Issue #49

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

  • Cover: Full Moon: The issue's cover is "Full Moon" by Molly Rose Lee.

  • Beyond the Reach of Earth: The new Ken MacLeod triology reaches book two.

  • On Savage Shores: From the 15th century onwards, hundreds of native Americans crossed the Atlantic to Europe. Who were they, and what did they make of us? Caroline Dodds Pennock investigates.

  • His Dark Materials – Season 3: Having reach the end of the TV trilogy, Cheryl has thoughts about the philosophical message of the books.

  • Eastercon 2023: This year's Eastercon was a very mixed bag

  • The Roamers: Francesco Verso's new novel sets the next stage of human evolution in Rome

  • The Grey King: Book four of The Dark is Rising takes Will Stanton to North Wales

  • Picard – Season 3: The third and final season of Star Trek: Picard ramps up the fan service to parts of the dial where no show has gone before.

  • Editorial – April 2023: That was the month that wasn't. Also a Hugos reminder and the future of the Astounding Award.

Beyond the Reach of Earth

I really enjoyed Beyond the Hallowed Sky, so when the new book in the series arrived on my Kindle I dived straight in. Beyond the Reach of Earth kicks off immediately from the end of the previous book, with the existence of FTL travel having become public knowledge, not to mention the potential threat from the beings known as the Fermi. John Grant and his crew have just made themselves heroes, which is probably just as well given the likely political fallout of their having developed their own FTL ship outside of government control. Things seem liable to kick off in a big way.

And of course they do, so some extent. The three major world governments all express complete surprise at the existence of the Black Horizon conspiracy, even though two of them were supposedly partners in it. Politically, it is a mess. For the people on Apis, it may be a career-ending disaster. But for humanity in general, a whole universe of opportunity has just opened up. Or at least it would have done were it not for the Fermi.

Part of this book, then, is development of the existing plot. Various members of the cast, including the useful but inevitably treacherous android, Marcus Owen, go off to communicate with the Fermi. Or at least try to. Others are much busier trying to save their own skins.

The other part of the book is more for hard-core Ken MacLeod fans. Being who he is, MacLeod cannot resist unwrapping the political implications of the international incident that he has created. That involves government bureaucracy in the Alliance, swift military intervention in the Co-ord, and equally swift para-military intervention from the revolutionary cadres within the Union. It is the sort of thing that leaves you thinking that all forms of government are equally bad, which is perhaps what MacLeod intended in the first place.

Something that I think I noticed in this book, but may have imagined, is a slight shift in the way that AIs are portrayed. Owen is much the same, but it is clear that, despite his obvious success in passing for human, he’s very much a creature of his programming and will do seemingly crazy things when he gets orders to do so. It will be interesting to see how he develops in book 3 now that he’s on the run and therefore somewhat out of Alliance control.

We don’t see much of Smart-Alec, and We-Think is so far behind the software curve that it doesn’t seem part of the argument. Iskander, the Union’s AI, however, is still very much involved. And it seems to be operating independently of both the cadres and of the government. Given the current concern over supposed-AI software, it will be interesting to see where MacLeod goes with this.

And of course there are the Fermi. No spoilers, but there are major plot developments. Certainly I wasn’t expecting what happened. And now I’m very interested to know why there will be a book 3, and what will happen in it.

book cover
Title: Beyond the Reach of Earth
By: Ken MacLeod
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

On Savage Shores

Some dates remain etched in one’s mind from school history lessons. 1066 is probably the one that even history-hating British pupils remember, but close on its heels might be 1492. In that year, an ambitious Italian called Columbus set off across the Atlantic in search of a route to Asia. He bumped into the Americas along the way, and then claimed that he had discovered them. This being despite the fact that Leif Erickson and his crews got there around 500 years earlier, that Polynesian mariners had visited the west coast of the Americas before him, and that thousands of Native Americans of various types had been living there for millennia.

What changed with Columbus was not discovery, but an establishing of relationships. This included trade, diplomacy and warfare. Inevitably, as part of this, many Americans made their way across the Atlantic and “discovered” Europe. Some of these people were diplomats, even royalty. Some of them had married Europeans, or been born from such unions, and some of them were working as translators. A very large number of them were slaves. In many cases, probably the majority, what they found in Europe seemed to them as barbaric and uncivilized as our own ancestors found them.

For an historian, researching the stories of such people is fraught with difficulty. Very few of them left any personal records. What information we have tends to have been written by the colonisers, with an inevitable bias. That in turn is often in Spanish, French or Portuguese. References to American visitors to our shores are often fleeting. As an historian of trans lives, I’m used to the past speaking to me mainly through court records. The same is often true of other marginalised people.

The fact that Caroline Dodds Pennock has produced this book at all is impressive. That she has written it so well is a delight. And it is fascinating. Had I had spare copies at Eastercon, where I was reading it, I could have sold at least three copies on the strength of the cover alone. Hopefully this review will move a few more copies, because there is so much material for historical fiction/fantasy there. I’ll give you a few examples.

In the book we inevitably learn a lot about the colonisers. Columbus, it appears, was an even less pleasant person than we might have thought. On the other hand, not everyone in Spain was terrible. Queen Isabella was adamant that the inhabitants of the New World were her subjects and not to be treated as sub-human. The lot of the Americans diminished substantially when she died. Then there was Bartolomé de Las Casas, known in his lifetime as the ‘Defender of the Indians’, who campaigned tirelessly for native rights. There were lawyers who successfully fought for the freedom of their enslaved clients.

Interesting stories come from the ordinary men of the European invasion too. In 1519 Hernán Cortès, beginning his conquest of Central America, heard tell of two white men living among the Maya. Gonzalo Guerrero and Gerónimo de Aguilar had been shipwrecked off the Yucátan 8 years earlier. They had been captured by the local Maya, but had very different lives thereafter. De Aguilar had remained loyal to Spain, and was only too pleased to be able to help his fellow countrymen with their project of conquest. Guerrero, on the other hand, had taken to Maya culture. He had married a Maya woman and had children with her. Rejecting Cortès’s offer of ‘rescue’, he returned to the Maya and eventually died in 1536, fighting alongside his people against Spanish invaders.

Amongst the most successful of the native groups were the Tlaxcala, who were long-time enemies of the Aztec-Mexica. They were only too happy to ally with Cortès against Moctezuma II and his hated empire. As a result they were able to negotiate a significant level of self-rule from the Spanish crown. Tlaxcalan is still a small but fiercely independent state within Mexico, and their state flag bears the coat of arms granted to them by Spain in 1535.

Less successful in his dealing with Spain was a man known to us as don Juan Cortès, a lord of the K’iche’ Maya. In 1557 he travelled to Spain to negotiate rights for his people. Unfortunately his ship was attacked by French pirates and he lost all of the gifts he had for the Spanish crown, along with many important documents proving his right to speak for the Maya people. The fate of the K’iche’ could have been very different had he arrived in Madrid as splendidly as he had intended.

That’s only a brief selection of the many fascinating personal histories that you can find in On Savage Shores. There are tales of people from the Inka to the Inuit. There’s the weirdly fascinating story of Walter Ralegh, who managed to sell himself as a friend to the natives while seeking to colonise them. There are forgotten women whom we know of solely because Ferdinand and Isabella were presented with a chocolate drink, and by native custom that must have been freshly prepared for them by women. And there is John Dee’s scrying mirror, now in the British Museum, which has been shown to have come from the Americas.

Where to writers get their ideas from? From history, of course, and this book is chock full of amazing (if sometimes horrifying) stories.

book cover
Title: On Savage Shores
By: Caroline Dodds Pennock
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

His Dark Materials – Season 3

And that’s a wrap. The BBC has reached the last episode of the final volume of His Dark Materials. Well, they did so a while back, but I have finally watched them all. What are we to make of it?

Echoing previous seasons, they have done a fine job of adapting the story to television. Ruth Wilson continues to be brilliant as Mrs. Coulter. James McAvoy is suitably monomaniacal as Lord Asriel. Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson have grown nicely into their parts as Lyra and Will. And Will Keen is delightfully creepy as Cardinal MacPhail. Some of the animation of the daemons is a bit dodgy at times, but overall it is very impressive television.

If I have a complaint, it is that the sound is even more muddy than usual for TV drama. Even with headphones on, I could not make out what the actors were saying when they were whispering. I understand that Amazon Prime is introducing a feature that helps make speech clearer in dramas. I do hope that other streaming platforms follow suit.

Having come to the end of the series, however, we need to look at the overall message, and whether anything has changed from the books.

One thing that appears to have been skipped is the idea that daemons will become fixed in form when their humans become adults. That’s not hugely important, except for the fact that a transition from childhood innocence to sexual maturity is a key part of the narrative.

There is also one big surprise change. In the original book, Mary Malone’s sexual awakening, which prompts her to renounce her religious vows, is with a man. In the TV series it is with a woman. Frankly, I’m a little surprised that Pullman allowed this, but well done to whoever’s idea it was. Yet another literary classic “ruined” for the cishets by “woke queer nonsense”. Huzzah!

When I first read the books, I was carried away with the beauty of the prose, and with the overarching idea of what I described as a version of Paradise Lost in which humanity wins. His Dark Materials is a three-book rant about the evils of the concept of Original Sin, and anyone who has it in for Augustine of Hippo is OK as far as I’m concerned.

However, in the time since the books were published, much has happened. In particular Philip Pullman has demonstrated that, while he might be opposed to the tyranny of the Christian Church, he’s perfectly happy with other forms of tyranny. And if you look, you can see that in the books too.

We discover, at the end of The Amber Spyglass (or season #3 if you prefer), that travel through the multiverse cannot be permitted. Apparently every gate between worlds cut by the Subtle Knife causes Dust to leak out of the worlds and be lost.

Why? Who says so? What is so wrong with contact between cultures, that means that each individual world can have no influence on any other? Is miscegenation bad?

We also learn that, as a corollary of this, no individual can survive for long in a world that is not their own. Their daemons, which are their souls, would not survive for long. Therefore, although they have saved the multiverse by falling in love (and having sex, if you have read the book), Lyra and Will must be punished for their sin by spending the rest of their lives apart. Hey, I thought the whole point was that falling in love (and having sex) wasn’t sinful. Instead it appears that it is only Original Sin that Pullman objects to. Children are therefore innocent, but once they become adults, and sexual beings, they become sinful.

These, apparently, are immutable rules of the multiverse. But who says so? Why does it have to be like that? Well, someone created those laws. Someone in Authority. Someone who is, an Author.

Maybe it is time for someone to organize a rebellion.

Eastercon 2023

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Rarely has Charles Dickens so perfectly summed up a convention.

Let’s start with the good stuff first, and in particular the venue because this will be of interest to anyone planning to attend World Fantasy there in 2025.

It is very easy to find. By road it would be ridiculously easy were it not for the fact that the M42 seems perpetually at a standstill for one reason or another. By train you may have to get from New Street to Birmingham International, but New Street is not the hellish dungeon it used to be. By air you may have to change at Heathrow or Amsterdam to get to Birmingham International, but once there you are almost on top of the venue.

The Birmingham Metropole is a little long in the tooth as far as Hilton properties go, though not as old as Brighton and therefore not possessed of a sprinkling of truly gorgeous old rooms. I like the guest rooms in the Doubletree in Bristol better, but the function space in Birmingham is excellent. It could have hosted a much bigger convention than the one we got. The layout and room-naming is a little confusing, and they wouldn’t let us put up signs, but it didn’t take long to get used to.

The National Exhibition Centre (NEC) is a short walk away. If you come by air or train you’ll end up going past it. There is a shopping mall, with a wide range of chain restaurants. Its not haute cuisine, but it can keep people fed. There are also various tourist attractions in the area. I was sad not to have time to visit the National Motorcycle Museum.

The hotel food, while being at hotel prices, was edible, and in some cases so plentiful that I couldn’t finish my meal. The convention also arranged for some food trucks to set up in the hotel car park. They weren’t there as often as originally promised, but the food was cheaper and seemed OK.

