Issue #40

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


  • Cover: Astronaut City: This issue’s cover is again from Pixabay. The name of the artist is not given. The full version of the art is below.

  • Kingfisher: Patricia McKillip may have left us, but she has also left many fabulous books, including this one.

  • Aspects: John M Ford's final, unfinished, novel has been released at last. Was it worth the wait?

  • Plutoshine: Another fine debut from a female author, and this time it is hard SF

  • Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak: Cheryl reads the latest book in Charlie Jane Anders' Unstoppable series.

  • Kundo Wakes Up: Huzzah! A new installment in Saad Z Hossain's series set in a djinn-infested, near-future cyberpunk South Asia

  • Åcon XI: Nordic fandom returns to the beautiful Åland islands, and Cheryl went too

  • Star Trek: Prodigy: Not content with Lower Decks, Paramount has given us a new animated Star Trek series, this one featuring a group of alien teenagers

  • Picard – Season 2: Jean Luc and his crew deliver more quality fan service

  • Editorial – May 2022: Live from Helsinki!

Kingfisher

As many of you know, Patricia McKillip died recently. My little corner of the internet has been full of tributes to her, including a wonderful episode of The Coode Street Podcast featuring Ellen Kushner and E Lily Yu. This may be a surprise to younger readers as McKillip hasn’t been that active of late. As far as I’m aware, her last novel came out in 2016, though she may have produced short stories since then. Her first novel appeared in 1973, so she’s been around a long time.

In terms of awards, McKillip’s career includes two World Fantasy wins, and a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award. But she’s only been a Hugo finalist once, and a Nebula finalist twice. She has, however, won four Mythopoeic Awards, and has been a finalist another 11 times, which tells you a lot about the sort of fiction she wrote.

While McKillip largely eschewed series after her initial, and very successful, Riddle Master of Hed trilogy, her publishers made her works instantly recognizable because each one came with a magnificent Kinuko Craft cover. The book I’m reviewing here did not, perhaps because it was her last, and perhaps because it does not address the same fairy-tale themes as those Craft-covered books.

Kingfisher is Arthuriana. Indeed, it is the same piece of Arthuriana that Nicola Griffith mined for Spear, but it has a very different take on the legend of Percival. To start with, it is set in a modern society with cars and cell phones. While the actual location is not of this world, it seems to me very clearly based on the west coast of the USA. The small, seaside towns, with their seafood restaurants, specializing in crab dishes, remind me a lot of places like Fort Bragg. McKillip was born in Oregon, and lived there for much of her life.

Welcome, then, to the land of Wyvernhold, still ruled over by King Arden, though the 9th of that name. The world has moved on a lot since it was necessary for bold knights to hunt mythical creatures. While jousting and swordplay are still popular, these days knights prefer black leather to full plate, and they get around on motorbikes, unless they are very rich like Gareth May (Gawain) or Leith Duresse (Lancelot) and have a chauffeur-driven limousine.

In McKillip’s book, Perceval is not a young Welshman, he is a son of Lancelot. In fact Leith has two sons: Pierce and Val, but it is Pierce, the younger, who is our hero. I suspect that McKillip did this because she wanted to give Lancelot a shot at redemption, but I can’t ask her now and I doubt that she’d answer if I could.

More true to the tradition is that Pierce has grown up in obscurity, raised by his mother, the sorceress Heloise. She left court years ago, leaving Val in the care of Leith, because of Leith’s affair with Queen Genevra. But, as young proto-knights must, he chooses to leave her and seek his fortune, and his father, at court. And he does this just in time to partake in a great Quest for a mysterious object that might be a cup, a bowl, or a flowerpot. The knights can’t get much sense out of Sylvester Skelton, the king’s wizard.

That’s not Merlin, by the way. There’s a strange old man called Merle who lives in the seaside town of Chimera Bay, where the Kingfisher Inn is located. And when I say “strange”, I do mean that he has some very odd habits.

And then she saw her father, in the meadow under the soft touch of moonlight, changing into shape after shape in an intricate dance of power, or the constant folding and refolding of life in all its variations. Man became wolf became deer became hare became bear became cougar became porcupine became salmon leaping out of the water, became white heron became owl, soundless in the transfixed eye of the moon.

She, by the way, is Carrie, Merle’s daughter, who works as a cook at the Kingfisher. She has a key role in the plot.

Which brings us to cookery. Food is a major element of the story. Heloise has become a cook and runs a restaurant called Haricot in Desolation Point on far-north Cape Mistbegotten. Food is served at the Kingfisher Inn too. And then there is the mysterious Todd Stillwater, whose restaurant serves the most amazing concoctions that taste heavenly but always seen to leave diners more hungry than before.

There is much more in the book. Key to the story are the two great rivers, the Severen, and the Calluna, that intersect at Arden’s capital city of Severluna. They represent the sun god, Severen, and the moon goddess, Calluna. There is gender politics. There is some dispute as to which of these gods the thing that we must not call a Grail belongs to. And then there are the Knights of the Rising God, a group of knights who are exclusively devoted to Severen and are as thuggish and inconsiderate as any group of young, male religious fanatics.

This being a modern-day story, we have female knights, in particular Dame Scotia Malory, a descendant of the infamous writer who produced a, probably rather fanciful, biography of the original King Arden. If by now you have come to the conclusion that McKillip is just having fun writing Arthurian fanfic, you’d be dead right. But then all Arthuriana is fanfic of a sort.

There are echoes of The Tempest in the book too.

So there is love of the stories, there is gender politics, there is paganism, there is occasional comedy (often at the expense of Lancelot or Merlin), but above all there is enchantment.

Once our true realm ran from one horizon to the other, from day to night; you could move from one end to the other with a wish. A step. […] Now time gets in the way.

As our heroes will discover, there is such a thing as enchantment. You can be ensorcelled, and find that your mind is not your own. But sometimes there is worse. Sometimes you can be disenchanted.

To read a Patricia McKillip book is to be enchanted. Now that there will be no more, we are, in a way, disenchanted. Fortunately I have not read all of them. There is magic yet to come.

book cover
Title: Kingfisher
By: Patricia McKillip
Publisher: Ace
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Aspects

Most of you will, I suspect, know that this book is unfinished. What I hadn’t quite twigged before starting it, is that it is not just an unfinished novel, it is an unfinished fantasy series. No one knows how many books John M Ford had planned before his untimely death in 2006, but it was clearly more than one.

So why should you read it? Well to start with the prose is glorious. Nothing much happens in the first few chapters. A duel is fought, and the victor turns out to be one of the major characters. There is some debate in Parliament. Our hero’s best friend (who turns out to be gay) tries to fix him up with a girlfriend, which is a complicated thing for middle-aged members of the nobility. And yet I was transfixed, because of the quality of the writing and worldbuilding.

Oh yes, this is a secondary world. It is kind of Victorian, in that there are steam trains and a telegraph system, and a world slowly moving out of feudalism into an industrial democracy. Our heroes are members of the House of Lords. There is a House of Commons where the nouveau riche sit, but is has little power yet. The King has abdicated.

There is also magic. The House of Lords has seats reserved for senior sorcerers, and a key law that is being debated concerns the legal liability that sorcerers have for acts of magic. There are clergymen in the Lords too; several of them as the local religion is somewhat polytheistic. There are four main goddesses. Each has a consort (not all of whom are male, it appears), and these days each is seen as an aspect of one great Goddess.

Which brings us to gender. There are women in Parliament. Inheritance amongst the nobility appears to be entirely gender-neutral. Some of the most powerful sorcerers are women. Another major female character in the book is the Inspector of Ironways, and therefore one of the most important people involved in the railway industry. Ford hasn’t created a world entirely free of patriarchy, but he has created one that is far more free of it than our own is, even now.

What his world is not free of is autocracy. Most of the major characters are members of the nobility in some way. Our hero, Varic, and his good friend Brook, are trying to establish a new way of running a country where there is a Constitution, and Laws, and noblemen cannot act as petty kings within their own fiefdom.

This is one of the themes that Ford was starting to explore in the book. He was doing do through one of Varic and Brook’s main problems in Parliament: Cable, the Chief Justiciar. Cable is the sort of man who believes utterly in the sanctity of the Law, but has no understanding whatsoever of justice. A Lord (Coron is the title in the world of the book) is likely to know his or her people, and on investigating the circumstances of a crime can rule upon it in a way that is just. Cable would have every judge strictly bound by a rule book from which they must never deviate, no matter how wrong the verdict might be.

We see this also in the debate over legal control of sorcery. Magic is a wild and unpredictable thing. At one point Ford quotes an old proverb to the effect that if a master sorcerer has not accidentally killed three close friends then he’s not really trying. If a sorcerer is asked to bring an end to a drought, but the ensuing heavy rains wash away a bridge and a child is drowned, is the sorcerer liable for the damage, or guilty of murder?

There has to be action as well, though the plot doesn’t get going until halfway through Aspects. There isn’t really enough in what we have to see the expected shape of the plot, though it would appear to involve hostile action, if not outright war, involving the neighbouring state of Ferangard. Early in the book, Varic and Brook attend a party to welcome the new Ferangarder Ambassador. It features a display of a new weapon — a machine gun whose rapid loading of bullets is achieved by sorcery.

The book, however, was not planned to be that simple. Ferangard may see weakness in the social issues facing our heroes. Ford is certainly aware of them. As in a traditional Victorian novel, the characters have servants. They are mostly well treated, but they are servants none-the-less. Some social mobility is possible. We see this in the character of Winterhill. He’s a former orphan and petty thief who was lucky enough to be rescued by a philanthropist and well educated. He now puts his talents to use as a private eye for hire, and occasional assassin. He mixes with the upper classes, but he will never be one of them.

Much of the novel takes place in and around a large country house owned by a man called Strange. At major holidays, such as solstices and equinoxes, Strange entertains guests, members of the great and good whom he feels should know each other. Varic is a regular guest. Brook is not, because he once brought a toy boy who disgraced himself. The aforementioned Inspector of Ironways, Edaire. is a guest, as is the newly-elected what passes for Archbishop. Strange wants good people running the country, and does his best to put them together. (The contrast with the group of thieves currently running the UK is stark.)

Anyway, Strange has a head coachman. She and her wife have a young son who dreams of working on the Ironways. Naturally he plies Edaire with questions. What training does one go through before one can drive a train? How much longer before one can drive an elite express? Then young Hazel asks a key question: at what point in his career as an ironwayman would he be eligible to be a Guest at Strange’s house. Ah, well…

One more thing before I stop. Many fantasy novels contain poetry. Much of it is dreadful. I even skip the poetry in Tolkien. Ford has poetry in Aspects. I read every single piece with admiration.

So yeah, Ford, Mike to his friends, was taken from us much too young. I met him on occasions, but never got to know him. That is a major regret in my life.

book cover
Title: Aspects
By: John M Ford
Publisher: Gateway
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Plutoshine

Last month I featured a review of a debut novel from a woman writer fresh out of university that I found very impressive. Now I have another one, equally impressive, but very different.

Julie Crisp sent me this book, because she knows I like to promote up-and-coming women writers. That’s a good agent at work. She was smart to take on Lucy Kissick too. A science fiction writer with a PhD from Oxford on the lakes of Mars. Yes, seriously, an actual areologist.

The book, however, is not about Mars. That much is obvious from the title. Plutoshine is, as it says on the tin, about terraforming Pluto. Our hero, Lucian, is part of a team sent to make that remote and forbidding world a little more pleasant for humans to live on. Specifically his job is to built the giant mirror that will catch and focus what little sunlight reaches that far-flung corner of the solar system.

