Issue #29

This is the April 2021 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.

  • Cover: Three Twins at the Crater School: Another fabulous Ben Baldwin cover, this one for Craz Brenchley's Three Twins at the Crater School

  • A Desolation Called Peace: A review of A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine's follow up to last year''s Hugo-winning novel, A Memory Called Empire

  • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Cheryl's massively spoilerific review of Marvel's latest TV series, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier

  • Victories Greater Than Death: A review of the new YA novel from Charlie Jane Anders, Victories Greater than Death

  • A Winter Worldcon: This year's Worldcon will be held in December rather than August. What does this mean, especially for those of us who can't attend? Also, Site Selection Controversy!

  • Advanced Triggernometry: A review of the latest fantasy Western novella from Stark Holborn, Advanced Triggernometry

  • Your 2021 Hugo Award Finalists: Cheryl takes a look through the finalists for this year's Hugo Awards

  • Rev: A review of the third and final volume in Madeline Ashby's Machine Dynasty series, Rev

  • Shadow of a Dead God: A review of Shadow of a Dead God, a fantasy novel by Patrick Samphire

  • Soul: A review of Pixar's Oscar-winning and Hugo Finalist animated film, Soul

  • Editorial – April 2021: Cheryl is a Hugo Finalist again

A Desolation Called Peace

A Desolation Called PeaceHow do you follow up on a stunning debut novel that won a Hugo Award? Well, more of the same sounds like a good idea. With A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine delivers exactly what fans will have been hoping for.

At the end of A Memory Called Empire (what do you mean, you haven’t read it?) Mahit Dzmare, with no little help from what remains of Yskandr Aghavn, and the delightful yet deceptively cunning Three Seagrass, have has engineered a safe transition of power in the Teixcalaan Empire. Nineteen Adze is now Emperor, but she’s only keeping the seat warm for young Eight Antidote, the 90% clone of former Emperor, Six Direction. Meanwhile the Teixcalaanlitzlim have been made aware of the mysterious alien presence beyond the Anhamemat Gate, and hopefully this will keep their military focused on external threats, rather than needed to cook up internal “peace keeping” activities to keep them occupied.

At least, that was the plan. It is what Darj Tarats, Councilor for the Miners on Lsel Station, wanted to happen. What Tarats doesn’t seem to have considered is that a galactic war being fought out near Stationer Space will mean large numbers of warships going to and fro. Also there is always the possibility that the Teixcalaanlitzlim might lose.

Mahit, mission accomplished, and with too many complicated relationships resulting from it, has returned home to Lsel. Unfortunately her homecoming has not been as simple and welcoming as she had hoped. Several of the Councilors are still keen to use her to do whatever they can to keep Lsel free from Teixcalaanli control, but all of them have their own agendas and different ideas as to how to go about this project. In particular Aknel Amnardbat, the Councilor for Heritage, wants to know what happened with the sabotaged imago machine that she had placed in Mahit, and of course she wants to make sure that no one else ever finds out that imago machines can be sabotaged, let alone that someone has committed such sacrilege.

Following the failed coup led by One Lightning, Her Brilliance the Emperor gave the job of yaotlek of the fleet to a promising starship captain called Nine Hibiscus. However, fighting an alien civilization is proving a very different prospect to restoring order in rebellious provinces. Nine Hibiscus quickly discovers that her foe has technologies that are unfamiliar and give the aliens a significant advantage. What’s more, she can’t negotiate with them, because their only audible communication takes the form of seemingly random screaming noises that cause her crews to vomit if they listen to them for too long. In desperation, she calls on the Ministry of Information for help. They might be mainly spies and propagandists, but communication is their job. They should be good at it.

Enter Three Seagrass, who is in a deep funk having lost her best friend, Twelve Azalea, during the failed coup, and because she is pining for the mysterious Stationer Ambassador, with whom she has to admit she has fallen deeply in love. A mission with the fleet with bother get her away from her desk, and give her an excuse to requestion the assistance of Mahit, who is after all a brilliant linguist, and whose home is conveniently on the way to the front. All she has to do then is work out how to communicate with a race of homicidal aliens who are currently whipping the arses of the Empire’s finest fleet. Easy, right?

Three Seagrass is one of my favourite characters in recent science fiction. She is such a glorious mess.

Meanwhile, back on the Jewel of the World, Eight Antidote has decided that it is time he learned a bit about the job of being Emperor. After all, he is fourteen now, almost an adult. It doesn’t occur to him that he’s been kept closeted in the Imperial Place for all of his life, and in practical terms his understanding of the world, and even the city, is much younger. Naturally various power factions within the Empire are seeking to befriend the young heir; and draw him into their influence. The war, and its fallout, will be useful tools in such campaigns.

There’s so much wonderfully sophisticated politics in these books. I am so pleased that the first book did so well, and I’m sure this one will be equally well received. (The UK edition has a cover sticker claiming that the book is a Clarke Award finalist, but I’ll be surprised if that’s true yet because the long list hasn’t been announced, so they are probably referring to Memory rather than revealing inside knowledge. It is also typical of UK publishers that they would rather celebrate being a losing finalist for the Clarke than being a Hugo winner.)

