Issue #45

This is the December 2022 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.


  • Cover: Generation Nemesis: This issue's cover is Ben Baldwin's art for the new Sean McMullen novel.

  • Fault Tolerance: In which Eva Innocente finally gets to save the universe. More fun space opera from Valerie Valdes.

  • Bloodmarked: The second volume of Tracy Deonn's imaginative re-working of Arthurian myth has finally arrived.

  • SMOFCon #38: Cheryl takes a holiday in Montréal and finds out what is going on in the world of Worldcon.

  • The Red Scholar’s Wake: Lesbian pirates, in Spaaaaaace! Aliette de Bodard's latest.

  • Inventing Memory: In memory of Anne Harris, a book review from Emerald City #105

  • Beyond the Northlands: What can the Norse Sagas tells us about actual Norse history. According to Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, quite a lot.

  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The maddest of Arthurian tales gets the graphic novel treatment

  • Ogres: A very clever novella from Adrian Adrian Tchaikovsky

  • On Social Media: Twitter is dying. What are the alternatives?

  • When It Changed: An academic conference on the state of feminist science fiction

  • Jethro Tull at Bath Abbey: A little festival musical diversion, in a very lovely venue.

  • Editorial – December 2022: For once Cheryl has a lot to say, including apologsing for the missing November issue.

Cover: Generation Nemesis

It is always interesting when I get a new author or series needing a cover. I’m rather enjoying the job of Art Director. And Ben Baldwin has never let me down. This is his cover for the Sean McMullen book, Generation Nemesis. You should be putting him on your Hugo ballot, people.

Here’s the unadorned version.

Fault Tolerance

This book is the last in Valerie Valdes’ trilogy of stories about Captain Eva Innocente and her rag-tag crew of misfit found family. It is, as usual, a lot of fun. Valdes has made a point of filling the books with nerdy references, and the main characters are largely lovable despite their manifest faults. However, the books are space opera, and that brings with it expectations.

The thing about space opera is that everything must be done on a grand scale, and the treat has to keep ramping up. So in Chilling Effect we get to know our lovable bunch of semi-reluctant space pirates. In Prime Deceptions things get a bit more serious, and the crew gets involved in some galactic politics. For the finale, we can expect nothing less than the fate of the entire universe being at stake.

One of the features of the setting that Valdes has constructed is a collection of hyperspace gates that allow travel around the galaxy. No one knows how they work. They were apparently constructed by a mysterious race of aliens called the Proarkhe who disappeared millions of years ago. Can you say, “Chekov’s aliens”?

So in Fault Tolerance we learn that the reason the Proarkhe disappeared is that they were fighting a vicious civil war amongst themselves. One of the causes over which they fought was whether they should allow other forms of live to co-exist with them, or whether all inferior beings should be eliminated. The faction called the Artificers, who favour the elimination of all other forms of life, have gained the upper hand, and have decided to get on with the job.

The other faction is keen to mount some opposition, but they have little military power left. They need to activate some legendary super-weapons, and they need help to do it. Fortunately they have been monitoring the activities of other life forms, and they are convinced that the best allies they can get are the crew of La Sirena Negra. Hello Eva, want to help save the universe?

Of course this would not be an Eva Innocente book without some nerdy references. It turns out that the Proarkhe are Transformers. That is, they are giant, inorganic lifeforms that are able to modify their body shape at will. The super-weapons that Eva is sent to collect are more like the jaeger from Pacific Rim – they are giant, humanoid robots that need a pilot. But they too can transform, and do other things. Someone who knows their anime better than me would be able to explain the references.

Oh, and one other thing. The Proarkhe are pathologically afraid of cats, and Eva has a ship full of them.

Of course Eva’s family manage to get mixed up in things too, and make themselves difficult in their own particular ways. The Artificers, knowing they have to defeat Eva, hire her former boss, Tito Santiago, who really is a ruthless, bloodthirsty space pirate. And inevitably Miles Fucking Erck manages to insert himself into the action and explain how, as an Alpha Male, he should be the star of the story. “Well, actually…”

There is a lot of comedy in the book, but it has a serious side too. Eva already feels massively guilty about the dangers she has put her crew though. Now she is being asked to save the universe, and bring them along for the ride. Worse, her alien boyfriend, Vakar, has been called away by his superiors in the secret service unit that he works for. Eva should have her ship’s doctor, Pink, for a shoulder to cry on, but Pink has her own problems with the sudden re-appearance of an old flame who may, or may not, be secretly working for Tito.

One of the things I love about Valdes’ work is her ability to turn the plot on a sixpence. You’ll be happy going along with Eva as she sorts out her current problem, it is all going well, and then in the last paragraph or two of the chapter something wild happens and we are all deep in the mierda again. It is impressive to watch.

Mostly, however, I love the humour and the references. I mean, how can I not love a book in which the universe is saved by a [redacted]?

book cover
Title: Fault Tolerance
By: Valerie Valdes
Publisher: Voyager
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Bloodmarked

Volume 2 of one of my favorite modern Arthuriana series has dropped, and naturally I pounced upon it. Bloodmarked is a sequel to Legendborn, by Tracy Deonn. I really can’t talk about this book without referencing the events of the first book. If you haven’t read that book and don’t want to be spoiled, look away now.

*

So, at the end of Legendborn, our heroine, Bree Matthews, has been revealed as a true descendent of King Arthur. That’s because the secret cult that has been keeping Arthur’s legacy alive, known as the Legendborn Order, got involved in the colonization of America, and one of them couldn’t resist raping a slave woman.

Naturally most of the order is unhappy to discover that the current incarnation of Arthur is a black teenage girl. The majority of them are deep into white supremacy. They all thought that Arthur would be Nick Davis, who is the current male heir of the right family. But, thanks to complicated ancestry stuff, Nick is actually Lancelot, and therefore Bree’s boyfriend.

Except that Nick has been kidnapped by his father, who is determined to see his family’s grasp on power maintained. Bree is pretty much on her own against an entire secret cult of elderly white racists. Her only support comes from Selwyn (Merlin), whose behavior is distinctly odd and who once tried to kill Bree in Legendborn, and from William (Gawain), who turns out to be the most lovely lad whom I am sure I would have fallen for if I was 16.

With all of this going on in book 1, Deonn has work to do in order to make Bloodmarked more than just a follow-on with no mystery to it. She avoids that trap by bringing in other parts of the world. After all, if there is a secret magical society preserving the legacy of King Arthur, then surely other groups of people will have their own magical secrets. The Welsh can’t be the only people in the world who can do magic, can they?

Of course not. The African-American community has its own influences, and its modern incarnations of ancient powers. Deonn brings much of that into Bloodmarked. Being tolerably well-read in such things, I do know who it is that one is likely to meet at a place called the Crossroads Lounge. And I love that Deonn has chosen to portray him as a sort of teenage Loki.

Much happens, and there is a great deal of teenage angst, as there must be in such a book. There is also a great deal of hope, as most of the young people in the book are horrified by the racism and sexism espoused by their elders. But we all know where power rests, and teenage rebellion can only take you so far. Plus there are the dead to worry about. Because if their spirits have been hanging around for a couple of millennia then they are most definitely not really dead. Arthur’s legacy has been kept alive for a reason. The Order is quite happy to throw their guardianship away to preserve white supremacy, but the enemy sees that as a weakness to be exploited. Arthur isn’t too happy about it either.

And there we must leave them. There will doubtless be a climactic finale around this time next year. I’m very much looking forward to it, because Deonn is doing a marvelous job of combining a traditional YA storyline with Arthuriana and some heartfelt observations on racial politics.

Diolch, cariad. Rwyt ti’n dda iawn.

book cover
Title: Bloodmarked
By: Tracy Deonn
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

SMOFCon #38

I have no particular desire to attend SMOFCon these days. Being a dealer means that I have no time for con-running. But I am interested in spending time with Kevin, and when SMOFCon is not in the USA that’s an opportunity. When it is in Montréal, with the additional promise of excellent food, it is a no-brainer. So I got to spend a week in the Montréal Sheraton, which was an interesting experience.

When SMOFCon #38 was scheduled for Montréal, everyone was anticipating a quiet weekend in Canada. Surely no one would arrange a major international conference in the same city at very short notice, would they? Well, as it happened…

COP15 is the 15th iteration of the UN’s biodiversity conference. It is separate from the sequence of climate change conferences such as COP27 which recently took place in Cairo. The biodiversity conferences take place once every 10 years, but COP15 was supposed to take place in China in 2020 and the Chinese government’s strict COVID policy made that impossible. Eventually the UN did a deal whereby Canada would host the event and China would still get to chair it.

As a result, hotel rooms in Montréal were suddenly at a premium, except that our little event had booked out a bunch of them at one of the city’s top hotels. To their credit, the Sheraton did not try to get rid of us. But we did have to put up with some of their other guests. The Montréal police appeared to be using the hotel as a command post, and when you got in an elevator there was a good chance you’d find you were sharing it with an armed police officer.

Quite what the forces of Law and Order made of the hotel notice board listing the rooms for the “Secret Master of Fandom Convention” (sic), we never found out.

I got stopped by the police once. Kevin and I were walking back from breakfast and a lady police officer came over to speak to me. It turned out she wanted to compliment me on my outfit. “You look very cute,” she said. I’m assuming she was a lesbian. As it happens, I did look very cute.

I didn’t attend much of SMOFCon, partly because I ended up working for much of the weekend, and partly because of attending When It Changed. However, I did have a membership. That allowed me to get free lunch in the consuite. Not normally free breakfast, because Kevin and I took every opportunity to visit Eggspectation who do the best breakfasts on the planet.

Having a membership also allowed me to attend the event that we are no longer allowed to call the Fannish Inquisition. I did, after all, want to see what was happening with the future of Worldcon. Thanks to Kevin’s hard work, all of the presentations in that session are available to view online via YouTube.

I won’t bother to repeat everything that was said as you can watch them yourselves if you are interested, but I can report on my personal view of the presentations and what I perceived to be the mood in the room.

None of the Chinese fans involved in running the Chengdu convention were at SMOFCon. We were told that this was a money issue. Their attendance at previous cons had been sponsored, and no one was willing to pay for them to go to SMOFCon. Instead the Chengdu convention was represented by Ben Yalow (co-chair), Dave McCarty (Hugos & Site Selection), Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf (Online program) and a bunch of other Western fans who seemed to be there to bulk out the panel.

There were two themes that I felt came through strongly in the Chengdu presentation. The first was “We cannot control the Chinese government”. This was said particularly with respect to visas and COVID restrictions, but also with regard to potential censorship. Chengdu is by no means alone in this problem. Formula 1 has recently cancelled the 2023 Chinese Grand Prix because the Chinese organisers were unable to reassure them that the teams, and the attendant media circus, would be able to get into the country for the race, and out again in time for the next race on the calendar. F1 is a far bigger thing than Worldcon, and if they can’t run an international event in China next year we should not be surprised if we can’t either.

Of particular concern to those in the room was the slide on how to get a visa. Tucked away at the bottom of the list of requirements was the need for a personal letter of recommendation. I happen to know a few Chinese fans who might be willing to help, but most people in the room had no idea how they’d get that. As it happens, I’m not planning to waste time and energy applying for a visa. Kevin says he will try, but he has no confidence that he will get one.

The other key theme was sponsorship. As in Finland, fannish conventions in China are traditionally free to attend, and rely on sponsorships of various sorts to supply the money needed to run the event. According to Ben and his colleagues, the Chengdu committee currently does not have all of the sponsorship it would like in place, and consequently they can’t guarantee what will be on offer at the convention. It is somewhat worrying that, less than a year out, the convention may be very short of money, and clearly this will impact their ability to stream any of the convention.

Incidentally, in line with this policy, the Chinese have made everyone who had a supporting membership by dint of voting in Site Selection a full attending member of the convention. Not that many of us will be able to attend in person, but attendance is free. You only pay for your WSFS membership, which is the money you paid to vote in Site Selection. I also understand that local Chinese fans will be allowed to attend for free. They will not have to buy WSFS memberships in order to do so. This is in stark contrast to Glasgow who are insisting that all attendees also be WSFS members. There is no constitutional requirement for that.

The assembled SMOFs were, of course, very interested in what would happen with the WSFS functions. Dave McCarty does have plenty of experience running the Hugos and Site Selection, so if he’s allowed to get on with the job I’m sure he’ll do fine. But these two things should also be open to Chinese fans, and that means having dual-language websites for voting. Site Selection will also require both Western and Chinese fans to be able to pay their WSFS memberships for 2025, and we’ve already seen what problems this caused for DC in 2021. I have no idea what will happen. The time for opening Hugo nominations is approaching fast.

The Business Meeting is another matter. Ben stated that the quorum for a meeting is 12 people, and he anticipated no problem meeting that requirement. We can therefore expect that the 2023 Business Meeting will be very small, and attended solely by Ben, those other few Western fans who managed to get visas, and maybe one or two curious Chinese. Ideally it will follow the example of Wellington and vote to pass all business on to the following year, then adjourn. However, Ben made no mention of this possibility. Thankfully, if we do end up with a rogue meeting, anything it does can be undone in Glasgow. However, this will be a huge waste of people’s time.

The SMOFs, for whom catastrophizing is a favourite hobby, wanted to know what would happen if the Chengdu convention did not happen (for example the city might be in Lockdown at the time), or if it was unable to discharge WSFS functions. The answer appears to be that, as and when Chengdu admits that it cannot fulfill it’s obligations, responsibility passes to Glasgow, who may then call upon the Winnipeg NASFiC for help. But until Chengdu admits failure, nothing can be done. Because there is no “WSFS Board” that can take charge.

In comparison, Glasgow was the epitome of calm, organised efficiency. Frankly they could have announced that the SECC had been eaten by Nessie and they would have still come out of the day smelling of roses compared to Chengdu. The only major case for concern seemed to be whether their hotel offerings included a Hilton property, but I’m pretty sure I saw a Garden Inn on the list.

Future years seem locked in until 2026, and are somewhat hazy from then on. Seattle looks a shoe-in for 2025, and has a lovely-looking new convention centre. Los Angeles is probably equally certain for 2026. Much as I would love to go to Egypt, I suspect their bid will be tainted by the Saudi connection (same people bidding), and sunk by the usual American fear of leaving the country. There is a bid for Tel Aviv in 2027. I wish them all the luck, but with apologies to my pals in Israel, I am no more happy to visit your country than I am Saudi Arabia, especially after the recent elections.

2028 has two bids. One is for Brisbane, Australia, but it has not been very active and did not send anyone to SMOFCon. The other is from Kampala in Uganda. They did an impressive presentation via Zoom, and I’d love to see a Worldcon in Africa, but that’s another country where I would not feel safe. 2029 has a bid for Dublin. If I’m still fit enough to travel, that looks like the next Worldcon I will be able to attend after Glasgow.

The team running the Winnipeg NASFiC next year have a lot of Worldcon experience, and I’m pretty sure they will do a good job. My only worry is that they get overwhelmed with memberships because of the ongoing issues with Chengdu. I certainly plan to be there.

My only other observation from the event is that the people who attend SMOFCon seem to be increasingly people whose sole interest is in running a big convention. They don’t care much about WSFS, aside from being allowed to present the Hugos. That observation goes double for the people who end up in senior positions on Worldcon committees. Allegedly one of the co-chairs of the Seattle bid nurses a burning hatred for all things WSFS, so there may be some interesting fireworks come 2025.