Were we not still in a pandemic, that would all be excellent. Unfortunately, well, I’ll come back to that.

The programming was also excellent. I enjoyed the panels I was on. There were several others that I would have loved to attend, or indeed be on, but I had books to sell and could not spare too much time away from the table.

It is still an Eastercon tradition to provide free drinks to panelists. Thankfully they seem to have gotten away from the idea that if you don’t order a pint of “real” ale you are somehow letting the side down.

This Eastercon made a determined effort to make hybrid programming work. Every programme room had a big screen where the audience could see the remote panelists. The moderator was provided with a small screen showing the same thing. The green room had one table per programme room, and this was used to allow remote panelists to check in with their in-person colleagues prior to their panels.

Mostly this worked well, though I did spot a couple of moderators who spent the panel looking at the in-person panelists and not at the monitor. I noticed a few people on Facebook complaining that they could not get access to streaming, and the one time I tried to access a panel remotely was a bust. But I think that was mainly due to the complex security procedure, and discussion afterwards suggested having some trial panels the day before the con that people could use to test out the procedure and make sure they could get access before the real programme started.

One other thing that went slightly wrong was the placement of loudspeakers. In one room in particular, these were located between the panel and the audience, and they were projecting forward. Consequently, anyone on the panel using hearing aids (of which there are quite a lot these days) could not hear anything said by the remote panelists, or people using the audience microphone. I’m sure this is a fixable issue.

The art show and dealer’s room had plenty of space. I can’t speak for everyone, but I found sales slow compared to last year. Also people seemed much less willing to stop and talk. I don’t know why.

What was very good is that I got to see a whole load of people whom I had not seen since before the pandemic started.

Unfortunately, the pandemic is still very much ongoing, and that’s where the bad stuff comes in.

Judging by reporting on social media, over 100 people caught COVID at Eastercon. That is, I believe, more than 10% of the attendees. It does not compare well to last year, or indeed to last year’s Worldcon which had 64 cases from around 4000 attendees.

Various theories have been expounded as to why this might be so. One is that the incubation period for the current strain of COVID is 2-3 days. That means that you can be infected before you leave for the con, and not know you are sick until you’ve arrived and started infecting others.

Another issue is that the UK had, at the time, given up on vaccination. A new round was offered after the con was over, but my most recent jab prior to the con had been in September 2022. That saw me through BristolCon and SMOFcon, but by Eastercon it had apparently worn off. If vaccinations are only given in the autumn, a convention in April is going to be a major risk.

Various people have complained about poor ventilation in the hotel, and about overcrowding in the bar and the breakfast room. Apparently the NEC was very crowded, thanks in part to a huge video games convention that it was hosting. If you went to any of the restaurants there, they too were very crowded.

The food trucks were great, but using them involved standing out in the cold for half an hour which was probably not ideal for avoiding infection. Apparently if your nose gets too cold then the bacteria in it that fight off viruses are much less effective.

All of these were contributory factors, but the thing that has got everyone talking was the convention’s seemingly lax COVID policy. Masking was very much optional, and indeed was forbidden if you were on panel (compare to last year, where panelists were provided with transparent masks). Hardly anyone wore a mask at the con, and that included the convention staff.

Word is that the con sampled opinion prior to the event, and found more people who said that they would not go if there was a strict masking policy than people who said they would not go if there was a strict masking requirement.

This is the key issue. There is a significant proportion of Eastercon attendees, possibly a majority of regulars, for whom the pandemic is “over”. What they mean by that is that current strains of the virus are no longer deadly. I’ve only heard of a couple of people who were seriously ill as a result of catching it. For most of us, me included, it was reminiscent of a bad dose of flu. For many people, that is an acceptable level of risk.

Unfortunately, for others it is not. People who are immuno-compromised, or who are carers for people who are, cannot risk getting the disease. As far as I’m concerned, I’m pleased to know that a dose of COVID is survivable, but I’m not happy that I lost two weeks recovering from it. I am particularly unhappy that I lost my Guest of Honour gig in Luxembourg as a result.

Of course I have a publishing business to promote, so the decision as to whether I attend future Eastercons is even more complicated for me. I need to talk to my authors. But my forward planning will certainly change. Any major event I attend will need to be followed by at least 2 weeks when I know I will be at home with no commitments other than work.

Conventions outside of the UK, and indeed other UK conventions, may continue to have stricter COVID policies. However, it appears that from now on, getting a dose of COVID is part of the price you need to be prepared to pay in order to attend an Eastercon.

The Roamers

The Roamers is the latest novel by Italian author, publisher and all-round promotor of bookish stuff, Francesco Verso. Without giving too much away, it tells of a group of counter-culture people in Rome who end up evolving into a new type of human much better suited to living in harmony with nature. To that extent, it is a very hopeful novel. More of that later, but first the book.

Verso’s native language is, of course, Italian. He speaks very good English (and probably a whole bunch of other languages too), and I’m assuming he translated this book himself. Leastways, I can’t see any acknowledgement of a translator. The book is perfectly readable to an English-speaker. But it reads in places like a book that was written by someone whose first language is not English. Were I the publisher of this book, I would have wanted a native English speaker to give it a once over, as I did with the Aleksandar Žiljak book.

Verso is also a native Roman, and you can tell that too. The book is set in Rome, and lives and breathes with the city. I’m assuming that the book’s title is a pun. The people of Rome understand their home’s remarkable heritage. Having spent an evening in Rome in the company of Verso and his wife, including visiting a little restaurant run by one of his childhood friends, I can see his love of the city come through in the book, even if he sometimes despairs of where it is heading.

There is stuff about Italian family relationships in the book as well. I know less about that, but I suspect it may be equally heartfelt.

Style-wise, this is very much a science-fiction novel. Verso clearly wants to do good, character-driven prose too, but he’s less good at that. The sociological and biological aspects of the book take centre stage and are fascinating. There’s even a reading list at the back for people who want to follow up on some of the ideas discussed in the text. Whether this appeals to you or not is very much a question of taste. Persoanlly I’m happy to see some SF in this style. It is a rare thing these days.

And now, back to solarpunk. It isn’t a sub-genre that I’ve paid a lot of attention to. I totally understand the need that people have to have some faith in the future. Frankly, it is all too easy to come to the conclusion that human civilization won’t survive the next hundred years. The solution presented in The Roamers is a very attractive one. It is also, I suspect, one that requires a level of science that is way beyond what we are likely to develop in time, and one which bears significant risk of accident and mis-use. So while I admire Verso’s politics and ambition for humankind, I’m not sure that this is what I want from solarpunk. We need practical solutions, and we need them in a hurry.

book cover
Title: The Roamers
By: Franceso Verso
Publisher: Flame Tree Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Grey King

Book four in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence focuses once more on Will Stanton. It is set in North Wales and the Grey King of the title is a malevolent spirit who inhabits Cader Idris. In Welsh legend the mountain is home to Gwyn ap Nudd and his hunting dogs, the Cŵn Annwn (the latter of whom also feature in Juliet McKenana’s The Green Man’s Gift). Will ends up staying on an hilltop farm, and a theme throughout the book is of sheep being attacked by dogs.

The name Brenin Llwyd (meaning Grey King in Welsh) is also found in folklore and associated with mountains and the Wild Hunt. Given the propensity of Welsh mountains to be shrouded in mist, the name is entirely appropriate. It was a pleasant coincidence that I got to read this book while staying on a farm up in Y Bannau Brycheiniog, surrounded by fields full of sheep. Jo Hall’s greyhound, Lyra, put in a guest appearance on behalf of spectral canines.

It isn’t only Welsh folklore than Cooper has mined for this book. She’s spent quite a bit of time studying the Welsh. In particular she has done a decent job with the way that Welsh people speak. If you spend much time here you will detect a particular and rather strange habit of sentence construction which makes much more sense when you realise that you are listening to English being spoken as if it were obeying the grammatical rules of Welsh. There are occasional bits of Welsh scattered through the text, mostly untranslated. I’ve not had time to check it, or indeed see if it is southern Welsh or northern Welsh, because the two are quite different in some respects.

The basic plot of the book is that Will has to retrieve an object of power – a golden harp – and use it to awaken some people who are sleeping under the mountain. If, at this point, you are thinking, “I know who is sleeping under a mountain,” you would be dead right.

Cooper weaves this storyline together with some interpersonal drama in the small farming community in which Will finds himself. It is deftly done, and adds some much needed actual drama to Will’s quest. As in past books, he is often without agency because he is the Chosen One and so things just happen to him. The surrounding cast make the story much more interesting.

The descriptions of the mountain (which is a genuinely deadly place) have an almost Lovecraftian air of menace to them. Will might be a mighty Old One, but the mountain is older, cunning and malevolent. The atmosphere towards the end of the book is seriously impressive. I think this might be my favourite book of the series thus far.

book cover
Title: The Grey King
By: Susan Cooper
Publisher: Puffin
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Picard – Season 3

There are times when a piece of art can be utterly ridiculous, and yet so beautifully executed that it deserves heaps of praise. That is certainly true of season #3 of Picard. To say that it provides fan service is to massively understate the obvious. It is to fan service what the great pyramid of Khufu is to a balsawood coffin; or what Trantor is to a village of mud huts. It is fan service dialed up so far to the max that mathematicians are arguing over which size of infinity is required to put a number to it.

When I first heard that season #3 would be a “getting the gang back together” thing I was deeply dubious. How could they do that without it being horribly cheesy? And yet, despite this show being about a bunch of people as old as, or older than, me rushing about the galaxy and having adventures like they did when they were several decades younger, it manages to work. It does so sometimes in ridiculous ways, but when it does you simply nod and say, “of course, how could it be any other way?”

The most glaring example of this is that Geordi La Forge, whose day job is now running the Starfleet Museum, has been spending his spare time building a full-size working model of the Enterprise D, which is there ready to be used when it is needed (and without a crew to operate it).

There are, of course, fans who are not happy, because this is not 100% exactly how they remember Star Trek: TNG. Apparently there was never conflict between members of the crew on that series, because such things are un-Trek-like. Well quite right. Can you imagine Dr. McCoy ever disapproving of something that Jim Kirk did? Of course not.

Possibly more cogently, there are those who argue that a Starfleet crew would never put slavish devotion to the book, and their own lives, before saving the galaxy. Personally I prefer to believe that people who serve on a ship called Enterprise are a different breed to your run of the mill Starfleet crew.

That said, Captain Shaw is one of the weak points in the show. At times his character was great, but at others he had to be shoehorned into being someone different because the plot required it. He was the only character whose story arc felt forced to me. Which is a shame, because I really loved him treating Picard and Ryker as a couple of naughty geriatric schoolboys trying to have an Excellent Adventure.

The thing I loved most about the series, though, was the way in which the plot absolutely hinged on having the gang back together. Without Data, without Worf, without Beverly, without Geordi or without Deanna, all of whom contributed specialist skills, Picard would have failed. It is possible he’d have been OK without Riker, but then Riker’s specialist skills have always been loyalty, bravery, and an unfettered willingness to get into trouble to help his captain.

Oh, spoiler. Of course they find a way to resurrect Data. How could they not?

If I have complaints about the series, they mostly revolve around the fact that it seemed to completely jettison much of what had gone before. At the end of season #2, Jean-Luc was just starting to settle into a romantic relationship with his Romulan housekeeper, Laris. That all gets forgotten as soon as Beverly Crusher is back in his life. Also at the end of season #2, Agnes Jurati, now queen of a friendly, neighbourhood Borg collective that just wants to be nice, petitions to join the Federation. That goes completely out of the window. Season #3 acts as if Jurati had never existed. I don’t know, maybe Q has erased her from the timeline or something.

Talking of Q, Picard #2 promised us that he was dying. That too appears to have been forgotten. < endless screaming >.

I’m not even going to ask what has happened to Wesley Crusher. Surely with all of his new time-travelling superpowers he would have seen that his mum and half-brother were in big trouble? No?

