Issue #36

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


Cover: Dust Up at the Crater School

This issue’s cover is by Ben Baldwin and comes from the cover he did for Dust Up at the Crater School, the latest Chaz Brenchey novel from Wizard’s Tower Press. I really love this cover, especially as I’ve been effectively doing the art direction for the Crater School books. Ben has done a fabulous job of turning my idea into reality.

Here’s the full thing:

Beyond the Hallowed Sky

As most of you will know, there is a bid to bring Worldcon back to Glasgow in 2024. What better way to promote that, than have one of Scotland’s finest writers of science fiction launch a new trilogy that is centred on the building of a faster-than-light craft in a Clyde shipyard? This version of Spaceport Glasgow might not be as chrome-covered and busy as the painting that Jim Burns produced for us in 2005, but it is even more evocative of the setting.

This, then, is the new novel by Ken MacLeod: volume one in the Lightspeed Trilogy, which will presumably be completed by the time that we all assemble at the SECC, assuming that there is a Worldcon left by then. I look pointedly at friends in Chicago and Chengdu, and hope they will take better care of what has been entrusted to them than Washington did.

Before diving into the plot, we need to spend a bit of time on the near future that MacLeod has constructed for us in Beyond the Hallowed Sky. The year is 2070. Much has changed, but much stays the same. Climate change has been mostly brought under control; democracy has been restored to the USA; and the world is run mostly by three large power blocks. These are the Anglophone Alliance, which does not include Ireland and Scotland, but does include India; the European Union, whence Ireland and Scotland have fled; and the Co-ordinated States, which is an uneasy alliance of Russia, China and their dependents.

You will note that Africa and Latin America are not included in these groups, so little has changed there. Also MacLeod has assumed that Wales will go along meekly with whatever England wants, so I’m afraid that we’ll have to keep beating the Scots at rugby until their manners improve. A classic MacLeod twist is that the EU has undergone a Socialist revolution and is now some sort of technocratic single party state which is better than the Fascist Alliance and the Totalitarian Co-ord because the revolutionary cadres are so secret from each other that no one really has any control, allegedly.

Of particular significance is that the Union, as MacLeod calls it, is run by an Anticipatory Algorithmic Artificial Intelligence called Iskander. The other two power blocks have their AIs too. The Alliance has Smart Alec, presumably a descendant of Alexa; and the Co-ord has WeThink, developed by the Chinese. Iskander, however, is smarter than both of these, and is uncannily good at predicting that citizens need. Here he is helping out our hero with a small domestic problem.

He peered at the selection of Celtic and Romano-British reproductions, trying to recall what style of brooch Ellen usually wore or indeed if she ever did. ‘Uh, Iskander, what would Ellen like of this lot that she doesn’t already have?’

‘You’ve bought it now,’ replied Iskander.

By the way, one reason why this scene is set in a gift shop of a museum of ancient British culture is because the tomb of a Romano-British king has been found inside the mountain called Ben Arthur which is a mere hour’s drive from Glasgow. That’s another tourist destination for Worldcon-goers to take in, and another reason for me to give MacLeod a good talking to next time I see him.

So, what is the dramatis personae for this tale? First up we have Lakshmi Nayak, a mathematical genius who comes up with what seems to her to be a set of equations that would actually permit faster than light travel. Well, she doesn’t actually invent it. It is sent to her in a letter, in her own handwriting, from Kabul, where she has never been. Which suggests that at some point she travelled back in time to send it to herself. Which proves that FTL is possible. QED.

Warned off her researches by the English Secret Service, Nayak defects to the Union and Iskander finds her a job near Glasgow where she will be well placed to one day make the acquaintance of John Galt Grant, a marine engineer specialising in submarines, and a veteran of the Rising, the Union’s Socialist revolution. Grant isn’t Party himself, but there are Party members in the trade union hierarchy at the shipyard where he works.

Unbeknownst to either of them, the Alliance and Co-ord have had FTL for decades. It is a Deep State secret for both of them, and they have established a base on a nearby inhabitable planet they have named Apis. It has that name because, although most of the wildlife is forms of giant arthropod, the planet is also home to bees. Absolutely identical down to the last strand of DNA Earth bees.

One of the reasons why there is a planet inhabited with bees is a pun of such awful magnitude that I feel I owe MacLeod several glasses of fine whisky for having the audacity to perpetrate it.

On Apis we make the acquaintance of Emma Hazeldene, a biologist studying the bees. Shortly after we meet her, she is involved in deadly peril, because there are other things on Apis and they bear no relation to Earth life at all.

The final piece of the puzzle is James Bond Marcus Owen, a robot in the service of the English Secret Service. Being a robot, Owen is more than capable of outlandish feats of derring do, and there are parts of the book that are very clearly lifted from MacLeod’s script for the Bond movie based on his book.

Meanwhile there is a fine science fiction plot cooking away in the background, and eventually our heroes will have to put their newly built FTL ship to use. How that happens, I will leave you to find out for yourselves. It is a very enjoyable journey, and I for one can’t wait for the next book in the series.

book cover
Title: Beyond the Hallowed Sky
By: Ken MacLeod
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Worldcon 79 – DisCon3

Oh, it is a Worldcon report, I’d better have some subheadings.

The Pandemic

Let’s start with the issue that had the most potential for disaster. Earlier this year, DisCon 3 was faced with a difficult decision. They could stick with their original August dates and have to run the convention entirely virtually, or switch to December and have an in-person event with some hybrid features. The membership voted for December. Little did they know that the dates they had chosen would be at the start of the omicron variant wave when infections were spreading like wildfire and governments were afraid to impose new restrictions because of the impeding Christmas holiday. DisCon 3 had the potential to be a massive super-spreader event. It was not, and the convention deserves massive praise for avoiding that.

Of course the convention was not entirely COVID-free. That would have been highly unlikely. In addition to attending the event, members would have been traveling by air, staying in various hotels around Washington DC, and going out to dinner, all of which are likely vectors of infection. According to DisCon3’s final report on December 29th, 30 members of the convention had tested positive at or since leaving the event (and there had been one false positive). This is out of 2,300 people on site. The rate of infection amongst convention goers was substantially lower than the rate of infection in the District of Columbia as a whole.

Substantial tracking information was provided for most of the positive cases, and on the basis of that it does not seem like any particular part of the convention was significantly associated with infections.

DisCon3 attributes its success in controlling infection to their vaccination and masking policy. Perhaps a government or two could take note.

Facilities

Another issue that DisCon3 had to deal with during the year was the bankruptcy of the Marriott Wardman Park, one of the two hotels at which the convention was due to be based. This left them working with substantially reduced capacity and presumably a need to re-allocate space to the rather smaller Omni. Had the convention been full size, which would probably have meant over 5000 members, this might have been a huge problem. Thankfully the pandemic reduced the pressure on space considerably. Every cloud, and all that.

Facilities were also the subject of one of the post-convention controversies. Mari Ness was faced, yet again, with a Worldcon that did not cater effectively for people in wheelchairs. She has written about her experiences at length here.

I hope that everyone has a great deal of sympathy with Mari over what she went through, but with my conrunner hat on I am wracking my brains to see what we can do. Facilities contracts are the biggest financial obligations that any Worldcon has. You need agreement in principle before you can start bidding, and the contracts are usually signed soon after the site selection results are announced. Once you have signed, you are locked into those facilities (unless they go bankrupt), and the only way you can change things is by negotiation, which usually means paying them more money, probably a lot more money.

The level of accessibility that Mari, and other wheelchair users, need is in excess of that required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. While the ADA is a wonderful thing in many ways, once a piece of legislation provides a standard that must be met, corporations will generally do the absolute minimum necessary to meet that standard and no more. So finding a fully accessible facility in the USA will be hard. Finding one in a country that does have something like the ADA is probably impossible.

Of course, Worldcon committees want to advertise themselves as accessible, because otherwise they will get yelled at on social media. So they do, and people like Mari get into trouble.

If we want to ensure that Worldcons are in fully accessible facilities then we need to have a well-qualified inspection team that can check sites during the bidding phase and disqualify them if they are not up to scratch. I’d like to say they could just warn the voters, but sadly accessibility is fairly low on the priority list of most site selection voters. But to have such an inspection team, WSFS would have to be an organisation with teeth, which it is not. Much more of that later.

What I will say is that there are many people, not just disabled people, who cannot attend Worldcon on a regular basis, but who would be happy to buy a reasonably priced virtual membership if attending virtually was possible and provided a satisfying experience. Which brings us to…

The Virtual Convention

I’m sorry to say that, despite having a virtual membership, I didn’t see much of the con live. That’s partly because a lot of it was very late in my time zone, and partly because I was very busy with work stuff as everyone panicked to get projects closed off before the midwinter break. A lot of the program will be available for viewing later, but because of that midwinter break it is taking much longer for DisCon3’s staff to get the video edited and put online. I understand that there was a lot of good programming and I’m hoping I will have time to see some of it.

What I did see were the three virtual panels that I was part of. Things were a little disorganised at the start of the con. My first panel was 25 minutes late starting because one of the hosts did not turn up and the other had received no training. When things didn’t work, she had to go for help. It appears that lack of training was a widespread problem for virtual program staff. All they got was a sheet of instructions. But they all learned on the job and by my third panel it was all very smooth.

DisCon3 did not attempt to do hybrid panels with some participants in the room and some virtual as World Fantasy had done. But they did allocate some in-person attendees to virtual panels, expecting them to log in from their hotel rooms (and possibly from a room provided on site). This seemed to cause a bit of confusion.

The impression that I get from other people is that the audio quality for virtual panels was fine, but the audio quality for in-person panels that were streamed live was not so good. I suspect that a lot of this was to do with the fact that people on virtual panels are very much aware that their microphone needs to be working well, whereas people on in-person panels tend to have very poor microphone technique. If you are going to do streamed panels, moderators need to try to get their panellists to behave, and audience questions should either be repeated by the moderator, or only taken from someone with a mic.

DisCon3 did have a Discord server. The program channels seemed very quiet. Most of the action took place in the fan table channel. I would be interested to see how many virtual members DisCon3 had, and how many joined the Discord, because I was expecting a lot more traffic.

The Physical Convention

I wasn’t there, obviously. The impression I got from reading other people’s con reports is that it went very well. Programming was interesting. There was a masquerade, and the Best In Show, a costume based on John Picacio’s “La Calavera”, looked amazing. I presume that there were a dealers’ room, art show and exhibits area, but I’ve not heard any feedback.

Of course, one of the reasons that I heard so little about the physical convention is that social media was busy yelling about other things. Before we get to that, we need to remind ourselves about the pre-con controversies.

To Lose One Con-Chair…

Early this year, DisCon3 issued policies suggesting that they would only permit a maximum of 4 people to be named as finalists for any work in the Hugo Awards. This was contrary to tradition, and there’s nothing in the WSFS Constitution to allow it. There was a huge fuss, which led to most of the convention’s WSFS Division staff resigning. Then one of the co-chairs resigned. The implication was that the new policy had been forced through by the co-chair against the wishes of the people required to implement it.

Then in June the list of Finalists was released. Once again email was sent to Finalists, this time applying a limit of 4 people (and their +1s) would be allowed at the pre-Hugo reception. Once again it appeared that staff involved with administering the Hugos had not been told, or had been overridden. More staff resigned. And then the remaining co-chair resigned too.

As I remarked on Twitter, to lose one co-chair may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

I have written about these events in greater detail here.

If two rounds of Hugo controversy were not enough, we also had pre-con site selection drama. There was a late addition to the 2023 contest from Winnipeg. This happened after the change of dates for the convention. When the date changed was announced, DisCon3 said that site selection was closed, and they would not be accepting any more bids. This seemed to be in contravention of the WSFS Constitution that says new bid filings can be accepted up to 180 days before the start of the convention. Eventually DisCon3 relented and allowed Winnipeg to file but, and this is the important point, they did so in such a way as to imply that this was entirely at their discretion, and that the WSFS Constitution was irrelevant.

So what we have here is two rounds of Hugo controversy, and one round of site selection controversy, all three of which arose from DisCon3 believing that they had the right to run things their way, and not follow the WSFS Constitution.

Site Selection At-Con

As the convention began, it immediately ran into controversy when Kevin did something very foolish: he posted the demographic breakdown of site selection votes from the mail-in ballot validation session. This was seen as an attempt by a member of the Winnipeg bid team to influence the vote, and Kevin got fired from his post as Business Meeting Chair.

We had what I think is the worst row we have had in a 26-year relationship. Had I been Chair of DisCon3, I would have fired him too. But we talked it out via email and we both learned a lot in the process.

To understand what went on you first need to know that SMOFdom has been nervous of ballot stuffing for decades. There has been an instance of suspected ballot stuffing in the past, where numerous Hugo ballots turned up with different names but in the same handwriting with the same pattern of votes and payment via consecutively numbered money orders. Thankfully no one has spent enough money on such a project to make a difference. The Puppies had real supporters.

It is also worth bearing in mind that previous non-US/UK Worldcons (Japan, Finland and Ireland) had campaigned by actively appealing to US fans. The Chinese mostly had not. Obviously COVID made it hard for them to get to in-person events, but they hadn’t had much presence at virtual conventions either. Instead they had relied on getting out the local vote.

It is traditional for Worldcons to give information about the demographic breakdown of membership in their progress reports. DisCon3 had not done this. I don’t know why.