It get the impression that a lot of the people at SMOFCon would be very happy if the WSFS Constitution were to fall into a convenient black hole, and that the right to call your convention “Worldcon”, and present whatever version of the Hugos you felt appropriate, should be decided at SMOFCon. I don’t think this would be an improvement on the current situation, but at least fandom at large would no longer believe in the “WSFS Board” and would blame the people actually responsible for anything that they were unhappy with.

The Red Scholar’s Wake

The latest writer to get in on the lesbian space pirates gig is Aliette de Bodard. As you might expect, she has a very different take on the subject.

The Xuya universe has had its share of stories about sentient spaceships before. Previously, however, all of the stories in the series have been of a shorter length. The Red Scholar’s Wake is the first full-blown novel in the setting.

The eponymous Red Scholar is an actual space pirate, and she is a lesbian by dint of being married to her ship. There is, I think, a lot to be said about being a sentient spaceship that has a gender and a sexuality. In this book, however, De Bodard does not go there. I’d say that she has other fish to fry, but given that the ship’s name is The Rice Fish, Resting (Rice Fish for short), that might be indelicate.

As is obvious from the title of the book, the Red Scholar is not just a pirate, she is a very dead pirate. The circumstances of her death form the basis of the plot of the book. Rice Fish is convinced that her wife was betrayed, sold out to their enemy, Censor Trúc, by a rival pirate captain. However, proving that a pirate would betray one of their own to the government will not be an easy thing. Rice Fish needs expert help.

Into our story comes Xích Si, a humble data analyst who is among the captives brought in by the latest wave of attacks by ships of the Red Banner. She appears to have exactly the skills that Rice Fish needs. But Xích Si doesn’t think much of pirates. They have, after all, just killed lots of her friends and destroyed her ship. Also she thinks that killing people is wrong. More to the point, she is a nobody. She has no authority in the pirate community and won’t last the day without protection. So Rice Fish does the only thing that might work. She marries Xích Si.

It is, of course, a marriage of convenience. Everyone agrees on that. But then so was the marriage between Rice Fish and the Red Scholar. The ship has always regretted that. As for Xích Si, she despises pirates. But Rice Fish’s avatar is so extraordinarily beautiful…

Doubtless you can all see where this is going. And in standard romance plot fashion there will be a period in which Rice Fish and Xích Si hate each other before they get back together again. I’d be interested to see a romance expert’s take on the book, because it all seemed a bit formulaic to me. The rest of the book is De Bodard in fine form.

We have the Vietnamese setting, with its emphasis on family and honour, and the profusion of aunties. We have action sequences in which Xích Si races against time to save her beloved and her young son. We have intrigue. And no one is quite what they seem. Xích Si is not the mouse she appears on first meeting her. Rice Fish is not a bloodthirsty criminal. Even Censor Trúc is not the ruthless government agent we expect. Most of the main characters are women, and the one who is not suffers badly from his refusal to accept that women can be competent at anything.

This is a very enjoyable book that asks serious questions about what it means to be idealistic rebels fighting an oppressive government who have to turn to piracy in order to survive.

book cover
Title: The Red Scholar's Wake
By: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Gollancz
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Inventing Memory

This review is re-printed from Emerald City #105 in memory of Anne Harris (1964-2022). Rest in Peace, my friend.


The latest novel by Anne Harris, Inventing Memory, is a meditation on the role of myth and religion in society. It takes place partly in modern day America and partly in the city of Erech in ancient Sumeria, during the reign of King Gilgamesh. The lead characters are Wendy Chrenko, an expert in Sumerian religion, and Shula, a slave girl who rises to become a priestess of Inanna.

We here at the First Church of Ishtar, Newly Revived, express our delight that Harris has chosen to highlight The Goddess and her stories in this way, even if she has chosen to use the old Sumerian name for the Queen of Heaven. We are particularly pleased at how many of the ancient tales have been used in the book. We do note that there are certain theological inexactitudes in Harris’s treatment that, in less enlightened times, would probably have resulted in her being convicted of heresy and sentenced to be torn apart by The Goddess’s pet lions, every day from now until eternity. But one of the advantages of being the Pope of your own church is that you can show magnanimity where necessary. Besides, Harris is a really nice person and I’d hate to have to order her sacrificed in such a potentially messy fashion. And, what is more, by the time we get to the end of the book, she says all of the right things.

But we have to start at the beginning, and that means the Garden of Eden. As with much of Genesis, this story has parallels in Sumerian myth, and wasn’t always as we know it. In particular there is the mysterious figure of Lilith, Adam’s supposed first wife. A garden with a tree, guarded by a dragon or snake, and inhabited by Lilith, appear in a Gilgamesh story. The meaning of that tale is not entirely clear, but I guess Lilith and the snake could have been up to all sorts of tricks.

And from these, in the fullness of time, came people. A new kind of creature that could write laws of its own. And the first law that people wrote was, “Death exists.”

“True enough,” said the snake, and Lili agreed, but before they knew it people were writing all kinds of other laws. Some of them were pretty good, like “Hanging out and talking is fun,” but others, like “Sex is evil” didn’t make any sense at all.

“Wait a minute,” said Lili. “That wasn’t what I meant.”

“Well it’s too late now,” said the snake. “They’ll just have to work it out for themselves.”

Harris’ heroine, Wendy Chrenko, is a devotee of what I tend to call “fluffy bunny feminism.” This is the idea that if women were in charge of the world all would be sweetness and light and there would be no nastiness, ever again. It is generally accompanied by a belief that in the dim and distant past there was a time when a matriarchal fluffy bunny society existed, The Goddess was worshipped, and all was right with the world. This Eden-like paradise was destroyed by the invention of patriarchy, and we have gone downhill ever since. You can see the attraction of the Eden and Lilith myths to people who believe this sort of thing.

Shula, on the other hand, lives in the reality of ancient Sumeria. Although Inanna is worshiped fervently (indeed she is the patron Goddess of Erech), there is already a King (Gilgamesh) and Inanna’s position in the divine hierarchy is by no means pre-eminent. Wendy and her feminist pagan friends have this daft idea that they can somehow search even further back and discover the fluffy bunny garden, thereby putting the world to rights. In the process of trying to do so, they learn some very different lessons, including that even fluffy bunnies have teeth and are liable to bite.

Shula tipped her head back to peer at Belili. “Will you be my guardian?” she asked.

“Yes, certainly, if you will remember that you were not always a slave.”

“But how can I? My life before I came to Erech is a murky pond, and I have no net or line to draw up what might be in there.”

“If you cannot remember, invent. Make up your own story.”

There are, I think, a few flaws in Inventing Memory. Some of the characterization is a little stereotyped, although I guess some of that can be forgiven because Harris is talking about myths so she wants stereotypes in the story. On the other hand her portrayal of the unpleasantness of school life is particularly good so I’m not going to complain much.

More importantly, she gets the philosophy right. There never was a fluffy bunny garden, nor can we create one. On the other hand, myths are simply ways in which we try to help order our lives. As Joseph Campbell explained [in Myths to Live By], we can create new ones. And the myths of the past contain many useful elements. Patriarchal religion is neither inevitable nor healthy, and we need to get rid of it. Taking the better ideas from times when goddesses were worshipped is a good start. Anne Harris’s book is, in its own way, a neo-pagan manifesto, and as such I highly recommend it.

(By the way, for information on how to become a Pope, search the Web for entries on Discordianism.)

book cover
Title: Inventing Memory
By: Anne Harris
Publisher: Tor
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Beyond the Northlands

I did promise you that I would be reviewing history books here. I need to get them read, and that means I might as well review them. This one is likely to appeal to a lot of you.

Most people who have got involved in fantasy, and especially those who have done role-playing, will have a passing familiarity with the Norse sagas. Failing all else, you will probably have followed the adventures of Ragnar Lodbrok on Netflix. But there is much more to the sagas than simple bloodfeuds and massacring English clergy.

In Beyond the Northlands, Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough seeks to tell the history of the Norse through the lens of the sagas. The end result is one part history, one part fantasy fiction, and one part soap opera. Well maybe two parts soap opera, because that’s what the sagas are closest to in literary form. There might be a part of geography in there too, because Barraclough has made a point of visiting many of the places that the sagas talk about.

Thematically the book in divided into four parts. Each one follows the adventures of the Norse as they travel away from their homeland in the four directions of the compass. There they will seek out new lands and new civilisations, and massacre anyone who gets in their way.

The North section takes us to Finnmark, along the northern coast of Norway. The people that the Norse call “Finnar” are not what we know as Finns, but rather the Sámi. They are, of course, all malevolent sorcerers, especially their women, who are also preternaturally beautiful. What is a poor Norse adventurer to do? Thankfully the Sámi are willing to trade. Being a nomadic people, they miss out on a lot of the benefits of animal husbandry, and are absolute suckers for butter and bacon.

The West takes us to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. It tells of how the terrible rogue, Erik the Red, became the original dishonest property developer. “Greenland, yes, lovely place. I’ve been there myself. Glorious weather.” It also tells of how some of his family travelled yet further west and found a land brimming with all of the benefits that nature could provide. Unfortunately that land was home to vicious warriors whom the Norse called Skraelings, who turned out to be too much to handle, even for Vikings.

The East means Russia, and the story of how a bunch of enterprising Swedes ended up becoming a people known as the Rus. It turns out that the name has nothing to do with red hair, and is actually derived from an old Swedish word meaning “a bunch of lads rowing a boat”. Here we learn of the adventurers of Harald Hardrada, who in his youth befriended the King of the Rus, became a captain in the Varangian Guard, and attracted the attention of the amorous Empress Zoë of Byzantium. We also learn how, after a few hundred years, the descendants of Harold Godwinson finally made their way back onto the English throne. Along the way, though Barraclough doesn’t make much of it, we can also see the seeds of the enmity between Russian and Ukraine.

Finally there is South, which means pilgrimage to Rome and the Holy Land. Our Norse heroes have become Christians. There is, perhaps, a certain amount of political expediency in that, because it turns out that if you go on a Crusade you can massacre the locals to your heart’s content and claim that you are doing God’s work.

Of course the sagas were not written down until around the 13th Century, long after even the latest events that they recount took place. Nevertheless, it does seem that they are based solidly on oral tradition, and if the occasional dragon, troll, uniped or dog-headed man makes an appearance, well, that just adds to the fun. You can still get a lot of history from them.

I loved this book. Barraclough has a very easy style, and very much leans into the black humour that pervades much of the sagas. If you are thinking that the book has some overlap with Cat Jarman’s excellent River Kings, you would be dead right. What’s more you can hear Jarman interview Barraclough about the book on her podcast here. Enjoy!

book cover
Title: Beyond the Northlands
By: Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Given the amount of publicity surrounding the film of The Green Knight, I am a little surprised that there have not been multiple other adaptations of the story. I know of only one: this graphic novel from John Reppion and Mark Penman. Perhaps there have been others and I have missed seeing them, or perhaps the sheer gonzo nature of the story has put people off. Certainly Reppion and Penman had some interesting choices to make. More of that later, but first the easy bit.

John Reppion has a fine career as a comics writer behind him, but he also has one advantage that he can call upon when the right project arrives. This is absolutely the right project. Reppion is Alan Moore’s son-in-law, and thus the book has an introduction from the legendary writer and self-professed magus. I suspect it was a very easy ask. It is also no surprise that Moore’s short essay is well worth reading if you are interested in the source material. Who else would describe Geoffrey of Monmouth as a “bibulous Christian mythologist”?

On then to the hard bits. Reppion could have distilled the story into simple, elegant prose. He chose not to do so. Instead he has attempted to preserve the feel of the original work by writing much of the story in rhyme. That was very brave of him. I read the book on the plane to Montréal, so I haven’t had the chance to read it out loud. I should do so. I’m sure that will enhance the experience.

Then there is the art. Penman could, I’m sure, have treated us to some gorgeously realistic images. He has chosen not to. Instead he has gone for a cartoonish look, and a stark colour palette of black, white, green and red. Red is the colour of Arthur’s court, but also of fire and blood. Green is the colour of Bertilak, but also of the wood and its mystical terrors. It is a very bold choice, both in the look of the book, and in trusting the reader to go with a heavily stylized approach. I think it works, though I have only seen it on an iPad and would like to see on paper.

My main complaint about the film was that it failed the explore the relationship between Gawain and Bertilak properly. The graphic novel does better, but relies heavily on Penman’s art to tell us what Gawain is thinking as Bertilak collects the kisses he is owed. I think it is better than the film, but the form inevitably leaves a lot to the imagination and I suspect that many readers will fail at that.

As to the story, it is as obscure as ever. Reppion is a little harsher on Gawain than the original poem, but he makes no attempt to explain all of the weirdness. That’s probably just as well.

Of course most of you know the story anyway. You won’t be picking this book up wondering what is going to happen. You’ll be far more interested in how the story has been adapted to the medium. On that count I would say that Reppion and Penman’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a bold and imaginative approach to the material that is far more interesting than a simple adaptation would have been.

book cover
Title: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
By: John Reppion & Mark Penman
Publisher: Penman & Reppion
Purchase links:
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Ogres

I understand from social media that the flurry of releases from Adrian Tchaikovsky in 2022 is one of those publisher accident things where a bunch of different companies all manage to get their acts together at the same time. Nevertheless, that fact that so many companies want to publish Tchaikovsky’s work is testament to how respected he is becoming. I do plan to read all of this year’s releases eventually (even if that means having to read the whole of the spider book), but I have a lot of other books to get to so for now you are just getting a review of the novella.

Ogres begins as a simple fantasy tale. Our hero, Torquell, is the young son of the village headman. He lives in a mediaeval society where villages are beholden to local lords who are, apparently, Ogres. In the woods there is a group of outlaws who claim to resist the Ogres’ rule, but really they are mostly a bunch of ne’er-do-wells. In a “boys will be boys” sort of way, young Torquell manages to get himself into terrible trouble, and thus his adventures begin.

Before that happens, however, we witness the arrival of the local Ogre on his annual visit to the village. Two things are obvious. Firstly, the Ogres really are very large humanoids. Secondly, they are in possession of technology that suggests at least 21st Century sophistication. And suddenly we are in a science fiction story.

I won’t say a lot more, because Ogres is a short book and I don’t want to spoil it too much. I will say that it is a book that is very much about contemporary UK politics. It is also a book that examines the narrative of the Chosen One who gets to be a hero and a leader of his people. What sort of person is he? And how does he end up in that position?

The final twist will probably blow you away. I know I was completely caught by it. This is a short book. Read it and see if you get the same experience as I did.

book cover
Title: Ogres
By: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Publisher: Solaris
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

On Social Media

As the online world knows by now, Elon Musk is doing a very effective job of destroying Twitter. Due to the significant uptick in troll and bot activity, and the fact that hatred of trans people was one of Musk’s primary motivations for buying the site in the first place, I have made my account private. This is annoying. While Twitter has been a hotbed of right-wing poison for some time now, I found it perfectly possible to have a mostly quiet life there if you were liberal in your use of the block button, and refrained from trying to argue with people who were clearly posting in bad faith. I had around 9,500 followers, which was useful when I had something I needed to say.

