Issue #27

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


Cover: Flying Unicorn

This issue’s cover is once again by Steffan Keller, so clearly I have an attraction to his work. The image I have chosen caught my eye as I was browsing Pixabay because I have been researching Medusa for something I’m doing with Dan Vo next week. I can’t say anything much about that yet, but doubtless it will all appear in due course.

If you are into Greek mythology, you will know that Pegasus was born from Medusa after she was killed by Perseus. Quite why fantasy artists keep insisting on giving him a unicorn horn, I don’t know, but I’ll live with it.

As is generally the case when I get cover material from Pixabay, this is only part of a much bigger image. The full thing is shown below, and you can see it in all its glory here.


Legendborn

LegendbornArthuriana is something of a Vegemite subgenre. I know lots of people who absolutely loathe it. I, however, have Welsh parents, and was born just a few miles from Glastonbury. Arthur is in my blood, and I am a total sucker for new attempts to reinvent the genre.

Legendborn had the potential to be a complete disaster. It is an American college kids story, with a Black lead. Given how badly Americans often do British history, I was nervous. I might not have tried it at all had it not been for an enthusiastic recommendation from Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz on Our Opinions are Correct. Charlie Jane and Annalee are pretty good judges of fiction, and I am here to tell you that they were not wrong.

The story begins with two high school girls, Brianna and Alice, applying for something called Early College, which apparently means going to university early. I don’t know much about American high schools, apart from the fact that they are supposed to be the worst days of your life, and that if you go to one you are liable to eaten by zombies, or werewolves, or vampires, or cannibal serial killers. I can see why people want to get out of going to them. Early College may be something that Tracy Deonn made up, and I’m not quite sure why it was necessary to the plot for Bree and Alice to go to college younger than everyone else, but there we are.

By way of introduction, Alice is Asian-American and has the sort of parents who get you up at 6:00am on Sunday morning and put you through hours of extra homework because you are going to succeed in life or die trying. Bree is naturally clever and hasn’t had to study for an exam in her life. Also her mom went to the same college, which counts for a lot just as it would in the UK. They both get in easily.

While Alice’s parents are intensely proud of their daughter, Bree’s mom is furious. And then, before mother and daughter can make up, mom gets fridged. To be precise, Bree’s mother dies in a car accident. Bree and her father come to pay their respects at the hospital, and Bree becomes convinced that the police officer who tells them about the accident has somehow messed with her mind to cover something up.

There is a lot of mom-fridging in this book. Deonn explains why in an afterword. I totally understand. Legendborn is, in many ways, a book about grief and how one deals with it.

I don’t know much about American universities either, except that some people get paid absurd sums of money for playing sport, and everyone else joins secret societies with silly names and bizarre, humiliating initiation rituals. And yes, Legendborn did remind me a bit of Waking the Moon, which got it off to an excellent start.

In their first week in college, Bree and Alice get involved with some fairly wild kids and attend an illegal party in a local park. They get caught and put on report. Alice immediately buries herself in her work, but Bree, ever the rebel, does her best to avoid the older student that she has been assigned as a mentor. When he finally catches up with her, she discovers that he’s a tall, handsome and really rather cool white boy. Maybe being on report won’t be so bad after all.

Except that this Nick Davis is a member of a secret society called The Round Table, and they have some very odd rituals indeed. They even claim that their traditions date all the way back to 6th Century Wales, with bloodlines to match.

And that they fight demons.

All of this happens in the first couple of chapters, so the first thing you should know about Legendborn is that it is incredibly fast-paced. I really didn’t want to put it down, and tore through the book in a very small number of days.

From now on the main question is how well Deonn will adapt the Arthur mythos to modern day America. There are plenty of potential pitfalls. I’m pleased to say that she very clearly loves the source material (and blames Susan Cooper for this). Deonn does far better with the Matter of Prydain than any number of red-haired, white American women who parade their “Celtic” heritage.