Now imagine that you are bidding for a Worldcon in a two-way race. You’ve seen almost nothing of your opponent in the past year. You then arrive at the mail-in ballot validation meeting to discover that your opponent has a couple of thousand votes, filled in electronically, many unsigned and without a home address for the voter, and using email addresses that seem to have been generated automatically. Plus the way in which these people have paid is unusual.

There are, in fact, very good reasons why the Chinese fans’ ballots looked like this. I’ll get to that shortly. But hopefully you can imagine why the Winnipeg bid team was taken aback. The more I talked to Kevin, the more I came to understand that their concern was not just that the Chinese votes looked dubious, but that they felt that the management of DisCon3 had taken a decision not to challenge those votes for fear of bad publicity. Ballot stuffing is one thing but thinking that the convention administering the ballot had taken a decision to turn a blind eye to it is quite another.

Validating the Chinese Votes

What, then, about those Chinese votes? We need to remember that the internet is a very different place in China than in the rest of the world. Most importantly, PayPal and other Western payment systems are banned, and DisCon3 found itself unable to use the most popular Chinese payment platform. So the Chengdu bid had to get creative in helping its supporters pay to vote. Naturally that looks suspicious, but what else could they do?

Also the way in which we, in the Western world, validate our identity doesn’t work as well in China. Street addresses and not a thing in the same way as they are for us, and many Chinese, particularly the younger ones, do not have email addresses. They communicate through social media. So some people had to create email addresses in order to vote.

The number of votes is large – Chengdu had 1950 mail-in votes – but it is a city the size of Los Angeles, and its annual SF convention attracts 50,000 people. In contrast the populations of Finland and Ireland are small compared to Chengdu or LA. China as a whole has a population of 1.4 billion. It is not surprising that the country has a large population of SF fans, especially as their country has only just begun to be a serious player in the space race.

Another factor that suggests there was no conspiracy going on is the fact that 917 more site selection voting tokens were purchased than were actually used. This suggests that a lot of the Chinese fans could not work out how to fill in the ballot at all. If there was some sort of conspiracy in operation, surely they would have turned all of those additional tokens into votes.

As it turned out, however, a major reason why there were so may seemingly suspicious ballots was due to mistakes by DisCon3. The convention had tried to do the right thing in having the site selection ballot translated into French (for the Canadians) and Chinese. However, where the English language ballot had asked for an address, the Chinese one simply asked, “where do you live?” Not understanding what was being asked, many of the Chinese voters had simply responded “Chengdu” or “China”. Furthermore, the voting system included an autoreply which thanked each member for their vote and said that if there were any issues with the ballot then site selection staff would get back to them. None of the Chinese voters got this follow-up. Indeed, I have heard it suggested that the mail-in votes weren’t even looked at prior to the convention.

This put DisCon3’s position in an entirely different light. That is, they were not against strict validation of ballots because they were pro-Chinese; they were against it because it was their fault that so many of the Chinese voters had not filled in their ballots correctly. As is so often the case, when something appears to be the result of malfeasance, a cock-up is a much more likely explanation.

Ballot Fixing?

The internet was in high dudgeon for much of the convention over what people saw as attempts to “fix” the election by throwing out most of the Chinese votes. These were not quite as simple as they seemed. It has been standard practice for a long time for site selection to validate mail-in ballots and throw out any that they deemed dubious. Typically this happens to about a handful of votes, not to almost 2000.

The motion to the Business Meeting was supported by the head of site selection, Tim Szczesuil. I don’t believe that Tim was looking for an excuse to throw out the Chinese votes here. He was being a good bureaucrat in covering his back by going to his political masters and asking for clarification of his powers. The answer he got was that yes, he did have the power to disqualify suspect votes but, as Kevin pointed out at the meeting, this was entirely at his discretion. Therefore he also had the power to allow them if he deemed that there was a good reason for doing so. The Business Meeting basically said that it was up to him. It would not order him to do one thing or another, and equally both allowing and disallowing the ballots was legal.

Come the announcement of the result at the Business Meeting, Winnipeg conceded gracefully. Kevin moved the motion to destroy the ballots, showing that the result had been accepted and put beyond doubt.

A few people have commented that, given all the efforts to bar people from voting that the Republican party has been making over the past couple of years, American Worldcon attendees might be more antagonistic towards apparent suppression of the Chinese vote. However, most of the Americans who attend the BM are also old enough to remember when ballot fraud was suspected of helping George W Bush win the 2000 Presidential election. It goes both ways. The whole question of ballot fairness needs to be looked at.

Can We Fix Site Selection?

Since all of this blew up, people have been talking online about possible ways of making site selection fairer to people who do not share the Western obsession with street addresses. This is all well and good, but I think misses the point somewhat. Let’s start with a bit of history.

Way back in the mists of time, Worldcon took place entirely in person. You voted in person, and all of the ID that you needed was your membership badge. Then mail-in voting started, and there was a need to validate votes. However, this was done separately by the Hugo and Site Selection teams, partially because the ballots were separate, and partly because the electorate was different. SMOFs, being SMOFs, took rather more care over site selection because that’s the thing that really matters to them as con-runners.

However, this makes no sense to the voter. If you are a member of Worldcon in good standing then you should be able to vote in the Hugos, and if you pay the additional advance supporting membership then you should be entitled to vote in site selection. Why is any extra validation needed?

Part of this is historical accident, but part of it is also a result of a refusal of Worldcons to accept that they are part of WSFS. As an example, DisCon3 refused to use the required terminology of “advance supporting membership” on their site selection ballot, instead using the older “voting fee” term which suggests that the payment is simply required to vote, not buying you a membership of WSFS for the year of the Worldcon you are voting on.

It should not be beyond the wit and imagination of fandom to create a membership system that keeps track of each person’s membership status in WSFS and allows them to vote online without any further validation. If people want to insist on an email address, etc., then they should do so when you buy a membership, not take your money and then tell you that it wasn’t good enough.

The problem with this is privacy legislation; things like GDPR. There is already a lot of debate as to how much information individual Worldcons can share with each other, as each one is an independent organisation. The only practical solution is for WSFS membership (and the voting rights that go with it) to be handled centrally. But to do that WSFS would probably have to incorporate.

Is China Safe?

As soon as Chendgu was confirmed as the site for the 2023 Worldcon, the online conversation started to pivot from “those poor Chinese” to “what an awful place China is”. That’s Twitter for you. And presumably other social media venues too.

SMOFdom is mainly concerned that Chinese fandom, having flexed its muscles, will decide to win every Worldcon site selection from now on. As Colin Harris pointed out on File 770, that’s not much different from what US fandom has been doing for decades. More importantly, I think, they would have to want to. I have never yet met a Worldcon committee that, at their end of their convention, was eager to rush into running another one. Chengdu is probably using up the entire fannish resources of China. They would need a lot more people to want to run another Worldcon in a hurry.

China does have a terrible record on human rights. The proposed political boycotts of the upcoming Winter Olympics attest to that. On the other hand, the UK is happy to let refugees drown in the English Channel. The USA is still locking up people trying to cross the border from Mexico and has a major problem with murderous police. Australia has its own refugee issues and Canada has been allowing energy and timber companies to ride roughshod over the rights of native people. There are no easy answers here.

Some people have said that we should not hold Chinese fandom responsible for the sins of their government. That’s a fair point, though I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the people who are saying this are the same people who put poor Yasser Bhajit in real danger from his authoritarian government over his attempt to run a bid for Saudi Arabia.

Other people have complained that they are unable to visit China, either because they work for the US government and its contractors, or because they are of Chinese extraction and have spoken out against the Chinese government. Well, yes. But also Peter Watts and I are banned from entering the USA, and one of the co-chairs of the Chengdu bid was denied a visa to travel to DisCon3. Many people from Muslim countries also find it difficult to travel to the USA.

The short version is that the world is a very shitty place right now and finding a Worldcon site that is safe for everyone is very difficult. Worldcons should offer a high-quality virtual membership for those people who cannot travel. For those who can, my guess is that China won’t be much of an issue. A work colleague of mine spent a lot of time in China in the year before the pandemic. His husband was working there, and the two of them were able to do a lot of tourism together. There are trans women who are famous actors and TV presenters in China. You are unlikely to be arrested simply for being trans the way you would in Dubai. So I think that for most people China will be fine.

Finally, some people have asked whether the Chinese government will insist on having political oversight of the program. That’s mostly a problem for the Chinese fans, who are probably well used to navigating the local political landscape. But I will suggest that those people who are concerned should read a few Ken MacLeod novels, particularly his latest, to find out how state power actually works.

Selling the Hugos?

The final controversy that DisCon3 became embroiled in erupted on Saturday night, or Sunday morning for me. The hotel had experienced an electrical fire in the ballroom which delayed the Hugos for a couple of hours, so I had gone to bed. When I woke up, Twitter was aflame with the news that naming rights for the Hugos had been sold to a notorious arms manufacturer.

As best as I can make out, what happened was this: as part of the pre-Hugo reception, DisCon3 laid on a red carpet for the Finalists. This was a lovely idea. As is traditional, at the end of the red carpet there was a photo area. That was being run by a commercial sponsor, and the backdrop to the photo included the Hugo logo and the logo of the sponsor: Raytheon. Many of the finalists didn’t look carefully at the background, or didn’t know who Raytheon were, and ended up having their photos with that background appear online. Certainly none of were informed in advance that Raytheon would be involved as a sponsor, and the fact that we were not told suggests that DisCon3 knew there was potential for upset.

Historically it has been perfectly OK for a Worldcon to take sponsorship, especially to help with major events such as the Hugo Award ceremony which cost a lot of money to stage. Kevin and I did this on a small scale in Glasgow in 2005 when we ran a slide show to entertain people while they were waiting for the major events to start. In such situations it is always good form to make it clear that the sponsor is associated with the Worldcon and the event, not with the Hugos. There has only been one instance when the Hugos themselves were sponsored. That was in 1987 when a UK Worldcon took sponsorship from the Scientologists. Those of us with long memories still shudder at the thought.

This year’s sponsorship appeared to be very different. As evidenced by this article on Gizmodo, the impression people got was that Raytheon were the official sponsors of the Hugo Awards. Worse than that, because their involvement included photo ops with finalists, those finalists were being used to promote the sponsor.

At any time after this blew up, DisCon3 could have issued a statement to the effect that Raytheon was only sponsoring their convention, or their Hugo Award ceremony, and that they had not sold sponsorship of the Hugos. This might seem a technical distinction, but it is a very important one. They did not do so. The only logical explanation for that is that they had actually sold sponsorship of the Hugos and they could not then deny that without upsetting their sponsor.

They had no right to do that. The Hugos and their service marks are owned by WSFS, not by individual Worldcons. WSFS has a Mark Protection Committee responsible for protecting those service marks. It has a sub-committee called the Hugo Awards Marketing Committee. Kevin is on both committees, and I am on the latter. If sponsorship of the Hugos had been sold, DisCon3 should have sought our permission first.

As it is, we have had a lot of angry emails from people disgusted at “our” decision to accept sponsorship from an arms manufacturer and vowing to boycott the Hugos in future. There’s not a lot we can say.

When is an Apology not an Apology?

Of course, DisCon3 did issue an apology. The con chair, Mary Robinette Kowal, took full responsibility for the decision to accept sponsorship from Raytheon. She did so in part to protect those of her staff who had been involved in the decision. That’s admirable.

However, as part of my work in diversity and inclusion, one of the things I have to do is train people to make good apologies, which means not making apologies that sound like they have been written by a lawyer who is afraid you might be sued if you say too much.

The first rule of making an apology is to accept responsibility. Kowal did that, which is an excellent start. However, I also encourage classes to think about who the apology is made to, and what is being apologised for.

For me, the most notable thing about the DisCon3 apology is that it makes no mention of WSFS or the Hugo Awards. The apology is to the wider SF community for a poor choice of sponsor. The implication here is that DisCon3’s management believed, and still believe, that they had the right to sell sponsorship of the Hugo Awards.

Mr. WSFS, He Dead

There was a great thread on Twitter shortly after the con about how the anarchic structure of WSFS means that when things go wrong, no one is responsible. And if no one is responsible then nothing can ever be fixed. I’ll come back to that in a minute, but a corollary of no one being in charge of WSFS is that a power vacuum is created. Worldcon chairs are moving into that power vacuum. DisCon3 had many high-profile controversies, and most of them were a result in some way of DisCon3 and various chairs acting as if the WSFS Constitution and Worldcon traditions did not apply to them. In many ways they are right.

In theory WSFS can give a Worldcon a slap on the wrist for misbehaviour, but it can’t do that until the following year’s Worldcon, by which time almost everyone has moved on. The theory is that Worldcons will not do terrible things because the fannish public will be angry with them. DisCon3, however, has shown itself to be rather more concerned with what is said on social media than what SMOFdom thinks, and was apparently willing to ride roughshod over the WSFS Constitution if it felt that would go down better with the fannish public.

Much of the problem here is that WSFS has grown well beyond an organisation that can be governed by a town meeting. In theory, WSFS is a participatory democracy, in that everyone has the right to turn up to the Business Meeting and have their voice heard. In practice the BM is inaccessible for the vast majority of WSFS members. They may be busy elsewhere during the convention and unable to devote the time to attending. They may be put off by the complex rules and procedures that the BM uses, which may facilitate debate but can also be used by BM veterans to frustrate newbies who are not as well versed in the process. And of course the BM would be a disaster if it were made virtual. Imagine having a Zoom meeting with several hundred people all wanting to speak.

More to the point, most of fandom does not want a participatory democracy. They want a representative democracy. They want people who will be in charge and take responsibility; people to whom they can complain when things go wrong, and crucially who have the power to fix things without it taking several years of debate in the Business Meeting.