Cat Valente has already done a marvelous, extended rant about how the wonderful social media networks that we build up keep getting destroyed by the likes of Musk. I don’t have much to add to that except to note that, as Cat admits, it is to some extent inevitable. It is a problem of Capitalism.

It seems to me that a lot of people these days who claim to be anti-Capitalist are just anti- having to pay for anything. More of that when I get to discussing Mastodon. But Capitalism is a relatively modern invention. Historians tend to trace it back to the bankers of places like Renaissance Florence. Commerce, on the other hand, asking people to pay for things you have made, is as old as human civilization. So no, the problem with Capitalism is not having to buy things, it is that Capitalism depends on investment.

Investors are people with spare money (“capital”) which they loan out of business owners in the expectation of getting more money back (a return on their investment). This is great for a small, growing business that needs funds, but the bigger and more successful you get, the harder it becomes to keep making more and more profits, and giving your investors better and better returns. And if you don’t, then they will take their money away and invest it elsewhere.

With the IT industry, and the web in particular, the problem is exacerbated. With many web businesses, especially social media, it is by no means clear how they will ever make a profit. Even Amazon, which did at least exist to sell things, ran at a loss for a very long time (and may still be doing so). Therefore tech entrepreneurs rely on a special sort of investor: Venture Capitalists. These are people who are prepared to take a risk on a snazzy PowerPoint presentation and loan money on the promise that the business will somehow, magically, become profitable eventually. Of course, as they are taking greater risks, they expect greater returns.

Now a social media business is really cheap to set up, but as it grows it becomes ferociously expensive. You end up needing to lease space in massive server farms all over the world. You find yourself having to hire really expensive security experts to keep the hackers and foreign government agents at bay. You end up spending a huge amount of money on moderation because otherwise your service will become overrun with Fascists and bots and most of your regular users will leave. Regulatory compliance becomes a major headache. And still you can’t find any way of turning a decent profit except begging your users to “stop talking to each other and start buying things”. It never works, and your investors get more and more upset. The owners of Twitter found an exit strategy by selling the company to a narcissistic billionaire who was happy to take money from dubious places such as Saudi Arabia.

This is also why Farcebook is trying to re-invent itself as a virtual reality company. It has found a new type of snake oil to sell to the investors and that will keep it afloat for a few more years, until that bubble bursts too.

The slow death of Twitter is a major headache for a large number of independent creatives who relied upon it to help get their products to market. Those people are rightly very concerned, and are looking desperately for an alterative. Lots are springing up, but there is no obvious successor to Twitter. People got very excited about Hive (as long as they didn’t try to use the app), and then we found out that it was run by two rich kids with more access to money than sense and only one programmer. A lot of people are pinning their hopes on Post, but it is run by a wealthy techbro who, when he was young, served in the Israeli Special Forces. I don’t hold out much hope for it being a safe space for the likes of me.

Which brings us to Mastodon, because Mastodon is different. It is not owned by anyone. The code is open source. It avoids the huge expense by allowing anyone to set up a Mastodon server, so the load is distributed. But it retains the global nature through a system of “federation” whereby users on one server can follow people on other servers. Typically you will be offered three timelines: Home (people you follow); Local (anyone on the same server as you) and Federated (everyone). Not all Mastodon clients will use those names, but they will mostly use the same concepts.

A lot of people have been put off Mastodon because of the need to pick a server, and there are choices to be made. If you are only using the platform for one specific purpose – for example you are a science fiction writer wanting to connect with readers – then a specialist server is a good bet (in this case wandering.shop). I, on the other hand, picked a more general server because I have a range of interests besides SF&F (sport, history, trans activism, etc.).

Because anyone can set up a Mastodon server (and hosting companies are now starting to offer Mastodon installs to help you get up and running), you may be tempted to join a server run by someone you know. But while running a single server doesn’t require a multinational corporation, it does require money and time. Any individual running a server may get sick, lose their job, or just plain get bored of the effort. It is like running a fanzine. You have no certainty that it will still be there next year. So you should probably join a server run by someone (or someones) who seems serious about the project, and you should chuck them some cash every so often to help out.

Meanwhile Mastodon is suffering growing pains. It has been around a long time, and the early adopters very much shared its anarchist ethos. They also developed a whole lot of rules for behavior that were fine when they were a small clique who mostly thought the same, but don’t work well with a much bigger and diverse audience. Hence we are seeing people getting told that promoting their work is against the Mastodon ethos because asking for money for anything is Evil. We are getting people of colour complaining that Mastson is mainly white folks who refuse to see racism when it is right in front of their noses. Mention of “gatekeeping” is becoming common. It reminds me a lot of fandom in the 1990s when it was suffering growing pains too.

The platform has also become a target. I’m told that servers run by far-right activists are proliferating rapidly. Any sever operator can choose to block another server if it is deemed anti-social, but that’s a major decision and it can be hard to keep up with the rapidly developing environment. In the meantime it is probably best to never look at the Federated timeline.

You can also be sure that certain foreign governments have people working hard on trying to find ways to exploit Mastodon and disseminate misinformation and propaganda through the platform. Six months ago they probably didn’t know it existed, but now Mastodon has a target on its back.

There’s no point in trying to predict how this will go. Who would have predicted, a year ago, that the world’s richest man would choose to blow $44bn just to be able to “own the transes”? But it is going to be a rough ride, and my sympathy goes to anyone who depended on Twitter for their business, or for organizing social movements.

When It Changed

Because I’m a bit mad, I managed to attend two conventions in the same weekend. One was SMOFCon #38 in Montréal. The other was When It Changed, which was organized by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow, but took place online. This was an academic conference inspired by the 50th anniversary of the publication of Joanna Russ’s legendary short story, “When It Changed.” The folks at Glasgow took this as an opportunity to look at the current state of feminist science fiction and see whether, in fact, anything has changed.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to give one of the keynote addresses, and I am extremely grateful to the organisers for rescheduling my talk at the last minute to allow me to give it from my hotel room in Montréal without having to be up at 3:00am.

The other two keynotes were from Lisa Yasek, one of the best known chroniclers of women in science fiction and fantasy, and Joy Sanchez-Taylor who brought an important non-white perspective to the discussions. Both of their talks were great. Mine was, well, mine, but I note that I built heavily on my 2020 essay for Vector, and on the talks that Farah Mendlesohn gave at ICFA and Eastercon in 2022.

While I tried to listen to as many papers as I could, quite a few were too early in the morning, and I did have paid work to do, so I managed to miss rather a lot. I do remember particularly enjoying the two papers on the novel, Autonomous, by Analee Newitz.

I suppose it was inevitable, given the overturning of Row v Wade in the USA, and the subsequent growth of anti-abortion movements elsewhere in the Western world, that there would be a significant focus on reproductive biology at the conference. I am slightly worried that this will provide a breach whereby gender essentialism can infiltrate feminist SF scholarship. I hope not, but we do need to be vigilant.

There is an excellent overview of the convention, written by Emma French, on the Centre’s website. It includes links to all three keynotes if you are interested in hearing what Lisa, Joy and I said.

I have a couple of other minor points to make. The first is that avowedly intersectional cis women feminists still can’t always see transphobia when it is paraded in front of them. (It was only one paper, but even so…) The other is that I’m very serious about the danger that writing, especially of fiction, is becoming “women’s work” and is being devalued as a result.

My thanks again to all of the organisers. It was great to see so many smart and passionate young feminist scholars giving papers, and an absolute honour to be asked to give a keynote.

Jethro Tull at Bath Abbey

Way back in June I was wandering through Bath when I saw a poster on the Abbey fence. “Ian Anderson Christmas Concert” was the heading. I couldn’t quite believe it, and I assumed that tickets would cost a fortune. However, when I got home, I checked out the Visit Bath website. Lo and behold, Anderson was indeed playing a concert in Bath Abbey in December. Tickets were £35. And they were almost sold out. I snapped one up immediately.

Fast forward six months and I still have the ticket, but am living in South Wales. Bath is a bit far to go for an evening, but I had a bunch of Hilton points in stock so I got myself a room for the night at the Bristol Doubletree. (Hotel rooms in Bath are generally more expensive, and Bristol is not that far away. Also I know that hotel well.)

So to Bath I go, still not quite knowing what to expect. Will this be a Jethro Tull concert, or will Anderson mostly be playing traditional carols? I mention why I am in town to Nick B at Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. “I can’t imagine him playing ‘Aqualung’ in the Abbey” says Nick. I have to agree. Bath is a pretty stuffy place when it comes down to it. Too many wealthy residents.

On arriving at the concert, I discover something interesting. This is a benefit gig. Anderson is donating all of the receipts to the Diocese of Bath & Wells to help finance the upkeep of Bath Abbey and Wells Cathedral. The assembled clergy were very pleased about this. Apparently this is something that Anderson has been doing since 2006, with the help of his friend, Rev. George Pitcher, who is a fascinating character.

As to the band, I didn’t catch all of the names because I’m going deaf and my seat was right at the back, but I think David Goodier (bass), John O’Hara (keyboards) and Scott Hammond (drums) were all there. I’m assuming that the lead guitarist was Joe Parrish, in which case the band was indeed what passes for Jethro Tull these days (though Martin Barre may wish to disagree).

We started out very Christmassy. Tull has, after all, produced an actual Christmas Album. Songs from that made up around half the set. Of course the likes of “Ring Out Solstice Bells” are not exactly Christian, but they found their way into the set anyway. To balance this, Anderson involved the Abbey in the concert. The Abbey organ contributed to some of the songs, and the Abbey Choir was welcomed onstage to perform a fine version of Gaudete (made famous, of course, by Maddy Prior and Steeleye Span).

One of the issues facing aging rock stars is that your voice can’t hold up for an entire concert set. Anyone who saw Paul McCartney at Glastonbury will know what I mean. So Anderson wisely employs a guest vocalist to help out. For this concert he brought in someone he said was a good friend. You could have knocked me down with a feather when he brought in Marc Almond.

And yes, this does mean that “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” found its way into the set.

The second half of the concert moved much more into the traditional Tull repertoire. The final song of the main set was a long and creative arrangement of “Aqualung”. The encore was a thoroughly rocking rendition of “Locomotive Breath”. These are both songs I never expected to hear in a church.

Anyway, there was no doubt that we were in the presence of a well-polished modern rock band. The acoustics were great. And the Abbey provided a marvelous backdrop. It was an evening very well spent.

Editorial – December 2022

This issue is late. Very late. There was me thinking that most of the house move stuff was behind me. What I didn’t reckon with was the need to catch up on work. Nor did I expect to be offered a lucrative consultancy project. I did know that I was planning to travel to Montréal for a week’s vacation with Kevin, but I was expecting to have time to work on this issue en route, and while he was busy at SMOFCon. Instead I spent that time on paid work. Sorry, but getting paid comes first.

I still thought I could put an issue out when I got back, but the work and the house jobs kept coming, so I decided to abandon November. Surely I would have plenty of time over the holidays to get an issue done. Nope. I spent most of the holiday period working. The money will be welcome. I have, after all, needed to buy a lot of furniture.

So this is a combined November/December issue, and a little bigger as a result. I’m also thinking about putting out an issue in February to make up for the one I missed. I am normally quite busy with LGBT History Month, but it has also occurred to me that February is the very last month I should be missing, because people do their Hugo nominations in March.

Anyway, we’ll see. Having a home of my own for the first time in over 30 years is proving an interesting experience. There will always be another (expensive) project that needs to be done. I’m not complaining. I’d much rather be in control than have to rely on rental agencies and landlords, but I might not have as much free time as I used to.

Anyway, I had a fabulous time in Montréal, ate very well, and attended two conventions while I was there, neither of which was COP15. More about that in the SMOFCon report. And I have read a lot of stuff. Hopefully you will enjoy the issue now that you have finally got it.

While I’m here, I have a few things I need to talk about. Firstly there was the ongoing nonsense in which the folks at the Internet Science Fiction Database refused to accept Lee Mandelo’s change of name, in part because they worried that he might detransition and then they’d have to change it back. I wrote a thread on Mastodon about why getting your knickers in a twist about trans people changing their names, but accepting other name changes without question, is transphobic. Hopefully that’s sufficiently obvious that I don’t have to go into it again here.

However, the reason I bring this up is that not every trans person wants their name changed on old stuff. Billy Martin, for example, is apparently happy for his old books to continue to be listed as being by Poppy Z Brite. I run a bunch of websites. My policy is that I am happy to change things, but only on request from the person concerned. I won’t make a change because it is what I think the person wants, because I might be wrong. Nor will I change it because some concerned third party tells me I ought to. The request has to come from the only person who matters. And if it does, I am very happy to make the change.

Another issue that has blown up recently is that of AI-generated art. As far as I know, all of the covers I have used for Wizard’s Tower books are the work of the individual artists. Salon Futura, being a fanzine, doesn’t have an art budget. I get around this in many cases by using the covers for Wizard’s Tower books (Ben Baldwin has been very generous about this). But for a lot of issues I have used art that is freely available on the Internet. I’m now worried that much of this will be AI-generated. So I will be looking for an alternative solution. Thankfully I have a couple of months to sort that out.

Finally I have just been reading the new Locus, which is full of obituaries for Greg Bear. The few times I met Greg he was very lovely, and I enjoyed those books of his I have read. But I’d also like to mark the passing of Anne Harris, who was also very lovely, and produced some good books. For this issue I am re-printing my review of her Inventing Memory from Emerald City #105.

Issue #44

This is the October 2022 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.


Nona the Ninth

Well that was different, but then what did we expect? If anything characterizes Tamsyn Muir’s fiction to date, it is an absolute delight in pulling the rug out from under the reader.

Let’s recap. Gideon the Ninth was a locked room murder mystery featuring a group of punk teenagers mostly desperate to ascend to lyctorhood in what most people assumed was a fantasy universe but, if you looked carefully enough, was space opera set in our solar system. At its heart was the disaster lesbians relationship between Gideon and Harrowhark.

Book two, Harrow the Ninth, sees Harrow finally ascended (and therefore Gideon dead), and we get to meet the adults in the story. John Gaius, Emperor of the Solar System, Necrolord Prime, King of the Nine Renewals, Giver of Resurrection, His Celestial Kindness, King Undying and sometime reluctant political revolutionary, is losing control of his hand-picked team of immortal aides-de-camp. Harrow is not entirely sane. And Ianthe is being a bitch, as usual. We learn some of the terrible things that happened when John took over the world, and how angry ghosts can cause problems even for the most powerful necromancers. Gideon is not dead, then dead again, which I guess is what happens if you hang about with bone-fiddlers.

At the end of Harrow the Ninth the scene suddenly shifts. We are on another planet, and there is a teenage girl called Nona who has no memories. It is Nona who will become the central character of book three.

Wherever we are is also home to Blood of Eden, a revolutionary group opposed to the rule of John Gaius and his necromancers. Also on the planet we find Phyrra Dve, Camilla Hect, Judith Deuteros and Coronabeth Tridentarius. Each of them has a complex relationship with Blood of Eden (well, except Judith, who is busy failing to die). Each of them has a theory as to who Nona is, or may become. Nona is at school with a bunch of almost-ordinary kids, and a teacher who has a six-legged dog.