Finding a way through the puzzle that she has created is inevitably challenging, but Martine copes admirably. That she chooses to pick up one of my favourite ideas for an SF novel in order to do so, and implement it splendidly, is an extra bonus.

Sadly this series was always planned as a duology, so it is by no means clear what Martine will do next. She may produce more stories in the same world, but featuring different characters. Or she might do something completely different. Either way I will buy the next book, because the first two have been superb.

book cover
Title: A Desolation Called Peace
By: Arkady Martine
Publisher: Tor
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Well that was something. I suspect that if you are not as deeply immersed in the Marvel Comics Universe as I am, this series will have come over as rather odd. I’ve also noticed some dissatisfaction among what I might call Left Twitter. But, when you consider the constraints on the series, I think it did rather well. Explaining why will have to take us deep into spoiler territory.

Let’s start with the set-up. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier takes place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, and therefore after the Blip. During the Blip, half of the world’s population vanished. This left wealthy countries with a serious lack of manpower for their industries. They eagerly welcomed immigrants from less-wealthy countries. Now that Thanos has been defeated, the Disappeared have returned, and in many cases have found foreign immigrants living in their homes. Understandably, this has led to a lot of political tension. The UN has set up an organisation called the Global Repatriation Council to help migrants return home, but many do not wish to do so.

The upshot of all this is the rise of a global migrants’ rights organisation called the Flag Smashers. They want to return to the world that they knew during the Blip, when national boundaries meant far less. Sam and Bucky get involved when they learn that one of the more militant Flag Smashers has superpowers, which turn out to be the result of someone having made a new batch of Super Soldier Serum.

Although Steve Rogers gifted Sam his shield when he retired, Sam has decided not to take on the role of Captain America, at least in part because he’s concerned at how a Black Cap would go down at home. He donates the shield to a museum display in Steve’s honour. But the US government sees an opening, retrieves the shield, and appoints an ex-sports-star and ex-soldier called John Walker to be the new Cap.

The Left Twitter criticism of the series appears to be that Sam and Bucky should have joined up with the Flag Smashers, blown up the UN Building, and vowed to destroy Capitalism. That was never going to happen. You might possibly get away with something like that in an X-Men show, because the X-Men are already seen as terrorists by the government, but absolutely not in a Captain America show.

In the Captain America universe, stories like this always end up reinforcing the status quo. If the supposed terrorists that our heroes end up fighting appear to have a good cause, then they will be portrayed as turning to violence and having to be stopped. Either their leader will turn out to be an agent of a foreign government, or she will turn evil for some reason. In this case they chose the latter resolution. It left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth, but the script gave us sufficient alternative moral grey areas that we can think that maybe Sam and Bucky have made a mistake.

A more cogent complaint is that the series had far too much going on for a six-episode story. That also was partly inevitable, because Marvel seems to have decided that the role of the TV series will be to move the plot on, and introduce new characters, in advance of new movies. To some extent that’s a good thing. So much went on off-camera in the Avengers movies, that I’m surprised people not familiar with the characters managed to keep up. But it does mean that the series don’t work well in and of themselves.

Let’s take a look at the work The Falcon and The Winter Soldier had to do in addition to the Flag Smashers plot. It had to handle Sam’s transition to the new Captain America and introduce the new Falcon. It had to handle Bucky’s recovery from the trauma of his role as The Winter Soldier and transition him to his new role as White Wolf. It told the story of John Walker’s disastrous stint as Captain America and his transition to the role of US Agent under the control of Madame Hydra. It told the story of Isaiah Bradley, a Black man who was part of the US Super Soldier project after WWII, and introduced his grandson, Eli, who will one day join the Young Avengers alongside Billy Maximoff. It re-introduced us to Baron Zemo from Civil War, who is so much more interesting in the MCU than he ever was in the comics. And it provided some very interesting revelations about Sharon Carter. Phew!

Oh, and it appears to have killed off Batroc Ze Leaper, though I rather hope that he crawled away and survived somehow.

Was it necessary to cram all of this into one series? I don’t know, but clearly Marvel wanted all of these bits of narrative advanced. What is necessary to limit the story to a mere six episodes? Well, that will have been a budgetary decision, and frankly the production team probably had to do a lot of work behind the scenes to be allowed to tell this story the way that they wanted. Maybe six episodes was all that they could get permission to make.

Much of the show was about race. Sam’s reluctance to take on the mantle of Captain America, Isaiah’s disgraceful treatment by the US government, and the struggles of Sam’s sister, Sarah, to keep her business afloat all play into this. The use of Zemo also gave the scriptwriters an excuse to involve the Dora Milaje, because it was Zemo who led the terrorist attack that killed King T’Chaka. I’ve not seen any People of Colour up in arms about the way this was done, so hopefully there were not too many faux pas.