I am firmly of the opinion that if fandom wants the problems with Worldcon and the Hugos fixed, then it must turn WSFS into a proper membership organisation with an elected leadership. Because if it doesn’t then Worldcon chairs will continue to take the power that no one else holds; and will continue to use it. And no one will be able to hold them to account because once their Worldcon is over they can just walk away.

Your choice, fandom: take control, or give it up forever.

Updates

Since this was published I have made more inquiries about who knew about the Hugo sponsorship deal. As far as I can make out, no one involved with Hugo Administration for DisCon3, including the head of WSFS Division, was consulted in advance about the Raytheon deal.

Also since this was published, Robbie Bourget, who was part of the Winnipeg bid, posted this on File 770:

The Site Selection head had already stated that he planned to disqualify over 1500 votes before anyone on the Winnipeg team even saw the votes in any way, shape or form. Then the Chair of the convention told him to reverse that decision. At that point, he asked Winnipeg to submit the motion that was brought to the Business Meeting.

That put the motion to the Business Meeting in a very different light. I think it would have been wrong for Tim to disallow all of those Chinese ballots. I also think it was very foolish of Winnipeg to sign their names to someone else’s motion. And regardless of the rights or wrongs of the issue, I am deeply distrubed at the idea of the chair of the Worldcon overturning the decision of the site selection team. There’s a reason why Hugo Administration teams are taken out of the chain of command. I’d like to see some confirmation of what Robbie said, one way or the other.

The Anthropocene Unconscious

Academic writing, particularly in literary criticism, has a tendency to be meticulously argued, strewn with references to established Theory and Authority, and to use jargon in the manner of Athena’s shield. Anyone gazing upon it is so stupefied with confusion and boredom that they are incapable of responding.

Not so, The Anthropocene Unconscious by Mark Bould. This book is short, snappy, very snarky, and for the most part an entertaining read. It is also what academics call a “provocation”.

It all goes back to 2016 when Amitav Ghosh published a book titled The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. In it, Ghosh argues that modern literature had singularly failed to confront the issue of climate change. By “literature” he of course means that subset of fiction that pointedly excludes science fiction and fantasy, because we’ve been writing about climate change at least since George Turner’s classic The Sea and Summer (1989), and probably a lot longer. Bould is not interested in that argument. Rather he advances the idea that, subconsciously, all of modern literature (by which he means not only all fiction, but also all comics, TV and movies) is about climate change.

That might strike you as a rather extreme claim, which is why I have described this book as a “provocation”. I don’t think Bould expects there to be no counter examples. Somewhere in the world there is doubtless someone who has produced literature that doesn’t share this underlying obsession. The point is that fears of climate change affect us all, and creep into far more of our fiction than we might like to admit.

Before Bould can make this argument, he first has to deal with the dreary literalism and obsession with authorial intent exhibited by (former?) philosophers of literature such as K*thleen St*ck. Bould wastes very little time on this because, unlike philosophers, literary critics are largely agreed that authorial intent is a pointless dead end. He comments:

But critics are not bathyspheric explorers plumbing textual depths. At no point do we even need to break the surface. The clamour of the unspoken is everywhere. Thus, it is beyond quixotic to imagine that criticism is concerned with uncovering the text’s single true meaning. Because there is no such thing. There is no rabbit waiting to be pulled out of the hat. There is probably not even a hat.

From here Bould sets of on a fantastic journey though fiction, ranging from zombie movies and the Sharknado series to Ducks, Newburyport and Mansfield Park, on to Ghosh’s own fiction, sweeping through the Fast & Furious franchise, and idling a while with a number of arthouse movies that a lightweight like me has never heard of. Bould is primarily film critic and I bow to his expertise.

I should note that Bould is the sort of person who is not afraid to quote Karl Marx in his writing. This does not lead to stodgy, revolutionary prose. Rather it produces snarky, pithy little asides like this:

Like capitalism, the novel depends on producing – and by definition not counting – externalities.

He also produces some fabulous comparisons. Talking about Mauro Herce’s 2015 film, Dead Slow Ahead, Bould writes:

Below, a pitch-black sea undulates; above, the sky, which should be full of stars, is deep reddish brown, filthy with light pollution. In between, a fairytale Manhattan, a skyline of yellow light, garish and unsavoury, burns against the night. It looks just like Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, Ridley Scott’s science-fictionalised recollection of the Port Talbot steelworks.

Which will probably mean nothing to you if you have not driven past Port Talbot on the M4 on your way to Swansea, Llanelli and points further west, but will strike an instant chord if you have.

The purpose of these quotes is to show you that The Anthropocene Unconscious is a book as much in love with language as it is in love with the subjects of its inquiry. It is, in short, a joy to read, which is all too rare in academic literature. You might find some of the material about obscure films a little dull simply because you haven’t seen any of the works that Bould is writing about, but other than that I wholeheartedly recommend it.

book cover
Title: The Anthropocene Unconscious
By: Mark Bould
Publisher: Verso
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Green Knight

It took me rather longer than expected to get around to watching this film. So long, in fact, that I decided to save it for Solstice because that seemed a very appropriate time for it. Because I did so, I had the opportunity to see other people’s opinions come in on Twitter. I avoided actual reviews, but there seemed to be a lot of disappointment involved, especially in view of the huge amount of anticipation that the film generated. Clearly this was going to be interesting.

I suspect that I went into the film with rather less in the way of expectation, because having seen the trailer I was expecting Art rather than Story. I was right. This is a film which I suspect will very much reward being seen in a cinema rather than merely on a large TV screen as I saw it. Ireland looks absolutely beautiful, and there is a certain amount of poetic appropriateness in the fact that Cahir Castle, which is the setting for Camelot, was also used in John Boorman’s Excalibur.

Somewhat less successful was the choice of Charleville Forest Castle as the location for Bertilak’s castle. It was built is 1798 and is described as being in the Gothic Revival style. Parts of it do look mediaeval, but others definitely do not, particularly the ceilings. The fact that director, David Lowery, elected to show them, rather than avoid them in shots or CGI them out, suggests that he wasn’t that worried (and quite possibly that he had a fairly small budget).

However, as I hinted earlier, I suspect that a good deal of the disappointment with the film comes from the story. Much is left to the viewer to figure out, and if you are not familiar with the original story that might be quite difficult.

To start with, few characters are actually named. Gawain is Gawain, but Arthur and Guinevere are merely the King and Queen. Morgan is merely Gawain’s mother, and the sister of the King, and so on. There is a round table, so it is pretty obvious what is going on, and I’m not sure what was supposed to be gained by the coyness.

Also odd is the choice of the same actor to play both Bertilak’s wife and Gawain’s sex worker lover, but different actors are used to play Bertilak and The Green Knight, who are the same person in the original story. Part of this might be because Bertilak, as portrayed, is older and a little round in the belly, whereas The Green Knight is seriously buff. But I don’t want to cast aspersions on Joel Edgerton’s physique, and there is at least one instance where camera (and maybe audio) tricks are used to imply that Bertilak and The Green Knight are one and the same.

By the way, you might be surprised by the sex worker comment, but apparently the baths scene gives it away. There are people who know what a medieval brothel would look like, and I bow to their expertise. Listen to Eleanor Janega people, for she is smart and amusing. Of course, this does mean that someone involved with the movie also knows what a mediaeval brothel would look like.

Somewhat less odd is the use of Saint Winifred who is a real Welsh saint who does have her head cut off, so her story fits quite well with that of Gawain. The original story mentions that Gawain travels to Holyhead, and Winifred has connections to that part of the world. She died in Conwy, and her shrine is in Holywell, also on the North Wales coast. It was rather strange to see Karli Morgenthau playing the role of an innocent teenage saint, but’s not the film’s fault.

The story of The Green Knight, the film, is clearly still a morality tale in which the headstrong and selfish Gawain learns to become a better person, just as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poem. However, because so little is explained, viewers might come away confused. What, for example, is Morgan’s motive in all this? It isn’t even clear that Gawain escapes with his head still attached at the end. Some measure of the confusion can be gauged from the fact that Lowery did an interview with Vanity Fair in which he explained what he thought was happening in his film. Even that doesn’t explain the fox. Or the photograph.

Weirdly, the one aspect that Lowery did think needed explaining is the consequences for Gawain if he were to cheat and not face The Green Knight. That’s what the whole flash forward thing is about. But I didn’t need it, and I suspect that most seasoned fantasy readers didn’t need it either.

What we are left with is a beautiful-looking film that does some intriguing things, but also a bunch of ambitious things that don’t quite come off. Which is a shame. But also means that there is room for someone else to do it better. Though I doubt that anyone will ever do it more prettily.

Supergirl – Season 7

That’s it, then. No more Supergirl to look forward to, apart from possible guest appearances in other Arrowverse shows. I’ll miss this bunch.

This will be a bit spoilerific, so don’t read if you want to watch the series without knowing what happens.

Season 6 was long (20 episodes) and was always planned to be a finale of sorts. There’s no single theme, but Lex Luthor is present for much of it. Along the way, there’s a lot more going on, because everyone needs their story wrapped up.

The rough plot line is as follows. Lex manages to wheedle his way out of a court case, then traps Kara in the Phantom Zone. Several episodes are spent rescuing her. Then she has a few run-ins with the city authorities, before spending the rest of the season fighting Nxylgsptinz (Nxyly), an imp princess from the Fifth Dimension. Lex makes a return for the final few episodes.

There’s not much of a wrap for J’onn J’onzz, but early on we get an opportunity for him to deepen his relationship with M’gann, the White Martian woman. There is promise that they will have long and happy lives together.

Lena, who is only an adopted Luthor, finds out who her real mother is, and finally frees herself from her toxic mother and brother.

Nia starts to gain better control of her dream powers, and she and Brainy get back together again. They are very cute together. In a brief glimpse of the future, we see Nia opening the “Dreamer LGBT Center”.
Alex Danvers and Kelly Olsen get serious about each other and decide to adopt a little girl. Kelly also gets a chance to be more than just a psychologist. This is part of a sequence of episodes focusing on the Black Lives Matter campaign, which obviously the show supports.

The two-part finale had guest appearances by James Olsen, Mon-El and Winn Schott, because you have to get the band back together. There’s also a brief appearance by Calista Flockhart in fine form as always as Cat Grant. (We get a Cat Grant origin story in an earlier episode.)

While the first part of the finale is all about fighting Lex and Nyxly, that gets wrapped up very quickly in the final episode so that we can concentrate on Alex and Kelly’s wedding. Yes, that’s a top-billed superhero TV show that centre’s its finale on an inter-racial lesbian wedding. I gather that the dudebros were furious.

The wedding also gives Melissa Benoist another opportunity to flex her singing talents. Kara and Winn perform the Pat Benatar ballad, “We Belong”, for the happy couple. Benoist doesn’t have Benatar’s vocal power (very few people do), but she does a creditable job.

And then it is time for a wrap for Kara herself. One of the ongoing themes of the series has been her drop in confidence in her place in the world. Being a hero has become harder and harder as she has had to deal with threats that you can’t beat by punching them, and as fighting actual super threats has caused more and more damage to National City. Also the escalating threats have made it harder for her to keep up her job as a reporter.

This is where Cat Grant comes in. She gives Kara a good lecture about needing to be true to herself and stop hiding who she is. Those stupid glasses don’t fool anyone now, do they? Isn’t it time that Kara Danvers came out?

In part, of course, this is a neat break with the silliness of 20th Century superhero stories. The days of the secret identity have been numbered ever since Tony Stark stood up at that press conference and declared, “I am Iron Man!”. But there’s more to it. The Supergirl series has always been about civil rights and opposing far-right politics. Alex and Kelly have been doing their bit for lesbians, and for the African-American community. Nia has done her bit for trans people. Kara, of course, has been resolutely straight and white throughout.

And yet, here in the final episode of the show, we see Kara too accepting that she cannot hide who she is. True happiness can only come through honesty and accepting who you are. That may have costs but pretending to be someone you are not is worse. There’s a limit to what the show can do with such a high-profile character, but they could choose to end by showing that everyone can benefit from a little coming out. I was impressed.

So yes, I will miss these folks. They have been a beacon of sanity and goodness in a world that is going to Hell in a handbasket. It wasn’t just Alex and Kelly who made a family in that season. The entire team made a point of being a family for each other. They are a family for fans too.

Let’s end with a little Pat Benatar, to experience the full glory of that song.

The Memory Theater

Karen Tidbeck novels are not ordinary things. They ooze strangeness; they twist and morph just when you thought you had a handle on the plot; they disappear off in directions that you didn’t know could exist. The Memory Theater is no exception.

The book takes place in the world of The Gardens, the mysterious, timeless fantasy of a world that we first saw through the stories “August Prima” and “Aunts” in the collection, Jagganath. The Gardens are ruled over by the Lady Mnemosyne who is named after the Greek goddess of memory. But that’s a joke, because there is no memory in The Gardens. There is no time either. The Lords and Ladies who inhabit that tiny bubble world never remember, never grow old, but wake up each morning fresh to face a new, perfectly boring and unchanging day. Boring, unless they find something new to do, which they will probably have forgotten by the next day.

We know the Gardens are connected to other worlds, because occasionally children find their way there, as in in a fairy tale. And as in a fairy tale, they are enslaved by the ageless monsters of that unearthly realm. Someone has to provide the sport, after all.