Anyway, there will be no further seasons of Picard. Nothing about the TNG characters could possibly follow that. What there will be is a brand new Enterprise, the Enterprise G. It will be captained by Annika Hansen, or Cap’n Seven as I hope her crew refer to her. Sidney La Forge and Jack Crusher look likely to be part of the crew. And Raffi Musiker is the First Officer, so maybe the relationship between her and Seven, which began so promisingly in Picard #2, and was jettisoned like so much else in #3, will be back on again. I’m looking forward to it.

Editorial – April 2023

Well, that’s a month I do not want to repeat, ever. Having my first case of COVID and crashing my car in the same week is not fun, especially as the former meant I had to miss out on a GoH gig at a convention in Luxembourg. Aaargh!

The COVID was a result of Eastercon, of which I’ll be saying a lot more in the con report. As for the car, all I’ll say is that I’m fine (my only injury was a broken nail) and that by taking one for the team I avoided getting t-boned by an idiot and thereby avoided a much more serious incident. But I now need a new car. Aaargh!

I’m not at all happy about missing Luxcon. That’s twice now that I’ve been hoping to go and not made it. I’m sure it went well without me.

I’ve been testing negative since Saturday (22nd), so hopefully I am clear now. I was able to attend some of the writing workshop that Jo & Roz had organised for that weekend, which was good. Amongst other things, we’ve been doing some plotting for a Sekrit Projekt that you will hear more of in due course.

This issue is online a bit early. That’s because I will be spending the coming weekend in London attending HistFest. As some of you may know, I have done some work with them in the past, giving online presentations about trans history. My friend, Dan Vo, is one of the speakers on Saturday. The people I’m hoping to get to see include Caroline Dodds Pennock (whose fabulous new book is reviewed in this issue), Sunny Singh and Bettany Hughes. I will report back next issue.

Being early, I have another opportunity to remind you that I, and this fanzine, are eligible for the Hugos. Rather more importantly, I would love you to consider the following:

  • In Best Series, the Green Man books by Juliet E McKenna (Wizard’s Tower)
  • In Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form, Doctor Who: Redacted, directed by Ella Watts (BBC)
  • In Best Professional Artist, Ben Baldwin who keeps turning in knock-out covers for Wizard’s Tower

Also there has been a bit of a panic behind the scenes over the Astounding Award. As you may recall, eligbility for that award has historically been based on works published through SFWA Qualifying Markets. However, SFWA have recently changed the criteria by which writers can qualify for membership, and SFWA Qualifying Markets no longer exist as such. Thankfully the good folks at Dell Magazines have taken it upon themselves to maintain their own definition of a Qualifying Market. The updated eligibility requirements for the Astounding can be found here.

Please note that this was nothing to do with WSFS. The Astounding is not a Hugo, and WSFS has no control over eligibility. All WSFS does is count the votes.

Issue #48

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

Cover: Golden Angel

This issue’s cover is Golden Angel by Stefan Kellar from Pixabay. More information is available here.

As is often the case, I have had to crop the image to use it as a cover. The full, and unadorned, version is available below.

Space Crone

Here’s a book that I absolutely could not resist. Space Crone is a collection of writings on feminism and gender by none other than Ursula K Le Guin. See what I mean? It has “buy me” written all over it. There’s a lot, obviously. I’m going to feature some of my favourite pieces.

“Is Gender Necessary? (Redux)” is probably the most famous piece in the collection. Le Guin spent a lot of time thinking about The Left Hand of Darkness after she had written it. And she kept learning from the reactions that readers had to the book. I think the most important lesson from this piece is that smart people should learn, grow, and sometimes change their minds, about things. That’s in direct contrast to the “gotcha” culture on social media whereby, if someone can be shown to have said something bad years ago, they are defined by that thing forever.

Reading the essay also reminded me of something that people get wrong about Gethen. The prevailing view is that the Gethians are all asexual individuals, except when they are in kemmer. That’s not true. Gethenians who become male in kemmer revert back to being asexual after mating. But Gethenians who become female must remain so until the child is weaned. That’s probably going to take over a year in total. So at any time there will be a substantial number of female Gethenians around, but hardly any males.

“On Genetic Determinism” was written as an attack on the ideas of the sociobiologist, EO Wilson. It is, however, equally useful as a devastating critique of the anti-trans movement which relies heavily on gender essentialism for its arguments. Le Guin is having none of it. She doesn’t want to be defined as someone inescapably second class and incompetent by dint of her chromosomes. Neither should anyone else who calls themself a feminist.

“The Sound of your Writing” is one of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever read. I think we all know by now that reading your work aloud helps you find problems and make it better. Le Guin builds a whole lesson out of this, complete with examples and a couple of exercises. This is paired in the book with a talk about Le Guin’s poem, “Loud cows”, which is an extended feminist rant built on the pun that “aloud” and “allowed” sound the same in speech and women should not be forced to be silent.

Finally I want to mention “What it was like”, a short speech that Le Guin wrote when she was asked to give a talk to the Oregon branch of NARAL, an organization that campaigns for reproductive rights. The topic for the talk was what it was like to be a woman in America before Roe v Wade, and abortion was illegal. Le Guin had one, illegally, when she was still a student, so she has very firm views on the subject.

The point Le Guin makes is that had she not had an abortion, she would have not finished her studies, would not have won a Fulbright scholarship, would not have met her husband on the Queen Mary on the way to Europe, and ultimately would not have had three very wonderful children. She would instead have become an unmarried and unmarriageable young mother, dependent on her parents for support.

Of course Roe v Wade has now been overturned and anti-abortion laws are cropping up in state legislatures around the USA. Goodness only knows what Le Guin would think if she could see what has become of us.

book cover
Title: Space Crone
By: Ursula K Le Guin
Publisher: Silver Press
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The Mimicking of Known Successes

A good novella can be read and enjoyed in a single sitting. That’s certainly true of this new book by Malka Older. But just because a book is short it doesn’t mean that it can’t have depth. Nicola Griffith did amazing thing with the plot in Spear. Older has done something different but equally impressive with The Mimicking of Known Successes.

Plot-wise, the book is relatively simple. On the one hand it is a murder mystery which must be solved by the two protagonists. On the other it is a lesbian romance between two people who were once a couple, and must become so again by the end of the book. In short, it is the sort of thing that Aliette de Bodard might write.

This story, however, is not set in the Xuya universe that de Bodard has spent many stories carefully establishing. It is set in an entirely different future that is both fascinating and beautifully realised.

The Mimicking of Known Successes takes place on Jupiter, or Giant as the planet is known to its inhabitants. Earth has been devastated by humanity’s carelessness, and is now uninhabitable. Jupiter is a last refuge for the small remnant of the human species, and those few other living things that they managed to rescue.

Of course there is no surface of Jupiter on which to build a civilisation. Humans have, with a great deal of care and effort, built platforms in the upper atmosphere on which to live, and have built farms, towns and even a city on those platforms. The whole thing is linked together by a railway network.

Ever alert to political nuance, Older notes that train travel is free on Jupiter, for the same reason that governments build roads on Earth. Commerce must flow, and if railways are the only sensible means of transport they must be made available.

Armed with this knowledge, you can now understand the mystery side of the plot. A stranger arrives at the station in a remote town. He’s seen by the locals as he pops briefly into the bar by the station. Then he leaves, and vanishes. He’s not in the town. No trains passed through the station before he disappeared. The only conclusion is that he left the platform in another way, either by jumping, or because he was pushed. Hence the investigation.

Mossa, our detective, needs to know more about the missing-presumed-dead stranger. She has established that he was an academic. There is only one university. Mossa once studied there. Someone she knew from her student days still works there, and could be a useful source of information. The trouble is, that person is Pleiti, her ex-girlfriend.

Mossa is rather Holmes-like, obsessive over detail and relentless is pursuit of answers. Pleiti is much more relaxed, friendly and open. It is perhaps not a surprise that their relationship failed. And yet there must have been a spark there once. Older, slowly and carefully, re-kindles it.

Meanwhile Pleiti is important for other reasons. She knew the missing man. Indeed, he was something of an academic rival. And that leads us to the discipline in which they both worked: Classics.

No, dear reader, that does not mean the study of ancient Greece and Rome. On Giant, academic disciplines are divided into Classics and Modern. Modern means studying the world as it is now. Classics looks back to life on Earth.

Both Pleiti and Bolien Trewl, the vanished stranger, work in a discipline that studies Earth ecology in preparation for the day when the many species stored (either alive or as DNA) at the Preservation Institute can be returned to their rightful home. Pleiti is currently working on a rare and important surviving text. She is studying Watership Down in the hope that it can give her key insights into the way rabbits lived on Earth. Thank goodness she is reading Richard Adams and not Beatrix Potter.

I’ll leave it there, because saying any more might give you clues to the denouement of the story. What I will say is that I understand that there will be more stories featuring Mossa and Pleiti. The world that Older has created is too fascinating, and to vibrant, for just one novella.

book cover
Title: The Mimicking of Known Successes
By: Malka Older
Publisher: St Martin's Press
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I’ve heard a lot of good things about Machinehood, but haven’t got around to reading it, so when I saw a new SB Divya novel available I figured I should dive in straight away. I’m pleased I did, because Meru has given me a lot to think about.

The starting point is that this book is actually science fiction. What I mean by that is that it isn’t just a fantasy story set in a futuristic world. It is a book whose author has thought hard about some scientific and philosophical issues, has put some of those thoughts into the book, and has spun the plot around them. I don’t see that sort of thing too often these days, so I’m pleased when I find it.

Also the world that Divya has created for these books (I understand that there will be sequels) is very interesting. It is set in a fairly far future in which some humans have evolved to literally live amongst the stars. We are not talking sentient spaceships here, we are talking people who have evolved to become spaceships. They are known as “alloys”, and are part machine, part flesh.

Standard humans still exist. However, they are in disgrace. They almost caused the destruction of Earth, and they made a complete mess of trying to terraform Mars. The alloys have determined that humans suffer from Aspiration and Avarice Disorder (AAD); that is, their ambition and greed cause them to spoil any resource they get their hands on. So humans must be managed, because they are naughty children and can’t be trusted to behave. One consequence of this is that they are not allowed to leave Earth.

Something else that is notable about the world of the book is that many of the characters appear to be of South Asian descent. The chapter headings are all in Sanskrit (with English translations). This is refreshingly different.

You may be wondering how the alloys manage to look after the humans if they are spaceships and the humans are all confined to Earth. However, alloys are able to create incarns, android avatars which can visit planetary surfaces. Most alloys can’t fly in atmospheres, but they build machines that can ferry their incarns up and down the gravity well.

Of course not all alloys have the same view of humans. Some are quite fond of the little rascals. And that brings us to our central character. Jayanthi is human, but she was designed and grown, and parented, by a couple of alloys who have chosen to live on Earth to do this. Their true bodies are parked in geosynchronous orbit and they inhabit their incarns full time.

Due to her unusual upbringing, Jaya is rather less cowed than most humans. Her parents can, if they wish, travel to the stars. They can also partake in serious scientific research. She would like to do the same. Everyone tells her that she has terrible AAD and she should be ashamed, because it will only lead to disaster.

At this point, enter Hamsa. He’s an alloy politician who advocates for civil rights for humans. Naturally he is friends with Jaya’s parents. Thanks to him, and to a quirk of her genetic makeup, Jaya is selected for an experiment. The planet Meru is almost Earth-like, and might be habitable. It has no life of its own, so there’s less for humans to wreck. Jaya’s unusual biology makes her better suited than most humans to try living there. She will have a year to prove that she can live safely on Meru, without destroying it in the process.

Naturally Jaya will need support. Most alloys don’t want anything to do with such a politically contentious project, but she enlists the aid of a young ship who has chronic lack of self-confidence and consequently very low scores in zir flying school exams. Vaha was designed by zir parent to be able to fly in atmosphere as well as in-system and between stars, but zie turned out to struggle with all of the various flight modes. Vaha’s parent (alloys only need one parent to design them) abandoned zie in disgust.