I’ve seen a few Asian people complain about the lack of Asian people in Madripoor, which is actually in South-East Asia. That criticism seems well made.

However, the show was also very explicitly about White Privilege, in two specific ways. The first was the narrative arc of John Walker. He’s a typical, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American hero. He was quarterback of his college football team. He fought in Afghanistan. He has a chest full of medals. It is no wonder that he was chosen as the new Captain America. If you were to ask Walker if he got where he did through privilege he would probably be appalled. He’d tell you that he was really good at what he did, and that he even had a Black Best Friend (who got fridged to give him motivation, because that’s what Black Best Friends do, right?).

Nevertheless, Walker’s path through life was easy in a way that Sam Wilson’s never could have been. And the story of Isaiah Bradley shows us exactly what the US government thought of the prospect of a Black Super Soldier. Also, his privilege is the reason why Walker is such a failure as Cap. Steve Rogers had been a failure at everything in life prior to being chosen as a test subject for the Super Solider programme. Walker, in contrast, had succeeded spectacularly at everything he did prior to becoming Cap. He didn’t know how to fail, or what to do when he did, except react with anger like a child whose toys had been taken away.

And then there’s Sharon. She’s blonde, blue-eyed, a relative of the legendary Peggy Carter, and a kick-ass heroine. She’s the absolute embodiment of what a white woman should be in a superhero universe. And The Falcon and The Winter Soldier showed her to be a criminal mastermind. The official story is that after the events of Civil War the US government abandoned Sharon because of her support for Steve, and she had to go into hiding. But she doesn’t reveal how she survived to Sam and Bucky, and now that we know the extent of the criminal empire she has at her command I find it hard to believe that she vanished in the Blip as she claims.

In the show, Sharon completely fools Sam and Bucky with her sob story. Thanks to Sam’s help, she gets her old job back in the US secret service, and she immediately sets about planning how to use that to her advantage. White women are fucking dangerous, because no one ever suspects them.

How far back does Sharon’s treachery go? I haven’t had time to look into it in detail, but other people have. If you are interested in digging deeper in the MCU I recommend the Twitter feed of @fangirlJeanne. She recently pointed her followers at this speculative video from back in 2016, when Civil War has just come out. I have to say that it makes a lot of sense to me.

The one aspect of the show that did not work for me was Bucky’s arc. I didn’t really understand why it worked, both for him and for the people that The Winter Soldier had wronged. Also the therapist he was assigned to, while very funny, was a very bad therapist. They can’t event complain that this is the sort of person the US military would assign to Bucky, because Sam worked as a therapist in the Veterans’ Administration before becoming Falcon. He should have been appalled at the way Bucky was being treated.

While I’m here, I’d like to compliment the quality of some of the acting on the series. Wyatt Russell does a great job of portraying Walker as simultaneously a stuck-up white boy, someone who wants to do good but doesn’t know how, and a victim of the US military machine. Daniel Brühl is once again superb as Baron Zemo, and I shall be buying the series on disc when it comes out in the hope that the extras will contain the full version of Zemo dancing from the party in episode #3. I’m pretty sure that we haven’t seen the last of Helmut Zemo, and if you want to know why you might want to Google a comic called Thunderbolts.

Finally, on the acting, although she only got two short scenes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus completely stole the show as Madame Hydra. I can see her being as popular as Loki.

If you are thinking of individual episodes to nominate for the Hugos, my vote goes to #5, officially titled “Truth” but which I referrer to as “Sam and Bucky Repair a Boat”. The finale, “One World, One People”, is OK, but has too many obvious set-pieces (I loved the Sam-as-angel shot, but boy was it hackneyed). It also has the most unbelievable thing in the entire series, which is saying a lot for a superhero show. I am referring, of course, to the fact that the politicians took Sam’s speech on board and changed their behaviour as a result, rather than fobbing him off with platitudes and carrying on being as brutal and uncaring as before.

Which brings us, at last, to Sam’s speech. I suppose it is inevitable that someone taking on the mantle of Captain America has to make a speech, and there is a fine tradition of speech-making in the MCU. Sam’s speech isn’t as on point as the one that T’Challa makes at the end of Black Panther, but it is good, and it contains one very memorable line.

“The only power that I have, is that I believe that we can do better.” – Sam Wilson

Unlike Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and now John Walker, Sam Wilson does not have any superpowers. His is supremely fit, but most of his advantage has come from his wings, from his robot pal Redwing, and now from a Vibranium shield. Nevertheless, he has earned his role as Captain America, and as a member of the Avengers. What’s more, the power that he refers to above is one that we all have. Every single one of us knows that our politicians can, and should, do better. Like Sam, we should tell them to do so.

Victories Greater Than Death

This book marks Charlie Jane Anders’ first foray into YA. I have no idea what actual teenagers will make of it, because it is several centuries since I was last a teenager and tastes have doubtless moved on. What I will say is that to an ancient person like myself, Victories Greater than Death certainly sounds like modern teenagers.