Lord Walpurgis once had an idea. He thought it would be nice to have a child of his own. He did a deal with a traveller called Ghorbi to make him a daughter. But the Lords and Ladies of The Gardens have the attention spans of mayflies and soon Dora found herself abandoned. Not being human, she could not be enslaved like the lost children, but she could do little to help them. She made a special friend of Thistle, the page to Lady Augusta, and together they plotted escape.

Ah, Augusta, what a character she is. Many characters in fantasy novels are Evil, but they generally have mad ambition too. Augusta is vain, selfish, lazy, and limitlessly cruel, but has no ambition beyond being constantly indulged. She is such an awful person that she could probably be elected leader of the Conservative Party if she could be bothered to make the effort. But she wouldn’t. She would just demand that they bow down to her and assume that she would be obeyed.

Of course, Dora and Thistle do escape. There would not be much of a plot if they didn’t. Each day in The Gardens is much the same as the next, so for there to be a story they must leave. Along the way they encounter a troop of travelling players who live in a large, wheeled house. Their company is called The Memory Theater, hence the title of the book. They preserve stories from the worlds that they have visited. They are, if you like, a travelling book of fairy tales.

Augusta also travels. She ends up in rural Sweden during World War Two. It is a cold and dreary place, and people do not treat her with the customary respect and obeisance. This does not go down well.

And there you have a story in search of a conclusion. It will get there by ways that you did not expect, via strange byways that you may never find again.

Gary Wolfe has likened Tidbeck’s fiction to Heinrich Kley’s paintings. Tidbeck has apparently referenced John Bauer. I prefer to think that Tidbeck writes her books by shuffling a collection of paintings by Leonora Carrington and then makes up the way in which they are connected.

If you walk far enough in the ways between worlds then perhaps all of these things are true. Regardless, Tidbeck is one of the finest writers of surreal fantasy about. They deserve more recognition. Somewhere, I am sure, they are a legend, and The Memory Theater has a play about them.

book cover
Title: The Memory Theater
By: Karin Tidbeck
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Hawkeye

Caveat time first. The TV series, Hawkeye, is based on a 2012 comic run written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by David Aja. The artwork for the credits sequences and publicity has been based very obviously on Aja’s work, but apparently he has not been compensated, or even credited, at all for this by Disney. This is yet another example of Disney stealing work from creative people. Hopefully some creative lawyers will catch up with them sooner rather than later.

As to the show, well it is a lot of fun. Clint Barton is desperately trying to get home to Laura and the kids in time for Christmas, but someone has got hold of his old Ronin suit from during the Blip. The person who originally stole the suit wants Ronin dead, and Clint needs to sort that issue urgently. However, the suit has found its way into the possession of a teenager called Kate Bishop who has idolised Hawkeye since seeing him in the Battle of New York when she was a little girl. Kate has dedicated her life to becoming as good as Hawkeye, because one day Clint will retire and she wants his job.

In line with Marvel’s ambition to produce a wide variety of different shows, Hawkeye is a combination of Christmas Movie and Teenage Comedy. Kate is enthusiastic and talented, and brilliantly played by Hailee Steinfeld. But she has no idea quite how dangerous the life of an Avenger is, or how much it can cost you personally. She also doesn’t know that her hero spent the five years of the Blip as a psychopathic murderer. All of this she will learn though the course of the show.

There’s a lot of comedy involved. That includes a dog who loves pizza, trick arrows, and a group of New York LARPers with whom our heroes get involved. The bad guys are mainly a group of thugs known as the Tracksuits, but smarter predators lurk in the deeper waters of New York’s criminal underworld. I should have seen that coming.

Another interesting feature of the show is a focus on disability. By this time Clint is deaf in one ear, thanks to getting too close to an explosion. He needs a hearing aid. Maya Lopez, the leader of the Tracksuits, is both deaf and has a prosthetic foot. In the comics Maya becomes a hero known as Echo. She has connections to both Daredevil and Moon Knight. Hopefully she will be back.

A sure sign that Marvel doesn’t always take itself too seriously is what is happening on Broadway. The hit show of the Christmas season is Rogers: The Musical, dedicated to the life of Captain America. Clint takes the kids to see it, but can’t take the nonsense, especially the fact that Ant Man has been written into the part about the Battle of New York. There’s a whole dance number based around a song called “I can do this all day”, which we get glimpses of early on, and is present in its full glory in the final titles. The whole thing is very clearly a tribute to New York’s resilience after 9/11 and I expect a whole bunch of academic papers to be written about it.

I suspect that if you know anything about archery you will want to avoid this show like the plague, especially the final episode. But other than that it is very enjoyable.

The bits and pieces of the Young Avengers team are slowly but surely falling into place, and if the rest of the team end up as personable as Kate Bishop we’ve got a treat in store.

However, the star of the show is undoubtedly Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova. I don’t know how Marvel are planning to use her in future, but use her they must because she has stolen the limelight in both productions she has been in thus far.

Oh, and remember, no one in Marvel is dead unless they are really, most sincerely dead. If you didn’t see someone die then they are very obviously not dead.

The Necropolis Empire

It is, I suspect, a fairly rare thing to find that you have read the middle book of a trilogy and had no idea that there was a preceding volume. Then again, Tim Pratt keeps surprising me.

The Necropolis Empire is the second book in his Twilight Imperium series. It being an Aconyte book, it is a product tie-in, in this case with the successful space opera strategy boardgame, also called Twilight Imperium. I know nothing about the game save what I can Google, and knew zero about it when I read the book. That did not affect my reading.

The main reason that I didn’t twig that this was a book 2 is that almost all the characters are new. In particular, the focus of the story is on Bianca Xing whom Pratt uses to take pot shots at the classic Chosen One narrative.

Bianca is, as far as she knows, the child of a poor, farming family on a backwater planet called Darit that was once part of a galactic empire but has long since lost contact with spacefaring civilisation. However, she is incredibly smart, and has always had the feeling that she was meant for something greater.

Then the aliens arrive on Darit, welcome Bianca and her people back under their protective wing and introduce them to the strange foreign notion of “taxes”. They also take an interest in Bianca. It turns out that she is actually a lost princess.

Given that the aliens in question are the gloomy, duty-obsessed, Barony of Letnev, on whose home planet people live entirely underground in sterilised burrows, and whose ship is called the Grim Countenance, it seems likely that plucky young Bianca is not one of them. But if she isn’t, what do they want her for? And what does this have to do with the mad archaeologist who is pretending to be their ship’s doctor so that she can examine Bianca?

Meanwhile the second branch of the narrative introduces us to Heuvelt Angriff, a young man of wealthy parentage whose sole ambition is to grow up to be Indiana Jones (or whoever the equivalent is in the movies of the Twilight Imperium world). Sadly for him, Heuvelt is very bad at being an adventurer, and even worse with money. He is keeping himself and his ship afloat, and half a step ahead of his creditors, mainly thanks to the competency of his alien crewmates and having a side-line in smuggling.

Naturally we can expect these two storylines to interest at some point, and it isn’t giving much away to suggest that this might involve a Temple of Doom of some sort, and the true secret of Bianca’s ancestry.

All this is fine and good, but the thing that makes the book spark is the main carry-over character from book 1, The Fractured Void. She is Severyne Dampierre, the highly competent captain of the Grim Countenance. Unique among the Letnev, she appears to be possessed of imagination, initiative and even traces of a sense of humour. Book 1 is mainly about her and I now very much want to read it. She is the villain of The Necropolis Empire, but something tells me that she and Bianca will end up working together in book 3 because she is far too good a character to waste.

Like most of Pratt’s novels, I don’t expect this book to win any awards. He seems to save that for his short fiction. But it is a fun and easy read, and we surely need plenty of those these days.

book cover
Title: The Necropolis Empire
By: Tim Pratt
Publisher: Aconyte
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Titans – Season 3

This season of Titans premiered way back in August on HBO, where I could not watch it. However, they finally made it available on Netflix in December and I binged my way through it in rapid time.

Titans is, I think, the DC show that comes closest to doing for their universe what Kevin Feige & co have done for Marvel. It has taken a group of existing characters, found interesting things in their existing storylines, and then done their own thing. It very clearly lives in a very different universe from much of the rest of DC’s output. It is so not part of the Arrowverse, and equally has little to do with what goes on in the movies. The only other show that it appears to have any connection to is Doom Patrol, which is fine by me.

The season starts with Jason Todd, who is a class act as far as being a total fuck-up goes, getting himself killed by The Joker. Bruce does not react well. He goes out and kills The Joker. Then…

Wait, yes, you did hear that right. In episode one they have The Joker kill Robin, and Batman kill The Joker. I am astonished that they got away with that. And maybe one day we’ll find that The Joker isn’t really dead. But Bruce certainly thinks that he’s done the deed, because he promptly retires and flees the country.

Dick Grayson arrives in Gotham to see if there’s anything he can do, and to attend Jason’s funeral, only to find Jason already buried and Bruce vanished. With Batman gone, the city is in danger of slipping into chaos. Barbara Gordon has succeeded her father as Police Commissioner, and for old times sake Dick offers the help of Nightwing and the Titans to keep things from getting out of hand.

Of course they do. Most of the season is set in Gotham, and it is very much a Batman story, revolving around a villain who loves leaving obscure clues to his actions and psychologically manipulating the heroes. I won’t tell you who the villain is, because that would be a spoiler, but he ends up almost destroying Gotham.

Setting the season in Gotham does very much suit the dark and gloomy lighting that the production team prefers. It felt wrong in San Francisco, but it is very, very Gotham.

Naturally the story is mostly about Dick. The rest of the team are visitors to Gotham and are a bit star-struck to be hanging out in Wayne Manor, with the Batcave as a base of operations. The other team members do get some screen time. In particular Cory gets to meet her sister, Blackfire, who is a lot of fun.

We don’t get to see much of Rachel in this series. Donna Troy supposedly died at the end of Season 2, but she is a half-immortal Amazon princess so there was every chance of her coming back. Rachel spends much of the season on Themiscyra trying to make that happen. And it is probably just as well, because once Donna is back she dominates the screen. You can’t have a story that is about Dick when everyone is watching Donna.

I’ve not said much about the plot because it would be too spoilery, but the season did keep me wanting the next episode NOW. There are parts of it that don’t quite make sense, and some of it is very weird, particularly the episode in which Donna is getting herself back into the world of the living. Overall it was good. And it was nice to see Tim Drake being introduced to the cast. I gather that there will be a season 4, though where it will go it anyone’s guess, given how unconnected season 3 was to season 2.

In the meantime I am way behind on Doom Patrol.

Editorial – December 2021

You would have thought, with the long winter holiday, that I would have had plenty of time to catch up on my reading. That was certainly the plan. Circumstances dictated otherwise. Apparently I can’t read much when I am upset and angry. And boy was I upset and angry for much of December. Friends don’t let friends get involved with Worldcon.

On the other hand, I did find that I was able to zone out in front of the TV. That helped a lot. Consequently you have reviews of three TV series and a movie in this issue. I feel like I have only scratched the surface too. I have finally started watching The Witcher. Everyone is telling me that The Wheel of Time is very good. I’m behind on a whole lot of stuff. Truly it is a golden age of SF&F TV.

Anyway, here’s to 2022. It is the year in which the film, Soylent Green, is set. So I guess we can expect that we’ll all be eating recycled human in the near future. Frankly, give the government we have in the UK, that would not surprise me. But at least we have a whole lot of good books, films and TV series to look forward to.

Issue #35

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


Deep Wheel Orcadia

Last issue I reviewed a novel by the highly respected Japanese-American trans woman poet, Ryka Aoki. This issue it is time to come back across the Atlantic to meet another excellent trans poet, Scotland’s Harry Josephine Giles.

Actually I’m not sure if “Scotland” is the right geographic term here. Giles does currently live in Scotland, but they hail from Orkney, which is an entirely different kettle of herring. Its flag very clearly references those of other Nordic countries. Its people have their own dialect, distinct from Scots. And Deep Wheel Orcadia is written in that language.

Don’t panic, folks. There is an English translation of the text alongside the Orcadian. More on that later. First, we need to look at the story.

As you might have guessed, the Orcadia of the book is a space station. It is in orbit around a gas giant planet, and many of the people who live there spend much of their time fishing for something called Lights. Like the Earthly region from which it takes its name, Orcadia is an island nation.

If you have spent any length of time on islands, which I have, then the culture is instantly recognisable. Scilly might be at the other end of the country from Orkney, but I can see many of the concerns of islanders there reflected in the people or Orcadia. The same is true of Skye in Ken MacLeod’s Selkie Summer. Islands are small communities and are often quite conservative (with a small c) as a result. Some people take to them naturally. Others chafe at the lack of opportunity. Some revel in the isolation, others abhor it.

The book has two primary characters. Astrid is Orcadian. She has been to art school on Mars and has come home looking for inspiration in her native surroundings. Darling is fleeing a stultified life of a different sort. Her wealthy family had a life all planned out for her, but she wanted something very different from it. As we watch the two of them come together as lovers, and their very different backgrounds collide, we also see life from the view of those Orcadians who have never left.

The Light harvest is failing. Catches have become smaller and smaller each year. No one knows why. Orcadia has no other significant source of income. Worse, meddling outsiders are suggesting that the Lights might actually be intelligent, and that hunting them should be banned. Meanwhile a xeno-archaeologist called Noor is investigating the strange phenomena knows as “wrecks” – ghost-like abandoned spacecraft that appear and disappear at random.