The Charybdis to this Scylla is the risk of betraying her own people. The Arthurian legends are, after all, the property of the colonisers. To have Bree simply embrace them would be to ignore much of what has happened in world politics in the 15 centuries or so since Arthur’s supposed reign.

Deonn gets around this by rooting her story firmly in modern American politics. The young students who join the Round Table are mostly typical of their generation. Several are gay and lesbian, one is non-binary, and a couple are passing white. They don’t see why Nick hooking up with a young Black girl should be a problem. Their parents, on the other hand, and bearing in mind that the story is set in North Carolina, have probably voted Rethuglican with pride all their lives, including in the most recent election, and would happily pledge their swords to King Donald. The generational divide gives Bree a means of embracing the myth, without embracing the legacy.

There is, of course, also the question of how Bree fits into a very ancestry-driven society. Deonn finds a brilliant solution to this.

I have two other things that I’d like to mention that I particularly enjoyed. The first is that Deonn took the time to understand the Welsh language, including how it is pronounced. The other is that her characters are charming: they seem like a great bunch of kids that I’d love to hang out with were I not old enough to be their grandmother.

As is the way of things, in Arthuriana more than most, there will be sequels. It looks like there will be a properly Arthurian love triangle. I’m certainly looking forward to more books. But please don’t let the partial nature of the story stop you from putting this book on your Lodestar ballot. It is very much worth it. (Well, unless you hate Arthuriana, of course, in which case broadswords at dawn.)

book cover
Title: Legendborn
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

The Four Profound Weaves

The Four Profound WeavesI’m always a little nervous approaching books centring trans characters that everyone else raves about. Of course I shouldn’t have been worried about RB Lemberg. They know what they are doing. But I was pleasantly surprised that there was so much more to The Four Profound Weaves than the trans elements.

One of the first things that strikes you about the book is that the two main protagonists, as well as both being trans, are both in their sixties. This in itself is rare enough but, as Gary Wolfe notes in his review for Locus, these are not the elderly but sprightly wizards who populate much of fantasy fiction, they are people who feel their age. Indeed, one of them, Uiziya, is ready to die.

More on that later, but first we need to understand a little of the world that Lemberg calls the Birdverse.

The action begins among the Surun’ people who live in a great desert. For the Surun’, changing gender is a routine business. They are also very comfortable with people being what they call “in-betweens”, and we would term “non-binary”. The Surun’ are also master weavers, and they practice the titular four profound weaves. The first of these, the weave of wind, is also the weave of change. Gender transition is accomplished with the aid of a magic carpet created using the wind weave.

The next weave in the sequence is the weave of sand, which is the weave of wanderlust. Uiziya has mastered this weave and created a flying carpet, a useful thing to have for elderly adventurers. Beyond that is the weave of song, which is the weave of hope. Uiziya seems to have missed that, because as the story starts she is sitting alone in her tent, hoping for the return of her aunt, Benesret, who can teach her the secret of the fourth weave, the weave of bones, the weave of death. Benesret has mastered this weave, and has been banished by the tribe for their safety. There seems to be no hope that Uiziya will gain what she seeks.

In the same tent village lives a man who will have multiple names, but I shall call him nen-sasaïr as that is the name he has for most of the book. He is of the Khana people who live in a ghetto in the city of Iyar. Iyar society is structed along gender lines, transition is frowned upon, and women are not allowed to practice magic. The Khana are worse. Their society is full segregated, and the men live in a walled compound inside the ghetto, forbidden to interact with the outside world. Khana women have more freedom to travel, and this eventually allowed nen-sasaïr to live among the Surun’ and become the man he is now.

Uiziya, as is the Surun’ custom, transitioned in childhood and has mostly forgotten what it was like to live as a boy. Nen-sasaïr, on the other hand, is wracked with doubt and guilt, feeling himself an outsider everywhere. Later in the story he finally returns to Iyar and an elderly woman called Sulikhah gives him a chance to enter the Khana male compound, but to do so would mean he had to abandon Uiziya, who is wounded.