By the way, there’s a certain amount of hat-tip naming in the book. The head of the terraforming mission is called Professor Halley. Lucian’s assistant is called Stan (short for Stanisław, not Stanley). I’m therefore going to assume that Lucian is named after Lucian of Samosata, the first writer to imagine a trip to the moon.

Meanwhile, back with the plot. The terraforming project is being carried out at the behest of one Clavius Harbour, a billionaire industrialist who founded the Pluto colony. However, when the team arrives, they find things have changed during their transit. Harbour is in a coma, and the colony is now being run by his son, Edmund. There was some sort of accident. Edmund is very tight-lipped about the whole thing, and his little sister, Nou, hasn’t spoken a word since it happened.

Also, terraforming is controversial. It hasn’t always gone well. Lucian’s home colony on Mercury suffered one of the disasters, which claimed the life of his father. Some people, like Lucian, vow to get it right in future. Others want it stopped. Often those people are xenobiologists, because primitive forms of life have been found elsewhere in the solar system. If life is found on Pluto, the whole project could be put on indefinite hold.

That gives us our plot. Firstly we have the mystery of what happened to Clavius Harbour. And secondly someone is trying to sabotage the terraforming project. Central to all this is little Nou. Lucian, soft-hearted to a fault, decides to take her under his wing and try teaching her sign language, wherein lies a whole heap of trouble.

It should go without saying that Kissick knows her stuff. However, for those of you who have insufficient faith, I note that the book has rave blurbs from Stephen Baxter, Al Reynolds and Paul McAuley, all of whom have solid reputations for hard SF. It also has one from Paul Cornell who knows a bit about big questions and small children.

One final recommendation from me. Many near-future SF stories have characters who are fond of 20th (or now early 21st) Century culture. I’m assuming this allows the authors to enthuse a bit about their favourite bands and the like. Kissick is having none of this. She has invented a favourite rock band for Lucian, and also a favourite series of children’s fantasy books for him to give to Nou to read (by an author who hasn’t turned out to have deeply questionable politics). Good for her.

If you happen to be involved with a US-based publisher and are looking for a hot new hard SF writer to publish, do get in touch with Julie, because Lucy Kissick is just what you are looking for.

book cover
Title: Plutoshine
By: Lucy Kissick
Publisher: Gollancz
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak

I don’t read a lot of YA, but I’d be happy to bet that Charlie Jane Anders’ Unstoppable series is not typical. It is not just about teenagers. It is about mostly queer teenagers.

In the first book, Victories Greater than Death, we discovered that Earth girl, Tina Mains, is actually a clone of the famous starship captain, Thaoh Argentian. Aided by a bunch of misfit teenagers from Earth, they vanquish the bad guys and save the galaxy. Or at least they save the Queen and her Royal Fleet.

Except…

Well, you see, Marrant, the leader of the evil rebels, who call themselves The Compassion, is well known in Galactic Society. He’s a respectable chap with a silver tongue, not a bunch of rag tag kids from a no-name planet in the back of beyond. Also Marrant has an easy sell on certain planets. Multi-speciesism is not universally popular. Especially when some of those species don’t even have radial symmetry, but do have tentacles.

Meanwhile our heroes have problems of their own. Rachel lost her ability to make art during her battle with the bad guys at the end of the previous book. Tina is discovering that being Captain Argentian’s clone brings with it expectations, and those don’t include being a pacifist. Elza is discovering that enlisting in the Princess Corps is not simply done on merit, you have to a privileged snob from an important planet too. And so on.

It is not long, therefore, before our heroes are pitted against Marrant and his horde of speciesist followers. However, despite being a bunch of annoying, thuggish bigots, they are not the real enemy. They are simply taking advantage of a genuine existential crisis to make a bid for power. The real bad guys are a Vayt, a gloomy species that has no concept of art. They have unleashed a weapon so terrible that the galaxy has about a year to live.

Yes, this is a series about climate change, how did you guess?

But back to the book. In fine space opera tradition it has some silly names. I’m not a big fan of the names of the aliens, but The Compassion is spot on. Their flagship is called Unity at All Costs, and their soldiers are known as Mercy Killers. Elza ends up working with someone called Princess Constellation, whose gnomic utterances make Zen koans seem a model of clarity. And Rachel finds herself about a spaceship crewed by an anarchist art collective. The ship is called Training Bra Disaster.

So yes, Dreams Bigger than Heartbreak is all very silly and charming, but it also makes some very important points along the way.

book cover
Title: Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak
By: Charlie Jane Anders
Publisher: Titan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Kundo Wakes Up

Kundo Wakes Up is the latest in a series of books, mostly novellas, by Saad Z Hossain, who is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. They are essentially cyberpunk, but set in a near future South Asia which manages to be a much better setting for such tales than Seattle. They also have djinn. Everything is better with djinn, it seems.

The book begins with Kundo waking up, but the title has a double meaning because our hero has been in a profound depression for some time, and he’s just about to become active again. He’s also going to become much more aware of the way his world works, so perhaps it is a triple meaning.

Kundo used to be a famous artist. That was before the world started to fall apart. He lives in Chittagong on the Bay of Bengal. The ocean is gradually encroaching on the city, and the local version of Karma, the AI that controls the city, has more or less given up on humans. They still have utility. As we learned earlier in the series, humans are super factories for making nanotech. This is a far more sensible use for them than “batteries” or whatever nonsense there was in The Matrix. But, as Karma has discovered, humans can still do the job if they are being kept alive in old people’s homes. They don’t need to be up and about and causing trouble.

Kundo has enough Karma Points to live in luxury for the rest of his active life (and will doubtless be useful to Karma long after he has ceased to be active). But what is the point? There is no one to buy his art any more. No one cares. Even his wife has left him. One year and 237 days ago to be precise. At first Kundo tried to find her, or at least find out why she left, but every clue led to a dead end, and he sunk into depression. Quite why he has suddenly woken up is unclear, but for now he is back on the job.

Those of you who are familiar with Hossain’s work will expect that the plot will somehow involve video games, and you will be right. You will also expect that djinn will be involved, and you will be right again. But mostly it is an examination of the lives of two old men: the formerly famous artist, and Hafez the Tiger, once the most feared gangster in all Chittagong, and now barely able to walk unaided.

Along the way, Hossain asks what it means to get to live forever in paradise, and whether that is a goal worth chasing.

I don’t want to say much more, because this is only a novella, but it is a fun read and has serious points to make.

book cover
Title: kundo Wakes Up
By: Saad Z Hossain
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Åcon XI

It has been a long time. The last Åcon was in 2019. But finally Nordic fandom has been able to gather in Mariehamn once more, joined as usual by a few folks from further afield.

Some sympathy first for poor Tasha Shuri who had twice been lined up for a lovely trip to Åland as Guest of Honour, and was twice denied by the pandemic. This year the calendar did not work for her, so the con went without a GoH. Tasha’s Empire of Sand was made the Book of the Night.

Most of the usual crowd were there. Indeed, I understand that it was the best attended Åcon yet. Clearly everyone was keen to get back into con-going. Or at least back to Åland. As far as I know, there were no cases of COVID at the event. This is despite having to travel on a crowded ferry full of tourists to get there, and having to share the hotel bar with hordes of local ice hockey and football fans.

Little has changed in Åland since we were last there. There’s a lot of building going on. The hotel pool and sauna are now free, so I must remember to take a swimming costume next year. Mercedes is still making chocolate. Stallhagen are still making beer. The hotel still manages to run out of the more interesting of their beers very quickly. No one knows the answers to any of the questions in Jukka’s quiz.

Programming is, as usual, light. I had two panels, one fairly serious and one very much not so. The serious one was about juried awards, which is something Jukka and I can talk about for a long time unless people stop us. The other panel requires more explanation.

Suppose you wanted to get an AI to come up with panel titles for a convention. What would you train it on? Why, past Worldcon program books, of course. There’s plenty of material. Of course the results would be a bit weird, but with a good enough panel you could make them work, right?

We, the panel, were given a bunch of panel titles, and had around 5 minutes each to discuss the topics. We held forth on such important topics as, “Why are we still talking about Dune?”, “The Quantum Mixtapes of Venus”, “Ursula K Le Guin and the Other Woman of SF”, “Hugos or Cake?”, and “Worldbuilding with Rope.” We were, I think, very erudite, and did not make every panel about tentacle sex (though I tried hard). We also bravely resisted talking about John Norman’s Gor books for that final panel.

“PhDs discuss cake” was such a good panel title that we ran it for real. Congratulations to Dr Norja and Dr Fedyk for making a whole hour out of that, and for bravely eating cake so we didn’t have to.

Other than that, we may have done tourist stuff, gone out to dinner, drank beer, watched sportsball (or sportspuck) and just generally hung out enthusing about how nice it was to see old friends again. Also Finland won the World Ice Hockey Championships, so all is right with the world.

I hear a rumour that there will be a Eurocon bid for Mariehamn in 2025. Archipelacon 2 is a definite possibility. You should all come.

Star Trek: Prodigy

We don’t yet have Paramount + here in the UK, and anyway I’m ambivalent about paying for a streaming service just to watch Star Trek. I can’t think of anything else they offer that I’d want to watch. So I’d kind of resigned myself to not seeing Prodigy. But then I discovered that it is on Nickleodeon, and I have that channel as part of my Sky subscription, so I promptly binged the first season.

Key points: firstly Prodigy is animated. And second it is very much aimed at kids. If you are OK with that, it is a lot of fun.

Far in the depths of space there is a lonely mining planet ruled over by a creepy guy called The Diviner and his robotic henchman, Drednok. The miners are all slaves, and they are of such a variety of species that they can’t even talk amongst themselves to plot rebellion. Nevertheless, some try.

Most notably there is the notorious terrorist known as Zero, whom Drednok has repeatedly failed to capture. Then there is Dal, who is neither a genius nor super-powerful, but is possessed of a boyish enthusiasm, an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide, and a desperate desire to escape.

After another failed attempt at escape, Dal ends up in the deepest mines along with a young Brikar, a species of alien that owes their morphology to Ben Grimm. Rok-Tahk, it turns out, is an eight-year-old girl with a passion for anything cute and fluffy. How do we find that out? Well, Dal and Rok stumble across a starship hidden deep within the planet. It is still operational, and it has a universal translator system. It belongs to a group of people called The Federation.

Through various adventures, Dal and Rok manage to escape. Along with them they bring the notorious Zero, a troll Tellarite called Jankom Pog, and an amorphous blog of something creature called Murf. They also take along The Diviner’s daughter, Gwyn, as a hostage.

In order to escape the crew needs to work out how to fly this ship, which is called the Protostar. (Hint: never volunteer to fly a ship that is called proto-anything.) They discover that the ship has an on-board AI which manifests as a hologram of a humanoid called Kathryn Janeway. She mistakes our heroes for a bunch of Federation cadets and starts to teach them how to be a proper crew (which occasionally annoys our bunch of teenage runaways no end).

Of course The Diviner is none too pleased to have this great prize stolen from under his nose. He’s not overly happy about losing his daughter either, though that’s very much a secondary issue. Plot ensues, in which we start to learn a few things about the history of The Diviner and the Protostar.

The animated format allows the scriptwriters to do a few fun bits of fan service. That is not dead that cannot be animated. Consequently one episode involves a holodeck training simulation in which Dal gets to meet some famous Starfleet officers, including Mr. Spock and Montgomery Scott. Archive audio of Nimoy and Doohan is used, alongside similar footage of several still-living actors, to provide the voices.