Camilla, I am sorry to say, does not get much of a chance to be Camilla. That’s partly because she is busy playing mother to Nona, and partly because she is not entirely herself, as I shall explain shortly.

However, the planet is under attack from one of the Resurrection Beasts, Varun the Eater, who appears to be the dead ghost of the planet Uranus. Mysteriously, Nona seems to know Varun well, and be able to communicate with him, though she doesn’t tell anyone else about this and doesn’t seem to find it in any way unusual.

Then Ianthe turns up and is a bitch, as usual.

Meanwhile our narrative in interspersed with some backstory about how John and his friends fought a losing battle against the greed of world governments bent on lining their own pockets at the expense of the long-term future of planet Earth. By accident they discover necromancy, and everything goes downhill from there. That includes exploding an atom bomb in Melbourne. Tamsyn, we are going to have words about this.

All of this is to help us better understand the world in which the story is set, and to get all the necessary pieces into the right place to open the Locked Tomb and unleash, well, that would be a spoiler.

Two things occurred me to while reading this book. The first is that I need to re-read the series from the start, back-to-back, with a lexicon for the series to hand, so that I can pick up on all the little clues that Muir litters throughout the narrative. The other is that I know of only one other work of science fiction to which that necessity applies: Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.

There are similarities. Both Wolfe and Muir flit seamlessly between science fiction and fantasy. Both series are set in the ruins of the solar system. And in both series it is devilishly hard to know who is who because people have a habit of inhabiting other bodies and the author gives only the slightest clues that this is happening.

In particular, in Nona the Ninth, Phyrra is inhabiting the body of her dead cavalier, while Camilla is carrying the soul of Palmedes Sextus, who is nominally dead and obviously not a Lyctor because the inhabitation should take place the other way around. Goodness only knows who Nona might be.

So if you didn’t have a clue what was going on in Nona the Ninth, don’t worry, most people didn’t have a clue what was going on in The Book of the New Sun either. One day there will be a Lexicon Necromanticus.

book cover
Title: Nona the Ninth
By: Tamsyn Muir
Publisher: St Martin's Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Into the Riverlands

There are a number of good reasons for pre-ordering books. One of them is the pleasant surprise you get when a book you had forgotten you had bought suddenly turns up on your Kindle. That happened to me last week when I was reminded that a new Nghi Vo novella was due out. I loved the previous two books in the Singing Hills series, and immediately dived into the new one.

In this book Cleric Cheh has wandered into the south of the Empire of Anh, to a region known as The Riverlands. Hence the title of the book. It is a fairly lawless area, prone to infestations of bandits. Years ago, the region was home to the infamous Hollow Hand Cult. Cheh, of course, is there to collect stories. And I’m pleased to report that the neixin bird, Almost Brilliant, is once again on hand to help her human remember all that is said, and to snark elegantly.

Thanks to a brawl in an inn, Cheh makes the acquaintance of two interesting pairs of people. One pair is composed of Wei Jintai, a martial arts master, and her companion, Mac Sang. Almost Brilliant recognizes Wei Jintai as an exponent of the famous and very rare Southern Monkey style of fighting. The other two are Lao Bingyi and Khanh, and elderly couple who live locally and seem surprisingly fit and sprightly.

If you are starting to think “this sounds like a Wuxia story”, then you would be dead right.

Together, five humans and a bird head off through the Riverlands to a town called Betony Docks where Lao Bingyi and Khanh live. Along the way, Cheh encourages their companions to tell stories of famous people of the past. Inevitably the journey turns out to be much more of an adventure than anyone had hoped. Some of the stories turn out to bear a close resemblance to the one about Chekov and his gun.

Into the Riverlands is about three things. It is about showing that Nghi Vo can write Wuxia. Of course she can. It is also about how real events turn into stories with the passage of time. And finally it is about what happens to the heroes of stories when the events in which they starred are far in the past.

Of course, if Nhgi Vo wrote a Singing Hills story in which Cheh writes a shopping list, goes to market to do the shopping, and then comes home and cooks a meal, I would love reading it and tell you it was a great story. Because it would be.

book cover
Title: Into the Riverlands
By: Nghi Vo
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Moonday Letters

It is hard not to be impressed by Emmi Itäranta. Few people are competent enough to write good novels. Far fewer can do that in two different languages. Itäranta writes initially in Finnish, then does her own translations into English. She’s also at home writing both science fiction and fantasy, or a mixture of the two. Her debut novel, The Memory of Water, which was a finalist for the Arthur C Clarke and Philip K Dick awards, has been made into a film. This novel won the Tähtivaeltaja Award from the Helsinki Science Fiction Society – an accolade that had previously eluded her. I could go on.

The downside of Itäranta’s production process is it takes time to write a book twice. The Moonday Letters was published in Finland by Teos last year. The English edition appeared from Titan in July. Of course if you happen to be thinking of Hugo eligibility then the book is newly eligible because the original was in Finnish. And awards that cater solely to books in English should also be OK.

But what about the book. Ah, well… As the title suggests, The Moonday Letters is an epistolary novel. The central character, Lumi, is hoping to catch up with her partner, Sol, but she’s been out on Europa and, by the time she gets back to Mars, Sol has been called way for work. She follows them, only to find that they appear to have been kidnapped by environmental terrorists. Lumi knows Sol well, and can spot clues that they have left for her as to their whereabouts. Clues that the police totally miss. And so she follows, writing letters at each stage of the journey so that Sol can read her adventures when the two of them are finally re-united.

Wait. Back up. Europa? Mars? The Earth, sadly, is a mess. Much of it is underwater. The surviving population struggles to feed itself. The poor dream of one day getting a visa to Mars and a life of opportunity, but few ever make it. Yes, there is an allegory for the American Green Card Lottery. Lumi is one of the lucky few. The circumstances of her escape from Earth are somewhat spoilery, but I can note that she proved to have a talent for healing. It is a spiritual calling as much as anything else, and one rooted in ancient traditions.

You may have spotted that Sol is non-binary. This does not phase Lumi. Indeed, she links it to her healing traditions.

Presenting gender outside the binary was sometimes seen as a sign of power and hidden abilities. Healers combined androgynous elements in their costumes, like a beard with a dress. They were believed to have greater insight into the world because they were not bound by one gender.

Clearly Itäranta has been reading the same sorts of anthropology textbooks as me. Sol, however, is not a healer. They are an ethnobotanist, which is a real job. Wikipedia describes their occupation as on who, “strives to document the local customs involving the practical uses of local flora for many aspects of life, such as plants as medicines, foods, intoxicants and clothing.” Making homes for humans in the disparate parts of the solar system has made Sol’s work much more valuable. But it also puts them at the cutting edge of political debate. Should humans live on space stations? Should they be allowed to modify planetary ecosystems in any way? There are debates to be had.

For too long humans have thought about themselves as separate from nature, above it. Exploitation of natural resources is seen as a right that doesn’t entail responsibilities. That’s why Earth is the way it is today. Only a complete reversal of thinking can bring a change.

That’s as true in 2022 as it will be in 2168.

I really don’t want to say anything more about the plot. Just read it, it is a great book.

book cover
Title: The Moonday Letters
By: Emmi Itäranta
Publisher: Titan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Rings of Power – Season 1

There will, I am sure, be many erudite reviews written about the relationship between Rings of Power and Tolkien’s Legendarium. This is not one of those reviews. I leave that sort of thing to the likes of Dmitra Fimi. I’m just going to review the show from the point of view of someone who was bored rigid by The Silmarillion and has a love-hate relationship with Peter Jackson’s movies.

Mostly I did love the first three films, though the ending was way too long and there were some very silly things in it, such as the cavalry charge down a scree-covered slope. I have a similar relationship with Rings of Power. It does epic fantasy quite well. The final episode hit most of the right notes. And there are some very silly things in it too. (How did they fit all those men and horses into three tiny ships? And don’t get me started on the volcano nonsense.)

The big problem that the script writers had to face is that The Silmarillion is not a novel, it is a sketchy mythic history that has more in common with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle than with Beowulf. It is not peopled by real people with real motivations. A TV series needs those things.

This is why we get a bunch of new characters. Who were the people who lived in the Southlands before Sauron turned the region into Mordor? Why did the Númenóreans make the fatal choices that led to their destruction? What sort of person was Isildur, of whom we hear so much but know so little?

A classic example is the introduction of Eärien, Isildur’s sister. She’s there to provide a human focus for the Númenórean political debate. It is necessary to do proper story-telling. And mostly that has been done without being too heavy-handed about it.

Social media, of course, is full of right-wing idiots claiming that Tolkien would have been furious about the casting of actors of colour as elves and dwarves. This is all performative hot air and not worth spending any time on. If Tolkien is spinning in his grave it will be over something very different, and much closer to his heart: language. The naming of the Southlander characters is all over the place.

We have a woman called Bronwyn, who has a son called Theo. Really? Is there any linguistic consistency to that? Of course the script-writers will have had their reasons. Theo, pretty obviously, is going to grow up to found Rohan. Their future kings are all named after him. As for Bronwyn, well maybe they felt guilty. The elves are obviously upper-class English. The dwarves are Scottish and the harfoots are Irish. The humans are lower-class English. Where are the Welsh in all this?

Of course Morfydd Clark, who plays Galadriel, is Welsh. Never get in the way of a Welsh girl with a sword. It will not end well for you.

All-in-all I was fairly pleased with Season 1. It doesn’t have the narrative coherence and consistency of Sandman, because it is very far from being the brainchild of a single person. But for a series written by a committee that had to spend their entire time looking over their shoulders for the angry ghost of an aged, pipe-smoking professor, they did pretty well.

When Demons Die

Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity books are beginning to fade into the past. Obviously I remember the iconic images of Lila Black from the Gollancz covers. Zal and Teazle are starting to become a bit hazy. But one character remains vivid in my mind: Sorcha, Teazle’s pop diva sister. She’s like Beyoncé was an actual succubus, and being a demon she caused all sorts of mischief just for fun. Sadly she died in book two. Or did she?

When Demons Die is a new novella from Robson which recaps some of the events of Sorcha’s apparent death, and tells us what really happened to her. Spoiler: it isn’t glorious, and Sorcha is very much Not Happy about it. But you can’t keep a good diva down for long.

The book is, I think, partly a recap of events from Selling Out. My copy is in a box somewhere waiting for a bunch of removals guys to transport it to Wales. The rest of the book tells us what actually happened, and how Sorcha tries to get her life back on track.

It will come as no surprise to Robson fans that there is a fair amount of feminist ranting in the book. Shots are also fired at the rock business, the art business, and wealthy people in general.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book, however, is Sorcha’s character. She is a demon. Demons do not think like humans. They despise weakness and boredom. They plot ceaselessly against each other. They are long-lived, but not immortal, and they would much rather die young, and gloriously, than fade into senescence and irrelevance. Robson has to make Sorcha believable, not just as wild and dangerous, but also as deeply concerned about her status in demon society. It is an interesting challenge, and one I think she rises to.

Also, of course, I’m very pleased to have more of Sorcha causing chaos for people who very much deserve a little chaos in their lives. I wonder if she’d be up for playing a concert in Westminster?

book cover
Title: When Demons Die
By: Justina Robson
Publisher: Book View Cafe
Purchase links:
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law – Season 1

Well, that was different. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is about as off-the-wall as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is likely to get. And yes, that does mean it is more weird than anything the various Asgardians or Deadpool have done.

Does that mean it is good? It depends who you ask. Greg Wheeler at The Review Geek says that she show “fails on almost every conceivable level.” Meanwhile at Tom’s Guide Henry T Casey says that the show is “shockingly good.” That’s a marmite show alright.

It doesn’t help that the show has been massively review-bombed by the sexist Dudebros. Apparently they hated it even more than they hated Ms Marvel, which is saying something. But that doesn’t account for everything.

Of course it doesn’t help either that the show is set in Los Angeles. All those weird, obsessive people? Yep, those are Angelenos. It is another world, really. Where all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas.

Some of the more cogent reviews have come from Stewart Hotston at Sci Fi Bulletin. I think he’s reviewed each episode, so I won’t link to every one. The thing that stood out for me is that he pointed out how un-feminist the show was. Here we have a supposed hot shot lady lawyer who is also a superhero, and yet she’s portrayed as a neuroses-filled klutz.

She-Hulk is comedy. That’s fair enough. But it gets many of its laughs from the fact that Jennifer Walters is a complete idiot. Mallory Book is a much better lawyer. Heck, Nikki is probably a better lawyer. Many of the rest of the laughs come from Jen’s disaster of a love life. The show gets into almost Clan of the Cave Bear levels of “who will Jen shag next?” anticipation.

And yet, a bunch of smart women I know enjoyed the series. I enjoyed a lot of it. What gives?

It took me a while to figure it out, but during the season finale I think I finally twigged what the show was all about. If you’ve seen WandaVision you’ll know that people at Marvel have a bit of a thing for old TV shows. What I think She-Hulk was meant to be was a modern version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I haven’t seen an episode in a very long time, but I do remember Moore’s character having a penchant for disaster.

Now that show was a beacon of feminist propaganda in a time when women had far fewer rights that we do now. It did that in part by showing Mary as the sort of klutz that men expected a working woman to be, and yet at the same time showing her as good-hearted, hard-working, badly-treated, and much smarter than she allows herself to be because she’s trying to fit into a social role that doesn’t allow her to succeed.

In other words, we enjoyed She-Hulk, not because Jen was a fantastically competent super-woman. We have Carol Danvers for that. We enjoyed She-Hulk because we see Jen Walters making all of the same stupid mistakes that we have made along the way, and still somehow having the chutzpah to come through in the end.

Also I’m a sucker for anything that takes a wrecking ball to the Fourth Wall and has a go at the banality of TV series plots.

BristolCon 2022

Well that was fun! As I write this, BristolCon is just winding down. I have had a long day in the Dealers’ Room, not to mention a long day driving and wrangling books yesterday. I’m also very short of time for finishing this ‘zine so I have retired to my hotel room to write.

As always, BristolCon is nominally a one-day event. There is the traditional open mic on the Friday night, and a lot of people do spend both Friday and Saturday nights in the hotel, which extends the time somewhat. Despite this short duration, people come from all over the country because BristolCon is a small and friendly event that they love.

The Guests of Honour this year were Liz Williams and Stark Holborn. Liz and Ian Whates of NewCon Press did a launch event for Embertide, the latest Fallow Sisters novel. It has been out for a while, but the reduced-format FantasyCon was no not offering book launches so this was the first chance Ian had for that.

I had one panel, which was the first one up in the main progamme room. You may still be able to catch it on YouTube. The topic was “Pixies in Space”, or the use of folklore in science fiction. As far as I’m concerned, you can do anything in space opera, and I think we came up with some good examples of people doing just that.

I spent the rest of the day in the Dealers’ Room. I can’t comment on the rest of the panels, or any of the other programming, but I spoke to a few people who had been very happy with their panels. I can speak for dealers’ in that I sold a bunch of books and was well pleased with the day. The art show was a bit thin, but that’s because Andy Bigwood has been very ill and unable to do his usual fine job of recruiting artists. Hopefully he’ll be back on his feet next year.

Being in the same hotel each year has definite advantages in that you can build a relationship with the staff. Some of the hotel people have been at every BristolCon. The hotel bar doesn’t have the greatest selection of beer in the world, but it is hopping throughout the event. As far as I’m aware, BristolCon is the only SF&F convention that provides tea and coffee for free throughout the day.