I snatched my hand away from the lock.
“The lock recognized you as a man, I saw. But you could not solve it?” asked Sulikhah.
“No, no, it was easy. I solved it. I just did not turn it all the way.” I took a breath. “But I need to go back. I cannot leave my companion, for she is sick and helpless.”
Sulikhah looked at me, her eyes shrouded. “And this is the nature of women. Always given too much to those in our care.”
“I am not a woman.”
She shrugged. “You were brought up to be one. These things are hard to erase, much as you change otherwise.”
This is not the nature of women, but rather the nature of all people who care. Uiziya had told me this once. “You can choose to care or not, and that is what people do.”

As I said, Lemberg understands the trans condition very well.

However, I get ahead of myself. There is another character that we must meet, our antagonist. The Ruler of Iyar, also known as The Collector, is a tyrannical despot whose goals in life include collecting powerful magical artefacts. Forty years ago he tricked nen-sasaïr into brining him Benesret’s finest work, her carpet of hope. Naturally that has not satisfied him. But he has reason for all this collecting. He sees himself as a protector of the world.

“Change is the world’s greatest danger. Around the world you and others, old woman, chafe at my rule, forever desiring a change, yet change destroys all. If not for that power of change, we would not need to die. But you people do not understand. You rebel, you wander from place to place, you chafe at my rule, thinking that something else, somewhere else, would be better. It isn’t. But I save you.”

At this point I remind you that the first of the four profound weaves is the weave of wind, which means change, and the Surun’ use that weave very specifically for gender transition. There is a reason why conservatives of all stripes hate trans people, because the change that we effect strikes deep at their ideas of the way the world should be, and they cannot countenance that.

I should note also that Lemberg is first and foremost a poet. They are, Wolfe thinks, the only person to be on the Crawford Award shortlist with a book of poetry. Now poetry isn’t really my thing, but prose written by people who are poets very much is. The Four Profound Weaves is a wonderfully lyrical book. It also has some marvellous fantasy imagery. I particularly loved the Ruler’s birdcage throne, and the Torturer’s iron rod.

On the subject of change, some of you may remember that argument from elsewhere:

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
is Change.

Earthseed: The Books of the Living

That’s from Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which makes very similar points. Lemberg adds the fact that without hope there cannot be change.

“Hope will never be silent” – Harvey Milk

“The dawn is never far away” – RB Lemberg, The Four Profound Weaves

As for the weave of death, that too has a role to play. Uiziya explains:

To weave from death, you had to listen to the dead. To know them deeply, to attend to what had been silenced, to care enough to help the dead speak again through every thread that made up the great work.

Which is why I spend so much time working on queer history.

The quality of the novellas published in 2020 is amazing. This book is right up there with the best of them.

book cover
Title: The Four Profound Weaves
By: RB Lemberg
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Queen of the Conquered

Among many remarkable things that happened in 2020, the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel was won by a YA book written by a non-binary person. That book was Queen of the Conquered, by Kacen Callender. It is a book I have been meaning to get to for some time, and it is indeed excellent. Callender looks like they will have a fine career ahead of them. I’d like you to take that as a given, dear reader, because I’m going to be slightly critical and I don’t want you to think that I didn’t like the book.

First up, I do sometimes despair of the publishing industry. Queen of the Conquered is marketed as YA. In the prologue there is a brutal massacre of a wealthy family and their servants, not to mention guests at a party they are throwing. The only survivors are a young girl who grows up to be our central character, Sigourney Rose, and her maid, Marieke. In the first chapter Sigourney, now a young woman with her own domain to rule, thinks about how much fun it is to have sex with her bodyguard. There’s little coming of age tale here, and most of what there is happens in backstory.

Sometimes I think that the only thing that distinguishes YA from the rest of the market is that YA editors are allowed much more free rein in the nature of the books that they commission. The suits and bean counters don’t care what gets published as YA because it is “for children”.