To put it another way, this is what Star Trek would be like if Sylvia Tilly were captain of the Discovery and all the crew were like the team in engineering. It is very much different from the Star Trek I grew up on; but getting away from Kirk’s macho nonsense is probably a good thing.

Anyway, to the book. Tina Mains is an ordinary American teenager, with the usual problems that arise from attending an American high school (minus the vampires, werewolves and serial killers). The only weird thing about her life is that her mom insists that Tina has no father. Instead, Tina is a reincarnated semi-clone of a legendary alien space captain called Thaoh Argentian, and one day her people will come to claim her so that she can once again lead them against the forces of evil.

Holy Chosen One Narrative, Batman!

Also shades of Star-Lord, but we’ll ignore that because Peter Quill is an arse.

Obviously this ridiculous story is absolutely true, and after a couple of chapters the aliens do arrive. Tina and her best friend, Rachel Townsend, find themselves on a spaceship being hunted by evil aliens who are determined to conquer the galaxy. Only Captain Argentian stands in their way.

Hey, this is space opera. Stick with me, OK?

Major Plot Point 1 is that the process of saving and resurrecting Captain Argentian’s soul has not gone according to plan. While Tina now has an encyclopaedic memory of the galactic civilisation, she has none of her predecessor’s memories and is still very much Tina Mains, Earth girl.

Major Plot Point 2 is that this is not a story of good race of aliens v bad race of aliens. The galactic civilisation is strongly multicultural, and the bad guys are rebels against the Queen and her Royal Fleet who call themselves the Compassion. The leader of the rebels, Marrant, was once Captain Argentian’s best friend.

Much of the book is about Tina finding her feet in galactic politics; and getting her head around what Marrant and his people are up to. Along the way we find that the Royal Fleet’s self-appointed role as galactic police is about as effective as America’s self-appointed role as guardian of democracy.

To help make the point. Tina and Rachel have suggested that their new colleagues recruit some of the best and brightest teenagers from Earth to help in the fight. None of the resulting recruits are white. Our supporting cast is as follows.

Damini is girl from Mumbai whose parents are top scientists and who never met a dangerous adventure that she didn’t want to rush head-first into, especially if it involved flying.

Yiwei is Chinese boy who is a brilliant musician and also a keen roboticist.

Keziah is a black, gay boy from England who already has a physics PhD from Cambridge.

Elza is a travesty girl from Brazil and also a genius computer programmer.

Goddess, the retired colonels of fandom are going to hate this.

Anyway, this being YA, there will be a certain amount of romance. I should add that Captain Argentian’s species has three genders.

The aliens have definite air of Galaxy Quest about them. They have silly names such as Yatto the Monntha (who, by the way, is a retired movie heartthrob), and have whacky exclamations such as Cursed Hexapod-Eaters of Jubilation Mountain, or Singing Volcano Fish of Kthorok VII.

Anders is clearly not trying to be serious here, and yet she is, because Major Plot Point 3 is that the book will eventually turn into a mission to discover the truth about the mysterious founders of galactic civilisation, a species known as the Shapers. They, it turns out, were massive racists, and were determined to impose their view of correct sentient life form behaviour on every species that they discovered. And in this case “correct” also meant having two arms, two legs and lateral symmetry. Every other species had to be wiped out.

I wonder of they had a queen called Victoria.

So yeah, much message, but also much sweetness and comedy to sweeten the pill. And, most importantly, the book is eminently readable. I raced through it very quickly, including half an hour after breakfast one day because I was not going to stop until I got to the end.

I should note that the book will have sequels, and that one of the reasons this is a good thing is that some of the team are a little under-used. Yiwei and Keziah in particular don’t get a huge amount of screen time, and Rachel only comes into her own right at the end. But they are a fun bunch, and I definitely want to learn more about them.

book cover
Title: Victories Greater than Death
By: Charlie Jane Anders
Publisher: Titan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

A Winter Worldcon

So, Worldcon in December it is. What are we supposed to make of this?

The first thing to note is that DisCon III has done what people said they wanted. They ran a survey that anyone was welcome to respond to, and 64% of respondents said they would prefer an in-person event in December, as compared to 31% who would prefer a virtual event in August. Obviously I voted for virtual, as I can’t attend events in the USA, but not enough people who can’t attend, for whatever reason, cared enough to vote, so Worldcon is once again being arranged primarily for people who can attend in person.

However, DisCon III has committed to having some remote content. They have even launched a Virtual Membership class. The trouble is, it is not at all clear what that means. Here’s what they say in their FAQ on the date move.

A Virtual Membership is part of our commitment to providing online content for those who either cannot, or choose not to, attend in-person. We also will maintain our commitment to have three streaming tracks of program items during the convention.