The other great thing about BristolCon is that it generally offers attendees an extra hour of sleep on the Saturday night so we can recover from the exertions of the day. It is clock change weekend in the UK. I think I shall take advantage of that now.

Y Dydd Olaf

Now that I’m resident in Wales and able to engage more with the local culture, you can expect me to be writing about that. Welsh people do write science fiction (Al Reynolds, Jo Walton and Jan Morris, for example). We also write about it. Thanks to Dave Langford, Welsh people may have more Hugos per head of population than any other country. Perhaps less well known is that science fiction gets written in Welsh.

That, however, is not quite what this review is about. Y Dydd Olaf (The Last Day) is the title of what is generally regarded as the finest Welsh language science fiction novel. It was written by Owain Owain, who was a key figure in the Welsh Language Society back in the 1960s. Owain was a nuclear scientist at Windscale so he was very much in the mould of SF writers of those days. The book is apparently about a robot rebellion. It is only available in Welsh, and my reading comprehension isn’t yet good enough to tackle it.

There is, however, a concept album. Gwenno Saunders, known professional just as Gwenno, is a leading member of the Welsh indie music scene. Although she was born in Cardiff and has a Welsh mother, her father is Cornish and writes poetry in that language. So Gwenno is someone who grew up steeped in Brittonic languages.

The album, Y Dydd Olaf, is mostly in Welsh, with one song in Cornish. It won Best Welsh Album at the National Eisteddfod in 2015. The lyrics probably won’t mean any more to you than the book, but that doesn’t matter because the music is wonderful.

Gwenno’s music is generally described as electropop. So if you like the music of Kraftwerk, or Gary Numan, or Ladytron, to name but a few, you are probably going to love Gwenno. The fact that the lyrics are in a language you can’t understand will be entirely irrelevant to your enjoyment of the music. And of course this is an ideal music genre for science fiction. Gwenno’s ethereal voice floating over the synthesizer tones combine beautifully to give an otherworldly feel to the sound.

Gwenno’s more recent output has been in Cornish (they need help more than we do to keep their language alive). Her third album, Tresor, was a Mercury Prize finalist this year. The lyrics are strongly feminist, and I note that she counts Monica Sjöö among the inspirations for it. I hope that Janelle Monáe knows.

Editorial – October 2022

This issue is a little lighter than I had hoped, because I have been busy moving house. I can’t say too much about the location, because the anti-trans lobby in the UK is not very well-behaved. However, it is in South Wales, and eventually I do hope to have a spare bedroom.

Much more importantly, I have space, both for Wizard’s Tower stock, and for my own stupidly large book collection.

Moving home is a horribly time-consuming and stressful process. I don’t recommend it unless you have to.

Issue #43

This is the September 2022 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.


A Half-Built Garden

I bought this book because of an enthusiastic recommendation from Cory Doctorow on Twitter. I’ve been meaning to read Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy series for some time because the books sound really interesting, but you know what my To Read pile is like. Then here was Cory and it is only one book. I had no idea…

The thing that Cory was interested in was the political set-up in the book. A Half-Built Garden is a near-future science fiction novel set in a world in which environmental campaigners have fought back against multi-national corporations and won. The corporates have retreated to a bunch of artificial islands where they continue to develop products they hope they can sell to the rest of the world. Nation states still exist, but they seem to have stepped back from the process of government. The task of healing the planet has been inherited by quasi-political organisations called Watersheds. There is one for each of the world’s major river basins.

Exactly how this works is not clear, but Judy Wallach-Stevens works as an environmental chemist monitoring water quality in the Chesapeake watershed in Virginia. One night she gets an emergency notification of some strange substances being released into the water. She and her wife, Carol, head out to investigate. There being no babysitting options available, they take baby Dori with them. That turns out to have been a momentous choice. When they reach the site of the contamination they discover that the cause is an alien spacecraft.

So yes, this is a First Contact novel. It is also an environmental SF novel because the aliens have come to rescue mankind from Earth. Their view is that planets are too small and too difficult to manage. Proper, civilized intelligent species spread out into the cosmos and live on habitats they have built by taking apart unwanted planets. Judy and Carol, on the other hand, love planetary habitats and want a chance to rebuild theirs. The resent the idea that they should be “rescued” for their own good.

So yes, this is a novel about Colonialism. The aliens view the people of Earth as, at best, part civilized, and likely to destroy themselves at any moment. This isn’t an idle view. Earth is the first planet with intelligent life that they have managed to find and get to before disaster overtakes it and the inhabitants are wiped out. Humanity, inevitably, is deeply divided about what to do. The Corporates are keen to get out there and exploit galactic markets. NASA cannot wait to get hold of the aliens’ space flight technology. And the Watersheds want a chance to prove that planets are worth saving.

Back now to politics. We know how nation states and corporations work. The Watersheds have a novel means of governance. They have created their own internet, free of government and corporate control. On it they conduct political discussion by way of what are essentially bulletin boards with sophisticated algorithms that help communities reach consensus decisions about important issues such as what to do about the aliens.

This, I suspect, is what Cory was excited about. I note also that Malka Older gets a big shout out in the acknowledgements. The intention is clearly to offer up a serious political proposition. As always with these things, I am deeply suspicious. Consensus politics sounds great in theory, but in practice provided a convenient exploit for far-left groups to take over organisations. Also any system that relies solely on mass voting on issues runs the risk of succumbing to the Tyranny of the Majority. Far right politicians in the UK are already saying that LGBT+ people should not be allowed to have civil rights if the majority of the population don’t want them to. There isn’t room in the novel for Emrys to explore these questions, but she does highlight the risk of algorithms being hacked.

This being a novel, she’s talking actual software, but we all know that the algorithms that social media companies use to police anti-social behaviour are riddled with simple exploits that far-right groups use to get their opponents banned. As I originally wrote this, Harry Turtledove had been banned from Twitter for the crime of saying “fuck off” to a troll who accused him of being anti-Semitic (Turtledove is Jewish). Harry is back now, but the incompetence of the Twitter algorithms is plain to see. There’s also the whole thing about Russian troll farms poisoning discourse on social media to destabilize Western governments.

So yes, this is a novel about modern political problems.

Where was I?

Oh yes, First Contact, aliens. It turns out that they are indeed alien. There are two separate species. Those called “plains-folk” are a sort of pangolin-centipede hybrid. In contrast the “tree-folk” are like large, ten-legged spiders. Both species think that humans have a suspicious lack of legs. The two species do have different attitudes, and that will become key later in the novel. The aliens too have internal politics to deal with.

Remember that I mentioned baby Dori back at the beginning? Well it turns out that the aliens see brining your children to a political negotiation as a sure sign of civilization and decency. After all, if you are prepared to put your kids at risk, you can hardly be planning a bloody double-cross (George Martin novels notwithstanding).

But, and it is a big but, the plains folks, one of whom commands the alien ship, are really quite obsessed with children, to the point of being rather biological-essentialist about life. This is a major problem for our heroes. Judy and Carol are part of a queer, polygamous household. Carol, the more feminine of the two, whom the alien captain assumes is Dori’s biological mother, is a trans woman.

So yes, this is a novel about gender, and not only in the way that you might think. The Watershed folks are very much a 21st Century queer community. For them, gender is all about how you feel inside. Your presentation, the role you play in society and so on are all open. Pronoun badges are a thing. So far so usual.

You might expect the Corporates to be very gender binary, but they are the absolute opposite. For them, gender is all about performance. No one except partners need ever know what your true gender is; indeed it is rude to ask. Gender changes depending on social circumstances, and on political games that you are playing within the corporation. Pronouns change with it. Everyone is expected to be able to tell what pronouns you are currently using from your presentation.

Given that the corporates are the closest that the book has to bad guys, I expect that some non-binary people will be very angry about this and will claim that the book is transphobic. I don’t see it that way. Everyone in the book has flaws, and I don’t think that Emrys is trying to make out that the way the Watersheds do gender is the only right way to do it.

As you can see, there is an awful lot in this book. It is about politics, the environment, gender, First Contact and families. I haven’t even mentioned how Judy & Carol’s religious faith becomes key to the unfolding of the plot. A Half-Built Garden is a book that is packed with ideas. It doesn’t really have space to explore them all in detail, but it will certainly leave you thinking. This is what science fiction is supposed to do.

book cover
Title: A Half-Built Garden
By: Ruthana Emrys
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Bruising of Qilwa

There has been much fun had, and even more hot air wasted, on Twitter of late about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. It all started with a speech given by Ted Chiang, in which he somewhat foolishly ventured into that territory. Ted, bless him, is one of the last people who should be making pronouncements like that. The same view of the world that allows him to obsessively craft plot-perfect short stories can also make him prone to pronouncements that lack nuance because the real world is way more horribly messy than he would like.

Anyway, Ted’s words were mangled and regurgitated in ridiculous form by Joyce Carol Oates, who is apparently a respected novelist but these days seems to spend most of her time crafting troll bait on social media. Poor Ted quickly found that the internet had fallen on his head. Or at least he would have done if he used social media, which I very much doubt that he does.

Fan and author Twitter quickly followed up to pour scorn on Oates and provide amusing takes on the difference between science fiction and fantasy. The truth of the matter, though, is that your answer to that question depends very much on your starting point. The world does no fit neatly into analytical boxes.

Naturally the discussion mentioned the fact that by some definitions Star Wars is clearly science fiction (space battles, robots), and by others fantasy (Campbellian hero’s journey, The Force). It is usually held up as an example of something that looks like science fiction but is “really” (whatever that means) fantasy. The usual example of the opposite of this (looks like fantasy but is really SF) is Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. But from now on (and you were wondering where I was going with this, weren’t you?) I will be quoting The Bruising of Qilwa instead.

The Bruising of Qilwa is a novella by Naseem Jamnia. It centers on they-Firuz, a refugee from the kingdom of Dilmun who has sought sanctuary in the free city-state of Qilwa. Firuz is a member of the Sassanian minority ethnic group in Dilmun who are currently facing persecution because some of their number are believed to practice blood magic. Of course, magical talent is something you are born with, not something that you choose, and Firuz has that talent.

There are three main schools of magic in the world of the book. Environmental magic works by balancing humours in a way that would be familiar to a Roman doctor. Structuralist magic uses a sophisticated system of runes that might have appealed to John Dee. But blood magic works by forging a connection between the mage and the subject, through the subject’s blood. As you can imagine, it can be put to terrible purposes, hence the pogrom, but it is also a very powerful tool for healing.

It so happens that Qilwa is currently suffering from a plague. Firuz has taken their family to the free city in the hope that they can get a job as a healer. They have studied Structuralism as a cover so that they look to be doing less controversial magic. It is a good plan. Firuz quickly gets a job with a clinic run by an irascible doctor called Kofi, and together they work on combatting the plague. Firuz becomes a trusted member of society, and the plague is slowly overcome.

However, Firuz begins to notice a new type of sickness afflicting the city. It is a sickness that appears to be being caused by an incompetent, untrained practitioner of blood magic. This could cause serious trouble for Firuz and their family.

This is where the science fiction comes in. As a doctor, Firuz has to spend quite a lot of effort studying this new disease. It is connected to the victim’s blood, perhaps spread by it. It involves extreme fatigue and the mysterious bruising of the title. Eventually Firuz works out that it is a disease of the body’s own defences. What we call the auto-immune system. To put it simply, the people of Qilwa are contracting AIDS.

The explanation might be “blood magic”, but the way in which Firuz tracks down the nature of the illness is pure science fiction. There are references to “physicking science” scattered through the book and at one point we get:

“But Firuz did believe in the science that was magic, and that would have to be enough.”

It is beautifully done. Even the explanation for the origin of the sickness works well as science fiction. And yet I guarantee that the book will be seen as fantasy.

Along the way, the prose is lovely, and there is some great gender content that I haven’t remarked upon because it is seamlessly worked into the worldbuilding as something entirely normal. Talking of the worldbuilding, there is enough in this book to fuel an entire trilogy of novels. I do hope we get more stories set in this world. Or indeed anything by Naseem Jamnia who is clearly a new talent to watch.

book cover
Title: The Bruising of Qilwa
By: Naseem Jamnia
Publisher: Tachyon
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

Sometimes when you read a book you have a very good idea what it will be about. How can there not be spoilers for a book called The Daughter of Doctor Moreau? Especially if you have read Theodora Goss’s wonderful Athena Club books. And this is a novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, so there’s a good chance it will be set in Mexico. The cover suggests that. What more do you need to know? And, perhaps just as importantly, what is there for the author to do?

In Moreno-Garcia’s version of the Moreau story, he does not live on an island in the Pacific. Instead he lives on a remote hacienda on the Yucatán Peninsula. The Spanish colonists are trying hard to extract every last peso from their land, and that means working the native Maya hard on plantations. Slavery has been abolished, but there are many ways in which a wealthy man can bind the poor to his service. Even an educated European such as Moreau is at risk.

Having been disowned by his family because of his experiments, Moreau has fled to Mexico and fallen in with a landowner called Hernando Lizalde. In order to finance his work, Moreau has convinced Lizalde that his human-animal hybrids will provide a better workforce than the Maya. They will have the strength and stamina of animals and, not being human, can be enslaved with impunity. Lizalde has given him Yaxatkun at which to work.

Things are not going according to plan. The hybrids are not as healthy as Moreau had promised. Lizalde is getting impatient. Maya insurrectionists are hiding in the forests and raiding the haciendas, probably with the support of the detestable English who are always poking their noses in where they are not wanted.

But the English too can fall on hard times. Moreau is in need of a new mayordomo for the hacienda. Montgomery Laughton is down on his luck, having first fled England to get away from his family, and then fled marriage to a beautiful wife whose demands for luxury far outstripped his ability to deliver. He has found refuge in the jungle, and in the bottle. Moreau needs someone who will not ask awkward questions about the strange inhabitants of Yaxaktun.

This, then, is our happy family: Dr. Moreau, a mad genius; Montgomery Laughton, an English alcoholic; sundry strange creatures neither human nor animal; and Carlota.

Oh yes, the Daughter of the title. She is, by all accounts, a beauty, and very nearly of an age to be introduced to Society. Apparently she was a sickly child, but thanks to Moreau’s medical skill she is now blooming. All she needs is a regular concoction made from the blood of the jaguar, for which Laughton is employed as a hunter.

Time passes, and a party arrives at Yaxaktun. It is led by Lizalde’s son, Eduardo, and his cousin, Isidro. The former is handsome, reckless, arrogant, and very much a man for the ladies. The latter has the mind of a priest, though his family has forbidden him to take the cloth. They have come against Hernando’s express wishes, intrigued by the mystery hacienda in the jungle. We know how this will turn out.

Moreno-Garcia is good at this. Her books, though undeniably strange, attract a mainstream audience. Which is just as well, because at this point all mystery has evaporated. As science fiction readers we know exactly what to expect. I rather whizzed through part 2 of the book because everything was so well set up that I could have written it myself, albeit with far less panache.

