Issue #33

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

  • Cover: Fantasy Forest Girl: This issue's cover is "Fantasy Forest Girl" by Molly Rose Lee

  • The Witness for the Dead: At last a new book set in the world of Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor

  • Chilling Effect: Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes is one of the finalists for this year's Arthur C Clarke Award

  • In the Watchful City: A strange and lyrical novella from S. Qiouyi Lu

  • Ife-Iyoku: A look at the winner of this year's Otherwise Award

  • Light Chaser: Two science fiction greats, one novella of epic scope

  • Occasional Views: The latest issue of Samuel R Delany's collected non-fiction has quite a bit to say about racism in the field

  • FantasyCon 2021: An in-person convention! Cheryl was there.

  • He-Man Wars: We have not one, but two reboots of He-Man. What is going on? Cheryl investigates.

  • Editorial – September 2021: Much news about in-person and virtual conventions, and new books from Wizard's Tower

The Witness for the Dead

For reasons that I can no longer remember, I did not write a review of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t like the book. It was excellent. But it was also a stand-alone, and since 2014 a lot of people have been hoping for another story in the same world. The book was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, and won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. A sequel would have been an easy sell.

A sequel, however, is not what we have got. Instead there is what is best described as a spin-off. The Emperor Maia does not feature in The Witness for the Dead, except by reputation. Instead, the book stars Thara Celehar, a minor character from the first book who, rather like Mike Carey’s Felix Castor, is able to speak to the dead.

Unlike Castor, Celehar is not a detective. Technically he is a clergyman. His job is to ensure that the recently departed are able to rest in peace. However, in cases where death has been unpeaceful in some ways, Celehar’s abilities can be very useful to the authorities. The central story of the novel concerns a beautiful opera singer whose corpse is found in the harbour of the city where Celehar lives, and from the state of her skull it is clear that she did not drown. An investigation needs to be opened.

So much for the set-up, but there is much more of interest in this book than a murder mystery. To start with there is the world of the book. Maia’s story is typical of high fantasy, being about the struggle for a throne, but while the world is peopled by elves and goblins, they don’t have fantasy technology. Airships are commonplace, and mediaeval fantasy worlds rarely feature opera singers.

More importantly, these are books about race. The elves are fair skinned and often arrogant. The goblins have darker skin and face all sorts of racial prejudice. Maia, you may recall, was of mixed heritage, and therefore a deeply controversial person to be crowned emperor, even if his right to the throne was unimpeachable. Celehar too faces all sorts of prejudice where he is now living, and the fact that he performed a major service for the emperor counts for little.

The Witness for the Dead is a book about a fundamentally decent person who happens to have some small magical talent. Yes, he gets involved in some crimes. He also gets called upon to dispose of an undead at one point. These things are part of his life. But mostly this book is about people. In fact I think it is something of a masterclass in how to write a fantasy book that is centred on people. Sure there are elves and goblins, and Celehar does do a little magic, but what is really important to the story is how he relates to other characters. And frankly, that’s mostly how detectives solve crimes.

book cover
Title: The Witness for the Dead
By: Katherine Addison
Publisher: Rebellion
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Chilling Effect

The lovely people at Mr B’s in Bath had a display up of Clarke Award finalists. I hadn’t read all of them, and decided to take a look. I did not manage to pick the winner, which was The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay. I’ll get to that one eventually. But I was going off covers and blurbs, so the book that caught my eye was Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes. It promised space opera and psychic cats. Now admittedly that’s not the sort of sophisticated literary novel that usually attracts the Clarke judges, but how could I go wrong?

The book follows the adventures of one Captain Eva Innocente, notorious smuggler and all-round badass. Having quit her father’s criminal business and tried to find work that weighs less heavily on the conscience, she has put together her own ship with the expected group of talented misfits. But, of course, her old life won’t let her go. A very much bigger criminal empire has kidnapped her sister and wants both her and Dad to work for them to earn Mari’s release.