If you are expecting a neat and tidy conclusion to the book, then you will be disappointed. The story is about characters, not plot. This is a book that will appeal more to fans of M John Harrison than, say, Mary Robinette Kowal. You have been warned. But you still may want to read Deep Wheel Orcadia to marvel at what it does with translation.

To start with, Orcadian is not wholly inscrutable to English speakers. Unlike Iain Banks’s Feersum Endjinn, written in Scots, which you can actually read without a translation, Deep Wheel Orcadia does contain a number of words that are not English sound-alikes. Some of them have Nordic origins. For example the Orcadian word for a Council is Ting, reminiscent of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament.

So Giles provides a translation. But they don’t do the usual thing of finding a selection of English words that more or less convey the meaning of the original, or at least provide pleasing English prose. Instead they represent the more complex Orcadian words by mashed-together selections of English words that, each individually, would lose some element of meaning, but together represent the entire word to be translated.

If that sounds, confusing, try an example. Here’s the original Orcadian. Astrid has received what amounts to an email message from a college friend back on Mars.

The cast sheu gits by slow packet is pangit
wi sarcasm. Whit like is sheu noo i’the inner
wyrlds? Is sheu been reprogrammed yet
by the spacers? Deus sheu mynd whit like is the taste
o a gress-fed staek? Whit like is the yird o Mars?

And here is the translation.

The message she receives by slow packet is fullbursting with sarcasm. How is she doing now in the inner wilds? Has she been reprogrammed yet by the spacers? Does she rememberknowreflectwill how a grass-fed steak tastes? How Mars’s groundworldsoil feels?

As you’ll see, some of the words need no translation. Some are easy to work out. But words like pangit, mynd and yird have no direct analogue in English and are rendered in a more rich and complex way.

I’ll be fascinated to see what professional translators make of this technique. I’m not sure it would work as well with translation from a language such as Chinese which is far more removed from English, but here I think it adds a lot to the meaning.

By the way, did you notice that the passage in Orcadian is in poetry. All of it is like that. Deep Wheel Orcadia is an epic poem. Which is yet another hugely impressive thing about it.

Trans people are producing some of the best SF&F around these days.

book cover
Title: Deep Wheel Orcadia
By: Harry Josephine Giles
Publisher: Picador
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Spear

One of the ways in which you can tell that a writer is supremely talented is if they can turn their hand to any genre and excel at it. Nicola Griffith made her name in science fiction, with award winning books such as Ammonite and Slow River. Then she switched to crime for the splendid Aud Torvingen series. She’s written a memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, which won a Lammy. Her foray into historical fiction, Hild, has been a huge hit. And now she’s shown that she’s equally talented with fantasy. She has already won the World Fantasy Award for co-editing the anthology, Bending the Landscape (with Stephen Pagel). Spear, however, is fiction. To be precise, it is Arthuriana.

All Arthuriana is fanfic, of course. The original is lost in the mists of time, and most modern works are based heavily on mediaeval fanfic (Geoffrey of Monmouth & Crétien de Troyes, Thomas Malory). Occasionally someone goes back to the Mabinogion, or tries to reconstruct what they think the original Celtic legends were. I suspect that in Brittany they have their own Arthuriana that looks nothing like ours. Griffith, being Griffith, has looked at all of it and done her own thing. So let’s take a look at how she has put the pieces together.

Historically speaking, Spear is set in early Mediaeval Wales. Arthur rules over a small kingdom in the south of the country, and dreams of restoring the glory days when legions of red-crested soldiers were based at Caer Leon and could easily beat back the hordes of invaders who have overrun what will soon become known as the land of the Eingel. Further west, the land is plagued by bandits, and Arthur’s knights spend as much time keeping them in check as they do protecting their eastern border.

In the hills towards the head of the Ystrad Twyi (that’s the valley of the river Twyi to you anglophones) there is a cave. It is home to two women. The older is the mother of the younger. She’s aging, and not entirely in her right mind. She’s also a witch. The younger has run in the woods all of her life. She dreams of becoming famed for her skill at arms, and winning the hearts of beautiful maids. And one day, through the valley, come men in armour on horseback.

Mythologically Spear is a re-telling of the legend of Percival, who according to Crétien de Troyes was raised by his mother in the wilds of Wales. It also owes a lot or Irish legend, and if you are now thinking that there is a Spear alongside the Grail and Excalibur then I have already said too much.

From an Arthurian point of view, the book skips over the whole sword in the stone thing (oh, there’s a stone too!) and starts with Arthur already king and Lancelot already at court. Myrddyn is missing, and Nimuë, the Lady of the Lake, has taken his place as Arthur’s chief advisor. Naturally all of this will be very significant.

Geographically the Afon Twyi flows south-west through Carmarthenshire, meeting the sea at Abertawe (Swansea). Carmarthen is Caer Myrddyn, and one possible etymology links the town to the legendary wizard. The town itself is Roman, the western-most outpost of the Empire, but there is a hill fort just to the east on a place called Merlin’s Hill.

Personally I know the area a little. Jo Hall and Roz Clarke now live in Rhydaman (Ammanford) one river east from the Ystrad Twyi. Also Griffith kindly asked my advice on some of the Welsh words she was using. Obviously I am biased towards the book.

I think that covers everything except the story itself. This being Griffith, the prose is magnificent. I think you can trust me on that. As for the story, I am in awe of how Griffith managed to take the whole Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot story, the whole Merlin-Nimuë story, and the Grail quest, and wrap the whole thing up in the space of a novella. And all without a single mention of Hank Pym or the Quantum Realm. It is sorcery, it must be.

Are you convinced yet? Do I need to mention that the book has some fabulous Rovina Cai art?

Frankly, the only thing wrong with Spear is that you won’t be able to get a copy until April. For that I am truly sorry.

book cover
Title: Spear
By: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Back in the 1970s the world went a little kung fu crazy. The likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan were huge movie stars, and in 1974 Carl Douglas had a massive international hit with his disco song, “Kung Fu Fighting”. Not wanting to miss out on the craze, Marvel created the character of Shang-Chi, the “Master of Kung Fu”. He first appeared in Special Marvel Edition #15 (December 1973), written by Steve Engleheart and drawn by Jim Starlin.

The character was a bit embarrassing, not in the least part because the Marvel management insisted on making the main villain for the stories be Fu Manchu. So not only were a couple of white guys trying to do a Chinese character, but they were doing so within the context of an existing deeply racist setting.

Fortunately for us, Marvel later lost the comic book rights to the Sax Rohmer properties, and Shang-Chi’s backstory had to be adapted to something more original. The new background reveals that “Fu Manchu” was only an alias for Shang-Chi’s villainous father. The movie takes that idea and runs with it.

Before I get to that, though, I want to note that some of the fight sequences in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are extraordinarily beautiful. The Black Widow movie based a lot of the fighting moves of the Widows on Russian ballet, because of course you would. But the Shang-Chi movie out-does this magnificently. The early fight sequence between Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu, and his mother, Li, where they start as enemies and end up falling in love, is extraordinary. Li’s fighting style, also used by her sister, Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), is apparently based on Tai Chi.

Meanwhile, back to the plot, and another piece of orientalist garbage that Marvel is trying hard to erase. If you are at all familiar with Iron Man you will know that one of Tony Stark’s main enemies from the comics is a thinly-disguised version of Fu Manchu called The Mandarin. In Iron Man #1 we see references to a mysterious terrorist group called the Ten Rings. Iron Man #3 finally introduces us to The Mandarin, but in a brilliant twist we discover that he is actually a British actor called Trevor Slattery who has been hired by the terrorists to play a Fu Manchu like villain to confuse and terrify the Westerners.

If you can see the connection between that and Shang-Chi’s father playing the role of Fu Manchu, you would be spot on. Xu Wenwu is the secret leader of the Ten Rings, and is a thousand-year-old supervillain. He has trained young Shang-Chi to succeed him, but when the teenager is sent to the USA on his first assassination mission he instead goes undercover and tries to live as an ordinary Asian-American man. Inevitably, his father will catch up with him.

Shang-Chi, calling himself Shaun, lives in San Francisco, where he works as a valet parker for the Fairmont Hotel (the one right at the top Nob Hill in the centre of the city). His best friend, Katy, also parks cars, but is a bit of a speed demon. Her driving skills will be key later in the movie. One day, while on a bus on the way to work, Shaun and Katy are attacked by a gang led by Razor Fist which has been sent to bring Shang-Chi back under the control of his father. This leads to a magnificent extended fight sequence on board a typical San Francisco bendy bus as it races, often somewhat out of control, through the city. This very much references the legendary Steve McQueen car chase from Bullit, including the hopping from one landmark to another despite many miles being between them.

As the action moves to China we discover that Shang-Chi has a sister, Xialing, whom he abandoned to his father’s care. Although officially banned from training due to being a girl, she has taught herself to fight and is every bit as good as her brother. She’s also a lot more streetwise. Xialing’s story is the one false note in the movie. It is clear that she’s been very badly treated by both her father and brother, and the movie doesn’t give her much opportunity for justice because it is all about Shang-Chi. Indeed, despite her fighting with the good guys here, there is some suggestion that she will take her father’s place as Shang-Chi’s principal antagonist in the future.

Having said that, the script does something that I’m keen to see feminist film critics talk about. A key element of the plot is that Shang-Chi’s mum gets fridged. But it is father who takes the motivation from this. Of course Xu Wenwu vows bloody revenge, but while his mother’s murder is clearly a pivotal moment in Shang-Chi’s life, it is not his primary source of motiviation. I think there’s an attempt to do something interesting here, but I need to think it through more.

I should also make mention of Tony Leung, who plays Xu Wenwu. I understand that he’s one of the best-known actors in China. He’s also won Best Actor at Cannes. I’d not really noticed him before, but he’s amazing. I’m in love.

Shang-Chi is played by Simu Liu, a Canadian actor and martial arts specialist. He has a tough job, because the original character was drawn to look like Bruce Lee and Liu doesn’t. However, he has just the right cheeky comedy style that the film needs, and he works brilliantly together with Awkwafina as Katy.

Is that everything? No, because I haven’t mentioned the CGI dragon battle that is the high point of the film. Nor have I mentioned the return of Ben Kingsley as the clueless but charming Liverpudlian thespian, Trevor Slattery. And then there is Michelle Yeoh as Shang-Chi’s aunt. Everything is better with Michelle Yeoh.

In short, I really loved this film. As far as I’m concerned, it is right up there with Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther as one of the best things that Marvel has done. I believe that Chinese diaspora audiences have also taken to it. I do hope that we see more of Shang-Chi (and Katy) in the future.

Far From the Light of Heaven

When you have a very busy life, and plenty of available distractions, but still want to get lots of reading one each month, it is blessing to find a book that you tear through in a couple of days. Such a book is the latest offering from Tade Thompson, and for that I am duly grateful. It is always good to find a science fiction book that keeps you reading because you want to find out what the hell is going on.

At root, Far From the Light of Heaven is a locked room mystery novel. A colony ship, the Ragtime, with passengers in not-quite-cryosleep, arrives at its destination. The human pilot wakes up and finds that several passengers have been murdered during the voyage. That should be impossible. Everyone on board has been asleep. But ten years is a long time. Who knows what might have happened during the flight?

Of course, when someone like Tade writes this sort of book, there are things you should expect. He’s a psychiatrist by profession. The way in which humans behave in space is of professional interest to him. He’s also not the sort of guy to have a good-and-evil solution to a murder mystery novel. Hence there is some fairly sophisticated treatment of the characters, and a book that will go on for some time after we discover who the killer is, and just as importantly who the intended victim is. So far so good.

There’s more to the book that that, though. Ostensibly our her is Michelle Campion, super-competent daughter of a famous space-faring family who is commanding her first mission. But there are several other viewpoint characters. One of the most interesting is Rasheed Fin, the investigator sent up by the colony world to find out what happened on the Ragtime. He’s a man with a redemption arc to work out.

Fin’s main job on his home world is as a Repatriator. That is, he is tasked with finding misbehaving aliens who have wormed their way into the human population of Bloodroot and fucked shit up in the weird way that only they can. The aliens, the Lambers, are the most off-the-wall aspect of the book. I suspect that some hard-SF dudebros will be deeply offended by them, but there’s a lot of promise there too.

So there’s a lot in the book. Possibly too much. The whole Node E thing (you’ll know it when you get there), for example, seems like a thin excuse for adding drama. Given that it exists, it should have been Campion’s primary suspect for where the murderer is hiding. As it is, we only find out about it half-way through the book.

There are a few other things like that in the book, and had I been the editor I would have wanted to raise red flags over them. The plot isn’t as tight as the pacing. However, that doesn’t stop Far From the Light of Heaven being a hugely enjoyable novel. It is just one that seems to have been a little rushed in places. If you prefer your fiction morally simple and straightforward you probably won’t like it much, but we try to do better than that these days, don’t we?

book cover
Title: Far from the Light of Heaven
By: Tade Thompson
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

World Fantasy 2021

So, I did it. I travelled by air to a convention in another country and I am still alive.

Of course I don’t think I would have done that if it had not involved Canada. Yes, the regulations for travel were somewhat opaque and scary, but at least Canada seemed to be taking the pandemic seriously. So did their national airline. The UK is, of course, notoriously lax. No way was I going to risk the trains, but Heathrow wasn’t too bad. And Canada let me in. Once there, most people were masked most of the time, even outside. It felt very safe.

The convention was very small. Typically, Word Fantasy attracts around 800 people, maybe 1000 in a good year. In Montréal my guess is that there were around 200. But, because the venue had been hired on the expectation of a typical attendance, we rattled around like peas in a rain barrel. The dealers’ room and art show were very sparse, and the panel attendance allowed plenty of room for social distancing. I understand that the convention lost money, though not a disastrous amount.