That suggests that there will be some online content in addition to the three streaming tracks of programming. Their Membership page says:

Virtual members, like Supporting members, are not able to attend the convention, but Virtual membership does confer both the rights of Supporting membership and also allows access to our online programming that will occur during the convention in December. We will have three separate online tracks of programming for Virtual members and will give more information as we get closer to December on the specifics regarding how Virtual members will interact with the convention.

So again three tracks of streamed programming, but nothing else specific yet.

This leaves me wondering what I would get for my extra $55, if I were to upgrade from Supporting to Virtual. Clearly there will be three tracks of programming, but they may well be restricted to Washington time. A 5-hour time shift isn’t too bad, but I have no idea what will be in those tracks. My guess is that Programming will look at stream the material it thinks will be most popular. Generally, the programming I go to at Worldcons tends to be focused on minority interests.

What else will we get? Will there be a convention Discord server? Or some other social platform? Will there be online programming in addition to the streamed tracks, and if so will any of it be outside of the usual convention times? I ask this as someone who is a) a Hugo Finalist, and b) someone who very specifically is a Hugo Finalist for providing online programming out of hours for last year’s Worldcon. Please do not tell me that it cannot be done, because I have done it.

Obviously DisCon III hasn’t had much time yet to put its virtual offering together. But I hope that they come out with some more information soon. The past year has shown that running virtual conventions is perfectly possible, and one of the great things about such events is that your programme participants can be drawn from a much wider pool of people than just those who can afford to got to an event in person.

There will, of course, be people who say that hybrid conventions are too difficult, and that cons should either be in person or virtual. But those people generally also argue that a virtual component of a hybrid convention must fully reproduce the experience of being at the event in person, so they have started with an almost impossible target. Virtual conventions, and the virtual components of a hybrid convention, have to be their own thing, delivering their own value in their own way.

Worldcon can, of course, chose to remain a convention that is primarily for people who can attend in person. But if it does so then it will inevitably turn back into an event that almost always happens in the USA, and whose attendees are mostly American. Meanwhile other conventions will be much more international, and much more successful as a result.

Talking of where Worldcon is held, there is a potential crisis brewing over site selection. Prior to the change of dates, only two bids had filed in the contest to hold the 2023 Worldcon: Memphis (USA) and Chengdu (China). When the date change was announced, DisCon III said that it had closed submissions for site selection, and would not be re-opening them. However, the WSFS Constitution says:

4.6.3: For a bid to be allowed on the printed ballot, the bidding committee must file the documents specified above no later than 180 days prior to the official opening of the administering convention.

That’s all. As long as you file no later than 180 days prior to the official opening of the administering convention then you are entitled to be on the ballot. Many people who know the WSFS Constitution far better than I do have already argued that DisCon III is required to accept any new bids up until 180 days before their official opening (which will presumably now be December 15th).

Of course none of this would matter if there were no other bids. However, just this week a new bid appeared. It is for Winnipeg in Canada, which has the appeal to me of being in a country I am able to visit.

So the question arising from that was, would DisCon III accept this new bid (and any others that might come in before the deadline)? Or will they stick to their guns and accept only the Memphis and Chengdu bids?

As of just a few hours ago, DisCon III announced that they would accept Winnipeg’s filing. However, they did so in such a way as to imply that doing so was entirely at their discretion, which further implies that they don’t think that they have to abide by the WSFS Constitution in any way. This is really quite disturbing, because if they get away with it then subsequent Worldcons will do so as well, and each deviation from the rules is likely to be more serious.

Advanced Triggernometry

Advanced TriggernometryYes, there is a sequel. Can we all say, “Yee ha!”

I think you know what to expect. In Advanced Triggernometry Stark Holborn gives us more wonderful Western pastiche, more terrible maths puns, and more genuine pathos.

Following their successful train robbery, Malago Browne and Pierre de Fermat have fled across the border where they can live in peace. But their past will catch up with them sooner or later. There are still many mathematicians living in fear and outlawry, and the government that has persecuted them will eventually need to find new people to prey upon.

The plot of Advanced Triggernometry takes inspiration from the plot of The Magnificent Seven (and thus from Seven Samurai). In this case, however, the bad guys are out-of-control lawmen rather than bandits, and the heroes are armed with set squares and rulers as well as guns.

We get to meet a number of new mathematicians. Charles Reason is, very appropriately, running a small town newspaper which doubles as a secret message system for mathematicians. René Descartes is a bit of an arse, but gets a great last line. My favourite is the old guy who speaks only in Greek and has a thing about baths.

What more is there to say, except that if y’all haven’t read Triggernometry then you really should, and if you have then you will almost certainly want the sequel because it provides more of the same.

I have no idea how Holborn manages to come up with this stuff, but if I did I would bottle it, buy a wagon, and go around country fairs selling people “writers’ ideas, guaranteed to help you produce a best seller”.

book cover
Title: Advanced Triggernometry
By: Stark Holborn
Publisher: Rattleback Books
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Your 2021 Hugo Award Finalists

Another year, another slate of Hugo Finalists. We won’t find out who has won until December, but let’s make a start on checking out the field.