The setting for Queen of the Conquered is a fantasy version of the Caribbean which appears to have been colonised by something like the Danish or Dutch. Each island is ruled by a noble family, and each has an agricultural economy dependent on slavery. For complex historical reasons, one island is ruled by a Black family, the Roses. This, of course, is the reason for the massacre. But now Sigourney is back. She has already manipulated her way into being adopted as heir by one of the other white families, and has become fiancée to the heir of another. Now her ambition is to persuade the childless King to make her his heir.

How can she do this? Well, there is magic. Not many people have it, but Sigourney happens to have a very useful power. She can read and manipulate the minds of others. That’s how she has got where she is this far. The royalty thing will be a bit harder.

Every year the King invites the other families to stay with him on his island during Storm Season. This year he has promised to name an heir. Each of the nobles has a magical power of some sort, and many of them want the crown. So the book in effect becomes a country house murder mystery in which Sigourney has to find a way to defeat the powers of her rivals, and work out who is killing them off, in order to achieve her objective.

However, Queen of the Conquered is much more than that. It is a deep meditation on questions of privilege. Sigourney might be Black, but she also owns slaves. She has no hesitation in condemning them to death if they misbehave. She likes to think that she wants to become Queen in order to free her people, but they have no faith in her willingness to do so.

Without getting too spoilery, Callender has an excellent solution to this dilemma, but they don’t quite carry it off. For a country house murder mystery with a twist ending to work, the reader has to believe that at least one of the obvious suspects must be the murderer. This is where Queen of the Conquered falls down for me. It isn’t a serious fault, and if I hadn’t read as many novels as I have then I might not even have noticed it. Thankfully Callender looks to have a long and very successful career ahead of them. I’m sure they’ll get better at their craft. And I’m looking forward to the sequel to this book.

book cover
Title: Queen of the Conquered
By: Kacen Callender
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Seven of Infinities

Seven of InfinitiesOne of the things I enjoy most about reviewing books is seeing writers grow and blossom as their career develops. I have always enjoyed Aliette de Bodard’s work, but I have also seen her craft improve, year by year. As far as I’m concerned, Seven of Infinities is her best work to date.

I must admit that I had expected – perhaps even wanted – this novella to be a sequel to The Tea Master and the Detective, which I had very much enjoyed. It is not. Instead it is de Bodard revisiting the idea, and making an even better job of it. So once again we have a detective team involving a starship and a human woman. In this case our starship is Wild Orchid in the Sunless Woods, a mindship with a shady past who is finding retirement a little too boring for her tastes. Her plucky human companion is Vân, a poor scholar just about surviving as a teacher to the children of reach folks thanks to an artificial ancestor implant that she created when a student.

An artificial what? Here I must explain that this story is set in de Bodard’s Xuya universe, which is essentially Vietnamese empire in space. De Bodard has gone to a great deal of effort to make this a real Vietnamese culture, albeit one subtly adapted for a space opera setting. For Western readers, that makes aspects of the worldbuilding seem quite alien. And anyone who is upset by that has a very odd idea of what science fiction is all about.

Anyway, Vietnamese culture means reverence for one’s ancestors, and what better way to revere them than to upload their minds into silicon so that they can keep on advising you after their death? It sounds pretty horrific to me, but then I didn’t grow up in Vietnamese culture. The point is, however, that this has to be a real ancestor, not some AI cobbled together by an incredibly brilliant and desperately poor student. Faking an ancestor would be something like faking that you were descended from a Norman baron with a hereditary title, or for Australians faking that you had an ancestor who was transported from England for some minor crime.

So, the plot. One day Vân’s student receives a mysterious visitor. Uyên, the student, goes to make a pot of tea, and when she returns the visitor is dead. In another room, Vân is chatting with her friend, Sunless Woods, whom she knows through a poetry club. The pair answer Uyên’s cry for help, and the investigation begins. Through her underworld contacts, Sunless Woods soon realises that the dead woman was a criminal on a hunt for a missing treasure, but she doesn’t want her cute and innocent human friend caught up in all this nefarious activity. Meanwhile Vân is terrified of any publicity and involvement with the authorities that might expose her scandalous secret. When the criminals turn out to have a connection to some of Vân’s friends from her student days, things get very awkward indeed.

