, some military units may have stayed behind. Our story now moves to the region between the Hadrianic and Antonine Walls, and a people known to the Romans as the Votadini, and in Welsh as Y Gododdin. They are the subject of a famous Welsh poem (in which they were the losers in a battle with the Angles from Deira (North Yorkshire)) and in the founding myth of the Kingdom of Gwynedd. It is Gwynedd that will occupy the rest of our attention.

Legend has it that a king of the Votadini called Cunedda took his people to North Wales and founded Gwynedd. This would have been in the early 5th Century, long before the famous battle, so clearly some of the Votadini remained behind. The royal house of Gwynedd traces its descent from Cunedda.

The first King of Gwynedd we need to consider is Cadwallon I, known as Cadwallon Lawhir (Longhand) because of his very long arms. He is credited with driving the Irish out of Anglesey, allowing the island to become a stronghold for Gwynnedd from then on. I mention him for two reasons, one of which is that he is probably the Cradelmant of Norgales (North Wales) featured in the Arthur story.

The other reason is because there’s a story that I’m still trying to track claiming that, in the battle with the Irish, the Welsh tied their legs to their horses. This sounds suspiciously like someone who had never seen stirrups trying to describe them. And that’s notable because the Sarmatians are one of the two peoples vying for the credit for inventing stirrups (the other is the Chinese). There’s no evidence that the Romans used stirrups until Byzantine times, but they may have known about them.

I go on about the Sarmatians and Welsh cavalry because it is necessary to establish that Welsh cavalry existed. The Saxons, bless them, did not think much of fighting on horseback. Famously, Harold Godwinson’s crack troops rode down from Stamford Bridge to Hastings and then dismounted to fight in a shield wall. The Norman cavalry taught them a lesson about warfare. And because of this, English historians tend to assume that the Welsh knew nothing of cavalry until they saw the Normans.

However, the Romans, from Julius Caesar onwards, noted the fondness of the native Britons for chariots. We have plenty of archaeological evidence for the use of horses by people such as the Brigantes and Silures. In addition to the Sarmatians at Chester, there was a unit of Hispanic cavalry stationed at Brecon. Cadwallon Lawhir is said to have used cavalry against the Irish. There’s even a section of one of Taliesin’s poems in which the army of Urien of Rheged mocks their Pictish enemies for the smallness of their mounts, so the Welsh clearly took pains to breed quality cavalry horses. And if they inherited ideas about cavalry from the Romans, they would have known about the draco standard.

The first mention of dragons in association with Wales comes from Gildas, who was very much as grumpy as Lucy Holland portrays him in Sistersong. He made great show of excoriating various Welsh kings for their lack of bravery and moral fibre. He reserves his greatest ire for Maelgwyn of Gwynedd, who he calls the “Dragon of the Isle”. (The island in question being presumably Anglesey.)

I note in passing that the Welsh for chief dragon would be Pendraig. If Welsh cavalry were called dragons because of their standards, a Pendragon would be a leader of cavalry.

The first King of Gwynedd known to have used a dragon on his standard is Cadwalladr the Blessed, called thus because he was very pious and founded many churches. He’s not exactly the sort of figure to be associated with dragons but, as we shall see, history has made him thus. The true dragon from whom the legend descends is likely to be his father, Cadwallon ap Cadfan.

We are now very much in real history. Cadfan’s gravestone can still be seen at a church in Llangadwaladr on Anglesey. He didn’t have a great time as King of Gwynedd. During his reign, the Welsh (mainly Powys rather than Gwynedd) suffered a great defeat at the Battle of Chester at the hands of the Angles under the Northumbrian King, Æthelfrith. Perhaps because of this, Cadfan chose to foster a pretender to the Northumbrian throne, Edwin of Deira. From that, much disaster ensued.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that we are now firmly in Hild territory. Edwin is Hild’s great uncle, and a major character in Nicola Griffith’s Hild. He did, with the help of the Saxon king, Rædwald (he of Sutton Hoo), eventually overthrow Æthelfrith, and one of the first things he did on becoming king was attack Gwynedd.

So what’s up here? By this time Cadwallon was King of Gwynedd. He and Edwin would have grown up together at Cadfan’s court, and we can only assume that the two princes came to hate each other. Certainly they spent the rest of their lives in open warfare. Edwin had the initial advantage. Cadwallon was driven from Anglesey. He took refuge for a while on Ynys Seiriol (Puffin Island) at the north-eastern end of the Menai Strait, and eventually ended up in exile in Ireland.

Time passed, and Cadwallon was able to return to Britain. He found an ally in the form of Penda, King of Mercia. As we learn from Menewood, that led to the Battle of Hatfield Chase near Doncaster where Edwin was killed. Cadwallon then went on a lengthy rampage through Northumbria, looting and killing as he went. He finally met his end at the Battle of Heavenfield up near Hadrian’s wall where he was defeated by an army led by Æthelfrith’s son, Oswald (or, if you prefer, by Hild of Elmet).

Cadwallon is the main villain of Menewood, and to anyone from Northumberland, from the Venerable Bede to Griffith, that’s entirely unsurprising. However, Welsh sources, including Geoffrey of Monmouth, describe him as a great national hero. Geoffrey even has him surviving Heavenfield and living to the ripe old age of 84. A more neutral account can be found in Max Adams’ excellent book, The King in the North.

My point here is twofold. Firstly, the way that Cadwallon’s army operates suggests that it contained a significant amount of cavalry. And secondly, the way that he lays waste to Northumberland is very dragon-like.

Mention of Geoffrey of Monmouth brings us to the famous prophecy of Merlin concerning the red and white dragons that are fighting for the future of Britain. The story also appears in the tale of Lludd & Llefelys from the Mabinogion, but Geoffrey’s work is older than any surviving Welsh-language source. This story took on particular significance during the Wars of the Roses, in which one side had a red badge and the other white. Interestingly, Edward IV claimed descent from Cadwaladr, but the Tudors had a far more believable claim. The Tudor ancestral home was the village of Penmynydd (Mountain Top) on Anglesey. Henry Tudor used a red dragon on his coat of arms to denote his descent from Cadwalladr.

Annoyingly, Henry VIII, having grown up in London, seemed to have no particular interest in his Welsh roots, and Welsh influence over the Tudor court quickly waned. The red dragon did not officially become a symbol of Wales until the creation of the United Kingdom as we now know it in 1807. The Welsh flag was created in 1959. But the dragon on it can be traced back to Cadwalladr, and from him to the Romans and Sarmatians.

So yeah, the Welsh dragon was gifted to us by a people from the Asian steppes who claim descent from the Amazons.

Bookshops and Bonedust

Based on reading Legends & Lattes, I was pretty sure that I knew what to expect from the next Travis Baldree book. It would be a quick read, unchallenging, heartwarming, and likely to make you hungry. Reader, I was not surprised in any way.

Bookshops & Bonedust tells of Viv the orc’s early days in the mercenary business when she is young and headstrong, and dangerously confident of her own ability. This leads to her having to spend several weeks recuperating from a leg wound while the rest of her team continue their pursuit of the necromancer, Varine the Pale.

Viv is left to kick her heels in a small and run-down seaside town with the unprepossessing name of Murk. Oddly enough, she does not end up being menaced by frog-faced denizens of the deep. There are bad guys, eventually, but much more importantly there is a run-down bookshop in need of rescue, and great deal of delicious bakery.

Said bookshop is run by a ratkin lady called Fern who is deep in the throes of depression paralysis. She knows that her business is failing, and is long past having the tenacity to do anything about it. The relentlessly optimistic Viv is just what she needs to pull herself out of her funk.

From then on the story is all about the love of books, and selling them, plus a little love for a cute dwarf lady with a huge talent for bakery. It is all very lovely and very predictable.

Then again, lovely and predictable is sometimes what people need, especially these days when each day’s news seems to double down on the world’s descent into climate disaster and Fascism. Baldree has found his niche, and fills it very well. Maybe from there he will eventually branch out a little.

book cover
Title: Bookshops & Bonedust
By: Travis Baldree
Publisher: Tor
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Normal Women

For whose who don’t know, Phillipa Gregory is one of the most successful writers of historical fiction in the UK. She specializes mainly in mediaeval and Tudor times, but her novel about the slave trade, A Respectable Trade, is memorialized on a plaque in Bristol Docks and was, for a long time, the city’s only public memorial to that shameful part of its history. I think Marvin Rees has done something about that now, but I am a bit out of date.

Anyway, Gregory’s historical fiction is very good, and writing good historical fiction requires good research. Normal Women is her first non-fiction book. Given that it got featured on Prof. Suzannah Lipscombe’s Not Just the Tudors podcast, it comes well recommended by a top flight historian. And that’s good, because what Gregory attempts is something that most historians would blanche at.

Normal Women sets out to tell the history of women in Britain over the course of 900 years, so roughly from the Norman Conquest until now. Even for a 650 page book, that’s massively ambitious. It means that it is impossible to cover any individual story in anything like the sort of detail that a normal history book would.

What Gregory does instead is pick a bunch of themes that are important to women’s lives, and follow those through a succession of historical periods. The amount of space spent on each period tends to increase as we get closer to the present day because of the much greater amount of historical evidence available. Some of the themes covered include women’s roles in politics, religion and war. She looks at marriage and sex work; at women’s roles in the slave trade, and the fight for women’s rights. Along the way there is a magnificent amount of feminist snark.

One of my favourite themes in the book is the question of the nature of women. Most people don’t realise how radically this has changed over the centuries. In mediaeval times women were believed to be sexually insatiable, but by the end of the Victorian era we’d become timid creatures who had to be coaxed into having sex. Mediaeval people also followed the ancient Greeks in believing that women were imperfectly-formed men, and that therefore they might naturally transform into men given the right stimulus (such as overly enthusiastic physical exercise). I was particularly struck by a quotation from the apocryphal Gospel of St. Thomas in which Jesus says of his mother, Mary:

I, myself, shall lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Pleasingly, Gregory also spends a lot of time looking at sex and sexuality. Despite that fact that, for most of her period, men believed that sex between women was impossible because no penis was involved, Gregory has unearthed a wealth of examples of women at least being very fond of each other and providing loving companionship.

My favourite parts of the book are the various snarky comments. Here are a few examples:

The idea of ‘women’s work’ was invented to identify work so disagreeable or badly paid that men did not want it.

John Locke – one of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment – advised women that lifting heavy objects ‘belongs not to their sex’ and ‘endangered their health’, blind to the world around him filled with labouring women working alongside men.

Gregory also pokes fun at the Bayeaux Tapestry, which famously contains 93 depictions of penises and only 5 of women. To be fair, however, most of the penises belong to horses, not to humans. It is possible that the women who would have sewn the thing were just having fun putting dick pics into their work to annoy Bishop Odo.

And there is this magnificent denunciation of the Church of England’s 1966 report into the question of the ordination of women:

It’s an extraordinarily complete summary of the reasons men have given over nine centuries of English history (and longer) to keep women from authority, from wealth and from interesting work. It was the last stand of patriarchy on the last hill. Women were not the spiritual equals of men in the eyes of God nor in the view of his church. They could not be priests. They never had been priests – it was not natural. It would ruin the priest business if women were to do it. Women and men are the opposite of each other and cannot do the same work. Women could not be both priest and mother and wife – it would ruin the home, and not even women want this. And finally, women do their own feminine work so beautifully that this work should be improved and extended, and they should do nothing else.

Much of this, of course, is claimed to be fundamental feminist belief by the anti-trans lobby.

Which brings us back to the trans issue. Firstly we should note that the idea of their being only two sexes is by no means universal. Gregory cites the Elizabethan legal expert, Sir Edward Coke, as claiming that humans came in three sexes: male, female and hermaphrodite.

The idea of assigning sex at birth falls victim to the Gregory snark:

Doctors made snap decisions based on the appearance of infant genitals, almost always naming a baby with a small penis as a girl, since it was thought better to be a girl with what looked like a large clitoris than to be a boy with what looked like a small penis. On this simple male vanity, many lives were wrecked.

Gregory’s narrative is very inclusive when it comes to trans women. I was delighted to see the likes of Eleanor Rykener, Charlotte de Beaumont, Roberta Cowell and April Ashley being accepted unquestioningly as women. Even better, there is an apparent example of a trans couple. A legal case from June 1602 reports that a couple named Rose Davies and John Littlewood were arrested for both dressing as the opposite sex.

Sadly, attitudes to trans men in the book are much less inclusive. Gregory seems to have been taken in by the anti-trans narrative that trans men are ‘really’ women who think that becoming men is the only possible route to female emancipation. Including trans men as women broadens her definition of women yet further, but those she co-opts into femininity might not be very happy about it.

What worried me most about the book, however, was the errors. There’s not a lot of history that I can claim to be an expert on, but trans history is my thing. Gregory’s coverage of trans people contains a number of basic errors. Michael Dillon did not become the heir to a baronetcy on officially changing his gender: he had an older brother. Roberta Cowell was not the first person to undergo male-to-female genital surgery: Lili Elbe and others did so much earlier. And the section on de Beaumont is taken mainly from the mythology that grew up around her rather than historical fact.