The question then becomes one of what will befall Carlota and the hybrids now that all has been revealed. That, I am pleased to say, Moreno-Garcia handles very well. She hasn’t set out to re-write the HG Wells book. Instead she has used the story as a vehicle to make points about how young women were treated in the 19th Century, and what was going on in Mexico at the time. In particular the book is an excellent reminder of the evils of Patriarchy, in its pure sense of the father being lord of all he surveys, and the heir expecting to come into that power.

Also, jaguar. Four paws up.

book cover
Title: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
By: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Chicon 8 – The 80th Worldcon

I was, of course, unable to attend this year’s Worldcon in person. I am still barred from entering the USA, and that is likely to continue unless I have a big enough lottery win to buy my way in. I did have a virtual attending membership, and was planning to make good use of that. However, as it turned out, I saw very little of the convention.

Part of that was down to Airmeet, the chosen virtual conference platform of Chicon 8. It seems a little ropey in places. In particular it seems very poor at dealing with background noise. I found that a major issue with both the streamed and virtual panels that I tried to watch. Sadly the program participants didn’t always help. If you are going to be on panel you really should log in from a desktop computer with a good internet connection and A/V set-up. I appreciate that in some countries good internet isn’t easy to get hold of, but we still had plenty of people apparently joining from the USA who had their faces pressed up against their phones in a location with loads of background noise. I’m told that one person was on a road trip during the con and tried to join a panel by phone from a gas station.

We also had panelists complaining that they didn’t know how to use the technology. I appreciate that with something as large at Worldcon it is difficult to make sure that all panelists are up to speed. We have to rely on professional behavior by panelists, and we are not getting it.

Similar issues affect streamed panels. One I tried to watch had the panelists making no attempt to use the microphones. As long as the in-person audience could hear they, they didn’t care.

When you get issues like this at a virtual convention, the temptation to do something else instead is very strong. I had books I could be reading, TV I could be watching, and so on. Consequently I saw very little program.

We still haven’t solved the problem of how to do a virtual dealers’ room. We know how to do a virtual art show, but Chicon did not do it.

Airmeet did provide a social space with tables that people could stop by at to chat. The Glasgow bid seemed to make good use of theirs. But it seemed like only a small fraction of the people logged in to Airmeet were using the lounge.

Some kaffeklatsches were also run through Airmeet. I ended up having a long chat to Lyda Morehouse at one. It was just the two of us. Other people had booked up to be there, but didn’t turn up. That may have been down to Airmeet which was supposed to be sending out links and does not seem to have done so.

I did get up in the middle of the night to watch the Hugo ceremony, mainly because Kevin wasn’t going to be able to update the official Hugo Awards website immediately after the ceremony. We have given up doing the text-based coverage because the streaming is generally very good, and that means that none of us is online at the ceremony.

The event seemed to go off fairly well, albeit with a couple of unfortunate mix-ups. Not reading out Marguerite Kenner’s name was a genuine mistake for which Charlie Jane and Annalee have, I believe, apologised. The thing with Strange Horizons was a mess. As I understand it, Charlie Jane and Annalee spoke to Strange Horizons beforehand and were given permission to not read all of the names. However, this doesn’t seem to have been communicated to everyone whose name was listed. Nor does it excuse the audience laughing.

As to the reading of finalists, I spotted several clues that suggested what was written on the envelopes was not the same as what was being displayed on the screens. That’s down to the ceremony director to get right.

People won Hugos. Yay! Not everyone I wanted to win did, but I’m broadly very happy with the results.

That brings us to the Business Meeting. There were a lot of new motions about the Hugos. Most of them seemed very poorly conceived, and got thrown out. The Games Hugo one got through, as did the one abolishing the 25% rule. Both go on to Chengdu for ratification. For those not up with the discourse, the 25% rule means that No Award applies to any category that, in the final ballot, is voted on by less than 25% of the total number of voters. With the Hugos becoming more popular, and having greater diversity of categories, that doesn’t work. I doubt that I’ll ever vote in the Games category as I don’t play video games, but I don’t want my non-participation to put the category at risk.

The E Pluribus Hugo anti-slate system was made permanent. I still don’t like it, and there is some suggestion that it unreasonably favours the celebrity outsider finalist in fan categories. When you get someone like that (hi Seanan) the fan category in question suddenly gets a lot of extra votes from people who don’t know anyone else in the category and only vote for the celebrity in question, which makes everyone else look like they are slate-voting. More on this shortly, but as far as EPH goes I fear we are stuck with it, at least until all memory of the Puppy War has faded.

Meanwhile, back with Seanan. One of the Hugo-related motions that got slung out was a hardline one that tried to ban anyone who made money from the field from the fan categories. That really doesn’t work. It would have eliminated the concept of the semiprozine. It would also have banned me from the fan categories because I own a publishing company, even though it barely makes a profit and I don’t take a salary.

Ironically that idea suddenly became very popular after the Hugo ceremony. I still maintain that there is no simple and fair way to exclude professionals and their influence from the fan categories. This year was a good example. Even if you think Small Gods should have been excluded from Fanzine, do you also think that Lee Moyer should have been excluded from Fan Artist? If not, what is the difference, and if so, where does such a rule stop? The folks at The Hugo Book Club have written a longer post about the history of the fan/pro controversy. Like them, I believe the only solution is to rely on the good behavior of celebrities. There will always be one or two who decide to try to get a Hugo that way, but as long as they go away after getting one the categories will survive.

Another major piece of controversy erupting from this year’s Business Meeting involves the separation of WSFS Membership from Attending Membership. This is part of the necessary move to make it clear that people are joining WSFS when they join a Worldcon, and that this has data privacy implications beyond that one convention.

The move is unpopular with two groups within fandom. The “No WSFS Inc” crowd hates it because it gives WSFS more visibility as an organization. And the people whose hobby is running Worldcons also hate it because they want to remove WSFS from Worldcon altogether. I am already seeing people complaining that they are being ripped off because they are forced to join WSFS when they only want to attend Worldcon, and that is absolutely a result of the way the change is being explained to fans by Worldcons. That’s a very hard Paddington Stare for you, Glasgow.

Personally I don’t see why anyone attending Worldcon should have to buy a WSFS membership. I know that’s anathema to the, “it’s a membership, not a ticket” crowd, but that fight has been long since lost. With an event as large as Worldcon, the majority of attendees do see it only as a ticketed event.

There is a downside to this. In some countries (hello Canada) a conference of members is treated very differently for tax purposes than a ticketed entertainment event. We certainly need to bear that in mind and work around it. However, I see no reason why Worldcon attendees should be required to be WSFS members, and indeed Chengdu appears to be following exactly that policy. Here are some benefits of it.

Firstly, only WSFS members should be allowed to vote in the Hugos and in Site Selection. People who don’t care about either can opt out by not joining WSFS. So there should be no more complaining about having to pay for something you don’t want. Also we’d get away from the nonsense about there being 6000 people eligible to vote in the Hugos but only 1500 did and isn’t that terrible!!! We’d get a much better turnout of eligible voters if WSFS membership was optional.

Only WSFS members need have their personal data passed on to subsequent Worldcons. This would allow Worldcons to sell attendance tickets to people without all of the GDPR complications.

I would restrict program participation largely to WSFS members. Worldcons could invite guests as well, but if you want to be part of the show you ought to join the club.

I’d give WSFS members priority in booking into kaffeklatches, workshops and so on. That can easily be controlled through the website pre-con.

Giving members priority for at-con stuff would be harder, because you’d have to police access. But Worldcons have long complained about the need to have a venue big enough for the Hugos and giving priority access to WSFS members could help with that.

Of course the big access issue would be the Business Meeting. Inevitably someone would try to fake WSFS membership to get in and vote, and then crow about how all of the votes taken were invalid. But having to deal with such issues would encourage people to think seriously about doing away with the Town Hall Meeting model for WSFS governance and moving towards something that works better for a big organization in the modern world.

On that subject, Kevin has a post on File 770 talking about possible future systems of governance for WSFS. Naturally SMOFdom is convinced that any change will be a disaster, but they will come around eventually. Remember Cheryl’s Second Law of Fandom:

One data point indicates a dangerous trend that must be resisted; two data points indicate a sacred and holy tradition that must be preserved.

If you want complete run down of what happened at the BM, Kevin has written one.

And the good news is that we’ll have a NASFiC in Winnipeg in 2023, and a Worldcon in Glasgow in 2024, so that’s two conventions I should be able to attend.

Chicon’s COVID tracking service reported 60 cases out of a total of 3574 people on site. That’s not bad. Certainly a lot better than Eastercon.

There were other threats to life at the convention. Two attendees – Patrick Tomlinson and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki – were the target of actual death threats sent to the convention. Tomlinson has long been a target of right wing trolls, while Ekpeki is the first African-resident writer to gain prominence in the Hugos.

While these threats were probably fake, they are something that the convention needs to take seriously. Potentially more annoying from the point of view of wasting resources is the new fashion for sending spoofed emails purportedly from the targets of the trolls. Convention staff receive emails which appear to be from convention members which are abusive, or contain violent threats, but which are actually from trolls trying to discredit the supposed sender of the emails.

The point about this sort of attack is that it is very cheap. Once you know how to spoof an email, you can easily cause a lot of trouble for your target. Worldcon, being very high profile, is liable to be an increasing target of such attacks, but other conventions could easily be targeted and staff need to know that this is a possibility. Given that police forces continually fall for SWATing attacks, especially when the target is a person from a minority group, it would not surprise me to see a convention fall for one of these sometime soon.

At times I am amazed that anyone wants to run cons these days, let alone run a Worldcon.

Queering SF

This is a new publication from Aqueduct Press. The author, Ritch Calvin, is a lecturer in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stony Brook University in New York. The book is a collection of short essays on various works of queer SF. There are 36 essays in all, covering a range of works from the 1930s to fairly recent material such as Dirty Computer and FINNA. They may be lecture notes, though 36 is a lot of lectures to have in one course.

The good thing about Queering SF is that it provides a great overview of several decades of queer SF. It makes it clear that the likes of Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, Tanith Lee and Raphael Carter were producing interesting works in times when, if Twitter is to be believed, no queer SF was allowed to be published.

The downside of any such project is that it is impossible to treat any of the works covered in any depth. The paperback is 218 pages, so by the time we have allowed space for an introduction, contents, bibliography and so on we have little more than 5 pages per essay. Given the level of nuance necessary in much queer SF, that’s a problem.

When I get a book like this, the first thing that I do is zero in on the sections about works I am familiar with. If they are good, I know I can have confidence in the rest of the content. First up was the section on The Female Man, where Calvin seems unaware of the burgeoning new movement of anti-trans feminism that was growing when the book came out, and which uses some of the same themes as the book. Calvin also cites me, but doesn’t seem to understand the points I was making.

The section on Sense8, which Calvin seems to have strongly disliked, is unaware of the metaphor about trans heathcare that is built into the plot. The section on Dirty Computer is unaware of Janelle Monáe’s use of imagery from Monica Sjöö’s art in the video for “Pynk”. On the other hand, the section on FINNA taught me a bit about how the Swedish language was used in the book.

I wondered initially whether Calvin simply didn’t know much about trans issues, but his treatment of FINNA is fine and his essay on Isabel Fall’s “Helicopter Story” is caring and insightful. Calvin notes at the end, “[Trans people] do not have the luxury to write whatever they like without its reflecting upon the entire community.” This is very true.

So I think the verdict on Queering SF is that a project like this takes an enormous amount of effort to do as well as I would like, and that level of effort is probably more than any sane working academic is likely to put in. As an introduction to the field, however, it is excellent. There are lots of essays about books that I did not know about. As for its use in lectures, there is a lot for students to think about, and if you were to use these essays as a starting point there would be a lot for them to follow up on.

book cover
Title: Queering SF
By: Ritch Calvin
Publisher: Aqueduct Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Night’s Master

This is a very old book. It was first published in 1978. Tanith Lee is someone whom lots of people have told me I should read (most insistently, Liz Williams), but you know the saying: so many books, so little time.

However, I am currently writing an essay about queer gods in fantasy for the next Academia Lunare book. I put out a request to the hive mind on Twitter for recommendations. There was enthusiastic backing for Night’s Master by Tanith Lee, so I bought a copy.

I have known for some time that, if you ask the Internet for recommendations for good trans representation in books, you will get a whole bunch of cis people recommending books that are dubious at best, and often examples of really bad trans rep. Apparently the same applies to requests for good queer representation. Because straight people often think that being queer is bad, they will recommend books in which the only queer characters are terrible people.

Sigh.

That isn’t entirely fair to Night’s Master, because like most things it is complicated. The book, which was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, is a linked collection of tales about a character called Azhrarn who is Prince of Demons, Lord of Darkness, and all round chief of the forces of evil. Being a demon, he is bisexual. He is not entirely a bad person. Sometimes he is the bringer of justice to some really awful people. But sometimes he capriciously kills off someone whose only crime was foolishly asking him for a small boon when he’s in a bad mood. He does enjoy causing suffering, and he is especially cruel to anyone he thinks has slighted him.

It is also worth noting that there are no gods in the world of the book. There is no Good to balance the Evil of the demons, who are simply part of the natural world. Demons are as demons do, and it is by no means clear that Lee intended us to see Azhrarn as a villain. However, as queer rep goes, we can, and should, do better.

Mention of the world of the book brings me to something else notable about Night’s Master. It is book one in a series called Tales from the Flat Earth. Long before the world was a disc carried on the back of four elephants and a giant turtle, there was Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth. Above the plane lives mankind, and below it live the various species of demons. I have no idea where Terry Pratchett got the idea from, but I suspect that he was aware of Tanith Lee’s work.

The most important thing about Night’s Master, however, is that the prose is glorious. Lee has got the style of traditional fantasy down pat. The way the stories are structured and told, they could almost be part of the Arabian Nights. Each new story follows on in some way from the previous one, and inevitably the final story wraps back to the start. I was impressed. I should have been reading Tanith Lee, and so should you.

book cover
Title: Night's Master
By: Tanith Lee
Publisher: DAW
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Sandman – Season 1

It is entirely impossible for me to be in any way objective about this series. There is a variety of reasons for this, including, of course, that there is no such thing as an objective review.

To start with, Neil Gaiman and I have been friends for almost four decades. That’s a big chunk out of anyone’s life. We did briefly lose touch when he went to America to write comics and I went to Australia to become me. But it was a story in Sandman that gave me the confidence to make contact again when Neil was due to be a Guest of Honour at Swancon in Perth one year. A Game of You comes in for a lot of flak these days (of which more later), but it was obvious to me reading it that Neil understood the problems that trans people face in life, and was on our side.

That, however, is not all. The staff writers on the show include on Catherine S. McMullen. She was also the lead writer on episode #11, which collected “Dream of a Thousand Cats” and “Calliope”. Catherine’s father is the Australian author, Sean McMullen. He and I have been friends for around 25 years and I will be publishing one of his books later this year. I have known Catherine since she was 9 years old, and it was obvious even then that she was destined for stardom in one field or another. It was only a matter of which mountain she decided to conquer. As it turned out, she has become a successful screenwriter with an International Emmy to her name. I am so very proud of her.

So The Sandman is, to me, very personal. And that is despite the fact that I am not a big fan of horror.

Having said all that, I am very pleased with the way things have turned out. Some of the casting has been brilliant. I particularly enjoyed Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death, Mason Alexander Park as Desire, Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine and Stephen Fry as Fiddler’s Green, all of whom seemed born to the roles. Lots of other people have done great jobs too.