There are two things I love about this book. The first is the characters. Works of fiction often rely heavily on characters doing stupid things, and not talking to each other. Often when reading such works you end up shaking your head at how daft everyone has been. In Seven of Infinites de Bodard crafts her two principle characters so beautifully that there is never any doubt that they would do the daft things that they do. It is absolutely in their nature to do them.

The other thing is that the entire plot is deeply rooted in the nature of the Xuya universe. The twist ending, which is quite brilliant, would not work in a Western setting. In fact it would probably be laughable. But in Xuya it makes perfect sense and is exactly the right thing to have happened. That de Bodard has presented her world in such a way that we foreign interlopers understand that, and accept it, is a magnificent achievement.

book cover
Title: Seven of Infinities
By: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
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Remote Control

Lagoon is my favourite book by Nnedi Okorafor, so I was excited to find that her latest work is also set in Africa. Remote Control isn’t nearly as funny, but it is fascinating all the same.

The story concerns a young Muslim girl called Fatima who lives in a small town in Ghana. One day she witnesses a meteor storm, and soon after she finds a box containing a seed hidden beneath a tree. The tree appears to give the box to her. Previously Fatima had been a sickly child, but the box appears to do wonders for her health. Then one day a wealthy politician, a man with golden shoes, comes to visit her family. Fatima’s father sells him the box and he takes it away. Soon after, Fatima is almost run down in a traffic accident. Terrified, she lashes out with her mind. When she wakes up, everyone in the town is dead.

Distraught, Fatima takes to wandering the countryside, avoiding people as she learns to control the abilities her panic has unleashed. She takes the name of Sankofa, which is clearly significant. It is a word in the language of the Akan people of Ghana and literally it means “go back and get it”. More significantly it is associated with a proverb that goes something like, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” The English version of that is, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Sankofa, at least as much as I can learn from the internet, is a concept popular amongst the Ghanaian diaspora which encourages learning about their history. There’s a lot to learn. The Akan people were responsible for two of the great empires of Africa. The Ghana Empire dominated much of central west Africa for several hundred years in the first millennium CE. The Ashanti Empire controlled what is now modern Ghana from the 18th Century onwards and was only finally subdued by the British, after five wars, in 1902.

It isn’t entirely clear to me why Okorafor has chosen this piece of symbolism for the story, because the Sankofa of the story is very much a science fiction presence. There are fantasy-like elements to the story. She has a fox companion called Movenpick who follows her around and seems impervious to her powers. If you are wondering why he’s named after a Swiss brand of luxury ice cream, it is apparently because the ice cream company was bought up by Accor Hotels, and they have used the name for a luxury hotel chain, which is where Sankofa gets the name. But mostly this is a science fiction story.

The setting is the near future. We can tell that from the fact that Sankofa arrives in a place called Robotown that has a giant, AI-controlled robot as its police force. There Sankofa is befriended by a woman called Alhaja who has a business selling “jelli tellis” – TV sets that come in the form of a transparent film.

So Remote Control is about the past of Africa, but also about its future, and the deeply divided society that results from vast wealth pouring into the country from overseas. The text seems particularly dismissive of people who have acquired wealth and qualifications in America and have come home to lord it over those who have never left.

None of this tells us why the book is called Remote Control. That I will have to leave you to find out for yourselves and Okorafor slowly unravels the mystery of what happened to Fatima as a child. There’s a lot to think about in this book, and I’m not sure that I have understood it all yet, but that’s the mark of an excellent book.

book cover
Title: Remote Control
By: Nnedi Okorfor
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

SHIELD – Season Seven

SHIELD – Season SevenIt was announced in advance that this would be the last season of Agents of SHIELD. Maybe the creative team wanted to try new things. Maybe there are so many new Marvel TV series lined up that they needed to re-deploy staff. Or maybe they had run out of ideas for bringing Phil Coulson back from the dead.