This, I’m afraid, is a consequence of trying to cover far too much in one book. And if things that I know about are wrong, how many errors are there that I’m not qualified enough to spot?

Sad. But the snark is still great. And the general theme that views on the nature of women and the role of women in society have changed radically – and not always for the better – over the past nine centuries is very much valid.

book cover
Title: Normal Women
By: Philippa Gregory
Publisher: William Collins
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Mythical Creatures

As far as I’m aware, most of Rhianna Pratchett’s career so far has been in video games, which I dont play because I’m completely useless at them. In her position, I’d probably run as far away from the parental profession as possible. These days, however, she seems open about claiming the label of Fantasy Writer, and part of that has been to helm a series for BBC Radio 4 called Mythical Creatures.

This is a 10-episode set of programmes of around 15 minutes in length. They were broadcast on air over the past few weeks, but were also available on the BBC Sounds podcast feed. The basic format is that each episode focuses on a particular type of creature, and Pratchett investigates the stories around it.

Sadly there was much about the format that did not work for me. To start with, each episode contains some dramatisation of a story featuring the creature of the week. I’m really not good with audio dramas. That’s probably me, because other people seem to like them, but I do wish people would not feel the need to inject dramatic episodes into factual programmes.

In addition, most episodes contain some element of psychoanalysis. That is, having presented the creature of the week, Pratchett and her guest experts go on to pontificate on the ‘real’ meaning of the stories, and why people in past times felt the need to invent such silly tales. This strikes me as a very BBC thing to be doing. Traditionally the Corporation has hated fantasy, and would only allow it in material for children, or if some supposedly rational explanation could be found for the stories. I have my suspicions that the inclusion of such material was necessary in order to get the Beeb to buy the series. There does seem to be a movement away from it as the series goes on.

There are several episodes that I enjoyed despite my reservations. The dragon one, despite not mentioning Wales at all, is quite amusing because it details the efforts of the Lambton family to cash in on their ancestor’s famous adventure with the Lambton Wyrm. The episode that does centre on Wales is the one about giants. That’s because it features Idris the Thoughtful Giant, who is a lovely chap and not at all the horrible monster of Susan Cooper’s The Grey King. He just wants to sit there on his mountain and contemplate the mysteries of the universe.

I was particularly taken by the episode on selkies. Selkie stories are often tales of gender-based violence, in that a human male forces a selkie woman to become his wife by stealing and hiding her seal skin. While such stories may have had social functions in fishing communities of the past, they are now being re-purposed by people who specialise in supporting the victims of gender-based violence, which shows that fantasy tales have modern relevance, and can be re-imagined for different purposes.

The selkie episode is number 8 in the sequence. Pratchett returns to the theme of re-writing for the final episode which is all about the wulver.

The what? No, I hadn’t heard of it either. The wulver is Shetland’s Friendly Neighbourhood Wolfman. He specialises in helping people in trouble, usually by leaving them a nice fish so that they have something to eat. That’s not traditional behaviour by folkloric monsters, and it is perhaps no surprise to learn the at the wulver is not an ancient myth, but a 20th century invention.

The folklorist responsible for the invention of the wulver, Jessie Saxby, is often portrayed as a villain who invented what is termed ‘fakelore’. But, as Pratchett points out in the show, folklore is not a static thing that belongs to the past. Nor does a mythic creature have a single, fixed meaning. Stories evolve constantly. New creatures get invented. That’s how this all works. Maybe the wulver is just the sort of mythical creature that the world needs right now. (Along with the Hob, of course. Everyone who has to do housework wants one of them.)

Thus the series ends with a defence of the story-teller’s art. I don’t know whether the BBC executives who commissioned it will have been happy about that, but I know that I am.

The Celts on Amazon Prime

It used to be the case that there was never anything worth watching on TV over the holidays. That’s no longer true, because now we have a ton of streaming services all groaning under the weight of content more varied and potentially interesting than any Christmas dinner table. Even someone of my relatively limited tastes in TV can be guaranteed to find something worth checking out.

Scrolling through documentaries on Amazon Prime, I found a short series of history programmes titled, The Celts. My initial reaction was to expect nonsense, and that was dialed up to the max when the first episode opened with a view of Stonehenge. But then the commentary started talking about mythbusting, and things got better for a while.

It turns out that the series was made in 2000, so long before it was decided that every history documentary on mainstream TV should look and sound like it was made by The Hitler Channel. Also it was made by S4C, so actual Celtic people were involved in the show, not just English or Americans.

The first two episodes focused on what we mean by “Celts”, the origins of Celtic culture, and the wars of the Celtic-speaking peoples against the Romans. The third looked at Celtic religious beliefs. All three were better than I expected. They included interviews with the likes of Barry Cunliffe, Colin Renfrew and Miranda Aldhouse-Green, all of whom mostly said variations on “we don’t know”. There was also quite a bit of focus on sites in central Europe that we don’t normally hear much about on these islands. Despite being 20+ years old, most of the material seemed fairly up to date.

Sadly that didn’t continue. Probably the weakest episode was the one that focused on the early mediaeval period. It was badly out of date with respect to Viking culture, and contained some obvious errors. What we now know as Whitby Abbey is not the ruins of the place where Hild held her famous synod. That abbey was sacked by the Danes in the mid-9th century and the site remained abandoned for 200 years until the present, and very obviously Norman, abbey was built. Also Alfred the Great was not a contemporary of Hywel Dda.

Episode 5 looked at the fate of the Celtic nations during the early modern period when nation states were on the rise, and episode 6 looked at the at where things are now, or at least were at the turn of the millennium. These seemed OK, but are probably best viewed in conjunction with David Olusoga’s recent series, Union.

As far as TV history goes, I thought this was pretty good, especially the first three episodes. It was certainly good to see Celtic history being covered by actual Celtic people. I was pleased at the inclusion of Brittany, which you would probably not get from an English- or American-made show. There could have been more about Kernow, but hey, can’t have it all. If you fancy checking the show out, I advise doing so before Jan. 29th when Amazon is going to start interrupting all of their content with advertisements after the manner of YouTube.

Editorial – December 2023

This is a very unusual issue. That’s not because I have been slacking over the holidays; quite the opposite.

Firstly I have been very busy with the day job. The downside of being self-employed is that you have to take work when it comes. A contract that I have for a minimum of 40 hours a month has produced over 100 hours in December. The money will be useful.

In addition, the nature of the Crawford Award has changed. There is now an official jury, rather than just a group of people giving Gary Wolfe suggestions. This means that there are a bunch of books that I have to read, and am not allowed to review. Add in Wizard’s Tower work as well, and in December I have read 3.5 novels that I can’t review here.

So I’m very grateful to Paul Driggere for providing me with some additional SF&F content. Scavengers Reign sounds like a great series. I hope to get to watch it some day.

There’s also a lot of history content in this issue. It is something I was able to write about when I was in need of content. I know it is not usual SF&F fare, but I hope you will find it interesting.

And so to 2024. It is traditional at these times to look back over the past year. All in all, 2023 has been a bit shit. I got COVID. I crashed my car (albeit probably saving my own life and that of an idiot other driver in the process). Things could have been better. But I really enjoyed my trip to Uppsala for the Eurocon, and Juliet McKenna has continued to produce amazing books for me. Mustn’t grumble. Also I have my own house, which kind of eclipses everything else.

In terms of publication, I have essays in two volumes published in 2023. They are Follow Me: Religion in Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Imagining the Celtic Past in Modern Fantasy. The latter is now available as an affordable paperback so you can go and grab a copy. Should those books be up for awards (and I hope they will be), any glory will go to the editors, not me.

Talking of awards, next year’s Worldcon will be in Glasgow and there will be more UK voters in the Hugo voting pool than usual. I note that Juliet McKenna’s Green Man series is very much eligible in Best Series, and I encourage you all to consider it.

Looking forward to 2024, there is a new online non-fiction magazine called Speculative Insight due to debut. It is edited by Alex Pierce who is best known for the Galactic Suburbia podcast but also edited Letters to Tiptree and Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler. She now reviews for Locus. Alex kindly asked me to submit something, so I gave her the text version of the lecture about fantasy that I did for Bristol Central Library. That will be available to read on January 6th.

As to the rest of the year, well, I hope to get to Luxcon, Finncon and Worldcon. I also hope to get a new car, but that is dependent on the UK government not finding a creative new excuse to deny me a pension. I don’t think it will be long before government pensions are means-tested and only those people who can afford a creative tax accountant will get one.

There will also be major elections in the UK and USA in the coming year. The US one may turn out OK, but if it doesn’t the results will be disastrous. The UK, thankfully, can do less damage to the planet. But, regardless of which of the two major parties wins, trans people are going to get screwed. It would not surprise me to see parties competing on promises to be “tough on trans” as part of the election campaign, because the media will ask them about it incessantly. And then, whoever wins, we will end up with a government whose policies are well to the right of Margaret Thatcher. In all of my 60+ years (which includes living through the Cold War), I have never felt less optimistic about the future.

Issue #56

This is the November 2023 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.

  • Cover: Soldier: This issue's cover looks suspiciously like a picture of Murderbot.

  • The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport: Just in time for Panto season, Samit Basu produces a science fiction version of Aladdin (oh no he doesn't - discuss)

  • System Collapse: Martha Wells returns with a new Murderbot novel. What is everyone's favourite killing machine up to now?

  • A Fire Born of Exile: Aliette de Bodard's latest Xuya universe novel is inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo

  • My Brother’s Keeper: Tim Powers reveals the secret lives of the Brontë family. Yorkshire Moors, werewolves, what could possibly go wrong?

  • Fantasy at the British Library: There is a big, new exhibition. Cheryl happened to be in London and went to see it.

  • The Marvels: Captain Marvel is back, and this time she has help. Well, one pissed off adopted niece, and one obsessive fangirl (plus her very protective family).

  • Spirit: A re-print of Cheryl's review of another science fiction novel inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo. This one is by Gwyneth Jones.

  • This is Not a Grail Romance: Natalia Petrovskaia digs deep into Welsh Arthuriana. Cheryl is fascinated.

  • Silver on the Tree: Cheryl finishes her read through of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence

  • Masques of the Disappeared: Judith Clute has an art book out

  • Loki – Season #2: The God of Mischief is back. Will he finally get a redemption arc, and will anyone believe him if he does?

  • Lower Decks – Season #4: The Lower Decks crew are back in action, so no one in Starfleet is safe.

  • Editorial – November 2023: Cheryl is battening down the hatches for winter

The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport

The new novel from Samit Basu is billed as a science fiction version of Aladdin, which it is, but it is also so much more.

Shantiport (shanty port) is a far future city on a dying Earth that is somehow part of a galactic civilization. There are aliens, there is space travel, but for most of the citizens of Shantiport such things are a distant dream. So much, so Blade Runner.

The city is ruled over by the Tiger Clan, a mixture of royal family and corporation whose interests are much wider than one failing spaceport. Technically the ruler of the city is the Jomidar, Kumir Saptam, but he is beholden to his masters in Tiger Central. Also he has to reckon with other powers such as the oligarch, Shakun Antim, and the crime lord, Paneera.

There are those in the city who dream of revolution, of a return to a more democratic society. Some years ago, a group of such revolutionaries got hold of some alien tech, which they hoped would help them overthrow the Tigers. But they were betrayed, and their leaders made to disappear. These days few remember, but those revolutionaries had family. And they had alien tech.

Zohra was once a brilliant bot scientist. Now she is a frightened, ageing mother, trying to keep her two children safe from the Tigers, while never letting the flame of revolution die. Those children are Lina, now a beautiful young woman, and Bador, who is a monkey-bot.

Lina is a classic cyberpunk heroine. This is how Basu has another character describe her:

You’re augmented, capable of incredible physical feats. That body is a masterpiece. You owe your uncanny beauty to gene-editors, your self-healing body to bioengineers, I wouldn’t be surprised if your parents had pheromone work done to make you extra-sexy.

Bador is something very different. In appearance he is a cyborg langur, but he has enough human DNA to make him legally Lina’s brother. He has enough war-bot components to make him an impressive fighter. But he’s a bot. Zohra daren’t trust him with family secrets, because if he is ever captured he won’t be able to avoid giving them up. Also she programmed him to love his family. And he does love them, but he hates knowing that he had no choice in the matter.

So where does Aladdin come into all this? Remember that alien tech? Somewhere in the city, treasure has been concealed. If Lina and Bador can find it, anything is possible. Instead they find Moku.

Who is Moku? He is our viewpoint character. He is a bot. An alien bot, yes, but one who has been programmed to collect and tell stories. Lina and Bador seem interesting people, so he is willing to hang around with them and help out. Having a lot of ethics programming, he’s somewhat dubious about their activities, but most of the humans in Shantiport seem morally grey to him.