In view of this, the con made a serious attempt to open up programming to those members who could not attend in person. Many program items were live streamed, and some were genuinely hybrid. That sentence requires a little unpacking.

A wholly virtual convention exists purely online and takes place entirely through technology such as Zoom. The audience can watch, either directly through the conferencing software, or in many cases because the panel is streamed via something like YouTube.

In person conventions can live-stream events, also via something like YouTube. Worldcon has been doing this with the Hugo Awards ceremony for many years. Doing it with programming simply requires more tech, and more people to operate the tech. Bristol live-streamed on room this year (and you can watch it here).

On the subject of live streaming, the convention was supposed to be streaming a ceremony for the SF&F Rosetta Awards (for SF&F in Translation). When I got there, I discovered that they were expecting me to host this. And then there were problems accessing the recorded acceptance speeches. I ended up recording a bunch of words that I hope were eventually spliced with those speeches to form a ceremony, but I haven’t seen it. If anyone has, I’d love to know if it turned out OK.

Back with the matter in hand, the exact meaning of a “hybrid” convention is a little unclear. Some people claim that for a convention to be truly hybrid then virtual attendees have to have exactly the same access to the convention as in-person attendees. However, such statements are generally followed by, “and that’s impossible so we shouldn’t bother to try.” Hybrid program is possible to some extent. Here’s what WFC did.

One program room was set aside for the hybrid panels. In it there was a Very Large TV, and the usual head table. In person panellists sat at the table as usual. Virtual panellists attended via Zoom and were visible to the in-person audience on the Very Large TV. One of the jobs of the moderator was to ensue that the virtual panellists got a fair share of speaking time.

I was on one hybrid panel. Derek Kunsken, who was a last-minute stand-in moderator, did a fine job of making sure we all got to speak, including our virtual attendee, Eugenia Triantafyllou, who I believe was in Sweden.

One of the benefits of hybrid panels is that it puts a stop to the idiots who insist that they can be heard asking a question from their seat rather than coming to the audience mic. No matter how good your voice projection is, the virtual audience will not hear you unless you come to the mic. We did get a number of audience questions, but they were all in person. I do not know if virtual attendees were able to ask questions. Or indeed how well they could see Eugenia. However, it all worked much better than I’d expected. My congratulation to Deanna Sjolander and the tech team for making it happen.

It would be nice to say that this bold experiment in hybrid programming had opened up a new era of diversity and inclusion for World Fantasy, but I had reason to attend the World Fantasy Board Meeting and I’m sorry to report that nothing of the sort is likely to happen. Indeed, one of the fist things I noted was one of the Board saying that virtual and hybrid conventions were too much work and World Fantasy should get back to being in person only as soon as possible. Which, of course, means almost always being in the USA. No one challenged this.

If you are thinking of bidding to run a World Fantasy, I also note that the Board seems to have learned nothing in the last decade and is as keen as ever on micro-managing the conventions that it sponsors. It is entirely possible that if you have a tough enough leadership then you can stand up to their bullying, and protect your staff from it, but it won’t be fun.

Aside from my panels and the award banquet, I attended very little of the convention. It was in Montréal, after all. We ate very well. Also Kevin and I both had work commitments because now that everyone can work from home you get expected to work from holiday too. Montréal is a lovely city, and I’d love an opportunity to go back. (There’s a major trans health conference there next September.) But I think first I need to see what is involved in going to Finland.

Black Widow

I’ve had this film on disk for some time but haven’t had the time to watch it. Hooray for long distance plane flights. Air Canada had an excellent selection of movies available.

I really can’t understand why it took so long for Natasha Romanoff to get her own movie. Given that Marvel/Disney waited until after the character was canonically dead, and also the huge public row over Scarlet Johansson’s share of the proceeds, I don’t suppose we’ll get another one. Which is a shame because Black Widow was a lot of fun.

One of the things I like about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is their determination to try every other genre of movie rather than simply recycle endless superhero narratives. Black Widow, fittingly, is a spy caper of sorts. It begins with two Russian agents undercover in the USA in the 1990s. It ends with Nat taking down the notorious Russian spymaster, General Dreykov, and liberating his network of female assassins. In between there is much James Bond type action involving helicopters and motorbikes.

Black Widow is also a comedy film featuring a dysfunctional Russian family that was thrown together by their government. The father is Alexei Shostakov, also known as the Red Guardian, a Russian super soldier created as a Cold War rival to Captain America. The mother is Melina Vostokoff, a member of the notorious Black Widow network created by Dreykov. The daughters are two young girls who have been tapped as future Widows. Their names Yelena Belova and Natasha Romanoff.

Years later, Nat has become a key member of the Avengers, while Yelena has remained a Widow. Since Nat’s day, Dreykov has tightened his control over his proteges using a form of mind control. Yelena is liberated while on a mission, and immediately goes undercover. She contacts Nat, but her “sister” is on the run from the US government having taken Cap’s side in the Avengers Civil War. High jinks ensue, including a spectacular rescue of Red Guardian from prison in Siberia.

An example of the creativeness of the MCU team is that the early scenes, and a key element of the plot, were all derived from an off-hand conversation during the Battle of New York in the first Avengers movie in which Nat and Clint Barton reminisce about a mission they were involved in together in Budapest. This turns out to have been Nat’s final test for admission to SHIELD, and also a hit on Dreykov, which we now know failed. Loki is aware of this when he taunts Nat over her murder of Dreykov’s daughter (in the scene on the SHIELD helicarrier). That murder is also a key element in the Black Widow movie.

Something else that the MCU team does well is re-use bits of the comics continuity in new and interesting ways. Red Guardian and Melina Vostokoff are both characters from the comics, but the idea of them posing as a family with the young Nat and Yelena is new. The film also needs a means for Nat, who is on the run, to acquire the high-tech equipment she’ll need. They did that by bringing in the obscure character of Rick Mason (“The Agent”) who is associated with SHIELD but has not been used with Nat in the comics. It is all very impressive.

Nat and Yelena (Florence Pugh) make a fabulous team, and it looks like we will be seeing more of Yelena in future Marvel productions. I hope she gets treated better than Nat did. I was also delighted to see Rachel Weisz in action as Melina. Hollywood is not kind to 50-year-old actresses, and certainly doesn’t see them in action hero roles. And yet here is Weisz in a Widow suit kicking ass alongside her supposed daughters. Glorious.

One other thing that struck me as significant about the film is the Widow network itself. At one point, Dreykov tells Nat that his success has come from his being smart enough to use the one resource that Earth has aplenty, but no one else wants: young girls. The rationale of the Widow network is that Drevkov picked up the most talented girls from all over the world and put them through his training programme. Now the Widows are free of his control, and that has given Marvel a multi-racial cadre of fighting women to rival the Amazons in DC’s Wonder Woman films. They have a somewhat less silly backstory too. Clever.

All in all, Black Widow was a very enjoyable film. I’m pleased that Marvel did finally make it, but I shall miss Nat. Being old, I remember when she and Clint first appeared in The Avengers (the comic), as villains. It has been a long road, and Nat has been very badly used along the way.

Upright Women Wanted

Finishing up my Hugo reading required taking a look at this fine novella from Sarah Gailey. It deserves its place in a very strong field.

The basic setting of Upright Women Wanted is a post-apocalyptic America that has reverted to a sort of Wild West Gilead. People live in small towns very reminiscent of cowboy movies, but there is the sort of emphasis on religion that you’d expect from the Puritans of New England, and somewhere far away there is a government that still has sophisticated technology such as cars, and is waging endless war on Eastasia or some other such allegedly villainous part of the world.

Our heroine, Esther, is a young lesbian who has just seen her girlfriend hanged for possession of Unauthorised Materials. Desperate to cure herself of her Unnatural Impulses, Esther flees to the most Upright and Morally Abiding people that she knows of; the travelling Librarians whose job it is to go from town to town, distributing government propaganda and any other such Improving Materials as might benefit the townsfolk.

However, the Librarians are not what they seem. Lyda and Bet seem suspiciously close. Their apprentice, Cye, insists on using they/them pronouns when they are away from town. And the job of a travelling purveyor of written materials can be turned to purposes other those that the government intended.

Galiey, having previously done the gay wild west thing with American Hippo, is very much at home in this setting. There’s a story arc for Esther, and a fair amount of fun with gunfights against stupid men along the way. We also get to meet Amity, who is perhaps what James Bond would be like if he was black and female: competent, flirtatious, ruthless, and single-mindedly focused on the mission in hand.

There’s nothing particularly unexpected in the story. There are hints dropped that Bet is a trans woman, but it isn’t overt, and anyway the story isn’t about that. Having librarians as heroes will endear the book to many women readers. What’s more, the book will irritate the heck out of the “no gays ‘n’ wimmin in my SF” crowd, and that’s a very fine thing.

book cover
Title: Upright Women Wanted
By: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The BristolCon Art Show

What with the impending trip to Canada and being stuck behind my dealer table most of the time, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to what was going on elsewhere in BristolCon. That proved to be a mistake, because what they did with the art show is very interesting.

I should note that BristolCon was not the first convention to use this system. This year’s Eastercon also used it, but I wasn’t there and missed finding out about it then.

So, what’s so special? Well, although BristolCon did take place in person, they knew a lot of people would be reluctant to attend, so much of the art show was put online using a system called Kunstmatrix. This is a virtual environment that allows you to “hang” art in a virtual space, and to have people walk around that space to view the art. As Kunstmatrix is a professional tool developed specifically for artists, it is rather better than the VR art show put together for CoNZealand.

If you are very quick you can access the BristolCon art show here. However, I understand that it is closing on December 1st. You may have better luck here, which is Jim Burns’ personal galley, originally created for Eastercon and still available as now. If it has vanished, here’s a screen shot.

The things that impressed me about Kunstmatrix include the ease of navigation, and the clear display quality. Crucially it is affordable. And the galleries can include a link to a catalogue from which the artists can sell prints, and even original works.

Obviously I’m not an artist, or an art show person, but to me this system does show a lot of promise. Setting up your own gallery seems quite easy, and conventions could charge a small fee for including a link to an artist’s personal galley in their art show, on the assumption that this would lead to extra sales. Of course you won’t know how much they sell. Meatspace art shows are financed through a levy on sales at the event, whereas here you have to guess how much a place in your show is worth to people. But hopefully this is a workable solution to the virtual art show problem.

The main problem I foresee is international sales. The VAT nightmare will doubtless raise its ugly head again. But maybe the Kunstmatrix folks will be able to do something about it.

LosCon 47 in VR

All sorts of experimentation is going on in the world of online conventions these days. The report from World Fantasy talks about how they managed hybrid panels. This year’s LosCon did something similar, but using very different technology.

This won’t be a report on LosCon. I only attended a couple of panels virtually, and most of the convention took place in Meatspace. What I’ll be talking about here is solely the experience of attending a convention in Virtual Reality.

VR, it seems, is going to be a big thing in the not too distant future. Farcebook is clearly betting a lot of money on it, having even re-named the company to emphasise their move into a Metaverse. In comparison, Microsoft’s launch of AltSpace has been very low key, but that is where Loscon chose to hold its virtual programming.

Although AltSpace is doubtless best experienced through a VR headset of some sort, one of the things that makes it attractive is that you don’t actually need one. The whole environment can be experienced in 2D provided that you have a computer with a decent graphics card. If your machine is gaming-capable, you should be fine with AltSpace. As I have one gaming machine, and no headset, that’s how I participated.

The way we experienced LosCon from within AltSpace was in a simulation of the hotel lobby (complete with a pool that we could walk across without getting our feet wet). The Meatspace panel was projected onto a big screen at one end of the lobby. The lobby also contained a big notice board with the program schedule on it, and a few portals, of which more later.

The virtual attendees all had avatars within AltSpace, and it was a bit like being in a Zoom panel except that we could also walk around, and potentially talk to each other. Obviously you ought to keep you mic off while a program item is running. I’m not convinced that everyone did, and I can see the value of some sort of sound bubble feature that people could put themselves into if they wanted to whisper between themselves during the panel. Without that I recommend not standing too close to groups of people, because the sound does taper off with distance, just like in the real world.

Talking of sound, LosCon gave me some idea of what it is like watching hybrid programming that is not well resourced. I’m not blaming them for this. I’m sure they did the best they could with the tech they could afford, but that wasn’t always sufficient, and the virtual con was free to attend.

Rule 1 is that everyone on the panel needs a microphone. There’s also some clever stuff involved in routing the sound from the panel mics through to the virtual environment so that it is broadcast throughout the virtual room. Microphone technique is important. You can’t do that thing where you turn your head to talk to someone else on the Meatspace panel, because the mic will lose you. And there needs to be at least one mic for Meatspace audience questions. Clever tech is also required to make sure that any panellists who are in VR can have their sound broadcast to both the VR room and the Meatspace room.

When you are doing a hybrid panel, with some panellists present in person and some virtually, you need good moderation to make sure that all the panellists get a fair turn at speaking, and that people don’t talk over each other. World Fantasy had that, LosCon didn’t. Resources again.

These are, of course, all solvable problems. They need money for the right tech, people to do the work, and enough time to get everything set up and tested in advance. It is also worth noting that you should still be able to stream the panel to YouTube as well, though the panellists in VR will doubtless appear only as disembodied voices.