Anyway, this season revolves around a plot by the Chromicoms to take over Earth, their own world having been destroyed in Season Six. Knowing that SHIELD is a formidable enemy, they elect to go back in time to prevent the organisation from ever being formed. Fitz and Simmons, with the help of Enoch the Chronicom, devise a counter strategy. But Sibyl, the Chronicom leader, is able to read the timestream, so their plan has to be heavily disguised. This involves Fitz being hidden away from Sibyl’s gaze, and Simmons having parts of her memory excised.

The bulk of the series involves the team chasing the Chronicoms through time. They start in 1931 and gradually move forward, stopping off at key moments in SHIELD and Earth history. That’s a brilliant idea for a farewell season, because it provides opportunities for vast amounts of nostalgia.

The creative team has run with the idea, in that the opening credits for each episode are designed to fit in with a spy thriller from the period in question. And the wardrobe department gets to go to town on silly, 20th Century fashions.

So yes, it is fan service. But unlike, say, The Mandalorian, there is a real TV series underpinning everything. With six seasons behind them, all of the characters have their own story arcs, and these get built on during the season. I’ve already covered Fitz and Simmons. Mac and Yoyo have their relationship to rebuild. May suffers consequences from her sort-of-death at the end of season six, and Yoyo also has to recover from injuries received. Daisy has more family drama, and Deke is trying to find a role for himself far in his past.

Then there is Coulson. It wouldn’t be SHIELD without him. Given the bad guys in the season, they bring him back in a Chronicom body. That means he’s an un-aging android with super strength. He even understands science. Not bad for an old guy. Of course being in silicon can be a problem when you are back in pre-internet days. I loved the episode where Coulson spent the entire time as [REDACTED].

The bit where Simmons gets to cosplay Peggy Carter, and Dan Sousa says her accent is terrible, is also brilliant.

The season gets to revisit a number of key events from previous seasons as the team travels through time. Eventually, however, they must confront the Chronicoms. The final episode seemed a little rushed. Much of the detail of the plan is explained very quickly. It was almost as if someone had decided the plot bit had to be cut short in order to make room for a soppy “what happened next” segment to round everything off. But it was worth it, because after seven years you do care about the characters and want them to have a chance at happiness.

Thank you, Agents of SHIELD. That was a wild ride and times, but you did a great job.

Star Trek: Discovery – Season Three

Star Trek: Lower Decks - Season OneI think that Discovery may have found its feet at last. I have enjoyed the previous two seasons, but the idea of setting it prior to The Original Series was wildly risky and the Young Spock thing didn’t work as well as they had hoped it would. As part of Star Trek, the series didn’t make much sense. Sending Burnham and the crew into the 32nd Century gives them freedom to tell new stories without being too much beholden to What Has Gone Before.

Of course, there were still lose ends to tidy up. It became clear that the scriptwriters did not know how to make good use of Empress Georgiou, so they had to concoct a means of shuffling her offstage without causing too much upset to fans. Much as I love Michelle Yeoh, and Captain Killy, I hope that’s the last we shall see of the Mirror Universe. Georgiou will apparently be a major feature of the forthcoming Section 31 series, and that will be a much better use of the character. But if that series wants to be taken seriously as Star Trek Noir it will need to be less silly and more morally grey than a Mirror Universe story.

A new recurring character for this series is Cleveland Booker, an “independent trader” who befriends Burnham when she arrives in the 32nd Century some months ahead of Discovery. Book, as he’s known, provides the essential service of being a native guide to the new world in which the Discovery crew find themselves. He also provides a new love interest for Burnham, is an environmental activist on the side, and has a beautiful pet cat, Grudge. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s played by David Ajala (swoon). That’s a win all around.