This being a Samit Basu novel, The Jinn-bot of Shantiport is full of his wry sense of humour. Here he is explaining why Earth is safe from aliens:

Your planet’s admin has been on leave for the last two of your centuries, and all requests pending to destroy or invade your planet would have been on hold in any case. But none have even been made.

He has a splendid description of Paneer’s lair:

As a crimelord den, it doesn’t disappoint. It looks like someone took a gigantic submarine, scooped out all the equipment, stuck it far underground, and then built a replica of an ancient cathedral in it. We walk through a central line of marble pillars, behind which lie dark alcoves suitable for dragging people into. A quick scan reveals closed circular doors lining the walls, no doubt leading to many exciting deaths, possibly involving hungry fish.

Basu also has a fine line in putting down oligarchs. Here is Zohra on Shakun Antim:

“Shakun is no genius,” Zohra says. “He just spends a lot of money convincing people he is one. He might be too powerful for any system or legal process to punish, but what oligarch isn’t? His ideas are stolen, his moves are remakes. He just invests heavily in large teams that study his opponents, prepare him for every situation, and then he presents their work in the most dramatic way possible. He isn’t even that charismatic! He just acquires that reputation though influence.”

To be fair, he sounds a lot smarter than Elon Musk.

Anyway, there is, eventually, a jinn, with a lamp and three wishes. In addition we get a magic ring, and a roc-bot. Bador has plenty of opportunities to show off his martial arts moves in fights with giant bots that have clearly been designed by anime fans. Lina gets to meet a handsome prince (who, rather delightfully, has a character reminiscent of a Bond girl), and Bador gets to meet an actual alien space hero.

As Basu admits in the Acknowledgements, the connection to the actual plot of Aladdin gets somewhat lost along the way, but that doesn’t matter. By the end of the book you’ll end up loving Lina, Bador and Moku; you’ll be thinking about the practicalities of revolutions and about bot rights; and you’ll be wondering if parents try to program their biological children as ruthlessly as they might program a bot.

book cover
Title: The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport
By: Samit Basu
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

System Collapse

A new Murderbot book is always a delight and, even though this one was a novel, I tore through it in a day. It is, as you would expect, highly entertaining. But by now a Murderbot book has to advance the story, which is what I will be focusing on here.

One thing you should be aware of is that this book is a direct sequel to Network Effect. So Murderbot, its human friends, plus ART and his crew, are still at the distant planet whose colonists they are trying to rescue. The agents of the Barish-Estranza corporation are still hanging around causing trouble, and hoping to drag the unfortunate colonists off into indentured servitude. And of course there is now a serious risk of further interactions of the sort that happened in Network Effect. Because this planet is also home to an alien virus that can infect the minds of both bots and humans, and resulted in Murderbot having to fight what it euphemistically calls Targets, and we readers doubtless refer to as Zombies.

A consequence of this being a sequel is that everything starts very much in media res. It you are picking this book up blind you are likely to be very confused as to where Murderbot is, what has happened to it recently, and so on. You may not know that Perihelion is ART’s real name. Network Effect and System Collapse are very much two halves of a single story, and need to be read as such.

A major theme of this book is that Murderbot is suffering from considerable trauma thanks to the events of the previous book. Having to kill some humans, even if they were undead, was a deeply unpleasant experience. And Murderbot has probably seen enough horror movies to know what zombies are like. It does contain some human neural tissue, and it probably doesn’t want that eaten.

There are also problems with the colonists who, being humans, are behaving in illogical and unreasonable ways. In their defence, they have recently survived a zombie infestation, but with Barish-Estranza hanging around they need to be thinking more clearly.

What emerges from this is a story of Murderbot working under considerable stress, and discovering that having emotions is not good for your efficiency. Not having a governor module is fine when things are going well. But when you are barely recovered from serious injuries, missing a lot of your usual equipment, suffering from mental trauma, and have some of your humans in deadly danger, emotions tend to take over.

It is a good job that Murderbot has watched so much human media. At least it knows what emotions are, and can recognize them when it has them.

Rather delightfully, Murderbot’s knowledge of media also comes to the rescue in a most unexpected way in this book.

System Collapse also introduces a human called Tarik who is a former corporate mercenary. Like Murderbot, he sickened of his job and quit. The contrast between a human trained killer and a cyborg trained killer is something that I hope Martha Wells will explore in future books in the series. I suspect we will find that there isn’t much difference.

Anyway, Murderbot continues to be a delight. You knew that would be the case. You don’t need me to recommend this book.

book cover
Title: System Collapse
By: Martha Wells
Publisher: Tor
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

A Fire Born of Exile

The latest Xuya universe novel from Aliette de Bodard is billed as inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo. It is less of a re-telling than Gwyneth Jones’s excellent Spirit (my review of which is re-printed in this issue), but the story definitely benefits from the inspiration.

The action is set in a remote part of Xuya civilization, the Scattered Pearls Belt, far from the Imperial Court. The Belt is ruled over by the Prefect, Tinh Đức, who has a reputation for ruthlessness. She is ably supported by General Tuyết. (Aliette, I hope I have got the accented characters right; my apologies if not.) Some years ago, a major rebellion broke out in the Empire, centered on the Belt. These two formidable women have made it their business to make sure such a thing never happens again, no matter how many innocents have to suffer in the process.

The book, however, is not primarily about these women. It is about the Prefect’s daughter, Minh, and her best friend, Heart’s Sorrow, a mindship who is the General’s son. Into their lives comes Sủỏng Quỳnh, known as The Alchemist of Streams and Hills, a beautiful and wealthy socialite who, perhaps bored with court life, has decided to spend some time in the Belt. Of course, as you might guess, the Alchemist has a secret history, and is bent on revenge against those who have wronged her in the past. She’s not above manipulating a couple of rich and naïve teenagers in order to get at her targets.

However, the best laid plans for revenge often founder. In this case, the primary cause of Quỳnh’s problems turns out to be Thiên Hoà, a pretty young engineer. Hoà and her sister have been employed by a group of rich kids to repair an ancient mindship, and from that simple fact much will unravel.

Mention of mindships reminds me that de Bodard’s ships are significantly different from those of other space opera writers such as Banks and Powell. As noted above, Heart’s Sorrow is a child of General Tuyết. Other mindships in the book are also family members. Mindships are born, raised and educated by humans. That’s something I hope to see de Bodard explore more in future books.

Regular readers will know that I’m not a big fan of romance as a genre, and one of the main reasons for that is the formulaic nature of the plots. In particular the need for the two main characters to have a falling out part way through the novel, and then a reconciliation at the end, leads to all sorts of convoluted and atypical behaviour. You may recall that this caused my one reservation about de Bodard’s previous book, The Red Scholar’s Wake.

I am happy to report that A Fire Born of Exile has a much more complicated plot, full of opportunities for misunderstanding and betrayal. Because of this, the falling out between Quỳnh and Hoà is entirely believable, and indeed predictable.

One of the interesting things about reading the Xuya books is the insight that they give into Vietnamese culture. The whole auntie thing is a bit of a mystery to me. So is the use of ‘big sis’, ‘little sis’ and so on, which I think is related to the profusion of pronouns that you get in Vietnamese. In this book I found something else interesting:

… she seemed to only think of being wanted in terms of usefulness. Such an odd, sad way of looking at the world.

Oh, Aliette, let me tell you about the Protestant Work Ethic. But I suspect you know, and said that deliberately.

I have something else to thank de Bodard for, but that needs to be private. In the meantime, this is a good book. But you knew that, right?

book cover
Title: A Fire Born of Exile
By: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Gollancz
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

My Brother’s Keeper

Hallowe’en has come and gone for another year, and what better way to mark the season than with a novel about terrifying supernatural goings-on on the Yorkshire Moors, staring none other than Emily Brontë?

By now most of you are doubtless familiar with the fantasy worlds that the Brontë children created when they were young. They are a major feature in the Fantasy exhibition at the British Library (thereby claiming some of Britain’s most famous and beloved writers for the fantasy genre). Possibly less is known about the Brontës themselves. Wikipedia has this to say about Emily: “Emily Brontë’s solitary and reclusive nature has made her a mysterious figure and a challenge for biographers to assess.”

Most of what we know about Emily comes from her sister, Charlotte. But modern biographers fear that the eldest Brontë sugar-coated the truth somewhat. One, “argues that Emily evidently shocked her [Charlotte], to the point where she may even have doubted her sister’s sanity.” And yet a schoolmaster remarked of Emily:

She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty, never have given way but with life. She had a head for logic, and a capability of argument unusual in a man and rarer indeed in a woman… impairing this gift was her stubborn tenacity of will which rendered her obtuse to all reasoning where her own wishes, or her own sense of right, was concerned.

And of course Emily produced Wuthering Heights, which is clearly the most bonkers part of the family output. One Victorian critic described as, “unchecked primal passions, replete with savage cruelty and outright barbarism.”

Clearly Emily deserves to have a book written about her, and who better to do it than Tim Powers?

Powers, of course, is already well-known for his interest in 19th Century British writers, most notably the reclusive poet, William Ashbless. He also produced The Stress of Her Regard, which is a great book about Byron, the Shelleys, Keats, and vampires. In My Brother’s Keeper he turns his attention to the Brontës with the not-entirely-unbelievable presumption that the family had a history of being menaced by werewolves. I mean, what else would they be doing on the Yorkshire Moors?

The brother of the title is Branwell, the artist sibling of the famous sisters. He is portrayed as a rather incompetent young man, tormented by the fact that his lack of ability has prevented him from becoming the glorious success that his position as the male heir in a household of women clearly destined him for. These days he’d be joining incel groups on the Internet, but in the 19th Century he instead falls under the influence of werewolves. Charlotte is too sensible to believe in such things, and Anne too young and timid. So it falls largely to Emily to keep the family safe, and to put an end to the terrible scourge that has followed them from Ireland to Yorkshire.

Tim Powers has been writing novels since I was at university, which is a very long time ago. Also, in his younger days, he was a close friend of the great Philip K Dick. He knows what he is doing with a book. That should be all of the recommendation that you need.

book cover
Title: My Brother's Keeper
By: Tim Powers
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Fantasy at the British Library

The British Library recently opened a major new exhibition titled, Fantasy: Realms of Imagination. If you can get to London, it is well worth a look. As I was in town anyway for Judith Clute’s book launch, I popped in to take a look.

The thing that stands out about the exhibition is that it does things that only the British Library can do. It has the original copy of Beowulf (there is only one in existence). It has a 14th Century copy of The Iliad. It has a copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, complete with an illustration showing the knight wandering around with his head in his hands. It has Charles Dodgson’s original draft of the book he was going to call Alice’s Adventures in the Underground. It has Ursula K Le Guin’s original notes for A Wizard of Earthsea. That’s just ridiculous.

However, the exhibition is by no means focused on the past. There are plenty of contemporary works there too. And interviews with contemporary authors. A reasonable attempt has been made to include works from a wide variety of cultures.

The exhibition has also avoided focusing on written literature. Comics, films and TV, and video games all have their place. So too do Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer and Magic the Gathering. Middle Earth and Westeros as represented as much by Gandalf’s staff, and Arya Stark’s sword, Needle, as they are by books.

An exhibition can make points simply through what is chooses to include or exclude, but it can also do so through text. The label for Percy Shelley’s poem, Queen Mab, explains that Shelley used the poem as a vehicle for promoting his radical, utopian politics. Thus the idea that putting politics in fantasy is somehow a very modern thing is neatly punctured.

My Finnish readers will be happy that Tove Jansson makes an appearance in the exhibition. While the label acknowledges her creation of the Moomins, she’s mainly there because of her illustrations for the Swedish edition of The Hobbit. Tolkien was apparently sufficiently annoyed by her depiction of Gollum to actually amend the text in future editions to make his vision for the character clear.

Oh, and Irma, they have one of Mervyn Peake’s notebooks showing a rather fine drawing of the Prunesquallors.

One of the more surprising items on display is a Hugo Award trophy. It is not one for a famous book. It is Jeanette Ng’s Related Work Hugo, which she won for her speech in Helsinki when she won what was then called the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. The point is to show that fantasy can and does change when it needs to.

If there is one thing that I thought might be under-represented in the exhibition it is contemporary fantasy, in particular paranormal romance which is a huge part of the genre. The modern fashion for mythological fantasy was also missing, though of course they did have The Iliad. However, you can’t include everything, and given how hard the curators worked to be inclusive I think they can be forgiven for not being perfect.

If you can’t get to London, there are satellite exhibitions being staged at a number of city libraries around the country. I saw the one in Bristol when I was invited to give a talk there as part of the support program. I’m not sure which libraries have exhibitions, but it is worth checking your local establishments. Obviously they won’t have the spectacular items that are in London, but it would be good to support them if you can.

My talk in Bristol has been turned into an essay, and I’ve just signed a contract for it to be published elsewhere next year.

If you want a flavour of the online events, the one with Neil Gaiman and Roz Kaveney is available in full via the Living Knowledge Network. It is well worth a listen. They both have interesting things to say. They encourage everyone to read John M Ford. And I’m particularly pleased that they got to talk about A Game of You. I can defend Neil until I’m blue in the face, but it is unlikely that any of the Angry Online Trans People will believe me. They might listen to Roz.