So much, so like a cartoon. Eva and her friends get sent on shady missions, which go horribly wrong, and they have to shoot their way out of trouble. If that’s all that there was to this book, I don’t think it would have got on the short list.

Therefore there must be more, and of course there is. To start with, the book features that staple of space opera, the mysterious artefact from a long-lost high-tech civilization that no one can now understand. Given that the people who built this stuff also built the perfectly functioning but wholly mysterious stargate system on which the entire galaxy depends for commerce, this is a big money caper.

In addition, Valdes has a story arc in mind for her heroine. At the start of the book, Eva is very much self-absorbed and in business purely for the fun of it. Which might be how she came to turn her pretty nose up at the advances of a fantastically wealthy alien emperor and cause him to vow to hunt her down and add her to his harem by force rather than by seduction.

Eva, meanwhile, is enamoured of Vakar, her engineer, who is a type of alien that communicates by smell. But she is well aware that a romance with a member of her crew is terrible for discipline and morale. As the story unfolds, she has to learn to treat her crew as family, rather than people to manipulate into helping her get what she wants.

Talking of the crew, the most sensible among them is Dr. Rebecca Jones, a.k.a. Pink, the ship’s medic. It is her job to patch Eva up after each mission. She’s also a Black trans woman. The trans thing is very much a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but it is there. Other than that, Pink is an ordinary, or rather an exceptional, member of the crew. She is rather high femme, and some trans readers might see her as a bit of a stereotype, but I’m absolutely cool with trans characters in books being able to have any identity that suits them.

It is worthy of note that Eva is Cuban by ancestry. The book is peppered with phrases in Spanish, including many chapter titles. I haven’t tried to translate them. Knowing Eva, many of them will be colourful insults that Google will pretend not to understand. Also Cuban Spanish may be quite different from the Spanish that online translators understand. My enjoyment of the book wasn’t marred by my lack of translations.

I should also note that, while the story in the book comes to a satisfying conclusion, some of the story arcs do not. The truth behind the alien artefacts remains obscure, as are the motives of the evil criminal empire. There will be a sequel. Which is just as well.

Do you remember that I mentioned psychic cats? Well, obviously they get in the way in the cutest way possible at various points during the narrative, but they don’t have a huge role in the story. I spent the entire book expecting them to be a furry version of Chekov’s Gun, and that they would become an integral part of the plot eventually. That never happened, and therefore they are still awaiting their starring moment. I guess I will have to keep reading to see what the sneaky little furballs eventually get up to.

book cover
Title: Chilling Effect
By: Valerie Valdes
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

In the Watchful City

Somewhere in the far future there is a city called Ora that takes good care of its citizens. It watches them, very carefully, for any sign of discontent. It would not do for any of them to be unhappy, or doing anything illegal, would it?

Anima is a Node in the central hub of the city. Ae spends much of aer life in a tub of amniotic fluid, plugged in to the central systems of the city. Ae is able to hop bodies between the various forms of (artificial?) wildlife that inhabit the city. Aer job is to watch for anything untoward, and to prevent it if ae can.

Into Anima’s life comes a person whose name is Vessel. Se is able to come and go in the city without detection — something that should be impossible. Yet se does not appear to be committing any crimes. Se carries with ser a large chest full of odd mementos. Each one, se says, has a story attached. If Anima would like to hear the stories, ae can. The only price is that ae must donate an item of aer own, and an associated story, to the collection.

Watching people is Anima’s job. Of course ae is intrigued.

This, of course, is a well used story structure. We are familiar with it from The 1001 Nights, and from Cat Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales. In The Watchful City, S Qiouyi Lu uses it as a means of wakening Anima from aer from aer unquestioning acceptance of Ora and its rules.

I note in passing that both The Watchful City and Light Chaser, reviewed elsewhere in this issue, tell the story of someone who unthinkingly partakes in a highly oppressive society, as an agent of that oppression. In both cases the central character comes to learn the error of their ways. There’s a theme going on here.