That leaves us with the overarching theme of the current series: The Burn. This was a galaxy-wide event that caused the dilithium cores of starships everywhere to explode with massive loss of life and a significant reduction in interstellar travel. The Federation is a desperate fraction of its former self, trying to hang on to shreds of authority in a galaxy increasingly given over to every-planet-for-itself. The Discovery, with its unique spore drive, is clearly a significant asset.

The main thrusts of the plot have therefore been to re-integrate Discovery into the Federation, and to find out what caused The Burn. The former is complicated by Michael Burnham’s conviction that she always knows better than her superior officers, and by the presence of Book who is very much not a Starfleet officer. Inevitably, because this is a Star Trek tradition, we have an admiral as a potential adversary. I was never quite convinced by Charles Vance as he seemed to have a somewhat different character in each episode, but we got there in the end. I particularly liked his explanation to the main series villain, Osyraa, that you can’t forge a peace unless evil actions have consequences. That was remarkably perceptive of the scriptwriters.

The three-part season finale also provided an explanation for The Burn, and while it depended on more Star Trek hand-wavy physics, it was a remarkably imaginative move. It looks like it also paves the way for retirement for Captain Saru. The finale showed how hard it is for actors to express emotion in all that Kelpien make-up, and I suspect that Doug Jones may have asked for the opportunity to appear as Saru without it for his swansong.

Like in His Dark Materials, the setting for that season finale owed a lot to Piranesi. I’m pleased to see that so many people in the TV business are reading Suzanna Clarke (because I don’t think they discovered an obscure Italian artist by accident).

All of which leaves series 4 clear to go back to simple stories of space exploration and the Federation acting as the kindly galactic police. That’s very traditional Star Trek.

The other thing I need to mention is the queer core of the cast. The gay couple of Stamets and Culber have been joined by the lesbian engineer, Jett Reno, and by Adira Tal, a human Trill host who is non-binary, and their transmasculine lover and predecessor as host, Gray, who is not quite as dead as a former host ought to be. This group forms a charming queer community in engineering and medical. In addition, the actors playing Adira and Gray are themselves non-binary and transmasculine. This is a huge leap forward for trans representation in television. I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of using Trill to introduce trans characters, because it provides a non-human excuse for them being trans rather than it being a simple fact. However, thus far the series has managed to not make any awful missteps. The way that Stamets and Culber have adopted Adira and Gray is really quite charming.

As I understand it, one of Gene Roddenberry’s objectives for Star Trek was that it would provide a beacon of hope for a better future, one in which all of mankind would work together to explore the galaxy. Season #3 of Discovery looks to have put the show in exactly the position that it needs to be able to fulfil that role for a modern audience.

His Dark Materials – Season Two

His Dark Materials – Season #2I saved the second season of His Dark Materials to watch over the holiday period and am glad I did. I would have got very itchy having to wait a week for each new episode. I’m pleased to say that it continues to hold my attention.

As with the first season, some of the casting is superb. Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda continue to do great jobs, and Simone Kirby makes a great addition as Mary Malone. I also loved the set dressing for Cittàgazze. There is a definite air of Piranesi influence about those staircases.

Plot-wise, on the other hand, it is very much a middle book of the series. There is a great deal of wandering around aimlessly in the mountains near Cittàgazze in the final couple of episodes and you get the impression that time runs differently for different groups of characters. The only really important development is that Will finds the Knife and learns how to use it.

When I wrote my review of season #1 I wondered how audiences would react when the books descend into theological ranting, which they inevitably must. This season is mostly free of this, but the final couple of episodes set things up for the war between Lord Asriel and The Authority. Lyra is revealed to be the new Eve, and Mrs Coulter vows to avert The Fall. It is all Deeply Ominous.

Possibly the most interesting scene in the entire season is the one in which the angels start talking to Mary through her computers. She asks them why they have been helping humans evolve, and their answer is, “Revenge!” Given that Mary is an ex-nun, that must come as a bit of a shock, but she never revisits the question, and happily accepts a commission from the angels later in the series.