The Marvels

Captain Marvel is one of my favorite productions from the MCU, and I loved the Ms Marvel TV series, so I have been eagerly awaiting the movie in which Carol Danvers and Kamala Khan finally get to meet. The addition of Monica Rambeau, whom we first met as a young girl in Captain Marvel, is an added bonus.

I should say right up front that you may struggle to follow some of the events of The Marvels if you have not seen certain other parts of the MCU output. The Khan family will be unknown to you if you have not seen Ms Marvel, though they very quickly establish themselves as central to the movie. Kamala’s relationship with her mother is a wonderful thing, and if you haven’t seen the TV series then you should. Also Monica acquires her powers during WandaVision. This is faintly alluded to in the film, but the explanation may be confusing if you didn’t know which witch she is referring too.

Worse still, there is a whole huge piece of the plot that Marvel managed to lose. After the events of Captain Marvel, Carol travelled to the Kree homeworld, Hala, and destroyed The Supreme Intelligence, the AI who ruled over the Kree. Her intention was to put a stop to the Kree-Skrull wars, but her actions precipitated a civil war amongst the Kree which led to an ecological disaster on Hala. This was, apparently, originally part of the first movie. Quite rightly, it got cut, but in the sequel it is told only in flashbacks and I worry that the entire motivation for the Kree is unclear.

The film also directly contradicts one of the key points from Secret Invasion. In that TV series it is asserted than Carol and Nick Fury were unable to find a sanctuary world for the Skrulls, but in this film we get to see a world that Skrulls have settled.

Anyway, our main villain is Dar-Benn, a Kree woman who has taken over the job of Ronan the Accuser (whom you may remember met a sticky end in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1), and who blames Carol for the problems the Kree are having. She acquires a powerful weapon that allows her to steal natural resources from other worlds so that she can restore Hala to life. The fact that those other worlds are inhabited is entirely irrelevant to her.

So that’s our plot, but frankly none of this matters. Because what we have here is a gloriously silly film full of entertainment aimed largely at a female audience. We have the Kahns, of course. We have the complication that Carol promised young Monica that she’d be back soon, and then never returned to Earth (except briefly for Endgame). There is an interlude in which we discover that Carol has a whole other life as a Disney Princess on a planet of singing and dancing aliens. We have angst, we have sisterhood, and of course we have Goose, the alien squid-cat thing.

Reader, I have not laughed so much at a movie in decades. I cried quite a bit too. I can’t wait to see it again.

Thinking back on it, there are loose ends that worry me. Most importantly, I want to know what happened to the singing-dancing aliens because it seemed like our heroes failed to prevent the Kree from destroying their planet. I think that Kamala needs to go back there and do a Bollywood dance number.

Also there are the credit scenes. We are now very much heading into the creation of the Young Avengers (and l loved the reference to Fury’s original recruitment speech to Tony Stark). I very much want to see Kamala Khan, Kate Bishop and America Chavez in action together. We also got a brief view of someone special that caused me to squeal with delight.

Yep, I’m a hopeless Marvel fangirl. I’m sure there are more good movies to come.


This review was first published on Cheryl’s personal blog in March 2009. It is reprinted here to accompany the review of A Fire Born of Exile as both books are inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo.

My first thought on seeing the back cover blurb explain that the new Gwyneth Jones novel, Spirit, is a science fiction re-working of The Count of Monte Cristo was that this might give too much away. “Oh noez,” I could hear people say, “spoilerz!” Well yes, it is. But you know there are only so many stories in the universe, and endless ways of re-telling them. Many supposedly “new” books actually telegraph much of the plot, and in many cases that is exactly what readers want. Predictability has market value in genre fiction. I find the whole spoiler panic scene a bit ridiculous. In what follows I am going to assume that all of you are familiar with the basic plot of Dumas’ classic novel. Because, you know, you really should be by now.

Our heroine is Gwibiwr, known as Bibi. She comes from a place called White Rock, which I suspect may be Maengwyn, the place that the English called Wrexham. Her parents were rebels who made themselves such a pain that the Government eventually had to wipe them out. Bibi got adopted, and was raised by the high status family of General Yu and Lady Nef. Not in England, of course. We are in a world somewhere in the far future of the Aleutian Trilogy. The aliens have come and gone, and the dominant culture on Earth is now Chinese. There is political conflict between Reformers and Traditionalists, between those who believe in a republic and those who believe in empire. It is, you may note, a clever parallel to the world of the Dumas novel, in which France is divided between supporters of the Revolution and supporters of Napoleon.

At some point or other I expect to see academic papers that study how Jones has adapted her source work to her purpose. There is plenty to study, and that’s the main issue I want to highlight in this review. I’m currently reading a YA novel. People occasionally claim that books intended for young people are not as “good” as books intended for adults. That’s not really accurate. A book written for young people can have just as good a plot, description and characterization as a book written for adults. But books written for young people are rarely deeply sophisticated, and sophistication is something that Spirit has in spades.

I’ve now gone to check dictionary definitions of “sophisticated”, because I’m sure some people will read it as meaning “snobbish”. I was pleased to find this: “altered by education, experience, etc., so as to be worldly-wise,” which is exactly what I mean. (Literally, of course, it means “with added wisdom.”) Young people have all sorts of good qualities, but two things that they tend to be short on are education and experience. You get those by living a long time. Just as a trivial example, I can’t imagine Jones quoting from a Kinks song in a book that she writes as Ann Hallam, but she has no qualms about doing so here.

There is, of course, much more to the book than that, and one area you will all be expecting is gender. After all, the original Aleutian series was a fascinating exploration of gender issues. Actually there isn’t a lot new in Spirit, but you are doubtless expecting me to highlight what there is so let’s get it out of the way.

As I said, the story is set many years after the events of the Aleutian Trilogy. Earth is apparently still reeling from the effects of the Gender Wars. These are not explained. Possibly Jones has written some short fiction about them. If she has, I’d be grateful if someone would point me at it, because I’d love to read it. By the time of Spirit, however, things are more or less back to normal. Traditionalist families still treat young women appallingly, and Jones has a good go at them on that count. That’s something we can all agree on.

The one change to the world is the presence of the “Undecided” – people who choose not to have a gender. Here’s one of them:

Navigator T’zi, Reformer by birth and conviction, explained the validity of the undecided gender to Lady Nef – who had always thought that there must be a better term.

‘You want to call us a third sex,’ said T’zi. ‘But Undecided means what it says: fluctuation, drift, mosaic sexuality that never “settles”. It is the will of God: In time all Blues will pass beyond the either/or. A process which the Fundamentalists of your party are trying to reverse by force-‘

It is an age-old battle. Those without an attachment to any particular gender are always in conflict with those who firmly believe that there should be two, and only two, into which all humans should fit. Some Traditionalists (for example the current Iranian government) are quite happy with transsexuals, as long as they confirm to their desired gender, but Traditionalists always hate the Undecided.

What about transsexuals? Does the book have them? Of course it does. Many of them are half-castes, and as usual they end up earning a living on the wrong side of the law because they can’t get jobs in polite society. Our heroes meet some.

They moved around the square, politely accosting illegal sex-workers – presenting as women, but actually male: for some reason this was the arrangement that half-castes preferred. Bibi and honesty kept making the ‘he’ mistake, they couldn’t help it. Mahmood never did.

What is this supposed to mean? Well, it is fairly vague, but the way I read it is as follows: “men are clueless creatures who go by appearances, but real women can always tell a fake.” I may be misjudging Jones here, but this is fairly typical of the arrogant despite with which many feminists view transsexuals.

That was the gender part of the book. Those two quotes pretty much summed it up. The politics is much more interesting. I’ve already written about one passage in which Jones talks about how ineffective people who are clueless about politics can be. What she is saying is that to people who are older and perhaps wiser, rebels are an annoying pain in the butt, even if their politics are correct. This is a lesson that a lot of people could do with taking on board, especially those who are determined to continue the fight until no one is even slightly Wrong on the Internet, and they have no friends left. Jones, however, is equally wary about reformers. Here’s Lady Nef (who is a Traditionalist):

‘I believe that the Reformers are right, and that they must always be defeated, because in power they are monsters. It’s a difficult position, but one learns to put up with it.’

That could be simply a disillusioned reaction to New Labour, but I think it is more generally applicable. Remember that The Count of Monte Cristo is set in France after the fall of Napoleon.

Which brings us back to the plot: Bibi, as I said, is raised in the household of General Yu and Lady Nef. She proves bright, and has a promising career ahead of her. But there is politics, and betrayal, and a long period in prison. That part of the book moves fairly slowly, but eventually Bibi escapes, armed with a secret that will make her fabulously wealthy. Instead of the Count of Monte Cristo we have the Princess of Bois Dormant — the princess of the sleeping wood, or Sleeping Beauty. Yes, it is a fairy tale reference. And at one point in the story we get a little bit of Celtic mythology. There are almost elves. There are lots of things in this book.

Before that there is the Princess. Earth society is dazzled by her wealth and charm (Bibi learned a lot from Lady Nef during their incarceration). Oh, but where do you go to, my lovely, when you’re alone in your bed? You dream of revenge, of course. Those who put you away are currently on top of the political pile, and can’t believe that they are on the eve of destruction. But they are.

Sorry about the music references, but the book has quite a few. Think of them as Easter eggs. They are fun to spot.

Music, however, is not the only thing that the book references. We are, after all, reading a science fiction novel that is based on a classic of world literature, written by one of the cleverest science fiction writers around. Is this book part of the ongoing conversation that is science fiction? You bet it is. It touches on a whole range of issues, from the origins of intelligent life in the universe to the future of humanity, and some of the best aliens ever written (the Aleutians).

So despite a little annoyance on the gender front, I really enjoyed this book. Possibly you have to be fairly well read, especially in science fiction, to appreciate it fully, but the story works as well. The prison section is a bit slow, but the second half of the book moves along very smoothly and the ending is thoroughly satisfying. I’m hoping that someone in the US decides to publish it.

book cover
Title: Spirit
By: Gwyneth Jones
Publisher: Gollancz
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

This is Not a Grail Romance

Academic books don’t come much more obscure than ones examining mediaeval literature. However, I’m assuming that you folks have at least a passing interest in Arthuriana, and in the origins of literature, so hopefully you will find the following of interest.

One of the most famous writers of Arthuriana is Chrétien de Troyes, and one of his most important works is Perceval, which forms the basis of the story of the quest for the Holy Grail. De Troyes, of course, wrote in mediaeval French, but there is also an extant parallel story in mediaeval Welsh. It is called Peredur son of Effrog, and it is of unknown authorship. A translation is usually included in books titled The Mabinogion, though Peredur is not part of that cycle. It is Peredur that is the subject of This is Not a Grail Romance, by Natalia Petrovskaia.

Perceval is not just a Grail romance, it is the ur-Grail-romance, so it is a bit surprising to see someone claim that the Welsh version is no such thing. Yet Petrovskaia makes a very good case. Traditionally (particularly by English and French scholars) it has been held that Peredur is a badly written Welsh knock-off of the French original, but that too Petrovskaia seeks to debunk.

Part of the problem with Peredur is that it comes in four (or possibly three) parts. Part 1 tells of the arrival of Peredur at Arthur’s court, and echoes much of the narrative of the French story. (It is also the basis for Nicola Griffith’s Spear). Parts 2 and 3 (sometimes called 2a and 2b) are further adventures of Peredur which do not appear in the French. They are found together in Welsh, which is why they are sometimes held to be a single story, but they have different settings. Part 4 (or 3) is separate, and contains elements of the Grail legend found in De Troyes.

Petrovskaia suggests that it is helpful to think of these stories as being similar to a modern media franchise. They are, perhaps, like a collection of Bond movies. They are about the same character, but in each film you have a different director, different script writers, different location, different love interest for the hero, and a different actor playing Bond.

The basic thesis of Petrovskaia’s book is that Part 1 is probably an original Welsh tale which found its way into France, and upon which De Troyes embellished the story of the Grail Quest. Parts 2 and 3 are separate Welsh stories which did not find their way to de Troyes (or did not interest him). Part 4 is a separate work created by someone who was aware of Perceval, and who was attempting to retcon the whole thing into a single narrative, but without the actual Grail.

Much of the evidence for this comes from the structure of the stories. The first three parts all show signs of having been constructed to a pattern. There are three stories, each of which has a discrete beginning, middle and end, and each of those is composed of three scenes. This sort of nested-threes structure is found in all mediaeval Welsh literature; not just fiction, but histories and law codes as well. Petrovskaia suggests that it is a type of aide memoire, a bit like a memory cathedral, which Welsh bards used to help them remember the text in absence of written versions. Part 4 does not follow this structure, suggesting a later composition.

Another piece of evidence is internal consistency. Each of the four stories references events elsewhere within the story, but no events outside of the story (though Part 4 does revisit locations from Part 1, and all four parts use familiar characters such as Arthur, Cai and Gwalchmai).