So we have two young beings, one human and one alloy, both of whom have had dysfunctional upbringings and have serious hangups as a result. We put them on a planet together, far from any other sentient being. What do we think will happen?

Yep, dead right, this is a book that does what I wish Aliette de Bodard had done with The Red Scholar’s Wake: it undertakes a serious examination of what it means for a human and a sentient spaceship to have a romantic and sexual relationship.

However, that’s not all there is to the book. The politics won’t go away. Hamsa has enemies, some of whom will stop at nothing to ensure that the mission to Meru is a failure, and that humans continue to be confined to Earth. The lives of Jaya and Vaha are of little consequence compared to the need to save the galaxy from humans.

As you can see, there are a whole bunch of deep issues being explored in this book. There are times when I think there’s rather too much explaining what characters feel, and where things happen because the plot needs them to. I could see most of the reveals well in advance. But Divya is clearly a writer with ambition and promise. I’m sure she’ll only get better from here, and I’m going to enjoy following her career.

book cover
Title: Meru
By: S B Divya
Publisher: 47 North
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Rhapsody of Blood: Revelations

It has been a long and very strange trip, but Roz Kaveney’s Rhapsody of Blood series has reached a conclusion. I reviewed the first book in the series, Rituals, back in 2012. Three more volumes followed, initially yearly, but then at increasing gaps. There was a pandemic. But at Eastercon there will be a launch event for Revelations, the fifth and final volume.

I say launch. As I understand it, the books are unlikely to make it over from the USA in time. There isn’t even a cover online yet, so I have used a favourite from the rest of the series. But there will be an event, and a celebration. I’m planning to be there.

The central theme of the series is that anyone can become a god, you just have to spill enough blood in getting there. There is a process called the Rituals of Blood that maps the path to godhood, and there is an ancient immortal called Mara the Huntress who has made it her job to seek out divine wannabes and kill them before they can complete the Rituals.

Key to the story are two young Oxford students, Emma and Caroline. At the start of the series, they attend a party given by Emma’s tutor. One of the other guests is a Tory MP who turns out to be a demon in a flesh suit. He eats Caroline. Mara turns up and rescues Emma.

Elsewhere in the story, and far back in time, we meet two young chancers called Star and Nameless. Together they cook up an outrageous scam that leads them to becoming god and anti-god for more than half of the human population. I think you can guess the names by which they are better known.

Sadly for these two likely lads, there is a being in this world who is even more greedy and ruthless than they are. It takes him time, but he is very patient. The series maps his rise to power, at the expense of every other god in the world. It also tells of the attempts of Mara, Emma and Caroline to stop him.

Along the way there are a lot of side trips. The character of Mara gives Kaveney the opportunity to visit all sorts of interesting times in human history and put an end to bad guys. We get to meet people such as Simon Magus, Torquemada, Robespierre and Stalin. Also Aleister Crowley, who is nowhere near as evil as he likes to think, but thoroughly untrustworthy.

Meanwhile Emma and Caroline do a passing imitation of a lesbian Randall & Hopkirk (deceased) and slowly pick up allies. We meet Sof, the Goddess of Wisdom, who was once Hypatia. There’s Morgan, who has been many people, including Hekkat, the Queen of Witches. There’s the 18th century London spy-mistress, Polly Wild, and Elodie, the former vampire turned movie star. They are an intriguing bunch, in a very queer and found family sort of way.

Oh, and there’s Josette, about whom I will say very little because I want you all to experience the reveal for yourselves.

By book 5 things have got pretty serious. It is called Revelations for a reason. John of Patmos’ vision of the apocalypse is pretty dull compared to Kaveney’s. By this time Emma is Queen of (former) Hell. Her allies include Apollo, Loki, and all of Loki’s brood. All of the people of Earth (alive and dead and undead) march under her banner. The Enemy’s army is made up entirely of cis straight white American men who claim to be Christians but are out to kill all gods except their master, and who all look the same because they are clones. It is not quite space opera, but it is about as close as fantasy gets.

If I have a reservation about the series, it is that Roz is simply too smart. Most readers will not get anywhere close to all of the Easter Eggs that she spreads liberally through the books. But then I say that about Kim Newman too, and I recommend his books to you. Why not give Roz a try?

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Title: Rhapsody of Blood: Revelations
By: Roz Kaveney
Publisher: Plus One
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Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

This is another film I would have loved to see in a movie theatre, but was too busy to see when it was first out. Given its success in the Oscars, it may be back in cinemas again, but I have no car right now so I had to watch it on the small screen. That may have been less than ideal.

Let’s start with the obvious stuff. It seems to me that it is a great movie about an East Asian couple trying to come to terms with life in America. I say “seems” because I’m not Asian-American and this is very clearly a film made by and for that community and it is not my place to judge the stories they tell about themselves.

Regardless, it is a great piece of movie-making. Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan totally deserved their Oscars. Stephanie Hsu deserved one too, but they gave it to the white lady with a trans kid because that was a political point that needed making too. Hopefully Hsu has a long and successful career ahead of her. The visuals were amazing too, which is why I think I missed out not seeing it on a big screen.

So far so good, but I have a concern. Ostensibly the film is set in a multiverse, which makes it, well, probably fantasy. But the more I saw of it, the more I wondered how much of that we were supposed to believe was real.

The film reminded me of that famous TV interview with JRR Tolkien in which he insists that he did not write allegory. Middle Earth might be a place that he made up, but it was a real place that he made up, not some imaginary place that only existed to make a point.

The problem I have with Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is that it reminds me of those Victorian morality tales where the bad person (in this case Evelyn) is transported to a fantasy world, learns the error of their ways, and then wakes up vowing to be a better person in future. As such, while it is a great film, I’m not sure it is a great SF&F film.

Possibly the distinction I’m making here makes no sense in the context of East Asian literature. If that’s so, someone please tell me. I’m happy to learn. I’d also be interested to know if the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, have said anything about this.

I still expect it to win a Hugo though.

Venus & Aphrodite

Readers in the UK will doubtless be familiar with Bettany Hughes from her many, many TV shows about various aspects of ancient history. Those of you in the rest of the world may not know her at all, but please be assured that she’s popular here, and also knows what she is talking about.

Of course that’s not the only reason she is popular. Gentlemen of my acquaintance often seem fond of her in the same way they are fond of Nigella Lawson. I like both of them for a related reason in that, while both clearly class as celebrity women, neither has succumbed to the anti-trans virus that has run riot amongst the chattering classes here in the UK. Indeed, Hughes seems to have had some similar thoughts about the ancient world to those I have, especially with regard to Nero’s Empress Sabina. That, however, is another story. This is a book about a goddess.

The title of the book, Venus & Aphrodite, mentions two goddesses. While the Greek and Roman versions of our subject share very many similarities, they are not identical. Indeed even within the Greek and Roman worlds, each of the two shows variation through both time and space. That should not surprise us. After all, the Jesus who inspired people to submit to being thrown to the lions in Rome is not the same Jesus for whom the Pope is Vicar on Earth, or the same Jesus who is invoked by Republican senators in the USA.

However, they are not that different either. For Hughes, the Venus and Aphrodite of Rome and Greece are simply successful instances of the Goddess of Love on her long journey from Sumer to the present day. The book begins with Inanna and ends with Beyoncé, with many calling points in between.

This is not an academic book. There are a number of interesting questions I would have liked to ask about how this version of the goddess has changed on her journey. Why have her martial qualities been passed to Athena and Artemis? Why has her fondness for queers been passed to Cybele? But this is a book aimed at the general reader. Like Hughes more recent TV series, it eschews academic debate for easily accessible and simple ideas. But, having been written by someone who does understand the academic debate, it is well-rooted in deeper knowledge.

Pleasingly, the book is not entirely straight. After all, Cyprus, which Aphrodite calls her home, is also home to that most unusual of Graeco-Roman gods, Hermaphroditus. The ancient Cypriots seem to have had a particular interest in this dual-sexed being, perhaps stretching back to before the influence of Astarte reached the island.

Mostly, however, this is a book about the continuing interest of humankind in female divinity, of how that waxes and wanes with different cultures, and different levels of patriarchal control, and of the chaos that love, and lust, cause in human relations.

It is, I think, a very neo-pagan book.

book cover
Title: Venus & Aphrodite
By: Bettany Hughes
Publisher: Orion
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I’ve arrived at book three in my read through of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. Somewhat to my surprise, Greenwitch sees the return of the Drew Children from Over Sea, Under Stone. The plot is basically the need to recover the item that was lost to the sea at the end of that book, but along the way Cooper delves deeply into folklore again.

The Greenwitch of the title is a sort of whicker man figure that is made by the women of Trewissick and sacrificed to the sea gods, presumably to guarantee safe return of their husbands from fishing expeditions, though she is made in spring so there’s doubtless a fertility element too. Jane Drew, being a) female and b) not exactly a ‘furriner’, gets invited to the making ceremony, and here we see Cooper doing what she does so well.

For she knew suddenly, out there in the cold dawn, that this silent image somehow held within it more power than she had ever sensed before in any creature or thing. Thunder and storms and earthquakes were there, and all the force of the earth and sea. It was outside time, boundless, ageless, beyond any line drawn between good and evil. Jane stared at it, horrified, and from its sightless head the Greenwitch stared back.

Jane is the most interesting character in this book. As a young girl with two brothers, she has clearly long got used to having to be the sensible one. When Great-Uncle Merry suggests a return to Cornwall for the Easter holiday, Simon and Barney are immediately enthusiastic. It is Jane who is left to point out that their previous adventure almost ended very badly for Barney.

There is also the matter of the other child that Merriman Lyon brings along, a young friend of his by the name of Will Stanton. Simon immediately bristles, seeing Will as a rival male. Barney, the artist, is somewhat more friendly. But it is Jane, forced to be part-adult herself, who sees the old man inside Will. Given the carboard nature of most of the female characters in The Dark is Rising, having Jane back was a pleasant surprise.

I don’t have a lot more to say about the book. Cooper is into her stride by now, and knows what she is doing with the series. I can definitely see why it has become such a firm favourite with readers. Hopefully I’ll have more to say as I get to the end and I can see the shape of the whole thing.

book cover
Title: Greenwitch
By: Susan Cooper
Publisher: Puffin
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Editorial – March 2023

This issue is a bit short. I’d like to have some complex excuse to offer, but I think the main issue is that it has been Six Nations season. Sorry.

This issue is going live on the international Trans Day of Visibility. These days, at least in the UK, trans people are heartily sick of being visible. There are attacks on us every day in the media, and much of the supposed support we get on days like this is purely performative (looking at you, Labour Party). I’ve had two requests for media comment today. I have ignored them both. Regardless of how supportive young programme-makers might want to be, their management will have other ideas and nothing good will come of their efforts.

However, despite the ridiculous claims on social media that trans people are a very new thing (allegedly I didn’t exist 8 years ago – who knew?), they keep turning up in history. Thanks to Neil Gaiman, John Clute and Roz Kaveney, I have been made aware of a quite remarkable story. Nicholas Stuart Grey was a successful actor, playwright and author of children’s fiction in the 1950s and 1960s. Many fantasy writers, including Neil, Garth Nix, Cecilia Dart-Thornton, and Kate Forsyth, have cited him as an inspiration. We now know that he was a trans man. The research (which inevitably lays out his life prior to transition) is available here.

I’m now wondering who has the rights to his literary estate.

It being that time of year, if you have the right to vote in the Hugos (and can make the voting website work for you), I should mention that this magazine is eligible for Best Fanzine, and I’m eligible for Best Fanwriter.

And finally I have had a request. the venerable fanzine, SF2 Concatenation (since 1987) has recently lost two of its regular reviewers. This has left them with an entirely male reviewing team. They are looking for new people (unpaid obviously) and would like to restore some diversity. If you are interested, see here.