Back with The Watchful City, one of the things you will have noticed is that both Anima and Vessel use neopronouns. We do not know what genders these refer to. It does not matter. We might not even understand them if we were told. It is probably also the case that no one in the story is white, though some of the characters have Western-style names. Again this does not matter much to the story. Both of these things will presumably infuriate those readers who see themselves as great thinkers but cannot cope with fiction that challenges their perceived reality in any way.

That said, The Watchful City is a challenging read in many ways. It does not hold the reader’s hand along the way. Parts of it are told in verse. The stories that Vessel tells, and the glimpses we see of Anima working at aer job, are not happy tales. What we can say is that the people in Vessel’s stories are all alive in a way that the people of Ora are not. They dream, they want more for themselves, they are able to make choices. Often they make very bad choices, but at least they were free to make them. No one was watching over them to ensure that they did not do anything foolish.

book cover
Title: In the Watchful City
By: S Qiouyi Lu
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


This year’s Otherwise Award (formerly the Tiptree) has gone to a novella published in the anthology, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora. The story is by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki who also co-edited the anthology with Zelda Knight. I’ve not had a chance to read the whole anthology yet, but I have read the winning story, and I can see why it won.

The story is set in the village of Ife-Iyoku in an un-named African country. We learn that there has been a devastating nuclear war, and Ife-Iyoku is now cut off from the rest of the world. On the plus side, the villagers appear to have developed mutant powers. But the village seems to be too small to become a self-sustaining population. Every life is precious.

The main characters are Morako, the son of the chief, and his girlfriend, Imade. They are clearly very fond of each other, but Imade is not yet ready for marriage and children. Morako, being a decent young man, is happy to let her take her time. The village elders, including Morako’s father, take a very different view. The village needs children.

Meanwhile there is the wider question of the survival of the village. Much of the land around it is a devastated wilderness, but how far does it extend? Could there be other people on the far side? Could they be contacted, and would it be safe to do so?

The jury, in their comments, made much of how Ekpeki had crammed so many ideas into the story (did I mention the lava-breathing dinosaur?) and yet makes the whole thing work within the confines of a novella. However, the aspect of the story that will have won it the award is the way in which it simultaneously tackles issues of colonialism (bad outsiders) and a regressive social structure (bad insiders). To quote the jury, “What does it look like to have gender roles enlisted in the pursuit of a community’s survival against larger, aggressive, unreasoning entities?” The conflict between wanting to be free of colonialism, yet not falling into aggressive patriarchy, is very real in much of Africa today.

The Otherwise Honour List also includes some fine works. The Four Profound Weaves and City of a Thousand Feelings have been reviewed here, and I’m delighted to see Isabel Fall’s “Helicopter Story” get some recognition. The full result of this year’s award can be found here.

book cover
Title: Dominion
By: Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki & Zelda Knight
Publisher: Aurelia Leo
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Light Chaser

A few years back a mystery object given the name, ’Oumuamua, visited our solar system. The consensus of opinion amongst astronomers was that it was a large lump of rock. Others speculated that it might be a well camouflaged space craft.

On the album, 50 Words for Snow, Kate Bush has a song called “Snowed in at Wheeler Street”. It is a duet with Elton John about two time travellers who keep meeting up at different moments in history, and then getting pulled apart again.

These two things come immediately to mind on reading Gareth Powell and Peter Hamilton’s novella, Light Chaser. The story centres on Amahle, a long-lived star-ship pilot whose job is to travel the galaxy collecting valuable goods. She visits each world on her route once every thousand years. On each one she trades technology for memory collars which have recorded the lives of members of specific families since her last visit. She leaves new collars behind when she leaves, with instructions for them to be passed on from one generation to the next until she returns.

The alert reader will soon notice something odd about all this. The worlds that Amahle visits are all unique, and at different levels of technology. None of them have much in the way of space flight, and some don’t have it at all, yet they all welcome this visitor who clearly has far superior flight technology. None of the societies on these worlds evolves in any way in between Amahle’s visits.