While the crew might be a bunch of foolish, and occasionally annoying, kids, this is very much a Star Trek story, and one which I think will be enjoyed by many fans of the series. If you have access to Nickleodeon, or sign up for Paramount +, do check it out.

Picard – Season 2

Jean Luc Picard has many, many loyal fans, and Paramount seems determined to milk them for all they are worth. This means re-visiting themes from the original Next Generation series. In the first season of Picard, that meant Data and related artificial beings. In this one it means mainly the Borg, whom we are supposed to have got rid of, and Q, whom sadly we haven’t.

I realise that this is not a commonly held view, but whenever I see anything Star Trek related that involves Q it is usually a signal for me to stop watching immediately. The fact that I sat through all of Picard: Season 2 suggests that I too have a fondness for Jean Luc that is easily exploited.

Having said that, Q is mercifully absent for most of the series. His role is largely to set up the plot, nudge an antagonist into action when one is needed, and then wrap things up at the end. In the meantime, things happen and…

Oh no, time travel! Multiverse! It seems like some sort of virus has infected Hollywood.

So, the Borg re-appear, and are just about to destroy an entire Federation fleet, when Picard and his pals are flung back in time to a world in which Earth has become a Fascist dictatorship. Romulan Legolas gets killed by the bad guys, and the rest of the team get sent further back in time to try to prevent the pivotal event that causes this new history to come into being. It is, you may have noticed, a Legends of Tomorrow plot.

Time travel stories are often an excuse to skimp on production costs by setting the story in the present day, or near as damnit. Here Michael Chabon and the script crew redeem themselves slightly with a sub-plot about a street clinic set up to help illegal immigrants. ICE are major villains for a couple of episodes.

But this series is all about nostalgia, and going back in time means a visit to the original 10 Forward bar where we get to meet a much younger Guinan, which in turn sets up a guest appearance by Whoopi Goldberg in the final episode.

The overriding impression I got from the series was of a deliberate change of course by senior management. The first series set Picard up with a brand new crew, of whom Seven of Nine was the only survivor of previous Trek. The new series sets out to jettison them in various ways. Romulan Legolas gets killed early on, though of course that may mean little as it happens in an alternate reality. Chris Rios gets left in the past (spoiler, sorry, but it becomes obvious very quickly that it will happen) and Agnes Jurati gets a whole new life where she’s not just an insecure genius whom everyone mostly ignores. I hear that in the next season several members of the old Next Gen crew will join the cast. So yeah, the idea of Picard leading a new crew has been abandoned, and nostalgia has become the order of the day.

What else? Brent Spiner gets to have fun playing Adam Soong (again). There is a whole backstory about Picard’s childhood trauma that does sort of have a role in the plot, but is mainly there to allow Patrick Stewart to show off his acting talent. And there is a guest appearance by, of all people, Wesley Crusher, who now works for the Time Variance Authority or some such.

If you sit and think about it for too long, it is all very silly. Thankfully there are some well-scripted episodes along the way, so if you don’t think too hard it is quite enjoyable.

Which should perhaps be all that needs to be said, except I want to stop and think a bit about the Point of Divergence that causes Earth to tip into a Fascist dictatorship. It turns out to be the success or failure of a manned space mission to Europa. I realise that this is Star Trek, and that therefore the entire rationale of the series is heavily bound up with the space programme, with looking outward from Earth, and boldly going. But arguing that without it we will inevitably sink into Fascism? Really? That seems an awfully big claim to be making.

Editorial – May 2022

This issue comes to you live from Helsinki. I’m quite pleased that I have got an issue together with so much traveling, and distractions of various sorts. It isn’t quite as big as it might be. I still haven’t written the reviewing essay. I still haven’t watched the new Matrix movie, or the new Doctor Strange movie. I have watched Moon Knight, but I am waiting for the special episode of the History of Egypt Podcast we’ve been promised in which someone who knows far more about Egypt than I do will explain some of the nonsense. And two of the three conventions I attended this month have been hybrid. It is great that I was able to have some involvement in the Nebula Conference and in WisCon, but there was so much going on in meatspace that I didn’t manage to see enough of either to warrant a proper review.

I’ve also been reading books for possible publication. Announcements are likley to be forthcoming from Wizard’s Tower in due course.

First off the To Be Read pile for next month will be the new Guy Gavriel Kay novel, All the Seas of the World.

Cheryl

Issue #39

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


Cover: StarHenge

This issue’s cover uses a piece of art that Liam Sharp has been using to promote his StarHenge comic. It shows a Mor-Dreadnaught of The Cast, who are the villains of the story. I cheekily asked Liam if he’d mind me using it, and he said yes. Huge thanks are appropriate. An undulterated version of the art is available below.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

A Psalm for the Wild-BuiltIt is Hugo reading time, and that means catching up with Becky Chambers. It is easy to see why she is so popular. Her prose is effortlessly readable and deeply caring. But this can mask the amount of thought that she puts into her work.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built begins with mention of an entirely new religion. That’s an ambitious start for a novella. We don’t get detail about the six gods mentioned, but there’s enough to get a sense of what the people in the book will believe.

Our lead character, Sibling Dex, is a monk in the service of Allalae, the God of Small Comforts, represented by a bear. Immediately we have discovered that this is a society that recognises three genders, though how that works is not explored in this book. What we find instead is that Dex’s world is one in which the human (or human-analogue) inhabitants have stepped back from industrialisation and are trying to live in harmony with nature. So the book has an environmental message.

Dex is one of those people who are driven by a need to prove themselves. Although apparently good at what they do, Dex begins the book by resigning from their position in the city and taking up a new life as a travelling tea monk. This basically involves traveling from village to village in a self-propelled wagon acting as a combination tea shop and agony aunt. Skills in psychotherapy and tea-brewing are essential. It is an interesting vocation.

However, we don’t have much time to see Dex in action, because before long (in words rather than in time lived) they grow dissatisfied once more and head off into the wilderness to visit a long-abandoned monastery. Here we find the other important element of the book.

One of the reasons that Dex’s ancestors have abandoned industrialisation is that it abandoned them first. That is, the robots used in the society’s factories acquired sentience, went on strike, and decided to head off into the wilds and live apart from their former owners.

Here Chambers brings in all the standard science fictional tropes of robots being an analogue for slaves, and of what it means to be intelligent. She does this in a way that is all her own.

In the wilderness, Dex makes the acquaintance of Splendid Speckled Mosscap (Mosscap for short), a robot who has volunteered to be the first of their kind in generations to make contact with humans. Being a robot, Mosscap has no gender, but again that isn’t explored. What Chambers examines instead is Dex’s embarrassment at meeting a member of a formerly-enslaved population and inability to know how to behave in such a situation. This is exacerbated by the fact that Mosscap is entirely at home in the wilderness, whereas Dex is ignorant and helpless.

Give that the book is a novella, there isn’t a huge amount more than that to the plot, though Chambers packs a lot of interesting conversation into the rest of the story, and provides character growth for both Dex and Mosscap. I understand that there will be more books in the series, and I’m going to be pre-ordering them because I want to see how things develop. I’ll probably still put Cat Valente at the top of my ballot because I’m me, but the quality of the novella finalists this year is astonishing, and I have no idea who will win.

book cover
Title: A Psalm for the Wild-Built
By: Becky Chambers
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Bluebird

Did someone say, “lesbian space pirate”? I’m in.

Of course that’s not all that there is to Bluebird by Ciel Pierlot. There’s a lot of nifty worldbuilding for a start. Unlike rather too much space opera, Bluebird is not a tale of Evil Empire and Plucky Rebels. The politics are somewhat more subtle. The galaxy has three main factions. The folks from Pyrite are never happier than when they are in a lab up to their elbows in inventing something. The folks from Asectic dress in white and gold, thinking high minded thoughts while contemplating perfect works of art and drinking exquisite champagne. As for Ossuary, they tend to dress all in black and are probably never happier than when grimly contemplating a graveyard.

These, of course, are social ideals. Not everyone who lives under the control of a faction is stereotypical. Take Rig, for example. She was perfectly happy brilliantly inventing stuff until it occurred to her that there were moral issues involved in working for an arms manufacturer, and there are some weapons that should never find their way off the drawing board. Which is why she is now on the run working with a gang of smugglers who help people trying to escape from which ever faction they have got on the wrong side of.

Then there’s June, who is a head librarian on the Asectic homeworld. Her job is the preservation of all that is good and pure and vital to Asetic culture. That hasn’t stopped her from falling in love with a dashing, gun-slinging human disaster of a space pirate like Rig. Into every librarian’s life, a little chaos must fall.

The plot doesn’t really get going, however, until Rig’s life gets too chaotic, even for her. Firstly she meets Glinka, who is clearly also on the run, has combat skills that suggest she might secretly be Natasha Romanoff, and who is obviously very sick when she’s not doped up for action. Secondly, the Pyrite intelligence services, who very much want the weapon plans that Rig ran off with, have caught up with her. More specifically they have caught her sister, Daara, and are holding the poor girl to ransom.

If this reminds you of the plot of both Valerie Valdes novels, you would be dead right. The whole sibling in peril thing is getting a bit boring. However, I think Pierlot does it better. Which brings me to the cover blurb in which Tim Pratt describes Bluebird as, “stunningly assured.” He’s dead right. As far as I know, this is Pierlot’s first novel. Apparently she wrote it during lectures at university. If that’s what she can do now, I really want to see what she will come up with in five years’ time. I’ve seen better debuts, but they tend to be from people who have been working hard at their craft for years, if not decades, not people who are fresh out of college.

So there you have it. A fun, action-filled lesbian space romp. Did I need to write all of those words above? Probably not. That’s entirely sufficient recommendation.

book cover
Title: Bluebird
By: Ciel Pierlot
Publisher: Angry Robot
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

StarHenge

Sometimes in this business you meet someone and can see immediately that they have huge amounts of talent and are going to do very well for themselves. In my case one such person was Liam Sharp. I could see that he had a fine career as an artist in front of him, and I was right. He’s currently having a bumper year. He’s had a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign for an art book, and now he is starting that holy grail of all comics people, a creator-owned title.

Sharp’s art has gone from strength to strength over the past few years. He’s had a hugely successful collaboration with Grant Morrison on Green Lantern. He’s also done a The Brave and the Bold mini-series in which Batman and Wonder Woman team up to solve a murder in Tir Na Nog. He wrote the script for the latter as well as creating some of my favourite images of Diana.

Comics, unlike novels, are very much a team project. If you look at the credits on a standard superhero book, you’ll often see that one person does the pencils, another one inks them, a third adds the colour, someone else writes the script, and a fifth person just does the lettering. That can make doing a creator-owned title a little complicated. But not for Sharp. When he does a creator owned book, he does everything himself. Which is very impressive.

The book in question is called StarHenge, and it is Arthuriana. If you remember my review of Nicola Griffith’s Spear you will remember that it does Arthur on a very small stage. All of the action takes place in a small part of South Wales, and most of the familiar Arthurian saga is wrapped up in the space of a novella. StarHenge is exactly the opposite. It takes place on the biggest stage imaginable.

Part of the story takes place in the distant past, where the myth of Arthur has its origins, and where magic still works. Part of the story takes place in the distant future where humans fight a desperate war across the universe against a vicious alien species known as The Cast. The Ur-Queen sends her only son back in time to find the secret of magic, the only weapon that she thinks might be able to tip the war in humankind’s favour.