Issue #47

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

Cover: A Dark Way to Glory

The cover of this month issue is Ben Baldwin’s art for the latest volume in Chaz Brenchley’s Outremer series. A Dark Way to Glory is currently open for pre-orders and is due to be published on March 23rd.

I do a lot of the art direction for Wizard’s Tower, and I’m absolutely delighted with how Ben is interpreting my ideas for the Outremer covers.

The Ballad of Perilous Graves

The Ballad of Perilous Graves is one of the books we picked for a finalist in the Crawford Award. It has been talked about by a lot of people and is on a few other award shortlists. Deservedly so, I think, though I have a few qualms about structure.

Most of the action takes place in Nola, which is a parallel reality version of New Orleans and home to the Perilous Graves of the title. Perry, as his friends and family call him, is a ordinary-ish school kid with a massive crush on his neighbour, Peaches. She appears to have some sort of super powers. Perry’s little sister, Brendy, is forever teasing him about his being in love.

The action begins when the haint (ghost) known as Doctor Professor makes a surprise appearance in the street. It is immediately obvious that Nola is not an ordinary city. Ghosts are real. Indeed, there’s a whole dead quarter of the city where they live. You can hire a ghost taxi and go visit them.

This being N’Awlins, the magic is fully bound up in the music of the city. My knowledge of jazz is painfully poor, but Doctor Professor seems to be based primarily on Professor Longhair, with a side helping of his most famous pupil, Dr. John.

The basic plot of the book is that someone has stolen a bunch of Doctor Professor’s songs, and they are now running around the city free in human form. And someone is trying to kill them.

But also…

In our world, Casey Ravel is back in New Orleans. In his youth, Casey and his cousin, Jaylon, had been hot shot street artists. Casey evacuated after Katrina, in part because he was scared at how lifelike their art had become. Characters that you paint are not supposed to get up off the wall and walk away. But, while you can take the boy out of New Orleans, you can’t take New Orleans out of the boy. Freshly back in town, Casey checks in on his cousin, and finds to his horror that Jaylon has not given up his art as he’d promised, he’s been perfecting it.

So we have a classic two-streamed story that will come together at the end and thereby explain a lot of what has been going on. That, at least, is the theory. Oh, and the bad guy with too many tentacles and not enough hands will get what is coming to him.

There’s so much that I loved about this book. N’Awlins is, after all, one of my favourite places on Earth. This book is infused with music and food, and a sense of New Orleans culture that could only have been written by a Black author. I also love the characters of Perry, Peaches and Brendy. I love that Casey is a trans man, and this has nothing to do with the plot.

But, with my editor hat on, I also think that Alex Jennings has just a little too much going on. I love being confused by a book, but I do expect to become less confused as it goes on. I’m not sure that I ever got a handle on all the various threads in this one. Maybe that was the point. Maybe neat endings are a foolish pre-occupation of white people. But if you love N’Awlins like I do, then this books is well worth your time, even if it does leave your head spinning at the end.

book cover
Title: The Ballad of Perilous Graves
By: Alex Jennings
Publisher: Orbit
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Late in 2021, Ian McDonald asked me if I could do a sensitivity read on his next book, which had some gender themes to it. Naturally I leapt at the opportunity. The book was called Hopeland, and I’m very glad to have had a small part in the making of it. My report to Ian began:

“I loved the book. Also I cried lots. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it in print. Any book that references both William Blake and the KLF is fine by me.”

So yeah, it was good. But the wheels of publishing turn slowly. Also something awful happened in the read world that was scarily reminiscent of something that happens in the book. Because climate change is real, y’all, and Pacific islands are in the front line when it comes to unfolding sea level disasters.

However, the book is finally ready to meet the public. Obviously I can’t review it, but I do hope that you folks will read it, and enjoy it as much as I did. I hope that you will come to love characters such as Kimmie Pangaimotu and Princess Ta as much as I did, and I hope you’ll find much to think about in the book.

It is, as you will already have guessed, a book about climate change. It is also a book about found family. And it is a book about electromancers. There’s gender stuff in there as well. It needed fairly little feedback from me because Ian has been doing this sort of thing for a while now. The key point to remember is that gender isn’t simple, and no one has to fit into Western stereotypes, not even Western people, and definitely not Pacific islanders.

I look forward to seeing what the rest of you make of the book.

book cover
Title: Hopeland
By: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Gollancz
Purchase links:
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The Dark is Rising

As I expected, the long gap between Over Sea, Under Stone and The Dark is Rising saw a significant improvement in quality. Gone is the sub-Enid Blyton jolly tale of children on their summer holidays. In its place is a much darker, much more atmospheric and decidedly more adult tale rooted firmly in British folklore. I totally get why so many people love it.

The Dark is Rising is the first book to introduce the principle hero of the series, Will Stanton. He is a classic Chosen One. He’s the seventh son of a seventh son and has been marked out for greatness at birth. The bad guys fear him, and the good guys do their bit to protect him as he grows into his power.

Technically, Will is only 11 years old when his life changes. Practically he doesn’t stay that way for long. He is, after all, a reincarnated Old One. And once he has read the Book of Gramarye his head is full of arcane knowledge. It is a fascinating choice for what is ostensibly still a book for young readers to have an 11-year-old central character grow into someone who is functionally adult during the two-week course of the story.

Being only 11, at least at the start, Will doesn’t have much agency at the start of the book. Agents of the Light keep having to rescue him and point him in the right direction when he does foolish small-boy things. However, towards the end he does start understanding when needs to be done, and taking charge of proceedings.

The only hold-over from the previous book is Merriman Lyon, who has become a much more stern and flawed figure. Much of the plot is about undoing a mistake that he has made centuries ago. I will be interested to see how his relationship with Will develops over the course of the series.

Something else that has gone from the first book is the sense of gender equality. The Dark is Rising is much more of a boy’s book. Will has a mother and some sisters who feature in the story, but they seem rather flighty and foolish, and they spend most of their time preparing food for the males of the household. That’s something else I will keep an eye on in future volumes.

The thing I liked most about the book is the way that it incorporated themes from British folklore. Wayland the Smith and Herne the Hunter both feature. Given that one is nominally Saxon and the other nominally Celtic, that’s a nicely mongrel mix entirely suitable for the melting pot that this the UK. The previous book, of course, featured the Holy Grail, and Arthur has been variously claimed by Celts and Normans. There are also those who connect the Wild Hunt more with Saxon mythology than Celtic. I note that one of the names of the Lords of the Dark that Susan Cooper has her characters invoke is Holda, which is a common name for the Lady of the Night who featured in Ronald Hutton’s Queens of the Wild, reviewed last issue.

All of which is to say that Cooper had spent some effort creating a mystical world that felt authentic, even if there’s no real historical basis for it.

Coming to this book as an ageing critic who has read far too much fantasy literature, I’m by no means as blown away by it as a younger person might be. But I can quite see that, had I read it when I was 11, I would have loved it as much as I loved The Lord of the Rings, if not more so.

book cover
Title: The Dark is Rising
By: Susan Cooper
Publisher: Puffin
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Fortunate Fall

Back in 1999, someone then known as Raphael Carter won the Otherwise (then Tiptree) Award for a short story called “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation”. Carter was one of the first people I had heard of who had a non-binary gender identity. Indeed, we were told that Carter had no gender.

Well, time moves on, and so sometimes do trans people. Recently I discovered that Carter is now Cameron Reed (she/they). She’s happy for people to keep referencing the Carter name, because that connects her to her previous work. But she’s also working on new fiction. This caused an outpouring of joy on my little corner of Mastodon. In addition to the Otherwise-winning story, Reed had also written an amazing novel called The Fortunate Fall. I’ve been wishing I could have more fiction from her for some time. And now, it seems, I will.

What’s more, Tor are apparently going to re-issue The Fortunate Fall in 2024 as part of their Tor Essentials series. So those of you who were not reading SF&F back in the 20th century will soon be able to enjoy it too.

Don’t take my word for it. The list of people excitedly welcoming Reed back to the author community included Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear, Charlie Stross, Jo Walton, Chaz Brenchley and Ruthanna Emrys.

And to get you excited too, here is my review of the book from Emerald City #58.

During the Ken MacLeod panel at Wiscon Tom Becker commented that another author with an interesting take on the inhumanity of uploaded minds was Raphael Carter. Roz Kaveney kindly found me the book in the dealers’ room and I read it on the flight back to California. Boy oh boy have I let you guys down here. This one is a cracker, and it has been about since 1996. I hang my head in shame.

Maya Tatyanichna Andreyeva is a Camera. That is, her brain has been wired with the necessary equipment for everything that she sees, smells and touches to be monitored, recorded and transmitted. It is called Telepresence, and as a sensory experience it is as far above television as that ancient technology is above the even more antiquated newspaper. The world is no longer watching, it is there, because Maya is there for it.

But Maya of course is not just a conduit for experience; she is a journalist. What the public experiences is not random, it is what she has prepared for them. The sights, smells and sensations are, to a large extent, as she chooses them. The view of the lake is obvious; the clammy feeling around the ankles is because Maya has walked into the ooze around its edge. And the sense of nausea that the audience feels on being told that the mud they are standing in is made from the ashes of thousands of human bodies is enhanced by Maya’s own emotions, held carefully in check by her screener back in the studio until she choose to announce the fact. Maya Adreyeva is a journalist, and she is investigating The Holocaust.

No, dear reader, not that Holocaust. Never underestimate the ability of mankind to surpass itself in cruelty. It all began with the Guardians. They came out of America with tanks, guns and Bibles. Their mission was to bring peace to the world. And so they did, because anyone who disagreed with them was either shot outright or placed in re-education camps. They were very effective, and quite ruthless. To wrest the world from their grip would take an effort of extreme bravery, or mindless stupidity. Naturally those with the power to do something chose the latter.

The Unanimous Army was caused by a virus of sorts. It got into people’s minds and encouraged them to slot a certain type of chip that enhanced its own effects. It also encouraged them to help convert others. And that was all the free will it left them. The Army grew rapidly, exponentially. Like a locust swarm it moved across the planet: implacable, hungry, and mindless. It marched.

No, to tell you any more would count as a spoiler. Suffice it to say that the world has recovered from the Army’s depravations, and that the domination of the Guardians has been broken. But there is a mystery here. Where did the Army virus come from? Who wrote it? Who designed its campaign? Maya wants to know, and hopes that when she finds the answer it will be sufficiently interesting for the notoriously fickle public to tune in to her broadcasts rather than those on another channel. What she finds is something else entirely. All unwitting, Maya has contrived for herself an interview with the last survivor of a terrible genocide.

So much for the plot. And if that were all there was to it, the book would be a very fine one indeed. But you can’t just write about subjects like that as if you were producing some Jeffrey Archer thriller. There are philosophical questions to be answered, specifically about the nature of evil. These are questions that can sometimes only be answered in myth. And you can’t just broadcast stuff like that through your own mind without being affected by it. There is, after all, this little problem called feedback.

And there is more, so much more. For Maya herself has secrets. She wears a suppressor chip that shuts off part of her mind. It is a punishment for a terrible crime that she committed years ago. Those who watch the world of information, who guard against a re-occurrence of The Unanimous Army, or something like it, dare not let human thought get out of control. The Weavers, as they are known, are largely uploaded minds, working at frantic speed in cyberspace. They have to be so to do their job properly. The only trouble is that in making themselves into ideal thought police they may have ceased to be human themselves. Indeed, they may no longer even understand what it is like to be human.

Had I known about this book when it was published I would probably have been clamouring for it to be nominated for a Hugo and the Mythopoeic Award. As it was, Carter got Campbell nominations in 1997 and 1998 which is good to know. Since then, all Carter has produced is a short story which won a Tiptree. Genius, I guess, is not on tap. But there is a very good book out there, and you should all go read it.

Hugo Recommendations

It is that time of year again. Thankfully the Chengdu committee seem to have managed to get voting open. They have also made the necessary step of establishing rules for word counts in Chinese. I very much hope to see some Chinese works on the ballot.