The memory collars, then, are a much-prized form of entertainment for a long-lived and powerful civilisation that is keeping the rest of the galaxy as pets, producing endless streams of reality TV for their consumption. Amahle seems oblivious to all this, but into her life comes Carloman, someone who claims to have lived multiple lives, and in one of them to have been her husband.

It is an interesting conceit, and very well executed as you might expect from two fine science fiction writers. If I have a complaint, it is that Powell and Hamilton didn’t manage to find a way to make more of the idea. Amahle’s adventures on each planet that she visits are very skimpily told. Mind you, there is a little bit of male gaze going on here, so perhaps that’s just as well.

Anyway, this book has got me thinking about how novellas work, and about how you include multiple lines of narrative without making them seem skimped. This is probably a job for someone with far better fiction writing skills than me, but given the recent popularity of the form it is rather important.

book cover
Title: Light Chaser
By: Peter F Hamilton & Gareth L Powell
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Occasional Views

Slowly but surely, Wesleyan University Press has been bringing out a number of volumes collecting the non-fiction work of Samuel R Delany. Occasional Views: Volume 1 – “More About Writing” and Other Essays is the latest in that series. There are quite a few essays in the book, on a wide variety of topics. I’m still working my way through them. But I wanted to write a review now because some of the essays touch on issues of racism and homophobia. Delany has been part of the industry for a very long time, and his experiences are thus instructive. I’m going to pick just one example, from 1977.

In that year, Delany went to the cinema to see a brand new film called Star Wars. He loved it, and wrote a rave review of it for Cosmos magazine. But he did spot the lack of diversity in the cast. He noted, “When you travel across three whole worlds and all the humans you see are so scrupulously Caucasian and male, Lucas’s future begins to seem a little dull.”

Remember that Star Trek debuted on American TV in 1966, and Gene Roddenberry had made a point of having both gender and racial diversity amongst the crew of the Enterprise. He might not have done the world’s greatest job of it, but he tried. Eleven years later, Lucas made rather less of an effort.

Delany’s review of Star Wars is one of the essays reproduced in Occasional Views. But, in preparing the book for publication, Delany opted to add a footnote. Here’s how it starts.

Shortly after my review of Star Wars was published in the November 1977 edition of Cosmos, I came into the office, where I had been working as David Hartwell’s assistant on the magazine. On the desk was a large pile of mail, which apparently was responses to my review. Indeed, I had never published a piece of non-fiction before or since that so quickly received that much.

I began to open them and read them one after the other and realized, to my astonishment, I had a pile of hate mail in front of me. The only part of my review that anybody chose to respond to were the five paragraphs, out of twenty-nine, that talked about the lack of diversity in the film. By and large, the young, clearly white, mostly male readers had been infuriated.

This is 44 years ago, but the reaction that Delany was getting here is still very familiar today. White people, and particularly white men, still see the presence of anyone not like them in what they see as “their” stories to be a threat of some sort. Isn’t it time they grew up?

By the way, John W Campbell and Isaac Asimov do not come off well in Delany’s essay on “Racism in Science Fiction.”

I’ve had some pretty unpleasant experiences in the SF&F community in my time, but they are nothing to what Delany has experienced, and I’m assuming that the same is true of most, if not all, non-white authors. We may well have been better than the wider society of the time, but we should still be ashamed of ourselves.

book cover
Title: Occasional Views
By: Samuel R Delany
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

FantasyCon 2021

Dear Goddess, an in-person convention! How did that happen?

Yes, last weekend I drove up to Birmingham with a boot full of books, mainly copies of Juliet McKenna’s The Green Man’s Challenge, which was being launched at FantasyCon. I spent an entire two days in the physical company of other SF&F people, something I had not done since BristolCon 2019.