Meanwhile, in the present day, we meet a teenage girl from Brighton and her Black American boyfriend. Quite what role Amber and Daryn will play in the story is not yet clear. (I’ve only read issue #1 of the comic.) However, it is already clear that the story will take place on an epic scale and with the greatest possible odds at stake. I’m very much looking forward to what Sharp will do with the story. My guess is that it will read well with a heavy rock soundtrack.

In the meantime, you have art to feast your eyes upon. Sharp kindly let me use the image of one of the book’s villains, a Mor-Dreadnaught of The Cast, as the cover of this issue. There’s a lot more of that quality in the book. Issue #1 will be out in July (so yes, I got an ARC), so if you are into comics, or Arthuriana, why not give it a pre-order. Failing all else, how about giving Sharp a nod in the Best Professional Artist Hugo next year, because he absolutely deserves it.

Midnight Doorways

Midnight DoorwaysWhile the level of diversity in mainstream publishing has improved quite a bit of late, it is still hard for writers of colour who do not live in the Anglosphere to get their work considered. Often what they have to do is publish locally and hope that their book gets some attention, and is then picked up by a bigger publisher. Examples of this are Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits, which will be re-published as The City Inside by Tot.com in June, and Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s Analog/Virtual, which will be republished as The Ten Percent Thief by Solaris next year. I am hoping that something similar will happen with Usman T Malik’s Midnight Doorways.

Malik is no stranger to the Anglosphere. Indeed, his fiction has already won both the Bram Stoker Award and the British Fantasy Award. He has twice been a finalist in the Nebulas, and once in the World Fantasy Awards. And yet his first collection was put out in 2021 by a small company called Kitab whom I think are based in Kathmandu, though the word means “book” so there could be many publishers of that name. Midnight Doorways has since been picked up by Hachette India (though with a terrible new cover) and there’s a kindle edition available from the Amazon India website. You can apparently get copies of the original edition via Malik’s website, though I guess they will go out of print soon.

Anyway, you should get a copy if you can.

My (electronic) copy came via the Crawford Award, as I’m one of the people whose opinions Gary Wolfe solicits when judging the award. The Crawford is for a first fantasy book, and is often won by collections. As you probably know, I’m not big on short fiction, and I’m not a great fan of horror, but other people involved with the Crawford were raving about this book so I asked for a copy. I immediately agreed that it should win. If a horror collection could win me over, it had to be really good.

I said that Midnight Doorways is horror, and Malik’s work is certainly marketed in that genre. However, this is not splatterpunk, or tentacled beings from beyond the stars, or even zombies. Malik’s stories are weird and creepy, and most definitely at least suggestive of the supernatural. In one story an ancient goddess eats rather a lot of people, but the story is being told to a police interrogator by an opium addict whose testimony may not be wholly reliable. A more common sort of horror is being a young girl in an orphanage coming to know that one day you will be too old and the staff will need to sell you to a husband in order to earn money to look after the next generation.

Malik makes no concessions to Anglo culture. His stories are set in Pakistan. The characters are mostly Muslim, with a scattering of Hindus and Christians. The issues that they face are very much the sort of issues that people living in places like Lahore face. And yet these people are entirely relatable. Malik is able to get us to understand them, to identify with them, and to feel for them. And some of them have very strange problems.

Despite the cover blurb, the book does not contain the British Fantasy Award winning novella, “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”. It does contain the Stoker-winning short story, “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family”, and the Stoker-finalist story, “Dead Lovers on Each Blade, Hung”. It is well worth a look if you can get hold of it. And if not, look out for Malik’s short fiction in magazines.

book cover
Title: Midnight Doorways
By: Usman T Malik
Publisher: Kitab
Purchase links:
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The White Room

The White RoomIf you want to know the things we see
Then step inside our skins

– “The White Room”, The KLF

Back in Emerald City days, when I was starting to get interested in SF&F in translation, I was contacted by a Serbian writer called Zoran Živković. It was probably Jeff VanderMeer’s fault. Lots of things were. Živković was already hugely respected in his native land, and on the European literary scene, but he wanted his work to come to the attention of the English-speaking SF&F market. He might have been accepted as a literary writer, and have a post teaching creative writing at the University of Belgrade, but he had done his PhD on Arthur C Clarke so there was an itch left unscratched.

In those days, breaking into the English-speaking market was very hard, even more so than it is today. Živković used to do his own translations of his work and have small print runs done that he could send out to drum up interest. For published versions, Tamar Yellin or Alice Copple-Tošić would add a little polish to the prose.

As time went by, and with support from a whole bunch of great people, Živković established a reputation. His work wasn’t going to appeal to the general SF&F audience, but it fitted in well with the New Weird thing that was going on at the time. When my colleagues at SFSFC and I were running World Fantasy in 2009, and got ordered by the World Fantasy to bring in another guest (apparently we had too many members), we went for Živković rather than another anglophone horror writer. I hope that Steve Jones was suitably annoyed.

In 2017 Živković was recognised as a European Grand Master by ESFS at the Eurocon in Dortmund. His bio now lists this as his crowning achievement. Since then, and after 22 novels, he announced his retirement. That’s fair enough. He’s in his 70s these days and retired from work. His entire catalogue is available in beautiful new editions from Cadmus Press, with stunning covers by Youchan Ito. He has other things to do with his life. Which is why I was surprised to get email from him asking if I would like a copy of his new novel. Naturally I jumped at the chance.

The White Room will doubtless be seen as somewhat self-indulgent by some readers. It is, after all, a book in which the main writer is an elderly professor of creative writing from Belgrade, a man by the name of Zoran Živković. It is also a book that is very much the sort of thing that Živković fans have come to know and love. And, as we shall see, in part concerned with very modern issues.

The plot of the book can be summed up in the first line: “Ivana had gone missing.” The Professor Živković of the book is twice-divorced and now lives with a somewhat younger, though very much middle-aged, woman who had been a student in his writing classes. Ivana and the Professor have that “fond of each other but each have our own lives and histories” relationship that people who meet well into their lives tend to do. Živković thinks nothing of it when Ivana goes out one day without telling him where she is going. It isn’t until the evening, when she doesn’t come back to dinner, that he realises something is wrong.

Naturally the Professor phones the police, and then has the embarrassing experience of explaining that he doesn’t know where his girlfriend went, and can’t even remember what she was wearing when she left. The lady police inspector that he talks to is unimpressed. Fortunately the Belgrade police have an excellent CCTV system with coverage of most of the city, and they are soon on the track of the missing Ivana.

Why, then, has Ivana gone missing? Has she been kidnapped? Have she and the professor had a fight that he isn’t telling us about because he in an unreliable narrator of his own life? Has he just not noticed a cooling in her affections?

Then the emails start arriving. Each one contains a clickable link that is less a URL and more the activation code for some sophisticated malware that brings up short video showing Ivana doing various things that Živković knows she would not, or even cannot, do. Eventually it becomes obvious that these videos are sophisticated deep fakes, and the Serbian government’s cyber war team takes an interest. What began as a case of a missing girlfriend soon ramps up into a situation that could lead to Professor Živković being disappeared by his government’s counter-espionage operatives.

That’s enough from me. You’ll need to read the book to find out where this goes. It is only a couple of hundred pages, so you’ll get through it quickly. Enjoy.

I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines;
Wait in this place where the shadows run from themselves.

– “The White Room”, Cream

book cover
Title: The White Room
By: Zoran Živković
Translator: Randall A Major
Publisher: Cadmus
Purchase links:
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Rosebud

RosebudThis is another book that I can’t give a proper review of, because I did a brief bit of consultancy work on it. My name is right there in the acknowledgements. But I did love the book when I first read it, and consequently want to tell you about it.

The Rosebud is a prospecting vessel mining the rings of Saturn for minerals. She belongs to the Company, as indeed does pretty much everything else. The crew of five are in indentured servitude and have had a degree of loyalty programmed into them, though not so much as it would interfere with their functioning as sentient minds.

I say minds because the crew of the Rosebud is entirely digital. The ship is, after all, only about 1 mm across. It is, nevertheless, packed with technology, and five minds. Some of them may once have been human, but they now all exist in software only. They are as follows.

Haunt is the gothiest goth that ever gothed, and is currently manifesting as something like Ghost Rider but with a very big black horse instead of a motorbike. Huge if True is a friendly spherical fellow covered in masses of small hands. Bob is an arsehole, both personally and professionally, but he manifests as a red balloon. Diana is a scientist of sorts and appears as an elegant human woman. And Quin, their captain, is a swarm of insects.

All of them could, no doubt, appear in other forms, but these bodies are ones that they have picked for a reason, have gotten used to, and have honed over the past 300 years of service aboard the Rosebud. There’s not a lot else to do when you are not working, though of course that isn’t very often. Not a lot happens in the rings of Saturn. Until one day it does.

That something is a craft similar to their own. It is a little smaller, perfectly spherical, perfectly black, and suspiciously alien. This is the sort of encounter for which an independently intelligent crew exists. Decisions need to be made that are outside of the mission parameters. Correct decisions may result in plaudits from the Company. Incorrect decisions will certainly result in punishment. Not doing anything is also a decision.

On the cover Peter Watts describes Rosebud (the book, not the spaceship) as, “a scream disguised as a giggle.” He’s spot on. What Paul Cornell has done here is take all of his angst and frustration about the state of the world, fling it out into the solar system, and feed it back to us via a found family of ridiculous misfits with an impossible mission who need to succeed despite the trauma each has faced in their past life that has led them to their current state of employed imprisonment.

There’s a content warning at the start of the book, and I should note that it is not just trans people who have been appallingly treated in the world of the book. Nevertheless, this is a book with hope at the end of that dark tunnel of political despair, and I’m very pleased that Cornell has written it.

book cover
Title: Rosebud
By: Paul Cornell
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Eastercon 2022

As experiments go, this was one part encouraging and one part rather scary. Let’s start with the good stuff.

Reclamation (that being the name of this year’s Eastercon) wasn’t my first post-pandemic event; I have already done FantasyCon, BristolCon and World Fantasy. However, it was the first big one. FantasyCon and World Fantasy were both very small compared to their usual numbers, and BristolCon is never big. Eastercon was also relatively small in comparison to usual numbers, but it still attracted 659 people. Also it was in a busy Heathrow hotel, which made it feel busier than it actually was. It felt like a big convention, and thanks to the location I got to see a bunch of people from the USA and Europe that I haven’t seen in years.

The Radisson Hotel & Conference Centre, a.k.a. the Radisson Red, a.k.a. the Park Inn if you looked at some of the older signage, is a strange place. It is not as strange as the Radisson Non-Euclidian, but it is still odd as far as convention space goes. There are two main conference areas, which presumably can be let separately, and a corridor full of meeting rooms connecting them. We had the lot. Because this was Eastercon, and one of the three large spaces had to be dedicated to a real ale bar, the dealers ended up spread around various meeting rooms, including the aforementioned corridor. I ended up sharing a room with Dave Hutchinson’s wife, Bogna, who has a jewellery business.

A number of dealers were unhappy with this arrangement. They thought that footfall would have been much higher in a traditional dealers’ room. They may have been right, but I haven’t been to an Eastercon in ages and this was my first selling books. I was very pleased with the business I did. Not that I was going to recoup the cost of the hotel and travel, but I certainly made back the cost of the table and convention membership, which hasn’t been true of every con I have been to.

Thanks to Bogna and Dave offering to keep an eye on things for me, I was able to do a couple of panels. One was on publishing during the pandemic, and the other on reclaiming our bodies (and ourselves) as the pandemic drifts into a state of always having lived in existential fear. I moderated both, and both seemed to go very well. My thanks to my excellent panellists.