Of course I can’t read any of the Chinese languages, so what I vote for will be entirely works in English. I won’t have a full ballot because I just don’t have the time to read as much as I used to. But there are books, and people, I’d like to recommend.


Going by what I have read thus far, these are the books that are currently most likely to be on my ballot.

  • The Spear Cuts through Water – Simon Jimenez
  • The Moonday Letters – Emmi Itäranta
  • A Half-Built Garden – Ruthanna Emrys
  • The Daughter of Doctor Moreau – Sylvia Moreno-Garcia
  • All the Seas of the World – Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Wrath Goddess Sing – Maya Deane

However, based on what others have said, these books from my TBR pile may make it onto the ballot if I get them read in time.

  • Beyond the Burn Line – Paul McAuley
  • When Women Were Dragons – Kelly Barnhill
  • The Embroidered Book – Kate Heartfield
  • Babel – RF Kuang
  • The Mountain in the Sea – Ray Nayler
  • The World We Make – NK Jemisin


Some Hugo rules neepery is required here. Fond as I am of the lovely folks at Locus, I sometimes find their categorisations unhelpful. Locus takes a very literal view of word length rules. Thus, if a book has 40,001 words, they will insist that it is a novel, even if it feels like a novella to everyone else. The WSFS Constitution states:

“The Worldcon Committee may relocate a story into a more appropriate category if it feels that it is necessary, provided that the length of the story is within twenty percent (20%) of the new category limits.”

And the thing that is likely to prompt them to do this is you, the voters, indicating that you want it done on the basis of where you place your nominations.

This year both Spear and The Bruising of Qilwa have been catageorised as novels by Locus. I have an electronic copy of Spear and by my count it is well within the limits to be counted as a novella. Nicola confirmed that. Naseem Jamnia has been describing Qilwa as a novella in eligibility posts. Obviously it is up to you how you vote, but here’s what’s currently in with a chance of being on my ballot.

  • Ogres – Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • Spear – Nicola Griffith
  • The Bruising of Qilwa – Naseem Jamnia
  • Into the Riverlands – Nghi Vo
  • A Prayer for the Crown-Shy – Becky Chambers
  • Rosebud – Paul Cornell


The processes whereby people converge on individual episodes of TV series to vote for in BDP: Short are a mystery to me. What I do know is that there has been some excellent TV this year, and movies have been a bit meh. So here’s a list of series that I would like to see rewarded in one way or another.

  • Dragon Age: Absolution
  • Sandman: Season 1
  • Star Trek Strange New Worlds: Season 1
  • Ms Marvel
  • Doctor Who: Redacted
  • Star Trek Lower Decks: Season 3

Other Categories

I’ve read very few comics in the past yearm but Liam Sharpe’s StarHenge will be on my ballot. I’ll also be nominating Liam for Professional Artist.

On the subject of art, I would love to see Ben Baldwin get some international recognition. The covers that he produces for me are superb.

I was delighted to see Cora Buhlert win a Hugo last year, but now it is time to spread the love. Alasdair Stuart and Paul Weimer are both overdue rockets.

My Eligibility

As usual, I am eligible in Fan Writer, and Salon Futura is eligibile in Fanzine.

The Cavalry Maiden

When you think of trans autobiographies, you don’t often think of interesting history books. Even I don’t. I have, after all, read quite a few, and have mostly given up on the genre. There are a few, however, that were written centuries ago, and are much more interesting than the modern fare.

The Cavalry Maiden was written by Aleksandr Aleksandrov, a Ukrainian trans man who ran away from home and family to undergo social transition, and to join the fight against Napoleon. He served with honour for around 10 years, including fighting at the famous battle of Borodino. After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, he continued living as male until his death, by which time he had spent 60 of his 83 years as a man.

The book exists, in part, because Aleksandrov kept copious diaries during his time in the army, and in part because his younger brother Vasilii, an inveterate gambler perpetually in need of cash, suggested to the great Alexander Pushkin that the diaries might sell well. Pushkin agreed. It is clear that both he and Vasilii thought a tale of a young girl disguised as a man to fight Bonaparte would be a literary sensation. Neither of them thought much about the fact that Aleksandrov didn’t see what he had done as a disguise. As a result, the final book bears some similarity to the modern trans biography.

Some of the material was published in a magazine that Pushkin edited, but his untimely death in a duel put an end to immediate plans for a full volume. The final version saw Aleksandrov much more in control of the narrative. Thanks to this, the bulk of the book is not so much a tale of gender transgression as the memoir of a young cavalry officer.

Aleksandrov’s unusual nature became known to the higher echelons of the Russian army early on. Consequently he became acquainted with major figures of the time such as Tsar Aleksandr I (who awarded him a medal and granted him the right to use Aleksandrov as a patronymic) and Marshall Kutusov. But mostly these are minor characters.

For the military historian, the more interesting content is the coverage of the War of 1812 itself. Aleksandrov reports the frustration rife in the Russian army as their commanders order retreat after retreat in the face of the French. It isn’t until after Borodino, when Napoleon is holed up in Moscow with winter approaching, that the ordinary soldiers realize what a clever trap has been sprung.

Aleksandrov took a nasty leg wound at Borodino and was ordered home to recuperate by Kutusov, on whose staff he was then serving. When he was well enough to ride again, he set off in search of his regiment. We get a harrowing tale of his journey through Russia in the spring, when the snow is melting and the air is thick with the smell of rotting French corpses. We also learn that some of the French were so confident of victory that they had brought their families with them in the expectation of being granted large estates on which to live.

The book ends with the war, and for details of Aleksandrov’s life thereafter (for an LGBTQ+ History Month talk I gave) I am indebted to Dr Margarita Vaysman of the University of St. Andrews. She has managed to get hold of Aleksandrov’s military records, and letters between him, Vasilii and Pushkin, which she has translated for the likes of me to work with. Maybe that will become a book one day.

The one downside of The Cavalry Maiden as a book is that it was translated in 1988 and the translator clearly had no understanding of trans people. Indeed I don’t think she was capable of understanding why Aleksandrov lived as he did. I understand that there’s another translation, which I should read. But I have no reason to believe that Aleksandrov’s reports of wars in which he fought are anything other than genuine. If Napoleonic military history is your thing, you may find the book interesting.

book cover
Title: The Cavalry Maiden
By: Aleksandr Aleksandrov
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Wakanda Forever

It was, I think, inevitable that any sequel to Black Panther would fail to live up to the magic of the original movie. For it to try to do so without the magnetic presence of Chadwick Boseman was probably a recipe for disaster. Thankfully Wakanda Forever is not a bad movie, it is just not a great one.

What Ryan Coogler and his team have tried to do in this film is build on the anti-colonial theme of Black Panther by introducing Prince Namor the Submariner and linking him to the Maya civilization. That in itself is not a bad idea. Namor has always been known as a complicated character. He has a burning hatred of the surface world, but he’s also up for fighting alongside Marvel heroes when the planet needs saving. Traditionally his motivation has been rooted in the surface dwellers’ mis-use of the oceans, which makes him ideal for environment-themed stories. But giving him a connection to colonized people gives a sharper focus to his hate, and also provides an interesting foil for the Wakandans.

The point about Wakanda is that, while it has never itself been colonized, it is still African, and all other African people have been colonized. The Wakandans themselves didn’t really understand what being colonized was like until Killmonger came among them. Now they don’t know what their place is in the world. And without T’Challa to guide them, they have to look to the teenage Shuri for leadership.

Enter, then, Namor, who knows exactly what it is like to be colonized, and whose undersea kingdom rivals Wakanda in its technological superiority over the rest of the world. Should they join with him, or oppose him? And will the Americans give them no choice?

So what goes wrong? The first issue is that the Maya connection to Namor’s kingdom seems to be a bit like window dressing. I spotted a few comments on Twitter to the effect that the production crew could have engaged with the existing Maya community in Mexico, but failed to do so. If that’s the case, it is a real shame as the Maya deserve some time in the spotlight.

Problem two is that Shuri, for all that she’s a scientific genius, doesn’t have the gravitas to fill T’Challa’s shoes. The film is supposed to show her growing into the role, but it all seems a bit like painting by numbers. Angela Bassett was superb as always as Queen Ramonda. I think they should have let her take the lead instead.

Problem three is that the mega battle at the end between the Wakandans and the Talocans is just bad. And over-long. Also they do the Aquaman thing of assuming that you can travel from anywhere on land to anywhere in the oceans in no time. If Wakanda has access to the sea, it will be on the east coast of Africa. It takes time to get to the Atlantic.

The film did have some interesting elements. The introduction of Riri Williams was completely unnecessary from a plot point of view, but presumably a requirement of the MCU as a whole. Tenoch Huerta Mejía makes for a convincing Namor, and I am very much looking forward to him encountering the Fantastic Four. Okoye’s graduation from chief of the Dora Milaje to a superhero called Midnight Angel is very welcome indeed, as is the suggestion that she and her fellow Angel, Aneka, are a couple. And finally I would watch any film with M’Baku in it because the daft old ape is a lot of fun.

I haven’t had time to watch the “making of” documentary for Wakanda Forever yet, and the disc has only just come out so there may be other background material on that. I may have more to say later. But for now I’m pegging this one as a film that exists largely to move the plot of the MCU on and to deal with the tragic death of Boseman.


Spoilers ahead, but this show is at least 30 years old so I have no qualms.

Streaming services seem to be the in thing these days. The BBC has been muttering about becoming streaming-only in the not too distant future. Of course their iPlayer service has been around for a while now (the interface is still terrible), and is now much more than a catch-up service. The independent TV channels here in the UK have been offering catch-up for a while, but now ITV has launched a full-scale streaming service, ITVX. There is loads of material there, much of which I have no interest in. I suspect that if you want to binge-watch Coronation Street from the very early days then you can do so. But what about SF&F content?

Much to my astonishment and delight, I see that they are offering some Gerry Anderson shows. You can get Season 1 of Captain Scarlet, and even a selection of Fireball XL5 shows. There is also some anime, and the reason I know about ITVX at all is that someone on Twitter mentioned that they have Gunbuster.

I know very little about anime, but Kevin occasionally tries to educate me. Also I have Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy whom I can call upon if I need an expert opinion. Years ago Jonathan told me that I needed to watch Gunbuster because it was something of an ur-series as far as mecha stories are concerned. I’ve been looking for it ever since, and now, thanks to ITVX, I’ve been able to watch it.

Wikipedia, which is probably correct on this as there are too many anime fans out there eager to pounce on errors, tells me that the series was the directorial debut of Hideaki Anno, who went on to produce Neon Genesis Evangelion. The Japanese title of the show was Aim for the Top!, which was in part a nod to a tennis-based anime called Aim for the Ace!, and partly by the Tom Cruise movie, Top Gun, both of which were inspirations. The tennis thing explains a lot of the weirdness.

The basic plot is that Earth has encountered a race of space monsters (Uchuu Kaijuu) that is bent on wiping out all other forms of life. Earth’s defenses rely in part on space-ships in the form of giant robots piloted by teenagers. It doesn’t have to make sense.

The story begins with Noriko Takaya at high school learning to become a robot pilot. She’s useless at it, but because her father was an admiral in the space navy who died in the first contact with the aliens she gets to be one of the two girls from Japan selected to go into space. The other successful pupil is the beautiful, competent and talented Kazumi Amano. The decision as to which girls to send is made by their trainer, Koichiro Ohta, a survivor from the first contact battle, whom the girls all call “Coach” because this is a tennis-based TV show.

Much of the rest of the series is centered around Noriko learning to let go of her fear and embrace self-confidence. Once she does she will become a champion tennis player, er, robot pilot. Kazumi is mostly an ally, but she fears that Noriko’s lack of confidence will get people killed. There’s also a hot-shot Russian girl pilot with the somewhat ridiculous name of Jung Freud who is sometimes a friend and sometimes desperate to out-do the two Japanese girls. And there’s a boy pilot called Smith who gets fridged to give Noriko some motivation.