I have read work by four of the Astounding Finalists: Johnson, Larkwood, Lyons and Tesh. Of those I’d give the award to Lyons, but if the Jimenez novel is as good as people keep telling me then he’ll be a runaway winner. More on this next month.

In contrast I have only read one of the Lodestar Finalists. I do love Legendborn, but I am very disappointed that Anna-Marie McLemore did not make the ballot. Come on, queer family, get your act together. Given the squee I have seen on social media, I expect Kingfisher to win.

I know nothing about the video games, save that I’ve seen people raving about several of them on social media. I’m glad that DisCon II was able to make the category work.

I’m mostly out of touch with the fan categories, but I’m pleased to note that Fanzine has dragged itself back to being a slightly more competitive category. You only needed 10 votes to be a Finalist in Fan Artist, and 28 in Fancast. Fanzine needed 38. I shall refrain from asking why 38 of you did not nominate Salon Futura, though you should all promise to do better next year.

Semiprozine is always a bit of a troublesome category. I note that Uncanny has won for five years on the trot now. It is a great magazine, but the voters should share the love a little, I think. One magazine that clearly deserves the award at last is Strange Horizons, but instead this year it has attracted the ire of the retired colonels of fandom with a very long list of contributors. Questions have been asked. Is this is political statement related to Colette Fozard’s ill-judged and disastrous attempt to limit the number of names on the ballot? Are these people all Hugo Finalists? Will they need an extra-large base for all those names? Will they expecting 90+ trophies if they win? Well, no.

I had a long chat to Ness a couple of weeks back, and it seems to me that Strange Horizons has a consistent and potentially useful position on this. Firstly this is not new. They’ve been listing large numbers of people for some time now; and have wanted bigger lists. Discon III has given them that list, but sadly without explanation. Their reason for asking for so many names is a) to make clear just how many hard-working volunteers it requires to keep a magazine of that quality going on volunteer labour; and b) because they are a non-hierarchical organisation and do not want particular individuals separated out as more important than the others. That seems a very fannish attitude to me.

As far as they are concerned, the Hugo Finalist is Strange Horizons magazine. The name on the base, should they win, will be Strange Horizons. They have asked for two trophies, which is a lot less than many other finalists. I’m disappointed that DisCon III did not makes this clear, and instead allowed people to jump to incorrect conclusions.

People have been moaning about trophy inflation for a long time now, and with some cause. What Strange Horizons is doing here may show a possible way forward. Its not as if we haven’t been de facto doing something similar with the Dramatic Presentation categories for some time now. There are many categories where the winner very clearly is a work that may have large numbers of people involved in its creation. Having the Finalists be the works, with a limited number of trophies (possibly with extras if people are prepared to pay for them, which movie people often do), and crediting a large group of people, is an option that we should consider.

If nothing else, Strange Horizons has done wonders for the international recognition and diversity of people involved in the Hugo Award process. Their team is scattered about the globe, and encompasses wide variety of identities. That, in my view, is a good thing, and I’d like to see more of it.

I am absolutely delighted that my Italian friend, Maurizio Manzieri, has made it onto ballot, presumably on the strength of the covers he has been doing for Aliette de Bodard. I gather that he got a big write-up in La Republica as a result. More international recognition.

I’m a bit out of the loop with editors these days, but as I recall at least two of the Long Form finalists lost their jobs last year, which probably says something about the state of the publishing industry.

Obviously She-Ra deserves to win Dramatic Presentation: Short. The finale of The Mandalorian will probably win, even though it was pretty terrible, because the one thing it did well was provide fan service.

I had not seen any of the Long Form Finalists when the ballot came out. I have now seen one, and will be watching the others in the coming months. There may be a lot of muttering about hyenas.

I’m also way out of the loop on graphic stories, but I know Kireon Gillen is very good and I’m a sucker for Arthuriana so I do have an idea for a favourite.

Ah, related work. I think I know which one I’m going to vote for. Certain other people would kill me if I didn’t. But I don’t expect us to win, despite our being on Mike Glyer’s Enemies of Fandom list. FIYAHCON was amazing. Beowulf is a brilliant book. And Natalie Luhrs has the advantage of being even more hated by the dwellers in File 770 than we are. It is a very tough category.

Series has some pretty heavyweight competition. Scalzi, Kowal and McGuire are all hugely popular. Murderbot can do no wrong. Personally I am very pleased to see a couple of fantasy series based in non-Western cultures on the ballot, but I suspect they’ll be overwhelmed.

I will pass on Novelette and Short Story until I have had time to read the Finalists.

Three of the Novella Finalists were on my ballot, and the other three all look very strong. I think that The Empress of Salt and Fortune was one of the best books of last year of any length and type, but I have no idea who will win this one.

I had a long list for Novel. Five of them have made the ballot. If I had to pick a winner I would say Jemisin because Nora has such a great track record, but it is a fabulous field. And all the Finalists are by women. Gosh, I wonder how that happened?