I mentioned portals earlier on. These are doorways through which you can pass to other spaces in the VR environment. There was a door to the Green Room, which very sensibly did not let me pass. There was also a door to the LosCon hub which was a separate room with portals to other parts of the convention. Some of these were parties, which were at the wrong time of day for me. There was also a dealers’ room.

Well, to be precise, there was a comic book shop. As I understand it, the way a dealers’ room in AltSpace would work is that you need dealers who have their own stores in the virtual world. They pay the convention to have a connection from the con to their stores. No additional work needs to be done. But of course you are limited to dealers who actually have stores in AltSpace.

There was no art show in AltSpace, though it seems to be that linking to exhibition galleries in an AltSpace version of Kunstmatrix would work well. (See the article on the BristolCon art show for details).

What they had instead, as a present for long-time LosCon regular Larry Niven, was a portal to an AltSpace version of RingWorld that someone has created. It isn’t as big as the “real” thing, but I’m told that it is so big that it would take you an entire day to walk around it in AltSpace.

Is VR the future of online conventions? I think that the tech has a bit of a way to go. Right now it is probably fine for VR afficionados who are happy to put up with the occasional glitches and the somewhat clunky graphics. But the technology is only going to get better from here on, so it is definitely something that conventions should be exploring.

Editorial – November 2021

We are almost at December, and weirdly almost at Worldcon. I will be attending virtually, and somewhat to my surprise I have three panels. Here they are:

  • Wednesday 15th 16:00, Kress Room: Fanzines and Meta Fandom
  • Thursday 16th 10:00, Kress Room: Planning and Running a Virtual Fan Event
  • Saturday 18th 10:00, Calvert Room: What Do We Look for in a Fanzine?

Those time are for Washington DC. For UK times add 5 hours.

If anyone thinks that it is odd having me on that Saturday panel, don’t worry, I’m moderating it. I promise not to kill anyone who has firm opinions about what a fanzine should and should not contain and seeks to impose that on others. It is, after all, a virtual panel. My claws won’t reach.

The one I am most interested in is the Thursday panel on virtual conventions, which I am also moderating. I am very much hoping that we can distill out some suggestions for best practice. There are two articles about running virtual cons in this issue, and I am expecting that my report on DC3 will also major on the virtual side (given that’s all I can be part of). How to do the virtual side well has to be the most important issue facing con-runners today.

Out of interest I checked the SMOFcon programme for next weekend. It has one programme item on how to run an in-person con during the pandemic, and one on hybrid conventions, the description for which begins, “We all got dragged kicking and screaming into the online convention running world.” There’s nothing on virtual cons. I despair, I really do.

Issue #34

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


Cover: The Green Man’s Challenge

This issue’s cover is the art from the new Juliet McKenna novel, The Green Man’s Challenge. As always with this series, the cover is by the very wonderful Ben Baldwin. We are enormously lucky to have him. At conventions these days people come up to my stall and say they’ve seen The Green Man’s Heir everywhere. It isn’t in bookstores, but Amazon loves it, and Ben’s covers are unforgettable.

By the way, we are looking at selling art cards and prints of the Green Man art through the Wizard’s Tower shop. Watch this space.


Here’s the unadorned version.

Light From Uncommon Stars

The first thing to say about the debut SF&F novel from acclaimed poet, Ryka Aoki, is that if you were to pitch the idea in just about any writing class you would be shot down in no uncertain terms. This is not just a book that accepted wisdom would say cannot sell, it is one you’d be told quite categorically cannot work. And yet…

Look, see what you think.

Katrina Nguyen is a trans girl from Oakland who has run away from an abusive home and is now in LA with nothing but some clothes and makeup, a few weeks supply of hormones, and her beloved violin.

Shizuka Satomi is a legendary violin teacher who has sold her soul to the Devil. In order to earn it back, she has to provide the souls of seven ambitious and extremely talented students. Six have been delivered. She just needs one more to save herself.

Lucy Matía owns a violin repair shop in LA. The Matía family was once lauded as amongst the greatest violin makers in the world. But, as her father and grandfather kept telling her, the job of a master craftsman is not suited to a mere woman, so Lucy must make do under the crushing weight of massive imposter syndrome.

Lan Tran is a space alien fleeing a galactic war. She has taken her ship and family to a backwater planet that has no stargate where they hope to hide out for a while. They are currently running a donut shop in LA. They don’t know much about donuts, but they have replicators.

Wait, what? It was almost making sense there, and then Aoki threw in a bunch of refugees from Galaxy Quest.

Trust me though, it all works. To start with, Aoki needs someone with a bit of power to balance out the demon, Tremon Philippe, who is determined to collect his seventh soul, be it Katrina’s or Shizuka’s. She clearly doesn’t want to go all good-v-evil on us, so she does science-v-magic instead.

Second, what’s a popular SF&F book these days without a lesbian romance?

And perhaps most importantly, there’s the question of making donuts with Star Trek replicators. Which just happens to be part of the central theme of the novel.

It should work. The replicators were programmed using the donuts made by the people from whom Lan and her family bought the shop. The ones they make are perfect copies. And yet, slowly but surely, the customers are drifting away. Human beings, you see, are not good with perfection. They crave variety and novelty. Getting exactly the same donuts every time gets boring.

A similar argument can be made about violins. Anyone can make a violin. You can probably 3D print them these days. But a truly great violin is the product of a particular selection of wood, put together by a master craftsman who will carve it in such a way as to make the absolute best of that wood.

Then there is the music. While a violin can play some wonderful, simple dance tunes, it can also go very much off the beaten track. Paganini is the first violinist who is said to have sold his soul to the Devil, and he did not play simple music. This being a book about violins and their humans, there are inevitably music contests. And the piece that Shizuka and Katrina like to play is Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin.

Bartók is best known for his piano music, but he did write other works as well. This piece was commissioned from him by the great violinist, Yehudi Menuhin. At the time, Bartók was impoverished and dying of leukaemia, but he wasn’t going to let the great man down. In the end, Menuhin asked for a few changes to the piece because it was just too complex. In particular, he objected to Bartók’s use of quarter tones, which are pitched half-way between the notes of the standard chromatic scale that you get on a piano. To Western ears, quarter tones can sound quite dissonant.

Not being a musician, I was having trouble understanding what Aoki was getting at here. But then I listened to this podcast, which is part of a new series by Cerys Matthews and Jeffrey Boakye. The episode starts out with “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X and then wanders off through discussion of Rap, Country and Classical music. The bit that gave me a lightbulb moment is where Cerys and pals are discussing the “Perfect 5th”.

What’s that? Well it is a particularly nice-sounding pairing of notes that is used a lot in bugle music and has since found its way into other types of heroic narrative. It is found, for example, in Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”, which is often used as music for TV shows about space.

John Williams used it in his theme for the Christopher Reeve Superman movie, and even more famously in Star Wars.

Then Cerys noted that the Perfect 5th is the music of the American Establishment, and that anti-establishment music is anything but clean-cut and perfect. Jazz and Blues tinker about all over the place.

Then everything fell into place. Aoki is using the Perfect 5th as a metaphor for the gender binary. And in the perfect, white supremacist, world of 1950s America that’s all that is allowed to exist. Trans people, however, live in the spaces in between genders. We are not perfect. We are, to many people’s eyes, dissonant. And yet, as any donut shop customer can tell you, perfection is sterile. As any violin maker can tell you, beauty is individual and unique to each instrument, or person.

That, of course, is perfect in a way, because Light from Uncommon Stars is a story about the trans condition. Katrina is a musical genius, but she has been shaped in a very particular way because of her trans history. I can’t know whether this book will speak to you the same way that it spoke to me, because you don’t have the same life experiences. But I can tell you that it is Beautiful and True in the way that we often talk of poetry having those qualities. And despite the space aliens, I will insist that it is a Fairy Tale, because that is how it works.

Please read it.

Shizuka had thought that she knew all about being damned. Still, she had always assumed that damnation required some sort of exchange.

Yet this student, this human being, had been forsaken not for ambition, nor revenge, nor even love, but for merely existing?

Who needs the Devil when people can create a hell like this themselves?

book cover
Title: Light from Uncommon Stars
By: Ryka Aoki
Publisher: St Martin's Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Ministry for the Future

COP26 will be held in Glasgow in November. That it is being hosted by a UK government whose attitude towards climate change is almost entirely performative, and only not so when there is an opportunity for grift on the part of ministers, will doubtless overshadow proceedings to a large extent. But one of the invited speakers at the event will be someone who is very much concerned with saving the planet.

Prior to his arrival in Glasgow, Kim Stanley Robinson has done a couple of online events for UK organisations. One was co-hosted by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. The other was part of the Festival of the Future City hosted by Bristol Ideas. The latter has an introduction by me, and is available to view on YouTube (see below for embedded video).

Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future begins, chronologically, at the COP29 meeting in Bogotá, Colombia, at which the eponymous ministry is created. The diplomats who created it doubtless saw it as another impressive-sounding delaying tactic. But shortly after COP29 we come to the events of the first chapter of the book. A great heatwave strikes India. It is so hot that human beings cook to death. Twenty million people die.

Of course that is a fine, dramatic, opening, but Robinson appears to believe that only something that dramatic could get sufficient people concerned about climate change for effective attempts to combat it to happen. He’s probably right. Here he is explaining where we are right now.

But early in the twenty-first century it became clear that the planet was incapable of sustaining everyone at Western levels, and at that point the richest pulled away into their fortress mansions, bought the governments or disabled them from action against them, and bolted down their doors to wait it out until some poorly theorized better time, which really came down to just the remainder of their lives, and perhaps the lives of their children if they were feeling optimistic—beyond that, après moi le deluge.

There’s another, more worrying side to it as well:

The Götterdämmerung Syndrome, as with most violent pathologies, is more often seen in men than women. It is often interpreted as an example of narcissistic rage. Those who feel it are usually privileged and entitled, and they become extremely angry when their privileges and sense of entitlement are being taken away. If then their choice gets reduced to admitting they are in error or destroying the world, a reduction they often feel to be the case, the obvious choice for them is to destroy the world; for they cannot admit they have ever erred.

I suspect that this might also explain why supposedly feminist white women are happy to embrace fascism rather than admit that the greatest threat to their safety is from cisgender men, not from women like me.

Still, the point of The Ministry for the Future is not to wallow in doom and gloom, but rather to suggest ways in which the planet might be saved. Robinson, being a relentless optimist, has ideas. Indeed, he has quite a mixed bag of them. There’s geoengineering in the form of pumping water from beneath Antarctic glaciers. There’s economics in the form of a Carbon Coin that allows people to earn money for sequestering carbon. There’s politics in the form of a new, community-owned social media network that wrests control of the global narrative away from self-interested tech billionaires. And there’s terrorism.

That latter point needs some elaboration. The Indian heat wave disaster gives rise to an organisation known as the Children of Kali. They commit a number of highly effective atrocities aimed specifically against things such as private air travel, and against anyone who profits from the fossil fuel industry. Nothing in the book specifically connects the Ministry with this organisation, and like most terrorist groups the Children have a very amorphous structure. However, early on in the book, the Chief of Staff at the Ministry, Badim Bahadur, suggests setting up a “black ops” team whose activities could be easily denied. We are never told what it is that they do.

There is another event that the Ministry is accused of engineering, and it gives rise to the most amusing sections of the book. A group of climate activists kidnaps the attendees at Davos and subjects them to “consciousness raising” education. It is very much middle class violence. Most of the wealthy victims treat the whole thing as a jolly jape.

Whether you think that Robinson’s proposed solutions will work or not is a matter of opinion. Indeed, one of the reasons why he has proposed a basket of solutions is that some of the things he suggests might not work. The point is not that we must take certain actions, but that we must do some things, lots of things, until we find something that works. Because doing nothing is guaranteed to lead to disaster.

However, before we can do anything, we have to care, we have to stop discounting the future. Here Robinson is spot on. When governments and corporations do cost-benefit analysis, they much prefer a small benefit soon to a possible larger benefit later. The stock market, which is now driven by inhumanly fast trading conducted by computer algorithms, can’t even manage to look at next month, let alone next year. These days, the idea that the future matters is revolutionary. Which is why this book matters.

Something else that is revolutionary is the structure of the book. It is composed of 106 very short chapters. Many of them are told from the point of view of characters who are not named, and who never again feature in the narrative. Some are short riddles. One is simply a list of representatives of different countries saying what they are doing to combat climate change. It is a very non-traditional approach to fiction. I don’t object to such experimentation, but I did find it hard to get into the book because there wasn’t much to carry you through.

Incidentally, looking at that list of countries, Robinson appears to believe that by 2038 the British Isles will be divided into three countries: Ireland, Scotland and England. Must have a word with him about that.

Robinson does try to provide a narrative thread to the book. This comes in the form of the developing relationship between the head of the Ministry, Mary Murphy, and Frank May, the sole survivor of the Indian Heat Wave. Frank has massive PTSD and in part acts a moral compass for Mary, while at the same time doing some pretty awful things.

I’m by no means surprised that The Ministry for the Future has caught the popular imagination, despite its difficult and unusual structure. We are living in Interesting Times, and such times demand unconventional thinking. Robinson’s ideas may not work, but his optimism is the only hope we have. As I said to the audience in Bristol, few other science fiction writers have spent so much time thinking about the problems the world faces in the near future, and trying to find practical ways to overcome them. For that alone, Robinson deserves our praise.

book cover
Title: The Ministry for the Future
By: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Past is Red

Tetley Abednego has to be one of the most fascinating characters in the history of science fiction. Those of you familiar with the Sturgeon Award winning story, “The Future is Blue”, will already be aware of this. For those who don’t have that story, don’t worry, it is included as a prequel with The Past is Red.