Much to my surprise, the show only has 6 episodes. The story is mostly wrapped up in the first five as Noriko evolves from frightened kid to savior of the solar system. Eventually she and Kazumi get to pilot the new, experimental mecha called Gunbuster which is two separate spaceships that can combine to form a giant robot. Billions of alien spaceships stand no chance against them.

Although the tennis anime and Top Gun are cited as influences, it is clear that the scriptwriters were SF fans. The Earth spaceships are armed with photon torpedoes, so someone had been watching Star Trek. They had probably also read The Forever War, because issues of relativistic time feature large towards the end of the series.

I’m assuming that the show influenced a lot of later anime shows, but you can see themes from it cropping up in modern SF too. The ending of the Valerie Valdes space opera trilogy I’ve been reviewing happily has a big nod to mecha stories. There may also be a plot point from Gunbuster in Charlie Jane Anders’ Unstoppable! space opera series.

If this is all there was to Gunbuster then I’d be telling you that it is kind of fun, probably important historically, and has a few unnecessary soft porn scenes, and ridiculous costumes for the female pilots. But there is also episode 6.

By this time the issues of relative passage of time have come to the fore. Noriko’s best friend from school, Kimiko, does not go into space. When our heroes return from saving the solar system, 10 years have passed on Earth and Kimiko has a young daughter. This sets the scene for the final episode.

After episode 5, Kazumi goes back to Earth to marry Coach Ohta, who is dying of radiation sickness. Jung takes her place in the Gunbuster. Episode 6 is set 15 years later, after Ohta has died. Earth has turned Jupiter into a giant black hole bomb, with which they plan to destroy the aliens once and for all. Kazumi volunteers to pilot it. Inevitably Noriko and Kazumi end up risking their lives to ensure that the bomb goes off as planned. They are caught in the shock wave, and when they get back to Earth 2000 years have passed.

The entire episode is in black and white, as if to indicate that this is the serious, adult episode, and it thoroughly warrants that treatment (save for an entirely unnecessary flash of naked boob). The contrast with earlier episodes is stark, which makes the ending all the more effective. I was impressed.

Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Unlike Wakanda Forever, which seems to have mostly been a disappointment, Quantumania is getting very mixed responses. Leaving aside the people who think any new superhero movie marks the end of civilization as we know it, I think there are genuine criticisms, but that’s because not every Marvel movie aims to do the same things.

Wakanda Forever, as I’ve noted elsewhere in this issue, attempts to continue the anti-colonial theme of Black Panther. It is supposed to be a serious movie. Quantumania, aside from a quip about ants being Socialists, is pure popcorn. As such, it succeeds rather well, but if you were expecting anything more profound from it you will be disappointed.

My main objection to previous Ant Man movies was that they made too litte use of Janet van Dyne. By extension that means they made too little use of Hank Pym too, but then we all know that Hank is an idiot. It is bad enough to miss out on using a great character such as Janet, but when you have Michelle Pfeiffer on hand and make almost no use of her, well that’s criminal.

I am happy to report that in Quantumania, both Janet and Hank have much bigger roles. Also Hank is still an idiot. What the ants see in him, I do not know.

Given the bigger role for Janet, there is inevitably less for Hope to do, though she does get one spectacular entrance. Her role is further minimized by the presence of Cassie Lang who is now old enough to have her own supersuit in preparation for an assumed place in the Young Avengers. If there is a moral centre to the film, it is that Scott is only interested in keeping his daughter safe, while Cassie is prepared to sacrifice herself for the good of the people of the Quantum Realm who have been conquered by Kang.

Oh yes, Kang, or at least one of him. This is a very different Kang to the one we saw at the End of Time in the Loki TV series. This Kang has been banished to the Quantum Realm by all of the other Kangs for being too much of an arsehole. Anyway, Jonathan Majors continues to be superb in the role. Which is good because he’s going to be around a lot in future movies.

There are, I guess, three reasons for going to see Quantumania. The first is if you want to spend two hours eating popcorn and enjoying some ridiculous movie fun. The second is if you are a completist like me and want to keep up with everything that is happening in the MCU. And finally, if you are a fan of Janet van Dyne, this is the movie where we finally get to see her strut her stuff. Old lady superheroes FTW!

Editorial – February 2023

Well, I promised you a February issue, so here it is. It is a bit thin on the actual books read, though I have included a history book that I read for one of the LGBTQ+ History Month talks I gave. But I have seen a couple of movies and I have some other things to talk about.

Social media over the past month has been abuzz with the issue of supposed-AI software such as ChatGPT. I say “supposed” because these programs are not actually intelligent. They are just good at pattern matching and replication. If you feed them enough web pages with the text, “2 + 2 = 5” they will assert that as fact, even if, at the same time, they assert that 5 – 2 = 3. If producing academic material with citiations, they may make them up because they don’t understand the difference between a real paper and an imaginary one.

However, these tools are now good enough at both image and language processing to pose significant threats to the livelihoods of both artists and writers. I had a few things to say about the art issue last year. As for the written word, goodness knows where we will end up. Here are a few bits of data.

You have probably all heard about how Clarkesworld had to close submissions because their slush readers were overwhelmed with stories “written” by ChatGPT. Such material is generally easy to spot, but sifting through it takes time and energy. Because generating new stories is so quick and easy, bad actors can overwhelm the submissions process of any magazine and prevent its staff from getting on with their work. There are solutions, but they will necessarily involve pre-vetting who is allowed to submit, which is far from ideal.

One of my friends reported on Facebook that a fairly lucrative gig she had writing content for a website vanished overnight because the site owner claimed that he could get all of his content from ChatGPT now. I understand that major outlets such as CNET and Buzzfeed are now using ChatGPT to generate content, though both admit that its output has to be checked for errors.

The Kindle market is full of rapidly written books claiming to teach you how to make your fortune using ChatGPT. I gather than TikTok has a similar infestation. I suspect also that a significant proportion of the self-published books on Kindle will soon be “authored” by ChatGPT.

Of course not everyone sees these tools as a threat. The latest Kobo newsletter pointed me at this blog post about how to use these tools in a more constructive and responsible way.

The big question is where all this will end up. Given that the major publishers, just like every other large corporation these days, see themselves as being in the business of delivering value for shareholders, I am sure that their senior management is salivating over the prospect of being able to do away with writers altogether and produce endless streams of books “in the style of” whichever dead successful writer they have the rights to publish. I wonder if Asimov ever considered that his career would be continued long after his death by robots trained to immitate his writing.

Issue #46

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

Cover: Fantasy Motorcycle

This month’s cover is “Fantasy Motorcycle” by Stefan Keller from Pixabay.

I don’t think there is any AI involvement in this. Keller has a lot of work up on Pixabay, much of which probably dates from before when the AI tools became available. But I would like to know how you tell.

As is often the case, the image I have used is a slide out of a much bigger picture. The whole thing is shown below.

The Spear Cuts Through Water

There is an internet made of giant tortoises.

And the text is haunted by the voices of the dead.

Well, perhaps not. You see, the bulk of the story is told as a play in The Inverted Theatre, which exists only as a reflection in water. The interjections by the dead may simply be comments from members of the chorus chosen briefly to represent one or another deceased character. Then again, as The Inverted Theatre is very much a supernatural location, maybe all the players are actually ghosts playing themselves.

If this sounds like no fantasy novel you have ever read before, then I will agree with you.

The Spear Cuts Through Water is told to a young man whose family has fled the Old Country for a new land overseas, where strange things like cars and televisions exist. He is our focus because he is the one member of the family who is captivated by the tales that his grandmother tells of the Old Country. Simon Jimenez uses the word “lola” for “grandmother. It is a Philippine term, which perhaps tells us a little bit about the culture from which this story comes, though it is clear from the map that the Old Country is nothing like the real-world Philippines.

The Old Country is ruled by an Emperor who styles himself as the Sun. His wife, the Empress, is actually the Moon. She has been wife to seven Emperors before him, since she was captured and dragged down to serve the whims of an ambitious warlord. The Spear Cuts Through Water is the story of her escape, her revenge, and the disaster this brings upon the country her husbands ruled.

This book is not as political as The Vanished Birds, but it does have a few things to say about the immigrant experience, and of course quite a bit about the horrors of mediaeval societies ruled by the fantastically wealthy. But mainly I think this is a book about men. It is a book about the desire of men to continue their line through sons, about the cruelty that men inflict through Patriarchy, and about the way in which expectations of macho behavior affect both those born into power, and those who have no chance of achieving it.

Interestingly it is not a book about men being violent in war. One of the few roles for women in the book is as a warrior, as capable with a sword or spear as any man.

It is also a book about the love that men can have for each other, and how it is expressed, which is something I very much do not understand. It is a good love story though, and I’m now pointing my gay male friends at this book because the publishers sure aren’t going to.

When I reviewed The Vanished Birds I said that, in Jimenez, we had a new male author to get excited about. That didn’t happen. The book was shortlisted for a few things, but won no awards. I suspect that if Jimenez had been white the story would have been very different. Although of course a white man would not have written such a good book about colonialism. Anyway, here’s another Jimenez book that I think you should be getting excited about. Why not give it a try?

It has a fabulous map.

book cover
Title: The Spear Cuts Through Water
By: Simon Jimenez
Publisher: Random House
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
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The Keeper’s Six

How do you make a novella feel like a much bigger book? If you’d like to know, take a look at what Kate Elliott has done with The Keeper’s Six, because it is beautifully executed.

The starting point is the worldbuilding. It is something that lots of writers love, but not all do well. Less experienced writers will pour everything they have in their notebooks onto the page. Clever ones, like Elliott, will tell you only as much as you need to follow the story, and that only sparingly, but they will do so in such a way as to make it seem like there is a lot more out there waiting to be told. (Which there may or may not be, it doesn’t matter much.)

The other key element is the plot. You hear a lot of advice about starting the story in media res, and generally the reason for doing so is to get the reader hooked quickly. However, by making it clear that there is a lot of backstory affecting your characters, you are giving the reader a sense of a much bigger book than the one they are actually reading.

Characters help too. You can’t spent a lot of time with each one, and you certainly can’t afford multiple points of view. However, if the backstory you keep hinting at involves conflicts between the characters, that adds to the sense of something much bigger.

So what do we have in the book? The world of The Keeper’s Six includes present-day Earth. It also includes a whole universe of other sentient races. But, this being fantasy, travel between worlds takes place via magic and a dangerous, monster-filled wilderness called the Beyond.

Travel through the Beyond is safest in a group of six people known as a Hex. They all have complimentary and necessary skills. The Gate opens the way in and out. The Ghost, being insubstantial in the Beyond, can act as a scout. The Voice is a diplomat, the Shotgun a fighter. The Lantern provides light in the often pitch-black Beyond. And the Keeper anchors the team to their home world. Together they form an adventuring party. And yes, you could write a role-playing game set in this world.

Here also be dragons. They are the most powerful of the sentient races, and being dragons they have a lot of knowledge and power that they don’t like to reveal.

Our heroine is Esther Green, now a grandmother and getting a bit old for adventuring. Besides – backstory – she and her Hex have had their license to travel revoked by something called the Concilium which is some sort of regulatory body for the universe. It was all her fault. Her relationship with the rest of the Hex is fraught as a result. But now she needs their help because her son, Daniel, who is also the Hex’s Keeper, has been kidnapped. By a dragon. And somehow this involves Daniel’s spouse, a non-human person called Kai.

Insert adventure through the Beyond here. Add in drip-fed bits of backstory that will help resolve the plot. Plus a whole bunch of Easter Eggs for people who love literature. And a bit of a love story too.

It is all expertly crafted, and a fabulous read. I do hope that Elliott writes more stories in this world, because it is too vibrant to set aside.