I didn’t get to attend any other panels, and I only briefly stuck my nose into the Art Show, so I can’t say much about the rest of the con. Other people seemed to have enjoyed it too. I did have someone come to my table and tell me that my business plan for Wizard’s Tower was terrible and I should publish him if I knew what was good for me, but that was more comedy than anything. Also I’m told that UK fandom’s lone anti-trans extremist turned up at a bid session to gripe about toilets, and was shouted down. As con issues go, those were very minor.

It is possible that the virtual membership had a less good time. I kept an eye on the Discord and saw regular complaints about people not getting the links they needed to watch panels, or streams not working. How much these were real issues and how much this was people still not used to the tech I do not know, but neither of my panels had any interaction from the online membership which was disappointing.

The highlight of the weekend was the British Science Fiction Association Awards. Juliet was up for the Best Novel award for the latest Green Man book. Neither she nor I were in the slightest bit surprised to see Adrian Tchaikovsky win for Shards of Earth. Despite being an award finalist, The Green Man’s Challenge didn’t sell in any great quantities. Frankly we were delighted with the recognition. Of the four books in the series, three have now been award finalists, which is an amazing achievement.

My other interest in the awards was in the Non-Fiction category where the latest Academia Lunare book was a finalist. Again I didn’t expect a win. There were people on the ballot far better known to the Eastercon community. But win we did. Francesca, bless her, was deliriously happy, as were her parents back in Italy whom I briefly met on a video call. She’s done amazing work with those books and absolutely deserves the success they have had. I’m very pleased to have been able to support the project with a few essays. This time the essay in question was the one about queer animals, which is a piece I’m rather fond of.

So all of that was very good. Everyone was wandering around saying how lovely it was to see old friends again. A couple of people reported testing positive for COVID during the con and promptly went into isolation. It seemed like things had gone well.

On Monday night I suddenly felt desperately tired and went to bed around 9:00pm. I didn’t sleep well and felt decidedly groggy in the morning. However, I tested negative and was well enough to load up the car and drive home, so I did. I tested negative again on Wednesday, though I still felt ill. Fortunately, my life is normally spent in isolation, and aside from two brief trips to Tesco and answering the door to the postperson I’ve had no human interaction since. Whatever was upsetting my body has since cleared up and I’m still testing negative. I have put it down to con crud.

Meanwhile reports of positive tests started to flood in on Discord. These included Jo & Roz, with whom I’d had breakfast on Monday, and Tej Turner, whom I’d chatted to on several occasions. The contact tracing channel on Discord counted a total of 74 positive cases. Some were only mildly affected, but some were seriously ill and at least one ended up in hospital.

I note that all these people had been vaccinated. We know this because the con required us to present evidence of vaccination at registration. This is an important lesson. Vaccination does not prevent you from catching COVID. It does (usually) prevent you from dying of it when you do.

People who are running other conventions will doubtless be viewing this with some degree of nervousness. Cons certainly have the potential to be super-spreader events. But I don’t think that the story is that simple.

To start with, this being the UK, a lot of people travelled to the con by train. And it being Easter those trains were probably packed full of maskless people. In addition, the hotel was full all weekend because lots of people were flying through Heathrow. While we might have been masked, other hotel guests, and a lot of the hotel staff, were not. These are risks that other cons may not face.

Where Eastercon may have fallen down was on traditional UK con culture. Having promised Kevin to be very careful, I stayed masked except when eating or in my hotel room. I did not socialise. Many of the con attendees spent the evening in the bar, where people would have been unmasked. I also saw a lot of people wandering around with a pint in one hand, which was apparently an excuse to go unmasked because you were drinking.

All this is worth bearing in mind as we slowly move back into convention culture. I think we are past the stage where a con can, on its own, keep attendees safe. There’s too much else going on, and too much of wider society has swallowed the political claim that the pandemic is “over”. We can, however, be aware of things that make us more or less safe, and act accordingly.

Next month I will be off to Finland for Åcon and an academic conference. I will be interested to see how different those experiences are.

Spiderman – No Way Home

Well that wasn’t as bad as I expected. I’d been all primed to absolutely hate this movie. Into the SpiderVerse is by far my favourite Spiderman movie, and I had heard that No Way Home steals much of the plot of that. To a certain extent it does, and of course it does it badly because all of the spiderpeople it brings in from across the multiverse are Peter Parker, which is very boring in comparison. However, there’s a reason why the new film is the way it is.

Unlike most of the MCU, Spiderman has a long history in the movies. Before Tom Holland there was Tobey Maguire, and before him there was Andrew Garfield. Crucially both sets of previous spidermovies were produced by Sony. An awful lot of backroom negotiating will have been required to bring Spidey into the MCU, and this film may have been part of that.

In the extras for No Way Home there is a lot of talk about it being the final Spiderman movie. I don’t think it will be, though the next one may have a new director and direction. I also expect Tom Holland to turn up in the next batch of Avengers movies, but this film does mark the end of an era, and it does it by looking back at the history of Spiderman movies in a very nostalgic way.

Spoilers Ahead (though not any that you won’t be able to guess from looking at the cast list).

The film begins with the ending of the previous film, in which Peter Parker’s secret identity is made known to the world by a delighted J Jonah Jameson. In desperation, Peter asks Doctor Strange to cast a spell that will cause everyone to forget this vital piece of knowledge, but the spell goes wrong and this leads to a rift in the space-time continuum. Sorry, wrong franchise. A breach in the multiverse, through which various people travel.

The clever bit is that the spell brings through a bunch of major villains, played by the same people who played them in the Sony movies. These are followed by Maguire and Garfield, two older and wiser Parkers, who have to help Tom Holland’s Peter defeat “their” opponents.

Jamie Foxx is good as Electro (and gets a much better costume). Alfred Molina is brilliant as always as Doc Ock. And both cheerfully admit to having been acted off the set by Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin. Dafoe is right up there with Burgess Meredith’s Penguin as one of the finest super villains ever to grace the screen. He’s genuinely scary.

We have Zendaya as well, and any movie with Zendaya in it is a good movie by definition.

So yes, much better than expected, though still not a patch on Into the SpiderVerse. Apparently Miles is getting a second movie, but it won’t be out until next year because animation of that quality takes a very long time to make.

MCU fans will, of course, be aware that the multiverse is very much a thing right now, and Doctor Strange will be traveling it once more very soon. Also there will be Wanda, and America Chavez. I might actually have to go to a movie theatre.

Story Matrices

Story MatricesThe full title of this book is Story Matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy, because it is an academic work and therefore must have a colon somewhere. However, don’t let that put you off, because Gillian Polack tries hard to make her work accessible, and the book is published by Luna Press so it does not cost three years’ wages to buy.

The basic concept of the book is an extended metaphor about building novels with cultural bricks. That should be fairly obvious. With any story world that you build, you have a choice of cultural elements that you can include, or not. If that were all that the book was, it would be fairly trivial. But it isn’t.

Polack adds to her analytical tools by borrowing three terms from linguistics (idiolect, dialect and language). These she re-casts into idioculture, diaculture and culture. Broadly speaking these mean the writers own views, the writer’s relationships with others, and the writer’s broader relationship with their native culture. This is quite familiar to me because I use similar techniques to explain how people relate to gender.

Finally, Polack adds a layer of ethics, because not all uses of cultural brickwork are morally equivalent. For example, if your experience of colonisation is that of a person whose culture has been colonised, that is not the same as someone whose experience of colonisation is that of a coloniser, even though the diacultural relationship in question is the same.

All of this is useful from the points of view of both analysing and constructing a novel, and Polack’s book will therefore be of interest to both critics and writers. In particular it should help navigate contentious issues such as cultural appropriation. It may also help authors identify blind spots in their work. For example, I was disappointed, though not entirely surprised, to discover that most “mediaeval” fantasy does not contain any Jewish characters, or Jewish-analogue characters, even when the setting is clearly based on an historical milieu in which Jews played a significant role in society.

As for historical fiction, let’s just not mention Ivanhoe, please. That could go on for a long time.

While I found the book very interesting, I do have a few reservations. The first is mildly bizarre, in that Marion Zimmer Bradley’s name is mis-spelled in about half of the occasions it appears, including one instance where it is correct once and incorrect once in the same paragraph.

More seriously, some of Polack’s examples could have benefitted from more research. Her explanation of the issues that the LGBT+ community has with JK Rowling is a little muddled. She describes Karen Lord as a more literary writer than Nalo Hopkinson on the basis of The Best of All Possible Worlds being published by Penguin Random House. But Hopkinson comes from a literary family, is a teacher of creative writing, and had her first novel published by Warner Aspect, whereas Lord’s academic background is in science and sociology, and her first novel, Redemption in Indigo, was published by Small Beer Press. The distinction seems somewhat odd to me (and I adore both writers). Her analysis of Irish writers and their relation to Irish history does not include Ian McDonald whose novels Hearts, Hands and Voices, and Sacrifice of Fools, are both intimately connected to recent Northern Irish history.

Finally, while Polack’s style is succinct and conversational, there are times when it seemed to me that she expected us to know what she was writing about. Consequently, I would have liked a little more detailed explanation of her points, even if that made the book more academic in style.

Overall, however, this is definitely a book I valued reading, and whose insights I hope to use in my own work. I’m also very well disposed to any mediaeval historian who backs up my opinion that the world of Westeros is economically and politically unworkable. Sorry George.

book cover
Title: Story Matrices
By: Gillian Polack
Publisher: Luna Press Publishing
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Star Trek: Discovery – Season 4

Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery had a difficult time in the UK. First it was announced as streaming on Netflix. Then it was pulled the day before the first episode was due to drop. We were told we’d have to wait months for it to be available on Paramount +. There was a huge outcry, and mysteriously the series appeared on a live streaming TV platform called Pluto which I’d never heard of before.

I tried, I really did, but I cannot get used to this idea that a TV programme is screened live at a particular time on a particular day and if you miss it, well, bad luck. What do they think this is, the Twentieth Century? Also the early episodes of Season 4 were Not Good, and they were screened late on a Friday when I often had other things to distract me. After a few weeks I missed an episode and gave up.

And then, totally out of the blue, I discovered that the season was available for purchase on Amazon Prime. It didn’t cost a lot, so I went for it.

It gets better, sort of.

The season has an overall arc which is about an existential threat to the galaxy. A mysterious “Anomaly” (aka a rift in the space-time continuum) turns up and starts eating solar systems, starting with Book’s homeworld. So we have an epic piece of fridging that is intended to turn poor Book into a revenge-obsessed vigilante. Michael, it seems, can’t be allowed a relationship with the dishiest man in the galaxy. Something has to turn up to ruin it all.

Anyway, the Federation needs to get a handle on the Anomaly quickly, before it eats any more heavily populated worlds. This results in much handwavium on the part of Stamets & co., and a lot of politicking amongst the Federation and independent worlds. Eventually they track the thing down to an unknown species who live on the edge of the galaxy where no man has, you know. And we then have to decide whether the Anomaly, which is clearly massively superior technology, is a weapon of war, or a superior species accidentally stepping on an ants’ nest.

Along the way various cast character arcs are explored. Stamets and Culber get to be Gay Dads for Adira and Gray, which is charming. Tilly discovers a new vocation as an Academy lecturer, which may be a way off the series for Mary Wiseman. Then again I thought at the end of Season 3 that Saru would be gone now that Michael is Captain of the Discovery, but instead he’s back and having a very awkward love affair with the President of Vulcan. There are attempts to give other members of the Bridge Crew a place in the spotlight, but they are very awkward because those characters don’t have the personality of Chekov or Sulu.