The biggest problem with FantasyCon turned out to be finding it. Central Birmingham is in the process of being completely dug up and re-vamped to make way for a tram network. Naturally no one’s SatNav had any idea this was happening, and getting to the hotel proved every bit as difficult as finding one’s way into a mythical labyrinth. The process went a bit like this.

SatNav: Turn left here.

Me: I can’t, the road is blocked.

SatNav: You are going the wrong way up a one-way street.

Me: I’m following the diversion signs.

SatNav: As soon as possible, make a u-turn.

Me: Then I would be going the wrong way on a one-way street.

SatNav: Turn left here.

Me: SHUT UP!!! I’m trying my best.

Eventually I put my car in a public car park and walked to the hotel. Thankfully the convention staff were very helpful. They not only managed to explain which small and well-hidden back street I needed to turn up in order to get to the hotel, they also helped me unload the books. Top class service.

There was a fair bit of talk on Twitter in the preceding week about the Con not having a COVID policy. Having been there, I don’t see how they could have enforced one. The hotel had given up on social distancing and none of the staff wore masks. There were lots of other people in the hotel, and most of them were maskless too. Most of the restaurants in central Birmingham had also given up on social distancing, and many of them were rammed to the rafters with customers. The entire city centre was a spreader event waiting to happen. But I don’t seem to have caught anything, which is a massive relief.

I did three panels and two book launches. One of the panels I only found out about when I was checking my phone while stuck in a traffic jam on the M5 on the Friday afternoon. But that was a panel on gender which was great fun and I’m pleased I did it. The other panels went well too.

My first book launch was for Luna Press Publishing’s Worlds Apart, a collection of academic essays on worldbuilding. My own contribution is on “Worldbuilding with Sex and Gender”. I was pleased that Adrian Tchaikovsky was in the audience so I would tell him I’d cited his thoughts on the mating habits of intelligent spiders. (Yes, the females do still eat their mates.)

The other book launch was for The Green Man’s Challenge. We had rather fewer people than I’d hoped, but my guess at attendance was based on the assumption that most FantasyCon attendees would already own the first three books in the series. As it turned out, we sold more copies of The Green Man’s Heir than of the new book. Which is excellent news because all those people will hopefully go on to buy the other three volumes.

Being a dealer at a convention is a relatively new experience for me, and that means I am getting a fresh appreciation of the difficulties they face. People have been telling me this over the years (hello Rina and Jacob!), but it is inevitably different experiencing it for yourself.

For the benefit of future FantasyCons, here are a few requests from the Dealers’ Room.

Firstly, if you don’t open until 10:00am on Saturday, there’s no point in opening at 9:00am on Sunday. I don’t think a single sale was made by anyone in that first hour of Sunday morning, and I could have had a more relaxed breakfast.

Second, some of us do want to go to the banquet and awards, so please don’t schedule it so that we have to close down the stall, load up our cars, and change into our awards finery, in precisely zero time. Ideally, don’t have the banquet and awards on Sunday afternoon at all. Have them on Saturday evening when everyone has plenty of time, and when it doesn’t matter if we celebrate because we don’t have to drive home until the next day.

All of that said, I think I did reasonably well. I didn’t cover the cost of the dealer table, but I did sell a lot of books and hopefully I have found Juliet some new readers. I certainly did better than several of the dealers, some of whom gave up and went home on Saturday.

There were awards, of course. I was delighted that Luna Press Publishing won Best Independent Press. There were a lot of other good results too. The full list of winners is here.

FantasyCon 2022 will be at Heathrow, so perhaps we shall get a few foreign visitors, and a lot more Brits. I’ve already booked up.

Finally a small personal note. I discovered in Birmingham that my hearing has deteriorated somewhat over the past two years. I’m fine in small groups, and in online meetings, but in a large room with a lot of ambient chatter I have great difficulty hearing people. This inevitably means that I will be spending less time in bars at conventions. People going to World Fantasy please note. I’m not being deliberately rude.