An old Welsh word for a storyteller is cyfarwyddwr, which literally means someone who puts signs together. These days it means a director, including a movie director.

What, then, of the Grail? The Welsh version does have the famous procession. It occurs in Part 1 before Peredur is accepted at Arthur’s court. It does have the spear dripping blood, but there is no Grail. Instead there is a salver bearing a severed head. That is a much more Celtic thing. Petrovskaia’s suggestion is that what Peredur is witnessing is not some sort of Christian ritual, but rather a funeral procession. This would also explain the hero’s refusal to ask what the heck was going on, because in mediaeval Wales it was deemed impolite to ask the name of the deceased at a funeral especially if, as in this case, they were family, because of course you should know who it was. There was an actual law stating that you could punish someone for being so rude.

Part 3 is quite interesting because the love interest for this story is a woman called the Empress of Constantinople, or rather the Empress of Cristinobyl, a place name that is usually translated as Constantinople, even though that spelling for the city is not found anywhere else in Welsh literature. Peredur marries her and lives with her for many years. The meaning of all this is unclear, but one possibility is that this is a reference to the Holy Roman Empress, Queen Matilda of England. If that is so, then Part 3 of Peredur is political fiction about the civil war in England between King Stephen and his wife, Matilda. Stephen died in 1154, and was succeeded by Matilda’s son, Henry II. Chrétien de Troyes was born in 1160, so if this interpretation is true it would suggest earlier composition of the Welsh stories.

Another fascinating element of Petrovskaia’s argument concerns the Witches of Gloucester, who are allies to Peredur in Part 1, but become his enemies in Part 4. They are very unusual witches, because they never do any actual magic. They do, however, teach the young Peredur fighting skills. Petrovskaia suggests that they may be more akin to characters such as Scáthach and Aife who appear in Irish legend and also teach warcraft to young men.

I find all of this fascinating. But what really got me to sit up and take notice is an unexpected twist at the end of Part 4. The plot of this section of the story is driven by an ugly woman called the Black-Haired Maiden who keeps turning up and sending Peredur on quests. At the end of the story, Peredur is back at the castle of the Fisher King and he is approached by a young blond lad who explains that there was no black-haired maiden. Rather it was he, a young man in disguise, who had played that part. There is no explanation for this. It is just left there hanging for the reader to try to make sense of.

Sometimes mediaeval fiction can be very weird.

book cover
Title: This is Not a Grail Romance
By: Natalia Petrovskaia
Publisher: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Silver on the Tree

And so, finally, I reach the end of The Dark is Rising sequence.

Silver on the Tree is another very Welsh episode, with a lot of the action taking place in Eryri (or Snowdonia to you, Mr Sunak, you peasant). King Arthur is involved again, and there is a quest into Cantre’r Gwaelod, the sunken land that once filled Bae Ceredigion. Interestingly, while Arthur is portrayed as an agent of the Light, both Saxons and Vikings are described as agents of the Dark. Given that Susan Cooper was born in Buckinghamshire, that’s quite a change in allegiance.

By the way, the opening online event for the British Library’s Fantasy exhibition was Natalie Haynes interviewing Susan Cooper. As I rather expected, Cooper had spent a lot of time on holiday in Eryri and Kernow as a child, which explains the use of those locations in the books.

So, we are in Eryri, and Cooper once again demonstrates her understanding of the foibles of how Welsh people speak. These are, as I’m learning, a result of their using Welsh grammatical structures while speaking English. There are also a few phrases in the book that are in Welsh, and are untranslated. Of course they are Cymraeg Gogledd, so a very different dialect to what I’m learning, but they are mostly understandable.

The section in Cantre’r Gwaelod is quite weird. It reminded me a lot of H P Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. The region is inhabited, but it isn’t clear whether the people are really alive, or of they are just animated by magic. The main characters are the Fisher King in his Glass Castle, and his bard, Gwion, who is not as bach as he was when he drank from Ceredwin’s cauldron, and is more commonly known as Taliesin.

The point of the quest is for Bran to pick up a magic sword (as shown on the cover) so he can wield it in a great confrontation with the Dark, which is about the take place. Will goes along to offer his Old One wisdom, and the Drew siblings are around to offer support.

My overall impression of the books is of how little agency the main characters have. This book is no different. Most of what happens is foretold in some way, and the characters simply have to act out the scenes of prophecies, or follow the instructions of mysterious benefactors. I’m not sure why this is. OK, so it is a book for children, but surely they should understand actions and consequences.

Because of this concern, I was very surprised to see, right at the end of the book, that agency is required after all. However, the big choice is not left to Will, to Bran, to the Drews, or even Merriman Lyon. The character on whose shoulders the fate of the world rests is a simple Welsh farmer called John Rowlands.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. If anyone knows of a good academic analysis of the books that looks into this issue, please let me know.

In the meantime, the books are wonderfully atmospheric, so I’m not surprised that children loved them, and probably still do.

book cover
Title: Silver on the Tree
By: Susan Cooper
Publisher: Puffin
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Masques of the Disappeared

I should confess from the start that I am not qualified to review an art book, let alone a book of the sort of fine art that Judith Clute produces. If you want the view of an expert in art, and the philosophy of art, read the essay by Pamela Zoline which appears at the end of this book. Hopefully it will appear, at some point, on Judith’s website at some point in the future.

What I can say is that much of Judith’s art is very familiar to me. I have visited the Clute home in London on many occasions. The spare bedroom also doubles as Judith’s studio, so I have actually slept next to several of these paintings while they were in production. That’s going to make the next paragraph sound weird.

Judith’s work is haunting. Not, I hasten to add, in a way that terrifies. Rather she produces images that stick in the mind. If they were music you might say they were good at earworming you. It is never obvious what a painting is about. I’m not entirely sure whether there are specific things that they are supposed to be about. But they always look as if they are about something. You know that the collection of images that makes up each painting have been selected for a purpose, to evoke thoughts and emotions. But, like a haunting, that meaning is often vague, unclear, transparent, leaving you grasping for substance. You don’t know what you are seeing, but equally you can’t forget it.

Masques of the Disappeared is not a book that you will find in Waterstones of Barnes & Noble. Only 100 copies have bene printed. Quite a few went at the launch event in London, which was attended by many of the well known names of the London SF&F community (plus myself). I believe that there are still copies available. Instructions for purchasing a copy are available here.

One of the questions that Zoline asks in her essay is, what does it mean to create original art in an age of image saturation. Photography, and now AI-assisted art, have made the creation of images available to everyone. Mechanical reproduction means that everyone can afford a cheap copy of the Mona Lisa to hang on their wall. Art books would have been impossible only a few hundred years ago. But I don’t think that this makes original art unnecessary. I think it makes it even more rare and wonderful. We should value and encourage the people who produce it.

Loki – Season #2

Every so often, a TV series does something that is so off the wall that it is hard to discuss it without spoilers. Even if that wasn’t the case, it would be hard to discuss Season #2 of Loki without referencing the events at the end of Season #1. So please assume that this review will be somewhat spoilerific.

As those of you who have seen Season #1 will recall, it ended with Sylvie killing He Who Remains. Sylvie is a version of The Enchantress, but also an alternate world version of Loki. He Who Remains is one of many incarnations of Kang the Conqueror. The plot mostly revolves around the Time Variance Authority, which has been set up by Kang to control the multiverse, primarily so that other versions of himself can’t challenge him for control. Oh, and the TVA is run by Ravonna Renslayer, whom comics fans will recognize as Kang’s sometime girlfriend.

At the beginning of Season #2, Loki is back at the TVA where the number of time streams is multiplying rapidly thanks to the death of Kang. Loyalists at the TVA want to ‘prune’ (destroy) the branching timelines to preserve the one Sacred Timeline that they were put in place to preserve. Loki and his friends (primarily Mobius and B-15 from Season #1) want to allow the other timelines to continue to exist, because pruning them would mean the deaths of billions of people.

We now get introduced to some of the technology underpinning the TVA, and in particular to OB (short for Oroburos), the tech wizard who keeps everything running. This character is brilliantly played by Ke Huy Quan. It is worth watching the series just for him. We also learn about the Temporal Loom, a device for controlling the timelines. This is currently overloading due to the proliferation of timelines. If Loki and OB cannot fix it, the TVA, and possibly the entire universe, will be destroyed.

Got that? Good. It is a short, 6-episode season, and it packs a lot in. The season finale has a lot of work to do in order to produce a workable conclusion. To its credit, it does.

Amongst main things that happen along the way, we get a recommendation for the Velvet Underground, specifically for their final album, Loaded.

I’m not going to go into details, but what really made me happy about the denouement is that it leans heavily into Loki’s background in Norse mythology. Those of you who are familiar with such things will see the resemblance between Kang’s Scared Time line and the Threads of Fate spun by the Norns. Loki, of course, is the God of Chaos. If there is one thing he (and Sylvie) must fight against, it is the idea that destiny is pre-ordained.

We should also remember that Oroburos is another name for Jörmungandr, the World Serpent, who is one of Loki’s children .

Obviously this incarnation of Kang must be defeated by Loki. But Kang, being Kang, has many incarnations across the multiverse, so you can be sure that he will be back to trouble our heroes again soon. Pleasantly it seems that Ravonna will be involved too. And, judging from the sneak peek at the end, we will soon be meeting the incarnation of Kang known as the Pharaoh Rama-Tut.

Lower Decks – Season #4

Fresh from their triumphant appearance in Strange New Worlds, our favorite ensigns are back in action, and the first thing that happens to them is that they all get promoted.

This was presumably inevitable. There are only so many jokes that you can tell about a group of people who are on the bottom rung of the officer corps of a starship. Bumping them up to junior lieutenant means you can give them more responsibility, put them in different situations, and find new jokes. Inevitably, Boimler gets put in charge of a group of ensigns and is so overcome by anxiety that he makes a total mess of being a leader. He’ll learn.

The one of our heroes who is least happy about the promotion is Mariner. The obvious assumption is that she doesn’t want the responsibility because it means she can’t goof about and be irresponsible any more. First Officer, Jack Ransom, seems to have her number, and is determined not to let her sacrifice her career. We don’t find out the truth about Mariner’s reaction until the final double-part episode.

Someone else who has a lot of story arc to get through is Tendi. We knew at the start of the episode that her family were Orion pirates. We did not know that Tendi was heir to one of the richest and most powerful families on Orion. She, of course, just wants to do science, but no one on Orion believes that, least of all her hugely competitive younger sister.

Rutherford doesn’t have quite as much to do in this season, but he’s not left out. There are return appearances for the dangerous artificial intelligences, Badgey, AGIMUS and Peanut Hamper. Oh, and he has a baby.

A new addition to the group this season is T’Lyn, a Vulcan. She makes a fine foil for the rest of the group, who are way more excitable.

This season also has an overall story arc. In each episode, a mysterious alien starship is seen attacking and destroying another vessel. It targets all the well known spacefaring species of the Star Trek universe. When we finally learn who is in command of it, and what it is up to, we fall into a rabbit hole of Trek history, and in particular the origins of Lower Decks as a series. As such it makes a fine finale for the season.

Well done, Lower Decks, keep it up.

Editorial – November 2023

Well, that’s another month gone, and almost another year. The highlight of November was a trip to London to attend Judith Clute’s book launch and see the Fantasy exhibition at the British Library. On the way back I stopped in Bristol to give a talk for their contribution to the national celebration of fantastic literature.

I probably will put out an issue in December as there’s a lot of stuff I could write about, but it may be a bit short of books as I do need to do some reading for the Crawford Award and as a juror I don’t think I can review books I’m reading for that.

I don’t expect a lot to be happening over the winter. Kevin is rushing from Loscon/Westercon to SMOFcon, but there’s no tradition of winter conventions here. My next con is likely to be Luxcon in April.

In the meantime there should be books. Lyda is almost done on the lesbian space opera book, and I’m almost done on the paper editions of the AngeLINK books.

Issue #55

This is the October 2023 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.

  • Cover: Cailleach-Bheurr: This issue's cover is "Cailleach-Bheurr" by Iain J Clark

  • The Blue, Beautiful World: Karen Lord's Cygnus Beta trilogy comes to a conclusion, in the expected smart and thoughtful manner

  • Where Peace is Lost: A new novel from Valerie Valdes, and a new universe to explore to boot

  • Protecting Sensitivity Readers: Sensitivity readers are on the front lines of the Culture Wars, and we need to do what we can to prevent the spread of far-right lies

  • The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Alternate History: Jack Dann goes in depth on the art and craft of changing the past (and possibly the future) in fiction

  • Spec Fic for Newbies: In which Tiffani Angus and Val Nolan set out to do exactly what their book says it will do

  • Eating with the Tudors: A book full of recipes from Tudor times, all of which have been tested and updated for the modern kitchen? How could Cheryl resist?