There are good bits too. I liked the side story about the Discovery’s computer system becoming sentient. Jett Reno is brilliant, and has enough personality to make up for an entire Bridge Crew of non-entities. Stacey Abrams got to guest star as the President of Earth. And possibly my favourite bit was Tilly and Admiral Vance sharing a whisky as they waited alone for the Anomaly to destroy Earth. (Spoiler, it does not.)

Eventually we get to the end and discover that someone on the script-writing crew is a huge fan of Arrival and wants to re-create it in Star Trek without all that weird timeline stuff.

In many ways Discovery is better now that the ship and crew has been dumped into the far future rather than trying to ret-con the past. In other ways it is suffering from dodgy plotting. But it is still Star Trek, it still loves science fiction, and it still wants to annoy basement-dwelling dudebros, so I guess I shall keep watching. In any case, I will need Paramount + to watch the next season of Lower Decks, and so I might as well watch Discovery as well.

Editorial – April 2022

Hello again. We have a decent-sized issue this time, I think, though I am acutely aware that I am very behind on my reading, particularly with respect to a number of very big novels. Thank goodness for novellas.

There is one thing I promised for this issue that I’m holding over for another month. That’s the essay on reviewing. As some of you will know, Paul Kincaid has a lot going on at the moment, and I don’t want to do anything right now other than send him my very best wishes.

Also I haven’t done a piece on the Hugo finalists. Broadly speaking I’m very happy. There are an awful lot of good finalists.

The next issue is due out while I will be at Åcon, so technology might get in the way a bit, but I will do my best to get things sorted before I leave for Finland.

All that remains is for me to wish you a very happy Walpurgisnacht, especially those of you who will be spending a cold evening on a broomstick.

Issue #38

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


Age of Ash

If you were to ask people who their favourite writer of epic fantasy was, the chances are that they would not mention Daniel Abraham. If people know his name at all they probably do so because he is one half of the writing team known as James S A Corey, and therefore is part-responsible for The Expanse, which is a very fine piece of science fiction. However, he is also responsible for The Long Price Quartet, which I fangirled over shamelessly back in Emerald City days, and which I still believe is one of the finest epic fantasies ever produced. I managed to space on the Dagger and Coin series because I was not in a good place for reading long books when it came out, but Abraham is now back with the Kithamar Trilogy, starting with Age of Ash.

Kithamar is an ancient city with its roots in a peace treaty between two warring cultures. The extent to which that history influences the events of the trilogy are not yet clear, but I’m sure there will be much to be revealed in future volumes.

The story mostly involves characters from the district of Longhill. Most of the people who live there are engaged in petty criminality of some sort, because they are desperately poor and have no other option. Our central characters are two young women.

Alys is a smart, competent thief who is determined to make a decent life for herself. Certainly she wants a better future than her alcoholic and occasional sex worker mother. Her elder brother, Darro, is doing well for himself, though he can’t talk much about the jobs he is taking. When Darro is found dead, Alys vows to revenge him, and the best way to do that is to take his place in whatever lucrative scam he had got himself involved in.

Sammish is blessed with the remarkable talent of being utterly unremarkable. No one notices her. This makes her ideal to be the walk-away in a pull. That’s the person who ends up carrying the stolen goods after the mark has been distracted by the flea, and the goods removed by the cutter. If anything goes wrong, those two are much more likely to be suspects, but no one ever suspects Sammish.

As it turns out, Sammish is hopelessly in love with Alys. She wishes that she was clever and ambitious, but she’s just a nobody who is useful only for being a nobody. Alys, of course, doesn’t notice Sammish’s attempts at affection, and takes her entirely for granted.

So we have a central story of unrequited lesbian love, and two young women. One of them is brash and perhaps overconfident. The other utterly lacking in any confidence. There will be character arcs.

Meanwhile all is not well in the richer parts of the city. The Prince of the City, one Bryn a Sal, is dead unexpectedly. His reign has been short and his heir, Elaine, is barely a woman. It is unclear how the former Prince died, but as the story unfolds we learn that there is much secrecy surrounding the royal family. There is a clandestine mystical organisation called the Daris Brotherhood, whose headquarters burned down in mysterious circumstances a few days before Bryn a Sal died. And all this, as we shall find out, is connected to the lucrative work that Darro was engaged in before he died.

Kithamar is an unforgiving city. The common wisdom states that it was founded on hatred, but this is a misunderstanding. In truth, it was founded on hunger, and there are many kinds of hunger at its heart.

One part of a trilogy is, of course, not enough to reveal all of the secrets of Kithamar and its history. It is enough to thoroughly set the scene and, with gorgeous prose, leave the reader eager to find out more. This is excellent fantasy, and I warmly recommend it.

book cover
Title: Age of Ash
By: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Dune

Now that was a movie. I do wish that I had been able to see it on a big screen as it deserves. Maybe someone (hello Glasgow Worldcon) will consider screening both parts back-to-back. Assuming Part Two lives up to the promise of Part One, of course.

So what did I like about it? To start with it is beautifully shot. This is space opera on a massive canvas, and it should be staged and lit to match. There are some sections that are very dark where I struggled to see what was going on, but there were good reasons for them to be dark and I think they would have looked better in a proper movie theatre. I should try watching again with my room blacked out.

Filming Dune has always come up against the problem of fitting a massive book (or trilogy of books) into a movie (or TV mini-series). Denis Villeneuve has gone for a pair of long-ish films which, if the second is of similar length, will total around 300 minutes of viewing time. That’s a fair chunk of the 420 minutes of the John Harrison TV series, and well in excess of the 138 minutes of David Lynch’s gonzo extravaganza. I worry a little that viewers not familiar with the source material will find Part One quite slow, because there is a lot of exposition, but it worked for me.

Casting was largely OK. Oscar Isaac was splendidly regal as Leto. Timothée Chalamet did a reasonable job, handling the awkward transition from gawky teenager to budding megalomaniac quite well. Rebecca Ferguson I thought was a little inconsistent, veering between terrified mother and lethal Bene Gesserit. Jason Momoa and John Brolin both have a whale of a time as Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck. Dave Bautista hardly has to act at all as Beast Rabban. And Charlotte Rampling was superb as the Reverend Mother, but then she’s Charlotte Rampling so what did you expect?

And then there was Zendaya as Chani. She doesn’t get much to say, and most of her screen time in Part One is in Paul’s dreams, but she steals every scene that she’s in. She even manages to steal the DVD extras by looking absolutely stunning in her few brief interviews. I don’t know were she got that jacket, but I Want It.

We haven’t seen Feyd-Rautha yet, but there are rumours online that Barry Keoghan has got the part and I think he could be very good.

One thing I found interesting was the brutal utility of the sets and the spacecraft. I get the fact that architecture on Arrakis has to withstand the local climate, but if you compare the spacecraft in Dune to the shiny chrome military aesthetic of Star Wars, or the extravagant beauty of Jupiter Ascending, you get a very different view of a galactic empire. One that is a gargantuan factory oppressing every planet that it touches.

The costumes I felt were one of the weak points. Everything had to be grey and dull to fit in with the overall utilitarian aesthetic. Jessica got a couple of opportunities to stand out as a beacon of colour, and the imperial delegation was interesting, but mostly whatever the crew did to distinguish between the various factions was hard to see because it was so dependent on detail. Also the stillsuits looked way too heavy and intricate for what they needed to do.

The soundtrack, on the other hand, was absolutely worth the two Oscars that it has just won (Best Original Score and Best Sound). There was no opting for popular rock songs, or sweeping John Williams orchestration. Hans Zimmer set out to create a soundscape for the film that was both otherworldy and absolutely evocative of the desert landscape. It is a soundtrack that you feel in your bones, and is constructed in part from the actual sounds of the wind and movement of dunes in a real desert. I wish that the little feature on the soundtrack that comes with the disc had been much longer because I wanted to hear more about how those sounds had been constructed.

Roll on, Part Two.

These Lifeless Things

I owe this one to the good folks at the Hugo Book Club. They were recommending novellas that people might nominate. This one sounded interesting, and it was.

Premee Mohamed is best known for cosmic horror, which for most of us means Lovecraft. These Lifeless Things is in a similar vein, but it is not explicityly Mythos-related. It is a post-Apocalyptic story, and the apocalypse was caused by the arrival of Them. They may be aliens, but They did not arrive in spacecraft. Perhaps They have come through from another dimension. Perhaps They are demons. No one knows. They are not saying. They have, however, killed huge numbers of humans.

Our viewpoint character is Emerson. She is part of a group of archaeologists sent to investigate the remains of a city that was attacked by Them. It appears to be somewhere in Eastern Europe. Possibly Poland or Western Ukraine, which is decidedly spookier now than when Mohamed wrote it. Most of the team are scientists making various measurements to try to understand what happened in the town. Emerson is more of a humanist, and she has found what she believes to be a diary written by someone during the invasion. The contents of the diary make up around half of the narrative.

The writer of the diary is a middle-aged woman. Her husband was killed by Them. Her two sons were conscripted into the army and taken off to fight the invaders. She has not heard of them since. She hasn’t heard from the army, or anyone in government either. The city is entirely under siege. She is currently living with a much younger man whom she has developed affection for, but she is afraid to express this in case he takes offence.

The number of survivors is very small. They seem to survive by keeping out of the way of Them. They are able to scavenge food from the remains of shops, and even grow vegetables. However, they have to be very careful. Some of the surviving humans are apparently Agents, people who have allowed themselves to be taken over in some way by Them, and who act as spies.

The rest of the investigatory team is dismissive of Emerson’s find. It is not scientific evidence. There is no proof that the diary is genuine. Even if it does date from the days of the invasion, it may be lies. Emerson tries to find some of the places mentioned in the diary, but the city is large and there are few explicit descriptions of locations. Also some of the things that the diarist mentions are strange. What are the Statues? Do they really come alive at night? Why has no one ever heard of them before.

But there is more. Who are Emerson and her colleagues? Where have they come from? Why do humans have control of Earth again? Where have They gone? Is some of the resistance to Emerson’s find because some of her colleagues are Agents? Is Mohamed going to tell us? I’m not going to tell you.

This is absolutely my sort of horror. It is creepy and weird, and doesn’t rely on extreme violence or fountains of blood for effect. It is also excellent use of the novella format. I’m not sure that it could have been sustained for a full novel. But I do hope that Mohamed writes more like this, and that other people put this book on their Hugo ballot.

book cover
Title: These Lifeless Things
By: Premee Mohamed
Publisher: Solaris
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Dear Letter Writers…

It didn’t take long for the latest round of Worldcon Drama to start up. However, Chicago seems to have lucked out, because people are more angry (again, still) about Chengdu.

This particular outbreak took the form of an open letter signed by almost 100 authors complaining about the Chengdu convention. They have decent reason to do so. The Chinese government has a very bad reputation with regard to civil rights. One of their Guests of Honour, Liu Cixin, is allegedly supportive of the genocide of the Uyghur people. Another, Russian Sergei Lukianenko, has spoken out in favour of the invasion of Ukraine. It is not surprising that people are upset.

Inevitably, I found out about this because a journalist contacted the WSFS websites to ask for official comment on the situation. Naturally we were unable to say anything, because WSFS has no management who can make official statements.

The writers of the letter ask “Members of the WorldCon Site Selection, WorldCon Community and Voters” to “revoke” the grant of the 2023 Worldcon to Chengdu, but of course there is no mechanism for any of these people to do so. What does “Members of the WorldCon Site Selection” mean anyway? Were any of the letter writers members of DisCon III, and if so did they vote in Site Selection? Because they were all entitled to. My guess is that many of them had the right to vote, and most of them did not exercise it.