He-Man Wars

There’s nothing like success to prompt Hollywood into doing more of the same. Therefore, off the back of Noelle Stevenson’s brilliant reboot of She-Ra, we have not one, but two new reboots of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Both are available on Netflix, but they are very different.

First up is Masters of the Universe: Revelation. This is created by Kevin Smith, and it is rather more aimed at adults than at children. The story begins with Skeletor finally managing to kill He-Man, whose secret identity is thereby revealed. The forces of good immediately fall to squabbling, with Prince Adam’s parents blaming He-Man’s companions for their son’s death, and Teela absolutely furious that everyone seemed to know who He-Man was except her.

Years later, Teela finds herself teaming up with Evil-Lyn to solve the mystery of what happened in the final battle. That is not the sort of thing that a kid’s show would do.

You can also tell the adult focus because the show spends a lot of time trying to explain aspects of the He-Man universe that are frankly silly, such as why the good guys’ castle is in the shape of a giant skull, and whether Evil-Lyn’s parents actually named her Evil-Lyn.

The best thing about this series is the cast. Mark Hamill has a whale of a time playing Skeletor, and Lena Heady (Cersei Lannister) has equal fun as Evil-Lyn. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays Teela, who is the focal character for most of Season 1.

However, whereas Stevenson’s She-Ra could be equally enjoyed by both adults and children, I suspect that this incarnation of He-Man will mostly go over the heads of any young kids who watch it. For us adults, it is very watchable.

The other series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe 2021, is created by Rob David, previously best known for writing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. This series is very much for kids, with themes of teenagers rebelling against stupid adults being a major part of the plot.

Another major difference between the two series is the style of the animation. Kevin Smith has gone for a look that very much evokes the original series. Rob David, on the other hand, has gone for a manga-inspired look. The characters have giant eyes, and all of the heroes have transformation sequences. He-Man also has a power use sequence that gets into most episodes. There is much posing of the characters in ways that are probably exact copies of the action figures made for the show.

I hadn’t quite realised before looking at these two series just how many versions of He-Man were out there. The Kevin Smith series appears to be based mostly on the original stories, whereas Rob David has mined the He-Man comics for a storyline in which Skeletor is actually Prince Adam’s evil uncle.

I guess that if you are some sort of He-Man purist all these variant storylines will be infuriating. Personally I found the fact that the two series were so different to be refreshing and interesting. If they had both tried to do the same thing one would have inevitably eclipsed the other. As it is, we have two new series that we can enjoy for what each is trying to do, with little in the way of competition.

Of course neither series holds a candle to She-Ra, but I did enjoy watching them and will pick up season 2 of both when they arrive.

Editorial – September 2021

You would have thought that with a month off I would have a bumper issue for you. No such luck. Life, as they say, has happened. I’ve talked a bit about the sort of issues I’m dealing with on my blog. It is not fun, and it takes time away from important stuff such as making books.

Having said that, I have been to my first in-person convention in what seems like forever. There’s a report on FantasyCon in this issue. We launched The Green Man’s Challenge there, and the book is already well on the way to 1000 copies sold, which I never would have believed if you had told me about it back when I started Wizard’s Tower. I’m also delighted that we will be bringing back Chaz Brenchley’s Outremer series over the next couple of years.

There’s a fair amount of book-related activity in my near future as well, starting with Octocon this weekend, at which I am doing two panels and experimenting with their virtual dealers’ room.

On Tuesday Oct. 19th you can see an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson about The Ministry for the Future. That’s part of the Bristol Ideas Festival of the Future City. I had the honour of introducing Stan and, having heard the interview be recorded, I can warmly recommend it.

Following that will be BristolCon on Saturday Oct. 30th. Again that’s an in-person event, and I will have a dealer table. A few days after that I will be jetting off to Montréal for World Fantasy, and I will be getting to see Kevin in person for the first time since the Dublin Worldcon. Hopefully I will have some more books read and made before then.

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