  • Ahsoka – Season 1: The latest TV series from the Star Wars franchise is surprisingly fun, and absolutely fantasy

  • BristolCon 2023: Cheryl was not at Worldcon, and one of the main reasons is because it clashed with BristolCon

  • WorldCon Chengdu: There was a Worldcon in China. Not very many Westerners went, but those who did seemed to have had a wonderful time. Also the sky has not fallen.

  • The Best of all Possible Worlds: A reprint of Cheryl's review of the first book in Karen Lord's Cygnus Beta trilogy

  • The Galaxy Game: A reprint of Cheryl's review of book two in Karen Lord's Cygnus Beta trilogy

  • Editorial – October 2023: The year has turned, and Cheryl contemplates several months hiding from the cold

Cover: Cailleach-Bheurr

It being Hallowe’en season, I needed something spooky for the cover. Thankfully I had just the thing to hand. This image by Iain J. Clark shows the ancient Scottish goddess who features in Queens of the Wild by Ronald Hutton. The cover is one of a series I will be running over the coming year. They are all pieces of art created by Iain J Clark for the Glasgow 2024 Worldcon. My thanks to Iain and to the Glasgow committee for giving me permission to use the art.

As usual, you can find a larger, unadorned version of the art below.

The Glasgow committee noted:

Glasgow 2024 has been incredibly privileged to have been supported by the donated artwork of Iain J Clark. He was a Hugo nominee in the ‘Best Fan Artist’ category for three consecutive years and he won the BFSA award for best artwork in 2020 with ‘Ship Building Over the Clyde’ and in 2021 with the ‘Glasgow Green Woman’ which are available along with his other beautiful work at

If you want to know more about the Glasgow Worldcon, their website is:

The Blue, Beautiful World

Imagine, for a moment, a small beautiful island yet to make contact with wider civilization. The inhabitants have a sophisticated culture, but are relatively technologically primitive. They are, of course, ripe for exploitation, and the fact that there is an embargo on contact is unlikely to deter anyone hoping to make a fast buck.

The island, of course, is Earth. The Galactic Council would love to make official contact, but the Earthlings are so very primitive in some ways. In particular they are highly averse to the idea of a planetary government, and the Galactic Council can’t be bothered dealing with a multitude of warring tribal factions. Also there is a very clear rule that, if a planet is to be admitted to galactic society, it has to provide representation for all intelligent species, not just the dominant one. So they wait, and nudge, and in the meantime others see opportunity.

This, then, is the set-up for The Blue, Beautiful World by Karen Lord. It is a sequel of sorts to The Best of All Possible Worlds and The Galaxy Game, but I read those books so long ago that I had forgotten who all of the characters were. That didn’t mar my enjoyment of the new book. I might wish that Lord produced new books a little quicker, but they are little gems when they arrive so I should not complain. I’m re-printing my review of earlier two books in this issue for those of you who want a little catch-up.

The book begins by following a pop star known only as Owen. He seems based a little on Ed Sheeran, but don’t let that put you off. The important point is that he’s busy building some sort of cultural empire, a way to influence society. He’s building a network of highly competent people, including his own security team led by a retired general. One of his key allies is Peter Hendrix, the genius CEO of ParaVee, a Dutch VR company. And one of their less-well-known products is a VR mask that allows the wearer to don a different face. That’s useful if your face is well-known all over the planet, or if your face doesn’t look entirely human.

Around a third of the way through we jump forward 11 years and change focus. Now our central characters are a bunch of gifted young people chosen for an elite diplomatic training programme. They are whisked off to a secluded base on Cuba where they are put through a bunch of exercises with a very strange premise. Earth has been infiltrated by rogue agents from an alien civilization. The galactic government will, at some point, have to intervene publicly. It will be a massive shock for Earth. How should our societies respond?

To us, as readers, the purpose of this exercise is obvious. To the young students is seems eccentric, until it becomes very real.

Like the previous two books in the series, this is a book about human society and how we manage it. Lord, having some experience of civil service work in her home nation of Barbados, has a very different view of global politics to someone who has grown up somewhere like the UK or USA. It is refreshing, and Lord is very smart. We may not be contacted by aliens in the near future, but we are facing a crisis of global proportions and the ideas put forward by people like Lord may be key to finding a way out of the mess we have got ourselves in.

Oh, and if the idea of commercial operations exploiting vulnerable foreign countries seems odd to you, read up a little on the activities of the East India Company. Or indeed check out what Meta is up to in various less wealthy parts of the globe.

book cover
Title: The Blue, Beautiful World
By: Karen Lord
Publisher: Gollancz
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Where Peace is Lost

Valerie Valdes has become one of those writers whose work I snap up as soon as it is published. The blurb on the back of Where Peace is Lost describes it as “cozy space fantasy”, but that’s just marketing. This is not cozy in the same way as a Travis Baldree novel is cozy. This is space opera with very real stakes and cozy only in that it has a happy(ish) ending.

The book is set in the aftermath of an interplanetary war. An empire known as the Prixori Anocracy, known colloquially as the Pale, has emerged triumphant. There was a peace settlement of sorts, but the Pale are well aware of their dominant position and have largely ignored its terms as they continue to consolidate their hold on the galaxy. Those who fought against them and survived have gone into hiding.

One such person is Kel Garda. She has settled on Loth, a planet so poor and remote that the Pale haven’t bothered to annex it. But they did build a military base on the planet during the war, and that base is still full of robot war machines. As the book begins, we learn that one of the largest of those war machines has become active, and is heading for a region of Loth that has significant economic importance. If it is not stopped, it could wreck the planetary economy. No one on Loth has a hope in hell of stopping it.

Well, not quite no one. But there is a bounty on Kel’s head, and if she unleashes the weaponry she has at her disposal to destroy the Pale war machine, people will notice. And then the Pale will descend on Loth in force, and not stop until Kel and everyone who helped her is dead.

So here we have a very real moral dilemma. Whatever Kel does, it seems that her new friends and neighbours are doomed. And along the way, we also have some interesting commentary about robot war machines. Unlike the machines that the Empire uses in Star Wars, the machines that the Pale uses are entirely automatic and run by not-very-intelligent AIs. Their sole purpose is to wreak as much havoc as possible. Machines like that, albeit on a much smaller scale, are being designed and built right here on Earth, right now.

Fortunately for Kel, help arrives in the shape of a pair of travelling mercenaries, Captain Savaelia Vyse and her bodyguard, Dare (a man who bears a close resemblance to Geralt of Rivia). They offer, for a reasonable price, to dispose of the war machine. The local authorities on Loth are keen to accept, but naturally wary. They insist on sending a couple of their own people along on the mission as guides. Thanks to an enthusiastic but naïve local called Lunna, Kel finds herself part of the expedition.

The rest of the book is about how the job gets done. There is much adventuring along the way, including fighting some deeply unpleasant bad guys. We also learn a lot more about Kel, and about her new traveling companions. There is some nicely complex plotting of the sort we’ve become used to in Valdes’ previous work. And, as I noted, there is a happy ending.

There is also, because this is space opera, a small amount of serious sensawunda.

Before signing off, I should make mention of the book’s title. It comes from a short prayer associated with what one might describe as an order of religious knights who fought against the Pale. It goes as follows:

Where peace is lost, may we find it.
Where peace is broken, may we mend it.
Where we go, may peace follow.
Where we fall, may peace rise.

Where Peace is Lost is a book about the dilemma of the professional soldier who wants to fight for peace, but knows that she is a violent killer. And that violence is sometimes necessary. I’ll leave you with the following quote:

Violence is always a failure. […] Fear is eager to rationalize and defend it, but make no mistake, it is always a failure. The challenge is not in avoiding failure, but in knowing which failures cannot be avoided.

So yes, punching people is always bad, But sometimes you have to punch Nazis.

book cover
Title: Where Peace is Lost
By: Valerie Valdes
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Protecting Sensitivity Readers

The far-right’s culture war has many fronts, but one that is very close to our community is their attacks on sensitivity readers. For example, one of the candidates in the current election for the Management Board of the Society of Authors talks about authors being “forced” to use sensitivity readers. (Edit: she’s been successfully elected.) In addition The Guardian recently ran a piece in which Ian McEwan claimed that sensitivity reading was a form of censorship, and that authors should be allowed to offend people if they want. All of this is nonsense.

Firstly, any sensible sensitivity reading contract will have in it, a clause that says that the author is under no obligation to take account of the feedback they are given. If it doesn’t, they shouldn’t sign that contract. Just like other expert the author chooses to consult, the advice given by a sensitivity reader is advice, nothing more.

Secondly, any sensible sensitivity reader will have a clause in their contract which says that their advice cannot indemnify the author against people taking offence at the final work, because people can and do take offence at anything. I was once sent a contract by a publisher that asked me to do that. I refused to sign it. Of course it had been written by the company’s lawyers, and as soon as I explained the issue to the editor in charge of the book they were very apologetic and had the clause taken out.

But the worst attack I have heard to date on sensitivity readers came at a panel at this year’s FantasyCon. I wasn’t in the audience, but several people who were there were horrified. Runalong Womble has a mention of the incident in his con report (you have typoed the year, Womble).

The gist of the accusation being made is that sensitivity reading is a scam. What sort of a scam wasn’t made clear, but presumably it is either that the advice provided is worthless (which seems unlikely, why would you hire someone whose advice is worthless), or more seriously that sensitivity readers are somehow blackmailing authors with a threat to ruin their reputation if they don’t change their books as demanded.

The first point to make here is that people on panels at genre conventions should not be going around accusing other members of the community of criminal activity without evidence, especially when there is a good chance that some of those people being so accused might be in the audience. It really doesn’t matter if you then backtrack and say, “well not all sensitivity readers,” the intention to smear an entire group is very clear.

The objectives of this sort of attack are also obvious. It will make authors reluctant to use sensitivity readers for fear of being scammed. It will make publishers reluctant to allow sensitivity readers to be acknowledged or thanked in books. (I was going to say it would make them reluctant to pay for sensitivity readers, but in my experience that’s already commonly the case.) It will make readers think that a book that has had input from sensitivity readers is less authentic rather than more so. And eventually it will lead to concerned fans of authors seeking out sensitivity readers with a view to punishing them for having somehow conned the author.

Ultimately, of course, this is not about sensitivity reading. It is about insinuating that the communities from whom sensitivity readers are likely to come — people of colour, queers, the disabled and so on – are communities whose members are likely to be criminals, whereas straight, cis, able-bodied white people, especially white women, are likely to be victims of crime.

This may seem all highly unlikely to you, and if you had put the same issues in front of me 5 years ago I would have dismissed the whole thing too. But in that 5 years I have seen the anti-trans discourse in the UK ramp up from, “we are just asking reasonable questions” to “all trans women are dangerous sexual predators who should be locked up to keep ordinary people safe.”

The main thing I have learned about outrage farming during that time, is that if you don’t push back against mild statements, then future statements will become more and more extreme until, by the time you think it is necessary to push back, doing so will make it seem like you are defending the indefensible. Nowadays you can’t be publicly pro-trans in the UK without being accused of being pro-rapist and pro-pedophile.

Obviously I don’t hold FantasyCon at fault here. This was one incident, and they were doubtless caught on the hop by it. However, if any con tries to push back against this sort of thing, they are likely to be accused of attacking “free speech”. And given that being against “free speech” is deemed the greatest crime possible by UK media culture, they’ll be reluctant to do anything.

I think the important point here is to demand proof. If someone claims on a panel that a particular group of people are criminals, pin them down. Ask them to name names, and give actual examples of this happening. If they refuse to do so, make it clear that you think they are making it up. Far right political activism relies on the theory that if you repeat a lie often enough then people will start to believe it. And if you don’t stop the lie, it will become accepted truth.

So please, if you see ideas like this being spread, push back against it. People in the minority groups being targeted may well be afraid to say anything for fear of attracting unwelcome attention. It is up to you, members of the majority, to decide what sort of world you want to live in.

The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Alternate History

I discovered The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Alternate History thanks to an interview with Jack Dann on The Coode Street Podcast. If you want hear Dann discussing the book and its origins with Gary Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan, you can do so here.

In terms of writing manuals, this one is very specific, unlike the far more general work by Angus and Nolan reviewed elsewhere in this issue. This allows Dann to go into a lot more depth. He starts off by defining what (he thinks) Alternate History is. He then talks more generally about history as a practice. He gives an example of an Alternate History short story. He talks about the problems that writers will face writing this sort of work and how they should be tackled. He then has a round-table discussion with a bunch of authors, in which several of them profoundly disagree with him. Finally he talks about his own journey writing an Alternate History novel, and shares some thoughts about how you, the reader, might go forward from there.

Dann’s definition of Alternate History is quite narrow. In particular he references Tom Shippey, in whose opinion a true Alternate History (or Counterfactual Fiction) should be based on a single divergence point from actual history (sometimes known as a “Jonbar Point”) which should be 1) plausible; 2) definite; 3) small in itself; and 4) massive in consequence. This is history viewed through the lens of the nursery rhyme, “For the Want of a Nail”.

I have some fairly strong disagreements with that, as did many of the authors who participated in the round table. However, I’m going to leave most matters of definition for the talk I’m giving at Bristol Central Library next month as part of their support of the British Library’s Fantasy exhibition. That talk will become an essay that you can all read sometime next year.