It has apparently been suggested that the management of Chicon 8 can somehow declare the Chengdu committee as having “failed” and take the convention away from them. There is no mechanism for this. Can you imagine what sort of a mess we would be in if one seated Worldcon could arbitrarily unseat its successor?

The only other opportunity for anyone who might claim to represent WSFS to take action would be for the Business Meeting in Chicago to try to over-turn last year’s Site Selection. Again there is no mechanism for this. The time to challenge Chengdu’s win was last year. Despite there being considerable concern about the conduct of the election, fandom at large was adamant that the result should be accepted.

After last year’s Worldcon there was a very smart thread on Twitter about the whole WSFS mess. I’m afraid I can’t remember who wrote it, but I think it was an American woman. Anyway, the writer made the point that the lack of any official structure for WSFS works in favour of SMOFdom because no one can be held responsible for anything. This is dead right, and it is the main reason why so many SMOFs are set against creating any sort of formal management structure for WSFS. Right now, the SMOFs can continue to enjoy their hobby of running Worldcons, and whenever there is any sort of upset they can simply say that it is not their fault because they are not responsible. There are some of us who want to do something, and to put structures in place that will allow decisions to be taken, but we are always going to be outvoted by those who don’t want that.

This is not good, but the same is true of letter writers. They should know by now that what they are doing is purely performative. There is no one who can take they actions that they are demanding. And by creating an illusion of a “them” who can take those actions they absolve themselves of the responsibility to do anything to help, even something as simple as voting in Site Selection. There is a term for this sort of thing, and that term is Virtue Signalling.

Now, virtue signalling isn’t always bad. Right now, a lot of people are very angry about what is going on in Ukraine. Most of us can’t help directly. Those of us in the UK are even being prevented by our government from providing homes for refugees. We can donate money to charities who are working in the region, but aside from that all we can do is vent our frustration by writing angry letters and tweets.

However, I would like to suggest that those people who write angry letters and tweets about Worldcon, especially if they are high profile authors, can do more than just vent. There are specific things that they can do.

Firstly, they can boycott Worldcon and the Hugos. It should be very simple to say that you will not attend Worldcon, or accept nomination for a Hugo, until such time as WSFS adopts a modern system of governance based on representative democracy.

Also, they can throw their weight behind alternatives. SFWA has recently renamed itself so that the ‘A’ stands for ‘Association’ rather than ‘of America’, and they are making a concerted effort to attract non-US members. They have also made their entry requirements much less stringent. So if you are angry at Worldcon you can get out there and promote SFWA and the Nebulas as an alternative.

In addition, World Fantasy does have a Board of Directors. They might not conduct themselves in ways that will make those people who are angry at Worldcon happy, but they do at least have the necessary structures. People could get involved, and encourage their fans to attend the World Fantasy Convention rather than Worldcon. (This would have the added bonus of absolutely infuriating the more conservative members of the World Fantasy Board, who really don’t like fans attending their convention except as workers.)

This won’t make me very happy. I have spent a lot of time and effort trying to make Worldcon better. But I have come to the sorry conclusion that there is no way this is going to happen because the existing structures have too much inertia. Only radical action of the type I have described above, by people whose opinions the SMOFs are likely to care a little about (by which I mean high profile professionals in the field) is likely to prompt any change.

So people, if you are really upset about Worldcon, then do something, because you can.

Bones and Stars

A new Gareth Powell novel is always a matter of interest in these here parts. Stars and Bones reads like a stand-alone, so it may be a good point for those of you who haven’t tried Gareth’s work before to dip in and find out what he’s about.

The book is set in a future in which humanity has been rescued from its own stupidity (and in particular from the stupidity of a bumbling British Prime Minister) by benevolent aliens, and now lives in a collection of giant space arks travelling through the galaxy. There’s a whole social thing out there that Powell could have explored, had he been so inclined. He has said he will come back to this world with other books, and that could be with completely different characters. But the arks are not really want this book is about.

The story opens with the crew of a scout vessel being brutally massacred on a world called Candidate-623. When the ship doesn’t return, a mission to find out what happened to it is assembled, and that mission happens to include Captain Eryn King, whose sister was on the lost ship.

Powell obligingly provides us with another interesting spaceship character. This one has the delightful name of Furious Ocelot, which is perfect for a ship that is both small and mighty. He also has, as part of the crew, a rather snarky talking cat, whom he doesn’t make as much use of as I’d hoped. Powell owns cats, and he has their character down pat.

Mostly, however, Stars and Bones is a book about loss. It is a book in which Eryn has to come to terms with the loss of her sister, despite her enemy’s habit of resurrecting those it has killed as weapons. It is about how Eryn’s teenage niece, Madison, has to come to terms with the loss of her mother, and not blame Aunt Eryn for being unable to miraculously bring her back. It is about humanity coming to terms with the loss of Earth. And it is about the enemy, though to say any more about that would be a massive spoiler.

I sped through this one fairly rapidly, and concur wholeheartedly with the general sentiment of the cover blurbs. Here’s a sample of the comments: “propulsive read”, “keeps the pressure on and doesn’t let go”, “gripping and fast-paced”, “drops you into the action from the start and then Just. Keeps. Going.” You get the idea. Powell writes superb page turners. (You are welcome to use that, Gareth.)

I’m still a little less happy with his plots. I think it is still the case that things happen because the plot needs them to, not because it was inevitable from the action that they would turn out this way. But plotting is a skill you can work on, and if you produce books that are as readable as this then you are going to have a long enough career to do that work.

book cover
Title: Stars and Bones
By: Gareth L Powell
Publisher: Titan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
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The Cuckoo Cage

Those of you with a fondness for interesting short fiction will doubtless already know of Comma Press. They have published two collections by M John Harrison. They have also done three anthologies of translated SF, one by Palestinian authors, one by Iraqis, and one by Kurds. I think the way they first came to my attention was with a book called When It Changed. Edited by Geoff Ryman, this pulled together a number of top-class science fiction writers paired with bleeding edge scientists. The idea was for the scientists to provide ideas for the writers to explore.

I am reminded by that thanks to their latest foray into speculative fiction, The Cuckoo Cage, which pairs historians with writers who have an interest in social justice. The idea is to take social justice movements from the past, and to use them as inspiration for creating modern day superheroes.

The historical examples tend to be people who are protesting against unfair taxes, against illegal enclosure of common land, and against loss of traditional working patterns to industrialisation. Thus we get people like Lady Skimmington, the Luddites and Captain Swing, though there is also a story based on the ancient British leader, Cassivellaunus, who led the resistance to Julius Caesar’s invasion. And there’s one about the crew of a British Navy ship who mutinied against a tyrannical captain.

The writers are mostly non-white, which is somewhat inevitable when addressing issues of social justice in modern Britain. The two I am familiar with are Bidisha, a feminist journalist and film-maker; and Courttia Newland, a Black writer who produced the science fiction novel, A River Called Time, but is these days better known for having been one of the scriptwriters on the TV series, Small Axe. Newland’s story is set in Bristol and is about a superhero who destroys racist statues, which is entirely appropriate.

What is, perhaps, somewhat missing, is knowledge of the superhero genre. Editor Ra Page’s introduction exemplifies this by stating that, “the American superhero props up a reactionary, pro-capitalist view of the world.” While that might be true of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, it is a rather sweeping statement that ignores a lot of what comics writers have tried, if not always succeeded, in doing over the years.

The writers have been asked to produce origin stories for their creation, that being a traditional part of the superhero oeuvre. Some of them get it, others have produced stories that are interesting and fit well with the historical inspiration, but don’t quite seem like superhero stories to me.

Nevertheless, these are all good stories, and if you haven’t spent your life immersed in the Marvel Universe you will be less sensitive to such issues. If you are a fan of short fiction, interested in social history, or keen on experimental anthologies, this book will definitely appeal to you. If nothing else you will learn some history. I had no idea that there was a protest movement whose adherents signed themselves, The Servants of the Queen of Faerie. I was vaguely aware that there was a small town in England called Gotham. I did not know that it is near Nottingham and that they rebelled against King John by feigning madness. And I certainly didn’t know that there is a 1540 book collecting tales of their actions called The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham.

American friends, the correct pronunciation of the name of the town is Goat-Ham. I think we should all use that from now on.

book cover
Title: The Cuckoo Cage
By: Ra Page (Ed.)
Publisher: Comma Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Alia Terra

This is a book that I did a small sensitivity reading job on, so I can’t do much in the way of a review, but I want to mention the book because what Atthis Arts are doing with it is very interesting.

First of all they champion people like Ava Kelly who want to write uplifting stories that feature gender and sexual minorities. Their author bio says that they aim, “to bring into the world more tales of friendship and compassion, dedicated to trope subversion, stories that give the void a voice.” Given the way that the world is going, we need that sort of thing right now.

Secondly, these stories are a collection of folk tales; Romanian folk tales. Kelly is Romanian but living in Norway. Each of the stories are presented both in English and in Romanian in parallel. Translations are all very well, but it is great to see a publisher both catering to the large English-speaking market and presenting the stories in their original form.

Finally, the entire book is sumptuously illustrated by Matt Spencer. His style is very well suited to the fairy-tale atmosphere of the book and the end product looks lovely.

So yes, I did have a small part in bringing this book to the public, but there are many aspects to it that I had nothing to do with, and I love them. Hopefully the book will do well.

book cover
Title: Alia Terra
By: Ava Kelly
Publisher: Atthis Arts
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Lower Decks – Season 2

There is a lot of Star Trek on TV right now, and Lower Decks continues to be among the best of it.

I suspect that there were no plans for a second season, because Season 2 starts by necessarily undoing parts of the first season finale. If you’ve seen that you will know that Ensign Boimler managed to get transferred to serve under Captain Ryker on the Titan. Clearly Lower Decks can’t continue without him, so they had to find some way to bring him back. Also Lieutenant Shaxs, the Bajoran Head of Security, died in Season 1. He’s back in Season 2, and everyone just mutters mysteriously about how that always happens with Bridge Officers.

This highlights that fact that, while Lower Decks is clearly made by people who love Star Trek and its history, they don’t take it at all seriously at times. Indeed, half the point of Lower Decks is to poke fun at the weird and silly things about the franchise that fans have come to accept and love. They haven’t had an episode about holographic lungs yet, but they did do an episode featuring Tom Paris, including salamander jokes. If you’ve managed to squirm your way through watching Voyager you will know what I’m talking about.

They are also having lots of fun in other ways. The Tom Paris episode also includes a fabulous section in which Tendi and Mariner have collect an old family heirloom for Dr. T’Ana, the feline ship’s doctor. That had me laugh out loud at the end. There’s also an episode in which the crew of the Doritos Cerritos are sent to guard an endangered species, and save them by explaining to the Ferengi poachers that it would be much more profitable to open a wildlife park.

This does bring us to one of the less savoury aspects of Star Trek, its tendency to include thinly veiled racist jokes. Lower Decks has a particular obsession with the Pakleds, whom I didn’t know much about before. They are a “dumb and ugly but dangerous because slightly smarter than they look” race of aliens who seem very much an exercise in comedy by punching down. I guess that, being a comedy show, Lower Decks was going to make use of them. I’m still waiting for them to do something interesting.

The show also buys into Trek racial stereotyping in an episode that features lower deck crews on Klingon and Vulcan ships. This is much better, and is a hint of things to come because there is actually serious plot happening. It sows some seeds that appear to flower right at the end of the finale when there is a massive shock plot twist. Lower Decks has suddenly got serious, and I’m now very much looking forward to Season 3 to see how the crew of the Cerritos deals with this.