This review is a little late in coming, but then Madeline Ashby took quite a while to produce the third book in the Machine Dynasty series, so I hope she’ll forgive me. As is fairly inevitable, a review of a third book is a series is going to be a bit spoiler-full, so if you haven’t read vN or iD you may want to look away now.

To recap, Pastor Jonah LeMarque, the CEO of the New Eden Ministries, raised substantial sums of money from his followers to build android beings, ostensibly so that those members of mankind unfortunate enough to be left behind after the Rapture have someone to look after them. In fine Asimov tradition they have a programmed Failsafe mechanism that requires them to come to the aid of any human who is being hurt, thus they can never harm a human. These androids are known as vN (short for von Neumann).

The vN come in various types, or “clades”, each designed for a specific job. The nursing clade needs special programming to allow them to do things like administer injections or re-set a broken bone. A vN called Portia works out how to subvert this programming to allow her to harm human.

vN can reproduce. They need to eat for energy, and if they eat too much they become pregnant and produce a clone baby. This is called “iteration”.

Book 1, vN, is all about Amy, who is Portia’s granddaughter. Amy has been raised by her mother and a human husband, who want her to have a proper childhood and live happily among humans. Portia has other ideas.

Book 2, iD, is mostly about Javier, a vN from a clade designed for forestry work, who becomes Amy’s partner as they seek a life away from humans, and to thwart Portia’s various evil plans.

Book 3 is called Rev, which might be short for revision, but could also stand for revolution and revenge. Or indeed reverend.

As the book opens, Amy, Javier and their children are living on the island of Mecha in Nagasaki harbour. This is supposedly a safe haven for vN and humans to live side-by-side. Portia has transcended her body and is now a distributed intelligence living in the Internet, which enables her to kill more humans more easily. Amy has worked out how to patch other vN to disable their Failsafes, and has begun to distribute it so that more of her people can be free from human slavery. But what is a slave to do, when they become free?

The book opens with a chapter set in Hammerberg, a theme park for lovers of that sort of horror story set in mysterious castles in small, mountainous Eastern European kingdoms. Young women who have read too much Twilight can go there and have amazing sex with vN who pose as vampires and werewolves. But there are other entertainments on offer as well. Vampires can be staked, or have their heads cut off. Women from the village can be burned as witches. All of these things involve vN being killed. There is much need for rapid iteration. Can you guess what these vN do when their Failsafes are disabled?

So human governments are desperately looking for a solution to the vN problem. Individually they are far stronger than humans. They can also think and communicate faster. Portia is everywhere. Their only hope is Project Aelph, a secret plan that LeMarque supposedly created to dispose of his creations if they became troublesome. LeMarque, having been exposed as a vicious paedophile, is in prison and well aware of the sudden strength of his bargaining position.

Amy, being Amy, wants to find a peaceful solution to the problem. Portia wants to kill all of the humans before it is too late.

That, then, is the corner that Ashby has written herself into. Now she needs to write her way out of it. That’s a tall order, at least in part because it is hard to escape the conviction that Portia is right. However, Amy has a plan. All she needs to do it manage to implement it before the war between the humans and Portia becomes inescapable.

I will have to leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide whether she succeeds or not. It is a difficult task that she has set herself, and given what she says in the acknowledgements it sounds like she tried several possible solutions before settling on this one. I have a few reservations about it, but I must admit that she came up with a wonderful spanner to throw into the works.

Having said that, the value of this series is primarily in the questions it poses, rather than in the solution it adopts. It is foolish to think that there is a solution to human-vN relationships, any more than there is a solution to human-human relationships. One size does not fit all. What the Machine Dynasty series should do is get us humans to stop and think about how we treat other species, and indeed other members of our own species.

book cover
Title: Rev
By: Madeline Ashby
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
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Shadow of a Dead God

Reading lots of books isn’t always easy. Sometimes you need something to help you along. So instead of going for something heavy and intense, you look for something that will be fun. Tim Pratt’s books tend to do that for me, but I didn’t have anything of his to hand this month so I turned to Patrick Samphire, hoping he would do the trick.

On the face of it, Shadow of a Dead God is fairly classic fantasy. It features a freelance mage in a crime-ridden city fighting against a powerful supernatural threat. But this is not one of those Ye Olde Magick books. The language in which it is written is very modern, and the style is that of a noir detective novel.

Our hero, Mennik Thorn, Nik to his friends, was born in a poor district in the city of Agatos. A small win in the genetic lottery means that he has a mattering of magical ability — nowhere near enough to become a powerful mage, but just enough to not need to look for a more menial job. Nik’s best friend from childhood, Benyon Field (Benny) is in the business of relieving wealthy people of their possessions. It isn’t the best job in the world, but it is the only one that Benny has any talent for.

As the story opens, Benny has just inveigled Nik into helping with a burglary, because he needed help to disarm a magical trap. At precisely the same time as that goes badly wrong, the chief factotum of the Rich and Powerful Mage whose house Nik and Benny are robbing is brutally murdered. Our heroes are arrested on suspicion of doing the dastardly deed.