Tetley’s future is blue because climate change has happened. The whole of Earth is under water. A few small groups of humans still survive on boats, or on Brighton Pier which has somehow been made seaworthy, but there is only one large settlement on the planet. Tetley lives in Garbagetown, an upgraded version of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which has been stitched together to form a floating island on which people can live. There are fish, and there is rain, so they can survive. Everything else they have to scavenge from the garbage that the Fuckwits threw away.

The Fuckwits are, of course, us: the people who had everything, and who ruined it for ourselves, and for all our descendants, by destroying the planetary ecosystem. Tetley and her neighbours will occasionally get glimpses of what life was like in the past, if they get hold of a functioning video player, but for the most part all they have is mountains of unwanted junk.

“The Future is Blue” tells the story of how Tetley grew up, how she fell in love with a boy called Goodnight Moon, and how she came to commit a Great and Terrible Crime which made her the most despised person in Garbagetown. The Past is Red is set many years in the future. Tetley tells us about how her life is different now, how she has a mysterious friend called Big Red Mars, and how she was once married to King Xanax of Pill Hill.

I should note, by the way, that I love the way Cat Valente has named the various parts of Garbagetown according to the types of garbage stored there. As well as Pill Hill we have Electricity City, Candle Hole, Periodically Circus and my favourite, Winditch, which contains thrown away trophies for everything from sports competitions to kids with the best smile to Gretchen Barnes who, according to her rather modest trophy, was the World’s Best Wife.

The thing about Tetley, the aspect of her personality that makes her unique among the people of Garbagetown, is that she has hope. She is living in what we might see as the worst of all possible worlds. Literally, she lives on a garbage heap, because it is the only place left to live. But to Tetley it is the best of all possible worlds, because it is the only world that she has. Alone amongst her people, Tetley understands that the only way forward is into the future. The past is gone, and nothing they do in their lifetimes, or of those of hundreds of generations after them, can ever bring it back.

Tetley, then, is a beacon of hope in a world that has none. And Valente, very cleverly, makes it clear to us readers, that there really is no hope. Humanity is doomed. Yet Tetley refuses to accept this. She has fish. She has her friends, the seals and the gannets. She takes joy where she can, because to do otherwise is to submit to despair.

The Past is Red is a story about how to live in a world that is well and truly fucked. It is, perhaps, a story for our times.

book cover
Title: The Past is Red
By: Catherynne M Valente
Publisher: St Martin's Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

A Spindle Splintered

In her Afterword, Alix Harrow describes this novella as that she has Spider-Versed a fairy tale. This does not mean that she’s race-flipped it and set it in modern day New York. Rather it means that she understands that fairy tales exist in many forms in many different realities. Each world in the multiverse has its own Sleeping Beauty, and every so often those doomed girls get to come together to fight against their fate.

Zinnia Gray is one of the least fortunate girls in Ohio. Her parents love her dearly, but she was born with something called Generalized Roseville Malady, a mysterious illness that has afflicted the children of her town thanks to industrial pollution. No child with this condition has made it past their 22nd birthday.

For a Goth-inclined teenager like Zin, this inevitably leads to an obsession with the tragic heroines of fairy tales. In particular, she becomes obsessed with the legend of Sleeping Beauty. Academically there is a plus side, in that she graduates high school early and gets a degree in folklore. Harrow needs this accelerated career for her heroine because the story has to take place when Zin turns 21, and by that time she needs to be an expert in every form of the legend.

For Zin’s 21st birthday, her best friend, a butch lesbian called Charmaine (get it?) throws her a massive party and buys her an actual spinning wheel. But, when Zin dramatically pricks her finger, magic happens, and she finds herself in the realm of the beautiful Princess Primrose of Perceforest, an unfortunate girl who was cursed at birth by a wicked fairy to fall into an enchanted sleep when she comes of age and who, if she survives the curse, will have an arranged marriage to the odious Prince Harold. It is not clear which fate is worse.

Naturally the two girls become friends, and vow to aid each other in avoiding their dreadful fates. Along the way they enlist the help of a few other avatars of the Sleeping Beauty story. It is all great fun, and very lovely, and a bit tear-jerky, and I suspect we’ll see A Spindle Splintered on more than one award short list next year.

I should note as well that the story has a few serious things to say about parenting, and in particular about parenting a child with an incurable illness. It isn’t all fodder for teenage girls of all ages. But I did love it, and I suspect that many of you will too.

book cover
Title: A Spindle Splinter
By: Alix E Harrow
Publisher: St Martin's Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

A Fledgling Abiba

At FanyasyCon I was on a panel about small presses with David Stokes of Guardbridge Books. I didn’t know much about the company, but was impressed when David said he had been doing a lot of work with African authors. A book he particularly recommended as it is a Nommo finalist was A Fledgling Abiba by Dilman Dila. So I bought a copy.

Then I noticed that Dila was on a panel at Octocon, so I figured I would find out a bit more about him and his book. It turns out that he is also and artist and a film maker, so he’s an impressive guy. As for the book, an Abiba is a type of African witch from the region we now call Uganda. They can fly, hence the word “fledgling” in the title, and their means of propulsion is by farting flames. Naturally the book went straight to the top of my TBR list.

Kuri, the heroine of the story, is an orphan teenage girl. Her mother has recently died in mysterious circumstances (which for a witch probably means she was murdered), and she never knew her father. Kuri knows that she has inherited powers. She can look into the eyes of anyone and steal their memories, so she knows everything about them, including how to speak their language. Also, when she gets agitated, little flames erupt from her anus. She doesn’t know much about that, but it is a real nuisance as it ruins her clothes and might set buildings on fire.

Kuri badly needs training, but her aunt, with whom she has been sent to live, is deeply religious and would cast her out if Kuri revealed her powers. Unfortnately, Kuri’s existence is known to powerful people and she’s not going to be able to hide safely for long. Whether these enemies are the people who killed her mother, or agents of her mysterious father, or just random bad guys, is a mystery that Kuri will have to solve.

Dila’s prose is clear and simple. If he wrote in a more Western style the book would probably be much longer, because the plot is absolutely packed with incident. Possibly he’s thinking of a film script. I think it would make a great animation, because it has a lot of comedy potential alongside the action sequences.

Whether it will win the Nommo, given that it is up against Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki’s Ife-Iyoku, the Otherwise winner that I reviewed last month, is open to question, but I think it has a very good chance.

Kudos also to Dila for being kind to us readers and explaining a few things about how the languages used by the people in the book work. I had no idea that many African languages indicate plurals by prefixes rather than suffixes. Now I know what Wakanda means.

book cover
Title: A Fledgling Abiba
By: Dilman Dila
Publisher: Guardbridge Books
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Octocon 2021

Online conventions are very common these days, so to stand out you have to do something good. There are various ways in which you can do that. FIYAHCon, I understand, had some top quality programming. They paid people for it, and therefore they charged people to attend. FutureCon is free, and has program participants from a range of countries that you would not find represented at other conventions. What can Irish fandom bring to this?

Well to start with Octocon 2021 was free to attend. Many of the panels and talks were recorded and will be available on the convention’s YouTube channel in due course. I don’t blame them for not having the material available yet. The weeks after a convention are always a period of exhaustion for those involved in running it. In the meantime you can enjoy the panels from last year.

The programming was very varied. There are panels on comics, TV and film, and gaming as well as book and fandom-related panels. Also they had the legendary Shelly Bond as one of their Guests of Honour. If you know anything about comics, you should know how exciting that is.

I’ve run a Discord server for an academic conference once, and it was very clear to me that the folks running the Octocon Discord knew far more about the platform than I do. I’d love to pick their brains before I have to run one again.

I’m not convinced about Discord as a platform for virtual dealers’ rooms. I had one. A small number of people did pop by to say hello. Two said that they had bought books. But the experience was nothing like having an actual table, and I had no way of knowing how much I actually sold as a result.

I did two panels, one about how to avoid making your aliens stereotyped stand-ins for human minorities, and one about “treasures of the past”. The latter I was well wound up for because it had been one of those weeks on Twitter when twenty-something fans were bitterly complaining about the total lack of various types of fiction in “the past”, by which they meant before they started paying attention. I’ve come to the conclusion that anything more than 20 years old is “the past” now because it is before a lot of younger fans learned to read.

Anyway Samuel R Delany exists, and indeed is still alive. Check out what he was publishing in the 1970s.

Back to Octocon, though. It was a lot of fun, and I didn’t need to leave home to attend. Next year will be different. They are going back to in-person events, and they have booked conference space at Croke Park. If you don’t know what this means in terms of Irish culture and Anglo-Irish relations, Google is your friend. I would love to go. But, thanks to Brexit, it seems highly unlikely that I will be able to sell books there.

There’s one more thing I’d like to mention. Some conventions like to raise money for charities. Octocon is one of them. This year their charity was BelongTo, an organisation that supports LGBT+ youth. I was so very impressed.

Marvel: What If?

Well, the MCU had to mess up at some point, and I guess it is better that they did so in a cartoon series than in a live action movie. Having said that, it rather suggests that less care and attention was paid to What If? Because it is only a cartoon.

The core idea of the series is that in the multiverse many different versions of the MCU exist, in which the characters we know and love can have very different lives. The Watcher, because he exists across all universes, sees all, and can bring us some of these stories.

So far so good. This gives the opportunity to do a bit of fan service, such as a story in which Peggy Carter becomes the Super Soldier (but not Captain Britain, obviously, because that title is taken). There’s also one in which the young T’Challa is abducted by the Ravagers and becomes Star Lord. It was great to get to hear Chad Boseman again, but that story is exceptionally silly in that it portrays T’Challa as so irresistibly good that he converts Thanos to his side.

In fact, most of the stories are pretty silly. Many of them also go for the soft option of killing off the heroes because they aren’t the heroes of Our Universe so their deaths don’t matter. Humbug.

Talking of Boseman, many of the characters are voiced by the people who play them in the live action shows. It is notable that those who are not are characters whose actors seem to have opted out of the MCU: Black Widow, Iron Man, Cap. Quite why Natalie Portman agreed to come back given what they did the Jane Foster is a bit of a mystery, but at least that episode was funny.

The Watcher is voiced by Jeffrey Wright, and is notable for being the first example of utterly disastrous casting in the MCU project.

The one saving grace of the series is episode #4 featuring a version of Doctor Strange who becomes obsessed with seeking power so that he can save the life of Christine Palmer. This is the only episode with a decent script. This may be significant because we know that the next Doctor Strange movie will be titled, The Multiverse of Madness. So it is likely that the vision of the multiverse presented here will have some connection to the one in the movie. There may have been hints dropped. And the MCU management may have paid more attention to this episode than the others.

Ah well, roll on the Hawkeye TV series, which promises to be rather good.

BristolCon 2021

BristolCon has just happened. That it did is something of a minor miracle because COVID is raging out of control here on Plague Island. However, most of us are now double-vaccinated. A reasonable proportion of us are aware that the virus is airborne, and that precautions can be taken. Many of us are just fed up of the isolation.

So, wise or not, there has been a convention. The ConCom did take precautions. The number of attendees was severely limited compared to previous years. It was possible to keep your distance. Some of the programme was also streamed live, which was nice. I know that we had at least one person in France following along. The ConCom are learning to do conventions in a hybrid way, which is good, because it means that BristolCon can be shared with the wider world.

I didn’t see much of the con, partially because I had a dealer table, and partially because I am isolating as much as I can. I have a trip to Canada planned for next Wednesday and I do not want to fail my fit-to-fly test. Dealer rooms are BristolCon are always a bit quiet because the programming is good, but people do come in during the breaks and I sold almost as much here as I did in the two days (including a book launch) of FantasyCon. I am very pleased.

I also did two panels. One was about ret-conning, which turned out to be a very serious discussion about how we deal with the work of creators whom we have come to view with distaste. The other was about democracy in epic fantasy. I think both went very well.

What I liked most about this BristolCon is that it felt like a proper convention. FantasyCon felt weird. Not only was it much smaller than a typical FantasyCon, but many of the people there didn’t seem to be usual attendees. They certainly were not book buyers. This BristolCon was smaller than it has been in recent years, but much bigger than it was when it started. And the people there were very definitely book readers and buyers. Maybe nature is healing after all.

Editorial – October 2021

Well this is an interesting issue. We’ve got Kim Stanley Robinson and Cat Valente with very different, but in some ways complimentary, takes on climate change. We’ve got Alix Harrow who is fast establishing a reputation to match those two giants of the field. (Yes Cat, I did just describe you as a giant of the field. It’s true.) And yet my top pick for this issue is a debut novel for which my review delves into music theory. Fiction can take us to all sorts of interesting places.

This issue also sees a report from another in person convention. And if all goes well the November issue will report from World Fantasy in Montréal.

Today is Halloween. I’m afraid I don’t have anything suitably witchy for you, but I can recommend Alix Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches which I reviewed at the end of last year. Given that Ben Baldwin’s cover image for The Green Man’s Challenge has hair very like mine, I can see that I need to work on a Hamadryad costume for next time we get to do Halloween in person.

Issue #33

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Witness for the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

book cover
Title: The Witness for the Dead
By: Katherine Addison
Publisher: Rebellion
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
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Chilling Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

book cover
Title: Chilling Effect
By: Valerie Valdes
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
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In the Watchful City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

book cover
Title: In the Watchful City
By: S Qiouyi Lu
Publisher: Tor.com
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
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