Prime Deceptions

This is the second volume in Valerie Valdes’s series about Captain Eva Innocente and her crew of semi-illegal misfits. Much of it is very much the same fare as book 1. Indeed, the main plot is remarkably similar, only it is another one of the crew’s siblings that needs rescuing. How things work around that is rather different.

You very quickly get the impression that Prime Deceptions is massively meta, in that it is one long sequence of in-jokes about geekdom. The very first chapter is called “Kick the Puppies”, which I’m sure is not entirely an innocent(e) coincidence. There’s also a chapter called “Throne of Games”.

There’s more. Early on in the book the crew get to visit Evercon, a continuously running geek convention being held on Charon, the moon of Pluto. There they have to get to grips with the local politics, which involves rivalry between various sub-fandoms. Apparently the fantasy furries hate the sci-fi furries, and the mediaevalist re-enactors are having a big row over whether elves are authentic, and so on.

Later on they get to visit a planet famous for its version of Robot Wars. Naturally the crew ends up having to enter the competition. This segment also sees the return of the infuriating Miles fucking Erck, the man who begins every sentence with the words, “well, actually”. I’m assuming that Valdes brought him back because she hadn’t managed to do enough bad things to him in book 1. Quite right too, he deserves it.

The majority of the book is spent on a planet called Garilia where Eva has some unfortunate history. This allows the plot to get fairly serious for a while. The crew get involved in some decidedly dodgy local politics, and in a plot to conquer the galaxy through the use of what are clearly Pocket Monsters, though for obvious reasons Valdes can’t actually use the word Pokémon.

Finally there is a massive space opera set piece involving a star gate which I won’t say too much about because it would be spoilery.

All in all, these books are great fun. They are very much fan service, but not every book has to be deeply philosophical and you can still make important points while cramming in as many geek references as you possibly can.

Oh, and the psychic cats have a somewhat expanded role in this book, which is obviously good.

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

Editorial – March 2022

And we’re back, after the February break. I almost said, “traditional February break,” but I think I need to get through a few more years before that is justified.

Anyway, the purpose of the February break is to allow me to get on with LGBT History Month (which is in February in the UK) without having to panic about getting enough books read for an issue of Salon Futura. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t read anything, so I have a few things already lined up for next issue.

Also next issue there should be an essay from me about the process of literary criticism. There’s been some good stuff written about this recently both in Strange Horizons and by Paul Kincaid. I figured I should make a proper response.

Next issue should also include a report from Eastercon, because in-person conventions seem to be a happening thing again.

But before we get there we have this issue, and I’m delighted to report that we have a guest article. This is a fanzine, so we don’t pay. However, JB Toner offered me an article anyway, and I’m happy to publish it. As was the case with Emerald City, if people want to write for me, do get in touch. All I ask is that you don’t mind being edited.

The Witcher – Season 2

Season 2 of The Witcher was much more of a conventional story arc. Personally I didn’t have any difficulty with the multiple timelines of season 1, but then again I have read an awful lot of speculative fiction. It was disorienting in Iain Banks’ Use of Weapons, now it is just normal.

Rather more disorienting was the sudden change of Ciri’s look from frightened child to confident and sexy young princess. How she managed it overnight without access to make-up is a bit of a mystery, but then this is a fantasy series.

But while there is a story arc of sorts here, this season felt a lot like the middle book of a trilogy. There was a lot to be explained, a lot of character background filling to do, but not a lot happening. Even the “Yennifer loses her magic” thing didn’t seem to have much point to it. It was nice to have a thinly disguised version of Baba Yaga as the big bad of the season, especially as we got an actual hut with chicken legs, but again it felt that this was something inserted to provide conflict, not something central to the storyline.

Rather more interesting was the Jaskier’s reinvention of himself from Witcher Sidekick to Social Justice Warrior. He’s involved in some sort of underground railroad helping elves escape Redania. This is especially poignant now as the series is based on fiction written in Polish, and one of my Polish friends is currently involved in a project to help marginalised people escape Ukraine. Anyway, it was good to have Jaskier back.

It was odd to have Jaskier do the “first they came for the elves, but I was not an elf…” thing, but little political moments like this are increasingly common in TV (see also Star Trek). Hopefully it pisses off the Puppies.

The real plot, however, revolves around Ciri, her uncontrollable magic, and her role in the destiny of the Continent. This is the point when it becomes useful to have a geek like Istredd involved, because someone has to do some actual research. I confess to having been highly amused by the scene in which Geralt and Istredd finally meet up and have a pissing contest about whose pet name for Yennifer is correct.

The season ends with a massive shock reveal and the hope that season 3 will be more focussed on the main plotline. We might event get a classic fantasy trilogy plot structure rather than an aimless “more stories set in the world of” thing. For that they are sensibly doing spin-offs. So yes, next on my list to watch will be Nightmare of the Wolf.

Issue #37

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


  • Cover: Astronaut Moon: This issue's cover is Astronaut Moon by pizar_kestrap

  • She Who Became the Sun: A book based on real history with strong gender themes? What's not to like?

  • Cyber Mage: Uh oh, those crazy Djinn are up to no good again. But do they understand the internet?

  • The Faerie Queene: It is over 400 years old, but does Spenser's epic poem have anything to say to modern fantasy?

  • Elder Race: Adrian Tchaikovsky channels Gene Wolfe in this clever novella

  • Servant Mage: In which Kate Elliott takes aim at some of the tropes of epic fantasy

  • Eternals: Is Marvel's latest super team as dull as everyone is making out?

  • The Witcher – Season 1: Cheryl finally gets to toss a coin to the Netflix serial that everyone is talking about

  • Editorial – January 2022: A new year, or just 2020 on repeat?

She Who Became the Sun

It has taken me a while to get to this book, which has been widely praised elsewhere. I’m very pleased I read it, though not for the reasons I expected.

To start with, She Who Became the Sun is a very readable book. You can get through it nice and quickly, which is important when you have as much to read as I do. Somewhat relatedly, it feels a little lightweight at times. There’s not the intensity of emotion that might leave you wanting to take a break to let your heart stop racing. But I certainly wouldn’t characterise it as YA. There are far too many serious themes for that.

Another reason that I enjoyed the book is that it engages strongly with actual history. Shelley Parker-Chan says in her introduction that it is based loosely on the events surrounding the end of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty and the founding of the Ming Dynasty. This is very clearly the case, and many of the characters in the book have the names of real people from history. However, this is not a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Parker-Chan appears to be happy to re-purpose these real people as she needs them.

The central character of the book is based on Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, who was indeed born a peasant, was the only survivor in his family of a terrible famine, and who became a monk before becoming the leader of the Red Turban revolutionaries. Other characters from the book, including Chen Youliang, Xu Da, Chaghan Temur and Chang Yuchun all appear in history. However, some of the events of the book appear to be based on the life of Li Zicheng, a rebel leader whose activities helped lead to the downfall of the Ming Dynasty almost 300 years later.

Where Parker-Chan deviates most from history is that it is not a determined young man who survives the terrible famine that kills his family, it is a girl. We never learn her birth name, but she takes the name and identity of her brother, Zhu Chongba. This was the original name of the first Ming Emperor, and it is apparently a name that denotes great fortune. Having assumed her dead brother’s life, our heroine goes on to achieve the greatness that had been foretold for him. And that brings us to the other interesting aspect of the book: the discussion of gender.

Books that have women characters masquerading as men often gloss over the practical and psychological complexities involved in such a life. Parker-Chan does just about enough to make it work. Zhu’s true identity is discovered by a few people, but they end up being loyal friends and supporters happy to keep the secret. Excuses are found to get Zhu out of awkward situations such as the communal bathing in the monastery, and other issues, such as menstruation, are mentioned often enough for the reader to feel that the problems have been addressed. Some of these excuses are wildly unbelievable, but Zhu is supposed to be incredibly lucky.

What we don’t have here, it a trans narrative as Westerners would understand it. Zhu does not believe that she is a man. She has no great desire to be one, other than for the power that would be available to her as a man, but not as a woman. However, she desperately wants to be seen as a man, partly because that is her route to power, and partly because she believes that only by assuming her dead brother’s identity will she also inherit his good fortune and glorious future.

In doing so, Parker-Chan has located Zhu’s identity firmly within the cultural expectations of the time. Zhu lives in a world where emperors are believed to rule by the Mandate of Heaven. She believes that her dead brother was owed a glorious fate, and that if Heaven notices that she’s not really that lucky boy then she may no longer get to inherit that fate. This causes significant anxiety, and it is not until later in the book that she comes to understand that people make their own luck.

“Women can’t govern. The Son of Heaven rules the empire, as men govern cities, and fathers head the family. That’s the pattern of the world. Who dares break it by putting a substance in a place contrary to its nature? It’s in men’s nature to take risks and lead. Now women’s.”

It is also worth noting that, while Zhu’s eventual triumph would not have been remotely possible had she not taken the role of a man, many of her successes are portrayed as being a result of the fact that she is a woman. As such, she’s less stupid than the men around her, and she understands things that the men, who despise all feminine knowledge, will never see.

Throughout the book, Zhu is contrasted with other characters who challenge the strict gender hierarchy of mediaeval Chinese society in various ways. Ma Xiuying is the daughter of a highly competent rebel general who is betrayed and allowed to die by the paranoid rebel leader because he’s obviously too smart. Ma inherits her father’s brains, but none of the rebel leaders will listen to her because she’s a girl. Also she’s much too soft-hearted to be successful at politics.

Madame Zhang is ruthless enough to achieve success. She’s the brains behind the highly successful Zhang mercantile empire, but she rules from the shadows, allowing her useless oaf of a husband to take all the credit, and making considerable use of feminine wiles to keep the men around her under control. Zhu doesn’t interact with her much, but you get the impression that she’d despise Madame Zhang for ruling in a feminine way rather than asserting her own power.

The most significant foil for Zhu, however, is General Ouyang, a native Chinese eunuch who is the leader of the Yuan army. Ouyang’s family were massacred by the Mongols, and he escaped only by begging for his life and submitting to being made a eunuch. From there on he plots revenge.

While Ouyang is an excellent swordsman and a highly respected military leader – in extreme contrast to Zhu who is small, scrawny and reliant on tricks and luck for her victories – he is painfully aware that he will never be recognised for his abilities because he is not a man. Zhu, while she is seen as a man by the people around her, gets more praise and recognition that Ouyang does.

The basic message of the book is that most men are useless braggarts who get that way because, to quote John Scalzi, they play life on the lowest difficulty setting. If you never have to try, you never get good at anything. The most obvious example is the Yuan emperor’s heir who progresses to the finals of a tournament because all his opponents let him win, until Ouyang, who doesn’t care about offending the emperor, knocks him over in a matter of seconds.

A man could want anything the world offered and still have a chance, no matter how small, of achieving it. For all he had acknowledged her of being capable of desire, he hadn’t seen her reality: that she was a woman, trapped within the narrow confines of a woman’s life, and everything that could be wanted was all equally impossible.

So no, this is not a trans book. Parker-Chan signals as much by having the authorial voice always refer to Zhu with female pronouns, even though all the characters, even most of those in the know, use male pronouns for her. This is a book about women taking power. Because of the society they live in, they often have to do so in a variety of somewhat underhand ways, but take it they can, if they want it badly enough. Which can be as true now as it was then.

book cover
Title: She Who Became the Sun
By: Shelley Parker-Chan
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura
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