More importantly, I am impressed with what has been done with the scripts. The Sandman comics were never going to be easy to adapt to the screen, because of the very nature of comics. When Neil first started writing them he had to earn the trust of his editors at DC, and one way to do that was to link the series into the existing DC universe. The TV version has no trace of characters such as John Jonzz who made guest appearances in early issues of the comic (though I would not have been averse to seeing David Harewood in the role, especially if the rest of the Supergirl crew came along too).

Another issue with comics is that the schedule is punishing, for both author and artist. Consequently we have filler issues which have been prepared in advance to keep the schedule going if one or the other can’t deliver on time. “Dream of a Thousand Cats” is one such filler, but it is also many people’s favourite Sandman story. A lot of people assumed that we would not see it on screen because it was a filler, not part of the main story arc.

When thinking about Hollywood scripts my mind always goes back to the scene in The Matrix Resurrections where the script committee is working on the new version of the game. Lana Wachowski was having a very pointed dig at (amongst other things) the way that creativity gets sidelined in favour of demands from marketing to cater to various different segments of the audience. You can tell when a film or TV series has been written by a committee (hello Rings of Power). The Sandman still feels like it has a creative vision. Achieving that will not have been easy, and it required Neil to have a lot of control over the final product.

Had the TV series been done by anyone else, the script team would have thrown away most of the comics and written a new story, featuring the main characters, that had a simple and consistent story arc. Neil chose not to do that, but instead to re-worked the comic scripts to make a simpler story, and to put out some of the filler issues as a bonus episode (hence #11). It was a brave thing to do, and some reviews have complained that the narrative is a bit of a mess as a result, but it has kept faith with the original fans of the series.

The other thing Neil has done is take the opportunity to update parts of the story for a modern audience. A lot has changed since 1988 when the first issue was published (with a cover date of January 1989). Much hot air has been generated over the gender swaps and people of colour used in the cast, but at least as much hot air, possibly a lot more, would have been generated had Neil stuck to the original characters. Just as importantly, I’m sure he is pleased with what has been done, because people grow and learn with time.

Not that this has prevented people from complaining that the TV series is bi-phobic and racist, but that’s the Internet for you.

Talking of which, Morpheus has a story arc. He is a bit of a bastard when he first escapes from captivity, but he grows and learns too. I’m a bit disappointed with the people who expected him to be a hero from the get go.

Constantine is a bastard too. The constant tussle between being utterly selfish and having a good heart is the charm of the character.

All of which brings us to the question of A Game of You. As of now, we do not know if Netflix will be renewing the series for a second season. Season 1 has been a huge success in comparison to almost everything else Netflix has done, but it was also very expensive, and the company accountants were expecting a lot of revenue to balance that. Personally I think it would be foolish of them to cancel such a much-loved series, but I’m not a bean counter at heart.

Assuming we do get a second season, there is the question of what will be in it. Season 1 is mostly taken from Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House, plus the first half of Dream Country. We can therefore reasonably expect Season 2 to include the rest of Dream Country, Season of Mists, and A Game of You. We have already met Will Shakespeare, who features in Dream Country; Nada, who has a major role in Season of Mists; plus Barbie and Martin Tenbones from A Game of You.

Given how material in Season 1 was updated for a modern audience, I am expecting Neil to make some changes to A Game of You to make his support for the trans community more clear. One of the things that annoyed him about the original comic was that the artist who first drew Wanda (Shawn McManus) portrayed her as very mannish, as opposed to the more glamourous character that Neil had requested. As is the way of things, Neil got the blame for this.

For the audio version of the stories, Neil gave the role of Wanda to Reece Lyons who is a well-known trans actress. It is possible that she’ll get the TV job, but I suspect that Jamie Clayton and Nicole Maines would both love to get it too. Or we could end up with someone new. Regardless, I am looking forward to seeing what is done with the story, and hopefully that will put an end to Roz Kaveney and I having to constantly defend Neil against accusations of transphobia.

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To French Science-Fiction

[This is a guest article by French author, Jean-Claude Dunyach. It is a revision of an aritcle he first wrote in 2004. The formatting has been as submitted as French styling is somewhat different to Anglo-American. – Cheryl]

French SF has a glorious past (remember Jules Verne?) and, hopefully, a bright future. But the present situation is a little more complicated and difficult to decode. Especially when you try to evaluate it on the same scale than US SF — or Anglo-American SF. The definition of the word SF is not exactly the same on both sides of the Atlantic. It is often confused with Sci-Fi in the US (‘Star Trek’ juvenile, lite fantasy series or shared universes to name a few commercial examples) while most French authors claim that it is ‘literature at its best’. Disney versus ‘The Louvre’ if you catch my meaning. Of course, both formulations are too narrow to be entirely true but they’re not entirely false, either. Let’s see why.

1) The Cultural Background

First, one has to understand that France — and most of Europe, in fact — has a distinct cultural background and that SF does not play the same role as in the English-speaking world. French TV, for example, is not really interested in SF. French mini-series are often based on novels from the 18th or 19th century (not as boring as you might think but rather short on special effects and light sabres — and Depardieu often plays one of the main parts). Famous TV series like ‘Star Trek’, ‘Babylon 5’, ‘Millenium’ or ‘Doctor Who’ are almost ignored in France, except by the usual nerd fanbase (I’m one of them). ‘The X-Files’ was a huge success although we are one year behind the US, which means that several details from ‘The X-Files – The Movie’ were not comprehensible to most of us at the time.

Neither do we have the equivalent of comics books. No Batman, X-Men or Spider-Man. No shared universes where Judge Dredd meets the Punisher to fight against the villains. No Marvel Universe, even if French Superheroes existed before World War II… No equivalent of Sandman — which is bad. But we have tons of SF ‘bandes dessinées’, with plenty of famous artists from Druillet, Moebius to Caza, Bilal, Bourgeon or Mézières (who worked with Besson and who inspired many US series like ‘Babylon 5’) and lots of brilliant newcomers. Scenarios are often elaborate and quite complex and they are considered as acceptable cultural objects. But an album of ‘bandes dessinées’ is often priced over $20 US. Parents can buy it. Not kids.

Japanese Mangas, however, changed the situation since they were affordable and fun. So, there is a real manga subculture here – and of course the various Marvel/DC films are very popular among millennials. So did Star Wars in my youth. But, if you’re a famous French filmmaker who wants to shoot a SF movie (Luc Besson, for example, or Jeunet), you’re almost forced to work with Hollywood. It seems that there’s no money available for SF projects in the French cinema, even if the situation may change in the near future.

So, what we call SF in France is mainly ‘written SF’ with a distinct flavour of graphic covers. The cultural gap between French SF books and the visual equivalent coming from the other side of the Atlantic is quite large.

2) A Brief Journey in History

French Science-Fiction was almost killed by the 1st World War. It did not emerge as a movement until the late fifties. A few Anticipation books were published in the meantime but without any SF label on it — take for example ‘The Imprudent Traveller’ (1943) by René Barjavel.

During the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, several important authors from the USA or Great Britain began being published regularly in France. Many different imprints – from deluxe hardcovers to paperbacks – were mostly devoted to foreign SF. In parallel, a popular imprint entitled Fleuve Noir Anticipation specialized in short novels – the French equivalent of pulps – from local authors. At that time, the public regarded French authors as only pale copies of their Anglo-American competitors. And SF as a whole was labelled as “sub-par literature”. However, in 1961, the novel ‘Sylva’ by Vercors (Jean Marcel Bruller) became the only non-English-language novel ever to be a finalist for the Hugo.

This situation improved a little in the mid-seventies when a few French authors – Michel Jeury, Philippe Curval, Jean-Pierre Andrevon, Pierre Pelot – were published by famous imprints like ‘Ailleurs & Demain’ (‘Elsewhere & Tomorrow’). These books were not only excellent in the traditional Anglo-Saxon SF sense, they were different. Inspired by literary experiments like the ‘Nouveau Roman’, they could be regarded as the French equivalent of the British ‘New Wave’.

In the meantime, a younger generation of angry young men was using Science-Fiction as a means of questioning French society as they perceived it. They wished to use SF as a political medium. One of the imprints created at that time was called ‘Ici & Maintenant’ (‘Here & Now’), in answer to the well-established ‘Ailleurs & Demain’. It is interesting to note that good authors like Jeury, Andrevon or Curval were published by both imprints.

Unfortunately, even though the messages expressed by this ‘French political SF’ were interesting, too many books – or short stories – from that period were considered by the public as poorly written. In reaction, a brief but intense neo-formalist movement called ‘Limite’ emerged in the beginning of the eighties, featuring new authors like Emmanuel Jouanne, Francis Berthelot and Antoine Volodine. They considered Science-Fiction as a medium for literary experimentation and adopted a post-modern attitude. Several novels and short stories were published independently by the authors but their first common anthology was also the last…

It has to be noted that French Science-Fiction was not really interested in space even if a few ‘westerns in space’ were published regularly. The ‘space opera’ genre was mostly something associated with Anglo-Saxon SF.

At that time – the mid-eighties – many new authors appeared and French SF boasted more than forty professional writers. An old monthly magazine – ‘Fiction’, launched in 1953 – published one or more short stories by French authors in every issue, with eight to ten ‘new authors’ every year discovered by its editor Alain Dorémieux. Regular anthologies were open to French stories and a special one-shot anthology entitled ‘Futurs au Présent’ was entirely devoted to new, not-yet-professional, authors. ‘Futurs au Présent’ introduced Serge Brussolo and Jean-Marc Ligny – two major French SF authors – and was followed by ‘Superfuturs’, a few years later. In the meantime, the Editions Fleuve Noir was publishing nearly sixty French books each year. Young authors were slowly replacing their elders.

But, unhappily, the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties were characterized by a major editorial crisis.

At that time, ‘Fiction’, our monthly professional1 magazine, disappeared, along with the annual anthology ‘Univers’. Many SF publishers cut back their activities and most of them stopped publishing new French authors. The only major exception was Fleuve Noir Anticipation – but they only put out thirty French SF books a year while making several unsuccessful attempts at publishing ‘Star Trek’ novels or lite fantasy series. Fleuve Noir introduced almost all the new authors of the early nineties like Ayerdhal and Serge Lehman – not to mention the Belgian Alain le Bussy, the Swiss Wildy Petoud and the Canadian Jean-Louis Trudel. The only exception was Pierre Bordage, a brilliant novelist who was discovered by a regional press and climbed his way to fame in a year or so!

The situation remained more or less the same until 1995, when three SF magazines were launched almost simultaneously. The first one was ‘CyberDreams’, which wanted to be the French equivalent of ‘Interzone’. It played a major role in revealing the new generation of British authors and in publishing several French stories.

CyberDreams was soon followed by ‘Bifrost’ and ‘Galaxies’, which came out the same month and opened some space to new authors. Each magazine (except CyberDreams which folded after a handful of issues) published more than 80 issues or so, as of today.

In the meantime, two French short story anthologies edited by famous French authors were released: ‘Genèses’, in 1996, edited by Ayerdhal, with the major French Publisher J’ai lu, and ‘Escales sur l’Horizon’ edited by Serge Lehman in 1998 (it was followed by ‘Escales 2000’, which I was in charge of, and ‘Escales 2001’ has been released in 2001. Another collection edited by Serge Lehman “Retour sous l’Horizon” was issued in 2009).

‘Escales sur l’Horizon’ was a huge book made up of 16 short stories and novellas from sixteen French and Canadian authors. It also contained a very important preface by Serge Lehman, which might be considered as the ‘French SF Manifesto’ for the end of the century. These two collections were well received by the public – both won prizes – and the press referred to us as the new ‘French SF wonderboys’. Don’t laugh!

In fact, even if the situation was growing better at the time – each major French publisher was creating or revamping its own Science-Fiction/Fantasy/Gothic line and the public seemed to be interested in what the future would look like2 – the only way for French SF to survive was to cross the borders and to find readers outside Europe.

And then, we went back to space — where it all started.

A good example of authors in that trend is Laurent Genefort. He is one of our wunderkind (at that time he was thirty with almost as many books behind him) and he is famous for his creation of alien environments and strange planets. He wrote a series of independent novels that take place in the galaxy, but a galaxy that has been once populated by a very ancient race called the ‘Vangk’. The Vangk disappeared but left behind a fantastic collection of artefacts — from doors that allows to travel between distant stars to an entire territory, Omale, shaped like a Dyson sphere where humans as well as other creatures have been transferred en masse for some kind of experiment (there are four books and a handful of short stories set in Omale). This is something that you can find also in books from other Europeans — Alastair Reynolds with ‘Revelation space’ come to mind or Juan Miguel Aguilera.

But, even if many French authors are well aware of the cultural icons and trends of Anglo-American Science Fiction, our books have a distinct flavour. You should try our wine, too…

3) Typical French Themes: Art, Flesh and Irony.

It is somewhat difficult to point out the specificity of French SF – assuming that it is specific, which I believe. Surrealism was probably a major influence in the eighties, as well as the ‘Nouveau Roman’ and other literary experiments, but this concerns mainly the way we write our stories, not their subjects. And, here in Europe, Surrealism is so ‘air du temps’ — part of the background — that it is hard not to be influenced by it.

I think that the two main specific themes in French SF from the end of the seventies until the end of the nineties were artists and museums of the future – one of the latest collections of young French authors at the end of the century also explored that theme – and the relationship with the body – flesh considered as an experimental territory.

Art in the future was a central theme in the eighties and it is making a serious comeback. It is interesting to note that the so-called art defined in the future is either a terrorist way to change society – art as a means to move the masses and to control them – or the ultimate expression of freedom versus totalitarian states. In the collection ‘Musées, Des Mondes Énigmatiques” (‘Museums, Enigmatic Worlds’), most stories describe fugitives from the outside world seeking refuge in a museum. Some of them are trapped and destroyed, some find help from other refugees. Almost no character is interested in art for art’s sake. As a possible metaphor of actual French SF, this is quite frightening.

As for the ‘experimental territory of the flesh’, the theme is probably linked to Surrealism – Dali, for one, is famous for his statue of the Venus de Milo with drawers. Since Science-Fiction is often considered as a literature of metamorphosis, toying with the idea of artistically rebuilding your body is a natural trend! One must notice that this body-rebuilding is quite often done for artistic reasons and without the use of biotechnologies or scientific gizmos.

I must add that most French SF writers are usually neither scientists – I’m one of the few exceptions – nor particularly interested by science (at least hard science). However, French SF often has a sociological dimension. Many books published since the last twenty years are focused on new ways to build a society, or rebellion again the “old world” ways of doing things. In that respect, one of the most successful writers of today is Alain Damasio, who only published half a dozen of books in fifteen years but each of them was a major success.

And, just for the fun, I would like to mention a recent French SF anthology (2014) whose subject was “Describe a society in 2074 where luxury plays a major role”. The corresponding eBook in various languages – including English – can be downloaded freely from the major eBook stores (including the one starting with an A).

4) A few personal trajectories

With the exception of the well-identified literary movements mentioned above, whose impact was limited, French SF is composed mainly of individualists whose trajectories are quite different.