For this review I want to focus on the usefulness of Dann’s book as what it purports to be: not an academic examination of what Alternate History is, but a guide for practitioners. The definitional material is useful as a launch pad for discussion, but in my view the real value of the book is in the advice Dann gives, and the round table.

Two key bits of advice that Dann gives are concerned with worldbuilding, and with how to stop it taking over your book. He discusses the Dos Passos technique of inserting quote from invented media material (newspaper clippings, quotations from politicians, long lyrics and so on) which has been used to great effect by the likes of John Brunner and Lyda Morehouse. But he also cautions against getting lost in the rabbit hole of your research and allowing that to gush out onto the page.

In the round table, Dann starts off by citing Shippey’s definition, and some ideas of his own, and asks the various writers whether they think those concepts are central to creating Alternate History. Some authors enthusiastically agree, but others are much less convinced. Harry Turtledove, whom you might think knows what he’s talking about on this topic, says:

“Central? I don’t think in such terms. Nothing is central to a story except plot, characters, and style, not necessarily in that order at all.”

Janeen Webb is more specific in her criticism. She says:

“I agree that counterfactual fiction is defined by its relationship with known historical events. But I disagree about the necessity for a single divergence point.”

It isn’t mentioned in this book, but Webb is Jack Dann’s wife. They’ve been together for almost 30 years, so definitions of Alternate History are clearly not important to their relationship.

Some writers are very keen to stress the need for believability. There is massive disagreement over Howard Waldrop’s story, “Ike at the Mic”, in which Dwight D Eisenhower becomes a jazz musician and Elvis Presley becomes a politician. Some writers celebrate this as groundbreaking, while others dismiss it as wanton breaking of the sacred rules of the genre. John Kessel describes it as “completely bogus”.

Some writers think that to great a deviation from actual history will make a book mere fantasy. Charlaine Harris, on the other hand, states:

“It was relatively easy to pick the divergence point for the Sookie Stackhouse novels: vampires have decided to make their existence public.”

My favourite contributions come, rather surprisingly, from Chris Priest. His responses tend to be of the forms, “No”; “-a longer phrase meaning ‘No’-”; and “No -followed by a justification of his rejection-”. At one point he comments:

“I didn’t become a writer so that I could follow the rules of others. The moment I hear about a rule I either ignore it or look for a way to subvert it.”

And he’s right. Perhaps not in the way he wants to be, in that he might see himself as special and different, but because every writer is different. What I love about this book is that it takes a fairly small part of the speculative fiction field and demonstrates that there is massive disagreement amongst respected and successful writers as to how such works should be crafted, and even about why one should attempt them in the first place. That’s a valuable lesson for any wannabe writer.

book cover
Title: The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Alternate History
By: Jack Dann
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Spec Fic for Newbies

This book from Luna Press Publishing is subtitled, “A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Subgenres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror”. It is worth noting that the two authors, Tiffani Angus and Val Nolan, are both academics, though Angus has a novel to her name and Nolan has had a short story shortlisted for the Sturgeon. I think their experience in academia informs how they have approached the subject.

Spec Fic for Newbies is divided into three main sections: science fiction, fantasy and horror. Each section is subdivided into chapters on key themes. So the science fiction section contains chapters on aliens, robots and dystopias; fantasy has chapters on witches, sword & sorcery and paranormal romance; and horror has chapters on vampires, zombies and cosmic horror. Those lists of contents are by no means exhaustive.

Each chapter contains information on the history of the use of the concept, some famous examples, and some discussion as to different ways the concept has been deployed. There are also suggestions in each chapter as to how the concept might be taken in a different direction. These are called “activities”, which makes them sound a bit like part of a school lesson, but they are useful.

This is probably starting to sound very dry and, well, academic, and it would be were it not for the way in which it is done. I don’t know Val Nolan well, though he is at Aberystwyth so I’m sure our paths will cross soon. Tiffani Angus, on the other hand, is a friend I have known for some time since she was a student of Farah Mendlesohn’s at Anglia Ruskin. Angus has an infectious personality, and that bleeds through on every page of this book. When I read it, I can hear her voice in my head. That makes the book great fun to read.

Of course it is not a page-turner. The structure of the book makes it very much a reference work, not the sort of thing that you would read from cover to cover. It is also “for Newbies”. Given that I have been reading and reviewing speculative fiction for (ahem) many decades, there’s not a lot in this book that is new to me. There are some things, obviously, and you can always learn something from reading new material, but a lot of it is very familiar.

While the book does purport to being a guide specifically for writers, I think it is just as useful for wannabe critics who are new to the field. It is a much easier, and shorter, read that the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia. It also allows you to bone up on “the Classics” without having to read them all. This book does what it says on the tin, and it does it with style and humour. You shouldn’t ask for much more from an introductory volume.

Oh, and if you’ve read the review of the Jack Dann book on Alternate History elsewhere in this issue, I note that Angus and Nolan end their introduction with the following sentence:

“Just remember, there are no rules.”


book cover
Title: Spec Fic for Newbies
By: Tiffani Angus & Val Nolan
Publisher: Luna Press Publishing
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Eating with the Tudors

One of the things that I find hard to resist is ancient recipe cookbooks. Most of mine are still stranded in Nevada, but recently I heard a podcast interview with the author of a new one that I had to get. The podcast in question was an episode of Not Just the Tudors with Prof. Suzannah Lipscomb. You can find the episode here. The interviewee is Brigitte Webster, author of Eating with the Tudors.

Webster is one of those lucky people who is both obsessed with ancient recipes, and wealthy enough to spend her time recreating them. She and her husband own a small Tudor manor, and they have turned the cookery passion into a business, hosting Tudor-themed events at which authentic dishes are served. That’s serious historical re-enactment.

Because of the need to recreate the recipes for customers, Webster’s book is not just a list of recipes cribbed from musty tomes in the British Library, it is both a practical manual for creating Tudor dishes with present-day supplies, and a piece of historical research in its own right.

The key thing about the Tudors is that they lived in a time before refrigeration. It is well known that they went absolutely bananas for sugar when it became easily available (to the detriment of their teeth). But they were not just addicts. Sugar meant that the wealthy could enjoy fruits (in the form of jam) in the middle of winter. Technology! It was the latest thing, and no wonder everyone who could went for it.

Nevertheless, the Tudor housewife (of whatever gender) still needed to be acutely aware of the seasons, and well-versed in various methods of food preservation. One of my reasons for snapping up the book is because I have friends who own a small-holding that has just come through the glut of autumn vegetables and is looking down the barrel of the long, fallow winter months.

I should note, however, that the book is not great for vegetarians. Not that the Tudors didn’t eat veggies, but meat was a prestige food, and most cookbooks were written by the wealthy, for the wealthy. Consequently, most of the recipes involve meat of some sort.

That said, the Tudors did eat a lot of fruit, and not just the common varieties. There are recipes in the book for things like quinces and medlars which, as it happens, I can get hold of. (Thanks, Roz & Jo!). They also ate a fair amount of fish. You might think that the old Catholic idea of eating fish on Fridays would have died a death after the Reformation. And it did, for a time. But Elizabeth I had a Navy to pay for, and one way of financing them was to have them turn to fishery when they were not out sinking Spaniards. Eating fish became a patriotic duty (and a legal requirement).

Recipes involving the likes of tomatoes, potatoes, sweetcorn and chilies are thin on the ground, because such exotic new foods were only just beginning to be imported from the New World at the end of the Tudor period. I was fascinated to discover that the oldest recipe in the book featuring one of these ‘modern’ foods was for the sweet potato. It features in a “tarte” that, so the recipe says, “will provoke courage either in man or woman”. Other ingredients include quinces, dates, lots of eggs, and “the braines of three or foure cocke Sparrowes”. Fortunately the sparrow brains are optional, though Webster does not say whether she has tested her version of the recipe for its courage-giving properties.

Which reminds me, the Tudors were still working with Galen’s theory of the Four Humors, so their ideas about what constituted healthy eating were quite bizarre at times.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to working my way through some of the recipes. It is good Hallowe’en cooking, because the Tudors loved making pies and tarts that are basically pastry filled with stuff. The empty pastry cases were known, at the time, as ‘coffins’, so the recipes frequently tell you to “fill youre coffins with…”


book cover
Title: Eating with the Tudors
By: Brigitte Webster
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Ahsoka – Season 1

I should start by noting that Star Wars is not my favourite TV/movie franchise. I’ve given up on The Mandalorian. I bailed on Boba Fett about half way through. I bailed on Andor in the first episode, apparently before it got good. I did not expect to find Ahsoka quite enjoyable, but I did.

I can think of two good reasons for this. The first is Grand Admiral Thrawn. He’s the first Imperial commander I can think of who is not a complete idiot. Indeed, he seems quite smart. This is a very welcome change.

Of course he is still burdened with the endless well of incompetence that is the Imperial armed forces. I swear at one point in the series I saw an Imperial Stormtrooper hit Sabine Wren in the head with a shot from his pistol. She wasn’t wearing her Mandalorian helmet at the time, but she still shrugged off the hit. I have come to the conclusion that Imperial Stormtroopers load their guns with marshmallows.

The other main reason is that several of the main characters are quite interesting. Sabine Wren is not a super-powered Jedi, at least to begin with, and isn’t even sure she wants to be one. Hera Syndulla isn’t a Jedi at all, she’s a rebel soldier who became a general in the wars, but is also a mother with a young kid. And of course you can’t go wrong with a droid played by David Tennant. These characters were all interesting enough that I want to go back and watch the Rebels cartoon series to find out more about them.

I’m less enamoured with the lead character, though I gather she is something of a fan favourite, which why she’s got a series of her own. Rosario Dawson’s performance reminds me a lot of Hugo Weaving playing Elrond: that is, we have a very competent actor who, as Weaving said in his case, has no idea who the character is, or what their motivations are. Dawson spends a lot of time staring mysteriously into the distance.

What worries me about the series, and bear in mind that I have not watched the Prequels, is that is seems like it might be intended as a vehicle to somehow rehabilitate Anakin Skywalker.

Reaction to the series online hasn’t been great. I’ve seen complaints that it is slow, and fair enough. Most of it was. The season finale wrapped things up much too quickly, which also wasn’t great after all that build-up. But at least it did leave some threads unresolved.

The main complaint about the series, however, seems to have been that it makes Star Wars look like fantasy. It is entirely true that the alien world on which much of the action is set is rather reminiscent of parts of Middle Earth. Characters get to ride creatures that are very reminiscent of wargs. And just to rub it in, the season finale is titled, “The Jedi, the Witch and the Warlord”. Well guess what?, this is a franchise about Space Wizards, who fight with swords made of light. There are witches in this series, three of them, of course, but if they are inspired by anything it is as much the Bene Gesserit as Macbeth. I’m happy to see the folks at Disney embracing the story for what it is.

BristolCon 2023

Another year, and other small but (mostly) perfectly formed BristolCon.

This year should have been spectacular, because I’d been offered the book launch slot for the new Juliet McKenna novel, The Green Man’s Quarry. However, circumstances conspired to thwart this. Firstly the diary gremlins attacked Juliet. A family event that she absolutely had to attended turned up on the Saturday. She kindly offered to drive over to Bristol for the Friday night only, and the convention offered to put on a launch event then. The diary clashes also affected me, in that the Chengdu Worldcon moved its dates to clash with BristolCon. That meant that I spent the Saturday evening updating the Hugo Awards website. It kept me away from the karaoke, which I’m sure everyone else was very grateful for.

The gods, however, were not done with us. I was vaguely aware that terrible weather was forecast for Scotland that weekend. The drive from South Wales was largely uneventful, though it did piss it own between Port Talbot and Bridgend. I did notice signs about an M4 closure around Swindon and hoped it was minor. No such luck. There had been a major accident that closed both carriageways. Also parts of Swindon station were underwater and around 75% of trains from London to Bristol were being cancelled. Rail issues were also affecting travel from Exeter and Birmingham.

There’s nothing you can do about this sort of thing. The book launch was very sparsely attended, as was the open mic event that followed it. Shrug.

The weather was better on Saturday, but some people had clearly given up on trying to get to the convention. Footfall in the Dealers’ Room was low. So low that I had a lot of chocolate and cupcakes left at the end of the day. But, thanks to Juliet having a new book out, sales were only just below last year. BristolCon is the only con where it is remotely economic for me to have a dealer table, and I continue to be grateful for that.

I did one panel. It was about AI, and I was able to recycle a lot of what I had learned on the similar panel at Pemmicon. Programming appeared to be well attended.

Next year the guests of honour will be Peter F Hamilton and Joanne Harris. If you have not been to BristolCon before, that sounds like a perfect excuse to try it out.

WorldCon Chengdu

So, Worldcon happened, and the sky did not fall.

Prior to the event, all sorts of fannish conspiracy theories were floating around, from the Chinese packing the Business Meeting and throwing out the WSFS Constitution, to all of the Hugo winners being Chinese, and to the whole event being a vehicle for Chinese Government propaganda.