For Benny this means time as a guest of the City Watch, and a trial. Even if he’s not guilty of the murder, and frankly he couldn’t possibly have done it, he’s still likely to have his hands chopped off for thievery.

For Nik things are much worse. The murder was very clearly a work of magic, so he finds himself in the custody of the fearsome Ash Guard, and elite group of coppers who specialise in sorcerous crimes. Luckily for Nik, he’s clearly not powerful enough to have committed the crime, so he’s let go and has a few days to find out who done it, and to spring Benny from jail.

At this point it becomes obvious that Nik is in over his head. Something very serious is going on in the city, and powerful people do not want him poking his nose into their affairs. Therefore, in the manner of Dashiell Hammett gumshoes everywhere, he keeps getting beaten up and threatened with worse.

There’s a dame. There has to be a dame. In Nik’s case she turns out to be Meroi Gale, the Captain of the Ash Guard. She’s more than capable of looking after herself, and thinks that Nik might be useful, but he can’t trust her very far because she’s a copper and he and Benny are not exactly on the right side of the law.

There are other interesting elements to the story. To start with there is the fact that Benny is the single parent of an 11-year-old girl called Sereh whom Nik is now responsible for, who is the mostly stealthy person he knows, and who has a penchant for very pointy metal things. Plus Nik has a connection to the rich and powerful people of Agatos, which I won’t reveal here because spoilers. Finally there is a pair of errant ghosts that Samphire puts clearly on display early in the story so that, like Chekov’s Gun, they can become vital to the plot when the time comes.

It is all fairly light-hearted, with Nik being a charming combination of rather clever and socially clueless. Nevertheless, the plot gathers pace as the book goes on, and I finished it very quickly. There will be a sequel out later this year, and I’ll be buying it because this first book was just the sort of entertainment I needed.

book cover
Title: Shadow of a Dead God
By: Patrick Samphire
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


Here’s the first of my looks at this year’s Dramatic Presentation: Long Form Finalists. Soul comes well recommended. It has won Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score; and was a Finalist in Best Sound. It has also won BAFTAs and Golden Globes. In fact, it has won so many awards that Wikipedia has created a separate page to list them all.

Ah, but is it good science fiction? Is it science fiction (or fantasy) at all? Well…

Yes, of course it is. It is an animation, and animators, bless then, generally can’t resist the opportunity to do something that breaks the bounds of reality.

What Soul isn’t, is about soul. It is about jazz. That’s a bit confusing, but I ran with it.

Joe Gardner is an aspiring jazz musician, but breaking into the big time is tough in New York and for now he has to content himself with teaching music at a local high school. It is about as unrewarding as you can guess. Then, one day, a former pupil calls to tell him that the legendary band leader, Dorothea Williams, is looking for a new pianist. Curley is her drummer these days, and he thinks his old teacher would be just what the band needs. Joe auditions, and gets the job. He’s so happy that he pays little attention while walking home. He falls down an open manhole, and dies.

Or at least, that’s what is supposed to happen. Joe finds himself on a conveyor belt heading for the Great Beyond, but his desire to make it as a jazz musician is so strong that he manages to leap free. He finds himself in the Great Before, the place where young souls go to learn about Earth before being incarnated. It is a bit like a kindergarten and the staff, who are all called Jerry, mistake Joe for a dead soul who has been sent down to mentor their little charges.

Joe thinks he has found a way back. All he has to do is mentor a young soul and, when the kid is ready to be born, steal their Earth Pass and get back into his body. Unfortunately he is paired with Soul 22 who has been in the Great Before for centuries because she has absolutely zero interest in living.

This, then, is our story. We have an aspiring musician, played by Jamie Foxx, who will do anything to get his life back, and a stroppy kid, played by Tina Fey, who will do anything to avoid having to live. There ought to be a solution there, but it takes a movie to get us there, and in the end the solution is not what either Joe or 22 expected.

While Tina Fey is her usual amusing self, the star of the show is Rachel House. You may remember her as the grandmother in Moana. In Soul she plays Terry, an obsessive accountant from the Great Beyond who knows that there is a missing soul somewhere; and won’t stop until the books are balanced. Angela Bassett, as the legendary Dorothea Williams, is also very good.

Soul delivers exactly what you would expect. Pixar produces superb animation. Disney provides a script that tugs at the heartstrings. And the Oscar-winning score is written by a couple of lads called Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It sounds nothing like a Nine Inch Nails album, which is probably just as well. Reznor and Ross also wrote the score for the Watchmen TV series. It won’t be long now before “kids these days” have no idea that these Hollywood grandees were once in a rock band.

So yes, I really enjoyed watching it, and I’m pleased that Black people’s stories are getting told. I’m a bit stunned that this is the first Pixar film to feature an African-American protagonist. Why would you not make movies about jazz? As to the Hugos, I’m reserving my judgement. I’m hoping that there will be a film that is more than just very enjoyable.

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