Serge Brussolo appeared in the early eighties and started producing four to five novels every year in a very surrealistic style. He became quite popular and diversified to historical novels and thrillers, using various pseudonyms. In his books, you find albinos cats sold with a set of washable colours so you can paint them the way you want, oceans replaced by hundreds of millions of dwarves that live in the mud, hands up and carry boats in exchange for food. Of course, every now and then, they reproduce and you get a tidal wave of dwarves who want to conquer new territories. But the coast guards have machine guns…

As for the nineties, let’s mention:

Ayerdhal – a pseudonym – is most famous for his political space operas with complex intrigues and interesting feminine characters – his death in 2015 was a shock. Serge Lehman, a stylist with a remarkable sense of wonder, started his epic ‘History of The Future’ in the early nineties and has become one of the most important writers of essays on the genre. Pierre Bordage is our sweeping sagas specialist and a best-seller since his first trilogy – he is really a must-read. Richard Canal, who lives in Africa, was trying to merge mainstream and SF in a future dominated by African-like societies (he is a precursor of Afrofuturism and he is making a comeback after nearly fifteen years of silence). Roland C. Wagner, who appeared early in the eighties, find his inspiration in rock’n roll and humorous descriptions of extra-terrestrial societies – he won most of the French SF Prizes in 1999 and again in 2011. His latest huge book – a uchrony settled during an alternative Algerian independence war, in the sixties, is a masterpiece. He died unexpectedly in a car accident in 2012 and his loss is deeply regretted by all.

And a new generation of authors merging SF, Fantasy, Steampunk is now firmly installed: Sabrina Calvo – whose books are somewhere between Peter Pan and the lunatic fringe –, Fabrice Colin, Laurent Kloetzer, Xavier Mauméjean, Catherine Dufour (who won in 2006 all the major French SF Prizes for her novel “Le Goût de l’Immortalité” – “The Taste of Immortality”) and many, many others. In 2008, a serious novelist, Norbert Merjagnan, came out of nowhere with a first novel widely acclaimed (“Les Tours de Samarante”). In 2013, the editions l’Atalante published a very large novel in three sections (“Le Melkine”, from Olivier Paquet), one of the most remarkable space operas I’ve read in years. There’s hope for the future, I would say.

An important trend to notice is the massive emergence of female authors. Until the end of the 90’s, French SF authors were mostly male, even if Joelle Wintrebert, Sylvie Denis and Sylvie Lainé (the best short-stories writer of the genre in my opinion) were crucial contributors to the genre. But since more than 10 years, the best YA books are equally shared between both genders and many new female authors are taking over the genre. Emilie Querbalec, Estelle Faye, Claire Duvivier or Floriane Soulas, to name a few, were nominated or won many of the recent major French SF literary prizes.

5) Judge us by our covers…

I mentioned earlier the crucial importance of illustrations and art in our work – surrealism was of course a major trend but one can also insists on the influence of “fantastic hyperrealism” (Wojtek Siudmak being the central figure of this movement) and of “Bande Dessinée”. Many famous artists did both (Moebius, Caza, Mézière, Druillet, Forest or Manchu to name a few) and they contributed to give a distinct flavour to our genre. While mainstream books were generally not illustrated, ours where flashy, trendy, and easily recognizable. Since the seventies, the osmosis with graphic illustrators and painters was crucial for our evolution!

6) Newcomers From Mainstream: Osmosis and Mimicry

A final trend: it seems that Science-Fiction is slowly becoming socially acceptable, at least for some members of the mainstream fiction community. During the last five years, a handful of SF-related novels have been released by major publishers and some of them ranked highly on the best-seller list! Today, most of the French editing companies have a line dedicated to science-fiction or are publishing SF books with no particular label.

Two examples come to mind: ‘L’Anomalie’ (the Anomaly) by Hervé Le Tellier that won the “Prix Goncourt” in 2020 and, before that, in 1998, ‘Les Particules Élémentaires’ (‘Elementary Particles’) a novel from Michel Houellebecq that was a huge success (“Prix Goncourt” too) and an equally huge scandal, partly due to explicit sexual scenes. But most of the journalists who interviewed him were unable to understand that its book was Science-Fiction and he had to explain SF to them. In detail.

I’m glad he wasn’t forced to do the same for the sexual scenes!


1 Professional means of course that they were published professionally but very few of them were earning enough money to make a living. The French market was just too small and French books were rarely translated for publication elsewhere.

2 Probably an effect of the millennium change

Tech to the Future

At Cannes this year audiences saw the preview of a short documentary film called Tech to the Future. It is the brainchild of Hollywood insider, Sandro Monetti, and entrepreneur, Francis Hellyer who also presents the show. It is a classic example of the wide-eyed optimism about technology that you very rarely see at science fiction conventions these days.

The film was showing in London this week, and I was offered a ticket. However, as I am out of the country I had to decline. The people showing it kindly sent me a link to an online version, so I took a look. Thank you, London Flair.

I’m not a great expert on movie-making, but it seemed beautifully put together. I am, however, a journalist of sorts, and what interests me about this film is what technology is coming down the pipeline, and what it means for us.

I should note to start with that science fiction has always been becoming science fact. From submarines and tanks to video phones, robots and computer viruses, much of what SF writers talked about has come to pass. On the other hand, time travel, invaders from Mars, logging in to the internet through direct brain implants and many other things have not. Technology marches on regardless. It is nice when some of the results are cool.

But, much like William Gibson’s future, those results are unevenly distributed. We’ve been talking about flying cars being a reality for some time now. I commissioned an article about such things for Clarkesworld back in 2009. The latest contender in the field was the star of Tech to the Future. The cars built by Aeromobil look absolutely beautiful. They also transform in around 3 minutes, which is very impressive. Sadly they don’t have a giant robot mode as well as the car and plane options, but maybe if they sell well the company will add one. The main point, however, is that the retail price will be in the millions of dollars. They will be way out of reach of the average car owner.

The products being developed by DeepCake are intended for Hollywood studios. That means that the whole world will get to benefit from them, because they’ll be used in movies. The technology seems very impressive. You do need a body double for your actor, but the DeepCake software can make that person look very much like the original. Bruce Willis is the only actor to have sold his likeness to the company thus far, but they can now make new Bruce Willis films without him going anywhere near a movie set.

There is presumably a downside here for young actors who will now forever be competing against past generations. The technology might also make the notoriously risk averse Hollywood moguls even less willing to invest in anything new. In 50 years time we might still be getting a new Die Hard movie every year. Still, at least it will be better than the zombie Luke we were treated to in season 2 of The Mandalorian.

The real problem with this technology, however, is acknowledged in the company name. Deep Cakes might be all very well, but Deep Fakes are potentially very dangerous. Social media already has a massive problem with misinformation. Deep fake software is already available for personal computers. In the future, political parties will run attack ads that feature faked images of their opponents saying and doing embarrassing, if not downright illegal, things. Fox News will show video “proof” of pedophile rings amongst Democratic politicians. That’s not the fault of DeepCake, whose tools may well transform movie making, but it is an inevitable result of this sort of technology being invented.

The third invention from the film that I want to highlight comes from a medical technology company called Cytovale. They make automated analysis machines that will allow hospitals to run routine tests for various conditions very quickly. The company is currently targeting diagnosis of sepsis, which is the cause of millions of deaths worldwide every year. Early diagnosis is key to successful treatment. If hospitals are able to test for it quickly and cheaply, then huge numbers of lives could be saved. That’s the sort of technology we should be really excited about.

Overall, Tech to the Future is a fun little film. It is good that people are out there reporting on what the current crop of tech geniuses are up to. But it would be good to see a little more critical analysis of what those developments might mean for humankind.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – Season 1

I am finding myself fascinated by the way in which the Star Trek franchise is developing. There have been several attempts to do a “past times” series. I haven’t seen Enterprise, but by most reports it seems to have been a bit of a disaster. Discovery also tried to fit into that pre-Kirk slot, and very nearly blew the whole thing up. Thankfully the series has now successfully re-invented itself as far-future Star Trek.

Strange New Worlds, then, is a third attempt to fit into that past-Trek slot, and I think this time they have got it right. As you probably know, the series focuses on the life of the Enterprise in the years before Jim Kirk took the helm. Christopher Pike is the captain. He does feature briefly in The Original Series, and we know that he and Spock were good friends. There is material to work with here.

What the show-runners have done with Strange New Worlds is to make it feel as much like original Trek as possible. That means that there isn’t much of an overall story arc, and individual episodes can feel very different. There’s one that shows the script-writers are fans of Le Guin. There’s one that’s a screwball comedy involving Spock and his girlfriend accidentally swapping bodies. There’s one that is an Alien-type horror story. There’s an awesome space pirate (played by trans actor, Jesse James Keitel) whom I hope will be a recurring antagonist. And there is a totally off-the-wall episode in which the crew gets to play out roles in a children’s fairy story (and in which Erica Ortegas sets a thousand lesbian hearts a-flutter).

Another way in which the series reflects TOS is that the key roles mostly hark back to people we are familiar with. Discovery doesn’t do that so much. Major supporting characters are people like Book, Admiral Vance and President Rillak, who are not members of the crew. Neither Saru nor Philippa Georgiou has a clear analog in TOS. Sick Bay and Engineering are all about queer family in a way that McCoy and Scott could never have been. But in Strange New Worlds the stories are all about the crew. We have Erica Oregas doing a lot of recognisable Chekov and Sulu things. We have Dr. M’Benga channeling McCoy. It feels familiar.

Of course some of the characters are the same as those in TOS. Ethan Peck has so successfully inhabited the character of Spock that I now get a bit of a shock seeing Leonard Nimoy in the role. Celia Rose Gooding is a very expressive young Uhura. I’m wondering what happened to her between now and Kirk taking command that caused her to become so adult and restrained. And then there is Jess Bush, who is not much like the original Christine Chapel but is such a delight that I don’t care.

All of this comes to a head in the series finale, where the scriptwriters try their hand at the delicate task of melding together the two timelines. In the story, Captain Pike, who knows what a horrible fate lies in store for him, gets to go forward in time to learn why he must not try to change the future. The episode is essentially a re-run of the TOS story, “Balance of Terror”. Many of the scenes, and even lines, echo the original story. Pike plays the situation very differently from Kirk, and a disastrous war with the Romulans ensues.

There is certainly a debate to be had about that, because Kirk’s actions in the original story are against Star Fleet orders and can be seen as unreasonably violent. Certainly Pike thinks so. But that’s a question for another day. What concerns me is that something that could have been a complete disaster actually works quite well. I did go back and watch the original episode to check.

The downside of that episode is that Paul Wesley as Kirk is unconvincing. Maybe he’ll grow into the role.

To wrap up I want to go back to episode 3 in which Una Chin-Riley, “Number 1” and Pike’s second in command, is revealed to be an Illyrian. I had to go and look up some wikis to find out what that was all about. They are a race of aliens who major in biology rather than physics, and they make extensive use of genetic engineering. Because of this (though the arguments are not laid out) they are barred from joining the Federation. Some of them, like Una, have used their science to make themselves look human, and live in Federation space. If caught, they can be imprisoned for impersonation.

Obviously this is playing into the same “they walk among us” trope that gets deployed against trans people. I am very interested to see where Strange New Worlds takes this.

FantasyCon 2022

This year’s FantasyCon has had a difficult life. The event was originally planned to be run by a group headed by Lee Harris. However, back in July, facing a substantial shortfall in expected revenue, Harris decided to pull out. Given the ongoing issues with COVID, and the expected major financial crisis in the UK over the winter, it is perhaps not surprising that far fewer people were prepared to attend the con than had been hoped.

Initially the con was cancelled, but the British Fantasy Society scrambled to get a replacement in place. The new event, chaired by Shona Kinsella, would use the same venue, but would be much reduced in scope. There would be no dealers’ room or art show; just panels, readings and the awards banquet.

In the circumstances, Shona and her team did an amazing job. There were multiple tracks of programming, and some really excellent panels. I was particularly impressed with how Shona put together a variety of voices for each panel. For example, I was surprised to be on a panel about collaborative writing. I was there to talk about sensitivity reading. Farah Mendlesohn talked about co-writing academic books, mostly with her husband, Edward James. El Lam and Gary Couzens talked about novels and short fiction respectively.

Another panel I was on was about editing. I mainly edit non-fiction. Other panelists did proof reading and more involved fiction editing, and there was a self-published author who talked about hiring editorial services. You can do panels like this in smaller conventions where the programming team knows a lot of the potential panelists. It is harder in something like Worldcon where you have far more programme to fill, and many more panelists. But I thought Shona did a great job.

The downside of programming was timekeeping. On several occasions I saw panels still running when the next one was due to start. In one case a moderator asked the audience for more questions when time had more than run out. There were reasons why this happened. The con did not have enough staff to put programme ops people in every room, and some of the rooms had doors that could not be opened from the outside. But moderators should know that they have a duty to stop and clear out in sufficient time for the next panel to move in.

I had a number of interests in the British Fantasy Awards. Wizard’s Tower Press was up for Best Independent Press. Worlds Apart, the worldbuilding book that I contributed to from Luna Press Publishing, was up for Best non-Fiction. And Lucy Holland’s SisterSong, for which I did a sensitivity read, was up for Best Novel. None of them won. I didn’t expect to win the publisher award, given that we were up against Luna Press Publishing who very deservedly won. I’m relaxed about the non-fiction award given that we won the BSFA Award for the book at Eastercon. With all due respect to Shelley Parker-Chan, whose book I very much enjoyed, Lucy was robbed. A full list of winners is available at Locus.

Having scouted out the location at Eastercon, which was held in the same hotel, I opted to stay in the Ibis just across the road from the con venue. It was cheaper, and it was next door to a petrol station that sold sandwiches and the like. Many con attendees had complaints about the Radisson Red. The issues with the new booking/checkin software that plagued Eastercon have not yet been sorted (they lost the booking of the Guest of Honour, Liz Williams), and food service was much more limited than it had been at Eastercon.

That hotel has been used for a number of conventions over the years (kudos to Flis for wearing her Ytterbium Eastercon t-shirt from 2019 when the hotel was a Park Inn). I think it will be a while before it gets used again. Though I should note that the banquet food was edible, which is not always the case for such things.

Overall, this was a great little convention, with the added bonus that I did not have to spend the entire weekend behind a dealer table. It was especially impressive given the short time that the ConCom had to put it together.

Next year FantasyCon is going back to the Jury’s Inn in Birmingham. Hopefully the roadworks will be finished by then. Early bird memberships are available here.

Editorial – September 2022

Hello from Toronto, where I am currently on a business trip. I’m having to get this one out a little early as I will be busy with clients for the next few days.

Talking of busy, I will probably put the next issue out just before BristolCon because the con is right at the end of the month. I hope to see a few of you there. I will have paper copies of the new Juliet McKenna book, The Green Man’s Gift, available. If you want one, let me know in advance so I can make sure I have enough stock.

In this issue I’m deighted to have a guest article about the SF scene in France by Jean-Claude Dunyach in this issue. Promoting international science fiction is something that has been important to me for some time.

In a similar vein, for Ocotocon I recently interviewed Julia Meitov Hersey, the translator of the Ukrainian writers, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. You can watch that here.

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Maureen Kincaid Speller who was a fine critic and whom many of you will have known. There’s an obituary at Locus. My best wishes to Paul.

Issue #42

This is the July 2022 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.


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