Mary uses the I Ching to communicate with Dust, but watching her walk wide-eyed through the world of Cittàgazze, protected from the spectres by angels, though she doesn’t know that, I can’t help thinking of the Fool card from the Tarot. I should probably look to see if there is a full deck of Major Arcana in the cast list.

There was also a scene from episode 5 that stuck with me. Carlo Boreal has brought Mrs Coulter to Will’s Oxford (i.e. our world) and is explaining to her how this new world works. He notes that the government there is even more corrupt than the Magisterium. I can’t remember if he says that in the books, but it works magnificently well for the UK right now.

Thankfully season #3 has been greenlit, so we should get to see the end of the story. I hope that the TV scriptwriters manage to do as well as Pullman did with the book and make it a powerful piece of fiction. Otherwise we’ll be left with another old man from Oxford lecturing us about religion.

Star Trek: Lower Decks – Season One

Star Trek: Lower Decks - Season OneThose of you in the USA will already have had plenty of time to enjoy this animated Star Trek spinoff. For us in the UK it has only just arrived, being available on Amazon Prime. Having heard a lot of hype about the series, I binged on it immediately.

Lower Decks is set after the Next Generation era, because Will Ryker has his own ship. But he and Deanna Troi only turn up in the final episode. The series is mainly about the USS Cerritos, “one of Starfleet’s least important ships”. She is named after a small town in the Los Angeles area, and the captain’s office has a California flag on the wall. Someone was having a bit of regional rebellion there.

The Cerritos is commanded by Captain Carol Freeman, who is very competent but seems to be suffering from the strain of being the first Black woman to captain a starship in a TV series. (Michael Burnham is now captain of the Discovery, but she wasn’t when Lower Decks first aired.)

The ship has the usual complement of quirky bridge characters. The first officer, Jack Ransom, is a bit of a Kirk wannabe, only happy when he’s chatting up girls (badly) or punching aliens. Shaxs, the Bajoran head of Security, is always keen to start a fight, and the ship’s doctor is a grumpy lady feline called T’Ana.

The bridge crew, however, are not the stars of the show. That honour goes to a team of ensigns, the sort of people who have to do the grunt work to make the bridge crew look good. Chief among them is Beckett Mariner. She graduated top of her class from Starfleet Academy and was expected to be a high flyer, but she has a strong anti-authoritarian streak that has made her persona non grata on most ships. The only reason that she is on the Cerritos is that Captain Freeman is her mother. But for obvious reasons that has to be kept top secret.

Presumably all this is supposed to be playing off the characters of Michael Burham and Philippa Georgiou. Though there’s no way that Georgiou would have put up with Mariner’s nonsense.

Mariner’s best friend is Ensign Brad Boimler, a nerdy white boy with an obsessive devotion to Starfleet regulations and a deep and pathetic desire for promotion. Naturally he and Mariner are at odds most of the time. They are joined by two other ensigns: Sam Rutherford, an engineer with a new and sometimes malfunctioning cyborg implant; and D’Vana Tendi, an Orion medic who can’t stop going SQUEEEE! at the mere thought of having made it into Starfleet.

The basic plot of each episode is that the Cerritos gets into trouble in some typically Star Trek way, but is rescued thanks to Mariner’s extreme competence and the enthusiastic bumbling of her friends. Credit for their work tends to go to members of the bridge crew. Sooner or later, however, the simmering conflict between Mariner and her mother must come to a head. And secrets cannot be kept forever.

Most of the point of the series is to poke fun at standard Star Trek tropes. It does this very well. We can all have a wry smile when someone says, “if this was an important mission they would have sent the Enterprise.” The quality of their technobabble is superb. But it has also created a fun bunch of dysfunctional but likeable characters in Mariner and her friends. I really enjoyed the series. And it seems like there will be a second season. I hope us UK viewers don’t have to wait so long for that one.

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