By the way, the dragons refer to Esther as “Star of Evening”. The name Esther, means “star” in Hebrew. It is the Hebrew version of the name Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess whose planetary aspect is Venus. The Biblical Esther was originally named Hadassah (“myrtle”), but her name was changed when she married the Persian king, Xerxes I. The evening star aspect was more associated with Ishtar’s warrior personality, while the morning star is associated with her sexual aspect. I’m sure that there is a lot more detail in the book that I have missed.

book cover
Title: The Keeper's Six
By: Kate Elliott
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
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Queens of the Wild

This book is a classic example of the conflict between publisher and author. When I first saw publicity for Queens of the Wild I shook my head sadly. Surely Ronald Hutton knew better than that. And of course he does. Professor Hutton is a leading expert on paganism in the British Isles. He’s well aware of the difficulty of saying anything certain about such things. The first thing you find in the book is a preface in which Hutton describes his difficulties with the publisher over the matter of the title. Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe – An Investigation, is the least bad that he could get them to agree to. He regards the “an investigation” bit as key, and it is.

While the popular media (and, it seems, the publishing industry) is still wedded to Margaret Murray’s ideas of an underground, surviving paganism that holds true to Celtic beliefs throughout the Middle Ages, academia has long since moved on. Back in the 1990s, Hutton himself suggested making a distinction between “Surviving Paganism” – that is an actual surviving religion – and “Pagan Survivals” – that is elements of pagan belief that have survived the advent of Christianity. These days the academic consensus has apparently shifted so far in the other direction that even that sensible distinction is liable to be met with derisive laughter. Nevertheless, Hutton persists, and this book is his latest contribution to the debate.

One problem with the whole Surviving Paganism thing is that we have no clear idea of what “Celtic Religion” looked like. We have a bunch of god-names, often from single Romano-British temples. We have a bunch of myths written down centuries after the Romans left by Christian monks. And while Caesar and Tacitus might assure us that Druidism was key to ancient British beliefs, there’s no guarantee than Anglesey was some sort of Celtic Vatican. Indeed, anyone who studies ancient religion will tell you that worship is very localized. While various Celtic people might have a horse goddess, she might be seen very differently in Ulster, in Yorkshire, in Wiltshire, and in various parts of France.

A corollary of this is that arguments tend to be based on anecdata. The god Nodens, for example, who might be the same person as Nudd in Wales, and Nuada in Ireland, is known only from two Romano-British temples. He is equated to Mars, but only in his healing aspect, and to the woodland god, Silvanus. That’s not enough data to draw firm conclusions from.

Probably no one knows more about pagan religion in Europe than Hutton, and what he does in this book is to focus on four goddess types for which significant amounts of can be found in folk tales from all over Europe. There is also a section on one god, and I suspect that the book originally focused on all five equally, but the publishers wanted to highlight the goddesses.

First in Hutton’s sights is the concept of the Great Mother, or Mother Earth. Gaia was a very minor figure in Greek mythology, but Cybele, who was also a goddess of wild places, was hugely important in Rome. The concept of Natura had some currency in the Mediaeval world, but Mother Earth is more of a modern invention. Hutton points of that she is mainly a creation of intellectuals. There is little in folk tales about her. He has got me interested in reading some DH Lawrence, which is something I never thought possible.

Goddess number 2 is a British specialty, the Fairy Queen. She is largely a creation of the Elizabethan period (for obvious reasons), though she is based on folk tales about fairies which are common throughout these isles. The character of Oberon was invented in the early 16th Century, and the addition of Titania as his wife is down to that Shakespeare fellow. Belief in Fairies was clearly widespread at the time, as evidenced by court cases in which fraudsters have pretended to be Fairies in order to swindle the gullible out of their money. Hutton even mentions several plays which have this as a plot, though he misses my favourite. In Amyntas by Thomas Randolph the fraudsters trick a rich man out of his money by claiming that Oberon will turn him into a woman and marry him.

Next we come to the Lady of the Night. The Northern parts of Central Europe all have stories about a woman who rides around at night doing mischief. She is often known as Diana, but weirdly also as Herodias, the wife of King Herod from the New Testament. She and her wicked crew usually ride horses, but elements of her belief may have informed the Wakpurgisnacht tradition of witches riding forth on broomsticks. In actual pagan terms she may have a connection to Epona, the Celtic horse goddess who became popular with Roman cavalry units. Or she might be inspired by the Valkyrie of Norse mythology. What is clear is that she is an actual folk tradition and well inclined towards the poor if they treat her well. I’m wondering about connections to British protest movements characterized by men dressed as women such as the Rebecca Rioters of Wales or the Lady Skimmingtons of England.

Finally in the goddesses we have one who was largely new to me. This is the Cailleach, a hag figure common to Irish and Scottish folklore. This is not Herself, as the Cailleach has no war goddess aspect. Indeed she may not be a goddess at all in that early sources tend to refer to A Cailleach, not The Cailleach. Once again, these things evolve over the centuries.

The final section is devoted to The Green Man, and I’m sorry to inform Juliet McKenna fans that there is no evidence that the famous foliate faces in churches are evidence of a Pagan Survival. The whole theory was invented by Julia Somerset, Lady Raglan, in an essay for the journal of the Folklore Society in 1939. Foliate heads did not become fashionable in mediaeval art (manuscripts and church carvings) until the 10th Century. Nevertheless there are interesting things to be said about the concept of the Wild Man, and Hutton says them.

Queens of the Wild is an incredibly erudite book, and one that ought to be read by anyone interested in the subject because it is a masterclass in showing what can and can’t be done with the evidence.

Ultimately, however, we need to remember the basic tenet of neo-paganism, which is that religion is created by believers. It doesn’t matter whether you are following a genuine survival from ancient times, or something made up, as long as it works for you. Indeed, the whole idea that there is an authentic tradition, and that someone can be the guardian of that tradition, is antithetical to the anarchist tradition of neo-paganism.

book cover
Title: Queens of the Wild
By: Ronald Hutton
Publisher: Yale University Press
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Star Trek: Lower Decks – Season 3

While I am very impressed with the way that Strange New Worlds replicates the feel of classic Trek, I think that Lower Decks may well be the best Trek because it does two things brilliantly.

Firstly it mercilessly takes the piss out of Trek. The best example of that from Season 3 is “Crisis Point II: Paradoxus” which is set in a holodeck scenario scripted by Boimler. The rest of our heroes have their own opinions about Boimler’s scripting ability (especially Mariner), and this leads to discussion of the merits of various well-known Trek episode tropes.

On the other hand, the show is still very much in love with the concept of Starfleet, and its young heroes are just as much committed to boldly going and doing good as they were at the start of season one. That’s despite the fact that some of them are sorely tested.

Those of you who were expecting more of a story arc in this season, after the cliffhanger at the end of Season 2, will be disappointed. The affair of Captain Freeman and the bombing of the Pakled capital is wrapped up very quickly in one episode. Thankfully there are many fun episodes to come.

One of my favourites is “Hear All, Trust Nothing”, in which the Cerritos is sent to Deep Space 9 on a diplomatic mission. The episode guest-stars the inimitable Kira Nerys (Bajorans are clearly Welsh if they have names like that) and, of course, Quark. The episode shows us a side of Tendi we’ve never seen before.

Rutherford also gets a chance to shine in the episode, “Reflections”. Here we learn that he was once a young tearaway who spent his early years in Starfleet building and racing single-seater starships. Meanwhile Mariner makes the acquaintance of Petra Aberdeen, a former Starfleet officer turned “independent archaeologist”. Both of these storylines will come back later in the season.

Oh, and we get to hear more about the villainous little droid, Peanut Hamper.

All in all, this is a fine season, especially if you happen to be a Californian and not a Texan. Warmly recommended. I understand that Season 4 is in the can and I’m very much looking forward to it.

The Grief of Stones

This book is a sequel to Witness for the Dead, which I very much enjoyed. It would appear that Katherine Addison is now planning a series featuring Thara Celehar, the aforementioned Witness. That makes a lot of sense. These are crime novels. It isn’t hard to imagine a series of books in which Celehar solves different crimes. There will, however, be a story arc. The end of this book sets up the next one and makes major changes in Celehar’s life. This is all good. I’ll keep buying the subsequent books in the series.

For the setting, I might as well direct you to my review of Witness for the Dead. That describes who Celehar is, and how he solves crimes. What is new in this book is the subject. Whereas the earlier book was primarily about racism, The Grief of Stones is primarily about orphanages, and how unscrupulous people seek to make money by exploiting their unfortunate charges.

It is not lost on me that I am writing this review on a day on which newspaper reports have revealed that the UK’s Home Office is turning a blind eye to refugee children being kidnapped by criminal gangs, presumably because that means there are fewer refugees for them to house. Sadly it would not surprise me in the slightest if Suella Braverman was getting a payoff from this, because there’s no level of depravity to which our current government will not sink. But there is no Thara Celehar here to bring them to justice.

Something else that appears to be a feature of these books is that, towards the end, Celehar is suddenly plunged into very serious danger from supernatural forces. That reminds me a bit of Juliet McKenna’s Green Man books, though Celehar is a very different character to Dan Mackmain. Addison deals with this very well.

Those of you who are amused by comedy academics will enjoy this book. And those of you loved the character of Pel-Thenhior, the opera impresario, from the previous book will be pleased that he features heavily again in this one. It seems to be that he has a thing for Celehar, and that Celehar is too dense to see it. Doubtless this will unfold in future books.

I can’t say much more without giving away too much of the plot, but basically these are lovely books that are easy to read, and which address serious social issues through a fantasy lens. Well worth a read.

book cover
Title: The Grief of Stones
By: Katherine Addison
Publisher: Solaris
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The Witcher: Blood Origin

Everything is better with Michelle Yeoh, which is just as well because without her this Witcher spin-off would have been even more of a disaster. Blood Origin is set in the deep past of the Witcher universe. It tells of how the monoliths came to be, of the events that caused the Conjunction of the Spheres, of the arrival of humans and other monsters into the world, and of the creation of the first Witcher.

That’s a lot to pack in, especially in four hour-long episodes. Apparently it was originally intended to be six, which may help explain the poor plotting, but I’m sure they could have done better with the time they had if they hadn’t felt the need to fill it with sex and gore to keep the dudebro audience happy.

Alongside the aforementioned plot points, the story also includes King Alvatir of Xin’trea (Cintra as we know it) trying to bring peace to the war-torn Continent. He gets deposed by his sister, Éile, backed by the commander of the armies and the chief druid. The latter is named Balor, which is odd because he has two eyes, and he’s the main villain. We keep getting told that he’s upset because the Xin’trean nobility look down on him as a commoner, but the only evidence of this is people saying it. Eredin, the general, is gay, and apparently this is looked down on too. The message of the series appears to be that Alvatir was a decent guy who wanted peace, but really he was as bad as the villains because he was a king.

There are things called Clans that many of the heroes belong to, and which are very important to their motivations, but it is never explained what they are all about. I’m assuming that people who have read the Witcher books will know. Of course Witcher fans are complaining bitterly that the series deviates too far from the books, but then they always do that.

Into this mess comes a rag-tag group of heroes (where have I heard that before?). One of them is Scían, played by Michelle Yeoh, who is a sort of elf version of the swordmistress character from Irish mythology (Scáthach and her sister, Aife). She has blue contact lenses, which is a bit weird, but otherwise she does what Michelle Yeoh does.

There are seven heroes in our adventuring group, several of who exist only to fill roles in the plot. The only other one who is worth your attention is Meldof, a dwarf woman who has a warhammer named after her dead wife, Gwen. I want to see Francesca Mills in more TV and movies, because she’s excellent.

I’d advise you not to bother with this series, even if you are a fan of the main timeline, except that it is not entirely stand-alone. To begin with, there is a framing story in which Jaskier, who spends most of his appearances in the story stumbling around a blood-strewn battlefield, gets told the events of the plot and is encouraged to write a song about it. I’m sure he will do a better job than the scriptwriters. Given that the monoliths were a key part of Season 2, the fact that Jaskier now knows how they came to be may well be important to Season 3. Also, right at the end, there is a short scene connecting the events of Blood Origin to Ciri.

Netflix, you can do better than this.

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