Needless to say, none of this transpired. I didn’t go, because there was little chance of my getting a visa, and because it clashed with BristolCon. Those Westerners who did go seem to have had a wonderful time. That includes Kevin, who will hopefully get around to sharing his experiences when he’s had a chance to recover from the travel and catch up with having been offline for over a week.

One person who has been blogging enthusiastically about the event is Nicholas Whyte. His report on Doctor Who fandom in China is particularly heartwarming.

The Hugo winners were duly announced. There were a few Chinese winners, which was lovely, but the majority of awards still went to Westerners. I was particularly pleased with the fan awards. Richard Man joins the stellar list of Hugo winners who are members of the Bay Area Science Fiction Association, and is a brilliant photographer. Chris Barkley has been working his socks off for Worldcon for many, many years and also thoroughly deserves the award. And Best Fanzine was won by a Chinese publication. I know nothing about the fancast winner, but they’ve joined Chris in recusing themselves from the awards in future years so they are clearly good people.

On the professional side I’m delighted that Neil Clarke has finally won Best Editor: Short Form. The Graphic Story category has attracted a lot of attention because it is a very European production. The writer, Bartosz Sztybor, is Polish, and the Hugo Awards page on Farcebook has been getting a lot of happy attention from Polish fans. Naturally everyone in the UK is delighted that Adrian Tchaikovsky won Best Series, and so are the giant spiders.

I have no idea when we will get the full voting breakdown. The few SMOFs who attended the convention were rushed off their feet. Dave McCarty will get round to it eventually. The full list of winner is available here.

The Business Meeting also happened. Attendance was fairly low, but there were some Chinese fans present and interesting things happened. Kevin has posted the videos, but I don’t have time to watch them. As far as I can gather, nothing terrible happened. And even if it did, we can deal with it in Glasgow.

The Best of all Possible Worlds

This review is reprinted from Cheryl’s personal blog.

Karen Lord’s second novel has been greatly anticipated by the many people, including myself, who fell in love with Redemption in Indigo. When I saw an ARC available on NetGalley I pounced on it immediately. I have, however, taken a while to produce this review. That’s partly because I don’t believe in publishing reviews long before you can buy the book — that has always seemed like bragging on the part of the reviewer, and not very helpful to the prospective reader. But it is also, rather unusually, because I wanted to talk to the author first. The reasons for that should become obvious as you read this review, but first I should introduce the book.

The Best of All Possible Worlds opens in dramatic fashion. We are introduced to Dllenahkh, apparently a busy chap with a responsible job who, every so often, has to go on a meditation retreat to help him handle the stress of his life. He’s on retreat when we meet him, but his peace is interrupted by the arrival of a spaceship pilot with bad news. Their home planet has been attacked and laid waste. The entire population is dead.

With a standard genre novel, what would follow is a revenge-based piece of military SF in which Dllenahkh tracks down and kills those responsible for this atrocity. What we get is nothing like that at all. Most of the rest of the book is told from the point of view of Grace Delarua, a minor civil servant in an outpost world where Dllenahkh and some other surviving members of his race, the Sadiri, have come in search of sanctuary and, hopefully, wives.

A digression on the world building is in order here. The galaxy is populated by a number of species of humans, all of which can interbreed, but which are genetically distinct in the same way that our own species and Neanderthals were distinct. The Sadiri have their own culture, and are quite stuffy and conservative. This, compounded by the disaster that has befallen them, has made the few (mostly male) survivors rather obsessed with breeding. Delarua’s planet, Cygnus Beta, is home to a number of settlements of taSadiri — people who couldn’t stand the strictures of traditional Sadiri culture and left to set up home elsewhere. It is therefore a prime source of eligible females.

Hopefully you can begin to see the shape of the mess that Delarua and her colleagues have to negotiate. On the one hand they desperately want to help the Sadiri (there are economic reasons for this, as well as the humanitarian ones). But on the other hand they need to prevent the sort of diplomatic incidents that might arise when a group of sex-starved misogynists go in search of wives.

That’s probably a little unfair on the Sadiri. There are worse males in the universe. Indeed, one of the reasons that Dllenahkh has been sent on this mission is that he’s assumed to be disciplined enough not to cause an upset. Nevertheless, it is a delicate situation, and if you were part of a relatively small remnant population with very little chance of getting a wife, you might be a bit eager too.

The structure of the book is somewhat unexpected as well. Most chapters are, in a way, separate stories telling of particular encounters that Dllenahkh, Delarua and their colleagues have at different settlements on Cygnus Beta. There is an overall thread to the book, but if you are brought up on fast-paced novels that end each chapter in a cliff-hanger then this slower, more disconnected structure may jar. I expect to see reviews that complain about Lord failing to use the prescribed structures you are taught in creative writing classes and, shock horror, having characters in the book who don’t serve the purposes of the plot. I guess what she’s done will be irritating to anyone who is convinced that slavish adherence to a formula is the only way to get published.

At its core, the book is a love story between, as you might have guessed, Dllenahkh and Delarua. I use the term “love story” rather than “romance” very deliberately. Romance tends to be a very adolescent genre, full of horrible misunderstandings and raging emotions. It is fiction for people still trying to understand the opposite sex, and the process of sexual attraction. The Best of All Possible Worlds is a much more adult affair in which two people thrown together by work gradually come to admire each other, and rely on each other. If there is uncertainty it is probably worry that attempting sex will jeopardize the relationship that is building.

Of course the book is, in many ways, all about sex. You have a bunch of alien males in search of wives, and several female characters who might just be interested if the cultural issues can be overcome. Occasionally this results in banter that almost makes you feel like you’ve fallen through a wormhole into a later-period Heinlein novel. Although one of the characters turns out to be asexual, this is mostly an avowedly heterosexual book with mating as a core theme. It also tackles the issue head-on in a very practical way. Personally, as an older, heterosexual female, I was perfectly happy with it. I suspect that some lesbian feminists will be outraged.

I note, by the way, that the nature of the relationships formed is important to Lord. Some of the characters have limited psychic powers, and the occasional arrogance and stuffiness of the Sadiri is contrasted with the genuinely abusive behavior of others. We should not forget where the title comes from. While there is no benevolent god in the book whose failure to address the shortcomings of the universe needs to be interrogated, we are still very much stuck with Leibniz’s central idea that we need to deal with the real world as it is. Annoying and imperfect the universe may be, but we still need to strive for the best.

The final, and most important, point I want to make about the book also deals with the way in which the real world annoyingly fails to fit our neat ideas as of how thing should be. Most modern equality theory is based on the idea that, biologically speaking, all human beings are identical. There are no different “races” of humans, just humans with different appearances. We are all the same species, in just the same way that our best friend, canis lupus familiaris, is, despite coming in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. Feminism holds that the same is true for the sexes: childbearing aside, there are no significant differences between males and females.

In The Best of All Possible Worlds Lord does something very brave. She populates the galaxy with a variety of different species of humans that can interbreed, but are not only culturally, but also biologically different. There are things that some species are better at than others (that is, when large populations are sampled for a characteristic, the difference in performance between species is statistically significant). There is a reason why Sadiri make good starship pilots and people from other species don’t.

Of course we have seen this many times before in 20th Century SF. Mostly we criticize it as proxy racism; attempts to show that the (mysteriously all-white) humans are somehow better people than the funny almost-humans with lumps on their brows and darker skin. That, I submit, is not a charge that one can reasonably bring against a Caribbean writer. There may still be some racial stereotyping in the book, but the central point that Lord is making here is that genuine racial differences do not excuse racism. The various human races in the book are still all human, and they still need to get along. In most cases, the differences between species don’t matter very much, and in any case cultural differences tend to be greater than biological ones. Nevertheless, we only live in the best of all possible worlds, not an ideal world defined by political theories. It is up to us to make the best of it.

book cover
Title: The Best of all Possible Worlds
By: Karen Lord
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Galaxy Game

This review is reprinted from Cheryl’s personal blog.

The trouble with reviewing a Karen Lord novel is that you know you are dealing with a very smart author. This causes (at least) two problems. Firstly you have to somehow tiptoe your way around all of the subtle ideas in the book to make sure that you don’t give too much away. And second, you know that next time you see Karen she will smile knowingly at you, and you’ll know you need to go back and re-read the book to see what you missed.

Here I go, cautiously embarrassing myself.

The Galaxy Game is pretty much a direct sequel to The Best of All Possible Worlds. There’s a prologue that is set a few decades into the future, but after that we skip back to just a few years after the previous book. The central character is not Grace Delarua, though she does feature in the narrative. Rather Lord has chosen to tell us the story of Grace’s nephew, Rafi Abowen.

Those of you who have read The Best of All Possible Worlds will remember that Rafi’s father was a powerful and abusive telepath. Rafi has inherited strong psi talents, and wants to avoid misusing them. He ends up in The Lyceum, a special school for the Abnormally Gifted. This, however, is not an X-Men story, or a Harry Potter one. Rafi and his two young friends, Ntenman and Serendipity, soon find themselves out in the galaxy at a time of great political upheaval.

The book is quite a slow starter. For a long time you’ll think that this is nothing more than a story of a troubled young man finding himself through professional sport. (Yes, you did read that correctly.) But not all is as it seems, and around page 200 Lord drops a massive revelation about the sport that Rafi plays. From then on you are in the middle of a fairly fast-paced piece of space opera.

There are several themes in play here. Chief amongst them is that of a society undergoing a period of instability, with associated security paranoia. The destruction of the planet Sadira, which opens The Best of All Possible Worlds, is still a major political issue. The surviving Sadiri, who are mostly male, have started to go to extreme lengths to secure full-blood wives. This inevitably brings them into conflict with Grace, Dllenahkh and the small community of Sadiri-in-exile that they have set up on Cygnus Beta. Meanwhile the rest of the galaxy is starting to discover what life is like without the moralistic and officious Sadiri around to play policeman so that they don’t have to.

Don’t expect this to be a shoot-out with space battles, however. In a Karen Lord novel, conflict is solved by diplomacy. You look for mutually beneficial trading opportunities that might make it less attractive to go to war. Failing all else, you put together an alliance and drop a political bombshell on the enemy. Lord has been a diplomat (and a soldier). She knows her stuff. Also, coming from Barbados, she has a very different view of geopolitics than someone who has grown up in the USA or UK, which is very refreshing.

Then there is the gender stuff. Readers of The Best of All Possible Worlds may remember Lian, a character who is genderless. Well, Lian turns up again in The Galaxy Game, and the whole gender thing is mentioned just once, in passing. Most readers, I suspect, will never notice that Lian’s gender is not specified. I spotted just one use of a gendered word, and that was from Ntenman which, as it later turned out, was only to be expected. There is a trans character in the book too, and I love the way that Lord has handled Ntenman’s journey to acceptance of her.

Talking of Ntenman, one of the more unusual aspects of the book is Lord’s decision to tell his story in first person, and the rest of the book in third person. Ntenman isn’t the primary viewpoint character, though he is fairly significant to the story. I don’t think it distracts majorly from the book, but I’m not sure what it adds, or at least was intended to add. Were I to be interviewing Lord about the book, this is the first question I’d put to her.

I guess I should talk about societies too. Much of the action takes place on Punartam, which is an Ntshune planet and very different culturally to Rafi’s more Terran home on Cygnus Beta. On Punartam who you are and who you know are massively important. I have this image of people from saner parts of the globe finding themselves in England and struggling to make sense of all of the class politics.

In summary, Karen Lord novels are fascinating things. They are not fast-paced space adventures, but they are very thoughtful and will reward re-reading. Also, while there is a series being built here, the books are fairly complete in themselves. You do need to have read The Best of All Possible Worlds before reading The Galaxy Game, but you won’t be left hanging at the end of either book. Of course we do want to know what happened to Commander Nasiha, and that probably means finding out what awful things are happening on New Sadira, but that’s a tale for another book, please, Karen.

book cover
Title: The Galaxy Game
By: Karen Lord
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Editorial – October 2023

The Dark has risen. Winter is approaching here in the Northern hemisphere and the clocks have gone back in the UK. You may have noticed that I have not yet got round to reviewing the final volume of Susan Cooper’s legendary fantasy series. That’s mainly due to having too many other good books clamouring for my attention, but it has turned out to be quite convenient. It will be in the next issue, alongside my thoughts on the Fantasy exhibition at the British Library, which I am booked to see early in November.

Other than that trip to London, I’m not planning to go very far for several months. Convention season is pretty much over, and SMOFcon is in Boston this year so I can’t go even if I wanted to. I think my next con trip will be to LuxCon in April (and I am not going to EasterCon so it won’t be able to prevent me from getting to Luxembourg this time).

Hopefully being stuck at home for a few months will give me time to work on some more books. We have Lyda’s lesbian space opera book to come, and there should be some new Chaz next year.

Other than that, I expect to spend several months keeping warm, trying new recipes, and reading books.

Issue #54

This is the September 2023 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.

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